1. FINISHING SCHOOL
On her last full Parliamentary day before the summer break, the PM got over the finishing line with relative ease. Corbyn missed the goal at PMQs, the Liaison Committee was a bore-a-thon, Boris Johnson pulled his punches and the 1922 Committee saw a Brexiteer MP loudly announce he was withdrawing his letter demanding a confidence vote in the PM. Of course, she has to cross a series of finishing lines (next Tuesday is when the Commons formally rises for the recess) and she knows party conference is likely to see the next big Brexiteer blow-up, ahead of the special Brexit EU summit that looms in October or November. The ‘meaningful’ vote on her eventual deal will be the most important date in her diary. But for now, as MPs start their end-of-term wind down, such thoughts are far away.
Simon Clarke, the backbench MP who withdrew his leadership letter with some theatre at the 1922 committee, neatly captured May’s reaction. “She doesn’t buckle under pressure, and doesn’t revel in the good moments.” While surrounded by hacks as she was made to stand outside the ’22, she revealed she would be going through her red box papers rather than watching Boris Johnson’s speech on catch-up. And at last night’s drinks for the media in the No10 Rose Garden, she certainly was as unfazed as ever. Today, she’s in Northern Ireland to try to reassure people about her backstop plans for Brexit and how to avoid a hard border.
Yet the PM knows there’s much more work to do on her Chequers compromise White Paper. Brussels’ newly announced preparations for ‘no deal’ prove that brinkmanship works both ways. Even before Dominic Raab meets Michel Barnier today, the sheer complexity of her customs plans was given a frosty reception by EU negotiators yesterday. “The white paper is not going to form the basis of the negotiations,” one EU source tells the Guardian. Former Foreign Office permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser tweeted last night: “Have read entire #BrexitWhitePaper. Too complex & wd leave us half in half out. Plus a chilling list of things that need sorting. Clear proof that there is no good form of #Brexit.”
And just as ominous as that PMQ from Brexiteer Andrea Jenkyns that ‘Brexit means Remain’, were the words of ex-minister Steve Baker as he took part in the debate on the future relationship between the UK and EU. While some banged desks in the 1922 Committee, Baker warned in the chamber that he and his Brexiteer colleagues were “willing to vote in line with [their] dislike” of the White Paper. despite Monday’s amendments. And their numbers were much greater than the 40 Anna Soubry had suggested. “No one should plan on a high-alignment deal…going through this House”. May struggled to explain the detail of her plans at the Liaison Committee, with Yvette Cooper attacking her “fantastical, Heath Robinson customs arrangement”. For a fair chunk of Tory MPs, the problem is it feels like a Ted Heath customs arrangement. And they think the PM still needs to be schooled in the reality of Tory grassroots unease with her plans.
2. UNITY ELECTION?
I understand David Davis spent the last few months advising the PM and No.10 that if he ever ‘fell under a bus’, then Dominic Raab would make the perfect successor as Brexit Secretary. And just like DD once was, Raab is certainly seen by some Tory MPs as a possible future leader. ConservativeHome, which has huge influence on MPs and activists, yesterday had a fascinating piece which suggested what could happen next if May can’t get her Chequers plan through Parliament: she would have to resign, the Tories could elect Raab as leader, then hold a 2019 general election on a manifesto to park the UK in the European Economic Area (EEA) for four years, and leave on WTO terms unless it got a Canada-plus style free trade deal.
Boris Johnson, whose muted resignation speech yesterday hinted at trouble if May didn’t change course, clearly still fancies his chances against Raab, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt. One of the more telling bits of his speech was the jibe at Michael Gove that it was deluded to think Chequers should be endorsed now in the hope that its soft Brexit can be hardened later. May seemed to relish Keith Simpson’s own jibe in PMQs that Boris had a Trump-style “giant ego—somebody who believes that truth is fake news and leaks continually”. On Newsnight, former Tory chairman Chris Patten added that Johnson was “careless with the truth”.
Talk of another general election is certainly doing the rounds in and around Westminster and Patten echoed his old pal John Major in saying it was “perfectly possible” if Parliament could be stuck in limbo and faced with crashing out of the EU with no deal. “I don’t either discount the prospect of us finding ourselves in a general election during the course of the autumn and winter. If I was still party chairman … I would certainly be thinking about starting to book some advertising hoardings just in case.”
The idea of a gridlocked Parliament not being able to move forward or backwards is what led Anna Soubry and Nicholas Soames to float the idea of a government of national unity. Some in Labour fear such an idea would be more like the ruinous Ramsay McDonald era than the victorious Atlee-Churchill era. Corbyn’s spokesman yesterday dismissed the idea as “an establishment stitch-up to deny a proper voice for the majority of voters in this country”.
But some Labour MPs are actually open to this idea. One former Shadow Cabinet minister told me yesterday “there’s about 200 of us, Labour and Tory, who could make this work…the principle is right, the practicalities are difficult, but we need to do something to avoid a hard Brexit…we can then all get on with our lives”. On the Commons terrace last night, Louise Haigh mocked John Mann as a ‘Tory collaborator’ and was hailed as a hero by MPs and peers as he left the scene. Add in anti-semitism (see below) and you can see why some Labour MPs really think the radical option of sitting as a separate independent Labour group is a runner.
3. ACTION STATIONS
The row over Margaret Hodge’s confrontation with Jeremy Corbyn has moved on to a new phase after his spokesman told us yesterday that “action will be taken” against her. “The behaviour was clearly unacceptable under Labour party rules, which require respect among Parliamentary colleagues and not to bring the party into disrepute,” he said. It is unclear what sanction will be applied or whether an investigation will be first held into Hodge’s case before any action. Will Corbyn see the optics of this look terrible and simply let the whips have a quiet chat with her, as they did after John Mann attacked Ken Livingstone?
Hodge broke her silence yesterday to write a withering Guardian attack on her party’s stance on anti-semitism and many fellow MPs and Jewish groups think it is beyond belief that she is the one now facing disciplinary action. Dame Louise Ellman told the Jewish Chronicle her treatment was “outrageous”. The paper splashes its front page on the HuffPost exclusive of Hodge’s attack on Corbyn as an anti-semite and a racist. It also reports that MP Ian Austin had his own altercation with party chair Ian Lavery this week, telling him to “get out of my face”.
Wes Streeting’s local Labour party last night voted to endorse the international definition of anti-semitism and all its examples and urged the NEC to reverse its decision. The bad blood continued on Twitter as Billy Bragg suggested Hodge hadn’t done enough to combat the BNP in her Barking seat, with others pointing out he voted Lib Dem in 2010.
Meanwhile, with Kate Hoey set to shun her local party amid a deselection threat over her Brexit votes, Corbyn supporters say it’s time more broadly to make MPs more accountable to their local members. I report HERE on a fresh push by Momentum to put reform to Parliamentary reselection rules on the agenda for this year’s party conference – a potentially explosive move. The anti-semitism row took the headlines, but the NEC on Tuesday also agreed the Democracy Review reforms. Crucially, the NEC decided the plans could be further amended over the summer if there was sufficient demand. And its recommendations include a big change to allow local parties to seek rule changes every year, not every three years as at present.
4. BABY DRIVER
The aftershocks continue to be felt from Tory chairman Brandon Lewis’s participation in two key Brexit votes on Tuesday. Lib Dem MP Jo Swinson was furious that Lewis had broken a ‘pairing’ deal aimed at allowing her to stay at home with her new-born baby. Harriet Harman raised the issue in PMQs, demanding proxy voting for pregnant women and new mothers, and the PM said the government was still “looking very carefully” at recommendations by Parliament’s Procedure Committee.
Andrea Leadsom sounded more sceptical later in an Urgent Question, but repeatedly said Lewis (who sat through the criticism) was entirely blameless. “I’m assured by the Chief Whip that the breaking of the pair yesterday was done entirely in error,” she said. Labour MPs smelled a rat, pointing out Lewis had stuck to the deal for votes that day that weren’t on a knife-edge. But talk of an ‘adminstrative error’ fails to actually tell anyone what really happened. Few MPs want to delve into the secretive ways whips do business but this may require a full and frank explanation of who said what to whom and when. We didn’t get that yesterday.
And today’s Times has a very damaging claim that Chief Whip Julian Smith told Lewis that later votes would be close and he needed him to vote. It adds that two other Tory MPs were told by Smith that they should vote despite being paired. Both sought further advice and ignored the instruction. Expect Shadow Commons leader Valerie Vaz to raise this in Business Questions today. Has Smith misled not just the House but also Leadsom? Have she and the PM in turn misled Parliament too? Labour’s Dawn Butler is demanding further explanation and says Lewis and Smith should quit if the claims are true.
T-Levels, the technical equivalent of A-levels, were unveiled earlier this year by the Government, amid proud boasts that the UK would finally give vocational education the status it deserved and the country needs. Well, this week the entire project has faced serious criticism amid fears the planned September 2020 start date is too soon. First, skills minister Anne Milton told MPs that she would tell her own children to “leave it a year” before enrolling for the new qualification. Labour MP James Frith and Education Committee member told her: “I find your comments there quite remarkable…in regard to the qualifications that you are responsible for delivering and launching.”
Today, legal action has been launched over the introduction of the T-level by the body which represents exam boards. The Federation of Awarding Bodies (FAB) has formally written to the Department for Education and the Institute for Apprenticeships over the new T-level qualifications. Michael Gove used to love rushing through big reforms, but this saga shows it’s better to get something done right rather than done quickly. The FAB attacked the ‘politically driven timescale’. “Ultimately, our concerns come down to the future job prospects of the 30,000 learners that will be invited to enrol in the first wave of the T-Level programme,” it said.
In May, the DFE’s own permanent secretary wrote to the education secretary Damian Hinds asking for a delay, warning it would be “challenging” to ensure the new qualifications were ready to be taught from 2020 “to a consistently high standard”. Jonathan Slater took the rare step of requesting a formal written direction for the plans to go ahead, a sure sign Sir Humphrey needs cover for a looming policy blunder. Maybe we’ll get an urgent question on this today. It’s not as sexy as Brexit rows, but getting vocational education right matters hugely to the kind of country we want to be.
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