1. CHAOS THEORY
In yet another indication of the Brexit department’s smoother PR machine, David Davis has led the news overnight with his simple line on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill: “A vote against this Bill is a vote for a chaotic exit”. As MPs gear up for the second reading vote, DD’s talk of the dangers of a ‘cliff-edge’ Brexit has prompted hollow laughs from Labour and other critics, but the Government is quietly confident it has the numbers.
Ken Clarke told SkyNews it was “completely hopeless” to suggest Brexit could be reversed, in the process shooting down Tony Blair’s idea that tougher migration controls could avoid the need to exit. As for the bill, Tory Remainers like Clarke say they’re waiting for concessions at Committee Stage. One curio tonight: Justice Secretary David Lidington will close the debate for the Government. He’s not a Brexit minister, nor a Foreign Office minister. Indeed Lidington was long seen by Eurosceps as having ‘gone native’ when he was Europe minister. So why is May deploying him? First, as a former Commons Leader he knows House procedure backwards. Second, it’s precisely his mastery of EU detail that May values. Third, Tory Remainers know he was one of them. Still, it’s odd no DexEU minister is thought up to the task. Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Matt Pennycook closes for his party.
Following pressure from Tory backbenchers, extra time for debate has been granted tonight and the vote will take place after midnight. The programme motion (allocating time later in the bill’s passage) could be tight. But as the BBC’s Mark Darcy points out, the real action will come after all the votes as backbenchers rush to the table their amendments. There’s a first-come, first-served tradition, so expect a Brexit bunfight.
All these late night votes will give the Commons a 1970s air, with memories of the minority Labour government limping along. Tonight Tory MPs Andrea Jenkyns and Jack Lopresti will bring their six-month-old son to Parliament to make sure they can both vote. The Times reveals Tory MPs have even been encouraged by the whips’ office to take taxis across London or even book £150-a-night hotels to help soften the blow of all the late nights ahead. But all leave is cancelled.
As for the substance of what kind of Brexit, and transition, we are likely to get, there are two interesting Cabinet Brexiteer contributions. The Express reports that Liam Fox is playing hardball, and told pals last week he wanted to show Brussels how he had no fear of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. “My next project is give the case for WTO [World Trade Organisation] rules,” he said. Boris Johnson (on whom May now has a curious dependence, see below), told the Today programme that the current “sit rep” was that Government policy was “exactly where we were in her excellent Lancaster House speech”. But he admitted the Hammond victory on a transition phase. “maybe in implementation [it will take] a bit longer…”.
As journalists’ interest flags amid the prospect of years of dull stories about trade tariffs, there’s a couple of flag stories about today. The Sun reports a store in Brussels has already dumped the Union Flag from EU merchandise. “It’s all new, and the UK is gone because they aren’t part of Europe now,” said a sales assistant. Nigel Farage tells the Guardian how outraged he is that EU flags were waved at the Last Night Of the Proms. “I got chucked out of the Albert Hall three times last night for handing out flags inside,” said Clive Lewis. That’s Clive Lewis, a 60-year-old consultant engineer, not the Labour MP.
2. BLAME GAME
The new book on the election by Tim Ross and Tom McTague, ‘Betting the House’, had some superb nuggets yesterday, not least how Theresa May reacted on election night as it dawned her snap poll gamble had failed spectacularly. One of the most telling vignettes was how a tearful PM was cheered by the swift support of both David Davis and Boris Johnson, the two Cabinet ministers she feared most would make a move to depose her.
Boris’ early morning text read ‘Chin up…we are with you and behind you’. May was so relieved “she held up her phone in joy” to show her team. There are so many fascinating bits in the Mail on Sunday extracts, not least repeated claims that DD was a big influence in May going for the snap election at all (and the unappealing revelation of ‘chicken lasagne’ meals for Tory staffers). I was struck by the Cameron-like insouciance of her ex-chief of staff Nick Timothy, who saw the early exit poll and winked and told a colleague: “Don’t worry about that, it’s all fine. Nothing we’ve seen says anything like it.” Bit like Cameron telling EU ministers he would win the EU referendum, “it’s fine, I’ve got this”.
Chris Wilkins, May’s longtime speechwriter (now back it seems) also blamed Lynton Crosby for the Presidential campaign: “In the campaign, we basically just screwed the brand completely, hers and the party’s. We suddenly became the establishment candidate and Corbyn the candidate for change.”
As that blame game continues, it has emerged that Sir Eric Pickles, the former party chairman, will present a report on the campaign to the conference in Manchester. But the Times says that Pickles’ report will be a joint effort with Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. A reminder that May’s future rests not just in the hands of DD and Boris, but also Brady.
3. ICE ICED BABY?
The BBC had to scoop yesterday that the 1% pay cap would be lifted later this week for police and prison officers. The TUC’s Frances O’Grady says this is “the first crack in the ice” of the wages freeze that has hit millions since the chilling effect of George Osborne’s arrival as Chancellor in 2010.
Of course, it’s far from clear how the pay rise would be funded, not least as everyone in government makes clear extra borrowing won’t be happening. It’s also not clear whether all officers would benefit. The bigger issue is whether there will be an across-the-board pay rise for all public sector workers and unions are stepping up their plans for coordinated action with motions at the TUC today.
Labour plans a (non-binding) vote on ending the pay cap in the Commons on Wednesday, but in Brighton last night John McDonnell went further, telling a National Shop Stewards Network that the party would support strikers. “We’ll be in parliament supporting you and we’ll be on the picket line supporting you as well.” It’s a far cry from the Shadow Cabinet row last year when Heidi Alexander was unhappy at McDonnell and Corbyn coming close to joining striking junior doctors. Talk of a ‘winter of discontent’ often starts before party conferences, but this year ‘general strike’ calls from trade unionists seem louder than before.
Meanwhile, there’s another issue to worry Tory MPs: the roll out of the Universal Credit. MPs are already seeing the issues via their casework, and it’s only been rolled out to a fraction of cases so far. Citizens’ Advice, which has a new report out today analysing 50,000 cases, says the expansion is “a disaster waiting to happen”. Some 79% have priority debts such a rent or council tax, putting them at greater risk of eviction. The debate over a ‘taper’ will resurface ahead of the Budget again, but will Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke have a new approach?
4. MODS N ROCKERS
The Parliamentary Labour Party has its first meeting since the summer break tonight, but Jeremy Corbyn won’t be addressing the troops. Keir Starmer will instead be the main speaker, ahead of the big Brexit night, with Shadow Chief Secretary Peter Dowd following up.
At exactly the same time (6pm), a few yards away in Committee Room 11, there will be the latest ‘Moderate Meet-Up’ of Labour’s centrists. The event, organised by Progress and Labour First to marshal their forces in the run-up to conference, will see Alison McGovern, John Spellar, Wes Streeting and others discuss issues such as the possible leadership rule changes due in Brighton. In a blog for HuffPost UK, Progress director Richard Angell writes: “Labour’s leadership seems hellbent on a conference of constitutional wrangling, and unnecessary division.”
But the Left scents an historic shift in the way Labour is organised. Len McCluskey on 5Live yesterday made plain that he would prefer a more radical change than even lowering the MPs’ threshold for leadership nominations, arguing that members should have a say. “The idea that it is only MPs that decide who goes on a ballot paper, I think is wrong…I’d like to widen the franchise.” Corbyn is on Radio 4′s World at One, let’s see if he’s asked about it.
Corbyn supporters’ suspicions about Barack Obama were fuelled yesterday when the Ross/McTague book revealed the former President rang Tory campaigns HQ on election night to reassure May that Labour friends had told him they expected to lose seats. Obama has form here, having last December warned Labour was “disintegrating”. I recall when they met in April 2016 during Obama’s visit, it wasn’t exactly a meeting of minds.
5. FIRE RISK
Crucial fire safety tests are carried out on less than one-in-twenty at-risk buildings each year, HuffPost UK has learned as experts warn of a “broken” system of fire safety that should be overhauled in the aftermath of the Grenfell disaster.
Eleven years ago, new legislation was introduced that meant owners of commercial and common parts of residential buildings were responsible for assessing fire risk, shifting the burden away from the state and the fire service, which had issued safety certificates.
But fire safety professionals have told HuffPost UK that the disaster in west London, which killed 80 people, has raised questions over whether the Regulatory Reform (Fire Safety) Order (RRO) is fit for purpose and exposing millions of people to danger.
The Grenfell public inquiry starts this week, and it already looks like it will be a marathon. Officials still talk of the emotional impact the disaster had – and continues to have - on civil servants and ministers alike. One thing’s for sure: the PM knows she can’t take her eye off the ball again.