POLITICS
23/10/2018 10:14 BST

The Waugh Zone Tuesday October 23, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

1. LETTERS PREY

With her Brexit statement to the Commons yesterday, Theresa May easily cleared the first hurdle of another tricky week. It was indeed an anti-climax for those hyped up by the weekend’s rows, but it’s worth noting she won some invaluable goodwill from backbench Leavers like Steve Baker precisely because she toughened her stance on talks with the EU - and appeared to back off the idea of a longer transition period after ‘exit day’.

The approach outlined yesterday may well help her clear the second hurdle of this morning’s Cabinet meeting too. On the key issue of Northern Ireland, May and the EU are edging to a position where they can both get what they want, while allowing differing interpretations they can sell to their respective audiences. Without getting too bogged down in the detail, it looks like the PM may get her UK-wide customs plan in the withdrawal agreement but the EU will still get its ‘insurance policy’ in the text too (though May will say it won’t be ‘needed’). Northern Ireland will ‘align’ on single market regulations for goods and Britain will unilaterally do the same to minimise checks across the Irish Sea.

Will Brexiteers accept this compromise? Some sound like they will, but others are still very worried about the wider problem with the Chequers plan, namely to follow a ‘common rulebook’ with the EU. Even if May can fudge this for further work in the EU-UK ‘future framework’, some of the diehards just think it’s not a real Brexit worth the name. Which is why the PM may have survived yesterday (and today), only to politically die another day.

Speaking of which, Remainer Tories were not remotely pleased yesterday at Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab’s line on the sequencing of the ‘meaningful’ vote on the final deal. It looks very much like the Government will force MPs to vote first on the deal, and only then to vote on amendments.

This is the reverse of what the Brexit Select Committee demanded and you can see why. Once May wins the first vote, Raab suggests she will have a ‘clear’ mandate to implement it in international law. The amendments (demanding more time for talks) can get as much support as they like but may never escape the verdict of the first vote. If it sounds ruthless that’s because it is. And Procedure Committee members Peter Bone and Sir Edward Leigh appeared happy with it yesterday because for them delivering Brexit is the number one priority.

Turning the screw on the ‘meaningful’ vote is the latest No.10 move to ram home the advantage May has had all along: divisions among her critics as she declares it’s ‘my deal or no deal’.  Remainers will do anything to stop no deal, but if they toppled May they risk getting a Brexiteer as leader and won’t be given the extension to Article 50 that many of them want. ‘Hold on to nurse, for fear of something worse’ is still a powerful message.

Still, the threat to the PM is very much alive. I was told by one source this morning that the 48 letter threshold for a confidence vote had indeed been reached. Only 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady (pictured above) knows the truth and he never comments. My understanding is that he would want to be sure that any letter was genuine and would check with signatories. If he’s been checking of late, maybe that sparked speculation that he was close to the total needed.

Sir Graham pointed out at the Tory conference that some MPs don’t always tell the truth about sending letters, but there’s definitely been a concerted push this weekend by some Brexiteers to get the numbers, with texts flinging round urging action. Party rules don’t oblige the 1922 chairman to reveal immediately if the threshold has been passed, though they are clear that a quick resolution would follow and he would have to set in train a vote as soon as practicable.

As one former minister pointed out to me yesterday, May has built up a powerful payroll vote, with countless trade envoys and party vice chairmen on top of the usual ministers who won’t want to change her. But away from statements in the Commons and Cabinet meetings in No10. Sir Graham’s safe is where the action really is. And the PM and her allies are praying they’ve got their numbers right.

 

2. MIND YOUR LANGUAGE

Yvette Cooper, one of Theresa May’s most bitter political foes over the past eight years, spoke out strongly yesterday to condemn the “vile and dehumanising language” used against the PM by her Tory critics. Both Brexiteers and non-Brexiteers in the party were dismayed by the particularly violent ‘knife’ metaphor deployed in the Sunday Times. This was not least because the backlash undermined their wider case: that May isn’t a danger to the UK, she’s just not very good at running the country and harms the Tory party’s chances of winning the next election.

But the pleas for everyone to mind their language appeared to go unheeded last night as tempers boiled over at a tweet by David Davis’s former chief of staff Stewart Jackson. The former Tory MP posted the words ‘pathetic cretin’ in response to a tweet from a Remain campaigner showing his sick stepson in Great Ormond Street wrapped in the EU flag during the People’s Vote march on Saturday. Jackson deleted the tweet but sounded unrepentant this morning. He told me his remark was ‘obviously’ directed at the stepfather not the child. “I just think politics is in a low place when Remainers use their kids in this way. Invading the child’s privacy whilst in hospital to make a political point on the People’s Vote.”

As for that knifing metaphor, it was real knives not metaphorical ones that were the subject of Labour-Tory clashes last night after Government whips yet again pulled the Offensive Weapons bill. The bill seeks to toughen the law on acid attacks and knife crime, but nearly 50 rebel Tories signed an amendment opposing a ban on high-powered rifles. Whips say the bill was pulled purely because the urgent questions and statements yesterday squeezed the Parliamentary time available. But Labour MPs point out the bill could have been brought back today or tomorrow and postponing it until after the Budget and recess smells like the PM not wanting to upset any of her backbenchers (both Brexiteers and Remainers signed the amendment) at this sensitive time.

 

3. AUTUMN WINDFALL

Less than a week to go to the Budget and more organisations are making their pitch for cash, should Chancellor Philip Hammond deliver on the PM’s conference pledge of an end to austerity. Today unions, charities, medical colleges and others are among 120 organisations backing the National Children’s Bureau/End Child Poverty Alliance call for more money for children’s services. From Sure Start to schools and NHS mental health, there will be a funding gap of £3bn by 2025, they say. As it happens, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell has been highlighting children’s service cuts in recent days, so maybe he’ll say more in a big speech due later this week.

There’s some good news for twitchy Tory MPs however in the FT’s story that the Treasury has in fact been handed a £13 billion “annual windfall” thanks to stronger than expected tax receipts. The independent Office for Budget Responsibility has identified the dosh, which may ease the need for tax hikes, spending cuts or extra borrowing next Monday. Still, the cash demands from departments outstrip even this multi-billion figure. Even Thatcherite John Redwood told the Commons yesterday (to much ridicule from Labour MPs): “We are desperately in need of more money for our schools, for our hospitals, for Universal Credit and for our defence.” Will Hammond really dress up the end of austerity as the ‘Brexit dividend’ Leavers voted for?

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

One enterprising young Girl Guide in Canada has spotted a smart business opportunity. Elina Childs, 9, set up a cookie-selling stall for people waiting in a queue outside a shop selling newly legal cannabis. Is there a badge for that?

 

4. BRIDGE OF SI-S

Statutory Instruments, known as ‘SIs’, are vital bits of secondary legislation that turn the statute book into reality. And the Hansard Society yesterday warned that out of the 800 SIs the government says it needs for Brexit, just 71 have actually been put before Parliament. DExEu says it was always going to ramp up the number and remains ‘confident’ it will all be done on time for next March. Labour’s Matthew Pennycook tells me: “The PM says Brexit is 95% complete, but the truth is her government is failing in the relatively simple task of ensuring we have no legal cliff-edge.”

 

5. ARMAGEDDON OUTTA HERE

Donald Trump and the nuclear button is not a combo many people relished before he won the US Presidency. But Trump is taking the Nixon’s ‘madman’ theory of deterrence (you’ve got to make your enemy think you’re mad enough to use nukes) to a new level. Overnight he’s talked about increasing America’s nuclear arsenal in protest at Russia breaching an arms treaty. Reagan famously claimed to have bankrupted the Soviets with his own arms race, but the danger here is Trump says he threatening China too. Beijing was furious earlier this month when Vice President Mike Pence effectively signalled a new cold war by claiming it had meddled in the mid-terms and suggested it had to be boxed in militarily and economically. One to watch.

 

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