1. MAY-A CULPA
Watching Theresa May arrive at the crunch meeting of the Tory backbench 1922 Committee last night, it was striking just how diminished a figure she looked. The party leader who only a few weeks ago walked tall among her peers literally seemed to shrink before our eyes as she hurried to Committee Room 14, head down, shoulders hunched. After her Mea Culpa over the disastrous decision to call a snap election, and subsequent dire campaign, she emerged later looking a tad more confident. But her blood is still very much in the water and the sharks are letting her live only because they can pick off her wounded carcass at time of their choosing.
To be fair, her main soundbite – “I got us into this mess and I’m going to get us out of it” – worked as it struck a note of both contrition and dogged determination. Knowing that the last thing any Tory MP wants is a general election that could cost them power, her main hope is to avoid a leadership contest in the short term and at least start the Brexit talks before shuffling off to spend more time with ‘girls jobs’ in Maidenhead.
But it is on Brexit that she faces the tricky task of trying to balance competing views in her Cabinet, without a shred of authority to impose her will. George Osborne’s Standard front page last night depicted a Cabinet split between ‘the Sensibles’ and ‘the Creationists’. The ‘Sensibles’ are certainly on the up. One Cabinet minister made clear to me last night that the voice of business finally had to be heard, with jobs put ahead of immigration. Only today, manufacturers are calling for a ‘rethink’ of the Government’s approach to Brexit.
EU negotiator Michel Barnier uses an interview with the FT and other European papers to ram home his advantage of an immoveable deadline of March 2019, saying May risks crashing out of the EU with no deal if she “wastes” more time [on things like snap elections]. Suddenly, the no deal threat looks very much like it’s coming from Brussels not London.
The Telegraph is right that some ministers want a consensus with Labour on the way forward. Keir Starmer’s call for as much trade access as possible, while respecting the referendum and free movement ending, isn’t far from the position of many soft Brexiteers in Government. Michael Gove, newly installed in the Cabinet, and the man chosen to hit the airwaves today, was lukewarm indeed about William Hague’s idea of a formal cross-party ‘Brexit Commission’. “This idea from William is very much his copyright,” he told Today, ominously warning that while he wanted “a conversation”, “what you don’t do is corral others…[you remain] true to your principles, true to the referendum result.”
Some in Cabinet think May gave Gove the perfect job at DEFRA because it will force him to confront the reality that farmers can’t survive without skilled and unskilled migrant labour. He will be a powerful voice at the Cabinet table, arguing more skillfully than most for a ‘clean Brexit’, but his role in a minor department is a reminder of the limits of his power too. And Gove appears to have junked his ‘Britain has had enough of experts’ line. “The right approach is…for me to exercise appropriate humility and to listen and learn,” he said this morning. That motto could help Theresa May survive a few more months too.
2. AUSTERITY POSTERITY?
Although the DUP’s record on gay and women’s rights worries some ‘Metropolitan moderate’ Tories, one of irony of the deal with the Ulster party is that its stance on both Brexit (trade above all else) and austerity (no cuts to pensions, to winter fuel payments, heck even opposing the bedroom tax) gives those self-same ‘moderate’ MPs cause for hope.
And it is on austerity that a new flank is opening up in persuading the PM to change tack to avoid a Corbyn government sweeping to power on a tide of public anger over cuts. Last night, Lord Flight, now elderly and carrying a walking stick, left the 1922 Committee early. It reminded me that he was forced to quit as deputy party chairman in the 2005 general election after a tape (secretly recorded by a young Labour researcher called John Woodcock) emerged of him promising deeper spending cuts than in the Tory manifesto. ‘Tory cuts’ was a powerful Labour weapon 12 years ago and for the first time since the financial crisis, it’s back with a vengeance.
Gavin Barwell’s Panorama interview, recorded after his defeat but before he was appointed May’s chief of staff, revealed something that sums up perhaps where the electorate are. He said a teacher who voted for him in 2010 and 2015 was no longer backing him because: “You know I understand the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you’re now asking for that to go on potentially for 10 or 11 years and that’s too much.” The Times splashes that May told MPs she accepted public patience with austerity had run dry.
So, is the seven-year experiment with austerity economics over? Well, Philip Hammond can now argue perhaps to put back the date of balancing the books even further (as the IFS says he may have to). Osborne is himself in difficulty on this, having advocated austerity, breached deficit targets and been forced to delay them. But Hammond can claim clean hands (in fact one benefit for him and others is that being airbrushed out of the election by May means their hands weren’t dipped in the blood of the campaign disaster).
Even Michael Gove this morning told Today that while he didn’t accept phrases like ‘austerity’ and ‘cuts programme’, and wanted to “keep public spending at a sustainable level”, he accepted there had to be change. “We also need to take account of legitimate public concerns about ensuring that we properly fund public services in the future,” he said. “We need to reflect on…the way we manage the economy in the future.” That sounded like a big win for Corbyn.
3. ORANGEY BOOM
It’s a brute fact of political life that the new Parliamentary arithmetic means Theresa May desperately needs the 10 seats of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) to survive. After Cabinet, the PM has her crunch meeting with DUP leader Arlene Foster. The event wouldn’t take place without both sides being pretty clear their agreement is close, but the DUP are no pushovers (as the weekend’s delays in an announcement showed). Yesterday’s embarrassment of revealing a possible delay to the Queen’s Speech (and Brexit talks start date) just showed how the smooth progress of Government can easily be upended by minority rule.
And yet the daily reality of dealing with the DUP could prove very tricky indeed. The impact on power-sharing in Northern Ireland of allying with one side will be fraught with danger. Stewart Wood, who advised Gordon Brown on Ulster, blogs for us on precisely that, with a reminder of the bombs and bullets of the past.
The Sun reports that Sinn Fein’s 7 MPs are flying to London today to take up Commons office space, and cites one insider mischievously saying the party ending its Westminster abstention is just ‘speculative’.
The Times reports the DUP wants to curb Sinn Fein funds, with bans on non-UK fundraising and removal of allowances for those who fail to take up their seats. Meanwhile, a branch of the Orange Order is urging the DUP to put the controversial Dumcree march ‘on the agenda’ again.
4. JEZ BE FRIENDS
Thanks to another lovely quirk of our Parliament, the exact same room where May faced her MPs last night will also be the place where Jeremy Corbyn tonight holds his first meeting of the 2017 Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP). Yes, Committee Room 14, the only one big enough to fit in lots of MPs and peers, is again the venue of the moment.
I’ve sat outside countless PLP meetings over the past two years, many of them with metaphorical blood on the walls as Corbyn and his critics squared up. But tonight the tone will obviously be very different after the leader’s impressive election campaign. The PLP have been telling Jezza that seats are what matter most and he can argue he’s delivered 30 more.
The big question is how Labour can get 60 more seats it needs to form a Government of its own (100 more to get a credible majority). MPs are torn between sceptics who think they’ve reached ‘peak Corbyn’ with 262 seats the summit of Corbyn’s ability, and those who think he’s got to base camp and can now push on for victory.
Before PLP, JC has a Shadow Cabinet meeting. Many chastened critics will want to praise him, but it’s far from clear whether any ‘centrists’ will be invited to fill Shad Cab vacancies. Clive Efford, chair of the Tribune Group of MPs, tells the Guardian Shad Cab loyalists “deserve to be rewarded”, but adds “I would like to see some new faces”. The first thing the party will have to do is sort its precise line on single market membership. John McDonnell and JC suggested it was ‘off the table’, Barry Gardiner said it was ‘an open question’ and agreed with Keir Starmer that the main thing was access. They all kind of agree, but use different words. Whereas Government ministers all kind of disagree but use the same words.
5. CUMMINGS AND GOINGS
Michael Gove’s appointment is certainly a boost for those Cabinet ministers who joined the Vote Leave campaign, which was itself masterminded by Gove’s former adviser Dominic Cummings (credited with the genius slogan ‘Take Back Control’). The Eurosceptics are not exactly taking back control of the Cabinet but Gove couldn’t resist relishing his moment in the sun on BBC Breakfast this morning.
Gove explained he had been “enjoying the sunshine” on Sunday when he got the call from No10 that he was back in Cabinet. “I thought this was the return of Dom Joly and Trigger Happy TV,” he added on BBC1, a reference to the prank show host. But he also had this response to Tom Watson’s claim that Rupert Murdoch had urged May to take him back. “The thing about Tom is he sees the hand of Rupert Murdoch behind everything. I think Tom believes Rupert Murdoch picks the England cricket 1st 11 and the England rugby 1st 15, as well as deciding on who’s on Britain’s Got Talent.”
Last night’s start of the reshuffle of the non-Cabinet ranks of Government laid bare the problems May faces in sacking anyone. Rob Halfon was let go, which was baffling given he’s driven the agenda on apprenticeships that May will now push as her main response to Labour’s tuition fee policy, while she keeps quiet about new grammars. Halfon’s closeness to Osborne can’t be the real reason, because Claire Perry (an Osborne ultra who this year called hard Brexiteers ‘jihadis’) was given a job. With Mike Penning, another working class Tory, going too, is May trying to pivot to win back the Tory middle class vote?
One significant change is the departure of George Bridges as Brexit minister in the Lords. Many credited Bridges as being the real brains of the department, capable of handling the sheer 3-D chessgame complexity of the task. But maybe his Remainer roots (and closeness to Osborne) were showing too much. When the Brexit white paper was being mooted earlier this year, Bridges took to carrying a blank sheet in his pocket and pulling it out whenever anyone asked for a heads up. Not everyone was amused. No one can imagine his doughty replacement Baroness Anelay, risking such a thing.
Comings and goings start in the chamber today too. The Commons is back at 2.30pm when Ken Clarke as the new Father of the House (the longest serving member) invites MPs to re-elect Speaker Bercow and ‘drag’ him to the chair. The smart money is on Rosie Winterton to replace Labour’s Natasha Engel as one of the deputy speakers.