1. GRIEVE-OUS BODILY HARM
There was total silence, then shock and surprise as the tellers last night read out the Government’s defeat on a ‘meaningful vote’ on Brexit. To attend the crunch vote, some MPs had to miss out on their annual treat of an exclusive showing of the Doctor Who Christmas special. And after ‘Remainer rebels’ backed Dominic Grieve’s amendment, some will feel the Commons right now is a time-travelling Tardis (though it’s smaller on the inside) transporting the Tory party back to the Europe wars of the Major era.
There is a curious role reversal of Eurosceptics attacking people like Grieve for disloyalty. Nadine Dorries didn’t hold back last night, with calls to deselect all 11 Tory rebels. Stephen Hammond, who was sacked as party vice chairman last night, told Today he and others voted “to give parliament sovereignty”. Put to Grieve that the knives were now out for him, the former Attorney General told Newsnight: “I’m not concerned about knives...I’m not going to be bothered by that at all.” He added that “I’m sure the Government will be defeated” next week too, on his other amendment removing a fixed Exit Date from the EU (Withdrawal) Bill.
The knives are also out for Chief Whip Julian Smith, with ministers muttering he was to blame for the failure to properly brief the DUP last week and had failed to work out how serious the rebellion was. Smith’s threat to sue anyone accusing whips of bullying tactics was seen as naïve (the Standard reported one female Remainer had been ‘reduced to tears’). Laura Kuenssberg had a neat vignette that young Tory Paul Masterson decided to abstain after a ‘chat’ with Gavin Williamson. We spotted a physically wavering Vicky Ford being guided through the Government lobby by Philip Hammond last night too. Yet it was Labour’s whipping that was crucial, getting its own Leavers like Dennis Skinner to back the party, and leaving just Kate Hoey and Frank Field backing the Government.
Brexiteer Bernard Jenkin last night came up with his own label for the rebels, dubbing them Brexinos (‘Brexit In Name Only’) who wanted to stay under EU trade rules and courts. No.10 insists last night’s vote doesn’t really matter and hints Dominic Raab’s legislative plan for a ‘meaningful vote’ will be added at Report Stage. Our Owen Bennett points out the defeat was harmful but not fatal in any way. We saw a spot of political GBH last night, not murder. The real problem for Remainers is that even if they remove an Exit Date and vote to reject May’s Brexit deal later this year, the EU may not want to give us more time for talks anyway. And the most worrying thing for them should be that last night was a matter of supreme irrelevance to many in Brussels.
2. BRUSSELS BOUND
As the PM heads to the EU summit, No.10 insists that last night’s defeat does not in any way undermine May’s ability to deliver on Brexit in her talks with the Commission and the EU27. There’s some speculation that the vote will somehow lead to Brussels ‘hardening’ its stance, but I’m told that such talk is academic: Brussels is already united on what it wants (and is legally bound into) on future trade talks. As one former Commission old hand put it to me: “this is not a negotiation, it’s a process”.
The implacable view in the Commission remains that either the UK opts for the Norway model of single market access or opts for a Canada-style free trade agreement, and there is no middle way. Insiders say this is not about ‘punishment’ of the UK, but the automatic ‘self-harm’ that follows logically from the Brexit vote (the Rand Corporation analysis yesterday was that the UK will lose out economically which ever exit route it takes). The PM will say some words on Brexit at the summit dinner tonight, then flies home as she’s not invited to the EU27 discussion tomorrow. She may not even speak publicly until Friday lunchtime with a clip in her constituency.
The FT has some good news for Brexiteers. Its own survey has found that the UK’s biggest international banks are set to move fewer than 4,600 jobs from London in preparation for Brexit (just 6 per cent of their total workforce). An EY study this week claimed 10,500 could leave on “day one”, but the FT has found the reality is much lower so far. The Guardian has a leak of a draft statement to be signed off by EU leaders tomorrow, which suggests substantive talks on trade can only really start in the spring. That is my understanding too, but the British government has been making a last-minute diplomatic push to persuade the EU to publicly say some preliminary discussions will get underway immediately in January.
3. WATFORD GAP
We report today on another bitter Labour bout of in-fighting, this time in the battle for the Parliamentary selection in the key marginal of Watford. The party’s candidate had been due to be chosen tonight, but the process has been suspended after ‘procedural errors’ over postal votes.
The regional party decided to intervene after Unite the union has alleged ‘irregularities’ in the contest, where the two main rivals are moderate contender Chris Ostrowski and leftwinger Mike Hedges. Supporters of Ostrowski were already upset that Hedges had been added to the shortlist after the intervention of the NEC over previous procedural complaints.
Now tensions have reignited after a huge number of postal votes emerged and Unite complained at a failure to follow party rules. Read the full story HERE. Hedges, a Unite official and black cab driver who once ferried Jeremy Corbyn around during his first leadership candidacy, has heavyweight Shadow Cabinet backing. But local supporters of Ostrowski claim the union has overreached itself and suggest their man has support from Momentum members because he’s the better candidate. The race re-starts in the New Year.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Three men in Florida have been charged with animal cruelty after dragging a shark behind their fishing boat. This viral video is what nailed them (be warned, some may find it distressing). It ain’t Blue Planet II.
4. NO PLATFORM
After the Committee in Standards in Public Life report into election intimidation of candidates yesterday, Chuka Umunna gave Radio 5 Live a startling reminder of the fears MPs now have of physical attacks. The Labour MP said 99% of the public were friendly “but you do worry about your public safety…I’m careful I do not stand anywhere near the edge of a Tube platform; I get worried sometimes that people are going to push me over.”
More than 18 months after the murder of Jo Cox, her death is still fresh in the minds of many MPs on all sides of the House. Umunna added: “There’s something about when you become an MP... you almost become de-humanised.” In the light of last night’s vote, and amid claims of ‘traitors’ in Tory ranks, some hope that temperatures can be lowered in coming days too.
5. FAKER MAKER
David Cameron showed Theresa May how to stand up to Donald Trump last night, using his first speech in London since his demise to attack the US President. “President Trump, fake news is not broadcasters criticising you, it’s Russian bots and trolls targeting your democracy, pumping out untrue stories day after day, night after night. When you misappropriate the term fake news, you are deflecting attention from real abuses.” The new, highly-fortified US embassy in Battersea was unveiled yesterday and it is London’s first moated building since Medieval times. That’s modern security for you.
Meanwhile, the Times reports Facebook has been accused of obfuscating after it claimed that an investigation into alleged Russian interference in the EU referendum campaign found only three advertisements, costing less than 75p. But the FT underlines how much Russian energy can drive policy, splashing on a story that British homes are set to be heated over the new year with gas from a Russian project targeted by US sanctions. The move follows the shutdown of a key North Sea pipeline that slashed domestic output and sent utilities and traders scrambling for supplies.