The Waugh Zone Thursday February 28, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

It’s been a heck of a week on Brexit. And thanks to events in the Commons last night, there were two major shifts that many thought would never happen. First, Theresa May whipped for a possible delay to exit day. Second, Jeremy Corbyn confirmed that his party was now officially on course for a second referendum. As soon as the Opposition amendment for a ‘soft Brexit’ was defeated, the new stage of Labour’s ‘public vote’ policy automatically kicked in.

An hour after the result, Corbyn sent out a statement announcing: “We will back a public vote in order to prevent a damaging Tory Brexit or a disastrous no deal outcome.” Now, it’s true he added an extra line that made some Remainers in his party very suspicious, stating “We will also continue to push for the other available options to prevent those outcomes, including a close economic relationship based on our credible alternative plan or a general election.” Cynics and sceptics alike think that’s proof that Corbyn expects his rebel MPs to defeat a referendum move, and he’ll be back pushing his five-tests plan if Brexit is delayed on March 14.

It’s also true that within seconds of the vote, referendum sceptics like Richard Burgon and loyal Corbyn allies like Laura Pidcock were tweeting that they would continue to push for Labour’s alternative Brexit. But the fact remains that the next Parliamentary move made by the party will be to support or table a public vote option. John McDonnell told ITV’s Peston: “When the meaningful vote comes back..that’s the time we’ll have to put the amendment up,”

As I keep saying, it’s the sequencing on Brexit votes that really matters here. Keir Starmer yesterday nudged Labour’s position a little further yesterday in the chamber. The amendment would not only “include a credible leave option and Remain”. “It could be attached to the Prime Minister’s deal, what I’ve called a lock against a damaging Tory Brexit. Or it could be attached to any deal that managed to win a majority in the House of Commons.” It remains unclear how Labour could back such an amendment while also not endorsing May’s deal. The party is still working out the details but it may have to be after - not before - any second meaningful vote.

When Jeremy Corbyn visited Derby last month, he told the local paper how much he admired the local MP: “Chris Williamson is a very good, very effective Labour MP. He’s a very strong anti-racist campaigner. He is not anti-Semitic in any way.” A long-standing, close political ally of Williamson, Corbyn had clearly not seen anything to question their friendship. But fast-forward to yesterday, after the release of the ‘too apologetic’ video, and the party suspended the Derby North MP after his ‘pattern of behaviour’ was reviewed by relevant staff.

That ‘pattern of behaviour’ stretched back beyond last month, sources confirmed. And there has been no shortage of critics (including the Jewish Labour Movement), who have pointed to a string of incidents that should have been acted on earlier. But Corbyn himself, as well as the party’s staff and general secretary, was either unaware of such incidents or felt they were not worthy of investigation.

So, did Corbyn’s closeness to Williamson lead him to in any way block calls to suspend him yesterday? Well, Michael Crick reported that party chair Ian Lavery gave the MP a big hug yesterday morning. And Siobhan McDonagh went on record to HuffPost to claim the Labour leader ‘did all he could’ to stop a suspension. Two other MPs backed up that claim off the record. The Indy reports that the initial decision not to suspend was ‘taken by Jeremy’. Newsnight and the Daily Mail reported similar claims, though Labour insists it’s ‘categorically untrue’ that Corbyn intervened. Don’t forget that matters of withdrawing the whip are the decision of the leader and chief whip, while the decision to start formal investigations are a matter for the general secretary. The Indy reports that the initial decision not to suspend was ‘taken by Jeremy’.

What seems to have shifted the dial was the Parliamentary Committee of backbenchers agreeing with PLP chairman John Cryer that Williamson should be ‘suspended immediately’ and barred from all PLP meetings pending investigation. Add in the soft left Tribune group of MPs making similar demands and the pressure obviously became too much to bear. There is a wider point here worth making. Many MPs think under Corbyn the disciplinary process has become too legalistic rather the political. Friends of Ed Miliband point out that being a member of the Labour Party is ‘not like having a job’ where full employment rights apply. “Being a member if not a right, it depends on you upholding the values of the party,” they say. And that ultimately the party leader and general secretary set and implement those values.

Are the backbench Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) still a power in Parliament? Or are they a divided and spent force whose impotence is masked by theatrical shows of defiance on votes that don’t matter?

Well, last night they managed to muster an impressive 100-plus MPs to defy their government whip on Yvette Cooper’s amendment to delay Exit Day and block a no-deal. The plans sailed through with a huge majority of 482 votes, with both frontbenches in rare agreement. Yet the decision of 20 Tories to vote against, plus 80 who abstained (including big names like Dominic Raab) was a warning shot heard loud and clear in No.10.

What was striking was to hear so many Tories say they couldn’t countenance a delay, even a short one, to Brexit. With the PM herself letting it be known she too still doesn’t want any delay, will last night have persuaded her not to whip for one if it comes to that on March 16? Could she allow a free vote, even? The advantage would be she could blame Labour for any delay, while claiming her hands were tied by Parliament.

Some Eurosceptics tails are up because they think Geoffrey Cox can deliver on a legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement. A few even think the Malthouse plan is still a runner. But all of them will be delighted by the Times splash that Norway’s sovereign wealth fund is increasing its activity in the UK after Brexit, based on the underlying strength of the economy. Still, with Jacob Rees-Mogg sounding conciliatory in the Mail this morning, Downing St is a happier place than it has been for some time. We are at the end of February, but we’ve not yet seen the end of May.

Watch David Cameron’s former aide Steve Hilton go full FoxNews whackoas he attacks Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez’s climate change plans. He suggests she’s having a ‘nervous breakdown’ and wants a ‘fascistic’ ‘no-child policy’. This man used to work in No.10.

It says everything about Donald Trump’s willingness to cosy up to dictators that Kim Jong Un took his first ever questions from a foreign reporter today. But away from the hoopla in Vietnam, back home it’s unclear whether swing voters will be moved by perjury convict Michael Cohen’s claims that the President is a racist conman. The more significant news under the radar may be twofold: the launch of a sweeping Medicaid for All bill that could be passed by a Democratic White House and Congress; and growing expectation that Beto O’Rourke will announce any day he’s running for President.

Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield has really made her mark in the job, campaigning on child mental health, sexual abuse and digital exploitation. Today, she has a vitally important report suggesting that 27,000 children aged between 10 and 17 in England are now in gangs, and that many have been ‘groomed’ by sophisticated techniques and ‘chilling levels of violence’. BBC5 Live had some shocking testimony of a 12-year-old girl trapped into drug dealing. Will Chris Grayling, who famously said 10 years ago that parts of Britain were like ‘The Wire’, be tempted to say he was right all along? Meanwhile, we have an urgent report on knife crime in London.

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