By Paul Waugh
1. THE SOFT SELL
Theresa May starts her big nationwide tour to sell her Brexit plan today. She will be in Wales talking to farmers, then in Northern Ireland talking to community groups and politicians. Only local media have been invited, proof of No.10’s strategy of putting pressure on MPs, in their own backyards, to put the ‘national interest’ first. The PM is absolutely convinced that the more the public see of her compromise plan, the more they will want their representative at Westminster to just get on with it.
But local pressure is just one weapon being deployed. Teddy Roosevelt famously had a foreign policy that consisted of ‘speak softly and carry a big stick’. The Government’s newest tactic for tackling Brexiteers is to use the threat of a softer Brexit as its own big stick. As we report, MPs are to be told that if they don’t back May’s plan, they will not be allowed to opt for ‘no deal’ and will instead be effectively triggering either an extension to Article 50 and/or a customs union with the EU.
Senior figures in Government have revealed they are very worried indeed that if the deal fails to pass its ‘meaningful vote’ hurdle, then the Trade Bill (currently waiting in the Lords) will be successfully amended to include “a customs union”. An amendment to that effect lost by just six votes in the summer, but now a Commons majority of ‘more than 40′ is expected. At the same time, Labour is in talks with clerks about getting a workable amendment to extend Article 50 to stop ‘no deal’. As one Cabinet minister told me: “The peril for Brexiteers is Parliament asking for an extension to Article 50 and the government having to respond to that, as it would become increasingly apparent that a no deal would be a disaster for the country.”
As for Nick Boles’ option of EFTA (European Free Trade Association) membership, many in Government and Labour think there are big hurdles. No.10 made plain yesterday that the PM had repeatedly said ending free movement was central to delivering on the Leave vote (that’s why her immigration plans finallly appear next week). EFTA membership would also cross May’s red lines of ‘getting out of the customs union, out of the single market’. De facto deputy PM David Lidington told Today this morning “there is no ‘Plan B’” because the EU won’t allow one. But the request for more time may be the thing that ultimately unites Leavers (who think they can get a harder Brexit) and Remainers (who think they can get a softer one).
2. TELLY KINESIS
So,Theresa May has gone for it and told the Sun that she wants to debate her Brexit deal with Jeremy Corbyn, one-on-one. The date of Sunday December 9 has been mooted, just two days before the ‘meaningful vote’ in the Commons. That’s the night of the I’m A Celebrity final. If ITV got the debate, would it really run it just before its biggest telly offering of the Xmas period? If the BBC got the rights, would they risk a ratings flop by scheduling that night? And will anyone really watch whenever the show is on?
May obviously thinks she can move the market in her favour by showing she has a plan and Corbyn doesn’t. That’s high risk, as he has proved in the past he can confound expectations (some of his best PMQs have involved exploiting Tory divisions on the topic) as well as live down to them (some of his worst PMQs have been when he fails to detail his alternative). Yesterday, May gave a hint of her tactics when she pointed out Corbyn had called for the UK to strike its own independent trade deals, and claimed there was a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS.
There are all sorts of complications for the broadcasters, such as whether to invite a Brexiteer and a People’s Vote MP to join the debate, and how to include Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland. Some believe that the PM is better off spending her time winning round individual MPs rather than going above their heads. Still, the latest attempt by May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell to pitch the deal to Labour MPs last night (PoliticsHome has the details) met with a mix of indifference (just 20 turned up) and hostility (one MP warned her she faced a defeat by 150 votes). Maria Caulfield was scathing this morning: “No.10 is trying to do what it swore it never would- trying to get Brexit In Name Only through on Labour votes”.
Meanwhile, the PM wooed business people last night at No.10. Her message on the economy has been that the industrial strategy and new tech will allow the UK to succeed post-Brexit. And if you want to get a handle on business priorities, a new Qriously survey commissioned by Hanover Communications has some startling new stats today. Asked what they feared most, the long-term implications of Artificial Intelligence or the long-term implications of Brexit, 50.8% said Brexit but 49.2% said AI. And nearly 60% said AI would have a greater impact on the jobs market in the next 20 years than immigration has in the last 20 years.
3. MAKE BREXIT GRATE AGAIN
May’s sales pitch clearly hasn’t reached Donald Trump. In a gift to Brexiteer Tories, he’s told reporters that May’s plan “sounds like a great deal for the EU” and a bad deal for any future US-UK trade deal. He left a bit of wriggle room for the PM, adding “I don’t think the Prime Minister meant that, and hopefully she’ll be able to do something about that”. No.10 insists that joint working groups on a bespoke trade deal have met five times so far.
David Lidington told Today: “It’s always going to be challenging doing a deal with the United States.” He also pointed out the reality of the transitional Brexit period meant deals could be negotiated but not implemented. There was a hint of irritation with the President too, as Lidington responded that America First could have to be meet with Britain First. “I would expect the British Prime Minister to be putting British interests first [in any trade deal],” he said.
Lidington’s stronger card was to say how much the EU actually don’t like the May Brexit plan. He said that European leaders were already complaining that the UK would have “access to their single market without paying a penny”. The difficulty is in persuading Tory MPs that’s the case. Even the deal’s supporters say it’s ‘the least worst’ option, not ‘the best of both worlds’ (decent EU trade, less EU migration) that No.10 wants them to believe.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch again Baroness Trumpington’s legendary V-sign in the Lords after Tom King said survivors of WW2 were starting to ‘look pretty old’. Baroness Anelay (bottom right) couldn’t help laughing. Last night’s Tweet by Trumpington’s son Adam, complete with her Lords pass, was a touching way to reveal the news of her passing.
4. BEYOND BELIEF
The US’s Fourth National Climate Assessment has warned of the multi-billion dollar losses to America’s economy if climate change continued unchecked. Last night Donald Trump revealed he’d read ‘some of’ the extensive study, but had concluded “I don’t believe it”. Of course ‘belief’ is the wrong word when it comes to science, but when it comes to economic forecasts the President clearly thinks they’re so discredited he can frame this as a matter of faith. That’s why he buried this study on Black Friday. The BBC’s Six O’clock News rightly led their bulletin last night on new data released by Michael Gove yesterday, warning the UK summers could become 5 degrees hotter and sea levels rise by 1m in London by 2070 at current rates.
5. DYING SHAME
Despite some real improvements in cancer care, the NHS in England has failed to narrow the gap on other nations’ survival rates despite 20 years of trying. That’s the worrying finding of a Health Foundation report by former cancer Czar, Prof Sir Mike Richards. With better services, some 10,000 lives a year could be saved. The number of missed opportunities to save lives was the equivalent of a “jumbo jet of people falling from the sky every two weeks”, he told the BBC. More rapid-diagnostic clinics are part of the answer, but so too is better public awareness, so expect criticism over public health funding cuts.
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