1. MOMENT OF INTER-ERUPTION
‘The Moment of Interruption’. That’s the delightfully antiquated phrase the House of Commons uses to describe the time at the end of the day’s main business, when debate must stop and a question must be decided either way. Next month, MPs may finally decide either way on Theresa May’s Brexit plans. But yesterday there were more ‘interruptions’ (which is also the formal euphemism Hansard uses to record noise and heckling in the chamber) and more anarchy than I’ve ever seen in 20 years of sitting in the Press Gallery.
The cause of the rumpus was Tory outrage at Jeremy Corbyn’s alleged muttering of the words ‘stupid woman’, after May delivered her panto jibe during PMQs. For what it’s worth (and that’s not much), it’s still unclear to me whether he said ‘woman’, but it seems to stretch credulity to claim he said ‘people’. Diane Abbott this morning told the Today programme “nobody really knows what he said”. When asked if Corbyn was a sexist, she replied: “Come on, let’s get on to something serious.” Overnight, the Tory party’s vice chair Helen Whately sent an email accusing the Labour leader and is team of ‘a long line of misogynistic behaviour’.
There’s no question that what Abbott called “a mini-riot” was in part orchestrated by the Tory whips. I saw the deputy chief whip show the slo-mo clip of Corbyn on his smartphone to Patrick McLoughlin before he made his point of order. The video was spread like wildfire among Tory backbench Whatsapp groups. And to my mind the most important thing about yesterday was the way Speaker Bercow’s authority was then shredded by repeated ‘interruptions’. Red-faced, his voice cracking, he was forced to take points of order he would usually refuse. The moment was captured beautifully (see above) by the official Commons photographer, who just happened to be in the chamber yesterday.
Commons leader Andrea Leadsom really lit the blue touch paper with her charge that Bercow himself had called her ‘a stupid woman’, swiftly followed up by Tory MP Vicky Ford claiming he’d used the same language against her. Add in claims (yet to be fully investigated) of his bullying of staff and you can see why he looked so shaken. And the Speaker’s standing matters more than ever, precisely because he has some big constitutional calls to make in coming weeks on how Parliament handles Brexit.
At the end of an exhausting 2018, it’s not just Parliamentary discipline that has broken down down. Yesterday provided a microcosm of a wider political dysfunction in Britain. Corbyn’s credibility was undermined, as was the Speaker’s, but so too was Theresa May’s. Her flagship immigration pledge (see below) was effectively torn up by a Home Secretary who looks increasingly like a future leader. Meanwhile, Cabinet ministers - from Amber Rudd to David Gauke to Andrea Leadsom - openly offer alternatives to the PM’s Brexit deal (also see below). The tectonic plates feel like they are shifting. We have to wait for 2019 to discover if they produce a mere tremor or an almighty earthquake.
2. POINTING AT THE REF
With 99 days to go to Brexit day, Amber Rudd’s interview on ITV’s Peston last night felt like a big moment in the growing push towards a second referendum that could halt or reverse the whole thing. She caveated her words carefully, stressing she didn’t want a ‘People’s Vote’, “but if parliament absolutely fails to reach a consensus then I could see there would be a plausible argument for it”. Just as significantly, she added that she wanted MPs to vote on various Plan B options if May’s Brexit deal was defeated: “I quite like the idea of indicative votes because it would flush out where people’s majority is.”
Despite Len McCluskey’s broadside against a ‘metropolitan moralising’ referendum, and claims that Corbyn is personally as opposed as the Unite leader, Diane Abbott stuck to the party line this morning. “The leadership sticks by the policy…we will do whatever is necessary…we may have to consider a second referendum.” Given her own warning that a new poll could lead to an even bigger Leave vote, it’s significant that she kept the option very much on the table.
Of course, it’s what the Government does in response to any Parliamentary defeat next month that matters most. David Gauke underlined the new mood of Cabinet independence with his Evening Standard interview warning he and ‘many’ others would quit if the PM tried to go down a no-deal route. On Today, Leadsom hit back at Rudd, pointing out a second referendum was ‘not government policy’. But she also then freelanced herself on a ‘managed no-deal’. “What I’m looking at is trying to find an alternative, that in the event we cannot agree to this deal, there could be a further deal which looks at a more minimalist approach.”
Still, don’t forget that all this talk of alternatives is not unhelpful to No.10, as it again gets across the message to Tory MPs that May’s deal could be the least worst option. Away from the noise yesterday in the chamber, one of the most interesting questions in PMQs came from the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. In what sounded more conciliatory language, he asked May to consider ‘necessary changes…not just assurances’. May replied ‘we will of course look at all the options’. Another straw in the wind was Gavin Williamson’s Instagram photo, showing him and the Chief Whip Julian Smith with a smiling Dodds in a Commons bar. If the DUP is somehow brought on board in the New Year, a host of Tory MPs will follow. I know the idea of May’s deal actually getting through Parliament sounds mad, but never forget that madness is the new normal.
3. IF THE CAP FITS
A new Survation poll of Tory councillors last night showed how Sajid Javid could beat Boris Johnson in a run-off tor Tory leader. And yesterday the Home Secretary looked and sounded like a man who knows political power has already shifted from the PM following her (still extraordinary) announcement that she won’t be contesting the next general election as leader.
The Immigration White Paper marked a series of victories for Javid, and Philip Hammond and Greg Clark, over May’s own instincts on the topic. He refused (on media and in the Commons) to repeat the words of the Tory manifesto ‘objective’ to get net migration down below 100,000 a year. Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd read the last rites over the target last night, saying: “I think we’re all talking now and have been for a while about sustainable levels rather than a fixed number.”
But Javid and others have also pushed back against No.10’s attempt to make the White Paper more hardline. Irritated by the way Downing Street tried to this weekend spin that a £30,000 earnings threshold had been agreed, he basically dumped it into a consultation. The Guardian reports the figure could be slashed to £21,000. Ex-May aide Nick Timothy complains in the Telegraph that Javid has secured ‘a more liberal system for unskilled migrants’.
Many warn the plans will still cripple many businesses and starve our social care and NHS of key staff. Yet they could have been worse, ministers say. As our Arj Singh swiftly spotted, the new plans also mean unlimited numbers of low-skilled temporary workers from the EU will be able to apply to come to Britain without a job offer until 2025 to help businesses get used to Brexit. Hardliners at MigrationWatch were not happy at all. Perhaps most telling (as Sam Coates reports) was the fact that Javid was not invited to join May at Heathrow for a photo-op with border staff. The PM still clung to her 100,000 migration target, but on many minds at Westminster was the thought of her own migration - out of No.10.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Barack Obama stage a surprise visit to a children’s hospital, making a Santa hat look cooler than ever.
4. DEATH ON OUR DOORSTEP
Yesterday, we sent a reporter to interview the group of homeless people who have recently camped outside the Tube entrance to Parliament. The plan was to discover their individual stories and how they’d been received by the hundreds of MPs and Commons staff who walk past them every day. Instead, we found that one of them, a Hungarian former chef called Gyula Remef, had died during the night. Housing Secretary James Brokenshire has asked Westminster City Council to investigate the death.
Parliamentary workers have set up a JustGiving page in Gyula’s memory, with donations to the charity Street Link. Within hours, it hit the initial £1,000 target and the fund will surely grow today. Jamie Leigh, one of the women who slept alongside Gyula, fought back the tears to tell us: “Why can’t we have just a little room with a mattress and a TV, that’s all we want. I’m not asking for too much.” She’s right, isn’t she? This morning, new official figures revealed 597 homeless people died in 2017 - a rise of 24% in five years.
5. SYRIA’S BUSINESS
Donald Trump’s surprise decision to withdraw American troops from the fight against ISIS in the Kurdish region of Syria - ‘they’re all coming back, we won’ - has been met with clear opposition within his administration and among key allies. It’s striking that the Kremlin was delighted with the decision, as was President Assad and Tehran. The Kurds themselves, who are coming under attack from Turkey, may once more feel this is yet another historic abandonment.
The British Foreign Office put out a statement which couldn’t disguise the UK’s deep concern: “Much remains to be done and we must not lose sight of the threat they pose.” Defence Minister Tobias Ellwood was much more forthright, tweeting “I strongly disagree. It [ISIS] has morphed into other forms of extremism and the threat is very much alive.”
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