Brexit weekly: 5 things

You can’t always get what you want

Mick Jagger said it: you can’t always get what you want. Unfortunately, this week is proving very few in the Conservative Party can get what they need.

Let’s start with Theresa May. What the Prime Minister needed this week was for Tories aligned with both Leave and Remain to ‘come together’ (continuing the musical puns) as the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returned to the Commons to consider the series of amendments tabled in the Lords. The PM was in front of the influential 1922 Committee at the start of the week to made the case for unity. That didn’t last long, however, as the PM was forced to agree a compromise with Tory Remainers (championed by former Cabinet Minister Dominic Grieve) to avoid passage of an amendment to give Parliament the final say on what happens next if no deal is struck at the conclusion of Brexit negotiations.

So Mr Grieve and his allies got what they needed, right? Nope.

Despite having an apparent agreement by Tuesday, the pro-Remainers were left fuming at an apparent volte-face by ministers, with Mr Grieve deeming the amendment prepared by the Government (to stave off the Lords version) “unacceptable.” Brexit Secretary David Davis had apparently intervened, with the new amendment effectively giving Parliament a vote on a ministerial statement to explain the rationale for no deal, if that happens. It doesn’t mean MPs will get to send ministers back to the negotiating table. You can, however, argue the merits and indeed the need for the amendment Mr Grieve and others wanted. As Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat succinctly put it – if Parliament ultimately votes down whatever deal the PM comes back with, it basically brings the Government down, which could constitute the ‘meaningful vote’ Mr Grieve and others are after.

We end the week with Tory divisions over Brexit as deep as they’ve ever been. By seemingly going back on the agreement made with the Remainers, Mrs May risks losing their support for other Brexit-related battles – a problem she can do without given parliamentary mathematics weren’t in her favour to begin with. The Brexiteers within the Tory ranks have inevitably been watching matters with an eagle eye should matters take a turn they’re unhappy with. Basically, despite the call for unity, the Prime Minister seems to be some way from that as the week draws to a close. Which puts further pressure on the negotiations process, and heaps further pressure on Mrs May – who is doing badly in the negotiations according to two-thirds of respondents to a YouGov poll for The Times.

To round off the musical analogies, the Prime Minister’s situation is a reminiscent of another song: ‘I get knocked down, but I get up again.”

Budget increases like buses

The double decker bus adorned with the insistence Brexit would mean £350 million a week for the NHS is perhaps the most memorable image of the 2016 referendum (I mean, it’s not the Emancipation Proclamation, but we do what we can). That commitment/expectation/piece of wishful thinking has arguably, however, been a bit of a millstone around the neck of one Mr B Johnson in the two years that have followed. After all, we’ve not seen an influx of cash into the health service – rather repeated warnings of an NHS on its knees.

But could that be about to change?

Theresa May is expected to announce bumper increases in funding for the health service within days – potentially up £6bn a year and £20bn by the end of the Parliament. The announcement is being timed as something of a birthday present for the NHS, which is marking its 70th anniversary. And, let’s face it – as birthday presents go, that’s not bad.

Brexiteers can point to at least some of the money coming from a ‘Brexit dividend,’ which would allow them to at least in part claim the bus wasn’t lying after all in 2016 and, yes, Brexit does mean more cash for the NHS. The funding will also come from higher borrowing and potentially tax increases – although polling indicates the public would accept tax increases to fund the health service.

The remaining question is perhaps how much funding will now be needed for ibuprofen to deal with the headache this increase gives Chancellor Philip Hammond – who’s facing concerted demands for more cash from across government.

Labour + Brexit = ?

Labour’s position on Brexit in recent weeks has been one of those ‘answers on a postcard’ situations. The Party leadership changed their tune in recent weeks with insistence that, actually yes, they would like the UK to remain in a customs union post-Brexit. And events this week have shown the Party is rivalling the Conservatives for divisions on the European issue.

Nearly 100 of Labour’s MPs defied Jeremy Corbyn’s instructions to abstain on an amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill this week to keep the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA) – a situation akin to that of Norway. Seventy-five voted for the amendment (which was ultimately defeated) with 15 voting against, and six MP quitting frontbench roles.

While Jeremy Corbyn remains firmly in post as leader irrespective of this apparent rebellion, that so many of his MPs ignored instructions adds yet another layer of complicity to parliamentary scrutiny of the Brexit process, and throws the parliamentary maths up in the air again. Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer has said Labour will oppose the Government amendment rejected by Dominic Grieve. But can that promise hold water after events of the last few days?

The other issue for Mr Corbyn is that his Party’s own divisions on Brexit will make it more difficult to make the case to the public that Labour is a government in waiting if their MPs are as at odds as those on the Tory benches.

All the way to the Bank

Aron Banks, the shy and retiring founder of Leave.EU and former funder of UKIP, was up in front of the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee this week as part of the Committee’s inquiry into fake news.

If Committee members were expecting to haul Mr Banks over the coals, they were swiftly disabused of the notion. Banks, while dismissing any suggestion of Russia funding the Leave.EU campaign, also readily admitted stoking up pro-Brexit stories by telling porkies to journalists, and even walked out of the evidence session because he was late for lunch. Banks has been the subject of an ongoing investigation by the Electoral Commission over the sources of his funding for the Leave.EU campaign.

The outcome of that investigation will not change the Brexit process one iota – but may encourage further demands on the Remain side, not least in terms of parliamentary scrutiny of a deal. Meanwhile, Banks also suggested to the Committee that he may be prepared to step away from politics. I know. What will we do without him?

Ducking the Donald

From one shy and retiring person to another. Namely the President of the United States.

It’s been a big week for ‘The Donald’ with an historic summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, following which the President insisted North Korea was no longer a nuclear threat (we’ll see) and cancelled military exercises as something of a goodwill gesture to his new BFF – to the surprise of a number of his allies.

Before that summit, however, Trump had been front and centre of a fractious G7 conference, in which other members held firm against his demands for Russia to be readmitted and took the US President to task over his introduction of steel tariffs.

Why the relevance to Brexit you ask? Several reasons. The first is that Europe has already imposed its own tariffs on American goods in response – a move that could bring European economies and markets closer together at a time when the UK is leaving the bloc. The second is that while Trump was happy to meet one-on-one with various world leaders, Theresa May was apparently not on the list. Which begs the question as to whether the UK can get the type of trade deal it wants and arguably needs with the US, particularly if we leave the customs union.

The third reason is Trump wasn’t done with rejecting the joint communique on the G7 summit. Somewhere between Canada and Singapore (to meet Kim) he reverted to Twitter / his stream of consciousness to criticise other NATO members over their lack of defence spending compared to the US. And while the US doesn’t look immediately likely to leave NATO, that has implications for British defence and the potential for closer collaboration (perhaps even a united European defence force) in future.