With fears of a real coup going on in Zimbabwe, talk of ‘treachery’ in Parliament over Brexit may seem a tad hyperbolic. But accusations of disloyalty are precisely what most angers those Tory MPs who want the EU Withdrawal Bill to create a smooth exit from the EU, rather than a chaotic one. The Telegraph’s front page ‘The Brexit Mutineers’, complete with photos of the 15 Tory MPs whom the paper thinks will rebel against the Government, sparked an instant backlash last night.
Anna Soubry called it ‘bullying’, Chuka Umunna said it was ‘an ideological witch-hunt’. Brexit minister Steve Baker had to swiftly put out a statement that “I regret any media attempts to divide our party”. Of course, printing a list of the alleged rebels is itself not controversial. What is more worrying for some of them is the menace implied in putting them on a front page. And with MPs of all parties receiving death threats in the past year (one I can’t name but is very prominent), the fear is that this kind of treatment is grossly irresponsible.
There’s talk among some Tories that the Telegraph splash will stiffen their resolve, not weaken it. And yet I still doubt whether there are enough rebels to actually defeat the Government on the key issue of setting an Exit Day in statute. As I wrote yesterday, this is a numbers game and thanks to Labour Leavers it would take at least 13 Tory rebels to inflict any defeat. Some consider the Telegraph mugshots a cunning whips’ weapon, given that more than half the alleged rebels were unlikely to do anything more than abstain.
That’s not to say there’s real anger among some Tory rebels. Soubry said Monday’s meeting with the new (now who’s bright idea was it to move Gavin Williamson?) Chief Whip Julian Smith was ‘stormy’. And the most significant Commons speech yesterday was from Dominic Grieve warning he simply would not vote for the new Government amendment detailing a date for Exit Day. This was very unusual for Grieve, who normally tries to be accommodating. Grieve seemed most angry not just at the whips’ attempts to bully him but at the logical inconsistency of imposing an Exit Day that would undermine our negotiations with Brussels. He also spotted a fresh Government amendment (a new version of amendment 383, fellow anoraks) giving a backdoor power for ministers to change the day anyway.
Grieve has pledged to go away and craft another amendment. The Exit Day vote is not likely until next month on Day 7 or 8 of the Committee Stage. Few picked up Grieve’s hint “we are likely to reach agreement” on everything else other than the Exit Day. Will the PM back down or just rely on brute numbers to get this through? Robert Peston reports that some in the Cabinet were furious that they were not consulted about the new Exit Day amendment. Today, those ministers may agree more than ever with Ken Clarke (applauded by Labour MPs) who said yesterday it was a “silly” move designed to get “a good article in the Daily Telegraph but might eventually actually do harm”.
We have eight more hours of debate today and as with yesterday, few expect Government defeats. But Labour is stepping up its campaign to protect workers’ rights, post-Brexit, with an amendment. Our own Owen Bennett has talked to the experts at the ‘UK in a Changing EU’ think tank and has an explainer HERE on the Brexit bill flashpoints ahead.
Of course PMQs is back at noon and it’s possible neither Corbyn nor May will want to touch Brexit given divisions in their respective ranks. Both will also be wary of raising the thorny topic of Kensington and Chelsea. May could demand Corbyn withdraw the whip from MP Emma Dent Coad for her ‘ghetto boy’ slur on black Tory Shaun Bailey (Stephen Bush has an excellent dissection of the row HERE); But Corbyn could demand May apologise for a Tory residents’ survey asking people to rate the Grenfell fire from 0 to 10 alongside bin collection. Corbyn could press hard on the bruise that is Boris Johnson’s Iran blunder. New stats show unemployment fell by 57,000 again, but there are figures on earnings and universal credit (see below). Meanwhile, Labour’s interim Scottish leader Alex Rowley has stepped aside after a Scottish Sun story about his conduct. It could be a long day.