1. BREX APPEAL
It’s Back to School Week, and Hogwarts SW1 has an extra ‘inset’ day. But while teachers across the land use their extra time to prep for a busy week, some suspect the real reason the Commons isn’t back until tomorrow is a sheer lack of legislation. Select Committees may not even be able to start their work fully thanks to continuing Government delays.
Still, ministers are busy and Brexit will dominate the week, with David Davis expected to make an oral statement tomorrow updating MPs on his talks with EU negotiator Michel Barnier and the position papers published so far. The topic is certain to get an airing at PMQs and Thursday has a double helping of DexEU Questions and the second reading of the EU Withdrawal Bill (the artist formerly known as The Great Repeal Bill).
Peter Mandelson writes in the Times that ministers face “serious, gruelling political trench warfare” over the bill, but Labour are not overegging the chances of Tory rebel support at committee stage. The whips’ weekend attempt to scare Tory Remainers has backfired, and Anna Soubry told Today that “there’s nothing weird or treacherous” about putting down an amendment and voting for one. She added the bill had “nothing to do with Brexit” and there was a “real danger that basic human rights will be removed” if ministerial diktat replaced Parliamentary scrutiny.
The threat that if MPs vote for amendments they will ‘get Corbyn’ is as credible as May’s election warning that if she lost just six seats, the nation would ‘get Corbyn’. I’m told the Remainers were informed after the election that as long as they voted for the Queen’s Speech and Budget, they were free on everything else, so no wonder some are indignant.
DD clearly has Brex appeal among many Tory backbenchers, but as he and Barnier resemble rutting stags this autumn, will we get movement on the key issue of immigration (which is set to be in one of the coming ‘position papers’)? We report today on some wriggle room for ministers, with a new survey showing Leave voters want to keep freedom of movement for skilled workers, and curb baristas and waiters instead. This is precisely why the separate Brexit bills on immigration and trade will make the EU Withdrawal Bill look like a picnic.
2. TAKE FIVE?
In ‘This House’, James Graham’s play about the 1974-79 Labour government, the playwright had the genius idea of using David Bowie’s ‘Five Years’ as musical interlude. “We’ve got five years, stuck on my eyes/Five years, what a surprise/We’ve got five years, my brain hurts a lot/Five years, that’s all we’ve got,” trills a Labour whip.
With Theresa May at the helm of the first minority government since then, few of her MPs think she will actually last the full five years to 2022, despite her falling into the Lobby’s cunning trap last week. Trade minister Greg Hands gave BBC5Live Pienaar’s Politics the bromides about having full confidence in the PM, but he ducked the question when asked if she’d lead the party into the next election. “I’m expecting it to be a five-year parliament, and five years is a long time in politics…I think the Prime Minister is doing, at the moment, a fantastic job.” ‘At the moment’, yes, those were his words.
Getting through Brexit will be exhausting enough for May, and Tim Shipman reported in the Sunday Times yesterday one ex-minister in a marginal seat saying: “she’ll be fighting the next election in her chuffing dreams and in our nightmares”. In an excellent piece, Tim revealed Joanna “Jojo” Penn, the PM’s deputy chief of staff (and close to former co-chiefs Timothy and Hill) is driving May’s hopes of toughing it out for five years.
But one indication of just how hamstrung May is comes in the Times story this morning on May deciding against a reshuffle planned for the wake of the Tory conference. When the reshuffle eventually happens (and sacking anyone is fraught with difficulty), Jacob Rees-Mogg is touted for a job, as well as the more credible Tom Tughenhadt. Many MPs are baffled Patrick McLoughlin was kept in post, but the idea of downgrading Boris to replace him as party chairman would surely start more internal warfare. Ironically, McLoughlin was seen by many MPs as the perfect Chief Whip back in 2010, with the experience needed to balance entreaty and threat.
3. ‘HI CORB!’ DIET
While Theresa May has rationed her public appearances since her return from holiday, Jeremy Corbyn has been very visible indeed, touring the nation with his summer marginal visits. And moves are afoot to ensure we see a lot more of JC, and his possible successors (Emily Thornberry in particular).
The Indy splashes today on a story HuffPost ran on Friday, namely that a ‘compromise’ plan is being backed by senior allies of Corbyn as a way to change the party’s leadership rules. The TSSA union told us that it had submitted an amendment to reduce the percentage of MPs’ nominations needed from 15% to 10%.
The plan is much more likely to attract backing than a rival move to cut the proportion to just 5%. At present, 42 MPs and MEPS are needed for any new leadership candidate, but if the change gets the go ahead, just 28 nominations will be required. Blairite group Progress rejects the idea that the 10% plan is a ‘compromise’ and will fight it as a diminution of MPs’ role, but the ruling National Executive Committee sound more open to it. As ever, the unions have the final say, and if the GMB and others swing behind it, it will happen.
But on Brexit, Labour MPs are happier than they have been in some time, following Keir Starmer’s new policy of staying in the EU single market during a transition. Don’t forget this ‘development’ (not a U-turn, oh no) followed an outcry over Shadow Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner’s summer article suggesting a hard line. I’m told the unions went bonkers at that piece and helped secure a new line. This morning Gardiner told Today with some satisfaction that Labour wanted to stay in “a customs union, not THE customs union” in any transition. He’s right, that’s Starmer’s line too. But it’s not exactly clarity.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this woman take a bit too literally the ‘back a bit, back a bit’ advice of photographers as a drone camera flies overhead.
4. BAD KOREA MOVE
North Korea tensions are higher than ever after the regime claimed this weekend to have tested its first ever H-bomb. The New York Times had the most chilling estimates for experts saying the blast was four to sixteen times more powerful than any the North had set off before, “with far more destructive power than the bombs dropped on the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki”. This morning South Korea is doing its own drills to simulate an attack on the north, as it suspects Pyongyang is readying another ballistic launch.
After Trump’s tweets of a backlash (while attacking South Korea’s ‘appeasement’), the Guardian’s Jonny Freedland will be looking on at events with a particularly grim fascination. Under his pseudonym Sam Bourne, his new thriller To Kill The President starts with US officials trying desperately stop their president replying with a nuclear strike to mockery of his manhood by North Korea.
Boris Johnson has urged diplomacy (one thing a Freedland novel could never have got away with), yet the subplot here is the militarisation of not just North Korea’s government, but America’s too. Defence Secretary Jim Mattiss, who warned last night of ‘a massive military response’, was not for nothing known as ‘mad dog’ when he was in the forces. And Trump’s chief of staff is John Kelly, a former military colleague of the National Security Adviser General HR McMaster. Kelly is said to loathe Congress, which doesn’t bode well for scrutiny of Trump’s government. The bigger worry is that with the generals in charge at nearly every level, the hawks are in charge as never before.
5. CAP MAP
Part of the reason for May’s ill-judged comments on leading the Tories into 2022 was that she is super keen to show that she’s more than just a Brexit PM. And key to that is carrying out the promise to prove “we’re not deaf” (copyright P Hammond) on domestic policy worries thrown up by the election.
One such voter concern was the public sector pay cap and today the Sun reports that Hammond is ready to lift it. It says that Chief Secretary Liz Truss – whose to pay review bodies is overdue – is set to lift the cap over two years to keep costs down, with nurses first in line for rises. The Treasury said the story was ‘speculation’ (normally code for not knocking it down), but No10 sources say even that is too ‘generous’ an interpretation. Hammond has been playing hardball (suggesting this summer any extra pay would have to be found from other cuts). Let’s see.
There are other areas where May could make her government look more voter-friendly and Hammond’s hint to a bishop this weekend that he could toughen rules on fixed odds terminals is another clue that eyes are on other things than the EU.