1. LETTERS’ PREY
When Sir Graham Brady and his 1922 executive stood at the front of Committee Room 14 yesterday, there was a pause as the packed room went silent in anticipation of his announcement. With the live TV camera crew counting down, one Tory wag shouted ‘Let us pray!’ and the room burst into a fit of giggles. Brady’s big announcement that ‘the Parliamentary party DOES have confidence in Theresa May’ was then greeted with a huge roar by loyalist MPs. Yet it was only after that noise died down that we heard the figures - 200 for, 117 against – and there was a collective gasp from some in the room. Yes, she’d won, but this was no major victory.
As she heads to Brussels, the PM will be praying that the EU can give her something to win round Tory rebels and even the DUP ahead of a ‘meaningful vote’ on her Brexit plan in the New Year. Speaking which, it’s exactly a year today since Labour and Tory Remainers joined forces to pass the key Grieve amendment that has subsequently caused the Government so much angst. Anyway, the mood music from Brussels is that they do indeed have some kind of ‘legal’ amendment that May hoped for on the steps of No.10 and hinted at in the 1922 committee meeting yesterday.
At one point during the emotional ’22 meeting (which had some, including Home Office minister Victoria Atkins, on the edge of tears), May actually seemed to talk about a legally binding exit mechanism or time limit. Was that a desperate oversell of a bit of minor tinkering? If so, the DUP and European Research Group may once more say they’ve been misled. Indeed it was striking that Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday didn’t even accept May’s line on not leading the Tories into the next election. “It was that word ‘intent’. It is a classic politician’s word. When she was asked directly if she would fight an election in the next year she mumbled.”
When you add in Liam Fox’s extraordinary warning on the BBC yesterday that the Cabinet will still have to sign off any new ‘legal’ reassurances, you can see why May is still very much the Eurosceptics’ prey. A hard core of MPs are bolstered by the fact that 36 per cent of the party wanted to get rid of the leader (that’s just four per cent less than the 41% who forced Thatcher out). When you take into account the payroll vote (a massive 178 by my reckoning), a handful of backbenchers backed her. The 30-year Tory civil war over Europe shows no sign of abating. For many yesterday was not the end but the start of a campaign to kill May’s Brexit compromises. The people David Cameron used to call ‘the irreconcilables’ are more numerous than ever. And we all know how he ended up.
2. LEAVE IT OUT, REF
With Parliament still unlikely to break its deadlock, the growing feeling among ministers and MPs now is that the main two realistic options are either a ‘managed no deal’ or a second referendum. Some Labour and Tory backbenchers still hold out hope for a third option of ‘Norway plus’, but as I said earlier this week its former Cabinet supporters have been spooked by Bank of England warnings of the damage it would cause. More importantly, Labour just can’t change its own policy on the hoof to accommodate it anyway.
Both ‘no deal’ and a ‘People’s Vote’ were once seen as unthinkable, but now they are actively being discussed at Cabinet level. No deal is certainly an option backed by Brexiteer ministers and they expect Philip Hammond to release more of his £3bn preparation fund in coming days to prove it’s not a bluff. They want an ‘orderly exit’ whereby the UK hands over only £20bn in a divorce bill to the EU – and add that ‘no deal’ is the wrong way to describe what would inevitably be a slimmed-down agreement to keep planes in the sky and lorries crossing at Dover.
Plenty of people assume that because there is a Commons majority against no deal, it will never happen. But Eurosceptics know are fully tooled up for guerrilla warfare over the Withdrawal Agreement Bill, piling on amendments to delay and derail it enough to make ratification impossible. The rebels are relying on Jeremy Corbyn never agreeing to do anything to support Tory legislation on Brexit. Labour MPs who fear no deal more than anything else would be under real pressure to split from their leadership. One Cabinet minister told me yesterday they feared no deal guerrilla action so much that the PM should consider pressing ‘the nuclear button’ and revoking Article 50 to prevent it. When Philip Hammond described the ERG as ‘extremists’, he may have had the next battlefront in mind.
In fact, May herself has swung against no deal in the past eighteen months. “That’s why we had all that stuff about ‘no deal is better than a bad deal’. But since then she’s read all the papers on it, unlike Boris and DD [David Davis], and she’s seen how awful it would be.” Which is why some in Cabinet really do think that the PM’s real fallback position will be a referendum. She could propose one with only her deal and no deal on the ballot, in the knowledge that Parliament would amend the question to replace no deal with Remain. One Labour MP cautions however that including no deal on the ballot paper risks becoming hugely popular with the public, even if May was dead against it. “We found out in our own leadership race in 2015, just putting something on the ballot to ‘widen the debate’ was a fool’s errand. We ended up with Jeremy.”
3. CONFIDENCE IN SUPPLY
With the Government in such disarray this week it was easy to miss Labour’s own internal debate about just when it should push a vote of confidence in the Government. Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman told LBC that the Opposition’s bid to remove the prime minister from power “will probably come before Santa does”. She dismissed it as a joke, but it emerged that the Shadow Cabinet on Tuesday did indeed discuss the timing of the ‘VONC’ (Vote Of No Confidencea) as it’s called in the trade. And Keir Starmer floated the idea that it would be best to pounce while May was on the ropes. As Macbeth would say, ’twere well it were done quickly.
Well, it seems that moment could come as early as Monday. In news that is sure to give Theresa May a fresh political migraine, we report today that Labour has had contacts with the DUP over a possible confidence move straight after the PM’s Commons update on the EU summit. We understand a meeting between the two parties has taken place “at a senior level” in a move which threatens to blow apart the supply and confidence motion the Northern Irish party struck with May in the wake of her disastrous general election.
Of course neither side will publicly confirm such contacts and indeed the DUP chief whip Jeffrey Donaldson tells us he is ‘not aware’ of a meeting. But a very senior Labour source says: “Discussions have taken place between Labour and the DUP to see if there is any common ground there.” Labour know it’s highly unlikely the DUP will back them, but it’s intriguing nonetheless. The real intention is to target Tory mavericks. “It should happen before Christmas,” our source says. “We might just have this coalition that will vote against her and we want to maximise the vote against her as much as we can. Just a handful of MPs can make a huge difference for us. You pick your time for a fight, you don’t pick a fight for the sake of it.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
The PM keeps having car malfunctions. Yesterday her motor had to try twice to get through Parliament’s gates. But in case you missed it, here’s her awkward moments stuck in the limo before meeting Angela Merkel.
4. BLUE ON BLUE
The sheer vitriol that was flying around yesterday and last night was really something. Ministers wanting to ‘punch’ the ERG in the face, one MP calling another a ‘c*nt’ at a bus stop, Toby Ellwood slamming Rees-Mogg, Boles taking on Bridgen. But unlike Labour’s Blair-Brown years, this is not just about personality clashes, it’s about something much more difficult to resolve: big differences between pragmatists and idealists, as well as Remainers versus Leavers.
5. WHIP ROUND
There are rumours that the PM will embark on a ‘healing’ reshuffle, bringing in people felt bruised and a shake-up in the whips’ office to bring some much-needed change. The danger of any reshuffle however minor is that you can alienate those moved out, but many think if May can pitch this correctly it could work. As for the whip being restored to Andrew Griffiths and Charlie Elphicke in time for the vote yesterday, many (including Labour’s Jess Phillips) saw it as a real sign of desperation, but some colleagues felt it was long overdue.
If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/