1. TREES-A MAY DAY
The least surprising news coming out of the G7 was not Donald Trump tearing up the rules on international diplomacy (and tearing up our idea of ‘the West’). It was Theresa May admitting that she’s not a fan of ‘Love Island’. The ITV2 reality TV show is hugely popular, including among political types, and there was a classic Brexit discussion on Friday as Scouse model Hayley Hughes said: “What’s that? I seriously don’t have a clue….Does that mean we won’t have any trees?” In Canada for the summit, the PM was asked by the Sun for her reaction. “I have a confession to make to you, I have never seen Love Island,” she said. “I’m probably not best placed to comment on the interest people have in Love Island.”
Yet as David Davis arrives in Brussels this morning for informal talks with Michel Barnier, it’s May’s tortuous Brexit negotiation with her own backbenches (and Cabinet) that takes centre stage ahead of the EU Withdrawal Bill votes on Tuesday and Wednesday. The Prime Minister is due to address her MPs tonight, but of course it’s the hardy band of Remainer rebels to whom her loyalty pleas are really directed. Sarah Wollaston seemed unmoved yesterday by blood-curdling warnings that voting against the Government would mean the fall of the PM and Jeremy Corbyn in No.10. She rightly knows that whatever happens, the Tory party will not fight another snap election, and 2022 is the next date with the voters.
Ken Clarke hinted on Radio 4 yesterday that until the DD/Boris squalls of last week, May was edging towards ‘sensible Brexit’ (his favourite phrase) compromise on customs union and possibly even a meaningful vote for Parliament on the final deal. So far, the Tory rebels are standing firm though. In the Times on Saturday, Matthew Parris (admittedly an arch Remainer) hinted at a bigger than usual rebellion, saying this week was a moment of national importance that “could evince some quiet heroism from unexpected people”. The Lords’ meaningful vote amendment, dubbed ‘Grieve Plus Plus’ because it is much stronger than the Dominic Grieve version of the last Commons rebellion in December, is certainly the one that worries No.10 most. And the rebels may not get a better chance than this week. The hot timetabling news is that the meaningful vote amendment is down for tomorrow, the customs union and EEA votes set for Wednesday.
Still, there was some good news for the PM from Grant Shapps yesterday. The former Tory chairman, who has been one of her most vociferous critics, told Sky that “I think it’s perfectly conceivable that she leads it [the party] into the next election and I think potentially even wins”. Note the odds he gave of her being party leader in 2022 though: “not impossible… maybe 30/40%”. Given everything that’s dogged her since that snap election disaster, May will take those odds. But they’re still not good.
May will update the Commons with a G7 summit statement and will find it difficult to defend Trump. Expect Corbyn to ask why her attempts to cosy up to the President have failed (he could quote Boris’s admiration for Trump going ‘in hard’). Corbyn may even ask why the PM isn’t more like Angela Merkel, as depicted in that iconic photo this weekend. Trump’s critics should take note it was Henry Kissinger who first said “America has no permanent friends or enemies, only interests”. The really worrying thing for many British MPs, of all stripes, is that US interests now look further than ever from our own.
2. LABOUR PAINS
Theresa May is not the only one addressing the troops tonight, and not the only one worried about internal splits. Keir Starmer is the main speaker at the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) and given how these meetings have gone in recent weeks we can expect more clashes between those who back the European Economic Area (EEA) amendment and those who are dead against it. The party’s solution - whipping to abstain while offering an EEA-style proposal of its own further down the line - will fail to quell a sizeable rebellion.
Public Accounts Committee chair Meg Hillier told Westminster Hour last night she would be defying the whip, and the matter-of-fact way she did it was testimony to how baked in this rebellion is. The question is just how big that rebellion will be. Some rebels think they have more than 60 MPs ready to back the EEA, and they think the number of MPs with counter concerns over migration (like Caroline Flint) have been overdone (their numbers range from 20 to 50). Starmer has lots of goodwill from many in the PLP, but will that be enough to stop some shadow frontbenchers defying the whip? Key will be how Corbyn reacts after the EEA vote: will such frontbenchers be forced to resign or will a light touch be applied? Don’t forget the extraordinary fact that after three shadow whips rebelled on Article 50, they weren’t fired.
Starmer told Marr that this week was not the “last chance saloon” on a single market deal, and obviously prefers the focus to be on the Government and a meaningful vote and customs union amendments. The bigger cause for the more forceful anti-Brexit Labour MPs is getting a referendum on the final deal (it’s not a ‘second referendum’ on Brexit, honest, they say). Gordon Brown will have cheered them yesterday when he said that after a meaningful vote on Brexit, MPs should look at “another way to consult the country”. He also hinted that he and Blair could team up soon. They were a formidable combo years ago, but will the country listen if they both back a fresh referendum?
3. SELECTION BOX
Away from Brexit, the internal battle for the future direction and shape of the Labour party continues. Gordon Brown, who knows more than a thing or two about being hailed as the coming thing only to see your reputation collide with voter-driven reality, suggested to Andrew Marr yesterday that Corbynism may be a passing phase not a lasting change. “Jeremy himself is going to accept that he, nobody, goes on for ever. We’re all phases; we’re all part of that,” said the ex-PM.
But the one thing that neither Brown nor Tony Blair did was embed institutional change within their own party in a way that now Corbyn is doing. Following the change to the leadership rules introduced by Ed Miliband, the new ‘democracy review’ could revolutionise the way MPs are reselected when it publishes before annual conference. Many Momentum-backed local parties want to make it harder for MPs to avoid a reselection race. We revealed yesterday a fresh row over the issue as activists share a WikiHow ‘How To Deselect Your Labour MP’ guide. The graphic novel-style illustrations (particularly the one of a guy with his head in his heads and screwed up motions nearby) are a treat.
Kieran Glasssmith, a young activist who helped draft the guide, told me mandatory reselection “is standard for every other party apart from the Tories and it’s already how we choose Labour councillors”. The reselection/deselection issue certainly goes to the heart of how Corbyn supporters view their party. One MP warns: “These people want to turn their MP into their delegate not their representative. That’s what this is about.” They add that the current requirement to win 50% of local branches is already democratic, but raising the bar to 66% is designed to trigger removals of MPs by local factions. Some MPs are resigned to the change, but others think they’re sleepwalking to disaster and that the battles ahead will make the 1980s left-right fights look like child’s play. One backbencher says, ominously: ”The leadership must know that deselections won’t be without consequences – one of which would be another civil war that would cost Jeremy the next election.”
4. TECH THAT
It’s London Tech Week and Digital Secretary (that’s his title dontcha know) Matt Hancock has kicked it off by revealing he doesn’t allow his children to have mobile phones (they’re under 12) and thinks no child should be accessing their phone overnight. If I remember rightly, the minister himself puts his own mobile in a box when he gets home, so he’s preaching what he practices. Yet Hancock also tells the Guardian that more broadly he hasn’t ruled out legislation to better regulate the internet.
Bang on cue, the Telegraph launches its new ‘Duty of Care’ campaign on online activity with a story that a 15-year-old boy from north London is set to be diagnosed with internet gaming addiction in what is believed to be the first case of its kind in the NHS. The paper has a coalition of charities and health experts calling on all social media and online gaming firms to have a statutory “duty of care” to protect children from mental ill health, abuse and addictive behaviour.
5. MIND THE GAP
Britain’s biggest firms will from 2020 be legally required to publish the gap between the salary of their chief executive and what they pay their average UK worker, under proposed new government rules to be unveiled in Parliament today. Business Secretary Greg Clark is hoping the new ‘pay ratio’ transparency can add to the gender pay gap moves already under way. Clark says “we understand the anger of workers and shareholders when bosses’ pay is out of step with company performance.”
Labour and trade unions think the proposals are a pale imitation of the need for much tougher requirements. As for another bit of its reforming capitalism agenda, Labour has said it’s not watering down its plans for water renationalisation despite claims from private water boss Susan Davy that the party has been in talks about ‘mutualisation’ instead. A ComRes poll in April found that public backing for water renationalisation had dropped form 83% to 42%. It could also be pretty pricey (the Social Market Foundation and the Centre for Policy Studies say it’s £90bn and £86bn respectively). But John McDonnell may not give up the idea that easily.
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