MPs are trying to influence the Brexit process in a number of ways, as Theresa May continues her bid to get the EU to change the deal.
The prime minister has asked MPs to approve a motion on Thursday simply acknowledging that process is ongoing and restating their support for the approach.
Several MPs tabled amendments setting out alternative plans and Commons Speaker John Bercow has selected three to be put to a Commons vote.
Even if they won the backing of a majority of MPs, the proposals would not be binding on the government. However, they could put pressure on Mrs May to change course.
She has adopted proposals from two successful backbench amendments tabled in January.
One asked her to seek alternatives to the “backstop”, which aims to prevent the return of customs checkpoints on the Irish border in the event that no trade deal has come into force. The other rejected leaving the EU without a formal exit deal.
The selected proposals are below. Use our guide to Brexit jargon or follow the links for further explanation.
Labour frontbench amendment
Requires the government to either give MPs a vote on the withdrawal agreement and political declaration on future UK-EU relations by 27 February, or make a statement saying there is no longer an agreement in principle with Brussels and so allow MPs to vote on – and amend – its planned next steps.
Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s amendments are considered unlikely to receive the necessary backing from Conservative backbenchers to succeed.
Liberal Democrat leader Sir Vince Cable has tabled a bid to change the wording of this amendment to delay the Brexit date to allow for a referendum on the deal, with the option to remain in the EU.
The SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford, centre, tabled the amendment on behalf of his party
Seeks to postpone the Brexit date by at least three months.
This has the backing of Liberal Democrats, as well as the SNP contingent.
Conservative backbencher Anna Soubry’s amendment
Instructs the government to publish within seven days “the most recent official briefing document relating to business and trade on the implications of a no-deal Brexit presented to cabinet”.
This has the backing of some mostly Remain-supporting Labour and Conservative backbenchers.
Does the government motion face defeat?
The government may well fight off these attempts to amend its motion.
But even if it does, it is not guaranteed to win the subsequent vote. Some Conservative Brexiteers in the European Research Group (ERG) have indicated they will refuse to back the government.
They are angry because the motion not only supports the view backed by a majority of MPs last month that the government should seek an alternative to the “backstop”, but also a separate move to stop Brexit happening without a formal deal, which the Commons supported at the same time.
Most MPs want to avoid a no-deal scenario, fearing chaos at ports and disruption to business. However, some Brexiteers have played down that prospect, arguing it is an example of “Project Fear”, and say the no-deal option offers leverage in negotiations with Brussels.
Theresa May went head-to-head with Jeremy Corbyn in the House of Commons. Here’s what happened.
Jeremy Corbyn threw the prime minister a Brexit curveball at this session.
Most observers were expecting the PM to get a grilling over reported comments by her chief Brexit adviser Olly Robbins – but the Labour leader went after Transport Secretary Chris Grayling instead.
He focused all six of his questions on the “fiasco” of the Seaborne Freight contract.
The ferry company with “no ships and no trading history” has had its contract to provide services in the event of a no-deal Brexit cancelled.
Mr Corbyn said this was symbolic of the government’s “costly, shambolic and evasive” handling of Brexit. “What went wrong?,” he asked the prime minister.
Mrs May said 90% of the ferry contracts awarded in case of a no-deal Brexit scenario, went to DFDS and Brittany Ferries.
“Due diligence was carried out on all of these contracts,” she told the Labour leader.
The transport secretary had told MPs the decision to award a contract to Seaborne Freight “had no cost to the taxpayer”, said Mr Corbyn, but the National Audit Office found that £800,000 had been spent on external consultants to assess the bid. Could the prime minister “correct the record”?
Mrs May said Mr Corbyn was “late to the party” because she had been asked about this yesterday by the SNP. “Labour following the SNP, well whatever next,” sniped the PM before repeating her line about “proper due diligence”.
Mr Corbyn said Freedom of Information requests showed Chris Grayling had “bypassed” the rules which allow normal scrutiny of a deal.
Mrs May said the Seaborne Freight contract had been handed out following individual assessments by consultants, and no money had been paid to Seaborne Freight.
It was “entirely right and proper” to make sure that the government was preparing for any no-deal Brexit, she added.
Mr Corbyn said taxpayers were facing a £1m legal bill for contesting Eurotunnel’s court case against the government over its “secretive and flawed” no-deal transport contracts process.
Not only that, he told MPs, Thanet Council, in Kent, was facing a £2m budget deficit as a result of the Seaborne Freight debacle. Could the PM offer “cast iron guarantees” that the people of Thanet would not be hit with this bill?
Mrs May said Department of Transport officials were “in discussions” with Thanet council. The ferry contracts were about safeguarding medical supplies in the event of a no-deal Brexit, she added.
Mr Corbyn said the prime minister should follow the advice of the House and take no deal off the table and “negotiate seriously with the EU”.
He broadened out his attack on Chris Grayling, for “ignoring warnings” about drones at airports, ignoring warnings about the collapse of outsourcing giant Carillion, overseeing the “disastrous” new rail time tables, and rail fare increases.
And now, said Mr Corbyn, Mr Grayling was in charge of a “vital aspect of Brexit planning”. “How on earth” could the prime minister have any confidence in him?
Mrs May replied that rail investment was at its highest since the Victorian era and that was 20% higher every year on average than under Labour.
She had clearly come armed with attack lines for Mr Corbyn over his Brexit strategy, so she unloaded them all as their exchange came to an end, accusing the Labour leader of “ambiguity” and “playing politics” and of failing to say whether he wanted Brexit, or a second referendum.
People no longer say he is a “conviction politician”, she concluded.
What else came up?
The SNP’s leader at Westminster Ian Blackford said that with 44 days to go until Brexit, Mrs May must stop “playing fast and loose” with the economy.
Conservative backbencher Henry Smith gave the prime minister a chance to rebut the reported comments by Olly Robbins, who was overheard in a Brussels bar saying the EU was likely to allow an extension to the Brexit process.
Conservative MP George Freeman, a former adviser to Mrs May, asked whether those who had brought the system into disrepute “like Philip Green” should be stripped of their honour. Mrs May says there was an independent forfeiture committee.
Labour MP Rosie Cooper asked Theresa May about a Conservative election promise to keep the provision for those 75 and older.
Stop and search, when carried out the right way, is an “effective tool for our police forces”, Theresa May told Conservative MP Gareth Thomas, adding that officers must these powers “lawfully”.
Labour’s Steve McCabe reminded the PM of her call to end rip-off energy prices, telling her 2.5 million people were now in fuel poverty.
And finally, Jeremy Corbyn and Theresa May shared their memories of England’s victory in the 1966 World Cup final, as they paid tribute to legendary goalkeeper Gordon Banks, who died this week.
Here is BBC Parliamentary Correspondent Mark D’Arcy’s take
Both the main players at PMQs had one of their better days, proving, I suppose, that it’s not a zero-sum game, where one of them must do badly for the other to do well.
Jeremy Corbyn continued Labour’s recent targetting of the Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, with a series of detailed questions about the Seabourne Ferries saga.
It was an old school piece of PMQs questioning, building up an attack over a series of questions, which saw the PM digging into her file for the pre-scripted answers.
She, in turn, was at her most effective when she counter-attacked on Labour’s policy ambiguity over Brexit, with a particularly wounding line that Jeremy Corbyn was losing his reputation as a conviction politician.
It was also notable that the Conservative benches were rather muted during the attacks on their transport secretary. Perhaps the accumulated weight of the railway timetables saga, the Gatwick drones and even his policies as justice secretary have depressed backbench support? So maybe the attack was a tactical success for Mr Corbyn, but was it also a strategic missed opportunity?
Brexiteer Tories rather tiptoed around the reported remarks of the PM’s Brexit advisor, Olly Robbins, overheard in a Brussels bar. But the twin suggestions attributed to him, of a postponement of Brexit day and of the Northern Ireland backstop being a “bridge” to a post-Brexit customs union with the EU, cause them deep alarm.
Mr Corbyn did not seek to deepen it further, even though it would have been quite easy to segue from Grayling to Robbins, and it was left to the SNP’s Ian Blackford and later the Conservative Henry Smith, to target the alleged bar-room indiscretion.
The PM’s elegant prepared response: “What someone said to someone else, overheard by someone else…in a bar” was eventually deployed in answer to Mr Smith, but was probably drafted with Mr Corbyn in mind.
The other big PMQs player, John Bercow, had a quiet time. His rebukes were genial, even jovial, and no-one was bruised by them. He even indulged a few spurious points of order at the end, although I’m not sure how grateful Ian Blackford will have been for his colleague Mharie Black’s complaint that when her leader rose to ask his question, lots of MPs immediately got up and left the Chamber.
Elsewhere, there were interesting responses to well placed questions from Tories Robert Halfon (on school exclusions) and George Freeman (Sir Philip Greene’s knighthood) and to Labour’s Chris Evans (on suicide and self harm images on social media) with the PM keen to demonstrate that her government is not so fixated on Brexit that it can’t deal with other issues.
The Scottish government has stepped up its preparations for a no-deal Brexit as it again called on Theresa May to rule out the possibility.
First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said she still believes no deal can be avoided.
But she said her government had a duty to plan for the possibility as best it could.
The UK is due to leave the EU on 29 March, but MPs have so far refused to back the deal agreed by the prime minister and the EU.
ITV News has said that one of its reporters overheard the UK’s chief Brexit negotiator, Olly Robbins, saying in a Brussels bar that the EU was likely to allow an extension to the Brexit process.
Mrs May has played down reports that she could force MPs to choose between backing her deal or accepting a delay to EU withdrawal.
The prime minister told the Commons that people should not rely on “what someone said to someone else, as overheard by someone else, in a bar”.
She insisted that the government still intends to leave the EU on 29 March with a deal in place – but Downing Street has stressed that the possibility of a no-deal Brexit “remains on the table”, saying it is an “eventuality we wish to avoid, but one we continue to plan for”.
The UK government argues that the best way to avoid no deal is for MPs to back the prime minister’s proposals, which it says are “the best deal available for jobs and the economy across the whole of the UK, allowing us to honour the referendum and realise the opportunities of Brexit.”
Speaking after a meeting of the Scottish cabinet in Glasgow, Ms Sturgeon told BBC Scotland that Mrs May was attempting to “run down the clock” in an attempt to “blackmail” MPs into backing her deal “at the very, very last minute”.
She added: “The prime minister can only get away with that if the House of Commons allows her to get away with that, and the longer it does the more complicit it will become in the disaster that eventually unfolds”.
Scotland’s chief economist warned that a no-deal Brexit would lead to a “major dislocation” to the country’s economy in his latestState of the Economy report , which was published on Wednesday morning.
Gary Gillespie said disruptions to logistics, supply, trade, investment, migration and market confidence could cause a “significant structural change in the economy”.
‘Reckless and negligent’
Ms Sturgeon said it was “reckless and negligent” for the UK government to refuse to rule out no-deal, adding: “But we appear to be dealing with a UK government that’s prepared to act recklessly and negligently.
“Therefore as of today we have stepped up our no-deal planning. We don’t think it should be inevitable, we’ll do everything in our power to help rule that out.
“But we would not be doing our job properly if we didn’t properly plan as best we can, because not all of the consequences will be able to be mitigated.”
MPs rejected the deal negotiated between the UK and the EU by a historic margin in January, and the prime minister saying she is now seeking legally-binding changes to the controversial “backstop” – the “insurance policy” aimed at avoiding a return to border checks between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic.
In her BBC Scotland interview, Ms Sturgeon also repeated that she would set out her thinking on the timing of a second independence referendum in the “coming weeks”.
When asked whether she believes Scotland will be independent in the next few years, she replied: “I’m not going to put a precise timescale on it, but I do hope and believe that Scotland will become independent.
“I hope that’s within the next few years because I think it becomes more and more urgent that we are in charge of the big decisions that shape our future and shape our destiny.”
Opposition Leader Jeremy Corbyn says the “country facing biggest crisis in a generation” and Ms May is “recklessly running down the clock”. The prime minister has “more excuses and more delays”, he adds. The Labour leader asks what progress Mrs May has made on alternative arrangements and if she set those arrangement before the House. Jemery Corbyn accuses the prime minister of “playing” with jobs and industries, adding that the Nissan decision may be the “thin end of a very long wedge”.
He adds that the Leader of the House says a meaningful vote will be on 21 March, days before Brexit, and asks if this is not the case when will the meaning vote be.
Mr Corbyn says the prime minister is “playing chicken with people’s livelihoods”.
Theresa May has promised MPs a final, decisive vote on her Brexit deal – but not until she has secured changes to the Irish backstop clause.
Speaking in the Commons, the PM said she had a “mandate” to seek changes to the backstop as MPs had voted for it.
“We now need some time to complete that process”, she added.
If no agreement is reached by 26 February, then MPs will get more non-binding votes on Brexit options the following day.
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn accused her of “running down the clock” in an effort to “blackmail” MPs into backing her deal, and asked when MPs would get a final, “meaningful” vote on her deal.
Philip Hammond’s claim that Britain can reap an economic dividend from Theresa May’s Brexit
deal has been flatly rejected by MPs, as official figures confirmed the UK has suffered its worst year for GDP growth since 2012.
In a highly critical report, the Treasury select committee warned that the chancellor’s claims of a “deal dividend” if Britain avoided a no-deal exit lacked credibility.
The criticism came after data on Monday showed the economy grew by just 0.2% in the final three months of 2018, down from 0.6% in the third quarter. The fourth-quarter figures contained signs of an even sharper slowdown, with the economy posting a decline of 0.4% in December amid signs that Brexit uncertainty is taking hold.
For 2018 as a whole, GDP growth slipped to its lowest since 2012, at 1.4%, down from 1.8% in 2017.
Nicky Morgan MP, the Conservative chair of the committee, said
“The OBR already assumes an orderly Brexit, so there won’t be a ‘deal dividend’ beyond the forecast just by avoiding no-deal. Business confidence may improve with increased certainty, but it’s not credible to describe this as a dividend,” said Morgan.
The OBR has made a smooth departure from the EU a key part of its forecasts, which prompted the Treasury committee to state there is no evidence of an economic boost from supporting the deal over and above those central estimates.
Hammond has repeatedly suggested that, should parliament throw its weight behind Theresa May’s Brexit plan, it would generate a dual economic boost for the country by lifting the fog of uncertainty blocking businesses investment, while also allowing him to spend public funds held in reserve for a no-deal scenario.
Reacting to Morgan’s comments, Treasury insiders dismissed the suggestion that Britain would not see a deal dividend from MPs supporting the prime minister’s Brexit plan, as it would give firms more clarity about the future trading relationship between the UK and the EU.
“The chancellor has been clear that when we agree a good deal we will harvest a deal dividend. This is because businesses will have the certainty they need to invest, grow and create jobs which will improve the public finances,” the source said.
Most economists believe that Britain agreeing a Brexit deal with Brussels would help to give firms clarity for the future, potentially unleashing projects that have been put on hold due to the uncertainty.
Amit Kara, the head of UK macroeconomics research at the National Institute of Economic and Social Research, said: “It could be a dividend as all we’re saying is we’re moving from an acute phase of uncertainty to remaining within the EU for at least the next two years.”
He added: “The dividend is just because of the mess at the moment.”
The committee’s intervention undermines one of Theresa May’s key arguments to persuade MPs to back her withdrawal agreement with less than 50 days to go before Brexit. It also comes as the British economy shows increasing signs of stress as the deadline for the article 50 process looms ever closer, causing more business to put their plans to invest in Britain on hold.
Growth figures from the Office for National Statistics revealed that business investment in the final three months of 2018 declined sharply. Corporate spending tumbled for the fourth successive quarter – falling by 1.4% in the final quarter of 2018 alone – for the first time since the 2008 financial crisis.
Companies have intensified their contingency planning to cope with the possibility of a disruptive Brexit. Car manufacturers are stockpiling parts, banks have moved employees to Ireland and continental Europe and two Japanese electronics firms, Panasonic and Sony, have moved their EU headquarters to mainland Europe.
Labour and trade unions called on the prime minister to remove no-deal Brexit as an option in order to shore up confidence in Britain, something which May has so far refused to do in negotiations with Brussels.
Frances O’Grady, the general secretary of the TUC, said: “The prime minister’s failure to rule out a no-deal Brexit is harming confidence in the economy and holding back growth. With our manufacturing sector in recession, the prime minister must act now to remove the threat of crashing out.”
GDP growth in December plunged into reverse, with a broad-based slump across each of the key sectors for the economy. The manufacturing sector, which makes up about a tenth of the economy, fell into recession, with six months of negative growth in the longest negative run since September 2008 to February 2009, the depths of the financial crisis.
The monthly decline GDP of 0.4% helped drag down quarter-on-quarter GDP growth to a rate of 0.2% in the three months to the end of the year, slightly below the Bank of England’s expectations and down from a rate of 0.6% in the third quarter.
While the slowdown mirrors a loss of momentum in the world economy, including a deterioration in the eurozone, most analysts believe that unique challenges from Brexit have further hindered UK growth.
Ben Brettell, a senior economist at Hargreaves Lansdown, said: “There’s little doubt Brexit uncertainty is responsible for the disappointing numbers, though concerns over global trade will also have played a part.”
The committee also warned that Hammond’s deficit reduction target – to eliminate the gap between government spending and income by the early part of the next decade – now lacked credibility. Britain crashing out of the EU without a deal is expected to come with significant negative consequences for the public finances, with potential for the deficit to widen.
Hammond opted at the last budget to raise public spending, with a £20bn a year increase for the NHS by 2023-24, without making significant tax increases to balance the books.
Referring to that decision, the committee said: “The government’s fiscal objective has no credibility and should be replaced.”
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She did not reject any of his conditions outright in her reply.
Writing her response to his letter of last Wednesday, Mrs May told the Labour leader: “It is good to see that we agree that the UK should leave the European Union with a deal and that the urgent task at hand is to find a deal that honours our commitments to the people of Northern Ireland, can command support in Parliament and can be negotiated with the EU – not to seek an election or second referendum.”
This is despite Mr Corbyn repeatedly saying there should be a general election if Mrs May cannot get a deal through Parliament. He has also faced pressure from some of his MPs to push for another public vote on Brexit.
However, BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said it appears there are some potential stumbling blocks to a deal.
Labour has asked for “a permanent and comprehensive UK-wide customs union” with the EU, with the same external tariff. It would give the UK a say on any future trade deals that the EU may strike.
Mrs May does not agree, and wrote: “I am not clear why you believe it would be preferable to seek a say in future EU trade deals rather than the ability to strike our own deals?”
The existing Political Declaration, setting out the goals for the future relationship between the UK and the EU, “explicitly provides for the benefits of a customs union – no tariffs, fees, charges or quantitative restrictions across all sectors and no checks on rules of origin”, Mrs May told Mr Corbyn.
It also recognises the development of the UK’s independent trade policy, she added.
Mrs May said securing frictionless trade for goods was “one of our key negotiating objectives”.
She added: “The fundamental negotiating challenge here is the EU’s position that completely frictionless trade is only possible if the UK stays in the single market.
“This would mean accepting free movement, which Labour’s 2017 General Election manifesto made clear you do not support.”
Labour also wants the UK to stay in step with the EU if workers’ rights improve in Europe.
While the prime minister says existing rights will be protected, there will be no automatic upgrade in line with the EU. Instead, Parliament would be asked if it wanted to follow suit each time.
The letter concludes with Mrs May saying she looked forward to the two parties meeting “as soon as possible”.
MPs will get another chance to vote on Brexit this month – even if Theresa May has not been able to negotiate a deal by then.
Housing Secretary James Brokenshire admitted it might not be the final, decisive vote on the PM’s deal that Labour and some Tories are demanding.
The prime minister needs to get a deal approved by Parliament by 29 March to avoid a no-deal Brexit.
Labour has accused her of “cynically” running down the clock.
Instead of a “meaningful” vote on the prime minister’s deal with the EU, MPs could be given another series of non-binding votes on possible Brexit alternatives by 27 February, with the final vote on whether to approve or reject the deal delayed until the following month.
On Wednesday, Mrs May will ask MPs for more time to get legally-binding changes to the controversial Northern Irish backstop, which she believes will be enough to secure a majority in Parliament for her deal.
But the following day, Labour will attempt to force the government to hold the final, “meaningful vote” on Mrs May’s Brexit deal by 26 February.
Mr Brokenshire refused to commit to this date in an interview with the BBC’s Andrew Marr Show, saying there could be more votes on amendments to the proposed deal instead.
“If the meaningful vote has not happened, so in other words things have not concluded, then Parliament would have that further opportunity by no later than 27 February,” said Mr Brokenshire.
“I think that gives that sense of timetable, clarity and purpose on what we are doing with the EU – taking that work forward and our determination to get a deal – but equally knowing that role that Parliament very firmly has.”
He also ruled out removing the Irish backstop from the government’s deal with the EU, as some Conservative MPs are demanding.
He said ministers were exploring a possible time-limit to the backstop, or a legal mechanism allowing the UK to exit the backstop without the agreement of the EU, but he insisted some kind of “insurance policy” was needed to keep the Irish border free-flowing.
But Labour’s shadow Brexit secretary, Sir Keir Starmer, says he believes the prime minister is “pretending to make progress” on the Irish backstop issue.
He says what she actually intends to do is return to Parliament after the 21/22 March European Council summit the week before Brexit and offer MPs a “binary choice” – her deal or no deal.
“There needs to be a day when Parliament says that’s it, enough is enough.”
Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said delaying the final vote on the Brexit deal was “worse than irresponsible” and he “would not be surprised if [Theresa May] faces a massive rebellion by Conservative MPs”.
Conservative MP Sarah Wollaston, who like Sir Vince has campaigned for another EU referendum, called for ministers who were “serious” about preventing a no-deal Brexit to resign and vote against the government.
Fellow Conservative MP Heidi Allen also called for ministerial resignations, saying it was “completely irresponsible” for the government to keep delaying the final Brexit vote.
Labour is proposing its own Brexit plan, which would involve the UK staying in a customs union with the EU, which they say could get the backing of a majority of MPs.
The government has not ruled out supporting this – and has promised a formal response to it and further talks with Labour – but they say it would prevent the UK from making its own trade deals after Brexit.
There are fewer than 50 days until Brexit. The law is already in place which means the UK will leave the EU on 29 March 2019.
Mrs May’s Brexit deal – which she spent months negotiating and had agreed with the EU – covers the terms of the UK’s divorce and the framework of future relations.
But it was rejected by the UK Parliament and if it is not approved by Brexit day, the default position would be a no-deal Brexit.
Last month, Parliament voted in favour of an amendment that supported most of the PM’s deal but called for backstop which is a last-resort option to prevent a hard border in Ireland – to be replaced with “alternative arrangements”. The prime minister is now in talks with Brussels to seek these changes to the backstop.
A number of government ministers will also be meeting their counterparts across the continent this week, in order to underline Mrs May’s determination to achieve a deal.
Critics of the backstop in Mrs May’s current deal say they could tie the UK to EU rules indefinitely or mean Northern Ireland ends up under a different system to the rest of the UK.
But the Irish government and the EU have repeatedly rejected calls for changes.
Other options likely to be debated by MPs on Thursday include extending Article 50 the legal mechanism taking the UK out of the EU on 29 March, to allow more time to reach an agreement with Brussels.
The paradox of the Bill Clinton impeachment saga was that it made it easier for Donald Trump to become president and harder for his wife, Hillary. Twenty years after his acquittal, it’s clearer to see how that seismic event shaped American politics and culture today.
In a quarter century of covering US politics, I only have ever got round to framing two newspaper front pages. The first was when President Bill Clinton was impeached in December 1998. The second was when he was acquitted at the conclusion of his Senate trial the following February.
Washington in the late-1990s was my first foreign posting. The Monica Lewinsky scandal, as we inaccurately labelled it, was my first big American story. The picture framing was partly a vanity project to mark this personal milestone. But this also felt like a once-in-a-lifetime story.
Clinton was the first US president to be impeached since 1868, when Andrew Johnson also managed to avoid conviction in the Senate after being indicted by the House. Evidently, more seasoned Washington colleagues shared this view. As I came to discover over the following months, the same framed black and white newsprint, with the same banner headlines “Clinton Impeached” followed by “Clinton Acquitted”, also adorned their study and toilet walls.
Veterans of the impeachment saga soon found themselves reporting on an epic tumble of events. The 2000 presidential election, with its disputed Florida recount. The attacks of September 11th. The Iraq war and its troubled aftermath. The financial crash, and the Great Recession that followed. The election of America’s first black president, who handed over power to the country’s first reality TV star president. Once-in-a-lifetime stories seemed to come along every few years.
Two decades on, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton nonetheless feels like a big bang moment in the American story.
Post-truth politics. The poisoning of the Washington hothouse. The delegitimisation of modern-day presidents. The corrosive impact of the internet. The rise of polarised news. The Jerry Springerisation of national life.
All were evident in that Clinton melodrama, which saw the Washington Post and New York Times ploughing the same furrows as the National Enquirer, and genre-busting news stories in which quotes from constitutional law experts interpreting what the Founding Fathers meant by high crimes and misdemeanours were interspersed with the most salacious and suggestive snippets of the sex scandal – the snap of Monica Lewinsky’s thong, the soiled blue dress, the gift from the president to his intern of Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, the same anthology of poetry he had once given to Hillary Clinton.
As well as being a constitutional showdown, this was a tabloid scandal for what Vanity Fair had aptly labelled the tabloid decade.
It provided a fitting coda to an era of sensationalism that had already brought us the OJ Simpson trial, Tonya Harding, the William Kennedy Smith trial, Pamela Anderson and Tommy Lee’s sex tapes, the arrest of Pee-Wee Herman, the first accusations against Michael Jackson, the Mike Tyson rape conviction, John Wayne Bobbitt and his penis-severing wife Lorena, and the divorce of Donald and Ivana Trump.
Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky brought this luridness to the nation’s capital, where scandal has always been the highest – and often the basest – form of entertainment.
Washington was at fever pitch. So much so that whenever I am asked today whether Donald Trump will survive until the end of his term in office, I find myself recalling the early days of the Bill Clinton scandal when it was by no means certain the president would last until the end of the week.
Events moved at such a hurtling pace, and information came at you with such dizzying speed, it was hard back then to step back and take in the panoramic picture. Hindsight offers some clarity.
The culture wars unleashed
Even before Bill Clinton had laid eyes on the 22-year-old White House intern, his Republican opponents questioned his legitimacy as president and looked for ways to drive him from office.
Not since Woodrow Wilson in 1912 had a candidate reached the White House with such a small share of the national vote, a measly 43%. Republicans also felt aggrieved that the eccentric third party candidacy of Ross Perot had stolen the election from President George Herbert Walker Bush, even though polling data suggests the Texan billionaire syphoned off just as many votes from the Democrats as the GOP.
For conservative cultural warriors, the Clintons personified the worst excesses of the Sixties. In Bill Clinton, they saw a philandering draft dodger. In Hillary Rodham Clinton, they saw a sneering feminist who looked down upon women who had not pursued careers of their own.
Political fear also stoked their antipathy. Before 1992, the Republicans had held the presidency for 20 of the previous 24 years. William Jefferson Clinton threatened to end that hegemony.
Here, after all, was an articulate young politician from the south, the region that had produced the last two Democratic presidents, who promised to fuse Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal with Ronald Reagan’s free market ideology.
Clinton sought to shatter the Nixon and Reagan coalitions that had enabled the Republicans to dominate presidential elections and was well placed to forge a new winning Democratic coalition, incorporating white working class voters who had become “Reagan Democrats”. Their fears were well placed. Since 1992, Democrats have won the popular vote in five out of six presidential elections.
So after the Whitewater investigation, the Troopergate affair and Travelgate scandal failed to produce evidence of potentially impeachable offences, Clinton’s enemies, abetted by the independent counsel Kenneth Starr, seized upon the affair with Monica Lewinsky as their gotcha moment.
Clinton’s recklessness, and his mendacious efforts to cover it up, handed his opponents a pretext to demonstrate his unworthiness to occupy the White House. Not even Richard Nixon, whose crimes and abuses of power were far more egregious, had been stalked so aggressively.
The pursuit of Bill Clinton marked a paradigm shift in presidential politics. Since then, it has become routine for every occupant of the White House to be assailed as illegitimate by zealous adversaries.
George W. Bush for the assist he received from the conservative-leaning US Supreme Court, which ruled 5-4 in his favour to end the Florida recount. Barack Obama, for the untruthful claim he was born in Kenya, which, if factual, would have disqualified him from the presidency. Donald Trump for losing the popular vote by more than three million votes.
US politics has reached such a nadir that many Americans no longer accept the outcome of presidential elections, and thus deny the winners any electoral mandate. Not since the election of George Herbert Walker Bush thirty years ago has a president entered the Oval Office without his right of occupancy being brought into question.
A corollary of the delegitimisation of modern-day presidents has been the legitimisation of the politics of no, an oppositional approach whereby constitutional checks and balances have come to be used as vetoes and blockades.
This again can be traced back to the Clinton years. Bob Dole, the Republican’s leader in the Senate, deployed the filibuster more frequently than his predecessors to stymie Bill Clinton’s legislative agenda. Newt Gingrich, the first Republican House speaker since the early-1950s, used government shutdowns as a political weapon.
Bill Clinton might never have spent time alone with Monica Lewinsky had it not been for the 1995 government shutdown, which meant this inexperienced intern was granted more West Wing access because of the absence of furloughed staff.
The Clinton scandal heightened political tensions by unleashing a cultural war in the heart of Washington. Here was another opportunity to litigate the Sixties, one that pitted the modern-day puritans of the right against the permissive peaceniks of the left.
For the religious right especially, whose grip on the Republican Party tightened under Ronald Reagan, here was the chance to mount a moral crusade and increase its hold on the GOP. More moderate Republicans, the sort of business-oriented pragmatists who had once dominated the party, were already becoming an endangered breed.
Certainly, the partisan mood in Washington in the late-Nineties was wholly different from the early-Seventies, when Congress started impeachment proceedings against Richard Nixon, albeit for more serious felonies.
Back then some of Nixon’s most dogged tormentors came from within his own party. It was Howard Baker, a Republican Senator from Tennessee, who posed that legendary Watergate question: “What did the president know, and when did he know it?”
It was Republican elders, such as the party’s former presidential nominee Barry Goldwater, who journeyed from Capitol Hill to the Old Executive Office Building next to the White House to urge Nixon to resign. When the House decided to start an impeachment inquiry against the president, the vote in February 1974 received near unanimous bipartisan vote, with 410 in favour and just four against.
‘The lie saved me’
Post-truth politics also received a boost from the Clinton scandal. His early lies, including his finger-jabbing falsehood “I did not have sexual relations with that woman, Miss Lewinsky,” worked to his advantage.
In the explosive first days of the scandal, when senior White House correspondents such as ABC’s legendary Sam Donaldson predicted he might be forced to resign “perhaps this week”, the lies bought Clinton time. They helped him weather the initial squall, shore up Democratic support and push back against his accusers.
“The lie saved me”, the president confided to a close friend, according to the journalist John Harris’s book The Survivor, the finest book on the Clinton presidency.
The Clintons also sought to alter the question at the heart of the national debate from “Who do you believe?” to “Whose side are you on?” Was that not the rationale behind Hillary Clinton’s famed interview with Matt Lauer on The Today Show, in which she accused investigators of being part of a “vast right-wing conspiracy”?
From early on, the White House framed this as a partisan battle rather than a moment of personal reckoning. “We just have to win,” Clinton told his political strategist Dick Morris, who cynically had conducted secret polling to test whether Clinton should lie or tell the truth.
As the journalist Susan Glasser told a Politico roundtable marking the 20th anniversary of the scandal: “It was political genius how he handled it by lying. Lying was proven to work in some way that has enabled further the cynical and divisive political culture of Washington.”
Not until the summer of 1998, when we learnt Monica Lewinsky had preserved the famed blue dress, did he grudgingly concede the truth.
After his lies were exposed, Clinton requested airtime from the networks for a televised confessional. “Indeed I did have a relationship with Miss Lewinsky that was not appropriate”, he admitted. But then he carpet-bombed his accusers for mounting a “politically-inspired” investigation led by Kenneth Starr: “This has gone on too long, cost too much, and hurt too many innocent people.”
This time, the strategy backfired, with senior Democrats such as Senator Dianne Feinstein expressing dismay. Senator Joe Lieberman, an orthodox Jew who had long seen himself as a moral elder, condemned him on the floor of the Senate. Many were appalled by Clinton’s behaviour.
In the House, 31 Democrats voted to launch a formal impeachment inquiry. Yet no senior Democrat publicly called for the president to resign, partly because they did not want to hand victory to the Republicans. Even Lieberman, Clinton’s most prominent Democratic critic, said impeachment would be “unjust and unwise”.
So strong was party loyalty that in the immediate aftermath of being impeached by the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, Bill Clinton even held a pep rally on the South Lawn of the White House, with Democratic lawmakers ranked behind him. That partisan tableau featured on the front page of the Washington Post hanging on my wall.
Hillary, the long-term loser
Partly because Clinton was so adept at portraying his Republican opponents as over-reaching zealots, and partly because they did not regard his sins as impeachable, Democratic voters also remained loyal. After his acquittal in 1999, his approval rating amongst Democrats hit 92 per cent. When he left office, he enjoyed the highest approval among all voters of any departing president.
Clinton had outsmarted his opponents, and the only politicians to lose their jobs during the impeachment crisis were Republicans.
House Speaker Newt Gingrich was the first casualty. Clinton’s Baby Boomer nemesis resigned after the GOP lost seats in the 1998 congressional mid-terms, which Gingrich had turned into a national referendum on the president’s behaviour.
His successor Bob Livingstone also had to fall on his sword. On the very morning of Clinton’s impeachment, the Louisianan was forced to resign after Larry Flynt’s Hustler magazine exposed his own extramarital affair. (A ghastly irony is that the Speakership passed to Dennis Hastert, a former teacher and wrestling coach, who was then seen as an irreproachable figure. In 2016, Hastert was sentenced to 15 months in prison following a hush money case that revealed he had been accused of abusing young boys during his years as a teacher).
Though Clinton suffered the ignominy of becoming only the second president to be impeached, by far the biggest Democratic casualty was his wife, Hillary, because of its collateral impact on her presidential run in 2016.
When the email imbroglio broke, voters questioned whether they wanted to live through another scandal-prone presidency, fuelling Clinton fatigue. The lies from that era embroidered the narrative the Clintons were evasive and untrustworthy.
Hillary Clinton’s attacks on Donald Trump’s misogyny, and her ability to capitalise on the notorious Access Hollywood tape, were also compromised by her husband’s affairs.
She was accused of enabling his behaviour and of showing little sympathy towards his female accusers. Tellingly, one of Donald Trump’s first lines of defence was to claim he had heard Bill Clinton say worse things about women on the golf course, an accusation which, even if not true, seemed plausible.
The billionaire even paraded some of Clinton’s accusers, including Paula Jones and Juanita Broaddrick ahead of the first presidential debate, a stunt that many commentators considered exploitative but for others raised entirely legitimate questions about her husband’s sexual history.
Hillary Clinton, in her 2017 campaign memoir What Happened?, slammed Donald Trump’s pre-debate press conference. “He was just using them,” she wrote. But those women were accusing her husband of far worse. Juanita Broaddrick claimed Clinton had raped her in 1978, an allegation he has long denied. Trump ended up winning a higher share of white female voters than Hillary Clinton, a key factor in her defeat.
In performing this act of political jujitsu, the billionaire adopted the Clinton playbook. Like Bill Clinton, he turned his grudging televised confessional after the Access Hollywood tape emerged into a partisan rallying cry: “Whose side are you on?” As with Clinton, it won him time, mobilised his base and preserved his political viability.
Here, Trump also benefited from another part of Bill Clinton’s legacy: the redefinition of what behaviour was disqualifying for presidential candidates.
In 1988, the Democratic frontrunner Gary Hart was forced from the race after the Miami Herald published details about his affair with Donna Rice. Four years later Clinton survived the Gennifer Flowers scandal, and also allegations of draft dodging – two accusations, among scores of others, that Donald Trump survived. Clinton normalised errant behaviour and helped desensitise the electorate to philandering politicians.
The paradox of the Clinton impeachment saga, then, was that it made it easier for Donald Trump to become president and harder for his wife. Hillary Clinton became a repeat victim of his infidelities.
The first internet moment
Though those framed front pages, now slightly yellowed with age, captured the historical moment, they hardly depicted the media zeitgeist.
For the Clinton scandal completely changed the metabolism of news, speeding the shift from print to digital, and fuelling the growth of talk radio and cable news channels. Public reality, which traditionally had been shaped by the major TV networks and prominent newspapers, now was also being moulded by new media start-ups. The internet started to bypass the traditional gatekeepers of information.
This was the all-caps headline in the fledgling Drudge Report on January 17th, 1998, an obscure website relatively few people had heard of in what the BBC called at the time “the wilds of cyberspace.”
Matt Drudge, its iconoclastic founder, became the first journalist to publish the name Monica Lewinsky, after catching wind that Newsweek, which had explosive details of her affair with the president, had hesitated before publishing.
Hurrying to play catch up, respected White House reporters, such as Peter Baker who was then with the Washington Post, raced to put out the first online stories, even though many of their newsroom colleagues did not at the time have permission to access the internet. Newsweek posted a piece by its investigative reporter Michael Isikoff, the author of the suppressed scope, on its America Online site, rather than wait for its next magazine issue to hit the newsstands.
When the Starr Report was published on the fateful date of September 11th 1998, it became America’s first internet moment.
Downloads of its lurid details that day accounted for a quarter of all America’s internet traffic. With CNN getting 300,000 clicks a minute, which in those days seemed unimaginable, it became a ‘clickbait’ sensation. Not only was the digital version easier to obtain than printed copies, but the 445-page report doubled as porn. It mentioned oral sex 85 times.
The story was endlessly riveting. So perhaps we should look upon the Clinton saga as the gateway drug to our modern-day real-time information addiction, and the outbreak of the screen-time epidemic for news junkies especially. It was just that the delivery systems back then were not particularly efficient – dial-up internet, PCs and bulky laptops – and the most powerful stimulants, Twitter and Facebook, were not yet on the market.
Just as the early online news sites experienced a surge in traffic, cable news channels enjoyed a ratings bonanza.
Before the Clinton scandal, Fox News, which launched two years earlier, was something of a niche broadcaster available in just 10 million homes. By 2000, partly because of its blanket coverage of the impeachment saga, that figure had mushroomed to 56 million homes. MSNBC, which also launched in 1996, also became a significant player, not least as a progressive counterpoint to Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News.
To sustain their 24/7 blanket coverage of the scandal, continuous news channels smudged the lines between reporting on events and commenting on them. Partisan pundits trading in shrill sound-bites helped fill airtime, and quickly realised the more outspoken their comments, the more they would be invited back. The disagreement culture of modern-day cable news, which tended to generate more heat than light, was born.
Talk radio relied on a more one-sided formula: polemical monologues delivered by presenters whose views were usually affirmed and amplified by listeners calling in.
The repeal during the Reagan years of the Fairness Doctrine, a regulation enforced by the Federal Communications Commission demanding the airing of both sides of an argument, had already fuelled the rise of right-wing talk show hosts such as Rush Limbaugh. The impeachment drama elevated their status as tribunes of the right, and underscored how local radio stations especially came to be a conservative echo chamber.
This had a circular effect on politics, and heightened the doctrinaire streak among Republicans especially. Polls suggested the push for impeachment was damaging the GOP. The 1998 mid-term elections offered incontrovertible proof of this self-sabotage. Yet despite various exit ramps being available to Republican leaders, they kept on pressing on down the road even though it was unlikely to end in Clinton’s dethronement.
Impeachment was not just a transformational moment. For contemporary politicians it has become a teachable one.
What the Senate trial of Bill Clinton underscored was the difficulty in removing a sitting president. Procedurally speaking, impeachment itself is relatively straightforward – a simple majority of the House of Representatives is required to approve an article of impeachment, which serves in effect as an indictment.
Achieving a guilty verdict in the upper chamber, by contrast, is challenging. Deliberately, the framers of the Constitution set the bar high, requiring two-thirds of the Senate to vote for removal. Today, that would require 67 Senators, a fiendishly difficult number to attain.
Back in 1998, not even all 55 Republican Senators delivered guilty verdicts at the end of the trial presided over the then Chief Justice of the Supreme Court William Rehnquist. Nor did a single Democrat break ranks. In the present Senate, 22 Republican Senators would have to turn on Donald Trump to remove him from office, assuming all the Democrats voted guilty.
Aside from giving us a tutorial in constitutional mechanics, the impeachment saga offered a political lesson: that the pursuit of a president, through this seldom-used process, comes with enormous risks. Certainly it boomeranged for Newt Gingrich.
That’s why the new House Speaker Nancy Pelosi is doing her damnedest to tamp down talk of impeachment now that the Democrats once again command a majority in the lower chamber. Understandably, she fears a voter backlash, and also handing Donald Trump the kind of martyrdom that would help him win a second term.
So here is the double paradox of the Bill Clinton scandal and the impeachment proceedings it set in motion. Not only did it end up easing Donald Trump’s path to the White House, it diminishes the chances of Congress trying to remove him from office.