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 on Monday with her referendum announcement, but I fail to see why that should have thrown the government into panic. EU leaders had clearly been led to expect it on Tuesday and had even arranged press conferences. Putting off the triggering of Article 50 is surely an embarrassment to the government. Nicola Sturgeon has her SNP Spring conference at the 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 change 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 start much before June, as there is no date for an EU special summit before May. Had Article 50 been triggered on Tuesday, a summit could have been held on 6 April. It had already been planned. Because of the EU 60th anniversary celebrations the weekend after next, Article 50 cannot now be triggered until March 27th. Shame.
Calling a referendum is a big risk for Nicola Sturgeon. Lose and she will have to resign. Alex Salmond set the precedent on that one. It will also be a big test for Theresa May. I felt she has no choice but to authorise the referendum – it was, after all in the SNP manifesto – but she surprised most people yesterday when she said it would not happen until after the Brexit negotiations have been complete. She has right on her side, but it will go down like a cup of cold sick with the SNP and independence supporters. Frankly, if Nicola Sturgeon had any sense, she would also delay a referendum until 2021 or 2022 at the earliest. If Brexit looks like it’s going to be the disaster she has predicted, she’d probably easily win the poll. So it’s high stakes for both Nicola Sturgeon and Theresa May. If either of them loses, they’d have no alternative but to resign. Come back Alex Salmond, come in Boris?
Wednesday ought to have been a total humiliation for Philip Hammond, and to a lesser extent Theresa May. But they can always count on Jeremy Corbyn to come to the rescue. Twenty minutes before PMQs a letter was released to Tory MPs from the Chancellor announcing a total reversal of the 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, with a performance that even left of centre commentators described as his worst ever. I wouldn’t go that far, but Theresa May swatted him away as if he were a fly. Instead of being ritually humiliated the 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.
I don’t like the smell from East Thanet. I can’t predict where the case will end up, but if it does end up in court I wonder if the right people will actually end up in the dock. The police and CPS have little clue 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 the 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 it whatsoever. And when filling in their election expenses returns, there seems to be email evidence that shows that CCHQ told them the costs involved in the support they received would come under the national campaign. And that’s what all the legal arguments will no doubt centre on. Some of the MPs involved are friends of mine. 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, was head of compliance and presumably gave the orders? Step forward Lord Feldman. I like Andrew Feldman, but this is what happens when a Prime Minister appoints his BFF to a role he was completely unsuited to. He’d never fought an election, he knew little of the history of the party or the way 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 most feel 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 Andrew 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.