1. BEHIND ENEMY LINES
Theresa May’s ministers just can’t resist indulging in tit-for-tat spats over Brexit. Chancellor Philip Hammond last night used his Mansion House speech to hit back at Boris Johnson’s jibe that the Treasury was ‘the heart of Remain’. Saying he wanted the UK to “maintain low friction borders and open markets” with the EU, he stressed: “That does not make the Treasury, on my watch, ‘the enemy of Brexit’; rather, it makes it the champion of prosperity for the British people outside the EU, but working and trading closely with it.”
For their part, Brexiteers will be cheered that Hammond was forced to utter a form of words that suggested some kind of ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS, without actually using that phrase. And Leavers will wholeheartedly agree with US ambassador Woody Johnson who has said in a Channel 4 documentary that the current “defeatist attitude towards Brexit is a bit sorrowing to me”. The film also has a telling vignette when National Security Adviser Mark Sedwill reveals Trump’s official state visit is planned for next year. “I think for him to be the first big visit after Brexit … This is a Brexit president!”
But before Leave supporters get too overconfident ahead of this month’s Cabinet awayday special on Brexit, the Spectator’s James Forsyth revealed yesterday that both Greg Clark and David Gauke argued in Cabinet that the public finances relied on a soft Brexit – no colleagues pushed back. Also, as Brussels ramps up its own preparations for ‘no deal’, Airbus has warned such an outcome would “directly threaten” its future in the UK – along with thousands of skilled jobs. Airbus CEO Tom Williams told Today: “We’ve got to protect our employees, customers and shareholders. We need clarity”.
As it happens, I’ve been sent an assessment by City finance firm Jefferies in which they hint this is all a cry for help rather than a real jobs threat, pointing out it is very difficult to replace the UK’s supply chain in years, let alone months. But the assessment note has this kicker: “We have wondered why Airbus is so vocal on Brexit as by drawing attention to its potential exposure it has nothing to gain, not in share price terms. At least Airbus cares. We are grateful to Airbus for that.”
2. PLANE CUPID
Speaking of higher planes, Greg Hands certainly caught the eye of Westminster yesterday as he quit as International Trade Minister to express his opposition to Heathrow expansion. It was almost as if he had got in a sky-writing aeroplane and written ‘Look, Boris is a fraud’ in fluffy big curves. Theresa May last night admitted that Johnson would be allowed out of the country to avoid the crunch vote on airports on Monday. “The Foreign Secretary early next week will be what I would describe as a living embodiment of global Britain”. That was meant to be a joke that Boris will be abroad, somewhere, anywhere but in Westminster.
The PM clearly thinks she’s got her way on Heathrow, while being able to ridicule Boris, who so far has complied with a gagging order not to speak out about a third runway. Labour thinks she looks just as weak in not sacking him. John McDonnell, who will be exploiting his own party’s free vote next week, put out a Tweet saying: “I was in the room when you said you’d lie down in front of bulldozers to stop a third runway at Heathrow. Where will you be on Monday?” We had thought Johnson would be at the EU foreign ministers meeting in Luxembourg but it seems he may be in some other foreign hideaway. Monday could be like Priti Patel’s resignation in reverse, with Twitter tracking Boris’s live non-resignation journey in real time.
Last night, the PM swapped effusive letters with Hands. But it’s more than a week since Dr Philip Lee quit his own ministerial post at the Ministry of Justice, just as before May arrived at a Cabinet meeting. And guess what? There has still been no Prime Ministerial letter in response to Lee’s formal letter of resignation. That’s the closest in No.10 you’ll get to what young people call a ‘sick burn’. So too was Liam Fox’s clear trolling of Johnson, with his own praise for Hands: “I think that he has been very honourable and true to what he promised them, which I think is very much in his nature”. Very much in his nature.
3. CHIEF COMPLAINT
It’s fair to say Chief Whip Julian Smith has a reputation as something of a micromanager. One old Commons hand told me this week that “you can’t fart in the whips’ office without Julian giving it the go-ahead”. And, like his close friend Gavin Williamson before him, Smith is unafraid of being seen on camera having ‘chats’ with wavering potential rebel MPs (though traditionally a Chief’s deputy applies the thumbscrews behind the scenes). But has he overstepped the mark this week after all those sick Labour MPs were forced to vote in person on the Brexit bill?
Some of Smith’s allies insist that the Government is being unfairly blamed for the spectacle of a clearly ill Naz Shah being forced to vote in a wheelchair. Andrea Leadsom yesterday said it was Labour’s fault she had come down from hospital in Bradford in the first place. She added that the Opposition had left it too late (three hours before the vote) to ask for ‘nodding through’ exemptions. PLP chair John Cryer warned ministers were ‘putting people’s lives at risk’ and pairing whip Mark Tami told me the ‘lack of notice’ defence was a lame excuse. Apparently, it was Smith himself who ordered the tough stance. I understand some ministers were as appalled as Labour was. The damage done could be long-lasting.
Smith appears to relish his tough-guy reputation. A senior Tory source has told the ‘i’ newspaper: “The chief whip has been writing to local associations telling members to put pressure on their MPs not to vote against the Government on Brexit. It’s an outrageous tactic, but shows how worried they are about the damage that the rebels can inflict upon them.” Still, some political divides are bridgeable. Leadsom revealed yesterday that both she and the SNP’s Pete Wishart rubbed shoulders at the Rolling Stones’ concert at Twickers this week. And guess what? Wishart was once in a Stones backing band. No wonder the Cabinet minister had sympathy for the devil from north of the border.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch SNP MP David Linden’s close encounter with bird excrementduring a video shot in his constituency.
4. ALLOWED SPEAKER
Exactly nine years ago today John Bercow was first elected Commons Speaker. He pledged to step down after nine years, but the snap election made him change his own self-imposed deadline to 2022. After this year’s claims of bullying against him, few think he’ll last that long. The end of this year, next Easter, next summer recess, all are deadlines floating around among MPs close to him under a plan to allow him to depart under his own terms.
Two of John Bercow’s sharpest Tory female critics, Andrea Leadsom and Maria Miller, were not slow yesterday in seizing on new figures showing that the Commons had spent a whopping £2.4m on “gagging clauses” for former staff. A Newsnight Freedom of Information request (and Press Association analysis) laid bare the extent of the practice. HuffPost, along with the Mail and Sun, was told this week that Bercow had nominated Christopher Chope for a knighthood. Chope was one of just 3 MPs who voted against an inquiry into allegations against Bercow. It’s unclear if Chope knew the Speaker had nominated him for his honour.
5. A FINE MESS
Chris Grayling’s political career is certainly ‘chequered’, to put it mildly. Over the years, he’s got into trouble for mixing up Richard Dannatt’s peerage, banning prisoners’ books, saying B&Bs have a ‘right’ to turn away gay couples and claiming UK cities resemble ‘The Wire’. Lately, he’s accused of failing to get a grip on privatised rail firms. But today another of his legacies as former Justice Secretary is back with a vengeance: his decision to partially privatise the probation service.
The Commons Justice Select Committee has a report saying the system is a ‘mess’ and ‘unconvinced’ the reforms could ever work. One option is to end the current contracts early. Chief Inspector of Probation, Dame Glenys Stacey told Today that there was real “concern” about the private companies’ failures. “We know from history often people at low risk go on to commit serious offences.” John Humphrys asked if the state-run part of the Probation service wasn’t just ‘defending their turf?’ Stacey replied: “That’s just a silly remark”. She was not saying the system needed renationalisation but it did need sorting out.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Listen to us discuss the splits among Remainer Tory MPs (“Doms” and “non-Doms”), NHS funding and LabourLive. We also have our usual weekly quiz. Click HERE to listen on Audioboom or below on iTunes.
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