The five things you need to know on Wednesday, February 8…
1) SUCKER PUNCH
It’s the last PMQs before the half-term recess and Theresa May will want to send her troops away happy with a Brexit spring in their step ahead of tonight’s third reading of the EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill.
No.10 took a while to agree on David Davis’s plan to kill off the biggest possible Tory rebellion, by getting junior minister David Jones to pledge a UK Parliament vote on the final Brexit deal before the European Parliament had its say. When the PM did finally approve it, the tactic worked a treat. Keir Starmer welcomed it, Nicky Morgan tweeted her approval and Remainers like Dominic Grieve and Neil Carmichael felt it met their concerns. George Osborne didn’t vote - but that’s because he was speaking at an economics forum in Belgium.
Some in Labour felt that Starmer had been “suckered”, while Ken Clarke instantly spotted that the pledge was not all it seemed. To be fair, MPs did a good job yesterday in probing enough to eventually get Jones to admit that if MPs voted down a Brexit deal, that would lead to a WTO-style ‘no deal’ rather than force ministers back to the negotiating table. Minutes before the vote last night, it seemed the penny had dropped with Morgan as she was seen arguing with the Chief Whip, before abstaining.
Government whips have long felt that ‘divide-and-rule’ is the best option in dealing with splits on their own side and Labour’s on this bill. Some Tories were more exercised about EU migrants’ rights, some by a ‘meaningful’ vote. Don’t forget too that many Tory rebels have been ministers themselves and are inexperienced in extracting concessions rather than granting them. And many, on both sides, have only been MPs since 2010 or 2015. The fact that six Labour MPs sided with the Government last night, all but cancelling out the seven Tory rebels, said it all.
Starmer insisted on Today that the Brexit vote concession was “significant”. “Yesterday wasn’t everything we wanted, but it was new,” he said. He suggested that he thought May was bluffing about her threat to accept no deal rather than a good deal. “If there’s five months to run before the deadline, it would be reckless to throw your toys out of the pram and say I’m not prepared to improve on what I’ve got.” He may be right and he may have bought some crucial time in the process. But people who’ve called May’s bluff before have learned that she’s deadly serious.
2) LEWIS MORSE CODE
So, tonight is decision time for Clive Lewis, Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary. He said last weekend that if the Brexit bill was unamended by its Third Reading, he would quit his post. “If at the end of that process the bill before us is still an overwhelmingly Tory, hard, cliff-edge Trumpian Brexit then I am prepared to break the whip and I am prepared to walk from the shadow cabinet.” He’s a former soldier, but you don’t need Morse code to work out that threat.
Some in Team Jez have long been wary of Lewis since his Trident switcheroo at party conference. Others don’t want to lose him and would rather bring him and others back quickly (already a summer reshuffle is mooted). But exactly what Corbyn decides tonight could determine Lewis’s future leadership hopes as well as his own succession plan. Jen Williams on the Manchester Evening News certainly set a hare running yesterday with a claim that Corbyn has given ‘a departure date’ to his inner circle. Is that date May 2020? Or sooner? Expect the PM to pick up on that one today.
Most Labour MPs expect Diane Abbott to follow the three-line whip to keep her job. I understand moves were already underway to hand Abbott’s shadow immigration minister role to someone else, partly because of the extra workload but partly to get a clearer hearing on the issue. Let’s see if the reshuffle makes that harder now.
The lengths to which Corbyn’s allies went to retain Lewis (and protect Abbott) took the Shadow Cabinet by surprise yesterday. The Guardian claims Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner suggested a three-line whip, forcing everyone to abstain. To which Emily Thornberry replied: “You’re proposing that Labour’s answer to the greatest decision facing Britain is to say we can’t decide.”
Meanwhile, I’m told the Oxford University Labour Club voted on Monday by 17 to 6 against calling for all suspended party members (including Ken Livingstone) to have their suspensions lifted. Suspensions of OULC’s members after the anti-semitism row were rescinded last month, a decision that still rankles among key figures.
3) A RIGHT BERC?
Tory MPs are continuing to mobilise against John Bercow after his spectacular denunciation of Donald Trump’s “racism and sexism”. At least two backbenchers have approached parliamentary clerks to ask how to table a no-confidence motion in Bercow, the Guardian reports. Such a motion has little chance of success given MPs’ traditional reluctance to openly criticise the Speaker. I’m sure he would relish the chance to defeat it too.
But with the new election for Speaker due next year, the runners and riders in the race to succeed him is gathering pace. Assuming Bercow doesn’t try to stay on (an idea not that outlandish given his SNP and Labour backing), Lindsay Hoyle is seen by many Tories as a decent choice, not least after his spat with Alex Salmond on Monday night (the word ‘bastard’ was muttered). Jacob Rees-Mogg is seen as a joke candidate by many MPs. But I wouldn’t rule out Gisela Stuart, however. The darling of many Tories over Brexit, yet respected by lots of centrist Labour types, she’d be a good outside bet.
Lords Speaker Norman Fowler made clear his irritation yesterday at not being consulted over the Trump remarks. And others may pick up on his call for changing the rules to end the effective “veto” both Speakers have over addresses to Parliament. The fact is that Bercow was right when he said decisions on such speeches “fall within the remit of the chair”, and he knew what others had failed to spot - that he was one of just three ‘keyholders’ to Westminster Hall. Still, there are bound to be calls now for such power to be diluted, perhaps with a wider consultative committee.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this rabbit fend off an attack by a falcon. It makes the PLP look mild.
4) TAXING TIMES
Ahead of the real Budget next month, the ‘double whammy’ warning of higher taxes and longer austerity in the IFS Green Budget will worry a few Tory MPs. The think tank’s main prediction is that tax is set to rise as a share of the UK's income to its highest level since 1986. But it also says austerity will continue into the 2020s, after Chancellor Philip Hammond decided to scrap a target of balancing the nation's books.
Add onto that the IFS warning that spending on health, social care and benefits for sick or disabled people represents a particular risk to the public finances because it accounts for almost one third of government expenditure. The report confirms that the period between 2009 and 2014 saw the slowest rate of growth in health spending in England since the mid-1950s.
Still, Eurosceptic MPs are bound to point out that things could be a lot worse over on The Continent. The Telegraph splashes on the IMF’s warning that Greece’s debts are on an “explosive” path despite years of cuts, demanding debt relief that the Eurogroup is unwilling to provide. Meanwhile, the latest Eurobarometer survey says that the eurozone overall has quietly staged an economic comeback, slightly outpacing the US, and with Spain and Ireland rebounding and Germany still solid. Yet immigration and terrorism now trump growth as euro-voters concerns.
5) LICENCE TO BILL
It’s the final day of the Committee stage of the Digital Economy Bill in the Lords. Stewart Wood, the former consigliere to Ed Miliband and Gordon Brown, has blogged for HuffPost on Labour’s amendments to defend public service broadcasting in general and the BBC in particular.
Under the plans, public service content will be more visible on multi-channel platforms, and new rules would be create to guarantee major sporting events remain accessible to all on free-to-air TV. “Existing definitions of what counts as a channel that qualifies as sufficiently accessible are at serious risk of becoming obsolete,” he says.
But perhaps most intriguing is a plan to depoliticise decisions about the BBC licence fee and the amounts of cash the Corporation has in coming years. Wood proposes an independent Licence Fee Commission to assess what the financial settlement for the BBC should be. “The Secretary of State would have a duty to consult with the public on the Commission’s recommendation – and if disagreeing with the final recommendation, would have to account publicly for the decision,” he writes.
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