1. VAC ATTACK
It’s now 21 long years since Tony Blair’s first landslide. The former PM has been blamed for much since he left office, from the Brexit vote (because he ‘let all the Poles into the country’) to the fracturing of the centre-left (because of Iraq and his fondness for the private sector). Whenever he speaks, he knows there’s a danger people simply aren’t listening any more. He is also fully aware that his toxicity among some voters can harm rather than help any cause he supports.
Yet Blair’s podcast interview with the BBC’s Nick Robinson is noteworthy for two mean reasons. First, he finally seems to have grasped that the party he once led now has not just a leftwing leadership but a leftwing membership. “It is a different type of Labour Party. Can it be taken back? I don’t know,” he says. Secondly, he gives his strongest hint yet that a new third party could emerge. If the country is faced with a choice between Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn, “something will fill that vacuum”.
It’s clear that his wing of the party can’t just do a shake-and-vac and put the Blairite freshness back. Ed Miliband’s structural reforms handed members unprecedented power mean that a new leader has to take the grassroots with them, or expand the grassroots with ‘their people’. One hope among moderates is that no future leftwing leadership contender can replicate Corbyn’s extraordinary personal appeal, particularly among younger members, Once he’s gone, the Left’s gone. Yet that’s precisely why the increasingly-powerful Momentum exists: to embed Corbynism, not Corbyn. His supporters have shown no signs of getting bored with Opposition and it’s moderates who are leaving in droves.
The great irony is that Blair’s attacks on Corbyn serve to underline the current Labour leader’s claim that he really does lead a totally different party. When I first started working in the Commons two decades ago, I lost count of the times that Blair would define himself against the Left of his party. ‘Definition’ was seen by Alastair Campbell as a vital political asset. Now Team Corbyn define themselves against pro-market tendencies of the Blair-Brown era, and even the ‘austerity lite’ approach of the Miliband/Balls era.
Before the last election, lots of people quoted Blair’s line that whenever a “traditional left-wing party competes with a traditional right-wing party” you get “the traditional result”. Blair had in fact uttered that warning three years earlier, during Ed Miliband’s reign, and his followers said Cameron’s 2015 victory proved the old boy was right. But the Corbyn ‘surge’ of 2017 disproved the thesis, with May losing her majority as voters made plain they were tired of seven years of a Tory-led government and austerity. In 2022, an even greater tiredness of the same Government may be the deciding factor.
Despite his loathing of Corbyn, Blair admitted to Robinson that “I voted Labour at the last election”. That question of whether to stick with the party is certainly in the minds of many Labour MPs. Last night’s vote of no confidence in backbencher Joan Ryan by her local party (complete with the presence of Iranian PressTV, pitching it as a defeat for a pro-Israel MP) will jangle the PLP’s nerves even more. Gavin Shuker was sanguineabout a similar vote against him too. In his HuffPost interview, John McDonnell says he sees no need for fresh reselection rule changes because “a lot of people are looking for stability now and moving forward and bringing people together”. But he adds: “It’s not hard to keep your constituency party happy”. And he backs the idea of council leaders being elected by local party members.
David Blunkett was on Today to warn that any new centrist party would suffer the fate of the SDP and with the Tory party showing “no signs of splitting” that would result in “permanent Tory government”. Some Lib Dems claim moderate Tory and Labour MPs have been in talks about going independent in the ‘next six months’. Blunkett took heart from the NEC standing up to Corbyn this week. “There is still time,” he said. But time, and patience, is running out for many in the PLP.
2. SOME PEOPLE THINK HE’S BONKING
In its front page scoop, the Sun reveals that Boris Johnson has split with his long-suffering wife Marina. It quotes his daughter Lara overheard at a party saying her dad “is a selfish bastard”. “Mum is finished with him. She will never take him back now.” The Sun goes through a long list of Boris’s infidelities and mistresses. Given that Marina herself was his mistress during his first marriage, she knows better than anyone what he’s like. In a joint statement this morning, the pair announced they were divorcing.
Many at Westminster already see this as a classic clearing-the-decks exercise, designed to get the marriage breakdown out there before a Tory leadership bid. The Daily Mail has a Johnson ally saying: “This means that if and when he goes for the top job, it will be old news and cannot harm him – which is what his pro EU enemies were bound to have done.” Most of the public will have priced in that Boris is a cad and it’s unlikely to do much harm to even his blue-rinse Brexiteer support in the shires. No one can claim he’s a censorious, moral majority hypocrite.
Donald Trump’s support remains stubbornly high despite much worse revelations about the way he treats women. His female supporters dismiss his gross language as ‘locker room talk’, and most just focus on what he’s delivering. Boris is more popular than ever among the Tory rank and file (ConHome’s latest survey showed him extending his lead as members’ choice for PM). The real danger for him is a wider public sense that he can’t be trusted (by Brexiteers and Remainers alike). Michael Howard sacked him all those years ago not for his affair but for lying about it.
3. HAMMOND’S HAMMER
Back in the real world, we all have to thank eagle-eyed snapper Steve Back for once again lifting the lid on what’s really being discussed behind closed doors in Whitehall. His long-lens camera caught sight of a confidential briefing note carried into No.10 by Treasury minister John Glen, detailing plans for a ‘no deal’ Brexit. We learned the plans were called Operation Yellowhammer and that the civil contingencies secretariat, which usually coordinates planning for emergencies such as floods, “held a two-day workshop last week to review departments’ plans, assumptions, interdependencies and next steps”.
Chancellor Philip Hammond seemed relieved rather than upset that the document had been made public. He told the BBC: “In no-deal circumstances we would have to refocus government priorities so that government was concentrated on the circumstances that we found ourselves in”. To many that sounded very much like a warning that deep spending cuts were on their way under the WTO scenario. Downing Street were not amused by his candour.
And the tight finances Hammond is dealing with were underlined by the Treasury yesterday when it announced that a £435 million tax cut for more than three million self-employed people would be axed – and the money used to pay for the NHS. The pledge to abolish Class 2 National Insurance Contributions (NICs) was originally promised by George Osborne two years ago but now won’t happen. Everyone from Jacob Rees-Mogg to John McDonnell was upset at the attack on ‘White Van Man’, but No.11 will be happy it didn’t make more headlines.
4. PERFORATED ULSTER
Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley wins the prize for the most candid politician of the week after she told The House magazine that she’d never been to Ulster before her appointment – and that she never realised how people voted on sectarian lines. She tells the mag “I’m not here for the headlines” but she’s generated quite a few as many gaped at her admission of ignorance. “I didn’t understand things like when elections are fought, for example, in Northern Ireland – people who are nationalists don’t vote for unionist parties and vice versa.”
5. GENERATION TENT
Our ‘Austerity Bites’ series today has the story of three homeless men living in tents outside a department store in central London. The store is Habitat, that 1980s mecca to home furnishings. “It could be a statement for the homeless couldn’t it,” one of the men, John, tells HuffPost UK. “If you look at the individual living outside the shop and the individual that goes inside the shop, we both want better homes. It’s as simple as that.” Don’t forget a year ago Theresa May said housing would be the defining mission of her premiership. And in PMQs she didn’t dispute claims that three-year tenancies plans were facing the axe under pressure from housing developers.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about whether Chequers will be chucked, whether Corbyn can move on from the anti-semitism row, and how backbenchers like Stella Creasy can make a difference. Click HERE for audioboom version for Android and below for iTunes.
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