The five things you need to know on Monday, February 27…
1) WINNING HERE?
Just imagine if the returning officer in the Copeland by-election had announced, “the winner of the by-election is…Labour’s Gillian Troughton!” Jeremy Corbyn and his allies wouldn’t have faced a weekend of ridicule and Labour MPs wouldn’t be fearing for their seats once more. But Tory candidate Trudy Harrison was the real winner, of course, and we should see her arrive to huge cheers of colleagues today at the Commons. Maybe the PM will personally welcome her to the steps of St Stephens?
Shami Chakrabarti was on the Andrew Marr show yesterday to blame the historic Copeland result on everything but Corbyn (at one point saying Labour voters ‘don’t have cars’ and don’t cope with ‘bad weather’). Which was odd, as JC himself had written in the Sunday Mirror that “of course I take my share of responsibility”. In a speech in Scotland he added Copeland showed "the scale of how hard our task is to persuade people of our message”.
Meanwhile, Clive Lewis gave our Owen Bennett a rather strange response to news that a ‘cliveforleader’ website was created two days after he joined the Shadow Cabinet last year. As if to prove that too-clever-by-half quotes don’t work on simple questions, his office later insisted it was categorically untrue he’d had anything to do with the website.
Amid all the constant comparisons between Corbyn and Michael Foot, there’s the sad news that Sir Gerald Kaufman has died, aged 86. It was Kaufman who famously described Foot’s 1983 manifesto as “the longest suicide note in history”, and his passing will trigger yet another by-election in a Labour seat (though with an enormous majority). Kaufman and Corbyn had little to unite them, but I suspect the Labour leader will never forget the Manchester Gorton MP’s frequent and scathing Commons criticism of Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians.
On this day, 117 years ago, the Labour party was effectively founded after a meeting in Farringdon to create a Labour Representation Committee. All these years on, just how far from power is the party today? I’m told some PLP officers have told Corbyn they want him to turn up to the weekly PLP meeting tonight to explain Copeland. Let’s see if he’s got something else in his diary.
2) START OF THE PEER SHOW
The EU (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill has its Committee Stage this week and we could see our first actual votes on amendments. If ministers fail to come up with concessions, there’s a ’50-50’ chance that on Wednesday peers will vote on EU citizens’ rights. In an interview with HuffPost, Labour’s leader in the Lords Baroness Smith made clear she was “confident” she had the numbers to defeat the Government. Former civil service chief Lord Kerslake told Westminster Hour the Government’s stance on the issue was “inhumane and self-defeating”.
The other big issue is of course the amendment to give Parliament a ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal. Ministers and No.10 have sounded bullish on not writing any new pledges into the face of the bill. Michael Heseltine told the Mail on Sunday he would vote with other Tory rebels, so a second defeat looms on that too early next month at Report Stage. (At least one peer won’t be voting with the Government either at Committee or Report stage: Baroness Vere has tweeted she’s on honeymoon and won’t be back until March 9). John Major is only a knight, not a peer, but the Sun says he has a speech today warning of the downsides of Brexit. Expect Tory MPs to line up to attack both Hezza and Major as relics of a bygone age.
But Downing Street is already looking beyond the passage of the Brexit bill to the day of triggering Article 50. On Peston, Amber Rudd all but confirmed the Sunday Times story that curbs to freedom of movement would start on day one of the negotiations. The Times today reports that on day one, No10 is expecting another challenge to present itself: Nicola Sturgeon demanding a second referendum on Scottish indpendence.
3) FREEMAN’S CATALOGUE
Tory MP George Freeman has the honour of being the chair of the PM’s Policy Board. And it’s because of that title that he probably felt duty bound to be ultra-loyal on behalf of the Government in defending its plans to restrict disability benefits. But that title is also why he’s getting a real kicking for suggesting that people with anxiety and other mental health conditions are not “really disabled”. He’s not just any ordinary backbencher.
Freeman uttered the fateful words on John Pienaar’s BBC 5Live show yesterday as he attacked “bizarre decisions” by tribunals that recommended widening eligibility for Personal Independent Payment (PIP). As I said on Friday, the DWP plan to defy the tribunals was slipped out on by-election day. Freeman has hit back at Labour, pointing out he himself had suffered from anxiety, but the damage has been done. I would be amazed if we didn’t see either an Urgent Question granted or an Oral Statement made by the DWP.
The row risks undermining Theresa May’s own speeches on mental health, as well as claims that the Government wants to give ‘parity of esteem’ to mental and physical conditions. The DWP plans to change the law without consulting the government’s own statutory Social Security Advisory Committee. Tory MP Heidi Allen pointed out on the Today prog that she was unhappy with the fast-tracked legislation and the way ministers had handled the whole affair.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Jeremy Corbyn ‘do a Kevin Keegan’ on Sky News
4) SCHOOL DAZE
As I’ve been saying in recent WaughZones, slowly, surely, the problems with schools funding are rising up the political agenda. Today, the National Association of Head Teachers and the National Governors’ Association - neither hotbeds of revolution - have written to the Chancellor to use his Budget to ”deliver the investment that schools so desperately need”.
They highlight seven key areas of concern: overall funding, the impact of the apprenticeship levy, the cut to the education services grant, shortfalls in high needs funding, sufficient funding for sixth forms, funding for early years including protecting nursery schools, and automatic registration for pupil premium pupils.
Meanwhile the IFS has a damning report on the real ‘cinderella’ of the education world: sixth forms and further education colleges. Older teenagers have been the biggest losers as funding was "continually squeezed" for 25 years, the think tanks says.
5) TRUSS ME, I’M A LORD CHANCELLOR
Liz Truss holds the historic post of Lord Chancellor, despite (like predecessors Chris Grayling and Michael Gove) not ever having been a lawyer. But civil servants are citing the Justice Secretary’s quasi-judicial duties in the job as a reason for the lack of Parliamentary scrutiny over a huge decision she’s just made today.
I posted a story last night that Truss’s plans to change the ‘discount rate’ for personal injury compensation would have profound implications, with forecasts that the NHS could end up with a £1bn-a-year bill in higher medical negligence payouts. This morning, that figure looks pretty close after the MoJ told the Stock Market she was slashing the rate to -0.75%. Insurers warn that motorists’ car insurance bills will now go up too. After already being hammered with insurance premium tax, expect the insurance industry millions will pay for Truss’s announcement.
Critics say Truss has caved to civil servants and to judicial review threats from the personal injury lawyers. Yet the strangest thing is that the ‘quasi-judicial’ defence means until today there has been no written ministerial statement or even proper replies to MPs’ Parliamentary questions on such a big change.
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