The Waugh Zone Friday July 19, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Theresa May is so much an irrelevance now that even government losses are ascribed not to her but to her likely successor. Yes, that 41-vote drubbing yesterday on proroguing parliament was in many ways ‘Boris Johnson’s first Commons defeat’, even before he’s become PM. Johnson likes to launch himself at political problems feet first, but this was a reminder that in a hung parliament a minority government just can’t buck the arithmetic with ‘optimism’ or ‘gusto’.

The most ominous number yesterday was not the 17 Tory MPs who voted against their three-line whip, it was the 19 others who abstained. That means there is a hard-core of 36 Conservatives (you can add Ken Clarke and Bob Neill, who were ‘slipped’ by the whips) who are prepared to make life very difficult indeed for a Johnson premiership. Don’t forget too that the defection of Soubry and others (plus the expected loss of the Brecon by-election) means the ‘working majority’ for May’s successor will be just three votes.

Of course, yesterday was a foreshadow of the bigger votes to stop no-deal that are expected though September and October. Even if you knock off the total the 10 votes of Labour Leave MPs who are dead-set on Brexit, there’s now a decent majority that will try to bind Johnson’s hands to block him taking the UK out of the EU without an agreement with Brussels.

Remainers have been pretty bad historically at rebelling. That’s mainly because they are natural pragmatists and are often former ministers with an instinct for loyalty. Now however their experience of government may embolden them. It looks very much like Philip Hammond will be their new leader, with heavyweight backing from people like David Gauke and Rory Stewart. They don’t yet have an acronym like the ERG did (maybe they’ll be the Anti-No-Dealers, aka The ANDies?) but in Hammond they will have a leader with as big a profile as Jacob Rees-Mogg did, they will have decent numbers and (judging from yesterday) effective whipping.

Many Remainer Tories are relishing using the Brexiteers’ own guerrilla tactics against them. They will certainly laugh at the ERG’s demands for loyalty. Some of the older hands recall that Maastricht rebel Iain Duncan Smith was hoist by his own petard in 2003, when fellow MPs ousted him as leader. Next Wednesday we have the prospect of up to 12 ministers quitting the moment Theresa May formally hands in her resignation to the Queen. Even before he steps foot through the door of No.10, Johnson will know others can drive the narrative of his premiership.

There is a big, big difference between even voting to ‘block no-deal’ and actually voting no confidence in your own government and triggering a general election. But those numbers look tighter than ever. This morning on the Today programme, health minister Stephen Hammond carefully and repeatedly refused to rule out doing so. “It’s very important that politicians put aside their personal ambitions or views and make sure they are doing the right thing for the country,” Hammond said.

That determination to put the national interest above party interest is precisely what motivated Brexiteers to rebel serially against Theresa May. And now it’s the turn of the former Remainer Tories to flex their muscles too. Yesterday Keith Simpson voted against the whip for the first time in all his 22 years as an MP, adding “you can get a taste for it”. Voting against your party in parliament, just like voting against them at the ballot box (as millions did in the recent Euro elections), can become habit-forming.

Armed with a new-found dedication to government loyalty, Rees-Mogg warned today that any Tory who voted no confidence in Johnson’s administration would be committing political suicide because they would have the whip withdrawn.

Some rebels however just think the stakes are too high for personal considerations. Here’s one MP who hinted he would press that nuclear button on grounds of principle. “At this point I can foresee no circumstances while as a Conservative MP I would vote against the Government in a confidence motion. But we are approaching the point where the stakes are now so very high and so transcend party politics and what this country is about, and the fundamental British value that political power rests on consent, that I think these things are coming onto the table. It’s on the table - there’s no point denying things are running away.”

And who was that MP ? Ken Clarke? Philip Lee? Justine Greening? No, it was Brexit ‘hardman’ Steve Baker, speaking back in April.

Labour’s own internal warfare over anti-Semitism continued yesterday. After Dianne Hayter’s sacking, peers cheered (as only peers can) her arrival as she sat behind the front bench in the Lords. Labour colleagues rallied round and will almost certainly hold a vote of no confidence in Corbyn next week with the result announced on Wednesday (the same day we get a new Tory PM).

The Labour leadership hit back yesterday, with a source saying it was “both undemocratic and absurd for unelected peers with no mandate to seek to remove an elected leader who twice won the landslide support of Labour’s membership and led Labour to the biggest increase in the party’s vote since 1945”.

Separately, the GMB union branch of Labour staffers voted for a motion condemning the party’s response to the Panorama programme. They voted by 124 to four in favour of a motion that supported the former employees who spoke out, highlighting the mental health and suicide issues raised. The vote among staff in London, Newcastle and other regions was held on a secret ballot due to ‘fear of reprisals’ if there had been a show of hands, one source said. One staffer who attended the meeting said: “There is a toxic culture in the Labour Party, of fear and bullying.”

The bigger problem for peers (and MPs) is that they risk repeating the error of 2016 when Corbyn emerged stronger from a challenge. And it may well be that so many ‘moderate’ party members have left the party that it’s even easier for the leader to win another leadership election. But Brexit and anti-Semitism may change the dynamic. Analyst Ian Warren pointed to a recent poll of party members showing 45% of them think Corbyn is doing badly (most of those voted Lib Dem or Green in the Euros, many are in London, where the bulk of Labour’s membership lives).

Speaking of the Lib Dems, last night Labour suffered a fresh humiliation when it actually came fourth behind the Women’s Equality Party in a council by-election in Richmond (the Labour candidate polled a mere 82 votes). Corbyn supporters will point to the ComRes national poll putting Labour ahead, on 28% to the Tories’ 25%. But with the Brexit party on 19% and the Lib Dems on 17%, it looks like the voters really want a four-party politics. And in that scenario, anything can happen.

Watch congresswoman Ihan Omar get a rousing reception as she followed Trump’s advice and ‘went back home’…to Minnesota.

Sajid Javid was one of the few cabinet ministers to emerge with any credit when Trump visited the UK recently. And in a speech today on extremism he will point out to the President that “I’m from an immigrant family, I know what it’s like to be told to go back to where I came from”. Heck Trump’s remarks were so loathsome that even his best British media pal Piers Morgan yesterday attacked them.

True to form, Trump is now lying about his failure to stop the ‘send her back’ chants that we saw this week. Asked why he didn’t intervene, he actually said: “I think I did — I started speaking very quickly…I was not happy with it — I disagreed with it.” Maybe he’s seen private polling showing floating voters found the whole thing disgusting.

What has been jaw-dropping is the way Republicans have defended the President, with Lindsey Graham now saying Somali migrants would not be ‘sent back’ - as long as they support Trump. Here’s two powerful clips on how far their party has fallen on this issue. First, Colin Powell on why being Muslim is not a badge of shame. Second, George Bush senior and Ronald Reagan arguing for ‘open borders’ and against ’putting up a fence’ with Mexico.

The mad-rush to create some kind of lasting legacy of the May years continued yesterday and it wasn’t just the PM who had an eye on proving her time in office was worth it. The Times reveals Hammond is to announce a public sector pay rise next week, although with no new money it already looks like a con-trick.

May herself announces in the Guardian plans for fresh rights for parental leave. Greg Clark announces more worker rights in the gig economy and new competition rules, David Gauke unveiled plans to give domestic abuse survivors more say in court. But in every single case, the small print showed these announcements were about ‘consultation’, not action. The next government may or may not get them into law.


This week’s Commons People podcast is out. Hear us chinwag with Maddy Thimont-Jack of the Institute for Government and Henry Newman of Open Europe about the prorogation vote, Johnson’s fantasy Cabinet and Corbyn’s autumn leadership troubles ahead. Click HERE for Audioboom/Android, HERE for Spotify and below for iTunes.

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