The Waugh Zone Thursday January 24, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Some of the ways forward on Brexit are still clouded in fog, but at least the shape of next week’s Commons vote battleground is getting clearer. Yvette Cooper and Nick Boles’s amendment is getting the traction and cross-party support it needs for victory. In case you missed it, their move seeks to rule out a no-deal outcome, while giving parliament the unprecedented power to force the PM to delay Brexit.

The big momentum behind the Cooper-Boles plan is coming from the Labour leadership and yesterday she and Rachel Reeves had a ‘very good meeting’ with Jeremy Corbyn on next steps. As we reported last night, the frontbench decision to swing behind the amendment is coalescing around a consensus that a three-month Brexit delay would be better than the nine months written into Cooper’s bill. Senior shadow cabinet sources, and backbenchers, have told me that seeking an extension to Article 50 to June 30 has much more chance of success than delaying the whole thing to the end of the year.

The main reason, as confirmed by Keir Starmer on Peston last night, is that the new European Parliament meets on July 2, and a whole raft of problems emerges if the UK is still in the EU then. (“No taxation without representation” will become a Brexiteer battlecry if we are paying into Brussels with no MEPs). The other reason is that Labour Leavers and some Tory moderates are nervous about the signal that any extension sends and a shorter one is easier to sell to their voters.

Cooper made clear in the meeting that her bill ensures the motion brought forward in late February (if no agreement has been reached) is amendable and designed to be flexible. It will be up to MPs and the government at the time to decide how long the delay should be. Don’t forget that what’s unique about Cooper-Boles is that it would force May to act. Unlike other amendments, it is legally as well as politically binding. And both the Times and Mail have government sources conceding: “If that passes there is nothing we can do.” A No.10 spokesman set hares running yesterday when he said “at its heart” Cooper’s plan was “to significantly extend Article 50”. So how about an extension without a ‘significant’ delay? One minister tells me they’re not ruling it out because the PM isn’t ruling it out.

But the EU’s Michel Barnier underlined yesterday May’s point that a delay in Brexit is pointless unless it is actually tied to a decision on what kind of Brexit the UK wants. “We need decisions more than we need time actually,” he said. And will the decision be to go for a people’s vote, a Norway-plus or May-plus-exit-mechanism? Union leaders are in No.10 today, but more interesting will be new statements from the ‘four doctors’ backing a second referendum and from Dominic Grieve later.

While Yvette Cooper’s amendment looks like the best hope of victory for May’s critics next week, Andrew Murrison’s amendment (now on the Order Paper) is the best hope of victory for her allies. It imposes a sunset clause on the vexed Northern Ireland backstop, stating simply that the Commons “insists that the EU Withdrawal Agreement be amended so that the backstop shall expire on 31 December 2021”. It has already been backed by backbench chief Sir Graham Brady and Sir Mike Penning (both of whom voted against May last week) as well as loyalists to the PM. The changes to Murrison’s previous amendment are worth noting. His last one proposed a ‘legal codicil’ being added to the withdrawal amendment, this one talks of the WA ‘being amended’ in some vague way. The date has changed too, as previously the deadline was December 2022.

If the DUP and Tory Brexiteers marshall their forces to back Murrison, it could well get a majority. Tory Remainers could be the only obstacle, if they say they can’t back May’s plan even with this addendum, but a few Labour Leave MPs could outweigh them. So, we could face the situation next week where Parliament has voted to both set in train moves to block no-deal (Cooper), while agreeing May’s deal with a firm sunset clause (Murrison). The sequencing of the amendments could prove crucial. If Murrison’s comes first, it’s possible Cooper’s would fall, some government insiders claim. Speaker Bercow may well choose Cooper’s first, however, which would not preclude then adopting Murrison’s plan too. If Bercow fails to select Murrison’s amendment (as he did last time), expect bigger fireworks than ever (and expect ministers to adopt it).

What’s been fascinating is to see Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group and the DUP change tack following No.10’s clear hints of support for a sunset clause. Several MPs tell HuffPost that 300 Tories are set to swing behind the plan, but there are some Brexiteers who are not giving up as easily as Rees-Mogg. Between 20 and 60 hardcore Tories have a problem with other issues not in the backstop, one source says. Still, if the DUP back the plan, some may follow suit. Whitehall sources confirmed yesterday that Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds and their spouses attended a dinner at Chequers last Friday. The DUP can’t be bought cheaply, but it proved the PM realises they matter more than ever.

And yet, the huge question remains: will the EU move on the backstop in any way? It won’t allow the withdrawal agreement to be unpicked, but will it allow it to be legally ‘clarified’ to the satisfaction of Tory MPs? Several Brexiteers believe that they can only back the plan if Attorney General Geoffrey Cox says his legal advice has changed and there is an exit mechanism. Michel Barnier was hardline on this in a newspaper interview yesterday: “Insurance is of no use if it is time limited. We cannot tie the backstop to a time limit..Imagine if your home’s insurance was limited to five years and you’d have a problem after six years.”

The EU chief also floated the idea that changing the political declaration is the route to reassuring the Commons. But one UK government source is adamant the withdrawal agreement has to be the focus: “The political declaration alone is. Not going to get you over the line.” That distinction between the withdrawal agreement and the future framework is where this is all heading next folks.

The CEO of Airbus has grabbed the headlines in dramatic fashion this morning with a 6am YouTube video that warns his firm could pull out of the UK completely if there’s a no-deal Brexit. It’s the starkest threat yet that its 14,000 skilled workers in British factories could lose their jobs (along with the 110,000 jobs in the British supply chain). Leavers will say this is Project Fear, but Remainers are already seizing on it as Project Fact with jet engines.

What makes this different from most such stories is not just the scale of the possible job losses but the language deployed by Tom Enders. “Please don’t listen to the Brexiteers’ madness which asserts that, because we have huge plants here, we will not move and we will always be here. They are wrong.” Enders said it was a ‘disgrace’ that businesses were still unable to plan properly two years after the referendum result. That sounded like a swipe at May, but No.10 will be delighted by his warning to MPs that now is the time for pragmatism: “If you are really sure that Brexit is best for Britain, come together and deliver a pragmatic withdrawal agreement.”

During past rows like this, air industry analysts have pointed out that it takes a long time for a big manufacturer to shift production. However Enders said it “could be forced to re-direct future investments” if the UK. parliament doesn’t avoid a no-deal exit that risks blocking up borders, restricting movement of workers and delaying its just-in-time production line. “Make no mistake, there are plenty of countries out there who would love to build the wings for Airbus aircraft,” he said.

Nigel Farage is gearing up for a second referendum and a possible new political party. Watch him tell ITV’s Peston last night: “The French love to have a good riot. We’re not French. We would see some people behaving very badly, possibly yes. But…millions who are angry with Brexit betrayal.. if they have got a political vehicle to get behind, they won’t need to do that.”

The MPs’ register of interests can be a gold mine in revealing the riches of certain backbenchers and yesterday the FT was swift to spot David Davis had secured a great gig at Brexit-loving digger firm JCB. DD will be paid £3,000 an hour for 20 hours’ work as an ’external adviser’. The firm obviously likes his bold approach to politics (he’s one of the few Tories not to cave yet to May’s threats on her deal). Meanwhile, the Times reveals the company made a £10k donation to Boris Johnson just three days before he made a big speech at its Kent HQ last week. Private Eye has revealed that Euroscep MEP Dan Hannan is also paid up to 5,000 euro a month by JC Bamford Excavators Ltd.

Late night adjournment debates can also contain hidden news gems for canny reporters and the Mirror’s Ben Glaze has dug out a 24-carat cracker. Minister Jake Berry got drawn down a debating cul-de-sac about Veganuary during exchanges with MPs on Monday evening, blurting out the immortal line: “I have tried a Greggs vegan sausage roll. It tasted to me much like any other Greggs sausage roll - not very nice.” Cue backlash from Labour’s Mary Glindon, whose north Tyneside seat includes Greggs’ HQ. The baker has 22,000 staff and everyone remembers how it burned George Osborne’s fingers when he tried the ‘pasty tax’ in 2012.

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