May blinked, the pound spiked, and Juncker smiled. After months of tortuous Brexit negotiations between Theresa May and Brussels, it looks like both sides have got a deal they can defend. The only question now is whether they have done enough to convince the House of Commons to pass the PM’s revised offer in a crunch vote after 7pm tonight. Just 17 days to Exit Day, will all of May’s late-night theatrics, threats and legalese work their magic on her backbench Brexiteers?
First, has much really changed? On each of May’s hailed ‘breakthroughs’, there is certainly scepticism. Yes she has a legally binding new ‘joint legislative instrument’, but this doesn’t really go much beyond her claiming a letter from Juncker in December had similar legal force. Yes she has new language on ‘alternative arrangements’ for the Northern Irish border for December 2020, but this is still only an aspiration and May won’t be around then anyway. Yes, she has a brand new commitment that the UK can make a ‘unilateral’ statement about the backstop, but it only ‘reduces the risk’ of an indefinite arrangement, it doesn’t eliminate that risk.
Even if the Brexiteers bank the progress on the ‘alternative arrangements’ they demanded, it’s that ability to unilaterally exit that may turn out to be the crux of today. One Dublin source said last night the Irish were relaxed about this new provision because it just meant ‘the UK is talking to themselves’. The UK has a unilateral right to ‘suspend’, not end, the backstop. And only then if an arbitration panel allows it. This key wording was haggled over so late last night it was left out of the original government motion (which I upset some MPs by tweeting before they’d seen it) and only added just before 11pm.
No.10 thinks this will give the Brexiteers a ladder to climb down, even though it is missing some key rungs and is unlucky to walk under: it has no end date, and no firm exit mechanism. Jacob Rees-Mogg, of the European Research Group (ERG), sounds like he’s going to shimmy down the ladder quicker than a fireman down a pole, especially if the DUP (as many now expect) backs the deal. His colleague Steve Baker was initially very dubious on Radio 4’s The World Tonight, stating the new plan “falls very far short” of what MPs voted for last month. Perhaps after a word from Moggy and others, he tweeted it was ‘good to see rising enthusiasm’. In a big boost to May, even David Davis told TalkRadio this morning that he could back this deal.
Some hardline Brexiteers remain unconvinced, knowing that today is their maximum point of leverage. Some of them dismiss Jean-Claude Juncker’s threat that ‘there will be no third chance’, believing that as he’s given ground already and one more heave could get the EU to back down even more. Don’t forget that there’s a Tory leadership race to be won in coming months and there will be a prize for those who warn this deal is a betrayal of Leave voters. If the ERG (which has been markedly self-disciplined so far) splits, the real question tonight is whether there are enough Labour Leave area MPs to outweigh the Brexiteer ultras.
That key new section on the UK’s ‘unilateral statement’ will form the biggest judgement call for Attorney General Geoffrey Cox today. His updated legal advice is due sometime mid-morning and he’s sure to make either a statement or face an urgent question on it (before or after the PM’s own statement). If the DUP is convinced, then expect an avalanche of Tory MPs finally saying they can reluctantly back this deal.
Cox’s legal advice (which don’t forget would never be published without Labour’s contempt ambushes last year) could turn out to be the most significant of any Attorney General since Lord Goldsmith’s on the Iraq war all those 16 long years ago. But will it be as dubious as Goldsmith’s? I remember in 2003, Bush’s White House lawyer John Bellinger told British colleagues: “We had trouble with your attorney. We got him there eventually”. Has Cox got there eventually? And is his codpiece a con? Channel 4 News’s Jon Snow said he’d been told by legal contacts that Cox had not changed his view on the indefinite nature of the backstop and had been told last night to go away to find a way to say yes. Cox himself tweeted this morning that Snow’s claim was ‘bollocks’.
One big difficulty Cox has is that he told the Mail on Sunday last week: “I will not change my opinion unless we have a text that shows the risk [of an indefinite backstop] has been eliminated.” But the government’s own motion states that risk has only been ‘reduced’. As I’ve been saying for weeks, the Attorney General has been effectively allowed to mark his own homework. He’s both helped draft the Brexit deal and been asked to pronounce on its legality. Of course, Parliament is never short of lawyers. And Dominic Grieve told Today this morning he had been advised by two QCs (known as ‘silks’) that nothing really had changed in May’s deal. Labour’s Keir Starmer has given his own, similar verdict and said “I don’t see there’s sufficient basis for him [Cox] to change his advice”.
The ERG’s own ‘star chamber’ of lawyers, including Sir Bill Cash (mercifully no one has adopted the nickname ‘the Cash Council’) and crucially the DUP’s Nigel Dodds, will give its own verdict. Rees-Mogg said that if the unilateral mechanism was deemed by the lawyers to be ‘genuinely unilateral’, he would back it. He told Today he wanted a vote tomorrow rather than ‘this apparent bouncing of the decision’, but I suspect he can whistle on that. Downing Street won’t say it, but in turning this into an apparent legal issue rather than a political one, it has played to the vanity of some Brexiteers who have spent years poring over EU laws and directives. It has also given people like Dodds and Rees-Mogg their very own ‘exit mechanism’ from their previous hardline positions. That’s why, for the first time in a very long time, No.10 scents victory.
It was like getting the band back together. Except this was a band that had rowed and split ever since its creation. Yes, the TB-GBs were reformed last night in Committee Room 8 as former Blairites and Brownites buried the hatchet to unite against a common enemy: the hard Left that they believe has taken over Labour. The inaugural meeting of Tom Watson’s new Future Britain Group was rammed, with standing room only as 80 MPs (a third of the total) and 60 peers gathered to build a wide pew in what they hope is the party’s broad church.
Watson was once a figure of hatred among Blair followers for his role in his departure from No.10. But one former senior Blairite confided to me after last night’s meeting that he was long forgiven, and “the vanity of small differences” had been subsumed into a common determination to stop the trickle of defections to The Independent Group from turning into a flood. Watson led proceedings with a warning that “unless we restore pluralism and tolerance to this party” it faces “a schism bigger than any we have experienced in our long history”.
Watson’s message was that the threat came not just from the Left making the party unelectable, but also from any new centrist party. I was struck by just how many supporters of four previous leaders (Kinnock, Blair, Brown and Miliband) were present. A string of shadow ministers (like Jim McMahon and Justin Madders) and three whips attended. Corbyn loyalist Andy McDonald surprised some by turning up too. Afterwards, some former Cabinet ministers told me this was a start, but the real question was what came next. “This is the only chance left for the party,” one told me. :“It’s clear the party has been seized [by the Left] and asset stripped.”
Neil Kinnock, who has kept his counsel for months, made a typically passionate (and long) speech in which he said that while Corbyn had ‘desirability’ among some voters, the party’s policy offer lacked ‘credibility’ among many others. New MP Darren Jones, who is acting as convenor of the group, said this was all about policy, allowing MPs to be listened to “without fear of being isolated or criticised or receiving hate speech”. “We are not the ERG, we are not a party within a party”. That’s exactly what Momentum says about itself too.
After recovering from cancer, choir teacher Gabrielyn Watson arrived back at her Chicago high school, thinking she was being filmed for some teacher interviews. Watch as former students surprised her with their greeting.
The Times has a truly shocking report that finds one in five women killed by their partners had been previously in touch with police. The figures covering the 12 months to March 2018 coincide with a big drop in arrest rates for domestic violence. Meanwhile, the Guardian has a vital Freedom of Information request story revealing that nearly 700 schoolchildren were victims of knife crime in the West Midlands last year, including 41 of primary school age. Some 13 victims were aged just 10.
Boeing’s 737 Max 8 is in real trouble. The US Federal Aviation Administration overnight said the jet was ‘airworthy’ but then mandated the company to make design changes by April. Crucial software is being upgraded ‘within weeks’, but that may not reassure Easter holidaymakers. The Sun reports TUI customers expressing concern at its decision to keep the plane in service, while the Mirror quotes former pilot, now Labour peer, Lord Tunnicliffe saying it should be grounded here as it is in China and other countries.
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