Too much fudge eventually rots your teeth. And today, after Theresa May’s new plan for Parliament’s role in approving her Brexit deal, it’s the Tory Remainers who are most down in the mouth. Stripping out any means for the Commons to force the PM’s hand, her “meaningful vote” amendment risks leaving Dominic Grieve and his dwindling band looking pretty toothless. Despite those private assurances from May in her office behind the Speaker’s chair, the ‘rebels’ look to have been duped into calling off their rebellion this week. ‘Sneaky’ is one of the more polite reactions.
Grieve was at his most lawyerly and donnish on Question Time last night, saying “I think a group of us will talk further to the government and try to resolve it…I hope they listen to me when I say I don’t understand why you’ve done this last-minute switch.” Anna Soubry was more pithy on Twitter: “Whilst I believe the PM is a woman of her word I voted in favour of the Lords amendment because I feared she would not be able to deliver on her promise because she won’t see off the no deal hard Brexiteers.”
The battle now resumes in the Lords on Monday when peers will back the Lord Hailsham amendment that incorporates Grieve’s move to ‘direct’ the government. It then comes back to the Commons soon after, but Government whips are confident they have the numbers, although it will be tight. The key factor here is that the Remainers are less unified than the Leavers, with some like George Freeman already peeling off amid worries about binding the PM’s hands. Will the Tory Remainers surprise us all next week and turn into the mice that roared? I suspect will they prove once again that they’re mere herbivores in the Westminster jungle, while the real carnivores are the Brexiteers. The PM will survive - until she runs out of red meat.
If the PM does indeed survive next week’s Brexit scare, the other main strategic focus of her government is to neutralise the NHS as a political issue. And several papers including the Sun and FT report that Jeremy Hunt has managed to win his battle to get the Treasury to release £20 bn more by 2022. That’s around £5bn a year. Just how it is funded is still unclear but the Sun says half the cash will come from borrowing and then half from stealth tax rises. If it does come from a combination of borrowing and fiscal drag (freezing tax thresholds), that sounds like exactly the sort of thing Ed Balls used to do – to much Conservative consternation.
Medics will of course be relieved more money is finally on its way. NHS bosses will be similarly pleased by the new relaxation on visas for more non-EU doctors coming to the UK. Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt confirmed yesterday that doctors and nurses would be taken out of the visa cap, and the FT says the MP referred to it last night at a dinner with European bankers (more on which see below). Still, business groups were lukewarm about the change, which they described as a welcome first step towards reform of the “Tier 2” visa system for skilled professionals but short of the comprehensive changes needed. “We must get to a point where immigration policy is based on more than trying to hit an arbitrary net migration target,” the Institue of Directors said. That’s Javid’s next big challenge.
The Daily Mail warns the PM to stick to her guns. “The greatest danger of all,” it says, “is that this policy becomes the thin end of the wedge, and every other sector of the economy starts demanding more migrants, to quench their insatiable thirst for cheap foreign labour”. Yet the recruitment crisis is real. And the Mail itself splashes its front page on a report that four in 10 GPs quit the NHS within five years of finishing their training.
Today’s National Audit Office report into the government’s flagship Universal Credit reform makes very uncomfortable reading for the Government. The new benefits scheme could end up costing more than the system it replaces, with ministers unable to tell if the reform will ever be a success, the watchdog found. Damning is an overused cliché for NAO reports, but boy that word applies here. One of the most worrying findings is that in three of the four areas the NAO visited that had proper data, foodbank use increased quicker after Universal Credit was rolled out fully.
The new system is already years late, but there’s an even more fundamental criticism in today’s report. Despite repeated government claims that the reform will put 200,000 more people into work, the NAO said the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has been forced to admit it won’t ever be able to determine whether this pledge has been achieved. Yet the £2bn spent so far means that it would be too costly to unpick the reforms. Looks like this massive policy shift is too big to fail.
There’s a more mixed picture on the other main Coalition pro-work policy, the National Living Wage. A new IFS report says the wages of the low paid have indeed “grown strongly” since its introduction. But there’s a kicker: “improvements in their average living standards have been much more modest…in part this is because the pay of higher-earning partners fell in 2016‒17”.
As the nation remembered the Grenfell dead yesterday, there were many moving moments and heartfelt testimony. One of the most touching events was the Silent March, a simple but brilliantly effective idea that managed to capture respect for those who had died with a lingering, quiet anger at the disaster. Theresa May has this week spoken passionately of the need to find justice, yet last night Labour pointed out that it was striking that it was Jeremy Corbyn on the march, not the PM.
Of course, there are many reasons why Prime Ministers don’t go on marches and it’s likely that she was only respecting the wishes of local people. Yet was it a good idea for her, at the exact same, to instead attend a European financial services dinner at an upmarket Whitehall hotel? Aides insist they didn’t brief anything from the event and there was no media. But given that May has been scrupulous in clearing Thursday and Friday of announcements, did anyone calculate the PR downsides of dining with bankers during that people’s march? It’s exactly 12 months since the PM’s low point on Grenfell, when it looked like she may not survive a week let alone a full year. In a detailed look-back piece I wrote yesterday, her allies said she’d quickly learned the lessons, but critics said the tragedy had laid bare her lack of leadership. Read it HERE.
Janet Daby is the new Labour MP for Lewisham East after a by-election victory that saw the Lib Dems go up by 20 points into second place. Yet for all the talk about Labour being at risk in this race, Daby still managed a whopping 50% of the vote despite the low turnout. As for the Parliamentary arithmetic, Daby restores the number of hardline Remainers in Labour as she follows in the footsteps of Heidi Alexander. If votes are really tight next week, the newest member of the Commons could make an instant impact.
The threat of low turnout of a different kind has dogged the party’s LabourLive festival due this weekend. Will the late addition of electropop Clean Bandit boost numbers much? After our Ned Tweeted they were on the bill, the party sold an extra 400 tickets in one hour. Slashing ticket costs again to £10 may also help, but attendance may still be way below the 17,000 capacity of White Hart Lane recreation ground. Unite the union has done much to try to rescue the event. But its general secretary Len McCluskey is unlikely to be swapping JezFest t-shirts with Tom Watson. He’s told Nick Robinson’s podcast that Len is still trying “to take me out as deputy leader”. Surely not?
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Tory splits on Brexit, Labour splits on Brexit, the SNP walkout and that mad, mad Commons session with Arron Banks. Oh there’s a World Cup quiz too. Click HERE to hear on Audioboom, or below for iTunes.
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