1 SPEAKER’S CORNERED?
When Newsnight’s Chris Cook laid bare the extent of bullying allegations against Commons staff last week, he sparked a much-needed debate on what many feel has for too long been Westminster’s dirty little secret. And for some MPs, today marks the first chance to actually react to the claims, not least those levelled against Commons Speaker John Bercow (which he strongly denies). It was the maelstrom over the MPs’ expenses affair that led to the toppling of the last Speaker, Michael Martin. Will this latest controversy lead to the departure of the man who replaced him?
Well, as MPs discovered during the Martin era, publicly criticising the Speaker in or via Parliament itself is very, very difficult indeed. Just over a year ago Tory MP James Duddridge told me he wanted Bercow to go and today Andrew Bridgen is set to table an Early Day Motion. I’m told the wording will be either that “this House calls for an independent inquiry into the allegations of bullying raised against Mr Speaker” and/or “That this House has no confidence in Mr Speaker”. The former may have much more success than the latter. Indeed, Green party leader Caroline Lucas is to take a different tack in tabling an Urgent Question on alleged bullying of Commons clerks. She wants Bercow to let his deputies decide whether to grant the question: a neat example of the judge/jury problem of MPs deciding the fate of their own colleagues.
Getting rid of a Speaker is not impossible, but the key will be cross-party consensus. Bercow has long enjoyed Labour support, but that may ebb away given the bullying claims and at the very least there are demands for a proper investigation. With Harriet Harman, Chris Bryant and Lindsay Hoyle all seen as possible contenders for the Speaker’s job, there is also irritation at Bercow’s little-noticed announcement last year that he would try to stay on until 2022. He previously pledged he would go in 2018, but used the snap election and the Fixed Term Parliaments Act as reasons for changing his mind. Neither reason was seen as very credible among some MPs. Let’s wait for the EDM to drop today, and how many Labour MPs sign it. UQs are a more opaque process (you never publicise you’ve applied for one, until it’s granted), but the Speaker’s office decision will be watched closely.
2. ABRAHAMS TANKS
I wrote on Friday that there are ‘some senior women’ MPs alleged to have bullied staff in Parliament. As with the sexual harassment allegations, names have circulated within Labour for some time (some of them would shock you, dear reader) but without alleged victims speaking out, it’s difficult to publicise any of them. That’s why last night’s news about Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Debbie Abrahams – who was forced to step aside from her post over a ‘workplace issue’ - really matters.
I know that members of Abrahams’ staff have left her in recent weeks and one source told me she had been effectively barred by the Leader’s office from replacing them. But in her own vehement denial last night, she tried to turn the tables instead on Jeremy Corbyn’s team, claiming that she was the one who had been subjected to “aggressive, intimidating and wholly unprofessional” treatment by ‘certain individuals’. The past week had shown “a bullying culture of the worst kind”, she added. This all poses a problem for some centrist Labour MPs, many of whom dislike Abrahams and the Leader’s office in equal measure. Margaret Greenwood will replace Abrahams in the short term, but in the long term Laura Pidcock is seen by some senior Corbyn allies as the perfect replacement.
Labour HQ is set to investigate both sides’ complaints. But yet again, this whole row shows the need for a properly independent complaints procedure, taken away from the parties’ hands. Corbyn himself on Friday urged staff who had allegedly been mistreated by Labour MP Paul Farrelly to make a complaint, but will they trust the party’s own procedures? Meanwhile, the decision by Momentum’s Jon Lansman to abandon his bid for Labour’s general secretary job is big boost for Corbyn and his favoured candidate Jennie Formby. But the whole issue of bullying is a crucial test for Corbyn, for the next general secretary – and for those trade unions whose very mission is to defend workers from mistreatment by their superiors.
3. CREDIT AND LOSS
Chancellor Philip Hammond has his Spring Statement tomorrow and is on course to get some good news with lower than forecast borrowing of up to £11bn (according to the Resolution Foundation). But the bad news keeps on coming for those 11 million families on benefit who will pay for George Osborne’s welfare freeze from April, with a couple with two children set to lose £315 on average. Just imagine if the Chancellor used some of his new windfall to restore the annual £2bn cut from the ‘work allowance’, the amount claimants in work can keep before losing benefit?
Well, former Work and Pensions Secretary Iain Duncan Smith appears to have joined other Tories in demanding a reversal of the cuts. He tells the Sun: “The whole point of Universal Credit is to entice people back into work. The more money we’re able to offer people to do that, the more successful we will be.” Backbencher Stephen McPartland has been pushing this for some time, and former DWP chief David Gauke was looking at it. Will new Secretary of State Esther McVey have persuaded the Treasury to think again?
As we revealed this weekend, the Government has a real challenge on its hands after Hammond’s big moment in the Commons tomorrow. Labour has secured a vote on a string of statutory instruments, including planned cuts to free school meals for those on Universal Credit. And what’s particularly tricky is that the Government wants to restrict the income threshold for free meals to just £7,400 in England, while confirming it at £14,000 in Northern Ireland. The DUP’s Jim Shannon has already signed an EDM criticising the planned English cut. Will his party abstain, and will Tory rebels do too?
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Watch protestors at Crufts storm the stage just as the Best in Show award is made. Animal rights demonstrators were highlighting ‘canine eugenics’.
4. INTEGRATION MATHS
At last week’s Cabinet, Theresa May told ministers she wanted pupils in schools dominated by one single race or religion to be taught “pluralistic British values”. Her words were part of discussion of the government’s new Integrated Communities Strategy schools, which is expected to be published this week. But on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour, former Integration Czar Louise Casey warned against any further delays and demanded “big bold policies”. “I would be quite old school about this and I would set a target that says by X date we want everybody in the country to be able to speak a common language,” she said. Let’s see if any minister dares be that bold in their integration calculations.
Casey, who has her critics on the left and right of politics, also warned of the dangers of having “a very significant white working class population who feel incredibly alienated…it’s not only about the tides of immigration and migration and English language but some of this is about equalities for women as well as equalities overall”. That language of ‘tides’ of immigration may further inflame her critics. Meanwhile, new Education Secretary Damian Hinds recently suggested he was in favour of ditching the 50 per cent cap on religious admissions to new oversubscribed faith schools. To many, including former No.10 aide Clare Foges, that signals more, not less, segregation. Or as she put it: “Instead of simply learning about the great British value of tolerance, children should be living it.”
5. SADIQ SPEAKS
Sadiq Khan, the first Muslim to become Mayor of any Western capital city, will give his own take on the integration debate today when he delivers a speech at the South by South West (SXSW) festival in Texas. Ahead of a Q&A session chaired by HuffPost Editor-in-Chief Lydia Polgreen, Khan will call on social media giants to do more to tackle hate speech and fake news. Given his decision to call out one online firm, Uber, for its lack of ‘social responsibility’, there’s a wider pitch at play here.
The Mayor, who was elected despite attempts by rival Zac Goldsmith to paint him as linked to Muslim extremists, will bring home just how personal this is for him. He is expected to read out some of the abusive and illegal tweets and other social media messages he has received since taking control of City Hall in 2016. You can tune in live on HuffPost UK’s Facebook page from 7pm GMT.
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