The five things you need to know on Tuesday, March 7…
1) THE SNAP DRAGOONS
William Hague has become the first senior Tory to say what has been on many MPs’ minds since their Copeland by-election victory: it’s time to think seriously about a snap election to capitalise on Labour’s poll woes. Theresa May has so far shown an innate caution about this whole idea, preferring to wait until 2020. But will she be dragooned into a snap poll on the grounds that a ‘calculated risk’ is the best kind of risk?
In his Telegraph article, Hague makes a powerful case as to why the riskier thing is to wait another four years. The challenges of Brexit negotiations, the Trump administration, the threat from Scottish nationalists mean that the PM and Cabinet would be ‘in a stronger position…if they had a large and decisive majority in the Commons and a new full term ahead of them’.
And a key plank of Hague’s argument is that repealing the Fixed Term Parliaments Act and calling an election would avoid yet more Parliamentary stand-offs over Brexit. And his timing is bang on, given the Lords is almost certain to defeat the Government this afternoon (around 5.30pm) on an amendment demanding a ‘meaningful’ vote for Parliament on the final deal. The Labour amendment says both the Commons and Lords should get a vote on ‘any decision’ by the PM to try to quit the EU ‘without an agreement as to the applicable terms’ .
Hague also knows that the bigger battle will be over the Great Repeal Bill due in the next Parliamentary session. And today’s Lords Constitution Committee warns that “scrutiny should not be sidelined” as the huge existing body of EU law is transposed into UK law. If she gets a majority of 70 or more (and some in Labour really fear that a snap election could deliver one), Theresa May knows that she will be better equipped to take on the peers as well as her own rebels.
No.10 is this morning sticking firmly to its line that the PM has no intention to 'go early'. A snap poll could revive the Lib Dems while laying waste to Labour seats. But the clamour will continue and so will the unofficial wargaming. Don't forget too that Hague is a long-standing ally of David Lidington, the Commons leader who has to deal with tiny majorities and the way they make life difficult.
2) GETTING SCHOOLED
Theresa May and Philip Hammond have certainly got the eve-of-Budget headlines they wanted in several papers, thanks to their announcement of half a billion quid for school buildings. There’s a one-off £320m for 140 new free schools, and £216m to rebuild and refurbish existing state schools (though the cash for the latter cannot be used to address the £3bn spending shortfall they’re facing).
What’s attracting attention is the Free School money as it appears that many of the new institutions could be selective, and effectively become the ‘new grammars’ that May floated last year. However, it’s far from clear just how many will select pupils given the stringent requirements Justine Greening appeared to impose. It’s an example of the dogged determination the PM has not to give up on an idea, tempered by some pragmatism about the outcome. Some MPs think we won’t see more than, say, 20 new grammars in total, out of that 140 new school target.
May isn’t giving up on her main political line that selection already operates on the basis of house prices, but (non selective) Free Schools are more popular with parents in areas with gaps in quality and capacity. Labour and the Lib Dems and teaching unions point to the recent NAO report suggesting the taxpayer has been ripped off by expensive new Free School sites.
3) SOFT COUP SHUFFLE
John McDonnell addressed the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) last night and for the most part it was a quiet affair, with him setting out the party’s key messages around the Budget. He listed “chronic low pay”, the “rigged economy” on tax, giving the NHS and social care “the funding it needs” and ensuring the economy “works for women”.
The PLP is largely observing a very strict informal edict not to publicly criticise the leadership, but in the Q&A last night, MPs Wes Streeting and Peter Kyle made plain their frustration with McDonnell over his claims of a ‘soft coup’. Streeting said Sir John Major and even George Osborne had done a better job than Labour in criticising Theresa May’s Brexit plans. “Why is it that a former Tory Prime Minister is more effective at attacking a Tory government than a Labour Shadow Chancellor?”
Kyle cited a line from Shadow Cabinet minister Barry Gardiner - that the coup allegations were the work of a “late-night typewriter” - and asked why McDonnell couldn’t spend his time writing clearer messages on the economy and Brexit. McDonnell said that he would work harder to consult MPs for their thoughts on “lines of attack” against the Tories and said everyone, including himself, had to focus on unity. “What the Tories fear most is a united Labour Party,” he said. Read my full report HERE.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
4) ON THE TOWN
In the YouGov/Election Data poll yesterday, John McDonnell emerged as the joint favourite (along with Yvette Cooper) among Labour party members as their choice to succeed Jeremy Corbyn. Possibly because of her lack of profile, Lisa Nandy came way behind. But a lack of profile may be a good thing right now given the uneasy truce between the PLP and the leadership.
Nandy today has a big speech at the IPPR, where she will appear alongside Owen Jones (who urged her to run for leader in 2015). Her main message is that Labour has neglected England’s towns as it pursues big cities instead. ‘Too often, as with Brexit, cities are wrongly treated as proxies for national opinion,’ she will say. The national obsession with talking about trains rather than bus services is just one example.
The former Shadow Energy Secretary will point out (as she did to me in a Nuffield College seminar last month) that the party has five times as many members in Islington as Wigan. She will argue Labour is currently experiencing a 'crisis of identity’ because of its inability to connect with voters beyond the cities. And she’ll add that challenging the populism of the Right requires strong leadership, and an understanding of the need to connect with voters’ emotions and feelings about identity.
Tony Blair famously claimed Corbyn voters relied more on their hearts than their heads, but Nandy seems to be warning that in fact Labour needs to worry most about the ‘hearts’ argument - many of its own former voters think it no longer shares their values on things like patriotism and national identity. If Labour is to carve out a post-Brexit message, could this be it? Labour MP John Woodcock, who knows only too well the problem of Copeland, has his own solution: he's written in Progress about the need for 'New Labour 2.0'
5) DUBS STEP
The Children & Social Work Bill is up before the Commons today and already it has proved a bit of a headache for the Government. A combination of Tory rebels and smart Labour tactics have made the whips very nervous.
Last week, Education Secretary Justine Greening quietly signed up to eight Labour amendments to halt plans to let councils opt out of some child protection laws. She effectively gutted her own bill, but the word is that No.10 didn’t want yet another row. A plan for compulsory sex and relationship education has already been added to the bill, again to avoid another defeat.
Now, Labour has managed to get the Dubs amendment on child refugee numbers into the scope of the bill and Heidi Allen and David Burrowes are leading the Tory charge. An amendment today seeks to place a statutory duty on councils to consult and report back to ministers at least once a year on their capacity to provide safeguarding and welfare services to children, including refugees from abroad. Some 30 Tories could back the idea. Will ministers back down and claim the concession as their own?
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