1. BLUE WEDNESDAY
It’s PMQs day again. Ahead of Theresa May’s meeting with the Tory backbench 1922 Committee, Jeremy Corbyn must be sorely tempted to offer his advice on how a party leader can see off an attempted coup by their MPs. Just a few days before the Budget, safer ground would be to point up the £31bn ‘end-of-austerity’ bill estimated by the Resolution Foundation think tank today (see below).
Yet Corbyn may want to return to the issue of Brexit, or rather to Tory divisions on Brexit, and warnings of economic chaos from ‘no deal’. One ripe area for the Labour leader would be the clear split that emerged in Cabinet yesterday. And having talked to some of those present, that split is now more obvious than ever. The division is not between Leavers and Remainers, it’s between no-compromisers and compromisers.
And on the central issue of Northern Ireland, May sounds like she’s been boxed into the no-compromise camp that wants all reference to the EU’s ‘backstop’ deleted from the Brexit Withdrawal Agreement. Yet as the draft version leaked to RTE yesterday makes clear, the EU is sticking to its red line. It’s happy to include May’s UK alternative in a legal protocol, and will even bury its own plan in an annex, but it wants the ‘backstop’ to remain. If the two sides can’t agree on this, we really are heading for no deal.
Speaking of which, David Lidington warned in Cabinet that that crashing out of the EU without an agreement could cause as much economic chaos, and long-term political damage, as ‘Black Wednesday’ way back in 1992. David Gauke and Greg Clarke backed him up, but other ministers suggested a bit of short-term, no-deal turbulence would be a price worth paying for a real Brexit in the long-term. Labour’s Shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman told us: “If Theresa May tries to take the UK out of the EU without a deal it will be ‘Black Wednesday plus, plus, plus’”. But don’t forget that for many Tory Eurosceptics, Black Wednesday was a liberation that set us on a path to Brexit itself.
Which brings us to the 1922 Committee meeting this afternoon. Unlike the PLP, these are normally occasions where the whips ensure everyone gets behind the leader. May’s letter-writing critics may stay away, but some may want to seize on the Times’ leaked Cabinet papers suggesting a ‘transition’ period could be “long running”. Brexiteers may also express fresh unease that May will try to rely on Labour votes to get her deal approved (Caroline Flint tells the Yorkshire Post that up to 45 of her colleagues could back May if she offers a ‘reasonable’ deal). Some Tory Remainers may want to push their worries that Dominic Raab’s new sequencing means they’ll be offered a take-it-or-leave it vote on Brexit (though to be frank they could solve that by opposing any programme motion at the time).
Still, unless there’s something dramatic, and unless more MPs come out saying they have submitted vote of confidence letters, this could be a Blue Wednesday for the PM, not a black one. Her overt message to her MPs will be to stick to the true blue virtue of party unity. Her subliminal message will be: there’s no one else who can do this damned job right now.
2. THEY’RE BORDER SAYING THIS
The Cabinet’s compromisers were certainly appalled yesterday at the nonchalant way in which Transport Secretary Chris Grayling appeared to float the idea of the state commandeering freight ships to secure emergency supplies of food and medicines. The contingency plan is designed to find alternative routes should the Dover-Calais crossing get jammed up in a no-deal scenario.
Many in business are bored of saying this, but a no-deal would cause serious delays to imports and exports. Bang on cue, a new National Audit Office (NAO) report out today warns that no-deal would leave the country open to criminal gangs and smugglers. It says that organised criminals would be “quick to exploit any perceived weaknesses”. “This, combined with the UK’s potential loss of access to EU security, law enforcement and criminal justice tools, could create security weaknesses which the government would need to address urgently,” the report declared.
Branding the plans a “high delivery risk”, the public spending watchdog said that 11 out of the 12 major projects needed to change key border systems might not be delivered, while the Border Force may not have time to carry out plans to recruit and train 581 additional staff to deal with the effects of Brexit. Yesterday the Cabinet agreed to receive weekly updates on no-deal preparations. Yet it already seems too late. No wonder both Brexiteers and Remainers alike are furious that May did little to get such preparations underway earlier.
3. INCOMPATABILITY TEST
When it comes to Brexit, the DUP is firmly against the idea that Northern Ireland should in any way be treated differently to the rest of the UK. But on abortion, the party insists that the province should be allowed to be very different indeed. Today, Labour’s Stella Creasy intends to push the envelope on that idea with an amendment to the Northern Ireland Bill that makes clear that ‘human rights’ for women (and same-sex couples) cannot be ignored in any part of the UK.
As revealed by HuffPost, Creasy has joined forces with fellow Labour MP Conor McGinn and Tory Tom Tugendhat in tabling a new amendment that overnight attracted the support of 108 MPs of all parties. Creasy is one of the canniest navigators of Parliamentary procedure and has drafted a form of words on this vexed issue that has been cleared by the clerks. Crucially, the amendment doesn’t seek to overturn Northern Ireland’s bans on abortion and gay marriage. But it does say that in the absence of devolved rule in Belfast, the Northern Ireland Secretary must issue guidance to local officials on the ‘incompatability’ of human rights law and the continued curbs on abortion and same-sex rights.
The Times reveals that a free vote is expected to be allowed on the amendment, though not on the rest of the Bill, as this is a matter of conscience. That makes it more likely it will pass, and suggests ministers can live with this small but significant change. The DUP is confident that no unelected official would try to countermand the wishes of local politicians. In 2016 the Northern Ireland Assembly voted against a move to allow abortion even in cases of foetal abnormality. But in putting the human rights consideration into statute, Creasy clearly thinks this is a step in the right direction. Note that Penny Mordaunt and four other ministers yesterday voted for a symbolic 10-minute rule bill decriminalising abortion in Ulster yesterday. Devolution may not always be allowed to trump UK-wide human rights for ever.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
BuzzFeed’s Mark di Stefano has been passed an off-air clip of SkyNews anchor Adam Boulton telling deputy political editor Beth Rigby to ‘stop f*cking around’. If you listen closely, you hear Beth retort ‘I’m not f*cking around’. But her face at the end says it all.
4. AN HISTORIC SPEAKER
It’s taken a very long time, but today could mark a significant step towards securing an independent investigation into allegations of bullying by John Bercow towards his staff. The House of Commons Commission will meet to consider implementing a key recommendation of the Dame Laura Cox inquiry: that a new staff grievance system should be open to ‘historic’ complaints. Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman last week made clear the Labour leader supported the idea and this was formally confirmed as the party’s stance last night. After strong words from No.10 this week, it looks like Commons leader Andrea Leadsom will back historic investigations too.
Bercow will not chair the meeting today, but he will be present (though some MPs had wanted to bar him completely). Growing unease among Tories was underlined when minister Anne Milton, whip Mims Davies and aide Will Quince all yesterday quit the Speaker’s committee on ‘inclusion’. Bercow intends to quit next year after Brexit. The question is how quickly the new complaints system can be set up, and how quickly any investigation into him by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards can then proceed.
5. AUSTERITY POSTERITY
The Institute for Fiscal Studies last week said that it would cost £19bn annually to end austerity. Today rival think tank the Resolution Foundation ups the ante, saying it would cost the Treasury £31bn over the next five years to really end the cuts. It rightly reminds us that George Osborne’s benefit freeze is still a big ticket item, due to cost low income families £250 each next year.
But the foundation also says that news of this week’s £13bn windfall in tax receipts means “the Chancellor’s ‘mission impossible’ may become ‘just about plausible’”. I’ve been saying this for some time, but a really simple way for Philip Hammond to balance the books would be to cancel (or at least delay) the planned corporation tax cut from 19% to 17% in 2020, saving a cool £6bn. It’s Labour’s policy, but just imagine if that was a rabbit in the Budget hat next week?
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