1. TANKS FOR THE MEMORY
In politics as in life, it’s back-to-school week. So it’s perfectly apt that Boris Johnson – a man whose entire career is based on his naughty schoolboy persona – should be flicking rubber bands at the teacher from the back of the class. Knowing that Miss is too weak to expel him, but that many fellow pupils distrust him, Johnson has this morning given us a taste of the fraught term to come.
Delivering a Daily Telegraph column that finally begins to repay his huge fee with splash headlines, the former Foreign Secretary mixes military and wrestling analogies as he says Theresa May’s Chequers plan will hand Brexit ‘victory’ to the EU. On the 79th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War (I checked my diary), he yells that the UK has “gone into battle with the white flag fluttering over our leading tank”. If Boris follows up these warning shots in the Commons and at the Tory party conference, the phoney war may be phoney no longer.
Yet while Johnson has a nice journalistic turn of phrase, his colleagues have not forgotten the fact that he delayed his Cabinet resignation until after David Davis’s. In fact, DD had a wonderfully laconic remark on Marr yesterday about his former colleague: “I know what he wants, but I don’t know what he’s planning to do.” In an interview with HuffPost, Justine Greening raises similar doubts: “I know what he thinks about Brexit - but what about anything else? I mean what’s the plan? What’s the plan?” You can’t get to be Tory leader without an alternative on Brexit (at least DD has his Canada-plus), let alone a manifesto on tax-and-spend and other policies. Freed of collective responsibility, we will get to see backbench Boris in coming weeks, but backbench Boris didn’t have a plan back in 2015 either. And he’s failed to woo many 2015 or 2017 new intake Tory MPs.
What’s intriguing is the growing move among some Tories for a temporary membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), followed by a free-trade model worked out later. This Norway-then-Canada approach is backed by former Remainer Nick Boles (and by Brexiteer and former Telegraph man George Trefgarne in an online book out today). There is muttering that Michael Gove could back it, should Chequers be rejected by Brussels (as Barnier hinted again yesterday). Could disaffected Conservative Remainers and Leavers alike unite around such a park-it-then-sort-it model?
Well, even if the PM could get Tory support for a temporary Norway solution, would Labour not just simply seize its chance to say its own tests won’t be met and we’ll have a general election thank you very much? Liam Fox put his finger on it when he said even if the Tories changed leader “you would end up with the same arithmetic but possibly more resentment”. No.10 and Brussels could try more fudge and delay, but her backbenches have had a bellyful of that already. Buckle up, folks, it’s going to be a rough ride ahead this autumn.
2. SELECTION BOX
While there were particular local circumstances behind Frank Field’s resignation from the Labour whip last week, the veteran MP tried to make wider points about the rise of the Left and the anti-semitism row that has dogged the party for months. Both will be thrown into sharp relief today as we expect to get the result of the NEC elections. If Pete Willsman (the man who said some Jewish critics are ‘Trump fanatics’) is re-elected to the party’s ruling body, many MPs will despair (and Momentum will rue its decision to put him on its original nine-strong slate). It’s a sign of how far Labour has changed that many moderates are rooting for activist Ann Black, herself a constant critic of Tony Blair, to beat Willsman.
Momentum’s power online and offline is certainly a force to be reckoned with and it guaranteed headlines with its announcement overnight that it wants a more “open, inclusive selection process which would open the door to a new generation of MPs”. The grassroots group stops short of calling for mandatory reselection, but some MPs know that any changes to current rules could leave them facing the chop. When we revealed earlier this year a ‘How To Deselect Your MP’ guide, one MP told me then: “I don’t need a two-thirds majority to become an MP, so why should I need one to be selected by my local party? These people want to turn their MP into their delegate not their representative. That’s what this is about.” Frank Field would not demur from that.
At the Jewish Labour Movement conference yesterday, Gordon Brown returned to the public arena at the JLM conference, warning the very ‘soul’ of Labour was at stake. Yet Momentum founder Jon Lansman said there was no contradiction between “condemning the racist nature of the [Israeli] nation state law and fighting antisemitism”. Tomorrow’s NEC meeting will finally vote on moves to adopt all the IHRA examples in full, though the key fight could be over the wording of extra ‘free speech’ caveats on the ‘racism’ of the Israeli state. John McDonnell told Marr ‘I think all sides will be satisfied with the proposals’. Meanwhile, an aide to MP Chris Williamson has deleted a tweet where he mocked Luciana Berger and told her to ‘grow up’. Corbyn may have more grassroots member support than Theresa May, but his MPs are just as fractious.
3. AUSTERITY BITES
In many ways it’s inevitable that Brexit tends to dominate the political landscape at Westminster, but we at HuffPost are this week running a special feature, ‘Austerity Bites’, on the impact of spending cuts on the daily lives of ordinary Britons. As our Editor-in-Chief Polly Curtis blogs today, while there’s a selective deafness among the public when it comes to Brexit (‘get on with it’ is a common reply in focus groups), there’s a bigger desire to talk about housing, jobs, schools, benefits and the NHS. And the impact of austerity on each is a constant theme.
Our splash this morning is the heart-rending story of Mark Barber, a gardener with debilitating disabilities who took his own life shortly after learning his benefits would be cut by £20 a week. A stack of Post-It notes found inside his flat after his death reveal the turmoil he was experiencing over money. One note describes how his washing machine was held together by Sellotape - another how he spent £12 on a phone call to the Department of Work and Pensions trying to sort out the slash to his benefit payments.
On her African tour last week, the PM kept stressing how much she wanted to focus on her domestic agenda and not just the latest twist in minutiae on Brexit talks. She can rest assured we’ll be taking her at her word. And even though public sector workers finally got a pay rise this summer and the NHS was promised more cash, it’s worth remembering that it was that drip-drip concern over the state of our public realm that was the real backdrop to May’s snap election failure last year.
4. NEVERENDUM STORY?
Theresa May tried to deal a death blow to the idea of a second Brexit referendum yesterday, declaring it would be a ‘betrayal of democracy’. After a summer where the ‘People’s Vote’ have undoubtedly built up some momentum with a string of events and big backers, the PM’s words in the Sunday Telegraph suggest that she couldn’t swallow such a plan, even if Labour switched policy and it was forced on her by Parliament.
The practical difficulties of a second referendum (it would inevitably require an extension to Article 50, and no one knows what the question or questions on the ballot paper would be) haven’t stopped many from demanding one. That’s why there was particular anger among some in Labour at Momentum’s other big announcement this weekend. It said that while it would consult its members on Brexit later this year, it is “currently taking no position on any Brexit motions at conference”. Let’s see if that means abstaining or voting down People’s Vote plans.
5. POLITICAL COST
The financial as well as personal cost of wanting to become an MP has been exposed by Isabel Hardman’s new book ‘Why We Get The Wrong Politicans’. Having conducted a survey of more than 500 Parliamentary candidates from all parties in the 2015 general election, she’s found that the cost in personal spending from loss of earnings and travel was an average of £11,118.
But the figures for marginal seats is shocking indeed. Tories who won in a marginal seat lost an average of £121,467, while those who lost their election fight spent £18,701. For Labour, the average personal cost of winning a marginal seat was £19,022, with candidates who failed to win still lost an average of £35,843. For Liberal Democrats the average to stand was £26,608 and SNP candidates lost £9,700. Isabel’s book calls for a national bursary scheme to help all candidates get through ‘the most expensive and time-consuming job interview on earth’.
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