1. DEATH CON TWO
The whole attraction of Zombie movies is that it’s very difficult to kill off something that’s already dead. You can bludgeon them, machine gun them, even blow them up, but the undead keep on fighting. Theresa May may well be a ‘dead woman walking’ (copyright G Osborne), but she is still walking. And her critics are finding out just how hard it will be bury her premiership. No matter how many Cabinet resignations she suffers, or abuse she gets, the PM knows she’s in office because her party hasn’t yet found someone else to carry out the nightmare task of keeping it united before Brexit Day.
The new-look Cabinet meets this morning with exactly the same number of Remainers and Leavers (Dominic Raab and Geoffrey Cox ensured the net Brexit balance stayed the same). Yet that still leaves Leavers in a minority. More importantly, the ‘clean Brexit’ crew are in a minority within the Parliamentary Tory party as a whole, and No.10 has calculated that she could survive a no confidence vote of all 316 MPs. Asked if she would contest any confidence vote, her spokesman told us hacks yesterday: “Yes.” Losing not one but two senior Cabinet ministers in one day clearly hadn’t fazed her.
May also knows her backbenchers are as divided on political assassination as they are on Brexit. The most important meeting last night was not the 1922 Committee addressed by the PM. It came later when the 80-strong European Reform Group met up in Committee Room 21. I’ve done a full report on the main contributions HERE and there were two striking elements. First, that many MPs want a change of policy not of leader. Second, that one former minister (who may or may not be Steve Baker) said that May’s fate was now in Boris’s hands: “What happens next depends largely on Boris Johnson.” It feels to me as if the backbenchers are telling him: we won’t go over the top unless you declare you want to be leader. DEFCON 2 is one level short of imminent nuclear war, and that’s where we are right now in the Tory party.
Johnson was outmanoeuvred yesterday as No.10 released his resignation even before he’d finished writing his letter. He tried his own bit of spin by getting a photographer to snap him penning that letter at his Foreign Office desk, a pic that dominates the newspaper front pages. The letter suggested the Brexit dream was ‘dying…suffocated by doubt’. Yet as I write HERE, it’s Boris’s political career that is on death row too. What doesn’t help are tweets like the one from the Attorney General of Anguilla, who said Johnson was ‘the worst Foreign Secretary we’ve ever had’. Or the retweet by Tory MP Robert Syms of a post that said Boris ‘fucking appalling’.
Divide and rule is the oldest trick in the book but boy is it effective. By bringing in ‘sensible’ Brexiteers like Chris Heaton-Harris and Cox (who made a rousing speech at the 1922 hours before he got his Cabinet job), as well as retaining the strong support of Vote Leavers like Michael Gove and Andrea Leadsom, May can tell her party in the country she’s not betraying anyone. Leadsom, who patted the PM on the arm as she looked tired and tearful at the end of her Commons statement, told Newsnight: “We are definitely delivering on Brexit”. Dominic Raab – tipped as a future PM by No.10 comms chief Robbie Gibb – Jeremy Hunt, Michael Gove and Sajid Javid all look like they can boost their chances of succeeding May through loyalty, not rebellion.
At the ERG meeting last night, Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen said of May’s Chequers compromise: “This has got to be killed and it’s got to be killed before recess.” And that’s the key point. As the Brexit clock ticks down to Exit Day next March, May thinks time is on her side in her battle with rebel MPs. Under Tory rules, it takes three months to stage a leadership race and few Brexiteers want to extend Article 50 to allow time needed. A confidence vote can also only be launched once a year. 1922 Committee chairman, the only person who knows how many confidence vote letters have been submitted, has told MPs rumours of the 48 threshold being passed are ‘unfounded’.
And the brute fact is that with MPs departing for their summer break very soon, there’s not much time to organise a challenge. Brexiteer MPs want to give May time to change Chequers, yet that edges her closer to safety. And the longer Boris prevaricates, the less likely it is he can capitalise swiftly on the current anger. With the England World Cup semi-final dominating events tomorrow, and Trump in town the day after, even the publication of the Brexit White Paper on Thursday will lose its impact as a rebel staging point. A bleary-eyed Boris looked like death warmed up last . night as he finally left his official residence. If he takes on his excellent former spinner Will Walden in coming hours we will know he means business. But if he delays and waits for the party conference, the party may finally lose patience. There was a message waiting for him at Westminster tube this morning too.
2. MOGGED OFF
Jacob Rees-Mogg made clear to the ERG last night that he could say with “absolute certainty” that he would not support a vote of no confidence in the PM. But just because May can survive until the summer doesn’t mean she’s out of the woods this autumn, when things will get very real at the October EU summit (or a special November summit). Mogg and his group made very clear they planned to vote against the Chequers deal. Many MPs want a “no deal” to become a very serious planning project now too. Nadine Dorries warned that No.10 had been plotting to undermine the Brexiteers for a long time.
Iain Duncan Smith, a former Tory leader who knows what leadership challenges look like, said it was time to fight like he and Eurosceptics had against John Major on Maastricht. “We have some very serious decisions to make about our actions,” IDS told the ERG meeting. “We hold the country in the palm of our hands. If we fail, it’s our fault, not the Government’s fault. Our job is to get the Government back in the right place.” Several ERG MPs said opinion polls in coming days would show how unpopular the deal was with Tory Leave voters. One poll yesterday showed just 38% of the public think immigration control is more important than free trade with the EU.
Maastricht was famous for its unholy alliance of John Smith’s Labour with backbench Tories. But will we see a similar alliance try to bring more chaos for May? What incensed many Tory MPs yesterday was the decision by No.10 to brief Labour MPs on Chequers. Johnson’s resignation meant May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell wasn’t personally present but David Lidington did talk through the technicalities. Mogg said later that if May tried to get her plans through Parliament with Labour votes that would be “a split coming from the top”.
In the Guardian, Keir Starmer said May’s plan was “flawed in many respects”. But Labour sources went further, warning the party was ready to vote with Eurosceptics against Chequers because it didn’t meet Starmer’s ‘six tests’ for jobs and other factors. Why would Labour risk that? Well, because it claims the ‘meaningful vote’ deal struck (by Davis) recently for Dominic Grieve means there can’t be a ‘no deal’ outcome without Parliament’s approval.
I’m not so sure the Grieve deal is that watertight, but Labour seems to be banking on either getting May to make more concessions or on her party splitting and triggering the general election Corbyn wants. It’s a dangerous game to play as neither outcome is certain. Mainstream Tory MPs could well back a ‘no deal’ if Brussels or Labour try to push them any further. Cabinet Minister David Gauke was uncorked for the Today programme and warned that “no deal will have a negative impact on our constituents” but stressed preparations were not a bluff. One of May’s canniest tricks of late has been to use Northern Ireland and the union to back a ‘soft’ Brexit on trade. Labour’s canniest move may be to accept the Chequers’ deal (not least its fine distinction between labour ‘mobility’ and ‘movement’) could actually be the basis for the kind of free trade deal it too wants with Brussels.
3. REAL POISON
Even before he went AWOL for the Western Balkans summit yesterday, the first sign that Boris Johnson was up to something came when he failed to turn up for a meeting of the emergency Cobra committee to discuss the Novichok-releated death of Dawn Sturgess. No.10 wouldn’t bite when asked if Johnson had put his personal ambition before an issue of national interest.
Downing Street was circumspect because it realises the importance of being careful with every word on this topic. But Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson made a clear link with the Russians in the chamber, telling MPs: “The simple reality is that Russia has committed an attack on British soil which has seen the death of a British citizen”. What was perhaps most damning came later when the Commons was all but deserted for Sajid Javid’s update on the Amesbury incident. There had been the death of a Briton on English soil from nerve agent, and all Boris and some other MPs could think about was his own career.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Ed Miliband dress up as a town crier and yell ‘It’s coming home’, live on national radio. ‘Stick with the day job,’ an expert tells him.
4. JUMPING THE SHARK
‘Jumping the Shark’ is the moment when an established long-running series (ie Happy Days) changes in a significant manner in an attempt to stay fresh. Ironically, that moment makes the viewers realize that the show’s finally run out of ideas. It’s reached its peak, it’ll never be the same again, and from now on it’s all downhill. Well, last night on his LBC show Nigel Farage declared he was ready to lead UKIP again. “If Brexit is not back on track, if we’re not actually going to be leaving and if this Chequers agreement has not been broken, I will very seriously consider putting my name forward to run as leader of UKIP again.”
Current leader Gerard Batten’s term comes to an end next March, which is apt as that’s when we finally leave the EU. But with its collapse in funding, support and councillors will there even be a UKIP by then? Meanwhile, Farage is in trouble for catching a protected species of shark on a fishing trip yesterday. He told the BBC the tope shark was “returned alive” to the water. Which is not the same you can say for him politically.
5. SHAME GAME
Like lots of things that got overshadowed yesterday (a new report criticising the government over Carillion’s collapse, new terror laws conflict with human rights, vaginal mesh being banned), the latest developments on Labour’s Jared O’Mara got buried in the news avalanche. Amid the government chaos, the party put out a statement in which the Sheffield Hallam MP urged colleagues to give him “a second chance”.
O’Mara was readmitted to the party last week, having been suspended for blogposts referring to ‘sexy little slags’ and claims (denied) that he called a barmaid “an ugly bitch”. ““I am ashamed of the man I was then. I’ve been on a journey of education since,” he said. He has still to make his maiden speech. Will it take place before or after his ‘mandatory training’ now being conducted by the Labour party?
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