1. CAN SHE KICK IT?
Cabinet is meeting today for a long, long session as Theresa May hopes her divided ministers can finally come to some consensus about Brexit. Yet with her top team finely balanced, and time running out, some around her think it’s time for her to show some leadership and actually make the hard choices that have for so long been avoided.
May had a look of bemused weariness late last night, as she sat on the frontbench and heard the Speaker confirm that none of the Brexit Plan Bs (or Cs, Ds, Es and Gs) had won a majority. The welcome-to-my-world expression on her face was not lost on our alternative prime minister, Sir Oliver Letwin. He now prepares his own way out of the chaos (see below), but for the PM the options really are narrowing.
With a painful inevitability, May’s preference is to push her own deal a fourth time either tomorrow or Thursday (the hard deadline in No.10 is Friday, when the EU needs a formal answer to plan next week’s summit). To meet Bercow’s test that her proposition has to be different, she could tack onto her deal plans by Labour MPs Gareth Snell and Lisa Nandy to give MPs a vote over the next phase of Brexit trade talks with the EU. But with the DUP unmoveable and the Brexiteer ERG MPs like Richard Drax head away not towards May’s deal, she would need an unprecedented number of Labour switchers.
If, as expected, May’s deal fails again, she has essentially four alternatives: no-deal, a snap election, adding a customs union to her deal or a request from the EU for a long Brexit delay that gives MPs more time to sort themselves out (with or without her as PM).
This morning’s ‘political Cabinet’ is being presented with some party polling on how well or badly the Tories would do in a snap poll. That may well be a ploy by the PM to ram home that an election is not an option. As for no-deal, it is certainly being pushed hard by Brexiteer ministers and backbench MPs, and if May wanted to go down that route then Letwin and co would have to pretty quickly draft some kind of Parliamentary device to halt it. Brexit secretary Steve Barclay suggested last night he knew there was no Commons majority for leaving the EU without an agreement.
On the Today programme, David Davis however suggested one other, radical way out: Tory MPs joining Corbyn to vote no confidence in the government. “I would only make one warning to the Cabinet this morning. Don’t be sure that every Conservative MP would vote for you if it was made a confidence vote.” DD said “probably around 20” Tories could rebel. Yesterday, Steve Baker hinted at it, as did Crispin Blunt. It sounds bonkers, but in case you missed it, crazy is Parliament’s new jam.
Still, tired and fractious Labour and Tory MPs were bitterly divided last night and many of them feel that they are being asked to cram into a matter of days what the PM should have spent years facilitating. That’s why the request for a long extension to Article 50 looks like it is the one new thing that could unite the Commons (the other is voting to stop no-deal). Even a minority of Cabinet Brexiteers wouldn’t mind a long delay to allow them to regroup, sort a leadership contest and possibly then opt for an election. Can the PM kick the can down the road one final time, then step aside? Yes she can. Let’s see whether the Commons will force on her the biggest ‘May delay’ of all.
2. KEN CLOSE, BUT NO CIGAR
Ken Clarke is eminently unflappable, having seen it all in his long career. Yet even he looked totally exasperated last night as MPs failed to give him the handful of extra votes needed to form a majority for his permanent customs union plan. Clarke pointed out that in normal times some kind of compromise would have been hammered out by now, but said that would involve something called ‘politics’ - and politics was not what this Parliament did well.
Government whips certainly looked delighted last night when the results were read out (find out how your MP voted HERE). The customs union was defeated by three, the second referendum by 12 and the Norway plan by 21 votes. The only way of narrowing the numbers may be to adopt a preferential voting system or run-off to find out everyone’s second best but least worst options. Letwin has until close of play today to draft a new business motion for tomorrow that will tell us if he’s going down the run-off road. It’s far from certain such a plan would get a majority.
The Tory infighting was a sight to behold last night. We had Steve Baker tell SkyNews he was a ‘Brexit hardman’. Mark Francois told Radio 4’s The World Tonight: “And as for you Mr Hammond, my eternal message to you is ‘up yours!’” Hammond’s aide Huw Merriman backed a second referendum and said the Brexiteers were “like Dad’s Army without the rations”. “The reality is these people are living in a deluded land,” he told Newsnight.
Yet there may be a way to revive Clarke’s customs union plan. It’s possible it could pass next time if ministers like Lucy Frazer and Nick Hurd (as well as consensus-seeking backbenchers like George Freeman and Bim Afolami), all back it rather than abstaining as they did last night.
And if May herself were to adopt it, by making it time-limited rather than a permanent customs union, that could be a game-changer in a genuinely free vote. Labour would prefer a permanent customs union, the Tories would prefer none at all. But maybe if it’s both their second best option, May and Corbyn could rid themselves of the Brexit albatross. I know, I know, it sounds mad.
3. NO WAY, NORWAY?
Former Tory minister Nick Boles’s own frustration with the lack of consensus finally boiled over as he quit the Tory party and walked out of the Commons chamber in disgust. Tory MP Huw Merriman pleaded with Boles as he spoke, saying “Oh Nick, don’t go, come on.” But tellingly, it was Labour’s Lucy Powell, who has worked for months in the cross-party ‘Common Market 2.0’ campaign, who ran after him to see if he was OK.
And the fact is that Boles’ own Norway-style Brexit was crippled by not just a lack of support from Tories, but by Labour MPs defying their own whip to either vote against or abstain. The bad blood among the People’s Vote MPs and the Norway crew last night was as bad, and even worse, than anything I’ve seen between pro- and anti-Corbyn Labour MPs.
Stephen Kinnock told me: “I am deeply, deeply disappointed by the fact that 33 Labour MPs campaigning for a second referendum abstained on Common Market 2.0. Many of us have deep reservations about a second referendum but we put those reservations aside and voted for it but unfortunately that wasn’t reciprocated.” Kinnock’s critics hit back, with one telling me: “Lots of our people came across to them but only a handful of them to us.” One second referendum Labour MP did a deal with a Tory Norway backer, voting for each other’s plan. “But other colleagues sold their votes more cheaply in exchange for a few others moving to us.”
Boles himself was being blamed by some Labour MPs, as in his speech (amid the climate protests) he suggested he didn’t want to extend Brexit beyond May 22, that his customs union may be temporary and that (in a nod to the SNP) he backed very flexible free movement. There was frantic horsetrading in the voting lobbies, with some MPs showing their voting slips to rival camps to prove their good intentions, but many switching at the last minute. People’s Voters like David Lammy, Liz Kendall, Wes Streeting, Mary Creagh and Stephen Doughty abstained, while Owen Smith, Jo Stevens and Paul Williams even voted against Boles.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this brilliant mash-up of Speaker Bercow clashing with Tory MP Kevin Foster, to the tune of Gilbert and Sullivan.
4. HIGH WATER MARK
Cabinet secretary Mark Sedwill is becoming more assertive amid the Brexit chaos and acrimony. Yesterday, he wrote to all civil servants to describe as ‘nonsense’ claims by Francois and others that somehow Whitehall officials like Olly Robbins were to blame for negotiating the PM’s deal. And the Mail reports on Sedwill has also sent a letter to Cabinet ministers setting out starkly the dangers of no-deal, including risk of recession, security threats, a 10% spike in food prices 10 per cent spike in food prices and the collapse of some businesses that trade with the EU and direct rule for Northern Ireland. David Davis said the letter was ‘ridiculous’.
5. NAKED TRUTH
At least MPs had some light relief yesterday as semi-naked protestors took part in a demo in the public gallery of the Commons. Peter Kyle showed admirable calm as he made his second referendum speech amid the spectacle of anti-climate change activists glueing themselves to the glass barrier. Kyle talked of ‘the naked truth’ of his case, while Nick Boles said ‘pointless’ nakedness was a ‘British trait’. There were some lovely gifs of Ed Milband trying (and failing) to avoid looking at the protestors. A total of 12 activists were arrested. Six were taken to a police station but six others were detained by police for quite some time in Parliament. Aptly enough, I saw several in handcuffs in Star Chamber Court.
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