1. BREXUAL HEALING
The ‘lectern moment’ really is wearing thin as a useful dramatic device for Theresa May. She’s stood on the steps of No.10 so many times now that she’s devalued the currency of its impact. And after this week’s shattering defeat of her Brexit plan, more than ever it seems like her Downing Street announcements are all words and no action. May rightly said the nation needs to ‘come together’, but showed little flexibility or humility needed to make that happen.
At least the Cabinet has now recognised her historic inability to reach out to other political viewpoints. That’s why de facto deputy PM David Lidington, a man who is affability personified, will lead the outreach programme with ‘senior Parliamentarians’ and others to try to find a way out of the Brexit deadlock. As Yvette Cooper has said, this kind of cross-party discussion should have taken place immediately after the snap election produced a hung Parliament in 2017. But we are where we are, and it will be fascinating to see if just how pink (or even green) May’s ‘red lines’ will become following chats with frontbench and backbench MPs.
Former Nick Clegg aide Polly Mackenzie put her finger on it last night. When Cameron formed his coalition, he had to make a famously ‘big, open and generous offer’. “You go in with priorities not red lines,” she said. “A willingness to credit your opposite numbers with good intentions. And nimbleness of step.” But the Lib-Con alliance, and the way it trashed the LibDem brand, is precisely why Jeremy Corbyn is wary of doing anything that smacks of supping with the devil, even with a long spoon. And many of his MPs will firmly back his stance that May has to take no-deal ‘off the table’.
Corbyn is in Hastings today (Amber Rudd’s backyard) to give his own update on Labour’s stance on the Brexit impasse. The Indy’s Tom Peck was among many to point out that whenever Corbyn is asked why he invited Hamas, Hezbollah or the IRA to the House of Commons, or queried the authenticity of the novichok samples, he consistently says it is “to keep the dialogue open.” Labour MP Angela Smith said last night it was ‘a mistake’ not to go to No.10. The SNP and other parties did go, if only to tell May to her face she had to drop no-deal before they would engage further.
Usually, when bitter enemies need to pow-wow, there are weeks if not months of ‘talks about talks’ to remove pre-conditions. Yet with the countdown to March 29 ticking away, no-one has the luxury of time. Tory chairman Brandon Lewis struggled on Today to say if there were any areas of compromise at all. If the government shifts and says more clearly that everything is negotiable, more progress could be made. As Tom Watson put it last night: “We’re very amenable to talks, but I think the prime minister needs to show us that she’s actually serious about that.”
Many in Team Corbyn see the ‘outreach’ talks as a stunt to cover up the fact that May’s real priority is to get her own party and the DUP on board. And Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss on ITV’s Peston last night seemed to prove them right: “There are 118 Conservatives that we have the potential to win over, and I think that’s where we should start, we also need to gain the support of the DUP.” That’s why the real outreach that matters most today is the meeting with the DUP.
2. CUSTOM AND PRACTICE
Today is the two year anniversary of May’s famous Lancaster House speech. She was in peak Hardball Brexit mode, yet still offered a glimpse of compromise on the key issue of free trade and customs. “I do want us to have a customs agreement with EU,” she said. “Whether that means…a completely new customs agreement, become an associate member of the Customs Union in some way, or remain a signatory to some elements of it, I hold no preconceived position.”
That paragraph is being pored over again and again today, not least as Justice Secretary David Gauke yesterday floated the prospect of ‘flexibility’ on the UK joining ‘a customs union’. Of course, many Tory MPs rightly say that would remove our ability to strike new trade deals with non-EU countries. Truss, Lewis and Liam Fox all repeated that. Just as importantly, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds told Peston “we don’t have to have that customs union and we don’t have to have that high regulatory alignment which basically means Britain is a rule taker”.
Some think in fact the DUP is privately open to a Norway-style EEA model because it removes the need for the ‘backstop’ (a customs union alone won’t stop that problem). May will be keen on anything that means it’s the political declaration that is amended (which the EU is open to), not her withdrawal agreement (which the EU isn’t open to). The biggest problem is the ‘rule taker’ problem however. And even Tony Blair this morning said Norway-plus was ultimately doomed because “the Brexiteers have got a point…why on earth would you want to stay locked into the trading system and its rules without a say?”
Meanwhile, the PM has to come up with her new motion on Brexit by Monday. And that’s when many MPs hope Parliament can take control. I revealed last night that the Liaison Committee decided not to have any part in Nick Boles’ plans, but he now accepts that another specially created body of MPs could come up with a way to rule out no-deal and then move on to a series of Plan B options. The Telegraph has a leaked tape of Philip Hammond telling business leaders “it is clear to me there is a large majority in the Commons that is opposed to no deal in any circumstances.” One FTSE100 boss told Channel 4: “Politicians seem to be completely indifferent to the impact of their inability to govern. Everyone else has to get up, get dressed, make decisions. But they appear to have lost sight of their basic purpose.” Next week we’ll see if that’s true.
3. SECONDS OUT
So, is a second referendum the way out? We reveal today that the People’s Vote campaign attracted £100K in donations in just 20 hours after May’s Brexit vote defeat, much of it in small amounts. After May squeaked home in the confidence vote last night (thanks to the DUP and ex-Labour independents John Woodcock and Ivan Lewis), smaller parties (like the Lib Dems and Plaid) also warned that they may not take part in Corbyn’s plan for ‘rolling’ confidence motions because they viewed that as a stalling tactic to avoid committing to a second referendum.
Labour is still far from being in a place where it will actively back a new referendum. Some think Corbyn could offer his MPs a free vote as a way out of the Brexit impasse, safe in the knowledge that there just isn’t yet enough support for a People’s Vote. Only 82 Labour MPs so far back a new referendum. I’m told the Shadow Cabinet discussed the issue this week and various ‘concerns’ were expressed about moving to supporting a referendum, with chair Ian Lavery among the most sceptical.
The irony is that the best hope for Remainers could well be a general election, if Labour party members set a firm policy of staying in the EU (which after all was the policy in the referendum). Under one fantasy scenario, the Lib Dems could even take seats off the Tories and produce a Remain majority in Parliament. There is Whitehall chatter that even some in No.10 see an election as the only way out if Parliament can’t agree on anything. Given the DUP’s crucial 10 votes, last night proved that no election will happen unless May or her party want one.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch newly coiffeured David Cameron say, with a straight face, that he doesn’t regret calling a Brexit referendum.
4. CHAMPAGNE BARRIER
Jacob Rees-Mogg is unabashed about his image as a top-hatted toff and it’s perhaps no surprise that he hosted a champagne party at his plush townhouse on Tuesday night after May’s crushing Brexit defeat. Boris Johnson, David Davis, Kate Hoey were among the guests, who were invited by a Whatsapp message (which naturally leaked). Sir Bill Cash said: “It was a party and a celebration.” The Guardian has a lovely quote from one present: “In life you sometimes have to do the difficult thing even if it is hard.” I think they meant voting against their government, rather than quaffing bubbly.
Yet just imagine how much more the European Research Group would be celebrating if they’d triggered their own no Tory confidence vote in the PM yesterday, rather than before Christmas. It’s arguable that May have been ousted this week and a Brexiteer favourite to replace her. Now, she’s in place for a whole year. Former May aide Nick Timothy writes in the Telegraph: “They failed to change the government’s policy, they failed to remove the prime minister, and they will fail to stop legislation that softens Brexit in the Commons.” Even he admits the PM’s deal is dead, and so is no-deal.
5. NEWS CYCLE REPAIR SHOP
Have you got ‘Brexit Burnout’? Need a digital detox? Well, obviously reading the WaughZone once a day is an easy way round having to be frantically online all the time. But we have a piece on four ways to cope with a tumultuous news cycle, including limiting your notifications and not getting sucked into Twitterspats.
Tim Harford has a fascinating read too in the FT on “How behavioural economics helped me kick my smartphone addiction”. It includes writing actual. Snail mail. “Some old friends seemed genuinely touched to receive a real letter; nobody has ever been touched by a Facebook “Like”.”
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