1. LAST OF THE SUMMER WHINE?
It’s summertime, but for Theresa May the leaving isn’t easy. With just weeks to go to the long Parliamentary recess, we are once again seeing a repeat of last year’s desperate race to simply cross the finish line in office. As Robert Peston tweeted (and blogged) last night, some Brexiteers are so exasperated by May’s prevarication on her EU plans that they think her time may be up sooner rather than later: “We can’t go on with TM for much longer. Her inability to show leadership or make a decision is creating a vacuum the remainers use to run riot in. Once the votes are over next week, she has to go!”
Corbyn’s top team have long felt that it may take just one major policy row or big ‘event’ for May to be toppled. Yesterday’s roasting of Chris Grayling over train chaos north and south, with both Tory and Labour MPs ladling on the gravy over his slowly spinning political carcass, felt ominous. The front pages of both the Manchester Evening News and Yorkshire Post (and the Sheffield Star, Lancs Post and many others) have coordinated their condemnation (given the Thameslink commuter cancellations, will the London Evening Standard show solidarity today with its own front page too?). As the Post’s editor rightly said, when Lancashire and Yorkshire are united, “it is quite simply time”. We report on how the Northern Rail cancellations are damaging businesses.
The latest ConHome poll of its members (closely watched by Tory MPs) looked worrying too for No.10. Nearly 70% of members think May should go either immediately or before 2022. Add rows over Heathrow and Corbyn calling May ‘weak’ over her response to Trump’s steel tariffs and you can hear all the cannon to the left of her, cannon to the right of her.
Of course, the PM’s allies calmly insist her stickability is her greatest asset. But as our Owen Bennett reports, the coming round of summer drinks receptions is offering a chance for a string of Tory leadership hopefuls (Johnson, Gove, Patel, Davidson, Raab, Williamson among them) to schmooze their way into backbenchers’ hearts. Last year, after Grant Shapps publicly called for a new leader, David Lidington blamed the speculation on MPs having “too much sun and too much warm prosecco”. He’s since been promoted to de facto DPM, but this year the drinks problem has come earlier. Even if May gets to the recess having survived Windrush, train chaos and Brexit storms, it may not be the last of the summer whines.
2. ONE-DAY INTRA-NATIONAL
May’s most immediate existential threat is of course over Brexit. Tory MPs were furious yesterday when even the Foreign Office’s permanent secretary Sir Simon Fraser seemed to play up the downsides of leaving the EU, saying the UK was a ‘medium sized country’ and “outside our regional club it is going to be more difficult to do what we want”. And it’s a packed day in the Commons, with a likely ministerial statement on the Fox-Sky merger, on Heathrow, and a three-hour debate on abortion. But today’s busy agenda is nothing compared to the crammed timetable for the EU Withdrawal Bill next Tuesday, when the flagship legislation finally reappears after being thoroughly filleted by the Lords.
Labour and other parties are utterly furious at the plan to give the Commons just 12 hours to consider and vote on 15 Lords amendments. Tories (thanks Chris James) remind us that Blair once asked the Commons to consider more than 820 Lords amendments to the Greater London Authority Bill in just 5 hours. The difference is that Blair had a huge majority and such constitutional outrages posed no risk to him. Last night at the PLP meeting, Shadow Chief Whip Nick Brown hinted darkly that there would be ‘reprisals’ if ministers didn’t back down and give three days for debate. Those reprisals could mean a 1970s-style cancellation of ‘usual channels’ that help Parliament work, or even a Heathrow all-out war (see below).
The stakes are high for the PM for sure. Business leaders told her last night to her face they wanted customs union membership, a message that Tory rebels could use to defeat her. One MP told Peston that there is a growing view in the Tory Party that the government is “almost resigned to losing the customs union vote”. I can’t imagine May is sanguine about that, and the whips may yet succeed in applying the thumbscrews effectively. More worrying will be the prospect of losing the ‘meaningful vote’ amendment that Labour sees as really key to all this. Still, if May survives next Tuesday with no defeats, don’t bet against her. The FT reveals David Davis is disappointed his own white paper has now been delayed until after the June EU summit. Will Tory backbenchers give May one last chance to kick the can down the road? I wouldn’t rule it out. But come the autumn, there’ll be no more hiding places left.
3. HEATHROW ROW, NOW
The ‘planes, trains and automobiles’ chaos that has dogged Chris Grayling takes on a new twist today. No.10 has been keeping tight-lipped on matters Heathrow, not least given the market-sensitive and quasi-judicial nature of any decisions. But when the Cabinet’s economic sub-committee met at 8.30am it was expected to approve a national airports statement that will pave the way for a third runway. Full Cabinet will then endorse that decision and a Commons vote is expected next month some time.
It is that vote where the real action is now set to take place. With a wafer-thin majority, it appears that the PM has abandoned the usual ‘free vote’ approach and will whip Tory MPs to back the plan. In yet another example of how unsackable Boris Johnson now is, May looks set to continue the previous (and nevertheless strange) exemptions for Cabinet ministers with constituency interests to speak out. Will he be allowed to vote against though? And if so, why won’t backbenchers get the same privilege? The Foreign Secretary has told friends he’s still “irrevocably opposed” to Heathrow expansion. Justine Greening, who will need as many Londoners’ votes as she can get to defeat Sadiq Khan in 2020, will be among other Tory rebels too.
May could usually count on SNP and Labour MPs to back her plans, as many believe their constituents’ jobs will benefit from a new runway and the national and regional links it will provide. However, last night’s PLP should ring alarm bells for No.10. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is dead against expansion. Labour’s Andy McDonald is insisting Labour’s ‘four tests’ (noise, air quality, economic benefits, climate change) have to be met to win the party’s support. And the party has decided to wait before sorting its own whip. Given the sheer anger over the EU bill timetable, it’s conceivable Labour could spring a surprise whip against the Heathrow plan and work with rebel Tories. The SNP too may think defeating May is more important than Heathrow’s individual merits. Brexit and a tight majority may once again cast a long shadow.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch little Rhoda give a big thumbs-up to this HGV driver who shows how you can safely overtake cyclists without any road rage..
4. STANDING FOR STELLA
That three-hour emergency debate on abortion in Northern Ireland takes place later. Last night it was notable just how many MPs on all sides of the House were keen to back Stella Creasy’s application for a debate (watch Penny Mordaunt and Karen Bradley stand up to support it HERE). Of course having a debate is the easy bit, changing the law with or without a referendum is the hard bit. In a private meeting with Maria Miller and Amber Rudd yesterday, May made clear she would not overrule Stormont, stating tight Brexit votes and efforts to restore power-sharing meant this was a ‘sensitive’ time for the Government (ie she can’t upset the DUP). The motion today is not binding but everyone will be watching to see if the minister gives clues to ways forward.
Cross-party alliances are crucial here and Miller has told the Guardian she prefers a local referendum to repeal of the law by Westminster. I’m told that the only real opposition Creasy faced over her debate came from within her own party. Karen Lee, a shadow fire minister and former PPS to John McDonnell, used an internal Whatsapp group and then the PLP meeting last night to claim she “knew for a fact” Creasy had failed to consult Corbyn’s frontbench over her plans, and that local CLPs were “appalled” by her conduct. Creasy insists she did consult Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Tony Lloyd and others, and her allies point out abortion is a free vote issue where backbenchers can operate independently anyway. I’ve asked whether McDonnell was aware of what some MPs saw as a ‘factional’ attempt to undermine Creasy.
5. ISLAM SLAM
Jeremy Corbyn last night joined Muslims ending their daily Ramadan fast, as he visited a heritage centre that had helped victims of the Grenfell tower fire. And the Labour leader told the Press Association that he agreed with the Muslim Council of Britain that it was time for an inquiry into allegations of Islamophobia within the Tory party. The move follows a string of offensive social media messages shared or made by Conservative candidates and members. Some Tories may feel this looks like Corbyn ‘weaponising’ the issue to deflect from his own party’s anti-semitism problems, and Sajid Javid has rejected the idea of an inquiry already.
Yet in Barnet, where Labour suffered badly from a backlash from Jewish voters last month, the Tories have decided to suspend a councillor who made what critics say was an Islamophobic tweet. The local Barnet Times reports that Linda Freedman appeared to agree with American proposals to intern all Muslims because they were a security threat. And it was John McDonnell who sparked the suspension, having demanded action over a statement that seemed to “support the detention of Muslims for being Muslims.” I wonder if Corbyn will push this whole issue in PMQs?
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