1. BRUSSELS MUSCLE, COMMONS HUSTLE
Divorce in Britain is at a 45-year low, the FT reports today. But is our looming divorce from the EU going to be amicable or acrimonious, smooth or rough? That’s the biggest question of our times and, as Dominic Grieve said in an impressive speech yesterday, “everything else in politics is subordinate to this issue”.
I’ve done a WaughZone special HERE on how the Queen’s Speech really did prove “there is no Mayism’ (“I know you journalists like to write about it,” the PM told us in Halifax, a political lifetime ago).
The set of bills certainly underlined the sheer scale of the Parliamentary trench warfare Theresa May now faces. And Grieve, one of those Tory Remainers who now have the Government’s fate in their hands, pointed out that he would only vote for “a sensible outcome” (in fact “sensible”, rather than “soft” Brexit is the favoured phrase of many from the Osborneites to Lib Dems and some in Labour). Ominously for the whips, Grieve warned: “the totality of opinion in this House will start to matter very much” in the next two years.
The election result means that she will now be fighting on two fronts, in Brussels and back home. With or without the DUP (and it looks like ‘with’), May will have to get her eight Brexit bills, particularly the huge ‘Reform Bill’, through the Commons and there will be some titanic battles over just what shape they take. The PM said “we seek to build consensus as we take bills through this House”, a hint that she knows it’s not just her Cabinet but her MPs who will ultimately decide the nature of our divorce settlement.
There’s a lot of excitable talk about the Scottish Parliament and the House of Lords preparing to derail Brexit. Yet much of it is overblown. Scottish Secretary David Mundell said last year the Repeal Bill was likely to be “subject of a legislative consent process” in Holyrood, but the Supreme Court made plain that would have no legal force. And in the Lords, no matter what the Lib Dems say, it’s Labour which has the numbers that count and its leader Baroness Smith made clear yesterday the Salisbury Convention would apply even to this minority government.
Smith’s bigger, more important point about Salisbury was one that No.10 was stressing yesterday (though for different reasons): the primacy of the Commons is all. And she added this: “the House of Commons has Primacy - not the Executive or Government”. What really could cause a constitutional crisis is if ministers try to slip Henry VIII powers into the Repeal Bill. The PM said yesterday “Not every problem can be solved by an Act of Parliament”. Yet it’s clear many of her own problems can be created by them.
A new report by think tank UK in a Changing EU predicts a ‘chaotic’ hard Brexit, largely because Jonathan Portes and Prof John Curtice think there’s no way May can back away from migration control. For all his talk of transitional deals, Chancellor Philip Hammond, who did the morning media round without much trouble, still hasn’t come up with a way to square that particular circle.
Meanwhile, the PM heads off to Brussels for a summit where Emmanuel Macron will be the star and she will be a bit player. She’ll preview her “big and generous” post-Brexit citizens’ rights offer. But as Politico points out, there is no time scheduled for a response to May’s statement. Once again, she could be met with a deafening silence.
2. BORIS’S BLUNDERBUSS
For Cabinet ministers, one downside of being allowed off the leash by May’s weakened authority is that they have to answer some serious questions. And Boris Johnson last night uttered three little words that could have a huge impact on the PM’s fate. Asked by Channel 4 News’ Cathy Newman if he would rule out challenging for the Tory leadership before Brexit in 2019, he replied: “Certainly, I do.”
It’s perhaps just as well he’s shunning the chance to take the top job given his earlier, car-crash interview with Eddie Mair on Radio 4’s PM programme. Mair famously skewered Boris before on the Marr Show and last night he proved he is one of the few interviewers who won’t fall for the bluff and bluster.
Asked about the PM’s promise to tackle racial discrimination in the criminal justice system, he replied: “Well, there are measures, I believe, in the bill on the courts, which I think is supposed to address some of those issues. I think one thing in particular that we are looking at is measures to . . . hang on a second . . .” Johnson later tried to return to the issue to give a full answer but was told by Mair: “It’s not a Two Ronnies sketch. You can’t answer the question before last.” This was one of the most excruciating media interactions of his career. And given his fondness for having cake and eating it, I suspect he can’t blame it on his low blood sugar levels.
As well as his bluster, Boris also laid bare two other factors that make him unpalatable to some Tory MPs: his closeness to Trump and his belief that the Brexit circle can indeed be squared. He told Sky News that the US President’s state visit “will go ahead”, despite not being mentioned in the Queen’s Speech. He also said Brexit could be finalised within two years without a transitional deal (something Hammond thinks is deeply naïve if not dangerous).
3. DUP, DUP AND AWAY
Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP’s chief whip, was on the Today programme dismissing as ‘nonsense’ claims that his party was demanding £2bn in NHS and big project spending. He conceded it wanted “some money for health and education, some money for infrastructure” but nothing like the sums canvassed (which would have meant £1,000 per person in Northern Ireland).
Yet amid reports that the deal with the Tories is 95% of the way there, he also had a hint that it was indeed very close, saying “it will become evident once the agreement is published”. Donaldson said “pensioners” were a priority, a clear signal that the winter fuel payments won’t be touched, and probably the triple lock too. Those are big ticket items, meaning the Treasury would have to find the money elsewhere. As for the curbs on austerity more widely, he simply smiled and said: “If what we do benefits people across the United Kingdom then as unionists that’s something we are proud of.” Deputy leader Nigel Dodds yesterday told the Commons he wanted an end to “the dark tunnel of austerity”.
The Sun have done a calculation and come up with a figure that the DUP deal could cost the UK a cool £50bn if England, Wales and Scotland were handed similar largesse to Ulster’s. They also have a fascinating line that No.10 dug in recently on the cash demands, with a Government source saying there was a “take it or leave it package closer to £750 million” last week.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch these two elephants rescue a drowning calf in a zoo.
4. TOWER EXIT
Before the Queen’s Speech debate on housing and social security, Theresa May will make a Commons statement on the Grenfell Tower response. She finally apologised for the local and national ‘state failure’ yesterday, nearly a week after the event.
Overnight it emerged that Kensington and Chelsea’s chief executive Nicholas Holgate had been forced to quit by Communities Secretary Sajid Javid. Holgate said he had wanted to stay in post to get on with the response effort, but had realised his continuing presence would be a “distraction” from helping the Grenfell victims. He insisted his team had “always endeavoured to have the interests of our residents at heart”.
In some ways this has clear echoes of the ‘Baby P’ case when Ed Balls as Education Secretary effectively forced out Haringey’s head of children’s services Sharon Shoesmith. The Cabinet minister knows the public won’t have a problem with seeing someone fired, but there will be unease that what should be local decisions are being made centrally – especially when the PM herself has been under attack and has admitted Whitehall failed too. Will the DCLG permanent secretary quit too? I doubt it.
Council leader Nick Paget Brown said he deeply regretted his chief executive’s decision to step aside. But Paget Brown’s own future is also in doubt. I’m told he will meet the Labour group and other councilors today. He has no “immediate” plans to resign himself, but that word suggests it can’t be long.
5. SOFT (FRUIT) BREXIT
UK summer fruit and salad growers are having difficulty recruiting pickers, with more than half saying they don’t know if they will have enough migrant workers to harvest their crops, a new BBC survey has found. Many growers blame the weak pound which has reduced their workers’ earning power, as well as uncertainty over Brexit.
About 80,000 seasonal workers a year pick and process British fruit and veg. Most of them are from the European Union, mainly Romania and Bulgaria. Now the Government told a select committee last year that net migration figures showed there was enough UK labour to meet the shortfalls, but this survey suggests that was wildly optimistic.
The industry wants the restoration of a Seasonal Agricultural Workers Scheme, which used to allow growers and farmers to attract workers from across the world.