1. STARMER CHAMELEON
Jeremy Corbyn is due to deliver a Big Speech on Brexit in Yorkshire, just after 11am this morning. His main message will be to ram home calls for a general election, claiming a new poll would heal divisions and “would give the winning party a renewed mandate to negotiate a better deal for Britain”. Note that what’s implicit is his belief that Brexit should still happen but that Labour’s version would be better able to protect jobs and the economy.
What Corbyn is unlikely to say in his speech (though he’s sure to be asked in the Q&A) is that Labour will press for a delay to Brexit, by extending the two-year Article 50 timetable that’s due to run out on March 29. Yet shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer sparked a frisson of excitement among People’s Vote backers yesterday when he used his Commons speech to say an extension ‘may well be inevitable now’. He also said “I actually genuinely think we can’t do it on 29 March this year”, though Labour sources were keen to point out the ‘it’ was a no-deal Brexit, not Brexit itself.
Starmer, like Corbyn, wants the Tories to own the Brexit chaos. Any delay to the leaving date would be their fault (a line echoed by Richard Burgon last night), is the message. Of course in reality, this is not a free lunch and the Opposition are not mere bystanders. Labour will have to vote on any such extension before the government felt politically compelled to go down that route. Any MPs who vote for extension will be accused by Leavers of betrayal.
But Starmer, unlike Corbyn, appears increasingly of the view that a second referendum may be the only way out of the mess. One of the most fascinating exchanges in the chamber yesterday came when Ken Clarke and Oliver Letwin both offered to work with Starmer if only he would clarify his ideas on a customs union and a ‘strong’ single market. It was a hint that once May is defeated on Tuesday, and once Labour’s confidence vote is out of the way (no Tory will vote for an election), the weather could change. Starmer has shown in the past two years that his subtle changes in policy, from demanding a meaningful vote to a transition period, end up as government policy. Business Secretary Greg Clark this morning confirmed he backed a series of indicative votes “to establish what Parliament wants..to discover Parliament’s mind”.
Corbyn’s spokesman yesterday told us that the reference to ‘all options remaining on the table’ in the Labour conference motion on Brexit included ‘putting our alternative plan to Parliament’. It’s possible some slimmed down version of Labour’s plan could be offered to Tory Remainers. Yet the real difficulty is that the EU does not want to unpick the withdrawal agreement. And it will only agree to any extension to Article 50 if the UK opts for a general election or second referendum. The Times rightly picks up on a quote from Starmer in a recent Owen Jones interview in which he said ‘the chance to get the right deal has now gone’. If that’s true, a second referendum may be the only way out of the ticking clock of no-deal. Tom Watson told Peston last night that if the parliamentary arithmetic stops [a general election] then the next level is the insurance policy … a people’s vote.”
Yet as Labour tries to woo Tory Remainers, the government is trying to woo Labour Leavers. The Mirror has the scoop that No.10 is considering adopting amendments by John Mann, Caroline Flint, Lisa Nandy and Gareth Snell to protect workers’ rights. Labour points out the move won’t be legally binding, but I wonder whether Team Corbyn will go easy on its backbenchers. Any MP backing a Tory Brexit plan could normally expect the wrath of Momentum, but Corbyn will have personal sympathy with those pushing Labour policies on rights. The much bigger issue is whether he will back a second referendum. Can you unite the country by dividing it again? The Starmer pitch may be that offering Leavers a chance to double down on quitting the EU, and Remainers a hope of reversing it, could be the last thing left on the table.
2. SPEAKER CORNERED
We witnessed yet another extraordinary day in Parliament yesterday. The past few months have been dizzying to keep up with, from regular (yes regular) Cabinet resignations to a Tory leadership vote and a deadlocked hung Parliament. But John Bercow’s conduct and ruling yesterday is what will have politics students and constitutional experts talking for years to come. His decision to unilaterally allow the Grieve amendment (to force the PM to deliver a Plan B Brexit in just three days) matters not just for Brexit, but for the entire way the Commons works.
Bercow won’t be remotely perturbed by several newspapers savaging him this morning (‘Preening Popinjay’ - Mail, ‘sweaty, self-important gnome’ - Sun), and in fact may relish it. He took more than an hour of points of order from furious Tory MPs, a session longer than PMQs itself. The Speaker looked well prepared for the Tory whips and for unprecedented backbench attacks on his impartiality. He knows that despite mutters about votes of no confidence or docking his pension, those who want him out lack the numbers to do so.
Yet it was his answer to Iain Duncan Smith that suggested he hadn’t quite grasped the long-term implications of his actions. On hugely important constitutional issues, he was making things up as he went along. Put to him that he had torn up the long-held convention that business motions were unamendable, Bercow replied he would ‘reflect’ on that. He then added this key line: “If we were guided only by precedent, manifestly nothing in our procedures would ever change.” All this, as he also all but admitted he had rejected the advice of his clerks. Ironically, it was almost as if he was channelling Michael Gove’s line about Britain having had enough of experts. The Telegraph has an insider account, as well as ex-Speaker Betty Boothroyd saying “He put clerks in an invidious position. He gave impression they went along with him. He didn’t come clean with the House.”
Now there is a perfectly respectable case that the Commons’ right to control its own timetable should be set by all MPs and not the Government. A House ‘Business Committee’ has long been mooted as a modernising measure (though opposed by Labour and Tory older hands alike). The problem with yesterday was that Bercow rewrote the rules on the spot, without wider consultation.
If long-held convention can be torn up summarily by one man, it risks procedural chaos where no one knows what will happen from day to day. Some Tories yesterday compared Bercow to a football referee who favoured one team. The more serious point is he acted like a referee who suddenly changes the offside rule in the middle of a match, leaving both sides uncertain about how they go forward.
3. BURNT OFFERINGS
In normal times, a PM’s ‘late’ decision to adopt a backbench amendment can swing the ten or so rebels needed to win a vote. However, the new normal on Brexit is that battle-hardened backbenchers are less likely than ever to cave to such tactics. The string of ‘concessions’ announced by Brexit secretary Steve Barclay and pushed by No10 yesterday met with a collective shrug at best and ridicule at worst.
The Hugo Swire amendment, to give MPs a final say on the ‘backstop’ or the transition period, was burned off by Brexiteer Steve Baker as “flimsy rubbish which will only persuade those who have decided to be persuaded”. The DUP’s Nigel Dodds said the plan - which No.10 insiders admit would involve the UK struggling to meet its international obligations - was ‘meaningless and cosmetic’.
A reheated pledge (first set out in December 2017) to give Stormont a new role seemed surreal as it hasn’t sat in two years. One big thing left in No.10’s locker is the EU ‘letter’ setting out new ‘reassurances’. It may come tomorrow at the earliest. If it comes late, the whips won’t have enough time to use it to work on rebels. As I wrote yesterday, whenever it comes the assurances will have to be proved to be legally binding to sway anyone. The idea of giving Labour concessions could also deter any Tory thinking of backing May’s plan.
Meanwhile, Brexiteers are furious at the suggestion that Jaguar LandRover’s expected 5,000 job losses will blamed on no-deal. But Greg Clark made plain he saw a link, saying the firm depends on EU exports and is a prime example of the just-in-time manufacturing reliant on smooth UK-EU trade. “Given the difficulties they are going through…to add further costs and further disruption from a no-deal Brexit, it’s clear why they’ve been so clear this is against their interests.”
Expect more such scary car job fears talk from Japanese PM Shinzo Abe alongside May later. Clark even refused to deny he may quit if there’s no-deal: “I would always fight to make sure the policy of the government is to have a good deal and avoid what I think would be a disaster, which is no-deal.” Meanwhile, a new poster campaign is highlighting Brexiteers’ tweets about how easy this would all be.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Tory MP Paul Masterson say that if Brexiteers in his party really push the ‘purist fantasy’ of no-deal, then “I am done. My patience and goodwill will be gone”. I know his seat voted 70% Remain, but it sounded ominous.
4. HUNGRY FOR CHANGE
Away from Brexit, the Environmental Audit Committee has called for a Minister for Hunger to be appointed, as its report found the UK had among the worst levels of ‘food insecurity’ in Europe. Chair Mary Creagh says Brits are in this strange world of childhood obesity and malnutrition. The idea is that, just as with the Minister for Loneliness, the change would push Whitehall departments to get their act together. Meanwhile, Frank Field and Heidi Allen have launched a new inquiry into chronic poverty and foodbank use.
5. CLEANING UP
Also away from Brexit, homeless deaths was issue that came to Parliament’s doorstep just before Christmas, with the passing of a rough sleeper who bunked up near the Westminster Tube entrance. Now Westminster Council has been accused by Labour chair Ian Lavery of a “truly cruel” attempt to push homelessness “out of the public eye”. The Tory council put up notices outside the Tube entrance, warning regular cleaning and removal of belongings would take place. It denies they were directed at the street sleepers.
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