1. THE LIKELY LADS
Brexit makes strange bedfellows. And there’s none stranger today than former enemies John McDonnell and George Osborne both suggesting that a delay to Brexit is on the cards. Osborne has told the BBC that extending the two-year Article 50 process beyond March 29 is “now the most likely option”. McDonnell told Newsnight that it was “increasingly likely” that Labour would back Yvette Cooper’s amendment to delay Exit Day if we have no Commons agreement by late next month. McDonnell suggested a delay of nine months was too long, but pointed out that Cooper was open to amending her amendment further, to reduce the extension to three or six months.
Of course, requesting an extension relies on EU approval, but many MPs have noted Theresa May’s refusal to rule out any such emergency request. Still, the PM wants to keep a no-deal Brexit on the table, not least as a negotiating tactic (yesterday’s difference of opinion between Brussels and Dublin over the erection of border controls was a clue to the pressure). We report (as does the Mail and Times) that May is determined not to grant a free vote on amendments like Cooper’s or Dominic Grieve’s, believing they both tear up the convention that governments should determine the Parliamentary timetable.
Remainer Cabinet ministers have backed off their threats to quit, partly because they think the hill to die on is not a procedural motion but the actual likelihood of a no-deal. With Labour now set to back Cooper, their difficulty is eased as it looks like there will be enough backbench Tories to support her amendment. PoliticsHome reports a senior Tory pointing out that there would be a ‘mutiny’ in the party grassroots if May abandoned no-deal as an option.
Osborne (echoing another warning last night from former EU ambassador Ivan Rogers) said that quitting the EU on WTO terms would be ‘the single biggest act of protectionism’ in Britain’s modern history. But Liam Fox was on Today giving his own take on why no-deal cannot be junked. Extending Article 50 would be “simply putting off a decision” (he’s got a point). Fox then added that overturning the 2016 referendum would be much, much worse politically than no-deal would be economically. “The most calamitous outcome would be for Parliament, having promised to respect the referendum, to turn round and say they wouldn’t….You can’t avoid a no-deal”.
Meanwhile, the real need for a delayed Brexit may just be because we are running out of time to pass a mass of legislation required. The Sun revives speculation about cancellation of February recess to allow time to ram through key bills. Ministers are raising the spectre of the Lords blocking Brexit (though Cabinet talk about a big Trade Bill ambush today fly in the face of the fact that Labour has a one-line whip and is holding its fire).
2. DOCTORS IN THE HOUSE
When John McDonnell speaks, the entire Labour Party and much of Westminster listens. And his remarks on a second referendum last night gave us one more nudge forward in the party’s position. Asked by Newsnight about what should go on any such ballot paper, he replied that if a Brexit deal “isn’t carried, then of course the status quo remains - and ‘Remain’ is the status quo.” Now, some cynics think the Shadow Chancellor is just stringing the People’s Voters along, calming them down while never really intending to hold a referendum. Others think he has a clear eye for the party to respect its grassroots.
Tensions and splits among People’s Vote MPs on timing and tactics certainly exist more widely than just in Labour, and BuzzFeed’s Alex Wickham has an in-depth look at the factionalism. The most pressing is when to table an amendment calling for a new referendum. At a launch event yesterday Labour’s Bridget Phillipson warned “I want to make sure when we get to the point when we want to secure a referendum, it is a time when we have the greatest prospects of success.” As I wrote last week, there is indeed a belief that MPs will back one only when it is a last-resort, as the musical chairs game ends with one winner. But if there is no people’s vote amendment next week, the risk is one won’t be heard at all.
But several MPs point out that for all the tensions, the most remarkable thing in recent months has been the extent of cross-party working. The House mag last week had a fine piece on the Common Market 2.0 coalition started by Tory Rob Halfon and Labour’s Lucy Powell. Today, we have a feature on ‘The Four Doctors’ - former medics-turned-MPs Sarah Wollaston and Phillip Lee (Tory), Paul Williams (Labour) and Philippa Whitford (SNP) - who want a referendum. Their amendment is based on the ‘informed consent’ principle that means patients only sign up to treatment with their approval. In a nice detail, we learn that it was the Commons doorkeepers who came up with the phrase ‘the doctor’s amendment’.
Monday’s PLP disquiet over a second referendum increased, the Guardian reports, after Labour published its official amendment including the option of a People’s Vote. It states that half a dozen frontbenchers, including Mel Onn and Gloria de Piero, went to see shadow chief whip Nick Brown to warn of the damage to Labour votes in Leave areas. Still, Wes Streeting (a Remainer in a strong Leave area in Ilford) made a brave speech yesterday in his constituency: “I would rather tell it how it is and risk losing my job, than stay silent and risk my constituents losing theirs.”
3. ELECTION JITTERS
Yesterday, ministers were delighted by the job figures: record high employment at 75.8%, joint record low jobless rate, wages rising at their fastest in a decade (expect May to repeat those stats at PMQs). It’s not a bad backdrop for any snap election campaign, but although some contingency planning and wargaming is going on, very few people expect the PM to trigger an election given how tight the polls are.
And the Sun claims Tory HQ’s internal projections forecast a minority Corbyn government, while the thinktank Onward has a study confirming it would take a tiny swing for Labour to win the 30 seats it needs to get Jezza into No.10 (with SNP and LibDem backing). The paper has a startling quote from a minister about the collapse in Remain-voting Tory areas: “I walk down smarter streets in my constituency these days that were once strongholds and don’t want anything to do with us now. If you knock on a door and they have books on their shelves, you can be pretty sure these days they’re not voting Tory.”
It’s not that these Tories are suddenly switching to Labour, but more that they may stay at home (or vote Lib Dem). Sarah Wollaston pointed out this danger on our podcast last week. As I mentioned yesterday, William Hague (who was Osborne’s political mentor) wrote in the Telegraph that an election is so risky that a second referendum was now the most likely option. Last week, the PM’s spokesman was asked whether she would rule out a snap election. He replied: “Yes.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Theresa May tear her hair out as she closes the No.10 front door. Funnier and less nasty than those Andy Serkis/gollum vids.
4. CLEANING UP, CLEARING OUT?
Brexiteer James Dyson’s decision to move his HQ from the UK to Singapore has prompted ridicule from Remainers. When the news first broke No10 was caught cold, but last night a government spokesman pointed to its £200m new campus in Wiltshire and a trebling of its UK workforce. Here’s a thought from our reader Peter Northedge: The EU and Malaysia are about to finalise an FTA, so the move means Dyson will be able to continue trading with the EU in the event of a no-deal Brexit. The Guardian splashes on other firms shipping out: P&O ferries switching to a Cypriot flag, Sony moving its European HQ from London to Amsterdam, Bentley cars warning of ‘killer’ supply delays. The CBI, which was on a phone call to the PM yesterday, had a new analysis warning of a £193bn hit to the economy from no-deal.
5. LOSE-LOSE SITUATION
Our ‘What It’s Like To Lose Your…’ series on the under-the-radar effects of austerity continues. Today we look at what happens when you close down a walk-in sexual health clinic for teenagers. Labour’s Lisa Nandy blogs for HuffPost on how the series tallies with the demise of services (and the knock-on effect on local civic pride) in all those small towns needed by any party to win a Commons majority. She points out the Crown post office had stood proudly in Wigan town centre for 134 years. “It has survived two world wars and a global financial crash but cannot survive three years of Tory government. From Northern Rock to our local libraries these institutions are our social fabric. Their decline tells a story of a political system that has lost its way. It is time we listened.”
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