1. TAKING THE MICHAEL
When Theresa May woke up this morning, you can imagine her relief that the top two early news headlines were these: the $400m sale of a Leonardo painting and Zimbabwe coup speculation. Yes, for the first time this month, she’s got through a whole week without a Cabinet resignation. As her chief of staff Gavin Barwell helpfully reminded us on Twitter, she still has a lot on her plate (including the Damian Green ‘misconduct’ inquiry). But after a better than usual PMQs, May toured the Commons Tea Room to cheer up her troops. It’s notable how many of her allies keep insisting these days she really, really is ‘chipper’ and ‘upbeat’. Do they protest too much?
With the Budget less than a week away, John McDonnell has been on the airwaves ahead of a speech demanding ‘emergency’ measures such as a halt in Universal Credit and public service cash injections. Budget and Brexiteer-fuelled headaches are never far away for May and the Times’ Matt Chorley today reports Cabinet unease that Michael Gove has been trying to ‘audition’ for Philip Hammond’s job. After a previous monologue on financial matters two weeks ago, Gove is said to have used “lots of long, economicky words” at Cabinet this week.
As for Brexit itself, David Davis is in Berlin today for a speech and Q&A. But after last night’s EU Withdrawal Bill votes (one saw a Government majority of just 12), it’s no surprise the PM was notably conciliatory yesterday to the Tory MPs dubbed by the Telegraph ‘the Brexit Mutineers’. May said she was “listening carefully to those who wish to improve the bill”. And the Standard reported last night that 21 rebels are now lined up to defy her on the key issue of writing an Exit Day onto the face of the legislation.
That 21 figure may be seen by the whips as far too high. Yet the rebels will be emboldened by the collapse of post-Brexit plans for a new lorry park in Dover, and the Home Affairs Committee report that ‘urgent action’ is needed to prevent ‘no deal’ trade chaos at our borders. Brexiteers and Remainers alike may point to new stats showing a record number of EU workers in the UK in the year after the referendum vote. Ahead of the crunch EU summit, the Sun says May is to offer an extra £20bn on top of the £18bn already pledged in Florence. Paying more is one issue where Gove is supportive of the PM and DD. Will other Brexiteers swallow that, as well as a possible fudging of the Exit Day issue (with a reserve power to amend it)? They might.
2. CREDIT ALERT
Although May had a better PMQs yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn scored a direct hit on the issue of Universal Credit. His revelation that a Grimsby letting agent had sent eviction notices to hundreds of families, even before the new benefit kicks in next month, was truly shocking. May was in full i-Robot mode with her response, citing a stat that UC arrears were coming down, though she did pointedly keep her options open saying she would “look at the issues on this particular case”.
Last night, Tory MP Mims Davies blamed Corbyn’s ‘scaremongering’ for the eviction notices. But what helps Corbyn even more are the words of the boss of the letting agency. Guy Piggott told me that it was “great” that the Labour leader had raised the issue. “It seemed like Theresa May was saying it’s alright, don’t worry. That’s just not good enough in a town like Grimsby. It’s so poor here, the average wage is about £17,000. My message to Theresa May is this: ‘You’ve got to sort it out. Consider what it does to a family living hand to mouth. Imagine if you’ve got no savings, if all of your money stops and from the middle of December your next pay is February, what would you do about feeding yourself, keeping your house warm?’”
To add to the Government’s woes, the Children’s Commissioners of the UK have urged the PM to pause the rollout of Universal Credit. Central to this issue is the six-week waiting period in the new system. May and Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke are more than aware of the political damage this is storing up ahead of Christmas and SkyNews yesterday revealed Philip Hammond will announce a cut in the wait time. But those hints are not enough for Frank Field, who wants a one-month waiting period. Today, the Commons votes on Field’s demand and it will be fascinating to see if Tory rebels will back it. In line with previous practice, Tory whips are not expected to oppose the backbench motion. Let’s see who votes which way.
3. BETTING THE HOUSE
At 9.30am today, the ‘net additions’ statistics on UK housebuilding are due out and both Theresa May and Sajid Javid will be hoping they provide good news. Anything that shows progress in the long haul to get more homes built will be welcome and it’s not a coincidence that the PM is this morning visiting a housing development in Barnet. There’s also a technical accounting change that shifts housing association borrowing back off the Government’s balance sheet, helping Javid argue there’s room to borrow more for construction.
Ahead of the Budget, however, May’s pre-briefed words are significant. Echoing her conference theme (the coughing fit overshadowed the line that her entire premiership would be devoted to housing), she will say it’s her personal ‘mission’ to ‘build more homes, more quickly’. And in ‘coming weeks and months’ she’ll ensure it. In a speech in Bristol, Javid will add that “this is a big problem and we have to think big”. Yet this double helping of urgent warnings contrasts with all the intel coming out of Whitehall that Philip Hammond is not at all thinking big in the Budget and will deliver little to cheer Tory MPs on the homes front. Hammond himself told SkyNews last night there is ‘no silver bullet’ to the crisis. But will he get the bullet in due course for failing to do more?
As for other Budget pressures, Jeremy Corbyn relished his PMQs jibe at Boris Johnson for complaining about the closure of his local police station (thanks to Govt cuts nationally and by Boris himself). Gavin Williamson has also campaigned against cuts to cops, libraries, fire and prisons in his own seat. The Mirror splashes on schools in May’s constituency begging parents to pay for basics like pens and glue. The Mail reveals cuts-hit Leicestershire County Council has been forced to switch back on its street lights after burglaries doubled. Meanwhile, John McDonnell told Today that ‘there would never be a run on the pound’ if Labour took power. Even though some have been ‘wargaming’ it.
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4. SPOOKY DELAY
So, at last the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) has been reformed, some six months after it was disbanded for the snap election. Last night, Theresa May announced (this is not a select committee, it’s a ‘Committee of the House’ with patronage determined by the PM) that Labour’s Caroline Flint and Kevan Jones had been appointed to its membership. Dominic Grieve was re-appointed (May needs him on board more than ever) and when the committee meets next week, it is expected to elect him as its chairman.
The committee may now start an inquiry into Russian cyberwarfare, finally publish its annual report (including this year’s terror attacks) and finish its rendition study. With such a huge agenda, it’s no wonder members of the ISC tell me they are furious at the delays to its reformation. If you take into account similar delays before and after the 2015 election, I calculate that this hugely important committee – which oversees MI5, MI6, GCHQ and others – has been inactive for a total of 16 months out of the past 35 months. That’s a whopping 45% of the time not scrutinising our security services. Maybe it’s time to finally let Parliament really decide its membership?
5. GENDER AGENDA
The sex harassment scandal that has swept Westminster in recent weeks (BuzzFeed reports Labour’s Ivan Lewis is the latest to be formally investigated) has highlighted just how few women there are in senior positions in Parliament. Labour’s all-women shortlists has ensured that 43% of its MPs are women. David Cameron’s ‘A-list’ delivered some impressive individuals but just 21% of its MPs are female.
Yesterday, Labour’s Shadow Women and Equalities Minister Dawn Butler told a Commons select committee that one thing that could be done to improve the equality was “more rubbish women” in Parliament. “We will know when we’ve reached real equality when we have as many rubbish women in Parliament as we have rubbish men,” she said. Butler may get some flack from a certain mid-market tabloid over this, but many will think she’s got a point.