The Waugh Zone Thursday March 14, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

In a sparsely attended Commons on Tuesday night, Cornish MP Steve Double announced he was reluctantly backing the PM’s Brexit plan. The reason was simple. Given all the unpalatable options, “it might be the best turd that we’ve got before us”, Double declared. Theresa May’s big reveal last night was that her stinker of a deal is rapidly being polished, to be presented before MPs a third time next week. Today, she’s desperately hoping the plan won’t be flushed down the Parliamentary toilet, and her along with it.

After another extraordinary day at Westminster (read our account of what the hell happened HERE), the PM will this afternoon face a vote on her latest plan to give space for one more heave for her deal. If the motion is passed, whatever happens there will be a delay to Brexit. The question is whether it’s a short pause to June 30 or a much longer pause (possibly 18 months) to allow alternatives to be hammered out.

That forced choice is one MPs may not like, especially if Hilary Benn and Yvette Cooper produce an amendment to seize the initiative and process a series of indicative votes (see below). But the fact is that the PM knows she still control the business of the Commons and can bring back her deal at any time. She fully intends to do that either as early as Monday or right against the wire on Wednesday, on the eve of the EU summit. Friday is a no-no, partly as more time is needed to work on rebels and the DUP (tomorrow is also literally the day of The Ides of March).

Yesterday, the DUP and the European Research Group (ERG) were both being worked on privately, with meetings in the Cabinet office and elsewhere. Key could be new ‘clarifications’ from Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, fleshing out a last-ditch offer made by Brexit Secretary late on Tuesday night to suggest that the Vienna Convention on international treaties could be used to exit the vexed ‘backstop’. Philip Hammond told Today “the Attorney General’s view is clearly very important…I’m sure the Attorney General will want to consider all the qualified opinion around this issue.”

The DUP are standing firm, I understand, and Cox may not tolerate being made to look like a fool by No.10. Still, some in the ERG are distinctly wobbly. Steve Baker was scathing last night, declaring ‘when meaningful vote 3 comes back…we will keep voting it down’. Whips are trying to work out how many Tory ultras there are (Francois is another irreconcilable) and whether enough Labour MPs in Leave areas can be spooked into backing the deal. Those numbers don’t look good. Last night, Lisa Nandy said the price of her support was a better political declaration to avoid her local firms ‘losing control over the future’. Which is why a customs union is very much in play.

There’s talk that if May suffers only a narrow loss, there could be a ‘meaningful vote 4’. Yet Speaker Bercow may not take kindly to her even trying a third time lucky approach. As I tweeted last night (and SkyNews spotted earlier), he has the nuclear option of refusing to allow May’s plan to be tabled in the same form. He has nothing to lose, after all, and changing the shape of Brexit could be his biggest legacy.

Way back in 2010, I remember being with Gordon Brown on an election campaign visit to then trendy firm Innocent Smoothies. The office was full of potential photo-op nightmares and the PM’s usually reliable fixer Sue Gray was very lucky indeed that he narrowly avoided being snappedbelow a sign that said ‘you can’t polish a turd’. Instead, Brown appeared under a different slogan ‘Tough times don’t last, but tough people do’. Later today, we’ll find out if May gets one last chance to tough it out in No.10.

May faced anger from all sides as yesterday’s events unfolded. Brexiteer ministers were initially furious that the Malthouse amendment would be whipped against, forcing May to grant a free vote. But the biggest bust-up of all came last night as 12 Remainer ministers abstained on the final vote to permanently rule out a no-deal exit. Health minister Stephen Hammond confirmed on Today that ‘some colleagues’ were given assurances they would stay in post even if they abstained.

Having had the nod from No.10 they could do so, those ministers were baffled when a three-line whip was imposed. Yet more fury ensued as the clutch of Cabinet ministers and others were not sacked, as is convention. One veteran backbencher yelled at deputy chief whip Chris Pincher in the members’ lobby: ‘Why weren’t they sacked?’ One insider joked: “She’s done a Corbyn” (who also failed to fire rebel frontbenchers on Brexit votes).

In fact, David Gauke and Amber Rudd had been working hard behind the scenes to help the PM save face yesterday, succeeding in getting Caroline Spelman not to push her hardline amendment on no-deal, based on promises that it really would be off the table. However, Liam Fox stressed the ‘on the table’ bit of the government motion in his wind-up speech. That, combined with suspicions that Spelman had been bought off too easily, prompted Yvette Cooper to put it to a vote. The chain reaction then followed. Don’t forget Cooper didn’t back down earlier this month when Oliver Letwin wanted to trust the government to stick to its word.

The breakdown in discipline is truly serious for the PM, however, and it’s her own sacking that is now a real question. The chaos has prompted fresh talk about whether May will face a Cabinet delegation telling her to quit once/if her deal gets through Parliament. The real difficulty with this scenario is that Remainers far outweigh Brexiteers both in Cabinet and in all ministerial ranks. And Remainers are absolutely terrified at the idea of May quitting because they know the party rank and file will demand a Brexiteer leader, and possibly one who could either back no-deal or turn the political declaration into something none of them want. Once again, by accident, she could stay in office more longer than many think.

Labour’s official amendment to the May motion today makes plain it wants a series of indicative votes. It ‘instructs’ the PM to ‘provide parliamentary time for this House to find a majority for a different approach’. Of course, the problem is many Tory MPs won’t want to support an official Opposition amendment, but they would feel comfortable if Benn (whose Brexit select committee backed indicative votes yesterday in an emergency report) and Cooper and Tories like Dominic Grieve table their own version. If passed, I’m told the indicative votes would then take place next week.

There is a free vote on the main motion, but it’s unclear after last night whether all amendments will be treated similarly. That decision on whipping could prove crucial, especially as Chancellor Philip Hammond today doubled down on his own belief that indicative votes on things like a softer Brexit or a second referendum. Hammond said he still backed the PM’s deal “but I’m not blind to the reality that large numbers of my colleagues have voted against it”.

The Chancellor sounded like he was trying on the PM’s shoes yesterday (Michael Gove did that too as her voice was too weak to lead the debate) when he talked of the need for compromise. On Today he said: “The process of compromise and consensus building now has to be around trying to find a way forward. The House of Commons is going to have to do this..I was merely pointing out the blindingly obvious. The Prime Minister quite rightly is promoting her deal.” Note he didn’t say it was his deal.

Everyone thinks Hammond would back a customs union (and Donald Tusk this morning offered a long Brexit extension to allow its negotiation). Greg Clark last night came out openly to support the idea too. Yet as the backing for a Norway-style exit grows, there’s a spanner in the works today for the People’s Voters. An amendment ruling one out has been tabled by an alliance of the ERG, DUP and Labour leavers like Caroline Flint and Gareth Snell. And in a further blow to campaigners, Angela Rayner told Robert Peston it would be ‘disastrous’ to hold a second referendum.

Watch Greg Clark tell Peston that ‘the whipping was decided very late in the day, not after a collective discussion about it, as most policies are’.

On another day (we keep saying this but it’s true), yesterday’s evidence to the child sex abuse inquiry by David Steel would be headline news. The former Liberal leader admitted under oath for the first time that ex-Rochdale MP Cyril Smith had told him he had fondled boys in a hostel. Worse still, Steel had decided to take no action against him and in fact recommended him for a knighthood. Private Eye and Rochdale’s Alternative Paper deserve credit for braving legal threats on this back in the 1970s. As a Rochdalian myself, who helped reveal Smith’s appalling conduct (see HERE and HERE), I was struck by Steel’s almost total lack of remorse. Vince Cable has some questions to answer about what he does next. All this, on the day Boris Johnson derided claims of historic sex abuse.

Aside from his Brexit bombshell at the end, the Chancellor’s Spring Statement had a £26bn warchest that you can bet John McDonnell would to get his hands on. Yet it was a very mixed picture, not least with short term weaker growth, confirmation that austerity will last another year (transport spending slashed 76% since 2010, benefit families still suffering). Here’s our 8 things buried in the budget-thats-not-a-budget.

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