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Politics leaves the ding-dong era – but the dramas are as critical as ever

Picture: Martin Rowson. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE on the quiet passing of the Brexit bill and noisy return of reality.

How is the new parliament settling down? It met for four days before Christmas and, back since January 7, is now into double figures. What’s the mood and what are the new MPs like? More to the point here, whatever happened to the European Union (Withdrawal Agreement) Bill, the one which caused so much grief in 2019? You may have wondered during recent days of headline-grabbing distractions at home and abroad.

I wondered too, as I scoured for tantalising glimpses of it on the inside pages and towards the back end of news bulletins. Well, after three failed attempts during the fast-receding May era and one aborted success under the First Johnson Junta, it passed all its Commons stages with indecent speed as soon as the Second Junta parliament returned from the festive break. It even got its second reading in the Lords this Monday, not that you’d have noticed from Tuesday’s papers.

Funny, isn’t it, how public attention can so quickly move on. In fairness to voters and the media pack, there has been much to divert our attention. The assassination of Iran’s war-fighting General Soleimani was more than enough. But it was quickly followed by Tehran’s token revenge raid and the self-inflicted disaster of the vicious Revolutionary Guard’s downing of Flight 752 to Kiev. As we and many Iranians immediately spotted, that in turn was compounded by the catastrophic attempt by the mullahs’ regime to deny blame, the classic cover-up error. Wow!

Yet even that significant world event – its consequences far from over, whatever soothing reassurances either side gives us – was overshadowed in Not-So-Global-Britain by the latest divorce to shake the Royal Family. Not one for this column, though a useful reminder of how fragile institutions can be in emotionally impulsive times. To weather the storm this one depends heavily on the steady reputation of a 93-year-old monarch, so much solider than the World King across St James’s Park in Downing St. Wow again.

In more staid times, the patching up of the Sinn Fein/DUP feud which has disgracefully paralysed Stormont during three tumultuous Brexit years would deserve a bigger cheer than it got. It shows that Dublin and London can still work together when they have to but also that No.10 might not be so eager to get out Boris’s cheque book – the region’s health service is in worse trouble than most – as it was when it depended on Arlene Foster’s votes. It was all smiles when the PM visited Belfast, but he was characteristically evasive on the cash. Brisk but vague, full of flowery literary allusion, was also the tone at his first victor’s PMQs.

And no wonder. The UK economy grew by a paltry 0.1% in the three months to December 1 and Christmas retail and other indicators have not been bright since. Yes, there are upticks – employment still buoyant – but Sajid Javid is being required to deliver a zeitgeist miracle for the “decade of renewal” on March 11 while not falling too deeply into debt. The chancellor’s mission to rebalance tax and spending priorities has already been knocked off course by calls for a hand-out at stricken Flybe, Europe’s largest regional carrier. As former transport secretary, Andrew Adonis, was quick to point out, slashing airport taxes across the board is both expensive and un-green. Welcome to government, Saj. And, by the way, hapless Northern Rail and South Western Railway are fast falling into your lap too. Brussels’ restrictions on state aid still apply, old chap.

Meanwhile, Conservative MPs who gave the Withdrawal Bill a thumping 358 to 234-vote majority on December 20 are in optimistic mood. Enthusiastically so on the now-dominant Brexit wing of the party, more cautiously among ex-Remainers who put their hands up to help make the best of it, as so many were doing in the last parliament without getting much credit from either camp. And Labour? Well, Manchester’s Graham Stringer reported that he is the only pro-Brexit Labour MP left after like-minded colleagues were either defeated on December 12 or retired. It did not stop six colleagues voting with the majority in deference to local voters while he abstained because he thinks there’s a better deal to be had. He always does.

Having cantered through the second and third reading debates and much of the two-day (only!!) only committee stages in online Hansard, I kept reading that the mood of the Commons chamber is much improved. That’s partly down to the election of Lancashire Labour’s Sir Lindsay Hoyle as speaker, a more emollient figure than John Bercow. Speaker B had his good points, but a talent for conciliation or self-effacement were not among them. Hoyle will lower the temperature without – I hope – becoming a government capture, as some speakers have been.

But is the mood less partisan when diehards on both sides – Bill Cash, John Hayes and Owen (“day of celebration”) Paterson for Brexit, Green Caroline Lucas, the SNP’s Joanna Cherry QC and Labour’s Chris Bryant against – dominated the debate? Only a handful of new MPs dared make their maiden speeches – good ones too – and speaker Hoyle prevented them from doing so during the committee stage because it would take too much time. Convention forbids colleagues interrupting newbies.

Certainly, Paul Blomfield, Labour’s junior Brexit spokesman and Sheffield Central’s MP since 2010 – so a veteran by modern turnover standards – detected a “subdued mood” on the government side during the third reading debate on Friday. He suspected “the dawning realisation that they may find it hard to deliver on the high expectations they have created” since 2016. DExEU chief, Stephen Barclay and his understrapper, James Duddridge – who will definitely lose their current jobs when their department folds on January 31 – echoed Boris’s own appeal (no longer “Montagues or Capulets”) to come together and seize opportunities now opening up.

That’s fine, replied the excellent Blomfield during the detailed committee stage. But your revised Withdrawal Bill tells another story. Conspicuously, MPs are stripped of the veto provided by the Benn/Cooper amendment. Specifically, Clause 33 makes illegal a further extension of the negotiating transition beyond December, as Ursula von der Leyen, Michel Barnier and Team Brussels all insist will be likely. Unless Johnson really wants the “no deal trap door” it’s only a gimmick which can be repealed, Blomfield reminded colleagues.

Secondly, ministerial promises to the three million EU citizens living in Britain look fragile without further protection from the Windrush treatment. Only 40% of the 2.8 million who have applied for settled status have been granted it, most have only pre-settled status because they do not have or cannot prove five years of residence here. The Independent Monitoring Authority is not – and does not inspire confidence.

Peers are pressing hard on this one, as they are – thanks to kindertransport veteran, Lord Alf Dubs’s tenacious work – on the status on unaccompanied children seeking asylum in the UK, a highly emotive subject and Blomfield’s third bullet point. But unlike the settled status issue, opposition MPs did not get it all their own way. David Simmonds, new Tory MP for Ruislip, in Hillingdon, where he was a longstanding councillor, happens to have had major national responsibility for local authority handling of asylum seekers, especially children, whose unaccompanied numbers have doubled. Beware traffickers who send them in dinghies or lorries to establish a “family reunion route” into Britain for families safe in EU camps, he said.

Food for thought, as are Blomfield’s fourth and fifth worries, made on behalf of his boss, Keir Starmer, who is busy elsewhere polishing his leadership frontrunner’s campaign. They were – no surprise – the Northern Irish protocol (ie backstop) which erects a barrier down the Irish Sea for goods entering mainland Britain (it alarmed all Stormont parties); and concern for the future trade and security deal with the EU27 which Tory loyalists breezily insist can be done by Christmas. As Stephen Kinnock best put it, not for the first time, a 52:48% referendum result is “a mandate to move house, but to stay in the same neighbourhood”.

That’s currently not likely to happen as the two sides edge towards negotiations in March. In cake-and-eat-it mode, Johnson insists that he wants a tariff- and quota-free deal covering goods, services and other areas of cooperation (presumably including the sensitive European Arrest Warrant and Erasmus scholarships), but the right to diverge on regulations and standards. Some of ours will be higher, he reportedly told the Commission president on her visit to No.10. That’s another opposition worry at Westminster, of course. Do they trust “Get Brexit Done” Boris in a hurry and in hock to rich backers?

To the particular alarm of the SNP and Plaid Cymru, Clause 4 grants the UK government a ‘power grab’ to handle repatriated authority over devolved matters, at least for now. Ministers promise separate legislation in the year ahead to protect environmental standards and workers rights which they have deleted from the first draft of the bill. Critics are entitled to be wary of Johnson promises, but none of the 100 combined opposition’s amendments – none designed to thwart Brexit – were accepted. As for von der Leyen, she and Barnier insist they want a regulatory “level playing field”. They also want the fishing rights issue dealt with first – which No.10 won’t concede, since it is one of Brexit Britain’s stronger cards. The EU’s Common Fisheries Policy (CFP) has not been its finest hour.

But Brussels doctrine is not necessarily right on other matters either. As the trade talk stances surface from both sides we will hear more about the EU’s insistence on regulatory harmonisation and about London’s ambition to substitute the more flexible formula of outcome-based equivalence, regulatory divergence thereby achieving the same level of standards by other means. It is the approach adopted by the world’s other major trading block, so Liam (remember him?) Fox points out, the US and China. EU harmonisation is the minority position.

UK trade with the EU grew by 1.3% last year, with the rest of the world by 6.3%, chips in Owen Paterson. More food for thought, along with those symbolic, chlorinated American chickens. Tiverton farmers’ MP, Neil Parish, told colleagues that the real US chicken problem is overuse of antibiotics to fatten birds quickly, not the chlorine wash. He also thinks we can devise a better agricultural policy for our own needs than one for 28 states which has harmed UK farming.

Hmmm. I think we can detect some rethinking going on as Brexit Day looms. In his FT Monday column, German business pundit Wolfgang Munchau notes that the Bank of England’s Mark Carney is now talking up the opportunities for the City which may outweigh the costs of regulatory divergence – quite different from his and the City’s earlier demand for full passporting rights for the mighty financial services sector to trade from anywhere to anywhere. Most big firms have set up inside the 27, just as Common Sense Mogg’s asset management fund did in Dublin.

Both sides made mistakes in earlier negotiations, mostly to Brussels’ advantage. But both have more to lose in this year’s talks. The EU will defend its single market, at a cost to itself if needs be, even if it means German luxury carmakers having to import its US-made products to Britain at the expense of its German employees in the event of a minimal ‘skinny trade deal’. Ditto Britain, which has more to lose but also more to gain if its gamble even half-works. That’s always been a nagging fear in Berlin and Paris. I’m sceptical, but let’s see what happens. For better and worse, Boris Johnson owns the Brexit project now. On Tuesday’s BBC Breakfast’s soft sofa shifty Boris shifted from an “absolute zero” chance of a no-deal by December to a deal being “epically likely”. So we’re back to uncertainty already. But it’s his call.

As Rhondda’s Chris Bryant put it: “As much as I am a Remainer, I remain a Remainer and will remain a Remainer until my dying day. Nonetheless I accept that a second referendum has now happened. That is the end of it.” It’s not quite the end. Opposition peers know as well as MPs did – and said – that more people voted for Remain (or second referendum) parties than for Brexit-supporting ones on December 12. They are promising to press the government on sensitive points and have the votes to carry the day. But unelected lords always know they must respect election results and will move very warily, aware that Team Boris has threatened their very existence more subtly than Rebecca Long-Bailey’s campaign pledge to abolish them.

In the weeks ahead, both houses should concentrate some of their energy on making sure that Johnson’s minders don’t get away with avoiding accountability, either to them or to voters via the media. New select committees may not be functioning until Easter. Key ministers have managed to duck such forums since they were appointed on July 24. They are being kept off BBC’s Newsnight and Today programmes. Mendacious Donald Trump’s White House hasn’t briefed the sceptical media for six months. Johnson was a cynical journalist who became a cynical politician, cynical about both callings. Soft interviews on sofa TV and soft messages on social media just won’t do for long in a democracy. One or the other has to give ground.

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