1. DEAD SERIOUS
Conservative backbencher Sir Mike Penning is well liked on all sides of the Commons, and all wings of his own party. As the former key aide to Iain Duncan Smith during the dark days of 2001-2003, he also has bitter experience of the ruthless disloyalty that the Tories can show to their leaders. And he was a key figure in Theresa May’s own leadership campaign. For all those reasons and more, his new warning that her Chequers Brexit plan is ‘as dead as a dodo’ ought to make No.10 sit up and take notice.
Sir Mike’s interview with the Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey is quite a read, precisely because he has kept quiet for so long. A working class Tory (he’s an ex-firefighter and Grenadier Guardsman), he represents a formerly marginal Labour seat and he’s now had enough of the Chequers spin and the whips’ pressure. Here’s a few choice quotes: “She is playing a game of Russian Roulette with the country which is frankly an insult to the referendum result…Whoever is advising her that she can get Chequers through Parliament is deluded… To say to the likes of myself: ‘It’s Chequers or a hard Brexit’. It’s like making us sit on the naughty step at school.” That right there is what you call a Whip’s nightmare.
Note also that Penning says the PM’s stance has forced him to join the European Research Group (ERG) of backbench Tories. This is despite his worries about being ‘labelled swivel-eyed’ and his doubts about Jacob Rees-Mogg: “I don’t need to be led by an old Etonian who uses language which most of my constituency including me don’t even know”. “But we stood on a manifesto pledge to deliver Brexit, not remain half in half out.” And the latest threat from the Government is unlikely to improve the mood of MPs like Penning. Treasury minister Mel Stride actually told Sky yesterday that if Brexiteers blocked Chequers, the UK “will end up in the situation where we could have a second referendum”. The reaction from several ERG members was a collective eye-roll.
David Davis is in Munich but he’s in no mood for appeasement of either Brussels or No.10. Pre-released extracts of his speech have him warning that “Chequers is devoid of democracy altogether”. As for the C-word itself, Harry Cole has a neat scoop in the Sun that Tory bosses ‘suggested’ that any official fringe event with the word ‘Chequers’ in its title would not get approval. We at HuffPost have an interview with a senior Brexiteer that’s due out later today. Watch this space.
2. ERR EXTENSIONS
Contrary to what the Rolling Stones may have sung, time is not on our side in the Brexit talks. Last night in Salzburg, Theresa May was given just 10 minutes to make her first direct plea to the 27 EU leaders, without the mediation of Michel Barnier. She urged them to come up with something on the Northern Ireland border issue that did not ‘carve in two’ the UK. But Brexiteers will feel vindicated in their warnings that Brussels will try to further water down Chequers, after the normally friendly EU council President Donald Tusk said Britain will have to ‘rework’ its proposals on the border and on future trade relations.
The BBC has the PMs of Malta and the Czech republic both floating the idea of a second referendum on the final Brexit deal, and the implicit suggestion that the negotiations would have to be extended. May herself told the EU that any delay of Article 50 was not an option, but Dominic Raab appeared to reveal on LBC last night that the Cabinet had discussed the idea (he and others had firmly argued against it). Ever one to err on the side of caution, Chancellor Philip Hammond is among those thought to have at least suggested all such contingencies need debate.
Meanwhile, Nicola Sturgeon has called for an extension “until we have some clarity” about the kind of final deal, adding that a ‘Blind Brexit’ – fudging key issues until after March 29 – would suit no one. Fears of a ‘blindfold’ Brexit has united both Leavers and Remainers of late, as many suspect No.10 just want to kick the problems down the road. Sturgeon also tells the BBC she won’t stand in the way of a second referendum but won’t advocate one either.
As for Labour, I’d be amazed if its party conference agreed anything other than to keep the option on the table, but without any specifics. Unless either the unions or Momentum want a detailed pledge, it just won’t get the votes. Indeed, the idea of a ‘People’s Vote’ itself is seen as purely academic by many high up in the party. Don’t forget the practicalities. As well as a vote extending Article 50 (several Labour MPs would oppose), any referendum bill would require Government time and primary legislation. Can you see any Tory leader (May or otherwise) agreeing that? Me neither.
3. BUT I DID NOT SHOOT THE DEPUTY
Labour’s conference in Liverpool looms this weekend, with some key issues undecided about its own internal rule changes on reselection of MPs and leadership nominations. And after our story about moves by the leadership to curb the powers of deputy leader Tom Watson, it looks like he’s facing a further bid to clip his wings. A local party motion is due to come before conference next week, creating a brand new, female-only second deputy leader post.
On the Today programme, Watson himself wasn’t just sanguine about this idea, he positively welcomed it. He said that although some worried about having three people in the Shadow cabinet with their own direct mandate from the members (a reminder that he won the votes of nearly 200,000 people in 2015), it could work. Of course with more women in Corbyn’s team than ever before, it looks increasingly odd that the top three spots (Corbyn, Watson, McDonnnell) are all occupied by blokes. And any deputy leader race is sure to be seen as a proxy for a future leadership race, so watch for Angela Rayner versus someone like Rebecca Long-Bailey.
Still, it’s a measure of how much Labour has been transformed in the past year that the deputy female idea is even considered. I wrote this piecein July 2017 about a ‘purge’ of Labour HQ planned by allies of Corbyn, including the end of a ‘male duopoly’ at the top. Seen as far-fetched by some at the time, nearly every single bit of the plan has come to fruition: get rid of general secretary Iain McNicol (tick), get rid of elections chief Patrick Heneghan (tick), get rid of policy and research director Simon Jackson (tick). Add on to that fresh moves to reselect MPs (repeatedly played down last year) and give members more powers and you can see why those who want to embed ‘Corbynism’ for the long term are very happy with progress to date. Our story about moves to block further legal costs payments to Kez Dugdale over her defamation case, is another sign of a clean break with the McNicol era.
We report how this year’s conference has pulled in more cash since 2014, more than doubling the income of Ed Miliband’s final gathering. More private firms are paying for stalls in the exhibition hall, as they grapple with the reality that there could be a Corbyn government. Crucially for the leadership, there are also more delegates, proof that Momentum really has worked hard to get its people in place for the key votes. Still, there could be fewer MPs than ever in attendance. One told me yesterday that ‘lots of us’ were staying away. We also report today that backbencher Siobhan McDonagh is actually going to speak on the Tory conference fringe, to “confront” the Conservatives about the housing crisis.
4. MISTER NOBODY
A major review of Britain’s railways has been launched as an investigation into what caused the May timetable disruption found “nobody took charge”. The most damning finding is that Department of Transport officials delayed key decisions on the timetables. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (whose surname unfortunately rhymes with ‘failing’ and is widely seen as favourite for the chop in any reshuffle) told Radio 4 “the system” was at fault, but not him personally. The Government said the review will be “the most significant since privatisation”. But one critic says: “People are fed up with the way the railways are run at the moment and they don’t want any more reviews and reports and commissions by the Secretary of State. What they want is action”. That critic is George Osborne, wearing his Northern Partnership hat.
5. TICK BOX
The Times has a fascinating story about a Tory party internal investigation into Boris Johnson’s remarks comparing burqas to ‘letterboxes’. His comments are being investigated by a panel at Conservative HQ to see if he broke the Tory code of conduct and result is expected next week. Sources claimed that Johnson was thought unlikely to receive a formal sanction but could receive a “ticking off”. Boris allies are already upset with Brandon Lewis, the Tory chairman who took no part in the investigating panel, because he condemned Johnson’s remarks soon after they were made and urged him to apologise. One to watch in Labour week next week.
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