1. HOLDING OUT FOR A HERO
At around 4pm today, we will get possibly the most important Parliamentary vote of the entire year so far. Or possibly not. That’s when we will find out just how many Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ really do mean business on Brexit, as the Commons votes on whether to force the Government to hold a ‘meaningful vote’ on the Theresa May’s final deal. The Times’ Matthew Parris this weekend predicted that this week was so momentous, so historic that it “could evince some quiet heroism from unexpected people”. But for those millions of former Remainer voters holding out for a hero until the end of the night, it’s still unclear if rebel leader Dominic Grieve will fit the bill.
It’s worth remembering that Grieve’s last major rebellion in December resulted in the only Commons Brexit defeat that May has suffered to date. But it’s also worth recalling that the wording of his amendment was later deemed so weak that the Lords had to beef it up. And overnight the former Cabinet minister has tabled a late, late amendment that gives the PM a little more wriggle room until 15 February, while insisting Parliament should get a binding vote if it doesn’t like the outcome. The mandatory nature of the amendment may prove too much for the Government’s taste, given May has repeatedly said she can’t have MPs bind her hands in negotiations. More importantly, the whips scent that even Grieve and his hardy band are now on the retreat from the main Lords amendment. The Sun reports that Brexiteers are not allowing any more Government amendments.
The fact is that the Tory rebels are still split on tactics, with some preferring to hold off until the Trade Bill next month to push a single market solution. The expected rebellion tomorrow on customs union looks dead after David Davis added his name to an amendment tabled by Nicky Morgan and Oliver Letwin. The EEA/single market vote tomorrow has been hobbled by Labour’s own decision to whip to abstain (though as I report HERE, last night there was more fractiousness in the PLP). That only leaves the ‘meaningful vote’ today as the real possible knife-edge vote. If Grieve’s amendment is called, he and Ken Clarke, Anna Soubry, Antoinette Sandbach, Heidi Allen and Sarah Wollaston could ensure this goes to the wire. One more rebel and that could be enough to defeat the Government, despite the DUP. Will the small band of Labour Leavers (Frank Field and Kate Hoey) save May’s skin?
The closer the vote, the more tribal loyalties kick in of course. After last night’s 1922 Committee, Solicitor General Rob Buckland cited Benjamin Franklin’s famous line that ‘either we hang together or we hang separately’. As a former Remainer who is steering the EU Withdrawal Bill through the Commons, Buckland has played a key role in wooing his colleagues. He blogs for HuffPost today on why the 15 Lords amendments go too far. Last night, May did a good job rallying MPs at the ’22. However, there were concerns from some MPs that while backbenchers had behaved themselves, the Cabinet had looked like a disunited, blabbermouthed shower. Veteran Keith Simpson joked that the next Cabinet away-day at Chequers should include a paintballing session with ex-Army Johnny Mercer “providing live ammunition” to sort out the warring factions. I’m told the PM replied: “Thank you for your practical suggestion”. Cue laughter, some of it nervous.
On the Today programme, David Davis confirmed there would indeed be a two-day Cabinet summit in July, though he had no mention of the weapons of choice. On talks with Brussels, he insisted that “if there’s no deal, there’s no deal”. Yet he also had this teasing line about what may happen if MPs reject the deal this autumn. Would he go back and think about other options? “We’ll see, we’ll see,” he said. That may be a ‘jam tomorrow’ ruse to buy off rebels today. And if the rebellion does fizzle out, Theresa May will again be able to say she defied all the doubters and proved she’s a great survivor. Asked if May would fight the next election, Davis sounded markedly equivocal, saying “I think so..” The PM may often look punch drunk from the Brexit battles, but no one in her party wants to knock her out of the ring yet.
2. BRIDGE TWO FAR?
Yesterday, in the Commons G7 statement, Jeremy Corbyn pointed out that Jaguar Land Rover had decided its new Discovery model would be built in Slovakia not the West Midlands. The PM didn’t respond directly, but it looks like Boris Johnson is taking literally the calls for better trade bridges post-Brexit. Yes, months after his idea of a Channel bridge was poo-pooed, the Foreign Secretary has told the Telegraph he fancies a new bridge linking Scotland and Northern Ireland (which curiously seemed to stem from a tweet by Indy journo Jon Stone). “Boris thinks this is an interesting idea which should be looked at more seriously,” one source says. Please, no one mention BBC4’s The Bridge and its gruesome history. Nor the London Garden Bridge, which many see as Boris’s last expensive vanity project to waste taxpayers’ cash.
It’s bridges to the East, and Russia in particular, that will feature in the Commons today as former Leave.EU chiefs Arron Banks and Andy Wigmore appear before the Culture Select Committee. The pair told their old boss Nigel Farage, on his LBC show, that they were innocent of any inappropriate links to Moscow. (Farage: “Did Russian individuals or businesses give money to Leave.EU?” Wigmore: ”No. Not one penny or rouble.” Farage: “Were you ‘reporting back’ to the Russian Ambassador? Banks: “Not really, we’d had a very pleasant lunch with him that lasted six hours.”) James O’Brien, who hosts another LBC show, said it was a ‘new low’ for radio.
Banks has certainly revealed himself to be less than familiar with the facts (the FT’s Jim Pickard spoke to him and found out his story had changed with the weather). We may get more buffoonery and bluster today, but many Leave voters will be more insulted by the constant claims from Remainers that they were somehow duped by Russian money into wanting to quit the EU. First, Leave.Eu was nowhere near as visible or effective as Vote Leave. Second, they were outspent by pro-Remain cash. And third, millions of people voted the way they did because they’d finally been given a simple decision to stay or go. That’s not to say there are real national security concerns over Banks’s conduct. ConHome’s Paul Goodman had a superb column on this yesterday and it’s a valuable reality check ahead of today’s session. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn appeared to be trolling tabloid reports of his alleged Communist Czech spy links last night. At his drinks reception for 2017 intake MPs last night, the beer on offer was Budweiser. The Czech version, not the American one.
3. TESTING TIMES
When Philip Hammond finally relaxes the purse strings and gives billions more to the NHS this year, you can bet many Brexiteers will tell Leave Voters that Boris’s bus promise is finally being honoured. Of course, critics are bound to say it’s too little, too late, but that won’t alter the fact that Labour will have to change its political tactics. And today, Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth is doing just that.
In a blog for HuffPost, Ashworth has set the PM ‘five tests’ (from euro membership to Brexit to Heathrow, Labour loves a good test) to future-proof the NHS as the 70th anniversary of the health service approaches. Along with a 5% spending rise to fully fund the NHS, he calls for: a “credible plan” to end staffing shortages; the end of a “restrictive ‘hostile environment’ visa regime; integration of health and social care; the end of “fragmentation and privatisation”; and a plan to invest in NHS infrastructure to “renew existing equipment and ensure we access the innovative technologies of the future”.
And on the NHS’s creaking infrastructure, there could be no better example than the fact that hospitals still rely on fax machines, yes fax machines, to organise care. We report on a new FoI showing the NHS has 11,000 fax machines costing £137k a year to maintain. The Times’s Francis Elliott meanwhile reports that Hammond is preparing to raise up to £10bn in tax to fund his spending rise, with Treasury sources saying a controversial freeze on thresholds ‘a leading contender’. Underscoring one of Ashworth’s tests, the FT reports new stats that that the Home Office has rejected 2,300 doctor’s visas.
4. REGRETS, SHE’S HAD A FEW
To many of her supporters, Theresa May finally did the decent thing yesterday and admitted for the first time that she personally had made a huge error in the aftermath of the Grenfell tower disaster. Referring to her decision not to meet residents affected by the fire, she wrote in the London Evening Standard that local people “needed to know that those in power recognised and understood their despair…And I will always regret that by not meeting them that day, it seemed as though I didn’t care.”
But in stark contrast, on the 2017 snap election, the PM appeared to snap back into robot mode yesterday. Speaking to S4C Wales about the joys of walking holidays, she implied she’d been right to call the poll after all. “I think it was important that the British people were given an opportunity at that point to have their say and they did.” New reader start here: in last year’s general election the leader of the Tory party lost 13 seats and her Commons majority, and Labour gained 29.
5. TROLL CALL
Away from Trump’s macho approach at the G7, what got less attention at the weekend was Theresa May’s call for tech giants to clamp down on ‘vile’ attacks on women. Yesterday, at the Cheltenham Science Festival, Labour’s Jess Phillips brought home what that means in practice: one night on Twitter she received 600 rape threats for expressing feminist views. Phillips called for Facebook and Twitter to force users to tell them their identities, with specific exemptions for whistleblowers. Personally, I’ve long argued there’s a case for what we used to do in local papers, which was to offer ‘name and address supplied’ anonymity on the letters page (unnamed letters were only granted if the writer’s details were checkable on the electoral roll). It’s tricky but surely would wipe out a lot of abuse. Twitter’s own ‘mentions’ system could change too.
The Telegraph marks the second day of its Duty of Care campaign with an interview with Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield in which she tells internet firms to switch off addictive technology for under-15s, ending the algorithm loops that get kids watching endless videos. The Mail reports that schools are pleading with parents to stop children spending their days glued to the Fortnite video game. The age limit is meant to be 12, but seven-year-olds are playing. Again, would the imposition of a checkable user ages work? Security minister Ben Wallace at the weekend suggested online IDs to stamp out abuse and grooming. Civil libertarians who campaign vigorously against offline ID cards may have real concerns, but this debate isn’t going away.
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