The Waugh Zone Wednesday April 24, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Theresa May was last night granted yet another extension, this time as Tory leader. In a move that offered short-term relief to No.10, the executive of the backbench Tory 1922 Committee failed to reach a decision on changing party leadership rules to force her out of office early.

Following unusual cloak-and-dagger tactics (the venue was switched from Portcullis House to the more private Churchill Room, the time of the meeting was changed) to throw a pack of us hacks off the scent, the 1922 executive spent more than an hour wrangling over the proposed changes. Some pushed hard to allow a new no-confidence vote in June, rather than wait until December. Others were equally robust in saying a retrospective rule change was unfair and would seriously weaken future leaders (and PMs).

The ’22 executive agreed to disagree but will be back tonight to resume its deliberations, ahead of a full meeting of all backbenchers. The threat was serious enough for chairman Sir Graham Brady to brief May in her office ahead of the meeting last night. But the ’22 exec really does reflect the breadth of opinion on Tory benches and there are plenty who think May has already done enough in signalling she will quit once the ‘first phase’ of Brexit is done.

The real danger for many is doing anything to further damage the party in the coming local elections. “Our council candidates have a difficult enough job as it is,” one exec member told me. Several members think that any rule change can’t be sorted until after the May 2 elections. But boy are they all worried about the May 23 Euro elections. Ann Widdecombe’s new candidacy (revealed in the Express) for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party was the perfect warm-up for his launch in Clacton, Essex, today.

The temperature on Brexit could be reduced at PMQs, as neither the PM nor Jeremy Corbyn will be present. May is travelling to Belfast for the funeral of journalist Lyra McKee, who was murdered by the new IRA at the weekend. Will the 1922 Committee pause again, given May will be out of the country (Britain, not the UK) on such a grave matter of state? Don’t bank on it.

May’s departure would of course be a lot quicker if her own MPs voted for her Brexit deal. Talks with the Opposition last night ‘felt like a step backwards’, one Labour source told me, mainly because ministers are backing off the idea of delivering changes to the political declaration and instead want domestic legislation to meet Labour demands. In a sign of a further impasse, I’m told that apart from one-on-one ‘working group’ meetings, no more ‘plenary’ meetings (with several ministers and officials on each side) are in the diary for this week. David Lidington may be pressed on the progress (or lack of it) in the talks when he deputises at PMQs.

Perhaps with one eye on calming MPs worried about talks with Corbyn, May yesterday told Cabinet that she was concerned Labour was stringing things out to get to the Euro elections. Some ministers urged her to finally publish the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (known to all sides as the ‘WAB’) to force Labour’s hand. Yet that’s a really high risk move as its contents (not least formally restoring the role of the European courts) could spark a fresh backbench revolt.

Those who have seen the WAB say that its black-and-white restoration of EU rules during a transition period, many of which were dismantled by the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, would be the perfect gift for Nigel Farage. Some 58 Tory MP voted against the May deal on its third attempt but several of those who held their nose and backed it may change their minds when they see the actual legislation.

If the WAB fails its second reading, the PM could only reintroduce it after proroguing Parliament for a new session. Prorogation usually happens in April or May, so it’s no longer the nuclear weapon it would have been last month. It’s possible May could introduce the WAB after the local elections but before the Euro elections, then go for a ‘Whitsun’ (late May) prorogation. Of course, a new session of Parliament requires a new Queen’s Speech of bills and a new confidence and supply deal with the DUP. It’s not impossible to imagine a hardcore of Tory Brexiteers voting down May’s ‘final’ Queen’s Speech. But as one No.10 insider put it yesterday: “There are no good choices left”.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Greta Thunberg came to Westminster yesterday and this tiny figure had more impact than many of the bigger names who’ve tried to raise awareness of climate change. Jeremy Corbyn and Caroline Lucas got the best photo-ops, but it was in a later meeting with Michael Gove that it became clear that even the government fears Thunberg’s pulling power.

After her speech, the Environment Secretary admitted that the “political system still has not grasped the scale of the challenge”. “You asked a number of times in your remarks, can you hear me. We can all hear you and we have all heard you.” He went on to say climate change had reached a “moment of crisis”. Gove’s quote is worth reading in full: “As I was listening to you [Greta] I felt both admiration but also a sense of responsibility and guilt, because I recognise that I am of your parents’ generation and I recognise that we haven’t done nearly enough to deal with the problem of climate change and the broader environment and ecological crisis.”

The issue is whether politicians want to dress up in environmental garb, or are serious about carrying out the changes needed. And Gove revealed he will hold talks with Extinction Rebellion in a bid to halt the protests which brought UK cities to a standstill. His aides had “reached out” to the radical group and he plans to meet them personally this week.

But while Jeremy Corbyn is arguably the most ‘green’ Labour leader in history, the politics for his party aren’t always easy either. Corbyn has in the past argued for coal mining and we report today unease that Labour-run Cumbria County Council, in the “back yard” of shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman, is allowing the first new deep coal mine in the UK for decades to be built. Thunberg yesterday rubbed salt into the wound, declaring: ”The expansion of airports - as well as the planning permission for a brand new coal mine – is beyond absurd.”

Watch this dog get super-excited as it meets a new puppy pal. Yep, it’s gone viral.

It’s telling that Theresa May’s authority in Cabinet is so low that even a crackdown on Chinese telecoms firm Huawei is being portrayed by her senior ministers as a negative. The Telegraph had the scoop that the PM yesterday agreed at the National Security Council to give the company limited access to help build the UK’s 5G network. But while Jeremy Hunt, Liam Fox, Gavin Williamson and Penny Mordaunt expressed concerns, it’s also clear May plans to ban Huawei from the ‘sensitive’ core 5G functions.

Ciaran Martin, of the National Cyber Security Centre, told Today that the security of the whole network was bigger than one company. That’s a clear hint he thinks May is acting in line with intelligence agency advice that the risk can be ‘managed’ - despite US warnings. But foreign affairs committee chairman Tom Tugendhat is still as worried as some ministers.

Given the continued lack of consensus on Brexit, it’s a relief when MPs from different parties actually agree on something. And today sees the launch of the ‘More United’ network as more than 50 MPs pledge to work together on “issues ignored because of Brexit”. The group, dubbed ‘politics for the Netflix generation’, features politicians from seven different political parties, including Labour, Tory, SNP, Lib Dem, Green, ChangeUK and Plaid Cymru.

In a HuffPost UK blog, Nicky Morgan and Labour’s Tulip Siddiq and Lib Dem Christine Jardine said: “Each of us is strongly committed to our own party. We have plenty of healthy disagreement on all sorts of topics. Yet when it comes to issues that outlive any one Government we think cross-party working is vital.” More United definitely won’t be a political party (it provides a ‘safe space’ for joint working), but it has 150,000 members and money to support candidates who back consensus on things like immigration rules, homelessness, poverty and climate change policy.

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