The five things you need to know on Wednesday, March 1…
1) FIRST CUCK-COUP OF SPRING
It’s PMQs day again and the first day of spring. And although it may seem like years ago already, this is the first chance for the Prime Minister to crow in the Commons about the stunning Tory victory in the Copeland by-election.
In a shrewd tactic, the Conservatives have delayed the swearing-in for Trudy Harrison until today, allowing her a prime slot straight after PMQs to take the oath of allegiance in front of cheering MPs and an admiring Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn may be forced to sit and watch, as it would be unseemly to scarper during the ceremony.
Corbyn won’t be short of ammunition of his own, galvanising his restive backbenches by focusing on the disability benefit curbs slipped out by the DWP last week on by-election day. He could even cite the awful case of double leg amputee Julius Holgate in Hackney, who had his benefit cut because it was decided he could ‘climb stairs’ with his arms alone. The Labour leader could also focus on the new round of austerity slipped out by the Treasury this week, with up to 6% cuts for departments. John McDonnell asked Philip Hammond yesterday to rule out cutting the 45p tax rate to 40p this Parliament and was told ‘he will have to wait until next week’.
But McDonnell is facing questions of his own after claiming a ‘soft coup’ was underway against Corbyn. Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer ridiculed the idea at the Lobby lunch yesterday: ”I'm still trying to work out what a soft coup actually is, whether you gently roll someone over or whether you use some other mechanism?” The Shadow Chancellor’s allies backtracked on the claim, and he urged ‘unity’ yesterday. Yet PoliticsHome reveals that he repeated the line to the Socialist Worker newspaper since the Copeland result: ”They’re trying to undertake a soft coup and undermine us from behind.”
Theresa May could say McDonnell doth protest too much. And protest he has indeed over the years, on picket lines and marches. We have a story on a string of “insurrection” speeches he gave in 2011 and 2012 where McDonnell urged people to defy strike laws, take part in occupations of City buildings and ‘kettle’ the police. He also said he would one day ‘try’ Tory ministers as ‘social criminals’. Some felt that sounded like a leftwing version of ‘Lock her up! Lock her up!’
A spokesman for McDonnell says: “It is well-documented that John has been a long-time campaigner and activist as a backbencher fighting for workplace rights, and standing up for those workers being overlooked by the political establishment”. But Tory MP Luke Hall said the remarks showed: “Labour don’t want to help people get on in life, they want to bring the country into chaos and disarray”.
May could use PMQs to claim Corbyn and McDonnell are in cloud cuckoo-land. But what will worry Labour MPs most is the stat on the day of Copeland showing the Tories now have a healthy lead among so-called ‘C2s’, the skilled working classes. You could even call them ‘ordinary working families’…
2) CITIZENS CANED
The Government is staring down the barrel of a defeat in the Lords today on guaranteeing EU citizens rights under Brexit. Shadow leader of the Lords Baroness Smith told me last week she was ‘confident’ she had the numbers and she doesn’t bluff. The cross-party coalition of crossbenchers, Tories and Lib Dems backing the Labour amendment means this bit of the Brexit bill will ‘ping-pong’ back to the Commons.
It’s worth noting just how rare votes are on amendments at Committee Stage, and it looks like an attempt to pile pressure onto backbench Tory MPs feeling the heat in their constituencies over the issue of EU citizens. Amber Rudd wrote to peers with a threat that the amendment could harm the rights of Brit expats in Europe, but Baroness Smith stood firm. While Jeremy Corbyn and his MPs are still at war, you can argue that the real Opposition in Parliament (on tax credits, on stalking laws, on other issues) is an alliance of Labour peers and Tory rebel MPs.
It’s St David’s Day and the Brexiteers’ very own patron saint David Davis will probably be unruffled by a Lords defeat. He could point out that it is Brussels that is seeking to use citizens’ rights as a bargaining chip, not London. But DD had bigger fish to fry yesterday, warning Cabinet that the UK needs to get ready for no-deal on Brexit. Colleagues should “prepare not just for a negotiated settlement but for the unlikely scenario in which no mutually satisfactory agreement can be reached” he said. DD doesn’t bluff either, and Boris’s ‘come off it, sunshine’ riposte to John Major stiffened Tory MPs’ resolve yesterday.
Speaking of immigration, Donald Trump last night used his address to Congress to propose, guess what? Yes a ‘points-based’ migration system. The Sun has a nice scoop on his own temporary migration to the UK, saying the date for his State Visit has been put back from June to October 5-8. Parliament will still be in conference recess, bypassing any trouble from MPs, and the Queen could still be in Balmoral. His own travel ban pilot may be over by then too.
3) SPECIAL K
Like rubbernecking at a multiple-pile-up on the motorway, there seems something unseemly about looking too closely at the spectacle that is UKIP’s latest civil war. But with Nigel Farage sticking the knife into ‘Tory party posh boy’ MP Douglas Carswell yesterday, and the Sun and Telegraph reporting he’s been in talks about switching back, it’s a story that can’t be ignored.
One of my favourite quotes of the week was a line from UKIP peer Lord Pearson that he wanted a knighthood for Farage and would “try to see whether we can get him a K in the Birthday honours in the summer”. Carswell joked about a mere OBE instead (and even tweeted a cheeky ‘Knight, night’ message on Monday) but Farage says this is not about his own gong, it’s about his MP’s attempts to undermine him and successor Paul Nuttall. We report there is now a formal investigation into Carswell by his own party.
So will Carswell now un-defect, like Nige un-resigned? The MP tells the Sun: “I am 100 per cent Ukip and will be staying with Ukip. But this is the first Brexit government in my lifetime and I am happy to help them get a good Brexit.” That won’t kill rumours he could stand as a Tory in Claction in 2020 - up against Arron Banks for UKIP.
Speaking of knighthoods, Sir Philip Green has been granted a ‘pardon’ by the Daily Mail after agreeing to pay £363m into the BHS pension scheme. Green is unlikely to be stripped of his gong. Business select committee chairman Ian Wright, who with Frank Field deserves huge credit for forcing the payout, tells the Mirror it’s the “biggest case of cash for honours that we've ever seen".
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Nigel Farage declare war on Douglas Carswell, while pointing out Owen Bennett’s ‘Brexit Club’ had the scoop that he plotted to ‘neutralise’ UKIP’s role in the EU referendum.
4) SEX ED, UP
After a long campaign by MPs like Yvette Cooper and Maria Miller, it looks like Education Secretary Justine Greening is set to introduce compulsory sex and relationships education to schools. The Telegraph splashes its front page with a report that the Government will table an amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill as early as today to make ‘age-appropriate’ SRE (as it’s called) a requirement in primary and secondary schools.
With many children now owning mobile phones, and ‘sexting’ on the rise, campaigners say the change is overdue. Issues like teaching boys about ‘consent’ are bound to feature. The Church of England is set to announce it will support the move, although it’s not clear how the Catholic Church and other faiths will react. As with May's new domestic violence crackdown, compulsory sex education would show that a female Prime Minister is in tune with women's worries on key issues - and again outflanking Labour in an area it has claimed as its own.
Meanwhile the Government is setting out its digital strategy. There’s £17m for robotics (though no tax on robots, despite Bill Gates and others calling for one), digital skills for coastal towns and new tech hubs. Peers have tried to amend the Digital Economy Bill to combat online abuse, let’s see if that’s another strand to all this.
5) TRUSSED FUND
As reported on HuffPost on Sunday night, plans by Liz Truss to change compensation payout rates mean the NHS is left facing a new £1bn-a-year bill. But her change to the ‘discount rate’ - to help victims of personal injury - also threatens millions with higher car insurance premiums and undermines many insurance firms just as they are set to announce annual results.
On Monday, No10 suggested that the NHS would be protected from the changes, raising the prospect that somehow an extra billion could be found to cope with a self-inflicted wound, but similar sums were not available for social care. Yesterday, Chancellor Philip Hammond sprung into action and after meeting the Association of British Insurers issued a joint statement.
The statement revealed an ‘urgent’ consultation on ‘necessary legislation’ for setting future rates so they’re ‘fair to both claimants and consumers’, which sounds like a swift U-turn in the making. It could also take the issue out of the hands of the Lord Chancellor, who has not exactly enamoured herself to other departments over this whole issue.
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