1. MORGAN’S RUM
There are two separate clocks in countdown mode right now: one for Theresa May and one for Brexit. The big picture question is whether one alarm bell will start ringing before the other. The PM’s allies think she will get to Parliament’s summer recess (maybe quicker than planned, see below) battered and bruised, but still in charge. Her critics think there’s a ‘whiff of death’ about her government even more than ever after last night’s narrow victory on the Trade Bill (just three votes in it) and the resignation of a pro-Remain minister.
What sparked the rebellion by 14 ‘Remainer rebels’ last night was the way No10 changed tack to endorse all four amendments by Jacob Rees-Mogg and his hardline Brexit backbench colleagues. This all gets a bit too technical for the average voter, but in a nutshell May decided to adopt amendments on customs tariffs with the EU - even though they seemed to flatly contradict her own Chequers compromise White Paper. Liam Fox told the Today prog that the amendments “didn’t differ much from the White Paper..It looked like a cut and paste”. That’s not how other Cabinet ministers viewed the Brexiteer plans yesterday morning. Still, I get the impression that No.10 decided it could live with the wording of the amendments partly because they were about a matter of interpretation. That seemed too clever by half to people like Dominic Grieve who felt May had given in to ‘bullying’.
Tonight we see round two as Nicky Morgan (who stoutly defend Anna Soubry last night) presses her cross-party amendment to the Customs Bill, which would commit the UK to joining a customs union with the EU if May has failed to get a frictionless trade deal by January 21st, 2019. Labour is still weighing it up, but the temptation to defeat the Government will be very strong if Tory Remainers are so upset about last night that they turn out in bigger numbers (Vince Cable and Tim Farron may actually turn up too today, then again, the whips will be better prepared). The Sun reports more than 10 rebels are set to vote against May. Morgan, like Grieve, has in recent weeks been seen as a helpful loyalist for No.10 but yesterday seemed to blow that apart.
So have May’s Chequers plans been killed off just 10 days after they were born? Well, not quite yet. Brussels is very keen on avoiding a ‘no deal’ Brexit and so may keep her plans on life-support. Their priority is a withdrawal agreement and the future UK-EU trade can be sorted later. But last night on Newsnight, Nick Clegg (as well as baring a bit too much of his chest) revealed what many suspect: that the EU has already made its mind up that May’s complex customs plan is unworkable. “The EU wouldn’t accept the Chequers deal, molested by Rees Mogg’s amendments or not, anyway. I know for a fact that Government negotiators have been told that this facilitated customs arrangement or whatever bogus title they apply to it, simply will not be accepted by EU negotiators. British negotiators have been told that some time ago.” Clegg also flagged up something that may well be the next big row: with the clock running down, should the UK retain flexibility and ask for a possible extension in the Brexit timetable? This, more than a second referendum, has some private ministerial support. One to watch.
2. BREAK POINT
After hours of frantic chat and rumour among MPs, the Government last night finally confirmed a plan to let MPs start their summer break five days early. Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom tabled the motion and a vote is down on the Order Paper for around 7pm tonight. There will be no debate on the motion today and if the division is contested (highly likely) it will be deferred until tomorrow instead. Whenever the vote is held, if the Government uses its payroll vote, I suspect it will pass as plenty of Labour MPs will just abstain (there may even be a free vote for Labour MPs) rather than vote against.
That doesn’t mean it’s all easy. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell tweeted late last night that: “Government’s plan to close Parliament on Thursday and send MPs home early for summer is because Theresa May is fearful of Tory MPs hanging around plotting against her. It shows what chaos this government is in. Let me make it clear that I will be voting against breaking up early.” Angela Rayner expressed her opposition too. Liam Fox Fox pointed out on Today that today was “the last day we have legislation…Government doesn’t stop over recess…For some of us it’s academic, whether Parliament sits.”
The PM is inevitably facing claims that she’d rather give MPs five days’ extra ‘holiday’ (on top of the six weeks they get already) than face more Brexit rows and a possible vote of confidence. Some Tories claim that this is a classic rope-a-dope trick from Labour, as most of its MPs like the idea of an early cut and shamelessly want to pass the blame to No.10. Party sources point out that there’s nothing in party rules to stop leadership letters going in during recess. “It’s not as if emails or mobile phones exist is it?” one said, sarcastically. Yet it is obviously much easier to plot and organise in person. There is one quirk too: committees can still meet even if the main chamber is not sitting. So we could get Brexit Sherpa Olly Robbins before the European Scrutiny Committee after all next Tuesday.
3. EMBEDDING CORBYNISM
It’s Labour’s big NEC meeting today and it will be pretty significant because the findings of the party’s months-long Democracy Review are due to be presented. I got wind last night of some of the main recommendations and they all look like they are aimed at embedding ‘Corbynism’ permanently within the party – at every level. The leadership rules will change to reduce MPs’ nominations to just 5%, as long as 10% of CLPs or 10% or trade unionists give a candidate their backing. That all but guarantees an ‘heir to Corbyn’ candidate getting on the ballot next time. Just as important are plans to reshape the NEC itself to ensure a pro-Left majority, with changes to the Scottish and Welsh reps, BAME rep, a new disability rep to replace MEPs. And there are even plans to elect regional directors, party staff who are seen as one of the last redoubts of Corbynsceptic centrists.
One of the most contentious proposals has been to end Labour councillors’ current exclusive power to choose who their council leader should be. NEC local government rep Nick Forbes warned this idea was unworkable and possibly illegal but as a compromise I hear there are plans for pilot schemes to look at a mix of members and trade unionists being allowed to elect their local town hall chief. Jon Lansman has in the past warned that it will take time but the member-led revolution will be irreversible. Party conference has the final say in Liverpool on all the Democracy Review plans but with even some former sceptics on the NEC now praising Katy Clark’s handling of it, today could be a smoother ride than many expected.
There’s nothing smooth about Corbyn’s relations with the Jewish community. Last night the PLP put up its rearguard action, passing a motion upholding the international definition of anti-semitism. The leadership view that motion as merely symbolic and plan to press ahead. The issue may get raised at the NEC but it’s not formally on the already packed agenda (there are six bundles to wade through, one member tells me). Britain’s rabbis have united to attack Labour’s plan and I reported late last night that the Chief Rabbi had stepped into the row. The party was sending “an unprecedented message of contempt to the Jewish community” by refusing to follow what Jews themselves saw as anti-semitism. It looks like relations really have broken down irretrievably now. It feels as though Corbyn (and Jennie Formby) are happy if Jon Lansman is happy. Yet all that hard work trying to win round mainstream Jewish opinion looks like being blown away in the name of giving party members extra protections from expulsion.
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4. EATS, SHOOTS, LEAVES
The hot news this morning is that the Electoral Commission has fined Vote Leave for exceeding its £7m spending limit in the EU referendum by almost £500,000. Darren Grimes, head of the BeLeave spin-off group to target younger voters, spent £675,000 on online ads even though he had a spending limit of £10,000. The fines are: £61,000 for Vote Leave, £20,000 for Grimes and £250 for ‘Veterans for Britain’. Just as importantly the case has been referred to the Met Police “in relation to false declarations of campaign spending”.
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this, particularly the suggestion that the police are now involved. Stephen Parkinson, the PM’s political secretary, was a key figure in Vote Leave during the referendum. When the row first broke in March, he said during the campaign the Commission “advised Vote Leave that it was permissible to make a donation in the way it proposed to do to BeLeave”. “Twice since the referendum the Commission has investigated this matter, and twice it has found no evidence of wrongdoing.” But will it be third time lucky for those who think the watchdog needed to show its teeth? Vote Leave have hit back hard saying the Commission report “contains a number of false accusations and incorrect assertions that are wholly inaccurate.”
Meanwhile Michael Gove has admitted that Vote Leave should not have stoked fears about Turkish immigration during the referendum. In an interview for a new book by ex Miliband spinner (and ex Times colleague) Tom Baldwin, Gove said: “If it had been left entirely to me the leave campaign would have a slightly different feel”. This must be a different Michael Gove to the one who warned in the campaign that if Turkey were to join the EU the impact on the NHS would be “clearly unsustainable”. Or the Michael Gove who pointed to the terror threat from Turkey, creating “a border-free zone from Iraq, Iran and Syria to the English Channel”.
5. WHAT A CORKER
Watching Trump up close at Chequers last week, I realised just how little anybody (be they an aide, a general or his entire party) can control his political impulses. If he wants to showboat and improvise, he will. Yesterday’s press conference with Vladimir Putin in Helsinki was yet another example, as he went off like a Catherine wheel, sending sparks in every direction. His most jaw-dropping suggestion was that Putin’s own denials of Russian interference in the Presidential election should be given equivalent status to the evidence of US intelligence agents. “I have confidence in both parties,” he said. He even praised Putin’s ‘incredible offer’ to have Russian authorities work with the US to investigate the 12 Russian officials indicted by a US grand jury last week.
The backlash was strong back home, but most telling was Senator Bob Corker, chair of the powerful Foreign Relations Committee, who said Putin got more out of the summit than Trump. “I would guess he’s having caviar right now.. President’s comments made us look as a nation more like a pushover…sometimes it feels like we punch our friends in the nose and hold our hand out to people who are working strongly against us….Sometimes the President cares more about how a leader treats him personally than forcefully getting out there and pushing against things that we know have harmed our nation…” Theresa May singled out Corker for praise during her trip to Washington in January 2017, part of her bid to cement alliances with mainstream Republicans as a bulwark against Trump’s unpredictability. But will Corker and others in his party actually do anything about Trump, rather than just lamenting his performance?
Trump is of course right that the reason he won is because he fought a much better campaign than Hillary Clinton. But that doesn’t mean Moscow didn’t try to influence the election. Both things can be true at the same time. Meanwhile, a Russian woman who set up backchannel comms between Trump and Putin in the campaign has been charged with infiltrating American political organisations at the direction of a senior Kremlin official. Mariia Butina was arrested on Sunday and will be detained for three days until her next court appearance. 2018 just keeps on getting more 2018.
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