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Westlake Legal Group > Theresa May MP

Childcare policy should support all parents with children – not just those who work in the labour market

It is good that the Conservatives are mulling childcare policy, which is a subset of families policy, on which the Party has had little to say or do since before Theresa May’s leadership.  That was back in the days when David Cameron was Prime Minister with a small majority, and wanted to improve life chances for children and parents.

It is not so good to read that they are considering providing more of it “free” – 15 hours of free childcare a week for parents of younger children, as a report would have it.  For, after all, nothing that government provides comes “free”: ultimately, taxpayers must pay the bill, unless politicians are prepared to mortgage the future on printing or borrowing.

So when Tories hear the word “manifesto”, “pledge” and “free”, they should reach for the delete button.  Especially since it is this kind of careless talk that costs progress, as the recent history of childcare policy in Britain will confirm.

The sum of it is that we have the worst of all worlds.  In other words, a system that pleases neither those who want more support for relatively informal care (that’s to say, childcare provided by parents, grandparents, other relatives, friends and members of other family networks); not those who back more provision for comparatively formal care (the “high quality, accessible, affordable childcare” of which we read so often).

The costs of childcare in Britain may or may not be among the very highest in the world (the figures are disputed), but reports that find us among the worst-off countries for family-friendly policies seem to be well founded.

The fundamental reason for these dismal outcomes takes us back to where we started.  Politicians – and particularly Conservative ones – have ducked discussing what childcare policy, and the families policy of which it is necessarily a part, is really for, especially when it comes to money.  Do we want to encourage parents to work in the labour market?  Or support the choices which they choose to make, including caring for those children at home?

Or, as our history and culture might suggest (the RSPCA was established earlier than our main children’s charities), are we disclined to believe that the costs of raising children should be supported at all?

Our own answer is that there is nothing much wrong with the traditional doctrine of what was until fairly recently the Inland Revenue doctrine: namely, that “the taxable capacity of those with children to maintain [is] lower than that of the childless taxpayer”, and that there is therefore a solid case for family allowances of some kind.  There are two main practicable ways in which this principle might be recognised.

The first is to build on the present system of child benefit, which has been capped for higher earners.  This is because child benefit isn’t really a benefit at all: it’s a transferred tax allowance, paid to “purse rather than wallet”.

The second is to revive the order which child benefit replaced – namely, those child tax allowances; and let what should properly be called the social security system support the family costs of those who don’t pay tax.  Most of those on the right would set the latter at a low level, many of those on the left at higher one.  But the principle behind such a settlement would be clear.

Since child benefit is paid to all parents with children, regardless of whether or not they work in the labour market, it would make sense for any system of revived tax allowances to be transferable.  This would presumably have the side-effect of supporting marriage in the tax system, but that would not be the aim of the policy.

Either way, such a system would be clear, simple – and, admittedly, expensive, because it would aim to support all parents rather than some.  But by putting money into the hands of parents, in effect, it would help to drive the demand for childcare of all kinds, formal and informal: that money could be used to pay other family members and friends; those formal high-quality settings, such as day nurseries; those less formal ones, such as childminders, and so on.

Or it could simply be spent by the parents themselves.  We apologise if such a system is too straightforward for politicians to get their heads round.  But this choice-based ideal is where any Conservative policy worth the name should be seeking to travel to.

The alternative, short of abandoning support for children in the tax and benefit system altogether, is to carry on down the present road of supporting some parents rather than all – with all the distortions that this implies, as chronicled elsewhere by our columnist Ryan Bourne and others.

Obviously, there is more to families policy than childcare – or at least the demand-side business of what to do with the tax and benefit system.  There is parental leave.  There is regulation, and the degree to which it distorts the childcare market.  There is flexible working – and more.  But since Team Johnson is looking at the demand side, it is worth the rest of us taking a squint too.

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Nick Hargrave: Wanted. A Too Difficult Department to help tackle intractable post-election problems.

Nick Hargrave is a former Downing Street special adviser, where he worked under both David Cameron and Theresa May. He now works at Portland, the communications consultancy.

There is always a tendency in politics to over-correct from the last big mistake. That is certainly the case in Conservative politics when it comes to the art of preparing manifestos.

It is commonly held that the 2017 Conservative Manifesto was a sub-optimal political product – where unpopular and untested policies were unleashed on an unsuspecting electorate. This, so the argument goes, is the reason why the Conservative Party blew a massive poll lead and Jeremy Corbyn came within a sniff of high office.

Learning from this experience, Tory staffers will be leaving nothing to chance this time. A robust political stress-testing operation will dominate the 2019 manifesto process. The signature policies will be focus-grouped within an inch of their life. Hardened and cynical characters from the party’s research department will draw up long lists of difficult questions; these attacks will in turn be tested in focus groups. Anything that goes down badly in Bishop Auckland and Crawley will be noted down in red pen. Safety first will be the overwhelming mantra of the day.

I would argue, however, that there is a danger in over-correcting too much. The 2017 manifesto in its totality was bad politics and an unforced error. However, commentators have over-simplified why it went down so badly. It was not just because the infamous social care policy – the so called ‘dementia tax’ – was unpopular.

Part of the problem with the social care debacle was that it came out of nowhere; difficult issues need time to breath and be socialised.

There is also a convincing argument that Theresa May’s weak and wobbly defence of the u-turn – ‘nothing has changed’ – did as much damage to her proposition at that election as the policy itself.

And it should not be forgotten either that a further deficiency of the 2017 manifesto was its lack of retail friendly, sunny measures to balance the more difficult choices the country faced.

Looking further back in history, there is good evidence that voters will back politicians advancing difficult arguments if they are convinced that they will be competent in their delivery and well-motivated in their values.

This is the test of leadership. Margaret Thatcher’s ambitious privatisations are held up nowadays as a vote-winning policy that spoke to a bracing desire for 1980s-style freedom. In reality, privatisation was more contested and controversial; IPSOS Mori found in 1989 that it was the third most unpopular policy of her tenure behind the poll tax and funding of the NHS. The Conservative commitment to continued deficit reduction in the successful 2015 campaign could be viewed through a similar prism.

At this election, I am not suggesting that the Conservative Party should deliberately court unpopularity. Nor, with a month to go, am I saying that it would be electorally wise to mic drop a wealth tax or breaking up the NHS into the national conversation.

But I am arguing that there is some limited space for radical candour with the electorate on the difficult choices facing the country in the 2020s. If the party fails to signpost these choices at all in its manifesto, then it will find it more difficult to govern than would otherwise be the case. The country will also be badly served given the importance of some of the decisions ahead.

Given the political realities, my preference would be for the manifesto to commit on its back page to a new unit in government under the responsibility of the First Secretary of State. If you wanted to capture attention you could call it the “The Too Difficult Department”. If you wanted to be sober, you could call it the Long-Term Challenges Unit working out of the Cabinet Office. There will already be civil servants whose job it is to think about these things; but it should be the defined responsibility of elected ministers.

The new creation would be founded with the overarching principle that there are some debates our country needs to have but are too controversial and politically explosive to move immediately. I can sort of see Boris Johnson making this case with a unique blend of gravity and humour.

This institution would not deliver any change over the course of five years. Its role would be to think and – more critically – communicate. It would be a focal point for these difficult debates to progress at a controlled pace; probably drawing in citizens’ assemblies to help it deliberate. The conclusion of those debates should in turn form the bedrock of the Conservative Party’s manifesto for the putative election in 2025. Too far in the future some might say – but politics is the art of the possible.

I would in turn isolate this down to five politically difficult issues:

  • How to fund public services given the pressures of an ageing society and ever-increasing consumer expectations. In the near term, the IFS estimate that the NHS will account for almost 40 per cent of all public spending by 2023/24. By the second half of the twenty-first century, the OBR estimate that our debt profile is likely to balloon to eye watering levels well beyond our GDP.
  • Whether increasing inequality of outcomes over the last 40 years – under successive governments – is tolerable or something that needs to be addressed. This is really what drove Brexit. Addressing this will be far less about our future relationship with the Customs Union and far more whether we are willing to have difficult conversations about the taxation of wealth and property.
  • Decarbonisation and whether we are really serious about transitioning to net-zero carbon emissions– which will probably have to involve road charging, eating less meat and linking environmental behaviour to corporate and personal tax rates.
  • The long-term view on automation and what needs to be done to make the most of its disruptive effects – including whether we should incentivise urbanisation in cities as an overriding policy priority.
  • Consideration of whether new global institutions where we pool our sovereignty are needed in order to tackle new macro challenges such as the impact of technology and tax avoidance.

Manifesto day for the Conservative Party should be primarily designed around the retail package it is offering voters for the next five years. But amongst the barrage of jam today and the promises of an easy life, I would suggest that there is both space and an imperative to look a little beyond. Voters are many things but they are not stupid. A manifesto commitment of a ‘Too Difficult Department’ is unlikely to win the next election for the Conservative Party. But it might just help it retain its reputation as the serious party of government in elections to come.

Real Estate, and Personal Injury Lawyers. Contact us at: https://westlakelegal.com 

Vox pub: Cornish voters wonder whether they can trust the Prime Minister more than the Lib Dems

Voters in St Ives are in a state of deep perplexity. Many of them feel politically homeless.

A large number of left-wing Leavers in West Cornwall are unhappy about supporting either of the two main contenders for the seat, and can also be heard wondering whether they can trust Boris Johnson.

The highly marginal constituency of St Ives, which includes Land’s End and Penzance, was held in 2017 by Derek Thomas for the Conservatives, who beat Andrew George, for the Lib Dems, by 312 votes.

The same two candidates have faced each other over the last three general elections and will fight it out again this time, George having represented the seat from 1997 to 2015, for much of that period with just over half the vote.

Nigel Farage’s announcement on Monday that the Brexit Party is withdrawing its candidates in Tory-held seats has shocked Leave voters in St Ives.

Tris Stock said on Monday evening in the Longboat Inn in Penzance, the largest town in the constituency, he was so infuriated that for several hours that afternoon he had contemplated standing himself in St Ives under the banner of “Real Brexit”.

He added: “You are speaking to someone who was right on the verge of trying to take votes away from the Conservatives.

“It was because the Brexit Party dumped us, and I liked the Brexit Party a lot.

“I’m a democrat before any other political consideration. I mean that.

“And I’m a Brexiteer. Any socialist has to be a Brexiteer. Don’t think for a moment the Labour Party is anything to do with socialism. It’s about maintaining the status quo.

“There is only one socialist left in the Labour Party as far as I’m concerned and that is Dennis Skinner.”

Stock will not support Labour in this election: “They screwed me over because they said, ‘We will respect the referendum’.”

Nor will he support the Lib Dems, with their commitment to reverse Brexit, although “I quite liked Andrew George as an MP “.

But can he trust the Conservative candidate? Stock wrestled with this question: “Ninety-five per cent of all the people I know are not only pro-Brexit but don’t like Derek Thomas. They hate him. They don’t believe him.

“Those sort of people are why Leave won the referendum – it managed to get people who are not very interested to vote. And they’ll vote pro-Brexit on 12th December.”

ConHome: “But does that mean voting for Derek Thomas?”

Stock: “It probably does. There’s a part of me that wants to pin him down to a written statement that he accepts what Boris Johnson said, that we will not extend beyond 2020. He’ll avoid me like the plague.

“So I have to trust Boris Johnson, who I would not trust as far as I could throw him. Do you?”

A retired coach driver stood up for Johnson: “I actually like him. Everybody said he’s going to make a mess. I said no, he’s too intelligent.

“We’ve got to vote Tory down here and get rid of the Lib Dems. They’re signing up with the Greens to stop Brexit.”

Someone else remarked that Andrew George “is actually a decent guy”. The retired coach driver replied: “”Yes, I totally agree with you there, but I can’t vote for him.

“This area has always been a Lib Dem area but I think they’ve shot themselves in the foot [by backing revoke].

“In Newlyn [the fishing port next to Penzance] they voted out. I hope to God the Tories don’t let them down. They’ve got to protect the fishing thing.”

“Everything is a farce,” another man declared. “You had the referendum which had the highest turnout ever. Now the politicians haven’t carried through on the plan they all support. And that’s a farce.

“And it’s not going to get any better. They want to be ruled by Brussels so they don’t have to take any decisions. Easy life for them, isn’t it.

“The less they have to do for their salaries and the more they can concentrate on their company directorships the happier they are.”

A 72-year-old lawyer said: “I take the view that people of my age shouldn’t be voting at all.”

Before the referendum, he accordingly consulted his 11 children, all of whom – except the youngest, who gave no advice – urged him to vote Remain, which he did: “They feel European and they know full well that all the stuff about we’ll have a great future is complete bollocks.”

Stock urged ConHome to conduct research in some other pubs, so we make our way in the rain up Market Jew Street, a name said to be a corruption of the Cornish for Thursday Market, and admired the statue of Sir Humphrey Davy, famous son of Penzance, in front of the granite portico of the Market Building, whose lantern floats above the town.

My guide recited a Clerihew:

Sir Humphrey Davy

Abominated gravy.

He lived in the odium

Of having discovered Sodium.

We entered the Tremenheere pub, where we met a greenkeeper from one of the local golf clubs. He said he usually votes Conservative but doesn’t know who he will back this time: “Who’s got the best lies?”

An unemployed chef said of Brexit in a judicious tone: “I don’t think there’s a completely wrong and right answer to it.”

A couple waiting for some food said they will be voting Lib Dem. After we had left them, I suggested to Stock that there did not seem to be many Lib Dems around.

He corrected this misapprehension: “Liberal Democrat, Remain types – they exist. They’re all over the place. They sit in the corners of pubs.”

He offered his gut feeling about the election result in St Ives: “It’s leaning Lib Dem, but I can’t for the life of me say why. It’s a Brexit area, right?”

Stock insisted no tour of the pubs of Penzance could omit the Seven Stars, a few yards down a street to the left of the Market Building. The pub was animated, eight or ten figures gesticulating at each other in front of the bar, which is decorated with photographs of Marilyn Monroe.

The music was too loud for interviews, but as we stood with one or two smokers in a covered passage outside, a fisherman came out and introduced himself as Matthew Price of the Ajax. He said:

“I don’t know. The country was given the opportunity – we voted out.

“The British Government is looking so weak it’s an embarrassment. We’ve had no one to lead us into Brexit.

“Theresa May – what a pisspoor choice. This country needed someone like Donald Trump.

“Someone who’s totally outspoken. Someone who’s not a politician. This country needs to have a backbone.

“What we need is a strong leader who’s not going to bullshit us.

“I like Boris Johnson for the simple fact he’s a bit outspoken, he’s not afraid to speak his mind, he’s not some political f—ing puppet.

“But I’m a big Margaret Thatcher fan.  She had the balls to shoot the Belgrano in the back.

“She turned round and said, ‘I’m sorry, this is war, it’s in English waters.’

“All I want is can we please have a government that has some backbone. This whole Brexit has been an embarrassment. We look weak on the world stage.”

Price remembered the night of the referendum: “I was on the boat, there was six on the boat, me and the skipper stayed up and watched it all night long.

“This is the biggest thing that’s happened in my lifetime apart from the Eurovision Song Contest.”

High seriousness, jokes and a mercurial sense of independence co-exist in West Cornwall. The Prime Minister might be well advised to go and assure the crew of the Ajax he is not going to let them down.

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Stephen Booth: This is not the beginning of the end of Brexit, it is the end of the beginning

Stephen Booth is Acting Director at Open Europe.

Day by day, we appear to be inching closer to the finale of the first phase of our Brexit drama. We do not know how it ends but the fact that the Liberal Democrats and the SNP now both explicitly back an election is likely to be significant. It remains unclear if the Government can pass its Withdrawal Agreement Bill under this parliament, and ultimately an election, at some point in the next three months, may be required to settle the issue at hand: will the UK leave the EU (with the Prime Minister’s deal), or face another referendum and potentially not leave at all?

But what might lie beyond an election if Boris Johnson is returned to Downing Street to implement his deal? The most important substantive difference between Theresa May’s Withdrawal Agreement and Boris Johnson’s is that the new deal leaves open many more questions to be negotiated in the transition or implementation period, namely the future UK-EU relationship. This provides both greater room for manoeuvre and greater uncertainty. This means that the next parliament, and party management, could yet have a significant role over the process.

The ‘Northern Irish backstop’ negotiated under the previous government actually provided a UK-EU customs union as a default trading relationship, potentially superseded by a further agreement. This would have limited UK aspirations for an independent trade policy, but many in Brussels felt the backstop granted the UK the prize of zero-tariff access to EU markets with too much leeway on so-called ‘level playing field’ provisions on social and environmental rights.

In contrast, the new agreement ensures the UK is able to leave the Customs Union and conduct an independent trade policy, but we do not know what the future trading arrangement will be. The non-binding Political Declaration points towards the Government’s preferred destination of a comprehensive free trade agreement. But one of the reasons previously hardline Brexiteers are able to support the new deal is that it could yet result in a WTO-terms outcome following the transition period, if talks fail. The Northern Ireland-specific provisions would apply but these can be ended unilaterally by a majority in Stormont.

In fact, given that it is unlikely that a UK-EU trade agreement can be finalised in six or seven months, one of the first things the UK and EU will have to do is to decide by 1st July 2020 whether to take the option of extending the transition period. The failure to leave on either 29th March or 31st October has eaten into the length of the transition, which wasn’t revised in the new text. It is currently scheduled to finish on 31st December 2020, but can be extended to the end of 2022.

If UK-EU negotiations are undertaken in good faith an extension ought to be relatively straightforward, but it is likely to involve politically sensitive issues. These include settling on additional payments, as the previously agreed £39 billion only covered the period to December 2020, and with the clock ticking, the EU might be tempted to throw in agreement on fishing quotas as a condition to extending the transition. Therefore, a Johnson government is likely to need to convince some of its own backbenchers to make further compromises in the pursuit of a free trade agreement and continue planning for a potential WTO Brexit at the same time.

The new sequencing and potential 2020 or 2022 ‘cliff edges’ could work both ways. Unless the UK remains prepared for the prospect of a WTO terms Brexit, the EU will be tempted to use the pressure of the clock against UK negotiators. On the other hand, we have also seen in recent days how determined the EU is to avoid No Deal and, with the genuine ability to walk away, the UK would have more flexibility than under Theresa May’s deal. Ultimately, the most important questions remain the fundamental trade-offs UK and EU negotiators will need to assess.

For the UK, the economic trade-off is between alignment with the EU and access to its markets. Many Labour MPs have made much of the fact the level playing field commitments of Theresa May’s deal have been removed from the legally binding Withdrawal Agreement and moved to the non-binding Political Declaration. This merely reflects the fact that the UK-EU customs union is gone and that this will be a negotiating point in the free trade agreement talks.

The level playing field issue doesn’t necessarily need to be immensely difficult but it is vital that the Government and the Conservative Party is clear about its bottom line – and parliamentary arithmetic could yet play a role. Michel Barnier famously outlined the options available to the UK with a staircase graphic: Norwegian-style access to the Single Market comes with Norwegian-style alignment on regulation and level playing field issues, whereas a looser Canada-style deal comes with fewer obligations. To be clear, there is also a major economic incentive for the EU to conclude a deal but, as May found with her Chequers proposals, the more complicated the UK ask, the more strings the EU will attach.

The broader issue facing the EU is a geopolitical one. It was perhaps telling that Angela Merkel recently chose to describe the UK as a potential “competitor” rather than a “partner”. May’s deal was probably preferable for the EU since it was likely to limit UK divergence from the EU over the medium term. It therefore would have allowed the EU to ignore the question of how to respond to a truly independent UK for a little longer. If Boris Johnson secures a new mandate as Prime Minister, a more assertive UK might insist that a genuinely balanced relationship would weigh the UK’s contribution to European security alongside the mutual economic benefits of free trade. The European Commission doesn’t have a graphic to answer that question and EU leaders have been much more comfortable relegating Brexit to the orbit of technocrats and process.

In summary, the first phase of Brexit might be the most fraught, but there will still be much to do in the next. May lost all momentum following her 2017 Brexit election; Johnson cannot afford to do the same whenever it comes.

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David Gauke: When your bell rings in December, you expect to be sung a carol – not asked how you’re going to vote

David Gauke is a former Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, and is MP for South West Hertfordshire.

We now begin the most exciting and dramatic week in the Brexit saga since the last exciting and dramatic week…which was last week. It will be followed by an exciting and dramatic week next week, too. But before turning to the future, it is worth looking back at developments in the last two weeks since my last column.

The big development is that the Prime Minister got a deal and he deserves credit for that. I remain convinced that at the time of the passing of the Benn Act there was no real determination to reach a deal and, even if there was, the Prime Minister did not have the political space with the European Research Group to make the concessions that he has now on Northern Ireland. If the current deal had been presented to Parliament and the alternative would have been a no deal on October 31, ERG members would have stayed loyal to the DUP and opposed it.

Some will argue that the EU would have caved on the Irish border, but there remains no evidence to support that view. The choice that has been available to the UK has always been continued customs alignment between the UK and the EU or some kind of customs border between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Theresa May’s deal went for the former until alternative arrangements might emerge; Boris Johnson has chosen greater divergence between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.

As a Unionist, I prefer the former option but at least the Prime Minister has made a choice. Any option has downsides, but to govern is to choose and that is what he has done. In reaching a deal, he has turned his back on unicorns and we have something tangible to examine. That does constitute progress.

In terms of the deal, there are two big issues. The first is Northern Ireland and the Union. As I have already touched on, this is a worse deal than Theresa May’s deal from this perspective, and the DUP are understandably furious. In truth, the Government had adopted incompatible red lines, and something was going to have to give. It was probably the Prime Minister’s least worst option.

The second issue is the long term relationship between Great Britain and the EU. Those of us deeply concerned about a No Deal Brexit this year will take little comfort if the consequence of the Withdrawal Agreement is a No Deal Brexit for Great Britain at the end of 2020.

Completing a Free Trade Agreement with the EU by December 2020 was always highly ambitious when this deadline was negotiated by May’s government with a view to leaving in March 2019. But with the May deal, if an FTA had not been negotiated, the provisions of the backstop meant that regulatory and customs alignment with the EU would be maintained. This gave businesses a level of certainty and reassurance they needed to continue trading with the EU on current terms whilst a future relationship was being negotiated.

We have now lost many months of the implementation period and, with a new Commission being appointed, it is unlikely the EU will have a mandate for negotiations until next Easter. Getting a trade deal done in the time available looks fanciful. And the consequences of not getting an FTA finalised is now much more serious. If we do not extend the implementation period to the end of 2021 or, more realistically, 2022, the chances are we will be trading with the EU on WTO terms – with the introduction of tariffs and disruption to supply chains – by January 2021. This would be a very bad outcome for jobs and living standards.

In my view, the Government should seek an extension of the implementation period as soon as we have left the EU (it would have been better to have extended the implementation period in the Withdrawal Agreement, but that ship has sailed) and I welcome the confirmation from the Government that Parliament will have an opportunity to vote on seeking an extension of the implementation period and that the Government will abide by that decision.

This concession was sufficient for me to support the Government’s programme motion last week, albeit with little enthusiasm. Not only was the time for Parliamentary scrutiny very short, but I feared it was counter-productive in meeting the objective to ‘get Brexit done’ to attempt to get the Bill through the Commons in three days. It would have legitimised the Lords taking its time and delegitimised leaving the EU under the terms of this deal with even more Remain voters.

It is true that the Prime Minister had repeatedly promised to leave by October 31, but there was never going to be time to properly scrutinise a deal reached at the October 17 EU Council and leave in that timescale. And if we leave at some point is November of December, who – in future – will really care what the date was?

The sensible course of action would have been to put forward a programme motion which allowed the Commons to take two or three weeks to scrutinise properly the Bill. The motion would have got through (I do not think Labour want to be seen as filibustering it) and Parliament could then have done its job in scrutinising legislation. The likelihood is we would have left the EU within weeks.

A more aggressive, high risk timetable resulted in an unnecessary defeat, followed by the even more high risk move to seek a general election. I say high risk, because the result of a December poll should not be treated as a foregone conclusion.

The Labour Party might be seen as there for the taking given the obvious inadequacies of Jeremy Corbyn, but Labour voters have proven themselves to be remarkably resistant to voting Conservative in the past. The Liberal Democrats and SNP will be a threat to a number of our current seats, and the Brexit Party might see a resurgence if we go to the polls still as members of the EU.

The other big unknown is how the public will react to a snap election. At the best of times, voters distrust governments calling elections if the move is seen as being motivated by party interest. This would not be the best of times. When someone opens the front door to a stranger in December, they expect to be sung a carol, not asked how they are going to vote. A government that is seen as provoking a season of ill-will is unlikely to be viewed affectionately by the general public who have had more than enough of politics in 2019.

In any event, the argument many of us have made against a second referendum on EU membership was that it would be divisive but not decisive. Exactly the same argument could be made about a December general election if we have not left the EU. It might easily become a second referendum by proxy but with a result less legitimate because it would be distorted by our electoral system and a lack of clarity as to the question the electorate is trying to answer.

I will listen to the arguments in Parliament about why we should dissolve Parliament a week after the Government won on both the Queens Speech and Second Reading of the WAB, but the heavy-handed approach to the programme motion and the now abandoned threat to ‘go on strike’ has not been a good look. The Prime Minister’s successes at the European Council and in winning the Second Reading vote seems a long time ago.

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Hammond claims PM’s deal ‘was available to Theresa May 15 months ago’.

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Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: Instead of the Falklands War, Letwin sells MPs an insurance policy

The House decided by 322 votes to 306 to buy an insurance policy from Sir Oliver Letwin.

There could not be a more honest broker. His pitch lasted two minutes, and was devoid of slick salesmanship.

How politely he listened to the rest of the debate. Every so often, as his policy was misrepresented in some grotesque way, a spasm of pain crossed his face, but there was nothing of the rebel in his manner, let alone of the rabble-rouser.

He won the day in part because of his scrupulously unpartisan conduct.

But his victory was not, perhaps, the most exciting outcome to the first sitting on a Saturday since the Falklands War.

We had waited 37 years for this, and in some ways it was a bit of an anticlimax.

After he had sold his policy, Sir Oliver warned his supporters, “our ways are now going to part”. He will vote next week for the Prime Minister’s deal, but knows that should anything go wrong, we cannot now crash out of the European Union without a deal.

So Boris Johnson had already gained one of the extra 14 votes he will need to reach the figure of 320, the point at which he can be sure of getting his deal through.

The Prime Minister did not look unduly downcast after the vote. He rose and said he “will not negotiate” a delay from the EU, and still intends, on the contrary, that the UK will leave on 31st October.

Michael Gove, winding up the brief debate which had taken place before the vote, went out of his way to pay tribute to the many remainers, including Theresa May, the former Prime Minister, and on the Labour benches Caroline Flint, who “now recognise that the people having spoken, that verdict must be respected”.

May herself said that if Parliament did not mean what it said when it said it would implement the referendum result, “then it is guilty of the most egregious con-trick on the British people”.

She added that “if you don’t want no deal you have to vote for a deal”. The present Prime Minister turned towards her – she was standing a couple of yards behind him – thumped in approval the wood running along back of his bench and waved the papers in his other hand.

His predecessor is loyal to him, or as she might prefer to put it, he is loyal to her. Whichever way one phrases it, he is now very close to getting his deal through.

Outside the House, the demonstrators demanding another referendum gave a great cheer when they heard of the Prime Minister’s defeat on the Letwin vote.

They went on making a lot of noise in the afternoon sunshine. Their presence was a kind of compliment to the Commons.

What happens inside the Chamber is known to be of decisive importance, and in that respect, Brexit has already happened.

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WATCH: May’s passionate plea to vote for the deal

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Stephen Booth: The differences between the May and Johnson deals explained

Stephen Booth is Acting Director at Open Europe.

The Prime Minister has successfully negotiated a new deal with the EU. It is clear that the UK has secured significant changes to the Withdrawal Agreement in respect of the backstop, which seemed a tall order a few months ago. However, there have been compromises on both sides and, as things stand, the DUP has confirmed it cannot support the new deal.  But what’s actually in it and how is it different to Theresa May’s deal?

The important differences are contained within the Protocol on Ireland/Northern Ireland. The rest of the Withdrawal Agreement is unchanged. This means the standstill transition period lasts until December 2020, with the option of extension up to December 2022; the references in the Protocol to transition extension have been deleted, but their legal basis elsewhere in the Withdrawal Agreement remains.

The financial settlement is unchanged, although the extension to Article 50 means that the total payment is likely to be in the region of £33 billion, not the oft-quoted “£39 billion” figure. The provisions for citizens’ rights, Gibraltar and governance are as before. The Protocol text is also unchanged on many issues that were relatively uncontroversial – for example, provisions on the Common Travel Area, the Single Electricity Market, and some of the arrangements for the implementation and governance of the Protocol.

Let’s turn to the differences. Firstly, the “undemocratic” backstop has been replaced with a “frontstop”, which differs in important ways from Theresa May’s deal and the EU’s preference for a Northern Ireland-only backstop. Rather than being a fall back, the new special arrangements for Northern Ireland would come into force immediately after the end of the transition period, either at the end of 2020 or 2022 at the latest. They would ensure that Northern Ireland would leave the EU’s Customs Union along with the rest of the UK, and the region would be in a new hybrid economic zone.

The practical effect would be that Northern Ireland’s consumers would be able to benefit from an independent UK trade policy, potentially in the form of lower UK tariff rates and trade deals with third countries, and businesses there would continue to enjoy unfettered access to the market in Great Britain.

There would be no customs checks North-South, but the UK would have to enforce EU customs procedures at points of entry into Northern Ireland, including imports from Great Britain, to ensure that goods benefitting from lower tariffs do not find their way on to the EU market.

It is on the issue of regulatory alignment that the special arrangements most closely mirror the provisions of the previous backstop. Northern Ireland would align with the EU’s regulatory framework for manufactured and agricultural goods in certain respects. Consequently, depending on the future UK-EU relationship, East-West trade would also be subject to regulatory checks.

Another significant difference is that the economic aspects of the Northern Ireland-specific arrangements would be subject to the consent of the NI Assembly and include an exit mechanism under the authority of Stormont.

The default is that Articles 5-10 of the Protocol (the customs and regulatory arrangements described above, plus provisions on the Single Electricity Market and alignment with EU VAT and State Aid rules) would apply for four years after the end of the transition period. However, two months before the end of the four-year period, Stormont would have the right to opt out of them on the basis of a majority vote.

Alternatively, if consent for the special arrangements is granted they will apply for a further four years or, if there is cross-community consent (i.e. a super majority) to continue the arrangements, a further eight years. Consent would be tested on a rolling basis, with votes every four or eight years.

If the Assembly does vote to opt out of EU alignment, then a two-year “cooling off period” begins, after which the arrangements would cease to apply. The earliest date at which the arrangements could end is 31 December 2026.

The absence of a ‘DUP veto’ – requiring cross-community support for the continuance of the arrangements after 4 years – may explain why the party felt that the consent provisions were not sufficient to secure their support.

Thirdly, whereas the previous backstop provided a future UK-EU customs union by default, the new deal leaves unanswered the question of the future trading relationship between the rest of the UK and the EU.

The potential future UK-EU relationship is only addressed in the non-binding Political Declaration, which points to a free trade agreement rather than a customs union. Ultimately, this is a matter which will remain open to negotiation in the transition period, presumably after a UK General Election.

Consequently, the level playing field obligations, on social and employment standards and the environment, that accompanied the proposed UK-EU customs union under the backstop have been deleted from the revised Withdrawal Agreement.

Instead, they have been moved to the Political Declaration as an issue for further negotiation in the context of the future UK-EU relationship. Both sides will seek to link level-playing field commitments to levels of market access.

In summary, the proposed customs arrangements for Northern Ireland are novel in comparison to the backstop. They would enable the region to be subject to an independent UK trade policy, but would mean customs procedures on goods imported from Great Britain.

Other provisions, notably regulatory alignment on goods, would have the same practical effect as before, but both the customs regime and regulatory arrangements are now subject to the consent of the Northern Ireland Assembly and can be ended by Stormont.

In terms of the wider UK-EU relationship, the absence of a customs union by default, is likely to allow UK negotiators to address the alignment/market access trade-off with more flexibility in the next phase of negotiations.

It is clear that Boris Johnson would prefer a free trade agreement, but an alternative Prime Minister could seek a closer relationship. If the deal is passed, there will be all to play for in a General Election.

Open Europe has published a briefing explaining the proposals in greater detail here

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Will Johnson get a Brexit deal done after all?

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and is a commentator for CNN.

It is still impossible to predict what will happen next week, but whatever it is will be pretty momentous.

It still seems unlikely that a deal will be done before the deadline day of October 31st but, given yesterday’s events on Merseyside, it doesn’t seem as unlikely as it did just hours before. At the time of writing, we don’t know who has conceded what – so it’s impossible to say what the Northern Ireland parties will make of it all, and whether any concessions on the UK side would affect the likelihood of any deal getting through the Commons.

So let’s park that one and look at a somewhat negative scenario.

So Boris Johnson goes to the EU council next Thursday; it ends in chaos; he comes back, addresses the Commons on Saturday week, sends the EU a letter requesting an extension to Article 50 – but also makes clear he doesn’t believe a word of it.

The EU then grants a year-long extension, thus enabling a second referendum to happen and at that point Johnson challenges the opposition parties to agree to an election.

And that is where the fun starts. Labour decides that it will only agree to an election after a second referendum is held, and it says that the options put to voters would be Theresa May’s deal v Remain. It is assailed by the SNP for effectively inflicting another nine months of a Conservative government on the country.

At that point, Johnson resigns as Prime Minister, and attempts are made to form an alternative government – all of which fail. He fights the election on a ‘leave the EU with no deal’ manifesto, which results in dozens of Tory MPs quitting, but the Brexit Party stand down all of their candidates.

Would Johnson win a majority in those circumstances? As the polls stand at the moment, yes, but we all know what can happen in election campaigns. And if you don’t know, just ask May.

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The scenario I paint above shows just how much influence Nigel Farage will have over events. And the core thing to remember is that he doesn’t trust Johnson one iota. I cannot see how the latter could ever agree to a formal electoral pact with the forner and if, he did, it would have to be written in stone.

There’s some talk of the Prime Minister offering the Brexit Party a free run in 50 selected seats, presumably in the north of England, I return for a free run everywhere else. I think it’s completely fanciful. But in this political environment, I suppose stranger things have happened.

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The best news of the week is that Chris Mason is taking over the reins as the new host of Any Questions. Chris is one of the few journalists that is liked by everybody (by which I mean everybody in the political firmament).

This is not because he’s pliant, or soft; it’s because he’s a transparently nice bloke who knows his stuff. I haven’t got a clue what his politics are anymore than anyone else has. It’s a cracking appointment, and even though he has huge shoes to step into, I have absolutely no doubt he’ll do well and bring a freshness and vitality to the show.

I did ponder applying for it myself, but I figured there was little point given I’ve been on the show as an opinionated panellist a dozen times, and the BBC would never appoint someone to a show like that with a previous political background.

The fact that I present a similar show and have proved my hosting abilities would be by the by. Sometimes you have to just accept the reality of a situation. Newsnight quite happily employed James O’Brien as a host, but then of course he is a man of the centre left. Someone on the centre-right would never get a look-in. And if you think that’s me being paranoid, John Humphrys says the exact same thing in his excellent new book.

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For almost this entire year, most of my weekends have involved work of some description or other. Not this one. At least, that’s the intention.

After doing my regular slot on Good Morning Britain, I’ll be driving west to spend three days in North Devon with my Aunt and cousins, who live in Braunton.

No Andrew Marr, no newspaper columns, no Twitter (that one is a lie) – just catching up with family gossip and reminiscing about times gone by. And a walk across Saunton Sands. I have honestly never looked forward to a weekend more. The calm before the storm…

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