The Waugh Zone Thursday March 28, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

For a long time, Theresa May has been telling us that Brexit is a process, not an event. Turns out that mantra applies to her own exit too. The zombie prime minister finally agreed to head off to the political graveyard, but there was no precise date for the funeral. Instead, there was a last plea for her MPs to vote for her unloved divorce deal from the EU. One more heave and she, and they, could rest in peace.

That was the theory. And for a precious few minutes, it seemed to work in practice. Backbencher Richard Bacon was the first to speak in the 1922 Committee, after May made her historic statement that she “won’t stand in the way” of “a new approach - and new leadership - in the second phase of the Brexit negotiations”. Bacon would finally back the PM’s deal on third time of asking. Brexiteers young (Robert Courts) and old (James Gray) announced they would be switching too.

But as I write HERE in a piece on just how the day unfolded, the news from that point just kept on getting worse. Yes, big beasts like Boris Johnson (via his Daily Telegraph contract) and Iain Duncan Smith came on board. Yet, within an hour, Steve Baker was making his extraordinary ‘no surrender’ speech to fellow ‘Spartans’ at the European Research Group. The DUP’s refusal to back down came just before 9pm and all the fevered whips’ talk of a meaningful vote on Friday suddenly looked very premature. By the time of ITV’s Peston show, even Jacob Rees-Mogg flipped his flip-flop. “I will support the DUP, if the deal is brought back and they are still opposing it,” Moggy caterwauled.

As Johnson left the ERG meeting, he was unusually tight-lipped, but our key question - ‘are you going to vote for vassalage, Boris?’ - is one that will be asked again and again. He was not planning to make an on-camera statement today, but when it comes you can bet he will be hoist by his own betrayal narrative. The DUP, whose confidence and supply votes will prop up the next Tory prime minister, really don’t like people who let them down. Only last year, Johnson told Arlene Foster’s party conference he was on their side. The Guardian has an ominous quote from a DUP source that Bojo “has done nothing to enhance his reputation for being slippery”.

The key moment today will be around 5pm, when we will find out whether the government goes ahead with a Friday sitting and the meaningful vote (Andrea Leadsom could give more clues in her Business Statement this morning). Damian Green, May’s oldest political friend, hinted on the Today programme that the DUP would actually fold, though only after “negotiating up to absolutely the last minute”. Green said the Northern Irish party’s practice was clear: “Until you actually sign a deal, the word you most often hear is ‘no’.” One senior Labour MP told me last night: “I’m 99% certain the DUP will back her in the end.” Let’s see about that.

No.10 sources let it be known last night that the end of May would come in, well, July. On the timetable shared with MPs, the PM would step down as leader on May 22, the new Exit Day, and stay in Downing Street until a summer leadership contest played out. Candidates’ machines are already cranking into action, with each desperate to win supporters from a wide spread of the party’s different wings. Right-wing libertarian Brexiteers are signing up ‘left’ Remainers, and vice versa. The media’s tent city, a rash of gazebos that has sprung up on College Green opposite Parliament, could well be there for months to come.

On probably the most intense and dramatic night of my entire 21 years in Westminster, there were multiple plotlines playing out at breathless speed (check out our Twitter round-up). As if the real-time, live-feed resignation of a prime minister wasn’t enough, we had the spectacle of an alternative ‘backbench prime minister’ actually taking control of the Parliamentary process of Brexit.

With the clock running down, Sir Oliver Letwin’s indicative votes system felt like an episode of Countdown, as the Speaker selected motions B, D, H, J, K, L, M and O. After MPs used their pencils and green slips, there was no majority for any of the eight main options. Yet those claiming this was all a disaster were wrong. In just two days, Letwin’s process arguably achieved more in getting Parliament to a consensus that two years of May’s own efforts. Find out which option from the smorgasbord menu your own MP voted for HERE.

The big winner was Ken Clarke’s customs union, missing a majority by just eight votes. Damian Green (who once infuriated Clarke by backing Michael Portillo back in the 2001 leadership race) this morning pointed out just how close that ‘soft Brexit’ plan was to success. If a customs union was forced on May, the main casualty would be the Tory manifesto pledge to have an ‘independent’ trade policy. But the other big loser would Liam Fox, whose very job would be rendered redundant. It’s one of the great ironies that Fox, who with Gove has kept the show on the road, could end up losing out after months of dogged loyalty.

Despite the calls for him to ‘resign’ last night from his newfound status of PM, Letwin gently pointed out he had never expected a majority for anything in the first phase of his process. He’s right that (barring a meaningful vote being passed tomorrow) Monday is the next phase. However as I suggested yesterday, there is a huge debate on how or whether the Commons can now devise any run-off system that will itself command support.

The runner-up option last night was a second referendum, coming up on the rails to easily beat its Common Market 2.0 rival (the Norwegian model did have one big boost today though). There was jubilation among the People’s Vote campaign, though it’s hard to see where it gets the votes needed to get over the line. Lots of MPs were musing in the Lobby last night that a general election could be the only way out of the mess. But in order to have one, a long extension of Article 50 is needed. That’s where the real action could come next. Letwin warned on Today that we were heading for a no-deal exit on April 12, unless MPs agreed on some kind of solution that could be put to the EU. No-deal was ‘at the moment the most likely thing to happen’, he said.

Among the many subplots yesterday was John Bercow’s extraordinary early warning that he would take some convincing before even agreeing a third vote on May’s plan. And the fury with him on the Tory benches boiled over last night as former party chairman Patrick McLoughlin jibed that Bercow had been inconsistent in his ruling that the same business could not be heard again and again. The pair have history, and note that whenever Bercow is in trouble, McLoughlin is the one to try to skewer him.

One way to fulfil the Bercow edict of a ‘substantial change’ is tacking the Withdrawal Agreement Bill onto a meaningful vote, or even replacing it for the time being. Will ministers dare present the bill tomorrow, on the day we were originally meant to be formally quitting the EU? Those who have seen the bill say the real reason it has not been published so far is precisely because its contents are toxic for the DUP and ERG, writing into UK law the controversial ‘backstop’. It also repeals the EU Withdrawal Act, which in turn repealed EU law from ‘Exit Day’, to allow a two-year transition. Confused yet? You will be.

The other thing that was obvious yesterday was the way party discipline has now almost totally broken down. Nearly half the government whips’ office defied their own three-line whip to back an extension of Exit Day. Labour’s Mel Onn quit to vote against the whip on a second referendum. Yet three shadow cabinet ministers, including party chair Ian Lavery, also defied the whip and abstained on that motion. Expect more of a backlash later on ‘one-law-for-mates-of-Jez’ etc.

Stil, as I said last night, the big, big problem for May is Labour MPs in Leave areas now. She may have won some Tory MPs with that pledge to quit. But it looks like she didn’t work out that now any Labour MP who votes for her deal is effectively voting for a new PM, and most likely a hard Brexiteer. Without a general election. That’s not a good look.

Watch Donald Tusk applaud as SNP MEP Alyn Smith urges the EU to ‘leave a light on, so we can find our way home’.

Before the chaos broke yesterday, Labour confirmed that Jeremy Corbyn really does run more than 15k in a week, as well as pumping iron, cycling and gardening. Cynics said the story was aimed at dispelling rumours about his health flying about in recent weeks. But many people at Westminster were just in awe of his punishing regime.

Jackie Walker, the former Momentum activist, was finally expelled from Labour after two and a half years of an investigation into her alleged anti-Semitism. It was a HuffPost video that started the whole thing, way back in September 2016. How time flies. Not.

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