DUP: We’d “Rather Be Shafted By Labour” Than Accept Backstop

Tory MPs turned out in force for last night’s weekly ERG meeting, with around 80 MPs in attendance as well as notable guests including Chief Whip Julian Smith and May’s Deputy Chief of Staff, JoJo Penn. Jacob Rees-Mogg informed the ERG of the outcome of his and Steve Baker’s earlier meeting with Nigel Dodds, where Dodds made clear that the DUP would support the Government in any confidence motion if the Withdrawal Agreement was rejected. If the Withdrawal Agreement went through their support was far from certain…

Also in attendance were DUP MPs Sammy Wilson – who was “cheered to the rafters” by Tory MPs – and Ian Paisley Jr, who made the point directly to Julian Smith’s face that while the DUP had been very happy working with the Tories, they would “rather be shafted by Labour” than accept the backstop. As Dodds pointed out later on Peston, you don’t need a General Election to bring down a government:

Smith himself addressed the meeting later on, while he didn’t get a hostile reception from the ERG, his points were all shot down in the detail. Smith suggested that some tinkering was possible but gave an impression of a government that was reluctant to ask EU member states for any further changes. The overall message remained clear: it’s the PM’s deal or nothing, the Government has no other plans. And they wonder why the EU has been able to play them like a fiddle from start to finish…

Did the Chief Whip Help Grieve Get His Votes?

One theory doing the rounds among Brexiteers this morning is that the whips engineered the loss of the Grieve amendment – it is notable that 25 Tory MPs voted for it compared to just two on the other two amendments. Chief whip Julian Smith, according to one Tory MP, had a smile on his face when the amendment passed and the whips did little or nothing to pressure MPs regarding it. Is this a Machiavellian tool to encourage Brexiteers to back May’s deal?

Look at it from the the Remain-backing chief whip’s point of view – while it has no more force of law than a debate at the Oxford Union, it does give the whips an opportunity to frighten Tory MPs, “look old boy if you don’t fall into line, Grieve’s lot will force us into a second referendum or, worse still, a general election”.  These are febrile times, nothing would surprise Guido…

May Insists Pairing Scandal “An Honest Mistake”

Not sure fibbing that you didn’t tell MPs to break their pairs, and then admitting you did when caught red-handed, can be described as either “honest” or a “mistake”. Ministers and Tory MPs requiring pairs in future will have grave fears about how things are going to play out under the current chief whip…

UPDATE: Tom Watson:

“It is unbelievable that the Prime Minister has repeated the desperate and blatantly untrue excuses made by her Party Chair and Chief Whip. This is a serious issue that goes beyond efficient administration in the House of Commons. This is about public trust in politics. At such a crucial time for our country, people expect candour and decency, not cowardice and dishonesty.”

Bookies Reckon Chief-Whip Will Survive

William Hill reckon Julian Smith is more likely to survive than be gone by Monday. Worth a flutter…

Tory MP Accuses Chief Whip and Government of Lying

This is the government line via Laura K:

“Tory sources say chief whip considered but did not go through with telling any MPs on short term pairs to vote even though they weren’t meant to”

But one of those paired Tory MPs tells The Sun:

“Julian told me I was needed and told me to come in and vote. Of course he knew I was paired. I didn’t vote and honoured my pair, and he demanded to know why not afterwards.”

Either that Tory MP or Julian Smith and the government are lying…

Julian Smith Ordered Tory MPs to Break Pairs

This is looking grim for Julian Smith and Brandon Lewis. Both the Sun and the Mail report that he ordered paired Tory MPs to break their pairs and vote anyway. The Sun quotes a paired Tory MP:

“Julian told me I was needed and told me to come in and vote. Of course he knew I was paired. I didn’t vote and honoured my pair, and he demanded to know why not afterwards. It then appears Julian told the Prime Minister it was all an innocent mistake. What happened was unacceptable. We cannot behave like this”.

The Mail confirms Smith did order MPs to break pairs, but says the order was withdrawn:

The whips office is refusing to deny to Guido the existence of a text from Julian Smith to a paired MP ordering them to break their pair.

The question is: why did Brandon Lewis then break his pregnancy pair? What was discussed in his conversation with the chief whip before he voted?

No.10 Has Full Confidence in Julian Smith

Number 10 say they have full confidence in Julian Smith. Allies of Smith and Brandon Lewis say they will not be resigning. Peston reports

“I was told by well-placed source that a Tory backbencher was texted by chief whip with instructions to break pair on Tuesday night. “That is an order not a request” was how text was retold to me.”

This is looking very serious… if that text exists…

Those Broken Pairs Numbers in Full

A former veteran Tory whip texts:

“There have been 2,000 pairs arranged since the General Election. 66 have been broken. 14 pairs have been broken by the Government and 52 pairs have been broken by the Opposition (of which 7 were broken by the Lib Dems, despite them having only 12 MPs). There is a lot of faux outrage about.”

It turns out Labour, and proportionally especially the LibDems, are by some distance the worse offenders when it comes to breaking pairs. It does seem to happen a fair amount – around 3% of pairs are broken, and four-fifths of the broken pairs were committed by opposition parties. The Brandon Lewis / Julian Smith / Jo Swinson row comes down to whether you believe the chief whip that it was a mistake… it would be an extraordinarily dangerous thing to lie about… 

Chief Whip Bans Tory MPs From Doing Media Bids on Brexit

The chief whip has banned Tory MPs from doing media bids on Brexit until they have been briefed fully by Number 10, Guido can reveal. Julian Smith emailed Tory MPs last night ordering them not to carry out any media bids until they had heard Number 10’s side of the argument. May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell is also offering a new emergency briefing tonight, in addition to the previously scheduled one on Monday morning.

From: Government Chief Whip
Subject: Further briefing on Sunday evening

Dear Colleague

You will have seen my emails inviting you to the briefing this morning in No 9 Downing Street and to the briefings on Monday morning. I am keen to ensure that all Colleagues are able to attend a briefing and to be provided with as much information as possible about what the Cabinet has agreed.

The Prime Minister’s Chief of Staff is willing to give an extra briefing on Sunday evening at 8pm. If you are interested in attending this briefing, please could you let me know as soon as possible?

I want to stress that Colleagues must ensure they receive a full briefing before carrying out any media bids and you can contact me or No 10 Press Office to arrange this.

With best wishes

Julian

Rt Hon Julian Smith MP
Government Chief Whip

Signs of trouble…

Julian Smith Must Hold Firm Against Isolated Grieve

Over the last 48 hours there has been speculation that the whips are going soft and considering a further compromise to Dominic Grieve ahead of tomorrow’s Commons vote.

Guido isn’t sure what else there is to concede on. Number 10 has given Remainers absolutely everything they want, short of the ability to stop Brexit entirely. We are heading towards a very ‘soft’ Brexit, closely aligned to Brussels. We are staying in a customs union for years after Brexiting, possibly longer. By the end of the negotiation, things might be even closer to the Hammond / Remainer vision of Brexit than that. Further concessions are not acceptable.

Remain MPs who Guido has spoken are increasingly unimpressed with the Grieve / Soubry / Hailsham attempt to block Brexit. Most Tory Remainers accept that Brexit has to happen, and that it would be a dangerous betrayal of democracy to allow Grieve and co to get their way. Indeed, Tory Remainers are privately accusing Grieve of dishonesty over his motives. His talk of blowing up the government went down spectacularly badly, too. At least Hailsham and the rebels in the Lords are honest about wanting to stop Brexit. 

How many Tory Remainers have come out to endorse Grieve’s plot to keep us in the EU this week? The likes of Nicky Morgan have been quiet for days. Julian Smith must hold firm, win round the majority of the more sensible Remain rebels, and see Grieve off tomorrow with no further concessions…

No.10 / Civil Service Love In

In response to more Brexiteer criticism of Olly Robbins’ customs partnership proposal in the Sunday newspapers, a clear concerted effort from Number 10 to back their Remainer civil servants:

Jeremy Heywood sends some love back:

Hardly going to reassure Leavers. Pass the sick bucket…

Tory MPs Put On Three Line Whip For Tuesday Afternoon

Chief whip Julian Smith has just emailed Tory MPs putting them on a three line whip for Tuesday afternoon. No explanation has been given.

Dear colleague

Please be advised that the whip on Tuesday will now be a three-line whip from 12:30pm. All colleagues should be on the estate and available. 

Many thanks for your cooperation.

Julian

Sajid Javid’s Commons debate on anti-Semitism is scheduled for Tuesday afternoon. Unless the PM now thinks she has the numbers for a retrospective vote on Syria…

UPDATE: Senior government source says “no change in our position” but a second government source says they are planning for a retrospective vote on Syria.

Blue on Blue: NiMo Complaint About Brexiter MP

Nicky Morgan has protested to the chief whip and her association chairman has lodged an official complaint with the Tory party after her colleague Andrew Bridgen sent a statement of support to a pro-Brexit rally in her constituency. On March 10 the cross-party ‘Brexit Means Exit’ tour was in Leave-voting Loughborough, hosting speakers from all the major parties. Brexiter Bridgen had agreed to attend and notified Morgan’s office, only for NiMo to email the chief whip and for Julian Smith to then ask him not to go. Bridgen accepted and instead sent the rally organisers an innocuous statement about how “the people of our country voted to leave the European Union and to take back control of our Laws, our borders and our money”. Which is, after all, government policy…

That didn’t satisfy Team NiMo – Guido hears her association chairman responded by lodging an official complaint with the Tory party. Seems a bold move given Bridgen was in Loughborough actively campaigning for Morgan a few weeks earlier, Brexit is the policy of the government and NiMo voted with Labour when Remain rebels defeated the government in December. Who should be the one getting a telling off from the chief whip?

UPDATE: Here is the statement Bridgen gave the rally. Nothing in there which any Tory should be disagreeing with.

On the 23rd of June 2016 the people of our country voted to leave the European Union and to take back control of our Laws, our borders and our money. To fulfill that wish ,means that we have to leave the single market, the customs union and the juristriction of the European Court of Justice all of which was made clear by those on both sides of the argument in the run up to the Referendum.

Let us be clear, there is no hard or soft Brexit, only Brexit as promised in the referendum or a betrayal of the British people and indeed of our democracy itself. Parliament decided to give the British people the final say on this decision when it voted overwhelmingly for the EU referendum. When those who regret the way the Referendum result went or those who wish for Parliament to reverse or dilute the people’s decision through votes in Parliament ,they often cite that “Parliament is sovereign” and must have the final say regardless of the referendum result. I say this, elected members of Parliament are the servants of the people ,not their masters, MPs are custodians of power for a relatively brief period of time, sovereignty belongs to the people and the people have spoken.

I assure you I will continue to work tirelessly for the Brexit the British people voted for and in the confident ,steadfast ,determination that it will be delivered.
That our country’s future place in the world and its social and economic prosperity will be decided in our Parliament by Members elected by the British people and not in Brussels or Strasbourg by unelected EU bureaucrats.

I sincerely believe our country’s best days are ahead of us if we take this path. Something future generations of our great nation will be eternally grateful for.
I wish you all well with today’s meeting and urge you all to Keep Calm and carry on campaigning.

Pincher Quits as Whip

Chris Pincher has tonight quit as a government whip and referred himself to both the Conservative Party’s complaints procedure and the police. It follows the Mail on Sunday’s front page story: “Top Tory’s Bathrobe Pass at Male Aide”. A Downing Street spokesman said:

“After several conversations with the Chief Whip, in order to address a number of questions Mr. Pincher has voluntarily referred himself both to the Party’s complaints procedure and the Police, and has voluntarily stood down from the Whips Office in the meantime.”

More swift action from Julian Smith…

Sunday Sleaze Round-Up

The much-anticipated Sunday front pages make grim reading for the government. Theresa May’s de facto deputy Damian Green is tonight accused of having “extreme porn” found on one of his parliamentary computers. The Sunday Times says the discovery was made by cops when they raided Green’s office in 2008. Former Met Assistant Commissioner Bob Quick confirmed to the paper that his officers had found the material. Green tweeted a statement calling the claims “false, disreputable political smears” and says he was not informed of any porn being found. 

The paper counters that it has spoken to a police source other than Quick who also claims to have seen the porn. The splash reveals Quick will give evidence on Monday to Whitehall ethics supremo Sue Gray, who is leading the probe into Green. Kate Maltby, who tells The Sunday Times she knows difference between a hand and a tablecloth. will also give evidence and gives a sit down interview to the paper. Can Green cling on much longer?

Also in the Sunday Times, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen goes on the record saying he reported concerns about the behaviour of fellow backbencher Dan Poulter to the whips in 2010 – but claims he was ignored. Bridgen says he informed whips of comments made by female colleagues alleging Poulter put his hand up skirts. Bridgen has now reported Poulter using the new complaints procedure and an investigation is underway by the new disciplinary committee. Poulter denies the allegations.

Meanwhile, senior government whip Chris Pincher is under pressure as the Mail on Sunday splashes with the headline: Top Tory’s Bathrobe Pass At Male Aide“. Pincher is accused of trying to untuck the shirt of former Olympic rower and Tory aide Alex Story after taking him back to his London home. Story calls the MP “a pound shop Harvey Weinstein”. The story also references a widely heard rumour about Pincher trying it on with one-term Labour MP Tom Blenkinsop about which he refuses to commentDifficult to see how Pincher can remain a whip…

The Sunday Telegraph also turns fire on the whips office, reporting that concerns about the behaviour of both Fallon and Charlie Elphicke – who last night had the whip suspended – were raised repeatedly. Expect there to be considerable discussion about the propriety of the whips system. Tough first week for Julian Smith…

The Observer reveals Michael Fallon’s resignation was forced by journalist Jane Merrick. She says she told Number 10 at 5pm on Wednesday afternoon that the former Defence Secretary tried to kiss her when she was a 29-year-old reporter. It was the last straw for May…

The Sun on Sunday and Sunday People report allegations that an unnamed Tory MP sexually assaulted a Labour MP in a taxi. It’s alleged a date rape drug was used…

Earlier this evening Channel 4 News broadcast allegations that Tory backbencher Daniel Kawczynski asked a young female researcher to go on a date with a business contact. Deputy Speaker Eleanor Laing says she loudly reprimanded Kawczynski for his request during a confrontation in one of the division lobbies. Kawczynski says he did ask a researcher to have coffee with a contact but denies a business deal was involved…

A huge spread of Sunday sleaze for the Tories to deal with tomorrow. Heads must surely roll… 

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