1. AUGUST GATHERING
When Jeremy Corbyn faces Theresa May for PMQs today, he knows they have a mutual interest in sticking with their cross-party talks on Brexit. But the Labour leader also knows that the PM has more to lose than he does from the never-ending negotiation. Corbyn has every reason to keep the talks limping on: in politics, a wounded opponent is much more useful than a dead one. By the end of this year, he will be taking more PMQs against another Tory leader (his third). It’s worth remembering that everything his team does is now geared towards beating her successor in a general election.
For many Tory MPs, the current Brexit situation feels like purgatory. That’s why they are so dismayed by the prospect of it going on even longer. And yesterday it emerged that the government was preparing yet another, new deadline for Exit Day. For all those MPs thinking ‘we can’t go on like this,’ (Andrea Leadsom told Good Morning Britain she was ‘seriously considering standing’ for Tory leader), some in government clearly think we can.
David Lidington let the cat out of the bag when he said that he wanted “certainly to get this done and dusted by the summer recess” (mid or late July). Then the PM’s spokesman confirmed it: “In relation to parliamentary timetables, we will look to complete this ideally by 30 June, but if not then by the summer recess.” What had felt like a ministerial aside was in fact a new government line. The EU says we can’t leave until the first day of the month following any ratification of Brexit legislation. So August 1 is now pencilled in diaries across Westminster and Whitehall.
The slippage won’t improve the mood of the backbench 1922 Committee today, not least as it’s easy to see that May could remain in post until the September party conference, when a new leader is unveiled. Then again, those Tory MPs who don’t want a Johnson/Raab leadership are actually rather pleased at the idea of getting more time to build up Parliamentary momentum against the two ‘no-dealers’. The 1922 executive may wait until after the Euro election drubbing to force the issue. The real danger for its credibility is if the party changes its leadership rules, only to see May win a fresh confidence vote thanks to all those Boris-sceptics.
As for those cross-party talks, Labour was decidedly more downbeat than government sources last night, as it seems few of its demands are being met. Whitehall sources insist that today (or possibly tomorrow) could be the last chance to see if there is a ‘landing zone’ for compromise on the big issues like customs and Boris-proofing any deal. “We’ve got the same problem the EU have,” one senior shadow cabinet minister tells me. “We are negotiating with someone who may not be there for much longer.” Still, many expect that the new, longer deadline of August 1 will give both sides more reason to keep talking, and keep delaying. It’s not totally mad to even contemplate May still being in post by the time of the EU’s ‘final’ deadline of Halloween.
2. BRITAIN IN EUROPE
Lidington formally confirmed yesterday the worst kept secret in SW1, namely that those European Parliament elections would indeed go ahead later this month on May 23. As ex-No.10 aide Nikki da Costa points out, the Withdrawal Agreement Bill may now not emerge until after the Euros in late May. Even if a Commons majority is somehow found, it will then take at least four weeks to get it through all its stages in the Commons and Lords (don’t forget the latter’s ability to delay), so it’s no wonder ministers want the wriggle room of going right up to the July recess. Lord only knows if MPs will even get a Whitsun (late May bank holiday) break.
The taxpayer is already facing a bill of around £150m to stage the elections, but the political cost to May is higher. If the Parliamentary timetable does slip beyond June 30, May then faces the humiliation of British MEPs taking their seats in Strasbourg. You can imagine what a great PR coup it would be for Nigel Farage to lead his army into the building, and wreak havoc with his maiden speech of the new session. If we quit the EU, the MEPs would relinquish their seats the following month (and the rest of the EU get 27 extra seats).
Just what the hell the Tory party does now about its own Euro election campaign is a key issue. It’s far from clear that chairman Brandon Lewis will even have a campaign launch and the Times reports a cut-price campaign will see leaflets with the message that a vote for Farage risks letting Jeremy Corbyn top the poll “and put him one step closer to Downing Street”. Pro-EU Tories are shunning the party as well as Brexiteers, with Michael Heseltine telling Newsnight last night “I only know that I will not vote for a Brexit candidate”.
A new BBC4 documentary ‘Brexit Behind Closed Doors’, aired tonight, focuses on Guy Verhofstadt the Euro Parliament’s Brexit coordinator and bete noir of many Leavers. One of his team is heard saying that David Davis doesn’t “really give a fuck” about what goes through the Northern Ireland border.
3. POMPEO AND CIRCUMSTANCE
Try as many might, you just can’t get away from Gavin Williamson. His name cropped up in Cabinet yesterday, with the PM warning again against leaks. He even plays a bit part in the row over the restoration of Parliament (Andrea Leadsom today unveils legislation to speed things up), as senior sources revealed yesterday his sacking as defence secretary could save the taxpayer hundreds of millions of pounds by speeding up project (Williamson had a thing about protecting the MOD’s car park).
But the former Cabinet minister (who has yet to decide when or whether to do a personal Commons statement about his resignation) will be cheered by the arrival in town of US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo today. Trump’s key ally (and ex CIA chief) will meet the PM before hosting a joint press conference with Jeremy Hunt. And overnight, his message on Huawei sounds very much like Williamson’s.
The US State Department has been hinting that giving the Chinese firm even limited access to the UK’s 5G network could mean a reduced US presence in the UK. The talk is that the plan would ‘make partnering more difficult’ if telecoms equipment was ‘co-located’. Note that Ciaran Martin, our National Cyber Security Centre chief, said recently “We can and have coped with certain differences in the past… We have different remits.” Note too this crucial blog by NCSC tech chief Ian Levy, which explains exactly why the UK’s spooks have taken a managed risk approach to Huawei. Maybe Hunt will encourage Pompeo to read it?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Some Brits are delighted to be still in Europe, not least when it comes to football. Watch Liverpool’s manager swear as he explains just how proud he was of his defenders in their extraordinary match with Barcelona.
4. GIFT OF THE GABBY
David Cameron is back in the news, thanks to former aide (now Tory peer) Gabby Bertin, who tells the Times that her old boss is ‘distraught’ at the Brexit mess. Stop laughing at the back. Bertin also has a serious warning that “If people are worried about an ERG prime minister they have to join the Conservative Party pretty quickly because there’s going to be a big vote coming”. Meanwhile, the Sun reports that Dave has shelled out £8k on an eco-friendly hot tub in his Cornish holiday home.
5. WHAT’S UP DOC?
The NHS hasn’t gone away as an issue, despite the promises of a new 10-year funding plan. The BBC reports today that GP numbers are falling at their worst rate for decades. Their last peak was is 2009 and since 2014 numbers have gone down, just as the population and pressures for primary care have increased. An analysis by the Nuffield Trust think tank for the BBC shows the number of GPs per 100,000 people has fallen from nearly 65 in 2014 to 60 last year. The last time numbers fell like this was in the late 1960s. Changes to pensions are partly to blame but so too are heavier workloads, the BMA says.
If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.
Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/