Theresa May is in Northern Ireland and her main message is that she will never compromise the Good Friday Agreement promise to keep open the province’s border with the Republic of Ireland. Back in London, Cabinet Office discussions are set to continue today on ‘alternative arrangements’ to the border backstop in May’s Brexit deal. There were no leaks yesterday of the content of the secret talks between Tory Leavers and Remainers and officials, which is often a sign that tentative progress is being made. (There’s a separate question of whether this is an abuse of strict rules on using civil servants for party purposes, but that’s another story).
Yet yesterday in Brussels we got some clues that what’s seen as May’s preferred option - a legal addendum or codicil to the withdrawal agreement - could be approved by the EU. Hilary Benn revealed EU chief Martin Selmayr was open to the idea (though Selmayr denied it on Twitter, and in fact played hard cop with a separate warning that the UK would have to pay up £39bn even in a no-deal scenario). Angela Merkel did talk of the need for ‘flexibility’ yesterday, though.
The real question is whether the DUP would back any legal codicil, rather than a change to the text of the withdrawal agreement. On the Today programme, leader Arlene Foster said she was ‘not going to get caught up in the semantics of all that this morning’. But she did stress the Commons had voted to ‘replace’ the backstop because ‘the current backstop is toxic’. That word ‘current’ suggests another backstop is possible, and gives No.10 a glimmer of hope, but what form of words on time-limiting it would satisfy the DUP? Foster also warned ‘intransigence’ in Dublin and Brussels could ‘bring about’ a hard border. Many saw the irony yesterday when she declared ‘this is not a time for intransigence’.
But what of Labour? Greg Clark told MPs yesterday a Nissan chief had told him to “please pass on the view to your opposition that they need to meet in a way that forms a deal”. Keir Starmer’s little nudges forward in policy are always worth watching and on Newsnight he hinted at how Labour’s soft Brexit would retain EU migrant workers.
Most importantly, one of the little-noticed events yesterday was a No.10 signal that in fact next Thursday’s Commons vote would not be on the government’s own revised plans, but yet again only on amendments. The ‘second meaningful vote’ seems even more far away than ever. We report that Labour MPs in Leave areas think that’s not good enough and they are slowing drafting their own demands for May. These include a committee of MPs and peers setting the UK’s red lines on the political declaration, replacing a low-regulation ‘Boris Johnson Brexit’ with a customs union-style deal. That would be unacceptable to Tory Brexiteers, but could the PM live with it?
2. FORMBY BEACHED
Last night’s Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting was one of the most angry for some time, as the anti-semitism row reignited once more. After impassioned speeches, including from Luciana Berger, the PLP passed a motion demanding much more transparency from the party HQ on the scale of the problem. But general secretary Jennie Formby then made clear that she could not agree to some of the requests to share data. She then added that she was answerable to the NEC [National Executive Committee], not the PLP. That’s when Margaret Hodge let rip that transparency was the key to real action.
Afterwards, Berger also seized on an alleged remark by Formby in the meeting: “Let’s be honest, it’s impossible to eradicate anti-semitism completely”. Berger said: “We are a party that’s supposed to pride itself on having equality at its core and yet we were told by the general secretary today that she cannot eradicate anti-semitism completely. Frankly that’s not good enough. One anti-semite in our ranks is one too many.” Many Labour MPs think there’s a simple test here: just replace ‘anti-semitism’ with any other form of racism in a sentence and see how it sounds. Imagine a Labour general secretary saying it’s impossible to eradicate racism against BAME communities completely, and the way it sounds like excuses are being made, they say. She has a week in which to return with some answers.
For some Labour MPs, the anti-semitism row may just tip them over the edge into resigning the whip. What may prompt others into quitting the party is of course if they are deselected. And Formby is under pressure on the wider issue of reselections of sitting MPs, ahead of the next general election. We report claims that she is ready to move ‘soon’ to trigger reselections amid fresh talk of a snap poll. There’s mixed opinion on the left, right and centre on the timing of the triggers. Some moderate MPs want an early reselection to get it out of the way and let them focus on the next three years without looking over their shoulder. Separately, some on the left want to avoid centrally-imposed candidates after the 2017 experience. One to watch, folks.
3. SPARE US THE CUTTER
It’s 23 long years since I first attended a local government finance settlement ‘lock-in’ at the since-demolished Marsham Street ‘Ugly Sisters’ HQ of the old Department for the Environment. Back then, the Major government faced an annual ritual of trying and failing to stop us reporters from working out the ‘inflation-busting’ council tax hikes contained in the new figures. Fast forward to today and Communities Secretary James Brokenshire appears to be actually encouraging local precept rises to help councils plug the holes in their social care funding and other areas.
But the big difference between now and the 1990s is that the scale of the post-crash austerity faced by town halls across the land - town halls run by all political parties - is much, much bigger. As the Manchester Evening News’ excellent reporter Jennifer Williams reported this weekend, it used to be libraries and public loos that were the focus of the cuts, but now even children-in-care and homelessness projects are being funded out of reserves.
As part of HuffPost’s ‘What It’s Like To Lose Your…’ series, we today focus on how council chief executives, finance directors and political leaders all cope with the hand that’s been dealt them by Whitehall. In an echo of Liam Byrne’s famous note to the incoming Cameron government, Barnet’s Richard Cornelius tells us: “It does show that we are really, really short of money that we’re actually doing this. I mean there is no money.” Yes that’s the leader of a Tory council, a Tory council, scuttling around...(fill in your Neil Kinnock impression here). Brokenshire will likely today hint that the coming Treasury spending review will deliver authorities from their plight. Let’s see if that’s more ‘jam tomorrow’ or if, as the PM told us months ago, austerity is coming to an end.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
In case you missed it, watch the frozen pants challenge that has swept the US and Canada.
4. ANTI-SOCIAL MEDIA
Tech giants have frequently been warned to change their ways over terrorist or other violent content, but may be the death of 14-year-old Molly Russell (who died after watching self-harm and suicide videos) will prove to be the real catalyst for action in the UK. Today, ministers Margot James, Nadhim Zahawi and Jackie Doyle-Price are all making speeches about online safety for children. The Mail splashes on James saying firms will be forced by law to sign a code of conduct for young users. Previous Culture Secretary Matt Hancock has long wanted action, and don’t forget the Tory manifesto had a wider section on internet regulation. Labour’s position may evolve soon too as this issue soars up the political agenda.
5. SKY’S THE LIMIT
Sky News is 30 years old today. Now part of the US giant Comcast, the former Murdoch-owned station has the enviable position of being guaranteed funding over the next decade, without any direct editorial interference from its new owners. Just ahead of the anniversary, doorstepper-supreme Beth Rigby was announced as the channel’s new political editor. And today there we get SkyNews Raw, a real-time look inside the sausage factory of TV news. The early whispering voiceover from Niall Paterson has shades of snooker commentary at its most tense. The subtitling was hilariously algorithmic.
If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/