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Tuesday 19 February 2019

Following on from yesterday’s reports that Totnes MP Sarah Wollaston will soon face a vote of no confidence at the hands of her association members, the Sun reveals both she and Heidi Allen are on “resignation watch”.

Today’s headlines are dominated by the “gang of seven” MPs, formerly of Labour, who have set up a new independent group and are looking to recruit more MPs from across the aisle as well as their own former tribe. Needless to say, Wollaston and Allen, along with Anna Soubry, Dominic Grieve, Antoinette Sandbach and the other anti-Brexit Tory MPs would be a good fit and are being tapped up.

A Tory exodus of any size would most likely bring down the government, triggering a general election. Whether that’s a welcome outcome or not is beside the point, the likes of Wollaston and Allen do not belong in the Conservative Party, particularly one attempting to steer through withdrawal from the EU, enshrined by a manifesto and a national referendum. Their likely deselections are no accident.

Labour are at sixes and sevens, with deputy leader Tom Watson describing yesterday’s seven resignations, led by Chuka Umunna as a “premature conclusion”. Clearly, he is contemplating his own departure, and according to the Mail, so are 49 other Labour MPs. Meanwhile, John McDonnell rightly (not something we’d expect to say about the shadow chancellor) said the defectors should call by-elections.

“All of these MPs stood on our manifesto in 2017, Jeremy Corbyn’s manifesto. They all increased their majorities, now they’re on a different platform so the honourable thing, the usual thing for them to do is to stand down and fight by-elections in their constituencies,” McDonnell told Sky News.

Amid all the grandstanding drama, you’d be forgiven for thinking Brexit has been abandoned. Not quite. According to Politico, as anticipated since Theresa May’s historic 230-vote defeat, the government is pushing for a separate “joint interpretative document” to provide assurance the Irish backstop will not be permanent while also, somewhat contradictorily, guaranteeing that under no circumstances will a border be re-erected on the island of Ireland.

An utterly dismal solution (in fact an almighty fudge), but by far the most likely. Note, Ireland’s deputy PM and foreign minister Simon Coveney once again insisted yesterday that the Withdrawal Agreement would not be re-opened and altered.

According to Jeremy Hunt, the wording would “definitely be more than a clarification”. The foreign secretary also insists “there is an end in sight” towards getting a parliamentary majority behind May’s deal.

On the latter point, Hunt is regretfully correct. Not enough MPs have the backbone to take a stand and too many are petrified of No Deal. The promise of further “clarification” on the other hand is just salesman talk.

Because the default outcome of a No Deal continues to put the majority Remainers in the House of Commons on the backfoot, naturally, they continue to push for it to be ruled out. Newsnight (see also, tweet below from Telegraph reporter Steven Swinford) report the familiar Cabinet grouping of Amber Rudd, Greg Clark and Davids, Mundell and Gauke have reiterated to the prime minister their threat of mass ministerial resignations if No Deal isn’t taken off the table. This is impossible of course, so they’ve also demanded an extension as an alternative.

Rudd et al’s claim is that the threat of No Deal has served its purpose. Now that we’re at the crunch stage of withdrawal proceedings it needs to be parked. This makes absolutely no sense. The reason we’ve been dealt with such a shoddy deal in the first place is down to May’s unconvincing warning to Brussels of no deal over a bad deal. Unsurprisingly, the threat was never taken seriously. Now is the time for the EU to wake up. Insisting on extending talks until a deal is reached would be disastrous, yet that is exactly what a significant number of ministers advocate.

Change is happening in Westminster. There’s still a long long way to go however.