1. BLACK OPPS
Oppositions have two main weapons: words and Parliamentary votes. Yesterday, Theresa May underlined how tenuous her majority really is by making sure that her troops only vote on legislation, not words. With the DUP signalling it would vote with Labour, the PM decided her party would not oppose the Opposition Day motions on either an NHS pay rise or on tuition fees. Crucially, that meant there was no vote recorded other than unanimous approval, and no way to say how individual MPs voted.
And this was no one-off. In a significant shift in the way the Government treats the Commons, Tory sources told me they have decided not to oppose any future Opposition Day motions. In other words, MPs can say whatever they like but as long as there’s a non-binding motion, the PM will tell her troops to give a collective ‘meh’. Government whips will instead focus on turning out the numbers for “votes that matter”, ie on legislation such as Brexit bills.
The change is an extension of David Cameron’s edict in 2011 that he wouldn’t whip his MPs on backbench business debates. With late-night, knife-edge votes expected over the next five years on much more important things, the view among ministers is now that they want to give their MPs a break on Opposition ‘stunts’ designed to tell voters how nasty the Tories are. In effect, they’ve decided to walk off the pitch and take the ball with them, leaving the other team with an empty goal but no chance to score.
On one level, this is brutally cynical but effective personnel management. It reduces all Opposition Days to mere debating society events, with no consequence. As I wrote yesterday, many MPs are weary of their inboxes being bombarded with online petitions and campaign groups claiming they should or shouldn’t back a particular motion. Their ‘TheyVoteForYou’ ranking will no longer include ‘votes against’ various Labour (or SNP, LibDem, Green or DUP) proposals. In future, Opp Day motions will be the verbal equivalent of Early Day Motions, mere symbolism.
Yet critics believe last night was a black day for Parliament. They say this is not some procedural navel-gazing, but all about the respect that the executive should show the legislature. EDMs, 10-minute rule bills, Opposition Day, Westminster Hall and backbench business debates are all meant to provide mechanisms whereby non-Government voices are heard but also used to influence policy. Ministers are supposed to worry about their outcome, but it looks like they won’t any more.
Labour’s Angela Rayner said that May was ‘running scared’ of Parliament. Kevin Brennan raised the fascinating prospect of some Labour MPs taking the Government’s place in opposing a motion, just to allow a division. That could result in a series of 262-0 votes. Labour says this latest contempt for the Commons is of a piece with May’s ‘power grab’ on standing committees, on the EU Withdrawal Bill’s Henry VIII powers and refusal to allow time for Opposition debates. Many Tories will shrug and say ‘suck it up, we’ve got a working majority’. But some may think it’s just not cricket. The biggest winners of all, again, are the DUP – who can vote how they like while getting that big £1bn for Northern Ireland. Speaker Bercow has an interview with the Institute for Government today (where Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom is set to appear), so he may share his views on the new Government approach.
2. COP THAT
Amid the constitutional row, we shouldn’t forget that the Opposition motion was about the public sector pay freeze. And yesterday in PMQs Theresa May decided to go on the offensive after unions had poured a bucket of manure over her announcement that she was possibly, maybe melting the ice cap.
But in claiming that police officers had received an average of 32% since 2010, once tax cuts and progression pay had been included, the PM sounded more politically tone deaf than ever. When the Daily Mail asked No.10 afterwards ‘if they’ve had a 32% rise why do they need another one?’ there was a brief pause from the PM’s spokesman as the Press Gallery laughed. The spokesman wasn’t sure if it was a joke or a real question, but eventually answered that the PM wanted to recognise the public service of officers in ‘testing times’.
The problem was that the Police Federation swiftly told HuffPostUK that May’s stat was a “downright lie”. The former Home Secretary took on and defeated the PolFed during the Coalition years, but her tone yesterday sounded like Gordon Brown’s bunker. And given that Labour very effectively used the police cuts/terror risk axis in the general election, it seems odd that the day after she gave cops a pay rise (albeit small), she should seek to suggest they’ve never had it so good.
Perhaps May’s hardball really was another sign that the Treasury is digging in and demanding no across the board rises without savings to fund them or real evidence of recruitment and retention problems. (A heretical thought here though: May could change the narrative by using cash from a planned Corporation Tax cut to help fund the pay rise. Even though that’s a Labour policy). There’s also the problem of sequencing, with NHS and troops only due any rise from next April. Never mind the whole issue of the many public sector workers who are not covered by independent review bodies. It won’t be easy. In the debate yesterday, Labour MP and practicing nurse Karen Lee revealed how one NHS ward housekeeper told her ‘you can earn more at Lidl than I get’.
3. FLORENCE AND THE MACHINE
Downing Street finally confirmed to us yesterday the date and venue for the long-awaited Big ‘Sit-Rep’ Speech that the PM will make on Brexit. It’s next Friday and in Florence. When we asked why she’d chosen the Italian city, the PM’s spokesman told us she “wanted to give a speech on the UK’s future relationship with Europe in its historical heart”. He went on: “The UK has had deep cultural and economic ties spanning centuries with Florence, a city known for its historical trading power. As the UK leaves the EU, we will retain those close ties. As the prime minister has said on many occasions, we are leaving the EU, not Europe.” Anti-Brexiteers will see that as more harking back to Tudor times, and could point out Florence went into decline in the 16th century as its wool trade was taken by other parts of Europe. Brexiteers will say the UK is long due its own Renaissance.
Jean-Claude Juncker’s state of the union speech was a gift to No.10, as was Ringo Starr telling Newsnight that he used to support the EU but now thinks it’s a ‘shambles’ and the UK should ‘get on with Brexit. Less of a gift was former Bank Governor Mervyn King (a Brexiteer) saying he was ‘not terribly impressed’ that ministers had failed to set out what their ‘fallback position’ was if they didn’t get a deal.
Just what May says in her speech is of course the next focus. A restatement of her Lancaster House lines wouldn’t really cut it. Everyone will be watching to see if she nods more to the Hammond worldview (he told the City last night he was ‘getting clarity soon on issues of transition’) or the Boris/Fox one (WTO rules are just fine thanks). Meanwhile, the Times has a fascinating report about May’s allies trying to placate an “out of sorts” Boris Johnson for fear that he could disrupt the Tory conference or even quit.
The foreign secretary is angry at claims that he misled voters during the Brexit campaign about whether the UK would face an exit payment. And he thinks that he has been sidelined as May prepares to compromise over the divorce bill to unblock negotiations. Boris is thought to have two red lines: the size of any exit payments and no transition deal that lasts more than two years. Both he and Michael Gove (who told MPs yesterday he, DD, Bojo and Fox are ’brothers from a different mother) are being closely consulted on the Big Speech. But if May ignores Boris the fear is he could use his party conference address to set out his alternative. Will she see that as blackmail or just the reality of her position?
Boris is due to hold a press conference with US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today. But he’s got into another scrape out in the Caribbean, where he told Channel 4 News: “That very plane I’ve just arrived on is laden with aid”. Channel 4 checked and the plane wasn’t.
4. GRENFELL REVISITED
The Grenfell public inquiry opens today with a 45-minute statement from its chairman. Wrangles still continue over who should get ‘core participant’ status, and although an interim report is due next Easter this is clearly going to be a long haul.
The only two survivors from the 23rd floor of Grenfell Tower described the hellish journey to get out, claiming dozens of others stayed believing a helicopter would rescue them. Farhad Neda and his mother Flora survived thanks to an air pocket. Flora told Channel 4 News: ’35 or 40 people came up and they said the fire brigade told us you have to go up and we send for you helicopter rescue.’
We’ve talked to residents and relatives and the message is clear: they want justice to mean prosecutions and punishment. Newsnight had fresh claims of what many suspected, that the cladding on the tower was a cheaper version than others. But it will be interesting to see just whether or how everyone has jumped the gun on the cause or causes of the fire.
One of the least noticed parts of George Osborne’s Esquire interview yesterday was his firm insistence that his newspaper would not chase down what he felt was the erroneous claim that ‘austerity’ and ‘Tory cuts’ led to the disaster. “I was sceptical of the instant experts in other papers who rushed to blame the whole thing on Kensington and Chelsea Council saving costs.. “It’s the kind of sloppy journalism I’m trying to get my paper, at least, away from. The failure was a massive failure of fire standards over many, many years, and that is a scandal we’ve talked about.”
He’s right that a lack of regulation under both Labour and Tory governments may be the real focus, but the inquiry may shed new light on all that. If the hearings somehow mix the Hutton Inquiry’s forensic rigour with the Hillsborough Inquiry’s human focus and testimony, we will all benefit.
5. OBJECT IN THE BAGGING AREA
Esquire’s extended profile of George Osborne has certainly created waves with its eye-catching line about him not resting until Theresa May is “chopped up in bags in my freezer”. The aside is said to have been made to Evening Standard staff more than once, though there’s no confirmation from the Editor if he did indeed utter the line (some think it sounds more like the kind of thing David Cameron would say).
The remark was met with a speedy backlash however as plenty on Twitter felt it was evidence of sexism as well as a penchant for low-budget horror movies. Labour’s Chris Bryant used a debate on women in politics to declare “It’s that kind of language, which I think is misogynistic in its basis, which should be done away with”.
Iain Duncan Smith said that macabre imagery was irresponsible in an era in which women in public life faced “vile abuse”. Maria Miller, who chairs the women and equalities committee, said: “We need to debate with facts not vile personal abuse.” Let’s see if Osborne – who had conjured up Dead Woman Walking and other zombie imagery in his paper of late - in any way addresses the topic in his Standard leader column today.