Brexit rumbles on, both Johnson brothers (Boris and Jo) receive their share of criticism and the extent of sexual harassment at Holyrood is unmasked.
Brexit: A ‘Major’ intervention, Labour clarification and May realism
This week saw Labour’s tentative push to provide greater detail to its Brexit negotiating position were it in power actually become something more significant and tangible. On Monday, Jeremy Corbyn confirmed in a speech at Coventry University that Labour’s position was in favour of a rather than the customs union, producing a bespoke deal for the UK. Corbyn cited keeping the benefits of tariff-free access to the single market and customs union and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland as the chief reasons for Labour’s stance. Although far short of what some Labour Remain MPs would like, the clarification of position did at least produce clear daylight between Labour and the Conservative government’s Brexit stances with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox describing such a policy as ‘a complete sellout of Britain’s national interests’.
Midway through the week, not one but two former Prime Ministers waded into Brexit. While former Conservative Prime Minister Sir John Major described the chances of the realization of the ‘Brexit Bus’ £350 million a week NHS pledge as a ‘ridiculous phantom’, he also called for a free parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal. Naturally, more Brexit-leaning elements of the Conservative Party were less than impressed, drawing comparison to Major’s passing of the Treaty of Maastricht via intensive whipping of Eurosceptic MPs in 1993. Tony Blair, by contrast, opined that clear EU reform, especially with regards to immigration, might be enough to persuade the UK to return to the EU fold in a hypothetical second referendum on the final deal.
On Friday, Theresa May delivered her latest major speech on Brexit, striking a pragmatic tone by stating that ‘no-one will get everything they want’ out of Brexit negotiations, but remaining optimistic that a deal will be reached. Although May spelt out more detail of the UK’s desired future relationship with the EU, including continued participation in the EU’s scientific, cultural and educational programmes (sounds like aiming to keep Erasmus exchange membership going?), critics were unhappy with the level of detail about solving the issue of the border between Northern Ireland and Eire. Having emphatically rejected at PMQs the European Commission’s draft withdrawal agreement’s suggestion that Northern Ireland remain in the customs union, it had been expected that May might elaborate on how the government hopes to avoid a ‘hard’ border.
There was still time in the week for Boris Johnson to make a creti-ahem, eyebrow-raising intervention on Brexit, likening solving the Irish border issue to the congestion charge between Camden and Westminster. Many on social media lampooned the Foreign Secretary’s comments.
Boris Johnson says the Camden-Westminster border is like the Irish border.
Here is that border.
The biggest conflict seen here is a Strongly Worded Letter Camden sent over Westminster's plan to replace the building on the right with a car park.
Yup. Just as tricky as Ireland. pic.twitter.com/kKcto6SX88
— Adam Harrison (@AdamDKHarrison) February 27, 2018
Scottish Parliament Goings-On
On Thursday MSPs backed by 86 votes to 27 an emergency timetable for the Scottish Government’s own EU Withdrawal Bill, nicknamed the ‘Continuity Bill’, as First Minister Nicola Sturgeon made contingencies for if the post-Brexit devolution settlement fails to cede the powers expected to the Scottish Parliament.
The other significant news of the week from Holyrood came in the form of a release of an anonymous survey into sexual harassment and sexist behaviour at Holyrood and in MSPs’ offices. In total, of the 1,000+ respondents, 20% overall and 30% of women said they had experienced such behaviour, prompting Sturgeon to declare that she was shocked, saddened and disappointed by the findings.
Urgent Question of the Week
The parliamentary motion of debate known as the urgent question allows the opposition or backbench government MPs to call to account the government over recent or ongoing events. A total of 5 urgent questions were successfully motioned this week, on the following topics: border arrangements between Northern Ireland and Ireland; the Care Quality Commission’s report on the 1983 Mental Health Act, which is currently being reviewed; the humanitarian situation in Syria; the denial of Burmese visas to the International Development Committee; the board of the Office of Students.
In the latter urgent question, tabled by Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner (pictured above), the opposition sought to pressure the government on a report just released into the appointment process for members of the new body charged with overseeing higher education provision. Criticism of the original decision to appoint Toby Young to the board appeared well-founded as the report revealed flaws in the appointment process and the remarkable detail that the then-Universities Minister Jo Johnson had alerted Mr Young to the role. Considering Young’s role as a writer at The Spectator includes when Boris Johnson was Editor and the pair’s known friendship formed at university, MP Layla Moran’s assertion that the process smacked of ‘cronyism’ seemed all too plausible.
UKIP’s slide into obscurity continued as it suffered the indignity of losing control of Thanet Council, the only local authority it had previous held control of.