The Waugh Zone Tuesday January 22, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

The hot news overnight is that Jeremy Corbyn has nudged, inched, squeaked forward Labour’s position on a second Brexit referendum. His official Opposition amendment means that the party’s frontbench will for the very first time support in Parliament a set of words that explicitly includes a People’s Vote option for MPs. It ‘requires ministers to secure sufficient time” for MPs to debate and vote on two alternatives to no-deal: “legislating to hold a public vote” or backing Labour’s own ‘soft Brexit’.

The very carefully/vaguely worded amendment has been welcomed by some People’s Vote backers as real progress, however incremental. Some in the party believe it chimes with Keir Starmer’s narrowing of the party’s position at the weekend. David Lammy described it as ‘a big step forward’, though Chuka Umunna was more sceptical (“supporting ‘options’ is not a credible or sustainable policy”). Tory Remainers were also unimpressed, and with people like Anna Soubry against it, the amendment won’t succeed anyway.

Perhaps more problematic is opposition from Labour MPs in Leave seats. Last night, frontbencher Mel Onn warned she’d never support a People’s Vote. And in the weekly PLP meeting there was real unease at the idea, with the rare spectacle of backbenchers like John Spellar and Chris Williamson on the same side in expressing scepticism about a new referendum. Some Labour MPs think a Norway-style Brexit is more realistic. The careful wording in Corbyn’s amendment tries to cover up such splits, but splits they are.

Theresa May yesterday ramped up her rhetoric against a second referendum, warning it would risk ‘social cohesion’. To some MPs who’ve privately talked to her about the issue, that felt more like a bit of theatre too woo her Brexiteers rather than anything more substantive. One Labour backbencher put it to me like this: “She wants Parliament to force her into blocking no-deal, but can’t say so. Jeremy wants Brexit because he thinks Tory chaos will lead to a Labour government, but can’t say so.” That analysis will be hotly disputed by both leaders. As it happens, one Cabinet minister tells me: “The PM is much more straightforward than people think. Parliament may well impose outcomes on her to prevent no-deal, but it won’t be with her connivance.”

Cabinet meets this morning for the first time since last week’s shattering defeat and the question will be how much longer the uneasy truce can hold. Several ministers have already said they’d quit rather than face no-deal and the Times reveals Amber Rudd has warned No.10 that there could be mass resignations if the PM fails to offer a free vote on extending Article 50. May repeatedly refused yesterday several invitations (including from Dom Raab) to rule out a delay to Brexit.

The possible vehicle for a delay arrived last night in the shape of Yvette Cooper’s own attempt to break the deadlock. Her bill, which seeks to delay Exit Day by nine months if Parliament can’t agree on a deal by February 26, has strong cross-party backing from Nicky Morgan, Norman Lamb, Oliver Letwin and many others who signed it last night. Moreover, while last night’s PLP may have been cool on a second referendum, it was much warmer towards Cooper’s plan to give Parliament more breathing space. Labour’s leadership. hasn’t said it will back the idea, but it looks likely.

Meanwhile, Dominic Grieve is set to reveal the other strand of the ‘take back control’ plan for Parliament. An early draft of his amendment was leaked at the weekend, but I understand that it has already junked the idea of letting 300 MPs force a vote on Brexit options (which would each require a majority). Instead, in the tweaked amendment there may be a weekly Tuesday neutral motion (‘This House notes..etc’) put before MPs, which could be amended and voted on until all options are exhausted. Our Arj Singh revealed last night that Cooper and Grieve are joining forces to ensure both extra time and a way to block no-deal.

Of course, the very threat of the Cooper-Grieve axis is what’s helping May win the backing of Brexiteers. May still has some cards left in this game, not least the point she made yesterday that cross-party talks have failed to convince her there’s a majority for either Norway-plus or a second referendum. No.10 is delighted that Jacob Rees-Mogg is now in retreat while letting him and Steve Baker save face. Moggy told the BBC: “It isn’t so much a question of softening, as there’s a new reality to deal with”. Nadine Dorries told Newsnight she and others would have to ‘swallow our pride’ and vote for May’s deal to get Brexit ‘over the line’. Even the DUP’s Sammy Wilson sounded emollient. No.10 is pinning its hopes on a new backstop amendment. There are two problems though: will Bercow select it (he refused Murrison’s and Swire’s last week)? And if he does, will diehard Tory Remainers like Soubry accept it, knowing it’s May’s last hope for her deal?

William Hague, who often reads the runes of the Tory party (if not the voters) better than most, has written a column in the Telegraph saying that the main upshot of last week’s shattering Commons defeat is a second referendum is now “quite likely”. Hague (whose Telegraph articles often produce more news stories for a fraction of the Boris fee) says ‘with heavy heart’ he has concluded that ‘it’s coming, unless some extraordinary turn of events prevents it’.

“If you can’t get the deal through, can’t get an improved version of it agreed, can’t sustain a government on a cross-party basis, can’t implement a no-deal Brexit, can’t keep control of the House of Commons, and can’t risk a general election – you have then eliminated all options except one, and you find yourself saying reluctantly: “Oh go on then, let’s ask them again”.

Hague does say that an election is the only really serious alternative to a new referendum, but he believes the problem is Corbyn would have to run on a manifesto promising a new poll, and any outcome ‘other than a Tory majority’ would lead to a People’s Vote anyway. The Tel’s Steve Swinford tweeted that Tory chief exec Mick Davies yesterday briefed officials about CCHQ being put on an election footing, but the party is struggling to get donors to back a May-led campaign. I note that 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady warned on Radio 4 yesterday that May would not be leading the party into any new election, not just 2022. Still, the Tories may also be deterred by a new ICM poll putting Labour on 40% to their 39%.

Watch this primary school head teacher bust some amazing shuffle dance moves as part of his effort to get his pupils active and off their phones during break.

EU council chief Donald Tusk has revealed in a new BBC documentary that David Cameron was convinced a Brexit referendum would never happen - because the Lib Dems wouldn’t let it happen. ”[He told me] he felt really safe, because he thought at the same time that there’s no risk of a referendum, because his coalition partner, the Liberals, would block this idea of a referendum,” Tusk said. Rory Kinnear, sorry Craig Oliver, yesterday denied the claim. But it feels true. It would also explain why several Dave allies were shocked when they won the 2015 election..

The Commons Petition Committee has a new report out today declaring that self-regulation of social media “has failed disabled people”. More than 220,000 people backed a move by model Katie Price to make online abuse a criminal offence after she flagged up trolling about her son Harvey’s disabilities. The MPs want the government to give disabled people protection under hate crime laws. Chair Helen Jones says: “The law on online abuse is not fit for purpose and it is truly shameful that disabled people have been forced off social media while their abusers face no consequences.” Damned right.

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