1. THE HOUSE AT POO CORNER
The House of Commons felt like a very different place yesterday. The cheers, back-slapping and smiles on the Labour benches were in such stark contrast to the gloom of the Tories opposite, it was hard to remember which side had emerged with more seats in the general election.
Sitting on the frontbench looking more isolated than ever, Theresa May endured Corbyn’s taunts that he was the one offering ‘strong and stable’ leadership while she presided over a ‘coalition of chaos’. The ‘mood of the House’ is often an intangible, quixotic beast but the power looked to be visibly draining from the PM’s fingers.
The sense that May is now a hostage to the competing wings of her own party is underlined by the very issue on which she was meant to unite it: Brexit. At yesterday’s lengthy Cabinet meeting, ministers made very clear that some kind of cross-party consensus with Labour was needed (a call echoed by David Cameron) and that jobs and business should be the priority. Philip Hammond and Business Secretary Greg Clark are moving the market.
Brexiteer ministers are trying to stand firm and were buoyed by the appointment of backbencher Steve Baker as the new junior Brexit minister. Baker, a formidable organiser, operates under the radar yet as head of the 80-strong Eurosceptic ‘European Research Group’, has more MPs to bring down May than the DUP’s mere 10. Baker was the man who warned ministers ahead of the EU referendum that they were ‘polishing poo’ in attempts to get a decent benefits ban from Brussels. The junior reshuffle will be completed today.
Lots is in flux now. Hilary Benn told Newsnight he wanted the UK to say in the customs union, and the Times reports that’s what Hammond is pushing for too. Others want a Norway-style EFTA deal, but that would mean submitting to the ECJ, a red line for many Tory MPs. Labour’s Barry Gardiner tells the Indy it’s a ‘joke’ to suggest ministers have been in touch, insisting May has to drop her ‘no deal’ rhetoric. Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told Today there had to be “some element of free movement”. After the PM’s Maybotic Mexican wave fail at the France-England football match, our team lost 3-2. Is that an omen of things to come when it is 27 v 1?
Ken Clarke on the Today programme at least helped May by saying the French and Germans were wrong to leave ‘the door open’ to the UK reversing Brexit. “We are destined the leave the European Union,” he said, firmly. But Clarke added it was possible to leave with “new regulatory barriers, no new customs barriers…We are in a new situation and the national interest calls for a cross-party approach”. When asked about May’s chances of stabilising her government, Clarke also said ‘she’s alright’ and he couldn’t “conceivably seen anyone else” who could take over as leader. For now.
At least there is some good news for new Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke: unemployment fell again by 50,000 in the three months to April.
2. SHADOW BOXING
Jeremy Corbyn’s Shadow Cabinet meets today for the first time since the election. If the atmosphere is anything like last night’s Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP), he’ll be accorded another hero’s welcome. Even diehard Corbyn sceptics came out of Committee Room 14 to say JC had delivered ‘his best ever speech at PLP’. One in particular liked his promise to learn the lessons of why some seats were lost, talking to the defeated MPs and their local parties. Corbyn’s vow to campaign in 60 Tory marginals is a shrewd move, and will worry the Conservatives. Still, as I said yesterday, some MPs still wonder if we’ve reached ‘peak Corbyn’. One told me –strictly confidentially- that the loss of East Midlands seats was a real concern, as was the increase in the number of Labour marginals.
As for the ‘reshuffle’, well it already started, or didn’t, last Friday. The day after the general election, all the whips were reconfirmed in their posts. This was a practical recognition that a hung Parliament will require more than ever a wily team experienced in the arts of Commons tactics. It may also be down to the emphasis from Chief Whip Nick Brown on his appointment last year that he wanted control of his own team. At the height of the in-fighting, some close to Corbyn wanted to break up the whip’s office or install a ‘spy’, but with Brown in charge, the leader is said to be happy all is well. There are key vacancies to fill in the Shadow Cabinet, still. Northern Ireland is more important than ever, as is the post of Shadow Scottish Secretary. If Ian Murray refuses to return, some think young leftwinger, newly elected Paul Sweeney could get the nod.
The post of Shadow Home Secretary may not be vacant after all, with Diane Abbott making clear in her Guardian interview she wants to come back. A long-time ally of Corbyn’s (he tweeted on Sunday lots of pics of her first election), surely she will be restored to the role? Abbott revealed she was diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes two years ago and said her failure to eat properly had led to her interview mistakes. Her brother told her” ‘that is not Diane’, because ever since I’ve been a child I’ve had a great memory for figures, and he said he knew it was my blood sugar and gave me a lecture about eating and having glucose tablets.”
Abbott hits out at the way the Tories targeted her in the campaign, saying she knew she was “part of Lynton Crosby’s grid”. And even last week, scores of MPs told me her interview blunders had really cut through on the doorstep in the north. The comments of some Labour voters were unprintable. Still, Tory sources are unrepentant about focusing on Abbott’s record on security. And one even tells the Guardian “no one knows more about the difficulties of diabetes than the prime minister.”
3. CAPITALIST WORKERS’ PARTY
As Theresa May yesterday struggled at the dispatch box, I was struck by one particular vignette. As she rightly praised the record number of disabled MPs, sacked Tory minister Rob Halfon (who has mild cerebral palsy and osteoarthritis) placed his crutches on the floor of the House in front of him.
All reshuffles are difficult, but Halfon’s removal seems as spectacularly inept. He has long been a voice of ‘working class Toryism’, led the way on apprenticeships and has a record increasing Tory vote share in what was a Labour marginal. Reviving his call for the Tories to rebrand themselves as the ‘Conservative Workers Party’ (both Cameron and May have claimed they run ‘the party of the workers’), his piece in the Sun is scathing. “The Conservative party is on death row” he warns, pointing to the fact that it hasn’t commanded a decent Parliamentary majority since 1987. On Newsnight, he rammed home the point that the Tories need to better reflect the values of workers, address their youth problems and crucially “make an emotional connection with the British people”.
But with Theresa May in charge, emotional connection is a concept where The Computer Says No. The PM was in full Maybot mode again yesterday, from her awkward attempt at self-deprecation (‘at least someone got a landslide’ she told newly elected Speaker John Bercow) and her mix-up over the Commons mace, through to her flying speech papers alongside Macron and her Mexican wave fail at the France-England football match.
As for calls for the Tories to ease austerity, the Standard splash yesterday on inflation rising to 2.9% rammed home how the earnings squeeze will worsen. But Osborne’s leader column warned that allowing the deficit to rise would harm the Tories even more. Still, I note an FT story “Retreat from austerity holds few fears for gilt market”. Austerity and debt reduction “are looking increasingly like political suicide”, says Jim Reid, of Deutsche Bank. What a turn up.
4. COME ON ARLENE
Theresa May is hoping to finally announce a deal with the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) today, though the way Arlene Foster kept her dangling yesterday just underlined how precarious things are. The DUP are master negotiators with years of hard experience in Ulster and over here, whereas May is an ingénue in the ways of political deal making. Even if a deal is struck this afternoon, it appears to have derailed the date of the Queen’s Speech and the talk is now of it being put back to Tuesday June 27. Her Maj’s trip to Ascot won’t be affected. Phew.
Just before the 2010 general election, Ken Clarke said: “You can always do a deal with Ulstermen but it’s not the way to run a modern sophisticated society”. On Today, he was more emollient to the idea, while warning there should be “absolutely no sectarian demands”. John Major yesterday was withering on Radio 4’s The World At One about the dangers of any deal on the Northern Ireland peace process. His wider point was that the DUP would not want a Corbyn government, so no deal was needed. The Telegraph revealed yesterday that Oliver Letwin had drafted a secret plan to work with the DUP in 2015 if the election had resulted in a hung Parliament, with its MPs agreeing to back motions of confidence while exempted from votes on welfare cuts.
Major also warned it would cost the Tories ‘a bucketload’ (not Buckethead) of votes as moderate Brits took fright at their socially conservative views. Although Foster insists her party is not homophobic, will its views further damage the Tory brand among young and centrist voters? The woman who vowed to transform ‘the nasty party’ could well re-toxify it. But that’s how desperate she is to cling on to power.
5. TOWER INFERNO
The photos and footage of the awful fire at the Grenfell Tower block in West London are truly terrifying. Hours later, white smoke continues to funnel out of the building. The latest news is that there have been “a number of fatalities”, and 50 people taken to five hospitals. With the blaze breaking out just before 1am, the fear is that many residents will have been asleep and that the casualties could be much higher. Some 200 firefighters were on the scene, heading into the danger as residents were taken out. “It looks very bad, very very bad,” said eyewitness Tim Downie. “I’ve never seen anything like this. It’s just such a big fire.”
Our HuffPost UK liveblog is HERE. Our video reporter Paco has talked to a woman who saw a baby thrown from a window to safety. We are told that Muslims residents staying up for Suhur (the early morning meal as part of Ramadan) saved many lives. A former fire chief tweeted it was “a Third-World type accident that represents a failure of every component of fire safety & building management”.
The cause has not yet been determined, but the local Grenfell Action Group have long argued that the block (and others like it) is an accident waiting to happen because of poor fire safety. It points out that in October 2015 a fire ripped through the 14 storey Adair Tower in North Kensington, causing mass panic and resulting in a number of residents taken to hospital suffering from smoke inhalation. Had it not been for the swift actions of the London Fire Brigade the consequences of that fire and potential loss of life could have been much worse.
It’s too soon to determine the cause of the fire, and the immediate focus will obviously be on getting as many people to safety as possible. But the local Kensington and Chelsea council and the tenant management organisation are sure to face questions. And Kensington’s new Labour MP Emma Dent Coad will want answers.