1. JUMPIN’ BACKLASH
Well, Cabinet unity continues to hold on Brexit, against the odds. Last night’s two-hour meeting of senior ministers at No10 broke up with agreement on the basic way forward: the UK ups its offer to Brussels but only if the EU and London “jump together” at the same time on future trade and transition talks. In fact, the very name of the PM’s newly reformulated Cabinet sub-committee points to this approach. It’s called the “Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations)” committee, after all. Exit and trade, linked by both strategy and talks.
I’m told Boris Johnson and Michael Gove in particular insisted that David Davis needed to be given more clarity from the EU on future trade talks, in return for a higher UK offer on the ‘divorce bill’. And no specific figure was discussed yesterday, and is unlikely to be offered by the PM in talks with Donald Tusk this Friday. Instead, a form of words on liabilities, that implies a bigger bill, will be the focus. I’m told the sub-committee did not resolve the issue of the European Court of Justice, although there may be differences on citizens’ rights and future trade. The Times (and Nick Watt on Newsnight) report senior backbenches like Iain Duncan Smith are urging May to exploit Angela Merkel’s domestic troubles to drive a hard bargain.
The Brexiteers looked less happy than their former Remainer colleagues after the meeting. Yet looks can be deceptive, as some ministers privately made clear their support for a bigger bill was “conditional” and could be removed in future. There would certainly be a backbench backlash if it looks like May is caving in to EU pressure. The Daily Express reports the PM will face ministerial resignations if she agrees to a 36 bn euro bill while only getting a Canada-style trade deal (as suggested by Michel Barnier). But would Boris or Gove be among them, or would that be just junior ministers? The Brexiteers have a lot on their plate today. Johnson has FCO Question Time, David Davis speaks at a ‘Deal or No Deal’ conference, and Liam Fox is at the Institute of Directors tonight. Oh, and 10 Tory rebels have signed Dominic Grieve’s amendment to lock us into the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. A vote is due later, but watch for ministerial olive branches.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, sports minister Tracey Crouch says that her Leave-supporting Kent constituents are ‘bored’ by the BBC’s Brexit coverage, and just want the country to get on with it. But Crouch, a noted Eurosceptic, still refuses to say how she voted in the EU referendum. From her parenting to her love of Spurs, it’s a timely read about one of the few ministers who speaks fluent human.
2. REMAIN PAIN
There was a flash of anger from Chuka Umunna and other ‘anti-hard Brexit’ Labour MPs last night as procedural ‘ways and means’ motions on the Customs Bill were voted on in the Commons. If that sounds obscure, it is. But the votes were seen as a chance to set down some markers on the kind of Brexit we end up with. An amendment by former Shadow Scotland Secretary Ian Murray aim to block a Government move to pave the way for customs duties on imports and exports from the EU. His amendment fell by 311 votes to 76 because Jeremy Corbyn whipped his MPs to back the Government.
A furious Labour MP texted to say: “The frontbench has betrayed Labour voters who thought we would stop a hard Brexit — instead going through the lobby with the Tories. We just watched John McDonnell and Barry Gardiner literally walk through the lobby with David Davis!” Yet Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner was pretty robust on Twitter, dubbing the amendment “illiterate”. Labour insiders tell me the problem was that the motion would have tied the UK’s hands in trade talks. It seems the frontbench were surprised the motion was called for a vote. Murray has blogged for HuffPost: “I expected to lose, but I didn’t expect my own party frontbench to aid and abet them.”
What irritated some Labour MPs even more was that at the PLP meeting last night John McDonnell had not once mentioned Brexit in his pre-Budget pep talk. The Shadow Chancellor did however ask MPs and peers for help tomorrow in spotting ‘pasty tax’-style blunders in the Red Book. I’m also told McDonnell was asked why Labour was still polling way behind the Tories on the economy, despite everything Hammond has done to help the Opposition. I have more on this later.
3. SKIM DIESEL?
The usual raft of eve-of-Budget stories is about, and overnight the Treasury leaked its own plans to try to woo younger voters. Yes, what used to be quaintly titled the Young Persons Railcard is to be extended to include not just 16-25s but 16-30s. The Government is also moving to end student loan overpayments with a new automatic brake on money transfers. Needless to say, Labour’s reaction ranges from welcoming Tory adoption of Labour policy to derision at the idea that those who flocked to Jeremy Corbyn will be bought off by a plastic train card. “The Tories don’t seem to understand the difference between real solutions and a gimmick,” a Labour source told us.
The much bigger ticket items, financially and politically, are on public sector funding (specifically how to end the pay cap) and on fuel duty. There has been intense speculation that Philip Hammond will slap a 1p hike on diesel while freezing tax on petrol, but the Sun reports that MPs think they’ve talked the Treasury out of it. Rob Halfon (once dubbed by Osborne the most expensive MP in Parliament for his fuel duty campaigns) warns White Van Man won’t wear it, though environmentalists would counter that the move is long overdue.
On public sector pay, few expect Hammond to go on a mad spending spree but he is under intense political pressure to do something. The Times reports he will only signal possible rises for nurses, and even that will be conditional on a ‘more productive system’ for their pay. There will be no new cash for other public sector workers, the paper says. Meanwhile, ITV’s Robert Peston reports the OBR will say Hammond is on course to hit his target of reducing the structural deficit to 2% of GDP by 2020-21 – confirming this won’t be a radical, give-away Budget.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this Indian air hostess force two drunk passengers to kiss her feet as they plead with her for forgiveness for their misconduct. It’s gone viral in India.
4. WE’RE ALL RIGHT!
The BBC’s documentary, ‘Labour – The Summer That Changed Everything’, was aired last night. The film that charted the party’s 2017 general election through the eyes of a clutch of MPs less than enthused by Labour’s left-wing platform, and as a result their reactions on election night ranged from shock to disbelief. Independent filmmaker David Modell (declaration of interest, I’ve known him for years) couldn’t have imagined he’d get such surprising footage.
But perhaps the best bit came when Stephen Kinnock was handed a gentle lesson in political nous from his wife, the former Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt. Kinnock had been widely expected to launch a damning critique of Jeremy Corbyn at his count. But Thorning-Schmidt counselled that it would not be wise to go over the top, given the big gains Labour was making. “Why are you doing this now?...Just keep it to the campaign. Nothing about what you thought Jeremy would say…” It was pure Borgen.
5. DOWN TOWN
The new Centre for Towns think tank was formally launched in the Commons last night and it was notable just how many Labour MPs and policy experts turned up. And there was one chart projected on the screen that really brought home why the meeting was so well attended: in big cities, there was a 5% swing to Labour from the Tories; but in large towns, there was a 2.2% swing away from Labour to the Tories; and in small towns a huge 6% swing from Labour to Tory. Nine million people lie in British towns but they have a big impact on elections.
The first batch of data from the new group also showed how the UK’s urban age profile has dramatically shifted over 30 years. From 1981 to 2001, towns lost more than a million under-25s, while cities gained nearly a million 25-44 year-olds. At the same time, towns’ pensioner populations increased by two million, while the number of over-65s in cities fell. Lisa Nandy, who chaired the meeting, said “Our political system is blind to the values and experiences of people who live in our towns, wrongly treating cities as a proxy for national opinion”. Let’s see what policy answers the parties, especially Labour, come up with.