1. NEW YEAR, NEW EU?
So, Theresa May is off earning Euro air miles again, visiting Dutch PM Mark Rutte and then Germany’s Angela Merkel to try to find some way to rescue her Brexit plan. She wants some kind of legally enforceable tweaks to the vexed issue of the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ that is seen as unacceptable by both her own MPs and the DUP. In theory, the EU wants to end the backstop as much as we do, but many doubt whether any solution can simultaneously satisfy Dublin, Brussels, Belfast and Westminster. David Cameron badly misjudged Angela Merkel’s willingness to give him concessions to win his EU referendum in 2016, and there’s no reason to think the German Chancellor can help May either. Back home, her critics won’t be bought off by verbal gymnastics either. As another John Major, another Tory PM harried by Eurosceptics, once famously said “fine words butter no parsnips”.
Still, the PM clearly thinks the Christmas break gives her one last chance to save her deal and her premiership. As our splash headline declared yesterday, there may be ‘Crimbo Limbo’, but some in No.10 point to the fact that the markets and the pound didn’t really tank on the news of the postponement of the Brexit vote. Uncertainty seems priced in for the time being. Some ministers have for weeks been quietly thinking that January would be the best point to put the plan to a vote, as it gives MPs even less time for alternative options. Others think it all sounds a convincing and long-lasting as a ‘New Year? New You!’ magazine feature.
The PM was yesterday deliberately vague on when the meaningful vote would return, though she gave a hint when she said ‘Members will know there is in legislation the issue of the January 21 date’. This was a reference to the need in the Withdrawal Act to bring forward a statement by that deadline to avoid a ‘no deal’ outcome. But as the Hansard Society’s Brigid Fowler told me on our CommonsPeople podcast last week (backed up by the official Commons twitter account), this deadline is seen as irrelevant as it falls once the UK and EU have agreed a withdrawal agreement. Speaker Bercow suggested last night that any newly legally tweaked withdrawal agreement could however reinstate the January 21 deadline.
As for Bercow himself, ministers today finally went on the offensive. During Cabinet last week, there was disquiet at the Speaker’s decision to call lots of MPs critical of the PM’s deal in debates. This morning Chief Whip Julian Smith told ITV “We know the Speaker has a strong view on this [Brexit]”. And Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom went even further, telling Today “he’s made his views known on Brexit…it’s a challenge, all colleagues need to form their own view of that.” Bercow may well go apoplectic at that. His wife Sally has placed a ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ sticker in their car, but there’s no evidence the Speaker shares her views. But it’s a reminder, that 2019 will see not just possibly a new Tory leader but also definitely a new Speaker.
2. WHIPLASH INJURY
It was a truly mad old day yesterday in Westminster, capped off beautifully by Labour’s Lloyd Russell-Moyle getting kicked out of the Commons for seizing the ceremonial Mace in protest at the Brexit vote delay. He then celebrated by going to the Red Lion pub. Earlier, during the three-hour debate, the PM indulged in another very British tradition, making Carry On-style double entendres. She told Labour’s Rupa Huq: “If she looks carefully, she will see I’m not capable of a Parliamentary ejaculation!” Cue shock, then laughter. In other jolly japes, Nicolas Soames got hold of Sir Alan Duncan’s smartphone and tweeted ‘bollocks’ to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg (it was an insult directed to Brexiteer Steve Baker, not the Beeb’s political editor). As I say, it was that kind of day.
There was certainly lots of ridicule in the House last night as Andrea Leadsom announced plans to fill the Parliamentary hole created by the Brexit vote postponement, including the Lords amendments to the Ivory Bill. Jeremy Corbyn sought and was granted an emergency debate on Brexit, which will fill three hours of time this afternoon. Its main purpose is to once again screw up Government plans, while giving Tory Brexiteers another chance to vent their spleen at their PM. Ex-minister and ERG deputy chair Mark Francois’s broadside yesterday was a classic (and helpfully shared on Twitter by Labour aides).
Meanwhile, the blame game for yesterday’s farce is being laid by Tory MPs not just at the door of No.10, but also No.9 Downing Street, the official home of the Chief Whip Julian Smith. I’ve done a long read HERE on the avalanche of criticism of Smith’s operation in recent months, weeks and days. Some believe that Smith’s deputy, Chris Pincher (known as ‘Pinch’), is the one who should be sacked for failing to get the numbers right last week. With the big Brexit vote now expected to be delayed until January, one MP also ridiculed the recent threat to make parliament sit longer to eat into their festive break. “It’s the Pinch who stole Christmas! He can’t count so he’s lucky there’s an advent calendar to help tell him which day is which.”
And it is the former Chief Whip, Gavin Williamson, whose behind-the-scenes activity has not gone unnoticed. He is credited with effectively doing Smith’s job for him, telling the PM straight that she was going to lose. Crucially, he is the only Cabinet minister with very strong links to the DUP. Some Tories think the fiasco could have been avoided if Smith and his team hadn’t snubbed the Northern Irish party three weeks ago after they voted with Labour on a Budget amendment. The Chief Whip’s defenders counter that the DUP votes are now ‘lost forever’ on Brexit and nothing can win them back. If the Government wants to avoid living from hand-to-mouth in Parliamentary terms every day until the 2022 election, it needs to get the DUP back on board. Some MPs mutter that can only happen now under a new leader.
Which is why perhaps the most ominous thing for May today was Iain Duncan Smith’s interview with the BBC’s Ross Hawkins on Today. On the issue of leadership letters, IDS said “I’ve always said that having been a leader that I wouldn’t do that. But I do say that I want her to aruge and get the changes necessary within the Withdrawal Agreement. I will hold my own counsel to see whether that is the case, otherwise I will have to make decisions like everybody else.”
3. RING OF CONFIDENCE
When MPs do finally get to vote on May’s plan and various alternatives, what has the best chance of success? With a majority of the Commons firmly against ‘no deal’, the idea of a ‘People’s Vote’ is increasingly talked about in terms that were unthinkable even a fortnight ago. During her three-hour statement, the PM repeatedly stressed yesterday she was against a new referendum, believing it would not deliver on the will of the people expressed in 2016. However, an increasing number of ministers think it could be the only way through a deadlocked Parliament.
One Cabinet minister told me yesterday that chances of a new referendum were ‘rising strongly on the rails’, while the odds on a Norway-plus solution were falling back (not least after Mark Carney and his deputy Jon Cunliffe warned it would damage the City of London). Anna Soubry yesterday told the PM that in a world where ‘nothing has changed’, “the thing that has changed is the view of the British people” on Brexit. When Tory colleagues around her shouted “No, it hasn’t!”, Soubry hit back: “I know it’s nearly pantomime season but ’Oh yes it has!”
Soubry and her fellow Tory Remainers do however need the Labour frontbench to back a ‘People’s Vote’ to have any hope of success, but she didn’t endear herself to Team Corbyn on Newsnight last night (watch HERE) when she told Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon to ‘grow up, show some leadership’. Soubry had started laughing at Burgon’s performance, saying “it isn’t funny, but they are complete joke the Opposition”. To which Burgon replied Soubry had been “hawking her political conscience around the TV studios [but] when push comes to shove Anna Soubry has supported all the attacks on working class communities”.
Soubry urged Labour to hold a confidence vote, yet said she would back the Government, which sums up why the party is wary of rushing things. A group of 50 backbenchers and peers wrote a letter urging Corbyn to hold a swift confidence vote but the leadership is biding its time. The DUP has said it would back the PM in any such vote so in many ways it could be reduced to a mere stunt rather than serious attempt to trigger a general election. That however is precisely why the People’s Vote MPs want it, to follow Labour’s own conference policy sequencing and get the election demand out of the way. before moving on to a call formally for a second referendum. This morning, other parties including the SNP will step up the pressure.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch David Cameron tell Sky News ‘I don’t regret calling the referendum’. He got in his chauffeur-driven car, then got out again. Just don’t show the clip to Danny Dyer.
4. TACKLING COX
Last night, the FT’s Laura Hughes deservedly won UK Press Gazette’s Best Politics Journalism prize for her reports on bullying and harassment in Westminster. With uncanny timing, yesterday also saw the publication of the Commons Standards Committee’s report on the Dame Laura Cox inquiry into the issue. The Committee concluded its seven ‘lay’ members should now have ‘equal’ voting rights with MPs. Moreover, the independent Standards Commissioner should no longer be required to consult the committee before investigating historic allegations. Brexit chaos overshadowed all this yesterday, but it’s one to watch.
5. AD LIBBED, AD FIBBED?
A couple of weeks ago, No.10 was very keen on pointing out the social media success of its BrexitDealExplained website. When I asked DExEu how much was being spent on Facebook and other ads, I was told “any costs associated with this will be published in the usual way”. Well, we haven’t had to wait long. A dip into Facebook’s own political transparency tools reveals a cool £100k was spent in the last week alone. And the Guardian’s Jim Waterson reveals that different adverts were tailored to different audiences, “with men more likely than women to see government adverts stating that the deal would help Britain cut levels of immigration”. Pro-Brexit groups also shelled out Facebook cash on ads urging voters to get their MP to vote down May’s deal.
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