The five things you need to know about politics today

The irony is unmissable. Just as Brussels prepares to set conditions on any extension of UK’s Brexit ‘separation’ from the EU, the May government is making it easier to get a ‘no-fault’ divorce. Under current British law, you have to prove you’ve been apart for a minimum of two years (somebody say Article 50?) or cite ‘behaviour which is intolerable to live with’ (somebody say Jean-Claude Juncker?) to actually part.

Theresa May heads off to Berlin and Paris today for some serious pitch-rolling ahead of tomorrow’s emergency EU summit. May’s letter to Donald Tusk last week promised the UK would act ‘in accordance with a duty of sincere cooperation throughout this unique period’. But it already looks like an anxious EU27 are preparing to impose some hefty conditions on our continued relationship, worried as they are that the UK will spend many more months kicking up a fuss over money or new EU rules. Even Angela (don’t punish them) Merkel may not be able to hold out against Emmanuel (yeah punish them) Macron on that one.

Furious backbench and frontbench Brexiteers are unhappy at the idea of upto a year of ‘second class EU membership’. But in Brussels, the fear is of a Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab premiership throwing rocks around. The impeccably sourced Alberto Nardelli at BuzzFeed says the latest EU plan is to offer May an extension until May 22 if her deal passes by this Friday. If it doesn’t (as is all but certain), the extension will be until December 31, 2019 or March 31, 2020, with a break clause if any deal passes earlier.

The Times reports one EU official basically saying if a new PM abandons May’s approach, they will refuse to hold talks about even a no-deal exit. “If there is a wild Brexiter as a new Tory PM, they would be able to do nothing until after March 31, 2020, unless they subscribe to the Withdrawal Agreement.” There is talk of imposing legally binding conditions, which in turn are likely to spark more backbench fury. Or, as a relationship counsellor put it this morning: “A blame element can really cause incredible animosity between separating parents, that can cause difficulty for the children, but also for the couple themselves.”

While May’s focus is her European shuttle diplomacy, back home in London Yvette Cooper’s newly-passed EU Withdrawal (No5) Act 2019 has forced the government to today table a motion seeking extension of Article 50. A motion in May’s name sets the date as ‘June 30’, but it is amendable. The relief for many MPs is that the Cooper legislation at least ensures no-deal won’t happen this Friday.

Last night, a hard core of more than 70 Brexiteers voted for wrecking amendments to Cooper’s bill, including David Davis and Dominic Raab. That’s a clue to the sizeable opposition there is now within the Tory parliamentary party. And last night, Labour’s Keir Starmer told the weekly Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting that 180 Tories could still vote against any attempt to block no-deal or an extension. Starmer urged Labour MPs to unite to ensure the motion passed. Intriguingly, some Brexiteers (like Simon Clarke on the Today programme) back an extension to allow a leadership race.

One impact of the Cooper law is that it may actually take the pressure off both Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May to get a Brexit ‘deal’ agreed. That’s because with an effective legal bar on no-deal and a long extension now likely, it’s in both their interests to just buy time and fudge the whole thing. Still, I understand that a ‘lock’ against a Johnson/Raab hard Brexit is still a key element of the talks, with possibly some imaginative solutions.

Last night’s PLP was also notable for the number of MPs with sizeable Leave votes that said they have come round to the need for an extension and second referendum (Sandy Martin in Ipswich was one). The Telegraph reports May is considering granting a free vote on Labour’s ‘confirmatory ballot’ idea, but only because chief whip Julian Smith is convinced it lacks support. Philip Hammond’s PPS Huw Merriman told Today he has been threatened with the sack for speaking at a People’s Vote rally today. David Gauke said “I have a very high regard for Huw”.

The prospect of taking part in the European Parliament elections is certainly the latest flashpoint for many Brexiteers. The hot news among the Tiggers (the Independent Group of MPs) is they are now well into the process of selecting candidates for the new Change UK party for those elections. Rachel Sylvester reveals dozens of applications are arriving every day, from NHS chief executives, Ofsted inspectors and businesspeople. Even some former MPs “including at least one ex-cabinet minister” have shown an interest. The Observer reported this weekend that 200 people have already applied.

Last night, a new ComRes/Telegraph poll showed that ChangeUK are now polling at 9% (the same as UKIP), while the Tories and Labour were down to 32% each, with the Lib Dems on 7%. Now those figures are for a general election, but in a European election, the list system will all but guarantee seats for ChangeUK (and possibly Nigel Farage’s new Brexit party). That could be the lift-off moment they need.

Tory pollster Robert Hayward told us hacks at one of his regular ComRes briefings yesterday that the party had done so badly in the 2014 Euros that ‘the massacre has already happened’ at the hands of UKIP. As a result, the Tories are expected to increase their MEP seats and Labour should do too (they polled a dire 23% and 25% five years ago to UKIP’s stunning 27%).

But Hayward warned of a ‘Brexit penalty’ being paid by the Conservatives in the local elections next month if the chaos continues, though the Lib Dems and Greens (rather than Labour) were likely to be the beneficiaries because of better organisation on the ground in Tory heartlands were most council elections are held on May 2. The Tories have done a very good job in getting candidates selected for 96% of these seats, but Labour has got nominations in just 77% of them. That’s an increase on 2014 but shows that even with half a million members, Corbyn and his new army of ‘community organisers’ can’t get enough people to actually stand in Tory areas.

Watch the 37-year-old Mayor of South Bend, Indiana explain why he’s running to be President of the USA. Pete Buttigieg is a former US Navy intelligence officer who served in Afghanistan. “I belong to the school shooting generation, we’re the generation that provided most of the troops for the conflict after 9/11, the generation that’s going to be on the business end of climate changer and if nothing changes economically the first generation ever to make less than our parents”.

The young people’s second referendum campaign, ‘Our Future, Our Choice’ (with the deliberately naughty acronym OFOC) has put out a spoof Boris For Britain website this morning. It has endorsements from Steve Bannon, Donald Trump, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Team Boris are refusing to dignify the stunt with a comment. Personally, I think the risk of this site is twofold: for Remainers, Johnson is beyond parody; but for many Leavers seeing this site will actually rather like it. It may become like Harry Enfield’s Loadsamoney character, who was meant as a spoof but became a cult figure as the public took the brashness literally rather than ironically. Enfield killed off the persona because it proved so popular rather than unpopular.

Away from Brexit, this really is a big deal. Divorce laws are being overhauled in the biggest shake-up for half a century, to end a “blame game” faced by couples seeking to end their marriage. Justice Secretary David Gauke confirmed new legislation would be introduced after a consultation revealed support for reforms of the existing fault-based system. Currently in England and Wales, unless someone can prove there was adultery, unreasonable behaviour or desertion, the only way to obtain a divorce without their spouse’s agreement is to live apart for five years.

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