1. INCOMINGS, OUTGOINGS
Today sees the final PMQs of yet another, truly crazy political year. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will be tempted to show they’ve defied their internal and external critics once more. Desperate to send their troops off to the Christmas break with a morale boost, each of them may attack the other for ‘running scared’ of Parliament (May for ducking a vote on Brexit, Corbyn for ducking a vote of no confidence in the government). But with just 100 days to go to Brexit, the voters may well look on and wonder whether either of them is offering the national leadership the country really needs.
In usual times, a Labour leader would pounce on Cabinet rows over ‘managed no-deal’. Given Boris Johnson’s roaring speech from 2017, the Opposition could even make hay with gags about ‘the lion and the unicorn’. But (spoiler alert) we don’t live in normal times, and you can bet Tory MPs would quickly counter that Labour’s own Brexit plans are as mythical as any single-horned beast of legend.
For her part, May will want to trumpet the new immigration white paper finally published today. She’s made EU migration curbs a central piece of her Brexit plans, despite business worries that they will harm jobs and trade. On the Today programme, Home Secretary Sajid Javid refused - despite several requests - to repeat his own party’s 2017 manifesto pledge to reduce net migration to the ‘tens of thousands’. “There’s no specific target…we are not abandoning any pledge…we remain committed to our objective…it will be a system that will bring net migration down to more sustainable levels”.
The white paper is out soon this morning, but after rows with the Treasury and the Business Department it’s clear there are still plenty of unresolved issues that will be kicked off for more consultation, not least the level of any income threshold for ‘low skilled’ workers. Javid did hint at some interesting moves on exemptions for key sectors to allow workers with lower salary thresholds and to encourage students to stay and work in the UK. With lots of wriggle room ahead of any UK-EU trade deal, it may not shift the dial in any meaningful sense among MPs opposed to her Brexit deal.
2. NO-DEAL APPEAL
Well, No.10 certainly got the headlines it wanted from the Cabinet meeting yesterday, with no-deal Brexit preparations plastered all over the news headlines. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s revelation (in reply to a clearly planted question) that 3,500 troops are on standby, added rocket boosters to the sense of urgency. And last night we published a story on Matt Hancock chartering a specific plane to import emergency supplies of medical isotopes. With a delicious irony not lost on the Health Secretary, the supplies will be sourced from Maastricht, the Dutch town synonymous with EU integration that sparked a long Eurosceptic war that powered the move to Brexit itself.
So, did sh*t just get real? Or is this all a ‘political hoax’, as Keir Starmer claimed? Note that Starmer gently pointed out yesterday that when he was DPP he knew personally how seriously May took national security, and she couldn’t surely countenance no-deal tearing up UK-EU security arrangements. In a little-noticed clip to the BBC on Friday, defence minister Tobias Ellwood also said that no-deal was “not an option” for the Army. “From a security perspective, it’s not possible,” he said. Other senior Tories tell me that May sees no-Brexit as a bigger threat to her party and the country than no-deal Brexit, mainly because not delivering on the referendum would trash the Tory brand for years, and allow into power Jeremy Corbyn, a man she sees as a direct rather than potential threat to national security.
Meanwhile, today Brussels unveils its own no-deal plans. In yet another example of how much more transparent the EU27 are being than the UK, the Commission will distinguish between preparedness for Brexit and contingency planning for no-deal. Yesterday, No.10 told us it was ‘not possible’ to split out spending on normal planning and no-deal planning from the £4bn allocated by the Treasury for all this. Many of us find that hard to believe and MPs may want to push further on it.
The backlash against no-deal continues to be strong. In a joint statement, the CBI, IoD and other business groups said they “have been watching in horror as politicians have focused on factional disputes rather than practical steps that business needs to move forward.” A clutch of Tory MPs (Nick Boles, Sarah Wollaston, Anna Soubry) has publicly said they would rather quit the party than back no-deal. More important, however, is the fact that key Cabinet ministers would quit the Government. I wonder if the PM is open to something more radical if she reaches out? Labour’s Lisa Nandy hints in the New York Review of Books (no, really) that a Citizens’ Assembly could find a way forward, allowing “Parliament to confidently agree to the Withdrawal Agreement”.
3. THING OF CONFIDENCE
As 2018’s political year gasps its last, there’s one final attempt to trigger a general election. The Westminster leaders of the SNP, Lib Dems, Greens and Plaid Cymru last night jointly tabled a motion of no confidence in the government. Aimed as much at putting pressure on Corbyn as on May, the move was swiftly dismissed by Labour. “We have said we will not table a motion like this for the purpose of it being defeated, we will do it when we judge it most likely to be successful,” a Scottish Labour spokesman said. The simple fact is that without the support of the official Opposition, the Government won’t give time for such a motion to be debated or voted on.
Shadow housing secretary John Healey gave what sounds like the official party line yesterday. “It is still a question of when, not if, we move to confront the Government with a full vote of confidence. And the answer is, when it is clear to the country the Government has failed decisively.” Some Labour MPs were certainly in despair at their leadership’s handling of all this on Monday. The Times reports an MP in a Labour Whatsapp group said the stunt of a confidence vote in May personally was “idiotic”. The Guardian says activists are stepping up demands for a special conference to sort the policy on a second referendum and other issues. That’s something Andrew Gwynne hinted at on Marr: “We are a democratic party and we will put our decision to the party members in a democratic way before we decide what the next steps are”.
One Shadow Cabinet minister told me chief whip Nick Brown had been ‘humiliated’ after telling MPs a vote of no confidence would happen swiftly, only for it not to happen. Much of the criticism stems from Corybn’s surprise decision to push his no-confidence-in-the-PM motion just before 6pm on Monday. I am told that Corbyn made that decision in the spur of the moment, and that many senior figures were as shocked as everyone else. More broadly, it would be wrong to assume that a swift move to a second referendum is being blocked by Corbyn alone. Key chunks of the PLP have severe doubts about the idea, as well as its timing. Let’s see if the party comes back in the New Year with a clearer policy.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Children at the Mexico/US border are having numbers written on their arms. No wonder this video has gone viral.
4. ROLL OUT CALLED OUT
Amber Rudd is before the Work and Pensions Select Committee this morning and its latest report makes sombre reading ahead of Christmas. Chairman Frank Field has urged the Government to halt its roll-out of Universal Credit until it is sure disabled claimants are protected from negative impacts. It wants a pilot of 10,000 people be fully completed before the system switches a million disabled claimants from Employment Support Allowance. The switchover plans are set to be debated by MPs, so let’s see how Rudd handles this one. Disability charity Scope says: If the Universal Credit ‘managed migration’ goes ahead without significant changes many disabled people’s finances will fall off a cliff edge.”
5. AMAZON’S JUNGLE
Another minister due a grilling today will be the Treasury’s Mel Stride, as he appears before the Commons Communities and Local Government Committee on the topic of the UK’s high streets. With online clothing retailer Asos proving it’s not all plain sailing on the internet, fellow minister Jake Berry tells the Sun that shoppers should ditch Amazon and eBay and choose local shops instead for those last minute Christmas gifts. Greg Clark told me at our WaughZone special at Tory conference business rates should reflect the social value high street stores represent, and Stride will face similar demands today. Meanwhile, the GMB union has a new online game highlighting the plight of Amazon workers.
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