Rudd returns to help sell May’s deal

She didn’t establish herself as a strategic Home Secretary, but is a highly effective media performer.

Theresa May cannot rely on the Brexiteers in her Cabinet to go out and sell her draft Brexit deal enthusiastically.  Liam Fox has been helpful to her today, but within very narrow confines.  Two of the holders of great offices of state want the Prime Minister to return to Brussels to push for concessions – Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt.  That has left her reliant this week on the energetic Matt Hancock.

Amber Rudd’s return to the top table will be linked to Downing Street’s need for strong, articulate, media-experienced performers to tour the studios on May’s behalf.  The new Work and Pensions Secretary is a first-class communicator: far more adept than the Prime Minister at getting on the front foot, and completely committed to a central element of the draft deal: frictionless trade – or as near to frictionless as can be achieved.  She was a passionate Remainer during the EU referendum, stepping up for TV debates, and closely linked to the anti-Brexit campaign in which her brother, Roland Rudd, was a big cheese.

In one sense, the appointment is surprising.  Rudd was a senior voice in the pro-deal element of backbench former and present Tory Remainers.  Her departure leaves it weaker.  Furthermore, she has an ultra-marginal seat, and is now to be responsible for the hyper-vulnerable business of managing Universal Credit.

But she is the kind of centre-leftish Conservative who is now at this Government’s centre of gravity.  Esther McVey out, Rudd in makes the Cabinet even less leave-tilting than before, with Boris Johnson, David Davis, Dominic Raab and McVey all gone.  There is a big question about whether a Minister compelled so recently to resign should return to government so quickly.  There has been a campaign to suggest that civil servants were to blame for the Windrush debacle.  But for all Rudd’s force on television, she didn’t establish herself as a strategic Home Secretary.  However, she does fill a gap as a Soft Brexitish future leadership contender.  It is possible there may be a vacancy soon.

Will he stick will he twist will he twist will he stick? Gove sticks. He is not resigning.

So he’s left presumably unwilling to sell May’s deal on any other basis that it’s bad…but that the alternative is worse.

Friends of Michael Gove made the case to ConservativeHome yesterday evening for him sticking, not twisting.  This seems to be the sum of the advice he’s received from them, and he’s gone with it.  This morning we learn that he will not resign.  So the course of events during the last few days has been, first, that he reluctantly supported May’s deal in Cabinet; second, that when offered the Brexit Secretary post, he said that he would only take it were she to seek now to renegotiate it; third, that this request was refused and now fourth, that he isn’t resigning, but will stay at DEFRA.

The sum of all this is that it is known more widely than before that he doesn’t really back the deal.  Furthermore, having now stuck rather than twisted, he will find it very hard to twist in the near future – however bad things get. He will be very well aware of the risk, in the long-lingering aftermath of his decision to walk away from Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, of feeding more ammunition to the Tracey Ullmann Breaks The News caricature of him as unreliable (an impression now deepened in Downing Street).  So he is left presumably unwilling to sell May’s deal on any other basis that it’s bad…but that the alternative is worse.

If this sounds unappetising – which it is – then so, in the great scheme of things, is the alternative.  The anxiety that will consume senior members of the Cabinet – such as Gove, Sajid Javid and Liam Fox – is that their resignations could potentially bring down the Government, and open the door to Jeremy Corbyn.  The Fixed Terms Parliament Act is an obstacle to that outcome but, as we saw last summer, it is not an insuperable barrier to an election.  And as a Minister in the very front line of No Deal planning Gove will know how formidable are the challenges that it presents, and feel a sense of duty to help see it through. Whoever said that politics is easy?

Changing the Prime Minister, in itself, would solve nothing

A new leader would need a new plan to reverse this evident humiliation of May’s leadership and of British statecraft.

If we can congratulate Cabinet members on nothing else this morning, we can at least do so on their ability to speed read under pressure.  In less than a morning, they somehow managed to master 585 pages of the Brexit Draft Withdrawal Agreement, all without recourse to independent legal advice.  Plus the seven pages of the Outline Political Declaration – a mere bagatelle by comparison.  Yes, that’s right.  The Government wants us to hand over the best part of £40 billion for fewer than ten pages of unenforceable text. And our future negotiating leverage into the bargain.

But let’s stick for the moment to the Withdrawal Agreement.  Don’t judge it before you’ve read it, its backers said yesterday.  That they were supporters betrayed that they had already made a judgement themselves.  By the same token, they should have conceded that reading a document of that length takes rather more than a few hours.  None the less, we will take their advice.  Unlike a mass of newspapers and commentators, we do not pretend to have done so in full.

So we will make no comment for the moment on whether the Northern Ireland backstop has survived, with its implications for Scotland and the Union.  On the UK-wide or Great Britain backstop, and whether the latter can practicably leave it, de facto if not de jure, with all the consequences that has for our freedom to strike trade deals worldwide.  On whether that seven page declaration points towards Chequers, Canada, Cheqada – or anything bankable at all (and if there are any safeguards for the money).  Above all, on whether the whole package leaves us, in that neat reversal of William Hague’s famous saying, out of Europe, but run by Europe.  And on, if you prefer George Osborne’s brilliantly malicious assessment yesterday, whether or not the EU has Taken Back Control.

We will pause to make only one observation.  Theresa May’s claim that the agreement would allow us to take back that control – of borders, law and money – is already under siege, at least as far as its second part is concerned.  Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post has found 63 references to the European Court of Justice in the draft.  Ending its jurisdiction was at the heart of the EU referendum result.  The Conservative Manifesto committed the Party to it, not that most of members needed any persuading.

Where Waugh has trod, others will follow.  As we write, Martin Howe will be pouring himself another cup of strong black coffee, surrounded by gutted candles and legal tomes.  He will have laboured overnight to craft his assessment.  So will others.  By lunchtime, the Withdrawal Agreement will have been wrenched open, gutted, filletted, and its innards displayed to the world.  One thing is certain: bits of it will not look very appetising.  The Prime Minister will have passed them over in her statement yesterday evening.  One senior ERG member told this site yesterday that the agreement is like a Budget that will unravel on day two.

We are not at all sure that he is right.  This morning, it looks rather more like one of those Budgets that went to pieces on day one.  Today’s splash headlines make bleak reading for Downing Street.  How could they not, given the Cabinet’s verdict, which is all over them, and on the inside pages too?  Dominic Raab was palpably unhappy.  Geoffrey Cox compared the agreement to a life raft made up of oil drums and a plastic sail.  Michael Gove thinks it is bad, but that no deal would be worse.  Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt pushed at May to take if back to the EU for re-drafting.  Liam Fox dislikes the backstop.  Penny Mordaunt wants a free vote, so that she can oppose the agreement.  Esther McVey actually called for a vote, clashing with the Chief Whip and the Cabinet Secretary.  How on earth can any of the discontented third of the Cabinet, or more, look voters in the eye and claim they are content with it?  How can they go out and sell it?  It is significant that, yesterday evening, none of them were due to take to the airwaves this morning.

One last point on that Cabinet meeting.  Reporting of it has tended to divide members up into supporters and opponents of the agreement.  This is understandable, but flawed.  The Cabinet makes, as the Prime Minister said yesterday, collective decisions.  And as McVey has discovered, it does not vote.  Nor do its members shape the minutes.  If they are unhappy, they must either wait to be cheered up, or resign.  Those whose discontent spills over into opposition, like McVey, have not quit – so far.  Do they really intend to stay in office, hoping perhaps that the agreement collapses, or that the Commons votes it down, saying nothing about it at all?  Such a position would be worse than dishonourable, in a manner of speaking.  It would be ridiculous.

By then, events may well have overtaken them.  Perhaps Graham Brady will announce today that he has received 48 letters, and that a confidence ballot in Theresa May must be held.  Maybe he will not.  Perhaps it will come later, or not at all.  But even if it does, and she wins it convincingly, her troubles will be far from over. As matters stand, it is very unlikely that the agreement can get through the Commons.  Even if she survives a ballot, she might not be able to survive that.  The combination of a future Commons vote on the agreement and aleadership contest, ushering in a new Prime Minister, would be like a cutting-edge experiment with two new chemicals.  There is simply no knowing what it would bring.  We believe that a Conservative Prime Minister, faced with this Commons, can carry through Brexit if intent on it – even a no deal one, given the legislative state of play.  But it is possible that the mix could blow the laboratory roof off.

Our position on May’s leadership is well-known.  Like our members’ panel, we believe that she should not lead the Party into the next election.  Enraged Brexiteer MPs are itching to get her out now.  The sum of their view is that there is a lie at the heart of her policy – that she does not believe her own words; that no deal is better than a bad deal.  For this reason, they say, we are not properly prepared.  Downing Street and the Treasury have dragged their feet, and conspired to spring a new choice on the Cabinet yesterday: May’s Deal, a chaotic No Deal, or No Brexit.  And for this she has lost the DUP, in all likelihood, and with it her majority.

One doesn’t have to take a view on the agreement before accepting their point.  But they should reflect that changing the Prime Minister, in itself, would solve nothing.  A new Conservative leader would face the same old Commons.  He or she would need a new plan – Canada, plus or minus those three pluses; Nick Boles’ Norway-for-Now; or perhaps a transition to No Deal, as proposed by some Cabinet Ministers.  And given the numbers in the Commons, logic also points to a general election, sooner rather than later, to win a majority for change.  That runs the risk of a Corbyn Government – and, more pressingly as far as some Tory MPs are concerned, the loss of their seats.

Some Leavers will be tempted to join many Remainers, and say that this humbling pass, this evident humiliation of May’s leadership and of British statecraft, is the inevitable consequence of Brexit.  Our response is uncompromising.  The British people are entitled to vote to leave the European Union.  If they were now to be told that they can’t, because our politicians aren’t up to negotiating it; or the commanding heights of our institutions are against it; or government is incapable of planning for it – in short, that they must “come to heel”, in John Kerr’s illuminating phrase – what would that say to the British people about the state of our liberal demcracy and parliamentary government?  The potential consequences are so far-reaching that there is no need to spell them out.

Raab, Cox, Gove, Fox, Mordaunt – all these Cabinet members, and others, should prepare to resign today

They should first seek to persuade May not to press for a decision, since there will have been no opportunity for full timely study of the text.

As this month began, we set five tests for any Brexit deal that Theresa May might recommend to her Cabinet members.  They were as follows:

  • Would it hive off Northern Ireland?  Will there be either an an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from the backstop?
  • Does it threaten to break up the Union?  If there isn’t, and Northern Ireland is effectively to be kept in the Single Market, won’t that boost the SNP’s campaign for Scottish independence – and the break-up of the Union?
  • Would it trap the country in a customs union?  If Great Britain is to be put into a parallel customs union, will there be either an exit date or a unilateral escape mechanism from it?
  • Does it hand over money for nothing? Since a future trade deal will be covered by an unenforceable political declaration – not the Withdrawal Agreement – what safeguards are there against  shelling out £40 billion for nothing?
  • Chequers or Canada? Given that the political declaration is likely to be written in vague, Cheqada terms, which future does it really point to – Chequers or Canada?

In the wake of the Prime Minister summoning Cabinet members for one-to-one meetings yesterday evening, with a full Cabinet meeting due this afternoon, it is possible that there are reassuring answers to all these questions.

But it is more likely that, as we wrote then, the proposed deal would wreck the prospect of meaningful trade deals, hand over £40 billion for no bankable gain, and potentially threaten the break-up of the UK.

It is early days to draw definitive conclusions either way about the draft agreement’s contents, but it is clear that the planned settlements for Great Britain and Northern Ireland will be different.

And Sabine Weyand suggested to a meeting of EU ambassadors yesterday that the deal would effectively keep the whole UK in the Customs Union, force EU access to our fishing waters, and align us to Single Market rules.

Such a settlement would breach the Conservative Manifesto commitments to leave the Customs Union, and arguably the Single Market too – and threaten the survival of the Government if the DUP withdrew all support, as it is poised to do.

At any rate, it is evident that the Prime Minister is no longer driven by the belief, in the famous phrase from her Lancaster House speech, that “No Deal is better than a Bad Deal”.  Evidently, she is desparate for a settlement.

In a sense, then, one can scarcely blame her for seeking to bounce the Cabinet today.  Its members are being given this morning only to examine 500 or so pages of the Withdrawal Agreement alone before it meets this afternoon.

It will be impossible for them to undertake the full timely study of this text, plus legal advice about it, within this brief time-frame – let alone to get independent advice about what it all adds up to.

It follows that when May proposes the immediate approval of the draft deal today, Brexiteering Ministers have no option but to seek to persuade the Cabinet as a whole to withold that approval – even if that means missing the November deadline for a summit.

On our count, Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, Chris Grayling, Esther McVey, Natalie Evans, David Mundell and Penny Mordaunt have all variously asked questions or expressed doubts about where the deal is going.

Add Liz Truss, Andrea Leadsom and Geoffrey Cox to the list – all these are entitled to attend Cabinet, though they are not full members – and one reaches 14 of a total of 29, just under half.

Of course, it is the Prime Minister who takes the voices and shapes Cabinet minutes: its members don’t do anything so crude as cast votes.  In short, if she is determined to make the proposed deal the basis for a summit, Cabinet members aren’t well placed to stop her.

Which leaves only one course open to them.  If those resistant to approving any deal on the basis of a single meeting aren’t heeded, they will have no practicable alternative but to resign.

Our article of a month ago was headed: the Cabinet must stand ready to take back control.  Today may be the last chance that its members have to do so.

Benedict Rogers: Hunt has made a strong start in placing values at the heart of British foreign policy

From Hong Kong to Yemen to Burma the Foreign Secretary is making positive steps. There is still more to do, however.

Benedict Rogers is the East Asia Team Leader at the international human rights organization CSW, the co-founder and Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission, the co-founder of the International Coalition to Stop Crimes against Humanity in North Korea, the co-founder and Chair of Hong Kong Watch, and author of three books on Burma.

Jeremy Hunt is the first Foreign Secretary since William Hague to really articulate a values-based foreign policy, and a plan to implement it. Even when Brexit dominates, when the Government is fragile, and when others are more concerned with trade deals than human rights, he appears to be thinking bigger.

He wisely avoids Robin Cook’s “ethical” terminology, but speaks actively of Britain’s role in defending our beliefs. While Boris Johnson hinted at similar themes, with talk of ‘Global Britain’ and girls’ education, his tenure was so overshadowed by his ambitions, character and Brexit that he never developed the narrative. Philip Hammond’s two-year stint was associated only with bean-counting. Not since Hague as Shadow Foreign Secretary promised to put human rights “at the very heart of foreign policy” have I heard an articulation of a vision for a British foreign policy that I could wholeheartedly cheer. Until Hunt.

And it is not simply his rhetoric. The Foreign Secretary has already taken some bold steps. On his first visit to Beijing he met the wives of imprisoned human rights lawyers in China. His foreword to the Foreign Office’s six-monthly report on Hong Kong was noticeably stronger than previous reports, and his statement in response to the expulsion from Hong Kong of Victor Mallet, the Financial Times’ Asia Editor, was robust.

In his Diwali message he spoke of the “victory of good over evil” and the need to defend freedom of religion or belief, and in the Evening Standard he pledged to make the defence of press freedom a priority. His statement in response to the appalling death of Jamal Khashoggi was good. His decision to visit Burma in September was welcome, and his call for accountability for appalling crimes against humanity and genocide there, while long overdue, was further than his predecessor had gone. “What is essential now,” he said, “is that the perpetrators of any atrocities are brought to justice, because without that there can be no solution to the huge refugee problem. We will use all the tools at our disposal to try and make sure there is accountability.”

So where does he go from here?

In his recent speech to Policy Exchange, the Foreign Secretary set out his vision. Post-Brexit, Britain must establish a new role for itself as a defender of democratic values and human rights, and a builder of multi-lateral coalitions to protect liberty in an era when it is under increasing threat. As the home of parliamentary democracy, and “an outward-looking, seafaring nation,” with a network of friendships that is “unparalleled”, Britain has the opportunity and the responsibility to lead. “Our democratic values are under greater threat than at any time since the fall of the Berlin Wall,” he said. “We can use our influence, our reach and power to defend our values by becoming an invisible chain that links the world’s democracies.”

How will he do this? Through the biggest expansion of our diplomatic service for a generation, the opening of more embassies, increasing the languages taught to our diplomats and reform of major multi-lateral institutions – the United Nations, NATO, the World Trade Organisation and the Commonwealth. These are bold, necessary and welcome steps.

There is, however, much further to go if this vision is to develop into a lasting narrative. There will be many competing areas in which Britain could develop multi-lateral leadership, but two different but equally important focuses come to mind. Both are areas where Hunt has shown interest and could shape further.

The first is ensuring accountability for mass atrocities and severe human rights violations. In the case of Burma, will he lead an international effort to ensure that the perpetrators of crimes are brought to justice, either through the International Criminal Court or an ad hoc tribunal? Will he work to build international support, to invite other countries to follow if he leads?

Similarly, will Britain step up to hold China to account for its horrific repression of the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, investigate allegations that prisoners of conscience are targeted for forced organ harvesting, and put pressure on China to stop the intensifying persecution of Christians and Tibetan Buddhists?

Will the Foreign Secretary play a leading role in ensuring that North Korea’s crimes against humanity are not swept under the carpet in the rapprochement with South Korea and the United States?

Will he hold IS/Daesh accountable for genocide?

Will he study the Conservative Party Human Rights Commission’s recent report on Russia – Poison, Torture, Lies and Repression: Human Rights in Russia Today – and act to end the impunity with which Vladimir Putin’s regime behaves by ensuring that targeted sanctions under the global Magnitsky legislation are implemented?

Hunt’s willingness to call on the Security Council to act to stop the war in Yemen was right, if overdue. Let’s hope such boldness can be applied to the world’s other mass atrocities.

The second area in which Britain should lead is in response to the erosion of basic freedoms, the rule of law and autonomy in Hong Kong.

Over the past five years, democratic values in Hong Kong have taken an enormous hit. Booksellers have been abducted, peaceful protestors jailed and pro-democracy legislators and candidates disqualified. I was denied entry to the territory a year ago, and the Financial Times’ Asia News Editor, after being expelled, was then barred. The undermining of press freedom, academic freedom and freedom of expression is spiralling daily. “Asia’s world city,” as its slogan puts it, is increasingly closing its doors and becoming just another Chinese city.

Here Britain has a special responsibility, as a signatory to the Sino-British Joint Declaration. We have a legal as well as moral duty, and it is in our own interests too. If Hong Kong’s openness, transparency, rule of law and autonomy continue to unravel, it puts at grave risk British business and trade.

But it is also a matter of international concern, and I was encouraged that in China’s recent Universal Periodic Review at the United Nations, twelve countries, including the UK, raised Hong Kong. In the previous review Hong Kong was not mentioned. In Washington DC, Ottawa, Berlin, Geneva and Brussels this year, policy-makers have indicated to my colleagues and me growing concern and willingness to work with like-minded allies to address the deteriorating situation. It is in everyone’s interests, including China’s, that Hong Kong remain an open, free international business centre.

“When we act in concert, we are strong. When we act together, the price for transgression becomes too high for the perpetrator,” Hunt said. “We must be better at standing together to defend the values we share. Whether that is: the prevention of sexual violence in conflict, the struggle against the illegal wildlife trade, or threats to freedom of expression. Because access to fair and accurate information is also something we should remember is the lifeblood of democracy.”

He is absolutely right. So I hope he will lead the international community to build coalitions of like-minded nations to ensure accountability for mass atrocities, and a coalition to ensure that the promises made to the people of Hong Kong are honoured, not trampled on. The early signs are welcome. I encourage him to go on and build that “invisible chain” to defend and promote democratic values and human rights for everyone. Not only because it is right, not only because we have a responsibility, but also because it is in our national interests to do so.

Asia Bibi should be offered asylum in Britain

Hers is a test case for Ministers, for Muslim organisations in Britain, for free speech – for what sort of country we want to be.

The most intractable conversation I had with Kashmiri and Pakistani-origin constituents, during my nine years as MP for Wycombe, wasn’t about the Iraq war, Israel’s two military campaigns against Gaza, its incursion into Lebanon against Hezbollah, or the Afghanistan war.  Discussion about all these was often difficult, but it was always straightforward – debate about what Britain’s foreign and security policy ought to be.

No, it was about the so-called Danish cartoons – the twelve illustrations published in Jyllands-Posten, a newspaper in Denmark, which depicted Mohammed.  I met with a delegation of these constituents for a discussion about them – though, on second thoughts, I withdraw the word “discussion”, which implies a common basis for talking about a subject, however swiftly or strongly disagreements about it then emerge.

There was no such shared ground.  Instead, the group and I talked past each other for the best part of half-an-hour.  Their starting-point, though seldom directly stated, was that cartoons of Mohammed should not be published.  It wasn’t clear whether they believed that the state should ban any such illustrations, or whether artists should simply self-censor: this seemed to shift back and forth.  But what quickly became evident was that two conflicting worldviews were present in the room that spoke different languages.  They were like the lines in Marvell’s poem that “though infinite can never meet”.

One was mine: that free speech about religion is integral to liberal democracy.  The other was theirs: that blasphemy must be barred.  One was modern, the other pre-modern (though it is worth bearing in mind that common law offences of blasphemy and blasphemous libel weren’t abolished until as recently as 2008, though they had recently been honoured in the breach rather than the observance).

This may be a useful background against which to consider the Asia Bibi case.  She is a Christian who faced the death sentence under Pakistan’s blasphemy laws.  Originally framed to prohibit blasphemy against any recognised religion, they have increasingly targeted non-Muslims.  Since 1990, those who make remarks considered derogatory of Mohammed can be punished by death. A Muslim judge must preside at the trial.  Bibi was arrested after an altercation with fellow villagers in the Punjab.  It is claimed that her family had previously been involved in a dispute about property with another family in the village.  They are reportedly the only Christians in the village.

Bibi was tried and convicted.  The High Court then upheld the sentence on appeal.  Last month, the Supreme Court quashed it – citing “material contradictions and inconsistent statements of the witnesses”.  Whatever may or may not have been said, the manipulation of the blasphemy laws as a means of paying back grudges happens in Pakistan.  It may be worth noting that the woman whose quarrel with Bibi led to the arrest – she said that the latter should not have drunk from a cup used by Muslims – is reported to have been a member of the family involved in the property row.

Though found not guilty by the court, Bibi is still locked up in prison.  In short, Imran Khan’s government has done a deal with the Islamist Tehreek-e-Labbaik political party, which bars her from leaving the country.  She must wait until “the Supreme Court makes a final review of its verdict”.  Such proceedings can take years.

Some of Bibi’s supporters here claim that the Government is too frightened of a hostile reaction from British Muslims to offer Bibi asylum.  The claim is unproven – and, after all, she is not presently in a position to travel anywhere.  Government sources suggest that Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are not closed to an asylum offer.  Like William Hague last week, they indicate that more may be going on than meets the eye.  However, it would not be surprising were Ministers to be lobbying for Bibi to be freed from Pakistan to find refuge elsewhere in the West, in concert with other governments.  (By the way: there’s not been a peep on her case from Labour.)

At any rate, hers is a test case for freedom.  It should not be assumed that opinion in Pakistan is universally supportive of the original verdict.  The country has a liberal middle class.  But theirs is a minority view.  Pakistan has travelled a very long way from the vision expressed by Jinnah, the founder of the state: “Pakistan is not going to be a theocratic State to be ruled by priests with a divine mission”.  Horrifying videos show crowds chanting for Bibi’s death.

Salmaan Taseer, the Governor of the Punjab, who spoke up for Bibi and against the laws, was assassinated by a member of his own bodyguard.  The only Christian member of the country’s Cabinet, Shahbaz Bhatti, who took the same position, was shot dead by gunmen in a car ambush.  Returning to Britain, we understand why Ministers are reluctant to spell out their plans in public.  But we believe that they should be making an asylum offer for Bibi private.  We hope that she comes to Britain.

Finally, hers is not only a test case for the Government, but also for Muslim organisations in Britain – or at least those who claim to speak for British Muslims.  Some are effectively blackballed by Ministers for reasons connected with extremism.  There is debate back and forth about how extremism can be defined.  We are very doubtful whether it can or should be be in law.

But one can surely say of extremism, as an American judge once said of pornography, that one knows it when one sees it.  Support for murdering someone who expresses a view about religion is extreme, by any reasonable standard.  If groups shunned by Ministers want to to meet with them, they can start by condemning Pakistan’s blasphemy laws, loud and clear.  And add that Bibi would be welcome here.

Iain Dale: If we had a government with Cox and Balls

Plus: Crouch’s revenge. Islam’s departure. Brexit, May’s prospective deal and Labour’s internal agonies. And: Trumpety-Trump as the President claims victory.

Iain Dale is an LBC presenter, a commentator with CNN and the author/editor of over 30 books.

Oh, how the Prime Minister may regret crossing Tracey Crouch, who resigned last week as Sports Minister over gambling regulation.

Why? Because Tracey is writing the Prime Minister’s biographical essay for the second volume of The Honourable Ladies, a two volume book I am editing with Jacqui Smith, containing essays about the 491 female MPs elected since 1918. I’m sure that last week’s feeling of complete let-down by the Prime Minister will have no impact on the conclusions which Tracey will draw in her analysis of Theresa May’s career so far.

The main question we should ponder if whether she will have been restored to ministerial office by the time the book comes out next September. Or maybe it should be whether the Prime Minister herself will still be in office.

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So farewell, Faisal Islam. He’s been poached by the BBC as their new Economics Correspondent, replacing Kamal Ahmed, who is taking on a new management role there.

Faisal’s departure from Sky News could well trigger quite a substantial lobby domino effect, depending on who is appointed to replace him. Beth Rigby, currently deputy political editor at Sky must fancy her chances, and I suspect that Sophie Ridge is a leading candidate too.

Another standout internal candidate would be Niall Paterson, who used to be a political correspondent at Millbank, then covered the defence beat and now co-presents the weekday breakfast show.

If they want to look outside their own team, I’d say Tom Newton-Dunn would be a strong candidate. He has been wanting to get into TV for some time and recently lost ou narrowly to Deborah Haynes for the Sky Foreign Editor job.

Of course, whoever gets the job will operate in the long shadow which Adam Boulton continues to cast. He is Mr Politics at Sky, and I suspect Faisal always found it quite difficult to make his own mark. Adam is a giant among political journalists, and there will be some who would happily make a case for him to return to his old job. He was brilliant at it.

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Those of you who have followed this column for some time will realise I have a slightly puerile sense of humour. So be warned, here goes.

It was pointed out to me yesterday that if Geoffrey Cox had been a member of Gordon Brown’s Cabinet, there would have been a Cox and Balls in the same government. Arf arf. And that if Geoffrey had been in Parliament in the 1980s when the Tories held Hayes and Harlington, not only would we have had Cox, but also Dicks – as in Terry Dicks.

And, of course, in David Cameron’s day we’d have had both Cox and Willy (Hague). There is also a very large Johnson on the backbenches. And as for Jeremy Hunt…  [More, more – Ed].

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Tonight, I am supposed to be having dinner with a Cabinet minister. However, I’m prepared for it to be cancelled just in case there is an emergency cabinet meeting on Saturday morning. The speculation is that the Prime Minister has done a deal with the EU over Brexit, and that she will lay it before her Cabinet before putting it to a relatively quick parliamentary vote.

Who knows if these rumours are true? And as to the contents of this deal? Well, obviously I have no idea – but I suspect that it is a deal which no-one will particularly like, but that it will be one which we will all have to live with. I am not a flat earther on it, but I do believe that if we are to stay in the Customs Union beyond the end of the transitional period, it can only be described as Brexit in Name Only.

We have to be able to sign unfettered free trade agreements with countries all over the world. I interviewed Mark Regev, Israel’s Ambassador, on Tuesday, and he told me that scoping discussions with Liam Fox were already at an advanced stage. We need to be able to sign these kind of agreements on January 1, 2021. My suspicion is that there will be many countries who will think that it’s just not worth the candle if we remain aligned to EU regulations beyond that date. I hope I’m wrong.

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Assuming that the Prime Minister can get the support of her Cabinet for a deal – and I’d have thought that this is likely, – we can expect a vote in Parliament around the first week of December.

In the end, it may come down to how many Labour MPs will support any deal struck by May. Clearly, such an agreement wouldn’t meet Keir Starmer’s ludicrous six tests but, since Labour say that a No Deal Brexit is the worst of all worlds, you could argue that it could justify voting for the deal – and then tell voters that this is in the national interest.

I suspect that it won’t happen, but if Labour did go down that road I think they would garner an awful lot of support. My current bet is that the deal will go through because enough of its MPs will vote for it to counteract the Conservative MPs who vote against. That could trigger internal mayhem in the Labour Party.

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I predicted on Monday that if the Democrats won the House of Representatives, Donald Trump would still claim victory. Guess what? They, did – and so did he.

I’m not sure these results really change an awful lot. The Senate balance means that even if the House tried to impeach the President over the next two years, it would fall at the first hurdle.

How a Brexit deal would be done

What will happen this week? When could a summit take place? What would the Cabinet say – and what might the Attorney General do?

This week’s Cabinet meeting

ConservativeHome is told that there are two Brexit-related items on the agenda for discussion at tomorrow’s Cabinet meeting.  The first is the now-weekly deliberation on preparations for leaving itself and for No Deal.  The second is a more general exchange and gathering of views.

That might seem to provide an opportunity for Theresa May to put a draft deal to Cabinet members.  It looks like a convenient week for Downing Street to do so.  This is because the Commons is in recess from tomorrow until next Tuesday, November 12.  It would suit Number Ten for MPs to be absent if and when proposals are put to the Cabinet, because this would minimise the opportunities for hostile reaction and the inevitable talk of a leadership challenge.

However, it appears that the Government and the EU have not yet reached an outline agreement, though there is so much smoke and mirrors that one can never be quite sure.  In any event, the Prime Minister would presumably not want to risk putting a proposal agreed by Sabine Weyand and Olly Robbins straight to Cabinet members. (Remember what happened three or so weeks ago.)

A summit in mid-to-late November?

A more likely way of proceeding would be for the Cabinet to have another discussion about the key issues at stake – including five key issues we raised yesterday: the Northern Ireland backstop, implications for Scotland and the Union, a UK-wide customs arrangement, the enforcability of a political declaration, and what this last might contain.

We hope that Cabinet members press, as some did at last week’s meeting, for three conditions to met for any proposed deal.  That they approve it; that the Attorney General gives a view of it in writing, and that the Chief Whip offers an assessment of its likelihood to pass the Commons – in particular, whether it would effectively split the Conservative Parliamentary Party and leave Theresa May reliant on Labour backbench votes for it to pass.

Cabinet members told this site yesterday that any draft deal must be put to them for approval.  Number Ten wants to get a move on, because the more time ticks away before March 29, the less of it the Government will have to get its legislative preparations completed.  A date for a special summit to deal that deal was previously provisionally pencilled-in for the weekend of November 17-18.

Will Raab go to Brussels this week?

One view is that settling a mid-to-late November date for a summit is only possible if Dominic Raab flies to Brussels later this week to agree it with Michel Barnier.  If this is correct, the Prime Minister would seek tomorrow to get broad agreement from the Cabinet for him to do so on an agreed basis.

If Raab and Barnier reached an agreement about a draft deal and summit date, May would duly go to the latter herself to formalise the agreement in principle.  There is talk of a four-way press conference at the end of such a summit, starring the Prime Minister, Barnier, Donald Tusk…and Raab himself (to show the Parliamentary Party that the pro-Leave Brexit Secretary is signed up).  The deal would then be put to Cabinet.

Such a timetable would leave a dangerous gap for Number Ten between an agreement to hold a summit and it actually taking place.  It would presumably be filled by claims and counter-claims about what was in the deal to be signed off.  There would be that talk of 48 letters to Graham Brady.  However, Brexiteering Tory MPs would probably want to wait to see the final product.

Would there be Cabinet resignations?

Let us presume for a moment that this is controversial.  A question that follows is: would any Cabinet members resign and, if they did, would that leadership challenge follow?  (This line of thinking shows the importance to May of getting Raab’s assent to any deal.  If she doesn’t have it, she won’t have his backing in putting one to Cabinet.  Which suggests that she is now dependent on his agreement to be able to do so.)

The Prime Minister survived the resignations of David Davis and Boris Johnson without then facing a confidence ballot.  The consensus expectation is that she would similarly be able to withstand the loss of Andrea Leadsom, Esther McVey and perhaps Penny Mordaunt – and that Liam Fox and Chris Grayling are unlikely to quit.

Michael Gove going would be more problematic.  So would be the departures of Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt.  But these are unlikely.  In particular, Cabinet members whose departments would be in the front line in the event of No Deal have an obvious incentive to stay on.  These are Gove (agricultural products at the border), Grayling (transport and prospective queues, particularly in Kent), Javid (border control and security arrangements) – and Matt Hancock (medical supplies), though there is no realistic prospect of the pragmatic last resigning.

What would be the role of the Attorney General?

The arrival in Cabinet of Geoffrey Cox, with his track record as a Brexiteer and authority as a senior QC, has transformed its balance of debate.  The Attorney General played a central role in demolishing a set of Robbins/Weyand proposals in the middle of last month.  He has turned up to a meeting of Andrea Leadsom’s pro-Leave pizza club of Ministers.

Cox is surely no Peter Goldsmith – prepared to issue different drafts of guidance, each closer to the view that the Prime Minister wants.  There might well be a row about Cabinet members’ access to his written advice, which will be provided to May.  Number Ten will be nervous about it leaking if distributed.  Labour, other opposition parties and many Conservative MPs will demand that Parliament sees it.  We want it to be published.

A conventional expectation is that Cox would make an oral presentation to Cabinet.  Is it conceivable that he could stress the distinction between his legal responsibilities and his political views?  (“Well, Prime Minister: as a lawyer, my view is that under these proposals we could not escape the backstop.  But as a politician, my take is that they are preferable to No Deal.”)

If the Cabinet approves a deal, what happens next?

The Commons would then undertake its “meaningful vote”.  Today, we glance only at one aspect of it.  Let us suppose for a moment that Brexiteers are unhappy with a deal agreed by Cabinet, and that perhaps there have been resignations.  We stress that neither of these will necessarily be the case in the event of a deal.

Would, say, ERG members immediately flood Graham Brady will a mass of letters demanding a confidence vote – thus risking blame for alone seeking to bring down May at a crucial moment in the Brexit drama?

Or would they wait for the meaningful vote, join MPs from other parties in opposing the Prime Minister’s plan – and hope that, if it went down, she would then resign?  This would arguably leave them less directly exposed to criticism from fellow Tories.  We don’t know what the answer is, but the question is worth asking.

Cox is hoisted shoulder-high to the top of our Cabinet League Table

We have occasionally seen precipitous falls in Cabinet members’ scores. Vertiginous rises are rarer. Indeed, it is hard to think of a jump quite like it.

 

When our last Cabinet League Table was published, Geoffrey Cox had neither made his ringing speech to the Conservative Party Conference, nor yet brought a new clarity in Cabinet to what comes before it from the Brexit negotiations. And though he was sat mid-table, his rating was a modest + 11.

This month, it soars by almost 60 points to take him to the table’s top. We have occasionally seen precipitous falls in Cabinet members’ scores. Vertiginous rises are rarer. Indeed, it is hard to think of a jump quite like it. We may now even get a Cox-for-leader ramp, though our view is that he is well placed to take over, in due course, at Justice.

The Attorney General has clearly raised great expectations among the pro-Brexit generality of party members. But their approval is not confined to those who campaigned for Leave during the EU referendum.  Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt are second and third. The Foreign Secretary’s rating has scarcely moved. The Home Secretary’s has actually risen slightly.

Dominic Raab is now fourth. Esther McVey has slid: that will be the impact of the Universal Credit row. Gavin Williamson is out of negative territory. We suspect that Philip Hammond’s score would have been higher had the survey gone out post rather than pre-Budget, but the Softer Brexiteers, as usual, take a pasting, with the Prime Minister’s score down on last month.

Bob Seely: Hunt must face up to the harsh strategic realities facing Britain

Authoritarian regimes are rising, democracies are on the retreat, and our power to change that is less than we might wish.

Bob Seely is a member of the Foreign Affairs Select Committee, and is MP for the Isle of Wight.

This week Jeremy Hunt, the Foreign Secretary, has been giving some pointers for Global Britain – and a reality check for those who think that foreign policy should be about virtue signalling and moral posturing.

Hunt became Foreign Secretary three months ago when Boris Johnson resigned over Brexit. He may lack Johnson’s pazazz, but he is at least trying to understand the world and work out what ‘Global Britain’ means beyond the slogan.

Yesterday he outlined ideas for the future in a speech at Policy Exchange and in his first appearance before the Foreign Affairs Committee, which oversees the work of the Foreign Office. Hunt reminded us, in both his speech and his talk, that we need to understand some harsh global realities.

In 20 years time, China, a one-party nominally ‘socialist state’, may have the world’s largest economy. Democracies are regressing. Free and open states are in a global minority. The rules-based system is under threat. In short, the world is changing, not necessarily to our liking, and we don’t have as much power as we would like to change it.

Yet the UK needs to continue to defend an international order based on values. The alternative is a valueless and anarchic one based on hard power – plus the willingness to use force.

The Foreign Secretary rightly talked of expanding and reinvigorating British diplomacy. He is planning for 1,000 more staff: 335 new diplomatic posts overseas, 328 new roles in London, and 329 new locally engaged staff. In addition, he wants 12 new UK posts and a greater emphasis on language training.

He also talks of protecting media freedom. This is not a ‘nice to have’, but a critical element in defending freedom of speech and the core values of democracies. We have a Foreign Secretary who wants to support the BBC World Service and sees it as a critical tool in the UK’s arsenal of power. Whatever one thinks about the BBC at home, the World Service TV and Radio is critical to the future of global free speech because of its reach and what it represents – especially in the developing world.

More generally, he wants a more confident UK as a great power. This is all good. However, there are some ‘buts’.

Hunt is mid-way through his thinking. What we need to see from the FCO under his leadership is more strategic understanding about its role. Over and above the generic promotion of UK interests, what are our aims and campaigns? Can it really be right that Britain’s overseas policy is divided up between so many government departments – FCO, DfID, Defence, DExEU, DIT, Cabinet Office, not to mention Number 10?

There is a powerful argument for the UK to redefine the 0.7 percent it spends on aid rather than accept the sometimes confusing definition set by the OECD, which undermines the credibility of our aid budget and, on occasions, negates its affect. We need more ‘hard’ power in a more dangerous world.

Finally, there is the central question; what does Global Britain stand for? The blunt answer is that we don’t really know because the Government hasn’t done enough collective thinking on it – yet. We badly need to develop our national strategy post-Brexit.

This summer, the grand old man of US diplomacy, Henry Kissinger, told Hunt that the difference between a good foreign secretary and a bad foreign secretary was that a good foreign secretary thinks strategically.

It is early stages, but at the Select Committee Hunt was thoughtful, diligent, and decent. His problems are the limitations on the FCO, the lack of thinking about Global Britain, and the UK’s current obsession with Brexit. By next Spring we’ll need a better understanding of the Foreign Secretary’s strategic thinking about our future.