The Waugh Zone Thursday March 21, 2019

Paul Waugh

1. TOXIC SHOCK

“You’re toxic!” said the PM “No, you’re toxic!” said MPs. In her live televised address to the nation last night, Theresa May essentially declared that the Commons’ refusal to pass her Brexit deal was having a corrosive effect on public trust in politics. As she rammed home the crude message that the Commons was now the enemy of the people, the backlash was pretty swift from all sides. Tory ex-minister Sam Gyimah used the t-word, Labour’s Wes Streeting warning of risks to MPs’ safety, while Eurosceptic hardliners warned even a short delay would be her fault.

Of course, in many way’s May’s personal leadership style (closed rather than open, tram-lined rather than flexible) and dire communications skills (that cost the Tories their majority) are partly to blame for the deadlock that she so deplores. The woman who once made changing ‘the nasty party’ her political mission last night went down the Trump-style route of trying to frame this impasse as the-public-versus-Parliament. 

So why did she do it? Well, she’s been surrounded for months by pollsters, focus group intel and a clutch of advisers telling her that a sizeable chunk of voters are so sick of the Westminster game that they now favour a ‘clean [no-deal] Brexit’. This was a telly event aimed squarely at the Gogglebox audience (No.10 monitors the show keenly for ’real people’s reaction to politics). And for all the disdain for May’s stunt among MPs last night, one minister tells me that their other half “loved it”. “She felt the PM was speaking to her, reflecting her frustration and anxieties about the whole thing”.

Still, Jeremy Hunt appeared to acknowledge on the Today programme that the PM’s tone had been counter-productive, and that she had let the strain get to her. “Let’s not forget the extraordinary pressure she is under,” he said. The problem is that May has spent the past three years making a dogged, plodding sense of duty her unique selling point. That’s why when she starts saying she’s as mad as hell and she’s not going to take it anymore, few actually believe her.

2. SUMMER LEADERS, SOME ARE NOT

 

The fact is that May can’t even get a resignation threat right. Up in the press gallery we all instantly spotted the implications of her PMQs warning that “As prime minister, I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June”. Immediately afterwards, in our ‘huddle’ with her spokesman, I asked him directly whether her words meant she really would quit rather than agree a long extension.“You should infer from those words the strength of the prime minister’s resolve,” he replied. It was a supremely non-committal commitment, of which his boss would have been proud. Four times the quitting question was asked, four times we were served similar bowls of blancmange.

And in last night’s TV script, May dumped the key caveat ‘As prime minister’, saying only ‘I am not prepared to delay Brexit any further than 30 June’. Moreover, Laura Kuenssberg was on the 10 o’clock news explaining No.10’s thinking. “It was not, as I understand, it a direct threat to say she would quit if we ended up in that place.” It’s still very possible that the PM could try to stay in post, even if the Commons votes for a longer extension to Article 50 and the UK’s continue membership of the EU.

In a meeting with Brexiteer ministers after lunchtime, May said she actually had no intention of resigning. Moreover, she said she was serious about opting for no-deal, the Times reports. This fits with the mood I picked up last month that she really is considering putting party unity before all else. Rather typically, some MPs left last night’s No.10 meeting with May convinced she’ll never opt for no-deal, others left thinking it was very much an option. The long-term damage to the Tory brand from no-deal could be huge, but some close to the PM argue the damage of not delivering Brexit at all would be much greater.

The question of a forced resignation is still very much alive, however. The reason May’s TV address was delayed was because a meeting with Tory MPs overran. And in that meeting, several backbenchers politely told her it was time to step aside. And these were ‘moderate’ Brexiteers who have decided to back her deal next week. Nigel Evans, ex deputy speaker, went public as he said there were “big questions” over May’s leadership as “trust is waning, ebbing away”. The 1922 Committee meeting saw chairman Brandon Lewis torn apart, with one MP telling him the party was “being led by a vacuum who has no support”.

In our latest CommonsPeople podcast due out later today, another moderate Brexiteer Rob Halfon tells us that a leadership election now looks highly likely this summer.  Halfon neatly captures the mood of the Commons tea rooms, saying “loyalists, Remainers, Leavers” are talking in dark terms about her future. “We will wait until the bulk of the Brexit stuff is over…but I suspect that it’s sooner rather than later. It may be by the summer that you have a contest beginning at least.” Ex-No.10 aide Nikki da Costa also told us that the long recess is the perfect transition time for a new PM because “there’s a great risk it does take you a long time to get up and running”.

 

3. BRUSSELS, BOUND

 

Late this afternoon, we will find out just what length of extension the EU is prepared to grant the UK. As the Speccie’s James Forsyth points out, May is now reduced to begging for more time for her deal. Her hands bound by Brussels, the EU27 could well tear up her June 30 date and impose a tighter May 22 deadline, to ensure the UK can’t remain in the EU once the European elections start. 

Don’t forget the role played by David Lidington here. Although he was mysteriously absent from PMQs, he had been busy laying the groundwork in Brussels on Tuesday. And last night Donald Tusk was actually very helpful to May, suggesting the EU would agree to a short extension but make it conditional on her getting her deal through Parliament.

Yet Tusk also hinted that a longer extension could also be granted at an emergency EU summit next week. That was a lifeline to all those MPs who would rather delay than leave with no-deal. May’s gamble yesterday was to ease the pressure on her own hardline Brexiteers (she effectively removed the long extension threat many of them fear), while trying to scare Labour MPs into backing her. Unfortunately, May’s TV address made it even harder for people like Lisa Nandy to support her.

Jeremy Corbyn is also in Brussels and with every passing hour it looks like he’s heading towards backing a Norway-style Brexit. He’s long said his priority is to avoid no-deal. If it’s a choice between that and May’s deal, would he let his MPs abstain? More likely, thanks to Tusk’s resurrection of a longer extension, Corbyn could opt for that as a route to negotiations on a softer exit. Remainer Tories really would have to nail their colours to the mast too. As for timing, we could get May’s meaningful vote on Tuesday or Wednesday and the statutory instruments to change exit day next Thursday. Recently, Brexiteer Mark Francois offered Keir Starmer a bet of £50 that ‘MV3’ would take place on March 26. He may well be right.

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

In case you missed it amid the Brexit mayhem this week, check out Irish PM Leo Varadkar defending gay rights as he brought his partner to meet deeply conservative Vice President Mike ‘being-gay -is-a-lifestyle-choice’ Pence.

 

4. OBJECT LESSONS

Last night, away from the Brexit madness, Tory MP Philip Davies shouted ‘object’ to the government’s new sex education regulations. As a result, a decision will be deferred and return at a later date to be determined by the whips. It had shades of Chris Chope doing a similar thing over FGM and upskirting bills, but this time on government regs. Labour’s Angela Rayner deplored Davies’ move, and tempers are still sore at Andrea Leadsom’s remarks about LGBT education in schools. She was furious with Labour’s Stephen Doughty about it yesterday.

 

5. BREXIT EMERGENCY

The public are being kept in the dark about no-deal Brexit prep for the NHS, it seems. Ministers have banned NHS hospitals from publishing risk assessments about how Brexit might affect them, allegedly because doing so could “put public wellbeing at risk”. In another top scoop, the Health Service Journal reveals the DHSC has circulated guidance to trusts on how to basically turn down freedom of information requests on how Brexit might affect their non-clinical goods and services and staff.

   

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