The Waugh Zone Wednesday March 27, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

The European Union has decided to literally impose a limit on the speed at which the UK goes. Thanks to new vehicle manufacture regulations, which we have signed up to post-Brexit, the tempting idea of whizzing along the fast lane will be more illusory than real. For many at Westminster, the analogy and the irony of a brake on Britain’s ‘liberation’ are all too tempting. And this evening Brexit, or the multiple pile-up that is Theresa May’s handling of it, may finally set a limit on her premiership.

When the prime minister addresses the backbench Tory 1922 committee at 5pm, many of those present will be expecting her to announce a new timetable for her departure from No.10. As we (and others) report, Sir Graham Brady has told May she has to give colleagues some ‘clarity’ on her intentions tonight. But will she again offer a vague formulation that fails to satisfy anyone? Don’t forget that in December, after 37% of her MPs voted to oust her, she told the ’22 that she would not be leader in a 2022 general election. Many in her party were left upset she left her wider future up in the air.

Lots of Eurosceptics are already furious at a change to Exit Day (expect some ministers to rebel on the statutory instrument at 9pm tonight that moves the deadline back from March 29). But it’s M-Exit Day (May’s exit from No.10) that matters almost as much. Of course, few believe she will give an actual date. Several Brexiteers think she can nevertheless signal that she won’t be leader for the ‘Phase 2’ of trade talks with Brussels, once the ‘Phase 1’ of the withdrawal agreement is out of the way. Commons leader Andrea Leadsom kinda backed the idea on the Today programme, saying only “I’m fully supporting the prime minister to get us out of the European Union.” (ie Phase 1). “What happens after that, is a matter for the prime minister.”

That’s why, when May gets up at the 1922, her departure formulation will determine whether big Brexit beasts like Boris Johnson and Iain Duncan Smith will come on board. In the Mail, Jacob Rees-Mogg makes clear he’s ready to slither down the ladder offered to him, with the proviso that the DUP’s assent is a pre-requisite. Boris got his own excuses in first last night, telling the Telegraph: “If we vote it down again, for the third time, there is now I think an appreciable risk that we will not leave at all.” That leaves a big opportunity in the future leadership race for Dominic Raab, who could emerge as the ‘clean hands’ candidate who refused to vote for May’s deal.

The immediate priority for many Tories is tonight’s 22, and it won’t be pretty. May is used to being shouted at by a room full of men, but the ‘i’ newspaper quotes a furious female minister saying: “They wouldn’t be demanding she set out her departure date if the Prime Minister were a man.” Of course, the last time a woman PM was hounded out by her (almost exclusively male) MPs was Margaret Thatcher in 1990. Back then, her young political secretary, one John Whittingdale, defended her to the last. Having made clear he wants May to step aside, last night even Whitto suggested he would back May’s deal. No wonder No.10 thinks victory is in sight.

Friends of the PM are fighting the temptation to say it publicly, but their much-ridiculed fear strategy (vote for my deal or see no Brexit at all) really is working. The humble pie could indeed be made more palatable with the sugar coating of her own exit timetable. But a hard core of around 20 Brexiteers (like John Redwood) are still on hunger strike, and even if the DUP somehow U-turn, it’s going to take something new to attract the Labour MPs from Leave areas who can counterbalance the Tory ultras. Boy, it’s going to be tight.

The other priority today of course is Sir Oliver Letwin’s indicative votes on Brexit alternatives, and which options MPs will rally round. There are 16 rival proposals, which are expected to be whittled down by the Speaker to around seven, before MPs grab their pink slips and pencils and vote for their favourites this evening.

Letwin told the Today programme that his own preferred option was Ken Clarke and Hilary Benn’s deceptively simple plan (Motion J) for a ‘permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union with the EU’. The UK-wide bit avoids the problem of the Northern Irish ‘backstop’, the plan’s backers say. It certainly seems like the softest ‘soft Brexit’ proposal that could get lots of Labour support (the party will probably allow a free vote).

As for a second referendum, the Kyle-Wilson amendment has now morphed into the Beckett motion (Motion M), which states: “this House will not allow in this Parliament the implementation and ratification of any withdrawal agreement and any framework for the future relationship unless and until they have been approved by the people of the United Kingdom in a confirmatory public vote”. It’s a masterpiece of drafting, replacing ‘the Withdrawal Agreement’ (ie May’s) with ‘any’, to allow Jeremy Corbyn to claim it doesn’t endorse the PM’s deal.

It’s highly possible none of the motions will get a majority, and the process will then probably move on to Monday (will anyone dare call this ‘IV 2’?), when somehow a preferential run-off system will kick in and options narrowed to just two.

I talked to one senior MP yesterday who said that what should really follow tonight’s votes is a major cross-party gathering to thrash out the options. “The only solution is a political one, where backers of each alternative compromise and try to negotiate, rather than a forced vote on Monday that would put process ahead of the politics,” they said. The problem is that a mini-convention of government and Opposition would require civil service support, Parliamentary draughtsmen on hand, as well as buy-in from both frontbenches. And we are running out of time.

There’s also the problem of which plan May will accept, or which her party will let her accept. Letwin said that if ministers fail to engage “then those working across the parties will move to legislate to mandate the government. “There’s nothing revolutionary about that, it’s a perfectly ordinary proceeding. Governments are just like you and me, they operate under the law…we live in a rule-governed democracy.” Leadsom hinted she disagreed, saying: “For me as a Brexiteer, I would want to see whatever came forward meaning we would deliver for the 17m people [who voted Leave.”

The real roadblock to a Commons majority for May’s deal remains the DUP. Yesterday, its Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson sparked some panic in government when he suggested a long delay of even a year would be preferable to the ‘prison’ of the PM’s plan. Within minutes, the DUP was stressing that wasn’t the official position. Indeed some cynics believe that if hardliner Sammy is lashing out it’s because he fears his party is drifting towards the Boris-IDS-Moggy route of surrender. For now, the DUP really is standing firm, however. Its 10 MPs never, ever split on matters of the Union.

Without her Northern Irish partners coming on board, bringing her deal back seems genuinely pointless for May. There is one radical option being mooted that would sideline the DUP (or at least allow them to stick to their guns), and that’s the idea of ‘de-coupling’ the EU-UK Withdrawal Agreement (the divorce deal) from the Political Declaration (the friends-with-benefits future relationship). Labour could possibly abstain on the Withdrawal Agreement if it was brought forward on its own, as its main beef is on the future trade deal. This idea was indeed raised by government figures in talks with Corbyn this week. The real drawback is Keir Starmer has long fought against a ‘blind Brexit’, but the chatter around this won’t go away.

Meanwhile, the DUP’s refusal to budge means that time pressure is indeed a real problem. No matter which Letwin option wins most votes tonight, we will find out by close of play whether May brings back ‘meaningful vote 3’ tomorrow. If not tomorrow, it could even take place on Friday, an idea Michael Gove pushed in Cabinet yesterday. Don’t forget that the actual text of the EU summit conclusion was that if there is no approval for the Withdrawal Agreement *this week* then Article 50 expires on April 12. The only way to get a May 22 extension is if the deal is approved by Friday at the latest.

Watch Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez lambast a Republican who claimed tackling the environmental emergency was ‘elitist’. Her angry, passionate speech is bound to go viral - and to catch the eye of Team Corbyn.

So, Derek Hatton isn’t a member of the Labour party any more. The former Militant withdrew his application on the very day that the ruling NEC was due to hear his case (and was expected to refuse to restore a provisional membership approved in January, then suspended over anti-Semitism claims). It all means that tricky questions about just why Hatton’s readmission was authorised, despite warnings from officials last summer, were not asked yesterday.

As if continuing to dictate UK driving speeds weren’t enough, the long arm of Brussels was in evidence yesterday on everything from internet memes (new copyright laws will exempt parodies) to summer daylight saving hours. Yes, the European Parliament has backed a proposal to stop the obligatory one-hour clock change which extends daylight in summer EU-wide. Individual states will decide their own hours. Our own clocks change this weekend. Whether they’ll be on Brexit-time or not by then remains unclear.

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