1. THE NUMBERS GAME
Theresa May chairs a 90-minute ‘political cabinet’ in No.10 this morning, before hosting the usual, formal Cabinet meeting. Ahead of the party conference season, the PM is marshaling her troops for the battles ahead and will be relieved that the first skirmish ended in easy victory last night on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. Expect some ‘desk-banging’ and ‘hear-hears’ around the coffin-shaped Cabinet table.
Lyndon B Johnson’s famous ‘first rule of politics’ was ‘know how to count’ and the whips did just that. The bill cleared its second reading with a comfortable ‘Brexit majority’ of 36, thanks to seven Labour MPs defying Jeremy Corbyn and all Tory Remainers keeping their powder dry. The tightest vote, at 12.49am, was on the programme motion, where there was a Government majority of 17. Labour’s David Lammy felt Tories like Anna Soubry were ‘all bark, no bite’ - yet his own side did the damage too.
But while May’s DUP deal means she has a ‘working majority’ of 13, and even bigger on Brexit itself, things could get very sticky when the bill returns at Committee Stage next month. Within seconds of the final vote, there was an almighty bunfight to table amendments. ‘There was the biggest queue I’ve ever seen at the table,’ one insider tells me.
And here it gets interesting. Labour has its own amendments, but it’s the Tory ones that matter most. There are some from Remainers Dominic Grieve and John Penrose curbing the Henry VIII powers. But the real chance of most cross-party unity may come on the length of a Brexit ‘transition’ period. Up to a dozen Tory MPs are said to back that amendment (published later this morning) – which would be enough to wipe out the DUP votes and put huge pressure on Labour Brexiteers to back a ‘cake and eat it’ Brexit that avoids a cliff-edge but delivers the exit their voters wanted.
Justice Secretary David Lidington proved a skilful performer in the Commons last night, hinting at concessions such as the ‘triage’ system (to assess which regulations would need a Parliamentary vote) to woo fellow ex-Remainers. Yet next month, he and DD and May will face the difficulty of being boxed in on transition. Though the Cabinet has agreed the idea in principle, having its hands tied on the length of transition could be very challenging indeed. And the idea of putting of the ‘real exit’ date beyond March 31, 2019, could spark a mighty Leave backlash.
2. BACK TO THE SEVENTIES
Anyone who has seen James Graham’s play This House will be familiar with the tricks, stunts and downright brute force needed to keep the Callaghan government in power in the late 1970s. Key to it all was deputy chief whip Walter Harrison, one of the most wily practitioners of his trade. Tonight, expect Harrison to feature in impassioned debate as Theresa May tries to use Parliamentary procedural devices to keep the first minority government since Callaghan’s on the road.
Yes, as revealed by HuffPost last week, the Government have a motion to simply assert that the Tory party gets a majority on all Public Bill Committees (what used to be known as ‘standing committees’) – the engine rooms of all legislation. This despite the fact that the Tories don’t have a majority in overall, and despite the fact that there aren’t enough DUP MPs to help them on these key committees. Ministers (and DUP sources) say Harrison in the ’70s forced a similar vote even though his government lost its majority. Labour counters that the difference is it at least started its 1976-79 government with a majority.
The vote is due tonight and after last night there may be some scepticism that any Tory MPs - even those who usually back the Legislature’s rights against the Executive - will rebel. But it could be close. This is a matter of life-and-death for Government whips’ hopes of securing day-to-day control of the Commons for the next five years. Every vote matters, and it’s worth noting that Boris Johnson has flown to the Caribbean (after Emmanuel Macron beating him to it) to meet Hurricane Irma victims.
Jeremy Corbyn sees tonight as an attempt to ‘rig’ Parliament and tear up the election result by fiat. He’s said this morning: “Theresa May lost her mandate and her authority in June, now she wants to fix it by the back door.”
3. LEN ME YOUR EARS
There’s another ’70s flavor as Jeremy Corbyn addresses the TUC conference in Brighton today. He will urge young people to join a union to fight for their rights, but it will also be interesting to see the language he uses in backing any co-ordinated industrial action on public sector pay.
The Mail splashes on John McDonnell saying in 2013 that he backs “insurrection” against bosses and the Government. HuffPost had a similar story this February, and at the time his office shrugged it off, saying he was “a long-time campaigner and activist as a backbencher fighting for workplace rights”.
But more tricky for Corbyn perhaps is Unite boss Len McCluskey today telling the BBC that he is willing to break the law to go on strike the public sector pay cap in coming months. Since March successful strike ballots have had to achieve a 50% turnout for legal industrial action to go ahead. McCluskey said he would disregard what he called an “artificial threshold” if his members backed a strike over pay in insufficient numbers. Even the non-militant Unison’s Dave Prentis backs ‘coordinated’ action. On Today, Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon ducked whether he would back Unite breaking the law, saying “these are hypotheticals”.
The Left are certainly feeling confident and yesterday that was borne out in spades with the results for Labour’s internal election for its Conference Arrangements Committee (CAC). As we reported, Momentum-backed candidates romped home, defeating moderate MP Gloria de Piero and peer Michael Cashman. With the left getting 200,000 votes to the centrists’ 100,000, one depressed moderate told me ‘We expected defeat, but not those kind of numbers’.
Last night, the ‘Moderate Meet Up’ in the Commons saw MP John Spellar fight back, claiming Momentum represented ‘an attack on social democracy’. The meeting was more packed than the PLP, but at conference the Left may see yet more victories. Watch for the National Constitutional Committee (NCC) election, which could see its control pass to Corbyn supporters. ‘That really would be a disaster for us,’ one centrist tells me.
McCluskey also publicly backed moves to challenge deputy leader Tom Watson’s authority, saying it would “be good to have two deputies, one male one female”. Burgon sidestepped whether he agreed, saying ‘we have got a deputy leader that has been elected’.
4. DUP, DUP AND AWAY
The DUP’s influence on this Government should not be dismissed as a sideshow. The Times’ Francis Elliot splashes his paper’s front page with a story that Theresa May has asked President Trump to intervene in a trade dispute that threatens thousands of jobs in Belfast.
The US-based International Trade Commission is threatening later this month to slap punitive tariffs on Belfast’s Canadian aircraft manufacturer Bombardier, accusing it of getting unfair state aid from the UK, including a £113 million loan from the British government for its new C-series plane. May raised the issue with Trump in a phone call last Tuesday after pressure from DUP leader Arlene Foster.
Of course, the DUP’s confidence and supply deal with the Tories has been accompanied by the promise of £1bn for Northern Ireland. Ministers say there’s no direct link, but Gina Miller has forced Government lawyers to admit that the cash injection “will have appropriate parliamentary authorization”.
Yet few MPs believe there will be one ‘big bang’ vote where the DUP-Tory deal can be targeted. More likely is that the £1bn will be wrapped into the ‘Parliamentary Estimates’ votes for all Ulster spending, and Labour won’t oppose that. Smart negotiators, the DUP, you know.
5. FEES HIGH, HO-HUM?
One area where the DUP disagree with the Tories is over tuition fees (welfare cuts is another to watch for) and I can reveal Labour have now cannily made a big Parliamentary move to stop the latest hike in uni costs. There’s been a tendency for politicians to shrug their shoulders and say that the rises are inevitable and nothing can be done. Ho-hum, etc. But May is clearly nervous: there was a vote scheduled on April 18th but after the announcement of an early General Election this vote was shelved and has not since been rescheduled.
Now Shadow Education Secretary Angela Rayner has succeeded in getting a binding vote on the latest fees rise in the Commons tomorrow. The vote was secured by providing Opposition time and tabling a special motion to revoke the Regulations raising the cap on top-up fees, instead of the usual practice of a non-binding motion criticising the government on a policy issue.
The DUP, on which the Tories rely for their majority, has previously voted against top up fees in Parliament and campaigned against them in elections, while a number of Tory MPs rebelled when they were introduced – including Brexit Secretary David Davis.
Chancellor Philip Hammond is due before the House of Lords Economic Affairs Committee at 3.35 pm. As well as all the Brexit stuff, he will be asked about Government support for students. He was said to be planning some extra help in the Budget, but Labour may make life very difficult indeed tomorrow. Non-binding votes on public sector pay make Tory MPs look bad, but can be dealt with. Binding votes on uni fees are another matter if the party really wants to appeal to the youth of today.