1. PRISONER, CELL BLOCK ACHE
Has Theresa May finally found the magic key that unlocks her Brexit troubles? Or has she walked straight into a political jail cell constructed by the Tory Right? Last night, Dominic Grieve was in no doubt, describing the PM as a ‘prisoner’ of the hard Brexiteers’ European Research Group (ERG). Boris Johnson meanwhile hailed May for backing the ‘freedom clause’ of Sir Graham Brady’s alternative plan for solving the vexed ‘backstop’.
This morning May is just relieved that she has something, anything to go back to Brussels with. She knows more than most that the EU will insist it cannot reopen the ‘withdrawal agreement’. Brussels and Dublin made that crystal clear within minutes of the vote, and yet she thinks there is room for movement. May is probably one of the worst salespeople in the House of Commons (that snap election disaster confirmed it), but clearly thinks she can sell the idea that unless the EU gives some ground, Tory MPs will continue to block the Brexit package she has crafted for over two years. She used to talk about her deal or no-deal. Now it looks like it’s their deal (the ERG’s) or no-deal.
May claimed last night that she now had a “substantial and sustainable” mandate for fresh talks. Substantial? Well, in a hung parliament, a majority of 16 (the margin of ‘victory’ on the Brady amendment) is not bad. Sustainable? That’s really doubtful, especially as the ERG put her on notice that it reserved the right to reject her revised plans. The most striking thing about the Brady amendment was just how vaguely worded it was, yet somehow the PM claims it provides a mandate to argue for things like a time limit or unilateral exit mechanism from the backstop. In truth, the Commons didn’t vote for either of those things, precisely because they were not on the Order Paper.
May was so keen to woo the Brexiteers that she even flirted with the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ idea yesterday. But when Brexit Secretary Steve Barclay was asked on the Today programme about the detail, he said “rather than getting into the technicalities of it” he preferred to point to the fact that it had support from all wings of the Tory party. The counterpoint to that is Anna Soubry telling Newsnight: “I see my party drifting more and more over to the Right”. And the. Right are very chipper. Brexiteers think the blame game optics are shifting in their favour. If the EU rejects May’s approach, you can bet Johnson and Rees-Mogg will tell the public: see, Brussels will never change, we might as well get out with no-deal now. Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss told Radio 4’s The World Tonight that “the ball is now very much in the EU’s court”.
But it’s that issue of no-deal that really will have to be grasped by the PM when she returns to parliament in a fortnight. It will have to be gripped too by the Remainers in her Cabinet and wider ministerial ranks. If there is still an impasse, will they quit and provide the numbers to get a re-run Cooper-style plan over the line? May said the (non-binding) Brady vote gave her a ‘clear mandate’ to renegotiate, but she didn’t say the (non-binding) Spelman vote gave her a mandate to rule out no-deal. May could argue that she simply needs more negotiating time to give the Brexiteers what they want. As Michael Gove warned earlier this month, winter is coming. As the snow descends across the nation this week, the PM may not escape the cold reality that she may have to delay Exit Day.
2. REOPEN ALL OURS?
Politics is the art of the possible. The problem for May is that what’s possible in London seems impossible in Brussels. At PMQs she is expected to tell us more about plans for fresh talks with the EU27. We can expect more hardball tactics, not least if it turns out (as the Sun reports) that May is now shaking up her negotiating team to include the UK’s WTO rep Julian Braithwaite and DIT’s chief negotiator (and close pal of Liam Fox) Crawford Falconer.
But what will they be talking about? Among the most important words uttered by May yesterday was this: “What I’m talking about is not a further exchange of letters but a significant and legally binding change to the withdrawal agreement”. Note that she didn’t rule out a ‘codicil’, an extra document that could possibly clarify the legal position of the backstop.
Independent Unionist MP Lady Hermon jibed May yesterday that the phrasing of the Brady amendment about “alternative arrangements to avoid a hard border” were “nebulous”. May rightly replied that the phrase was actually in the withdrawal agreement and the political declaration. There is a possible deal to be done, but will it be verbal gymnastics that the DUP and ERG say they won’t tolerate?
There is also the difficulty for May that the EU27 will say (as the European parliament’s Manfred Weber said yesterday) that unpicking the text of the withdrawal agreement will mean reopening issues such as Gibraltar, fishing rights and the divorce bill. No.10 is clearly keen to avoid unpicking all her deal ‘wins’ too. When put to him that May herself had warned of this prospect, her spokesman told us: “When the PM set that out to the House it was a genuine issue and that of course remains the case.”
The one thing that really does give a glimmer of hope for May is the possible split between Dublin and Brussels. The EU’s priority is no breach of its trade rules, Ireland’s is avoiding a hard border. As the Irish Times’ Denis Staunton put it this morning: the pressure on Dublin will come from Europe, not London.
3. LABOUR PAINS
In some ways, it’s pretty ridiculous that May is winning praise for getting a majority of 16 in parliament, when that should be the default position for a minority government put in place with DUP votes. Yet the brutal lesson of last night was that united parties win, disunited parties don’t. And Labour looked more divided than ever before as MPs largely from Leave seats voted against delaying Brexit and for the Brady plan.
Some 14 Labour MPs voted against Cooper, 17 abstained including five frontbenchers. We’ll find out today whether they will be disciplined lightly (with a telling off) or severely (with the sack). Many of those shadow ministers who took a principled stand for their local Leave voters include people who are not natural Corbyn allies, but with whom Corbyn has sympathy for their electoral plight: Gloria de Piero, Melanie Onn, Jim McMahon.
The fury from some Remainer Labour MPs was nevertheless palpable last night, with one telling me the Labour MPs had ‘done the Tory whips’ job for them’. There remains a suspicion among Corbyn’s critics that he was secretly pleased by the outcome yesterday, as allowing May to rescue her Brexit is a way for him to avoid his members’ calls for a second referendum. The way he repeatedly refused to take an intervention from People’s Vote supporter Angela Smith looked like a pretty clear signal of his personal determination not to be distracted by the issue.
Some in Labour still cling to the hope that May’s impossible demands for the EU mean she will have to come back in a fortnight work with the party on a customs union. Yet the PM proved last night she is ultimately a Tory to her fingertips, and she looks unlikely to want her political legacy to be remembered as the woman who delivered a weak Brexit that split the Conservatives for a generation. And the threats to her leadership haven’t gone away. As I said last night, the main thing she won was not the Brady vote, but an extra two weeks in No.10.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Hollywood director Dan Gilroy butcher the word ‘melancholy’, only to be corrected by actor Jake Gyllenhaal. A verbal catastrowfe of hyperbowlic proportions..
4. FANTASY IRELAND?
Sam Coates in the Times has a nice piece on how the ‘Malthouse Compromise’ plan was hatched in secret over recent weeks, with Remainers and Leavers coming together to try to find a way out of the Irish border problem. “It started as a chat, but things moved pretty quickly,” sounds like a racy Guardian Blind Date. As it happens, the Guardian’s Jess Elgot has an equally fine long read on the fury now directed towards Nicky Morgan from some Remainers who think she’s legitimising a ‘fantasy’ plan that will never get traction in the EU.
5. LOYALTY TEST
Speaking of Tory Remainers, they were in small number yesterday but that didn’t mean they didn’t have some of the best burns. Ed Vaizey was withering about May lovebombing those ERG members who only a few weeks ago wanted her to quit. “I supported the withdrawal agreement out of my own free will with no offers of gongs or jobs…I supported her when the hard Brexiteers tried to oust her as prime minister; I supported her in the no-confidence vote.” But the last word may well belong to Ken Clarke: “If this shambles goes on much longer I hate to think where populism and extremism will take us next in this democracy.”
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