The Waugh Zone Friday February 23, 2018

Paul Waugh


After an eight-hour meeting in Chequers, the Cabinet’s Brexit sub-committee broke up last night with one unifying position: the UK will opt for “ambitious managed divergence” in future trade with the EU.  Theresa May will next week make a Big Speech (Friday is the pencilled-in date) summing up the position after a meeting of the full Cabinet on Tuesday.

Brexiteers were straight out of the traps, briefing the Speccie’s James Forsyth that ‘divergence won the day’. But that felt a bit like topspin as one source told Laura Kuenssberg the PM was “firm with Boris” and forced the Leavers round to her opinion. One Remainer source in the room told me that the meeting was ‘genuinely positive and substantial…and you know my views’. The PM chaired the meeting well, all sides agreed.

Now, ‘managed divergence’ is not new. It is an idea floated by David Davis and others in recent months. Add the adjective ‘ambitious’ and you can see why it pleases Brexiteers even more. In many ways, the phrase is a wonderful bit of semantics, almost as elastic and canny as ‘take back control’. It certainly helps Brexiteers secure their Canada-plus-plus-plus stance. Yet Hammond and other Remainers can argue managed divergence means the UK can continue to align with EU rules as a starting point, unless or until it wants to diverge later. Some think the ‘right to diverge’ may turn out to be like the current ‘right to request’ flexible working: little used because the consequences are costly.  Jacob Rees-Mogg insisted on Today he wanted divergence to start on March 31, 2019.

Lots of detail was left unsaid yesterday, despite the meeting taking eight hours. There was no detailed discussion on future customs arrangements or the Northern Irish border. And as ever, Brussels may just reject the pluses in the British plan and offer us a ‘Canada-dry’ model instead. The FT reveals that Dutch PM Mark Rutte told May privately on Wednesday that “it would be better to say nothing at all” than to keep insisting she could simultaneously have varying levels of alignment with EU rules. Brexiteers think that’s more Brussels-style bluster. Let’s see.



Jeremy Corbyn gets his retaliation in first on Monday with his own Big Speech on Brexit. And it looks like he’s set to unveil a shift in the party’s stance on future trade with the EU. Yesterday in a phone-in on LBC, Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry let the cat out of the bag, declaring: “we have to negotiate a new agreement that, we think, is likely to be a customs union that will look pretty much like the current customs union”.

Now, as with the Cabinet’s linguistic gymnastics, in some ways what Thornberry has said is not hugely new. Keir Starmer’s six tests for the Brexit deal include a Boris-esque cake-and-eat-it line that any deal must have ‘the exact same benefits’ of ‘the’ customs union and ‘the’ single market.  John McDonnell added the caveat yesterday that Labour don’t want to be in ‘the’ customs union “because we don’t want the same asymmetric relationship that Turkey have got”.  But if Corbyn hardens the language, he will cheer up his overwhelmingly pro-Remain party members and MPs, while also setting up the prospect of an alliance with Tory rebels.

And it’s those Tory Remainer rebels who are clearly spooking No.10 right now. The Times’ Sam Coates revealed yesterday that votes on the Trade Bill and the Customs Bill going through the Commons will be delayed until after the May elections. Rebels have planned amendments that seek to keep the UK in the customs union, but Brexiteers also plan to amend the legislation to rule one out. It remains very unclear just how many MPs are prepared to join Ken Clarke and Anna Soubry in defying their own Government. But it looks like Corbyn’s inner circle are warming to the idea of a ‘Maastricht’-style alliance (when Labour’s own policy was secondary to defeating the Government) with Conservative rebels.



Many Labour people nationally are keeping a close eye on the party’s open selection contest for the directly-elected Mayoralty of Newham in East London. The UK’s longest-serving mayor Sir Robin Wales faces a ‘deselection’ challenge from local councillor Rokhsana Fiaz and after they both gave interviews to HuffPost it’s fair to say the gloves are now off.

Fiaz accuses Wales of running a ‘one party state’ in Newham, with ‘top down, hierarchical’ leadership and a lack of accountability that allowed £52m spent on the London Stadium. She plans a referendum on the directly-elected mayor model (a model Corbyn has been critical of too). More controversially, she accuses her rival of ‘dog whistle’ tactics after he talked about the ‘community politics’ of this critics.

For his part, Sir Robin (who’s led the borough for 23 years and wants a record fifth term) strongly defends his record on jobs and homes, claiming he runs ‘the most radical council in the country’. He talks about his time defeating student ‘Trots’ in the 1970s (thanks to a coach dubbed the ‘Ice Pick Express’), worries that Labour is not ahead in the polls and why longevity as a leader is no bad thing. The ballot is next month, and MPs and activists alike will be fascinated to know who wins over the local members.



Watch this car crash interview given by ex-UKIP leader Henry Bolton and his ex-girlfriend Jo Marney on ITV’s This Morning. She admits her racist remarks about Grenfell and Meghan Markle were ‘not good’.  They’re already the new Neil and Christine Hamilton. Without the laughs.



Unicef deputy chief and ex No10 aide Justin Forsyth quit last night. But went out with a defiant statement that his resignation was nothing to do with ‘mistakes’ (ie inappropriate text messages) at his previous post at Save the Children. He says some of the coverage was an “attempt to do serious damage to our cause and the case for aid”.

Cue further backlash. Tory MP Nigel Evans, who sits on the Commons International Development committee, tells The Sun: “I’m staggered that he does not get it. The outcry has nothing to do with 0.7 per cent target on aid but a 100 per cent target on eradicating sexual abuse from the aid sector.” On Daily Politics, former Save the Children whistleblower Faiza Shaheen said the “predatory behaviour” of men at the charity made “a lot of women feel unsafe”.



Greenpeace’s investigative arm Unearthed has got hold of documentsshowing Boris Johnson’s team rejected an ethics chief’s plea to charge a clean Brexit think tank for use of the Foreign Office premises for its launch. Cabinet Office sleazefinder general Sue Gray said a fee should be imposed on the Initiative for Free Trade (IFT), but the FCO said none was needed because the event ‘supported the Government’s objectives’.

It’s telling that No.10 are revealed to have had concerns about the launch, which saw Boris, Liam Fox and Michael Gove line up with the IFT’s founders in the grand surroundings of the FCO’s Map Room. And there’s a lovely bit of colour about the Brexiteer pecking order, with Johnson’s aide complaining he was being overshadowed by Fox’s team dominating the coverage. “I can’t say I’m very happy with this. This is happening in the FCO courtesy of us. And it is Boris who is the pull, let’s face it.”


Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about whether Jeremy Corbyn really is a spy, Cabinet unity over fears of a Mad Max Brexit dystopia, and Stormzy v the PM.  We have an ace politics and music quiz too (turns out I’m more street than my colleagues). Click here for iTunes and here for Android/Audioboom.


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