The Waugh Zone Thursday April 11, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

It was a fudge-able failure. Far from a victory, but not quite a defeat either. Theresa May’s long night in Brussels in many ways resembles her snap election blunder of 2017, when she famously overreached and underdelivered. And on Brexit, she again lives to fight another day. The EU27 tore up her June deadline for exit, giving her until Halloween to find a new way out of the mess. Tory MPs may take fright at the longer delay to October 31. Yet the fudge of a ‘flextension’ means that the UK can leave any time sooner, as long as the UK Parliament backs a Brexit deal.

As May was reduced to a supplicant, waiting until the small hours until the others came to a decision, what was most striking was the power struggle between French PM Emmanuel Macron and Germany’s Angela Merkel. Macron wanted a short extension to stop Britain interfering with EU affairs, Merkel wanted a year-long extension to just give everyone more time for a solution. And in the end, we got a classic Brussels compromise of a medium-sized delay, with a ‘review’ in June (though Donald Tusk insisted it was ‘not a cliff-edge’) to placate Paris.

The first rule of this particular Fright Club is that everyone talks about Fright Club. The talks among the 27 dragged on for nine hours because each leader put their case, and then took on the counter-case. But even though all nations had a veto, none of them deployed it because they feared no-deal would impact themselves (and crucially the Irish border) as well as Britain.

Macron, who craftily tried to pitch himself as being ‘helpful’ to May’s own timetable, took credit for stopping a year-long delay: “I take responsibility for this position, I think it’s for the collective good.” Yet he didn’t get what he wanted, particularly as others rejected his ‘good behaviour’ conditions for the UK. It summed up the very thing many Brits find difficult about Europe: pooled sovereignty means everyone gets some of what they want, but no one gets all of what they want.

Last night, the EU had one eye on May and another on her backyard. At one point the Greek PM reportedly backed a longer timetable on the grounds that making the UK take part in the Euro elections would be a ‘humiliation’ for Brexiteers, and maybe even the end of Brexit itself. Anglophile Tusk was more sorrowful, telling his own Polish media (in Polish, obvs): “Maybe we can avoid the UK leaving the EU - this is obviously not my role, but it’s my personal, quiet dream”. Dream on, say many Tory MPs.

And when May faces the music from her backbenchers in the Commons today, it’s her own future that will be once again in the spotlight. Our Arj Singh, who in Brussels for the drama, reports that May sees her leadership pledge not as a timeline but as an ‘eventline’. She’s staying as PM until the first phase of Brexit is done, whenever that may be. One Tory source says: “She understands that the Conservative party feels a sense that new leadership is required for the second phase of negotiations. That was the commitment she gave to her parliamentary colleagues and that’s one she stands by.” Note the conditionality: no second phase, no departure.

Last night, the backbench 1922 Committee was over in record-quick time with not a word about the party leadership. Today will be very different. Peter Bone tweeted: ‘ On the 20th March, at PMQs, I asked the PM about an extension to Article 50. She said “As Prime Minister, I could not consider a delay further beyond the 30th June.” So, if the PM intends to keep her word, can we expect her resignation later tonight?’

Senior Brexiteers expect May to quit quickly or at least by the summer. John Whittingdale told Peston last night: “I do think that it is time for a change of leadership and I think that is becoming increasingly the view of more and more of my party.” Even Iain Duncan Smith, who is normally very wary of any talk of ousting leaders (from bitter personal experience), told the BBC “she’s hinged it [her exit] to the passage or ratification of a deal, but I think the reality now is that is becoming the firm date for departure, the end of May, June.” May stubbornly refused at her press conference to get into dates. She’ll probably do the same today.

In her speech to the EU27 last night, May said she still believes she can get the Withdrawal Agreement passed and said that negotiations with Labour are “going well”. On both counts, it seemed a triumph of hope over expectation. Few in the room believed her, precisely because they have their own lines of contact directly with Jeremy Corbyn’s team. Brussels officials also avidly read the UK media and know that the Lab-Con talks are far from “going well”.

Still, the talks between ministers and their Labour shadows will resume today, with a mountain of work ahead of them. Of course, while the EU last night showed it can hammer out compromises, back here things are just very different. While you can split the difference on a date (October is a nice way of avoiding June and December), you simply can’t split the difference on Brexit. The only thing that may come close is a combination of May’s divorce plan plus a customs union/arrangement written into the future EU ‘political declaration’.

And on that, Irish PM Leo Varadkar yesterday gave Labour huge support for their idea of ‘having a say’ over future trade deals in a custom union, even though we would not be EU members. “We would be able to develop something ‘sui generis’ so that they would have a say in terms of future trade deals, level playing field around labour and environmental rights,” he said. Other EU leaders disagree (not least Macron), but it felt like the first clue that something could move.

Note that Macron endeared himself to some Tory Eurosceptics yesterday with his scepticism over a customs union. Many of them may agree with Donald Trump’s verdict that ‘the EU is a brutal trading partner’. But will Cabinet ministers really quit in big numbers if May accepts a Commons majority for a customs compromise?

The big, big problem remains the ‘Boris/Dom-proofing’ of any agreement. The EU learned the hard way last night that there was no legal way to stop May’s successor from kicking up rough and that’s Labour’s big fear domestically. Things weren’t helped when Jeremy Hunt admitted on Peston that a new PM could do whatever they liked “if they have a majority in Parliament”. Hunt also pointed out “no-one has a majority in Parliament to change laws”, but John McDonnell was quick to pounce: “There was something more significant he said, which was that if he was the leader, he wouldn’t necessarily endorse the agreement that we [agreed].”

Watch again (courtesy of the BBC’s Joey D’Urso) the moment when May glowered at the Labour benches three weeks ago, to suggest she would rather quit than see Brexit delayed beyond June 30.

A statutory instrument will change exit day (again) from April 12 so there’s no cliff-edge tomorrow. And MPs won’t be able to vote it down when the SI appears today. What really will cheer up MPs is that they will now get an Easter break from tomorrow until Tuesday April 23. Meanwhile, a new poll puts Labour on 31%, Tories on 29%, and ‘CHUK’ on 8% along with the Lib Dems. The fact that ‘Change UK’ are now shortened to ‘CHUK’ seems like a sign from the polling gods that a certain person may end up leading them.

Amid all the Brexit noise yesterday, Communities Secretary James Brokenshire dismissed housing adviser Prof Sir Roger Scruton over his New Statesman interview, in which he claimed that Chinese people were ‘replicas’ and doubled down on his belief Islamophobia was a propaganda word. I’m told Brokenshire personally took the decision to sack the man he had loyally supported only a few months ago. Labour’s Andrew Gwynne says it proves the whole appointments process had insufficient scrutiny or due diligence.

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