1. THE HARD SELL, SIMPLES
Cometh the hour, cometh the plan. When the draft text of Theresa May’s plan for Brexit is finally unveiled today, it will be shot through with complicated legalese. Many of the details of key issues are likely to be buried in ‘annexes’ and ‘protocols’ to the formal Withdrawal Agreement. And that’s just the divorce papers. The actual future relationship between the UK and EU, set out in a ‘political declaration’, could be full of sticky fudge. From Northern Ireland’s status to customs and regulatory rules, there will be enough small print to give many people a migraine.
In stark contrast, opponents of the deal will rely on simplicity, not complexity. The UK will be turned into a ‘colony’ of the EU (copyright Boris Johnson) or a ‘slave state’ (copyright Jacob Rees-Mogg). In an elegant inversion of William Hague’s famous line from the 2001 general election, critics already claim that May’s deal means the UK will be ‘out of Europe, yet run by Europe’ (rather ominously for No.10, that’s a line used by both Brexiteer Conor Burns and Remainer Jo Johnson).
It’s true that yesterday Downing Street lost the spin war, with a leak of the draft text to Irish broadcaster RTE sparking fury from the DUP and Tory backbenchers. But May’s allies believe that the Brexiteers and other critics have fired their bullets too soon, and that hope once the detail emerges it will be clear that this is a compromise deal with key ‘wins’ for Britain. A ‘Rolling Stones’ strategy will be deployed through coming hours, days and weeks: you can’t always get what you want/but if you try sometimes/you might find you get what you need. May’s pitch is likely to be that far from being a ‘colony’ of the EU, the UK will get the best of both worlds, post-Brexit. We will be detached from its excesses, yet will continue to benefit from a unique trading relationship, the message will go.
Still, one big problem is that the complexity of the deal makes it ripe for re-interpretation and misinterpretation. For each of the key British ‘wins’ (removing an explicit Northern Ireland-only ‘backstop, securing an independent review mechanism), there are EU wins too (the NI backstop is buried but still alive in the deep end of Robert Peston’s ‘swimming pool’, the European Court of Justice seems to have an unspecified role). There’s a fresh difficulty too. Many critics feared the Withdrawal Agreement would be the bitter pill to swallow, while the future trade deal would be the sweetener. It now seems the future trade deal will be even more unpalatable. Both Politico’s Tom McTague and The Times report Michel Barnier’s deputy telling colleagues “This requires the customs union as the basis of the future relationship. They [Britain] must align their rules, but the EU will retain all the controls.”
The biggest stick May seems set to wield is that if her plans are not approved then Brexit itself may not happen at all. Hague was on the Today programme helpfully warning that the Labour and Tory Remainer threat of a second referendum should focus minds. “If you don’t take this opportunity to leave. To get this over the line, you might never leave at all,” he said. One No.10 source underlined that this morning too: “We have gone as far as we can.” Last night, Chief Whip Julian Smith told HuffPost: “It is my job to get the deal through Parliament, and I couldn’t be more confident.” No, really. The PM will finally come out fighting herself today and will be buoyed by positive headlines in the Mail and Express. After the usual PMQs at noon, the Cabinet meets at 2pm and May plans a live televised press conference this evening. The compromise deal’s tagline sounds less like ‘Simply the Best’ and more like ‘Simply the Best We Could Get’. That’s going to be a hard sell - and a hard slog.
2. BACK, SACK OR CRACK
So, who in the Cabinet will back her – and who will try to sack her? This morning all the Whitehall and Westminster chatter focuses on International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt and on Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, two ministers who didn’t have one-on-ones with the PM last night. Mordaunt has been increasingly restive, pushing the envelope of collective responsibility to breaking point in recent weeks. Only this week she did an extraordinary doorstep interview in which she pointed out the PM’s deal would need to get through both Cabinet and Parliamentary. Today, the Sun reveals she stunned colleagues at yesterday’s Cabinet meeting by suggesting that collective responsibility should be suspended when the deal is before the Commons. The very idea proved to her critics that she’s not up to the job of ever being leader. McVey, who may gladly want to escape the Universal Credit nightmare, is the other prime candidate for resignation.
The PM could survive Mordaunt and McVey quitting. She couldn’t survive a mass walkout triggered by Dominic Raab, Liam Fox and others. That’s precisely why backbenchers like David Davis and Boris Johnson and now Iain Duncan Smith (see below) have been urging the Cabinet to find its ‘spine’. Last night, in one of the frenzied round of on-the-spot interviews given to reporters outside the Commons chamber last night, Jacob Rees-Mogg tried to rewrite our unwritten constitution. “Bear in mind we still have Cabinet government not Prime Ministerial government. The PM is prima inter pares [first among equals], not more than that.” Raab has maintained a studious silence overnight that could be either ominous or obvious, depending on your viewpoint.
This morning, some of the ‘Pizza Club’ of ministers sceptical about the Chequers plan were considering meeting up, though key convenor Andrea Leadsom won’t be there if they do (and cold pizza for breakfast or brunch is loved by some, hated by others after all). There may well be cracks in the Pizza Club’s unity already. The Commons Leader sounds like she’s been won round for now, but she and other Brexiteers may be deciding on a tactical delay. It could be they want to make their final case at Cabinet when it meets at 2pm, make clear their deep concerns and then reserve the right to quit tonight. Yet unlike Chequers, when there was no formal ‘vote’ or show of hands, today surely the PM has to ask each of her Cabinet: do you back this deal, warts and all, or don’t you?
The Telegraph’s Steve Swinford revealed yesterday that Attorney General Geoffrey Cox told Cabinet that Northern Ireland will indeed be in a ‘different regulatory regime’ and ‘subject to EU law and institutions’ under the deal. But he also said the issue of the so-called backstop was one of ‘calculated risk’ and ministers have to decide ‘how much they are prepared to take’. Risk and reward, as ever, are what politics is often about. We’ll find out later just how is prepared to gamble their future as much as the PM.
3. MOGG ROAST
Away from the Cabinet, the big question of course is just whether this whole Brexit deal will prove so unpalatable to the Tory backbenches that they decide to topple her. So far, the 80-strong European Research Group (ERG) has been remarkably disciplined in not collectively calling for a vote of confidence in the PM. Only ‘rogue’ members like Andrew Bridgen have admitted they’ve sent to Sir Graham Brady one of the 48 letters needed to trigger a leadership move. But on Newsnight last night ERG chairman Jacob Rees-Mogg finally confessed he too could be in the market to oust May.
Mogg told Emily Maitlis: “There comes a point at which the policy and the individual become so intimately connected that it would be very hard to carry on supporting the person who is promoting this policy”. Pressed explicitly on whether he expected to be writing a no-confidence letter, he replied: “Not in the next 24 hours.” For many in No.10 this lays bare the fiction among some Brexiteers that this is all about principle not personality. Yet for the Eurosceptics, there is a cold, hard logic that a new leader is now required to deliver what they want. It’s not just the Brexit countdown clock that’s tick-tocking away. David Davis, who flies out to Washington this morning, told me last night: “It does sound as if they’ve capitulated, or tried to dress up what is a capitulation”.
Another key figure who has so far held back from all the leadership talk is Iain Duncan Smith. He knows better than anyone what it feels like when a leader’s backbench support melts away, but he also knows just how close he and other Maastricht rebels came all those years ago to pulling the UK away from the onward march of the EU. In the Central Lobby in the Commons last night, he made clear to us hacks that May’s time could well be up. Asked if her days were numbered, IDS replied: “If this [deal] is the case, the answer is almost certainly yes.” Never forget that May has gone to great lengths to keep IDS on board, showing him early drafts of speeches including the Mansion House speech earlier this year. I can’t imagine him ever writing a leadership letter, but he may embolden others to do so.
The DUP’s Nigel Dodds was restrained last night, refusing to outright condemn the PM until his party had seen the full detail. But the message from him and leader Arlene Foster was clear: we won’t get rolled over again like we were last December (when May first agreed with the EU its plans for a ‘backstop’). The Northern Irish party clearly misses the days when Gavin Williamson was Chief Whip, a key figure in securing the ‘confidence and supply’ deal that means the DUP’s 10 MPs prop the PM up in power. If the DUP can somehow be kept on board, that would give No.10 invaluable leverage in selling the deal to Brexiteers. But I get the impression that things are so far gone now that the DUP-Tory deal is unsustainable. The DUP is so determined to avoid a Corbyn-led Government that it will probably continue to back May’s Queen’s Speeches and Budgets, but only on a case-by-case basis. Maybe that will be the new normal.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch the BBC’s Chris Mason admit that he has as much idea as Mr Blobby on what is going to happen next on Brexit. After many hacks got it so wrong about Corbyn’s rise, Brexit, Trump and last year’s election, it was a lovely riposte to all the ‘predictive journalism’ that tries to turn reporters into forecasters or seers.
4. WE WON’T BE FOBT OFF
Given that the PM is now engaged in a huge battle over Brexit, the ‘Brexit by proxy’ battle over fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) may seem like a sideshow. But it matters hugely to many MPs on all sides of the House, not just Brexiteers. Now 12 ministerial aides (PPSs) have taken the rare step of writing to the Chief Whip to call for the reduction in maximum stakes by next April (SkyNews and the Times first broke this yesterday). “We will have that date, one way or another,” Iain Duncan Smith told us hacks last night, warning the PPSs are set to resign en masse. “By the end of the week most of the Conservative party is going to be on that amendment.”
5. GETTING MUELLERED
The Guardian has a fascinating new angle on the Robert Mueller investigation into alleged Russian interference in the 2016 US Presidential election. It reports that conservative author Jerome Corsi claims prosecutors working for Mueller questioned him about Nigel Farage’s links to Donald Trump. A Farage spokesman said “This is ill-informed, intentionally malicious gossip and wholly untrue.” But when asked if the Farage questions related to the US election or to the UK’s EU referendum, Corsi said: “Predominantly US politics, but of course Brexit was in the background.” On a normal day, this would be an even bigger story. This is not a normal day.
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