1. MEANING BUSINESS
Today is an historic day for many Brexiteers. The European Union (Withdrawal) Bill is set to be finally enacted into the law of the land. The magic moment will take place either in the Lords (after new Lord McCrea has been introduced at 2.30pm), or whenever the Speaker pronounces Royal Assent in the Commons, whichever is later. Expect much banging of the Cabinet table when that diary item is read out this morning. But as May’s top team prepares for next week’s away-day meeting on what Brexit will actually look like, are the Cabinet ‘Sensibles’ (ex-Remainers’ self-imposed label) winning the day?
Yesterday, Business Secretary Greg Clark, turned from a mild-mannered Clark Kent into the Remainiacs’ very own Superman, appearing to take a deliberate swipe at both Jeremy Hunt and Boris Johnson over their attacks on business fears of a hard Brexit. Clark told MPs that firms like Airbus ‘deserve to be listened to with respect’. He went even further in suggesting Brexiteers deal in fantasy, not reality: “I do take seriously the representations that all businesses make. For this reason: we are not talking not about speculation, not about visions for the future, we are talking about the reality of the lives of many hundreds of thousands of people across the country.”
Today it’s the turn of car manufacturers, whose governing body warned it wanted a Brexit that “as a minimum, maintains customs union membership and delivers single market benefits”. It added investment has already halved, that 860,000 jobs are at risk and that “there is no Brexit dividend”. A BMW executive is before the Transport Select Committee this afternoon. But when Newsnight asked Leave-backing Wetherspoons founder Tim Martin if some ministers were right to tell businesses to shut up about Brexit, he replied: “Yes!”
Greg Clark was canny enough yesterday to stress that Brussels should be listening as much as London, and said the PM agreed frictionless trade was essential. Today, Theresa May’s words will be watched closely as she addresses the Times CEO summit. And many of her allies expect her to next week really push for the kind of ‘soft Brexit’ that Clark, Hammond and a majority of the Cabinet want. After all the cheers have died down today over the passing of the EU Withdrawal Bill, this is the next battle royal. May wants an agreed position that can give David Davis and Olly Robbins the time to hammer out in talks with Brussels this summer and autumn. Davis, seen as more pragmatic than Boris, will be key.
Last night, Newsnight’s Nick Watt said allies of Boris believed he would stay to fight any Brexit backsliding, rather than quit. He said Johnson is even considering telling May around the Cabinet table ‘we no longer have confidence in you’, goading her to sack him. But the most striking quotes came from ‘a senior government official’ quoted by Gary Gibbon on Channel 4 News: “This is a moment of acute danger, but we are now calculating that the risk of losing a Cabinet minister - or maybe even more than one - is outweighed by the dangers of delaying our policy any longer”. Will Boris, Gove, Fox and others discover that No.10 really does mean business this time?
2. FLIGHTER, NOT A QUITTER
May is often ridiculed for not sacking Boris Johnson. But the Foreign Secretary is increasingly ridiculed for not having the guts to resign either, no matter how many unpalatable policies are shoved his way by No.10. And it’s that shift in ridicule that’s beginning to sting. Brexit will be the real test next week, but on Heathrow yesterday Johnson showed he prefers to fly out of the country rather than walk out of the Cabinet. Newsnight said Boris was ‘really annoyed’ with May for refusing a free vote, yet he can’t seriously have expected one on such an issue of national importance. Can he?
Greg Hands’ speech in the chamber seemed particularly aimed at Boris, declaring it was not just a vote on an airport, it was “about being true to your word and to your election pledges”. Of course, Hands is dismissed as an Osbornite by several of Boris’s pals, many of whom were relaxed about his absence. What’s little noticed too is that Johnson was far from alone in being absent last night. I’ve done a full breakdown of who voted which way and a total of 22 Tories were not present, including Home Office minister Nick Hurd (whose London seat is under the flightpath and who wasn’t on urgent business in Afghanistan). A further 45 Labour MPs abstained or were absent.
And yet the damage to Johnson’s brand is substantial. The sheer cost to the taxpayer of his wheeze may never be published due to security reasons, but it is likely to be tens of thousands of pounds. It’s the cost in political reputation among the Tory grassroots, as a man who lacks courage when most needed, that could be even higher. The Times points out he met the Afghan junior foreign minister just three weeks ago in London (though if there is a big announcement today about more UK troops for the country, Boris may feel vindicated). He’s flown back for Cabinet and for Foreign Office Questions at 11.30am, where shadow Emily Thornberry will be sharpening her best attack lines. In a message to his local party (picked up by the Standard), Johnson said quitting the government to vote against Heathrow would “achieve absolutely nothing”. The bigger problem is if he stays in Government and achieves absolutely nothing too.
3. SITTING ON DEFENCE
The Commons Defence Select Committee has called for an increase of the MoD’s budget from 2% of GDP to 3%, or risk Donald Trump pulling the plug on Nato. It’s arguable that nothing can influence Trump once his mind is made up, but the MPs’ report adds ammo to Gavin “I made her, I can break her” Williamson’s pleas for more money. The call for £60bn extra in funding is even higher than his £20bn demand that caused so much fuss last weekend.
But bang on cue, the Treasury is fighting back hard. Ahead of a speech today, in the Telegraph Chief Secretary Liz Truss warns that ministers’ “unsustainable” demands for more money would lead to “un-Conservative” spending and “higher and taxes”. Worse still, the party will always be outbid by Labour, leaving the Tories “crushed” at the next election as they blow their reputation for economic discipline. Truss goes further, saying Leave voters wanted a Brexit boost to public services, not higher taxes.
As a former Remainer now turned ardent Brexiteer (she tweeted this weekend #ImaReLeaver) Truss isn’t exactly trusted by all in her party. But her message will also be read as a shot across the bows of Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid, as well as Williamson’s leadership ambitions. The Mail’s Peter Oborne calls for the PM to sack her ‘disloyal, twerpish’ Defence Secretary. And loathing is rife. One minister told me yesterday: “He’s a complete tosser. He thinks he will be leader because a handful of whips are backing him. But he’s making exactly the same mistake Osborne made, thinking you promote a few of your proteges and that will clinch you the leadership. It won’t.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this phenomenally impressive campaign ad for MJ Hegar, a former US Air Force pilot who is taking on a Republican in Texas. Slickly made, admirably direct and chock full of an incredible back-story, ‘Doors’ (which has racked up two million views on YouTube) may help her pull off a huge surprise. British politicians of all parties will be looking on with envy.
4. HOUSEY, HOUSEY
Since his appointment as Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, James Brokenshire has been quietly getting on with things. Even some Labour opponents say he’s so measured and polite that it’s difficult to lay a political glove on him. And today, with little fanfare, Brokenshire has managed to extract some more money for housing. He has raised the borrowing cap on councils by £1bn (split equally between London and non-London areas) to allow a new generation of council housing. He’s also pledging 23,000 new affordable homes will be delivered through a £1.67 billion government investment deal.
As others make noisy pleas for cash, some insiders say the way he persuaded the Treasury to relax the rules is a model in how to negotiate. Having a PM whose self-declared ‘personal mission’ is to fix the housing crisis may also help though. The Localis think tank says getting the borrowing cap raised is “a significant win for local government”, but warns the reality of actual building “remains challenging”. Last year just 1,490 homes were started by local authorities – suggesting the majority of local government is not set up for the large-scale construction of housing anymore.
5. FINE WEATHER
The UK’s electoral watchdog has a new report demanding more transparent campaign ad funding and a crackdown on overseas interference from countries like Russia. The Electoral Commission wants to dramatically increase the maximum fines it can impose and tougher systems to police social media campaigning.
Sceptics still await hard evidence of Moscow’s direct attempts to influence both the Brexit referendum and elections but Sir John Holmes, Chair of the Electoral Commission, said: “Urgent action must be taken by the UK’s governments to ensure that the tools used to regulate political campaigning online continue to be fit for purpose in a digital age.” It’s a story that’s not going away.
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