1. FOR THE MOMENT, OF THE MOMENT
There’s a classic ‘The Thick Of It’ episode where a female Cabinet minister goes on the radio to say the under-pressure Prime Minister is the right person for the job ‘for the moment’. Potty-mouthed spin doctor Malcolm Tucker can’t contain his fury at her media blunder: “I told you to say ‘of the moment’!” This morning, Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom was asked on the Today programme if Theresa May would be the right person to lead the Tories if she lost her Brexit vote next Tuesday. “She certainly is at the moment…” Leadsom replied. Pressed on whether May will still be the right person as PM if she loses the vote, Leadsom added: “I have never and will not start predicting the future…I don’t do predictions ever.”
If that didn’t sound like a resounding vote of confidence in the PM, it’s worth remembering that Leadsom was trying to be helpful. But even she can’t get away from the fact that, as yesterday’s three defeats proved, this is a PM and a Government that currently lacks a Commons majority. PMQs at noon gives May a chance to try to rally her troops against the common enemy of Jeremy Corbyn, yet behind her is where her real problems lie. Some 26 Tories voted for the Grieve amendment (to give Parliament more say over Brexit), and two (Brexiteers Bone and Holloway) even voted to find her ministers in contempt of Parliament over the legal advice. It’s worth mentioning here what a triumph yesterday was for Opposition whips, the culmination of months of guerrilla warfare and effective deployment of the ancient ‘Humble Address’ procedure that has tied the Government in procedural knots.
Yet while yesterday was ‘momentous’ in many ways, there are some in government who think it wasn’t as apocalyptic as many make out. By focusing minds, will it persuade Brexiteers that May’s plan is the hardest Brexit they can realistically get? If that plan is voted down next week, some ministers always assumed that whatever motion the Government returned with would have to be ‘amendable’. Newsnight’s Nick Watt said last night one Cabinet minister was seen ‘high-fiving’ MPs after the Grieve vote. Is that because the real ‘Plan B’ is for a Norway-style solution? Oliver Letwin, a key figure backing Grieve, has made plain he backs that as an option.
There are still lots of problems with Norway or EFTA membership. Labour has yet to back it, precisely because of worries it won’t stop free movement as pledged in the party’s manifesto. Some Brexiteers think it really will leave us in a state of limbo permanently. Some Remainers hate the idea of being governed by EU rules but having no say over them. Yet if the only real alternative is another referendum, enough Brexiteers (and the DUP, crucially) could back it to make it a realistic possibility in winning Commons support. And an extension to Article 50, to allow a possible EFTA move, could be the one thing that unites different sides.
It’s true, as Brexiteer Steve Baker has pointed out, that any future Commons motion would not be legally ‘binding’. Still, yesterday’s contempt motion proved that if MPs express their political will, this Government cannot ignore it. More importantly, Leadsom was right to point out this morning that any alternative Brexit plan would require a Government to propose it. “It’s still the case that government puts forward legislation, and then Parliament scrutinises it.” She said that would only happened if the “government did something completely different to change tack”. That’s why the issue of who runs the government after December 11 really matters. ‘Security’ is the theme for today’s eight-hour debate (expect Corbyn in PMQs to say it’s May’s job security that is at risk). Jeremy Hunt is expected to open and Sajid Javid will close. Both men will be watched closely by their own side to see if either really is a leader-in-waiting or the ‘man of the moment’. But no matter who is Tory leader, the Parliamentary arithmetic ain’t changing anytime soon.
2. CONFLICTING THOUGHTS
Leadsom confessed on Radio 4 that “all the way through I’ve had conflicting thoughts” about staying in Cabinet during the Brexit talks. She added this very telling line: “The reason I’m staying in government is to make absolutely sure we don’t end up in that backstop.” And as the PM meets more wavering MPs in her office, it’s the final offer on Northern Ireland that she hopes could swing some key votes. It’s unclear what will be offered, but she is working on some kind of extra reassurance – a pledge of action by the UK, not the EU – to avoid any regulatory difference between the province and GB. Maybe she could add a new ‘clarificatory note’ at the end of the Withdrawal Agreement too?
Mark Harper, the latest ex-minister to come out against her deal, said the backstop had to be changed. Dominic Raab this morning said the PM had to go back to Brussels to ‘remedy’ the defects on the backstop, with ‘relatively modest changes’. Yet it looks highly unlikely the EU would want to unpick the Withdrawal Agreement in any way. And in a largely forgettable address to the Commons yesterday, one of the PM’s most memorable lines was this warning: “don’t let anyone here think that there is a better deal to be won by shouting louder”.
May will be delighted that Boris Johnson looked so isolated (and ridiculed) during his own speech. But she and her team will have taken much more notice of Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee, who sat ominously behind her. And in his own speech last night, Brady said that the Northern Ireland issue was the key one for him and many others. “It is the possibility, however remote, that we might be leaving a treaty that allows us to give notice to quit to join one that can only be left with the consent of the other party. To do that in the name of taking back control is very difficult for many of us to accept.” Brady said the PM had seven days “to find a way to give real reassurance that we, the United Kingdom, could leave the backstop in the event that we have to enter it”. Let’s see if May can meet the Brady Test in coming days.
3. NOTHING TO SEE, HEAR?
Theresa May yesterday told the Cabinet that the main reason for refusing to publish the full legal advice on Brexit: to defend the ‘long-standing’ principle that ‘the working of government’ required ministers being able to seek candid, confidential advice from the Attorney General. Given the ‘working of government’ doesn’t seem to be working that well right now, it’s difficult to see how the release this morning of Geoffrey Cox’s document will make things much worse.
As it happens, the actual content of his advice may turn out to be entirely pedestrian and banal. Will there really be any surprises? Cox declared in the chamber on Monday that “there is nothing to see here!” We will find out for ourselves whether that claim is true, but ministers suggest that there really aren’t any hidden secrets. Cox repeatedly admitted that there was no unilateral exit clause from the NI backstop and that the UK could be trapped in it ‘indefinitely’. His counter case was that while that was strictly true legally, political reality meant that it would not be indefinite as the EU didn’t like the plan. He also said the EU could sue - and probably win - if European firms’ suspected the hybrid solution was indeed becoming permanent.
The Commons demanded the ‘final’ and ‘full’ legal advice on Brexit. Rather than every single legal paper drafted, today at 11.30am we may see the document that Cox handed to Cabinet ministers. It is quite a big moment nevertheless. And that argument that it is not the content, it is the dangerous precedent created, will be revived. Watch for Labour stressing how exceptional this is, and what protections there will have to be to protect other confidential advice in future. And then hear the hollow laughs from government ministers.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this NYPD cop join in some joyful dancing at the lighting of the menorah to mark Hanukkah.
4. AD-DED BENEFIT
Most MPs know that selling a policy like Universal Credit is politically costly. What was less well known was how financially costly it is too. Thanks to our Freedom of Information requests, HuffPost reveals that that the government has spent more than £4 million in advertising on the flagship new benefit. The DWP ad blitz on social media campaigns, digital displays and bus stop posters has accelerated in the past two years. But charities are not unhappy and want more public information, not less. “It’s certainly not too much money,” said Geoff Fimister, of the Disability Benefits Consortium, a coalition of 80 different charities working towards a fairer benefits system.
5. COUNCIL OF DESPAIR
A new BBC analysis has found that council spending per person in England has fallen 30% in real terms, with housing, culture and planning suffering the biggest cuts. The only spending that has avoided a cut is children’s services, largely because of a rise in the number of children needing protection. It’s the local government settlement tomorrow and many authorities are hoping to see if ‘the end of austerity’ is real. Meanwhile, the Beeb’s Reality Check has a nice piece on areas that have defied the cuts.
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