1. OTHER THERESA
“There is no Mayism!” She got that right, alright. The PM’s irritated riposte, at the launch of her ill-fated Tory manifesto four long weeks ago, was borne out with a vengeance today. The Queen’s Speech, a ruthlessly filleted version of her very personal policy programme, leaves little trace of Theresa Mary May on its pages.
Hemmed in by her own side, by the Democratic Unionist Party and the strengthened ranks of Opposition, she has a two-year legislative agenda that looks thin on radicalism but thick with problems. Like a malnourished child, her minority government has a bloated bellyful of EU exit bills that belies its emaciated and deeply weakened nature.
The Brexit legislation is fraught with danger, but even supposedly ‘big ticket’ items like the counter-terrorism plan are prone to civil liberties spats with her own MPs and others. The rest of the bills, from whiplash compensation to armed forces flexible working, felt like true heirs to John Major’s ‘cones hotlines’.
The Economist famously slammed her as Theresa ‘Maybe’ last year, attacking her caution as dithering indecision. She reacted by showing the ‘other Theresa’, the bold risk-taker who talks about ‘no deal’ with the EU and calls snap elections for fun. Today, her innate caution was firmly reimposed by brute Parliamentary arithmetic.
In her own speech in the Commons, May tried to project her vision, talking repeatedly about her “compassionate” Conservatism (some of her MPs gamely tried to praise her “liberal Conservative” credo) and the need to help ordinary people. But in the wake of her failure to show leadership in response to the Grenfell Tower disaster, her words felt like ashes on the floor of the House of Commons. She finally said sorry for her central government’s failures, but it had taken nearly a week to do so. Why didn’t she apologise to the residents herself, we asked later. “This was clearly addressing the residents of Grenfell through Parliament,” one spokesman said.
When a Prime Minister’s authority is so withered that she sends her deputy to the backbench 1922 Committee after her Queen’s Speech, you know she’s a leader in name only. The real problem for ministers of all stripes that this slimmed down programme makes them look like a Zombie government too. In what felt like a telling indicator of the ill-health of the government, Brexiteer pin-up Boris Johnson was himself filleted by Eddie Mair on the radio later, suffering a brain fade that rivalled Diane Abbott’s a few weeks back. One Tory backbencher told me last night that the most baffling decision by May was to reappoint Jeremy Hunt. “He was the most toxic thing on the doorstep among public sector workers,” the MP said. Add in worries about school cuts, reiterated by teachers today, and you can see why many are itching for a really fresh start under a new leader.
2. REALLY, REALLY GREAT
Standing at the bar of the Commons today was a trio of arch Brexiteers: David Davis, Liam Fox and Iain Duncan Smith. Just behind them stood Steve Baker, the new Brexit minister and erstwhile leader of the expertly-organised Eurosceptic group of Tory MPs. It was as if the ‘hard/clean Brexit’ conscience of the Conservative party was hovering as a warning to the PM, sitting just yards away.
Eight separate Brexit bills underline the scale of the task between now and our EU leaving date of 2019. Yet even here, the tacking and trimming was brought home by the very wording of the biggest legislative item of all. Yes, the ‘Great Repeal Bill’ was slimmed down to a mere ‘Repeal Bill’. This, despite the boastful phrase being used 36 times in May’s White Paper earlier this year.
The Prime Minister’s official spokesman explained that this was mere pruning by the Parliamentary draughtsmen. “The normal Parliamentary procedure is a short title must express the content of a bill in a straightforwardly factual manner,” he said, deadpan. So it was not straightforwardly factual to claim this was ‘Great’ in any sense.
Remainers long argued last year of course that Brexit would take the ‘Great’ out of ‘Great Britain’, rather than put it back in. Yet their hand is immeasurably stronger thanks to May’s lack of a majority. The PM herself hinted at the need to ‘seek consensus’ and backbenchers from Ken Clarke to Dominic Grieve made plain that Parliament had to have the final say on the exact shape of a soft/hard/transitional Brexit. With the Lords flexing its muscles (and the Lib Dems saying the ‘Salisbury Convention’ on manifesto pledges does not apply) and the Scottish Parliament getting a possible ‘consent motion’ on the bills (a political but not legal problem), the skies are only going to get darker.
3. FIRST AMONG EQUALS?
Up in the peers’ gallery watching the Commons debate I spotted the impishly fascinating figure of Jeffrey Archer. And the author of that political best-seller First Among Equals was probably incredulous at the latest crazy plot twists that his publishers would never allow. Down on the frontbench, May looked strangely equal to her Cabinet colleagues, holding no fear for many of them, affection among some and pity among others.
She received a desultory welcome on arrival and only one big cheer as she started her speech, but after that the ranks behind her looked uneasy throughout. When young Kwasi Kwarteng talked of her ‘strong and stable leadership’, it was striking how his words fell instantly flat. May herself looked embarrassed by the very soundbite, though she did rally later to talk about the importance of a ‘strong economy’.
And it was notable that a newly assertive Philip Hammond spent much of the session as heckler-in-chief of Jeremy Corbyn, even offering her advice, almost as if he was the PM and she the junior minister. The Chancellor has sent out mixed messages on austerity, and so too did May today. “We are not deaf,” No. 10 said today, yet the PM insisted she didn’t want to ‘rack up debts for our children’.
Which brings us to the other ‘missing’ item on along a long list of omissions (the Trump state visit as well as social care detail, grammar schools etc) today: how any of this programme will be paid for. Aides kept telling us that ‘the next fiscal event’ (Whitehallspeak for the Budget and Spring Statement) would be when we learned the detail. Winter fuel payments savings, the pensions triple lock, you name it, we don’t yet know where the money is coming from.
4. TEAM JEZ
Judging from the cheers Jeremy Corbyn got today, you’d never think that his own troops were once worried he was their electoral kryptonite. More relaxed than ever (he actually talked about foxes as our “furry friends”), the Labour leader combined his new-found confidence with a well-scripted speech that hammered home all his key messages road-tested on the election campaign trail.
“This is a Government without a majority, without a mandate, without a serious legislative programme,” he said. One backbencher kept yelling “Go on Jez!” whenever he was confronted with Tory attempts to knock him off his stride. Corbyn went on too long, but he managed to land blows and to get across the authenticity that marked his successful mass rallies of the past few weeks.
What undoubtedly helped too today was that Labour MPs acted like a team, passing the ball to their striker and even scoring goals themselves. Kevin Brennan had a savage line for the PM, calling her ‘the interim Prime Minister’. Wes Streeting said “the only question is why is she still here?”. And Toby Perkins, one of JC’s strongest critics in the last Parliament, had the zinger that May had visibly reduced since the break: “Has she shrunk or has he grown?” It felt at that point like animal cruelty laws were being breached.
Still, the PM had her one card left: she at least came first and Corbyn’s party was second. And that remains her only weapon. Until her critics take her out, she is still in office. If not entirely in power.
5. ALTERNATIVE ULSTER
May’s dependence on the DUP was the real backdrop to much of today, despite her party’s belated insistence on trying to call the Ulster party’s bluff. The DUP got upset at being called ‘dinosaurs’ by Green MP Caroline Lucas, yet that’s exactly how many worried Tory MPs – who praise May for her ‘liberal Conservative’ agenda – think is the problem on equal marriage and abortion.
No.10 repeated the mantra that talks were ongoing and that no deadlines had been set. Yet with a week to the actual vote on the Queen’s Speech, the DUP’s hardball tactics are looking difficult for the PM. The latest demand is to slash air passenger duty, but it’s worth remembering that on some items like welfare cuts, Northern Ireland has an devolved opt-out with no ‘Barnett formula’ consequentials.
The Telegraph reports that the DUP refused to pick up the phone to No.10 for a full 36 hours in the past few days, while it dug in on demands for £2bn extra for the NHS and infrastructure.
Boris Johnson admitted tonight that if there was still no ‘agreement’ between the two parties by the Queen’s Speech vote, he thought the DUP would not vote against the government. But even if a deal is reached at some point afterwards, dependence on the Ulster party continues to make a big party like the Tories - and their leader - look small.