The Telegraph – Brexit Bulletin

Good afternoon.

Theresa May’s formal response to Nicola Sturgeon was not going to be a surprise given that her initial line on Monday, when the First Minister demanded a second independence referendum, was that “this is not a moment to play politics”. Speaking this afternoon to Robert Peston, the Prime Minister repeatedly made clear that “now is not the time” for another vote.

Mrs May was never going to agree to a vote during the period suggested by Ms Sturgeon of autumn 2018 and spring 2019, unless she wanted to be thrashing out the terms of Britain’s exit from the European Union while fighting to keep the United Kingdom together. The window given by the SNP leader would also likely close before the Brexit terms were ratified, and their consequences became clear. The Prime Minister suggested as such on ITV News, declaring: “Just at this point, all our energies should be focused on our negotiations with the European Union about our future relationship.” That decision has infuriated the Scottish Nationalists, who argue that Holyrood should have control over the referendum timing. Nicola Sturgeon branded her response a “democratic outrage”, and will no doubt build on that when the SNP gathers for its spring conference tomorrow.

Crucially for the SNP, the UK Government hasn’t ruled out a second referendum. Theresa May insists that the next few months are “not the time”, so Ms Sturgeon can dig in and argue over when exactly they could say “now is the time” for a vote. The Prime Minister has full control, by contrast, over the time that Article 50 is triggered, as the Queen has given royal assent to the Brexit Bill. Of course, the Scottish Nationalists will be determined not to let her proceed with it quietly.

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The Telegraph – Brexit Bulletin

Good afternoon.

Another week, another Brexit row in Parliament. Last week, it was over the House of Lords’ insistence that ministers guarantee the residency rights of EU nationals before triggering Article 50. This week it’s whether Parliament should have a “meaningful vote” on the final Brexit deal before Britain agrees that deal.  Of the two issues, this week’s is more serious, and more revealing.

Serious, because there appears to at least some chance of a real Government defeat. Assuming the Lords back the “meaningful vote” amendment to the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill, it’s possible that enough Conservative MPs will rebel next week to back that amendment. Hence No 10’s pre-emptive strike, warning giving Parliament the chance to reject a proposed deal would give the EU an “incentive” to offer a bad deal, in the hope that Parliament would then reject it and maintain EU membership, at least until a new one was agreed, or perhaps in perpetuity.

Telling, because that warning gives some interesting clues about how solid No 10 believes support for Brexit really is. Right now, Brexit has the irresistible momentum of an express train at full speed. Hence the Commons’ easy passage of the Brexit bill.  But in a couple of years’ time, after the hard pounding of talks in Brussels? The converts in No 10 appear to have been infected by the fears of some Brexiteers that their victory is fragile and reversible, that a country that today strongly backs Brexit could be persuaded to think again.  Mrs May is currently supreme, but she takes nothing for granted.

That warning also tells us something else about Mrs May’s Brexit thinking: she doesn’t share the true Brexit believers’ conviction that even leaving the EU without a deal and relying on basic WTO rules is preferable to continued membership.  Believers such as Daniel Hannan have argued that while they’d prefer a deal, Britain should not fear a WTO Brexit.  Doesn’t today’s warning over the Brexit Bill amount to No 10 tacitly admitting that Parliament (and perhaps, the British public) wouldn’t share that confidence, and thus would not back a Government that rejected a bad deal from Brussels and walk out of the EU empty-handed.

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The Telegraph – Brexit Bulletin

Good afternoon.

Theresa May went up to Glasgow today to reassure Scottish Conservatives of her intention to keep the Union safe as part of the Brexit process. The Prime Minister insisted that Scotland and England would not “drift apart” under her watch, and used her half-hour address to set out a detailed case for the “enduring” economic, security and social benefits to the Union. Her unerring focus on the Union did make it sound like Downing Street is preparing for Mrs Sturgeon to demand the power to stage a second independence referendum, most likely when the SNP gather for their Spring Conference in a fortnight.

Mrs May’s speech came after Ruth Davidson, the Scottish Tory leader, told the Telegraph that the Unionists would win another vote by an even larger margin but hinted that Mrs May would not allow a rerun of the 2014 vote until after Brexit. The Prime Minister went after the SNP as well, declaring that there was “no economic case” for Scottish independence”.

The Tories’ punchiness has impressed Tom Harris, who has written today about how “it is the Scottish Conservatives, not the Labour Party, to whom those who still cherish the Union are turning.” Ruth Davidson is one of the few politicians happy to challenge the SNP to a “ square go”, he says. “She seems to have boundless energy and a thick skin. She’s going to need both in the next few years.”

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The Telegraph – Brexit Bulletin

Good afternoon. Today the House of Lords began the process of debating and potentially amending the Article 50 bill, and Theresa May is watching them closely. In fact she paid them a rare personal visit, pointedly perching on the steps by the throne like Stringer Bell sitting in on the murder trial which opens The Wire. Whatever can she mean by it?

Some people see, in the intervention of Tony Blair and Peter Mandelson over the weekend, the beginning of a Remainer fightback. The FT’s Janan Ganesh believes that “friendships are growing” between pro-European MPs and Lords across three parties, with “lots of money” sloshing around. Meanwhile we report on the various peers who enjoy generous EU pensions: among many others they include Lord Mandelson, at an estimated £34,659 a year, Lord Kinnock, at an estimated £87,794 a year, and Baroness Ludford, estimated at £21,000. The big demand will likely be a guarantee of the rights of EU nationals in Britain, which the public strongly backs.

But there are also factors weighing against a decisive intervention by the Lords at this stage. Labour’s Baroness Smith confirmed Labour will try to amend the bill but that there will be no house-to-house “ping pong”. William Hague advised that “if there was a real chance of rising up successfully against leaving the EU, it would open up the most protracted, bitter and potentially endless conflict in British society since the decades of debate on Irish Home Rule.” The Bishop of Southwark argued that, if faced with a choice between passing an amendment and accepting an assurance from a minister, peers should do the latter. This is what happened in the Commons when a potential rebellion on EU nationals’ rights was blunted by a ministerial concession, and if followed by a large number of peers it would obviate many mooted amendments. Then there are the people (those pesky, pesky people): an ICM poll has found that 68 per cent of voters want the Government to get on with Brexit, compared to 54 per cent of people last year. Quite quickly it seems that Theresa May is leading the country with her, Mr Blair be damned.

In other news, Emmanuel Macron, a strong candidate in the French Presidential election, will visit London tomorrow hoping to woo the 300,000 French nationals (mostly young, often affluent, and by definition cosmopolitan) who live in Britain. If he wins it will have implications for Brexit. Mr Macron has said he will be “pretty tough” on Britain, “because we have to preserve the rest of the European Union”. His rival François Fillon agrees. Only Marine Le Pen, as illustrated in our interview last week, is pro-Brexit, seeing it as the first crack in the “whole psychological framework” underpinning the status quo she intends to destroy. Some Britons may welcome her victory on the grounds of our national interest. Others, I think, will find the price too high

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Britain’s Little Lies

On December 12, the Conservative Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, gave a fulsome speech to the annual Conservative Friends of Israel lunch. Before a roomful of 800 pro-Israel Conservative MPs and party supporters, she lavished praise on the Jewish state. She praised Israel’s achievements and castigated its enemies. She said that Britain would be marking the centenary of the Balfour declaration “with pride.” She also stressed that cooperation and friendship between Britain and Israel was not just for the good of those two countries, but “for the good of the world.”

For many of the people listening in the room, there were just two discordant notes. The first was related to the focus on anti-Semitism in May’s speech. As she used the opportunity rightly to lambaste the Labour party for its anti-Semitism problem, she extended the reach of her own claims for herself. While boasting of her success as Home Secretary in keeping out the prominent French anti-Semite Dieudonné and finally deporting the Salafist cleric Abu Qatada al-Filistini back to his native Jordan, she also used the opportunity to congratulate herself for banning Pamela Geller, Robert Spencer and Pastor Terry Jones from coming to the UK. “Islamophobia comes from the same wellspring of hatred” as anti-Semitism, she explained.

This is a serious category error for a Prime Minister to make. It puts critics of a religion, such as Geller and Spencer, on the same plane as people wanted for terrorism (Qatada). It blurs the line between speech and action, and mixes people who call for violence with those who do not. The comparison also fails to follow the consequences of its logic to its own illogical conclusion. The comparison fails to recognise that anyone who objects to Islamic anti-Semitism is immediately known as an “Islamophobe.” Therefore, someone hoping to come to Britain would have to accept being attacked by Muslim extremists for fear of being banned from entering the UK. These are serious and basic misunderstandings for a Prime Minister to propagate.

There was, however, a clear political sense to them. A Prime Minister in a country such as 21st Century Britain might believe that he or she has to be exceptionally careful not to appear to be criticising any one group of people or praising another too highly. So for the time being in Britain, a moral relativism continues to stagnate. If the Jewish community complains of anti-Semitism, then you must criticise anti-Semitism. If the Muslim community complains of “Islamophobia,” then you must criticise “Islamophobia.” To make value judgements might be to commit an act of political folly. Wise leaders in increasingly “diverse” societies must therefore position themselves midway between all communities, neither castigating nor over-praising, in order to keep as many people onside as possible.

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Brexit Bulletin – The Telegraph

Good afternoon.

As this e-mail hits your inbox, Donald Trump is being sworn in as President of the United States. You can follow every twist and turn of his inauguration on our liveblog. There is plenty of analysis – the best of which can be found on our site – about his agenda, but what does his presidency mean for Britain’s exit from the European Union?  

President Trump has been a consistent supporter of Brexit. He may not have known what the term was when Michael Wolff asked him about it, but made clear he thought the Brits “ should leave”. He quickly embraced Brexit since then, popping over to Scotland the day after the referendum to celebrate the “great victory”. He tried to seize the mantle for himself, declaring during the campaign that “they will soon be calling me MR. BREXIT!”. And so it came to pass, as the Trump campaign confounded the pollsters on an even larger scale. Brexiteers have recognised its significance, with Nigel Farage hailing his victory last night as “ Brexit plus, plus, plus”.

Theresa May will be grateful to have a proudly pro-Brexit President in the White House instead of Hillary Clinton, who made clear her scepticism of it during the campaign. Trump’s cabinet choices have made clear their preference for bilateral trade deals rather than negotiating with large blocs, which will delight Brexiteers and irk EU leaders. Mr Farage, the Trump whisperer of Westminster, has suggested the President could get a trade deal “done and dusted” with the UK within 90 days of taking office. This may be hard, according to Oliver Illott from the Institute for Government, as Whitehall is still assembling its deal-making machine. He also cites other problems, like that British negotiators know they still have trade deals to tie up with many other countries during the Brexit process, so any generous concessions they give to America in order to thrash out a quick deal would encourage others to feel they should get the same.

EU ministers have continued to sound conciliatory ahead of the Brexit talks in the meantime. Germany’s finance minister Wolfgang Schauble declared at Davos that he was convinced London will remain an important finance centre for Europe. He was also pretty confident the negotiations and deals will all be done within the two-year timeframe once Article 50 is served. That will put a spring in Mrs May’s step, assuming Labour’s continued disarray over Brexit and the ascension of one of its biggest backers to the White House already hasn’t.

 

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Brexit Bulletin – The Telegraph

  Good afternoon.

If you want to see how fast politics can change, look at the Swiss resort of Davos. This time last year, Britain’s Prime Minister was imploring business leaders at the World Economic Forum there to speak up in favour of its continued membership of the European Union. Today, his successor stepped up to tell them why they should get behind its departure from the bloc.

Theresa May used her address this morning to bang the drum for Brexit Britain, telling those assembled that she stood in front of them as “the prime minister of a country that faces the future with confidence”. She billed the vote to leave as an opportunity to build a “truly global” nation that reaches “beyond the borders of Europe”. But she also had harsh words for her fellow world leaders, warning them that “the forces for good that we so often take for granted are being brought into question” and they had to change to maintain “public consent”. This was her “nasty party” speech for the instinctively pro-EU Davos crowd, as I wrote earlier.

Both sides are trying to be emollient ahead of the official Brexit talks. Philip Hammond told a business lunch that Britain prides itself on being “one of the most open economies in the world”. He also urged his EU colleagues not to “let revenge get in the way of economic logic”. France has given such suggestions short shrift. Foreign minister Francois Ayrault told reporters his country’s stance was not “about ‘punishing’ the United Kingdom”. He may want to have a word with his boss, François Hollande, who said a few months ago that “ there must be a price” for Britain’s departure. Michael Deacon suggests it isn’t worth paying Ayraut much attention, writing: “This will be a battle. It won’t be possible for both sides to win. But it will certainly be possible for both sides to lose.”

Back in Britain, Jeremy Corbyn has to contend with mutinous rumblings in his shadow cabinet over whether to back the triggering of Article 50 – assuming the Supreme Court gives them the right to have a say The Labour leader has insisted he will impose a three-line whip on MPs to force them to back it, although some members – like Shadow Business Secretary Clive Lewis – suggest they could rebel. Tom Harris has written about how this shows Labour can’t even pretend to be united over Brexit. Meanwhile, Rupert Myers has warned Remainers that the longer they keep “whining” about Brexit happening, “ the less likely they are to be heard” in the debate. The Davos elite and EU leaders present Mrs May with a tougher opposition than she faces at home in Parliament.

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