Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.
Well, that was quite a week, wasn’t it?
I still don’t understand why the Government abandoned its plans to trigger Article 50 on Tuesday. Yes, Nicola Sturgeon stole the show the previous day with her referendum announcement, but I fail to see why that should have thrown Ministers into panic. EU leaders had clearly been led to expect it on Tuesday, and had even arranged press conferences.
Putting off the moving of the article is surely an embarrassment to the Government. Sturgeon has her SNP spring conference this weekend. Does the Government really think she will be any less vitriolic about the Prime Minister now than she would have been if Article 50 had been triggered? I think not. Would it have changed the vote in the Scottish Parliament next Tuesday, when the Scottish Government will seek to trigger a Section 30 Order? Of course not.
In addition, given the sudden change, it will now be impossible for the actual negotiations to begin much before June, as there is no date for an EU special summit before May. Had Article 50 been triggered on Tuesday, a negotiation summit could have been held on April 6: indeed, one had already been planned. Because of the EU 60th anniversary celebrations the weekend after next, Article 50 cannot now be triggered until March 27. Shame.
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Calling a referendum is a big risk for Sturgeon. Lose, and she will have to resign. Alex Salmond set the precedent on that one. It will also be a big test for May. She had little choice but to authorise the referendum. However, she is quite rightly seeking that it be held after Brexit.
Frankly, if Sturgeon had any sense, she would want to delay a referendum until 2021 or 2022. If it is held then or thereabouts, and leaving the EU turns into the disaster that she has predicted, she’ll probably win the poll.
So it’s high stakes for both May and Sturgeon. If either of them loses, they’ll have no alternative but to resign. Come back Alex Salmond, come in Boris?
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Wednesday ought to have been a total humiliation for Philip Hammond and, to a lesser extent, May. But they can always count on Jeremy Corbyn to come to the rescue. Twenty minutes before PMQs, a letter was released to Conservative MPs from the Chancellor announcing a total reversal of his position on National Insurance Contributions for the self-employed.
Corbyn – never the most nimble of politicians – had the opportunity to smash the ball into the back of the net. Instead, he tapped it high into the stands, in a performance that even left-of-centre commentators described as his worst ever.
I wouldn’t go that far, but May swatted him away as if he were a fly. Instead of being ritually humiliated, she and Hammond made a virtue out of having listened to protests, and acting accordingly. And judging by the response on social media and my LBC show, it worked.
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I don’t like the smell from East Thanet. I can’t predict where the investigations will go, but if people end up in court I wonder if the right ones will actually be in the dock.
The police and the CPS have little idea how elections work, and it wouldn’t at all surprise me if they charge the wrong people. And believe me, they will charge several. They’re on a mission and, on the face of it, there is a certainly a case to argue about some of the decisions that were made. But does anyone seriously believe that local candidate or agent were in any way responsible for the national support that they clearly got for their campaigns? They would have had no say in the matter whatsoever.
And there appears to be email evidence suggesting that CCHQ told them the costs involved in the support they had received would come under the national campaign – which in turn shaped how they filled in their election expenses returns. That’s what all the legal arguments will doubtless centre on. Some of the MPs involved are friends of mine – and some of the people mentioned from CCHQ are friends of mine.
In the end, though, shouldn’t the buck stop with the man who chaired the party and was head of compliance? Step forward, Andrew Feldman. I like him, but this is what happens when a Prime Minister appoints his best friend to a role he was completely unsuited to. He’s never fought an election; he knew little of the history of the party, or the way in which elections work.
Grant Shapps certainly did – but of course he left his post as Co-Chairman in May 2015. He might now look back and be rather grateful for that, even though it must have hurt at the time. The man I feel most sorry for who has been fingered by the Electoral Commission is Simon Day. It’s usually the deputy heads they go after, isn’t it?
And think on this. Having read the Electoral Commission report, it is clear that Feldman was never interviewed – despite the fact he was responsible for compliance and signed off the party’s national election expenses. I think we deserve to know why he wasn’t even spoken to. Over to you, Michael Crick.