Ever since the general election, Theresa May has faced a real problem at the helm of the UK’s first minority government since the 1970s. Although she cobbled together a deal with the DUP to pass her Queen’s Speech and Budgets, she still ran up against the hard fact that the Conservatives’ lack of a majority would make life very difficult on a daily basis.
The hardest fact of all was that there would be no Tory majority on standing committees, where the guts of all legislation is decided. Under usual rules, their membership is decided strictly in accordance with the result of an election - and the DUP’s 10 MPs mean it just hasn’t the numbers to offer any help in the engine room of the legislature. Well, yesterday Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom revealed a cunning plan: simply produce a motion saying “the Government shall have a majority” on standing committees.
HuffPost UK got hold of the motion last night (it has this morning finally been published online), and boy did it provoke a backlash. Jeremy Corbyn said it was ”an unprecedented attempt to rig Parliament and grab power by a Conservative government with no majority and no mandate”. Shadow Commons Leader Valerie Vaz told us May was trying “to sideline opposition in Parliament by rigging the committee system so that they are guaranteed a majority they didn’t secure at the ballot box”.
The Government had hoped few would spot the ruse. Leadsom only referred obliquely to “motions relating to House business” yesterday. But they were forced last night to defend the plans, claiming they would achieve “a fair balance” of Tory and Labour, while admitting this was all about ensuring no “unwarranted delays” to its legislation. Here’s one example of how ‘fair’ it would be: Commons officials had recommended that the all-powerful Committee of Selection (that selects MPs for select and standing committees) should have 4 Tory, 4 Labour and 1 SNP among its nine members. But under Leadsom’s plans, there will be 5 Tory and 4 Labour MPs, guaranteeing a Government majority on all decisions.
Get ready for a huge showdown about this on Tuesday night, when the vote will take place. Never before has such an apparently technical bit of Parliamentary procedure looked so significant. It’s about whether May can pass a motion to create a majority that she failed to get in June, and as a result drive through not just her bills, but Statutory Instruments, and Brexit regulations, with no chance of losing. Ministers insist that a Government should be able to avoid guerilla warfare on bill committees. But will some ‘constitutional Tories’ refuse to back the motion on Tuesday? There could be fireworks, whatever the outcome.
There’s plenty of Brexit trouble around, with the FT and Mail both splashing their front page on personal insults chucked at David Davis by European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker had voiced concern about “the stability and accountability of the UK negotiator and his apparent lack of involvement” in Brexit talks at a meeting of top commission officials on 12 July, according to minutes released on Thursday.
For context, the Juncker remarks in July took place before the second round of Brexit talks, when concern was running high in Brussels that the UK just wouldn’t acknowledge its debts to the EU. At the time, officials also felt in the dark about how often Davis would attend the talks in Brussels.
Still, DD allies were swift to hit back (Juncker calling anyone else ‘unstable’ is a bit rich given his own love of morning alcohol). But in fact it was his sparring partner Michel Barnier who came to his defence. Barnier praised Davis for his professionalism, saying he had known him for 20 years and said he was working hard at the negotiation table. There’s no bond between any UK politician and Juncker (apart from TBlair), but Barnier and DD have at least some kind of relationship.
More worrying was Politico’s fascinating report from Charlie Cooper yesterday that a “schism” on style and substance has opened up between Davis and his DexEU permanent secretary Olly Robbins. At one point “David was very forthright with him and reminded him who’s in charge of the department”, a source says.
The Times goes big on another row, with Brexit minister Steve Baker and Treasury aide Suella Fernandez under fire from Remainers for organising and supporting a backbench letter demanding a hard Brexit – itself seen as an aggressive move against the Chancellor. Meanwhile, Nigel Farage has agreed to an invitation to a rally organised in Germany by the granddaughter of Hitler’s finance minister. No, really. By the way, for all things Brexit, sign up to Owen Bennett’s Brexit Briefing email.
When David Cameron asked Labour’s David Lammy in 2016 to investigate possible racial bias in the criminal justice system, some on his own side in the Commons worried about just how wise it was to agree a commission from a Tory PM. But while Cameron is now history, Lammy is on the rise and his impressive report today proves he was right to take up the task.
The Lammy Review makes sobering reading for all of us. Here’s just two “concerning” stats: The proportion of BAME young offenders rose from 25% to 41% between 2006 and 2016; the rate of black defendants pleading not guilty in Crown Courts in England and Wales between 2006 and 2014 was 41%, compared with 31% for white defendants. No wonder many in minority ethnic communities think they have no piece or stake in much of society.
One recommendation is that low-level offenders should be allowed to “defer” prosecution and instead opt for a rehabilitation programme before entering a plea. Those who successfully complete the scheme would see their criminal charges dropped, while those who did not would still face criminal proceedings. The scheme has already been piloted in the West Midlands, with violent offenders 35% less likely to reoffend.
We pick up another worrying finding. The Muslim prison population has risen by almost 50% in 10 years to 13,200. Muslims make up 15 percent of all prisoners but five percent of the British population. And it’s not terrorism that accounts for the rise, as just 175 Muslims were convicted of terror offences. Dr Zubaida Haque, of The Runnymede Trust, suspects it’s all about the rise of ‘racial profiling’ by the cops. Many Labour MPs think Lammy should now get a shadow ministerial job, even if his strong anti-Brexit views don’t quite fit the party line. Let’s see.
Philip Hammond’s line to the backbench Tory 1922 Committee this week – telling Tory MPs they didn’t have to worry about mortgage payments or retirement - hasn’t gone down well with Labour. Shadow Chancellor John Mcdonnell tells us the “millionaire” Chancellor should publish his tax return.
But Hammond’s wider point to his colleagues was that the Conservatives need new ideas to connect with young voters who flocked in droves to Jeremy Corbyn at the election. And the FT reports that housing and tuition fees are among the policy areas to be looked at. David Willetts, who has led calls to end ‘intergenerational unfairness’, was invited to No.10 this week for a meeting with policy unit head James Marshall. Senior backbencher Charles Walker raised with Hammond the “very high” tuition fee interest rate of 6.1%.
Every Tory should take note of the new research by Queen Mary College, London into their party membership. In a blog for us, Dr Monica Poletti says she found that just 6% are under-25, 90% are middle class and 80% think the youth of today don’t respect British values.
Another area where the Conservatives know they can do more is in the selection of women (though the 2010, 2015 and 2017 intakes included some impressive MPs). Just 30% of MPs are women, folks.
Theresa May risked upsetting her own side with a brutal dismissal of all six proposals by the Commons women and equalities committee to give parliament more equal female representation. The Guardian’s Jess Elgot has the story, revealing ministers didn’t like such as fines for parties that do not select enough women as candidates.
The real problem, said the Government, was the ‘additional regulatory burden’ the committee’s plans would place on political parties. See, red tape, it’s still a thing. Ex Cabinet Minister Maria Miller isn’t impressed, saying the Government is “content to sit on its hands with an approach” which had yielded “depressingly slow progress so far”.
Then again, May is propped up by the DUP, whose record on women’s rights (such as abortion) is more Jacob Rees-Mogg than Gloria Steinem. But the DUP is dealing with trouble of another kind with the Telegraph story that Ian Paisley Jnr accepted £100k in holidays from a country that wants a nice Brexit trade deal.
Listen to our latest #CommonsPeople podcast, in which we chew over Henry VIII clauses, the new Labour Campaign for Free Movement and Philip Hammond’s blue-sky thinking on the youth vote. There’s our usual quiz, plus I quote a swear word from a classic The Thick Of It episode. It’s on iTunes HERE, and Audioboom HERE.