1. JULIAN CALENDAR
How many hours, days or weeks does Julian Smith have left as Chief Whip? Theresa May is desperate to hang on to him as the last thing she needs right now is another Cabinet vacancy. With just a few days to Tuesday’s recess, Smith needs to cross the finishing line more than the PM. Yet his role in the pairing row, with new mother Jo Swinson misled into thinking she could stay at home with her baby for a key Brexit votethis week, grows more damaging by the minute. Can he avoid demands for an unprecedented statement to the Commons next Monday? Can he hide behind the convention that whips never speak from the frontbench, when he personally tears up other conventions? Chief Whips never expect to be liked (Smith’s certainly ticked that box) but neither should they cause trouble for the person they are meant to protect: the PM.
The Times’s Sam Coates led the way on this yesterday and followed it up last night with a highly explosive allegation that Smith openly admitted to ‘a rival chief whip’ that he intended to break Parliamentary convention and order pairs to be broken because the Government was on a knife-edge. The Sun reported that up to five MPs were approached and that Smith demanded to know why one of them ignored his instructions to break the whip. Smith is already loathed by many of his own MPs (who can’t bear the way he is so transparently the campaign-manager-in-waiting for his old boss Gavin Williamson) and he’s finding the hard way what happens when you stiff your own side. The only people to emerge with credit and honour are those Tory MPs who refused to break their pairs. Pairing whip Andrew Stephenson has also been praised of late for his own advice to stick to pairs - but he and party chairman Brandon Lewis are going to have to explain what they said to each other when they chatted minutes before Lewis voted on Tuesday. Watch this ITV clip.
The only defence (and it’s a very thin one) that Smith has is that somehow he didn’t realise that Brandon Lewis was paired with Swinson. How does this square with claims by the PM and Andrea Leadsom that it was all due to an ‘administrative error’? Did a junior whip misinform Smith that Lewis was paired with someone else? If that’s true, however embarrassing, it will have to be made transparent. The problem is that few will believe the Chief Whip given his changing story over the past 48 hours, and given his form on the issue (Labour were furious recently when sick MP Naz Shah had to vote in a wheelchair). One Labour MP tells me when Smith was the whip on the Housing and Planning Bill “he was awful, we made agreements on timetabling and he broke them all the time”. Labour sources also dismiss as ‘bollocks’ Leadsom’s defence that the Opposition broke 52 pairs since 2016. They say it “never happens on big votes and is never deliberate”.
You may think this is all a bit arcane and MPs breaking ancient codes of honour are hardly the stuff of resignations. But misleading the Commons is a very serious matter indeed, often the very cause of previous ministerial resignations. And the Prime Minister herself said “the breaking of the pair was done in error”. It now looks like Smith deliberately broke the pair but claims somehow he didn’t realise it was this pair in particular. For him to survive he surely has to provide some evidence that there was an error. Yet he and No.10 are relying on the fact that whips rarely discuss their dark arts in public, and maybe the ‘rival chief whip’ - who sounds very much like Lib Dem Alistair Carmichael - will have to go public with his claims to make them to stick. If not, this whole row may fade.
The fact that Jo Swinson is at the centre of this row is significant too. She is almost certain to be the next Lib Dem leader and will win sympathy from mothers and fathers around the country who know how difficult life is with a new born. But it looks like she’s not won any sympathy from Labour Brexiteer Kate Hoey. She told the Spectator podcast (listen at 11m19s): “I gather she [Swinson] was okay to go on an anti-Trump demonstration [on Friday] so I’m not clear why she wasn’t able to come and vote [on Tuesday].” I’ve no idea whether Swinson asked for the pair to look after her two-week old son Gabriel this week. But Hoey’s remarks may well further anger Labour activists who already want her deselected.
There may well be one positive out of all of this: Cabinet minister Karen Bradley this morning said reforms would come: “I was a whip, I can tell you at point where you have a number of difficult votes, mistakes happen. We are going to come forward in the autumn with proposals for proxy voting.” Still, it’s not just pairing breaches where Theresa May has defied convention to help her majority-free Government cling onto power. We’ve done a list of 8 Ways To Tories Have Torn Up Convention to keep the PM’s administration alive.
2. MY NI WAY OR THE HIGHWAY
Theresa May is in Belfast and will be happy with the overnight spin that she’s going to warn Brussels that she’ll never accept a new Irish Sea ‘border’ between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. This of course ignores the fact that she signed up to an EU ‘backstop’, but more important is the way the PM has used both the DUP and Brexiteers’ stout defence of the Union to actually pave the way for a soft Brexit. In a giant political judo throw, using the weight of the Eurosceps against them, she’s coupled demands for no hard border with Ireland to demands for no border within the UK - and come up with a solution that means a soft border between the UK and EU. The economic as well as security stakes are high, as the Guardian quotes CBI Northern Ireland director, Angela McGowan, saying: “The region looks to be on the brink of recessionary territory”.
May’s words in her speech today can be read as a veiled warning to her own allies as much as to Brussels: the Government’s job “is not to deal with Brexit in theory, but to make a success of it in practice for all of our people”. Arch loyalist and NI Secretary Karen Bradley pointed out on Today that she and the PM had visited businesses and farms that ‘live and breathe’ through crossborder trade. Some Brexiteers like Jacob Rees-Mogg have hinted that they think a hard infrastructure is a price worth paying if Dublin refuses to play ball. With ‘no deal’ talk increasing, some on the ground think that the only realistic solution would be for police and customs staff to turn a blind eye to illicit cross border trade. As for Dover, I’m told that one official working on a ‘no deal’ wargame by the HMRC recently concluded there’d be “total carnage”. The conclusion was there would be a massive influx of smuggled goods for at least the first two days.
Boris Johnson is among the Brexiteers who so far have no answers on how to solve the Irish problem in the event of no deal, let alone with a deal. The Mirror splashes on how he’s at least got somewhere nice to stay while he works things out, revealing he is still ‘squatting’ in the posh Carlton House Gardens home that is the official Foreign Secretary’s residence. But perhaps the most interesting stuff about ‘no deal’ comes from the Spectator’s James Forsyth and Fraser Nelson. Both have pro-Leave Cabinet ministers saying if Brussels demands more concessions, May will have to tear up Chequers and go for a free trade deal that was an amalgam of Canada, Switzerland and South Korea. That may sound like wishful thinking on their part, mainly because it would take years to negotiate. The real question for the EU is the withdrawal agreement, not future trade plans.
Philip Hammond is proving he’s unabashed about being ‘the heart of Remain’. The Sun has got a lipreading expert to reveal the Chancellor mouthed the words ‘stupid woman’ when he heard Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns ask May in PMQs ‘at what point it was decided that Brexit means Remain’ (watch his reaction HERE to see for yourself). Aides to Hammond refused to deny he’d used the term. The Express has a story that Brexit economist Patrick Minford actually claimed at a private dinner this week that Hammond has deliberately slowed down the economy to make Brexit look bad. And a cabinet member at the dinner added: “It is almost as if they wanted to prove Project Fear right by slowing down growth. It’s amazing that we managed to get any growth at all.”
3. SECONDS OUT
Many Remainers are pinning their hopes on a second referendum to end their Brexit nightmare, believing that Labour will be forced into backing the idea if there’s Parliamentary gridlock this autumn. The party has so far had a carefully calibrated line that a referendum on the final Brexit deal would be ‘unlikely’, that it is not ‘advocating’ or ‘calling for’ one, but that nothing can be totally ruled out. Tom Watson said only last week: “We haven’t taken that off the table”. Well, as we reported last night, Emily Thornberry certainly has taken it off the table.
The Shadow Foreign Secretary told a private meeting of Jeremy Corbyn’s Islington North Labour party on Wednesday night: “What we need is not a Government of National Unity, what we need is not a second referendum - we need a general election….We have to leave, we don’t want to leave…..we are Democrats, so we have to do as instructed - as much as it breaks our heart.” This dismayed local Labour activists, from left, right and centre, who want party conference to keep the idea alive, but their motions to get it on the agenda were defeated. Corbyn was present for a Brexit discussion at the meeting and his supporters said a ‘People’s Vote’ motion passed by his own local party would be seen as ‘anti-JC’.
Another former Islington resident, one T Blair, has been a big backer of a fresh referendum and he popped up on Newsnight to say: “I’m sceptical that people are going to be really angry if you say to them, look we now know this is much more complicated than we ever thought, here are the options, take a decision”. The Economist this morning also endorses a second referendum in its editorial. How to deal with Brexit will naturally be Item One on the in-tray of any Corbyn government if there’s a snap election, and the Guardian reports that Monday’s awayday for the Shadow Cabinet will approve plans for an emergency Queen’s Speech.
4. MATT OR GLOSS?
New Health Secretary Matt Hancock is not hanging about in trying to make an early good impression in his role. Just 10 days after his appointment, he will say in his first big speech this morning that it is “heartbreaking” that many NHS staff feel “undervalued”. He will also say he’s horrified at the level of bullying within the health service. Of course, cynical staff will say the Government has literally undervalued them by refusing a pay rise for six years (and junior docs argue the biggest bully was Jeremy Hunt over their new contract). But Hancock will also use his expertise as former Digital Secretary to pledge half a billion in new technology, a move that’s long overdue.
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth has reacted to the overnight trail by countering that they’re yet more Tory gloss on a poor record on the NHS. He points out that 4.3 million patients are still on waiting lists and nearly 27,000 patients waited over 62 days for cancer treatment last year. On new tech, Ashworth (who’s going to be our WaughZone Live interviewee at Labour conference) could also point to Labour’s FoI last month that showed that the NHS in England still has more than 11,500 fax machines, costing £137,000-a-year in maintenance fees. I understand that Hancock is himself appalled by the fax machine saga and you can bet he wants to tackle it quickly.
5. BURYING BAD NEWS
There was the usual end-of-term avalanche of Written Ministerial Statements yesterday (16 in total) and among them was one on fire safety and Grenfell. Tucked away at the bottom of a the lengthy ‘update’ from James Brokenshire was the revelation that a major fire door manufacturer has withdrawn two types of doors. “Following further testing of their fire doors, Synseal has informed my department they have withdrawn their composite and timber fire door range from the market as it does not consistently meet the minimum standard”.
The eagle-eyed John Healey and his team have spotted this. The Shadow Housing Minister says: “Ministers promised to update the Commons on Grenfell and fire safety before recess and, after most MPs have left for weekend, have just smuggled out one of the weakest (and longest) written statements I’ve seen in 20 years as a MP”. Many will wonder why, given how much of a priority the PM says she personally attaches to Grenfell, this wasn’t delivered in the form of an Oral Statement. Brokenshire is respected and trusted across the House but slipping this out in this way does not look good at all.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Topics include who had the Brexit speech of the week (Boris Johnson or Steve Baker?), Margaret Hodge v Jeremy Corbyn, Labour deselections and the pairing row. Oh and we have a resignation speech quiz, can you guess who the resigner was from their words? Click HERE to listen on Audioboom and below for iTunes.
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