BREXIT UPDATE 30: THE MAYBOT AND THE MEN IN GREY SUITS

There have been dramatic developments since I posted Brexit Update 29 last Friday.  It is best to divide them into four main overlapping areas: 1) The Withdrawal Agreement Bill  (WAB) and the Maybot’s future; 2) The Labour/Conservative talks; 3) The latest polls for the European Parliament elections on May 23, together with hypothetical polls for a General Election, if it were to be held tomorrow;  4) Divisions within Labour over a second referendum.

1) The Withdrawal Agreement Bill and the Maybot’s Future

In Brexit Update 29, I reported that, following his meeting with the Maybot last week, Sir Graham Brady, Chair of the 1922 Committee (which includes “the men in grey suits” who are said to tell a Tory Prime Minister that the time has come to resign) had indicated that he had reached an agreement with her that she would bring back her deal to Parliament for a fourth time, in the form of the Withdrawal  Agreement and Implementation Bill, instead of a parliamentary motion.  This has now been confirmed.  The Maybot has said that she will bring the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (now being called the WAB) to the House of Commons in the week beginning June 3, probably on June 4 or 5.[1]  In the normal course of things, the motion would be passed first, then would come the legislative Bill.  But the Maybot has given up on trying to pass the motion and is going straight on to the Bill.

In Brexit Update 29, I also quoted Robert Peston of ITV, who argued that Sir Graham and the 1922 Committee had set a trap for the Maybot.  Whatever happens, he wrote, she is certain to resign soon after the vote: if the Bill passes, she has promised to go; if it fails, as seems very much more likely, the defeat of a government Bill will be so disastrous – especially after the parliamentary motion on the Withdrawal Agreement has failed three times before, the local election results were devastating for the Tories and the outcome of the European Parliament elections (which many Conservatives believe should not even be happening) is likely to be even more catastrophic for them  – that she will be required to resign.

As Peston predicted, the Maybot, after her meeting yesterday (Thursday May 16) with the Executive of the 1922 Committee, has agreed to set out, together with Sir Graham Brady, a timetable for her departure  and the election of a new Conservative leader (and PM) immediately after the early June vote on the WAB, whatever the outcome.  This is the statement yesterday from Sir Graham:

The prime minister is determined to secure our departure from the European Union and is devoting her efforts to securing the 2nd reading of the withdrawal agreement bill in the week commencing 3rd June 2019 and the passage of that bill and the consequent departure of the United Kingdom from the European Union by the summer.

We have agreed that she and I will meet following the 2nd reading of the bill to agree a timetable for the election of a new leader of the Conservative and Unionist party.[2]

2) The Labour/Conservative talks

The Maybot’s last hope before leaving is to fulfil her programmed mission of delivering Brexit.  But today (Friday May 17), Labour announced that it was ending its talks with the government.  On Tuesday (May 14),  14 high-profile Tories, including Sir Graham Brady, former Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson and ex-Brexit Secretaries David Davis and Dominic Raab (the last three strong contenders to succeed May) sent the Maybot a letter urging her not to accept a permanent customs union.[3]  The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, complained that there was no point in agreeing a compromise with her that is very likely to be torn up by her successor: “Our big problem now is if we’re going to march our troops in Parliament to the top of the hill to vote for a deal and then that’s overturned, literally, in weeks, I think that would be a cataclysmic act of bad faith.” [4]  Today, Corbyn wrote in a letter to the Maybot that the talks have “gone as far as they can”; and he blamed the government’s “increasing weakness and instability”.  For her part, the Maybot put the blame on divisions within Labour over a second referendum (to be discussed later).  There is still talk about agreeing on options for indicative votes to Parliament, as promised earlier by the Maybot (see Brexit Update 22), but no timetable for this as yet.[5]

The Labour leadership has confirmed (after some speculation that it might abstain) that it will whip its MPs to vote against the Withdrawal Agreement Bill.[6]  So the Maybot’s only hope of passing the Bill is her usual blackmailing strategy of threatening MPs with either No Deal or No Brexit if her deal fails.[7] The looming prospect of the election by the Conservative Party of a hard-right Tory Prime Minister such as  Boris Johnson, who would seek to leave the EU without a deal, might help to concentrate minds; but the deal still seems highly unlikely to pass.

3)  Polls for the European Parliament Elections and a hypothetical General Election

In Brexit Update 29, posted last Friday (May 10), I reported on a poll taken in April that showed the Brexit Party on 28 per cent, Labour on 25 per cent and the Tories on 14 per cent.  But a new poll published in the Observer (the Guardian’s Sunday paper) last Sunday (May 12) shows a disturbing surge for the Brexit Party, which in this poll is on 34 per cent, while Labour has dropped to 21, the Lib Dems are on 12 per cent and the Tories are actually behind the Lib Dems on 11 per cent.[8]   And a Yougov Poll, out today (Friday May 17), puts the Lib Dems above Labour by one point:  the Brexit Party on 35 per cent, the Lib Dems on 16, Labour on 15, the Greens on 10, the Tories on 9, Change UK on 5 and UKIP on 3.[9]

Yet the  same Observer article last Sunday already cited also reported that the same Opinium poll posed another question to its responders: how would they vote if a general election were to take place tomorrow?  The results are:  28 per cent for Labour, six points ahead of the Tories on 22 per cent, with the Brexit Party only one point behind the Conservatives on 21 per cent.  The Observer downplays these results by putting them right at the end of the article and commenting that this poll “also makes grim reading for the Tories and Labour” – presumably with reference to the strong showing for the Brexit Party; but no remark is made about Labour being six points in the lead.  The article ends by citing a Comres poll in the Sunday Telegraph that day which actually shows the Brexit Party overtaking the Conservatives in a hypothetical General Election: Labour on 27 per cent; the Brexit Party on 20, the Tories on 19, the Lib Dems on 14, Change UK on 7, the Greens on 5 and UKIP on 2 – but makes no comment on Labour’s 7-point lead. [10]

4) Divisions within Labour over second referendum

Labour’s losses in the local elections (though far less than those sustained by the Conservatives) and the latest polls on voting intentions for the European elections have intensified calls from Labour Remainers for Labour to go all out for Remain and a second referendum.  Even the Shadow Cabinet remains split on the issue.[11]  But it still seems to me, as I wrote in Brexit Update 27, that Labour should continue to fight Farage on his own Brexit ground; Labour should not abandon Labour’s traditional working-class heartlands to the Brexit Party.  Local elections and European elections have always been seen as providing an opportunity for a protest vote; many Brits do not vote the same in a General Election as they do in the local and European elections.  In addition, Corbyn’s compromise solution of a “soft” Brexit that can bring the country together avoids the polarisation between Leave without a deal and Remain that is tearing the country apart and making Brexit the only issue, swallowing up all other problems; instead Corbyn is seeking to emphasise other issues, in particular the devastating impact of the Tories’ austerity policies.

If the latest Yougov poll is right, the surge of the Lib Dems can be attributed less to a sudden turning towards Remain on the part of the country than to the Lib Dems having regained their old position as the party of protest in elections that are not seen as having the same effect on the country’s future as a General Election (see Brexit Update 29).

Last Sunday, in an interview on Sky News (backed up by an article for the Observer), the former Labour leader and Prime Minister Tony Blair appeared to be doing his best to undermine Corbyn, asserting a) that Labour is essentially a Remain Party; therefore he will be voting for it: b) that, even though he will be voting Labour, he knows many Labour supporters won’t be able to do so, so he recommends them to vote for the Remain parties: Lib Dems, Greens and Change UK.  Blair seemed to be doing his best to ensure that both Leave and Remain Labour voters would not vote Labour.  He commented disparagingly on Labour’s losses in the local elections but made no mention at all of the polls on voter intentions in a General Election.[12]  The intensification at present of vitriolic attacks on Corbyn, both for his position on Brexit and also for the mythical “institutional antisemitism” in the Labour Party[13], seems to indicate that, instead of fearing that Corbyn will never win a General Election, his opponents are all too fearful that he will indeed do so.

We of course do not know how soon there will be a General Election (though it is likely that the winner of the Tory leadership contest will seek one);  and, despite the recent Opinium and Comres polls on a hypothetical GE, Labour cannot afford to be complacent.   With the strong showing of the Brexit Party in all polls, there is a very real possibility that a General Election could result in a coalition government of Tories and the Brexit Party, with Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage taking the UK out of Europe without a deal.[14]  This nightmare scenario can only be prevented by the election of a Corbyn-led Labour government.

[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48275827

[2] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/may/16/brexit-latest-news-theresa-may-1922-faces-showdown-with-1922-committee-over-timetable-for-her-resignation-live-news?page=with:block-5cdd6c6d8f08ea3978d87d4b#block-5cdd6c6d8f08ea3978d87d4b

[3] https://www.politico.eu/article/brexit-customs-union-senior-tories-warn-theresa-may-against-deal-with-labour/

[4] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48271650

[5] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48304867

[6] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-latest-labour-keir-starmer-deal-compromise-eu-a8916631.html

[7] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/live/2019/may/15/may-to-face-mps-as-rebels-warn-she-is-still-facing-defeat-in-brexit-vote-in-early-june-live-news?page=with:block-5cdc1f598f088c3e913d6bfa#block-5cdc1f598f088c3e913d6bfa

[8] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/11/poll-surge-for-farage-panic-conservatives-and-labour

[9] https://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/european-elections-poll-brexit-party-yougov-lib-dems-labour-farage-a8918141.html

[10] https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/may/11/poll-surge-for-farage-panic-conservatives-and-labour

[11] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-48245499

[12] https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vukK4OZKqKI

For his article: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2019/may/11/farage-cannot-be-allowed-to-dictate-britains-future-he-must-be-thwarted

For a response to the interview by the Shadow Cabinet Minister Barry Gardiner: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5GmqCk8X5c4

[13] For an attack on Corbyn in relation to alleged antisemitism see this from last night’s BBC programme This Week (hosted by Andrew Neil): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdvzSNRSE8U

[14] https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/av/uk-politics-48275277/nigel-farage-i-d-do-a-deal-with-the-devil-for-brexit