The Waugh Zone Thursday February 14, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Another day, another series of Commons Brexit votes. In many ways, it ought to be a non-event, given that all but one of the amendments are non-binding (Sarah Wollaston’s tries to tie May’s hands but lacks Labour support). The government’s approach to the Commons is to basically maintain a holding pattern while May tries to get a better deal in Brussels. This is a waiting game as the PM once more plays it long. Boring her opponents into submission, while keeping nervy Remainer ministers onside, is the plotline of Groundhog May.

Indeed, the original plan was to make today a mere staging post by tabling a ‘neutral’ motion that ‘This House notes…’ the government’s current position. That way all the focus would be on the amendments. Yet in one of those too-clever-by-half moves that ends up being plain dumb, someone in No.10 decided to table a substantive motion that opened up a whole can of worms for Brexiteers, because it endorsed MPs’ plans to block ‘no-deal’. Just as the PM had got her party united, she’s somehow risked a huge own goal.

Some ERG members think this isn’t a war worth fighting, but many could either abstain or vote against the main motion, leaving May facing another humiliation. The only point of this motion was to reaffirm to Brussels that the PM had a ‘stable’ majority for her plans. Now, as Liam Fox told Today, it could backfire. “Our European partners will be watching our debate and listening today to see if they get the impression that if they were to make those concessions Parliament would definitely deliver.” Fox condemned the ‘ideological purity’ contest, but that’s not deterred Brexiteers before.

What’s amazing is that the whips didn’t appear to consult backbenchers before going ahead, and now can’t be seen to back down without invoking fresh ire of the Remainer Tories. Speaking of which, Anna Soubry has a fascinating amendment that could give us all another story if Labour backs it (and if Bercow selects it). Her motion “instructs the Government within seven days to publish in full the most recent official briefing document, relating to business and trade, on the implications of a no-deal Brexit presented to Cabinet.” The magic ingredient of demanding documents means May faces a contempt motion if she tries to ignore it. Away from internal Tory warfare, Soubry’s could be the one to watch tonight. Cabinet Remainers will be secretly hoping it passes.

Talk of a possible breakaway by some Labour MPs has been mooted for some time now. Many felt that anti-semitism would be the trigger but in fact the issue of Brexit was always more likely to spark any split. The Guardian has a timely splash, revealing that up to 10 of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow ministers could quit his frontbench if he fails to back a second referendum amendment at the end of the month.

Now, no one is suggesting these frontbenchers will instantly go off to form a new party, but it certainly adds to pressure on Corbyn to clarify his line on a ‘People’s Vote.’ And there’s growing talk that if Corbyn hasn’t triggered the second referendum bit of his party policy by this summer, a breakaway by some backbenchers will happen. The FT reports one plan is for an MP to quit and trigger a by-election. I’m guessing that would be in a heavily pro-Remain seat, if it ever happened.

If Labour does ever back a second referendum in a vote in the Commons, it may be down to the influence of John McDonnell. Keir Starmer told Today yesterday that “the only credible options now left” for the party on Brexit were a close economic relationship or a public vote. Corbyn’s spokesman said after PMQs the “Keir agrees that a general election…is our preferred option”. But McDonnell told Politico last night that he agreed with Starmer that forcing an election was “unlikely”.

Some Remainers on Labour benches think McDonnell is just stringing them along, others think he’s the only one with the influence to push the issue to avoid mass party resignations and a split. Suspicions that Corbyn just wants to enable a Tory Brexit to happen will be fuelled by close ally Len McCluskey telling ITV’s Peston last night putting “Remain” on any second referendum ballot paper was not a good idea. It’s “not the best option for our nation”, the Unite boss said.

Few doubt Winston Churchill was a great wartime leader, but his record as a politician in peacetime is undeniably controversial. John McDonnell, like many working class men of his generation, was brought up on stories of Churchill ordering in the troops to deal with the General Strike of 1926 - and to deal with rioting Welsh miners in Tonypandy in 1910, when he was Home Secretary. Last night, in an interview with Politico’s Jack Blanchard, McDonnell was asked: “Winston Churchill — hero or villain?” McDonnell replied: “Tonypandy. Villain.”

Not surprisingly, this prompted criticism from papers like the Daily Mail and from Churchill’s grandson, the Tory MP Nicholas Soames, who called the shadow chancellor ‘a Poundshop Lenin’. There was strong reaction too from Labour MPs like Ian Austin and Chris Leslie. Others pointed to Churchill’s complicity in the Bengal famine, with Tory peer Danny Finkelstein having described him as a white supremacist and ‘racist’ only this week.

As for Tonypandy itself, defenders of Churchill have long disputed the claims against him. In fact, in the early days of the South Wales incident, he actually halted the deployment of troops, preferring police to deal with the riots. The Manchester Guardian praised Churchill for resisting calls from The Times for tougher action: “One can imagine what would have happened if the soldiers instead of the policemen had come on the rioters while they were pillaging.” Troops were deployed in the end, but their main impact was to prevent mass picketing and effectively crush the peaceful option of a strike. That’s really why Churchill’s name still provokes anger among Welsh mining families.

This woman decided it would be a good idea to chuck a chair off the balcony of a high-rise building in Toronto. With the clip having gone viral, she’s now been identified and arrested.

The Times has a world exclusive interview with Shamima Begum, one of three teenage schoolgirls from east London who left to join Islamic State in Syria in 2015. Speaking from a refugee camp, now 19 and nine months pregnant, said she had no regrets about going, despite seeing ‘beheaded heads’ in bins. She now wants to return to give birth in the UK. Although hers is a high profile case, it’s a reminder of the huge problems faced by our security services over ‘returnees’ from Syria. Security minister Ben Wallace told Today the key was to ‘mitigate’ the threat posed by ‘professional terrorists’. As it happens, there’s a written statement from the PM today setting out the government’s response to ISC reports on intelligence oversight.

Pressed on Sir Philip Green yesterday, the PM said: “If that recipient of an honour brings that honour into disrepute, steps should be taken to review that honour.” But I wasn’t alone yesterday in musing whether May’s words on stripping people of honours shouldn’t apply too to Sir Christopher Chope. Labour then said it ‘reserved the right’ to refer him to the honours forfeiture committtee. Today, I note Andrea Leadsom has a move to fast-track the anti-FGM bill that Chope notoriously blocked last week. Meanwhile, the Mirror reveals that former England keeper Gordon Banks actually lost out on a knighthood because officials lost nomination papers three years ago.

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