1. PUSH-ME-PULL-EU CORNER
The EU working dinner in Brussels consisted of a main course of butternut gnocchi and pheasant supreme, followed by a pudding of fresh pineapple. But with some of the EU 27 thinking Britain should get its just desserts for Brexit (a big divorce bill in particular), Theresa May warned them that they shouldn’t push her into a corner.
That kind of fighting talk will have cheered up Brexiteers in the Cabinet and Parliamentary party. It may even have pleased ardent Eurosceptic, former Chancellor Lord Lawson of Blaby. And no one puts Blaby in the corner (sorry, couldn’t resist). “The clear and urgent imperative must be that the dynamic you create enables us to move forward together,” May said. “We must work together to get to an outcome we can stand behind and defend to our people”. The message seemed clear: my party won’t let me walk away from these talks with anything that looks like ‘defeat’.
And yet the Remainers in the Cabinet will have been pleased by the PM stressing how conciliatory she had been. “I took stock, listened to what the people in the UK were saying and what my friends and partners in Europe were saying and I made a step forward,” she told the dinner. Crucially, according to the FT and BBC, she also made clear that her speech in Florence was not the final word on the big issue of hard cash. The impression is of a PM being pushed and pulled in both directions by ‘soft’ and ‘hard’ Brexit colleagues. Peter Mandelson claimed on Today that his EU pals had told him they didn’t know which bits of the Cabinet May sided with. “Are they negotiating with the soft leavers…or the clean breakers? They see her bobbing like a cork between these two groups.” May’s close allies think she will defy all the doubters with a deal in December.
None of her EU colleagues said much in reply to her after-dinner spiel. But in the small hours Angela Merkel told the media that while May’s words were not enough to allow a breakthrough at this summit, the idea of a collapse in talks was “absurd”. “There are no indications at all that we won’t succeed,” the German Chancellor said. Still, David Davis is preparing a Cabinet presentation on plans for a ‘no deal’ outcome, the Times reports. DD told a German paper that ‘no deal’ was only “a very distant possibility”. He also said that after technical calculations on the divorce bill “we’ll then make a political judgement on what we think is realistic and sensible”. Politics, not technical or legal calculations, will ultimately decide just how big that bill is. The PM has a press conference around 10am.
2. TRYANNY’S O’ER US, REX
After ministers failed to respond to the Opposition Day 299-0 vote on Universal Credit on Wednesday, there were fresh concerns that yesterday that the Government is now wilfully ignoring Parliament. Veteran Tory Sir Edward Leigh told Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom just why MPs were worried that the whips had ordered them to abstain on Labour’s motion this week.
“Frankly, the road to tyranny is paved by executives ignoring parliaments,” he said. “Parliament does matter, because if we as Conservatives live by the sword now, our Conservative values in the future might die by the sword.” His colleague Peter Bone added: “We cannot ignore the will of the House.” Leadsom said DWP ministers would “come back to this place to update the House” on Universal Credit, repeating Damian Hinds’ point that the system already had built-in “pauses” at each stage of roll-out.
There are already fears (even among Eurosceptics) about the EU Withdawal Bill’s sweeping ‘Henry VIII’ powers to bypass Parliament with secondary legislation. Ignoring Opposition Day motions (or trying to avoid votes on them) is seen by many as yet another regal power grab by what is still a minority government. The key will be how Government whips react to future motions and next week Labour has another one, on social care funding. Will it be cleverly crafted to appeal to the DUP and Tory rebels, again?
3. DISS CREDIT
Unease about the Universal Credit roll out continues. As the Times reported yesterday, there are hopes among Tory rebels that David Gauke will do more to cut the six week waiting time for claimants. But will the Government conduct an even more radical rethink of the system, and stop paying the new benefit in arrears and pay everyone in advance? With more than 50% of people now getting an advance and then having to repay it, charities like Citizens’ Advice have argued that would remove a fundamental flaw in the programme.
Last night, Tory peer Lord Wolfson made the case for such a shift. He told BBC’s Question Time that while Uni Credit was fine in principle, it forced a burden of debt onto those most in need. “This idea people have to wait six weeks must be wrong.” And the real reason it was wrong was because the Government can borrow money much cheaper than individuals, who are forced to take loans with huge interest rates. “It’s insane for the Government not to be the borrower,” he said.
Several Tories worry that Uni Credit could become their new “poll tax”, an emblematic hard-hearted policy of a dying government. Peter Mandelson told the Today programme that two Conservative MPs had told him they feared “annihilation” at the next election. But the Dark Lord denied he was a “Corbynista” and warned Jeremy Corbyn to engage with ‘centrist’ and ‘older’ voters. “The Tories are giving him victory on a plate. What sort of victory depends on him.” I saw James Graham’s new play ‘Labour of Love’last night and it’s this very argument that runs right through it. No wonder its audiences have been packed with Labour MPs and party staff.
4. 999 NOD AND A WINK
It’s a Friday and as usual Private Members’ Bills dominate Commons business. What’s unusual is that today, the Government will confirm it will allow Parliamentary time to one such piece of legislation: Chris Bryant’s private member’s bill aimed at protecting emergency workers from assault. We first revealed the Tories’ backing for the bill at the weekend, and this morning that will be made formal.
Yet given there is a two-year Parliamentary session, it could be a long time before the next stage for the bill. Yesterday, Bryant warned Commons leader Andrea Leadsom that it could be the end of April before the remaining stages were reached. He suggested that there was so little Government business around right now that she should fast-track it before Christmas. Leadsom replied she would “make our best efforts to bring forward his Bill as soon as we can”. On BBC’s Daily Politics yesterday, Bryant added that the Leader gave him a wink afterwards. But he added: “You never know what a Tory wink means”. We may find out today.
5. POLLUTED ATMOS
After a flurry of stories about air pollution earlier this year, things have gone quiet since. But today the Lancet published a report claiming that more than 50,000 people die from pollution in the UK every year. In 2015, almost one in ten deaths were due to pollution, a higher proportion than in many other European countries including Germany, France and Spain.
Dr Penny Woods, chief executive of the British Lung Foundation, says: “A contributing factor could be our dependence on diesel vehicles, notorious for pumping out a higher amount of poisonous particles and gases.” It got little attention but this week environmental lawyers Client Earth warned DEFRA it faces a third law suit (the last two forced action) unless it forced councils to take action. It says ministers ‘passed the buck’ to town halls. Defra responded by saying it would deliver “a green Brexit”.
Our latest Commons People podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about the Universal Credit vote, DD’s Brexit tactics (I rashly predict a deal will be done in December), and interviews with emergency workers who want new protection from assault. Oh, and we have a ‘bottom gravy’-style weekly quiz on book reviews as poor as Iain Duncan Smith’s. Listen HERE on Android/audioboom and HERE on iPhone/iTunes.