The five things you need to know on Wednesday, March 8…
1) TAKING A PHIL PILL
It’s Philip Hammond’s first and last spring Budget. And the Chancellor is determined to use his image as a penny-pinching accountant to maximum advantage, as he tries to steer the British economy and finances through both Brexit and deficit reduction. ‘Boring is good,’ he has told colleagues. The Treasury photo last night of him at his desk was a sharp contrast to the Byron Burger-munching showiness of George Osborne. As the Mogadon man of this Government, Hammond's whole Phil-osophy is to calm things down, look at the big picture and shun gimmicks.
But does boring also mean leaden-footed? Hammond resisted calls in the Autumn Statement for an injection of funds to the NHS and social care, yet today looks set to deliver at least an extra £1.3bn (as well as a review looking at Japanese and German-style care systems). Labour may say that’s too little, too late. The Chancellor’s defenders point out that both he and No.10 were still learning on the job last November.
The FT’s George Parker has a fascinating piece on relations between May and Hammond, pointing out the Chancellor felt No.10 was ‘all over him’ ahead of the Autumn Statement. Relations are now more ‘respectful’, insiders say. The Sun points to a boost for boozers, with a business rates relief plan for hard-pressed pubs. But will he go ahead with insurance hikes and a self-employed National Insurance rise? And will he use tax rises to help amend the new schools funding formula that has upset both Tory and Labour MPs?
Meanwhile, it’s International Women’s Day and the PM has told Mumsnet there will be more cash to combat domestic violence. But there will also be a fresh lobby of Parliament by ‘Waspi women’, those born in the 1950s who lost out on their state pension when the government equalised the retirement age at 65 for both men and women. Few are expecting a rabbit out of Big Phil’s Budget hat on that one. But imagine if he did...
2) TAKING THE MICHAEL
Hezza has found out the hard way that you don’t defy Theresa May and get away with it. Lord Heseltine’s decision to rebel and back the Lords’ ‘meaningful vote’ amendment on the Brexit bill was followed last night by the smack of firm government. The Chief Whip in the Lords told him he had been “sacked” from the five various advisory roles to ministers he held on such matters as regeneration and infrastructure.
Many Tory MPs will be delighted by the ‘pour encourager les autres’ approach of No.10. It underlines that May was particularly brutal in her sacking of George Osborne, Michael Gove and Nicky Morgan. But others will wonder just whether it was worth it, given that even critics of Hezza’s strong pro-EU views recognise the man has decades of experience on getting things done in areas May wants to promote (industrial strategy, planning, reviving towns and cities). It seems odd that the former Cabinet minister who started regeneration of both London docklands and Liverpool and pushed through the M40 extension to Birmingham (three achievements that few MPs can match in terms of long-term impact) is now surplus to requirements.
On the Today programme, Heseltine said he hadn’t actually been contacted by No10. He said he had done ‘three, four days a week’ over the last 6 years. I know that Business Secretary Greg Clark, in his various jobs, has welcomed Hezza’s desk being near his ministerial offices. Heseltine told the BBC that ‘I’ve had no relationship with No.10 since the new Prime Minister [took over]…’ He added the bombshell: “I’ve never met Theresa May”, though he conceded “she’s doing well in the polls”.
3) TIME GENTLEMEN, PLEASE
The BBC has a recording that appears to capture Surrey council leader David Hodge admitting he had secured a “gentleman’s agreement” with ministers over social care funding. Quick recap: Hodge ditched a plan to hike council tax by 15%, Jeremy Corbyn revealed leaked texts from Hodge showing he had a new memorandum of understanding with Whitehall, but Theresa May denied there was any ‘sweetheart deal’ to give preferential treatment to a Tory council.
The BBC Surrey tape reveals that Hodge told his councillors he had direct dealings with Communities Secretary Sajid Javid, including a conversation with the minister in his car outside Downing Street. Javid then went into Number 10 and spoke to Chancellor Philip Hammond before relaying back “some things which they could say, and some things which they couldn’t say”. In an extract of the recording, Hodge said if the "gentleman's agreement" is not "honoured" then the council will have to "revisit this in nine months or a year’s time”.
It looks like the Government was canny enough to ensure that any new funding on social care would be for all councils, not just Tory ones, but you can bet Labour will be hitting this hard. With Corbyn needing an easy warm-up to the much more difficult task of responding to the Budget (remember its the Leader of the Opposition, not the Shadow Chancellor, who answers on Budget day), it looks like a cert for PMQs.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this robot solve a Rubik’s Cube in record time. Ed Miliband eatcha heart out.
4) ALF, DARN’ IT
The cries of ‘shame!’ went up as the vote came in, confirming the Commons had defeated a mini-Tory rebellion on child refugees. The Government had a majority of 20 votes as it fended off the amendment to the Children and Social Work Bill, which would have forced councils to identify if they had space for unaccompanied minors following the closure of the Alf Dubs scheme.
In the end just Heidi Allen, who tabled the amendment, and two other Tory backbenchers (Nicky Morgan and Tania Matthias) defied their whips. At least seven others who had spoken out beforehand - David Burrowes, David Warburton, Will Quince, Anna Soubry, Victoria Borwick, Tim Loughton and Derek Thomas - opted not to back it.
Labour MPs mutter that this just proves you can’t trust ‘Tory rebels’. Burrowes argues that he abstained because ministers conceded that they would publish a safeguarding strategy. Other Tories privately say Allen is now seen as so toxic in the party that they can’t back her. Yet it underlines once more that a mix of strong whipping and entreaty can ensure a Commons majority ‘that works for everyone’ (in No.10).
5) EXPEL SPREADSHEET
More than 10 suspended members of the Labour party are facing expulsion over anti-semitism after its NEC disputes committee decided to refer them for a formal disciplinary hearing. Among those are Jackie Walker, whom HuffPost revealed had made various remarks about Holocaust Memorial Day and security in Jewish schools last year. Walker was removed as Momentum’s vice-chair and yesterday received virtually no support from allies of the group’s founder Jon Lansman.
Meanwhile, Labour’s unorthodox approach to party discipline over the Brexit bill continues. Remember several members of the junior frontbench (including three whips) are still in post despite defying a three-line whip. John McDonnell (fresh from his lively exchanges with members of the PLP on Monday) has told the Eastern Daily Press that he hopes Clive Lewis - who quit as Shadow Business Secretary to vote against the bill - will “be back with us soon” in the Shadow Cabinet. “There will be a role for Clive almost certainly in the future, and we will be talking to him about that shortly.”
As for Labour’s big vision more widely, backbencher and women’s PLP chair Jess Phillips today takes part in our Commons People Live event to discuss her book, Everywoman. It’s all part of our International Women’s Day events, and our month-long All Women Everywhere series. Get away from the post-Budget white noise by tuning in from 4.30pm on our Facebook page HERE. Jess has also done us a vlog HERE.
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