1. SHOTS FIRED
Last night, the DUP showed their Brexiteer Tories colleagues just what a disciplined Commons rebellion looks like. While the European Research Group (ERG) looked like they couldn’t organise a diss-up in the Parliamentary brewery, the Northern Irish party sent a ‘warning shot’ to Theresa May by abstaining on a series on votes on the Finance Bill. At one point, the DUP even supported Labour’s amendment on a child poverty assessment of the Budget, a move that failed by just five votes.
Of course, the PM has relied on the DUP’s 10 MPs to prop her up in power since the 2017 general election wiped out the Tory majority. So it’s no surprise that its decision to pull its backing from the Government sent a bolt of political electricity through Westminster. Labour’s John McDonnell tweeted that we were ‘moving’ into territory where May couldn’t command a majority or form a government.
Were last night’s votes a breach of the ‘confidence and supply’ deal between the Tories and the DUP? That agreement states that the DUP should ‘support the Government’ on ‘Finance Bills’ and other ‘supply’ legislation (supply simply means money). Technically speaking, failing to support the Tories on Committee stage amendments was not a breach as they didn’t involve spending, and as long as the DUP votes for the Finance Bill third reading all is fine.
The DUP’s canny Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson (pictured above) told Newsnight that none of the amendments “have financial consequences”. But he did point out the deal also specifies ‘a successful exit from the EU’. The votes were “designed to send a political message to the government — ‘We’ve got an agreement with you, but you’ve got to keep your side of the bargain, otherwise we don’t feel obliged to keep ours.’” That’s a reminder this is a constitutional and political document, not a legal one.
A key weapon the DUP deployed last night was the element of surprise. By springing their protest at the last minute, they achieved maximum impact (unlike Brexiteers who seem to telegraph their every move). In fact it was Labour who seemed most caught out by the surprise, as 30 of its MPs simply weren’t present to capitalise. If they had been, the Opposition could have scored a symbolic victory.
But just as Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters began to mobilise on Twitter to condemn the appalling failures of those Labour MPs, it turned out (as I Tweeted) Corbyn himself was absent too. He had been given permission by the whips not to attend as he was ‘paired’, but it remains a mystery where he actually was. “Jeremy has one of the best voting records of any leader,” a source insists. I understand the DUP broke their own pairs (with the Opposition) to instead vote with Labour, hence the confusion.
2. POST HASTE
Brexiteer and no-confidence letter-writer Simon Clarke began yesterday by telling the Today programme “this is the day we stand at the bar of history”. 15 hours later, he was telling Newsnight “I don’t take back those words, I hoped today would be the day. There will be other flashpoints.” Just like Steve Baker before him (“the line will be crossed by a big margin on Monday evening”), Clarke had made the mistake of believing what others had told him about how close the party was to the magic 48 letters needed to trigger the vote of confidence in the PM. At least the Brexiteers now have a consistent message about the inconsistency between their claims and reality: “this is a process, not a moment,” he has told the Telegraph. Clarke had a similar line last night: “the process continues”. As of this morning, the target has not been reached. Some of the ERG are not happy that their own ‘brand’ has been tarnished by their chairman’s boasts, pointing out “this is not an ERG operation’, it’s about individuals”.
And for all the ridicule, it’s true that the plotters only have to get lucky once. Some in Government, even in No.10, think that the 48 could materialise but it’s question of when. The real damage caused by the ‘Grand Old Duke Of Mogg’ fiasco is the perception that if the plotters are struggling to get 48 names, they’ll definitely struggle to hit the 158 needed to defeat may in a confidence motion. Some potential letter writers are wondering whether it’s worth taking such a huge step only for the whole thing to end in failure. Don’t forget that it is indeed a huge step for any MP to call for a confidence vote. Under Tory rules, this can’t be done by email or text, a proper hand-signed letter is needed and that very fact alone has caused a few to pause. They can be posted or handed in person, but they have to be a real letter.
Although 26 MPs have gone public, there are certainly others ready in the wings and others who would rather their identities were never revealed at all. There are rumours that Boris Johnson is among those who have written a letter, though he would have to confess that t some point if it were true. On the anonymity point, Francis Elliott has a lovely vignette in the Times today, gathered from previous 1922 Committee chairman Michael Spicer. “We had one or two rather bizarre disguises,” he recalled. “My secretary went down to collect a letter from some station somewhere. She came back full of giggles because the MP in question had had on a fake moustache.” Never forget, too, that the confidence vote is a secret ballot, so the assassins can still remain unidentified.
I talked to several MPs yesterday who are just waiting for the PM to lose the ‘meaningful vote’ on her Brexit plan before submitting their own letter. “She’s got to go then and if she doesn’t we have to force her,” said one backbencher who has until now been taking a pragmatic approach. David Davis told me that if he did write a letter, he would tell the PM first as matter of ‘honour’. DD also floated the idea of the PM holding the Commons vote before the EU summit this weekend rather than after it. As I’ve written before, the threat of a no confidence vote also remains the nuclear option for some plotters. Last night Keir Starmer told the PLP that Labour may seek to trigger one to get a general election, as well as other moves to press amendments to block ‘no deal’. Some Remainers were unhappy at his lack of detail and he’s promised to come back with concrete plans.
3. WHAT THE FAC
As well as the stalled plot, No.10 took heart yesterday from the fact that the so-called Pizza Club of Cabinet Brexiteers failed to meet. But the most important victory was a “constructive” meeting in Downing Street with senior Brexit figures Iain Duncan Smith, David Trimble, Owen Paterson and Peter Lilley. All had arrived with plans to revive a technological solution to the Northern Ireland border issue, known as “maximum facilitation” or ‘max fac’ in the jargon. The Sun claims insiders are looking at exploiting a clause in the Withdrawal Agreement to secure “alternative arrangements” to the Irish ‘backstop’ plan that many Brexiteers and the DUP loathe.
It may be that No.10 is just buying time, but May won’t want to breach the trust she has built up with figures like Duncan Smith. The real solution to the problem of the Irish border for some in Cabinet is simply to extend the transition period, yet even this is a minefield for the PM. Whitehall sources suggest there is a way of inserting into the Withdrawal Agreement and a greatly expanded political declaration a means of ensuring such a transition does not go beyond the 2022 general election. Brussels is fixed on a date of December 31, 2022, but it sounds in the market for some language to help May stick to her line that ‘a few more months’ is all that would be needed.
Justice Secretary David Gauke was the heavyweight rolled out on the airwaves today to defend the PM and he made clear “the Withdrawal Agreement is effectively done” but there was scope for lots of progress on the future EU-UK deal. Gauke also said that May should stay on even if MPs voted down her deal, telling ITV News the plotters were “irresponsible and self-indulgent”. I note he suggested No.10 was playing a long game to sell the plan, saying the vote would be in December and gave time “to spell out the alternatives for the British individuals and for Parliament”. On this, the Treasury seemed remarkably relaxed last night as it caved to pressure from Chuka Umunna and Anna Soubry to publish a full cost-benefit analysis of May’s deal and no deal, compared to the ‘baseline’ of staying in the EU.
Meanwhile, Rees-Mogg will try to claw back some credibility this morning with the launch of a new document titled ‘Fact, Not Friction’, claiming to bust 17 ‘myths’ about going on World Trade Organisation rules. Peter Lilley (him again) was on Today making his case, even though the BBC’s Reality Check correspondent found several holes in it. Lilley and the others claim that WTO rules won’t involve customs checks or paperwork and can protect just-in-time manufacturing. Let’s see if No.10 comes up with another of its detailed point-by-point rebuttals. If they don’t, others will.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
There’s an American bloke called @JohnLewis on Twitter. Not surprisingly, he gets lots of messages at this time of year about his Christmas ad. So Twitter made his own festive ad, and it’s not that bad at all.
4. HASTINGS, WE HAVE A PROBLEM
Amber Rudd used her Commons debut as Work and Pensions Secretary to admit that there are “problems” with Universal Credit. “I’ve seen them for myself…I know it can be better,” she said. Given that a foodbank in Rudd’s own Hastings constituency saw an 80% rise in demand after the benefit was rolled out, critics of the policy will be hoping she continues the candour. Yet Rudd also cheered up her own backbenches by hitting back at the UN Rapporteur’s recent poverty report, saying “the extraordinary political nature of his language” was “wholly inappropriate”.
5. SNOB VALUE
Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner will today announce that Labour in government will end the requirement for academic qualifications such as degrees or A-Levels for jobs in the civil service, “limiting them to where they are necessary”. Big firms such as Google, Penguin Books, Apple, IBM and Virgin Media have all removed degree and other academic qualifications requirement from jobs ads where it is not an occupational requirement. Rayner, who knows more than most about class prejudice, says the aim is to “end the snobbery” and to boost applications from those with diverse backgrounds.
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