Sunday Shows Round-Up: Brexit Talks, High Noon Votes, Labour Splits, Returning Jihadis and UK-China Relations

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MPs’ attention is turning to what concessions Theresa May can extract from the EU on her Brexit deal as she prepares to travel to Brussels for talks with Jean Claude Juncker this week.

All eyes are on the prime minister to see if she can shift the dial ahead of the potential “high noon” Brexit votes on February 27 which could see parliament take control of the process.

And it is that crucial moment that is threatening to pull apart both the Conservative and Labour parties, which fear potentially momentous splits.

Meanwhile, politicians were asked to give their views on returning Islamic State fighters as runaway London teenager Shamima Begum gave birth in Syria.

And there was fresh criticism of Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson for comments which appear to have damaged UK-China relations.

As ever, plenty to discuss. Here’s what happened..

 

Brexit – the backstop

Just days after Tory Brexiteers helped defeat the government in a Commons vote on Brexit, Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright risked infuriating them further as he suggested the prime minister might not seek changes to her withdrawal agreement. 

The former attorney general said the “mechanism” for securing changes to the disputed Irish border backstop is less important than the substance, suggesting the government may seek a codicil or addendum to the Brexit deal.

But the Tory European Research Group (ERG) has been clear that it wants changes to the legally-binding withdrawal agreement text rather than any additional documents.

The ERG is likely to see Wright’s comments as evidence that the government is giving up on their key demand.

The culture secretary told BBC One’s Andrew Marr Show: “I think what’s obvious is that Parliament, and I think probably people well beyond Parliament, are concerned about the potential indefinite nature of the backstop – that’s what we’ve got to do something about.

“If this is the only way of doing it then that’s the way we will pursue. If there are other ways of doing it that are just as effective that perhaps we haven’t yet explored then we will do that too.” 

He continued: “I don’t think it’s the mechanism that matters, it’s the objective: if you can get to a place where the potential longevity of the backstop, the potential that the backstop lasts forever can be adequately dealt with, that’s what we’re all seeking to do.”

It came after leading Tory Brexiteer Steve Baker warned in WhatsApp messages leaked to the Sunday Times that anything other than removing the backstop from the withdrawal agreement would see the Tories “just grind towards a party split”.

Baker also described the ongoing negotiations with the EU as a “complete waste of time”.

But his comments were rejected by Brexit Minister Chris Heaton-Harris, who told Ridge on Sunday there was a “huge amount of activity” between the UK and Brussels.

He added: “The government is not trying to run the clock down. The government is trying to get a negotiated deal with our European partners.”

 

Brexit – high noon votes

Labour MP Yvette Cooper denied that her amendment designed to stop a no-deal Brexit by extending Article 50 was a “Trojan horse” to reverse Britain’s exit from the EU itself.

Responding to party colleague Caroline Flint’s accusation on HuffPost’s Commons People podcast, Cooper told BBC Radio Five Live’s Pienaar’s Politics: “No I don’t think that’s the approach at all, and I just disagree with Caroline on this.

“This is about making sure we don’t end up losing our security cooperation overnight on March 29.

“It’s about making sure you don’t suddenly have WTO tariffs slapped on to food, potentially shortages of particular foods or supplies for manufacturers.”

Finally, shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s continued the Labour frontbench’s efforts to show that it had not yet ruled out a second referendum.

He said the party would “look at” an amendment put forward by backbenchers Peter Kyle and Phil Wilson to ensure the public gets the final say in a vote on any deal passed by parliament.

McDonnell told Marr: “We really are at the end of the line now and we’re saying to the government you’ve got to come back with a realistic deal, if it doesn’t fly within Parliament, yes the option of going back to the people has got to be there.”

 

Labour splits

The shadow chancellor’s comments however highlighted the potential for the Labour Party to split over Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to back a second Brexit referendum, as well as the long running issues of anti-semitism and his style of leadership.

McDonnell admitted to Marr Labour had not been “fast enough” in dealing with anti-Semitism.

“We’ve got to be ruthless about this,” he added.

Labour mayor of Greater Manchester Andy Burnham meanwhile insisted on Ridge on Sunday on Sky News that a split was not “inevitable”, despite fevered speculation that a group of MPs is preparing to break away.

He admitted a “realignment” is needed, but insisted does not have to be within parties, calling instead for a move away from London-centric politics to address the north-south divide.

Meanwhile, Unite boss Len McCluskey took a more combative approach, saying ex-Labour vice chairman Michael Dugher “would not be missed” after announcing his decision to leave the party because it is “institutionally anti-semitic”.

Commenting on potential splitters like Labour MP Chris Leslie, McCluskey told Pienaar: “I’m not sure some of these individuals have any credibility anymore.”

Returning Islamic State fighters

Wright, who previously served as attorney general, said Britain was “obliged” to take back British citizens who had gone to join Islamic State’s so-called “caliphate”.

It came after US President Donald Trump urged European countries to repatriate and put on trial more than 800 fighters currently being held in Syria, with the terror group on the verge of losing its last sliver of territory and fears growing and could disperse into Europe to commit atrocities. 

Wright told Marr: “I think it’s clear that if you’re dealing with a British citizen who wants to return to this country – and they’re not a dual citizen, so their only citizenship is British citizenship – then we are obliged at some stage at least to take them back.

“That doesn’t mean that we can’t put in place the necessary security measures to monitor their activities and make sure that they are not misbehaving.

“It doesn’t mean either that we can’t seek to hold them to account for their behaviour thus far.”

Burnham however told Ridge: “I don’t think it should be automatic that people come back.

“I read all details of that (Begum) story last week and if somebody leaves this country and joins a group that is actively plotting to harm and kill people in this country, it surely can’t be right that people come and walk straight back in when it’s convenient.

“I know some of those caught up in the Manchester attack feel very strongly about this situation.”

 

UK-China relations

Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson meanwhile faced criticism from the former head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, for apparently scuppering UK-China trade talks by threatening to deploy a warship to the Pacific.

Chancellor Philip Hammond was reportedly due to visit China this weekend but Beijing is said to have pulled out of trade talks after the defence secretary’s comments.

Lord Dannatt told Ridge: “I think he may have just oversold that one over the last few days and if it has had the disappointing effect that the chancellor’s trip to China, largely going to be talking about trade and that kind of thing, if that’s been cancelled as a result then that’s a bad diplomatic move and Gavin has got that one wrong.”





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