1. MEXIT DAY LOOMS?
We are just 134 days away from Brexit Day. But when the country staggers over the finish line on March 29, there will be many more miles in this marathon left yet. That’s one of the main takeaways from Theresa May’s newly published deal with Brussels, as the date and nature of the UK’s ‘real’ exit from the EU is pushed further into the distance. And the big question this morning is whether the PM herself will still be in post next month, let alone next Spring. The growing sense of rebellion in the Tory party was starkly confirmed as Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab sensationally quit, followed by Esther McVey. Earlier, Northern Ireland Minister Shailesh Vara quit his post in protest at May’s plans. I wondered whether he would be a lone firework or the spark for more explosive resignations worthy of bonfire night. Now, ministers and backbenchers have the PM’s own Exit Day in their hands.
I’d be amazed if every MP reads all 585 pages of the densely-worded Withdrawal Agreement published yesterday, though some may manage to get through the seven-page ‘Outline Political Declaration On The Future Relationship’. The ‘wins’ for May include getting zero tariffs, no quotas and a ‘sliding scale’ of regulation to allow as frictionless trade as possible. That’s a prize that senior Government sources told us was something no other advanced economy had gained from the EU. But what worries both Tory and DUP MPs is the lingering presence of differential treatment for Northern Ireland, the lack of a means to unilaterally pull out, plus the more likely prospect of extending the transition period beyond December 2020. The very fact that the final end of transition is described in the text as ‘20XX’ (the blank will be filled in by the summit later this month) underscores how nervous No.10 is about the idea of further lengthening the UK’s limbo status.
For the PM the legalese of the document is not the main focus. Her overarching message is essentially ‘trust me, this is the best deal you’re ever going to get’. Brexit for her means messy compromise and the real split in the Tory party is now not between Leavers and Remainers, but pragmatists and idealists (or ideologues). The EU’s Donald Tusk this morning tried to make it easier for May to sell her deal back home, saying: “As much as I am sad to see you leave, I will do everything to make this farewell the least painful possible, for you and for us.” Yet if the PM needed any reminders of the pain ahead, Norman Tebbit told LBC radio that May’s deal “smells of Neville Chamberlain coming back from Munich”.
2. SHOTS FIRED
Vara’s resignation (exclusively revealed by HuffPost) certainly got the day off to a difficult start for No.10. His letter stated “This agreement does not provide for the United Kingdom being a sovereign independent country leaving the shackles of the EU”. The son of an immigrant carpenter (once described as a “future Conservative Party leader” by Lord Alexander of Weedon), his departure underscored the Northern Ireland issue. More importantly, it looks like the trigger for much bigger trouble for the PM. A hundred years from the end of the First World War, Vara may turn out to be the Gavrilo Princip of The Great Tory Brexit War: the man who fired the first shot that lead to the political assassination of Theresa May.
And it is Raab’s resignation that is the nightmare that No.10 had dreaded, both because of the impact it will have on Brexiteers already determined to vote against the deal and because of the direct threat it poses to her very premiership. This is a fast moving story and who knows how many more Cabinet ministers will have quit by the end of the day. Late last night, Raab still intended to be in post today. But either he failed to get extra reassurances from the PM or he just mulled it over and came to the conclusion the deal could not be improved. He said this morning he “cannot in good conscience support” the draft text. Raab’s resignation leaves the UK without a minister in charge of the most important policy of the Government. Yet given that civil servant Olly Robbins has been doing most of the real negotiating, maybe we won’t even get a replacement that soon. The PM is her own Brexit Secretary after all (though maybe David Lidington will step into the breach temporarily?)
It’s all a far cry from the image No.10 wanted to project last night, as aides informed us that ministers ended the five hour Cabinet meeting with glasses of wine (red and white). No one had threatened to resign, no vote was taken explicitly but ‘Cabinets always proceed by collective agreement’, we were told. That fiction was brutally exposed as it emerged that 11 ministers had raised serious concerns about the deal, and one source says that Raab himself at one point described it during the discussion as ‘indefensible’. Work and Pensions Secretrary Esther McVey was very ‘emotional’ during the debate, demanding a formal vote should be recorded. Now she’s quit too. Let’s see how much of a Cabinet the PM has left by the end of the day. Never before has the Cabinet table’s notorious ‘coffin-shape’ seemed more apt.
3. COUP DO YOU THINK YOU ARE?
Politics is a numbers game at heart. The Cabinet has a mere 29 members. Yet it’s the 80-strong European Research Group, plus more than 20 Remainers, that the PM was worried about when it comes to getting her deal through Parliament. The more pressing problem now is whether there will be the required 48 names needed for a vote of confidence. Jacob Rees-Mogg sent his own letter to MPs last night within just eight minutes of the Brexit deal going online, so it seems he didn’t bother to read it to conclude that no deal was better than this deal.
Mogg and the ERG have constantly said that they want to ‘change the policy not the personnel’. Given they think the policy hasn’t really changed (though the PM will try to make it look like she’s ‘chucked Chequers’ by abandoning the phrase ‘common rulebook), the logic of the backbench Brexiteer group is that they now have to change the leader. Mogg last night said tenure of No.10 was a ‘leasehold not a freehold’. And his deputy Mark Francois, when asked about the vote of confidence letters, said: “A lot of colleagues are very unhappy with this deal. I would rule nothing out.” The coup, or at least the attempted coup, is on.
Now, it’s worth saying that despite even Raab’s resignation and the threat of more, May can still win a vote of confidence if she gets a majority of just one. Don’t forget that John Major survived even after a third of his entire Parliamentary party voted against him. Yet Major managed to get enough votes for Maastricht at the end of the day. May just hasn’t got the votes to get this Brexit deal through in its current form. And as we revealed yesterday, there’s even more trouble ahead even if, by some miracle, she could have won the ‘meaningful vote’. Tory MPs are planning to pile in killer amendments to the Withdrawal and Implementation Bill, a move that could ruin the whole ratification process by the European Parliament. As one Brexiteer said to me yesterday, echoing the IRA’s infamous line: “We only have to get lucky once.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
This never gets old. Enjoy this classic The Day Today sketch as Brussels Correspondent Peter O’Hanraha-hanrahan explains how an EU deal was arrived at. Includes the all-too-topical line:’ “When I spoke to finance minister Reinhardt earlier today, he said he didn’t like the deal, but he had to go along with it....”
4. ALTERNATIVE ULSTER
As if all that wasn’t enough, the DUP are so unhappy with May’s plans that they now look certain to vote against them. The very existence of their confidence and supply deal that props up the PM in power looks in danger too. The Brexiteers and the DUP have a much stronger alliance than May and Arlene Foster. It’s a great irony that plans to prevent further violence in Northern Ireland, by keeping open the border with Ireland, have in fact led to political violence in the Tory party.
The DUP’s Sammy Wilson wasn’t afraid of making the analogy yesterday, comparing the way the EU had treated the UK with the IRA’s own punishment beatings: “And unfortunately the Prime Minister has allowed that punishment beating to be administered. That punishment beating in my belief will damage the UK and damage the UK constitution.” In case we didn’t get the message, he added: “We fought against a terrorist campaign to stay within the UK, we’re not going to let the EU break Northern Ireland just as we didn’t let the IRA do so.”
5. NO BREXIT AT ALL
May rolled out what seemed her last ditch tactic to get MPs to back her deal, warning they had to choose between backing her plan or “leave with no deal or no Brexit at all”. The line had been roadtested by William Hague earlier in the day but that didn’t make it any less palatable.
When I asked No.10 under what circumstances the PM felt that there could be ‘no Brexit at all’, a Downing Street spokesman said: “You should see that through the prism of Parliament, in that the main opposition party has actively said that Brexit can be stopped, there is a People’s Vote Movement which we have set out our opposition to, and any other number of important votes that will have to occur between now and the 29th of March.” The People’s Vote campaign saw it as a huge shot in the arm for them. But I wonder if it may also have sparked the resignations too, as Brexiteers really do fear Labour allying with Remainer Tories to re-run the whole race.
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