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By TOM MCTAGUE
PRESENTED BY LLOYDS BANKING GROUP
Good Monday morning. This is Tom McTague, POLITICO’s chief U.K. correspondent, Playbooking in Jack’s stead. There are now 39 days until Brexit Day.
DRIVING THE DAY
PRESSURE COOKER: Westminster wakes this morning to the incessant din of Labour Party split stories (and Brexit, obviously). Talk of an imminent breakaway “gang of five” exploded on Twitter late last night, with well-connected lobby hacks claiming it could come as early as today. On the BBC’s Westminster Hour, Labour MP Stephen Kinnock said a split was now unavoidable. “I say with regret that, yes, there will be some kind of splintering,” he said. Playbook, alongside many other lobby hacks, was told last week that this was the week it really would happen, but reserved judgement. The website and Corbyn mouthpiece Skwawkbox, which has close ties to the Labour leader’s office, last night published a story saying the party now expected five MPs to leave today. Former Corbyn aide Matt Zarb-Cousin listed Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie, Angela Smith, Ian Austin and Mike Gapes as MPs who might leave the party.
Fast-track: The Daily Mail’s Deputy Political Editor John Stevens reports the plans for a breakaway have been accelerated by fears of a mass wave of challenges to sitting MPs. “It is anticipated that around a quarter of the 100 MPs expected to be subject to a contest will lose, removing them as Labour candidates for the next election,” he reports.
Reminder: This week was meant to be recess, a chance for Westminster to take a breather before the final stretch to March 29. The prime minister’s failure to reach a deal on Brexit that is acceptable to MPs forced the government to cancel the February getaway. Despite ordering MPs to stay in Westminster, however, not a lot is actually happening, with the government concentrating all its effort on trying to wrestle something out of Brussels that might give the PM a fighting chance of passing her Brexit divorce deal without splitting the Tory party for a generation. Yet, regardless of everything, it is Labour which — if the party’s own MPs are to be believed — is on the brink of splintering first.
Tory decade: Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell on Sunday warned Labour MPs considering leaving the party they could cause a decade of Conservative government. “It would be like the 1980s,” he told the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show. “And it basically installed Mrs. Thatcher in power for that decade. I don’t think any of the people who have even been mentioned around this split would want that.” Attempting to head off the split, McDonnell said there was no reason to leave the party over Brexit because it may yet back a second referendum.
Just go: Less diplomatic was Unite chief Len McCluskey. “If you are going to leave, for God’s sake get on with it and stop pestering us through the media and through the TV,” he told the BBC’s told John Pienaar. In an apparent attempt to flush out the malcontents, a “loyalty pledge” was pinging around Twitter last night, signed by McDonnell and other Corbyn supporters, but publicly attacked by other Labour MPs.
TORIES TOO: Even if the noise is currently about Labour splits, the Tory party is no bed of roses right now. The Telegraph today reports a total of five Conservative MPs are facing deselection votes amid a “purple momentum” sweeping through the party by hardline Euroskeptics. The five “moderates” are Foreign Office Minister Alan Duncan, health select committee Chairwoman Sarah Wollaston and backbench rebels Heidi Allen, Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles. Story here. Some Tory Cabinet ministers believe it doesn’t matter which party splits first — as soon as one goes the other will follow.
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CRUNCH WEEK: While the political parties creak and groan under Brexit’s mounting constitutional pressure, the government has little choice but to plow on regardless in the hope of finding a diplomatic breakthrough before the next big round of Commons votes on February 27. To this end, Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay will meet his counterpart Michel Barnier in Brussels today to discuss the “alternative arrangements” Tory MPs have been working on to avoid the need for a backstop. No one is expecting a breakthrough. The real action takes place later in the week, with May expected to meet Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker Wednesday following a set-piece speech Tuesday by Attorney General Geoffrey Cox on changes he believes are needed to eliminate the risk of the U.K. being permanently trapped in a customs union with the EU. May’s de-facto deputy David Lidington is doing the media round today to explain it all (or nothing).
Sidelines: EU foreign ministers — including Jeremy Hunt — are also meeting in the Belgian capital today, and may provide more news than the Barclay-Barnier powwow. Irish Foreign Minister Simon Coveney was keen to let people know he too was back in Brussels ahead of a big week of talks. “Meeting @MichelBarnier to discuss #Brexit in the morning after a Foreign Affairs Council meeting,” he wrote. “Busy week ahead….”
WARNING SIRENS: In European capitals there is now mounting alarm that the PM has set Britain on course for a diplomatic disaster by fundamentally misjudging how far EU leaders are prepared to bend at the last-minute summit in Brussels just a week before Britain’s EU departure date, POLITICO reports today. Some senior EU27 officials briefed by U.K. ministers over the past few weeks believe May is preparing to arrive at the March 21-22 European Council with a “menu” of options for solving the border in a bid to force them to accept one, or wear the blame for a no-deal Brexit just a week later.
Panic: One minister from a major EU power was left so shocked after a meeting with a U.K. counterpart last week they concluded Britain is now hell-bent on pushing the crisis to the wire in the hope of a last-minute concession from EU leaders, which will not materialize unless May narrows her Brexit demands to a “single constructive proposal” — and soon. The view is shared by some senior members of the U.K. Cabinet, who fear the PM is heading for a repeat of the diplomatic disaster at the EU leaders’ summit in Salzburg last September when she miscalculated the EU’s willingness to engage with her proposed Chequers “compromise,” leaving her politically humiliated.
Delay: Among U.K. Cabinet ministers, diplomats and senior EU officials, speculation is growing about a short “technical extension” of the Article 50 negotiating period, which could be agreed in principle in early March, creating a buffer zone after the showdown March summit. A short extension would give the U.K. and EU time to implement whatever was agreed at the summit — or put in place the last-minute preparations for no deal.
BREXIT HINTS: On the Andrew Marr show Sunday, Culture Secretary (and former Attorney General) Jeremy Wright said the “mechanism” to ensure the Irish backstop could not be made permanent did not matter — as long as it did the trick. Wright’s remarks sparked alarm among Brexiteers, who fear the government is not serious about trying to change or replace the backstop in the Withdrawal Agreement (something the EU has said is impossible).
Not enough: Quick out of the blocks was former Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, who tweeted: “Only a treaty-level clause which confers an unconditional right on the U.K. to exit the backstop would work.” Fellow Brexiteer Anne-Marie Trevelyan joined the chorus, telling the BBC’s Westminster hour the Withdrawal Agreement must be changed.
Too much: It is not only the Brexiteers making their voices heard. Conservative Minister Tobias Ellwood on Sunday warned that leaving the EU without an agreement would be “catastrophic for Britain” and revealed he intended to vote for a proposal, set to return to the Commons on February 27, to remove the chances of a no-deal crash out. “Yes, I will intend to do that. I hope that I will not be tested in that way,” he told BBC Radio 5 Live show Pienaar’s Politics.
Tariff chaos: The Times’ Political Editor Francis Elliot lifts the lid on the government’s plans to finalize the tariffs that would apply in a no deal. “Liam Fox, the international trade secretary, wants a move to zero tariffs in as many areas as possible, but other ministers are demanding protection for producers, including farmers, who would struggle to compete with cheaper imports from outside the EU,” Elliot reports. The no-deal tariffs will be published next week following a Cabinet sub-committee meeting on Wednesday to sign off the new regime. This is one to watch closely.
DON’T WORRY: Psychic spoon-bender Uri Geller says “there will be an outcome very soon” in Brexit. What’s more, it will be one that “all the British people will be happy with.”
NO DEAL LATEST
SCOOP: Home Secretary Sajid Javid wrote to his EU counterparts Friday warning them to start preparations for no deal. According to a government official, Javid sought to “remind” EU countries that the way the police and courts cooperate today will not be available should Britain leave the EU without an agreement on March 29 and all sides should put measures in place to make sure they are ready.
Alternative arrangements: In the letter Javid writes: “I believe we must prepare for all eventualities, including a ‘no deal’ scenario where we must be ready to operate alternative non-EU co-operation mechanisms should that become necessary.” He says this would essentially involve making more use of Interpol and bilateral deals between countries, rather than through the EU. “I wanted to write to you now to ensure readiness for the alternative contingency arrangements should that become necessary,” he wrote.
Reality: However, in an admission that is sure to be picked up by those opposed to no deal, Javid wrote these “alternative forms of co-operation would in general be more manual and less efficient” than what is currently in place. In other words: not as good.
GOOD NEWS: Citigroup is close to agreeing a £1.2-billion deal to buy the skyscraper in Canary Wharf that houses its European headquarters, the Times reports. “In what would be a striking financial commitment to Britain only weeks before Brexit, and one of the largest U.K. commercial property transactions on record, Citi is in advanced talks to buy the 42-story Citi Tower, or 25 Canada Square, according to EG, a property trade publication.”
SOBERING NEWS: The Mail on Sunday’s Harry Cole brought the news that Chancellor Philip Hammond has set up a secret bailout fund in an operation codenamed “Project Kingfisher” to rescue the British economy in the event of a no deal. According to the report, a “short-term fiscal stimulus” will be released aimed at propping up the U.K.’s manufacturing and industrial sectors. The full story is here.
BAD NEWS: Aerospace giant Airbus on Sunday warned that no deal would be “catastrophic.” Company exec Katherine Bennett told the BBC’s Andrew Marr show: “There is no such thing as a managed ‘no deal,’ it’s absolutely catastrophic for us.” Airbus employs 14,000 people across the U.K. Asked where it would relocate production in such a situation, Bennett said “there’s many other countries that dearly love aerospace.” The good news: The company has a backlog of orders for 9,000 aircraft, Bennett said, which means it would be “many, many years” before U.K. employees would be affected in case the company decides to relocate. Story here.
BREXIT MAD: Playbook’s very own Jack Blanchard brings us (further) proof the country has lost its mind. “Britain 2019: They’re selling copies of the latest Ivan Rogers speech at the counter in Waterstones.” Evidence here.
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FACEBOOK IN THE DOCK: An excoriating final report by MPs on the Commons’ digital, culture, media and sport select committee, published today, gives both barrels to Facebook for failing to protect people from fake news, disinformation, hate speech and foreign interference in British elections — denouncing the company and its executives as “digital gangsters.” The report calls for a new compulsory code of ethics enforced by an independent regulator with statutory powers to launch legal action against Facebook, Google and other social media giants. The story makes the splash in the Guardian. The proposal mirrors Germany’s tough “Facebook law,” under which social media companies can be fined millions of euros for failing to remove harmful content within 24 hours.
Charges: According to the committee’s report, Facebook deliberately broke privacy and competition law, purposefully obstructed the MPs’ inquiries and failed to tackle attempts by Russia to manipulate elections.“Democracy is at risk from the malicious and relentless targeting of citizens with disinformation and personalized ‘dark adverts’ from unidentifiable sources, delivered through the major social media platforms we use every day,” warns the committee’s chairman, Damian Collins.
Calling Zuckerberg: Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright heads to California today, alongside Digital Minister Margot James, for talks with the U.S. social media giants pilloried in Collins’ report. On the Andrew Marr show, Wright said he expected to meet Facebook chief Mark Zuckerberg. Perhaps Wright’s old Ccoalition buddy Nick Clegg (now Facebook’s mega-bucks spin chief) will grease the wheels for what looks like an awkward meeting …
TRAINS: Finally, some good news for anyone who can’t always book their train tickets nine months in advance. “Peak-time rail fares face the axe under the biggest reform of the ticketing system in more than 20 years,” the Times reports. A report released overnight following a review led by the Rail Delivery Group, which represents train operators, calls for an overhaul of Britain’s complicated fares system.
EXTREMIST THREAT: The anti-extremist campaign organization Hope Not Hate has released its annual “state of hate” report on the threat from extremism in the U.K. It makes for grim reading. According to the report, “Britain is facing a resurgent threat from the far right” — not only at the ballot box, but in the form of street violence and even terrorism from “a younger, more extreme” neo-Nazi network, which could be further radicalized as tensions mount over Brexit. The full report is here.
GAUKE UNCORKED: With much of Westminster’s focus elsewhere, it will be worth keeping an eye on a speech by Justice Secretary David Gauke at 10 a.m. today. The speech, at the Reform think tank, will ask “what punishment should look like for our modern times.” The answer, Playbook suspects, will not be to everyone’s taste on the Conservative backbenches.
GOVE’S GREEN REVOLUTION: New proposals to improve recycling will be unveiled by the government today, which could see millions of homes having their food waste bins collected weekly. Free garden waste collections may also be introduced under Environment Secretary Michael Gove’s latest proposals, the Guardian reports. Under the plan, councils would receive more money from the government to pay for weekly collections. The full story is here.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
PARLIAMENT: Commons sits today from 2.30 p.m., starting with defense questions, which is definitely one to watch this week. Apart from that, it’s a quiet day in the Commons.
WILLIAMSON WATCH: Defense Secretary Gavin Williamson is certain to be given a hard time after single-handedly appearing to have torpedoed prospective U.K.-China trade talks by threatening to deploy a warship to the South China Sea. It follows reports Beijing canceled a planned trade visit to China by Chancellor Philip Hammond over the defense secretary’s comments. Former head of the army General Richard Dannatt told Sophy Ridge that Williamson had made a “bad diplomatic move” — and pointed out the HMS Queen Elizabeth was not even ready to be deployed yet. Dannatt said Williamson had “oversold” himself, adding: “He wants to use defense as a platform to develop his own career.” Ouch.
Doubling down: In a story in the Times today (alongside some extraordinary action man snaps of the defense secretary), Williamson warns the government must keep its “eyes wide open” to security risks from Beijing.
PS: Japan is also unhappy. The FT reports that an attempt to persuade Tokyo to agree to a quick post-Brexit trade deal backfired “after Japanese officials reacted with dismay” to a letter sent by Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt and International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, in which they warned their Japanese counterparts that “time is of the essence” to strike an agreement. In one section, the letter says that “we are committed to [speed and flexibility] and hope that Japan is too” — a line which, according to people close to Japanese trade officials, was read in Tokyo as an accusation of foot-dragging.
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Today program: Counter-extremism czar Sara Khan (7.30 a.m.) … Theresa May’s de-facto deputy David Lidington (7.50 a.m.) … Chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee Damian Collins (8.10 a.m.) … U.S. Democratic Senator Chris Coons (8.30 a.m.) … Peter Kyle, Labour MP for Hove (8.40 a.m.).
Sky Sunrise: Reviewing the papers, the Telegraph’s Asa Bennett and barrister Samantha Davies (6.45 a.m. and 7.45 a.m) … Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson (8.30 a.m.)
LBC Radio: Robert Nisbet from Rail Delivery Group (7.40 a.m.) … Biographer Tom Bower (8.20 a.m) … Phone-in with Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg (9.05 a.m.) … Labour MP David Lammy stands in for James O’Brien (10 a.m. to 1 p.m.).
All Out Politics (Sky News, 9 a.m.): Tory MP Steve Baker on Brexit’s next steps (9 a.m.) … Chairman of the digital, culture, media and sport committee Damian Collins on “fake news” (9.10 a.m.) … TalkRADIO’s James Max and chief leader-writer at the Observer Sonia Sodha on “the view” (9.15 a.m.) … Hope Not Hate’s Joe Mulhall on “the state of hate” (9.45 a.m.) … Labour MP Neil Coyle on a second referendum (1o a.m.) … Max and Sodha again (10.15 a.m.) … Faroe Islands Foreign Affairs Minister Poul Michelsen on Brexit trade deals (10.30 a.m.)
BBC Politics Live (12.15 p.m.): Labour MP Angela Smith … Conservative Brexiteer Dan Hannan … Spiked Editor Brendan O’Neill … Corbynite journalist Ash Sarkar … Academic Robin Diangelo.
Reviewing the papers tonight: (BBC News, 10.45 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): Former FA boss David Davies and the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot … (Sky News, 10.30 p.m. & 11.30 p.m.): TLS Editor Stig Abell and commentator Carole Malone.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: New pill to halt agony of arthritis.
Daily Mail: Gamblers paid to keep betting.
Daily Mirror: Jihadi bride says “I had a good time.”
Financial Times: Huawei’s green light from Britain dents U.S. drive for global 5G ban.
HuffPost: “I deserve sympathy” — Runaway schoolgirl Shamima Begum appeals for sympathy after she “gives birth.”
i: Universities face funding black hole.
Metro: Jihadi bride: I deserve sympathy.
The Daily Telegraph: “Show me some sympathy.”
The Guardian: MPs call for tough new powers to curb Facebook’s “digital gangsters.”
The Independent: Students living in “terror” over hostile environment.
The Sun: Sympathy? You must be kidding.
The Times: Police who stopped Isis bride found terror plans.
BEYOND THE M25
OH BOY: First broken by the Sunday Telegraph, this one will run and run. U.S. President Donald Trump Sunday threatened to release 800 ISIS fighters captured in Syria unless European allies agreed to accept them and put them on trial. The threat drew outrage from European officials gathered Sunday at the annual Munich Security Conference in Germany.
STAR POWER? The breakthrough act of the Munich Security Conference? Step forward Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif, reports POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn, who watched him hold an audience of power-brokers “rapt” for nearly 40 minutes as he “thrashed the Trump administration, fired a pointed demand at Europe to do more to protect their nuclear deal, and generally painted a portrait of Tehran’s worldview that at times drew chuckles for defying reality.”
ATOMIC BOMB BLAST FROM THE PAST: Europeans have been left in the dark about America’s plans after its withdrawal from the Intermediate-range Nuclear Forces Treaty, writes POLITICO’s Matthew Karnitschnig.
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Westminster weather: It’s back to work with a bump. Light rain and a breeze, high of 11C☁️🌧🌦
Travel: Disruption on Great Western Railway between Guildford and Gatwick Airport expected until 9 a.m. No trams until Sunday 24 February between Addiscombe and Birkbeck/Elmers End due to planned bridge works at Blackhorse Lane.
Condolences: The death of the 84-year-old Labour MP Paul Flynn was announced last night, with tributes pouring in from colleagues across the house who had served with him. Jeremy Corbyn wrote on Twitter: “I’m very sad at the passing of my good friend Paul Flynn. He had such love for Newport, knowledge of radical South Wales history and a dry wit. He was an independent thinker who was a credit to the Labour Party. He will be greatly missed.” Flynn, who was first elected to represent Newport West in 1987, had been ill for some time. He announced in October that he would step down from parliament “as soon as possible” after becoming confined to bed because of rheumatoid arthritis.
Happy birthday: Clacton MP Giles Watling.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich and producer Jillian Deutsch.
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