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By JACK BLANCHARD
Good Thursday morning.
LOBBY SCOOP 1: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Liz Truss has poached Mail Online’s Deputy Political Editor Tim Sculthorpe to be her new press secretary. Sculthorpe is an experienced journo who’s spent the past seven years in the lobby, first earning his stripes in PA’s press gallery team. He is also well known for his expertise on parliamentary process, a skillset that has never looked more useful than in the current climate. His new role will be with a civil service position rather than on the political side, replacing the departed Jason Stein, who is now working as SpAd to Work and Pensions Secretary Amber Rudd.
LOBBY SCOOP 2: The Sun has completed the reshuffle of its political team with the hiring of the Mail on Sunday’s Martin Beckford as Whitehall editor. Beckford is a former Telegraph hack who has served as the MoS’ home affairs editor for the past six years. In his new role he will cover politics with a home affairs angle from inside parliament, and the hire will provide some satisfaction at Sun HQ after the MoS poached one of their own star hacks, Harry Cole, last year. Beckford will join former Mail Online journo Kate Ferguson in the Sun’s new-look lobby team. She starts Monday, just as Lynn Davidson departs to become a SpAd for Penny Mordaunt.
WATCHING BRIEF: An announcement is also now looming re one of the biggest jobs in British political journalism — political editor at Sky News. Playbook hears several of Westminster’s best-known political journalists are on the shortlist, and were called back in for further interviews over recent days. Two are senior newspaper hacks from the lobby; two are well-known faces from TV news. The chosen candidate will replace the departing Faisal Islam, who is joining the BBC as economics editor. Best of luck to all involved.
DRIVING THE DAY
ENTER THE UNIONS: Theresa May will host the leaders of Britain’s biggest trade unions in Downing Street today as she continues to seek a way through the Brexit deadlock. Unite leader Len McCluskey, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady, the GMB’s Tim Roache and Unison’s Dave Prentis are all expected in No. 10 for discussions with the prime minister. Downing Street is keen to show the PM is in “listening mode” and doing all she can to solve the crisis as the clock ticks down towards Brexit Day. The danger is the left-wing leaders will simply walk out one by one and castigate her approach. In truth, Downing Street spinners are probably comfortable enough with that — the main aim is to show she’s fighting hard.
Nine ways to save Brexit: Speaking to the trade unions might make good PR for both sides, but May’s main focus remains on getting Tory and DUP Euroskeptics back on board. That will require major concessions from Brussels, which the PM is expected to seek via fresh talks after next Tuesday’s Commons votes. This morning the Telegraph’s Steven Swinford reports her Europe adviser Olly Robbins has drawn up a memo containing nine possible ways the U.K. could seek to improve the deal. One option being considered is to “withhold part of the £39 billion Brexit divorce bill to ensure Britain does not become permanently trapped in the backstop,” Swinford reports. “Other options include attempting to negotiate a ‘unilateral’ exit mechanism from the customs backstop and putting a firm end date on it. The letter also proposes that under the backstop, the entire of the U.K. will be in ‘regulatory alignment’ with the EU.”
Good luck with that: “At least three of the options under consideration involve reopening the EU Withdrawal Agreement, which until now has been an apparent red line for both the government and Brussels,” Swinford adds.
Aiming high: In his speech in Brussels yesterday, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier again insisted there can be no further negotiation on the Withdrawal Agreement. But Downing Street now accepts that simply fiddling with the political declaration on the future relationship — as suggested by Chancellor Philip Hammond last week — is not going to be enough for Tory MPs. “Barnier is trying to frame this as something that can be solved by the political declaration,” one senior government source said last night. “But everything that is happening in Westminster tells you that is not the case. I don’t think [changing] the political declaration alone, from what we’ve heard so far from MPs, is going to get it over the line.”
Murrison’s the man: Tory Brexiteer Andrew Murrison’s amendment calling for the deal to be passed with a sunset clause on the backstop thus looks increasingly like No. 10’s best vehicle for showing Brussels how it can help get the deal through parliament. Interestingly, today’s order paper (see page 47) shows a wide range of moderate Tory MPs have now signed the amendment, including influential figures such as Graham Brady, Damian Green and Robert Halfon. That looks like a sure-fire signal the amendment is going to get plenty of support come Tuesday night — if it is selected for a vote.
The problem for No. 10: Is that parliament’s concurrent move to take no deal off the table by delaying Brexit will badly weaken May’s hand if and when she returns to Brussels to negotiate. Her former chief of staff Nick Timothy sounds despairing on this point in his Telegraph column today. “It does not matter how many of these amendments pass,” he writes. “Their very existence tells the EU that it does not need to compromise.”
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TAKING BACK CONTROL
‘NOTHING WE CAN DO’: Several papers report Downing Street is now pretty much resigned to delaying Brexit if enough Tory rebels vote to do so in the days ahead. The Times’s Political Editor Francis Elliott and the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves today carry identical quotes from a No. 10 source who confirms the government will request an extension to Article 50 if Yvette Cooper’s backbench bill passes the Commons next month, and the PM’s deal does not. “There is a difference in kind from the other amendments and Cooper’s,” the source says. “The first are expressions of parliamentary will which, in theory, [the PM] could ignore. But Cooper is proposing legislation. If that passes there is nothing we can do. It’s massively unhelpful. We’d have a week to try to persuade the Commons not to back the bill, or Brexit would be delayed and the pressure would come off the EU.”
Dates for your diary: That (off-the-record) confirmation, coupled with Labour’s support for the Cooper plan, means parliament is indeed now gearing up for two more dramatic votes that may well decide whether Britain leaves the EU on March 29. Gets the dates in your diary now: The first comes next Tuesday evening, when MPs will vote on Cooper’s amendment creating time in the parliamentary calendar for her delaying bill. The second comes a week later on February 5, when the bill itself would be brought forward and voted through the Commons in a single day. Lovers of parliamentary theater, who have been well-served over recent months, can look forward to a couple more exciting installments over the next two weeks.
Numbers game: To add to the drama, the votes could be a lot closer than expected due to what is rumored to be a growing number of rebels on the Labour side. Don Valley MP Caroline Flint’s announcement yesterday that she will not back the Cooper amendment should bolster hopes among Tory whips that the vote is not yet a foregone conclusion. Other Labour MPs from Leave-supporting seats are also wrestling with their consciences over whether to vote for a delay. They include Stoke MP Ruth Smeeth, who wrote earlier this week that MPs need to “get on with our jobs” and forget the “procedural wrangling.” One source guesses up to 20 Labour MPs could refuse to vote for the amendment, which if borne out would put the number of Tory rebels needed to get it over the line considerably higher. That, in turn, increases the prospects of Remain-supporting ministers resigning to help the bill through.
Speaking of which: The Telegraph’s Steven Swinford reports this morning that a group of 18 Remain-supporting ministers have been holding regular meetings to discuss how to block a no-deal Brexit. They sound like a pretty dull lot — there’s no booze and no pizza — and Swinford christens them the “Hairshirt Club.” “We don’t boast about what we’re doing, and we don’t leak,” an unnamed minister, erm, boasts. “We meet early in the evening and drink water. It’s a meeting for a serious discussion and an exchange of views.” Swinford publishes a full list of those involved — it includes Cabinet Ministers Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd, Greg Clark, Claire Perry and David Gauke — and says some are ready to quit the government to stop no deal. “The group is united around opposition to no deal and doing everything in our power to stop it,” one minister says. “We are intent on finding a way to stop it, and stop it as soon as possible.”
But stop it for how long? The big news last night was that Cooper’s plan to delay Brexit until the end of the year looks set to be shortened by the Labour front bench. As my POLITICO colleague Tom McTague reported, senior Labour figures are pressing to bring forward the new date of departure to the end of June, making for a three-month delay to Brexit rather than the original nine months. Jeremy Corbyn held private talks with Cooper and fellow Labour MP Rachel Reeves — who has a separate amendment down calling for Brexit to be delayed — to discuss tactics yesterday. HuffPost’s Paul Waugh has a full story here. “One senior shadow Cabinet minister told HuffPost the three-month period was seen as the one most likely to win the maximum Commons backing,” Waugh writes. And another Labour MP tells him: “June 30 is the only realistic extension.”
Should have listened harder: Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell actually dropped a big hint in his BBC Newsnight interview on Tuesday evening that Labour hoped to reduce the Article 50 extension. “What Yvette has said is [delay] until December — but that’s negotiable,” McDonnell said. “That could be amended itself. She’s interested in the debate around the timescale on that, about what’s realistic — three months, six months, nine months or whatever. And that’s part of the discussion that will happen with Yvette and with others. If we can shorten that … we would do.”
Fine by us: Cooper has made clear she is not wedded to the nine-month figure, and last night her partner-in-crime Nick Boles said the same. Responding to McTague’s tweet, Boles said: “The bill is specifically drafted to give the Commons control over the length of the extension. Nine months is simply the starting position and, like any other part of the bill, is open to discussion and amendment.”
Why the end of June? Some Labour figures believe a shorter delay will be more palatable to voters and MPs who are suspicious the whole thing is a plot to kill off Brexit altogether. Just as importantly, it would be much more straightforward to agree with Brussels, as it avoids the messy issue of how Britain would be represented in the next European Parliament. As Labour’s Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer told ITV’s Peston show last night: “It’s relatively simple to extend until July 1, because the European elections and incoming MEPs don’t take up their functions until July 2. It is more difficult and legally complicated to do it for longer than that.” The proposal does, however, also raise the important question of how much help a three-month delay would actually be.
Which brings us to: The big question from Brussels — and probably the general public — if Britain requests an extension: What are we actually delaying Brexit for? A plan is going to be needed by February 26 for what comes next, which is where Dominic Grieve’s amendment to force a series of indicative votes on the next steps will come in. The Remainer idea is for parliament to spend much of February debating what should come next, in a bid to force the government’s hand.
Amendment watch: Today’s order paper (see page 40 onwards) shows there are now a whopping 14 amendments down ahead of next week’s big debate. They include several from Tory Brexiteer John Baron, whose effort was crushed badly last time round. He put forward three new amendments last night, each one proposing a slightly different tweak to the backstop. God loves a trier, I guess.
But still not on the order paper: Is the much-vaunted “doctors amendment” calling for a second referendum. It seems “People’s Vote” campaigners urging MPs not to put a second referendum before parliament too soon — in the knowledge it will lose — are currently winning the argument. Last night the campaign threw its weight behind the Cooper and Reeves amendments instead.
Doing his bit for the campaign: Here’s a photo of esteemed former PM Tony Blair posing in Davos yesterday with, erm, Brazil’s far-right leader Jair Bolsonaro.
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ELSEWHERE IN BREXIT
THE GREAT BRITISH STOCKPILE: U.K. companies are stockpiling food, medicine and car parts as they prepare for a no-deal Brexit — but they’re running out of space to store it all, POLITICO’s Simon Marks, Kait Bolongaro and Joshua Posaner report.
Going Dutch? The Times’ Oliver Wright reports the Netherlands is hoping to attract scores of multinational companies from the U.K. as the countdown to Brexit continues.
In the money: It seems David Davis is not the only Brexiteer getting big bucks out of Brexit-backing JCB owner Anthony Bamford. The Times’ Henry Zeffman reports Boris Johnson received a £10,000 donation from JCB three days before giving a Brexit speech at its headquarters.
Brexit diary: ConservativeHome Editor Paul Goodman discusses the Tory Party and Brexit at Chatham House at 8.30 a.m. … Brexit ministers answer an hour of questions in the Commons at 9.30 a.m. … and the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush chairs a panel of academics for a Brexit discussion at the British Academy at 6.30 p.m.
PARLIAMENT: Commons sits at 9.30 a.m. with an hour of DExEU questions.
QUARTERLY CRIME STATS: Are released at 9.30 a.m., and should be worth looking out for. If it wasn’t for Brexit, rising violent crime would be somewhere near the very top of the U.K. news agenda.
ALSO OUT TODAY: ONS household spending stats for 2017.
LIKE TICK FOLLOWS TOCK: “‘Destructive’ Chris Grayling blamed for computer chaos in courts,” the Times reports today, as per Playbook’s prediction. Westminster will be shocked, just shocked, to hear that lawyers believe the massive IT meltdown currently disrupting the nation’s justice system is a legacy of the minister with the reverse-Midas touch. “He has repeated the trick everywhere he has been,” complains Chris Henley, chairman of the Criminal Bar Association. “We’ve seen it with the probation contract, private prisons, and more recently the railways. We are living with his destructive, nihilistic legacy in all areas.”
Good start Mr. Henley: But you forgot the prisoners’ books ban, the “Work Program” that didn’t work, the abandoned criminal court charge scheme, the mind-boggling Saudi prison training contract, the failed prisoner tagging system, the illegal cuts to legal aid, the illegal tribunal fee hikes, the rocketing levels of self-harm and suicide in prisons (dismissed as a “blip”), the HS2 contract for doomed Carillion, the ferry contract for a firm with no ferries, the collapse of the East Coast mainline, and goodness knows what else.
TRIAL OF THE CENTURY: Labour’s Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon is suing the Sun over a story about his links to a heavy metal band, and spent four long hours on the witness stand yesterday. The case really is well worth following — the Guardian’s Jim Waterson has all the details from the first day in court. The Sun’s Political Editor Tom Newton Dunn is due to give evidence today, with a verdict expected by the end of the week.
GAFFE OF THE CENTURY: Northern Powerhouse Minister Jake Berry might as well resign now after slagging off Greggs sausage rolls in the House of Commons. The Daily Mirror is rightly furious.
WELCOME TO PARLIAMENT: A warm Playbook welcome to our newest peer, Aeneas Mackay, who was voted into the House of Lords yesterday via the surreal ritual of a hereditary peers’ election. Or as the Mirror’s Dan Bloom memorably puts it: “A man has joined the House of Lords for life after an election he could only enter because his great-grandad’s cousin’s dad’s fourth cousin’s dad’s cousin’s great-great-great-grandad was made a lord in 1628.” God bless democracy.
PARLIAMENTARY BEARD WATCH: Tory MP Bob Seely is now sporting a black and grey flecked number.
PARLIAMENTARY WIG WATCH: Tory MP Huw Merriman got properly rumbled by the TV cameras at PMQs yesterday, taking the mick out of colleague Michael Fabricant as he addressed the Commons. It was true back-of-the-classroom stuff — HuffPost has the incriminating clip.
HUNT OVERSEAS: Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt is in Washington today for talks with his U.S. counterpart Mike Pompeo, Vice-President Mike Pence and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.
BIGGER THAN BREXIT: MPs will spend much of the afternoon in the Commons discussing Holocaust Memorial Day.
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Today program: Norway’s Trade Minister Torbjørn Røe Isaksen (6.50 a.m.) … Tory grandee Oliver Letwin (7.30 a.m.).
Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC Radio): General Secretary of the National Association of Probation Officers Ian Lawrence (7.05 a.m.).
TalkRADIO: Lib Dem MP Tom Brake (7.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Robert Halfon (7.20 a.m.) … Former Cabinet Minister Priti Patel (8 a.m.).
All Out Politics: (Sky News, 9 a.m.): Commons Northern Ireland committee Chairman Andrew Murrison (9 a.m.) … Demos Director Polly Mackenzie and TalkRADIO presenter James Max review the newspaper comment sections (9.15 a.m. & 10.15 a.m.) … Pro-Brexit barrister Martin Howe (9.45 a.m.) … Polish MEP Danuta Hübner (10 a.m.) … Republicans Overseas U.K. Chairwoman Sarah Elliott, former Bill Clinton adviser Albert Scardino and Chatham House’s Americas expert Leslie Vinjamuri debate the U.S. government shutdown (10.30 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC2, 12.15 p.m.): The BBC’s chief political correspondent Vicki Young makes her Politics Live presenting debut, and will be joined by … Education Secretary Damian Hinds … Labour MP Emma Reynolds … TUC boss Frances O’Grady … City A.M. Editor Christian May … Actor and comedian Kieran Hodgson.
Question Time (BBC1, 10.45 p.m.): Former Brexit Minister Suella Braverman … Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey … Cicero boss Iain Anderson … LBC Radio’s Nick Ferrari … The Observer’s chief leader-writer Sonia Sodha.
Reviewing the papers tonight: (BBC News, 10.45 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): The Telegraph’s Brexit Commissioning Editor Asa Bennett and the Mirror’s Political Correspondent Nicola Bartlett … (Sky News, 10.30 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): Author Isabel Oakeshott.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
City A.M.: Varley in the dock over “secret payments.”
Daily Express: Victims of 999 cops’ carnage.
Daily Mail (not online): Got him! Speedboat killer sensation.
Daily Mirror: Why won’t our government buy our steel?
Financial Times: Big Four auditors warned not to sidestep EU rules on switching.
HuffPost U.K.: MPs plot three-month Brexit delay in bid to break deadlock.
i: Alzheimer’s link to gum disease.
Metro: Prem ace’s pilot — “I’m a bit rusty.”
The Daily Telegraph: Labour pushing to postpone Brexit.
The Guardian: U.S. puts “full weight” behind regime change in Venezuela.
The Sun: Smile! You’re nicked.
The Times: Drug firms get millions for war on superbugs.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
New Statesman: Who’s running Britain? How Theresa May lost control of Brexit.
POLITICO Europe: The Great British stockpile — Hoarding goods for a no-deal Brexit.
The New European: A nation in tatters — Britain’s shredded reputation on the world stage.
The Spectator: The war on meat — Vegans are winning.
BEYOND THE M25
HAMMOND TIME: Chancellor Philip Hammond is meant to be the big U.K. draw in Switzerland today, with a speech planned encouraging business to invest in Britain. However Playbook is much more interested in what George Osborne and David Miliband were deep in conversation about last night at Davos House, as per my colleagues Ryan Heath and Florian Eder’s essential Davos Playbook. There’s more from Ryan and our Davos team here in their daily podcast.
TRUMP BACKS DOWN: Donald Trump last night caved in to Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s demand he delay his State of the Union speech until the government shutdown is resolved. POLITICO’s White House team have the story.
GOING CARACAS: America last night threw its weight behind Venezuelan opposition leader Juan Guaidó, formally recognizing him as interim president of the crisis-hit nation. The announcement came minutes after the 35-year-old declared himself acting leader in Caracas, standing amid thousands of cheering supporters on the streets. The BBC has the latest.
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Westminster weather: ☁️☁️🌧 Cloudy day with highs of 5C and a decent chance of showers later on.
Travel: No service on the London Overground New Cross Gate to Crystal Palace/West Croydon.
Spotted: Most of the lobby crammed in to The Clarence on Whitehall last night for Sun hack Lynn Davidson‘s leaving do. Among those present were political editors Tom Newton Dunn and Jason Groves … deputy political editors Katy Balls, Harry Cole, Steve Hawkes and Ben Glaze … Current and former SpAds including Jason Stein, Lee Cain and Jamie Starkie … MPs including Neil Coyle and Bob Seely … Whitehall press chiefs including DfID’s Rhodri Phillips … Labour types including City Hall aide Sarah Brown … and many more.
Upstairs/downstairs: It was a goodnight for The Clarence’s landlord, who was hosting a second SW1 leaving do upstairs as Labour types bid farewell to long-serving staffer Jack Smith, who starts his new role at City PR firm Headand on Monday. Deputy Speaker Rosie Winteron was among those present … rumor has it former Corbyn spinner Kevin Slocombe also called in for a drink.
Also spotted: Loads of SNP MPs and the odd Scottish Tory too at Scottish Power’s annual Burns Night shindig in the City.
Grim news from BuzzFeed: Viral news site BuzzFeed is to cull about 250 jobs — or 15 percent of its entire staff — in another round of devastating cuts, the Wall Street Journal reported last night. The paper did not provide details of whether the cuts will affect the U.K. arm of the website, which was hit hard in a previous round of cuts in 2017. BuzzFeed’s U.K. Editor-in-Chief Janine Gibson departed suddenly and unexpectedly at the end of last week.
Happy birthday to: Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski … OBR director Robert Chote … Civitas boss David Green.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich and our producer Jillian Deutsch.
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