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By JACK BLANCHARD
PRESENTED BY THE BOEING COMPANY
Good Tuesday morning. There are 31 days to go until Brexit Day.
BECAUSE THE WORLD NEEDS A LITTLE MORE DRAMA: Indian and Pakistani jets were involved in serious skirmishes last night, with Indian air force sources claiming to have attacked terrorist targets inside Pakistan. The BBC has the latest.
DRIVING THE DAY
SHIFTING SANDS: A big 48 hours in the Brexit endgame is underway today as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn prepare to make seismic shifts in their Brexit positions. The prime minister is expected to confront her Cabinet and then the entire House of Commons today with a proposal to grant MPs the chance to delay Brexit if she cannot win a “meaningful vote” by mid-March. Corbyn meanwhile will finally throw his weight behind a second referendum once his own Brexit proposals are defeated in the Commons tomorrow evening. These are huge shifts for both leaders, and the irony is that each has been dragged to their new positions kicking and screaming against their will. But with only four and a half weeks to go until Brexit Day, the pressure on both main parties is starting to tell.
Cabinet showdown: For her part, May is braced for one of the stormiest Cabinet meetings of recent times (a high bar) this morning as she prepares to offer MPs the chance to delay Brexit. The Evening Standard broke the story yesterday afternoon, before multiple lobby journos confirmed it on their return from the PM’s trip to Egypt last night. ITV’s Robert Peston, Bloomberg’s Tim Ross and the Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn all have similar versions of the same tale. In essence, it seems May has decided to head off a damaging defeat on the Cooper-Letwin amendment tomorrow night by pledging to give MPs the chance to extend Article 50 herself. And it’s safe to say that is not going to go down well with everyone in the Tory ranks.
How it’s going to work: The FT’s George Parker filed the most detailed account early this morning. “Under Mrs. May’s plan, to be presented to Cabinet, MPs would be given a ‘meaningful vote’ on a revised exit deal by March 12,” he writes. “According to the prime minister’s allies, if the Commons rejected the deal again then Mrs. May would give MPs a vote on whether to press ahead with a no-deal Brexit on March 29, or to opt for ‘a short extension’ to the Article 50 exit process. Downing Street believes there is now a solid Commons majority against a no-deal exit, suggesting that if Tory Euroskeptics refused to back the deal next month then Brexit would be delayed by perhaps a couple of months.”
Out of her hands: If confirmed, May’s new position has been forced upon her by the threat of mass resignations from junior and senior ministers who stand ready to back the Cooper-Letwin amendment to block no deal. The Daily Mail this morning carries another extraordinary op-ed from a trio of Remain-supporting ministers — this time Climate Change Minister Claire Perry, Business Minister Richard Harrington and Digital Minister Margot James — threatening to quit if she does not rule out no deal. If she fails to do so, the trio writes “we will have no choice other than to join MPs of all parties and fellow ministers in acting in the national interest to prevent a disaster in less than five weeks that we may regret forever.”
And there’s more: The Mail says 23 Remainer ministers met secretly in the Commons yesterday to discuss the strategy, and that up to 15 will quit to vote against no deal if necessary. One big question is whether May’s new pledge will be enough to head off the rebellion.
The other big question: Is whether it will even get through Cabinet unscathed. Everyone is expecting an enormous row when the meeting convenes at 9.30 a.m., with one aide telling Newsnight’s Nick Watt “they should be selling tickets to see this one for thousands of pounds.” A minister tells the FT an “explosion is guaranteed” from Tory Brexiteers when they are confronted with May’s new strategy, while another says the PM will need Remainer protection. “It’s taken a lot of hard work to get this far,” the minister tells the FT. “We need a wall of support for the PM to get this through the Cabinet.”
And then on to the Commons: May is due to present her new strategy to the Commons at 12.30 p.m. — although that could be delayed by urgent questions or other ministerial statements. Whatever happens, this should be the set piece moment of the day. The PM will also formally put forward her neutral motion ahead of tomorrow night’s votes. MPs then have until the close of business this evening to put down their own amendments.
Inside No. 10: It all makes for a pretty grim mood inside Downing Street, reports my colleague Tom McTague, who was traveling with Team May on the weekend trip to Egypt. “There are now fears in No. 10 that the government is running out of Brexit road, and may soon lose its fragile grip on events — with potentially dramatic consequences for May, her government and Britain’s protracted departure from the European Union,” he writes. One official tells him gloomily: “At the moment, nothing looks good.”
Cheer up guys: Isn’t it possible the threat of an Article 50 extension, coupled with Labour’s support for a second referendum, might be enough to push many of the Tory Euroskeptic rebels back into line?
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THE FINAL MOVEMENT: Jeremy Corbyn meanwhile faces his own stormy meeting today as shadow Cabinet ministers gather to discuss last night’s big policy shift. The Labour leader’s dramatic announcement to MPs that he will formally back a second referendum took all of Westminster by surprise, and will not go down well with shadow Cabinet ministers from Leave constituencies, such as Ian Lavery and Richard Burgon. The move followed a lengthy meeting of senior aides and shadow ministers in Corbyn’s office yesterday, which left some of his closest allies deeply unhappy at Labour’s new stance. Indeed, Team Corbyn actually tried to bury the story halfway down a lengthy press release about Labour’s voting plans for tomorrow night. Given the news was subsequently splashed by the Times, the Guardian, the Mirror, the Metro, the FT, the Express, the i, the Telegraph, the Indy and even City A.M., it’s fair to say that was not entirely effective.
So is this a real shift? Undoubtedly so. Senior Labour officials both inside and outside Corbyn’s office confirm this is a “significant” move for the party. The expected process now is that once Labour’s amendment — calling for the government to back its own Brexit plan — is defeated tomorrow night, the party will then formally support other options to avoid either a no-deal or a May-deal scenario. That will include backing an amendment to the meaningful vote (when it is finally held next month) calling for a second referendum.
One well-placed insider explains it thus: “Previously our position was that a second referendum was better than no deal. Now we’re saying it’s better than May’s deal, too. She thinks she can run down the clock until March and then force us to choose between her deal and utter chaos. We are saying no, there is another viable choice.”
In fact: The source added there could be several viable choices. “We could back more than one cross-party amendment next month,” they said. These might include a close economic relationship with the EU, a second referendum, a general election or even some form of Norway-plus. “Beforehand we had more of a hierarchy,” the source said. “Now we’re saying we will support whichever it takes to stop no deal or her deal.”
Remain on the ballot: A briefing note sent out to all Labour MPs last night confirmed that Remain would indeed be on the ballot in a second referendum, and Corbyn’s aides were not disputing the position set out enthusiastically by Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry last night. “If we can’t get our deal through … then anything else would be a disastrous Tory Brexit and we would ask for the public to be able to have a vote on that,” she told Channel 4 News. “We would have a referendum on whatever deal may or may not pass through parliament, and we would be saying to people — ‘Do you want this? Or do you want to Remain?’ It would be a confirmation referendum, a bit like what happened with the Good Friday Agreement.” And asked if Labour would back Remain, Thornberry replied: “If it’s a choice between a disastrous Tory Brexit, or no deal, and Remaining, then that is what we will have to do.”
Remainiacs in 7th heaven: The announcement left Labour Remainers and People’s Vote campaigners jubilant, with David Miliband among those expressing delight at the shift last night. (Presumably we’ll hear from Tony Blair shortly.) And it’s certainly true that winning the support of one of the two main political parties in Westminster puts the People’s Vote campaign right back in the game as the clock ticks down to Brexit Day.
But but but: The truth is that even with Corbyn’s backing, it’s still very hard to see how a second referendum gets through parliament. Remember that last month 27 current and former Labour MPs — mostly from Leave-supporting areas — refused even to vote for a delay to Brexit. The number refusing to back a second referendum would likely be even higher. That means without large numbers of Tories coming over to the People’s Vote cause over the next fortnight, the bid for a second referendum still looks doomed to fail.
And guess what? The vast majority of Team Corbyn is more than happy with that. Make no mistake — this is a purely tactical move designed to keep Remain-supporting members happy and stem the flow of further defections to the Independent Group. There is no love for a second referendum inside the leader’s office, and few staffers in there believe it’s actually going to happen.
Not so fast … say a number of Labour MPs and Remain-supporting officials, who still hold out hope of a mass Tory rebellion over the next two weeks. “It’s not in the bag,” one Remainer source admits. “Clearly there’s got to be a conversation with Labour MPs who for very legitimate reasons feel uncomfortable about supporting another referendum. But those conversations are also being handled with Tory MPs, and Tory ministers. If we do end up 17 days from Brexit and her deal has been rejected, this could be the get-out they are looking for.” Former Cabinet Minister Ben Bradshaw tweeted similar optimism last night: “If Labour whip properly for it, and it’s a cross-party backbench amendment, enough Tories will back it to get it through.”
Processology: Labour backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson had already planned to put forward an amendment to the meaningful vote next month, which would have backed May’s deal, but subject to a second referendum. This will now be rewritten so the Labour frontbench can support it. “The original Kyle-Wilson plan is close to being a non-starter,” a senior source tells Playbook. “We are not going to do anything that could be construed as supporting her deal. But we are talking to them.” Another party official admits: “There is no consensus at all between anyone on precisely what the amendment looks like. That’s an ongoing conversation.”
Side note: “Kyle Wilson” is now being laughingly referred to in Labour circles as “our newest MP.” One official says: “He’s a bit like Kyle Walker, but not as quick.”
Background to the shift: The Times credits Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell with forcing the issue, telling his close ally Corbyn that big changes were needed to keep the party together. HuffPost’s Paul Waugh takes a different tack, calling it “a big victory for [Shadow Brexit Secretary] Keir Starmer.” In fact, it’s a combination of the two. McDonnell and Starmer have formed an unlikely alliance on Brexit over the past 18 months, slowly shifting the party’s position to embrace first a customs union and now a second referendum. Together they have faced down fierce opposition from some of Corbyn’s closest aides, including comms and strategy chief Seumas Milne and chief of staff Karie Murphy — not to mention her close friend Len McCluskey. It has been an epic power struggle, and one which somebody had to lose.
Fallout: One possible impact of Labour’s new position could be the resignation of Brexit-reconciled frontbenchers who refuse to support a People’s Vote. Shadow Housing Minister Melanie Onn — the MP for Leave-supporting Grimsby — has already pledged to quit her post rather than back a second referendum. She’ll be joining your Playbook author on the BBC’s “Politics Live” show at lunchtime, and it’s worth keeping an ear out for what she has to say. We’ve already heard the howls of anguish from pro-Brexit colleagues such as John Mann and Caroline Flint last night, and there will be plenty more where that came from today.
Now watch this: A truly magnificent moment on Newsnight last night, as Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner tried to get friendly with Chuka Umunna. Watch the clip (h/t Jon Walker). The Mirror’s Mikey Smith has given it the treatment it deserves. Worth your time.
And then hear this: Keir Starmer has the morning broadcast round for Labour, including the 8.10 a.m. interview on the Today program.
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EYE OF THE TIG-GER
A DECENT WEEK’S WORK? Just how much can we put either or both of these shifts down to the newly established threat of the Independent Group of MPs is a matter Playbook fears will be endlessly debated over the days ahead. Former Tory MP Sarah Wollaston was certainly claiming the scalps last night, tweeting: “Good news that on both sides of the Commons, the setting up of #TIG has triggered a response as parties try to prevent more MPs joining us.” Others may well disagree with that, though Playbook spoke to one Corbyn ally who admitted “jitters” over the prospect of further defections may have played a part in the Labour shift.
Polling high: The Times meanwhile has a new YouGov poll putting TIG on an improbable-sounding 18 points, just 5 behind Labour on 23. The TIGgers naturally went out to celebrate via a team Nando’s. Pic here.
Keeping Labour MPs on-side: Jeremy Corbyn will make a further attempt to re-engage his backbenchers today by asking shadow Cabinet ministers to set up policy forums with backbench MPs.
ELSEWHERE IN BREXIT
FIRST READ THIS: POLITICO’s Charlie Cooper and Tom McTague have filed this essential profile of Barclay for our Brexit Pro subscribers. Reviews of his performance are mixed, they report. “He’s very single-minded and if he perceives that people are trying to pull the wool over your eyes, then he can be quite brutally effective,” former DExEU aide Stewart Jackson says. “He’s also incredibly ambitious.” Others are less kind. “His problem is that he’s secretary of state in a department that has been so marginalized and hollowed out that his role is of very limited significance,” one Tory Brexiteer says. Another complains: “Ultimately, the wrong people are still in charge.”
And now read this: Top scoop from the Telegraph’s Peter Foster, who reveals ministers signed off a decision on Monday to pay large parts of the £39-billion Brexit divorce bill, even if Britain leaves without a trade deal. “Senior Whitehall sources admitted that the politics of such payments would be ‘horrible,’” he writes, “but in practice accepted Treasury advice that they were legally unavoidable for 2019 — with immense political pressure to pay up for 2020 too in order to manage a ‘no deal’ smoothly.”
Today’s Brexit diary: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is back in Brussels today for more talks on a possible tweak to the Irish backstop … Cabinet meets at 9.30 a.m. … Bank of England Governor Mark Carney appears before the Commons Treasury committee at 10 a.m. … Theresa May is due on her feet for a Commons statement from 12.30 p.m. … At some point today the government will be releasing the no-deal preparation documents demanded by former Tory MP Anna Soubry the other week … And tonight arch-Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg will be interviewed live at the London Palladium by the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson. Astonishingly, the whole event is a sellout. Between that and Ivan Rogers’ best-selling speeches, the country really has gone bananas.
Brexit dividend: It turns out there really is a big Brexit dividend. Unfortunately, POLITICO’s Naomi O’Leary reports, it’s gone to Amsterdam.
PARLIAMENT: Commons sits from 11.30 a.m. with an hour of Foreign Office questions.
MIGRANT CROSSINGS: The Commons home affairs committee hears from senior police and coastguard officials this morning on English Channel migrant crossings.
STRIKE: Security guards, cleaners and other contract workers at the ministry of justice and BEIS are striking again today over pay and conditions.
HANCOCK’S HALF-HOUR: Health Secretary Matt Hancock is in conversation at the NLGN conference at lunchtime.
Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington broadcast round: Today program (7.30 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (8.10 a.m.).
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer broadcast round: ITV Good Morning Britain (6.40 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.10 a.m.) … Sky Sunrise (7.40 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … LBC Radio (8.25 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Labour Brexiteer John Mann (7.15 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC Radio): Labour MPs Kate Hoey and Clive Lewis (7 a.m.) … Tory MP Charlie Elphicke (7.40 a.m.).
TalkRADIO: Tory MP Peter Bone and the Independent’s John Rentoul (7.05 a.m.) … Labour MP Stephen Timms (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MEP Daniel Hannan (8.10 a.m.) … Pimlico Plumbers’ Charlie Mullins (9 a.m.).
All Out Politics (Sky News, 9 a.m.): Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (9 a.m.) … FT journo Miranda Green and former No. 10 spinner Matt O’Toole (9.15 a.m. & 10.15 a.m.) … Tory MPs Antoinette Sandbach and Nigel Evans (9.30 a.m.) … TIGger MP Sarah Wollaston (10 a.m.) … Labour MEP Jude Kirton-Darling (10.45 a.m.).
BBC Politics Live (12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Bim Afolami … Labour MP Melanie Onn … Playbook’s own Jack Blanchard … and Mumsnet founder Justine Roberts.
Reviewing the papers tonight: (BBC News, 10.45 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): Brexit academic Anand Menon and the Sunday Times’ deputy political editor, Caroline Wheeler … (Sky News, 10.30 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): Libertarian writer Claire Fox and columnist Steve Richards.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
City A.M.: Corbyn — We will back a second vote.
Daily Express: Our final say on Brexit was June 23, 2016!
Daily Mail: 15 ministers in threat to quit.
Daily Mirror: Corbyn backs second Brexit vote.
Financial Times: Labour reshapes Brexit debate by backing second referendum.
HuffPost: The Remain man — Corbyn commits to second Brexit vote.
i: Labour offers second public vote on Brexit.
Metro: Labour backs people’s vote.
The Daily Telegraph: Corbyn comes out for second referendum.
The Guardian: Corbyn: We’ll back a public vote to stop Tory Brexit.
The Independent: Labour backs Final Say.
The Sun: Fab-ruary — Hottest winter day ever.
The Times: Labour will back second referendum on Brexit.
BEYOND THE M25
From the North
OSBO VS. MAY, PT 4,750: Former Chancellor George Osborne is not impressed with Theresa May’s efforts to boost the Northern economy, the Newcastle Chronicle’s Jon Walker reports. “The Northern Powerhouse is suffering from a lack of vision from the government,” Osborne told his Northern Powerhouse Partnership think tank. “Indeed, it’s hard to think of a single original idea that has come out of this Downing Street to advance the Northern Powerhouse.”
SUMMIT GOING ON: North Korean leader Kim Jong-un has arrived in Vietnam for tomorrow’s summit with Donald Trump. Reuters has the latest.
From Down Under
NOT POLITICS BUT … A SERIOUSLY BIG STORY: An Australian court has found the Vatican’s third-most-powerful man, Cardinal George Pell, guilty of child sex abuse. Pell, who is on leave from his role as Vatican treasurer, had previously been praised by Pope Francis for his response to child abuse scandals. The offenses relate to the late 1990s, when Pell was archbishop of Melbourne. The Guardian has more.
AND THERE’S MORE: Dozens of senior journalists in Australia could now face prison for allegedly breaching court orders that the case be heard in secret, the Guardian says.
Westminster weather: 😎😎🤔 Another stunning day of, well, global warming, with all-time record winter highs of up to 20C. Get out there and enjoy it if you can.
But a year ago today: ❄️❄️❄️ It was so cold in London that Playbook led on the weather all week. Some days it stayed below freezing all day — a full 20C colder than it is today.
Spotted: At last night’s Mayor of London media drinks party at City Hall, where guests enjoyed the stunning views across the Thames to Tower Bridge from the second floor viewing gallery, were … Sadiq Khan, obvs … All the Team Sadiq big-hitters, including mayoral directors Patrick Hennessy and Nick Bowes, and top spinners Jon Weisgard and Sarah Brown … London Evening Standard journos Nick Cecil and Martin Bentham … Time Out Editor Gail Tolley … Mail on Sunday columnist Dan Hodges … PA’s Alan Jones … and many more.
Khan’t resist having a pop: The mayor’s speech was peppered with gags about the editor of his local paper, but he saved his best for the PM herself. “For those who haven’t seen the footage from last night of Theresa May playing pool — to be fair to her, she gave it her best,” Khan told those present. “What you didn’t see was that after the cameras stopped rolling, she ended up in a ‘Double or Quits’ Brexit match with Giuseppe Conte. I can now reveal as a result of that match we’ve joined the euro, entered into the Schengen area and lost Gibraltar.”
Out today: “Not Quite a Diplomat,” a new memoir by former FCO official Robin Renwick. He was once described as “Thatcher’s favorite diplomat” and (the blurb says) was at the center of negotiations to end the Rhodesian War.
Happy birthday to: Former Chief Whip Mark Harper … Wyre Forest MP Mark Garnier … Daily Mail Deputy Political Editor John Stevens … The Guardian’s political cartoonist Steve Bell … and Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan, who turns 65.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich and producer Jeanette Minns.
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