1. PIZZA THE ACTION
With Theresa May struggling to get EU agreement for her revised deal, thoughts are turning to whether a ‘softer’ Brexit is the only thing that can get through Parliament. The proposal for a ‘Common Market 2.0’ or ‘Norway-plus’ arrangement has support among Labour and Tory backbenchers, but it would need Jeremy Corbyn’s backing to have any real chance of success. That’s why for some yesterday’s meeting between Corbyn and the idea’s backers, including Conservatives Sir Oliver Letwin and Nick Boles, felt like a significant moment.
Norway plus supporters have long felt that they’ll get a piece of the Brexit action once May’s deal falls again, no-deal is off the table and the Commons has voted for a delay. And if their main rival - the second referendum - is defeated by MPs along with May’s plans, the pitch will be that theirs is the only workable idea left standing. Yes, the Norway crew know they currently lack the numbers and that there are still lots of obstacles (not least People’s Vote true believers, hardline Brexiteers, and Labour and Tory MPs who want free movement to end). Yet they have a confidence that the tide will turn after next week.
When the cross-party group of MPs gathered in the Leader of the Opposition’s office yesterday afternoon, there were plenty of jokes about pizza, I hear. Those present recalled how Letwin had snacked on a pepperoni the last time he was there, during frantic late night talks with Ed Miliband and Nick Clegg on Leveson regulation. Crucially, Corbyn was “very engaged” with the Common Market plan, having read the group’s pamphlet in full, and asked detailed questions about things like the merits of an EFTA court versus the ECJ. Some Labour insiders believe their own deal is ‘close’ to the Norway plan, and issues like free movement and a temporary customs union could be bridged. Corbyn himself said he was ‘quite a long way’ ‘at this stage’ from backing Norway, but it felt like things moved.
Would the Tory party split if the government backed a customs union? When I chatted to Letwin last week he dismissed that idea. He told me “Is the Conservative party going to fracture into two vast armies that clash? Of course it isn’t. Most of my colleagues are very firmly attached to being Conservatives. People are much more interested in capturing the castle, than leaving it.” Don’t forget that some key Brexiteers, such as George Eustice, have backed a Norway style deal as the least worst option for getting the UK out first and then sorting more details later. Last night’s Lords vote for a custom union underlined the support it would get. Ex Treasury chief turned peer Nick Macpherson tweeted he’d backed it because “the PM knows a customs union is necessary to fulfill her commitment to a frictionless Irish border”.
And this morning Philip Hammond gave what sounded to me like his clearest hint yet he was ready to back it. Asked if he could live with MPs voting for Norway, he refused to deny he could. “I’m not going to speculate on various different routes that might be taken by the House of Commons,” he said. But then he added this key line: “The Labour Party has been talking for a long time about the idea of a customs union grafted onto the PM’s deal. Those of my colleagues who feel very strongly against that proposal need to think very very hard about the implications of voting against the Prime Minister’s deal because we will then be in unknown territory where a consensus will have to be forged across the House of Commons and that will inevitably mean compromises being made.” Of course this could just be another attempt to scare MPs into backing May’s deal. But to me it sounded like a promise, not a threat.
2. MEAT IS MURDER
All the talk about alternatives to May’s deal was heightened because of a grim set of talks in Brussels on Tuesday night. Yes, this could be crude expectations management on both sides, but when Geoffrey Cox said exchanges had been ‘robust’ and Michel Barnier said they were ‘difficult’, everyone knew they’d had a proper row. Leaks from Brussels suggest the EU felt Cox was searching for a legal solution to a political problem. The EU has given us 48 hours to come up with some proper proposals. Cox himself said both sides were now “into the meat of the matter”, but that meat looks as healthy as a pork pie a week past its sell-by date.
Cox has Attorney General Questions in the Commons at 10am and Andrea Leadsom can confirm next week’s votes timetable. The Telegraph’s Chris Hope yesterday set tongues wagging with a new rumour that if May’s deal is defeated narrowly on Tuesday, she could pull the no-deal vote due the next day and the ‘delay vote’ due on Thursday. Yesterday, No.10 assured us that the PM had made a promise to Parliament on the timing of the votes and was sticking to it.
The Guardian has a diplomatic note from deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand telling EU ambassadors: “Cox’s asks are going well beyond where Barnier can go.” The “thorniest issue” was the UK’s request for the “independent review mechanism” to be taken out of the jurisdiction of the European court of justice. “The assurances on independence that the QC [Cox] seeks would mean substantial carve out of EU law,” Weyand told the ambassadors. “No indication this would bring the vote home.” Bringing the vote home is tricky indeed. We are again in the cart/horse problem. Brussels won’t agree a new guarantee unless the Commons will back it. The Commons won’t back it unless they get the guarantee.
On Today, Hammond said that if May’s plan fails again the Commons is “likely to vote for extension”. He also gave a strong hint that he would not vote personally for no-deal (“I’ve always said it would be a very bad outcome. I can’t say how I will vote… Parliament will vote not to leave without a deal next Wednesday. I have a high degree of confidence about that.” Either he’s just relying on past form or he thinks a free vote will be granted. Either way, his remarks will further infuriate Brexiteers. As will his warning that if there is a no-deal then there won’t be any money for knife-crime or other public service demands.
3. INSTITUTIONAL MEMORY
Labour’s problems over anti-Semitism show no sign of letting up. We could find out very soon (as early as today) whether the Equalities and Human Rights Commission has decided to launch an investigation into the party’s possible breach of equalities laws. Two dossiers were handed to it by the Campaign Against Anti-Semitism and by the Jewish Labour Movement last year. On Monday, the EHRC told me they were still at the scoping stage to test whether there was a case to answer, but things could move very quickly. The Guardian and Jewish Chronicle had the scoop last night said the watchdog was ‘close’ to a decision. There is a high bar for any investigation as the EHRC needs to see evidence of possible unlawful acts.
The idea that Labour could be found guilty of being institutionally anti-Semitic is still pretty shocking. Yesterday MPs were furious when they were told that a member of Corbyn’s office had been appointed interim head of complaints, having been told that she was only in an ‘administrative’ role. The party quickly backtracked, saying the official who had told MPs the title had made an ‘error’. We should find out soon whether any of that has made it more difficult to appoint Charlie Falconer as Labour’s new surveillance commissioner.
One example of the bitterness on this issue is underlined by PoliticsHome this morning, which has a long read on splits in Young Labour, including allegations that its Jewish chair Miriam Mirwitch is being bullied. Mirwitch’s election last year was a rare victory for Momentum’s opponents but ever since the difference between her and her committee has been obvious. Jennie Formby is set to meet Mirwitch to discuss the abuse she’s faced on social media.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Donald Trump’s inability to remember names strikes again. Watch him describe Apple CEO Tim Cook as ‘Tim Apple’.
4. FOOD FOR THOUGHT
Food banks, lunch clubs and homeless hostels are among the services that may run out of food after a no-deal Brexit, 15 charities have warned in a letter to the Prime Minister (released exclusively to HuffPost). Meanwhile chlorinated chicken is increasingly on the menu. Yesterday, US ambassador Woody Johnson told the Today programme “We have the lowest level of food poisoning in the United States”. But as BusinessInsider’s Adam Bienkov pointed out in fact around 14.7% of Americans suffer from a food-borne illness each year compared to just 1.5% of Brits.
5. SURGICAL STRIKES?
Britain has killed more than 4,000 Islamic State fighters in air strikes in Iraq and Syria but has only admitted to causing one civilian death in four and a half years of bombing, official data seen by HuffPost UK and the BBC shows. The idea that just one civilian death took place is of course highly unlikely given the battle for Mosul was in a built up area. With little on the ground intel, the estimates from drones thousands of feet up in the sky are not exactly going to be firm. Another example of how statistics can mislead. But the number of fighters killed is certainly high.
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