1. NO-DEAL, FOR REAL?
The Cabinet meets today and, rather deliberately, there’s only one item on the agenda: planning for a no-deal Brexit. Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay (who suddenly becomes much less anonymous the closer we get to Exit Day, just 101 days away now folks) will lead the discussion. Chancellor Philip Hammond will be asking just why some departments are spending the £3bn of contingency cash and why some aren’t. Matt Hancock has triggered his own doomsday plans for the NHS, but some like the Ministry of Justice have apparently spent very small proportions of their allocation.
There’s a lot of talk about ‘managed no-deal’, but it’s worth trying to unpick just what that means. For all the talk of striking side deals on things like aviation and pharmaceuticals, yesterday the PM’s spokesman was more downbeat: “What the EU have been clear on is that they aren’t holding those discussions with the UK until after it has left the EU.” In fact, Michel Barnier was crystal clear on this to the Brexit Select Committee in September: “If there is a no deal there is no more discussion. There is no more negotiation. It is over and each side will take its own unilateral contingency measures, and we will take them in such areas as aviation, but this does not mean mini-deals.” And of course, Brussels warns darkly that there will also be no transition period without a withdrawal agreement.
Still, some Cabinet ministers are backing a plan for a two-year no-deal transition where the UK pays only £20bn rather than £39bn to the EU. Last night Penny Mordaunt paraded her Brexiteer credentials once more (she’s been very active in the Commons Tea Room, I’m told) with a speech suggesting business demands for a ‘managed glidepath’ to Brexit could be met even without an agreement. Housing Secretary James Brokenshire sounded quite sanguine as he told the BBC this morning “there will be short term issues” with a no-deal outcome. Some ministers had hoped to raise ‘indicative votes’ on alternative Brexit plans today, but instead made their case to the PM yesterday in private (the Sun reports). May made plain in the Commons she didn’t like the free vote idea: “Expressing our personal views is not what we are here to do.”
The Times reports that one option before Cabinet had been to ‘switch off’ no-deal planning in anticipation of ratification of May’s deal by Parliament and the EU. Of course that looks wildly out of date now. What caught my ear in the chamber yesterday was when Dom Raab told May to plan for “extra checks at the border, diversion of flow to friendlier ports, liberalisation of tariff schedules and cutting taxes for businesses”. She only disputed the last point, saying tax cuts were for the Budget. Labour is convinced this is all still a huge bluff. To me, no-deal now feels less like a negotiating tactic (the EU laugh off claims they’ll be scared into giving us a better deal) and more like a weary acceptance that contingency plans just have to be made. I’m not sure if that’s more or less reassuring.
2. WHO DARES WINS?
Yesterday’s events in the Commons were a fitting end to a frankly bonkers year, with both the Government and Opposition, frontbenchers and backbenchers, looking like they had no idea what they were doing. Labour had its extraordinary hokey-cokey over a non-binding confidence vote in the PM (as opposed to a binding confidence vote in the Government). First it was in (2.50pm), then it was out (3.40pm), then in again (6pm), and by late last night it was being shaken all about. When the Shadow Cabinet meets today, some of them will be asking just what the hell the latest policy is.
Labour MPs thought the confusion had ended last night in a ‘business meeting’ of the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). It lasted about five minutes, there were only around 15 MPs present, but pro-People’s Vote MPs thought it was significant. Shadow Chief Whip told the gathering that if the Government refused Parliamentary time for Labour’s motion of no confidence in the PM, the party would move swiftly (immediately, one source told me) to a formal request for a vote of confidence in the Government under the Fixed Term Parliament Act. So far, that has not yet happened.
What really moved the market yesterday was the Brexiteers’ European Research Group deciding at its Christmas lunch that it would back May wholeheartedly - not least because many of its members think the delay of the meaningful vote to January 14 helps run down the clock to a no-deal Brexit. Jacob Rees-Mogg did a sharp U-turn (check out this withering Peter Stefanovic compare-and-contrast clip of Jacob’s views last week and last night). Just as importantly, the DUP decided it would have no part in targeting the PM personally either.
After an initial wobble where ministers considered granting the ‘stunt’, No.10 made plain that it would rather call Corbyn’s bigger bluff and dare him to bring forward a formal vote. Labour chair Ian Lavery tells HuffPost May is ‘running scared’, yet that’s also the charge levelled at his leader. When the SNP’s Ian Blackford gets up to speak in yet another, three-hour emergency debate on Brexit today, you can expect his party to ask where Labour’s leadership is, physically and politically. As former special adviser Henry Newman pointed out, there seems to be a growing backing for May’s plan among Brexiteers. But it’s still unclear that the EU can offer any ‘legal assurances’ that will convince enough of them, or the DUP.
3. MIGRATION NATION
The much-anticipated and delayed White Paper on immigration policy had been due this Wednesday, but government sources I talked to yesterday made clear it could yet be kicked into the New Year. Although the Cabinet ‘write-round’ consultation process has gone relatively smoothly, there are real unresolved issues on the design of the planned earnings threshold for ‘low-skilled’ migrants and the need for key areas to have exemptions.
Rather than some major row, I’m told this is about just good government and getting everyone lined up in time. With everything else around (at one point there was a plan to discuss this at today’s Cabinet), there may just not be time to iron out the issues for tomorrow. Better to have a delay than an unfinished symphony, one insider says. Brokenshire, a former immigration minister, told Today “wait and see” because there was “active work” on it.
One thing that won’t be in the white paper is the infamous manifesto pledge to cut net migration to below 100,000. But sources say that was never going to be in the document and it remains a long-term aim. What will be really fascinating will be the wriggle room for European migration in the likely event that Brussels demands significant access as a price of a future UK-EU trade deal. The current rhetoric is that EU migrants will cease to have ‘preferential access’ to Britain, the reality may be very different.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Newsnight’s Nick Watt get all scatalogical as he reveals one minister described May’s deal as ‘a bit like a turd’. The real question now is whether the PM can polish it.
4. TRIPPING LIGHT BAN PLASTIC
Michael Gove’s new waste strategy is out today and it’s a curious mix of radical policy and cautious timing. The Environment Secretary says his plan will be a shift from our ‘throwaway society’ (including a deposit bottle scheme), yet there will be heavy consultation before any concrete action is taken in 2023. Yes, four years away. Still, his most ambitious proposal - to transfer the burden for paying for the cost of waste disposal from individuals and councils to manufacturers - really will be groundbreaking stuff. You could almost call it Corbyn-esque, if it were quicker.
5. TRUMP TIME, LORDS
Today’s House of Lords International Relations Committee report makes sombre end-of-year reading. One of its main conclusions is that Britain must ‘downgrade’ it reliance on the US, as Trump’s America First foreign policy - on climate change, the Iran nuclear deal and steel tariffs - acts increasingly ‘contrary to the interests of the UK’. But there’s a bigger problem. I’ve been saying that for some time we should be grateful to Trump for being so candid about raw US self-interest. And witnessses from William Hague to Peter Ricketts warned Trump is ‘accelerating rather than inventing’ America’s pivot away from Europe and the UK.
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