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The morning after that fractious late night before, lots of MPs were still around in Westminster today before finally heading for the Tube with their suitcases for a five-week suspension of parliament. And I picked up a decidedly uncertain mood in both main parties over their respective policies on Brexit.
For some in Labour, there is a fear that the Lib Dems have outflanked them with their new election pledge to revoke Brexit rather than back a referendum. Tony Blair, having banked Jeremy Corbyn’s delay in calling an election after October 31, warned this morning that a referendum was still much more important than a snap election.
Blair’s view, which only matters because it is shared by some senior members of the shadow cabinet, is that Brexit would risk getting lost in an election and is so important it should not be muddied with other issues. “And that is a position that is right in November as well as right in October,” he said. Still, it will take a lot more Tories like Oliver Letwin (new to the cause) to ensure a referendum passes the Commons.
For the Tories, growing numbers felt that the PM’s only way of delivering Brexit on October 31 was through a deal. Many crossed their fingers that he has drafted a secret, cunning plan to get around the Irish backstop and that no-deal can really be avoided.
While No.10 stressed “we are not seeking a Northern Ireland-only backstop”, there is clearly some movement by the DUP towards the Boris Johnson’s tentative plan for all-Ireland farming regulations. There are other undisclosed elements to the package. I’m told there are legal texts within No.10 (not yet seen by most of the Cabinet) but for Johnson and his team the key is how to land them with the EU, Dublin, Belfast and his own backbenchers.
DUP chief whip Sir Jeffrey Donaldson gave a fascinating interview on Radio 4’s World at One, in which he talked about the need for ‘consensus and accommodation’, while insisting his party’s 10 MPs now had ‘the equivalent of 20 votes’ given the PM’s minority status. “The idea that our influence is waning, I think, flies in the face of reality.”
The truth is that Johnson is never going to ‘sell out’ the DUP, seeing them as actually more pragmatic than they’re given credit for. He has been encouraged by noises from Europe too, with even new trade commissioner Phil Hogan hinting at detente. The PM is still prepared for the real opposition to come from the ‘Spartans’ in the European Research Group (ERG), some of whom will never vote for May’s withdrawal agreement.
Can Johnson ram his amended deal through the Commons and can he do it in time for October 31? Today, Labour’s Caroline Flint suggested there were 50 of her colleagues who would back a deal, which would be more than enough to outnumber the estimated 15 or so hardcore Spartans.
Johnson told the Cabinet today he was “the most liberal Conservative PM in decades” (as the Spectator reports). That claim that is disputed tonight by Tory donor Alexander Termerko, who tells HuffPost that he now leads “a politically religious sect” with Dominic Cummings “the archbishop of this sect..like a spiritual leader of an inquisition inside the Conservative Party.”
Yet Cummings has made no secret of his disdain for the ERG too, and some around the PM point to his warning to all rebels last week that “what’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander”. Brexit ‘hardman’ Steve Baker may give him one hell of a fight, but with Rees-Mogg and Patel and others in cabinet jobs, would they walk to support him?
Although it sounds bonkers given the bad blood of the past week, the calculation in No.10 is that many of the 21 anti-no-deal Tory rebels would probably vote for a new Brexit deal. The Spartans however have nowhere else to go.
One pro-Brexit former Cabinet minister told me today of a new plan to rout the ERG, if needed. Under this option, the PM puts his revised deal to the Commons as another ‘confidence’ vote. Any MP who failed to back it would have the whip withdrawn and deselected from standing in the following snap election. “It will be his best chance to get rid of the fucking nutcases,” the ex-minister added.
Quote Of The Day
“370 years ago we executed a king for proroguing parliament in this way”.
– Shadow international trade secretary Barry Gardiner on why the PM should watch his back.
Tuesday Cheat Sheet
Boris Johnson held a Downing Street meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster and Westminster leader Nigel Dodds to discuss ‘alternative arrangements’ to the Northern Ireland backstop. The Cabinet met and discussed Brexit but ministers spent “the bulk” of the session lobbying for priority bills for the Queen’s Speech.
Clive Lewis explained why he and fellow Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle tried to keep the Speaker in his seat at 1.45am during their prorogation protest: “Some people will say this student union politics but it’s really important...what is happening now is symbolic of a really severe shift to the right.” Iain Duncan Smith said Bercow’s conduct was ‘close to shameful’.
The PM and his chief adviser Dominic Cummings have secretly ordered Whitehall to turn the government’s public internet service into a platform for “targeted and personalised information” to be gathered in the run-up to Brexit, BuzzFeed News reported.
Labour called for Geoffrey Boycott’s knighthood offer to be rescinded. The party seized on his remark to Radio 4 that he couldn’t “give a toss” about Women’s Aid complaints that a French court conviction for assaulting his girlfriend disqualified him from getting any honour.
The race to be the next Speaker of the Commons was in danger of becoming more crowded than the original Tory leadership field, as Tory ex-minister Shailesh Vara signalled his candidacy. Labour’s Meg Hillier and Harriet Harman joined the race overnight too. Read our runners & riders guide.
Shadow business minister and Corbyn ally Laura Pidcock unveiled a sweeping new worker/union rights policy to the TUC, pledging that “sector-wide collective bargaining will set minimum and legally binding pay, terms and conditions for every employer and every worker in the sector”.