Whenever a leader tells their party to ‘hold your nerve’, they are often scraping the bottom of the barrel of political cliches, revealing they how little of actual substance they have to say. That won’t stop Theresa May today from deploying exactly that phrase, as she basically tells Tory MPs and ministers to wait a few more weeks for her to sort out a better Brexit deal with Brussels.
Remainers would counter that if she had held her nerve in 2016, she wouldn’t have triggered the Article 50 process of Brexit without first getting in place a credible plan for what she and her party wanted, and what could pass through Parliament. Leavers argue she should have held her nerve against the EU27 in a whole raft of areas, not least their crucial negotiating trick of forcing us to sort the ‘divorce’ deal before a future trade deal.
When she stands up in the Commons today, the PM is expected to confirm this Thursday’s vote will be basically meaningless, rather than meaningful. The motion (which will be tabled by close of play today) is set to be a ‘substantive’ rather than ‘neutral’ one, but few expect any fresh details of the amended Brexit plans. We may get confirmation that the Attorney General will provide new legal advice on any fresh assurances about the Northern Irish ‘backstop’. A further amendable motion will be tabled by the government by the end of the month, which begs the question why the hell is this week’s vote taking place at all?
On the Today programme, Commons leader Andrea Leadsom didn’t deny that the ‘meaningful’ vote could take place as late as mid-March. “What the Prime Minister wants is a bit more time,” she said. Leadsom did let slip that she was flexible on this much-vaunted legal ‘codicil’ clarifying the backstop: “how it’s to be achieved is not something to be purist about”.
What’s really jangling the nerve endings of Remainers in Cabinet (and on Tory and Labour benches) is the increasing feedback that May is now finally contemplating a no-deal exit. Not as a bluff to force Brussels and Parliament into line (though it may help with both), but as a fallback plan to keep the Conservative party together and secure her own legacy as the woman who ‘delivered’ Brexit. The long-term damage to the Tory brand’s reputation for competence seems not to be the main consideration any more.
In my long read I describe how May has recently changed tack, partly through internal No.10 research showing she’s more popular when she stands up to Europe and partly because she agrees with her chief whip and party chairman that Tory unity is a priority. A key factor is that few in Downing St believe Remainers in government will act en masse to back any Cooper-style binding block on no-deal, even if the Commons had time to make it workable. Add what looks like May’s own belief that she will step aside this summer and you can see why she’s consumed with just getting the UK out of the EU. As with her views on immigration control, she now thinks it’s ultimately a matter of trust in politics. Let’s see how firm she is today.
2. HUNGRY FOR CHANGE
Amber Rudd yesterday said something pretty extraordinary in the Commons. “It is absolutely clear that there were challenges with the initial rollout of Universal Credit and the main issue which led to an increase in foodbank use could have been the fact people had difficulty accessing their money early enough.” Ok she said ‘could’, but nevertheless this was a minister of the Crown admitting that her own government’s policy was likely to have left people so hungry they had to beg help from food charities.
Rudd’s candour is becoming a habit, although her critics will say it’s easier to be candid about your predecessors’ mistakes rather than your own (some colleagues think she still blames civil servants over Windrush rather than her own lack of grip). But since arriving at the Department for Work and Pensions she has built on David Gauke’s (and Ester McVey’s) attempts to make Universal Credit work better for claimants. What was striking yesterday was that No.10 did not slap the minster down for some kind of gaffe. Instead, it had a scripted line that “we’ve long acknowledged there were initial issues with the rollout of Universal Credit, that’s why we have listened and made improvements”. Yet ministers have consistently denied a link between benefits curbs and foodbank use. If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t raise this in PMQs tomorrow, I’d be amazed.
Today, our reporter Emma Youle reveals another aspect of Universal Credit that gets missed - the fact that it is online-only and many vulnerable people lack a smartphone or computer or the skills to navigate the website. Nearly half a million people have needed help to access the system, a new Freedom of Information request reveals. Rachel Gregory, of the debt charity Christians Against Poverty (CAP), told HuffPost UK: “The question we ask is: how many more are out there who haven’t completed their applications because they had no help?”
3. STAT ATTACK
Labour’s anti-semitism row blew up again last night, just as its general secretary tried to calm it down. Jennie Formby emailed MPs to finally reveal the party’s internal figures on the scale of the problem and cynics would say it’s difficult to see why she wanted to keep them secret. The headline was that just 12 people have been expelled for anti-semitism since April 2018. But for many, the really worrying figures were that hundreds of cases were not referred for full disciplinary hearings.
A total of 146 alleged abusers received only a ‘reminder of conduct’ and 220 cases were deemed to lack sufficient evidence to have breached party rules. Some MPs fear that many of these cases never went anywhere near the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC)’s panels, and were decided instead by effectively one official reporting directly to Formby. The party points out that the 673 cases recorded in the past year amount to roughly 1% of the party’s 500,000-strong membership, though a spokesman added “one anti-Semite in our party is one too many”.
Several MPs at last night’s PLP meeting were either angry or deeply depressed by the new figures, and many wanted the gaps filled in. During the meeting, Louise Ellman read out a particularly vile message sent to her by a party member who still had not been kicked out. Afterwards, she and others wrote a letter to Jeremy Corbyn demanding answers by Wednesday. Neither Corbyn nor Formby turned up last night, so let’s see what his next move is.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this pooch perform the most amazing sprint.
4. GOOD LORD, GRAYLORD
In normal times, Chris Grayling would by now be toast. Yet in this Brexit-dominated era, the transport secretary has survived more threats to his political career than almost any other minister. Yesterday, he was on the rack in the Commons over the Seaborne freight ferry fiasco, but he refused to apologise and instead said criticism of him was “baffling”. No.10 said the PM continued to have full confidence in him. But Channel Tunnel operator Eurotunnel is now suing the government because the Seaborne contract was decided in a “secretive and flawed procurement process”.
5. MISTER IN-CREDIBLE
Meanwhile back in Brexitland, storm clouds are growing on the economic horizon. Yesterday’s Q4 2018 stats saw the worst growth figures since 2012, and many expect them to be even worse for the first quarter of this year as consumers and companies hold their breath amid the uncertainty ahead of Exit Day. The Treasury select committee let rip too, saying Philip Hammond’s claims of a “deal dividend” if the UK avoided no-deal were “not credible”. The Guardian splashes the story, pointing out the Office for Budget Responsibility told MPs its estimates were based on a smooth exit - and there would be no further uplift if May gets a deal done.
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