Liverpool: will Robert Jenrick stage an intervention?

Sienna Rodgers
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We were told the real deadline for a post-Brexit trade deal was Sunday night, or possibly Monday morning. Both because the whole thing is well overdue now and because the UK government is pressing ahead with legislation that breaks international law – the internal market bill and the taxation bill – in the House of Commons this week. But reports of a major breakthrough on fish were strongly denied by the UK last night, with a government source saying: “Nothing new has been achieved on this today.” The European Council’s final summit of the year takes place on Thursday. Is that the real deadline, or can this be kicked even further down the road?

Jonathan Reynolds did the media round this morning and said it was a “disgrace” that a deal is not in place. The delay means people and businesses simply cannot prepare for the new year. On top of Covid’s economic impact, that uncertainty is devastating – but Boris Johnson doesn’t seem bothered. Labour will vote against the government on the internal market bill today. “Any deal rests on good faith,” Reynolds pointed out. And the opposition party has been clear that any thin deal agreed now should be treated as a platform to build on, which requires good relations. “It has never been clear why the government thought this was the right way forward.” The PM will talk to Ursula von der Leyen this evening.

How Labour will vote on the law-breaking legislation is clear, but the leadership faces a tough call if a deal is struck as hoped. Labour sources have briefed that Keir Starmer is inclined towards whipping MPs in favour of a deal, believing that this will not stop the party from criticising the government later but will stop accusations that he avoids difficult decisions. On the Sunday shows, Rachel Reeves would only say the party is not giving the government a “blank cheque”, while Nick Thomas-Symonds did not rule out abstaining. He rightly highlighted that we don’t yet know whether there will be a straight vote on a deal or votes on implementing legislation. Unite’s Len McCluskey, meanwhile, told Times Radio that Starmer is in a “slightly awkward and difficult” position but abstention would be “completely wrong”.

The leadership has another pressing problem: events in Liverpool. The directly-elected executive city mayor Joe Anderson was arrested on suspicion of conspiracy to commit bribery and witness intimidation on Friday, along with four other men. It is understood that this year-long police investigation into building and development contracts is just one of three major probes linked to planning and regeneration issues in the city. This is only the beginning of the matter, sources say, with one remarking that there will be “a lot of squealing going on” now. Anderson released a statement on Saturday saying he was interviewed for six hours and has been bailed to return in one month.

Anderson has been suspended from the party, but many questions remain. What does Labour, the city council and the government make of this development? After all, Anderson has a direct mandate. There are rumours that Local Government Secretary Robert Jenrick will announce an intervention tomorrow and send in commissioners. It has been pointed out, however, that Tory Lancashire council leader Geoff Driver was arrested in relation to the BT One Connect scandal in 2017, as part of the long-running ‘Operation Sheridan’ that has since been widened to include Liverpool. He was not suspended by his party or subject to such an intervention. Driver is currently suing the Crown Prosecution Service.

Efforts will be made by Labour representatives today, including threats of council cabinet resignations, to persuade Anderson to allow his deputy to step up and take his place in light of ‘Operation Aloft’. There was first talk of rescinding the directly-elected mayoral model, but this idea is now out of favour according to LabourList sources, as Labour’s ruling body could manage the selection process if it is retained (and not swapped for the more localised leader/cabinet model). We’ll be keeping a close eye on how this situation unfolds.

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