The Waugh Zone Tuesday March 26, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

The morning after another extraordinary night before, Westminster is coming to terms with the fact that Parliament really has seized control over the Brexit process from government. He was swiftly derided as a ‘jobbing prime minister’ by angry Tory backbenchers, with Sir Bill Cash furious at a ‘constitutional revolution…that the House will come to regret’. But Sir Oliver Letwin makes an unlikely Cromwell, let alone Robespierre. In fact, he’s become a temporary new Leader of the Commons, in charge of a chunk of the timetable tomorrow and probably several days afterwards.

As I write in my story-behind-the-story piece HERE, what drove Letwin to his radical acts was his “terrifying” realisation soon after Christmas that May was heading towards a no-deal exit. Part go-between, part shop steward for Remainer ministers, part Parliamentary procedural brainbox, it’s precisely his other-wordly air that has helped him win the trust of various key players. It’s not been easy, as both government and the Labour frontbench have been sceptical of his intentions, at times seeing him as a possible double agent in the Brexit wars. Some in the Opposition feared he was part of a plot to scare Tory Eurosceptics into line, some in No.10 feared his real game plan was a customs union or Norway-plus model.

Today, the hard part (and the hard questions) will start. The big fear is that Letwin’s Roundheads may have triggered another messy civil war, only to discover they can’t find own Commons majority after all. Last night, even before the result, he met Labour’s chief whip Nick Brown, Keir Starmer and Hilary Benn to discuss just how the new ‘indicative votes’ should work. More meetings with government whips and ministers will take place today. Letwin signalled last night that rather than MPs voting by walking through Aye and Noe lobbies tomorrow, they would pick their Brexit options with pencil and paper. It’s Parliament Jim, but not as you know it.

Just how MPs will force themselves into a forced choice will be the next, possibly hugely complicated, stage of the process. Letwin last night sounded for the first time warm to Ken Clarke’s idea of run-off votes, declaring “we should resort to some other method to crystallise the majority”. As Benn indicated on the Today programme, this second stage could take place next Monday. But there is talk that each of the options could need longer consideration and several days’ Parliamentary time.

There is still the drawback that these votes are ‘indicative’, not binding. May herself told MPs “I cannot commit the Government to delivering the outcome of any votes held by the House” though she pledged to engage “constructively” with the process. She also seemed to rule out a customs union and single market and second referendum as all being incompatible with the Tory manifesto. Last night’s majority of 27 votes for Letwin held firm twice (once on the amendment, once on the main amended motion). That majority will need to now hold firm again to actually ‘instruct’ the PM to uphold whatever Plan B Brexit the Commons next agrees.

One reason the Letwin amendment won its stable majority was the resignation of three ministers, Alistair Burt, Steve Brine and Richard Harrington (whose dance of the seven veils finally ended last night). It’s a mark of how turbulent our current times are that three ministerial resignations is a footnote in all this. May hasn’t even yet appointed a replacement for disabilities minister Sarah Newton, who quit nearly a fortnight ago to vote against the government.

She’s running out of loyal backbenchers who could actually want to do these jobs. And things could get much, much worse if May refuses to grant free votes on the Letwin Plan B ballot paper. The Mail’s John Stevens reports that “another tranche are poised to go”, and Robert Peston thinks they could number up to 30.

However, Labour isn’t exactly overjoyed at the idea of free votes on everything either, and Starmer last night indicated it may whip on a customs union. As for a ‘People’s Vote’, one fascinating subplot yesterday was to hear Starmer and others talk about possibly leaving a second referendum off the initial Letwin indicative votes menu and instead attaching it as an amendment to whatever option emerges as the will of the Commons next week.

Of course, the other problem for May is whether Parliament’s decision to take control will inevitably tip her towards a general election. This was war-gamed in the emergency Cabinet yesterday, as the Times and Mail both report, with other ministers following up Brexit secretary Steve Barclay’s warning on Marr that a fresh poll may be the only way to keep the Tory party together. Geoffrey Cox, Sajid Javid and Andrea Leadsom all seemed to back Barclay’s warning that a long Brexit extension and a softer Brexit would be just intolerable. No.10 aides told us yesterday that they ‘really, really, really don’t want an election’.

Even though Letwin has grabbed control of the Order Paper for one or more days, the government still controls it for the rest of the time. And May could well bring back her ‘meaningful vote three’ this Thursday as a final way to avoid the revolution plotted by his New Model Army. David Lidington suggested it could return this week, but others suspect it may be smarter to hold off until next week. Letwin tried to protest his loyalty last night by saying he would back a ‘meaningful vote three or four or infinity’. At which a Labour wag heckled: “Don’t encourage her!”

A key difficulty for the PM is that she seems further away than ever from getting the DUP and the hardline European Research Group on board. Yesterday, when challenged on her inflammatory ‘Enemies of the People’ TV blunder, May said she “will take care with the language that I use”. But in the chamber, she had actually infuriated the DUP’s Nigel Dodds by suggesting direct rule would have to happen in Northern Ireland in a no-deal scenario. (No.10 point out she was just stating the facts).

The ERG meanwhile was most unamused by May’s other big gambit yesterday, namely that ‘the 29 March date is no longer there’ in international law, and that “unless this house agrees to it, no deal will not happen” this Friday. Cue Crispin Blunt accusing her of “the most shameful surrender by a British leader since Singapore in 1942”. Her aides quickly tried to clarify that she was simply pointing out that the Commons has made plain it “will take every opportunity to prevent no deal”. Still, it looks like the statutory instrument moving the exit date will be laid tomorrow. Meanwhile, Brexiteers point out Brussels confirmed its own no-deal plans yesterday, and that Kent County Council’s leader revealed a no-deal traffic plan had actually gone very smoothly.

What about May’s own future? Will anyone at Cabinet dare raise the issue today (they didn’t yesterday)? The ERG’s meeting last night seemed split 50-50 among those who fancy backing May’s ‘MV3’, and those who think even her own resignation won’t be enough. The Sun picks up and develops Robert Peston’s claim at the weekend that May had actually hinted she could quit if Brexiteers like Boris came on board. The Peston account was hotly disputed by some, but Tom Newton Dunn says the PM’s caveat was that she would first need to know if the numbers were there for any resignation pact before she agreed to ponder it any further.

Watch John Bercow spark uproar as he attacks Tory Greg Hands with the slur that ‘he wasn’t a very good whip’. The shouts of ‘withdraw!’ sound uncannily like a flock of seagulls fighting over fish on a trawler. The Speaker was initially defiant, claiming his remark was “not outrageous at all”, before later apologising and ladling on the compliments to Hands.

EU citizens in Britain could be denied access to benefits such as council housing and social security payments after Brexit, a report has warned. Parliament’s human rights committee says new laws could leave EU nationals, including those who have paid UK taxes for years, in a “precarious” situation. Ministers insist it will all be sorted in secondary legislation, but this is a row that will brew.

Pavement politics often works and many people will be relieved that the number of potholes repaired by councils in England and Wales rose by more than one-fifth last year. Some 330,000 more potholes were filled than in 2017/18, with spending on roads maintenance up 20%, a study says. But the Asphalt Industry Alliance annual survey suggests much of the £24.5m was spent on short-term “patch and mend” work to 1.86 million holes. Patch and mend. Now there’s an analogy for the Letwin Brexit process…

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