1. TICK TOCK
It’s Theresa May’s first anniversary as Prime Minister today. But after her dire general election misjudgement, she looks less like a leader than a prisoner of history, her premiership held hostage by her own Cabinet, a hung Parliament and Brussels.
May faces two rival countdowns, one on Brexit and one on her own leadership, and the only question is which bomb will go off first. And what may sting most for this proud feminist, who last year battled against the odds to see off a field of men, is that the timing triggers on both explosive devices are in the hands of two older men. Rival silver foxes, David Davis and Michel Barnier, are the ones who look in control of events. EU Brexit negotiator Barnier yesterday ridiculed Boris, but his aim was also at the PM when he said “I’m not hearing any whistling, just the clock ticking”.
In an interview with the Sun (she has one with FiveLive mid-morning too), May says only that she hopes to stay in No.10 for “the next few years”. The PM slipped almost unnoticed into the 1922 Committee last night, her second appearance in five weeks, and she was challenged on claims that Free Schools funding would be shifted to fill holes in the education budget. Many of her MPs admire her sense of duty, and she even at times seems relaxed about the fact she is on permanent probation, but the absence of authority is unmistakable to her troops.
A year into the job, May has little to show for her tenure. As Polly Toynbee pointed out, in his first year Tony Blair signed the Good Friday Agreement, passed minimum wage and human rights acts, lowered the gay age of consent, started devolution and introduced a windfall levy on privatised utilities. Historian Anthony Seldon tells HuffPost that May’s first year has been even worse than Gordon Brown’s, with the Tories in a worse position for a century.
She wasn’t present when Labour’s Toby Perkins jibed in PMQs yesterday that her airbrushing from the Tory website proved she’d gone from “the next Iron Lady” to “the lady vanishes”. And as the clock ticks, at least she has limped past another minimum threshold milestone. This week, May’s tenure in No10 passed Alec Douglas-Home’s 362 days, making her the 9th shortest-serving PM in history. That’s some solace, of sorts.
2. CO-EU-TUS INTERRUPTUS
The publication today of the Government’s first major Brexit bill is obviously timed to at least show the PM is getting on with her biggest task. Yet even the name of the legislation shows how the lofty ambitions of a few weeks ago have shrunk. It’s no longer ‘the Great Repeal Bill’, and not even ‘the Repeal Bill’. It’s the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill that will get its first reading in the Commons this morning. Though ministers insist it will be ‘known as the Repeal Bill’, expect lots of ‘withdrawal method’ jibes.
David Davis’s Department for Exiting the European Union put out a press release last night titled ‘Exiting the EU with certainty’. Yet it’s far from certain after Labour vowed overnight to vote against the bill at second reading unless key demands were met. This is a big play by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, but he and Jeremy Corbyn are showing Maastricht-style tactics to squeeze the PM. In fact, May’s most pressing problem is that she faces a combination of 1990s-style Commons rebellions on Europe, with a 1970s-style hung Parliament. The time is out of joint, indeed. “She’ll have a better voting record than Jim Callaghan,” one MP jokes. The difficulty for Remainer Tories is that Labour turning this bill into an issue of confidence risks them being accused of bringing down the Government.
Labour has its own internal problems too, and we have an interview with Chuka Umunna for our Commons People podcast in which he hits back at Emily Thornberry’s jibe about his ‘virtue signalling’ EU amendment to the Queen’s Speech. Thornberry had a stormer yesterday, but Chuka points out he didn’t pile in during her St George’s flag blunder.
The sense of drift and dither is confirmed by a withering attack by NAO chief Sir Amyas Morse on the Government’s Brexit preparations in Whitehall. Instead of resembling a solid cricket ball, those preparations look “like a chocolate orange” which at the first tap “falls apart”. The OBR today publishes its Fiscal Risks report, though it yesterday contradicted Damian Green’s claim in PMQs that it would include any assessment of a ‘no deal’ Brexit outcome. And as well as the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, DExEU publishes its position papers on Euratom, justice, privileges and immunities issues.
3. THE SELECT FEW
That Brexit dominates much of Parliament now was underlined in the Select Committee chair elections yesterday, with leading Leavers toppled or blocked from top slots by Tory Remainers. Nicky Morgan beat Jacob Rees-Mogg for the plum Treasury Select Committee post (amazingly the first woman to occupy it). Tom Tughendhat beat Crispin Blunt for Foreign Affairs and Rob Halfon (having been fired by May) got Education. Avid Brexiteer Zac Goldsmith came a humiliating last place as moderate Neil Parish kept the Environment Committee.
Tory veteran Julian Lewis was among the few Leavers to secure chairmanships, remaining at the helm of the Defence Select Committee, partly thanks to strong support among Labour MPs. But Dr Lewis told me last night of his intense frustration that neither he nor any of his fellow chairs are able to get their committees up and running yet. He has nearly-completed reports into vital issues like procurement and US-UK relations (kinda important right now), but cannot operate because of a procedural logjam.
One cause of that logjam is the tradition that political parties oversee elections to select committees. Labour elected its PLP officers last week and is ready to go, but the Tory backbench 1922 Committee has yet to elect its own officers. Yet even if it had, I’m told the real delay stems from the Chief Whip failing to confirm the numbers of MPs needed for committee elections. The ’22 would be happy to use the last days before recess to do it but is hamstrung by the Government. (I’m writing more about this later as the Speaker has an ingenious offer to help speed the process).
Critics are bound to see this as yet more proof that No.10 just wants as little Parliamentary activity (and controversy) as possible until September at the earliest. There are even fears the committees may not get going until October. Ministers have failed to grant any Opposition day motions since January. With little legislation and no committee hearings, the Commons is now in danger of being as becalmed as the ghost ship of Government. Just when Brexit means it is needed most.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Sir Andy Murray may have lost his match yesterday, but he won the internet with this elegantly understated slap down of a US reporter’s sexism.
4. TOWERING CHALLENGE
Four weeks on from the awful Grenfell Tower disaster and there’s plenty of evidence of the continuing anger and raw grief among families and residents. It could take years for public trust to be rebuilt in local and national institutions. Our reporter Rachel Wearmouth talked to Kensington residents. Joe Delaney tells of his guilt that he survived after waking up fellow tenants. “What did we wake them for? It was probably better if we just let them sleep and die peacefully.” Kim Monte says: “It’s like a cloud over us of depression, PTSD, whatever it is, it’s just like it’s there, it’s this invisible cloud.”
Last night, the anger spilled over again at a public meeting, with some accusing the authorities of ‘murder’. One woman, speaking through an interpreter, told new council leader Elizabeth Campbell the council was ‘running away and hiding’. The problem for Campbell, after her admission yesterday that she had never even been in a tower block, is that she too sometimes sounds like she needs an interpreter to communicate, even in English, to the poorest in her borough.
Newsnight heard the heart-breaking story of Maria Gomes, who lost her unborn baby after cyanide poisoning from the fumes from the fire. “You just killed my son,” she said. “If it was in a normal situation, I could have gone out. And he was seven months. He could have survived... But because of the conditions, he passed away.”
5. UNI CYCLE
The number of people applying for UK university places has fallen by more than 25,000 (4%) on last year, admissions service Ucas has revealed. This is the first drop since fees were last introduced in England in 2012 and includes a 5% drop in EU students and a particularly worrying fall in mature students.
And the spectre of huge debts (from the loss of maintenance grants as well as hiked fees and rates) may be to blame. One of the most worrying stats of all today is the massive fall in student nursing applications, down by 19%. It’s not a coincidence that from 1 August, new nursing and midwifery students will no longer receive NHS bursaries.
Many of the most impressive nurses and midwives have come into the profession as mature students (I know some and believe me they are the NHS’s finest) but the Government is blocking off a whole generation of talent and experience. If Jeremy Hunt really did have clout in Cabinet, he could lobby for this one change to prove the Government was ‘not deaf’ (copyright P Hammond) to the message from voters at the election.