1. LEGALLY BLAND?
The big Brexit debate resumes today and it ought to be a major Parliamentary moment. Yet the fact that this is merely an extension of the previous debate has taken much of the drama out of the occasion. And with Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay opening for the government, even his admirers would admit he lacks the big name appeal needed to re-inject some momentum. Instead, it may be left to PMQs to act as a proxy-opener of the five-day Brexit debate.
But we should be in no doubt that the stakes are as high as ever, ahead of next week’s ‘meaningful vote’ on Tuesday night. And one of the key issues over coming days will be Theresa May’s attempt to claim that she has secured not just political but legal ‘assurances’ needed for Parliament to pass her deal. We report exclusively today that both Labour and Tory rebels are demanding the government should reveal any updated legal advice to back up the PM’s new promises. In short, they want legal proof that something has changed.
The hope in No.10 has been to win the DUP round, unlocking scores of Tory MPs whose main objection to the deal is the vexed Northern Irish ‘backstop’. But neither the DUP nor Brexiteers nor Labour will be satisfied with anything that looks like mere words. Irish PM Leo Varadkar tried to be helpful to May yesterday, saying the EU was ready to provide new “written guarantees, explanations and assurances” to help her secure Parliamentary support. Yet few in Dublin or Brussels think the EU will sign up to anything that unpicks the backstop or has real legal force. Newsnight’s Nick Watt last night said the DUP position was unchanged.
The new guarantees are expected in an exchange of letters with the EU27, possibly as late as Monday or Tuesday. But any claims by ministers that they are ‘legally’ meaningful will swiftly be challenged by MPs to prove what legal advice underpins such pronouncements. No.10’s decision to get Attorney General Geoffrey Cox to open the final day’s debate shows it is alive to this problem, but given the previous contempt motion he will be under intense pressure (from figures ranging from Keir Starmer to Iain Duncan Smith) to publish any updated advice. Various procedural devices are being worked out. We could see either an amendment to the meaningful vote or the threat of fresh contempt used to force Cox’s hand.
Meanwhile, Lord Kerr (the British diplomat who drafted Article 50) has a new report on a ‘roadmap’ out of the crisis. He says that talk of a series of indicative votes on alternatives to May’s plan are all meaningless unless they include legitimate requests to extend the Article 50 process. And Kerr points out the EU won’t allow an extension for plans that haven’t been discussed or agreed with Brussels. Only a general election or second referendum would persuade them, he says. As for Labour’s own sequencing, Barry Gardiner said this morning that if May lost on Tuesday, “the next thing to do immediately after that is for there to be a vote of confidence in the Government.” Buckle up, folks.
2. NO DEAL, NO DICE?
In Cabinet yesterday, Amber Rudd warned May and others that history would take a ‘dim view’ of a Cabinet that allowed no-deal. But several of her colleagues went to to strongly disagree, including Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. (Speaking of Javid, Robert Peston says he was skewered by Philip Hammond into admitting no-deal would undermine his Dover plans to deal with asylum seekers). Business secretary Greg Clark felt emboldened to tell MPs yesterday that “no-deal should not be contemplated”. On his morning media round, de factor deputy PM David Lidington told Radio 4’s Today ‘no-deal is not a scenario the government supports’.
And the whole point of last night’s Finance Bill amendment was to show that Parliament won’t tolerate no-deal either. The seven-vote defeat for the government has little practical effect, but as I said yesterday the main power of the Cooper-Morgan amendment was to show that a cross-party alliance can impose its will - and to boost trust between Remainer Tories and Labour. Cynics suspect it’s actually helpful to May to show her Brexiteers that no-deal is less likely than no-Brexit. But Sir Oliver Letwin’s powerful speech showed Tories like him won’t budge on this issue: he vowed to vote the same way “right up to the end of March, in the hope that we can put pay to this disastrous proposal.” I first reported these no-deal ‘guerilla’ tactics last month, and you can expect more to come.
As for no-deal preparations of alternatives to the Dover crossings, the Mayor of Ostend yesterday said Chris Grayling’s plan to switch ferries to his port would be ‘impossible’ to achieve by Exit Day. And the FT reports this morning that even senior DfT officials now accept the controversial Seaborne contract won’t be ready until late April (directly contradicting Grayling, who has suggested it could be started on March 29). Thanet council said yesterday that there was still no deal. “We are currently in discussions with potential operator Seaborne Freight. No contract has been signed.”
But Brexiteers point to the more pressing point that Calais itself won’t allow a no-deal to cause disruption. And on Today, the deputy mayor of Calais said his port had been preparing for a year and ‘will be ready’ for March 29. No more trucks will be stopped crossing the Channel than at present, he added. Backbench Tory MP Marcus Fysh tweeted “Disappointing to see desperate lies from Deputy PM Lidington on this point in response. Should be a resigning matter for him.” Expect more of that today. David Davis has long argued Calais’s self-interest means long delays just won’t happen.
3. PLAN B SWINGTIME
Jokes about fiftysomething swingers don’t often make it to Cabinet meetings. But it’s another sign of the strange, eve-of-battle mood right now that Michael Gove, Amber Rudd and David Gauke could dare to make the comparison. The PM’s official spokesman couldn’t resist smiling when asked in Lobby yesterday about Sam Coates’ tweet that Gove had likened opponents of the PM’s deal to middle-aged men waiting in vain for Scarlett Johansson to come along. The Sun’s Tom Newton-Dunn has the exact wording (Gove referred to ‘the oldest swingers in town’ being like ’50-year-olds at the end of the disco, who have turned down all other offers’).
But the more serious discussion was when Rudd, who clearly intends to use her Cabinet recall to be as frank as possible, also made a key plea for indicative votes to find the ‘centre’ of opinion of the Commons on alternatives to May’s deal. And many ministers were struck that the PM herself finally countenanced for the first time in Cabinet that she could lose next week’s vote. But apart from saying she would ‘move quickly’ in such an event, she gave no indication of what she would do or what her Plan B was. At PMQs today, Corbyn could use all six of his questions to ask: what will you do when you are defeated next week?
The latest annual poll of MPs by UK in a Changing Europe/Mile End Institute found Tory opinion hardening against the backstop, with more thinking that the Irish border problems have been ‘exaggerated’. But there’s a shift too among Labour MPs, with 36% (up from 8%) thinking single market membership would not honour the 2016 referendum. No wonder both Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn are treading carefully with their refusal to upset the careful balance within the PLP of MPs in Leave and Remain areas.
Today, Labour’s international policy commission (which oversees Brexit policy) meets and the People’s Vote campaign have lobbied it strongly with 10,000 submissions from members and others who want Corbyn to back a second referendum unequivocally. There’s a quote from one member Anne Hignett that could even feature in PMQs if the Tory whips are smart enough: “The leadership has entirely failed to provide positive, constructive, restorative leadership at a time when society is so bitterly divided”. Jacob Rees-Mogg joked to his ERG group last night that he should perhaps invite Corbyn along ‘to see how good a Brexiteer he is’.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Amazingly US TV networks cleared their prime-time schedules to give Donald Trump time to restate his case for his Wall. But even FoxNews had a neat fact-check takedown on each of his lies about undocumented border crossings, drug smuggling and more.
4. WAITING FOR GODDARD
Scotland Yard yesterday confirmed its officers have been told to ‘intervene appropriately where they see or hear breaches of the law’. You’d think that was the whole point of their job already, but the pressure is on after Anna Soubry complained the cops had so far ignored abuse and harassment of MPs and journalists outside Parliament. We have a piece on James Goddard, the lead protestor whose social media accounts have been taken down. The Mail splashes on a pic of him with UKIP leader Gerard Batten last year. The Westminster police presence is stronger, and more MPs have come forward to tell of the abuse they get from left and right, Leavers and Remainers.
5. SOFT CELL?
The Telegraph has an exclusive that prison window bars are to be removed from new jails after a government-funded study found them too ‘punitive’. Cells are to be renamed ‘rooms’ and in one trial prisoners are to be issued with laptops and tea and sandwich-making facilities. It’s all part of a plan to ‘normalise’ prison environment to boost rehabilitation. Eminently sensible, will say supporters of Justice Secretary David Gauke. Soft political correctness, his critics may argue. Just wait for Philip Davies’ response…
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