1. BLEEDIN’ BREXIT
Labour-Tory talks on Brexit are still not quite dead, but they are on life-support. As the Cabinet meets today to discuss what the next steps should be, the PM’s top aide Olly Robbins is heading to Brussels to see if there’s any way of avoiding the last rites on the negotiations. In a move that proves ministers are serious about Labour’s demands, Robbins is checking with the EU what scope there is for entrenching any changes to the ‘political declaration’ on future relations.
But as we enter the 300th day of the longest Parliamentary session since the civil war, life is certainly draining out of our body politic. The PM’s spokesman had a deadpan expression as he reminded us yesterday that in June 2017 (ah, the snap election chaos), “the prime minister and Parliament decided upon an extended session in order to pass the legislation to deliver Brexit”. He added: “That work remains vital.” So there’s no end is sight for this session, folks.
A clutch of ex-Cabinet ministers have written to the PM (via the Times) to warn that if she signs a customs union deal with Corbyn she risks losing the ‘loyal middle’ of the party. If the Withdrawal Agreement Bill is published this Thursday as some still suspect, it faces being crushed by Labour and Tory opposition. “When their lot see the backstop in legislative text, it’s going to be even worse,” one shadow minister tells me. The Sun reveals a putative plan by some ministers to bring forward non-backstop parts of the (WAB) instead, to at least show some ‘momentum’.
Last night, Corbyn was given his own reminder of deep unease among Labour MPs about the dangers of sleeping with the enemy. As I write in full HERE, the PLP meeting saw speaker after speaker warn the party was “haemorrhaging” votes to pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens on the Euro elections campaign trail. Bleeding Brexit poses an existential threat similar to the damage done in Scotland since the independence referendum, with Labour tarred by the SNP as Tory collaborators, Ian Murray warned.
Corbyn said ‘I get it’, but with just nine days to polling day, it’s unclear just how clear he will be on the clarity of Labour leaflets or messaging. Wes Streeting claimed that on the doorstep, Corbyn’s leadership was “a bigger issue for us than Brexit”, which is possibly the most directly critical any MP has been to his face for many months. Still, I know several Labour MPs from Leave areas (including shadow ministers) who felt last night was a ‘Remainer ambush’. Some feel there’s still a ‘snobbery’ within the PLP about Leave voters.
For May, as ever, the main thing is to keep on keeping on. Some around her just want her to get past this Thursday (when she meets the 1922 committee executive, but also when next week’s Parliamentary business is revealed), buy herself time to draft some imaginative new solution (don’t ask me what) over Whitsun recess until MPs get back on June 4.
2. SPLIT DEFINITIVE
Some Remainers in Cabinet really like the idea of turning ‘indicative votes’ into ‘definitive votes’, forcing the Commons to finally get a majority for a single Brexit alternative. No.10 has described this as Plan B (Plan A is a joint deal with Labour). But as I reported last night, Labour is dead against the idea of promising to abide by the outcome of such votes. Plan A is hard enough to sell to Labour MPs, but Plan B is a total non-starter, I’m told.
“It ain’t gonna happen,” one party source said. “No minority in a parliamentary democracy could ever sign up to that system, for something where you agree to be bound by an outcome without knowing what it will be. And even if we wanted to, the idea we could force our MPs to agree to it is for the birds.” A shadow minister adds: “It’s just not a runner.”
As ex-No10 insider Nikki da Costa points out, it’s difficult to see how MPs can be forced to keep voting for Brexit legislation (and there will be hours and hours of it) that was their second preference. And any such voting system would need a business motion passed in the first place, a motion that is sure to face rebellions on both Labour and Tory sides.
There is more than a dollop of irony in the suggestion by some of May’s allies that the new ‘definitive’ (or ‘iterative’) votes would allow second preferences and an ‘alternative vote’ system. Yes, that’s the same AV voting system rejected overwhelmingly by the public in another UK referendum, eight long years ago.
3. HUNTING THE START
The Tory leadership contest hasn’t even started, but the qualifying rounds continue apace, a bit like Formula One cars trying to see who can get into pole position. Last night, Jeremy Hunt used his Mansion House speech to effectively call for a big increase in defence spending, parking his tanks on the Treasury’s lawn and sending a signal to the Right of the party that he is to be trusted. I understand Hunt would be happy to see MoD spending go up from 2% to 2.5% (not the 4% of the US), a rise that would mean billions more on the armed forces.
Aptly enough, Hunt is maximising his own ‘soft power’ in the Tory race, using the grand office of Foreign Secretary and all its trappings to show he has the statesmanship needed for the top job. Trips to Africa with media in tow, big speeches in formal dress, press conferences in Brussels, London and the US, all allow him to ram home his message to fellow MPs: I’m the leading ‘centre-right’ candidate who can stop Johnson/Raab.
The problem with Hunt however is that the more he tacks ‘Right’ (his talk of making ‘no-deal’ work caused several eye-rolls among colleagues), the more he risks losing the ‘centre’. Tonight Amber Rudd has a speech to young Tory modernising think tank Onward with a rallying cry to “fight for the soul of centrist politics”. Ominously for all the contenders, Michael Gove is rousing himself. He told ITV’s Robert Peston he was not ruling out running. “That’s not a no?’ ‘No, it’s not’. Others have a head start, but Gove has plenty of support.
After the Euro election hammering, I wonder if any of the leadership contenders would dare make overtures to Nigel Farage? On Newsnight last night Tory Brexiteer Crispin Blunt certainly sounded like he was making plans for Nigel. “If we under a new leader reinvent ourselves as a Brexit party, we will be faced with the inevitability at some point of a general election in order to deliver Brexit. The Conservatives … are almost certainly going to have to go into some kind of electoral arrangement with the Brexit Party, otherwise Brexit doesn’t happen.” He told Emily Maitlis: “My suggestion would be the Brexit Party runs in the seats that we don’t hold”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch these gorillas at a zoo, trying to avoid the rain.
4. STALLING FOR TIME
Sajid Javid has been pretty quiet in any leadership manoeuvring so far. To be fair, he’s got a lot on his plate. Today, we report that his much-anticipated review into the ethnicity of grooming gangs, which campaigners see as critical in the fight against far-right racism, has stalled. Javid ordered a Home Office review of the “characteristics” of offenders last July amid concerns about gangs of mainly Pakistani-heritage men carrying out child sexual exploitation (CSE). But HuffPost UK has learned the Home Office has not spoken to leading experts on the issue, will not publish the findings of the review, and could not give a timescale for its completion.
5. MONEY TALKS
An independent report claims Huawei boosted the UK economy by £1.7 billion in 2018. A study by Oxford Economics, commissioned at the end of last year, said the Chinese firm now supports more than 26,000 jobs in the UK. And despite Trump’s warnings, it looks like other countries are copying the UK’s ‘limited’ ‘non-core’ access for Huawei to their 5G networks. Italy, Germany, Malaysia, Indonesia are all taking our ‘managed risk’ approach.
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