The Waugh Zone Wednesday February 27, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Thanks to yet another major Commons U-turn, Theresa May lives to fight another day on Brexit. After finally agreeing to allow MPs to delay the UK’s exit by a few months, she has told the Daily Mail that now ‘Parliament should do its duty’. The ‘High Noon’ moment (copyright: Philip Hammond) has been postponed once again, this time to next month. But May’s choice of language feels apt, because the PM looks less like a Western gunslinger and more like a pensioner struggling with a first-person-shooter video game. In ‘Call Of Duty: May Ops’, survival, for herself and her Brexit deal, is all that matters. Around every corner lurks danger, and just buying more time to lock and reload is the main priority.

So, when will it be ‘game over’? If Brussels comes up with legal guarantees to the satisfaction of the DUP and the backbench European Research Group, May’s dream scenario is her revised deal gets approved in a second ‘meaningful vote’ by March 12. If that fails, and given there’s no Commons majority for no-deal, we are then looking at March 14 for a possible ‘short’ delay to Brexit. The PM said that delay would be until ‘the end of June’, which raises the prospect of a THIRD meaningful vote this summer as she makes one last heave to get a deal done.

What struck me most yesterday were May’s lines that any delay ‘would almost certainly have to be a one-off’ (because the UK won’t elect any MEPs this May and can’t continue as an EU state without them) and that as a result there will be a ‘much sharper cliff-edge’ to focus minds in Brussels and Westminster. Add in her Raab-style claim that “if we have to, we will ultimately make a success of a no-deal” and you can see why the Brexiteers were so sanguine in the Commons yesterday. Some of them believe that without serious change to the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’ she now really can’t avoid a no-deal by the end of June. Don’t forget the delay is practical as well as political (yesterday’s newly published documents showed only two thirds of departments’ no-deal plans were on-track).

David Davis has attacked Remainer ministers as ‘wreckers’ and ‘saboteurs’ for their ‘panic attack’ at the prospect of no-deal. Andrea Leadsom also ‘went off like a firework’ in Cabinet, I’m told. Yet overall, the Brexiteers (and DUP) have given May the benefit of the doubt. And in the FT, Jacob Rees-Mogg sounded more like a pussycat than a rabid tiger, saying “I would be quite happy with an appendix [to time-limit the backstop]”. Only recently he said “As long as that backstop is there, I will not vote for this deal.” But note that Moggy has shown a feline flexibility in recent weeks, saying on January 29: “You may get to the point where you need to save people’s face and therefore you say the text hasn’t changed and you’ve got a codicil that says this bit of text doesn’t apply.” No.10 will be happy if he’s also trying to save face himself. Still, the ERG may have more up its sleeve. As one government insider told me yesterday: “It’s quiet, too quiet”.

Thanks to May’s shift on a Brexit delay (and don’t forget she told MPs more than 100 times that ‘the UK will be leaving the EU on March 29’), much of the energy has gone out of today’s Commons votes on Brexit. Yvette Cooper has still tabled amendments, largely to hold the government’s feet to the fire, but few expect she will push them to a vote. Labour’s main opposition amendment is significant only in that once it is defeated the party will formally be committed to backing a second referendum (on a ‘credible’ Brexit v Remain).

But one amendment, tabled by Caroline Spelman and Jack Dromey (and supported by Cooper and Oliver Letwin), could re-inject some life into the votes tonight if the Speaker selects it. This would force the government to grant Commons time for a series of indicative votes on Tuesday March 19. This would follow any vote to ‘delay’ Brexit on March 14, and try let Parliament seize the agenda again to avoid May simply prevaricating once more. As the Guardian reports, a little-noticed element of Cabinet yesterday was Philip Hammond and others pushing May on how she would use the delay. The Chancellor is still keen on indicative votes and wants “to find a new coalition in Parliament”.

That’s exactly what Oliver Letwin wanted when he appeared on Today this morning. He said May would have to be flexible on her red lines and he and others “will use parliamentary procedures to expose where there is a majority”. Letwin was confident that May’s U-turn on a delay meant that she could be flexible too on some kind of ‘softer’ Brexit. He wanted to succeed “just as we have succeeded in the last 24 hours to shift her view”. Which brings us again to the chances of a ‘People’s Vote’. Labour’s official backing is a necessary but not sufficient condition for a second referendum. Tory ministers will be needed to outnumber Labour Leavers, and March 12 may well be too soon for them to jump ship to do so. However, if the Spelman-Dromey indicative votes plan is approved today, it’s possible, just possible, that March 19 would be the real point at which a second referendum could spark into life.

Labour MP Chris Williamson delights in his ability to irritate his critics, particularly those in his own party. But he’s in deep trouble today after the Yorkshire Post unearthed a video in which he tells a Momentum group in Sheffield that Labour has been “too apologetic” over anti-semitism. He claimed that the party was responsible for “being demonised as a racist, bigoted party…because in my opinion… we have backed off too much, we have given too much ground, we have been too apologetic.”

Tom Watson tweeted that “it’s hard not to conclude that his behaviour is deliberately inflammatory”, and Luciana Berger and others in The Independent Group (TIG) pointed out it was this kind of ‘toxic’ remark that led them to quit Labour. Labour MP Phil Wilson has told Sky this morning that Williamson should be suspended. Given that Jon Lansman this week admitted there was now a serious problem with anti-semites in the party, Momentum’s response will be important too. The sight of its members applauding Williamson risk huge damage to its reputation.

Williamson typifies the defiance and defensiveness of Ken Livingstone, but also Jeremy Corbyn himself. The Derby North MP will argue he wasn’t defending anti-semitism, but defending the party against its critics. But he’s given Corbyn a clear way to prove he’s serious when he says ‘not in my name’ to those claiming the anti-semitism issue is just a smear against his leadership. If he withdraws the whip from Williamson, he will go some way to healing the PLP and proving he means what he says. Just after midnight, Corbyn tweeted about an appalling anti-semitic attackin his Islington constituency. It felt like a direct response to Williamson, but for many MPs it won’t be enough.

The MP was already in trouble after it emerged he had booked a room in Parliament on behalf of Jewish Voice For Labour for a screening of a new film about activist Jackie Walker. Walker was suspended after saying “many Jews were chief financiers of the slave trade” and for comments, revealed by HuffPost in 2016, at Labour’s 2016 conference. Hope Not Hate tell us that he should be kicked out of the party, while a party spokesman said Williamson’s booking was ‘completely inappropriate’. “This falls below the standards we expect of MPs.” Still, critics point out that John McDonnell appeared at a leftwing conference last month to declare of Walker: “I’m hoping one day that people will see what she’s had to go through in terms of the vile comments that have been made about her.”

Watch Tory backbencher Andrew Bridgen appear to say ‘Oh, FFS’ as Ken Clarke warns of a chaotic no-deal Brexit.

Sajid Javid’s decision to proscribe Hezbollah has caused a rift within Labour, as the party decided not to oppose (or support) the move in a Commons vote last night. Labour thinks there are real risks to relations with Lebanon, which is crucial in handling Syrian refugees. It wanted a decision led by “clear and new evidence, not by his leadership ambitions.’ Wes Streeting and Louise Ellman were not happy with their frontbench and said so last night.

Chris Grayling’s ‘failing’ reputation is the kind of running sore that saps support among voters who just want competence from their governments. He’s under fire in a new Public Accounts Committee report on the railways and today independent reviewer Keith Williams says Britain’s rail franchise system no longer delivers clear benefits and cannot continue as it is.

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