By JACK BLANCHARD
Good Friday morning … And happy should’ve-been-Brexit Day. This is Jack Blanchard filling in for Annabelle, who has wisely fled Westminster for the weekend.
Spare a thought: For Brexiteers who organized big celebration parties for “Freedom Day” — only to find out it’s now been postponed (at best). Tonight’s festivities included the Leave Means Leave campaign’s Big Brexit Bash, which organizers say is no longer a celebration but a “a review of where we are” — which frankly sounds a lot less fun. Hundreds of French Brexiteers (yep, they exist) are boldly pressing ahead with their own big party in Westminster — and with John Redwood already booked as the guest speaker, who can blame them? And various Leavers of Britain parties around the U.K. are also still going ahead, although organizer Lucy Harris admits they will probably be “a bit of a downer” given Britain will still be in the EU. The Telegraph’s Chris Hope has more.
More in hope than expectation: Brexit Day is now two weeks away.
DRIVING THE DAY
THIRD TIME LUCKY? MPs will vote on Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement for the third time this afternoon, just hours before Britain was meant to leave the EU. The prime minister will use the closing speech of today’s five-hour Commons debate to urge MPs to respect the result of the referendum and pass the central part of her Brexit deal. An EU deadline to pass the agreement and trigger a further six-week Brexit extension expires at midnight tonight, paving the way for further chaos next week if the deal is voted down. But with the PM’s DUP allies still not on board, as things stand she looks doomed to failure.
So why even hold the vote? Newsnight’s Political Editor Nick Watt has the most glorious answer, courtesy of an unnamed Cabinet minister. Do watch the clip. This one’s getting replayed for many years to come.
Breaking up is hard to do: Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will open this morning’s debate, after spending much of yesterday thrashing out a deal with Commons Speaker John Bercow to get some kind of vote onto the order paper. The agreed plan is to effectively split the Brexit deal in two and ask MPs to vote only on the Withdrawal Agreement — covering the divorce bill, citizens’ rights and Irish backstop — while leaving the whole question of Britain’s future relationship for another day. Importantly, this means this is not a true meaningful vote under the terms set out in the EU Withdrawal Act, which states both the Withdrawal Agreement and the Political Declaration on the future relationship must be agreed. But a win tonight would at least buy the government time with Brussels, and leave open the possibility of fudging the future relationship question until after Brexit.
The problem with that: Is Labour MPs hate the idea of what the party is already dubbing a “blindfold Brexit.” The PM spent 20 minutes on the phone to Jeremy Corbyn last night trying to convince him to support this pared-back deal, pointing out Labour does actually support the Withdrawal Agreement and is only quibbling about what happens after Britain leaves. But a Labour spokesman said afterwards: “Jeremy made clear Labour will not agree a blindfold Brexit to force through Theresa May’s damaging deal, which would leave the next Tory party leader free to rip up essential rights and protections and undermine jobs and living standards.” So that’s that.
And here’s why Labour votes matter: Because barring a last-minute breakthrough with the DUP — which is still not impossible — the PM is not going to get the crucial votes she needs from her Northern Irish allies. “For two hours it looked like we were getting there,” a gloomy No. 10 source tells the Times’ Francis Elliott after another day of exhaustive talks. Recriminations are already flying, with one “senior source” telling the Telegraph’s Peter Foster that plans for a so-called Stormont lock to protect Northern Irish unionism will be “shredded” if the DUP does not shift its stance. The Sun has spoken to an angry Cabinet minister who warns the whole of Northern Ireland now faces an “existential threat” thanks to DUP intransigence. “If it’s no deal, there’ll be a border poll and Northern Ireland will disappear,” the minister says. “If there’s a general election and Corbyn wins, the same. It’s time they woke up and smelt the coffee. They’re facing an existential threat today.”
So could she do it without them? The Sun’s Tom Newton Dunn has spoken to further Tory sources who insist victory remains possible without DUP support. His paper reckons the original 75 Tory refuseniks have already been whittled down to a hardcore of just 21, and could be pushed as low as 12 today — along with four or five hardcore Tory Remainers who will also never back the deal. These best-case scenario numbers would still leave the PM needing between 20 and 25 Labour rebels, however — and as things stand she only has a small handful.
This might help: Six current and former Labour MPs who did not back the deal last time have put forward an amendment to today’s vote, demanding a greater say for parliament in the next phase of the Brexit talks. The proposal — first floated earlier this month — from Wigan MP Lisa Nandy and Stoke MP Gareth Snell would give the Commons the power both to set the negotiating mandate for Phase 2 of the talks, and the final sign-off (or veto) on any final deal. Other Labour (and ex-Labour) MPs from Leave-supporting seats have signed the amendment too, including four who did not back the deal last time — Melanie Onn, Ruth Smeeth, Rosie Cooper and Ivan Lewis. If the PM were to accept the amendment — assuming it gets selected by the speaker — you’d imagine more Labour votes might follow.
Planet Brexiteer: At the other end of May’s growing coalition, the collapse of Tory Brexiteer opposition has been pretty extraordinary. The Sun reports today that Jacob Rees-Mogg — after all his protestations — will now back the deal even *without* the support of the DUP. Deputy Political Editor Steve Hawkes has also spoken to Tory peer Peter Lilley, who urges fellow Brexiteers to back the deal as a “lesser evil.” And BrexitCentral’s Jonathan Isabsy has written a piece this morning in which he concludes “with the heaviest of hearts” that MPs should back the deal.
Looming row: There’s a five-hour debate planned today — with Cox opening proceedings at 9.30 a.m., and the PM closing things out ahead of votes at 2.30 p.m. — and much of it will be occupied with angry debate about the government’s decision to split the Brexit deal in two. The key reasoning is that the EU only requires the Withdrawal Agreement to be passed today in order to trigger the Brexit extension to May 22. And as the motion is now very different to MV2, Speaker Bercow cannot object. Downing Street’s plan would then be to use the forthcoming Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) — the necessary legislation that puts the treaty into law — as a proxy for an actual meaningful vote.
Path to no deal? The concern for some MPs today is that if parliament does vote in favor of the Withdrawal Agreement this afternoon, so triggering the six-week extension, the threat of a no-deal Brexit remains. And that once Britain is past the point at which it could legally take part in the European election — April 12 is the final date — there could be no possibility of securing a further extension to its EU membership. That would mean the U.K. *must* pass the rest of the legislation by May 22, or crash out without a deal. This issue was raised by Commons Brexit committee Chairman Hilary Benn in the Commons yesterday — “to pass this motion will preclude the United Kingdom from asking for any further extension,” he warned — and the attorney general did not have an answer. “This is clearly a matter that I shall address tomorrow morning in full,” Cox told him. “It requires serious consideration.” One to watch.
Also worth watching: This QC (who is currently going viral) thinks MPs actually *will* be voting on the whole Brexit deal today. Playbook is leaving that one to the lawyers to figure out.
ENEMY AT THE GATES
IN PARLIAMENT SQUARE: Shortly after MPs have finished voting on whether to back the Withdrawal Agreement, an angry crowd will be gathering outside the gates of parliament. The March to Leave procession, which set off from Sunderland a fortnight ago, is due to arrive into Westminster at 4 p.m., where a large crowd will be waiting in Parliament Square. Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage will be among those addressing the Brexit Betrayal rally (obviously he’s not *actually marching* with the protesters), and you’d imagine the public-schoolboy-turned-City trader-turned-career-politician will have some sharp words for The Establishment.
While you’re waiting: Farage’s old flotilla pals Fishing for Leave will be protesting around Parliament Square at lunchtime, with a 30-foot fishing trawler on the back of a truck escorted by a pipe band. Their slogan is “Yellow wellies, not yellow vests!” It’s going to be that kind of day.
And if that’s not enough betrayal for you: Then make your way up Whitehall at 4.30 p.m., where Farage’s sworn enemies *checks notes* UKIP are holding their own protest rally. Leader Gerard Batten will be joined by pint-sized agitator Stephen Yaxley-Lennon for the Make Brexit Happen rally. It’s an interesting title for the rally — perhaps they’re protesting in favor of the PM’s deal?
Just to add to the chaos: Given the artist calling himself Tommy Robinson is in town, there will naturally be a sizeable counter-protest also swarming around Westminster. In fact, by some measures (h/t Dan Barker) there are 11 separate protests happening in SW1 today. So you might want to keep that in mind when you’re nipping out for a sandwich.
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AND IF THE VOTE ISN’T PASSED
BRACE, BRACE: One thing is for sure — it will be another week of utter chaos in Westminster next week if the PM’s deal is voted down today. Backbench MPs are due to seize control of the order paper again on Monday, to have another stab at finding a majority for some sort of Brexit deal. The plan being cooked up now is to create a series of composite motions, tacking together some of the more popular Brexit options to try to hit the magic number of 326 votes. The voting system will be exactly the same as it was on Wednesday — and so the key will be finding new propositions that can secure a winning majority.
Top of the list: Is a plan to propose a customs union with a second referendum tacked on, which some backbenchers believe could secure a majority if the two voting blocs can be held together. One Playbook source notes that “if all those who backed either proposal agreed to support both, there are a cushy 344 votes to be had.” This “mainly comes from adding the Nats [SNP] and Lib Dems to the Custom Union’s 264 votes, and takes account of three absentees from last night who would normally be supportive.” Clearly there are plenty of Tory MPs who would back a customs union but would balk at a second referendum — the question is how many are prepared to compromise if it secures a soft Brexit majority.
Also being cooked up: Is a motion which calls for a second referendum in the event of a no deal, which is untested but which some MPs believe might land a majority. The idea is that this could create a “coalition of the extremes,” with both anti-Brexit People’s Vote supporters and Brexiteer no-dealers ready to support the plan in the belief they could eventually get what they want via a public vote.
And there’s more: The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot has heard about these discussion too, and has also got wind of a third idea — trying to bring together the customs union proposal with the Norway-plus idea floated by Nick Boles. “There are lots of discussions about how to maintain momentum for a soft Brexit,” one senior Labour MP involved in the discussions tells her. “We should try to find a way of splicing together Labour’s alternative plan, Ken Clarke’s customs union and common market 2.0. But if you go too hard on the customs union aspect then you lose a lot of Tory MPs. If we can find a form of words that keeps enough Tories on board, that folds in Labour’s plan, we can get one motion for a sensible, pragmatic, bridge-building Brexit.” The Times’ Oliver Wright says organizers are hopeful of getting the SNP — and even the DUP — on board.
The next big question: If parliament does indeed find a majority for one of these composite Brexit plans, the next step will be to put forward an emergency bill on Wednesday to compel the government to act. The million-dollar question at that point is — how will the PM react? Brexiteers fear if ordered to pursue a customs union she would shrug her shoulders and do so, but it’s hard to imagine a PM being bossed around by parliament in that way. And were a second referendum to be tacked onto parliament’s plan, it seems impossible May would take that lying down. Her response, allies tell the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves, would be to trigger a general election and try to face parliament down. Yikes.
One other possible option: Might be for the PM to prorogue parliament early next week, to stop the Letwin process in its tracks. In a sense we’re getting into the realms of fantasy here — although that’s also what people said about the backbench plan to take control of the order paper when it first emerged. A short prorogation would mean Letwin & co. would have to hold a fresh vote on taking over the order paper when the Commons returned a few days later — and crucially, should allow the PM time to put forward MV3 in the meantime. Stranger things have happened.
MEANWHILE IN BRUSSELS
GET READY FOR DELAY: EU27 ambassadors met in Brussels yesterday to discuss how to respond if the Withdrawal Agreement is not passed by the Commons today. Their plan is to hold an emergency European Council summit in 12 days’ time on Wednesday, April 10, when Britain would be offered a further extension lasting into early 2020, POLITICO’s Jacopo Barigazzi and James Randerson report in a story for Brexit Pro subscribers. Conditions would include Britain taking part in the European election in May and accepting the Withdrawal Agreement could not be reopened, with only the Political Declaration on the future relationship up for discussion. The expectation would be the U.K. uses the time to strike a cross-party agreement on a softer Brexit deal, or to hold either a general election or a second referendum.
Planet no deal: EU ambassadors also discussed the not-impossible prospect of Britain leaving the EU without a deal on April 12. Jacopo and and Lili Bayer report in a second article for Brexit Pros that European Commission Secretary-General Martin Selmayr told the meeting Britain would quickly be back at the negotiating table in a no-deal scenario, seeking to reopen trade links. But Selmayr said the conditions for opening those talks would in effect be the same as those in the Withdrawal Agreement. “Selmayr said that if the U.K. leaves without a deal, the EU must present it with three preconditions for starting any new discussions,” three diplomats tell Jacopo. “Trade talks will not begin until the U.K. agrees to settle its financial obligations; the protection of EU citizens’ rights in the U.K. must be ensured; and there must be safeguards to protect the Good Friday Agreement, Selmayr said.” The Times and BuzzFeed have the same story.
Time to go? The FT’s Alex Barker has an interesting piece on shifting views of Britain’s EU membership across Europe. While some EU27 leaders and diplomats still hope Brexit might be reversed, others are now looking forward to getting Britain out and moving on. “I tell you my personal view,” “one of the principal players in the Brexit saga” tells Barker. “They will not leave. They cannot find the exit. They do not want to leave. They have not developed a concept of what Brexit means.” But another senior diplomat says: “Enough. This has to stop.”
Let’s ask this guy: The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier is giving a speech on “Europe after Brexit” in Warsaw today, and the Q&A that follows will be chaired by my POLITICO colleague Ryan Heath. He’s due up at 12.30 p.m. U.K. time.
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TORY LEADERSHIP WATCH
GAME ON: Pretty much every paper carries another big spread on the Tory leadership contenders today, with nobody in Westminster in any doubt that the race to be the next PM is now well and truly underway. It’s going to be a very wide field at first — Playbook was told more than 20 runners are ready to throw their hats into the ring, while the Sun hears as many as 30. Needless to say, this makes it extremely difficult to predict how events will pan out.
Front runners: This piece by the FT’s Seb Payne suggests a “big four” has emerged at the front of the pack, in Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Raab and Jeremy Hunt. And he suggests the length of any contest will be crucial to who comes out on top. “Brandon [Lewis, party chairman] wants a much longer campaign with regional hustings — that will favor long-shot candidates,” one ministerial aide tells Payne. “There is even talk of a reshuffle before May goes to bring the likely contenders into the limelight.” A supporter of Raab adds: “A short six-week contest means the winner is likely to be one of the big four. But if it goes on throughout the summer, it will change the dynamic and a left-field contender could come through.”
SCOOP — Speaking of Raab: The former Brexit secretary is beefing up his team ahead of the leadership contest, Playbook hears. Former Gove SpAd and Vote Leave staffer James Starkie will start work for Raab Monday, bringing a breadth of PR experience and decent lobby contacts to his fledgling campaign. Starkie quit his previous job with Gove last year in protest at the PM’s Brexit deal, though the two remain on good terms … He may now find himself going head-to-head in a leadership contest against his old boss.
Hunt in front: Jeremy Hunt is currently seen as the Cabinet’s frontrunner — not always a good thing in Tory leadership contests — due to his depth of experience and his ability to appeal to both sides of the party. The Telegraph’s Anna Mikhailova reports Hunt has told pals he already has 100 MPs on board, which would be close to a third of the entire party. Opponents are keen to characterize him as an establishment candidate and “Continuity May,” however, given he has already spent nine unbroken years in the Cabinet.
Outside bets: The Times’ Henry Zeffman has compiled a good list of the outsiders who might fancy their chances in a longer Tory leadership race.
Also worth your time: Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson casts his eye over runners and riders in this week’s Telegraph column. “In the last leadership election, the Conservative Party made the wrong decision,” he says. “They will not be forgiven for doing so again.” And in the Times, a malevolent Phil Collins (a former Blair aide) says he hopes the Tories pick Dominic Raab — as it will do them the most damage at the ballot box. “He is exactly the sort of cat-that-got-the-cream character who would repel floating voters,” Collins concludes.
ELSEWHERE IN BREXIT
BREXIT CONFERENCE: The U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank has an impressive line-up of speakers for what should have been a Brexit Day conference at the QEII center in Westminster. They include Barnier aide Stefaan De Rynck … Former U.K. Ambassador to the EU Ivan Rogers … Tory MP Nicky Morgan … The Times’ Sam Coates … Open Europe’s Henry Newman … The Telegraph’s Peter Foster … and many more.
Speaking of Ivan Rogers: He’s also speaking at a Chatham House event this morning, chaired by the BBC’s Nick Robinson.
Grieve under pressure: Tory Remainer Dominic Grieve is facing a vote of no confidence in his constituency this evening as Tory grassroots members hit out at their most pro-EU MPs. Rather astonishingly, the Times’ Francis Elliot reports the effort to deselect Grieve is being led by the man who stood against him as the UKIP candidate in Beaconsfield two years ago.
Now read this: POLITICO’s Esther King reports on the uncertainty and anxiety felt by Brits living and working in Brussels as the U.K.’s exit day nears. “Everyone is asking us about Brexit,” says a bookseller at Brussels’ biggest English-language bookshop. “They just want to chat and want to know what the latest information is — which is really difficult to answer, of course, because we don’t know.”
LIFE BEYOND BREXIT
NOPE: Maybe some day.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … LBC Radio (8.30 a.m.).
Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer broadcast round: Today program (7.30 a.m) … BBC Radio 5 Live (7.50 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (8.10 a.m.) … Sky Sunrise (8.30 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: SNP Brexit spokesman Stephen Gethins (8.45 a.m.).
Also on Sky Sunrise: Commons Brexit committee Chairman Hilary Benn (8.15 a.m.) … Tory MP Tim Loughton (8.20 a.m.).
Also on LBC Radio: Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle and independent MP Frank Field (7.05 a.m.) …Tory MP Mark Francois and former Tory leader Michael Howard (8.05 a.m.).
TalkRADIO: Former Cabinet Minister Owen Paterson (7 a.m.) … DUP Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson (8 a.m.) … Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage (9 a.m.).
All out Politics: Tory MP Laurence Robertson (9 a.m.) … Article 50 campaigner Gina Miller (9.10 a.m.) … LBC Radio host Iain Dale and the Guardian’s chief political correspondent, Jessica Elgot review the newspaper comment sections (9.20 a.m. & 10.20 a.m.) … Tory MP Rehman Chishti and Labour MP Peter Kyle (9.30 a.m.) … Former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt (10 a.m.) … Labour MP Lisa Nandy (10.10 a.m.) … Former No. 10 aide Chris Wilkins, former William Hague SpAd Chris White and columnist Rachel Johnson (10.30 a.m.) … Professor of European politics at LSE Sara Hobolt (10.45 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC2, 12.15 p.m.): Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright … Labour MP Jess Phillips … Spoon-bender extraordinaire Uri Geller … The Times’ Matt Chorley … PA’s Jennifer McKiernan.
Any Questions? (BBC Radio 4, 8 p.m.): Former Labour spinner Alastair Campbell … Former Vote Leave Chairwoman Gisela Stuart … Constitutional expert and crossbench peer Peter Hennessy … The Institute for Government’s Bronwen Maddox.
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News Channel (10.45 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Writer and commentator Rachel Shabi and the Telegraph’s Deputy Women’s Editor Claire Cohen … Sky News (10.40 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): The Spectator’s Editor Fraser Nelson and the New Statesman’s Editor Jason Cowley.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
City A.M.: Final throw of the dice for May’s deal.
Daily Express: Darkest hour for democracy.
Daily Mail: One last chance.
Daily Mirror: We’ll never get justice for Jill Dando.
Daily Star: It’s Break-xit Day — Do your duty and shut it!
Financial Times: Fresh doubts over Huawei’s U.K. future as security chiefs raise alert.
i: Johnson “primed and ready” for No. 10.
Metro: A nation of pill poppers.
The Daily Telegraph: The day of reckoning.
The Guardian: May tries to buy time as ministers say — go now.
The Independent: May’s final roll of the dice.
The Sun: Come on Arlene! DUP chief urged to save Brexit deal.
The Times: Deadlocked Britain faces a further year before Brexit.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
The Economist: The Silly Isles — Brexit after May.
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
Chopper’s Brexit Podcast: The Daily Telegraph’s Christopher Hope interviews Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg … and Labour MP Peter Kyle.
Commons People: HuffPost’s Arj Singh and Paul Waugh interview former Cabinet Minister Nicky Morgan … and the Institute for Government’s Maddy Thimont Jack.
EU Confidential: POLITICO’s Ryan Heath interviews Mayor of Stockholm Anna König Jerlmyr.
News from EU Confidential: We’ll be recording a special edition at Politics Podcast Live in London on April 7. Playbook readers can use promo code “POLITICO10” to get 10 percent off the ticket price.
Political Thinking: The BBC’s Nick Robinson speaks to the prime minister himself, Oliver Letwin. (Goes online this evening).
Politics: Where Next? C4 Political Editor Gary Gibbon interviews former Chancellor Ken Clarke. (Goes online this evening).
Today in Focus: The Guardian’s Anushka Asthana interviews Britain’s former EU Ambassador Ivan Rogers … and feminist author Caroline Criado Perez.
YOUR WEEKEND IN POLITICS
TURKISH LOCAL ELECTIONS: Happening Sunday and shaping up to be a big test for President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s ruling party. POLITIC’s Ayla Jean Yackley has a preview.
SUMMER IS HERE! The clocks go forward one hour at 1 a.m. this Sunday.
AND IT’S NOT POLITICS BUT: It is Mother’s Day this Sunday. And yes, you still have time to buy a card and flowers.
SUNDAY SHOWS LOOK-AHEAD: There’s way too much chaos for anyone to be booked on the Sunday morning shows yet, but on Sunday night BBC Radio 4’s The Westminster Hour has former Foreign Minister Alistair Burt … Labour MP Caroline Flint … and En Marche! politician Alexandre Holroyd.
Westminster weather: 🌤🌤🌤 Warm, sunny day with plenty of sunshine and highs of 17C. It’s the weekend! And spring is in the air.
Travel: Still issues on the London Overground.
Happy Birthday to: Former PM John Major … Former International Development Secretary Priti Patel … North West Norfolk MP Henry Bellingham … Broadland MP Keith Simpson … Tewkesbury MP Laurence Robertson … Former government adviser Louise Casey … Advocate General for Scotland and Tory peer Richard Keen … Tory peer and former Cabinet Minister Norman Tebbit … Former ITN newsreader John Suchet.
And celebrating over the weekend: Heywood and Middleton MP Liz McInnes … Former Bank of England governor and crossbench peer Mervyn King … ITV Good Morning Britain host Piers Morgan, who turns 53 … Crossbench peer and former Cabinet Secretary Robert Armstrong … Crossbench peer and former High Court judge Nicolas Browne-Wilkinson … Tory peer and MCC President Ian MacLaurin … Founder and executive chairman of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Klaus Schwab … Former Liberal Party leader David Steel … Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan … Former U.S. Vice President Al Gore … Former Macclesfield MP Nicholas Winterton.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich and our producer Ali Walker.
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