What’s said in Brussels never stays in Brussels. And Westminster has been poring over ITV’s exclusive report about what the PM’s Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins’ said over a late-night drink in the Sofitel Hotel in the EU’s de facto capital. Robbins suggested that the government’s strategy was to delay any big vote until “the week beginning end of March”. MPs would then get a blunt choice between May’s deal or an “long” extension of Article 50.
No.10 has so far not denied the gist of the report, though Brexit secretary Steve Barclay was in full robot mode as he told Today: “We are committed to leaving on 29 March... any extension is not a unilateral decision.” (Barclay had a Trump-style brain freeze yesterday, referring to ‘Jean-Paul’ Juncker, but that’s by the by). It’ll be interesting to see whether Corbyn uses his PMQs on Brexit or (more likely in my view) on Amber Rudd’s admission that Universal Credit flaws caused a rise in foodbank use.
Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer have long thought Theresa May’s strategy is to run down the clock to effectively bounce MPs into backing her deal rather than no-deal. What’s odd about the Robbins remarks is not that the plan would be to squeeze the big votes into last the last week of March, but that May would somehow countenance a long delay to Brexit. The working assumption among some MPs is she would seek a short extension to allow time for one last heave with Brussels before going for no-deal in June. Note that Rachel Sylvester’s Times column points out David Lidington is looking increasingly ‘queasy’ about the prospect of a no-deal exit.
May yesterday heightened fears that she wanted to rush things through Parliament in the final days before March 29, revealing her plan to junk a 21-day consultation period normally needed for international treaties. A more pressing issue is whether Parliament will get time to properly scrutinise any ‘legally binding’ changes to May’s deal, to pass hundreds of statutory instruments and to pass the main legislation (given Lords governs its own timings). Meanwhile, business is getting uneasy. The British Chambers of Commerce warns firms are being ‘hung out to dry’ by the uncertainty, and the Sun reveals just six out of Liam Fox’s trade deals will be ready for Exit Day.
2. NO-DEAL GETS REAL
Steve Barclay may have caused a few Remainers to choke on their toast when he told the Today programme: “No-deal is the agreed position of the Cabinet….” He then went on to swiftly add that he was talking about contingency planning and of course “the agreed policy of Cabinet is to secure a deal” as its priority. But the looming threat of no-deal (and don’t forget it is the default legal position and doesn’t require a vote to go ahead) is again on the agenda with fresh moves to stop it.
Last night, Labour tabled its formal amendment for tomorrow’s votes, which seeks to force a meaningful vote by February 27. It is unlikely to pass given it is the official Opposition motion and few Tories ever back those, but the real movement last night was from Yvette Cooper as she unveiled her revised bill to force May to by mid-March either table a motion for no-deal or an extension to Article 50. The Cooper-Letwin plan (Oliver Letwin is the main backer now) won’t be voted on until February 27, as many MPs will be away next week on family half-term breaks even if the Commons is sitting.
Starmer said this morning Labour would back the Cooper-Letwin plan. He said that if May did try to bounce Parliament days before exit with a my-deal-or-no-deal choice, Labour would reject both options. “There would be a concerted effort to force the PM to get an extension to Article 50,” he said. Cooper has shrewdly removed the nine-month Brexit delay of her previous plan. But real doubts remain about whether the touted 15 ministers would indeed resign to block no-deal, and there may be even more Labour MPs who vote against rather than abstain next time. Moreover, as her bill is unprecedented, it’s far from clear if May would acquiesce to it. No.10 told us yesterday the government would not allow Parliamentary time for the Cooper bill even if MPs voted to introduce one.
Meanwhile, there are fresh Brexiteer storm clouds gathering over tomorrow’s vote. Jonathan Isaby over at Brexit Central reveals that European Research Group MPs were furious when they spotted yesterday that May’s substantive motion includes not only the Brady position but also the Spelman position ruling out no-deal. Unless its changed today, things could really kick off. The ERG may well be furious too at the other bit of the Robbins’ story. ITV’s Angus Walker (a great reporter by the way) says Robbins said the Northern Irish backstop was designed not as a “safety net” but as “a bridge” to the long-term trading relationship. “The big clash all along is the ‘safety net’,” Robbins said. “We agreed a bridge but it came out as a ‘safety net’.”
3. SHADOW BOXING
Labour’s anti-semitism row isn’t going away. Tom Watson and Ian Lavery, the former chair and current chair of the party, traded barbs at yesterday’s Shadow Cabinet over Luciana Berger’s local party in Liverpool Wavertree. PoliticsHome had the scoop, revealing Lavery attacked Watson for calling for the local party’s suspension. Watson hit back at Lavery for his HuffPost blog this weekend in which he said whole CLPs should not be subjected to ‘trial by social media’ and that MPs should be ‘held to account’. The deputy leader told Lavery three times: “I will not be shouted down!”
The issue dominated the meeting and followed fresh anger at Monday night’s PLP when MPs felt the new figures on anti-semitism had been less than complete. Jeremy Corbyn was given until the end of today to respond, but it seems general secretary Jennie Formby has responded on his behalf. The Guardian reports she last night wrote to MPs saying: “The constant and often public criticism of our dedicated and talented staff team is unacceptable and is causing them considerable distress.” Funnily enough, that’s exactly what former staff used to think when they were blamed for delays in clearing anti-semitism cases.
Formby said she could not reveal how much had been spent on legal fees, but said there had been “significant investment in stamping out the issue of antisemitism”, including hiring another six staff. She also hit back at Margaret Hodge’s claim that she had 200 incidents of abuse not dealt with, arguing just 20 members were involved. Formby also said it would be too ‘time consuming’ to go back over complaints made prior to the new system she introduced. Expect more push back against that at the Parliamentary Committee today. Keir Starmer told Today he didn’t think Liverpool Wavertree should be suspended, but he urged solidarity for Berger. He said claims against the chair of the local party should be “swiftly” investigated. “If that swift action is expulsion, so be it.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch England cricket captain tell West Indian bowler Shannon Gabriel to stop using ‘gay’ as an insult to try and put him off his game. Gabriel has since been charged for homophobic remarks.
4. I, PLOD
The Police Federation survey of its members has found that 90% say they are under-staffed, with three quarters saying they often patrol alone in ‘single crews’. Some 80% say they have felt stressed in the past year, largely due to staff shortages caused by austerity funding cuts. Labour’s shadow policing minister Louise Haigh says “the Government’s sham frontline policing review refused to even consider police numbers or the effect this may have on officer safety”.
5. GRIM-SHAW SOLUTION
Today’s winner of the WTAF Award goes to Sir Nicholas Grimshaw. The architect told Newsnight that the UK should be spending ‘half our national income’ on housebuilding in Nigeria’s Lagos or other ‘African’ cities. Why? To stop London becoming “such a magnet” for migrants. I mean, I really don’t know where to start.
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