The five things you need to know on Tuesday, February 7…
1) BREX BOMB?
Labour’s amendments to the Brexit bill fell last night, defeated by robust Government majorities of around 50. Brexit minister David Jones played hardball in the chamber, but with Tory Remainers focusing on today for their main act of rebellion, will David Davis play ‘good cop’ and signal some more detail on a final vote on the eventual Brexit deal?
At about 5.30pm today we will get the real crunch vote, on amendments which would stop the Government from signing a Brexit treaty until MPs and peers have approved it first. Anna Soubry signalled yesterday she could back Chris Leslie’s new clause 110, saying she may have “no alternative but to go against my government”.
The PM had a cryptic line yesterday, saying the House would have to wait for DD to set out his detailed position. Government whips are working hard to keep any rebellion numbers down and Cabinet will get an update this morning. Rebels know they need up to 30 backers, but say this is their very last chance to give MPs the right to stop the clock on the ticking Brexit timebomb over the next two years. There's even hot gossip in the Tea Room that George Osborne could back the amendment.
Away from the amendments, it’s the Shadow Cabinet at 9.45am where the splits in Labour will focus. Chief whip Nick Brown last night told the PLP (read my report HERE) that he personally wanted ‘consistency’, ie a renewed three-line whip ordering MPs to back the Brexit bill tomorrow night. But I’m told some Corbyn allies have been pushing for a free vote, to spare Diane Abbott and Clive Lewis having to quit.
Labour’s pro-Brexit Kate Hoey is a bit of an outlier in the party, but it was still quite a sight to see her declare on BBC’s Daily Politics yesterday of Theresa May: “When I watch prime minister’s questions now, or when I see her, particularly abroad at international events, I have to say I feel quite proud she is the prime minister of the UK”. No wonder the PM felt emboldened to finally hit back at Emily Thornberry yesterday (who now has the Ed Balls role of sledger-in-chief), calling her ‘Lady Nugee’. The PM will also be pleased by a new Telegraph report that PWC now forecasts the UK to grow faster than any other advanced economy over the next 30 years, thanks to Brexit.
2) WESTMINSTER GALL DEBATE
Some Tory MPs were surprised that John Bercow had the gall to accept applause from SNP and Labour MPs over his Donald Trump broadside. The Speaker has in the past been rather caustic about the habit of clapping, but had no problem with it yesterday as he basked in praise for his unprecedented attack on a sitting US President, attacking his “racism and sexism”. The incident was classic Bercow, delighting in the upset he would cause to former Tory colleagues (it’s hard to remember but he was once a Conservative MP) and the headlines he would generate.
Government sources are stressing that the outburst was also a classic straw man incident, as Trump’s White House had never raised the idea of him addressing both Houses of Parliament in the historic Westminster Hall. I note that one of the auction items at the Tory fundraising ball/party last night was “a dinner for 40 guests in a medieval hall in west London”. Maybe Trump could try that?
Sajid Javid told the Today programme that Bercow “doesn’t speak for the Government”. Last night, only Tory MP James Duddridge could be persuaded to publicly condemn the Speaker. But on the Today prog, Nadhim Zahawi said Bercow leaves himself "open to the accusation of hypocrisy” because of his welcome for Chinese President Xi. And he added this kicker: Bercow should now "think about" his position.
And even some MPs normally sympathetic to Bercow think he overstepped the mark and raised doubts about the political neutrality of his role. Bercow allies say he is strictly impartial on domestic politics but has a right to speak out on behalf of Parliament on international affairs. I bumped into Michael Gove last night and he said simply “John is John..” Which was what Tony Blair said about Prescott’s punch. Trump’s team probably won’t risk trying for a speech in the alternative venue of the Lords’ Royal Gallery, but today Lords Speaker Lord Fowler (who distanced himself from Bercow last night) will say more.
3) HOUSE PARTY
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid will today publish his White Paper on housing with a clear bid to extend the Tories’ reputation as not just the party of homeowners but also of home-renters. That’s a big ask, but shows the Conservatives’ ambition to grab the centre ground and hold it, even if it means nicking some Labour-ish policies.
And Ed Miliband was quick late last night to pounce on a Sun story claiming that Javid will copy his ‘use it or lose it’ 2015 manifesto plan to crack down on developers holding onto land. The paper says Javid will target ‘land banking’ with new powers to seize the land if it’s not built on in time. Miliband drily tweeted ‘From Mugabe to May in a few short years’, with a link to a HuffPost story about Boris comparing him to the Zimbabwean leader back in 2013. Add in today’s pre-payment meter energy price cap and you can see why Ed’s feeling he was ahead of the curve.
Sometimes he misses the curve completely, though. Miliband was up late on Sunday night, to watch his favourite team, the New England Patriots, in the SuperBowl. But when they looked beaten going into the third quarter, he gave up and went to bed. He was gutted the next morning when he realised he’d missed the greatest comeback in Superbowl history, his team snatching victory at the death. Maybe he’d been burned by 2015 election night, and EU referendum night, and 'Things Can Only Get Better' seemed a distant memory...
Meanwhile, Tory backbenchers are delighted after seeing off possible new relaxation of the Green Belt. That speculation had been fuelled by Javid last year praising a new plan in Birmingham to reduce its protected area and build more homes. No.10 has since stamped firmly all over that, but discontent continues among rural Tory MPs. The Times today follows up and adds to our HuffPost report that backbenchers are upset about not just school funding but also a new council formula that’s left many without funds for social care.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Donald Trump accuse the media of not reporting ‘terror attacks’ in Europe, adding ‘they have their reasons’. The White House then published a list of 78 such attacks, inviting further ridicule.
4) STOKE-ING THE FIRE
It was a busy day in the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election campaign yesterday, with Lib Dem Tim Farron, Labour’s Jon Ashworth and UKIP’s Paul Nuttall all on the stump. Our man Owen Bennett pottered about in the Potteries to cover it all.
Funnily enough one of the first things eagle-eyed Owen spotted was that Nuttall’s campaigners included an ex-Ukip councillor suspended from the party for making a joke about 71 migrants who died in a lorry. Richard Broughan, who now sits on Stoke City Council as an independent, had been forced to quit after he sent a tweet mocking those who died in refrigerated lorry in Austria. (“#IsItOk to ask migrants to ‘chill out’ following the Austrian refrigerated lorry incident?”). Broughan told us: “I wasn’t saying that it’s ok. I wasn’t condoning the question.” No, really.
Farron told us that there would be no ‘progressive alliance’ with ‘Hard Brexit Labour’, though he was friendly to the Greens. In a HuffPost interview, Nuttall says he’s changed his mind on NHS privatisation. At last night’s PLP, Labour MPs were told the party is starting to get ‘traction’ in Stoke (and the NHS argument was having ‘cut through’ in Copeland). But local MP Ruth Smeeth had a swipe at Shadow Cabinet ministers ‘talking down’ Labour’s chances, a reference to Clive Lewis warning the party was ‘holding on by its fingernails’ in Stoke and elsewhere.
5) OFFA’S SPIKE
Under the Lib-Dem Tory Coalition, many Conservatives were wary of the creation of the new Office For Fair Access and its aim to get poorer kids into university. The body was officially dubbed OFFA and unoffically derided as ‘Off-Toff’ by critics. Its chief Professor Les Ebdon came under repeated attack, despite strong defences by the Cameroons. And yesterday we learned that this was one bit of the Cameron legacy that Theresa May doesn’t intend to tear up.
Ebdon issued new guidance for universities that will force them to do more to explain what they are doing to raise A level grades for less well off pupils. Unis have said they shouldn’t get the blame because poorer kids don’t perform so well, but Ebdon hit back yesterday that this argument “doesn’t hold water”.
So far, so predictable. But what was striking was No.10 saying it strongly “welcomed” his new guidance “as an important first step towards creating thriving university-supported schools”. It is also, of course, a key part of the PM’s ‘just about managing’ agenda. Meanwhile, Uni minister Jo Johnson’s US-style sale of the student loan book was confirmed yesterday. But will it really recoup £12bn in the long run for the exchequer? One to keep an eye on.
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