Henry Hill: SDLP link-up with Fianna Fail has a rocky start as senior MLA quits

Also: Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax; Labour AM apologises for antisemitic comment; and Scottish Tories say they’ve stopped Johnson.

SDLP ‘on back foot’ after senior resignation over merger

The alliance between the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s smaller and more moderate nationalist party, and Fianna Fail suffered a blow this week when the former’s most high-profile MLA resigned.

Clare Hanna, the SDLP’s Brexit spokeswoman, resigned from its Assembly group (although not her actual party membership) after a special conference on Saturday approved the new ‘policy partnership’ with the Republic party, the News Letter reports.

She said that: “I remain unconvinced that an exclusive partnership with Fianna Fáil is the right vehicle to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

SDLP members backed the proposal at the conference, although 30 per cent voted against it. There apparently remains a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the new relationship entails, with senior figures being coy as to whether it would mean a joint manifesto or similar.

Hanna may not be the last to leave: Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, was reportedly warned that a group of members were “considering their options” after the link-up was approved.

In other Irish nationalist news, Sinn Fein have reiterated their belief that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Mary Lou McDonald described such a vote as a “democratic necessity” in the event that Britain left the EU without the backstop in place – but declined to say when a referendum should be held.

Writing on this site today, David Shiels has warned ministers that by talking up the prospect of a border poll – in a bid to shepherd unionist MPs behind Theresa May’s withdrawal deal – they are playing into the hands of the republicans.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, continues to insist that such a Brexit can be avoided – even has he refused to negotiate with the Prime Minister during her visit to Dublin earlier this week. However Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, did meet with his Irish counterpart on that Friday, as well as meeting separately with senior figures from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP Brexit spokesman, has had to insist this week that his party remains united in its opposition to the backstop. The News Letter reports that Arlene Foster had earlier refused to be drawn on whether or not she was still demanding its complete abandonment.

Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax

Teachers have announced that they will demand compensation out of public funds if they are subject to the Scottish Government’s new car park tax – in a move the Tories estimate could cost £1.7 million in Edinburgh alone.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this move by the unions comes as part of a growing public backlash against the proposals, which would see charges levied on private car parks such as those operated by businesses and other places of work.

There was also outrage when it was revealed that such a tax is liable for VAT if the cost is passed on to employees, pushing the cost to workers up to around £500 per year.

Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, accepted an amendment tabled by the Scottish Greens introducing the levy in order to win their support for his budget, which could not have passed without them.

Opposition parties have also this week criticised Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, for talking up the prospect of independence whilst on an official trade trip to the United States.

This prompted Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, to urge the Government to re-assert its prerogatives over foreign affairs and start attaching conditions to the Scottish Government’s use of public funds outwith its remit. Probably too much to hope after ministers’ foolish retreat over post-Brexit devolved powers, but definitely a good idea for a bolder, more imaginative leadership to consider.

In other news, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly declared victory in their campaign to stop Boris Johnson becoming Tory leader. I wrote about the significance of ‘Operation Arse’ earlier this week.

Labour AM apologises for ‘unacceptable’ comments about Jews

Jenny Rathbone, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, has apologised and been issued a formal warning over “unacceptable” comments she made about Jewish communities.

Wales Online reports that the Cardiff Central AM said it was “really uncomfortable” how certain security-conscious synagogues now resemble ‘fortresses’, and that “siege mentalities” might be driving this change. She will now undergo antisemitism training by the Community Security Trust.

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister, is apparently trying to ease out Wales’ most senior civil servant in order to get a “fresh start”.

Interview. “Look, this is a Christian country”, says Hinds. But he adds that the cap on new faith schools’ admissions should stay.

At times, says the Education Secretary, the post he holds requires “a bold and vociferous and constant presence”. But “at other times less so”.

Damian Hinds says that as Conservative Education Secretary, the post he has occupied since January 2018, “there are always arguments to be won”, and you have to face up to the “forces of small-c conservatism”.

He adds that “if you stand still, you will go backwards”. But Hinds, described by his fellow parliamentarians as a man who has entered the Cabinet on merit, has an aversion to extravagant language and cannot be regarded as a publicity seeker.

In this interview, he sets out to show how reasonable his policies are. When he declares “this is a Christian country… it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition,” his tone is studiously reasonable.

Hinds defends his refusal to lift the 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools by insisting there are there are “good community and integration reasons” for keeping it. His decision has angered the Roman Catholic Church, to which he himself belongs.

Before becoming a minister, he opposed the cap, and his appointment raised hopes in Catholic circles that he would use his power to sweep it away.

The Education Secretary instead says his “number one priority” is “to bear down on workload for teachers”, so fewer of them leave the profession.

He wants to accelerate the academies programme and urges ConHome readers to come forward as governors.

On Brexit, he says the Prime Minister has reached “a very good deal”, a point which tends to be forgotten amid “legitimate” concerns about the backstop. He observes that rapid progress is needed, and declines to say whether the Cabinet would continue to “hold their nerve” if the Prime Minister informed ministers she could only get concessions on the backstop at the EU summit on 21st March.

A paradox of his career is that he has risen higher than his good friend and contemporary Jacob Rees-Mogg, while remaining much less well known.

ConHome: “How did you beat Jacob Rees-Mogg and become President of the Oxford Union?”

Hinds [laughing]: “Let’s start with the important stuff.”

ConHome: “I think actually our readers are intensely interested. You were in the same college…”

Hinds: “We were in the same college [Trinity College, Oxford].”

ConHome: “You’re co-religionists.”

Hinds: “Yes, but that’s not desperately relevant,”

ConHome: “I’m not suggesting the Pope had anything to do with it.”

Meg Powell-Chandler [Hinds’ special adviser]: “Actually…”

Hinds: “Actually, Jacob was the first person I met at university, literally the first person. It’s one of those things you do when you arrive, and you have all the first years in a room, and I turned to the bloke next to me and said ‘Hello, I’m Damian’, and it turned out to be Jacob.

“He wasn’t dressed the same as all the other undergraduates. He just happened to be standing next to me. And we’ve been friends ever since.

“And the answer to your question about elections. As you know, there are lots of undergraduate elections, and I was lucky enough on that occasion. There’s not much more to it than that.”

ConHome: “Well actually, oddly enough, the most candid thing Boris Johnson ever wrote about politics was an essay about how to become President of the Oxford Union, in a book, The Oxford Myth, edited by his sister, Rachel.

“He said that what you need is ‘a disciplined and deluded collection of stooges’ who will get the vote out for you in their respective colleges.”

Hinds: “‘Stooges’ is one of those words you only ever actually hear in student politics.”

ConHome: “Michael Gove has admitted he was a Johnson stooge in those days. So you too had a collection of disciplined and deluded stooges? They weren’t deluded in your case.”

Hinds: “Lovely people. Actually there were three of us in that election, all three from the same college, and I think that was very, very unusual.”

ConHome: “Who was the third?”

Hinds: “Stephanie Young, now Stephanie Tyrer. That was a very unusual set-up. There were many other elections that Jacob won while we were undergraduates, but on that occasion I was lucky enough to come out on top.”

ConHome: “And did you enjoy being President?”

Hinds: “I loved it, yes.”

ConHome: “And who were your most famous visitors?”

Hinds: “I had the summer term. My favourite visitors, we had Alvin Stardust, who also sang, and Will Carling, the Rugby player.”

ConHome: “And who are your political heroes?”

Hinds: “It’s so clichéd to say Mrs Thatcher is your political hero, but point me to the person on our side of the Chamber who wouldn’t say that.

“As it happens, I’m a child of the Eighties [he was born in 1969], grew up in Manchester, it was a difficult time, proper divides in politics, and in the earlier part of that period I was a Leftie.

“I came to my realisation aged 16, 17 and joined our party, so I’ve got a reasonable pedigree given I’m now 49. But it was a realisation rather than something automatic.”

ConHome: “And how did you realise?”

Hinds: “Well I think the Eighties was an amazing time to grow up, partly because there was so much politics. Everything from the Iron Curtain and communism versus capitalism through the Miners’ Strike and privatisation.

“Some things we got wrong as well as some things we got right of course. But as a teenager you couldn’t help but be politically very conscious of what was going on around you.

“And I came to the conclusion, first of all that I was a very lucky boy, coming from a strong family and going to a good school [Saint Ambrose College, a Roman Catholic grammar school].

“But I came to the conclusion that the way to make more boys and girls lucky boys and girls was to have a strong economy with enterprise but also with social responsibility, and with people looking out for each other. And sometimes we got on the wrong side of that, towards the end of the 1980s, of course, in terms of how people perceived us.”

ConHome: “Do you have a favourite monarch?”

Hinds: “The Queen.”

ConHome: “And of her predecessors, of whom there are 39 including William the Conqueror?”

Hinds: “Are there only 39, all the way back to 1066?”

ConHome: “Yes, it’s not that many. Of course there were various people like Queen Victoria and George III..”

Hinds: “…who upped the average. Wow. I didn’t realise that. So I’m not going to profess to have a favourite monarch, other than of course Her Majesty. I do think the Queen is just so off the scale of amazingness and a role model for us all.”

ConHome: “When I put the same question to your predecessor but one, Nicky Morgan, she said Henry VIII. But when I and her special advisers expressed amazement, she switched to Elizabeth I.”

A division bell rang, and Hinds went off to vote. When he got back, the interview continued with a question about Brexit.

ConHome: “If Theresa May came back to Cabinet and said, ‘I can get something on the backstop, but not until the EU summit on 21st March,’ would you be happy to hold your nerve until then?”

Hinds [after a pause]: “I think the Prime Minister needs all of us to be behind her in this. Only she can know the exact dynamic of the negotiation, and exactly what is the best route forward.

“I won’t rehearse all the stuff about we need to get a deal, because clearly we do – I say clearly, it’s clear to me we absolutely do. Clearly already time is very short, and we need to make good and rapid progress.

“Obviously there are real worries about the backstop and it’s very legitimate for people to have worries about that, and legitimate to be seeking assurances.

“It is also true, and we must remember to keep saying it, that the deal overall is a very good deal. There’s been so much talk about the relatively I’m not going to say small issues that sometimes we don’t talk about the thing itself.”

ConHome: “But would you hold your nerve, and would your Cabinet colleagues hold their collective nerve, until 21st March?”

Hinds: “I think everybody is holding their nerve.”

ConHome: “Now on education, how important is it for an Education Secretary to be talked about? There have been some, people like Tony Crosland, who’ve gone on the offensive, who have been talked about – since Rab Butler, there’s been Crosland, Thatcher, Baker, Blunkett, Gove, and probably a few others, probably people like Boyle. Do you think that’s important, or not really?”

Hinds: “I actually think what’s really important is for the system to be working well, not letting down any of our children anywhere, and for the person doing my job, and all our ministers, and the whole department, to be making sure that happens.

“And sometimes that does require, and it certainly did when Michael [Gove] was doing this job, a bold and vociferous and constant presence, at other times less so.

“But there are always arguments to be won in this sphere, because there are forces of small-c conservatism – which is definitely not the same as our Conservatism – in the education world.

“And as a Conservative Education Secretary, you need to be facing up to those. If you stand still, you will go backwards.”

ConHome: “Would it be fair to say you’re more focussed on heads and teachers than on parents?”

Hinds: “It wouldn’t be fair to say I’m more focussed on heads and teachers. But without heads and teachers the parents would be very upset.

“And we have had a problem in the last few years with making sure we have enough teachers. So we haven’t recruited quite enough, and we’ve had too many leaving. And the biggest reason they leave is because of workload.

“So I’ve made my number one priority to bear down on workload for teachers. Which turns out to be not nearly as simple a task as people might expect.

“Because although in a popular image there’s all these forms that you’re making teachers fill in, I’ve tried very hard to find those forms and they basically don’t exist.

“It’s a much more endemic, complex set of circumstances that makes teachers work on average 50 plus hours a week, which again is much more than people would expect to hear.

“And I think from a parent’s point of view they don’t want to know that teachers are spending a huge amount of time other than teaching their children. It’s all the other stuff.”

ConHome: “If it’s not form-filling, what is it?”

Hinds: “The three biggest things are very large amounts of lesson-planning…”

ConHome: “Well that’s difficult to avoid, isn’t it?”

Hinds: “No, not necessarily. It depends on what you do. Obviously I want teachers planning lessons. And schools do much better lesson-planning than when we were at school, and that is a very good thing.

“But if you are producing lesson-plans because you think the Ofsted inspector is going to see them, and stockpiling ring binders full of these things – this does happen in many schools, this is not a productive use of time.

“Similarly marking. And email.”

ConHome: “Another problem is that good teachers are intelligent and capable people. If the economy’s doing well, they can go off and do other things.”

Hinds: “That’s true. If you’ve got four per cent unemployment that’s a bad time for anybody to be recruiting, because it’s a very competitive market. But I just say our vacancies are more important than everybody else’s.”

ConHome: “You did a piece on ConHome saying you firmly believe in academies. But are they being created quickly enough, do you think? Do you have enough sponsors? Or has your department been gradually reducing the financial incentives?”

Hinds: “Well it shouldn’t be about financial incentives. It is possible to help with the costs of conversion, but actually the big advantage of being an academy is about autonomy, and about being able to combine with other schools.

“We’ve just passed a really important milestone of more than half the children in the state sector being in academies, which is a great thing. We’re still seeing more coming forward for conversion. I would like to see that pace continue and accelerate.

“We also need more people, I hope ConHome readers will step up to this, to be governors and trustees. When you’ve got a devolved system, with lots of autonomy, the role of a governor can become a much bigger thing.

“And the academies programme is now for the first time since early Blair under threat from the Labour Party. It was originally a Blair invention.

“Michael Gove and Nick Gibb put turbo-chargers under that programme, massively increased the numbers, and actually I hear from Members of Parliament on all sides what a difference academisation has made.”

ConHome: “You gave a speech the other day about children’s character. How do you build children’s character without some ethical or religious input?”

Hinds: “Well I don’t think you do do it without some ethical input. I distinguish character and resilience from values and virtues, but they go together. So character and resilience, I talk about ‘believe you can achieve’, “be able to stick with the task in hand’, ‘understand the link between the effort I put in today and the reward I do or might get in the future’, ‘being able to bounce back when things go wrong’.

“All those things would also make you a really good criminal, and I don’t want you to be a criminal. So I also want you to be grounded in friendship, kindness, community spirit, all those values.

“Some people will get those through a religious education, others will get it through a non-religious but still an ethically based education.”

ConHome: “So what in your opinion is the role of Christianity in politics, both generally and for you personally? I asked Nicky Morgan this.”

Hinds: “What did she say?”

ConHome: “She said the Anglican Church is very important to her.”

Hinds: “Well the Anglican Church is very important to me too. I’m going to go a wee bit further. Look, this is a Christian country. I mean these days it is a multicultural country as well, and there are many different faiths represented, and vast numbers of people who have no religious faith.

“But it still has, at the core of its institutions, traditions which are rooted in the Judaeo-Christian tradition. And in Parliament you find – I’ve never actually done the maths, but it’s always felt to me that there’s a disproportionate number of people of some religious faith. Not necessarily Christian, but some religious faith.

“We start every day with Prayers, this little segment of the day, three minutes, the only part which is not broadcast, and I think whether people are Anglican or some other denomination, or an atheist, actually the majority of Members of Parliament I think appreciate that as a moment of reflection and thinking about the day ahead, thinking about why we’re here.

“Rose Hudson-Wilkin, the Chaplain, does this prayer about remembering not to put personal self-interest in the way of what we do.”

ConHome: “What’s your view of free schools? It’s gone a bit quiet on free schools.”

Hinds: “We’re still doing this. We’ve got hundreds in the pipeline. Free schools are a type of academy, but brand new. They’ve brought a great deal of innovation. By bringing something different to an area, they create diversity and choice and a bit of competition with other schools.”

ConHome: “Is the Catholic Church still opting out of free schools – they were very cross, weren’t they, about the admissions cap?”

Hinds: “And that is still there. We’ve got a 50 per cent cap on faith-based admissions for new free schools. But they can now – and others can as well – open new voluntary aided schools.”

ConHome: “Why have you got the cap on free schools?”

Hinds: “There are good reasons for wanting to be able to ensure diversity in school provision. But the voluntary aided school route has always been there. The process for application is different from that for a free school, it has to have the backing of the local authority, but it’s been around since 1944 and has worked well.

“It’s mostly associated with the Catholic Church but actually there are Anglican VA schools as well, and indeed other faiths. It’s actually never technically stopped being possible to open a VA school. There just wasn’t any money available.”

ConHome: “But is there a lobby within the Conservative Party against lifting this cap on faith-based admissions to free schools? Is that part of the trouble?

“Because oddly enough, you seem to be standing up for the more traditional socialist way of doing things, even if it goes back to 1944. The Labour Party would have less to disagree with – local democratic control and all that.”

Hinds: “Free schools came in under the Coalition Government and there is obviously a reason why they came in as they did, and they’ve been a great addition to the schools system, including by the way having schools of religious character coming in, but with a cap of 50 per cent when oversubscribed.

“There was one large denomination which did not feel able to open free schools, which was the Catholic Church. And I was keen that every denomination should be able to open new schools. And of course the voluntary aided route isn’t only open to them, but it is open to them.”

ConHome: “And Catholic voluntary aided schools are opening, are they?”

Hinds: “There’s a round of applications that’s just happening as we speak.”

ConHome: “I still don’t understand why you refused to get rid of this cap. You don’t need legislation. You can decide, can’t you?”

Hinds: “There are good community integration reasons why the cap is as it is.”

ConHome: “This applies to Muslims as well.”

Hinds: “It applies to all faiths, in the same way that the opportunity to open a voluntary aided school applies to all faiths. We don’t make things specifically for individual religions.”

ConHome: “But would that be a worry, that you would then get some purely Muslim schools?”

Hinds: “There are purely Muslim schools, there are Jewish schools, there are Catholic schools, there are Anglican schools and they all play an important role. The key thing is that there is no significant religion in this country that wants to be able to open faith schools and can’t.”

ConHome: “I still haven’t got to the heart of your objection to lifting the cap.”

Hinds: “As I say, there are good community and integration reasons.”

ConHome: “What does that mean?”

Hinds: “It means it is right, and this is why the system was set up as it was initially, to be able to say, ‘Yes, we want to be able to have faith schools, but we also want to be able to have multiple ways, this is one of the ways, to make sure that we have full integration of communities. And that’s one of the ways we do it.”

ConHome: “And did you change your mind about this? Were you in favour of lifting the cap?”

Hinds: “If you looked hard, I think you would probably find a record of me somewhere in Parliament speaking about the cap before I was in a ministerial position.”

ConHome: “In your reckless youth.”

Hinds: “I wasn’t aware of all the considerations at the time.”

WATCH: “There is no point in having a time limit on the backstop unless it is written into the treaty”, Johnson argues

The former Foreign Secretary also insists that any time limit must end “substantially before the next general election”.

Conservatives should take their Scottish colleagues’ fears about Johnson seriously

The next leader must be someone able to woo the unconverted and broaden the Tory tent. As Mayor, he was that candidate. But is he still?

On Saturday, the Scotsman ran a story about the Scottish Conservatives’ campaign – which has been declared a success – to thwart Boris Johnson’s ambitions to lead the Party.

According to the paper, Scots Tories have mounted a “whispering campaign” of behind-the-scenes lobbying to persuade their parliamentary colleagues that the former Mayor would do serious damage to the Party’s prospects north of the border.

This assertion is apparently based on private polling, but whilst YouGov still reports Johnson as the most popular Tory with their respondents the idea that he might not play well in Scotland doesn’t seem hard to credit. That Ruth Davidson greatly dislikes him won’t have helped, either.

And yet… it remains the case that he is apparently amongst the most popular Conservative politicians in the country. YouGov’s data reinforces the findings of our own monthly survey, which finds Johnson comfortably ahead in our “Who should be leader after May?” question – although as we acknowledge, this may simply reflect that stasis has set in now that the Prime Minister’s position as leader is secure for the time being.

Since we must still assume that Johnson would at the very least be a contender for the leadership if he made it to the membership vote, the Scottish Conservatives’ focusing their efforts on persuading MPs makes sense.

But whilst ‘Operation Arse’ may have been declared a success, it would be extremely presumptuous to rule Johnson out of the running whilst the timing and circumstances of the next leadership election remain completely unknown. Which poses a question for both him and his supporters: how much does is matter that the Scottish Tories think he’d be a disaster?

It certainly ought to matter, and not just for principled unionist reasons. The Government has only held onto office because of the Conservative rebound in Scotland at the last election – a rebound brought about by people who stuck with the Party through two very lean decades indeed, some of whom have suggested they would not stick with it through a Johnson premiership. Winning a majority at the next election will require broadening the Tory tent, not shrinking it.

Nor should we forget that, with Labour in the doldrums, Davidson’s Conservatives are the principle bulwark against the SNP’s ongoing drive to break up our country. Brexit may so far have discredited the idea of the ‘fragile Union’, but that’s no excuse to risk handing Nicola Sturgeon the Holyrood majority she’d need to mount another push in the 2020s.

The Scottish Conservatives’ deep reservations about Johnson aren’t new. Yet if he’s made any effort to reach out to Scottish colleagues, or to tackle his negative impression amongst Scottish voters, both we and they have missed it. And that, perhaps more even than his actual unpopularity in Scotland, is a problem.

With both the membership and MP selectorate overwhelmingly English, it would be relatively easy come the next leadership contest for the concerns of the Scottish party to be marginalised. But the Tories owe it to both the country and their own political interests to choose a leader both willing and able to reach out beyond the faithful. If Johnson is still that candidate, he should prove it.

Iain Dale: Replace Hammond with Gove, promote Mordaunt, bring back Raab

Plus: Snubbed by a Remainer. Delighted for Beth Rigby. Tusk japes, May spooks, Francois almost self-combusts. And: is Brexit Brecksit or Breggsit?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

I spent much of Monday afternoon in the Commons catching up with a few MPs. Ok, Ok – it was a massive gossip session. Very useful for getting some background info on what the next Brexit developments are likely to be.

I did have one rather disconcerting experience, though. I was walking past the tables reserved for MPs when I spied one who I have known for years and always enjoyed sharing a few words with.

The MP looked up, I smiled in acknowledgement and went to start a conversation, but the MP immediately looked down at their phone without any sign of acknowledgement at all. I was officially blanked.

I’m sure the fact that this MP is the archest of arch-remainers and no doubt sees me as the Brexit-supporting enemy had nothing to do with it…what a state of affairs.

– – – – – – – – – –

Like many in Westminster, I was delighted to hear that Beth Rigby has been appointed to succeed Faisal Islam as political editor of Sky News. She’s a brilliant story-getter and has adapted to a broadcast role incredibly quickly, having been a print journalist for many years.

She won’t be starting her new job until May because, I gather, Islam is on a very long notice period which Sky News has decided to enforce. She beat off a lot of competition for the role, including two very well-known names in political journalism. I think she’ll be excellent in the role.

– – – – – – – – – –

At some point in the not-too-distant future everyone in the political media is going to start to obsess about the date on which Theresa May will announce she’s quitting.

So let me get ahead of the pack. I have always thought that she would go fairly soon after we (ostensibly) leave the EU on March 29th. But since Conservative backbenchers can’t now force her departure until the end of the year, it’s highly possible that she many stay on quite a bit longer than that.

One senior Tory told me he expects herr to announce her departure at this year’s Party conference, with the leadership contest concluding in January 2020. It’s a reasonable prediction but, if that is truly the plan, may I suggest that in early April she conducts a Cabinet reshuffle to enable all the potential contenders to test themselves properly?

This would entail Penny Mordaunt being given a big department, Philip Hammond being replaced by Michael Gove and Dominic Raab being brought back into the Cabinet. That last one might be a stretch, but the Party needs to be given a wide choice of candidates. I could argue the same thing about Boris Johnson, but it’s difficult to see how he could be brought back in any position which he would accept.

– – – – – – – – – –

Why do some people pronounce Brexit as ‘Brecksit’ and others ‘Breggsit’? I’m in the former camp, but there seems to be no rhyme nor reason as to which camp someone falls into. Any explanation?

– – – – – – – – – –

I doubt whether anyone believes that the prospects of a deal with the EU in advance of March 29th have been enhanced this week. Donald Tusk’s merry little jape on Wednesday was clearly calculated to spook Theresa May on the day before she arrived for several hours of apparently fruitless talks with the Commission.

Despite pressure from several member states, the Commission shows now sign of budging on the backstop and, if that continues, I can see no way for anything to pass through the Commons.

ERGers were also spooked by May’s words in Belfast, where she said that she is trying to amend the backstop rather than abolish it altogether. Cue Mark Francois almost self-combusting. As of today, there are 48 days to go until we are supposed to formally leave the EU. The odds on that happening reduce by the day. Just as Brussels has planned…

To Hell with Tusk

All he may have achieved is to make the No Deal that neither side of the negotiations wants marginally more likely.

Donald Tusk has it the wrong way round.  Those to whom he was clearly referring – pro-Brexit Conservative politicians – had a “sketch of a plan”, and more.  It was more or less the Canada-style proposal that he proposed on March 7 last year, and described himself as a “Canada Plus Plus Plus” plan on October 4, echoing the language of David Davis and others.  The main divergence between those Brexiteers and himself was over the Northern Ireland backstop.  So he should not be entirely surprised that the Commons has now rejected it, and that that he, the EU and the UK are where they are today.

What has brought all three to this pass is not disagreement among Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and the former Vote Leave Team, but the refusal of the Commons (broadly) and the Conservatives (specifically) to unite behind a Canada-type plan.  None the less, Tusk cannot now complain that he doesn’t know what both want where the Withdrawal Agreement is concerned.  The former has voted for junking the backstop and the latter agrees that it must change, at the very least (with the exception of a small band in this case of Remainers and Soft Brexiteers).  The most likely driver of Tusk’s remark, which was carefully planned and promoted, is that he is frustrated by the Commons’ unwillingness to roll over.  That is certainly Hell – at least for him.

There will be other readings of his words.  One is that he knows that the EU will, in time, offer concessions on the backstop, if the Commons holds firm – even if these are not the removal outlined in the Brady amendment and the Malthouse Plan.  And that this frustrates him.  Another is that he and the EU are determined not to make any such offer now.  They are waiting to see if the Commons hares off in the other direction to that it took last week: in other words, whether it will vote next week for the Cooper amendment, or something like it, thereby making it likely that the Commons will take control of the negotiation and shift towards a Norway Plus-type approach.  It may be that the point of Jeremy Corbyn’s latest volte-face on Brexit is to anticipate precisely that.

On this site yesterday, Richard Graham wrote about how political positions can emerge by accident – by the different actors mis-reading each others’ intentions.  The UK and Brexiteers themselves have sometimes misread the EU’s.  But the reverse is also true, and Tusk’s remarks may be evidence of it.   His calculation may be to try to isolate the European Research Group and Cabinet pro-Leavers.  But all he may have achieved is to bolster the view among many voters, not all of whom voted Leave in 2016, that the EU is dragging its feet and gambling on MPs backing down.  Hence perhaps the support for No Deal we’re seeing on the BBC’s Question Time – and elsewhere.

Our survey. Next Tory leader. Stasis as Johnson carries on leading amidst little expectation of change.

Although the Prime Minister’s position is fragile, there is no sense of a contest in the offing any time soon.

Theresa May cannot formally be challenged as Conservative leader until this coming December – a year after the unsuccessful bid to topple her by the European Research Group and others.  There are doubtless other ways of toppling a Tory leader, and her position remains extraordinarily vulnerable.  But there is no current expectation of moves against her before March 29 – or afterwards in the event of extension.

It may be for this reason that there is little movement in our Next Tory Leader survey this month.  Boris Johnson leads on 26 per cent, 14 points more than the next contender, Dominic Raab.  Last month the latter was on the same total and Johnson’s rating was a point higher.  Michael Gove is up to third from three per cent to nine per cent.  Perhaps his swashbuckling winding-up speech in the recent no confidence vote provides the explanation.

Otherwise the main point to note is the gradual decline of Sajid Javid.  In our October survey he was second, and a point off Boris Johnson, on 19 per cent.  His scores since have been 12 per cent, 13 per cent and this month seven per cent.  There is no obvious explanation for the drop.  Against a background of very little media leadership speculation indeed, the pattern of the table suggests that many respondents have only half an eye on the prospect of change, if that.

Kit Malthouse – the pragmatic Brexit broker bringing Tory MPs together

He learned at Westminster Council and City Hall the politics of persuading people to agree.

The “Malthouse Compromise” burst this morning upon an astonished world. At a time of increasing and perhaps even fatal acrimony within the Conservative Party, it has achieved the improbable feat of uniting Leavers such as Jacob Rees-Mogg and Steve Baker with Remainers such as Nicky Morgan, Stephen Hammond and Robert Buckland.

But who is Kit Malthouse, and how did he command the trust needed to act as the “convenor” of these opposed factions, and get them to agree on a way forward?

He was elected to the Commons in 2015 as Sir George Young’s successor in North West Hampshire, is now Minister of State for Housing, but learned his politics first as a member of Westminster City Council and then from 2008 in City Hall, where Boris Johnson, the newly elected Mayor, was in desperate need of people who understood how the government of London actually worked.

Malthouse was at both Westminster Council and City Hall a “deputy”: a position in some ways much trickier than being leader, for you have to interpret the leader’s wishes, while often possessing not much more than your powers of persuasion and grasp of the issues to help you do so.

You have to win the trust of those involved if you are going to make much progress.

One who saw a lot of Malthouse at both Westminster Council and City Hall, and has since watched him taking questions in the Commons, says:

“He’s a great man. He has a good understanding of the issues. He is a Conservative, but he also has a presence. When he answers questions in the House he commands a certain sort of respect.”

Malthouse was born in Liverpool in 1966, educated at Liverpool College, read politics and economics at Newcastle University, qualified as a chartered accountant and has run his own business. A former colleague at City Hall says of him:

“He was quite arrogant, but not stupid. A Leaver, but because he’s a business person, he’s pragmatic and wants a solution, rather than standing on one side waving a Union flag.”

Another colleague described him as “moody but great”. Journalists recall that he would always “ring for a chat” if he thought anything to do with City Hall, and in particular to do with policing, for which as Deputy Mayor he was responsible, had been misreported: “It was exhausting.”

A certain tenacity is evident, and a curious blend of tact and realism. In his description of himself on Twitter, he says: “Given the volume I don’t/can’t reply on twitter sorry.” A polite but unyielding formula.

As Housing Minister, he has recognised the crucial importance of beauty:

“The only way we stand a chance of winning support for this output is if people like what we build – beautiful buildings gather support; blank ubiquity garners protest and resentment. If you get the design right – the scale, the context, the fitness – communities will feel enhanced and respected, and will lay down their petitions and placards.”

Here too, one can see a Malthouse compromise being advanced. There will be many more houses than the protesters like the sound of, but these will be so good that a new consensus in favour of development will emerge.

We shall soon know whether a consensus has emerged which favours the Brexit proposals he has helped to devise. Malthouse starts with the great advantage over Number Ten of being regarded, by both wings of the Conservative Party, as an honest broker.

Henry Newman and Guglielmo Verdirame: It’s unlikely the backstop will be scrapped. But supplementing it can win what we want.

Even if the Exchange of Letters were viewed as just short of a treaty (i.e. a Memorandum of Understanding or Joint Interpretative Declaration), it would be far from legally worthless.

Henry Newman is Director of Open Europe. Guglielmo Verdirame is Professor of International Law at King’s College London and practises at 20 Essex Street Chambers.

Last week, the EU managed to undermine its own position by arguing first that there would be a hard border in the event of No Deal and then that there would not be one – thus calling into question why the backstop is required in the first place. Recent comments by European figures, including Jacek Czaputowicz, Poland’s Foreign Minister, suggested a growing realisation that it would be ironic if a deal couldn’t be reached between the UK and EU, risking a harder border with Ireland, precisely because of a policy intended to avoid the need for such a hard border. Yet rather than sending the Prime Minister back to Brussels with a clear mandate to seek changes to the backstop, MPs risk giving a confused message in this evening’s votes.

Yesterday, ERG supporters denounced an amendment put forward by the 1922 Committee Chairman, Graham Brady, which would require the backstop to be replaced. There are now reports that agreement has been reached between backbenchers on possible alternative arrangements (‘the Malthouse Plan’), but it’s unclear why the EU would support these. Replacing the entire backstop is something the EU is unlikely to ever accept.

What can realistically be achieved? Although the backstop has various problems, the biggest is the weakness of its exit mechanism.  The Government must improve this. Policy Exchange argued in a report in December and a paper today that the UK must reserve its rights to leave the backstop, under the Vienna Convention on the Laws of Treaties, if the EU did not meet its commitment to use “best endeavours” to find alternative solutions.

The UK also needs clarity over what alternative solutions could replace the backstop. This is because of the European Commission’s recent insistence that a “subsequent agreement … would ensure the absence of a hard border on the island of Ireland on a permanent footing [our italics]”, and because the EU has so far indicated that there are no alternatives to the backstop, besides full membership of both the Single Market and a Customs Union, or a reversion to a Northern Ireland-only backstop with an Irish Sea customs border. It would not be a good faith interpretation of the EU’s commitment to find a subsequent agreemen were the only subsequent agreement to be substantively identical to the backstop. Nor would it be reasonable to refuse the UK any future relationship which had a unilateral right of withdrawal. It cannot be the case that the only way to replace the backstop is with a treaty with its own backstop.

Some MPs are demanding a time limit on the backstop (something Theresa May was denied at the December European Council). However, a short time limit could create a cliff edge, working to the UK’s disadvantage. As Open Europe has suggested, it could “add unnecessary time pressure to the negotiations on the future relationship.” So a clearer mechanism allowing the UK to leave the backstop, if the EU fails to negotiate in good faith on a future relationship, is preferable, not least because – as Paul Bew and others have argued – the backstop itself risks undermining the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

Writing in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, Boris Johnson demanded what he called a “Freedom Clause”, saying it should be “either a sunset clause or a mechanism for the UK to escape without reference to the EU” and that “this means reopening the text of the Treaty itself”. But re-opening the text isn’t the only answer, nor necessarily the best.

The Withdrawal Agreement already has plenty of what could be called constructive ambiguity. Article 1 (4) states that the Backstop is “intended to apply only temporarily” and that the “objective … is not to establish a permanent relationship”). However, it also continues to say, “this Protocol shall apply unless and until they are superseded, in whole or in part, by a subsequent agreement”. Although it might be helpful to tidy all this up with changes to the text itself, that might be a tall order, when the withdrawal agreement, warts and all, has been signed off by all EU leaders.

A subsequent and more specific agreement with the EU clarifying things could be preferable to amending the existing treaty. In the event of a conflict between the two texts, the later and more specific one would prevail. And although some have dismissed the Exchange of Letters earlier this month between the UK and EU as legally “worthless”, they are incorrect. In international law, exchanges of letters or notes can be considered a treaty – see for example the 1940 and 1941 Land-Lease Agreements with the US. Even if the Exchange of Letters were to be viewed as just short of a treaty (i.e. as a Memorandum of Understanding or a Joint Interpretative Declaration), it would be far from legally worthless. It would be very difficult for the UK, the EU, or any tribunal, to proceed on the basis of an interpretation that is contrary to what was set out in that Exchange.

At this stage, an unfettered unilateral right of withdrawal may not be realistic. To address the exit from the backstop and what could replace it, the UK may need a further (and more robust) exchange of letters with the EU. International law does not have the same formal rigidity as domestic law, and MPs should be careful not to close the door to solutions that are politically achievable and legally viable. It is, in practice, possible to develop the Withdrawal Agreement and the backstop with a subsequent treaty – in the form of an exchange of letters or (as suggested by others) a protocol or “codicil”. But the UK is more likely to achieve a compromise, than a clear-cut exit clause. That would make the end-point one of “sub-optimal mutual reassurance”. Both sides would know that in a scenario where no progress is made on a replacement agreement, each would have an arguable case against the other.

But to stand a chance of getting further clarifications, the Prime Minister will need to persuade Brussels and member states that she will actually be able to convince her critics to back her amended agreement. That’s difficult when MPs, such as Marcus Fysh declare that even securing a time limit to the backstop “isn’t enough”. As long as the EU believes any concession will be in vain, they are unlikely to offer anything further. MPs have a key opportunity to send a message to the EU that there will have to be changes to the backstop – they should support the Brady amendment.

Nick Boles: Like all revolutionaries, once-reasonable Brexiteers slide towards ever greater radicalism

Where Farage, Johnson and Paterson once praised the Norway option, it is now denounced as apostasy.

Nick Boles is a former Planning Minister and Education Minister, and is MP for Grantham and Stamford.

Let’s play a game. Where are they talking about, and why do they like it?

The first clue comes from Nigel:

“They’re rich, they top the world’s happiness index, they’re allowed to catch their own fish… They don’t pay their money to Brussels… We’re told (they) have to accept all the rules. Oh no they don’t.. They retain the right to veto…”

Boris is up next:

“If we got it right, we could negotiate a generous exit, securing EFTA style access to the Common Market.”

The final clue is offered by Owen:

“This brings us to the only realist option, which is to stay within the EEA Agreement. The EEA is tailor made for this purpose and can be adopted by joining EFTA first.”

What country were Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson and Owen Paterson talking about? The sovereign kingdom of Norway, of course. And what were they so envious of? Norway’s position outside the European Union but inside the common market of the European Economic Area and the European Free Trade Association.

So when did it become apostasy for Brexiteers to argue that on leaving the EU we should move to a relationship a bit like Norway’s? Why do Brexiteers feel they have to attack Common Market 2.0, when for so long they saw it as a promised land, flowing with milk and honey? (Or maybe aquavit and herring.)

The answer is to be found in the pages of A Place of Greater Safety, a novel about the French Revolution by Hilary Mantel. As the revolution unfolds, the ambitions of its original architects no longer satisfy the younger firebrands. They demand ever greater radicalism and condemn those who advocate compromise to the tumbrils and the tricoteuses.

Yesterday Norway Plus was denounced on these pages by my friend Henry Newman, an eager Brexiteer keen to burnish his revolutionary credentials. It is tantamount to non-voting membership of the EU, he claimed. The reality is quite different. Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein exist entirely outside the EU’s common policies on agriculture, fisheries, justice, home affairs, foreign policy and defence. If we joined them in the EEA, EU law would no longer have ‘direct effect’ and new rules would only apply once Parliament had agreed to incorporate them into British law.

Both Norway and Iceland have refused to implement a whole raft of new Single Market rules over the years: by 2011 Norway had obtained derogations from 55 legal acts and Iceland from 349. The basic rule in the EEA is this: if you really don’t like it, just say “Nei!”

Our contemporary Saint-Just then argued that a Norway Plus relationship isn’t really ‘off the shelf’ – and might be quite tricky to negotiate. But he ignored the fact that the UK is already a signatory of the EEA treaty and has a clear right under the Vienna Convention on the Law of Treaties to retain the benefits of our membership even after we leave the EU. The UK was also a founder member of EFTA and there is no reason to believe that we could not negotiate our accession to this fine organisation (including a temporary derogation from its free trade agreements) by the end of the transition in December 2020. At that point, our future relationship would commence, governed by tried and tested institutions like the EFTA Court, the Surveillance Authority and the EEA Joint Committee, and the Irish backstop would fall away without ever having needed to be activated.

Finally, he warned that renegotiating the Political Declaration to specify a future relationship based on Common Market 2.0 would make us vulnerable to further demands from Brussels. I have news for our young Jacobin. In any version of Brexit we will be subject to further demands from Brussels. Nowhere more so than in the Prime Minister’s current deal, where our desire to escape from the backstop before the 2022 election will turn us into a sitting duck for every EU President and Prime Minister who wants to score an easy win for voters back home.

Membership of Common Market 2.0 is a compromise. Like all compromises, it has upsides and downsides. On free movement and an independent trade policy, it will give us less control than many hoped for, and more slowly than I would ideally like. But, as Nigel, Boris, and Owen once recognised, it also offers us a comfortable halfway house – outside the EU’s political empire-building and inside the common market that the British people voted to join in 1972 and that a previous Conservative government entrenched through the Single Market in 1992.  If the Common Market was good enough for Margaret Thatcher, its modern equivalent is good enough for me – and should be good enough for all who call themselves Conservative.