1. (AB)STAIN ON THEIR RECORD
Last night’s Government ‘defeat’ over its flagship Universal Credit policy was certainly extraordinary. Proving that Parliamentary guerilla tactics can work (with the crucial help of Speaker Bercow to rule them in order), we had the unprecedented spectacle of Labour MPs actually shouting opposition to their own Opposition Day motion, in order to trigger a recorded vote. And the Government very clearly didn’t want a division at all. In the end it was a 299-0 victory for Labour, the SNP and others.
One furious Tory backbencher told me he couldn’t believe it when he’d got the text from the Chief Whip earlier, issuing a three-line whip to abstain. “We are so pathetic now, so incapacitated, so inadequate that we can’t even vote against an Opposition Day motion on a central plank of Government policy like continuing the roll out of Universal Credit,” he says. In case you missed it, he’s not a fan of the PM.
Now of course the vote was not binding. Several Tory MPs think all non-binding votes are meaningless and this is all a fuss about nothing, particularly as Opposition Days can be about sticking messages on leaflets about X MP not supporting Y. But Tory constitutional veterans Sir Edward Leigh and Peter Bone demanded last night that ministers should be required to respond when ‘the will of the House’ has been clearly expressed. Speaker Bercow said: “This institution is bigger than any one party, and, frankly, it is bigger than any one Government. This place, and what we do here, matter very much. We very much depend in this House, this institution, this great place, on conventions, precedent and a sense of respect for the will of the House.”
Robbed by the voters of its majority, the Tory party looks like it simply desperate to avoid the usual conventions of Parliament. When I wrote last month that the Government now intended to ignore Opposition Day motions, some Tory MPs claimed (including in the emergency debate triggered by the claims) that this was mere gossip. How wrong they were. Let’s see how or if Commons leader Andrea Leadsom responds in Business Questions today. Leadsom is, as Bercow reminded us, not just the Government’s representative in the House. She “has to be the House’s representative in the Government”. If that is a polite fiction, maybe now’s the time to tell us all.
The Uni Credit vote capped a miserable day for Theresa May. Jeremy Corbyn had his best ever PMQs (he ad-libbed properly, he even scored points on the economy) and the glum looks on her backbenches said it all (even the Sun scored it 5-1 to Jez). It dramatically underlined the real question asked among Tory MPs since the election: if we’re saying Corbyn is so rubbish, just how awful is our own leader if she can’t beat him? If it weren’t for Brexit, she’d be gone already, some of her side mutter. Others now give her a mere ’50-50’ chance of surviving beyond Christmas. If she ‘betrays’ the hardliners on a Brexit divorce bill, the odds tip against her.
2. BRUSSELS DOUBTS
Later today, Theresa May heads off to Brussels for the EU summit and all signs are that the stalemate over Brexit will continue. May is to be allowed to “share her reflections” (a lovely phrase coined by EU Council President Donald Tusk) over dinner. We’re told the PM will “underline the quality” of her financial offer made in her Florence speech. The EU27 think her 20bn euro offer was just an opening bid and expect the figure to climb, but David Davis sounds quite hawkish. The Times reports the Brits think EU calculations of our pensions liabilities are nearly 8bn euros over the odds.
As in previous summits, there may be a tumbleweed moment after May’s brief after-dinner remarks. Her colleagues around the dinner table could well say a curt thank you and swiftly move on to other matters. The UK team is pleased the EU have finally agreed to start talking among themselves about trade and transition. And Davis is right that this ultimately comes down to hard cash. Will the ‘audit of commitments’ demanded by the EU be agreed to by the UK in time for December?
Will we be asked to keep contributing to Brussels coffers to 2023, as suggested by Gunther Oettinger, the budget commissioner? Bloomberg had a fascinating leak yesterday that the Germans were preparing for a ‘comprehensive free-trade deal’ between the EU and UK. That doesn’t mean they’re bluffing about their cash demands, but it does suggest they think progress can be made. Both sides know they can’t look like they’ve blinked first – but maybe they’ll both blink at exactly the same time at the December EU summit: we clarify our divorce liabilities (without putting any figure on them), they agree to talk trade (without putting any specifics on it). That would be a normal diplomatic outcome.
But Brexit is far from ‘normal’. Brexiteers like Owen Paterson have ramped up their own rhetoric today, urging the PM to ‘walk away’ from the talks if Brussels asks for more. He told the Today prog that we are ‘inevitably’ heading towards ‘no deal’. “We should not be terrified of the WTO,” he added. Meanwhile, Jeremy Corbyn is trying to burnish his own ‘PM-in-waiting’ credentials with a trip to Brussels of his own.
3. U-TURN IF U HAVE TO
Of course, the row over the Opposition Day motion came just hours after David Gauke’s U-turn on the premium rate helpline. All other DWP helplines are to be made free too. Given how ministers constantly said very few people pay the maximum 55p/min rate, it’s surprising it took so long to see the obvious PR and political win here. After Corbyn raised it at PMQs last week, a smarter Government would have dumped it on a Friday night, defusing the story well ahead of this week. As it was, May and Gauke served up a huge victory for Corbyn on PMQs day itself. “If this had been Cameron, he would have killed this quickly. Instead we let if fester. Yet another ridiculous own goal that shows how flat footed she [May] is,” one Tory MP tells me. Dave did lots of U-turns in his time, but sometimes executed them so speedily it made him look like he was listening rather than saving his own neck.
And the problems with Uni Credit, and welfare policy, continue. We report today that a stunning 80% of landlords say they are reluctant to let to tenants in receipt of housing benefit or Universal Credit. The National Landlords Association (NLA) survey shows that stat is up from 66% in 2013. DWP thinks that’s a bit of bluster, but NLA chief exec Richard Lambert adds this ominous warning: “Underlying all the problems with Universal Credit is the freeze on housing benefit rates”. U-turning on the Osborne freeze on all benefits really would show the Government is listening. We also have a story that ministers are being urged to set aside millions to compensate those who’ve used the premium hotline.
The DWP is due to take on another huge, possibly controversial project. Pensions Minister Guy Opperman has revealed in the Times that he will today push ahead with the ‘Pensions Dashboard’ plan to help savers to access information about their different pension pots on a single website. DWP will take over responsibility for the project from the Treasury. Meanwhile it emerged yesterday that 15 million of us aren’t even paying into a pension, and 6 million have no cash savings at all.
4. AGEING WELL
The Tory party loves its subgroups. It’s seen the No Turning Back Group of Thatcherites, the ’40 Group’ of most marginal seats, the ‘2020 group’ of freethinkers. Now, it looks like it’s got ‘The Under-35s Group’. We reveal today that Ben Bradley, the 27-year-old MP for Mansfield (who was so impressive at the party conference), is co-ordinating all 20 Tory members aged under 35 to influence Government policy.
Given May’s slim majority, and the way Jeremy Corbyn has bagged most of the youth vote, this is a pressure group that could have real clout. 31-year-old Paul Masterson says if ministers are serious about winning back young people and parents “then people who are currently living that life need to be more involved in the process”.
Meanwhile, the older population keep on benefitting from the ‘triple lock’ on pensions. Yesterday, it emerged that September’s 3% inflation rate would result in a £250 rise in the pension from next April. But a document snapped by a long lens outside No.10 suggests the Treasury is looking restricting tax breaks by freezing rises in thresholds. The FT calculates it could save around £3bn a year by 2022-23. Will the saving go towards the under-35s?
5. EMERGENCY AID
Yesterday an alliance of emergency workers came from all across the country to lobby MPs to back Chris Bryant’s bill to protect them from assault. The PM had been expected to use PMQs to confirm the Government would indeed allow Parliamentary time for the legislation this Friday. Amid the furore over Universal Credit, she may have forgotten, but I was told afterwards by No10 that the bill did indeed have the PM’s personal backing.
I spoke to five ‘blue light’ staff yesterday and their testimony of abuse received while on the front line is truly shocking: stabbed, spat at, punched, thrown down stairs, bags of IV fluid thrown at them, bitten by patients with HIV, hair pulled out. Read their stories HERE. Cheaper alcohol and drugs are partly to blame, as are stresses on overstretched services. But it’s the overall, and growing, lack of respect for emergency workers that seems such a damning indictment on modern Britain.