1. THE MEANING OF STRIFE
There are 11 sleeps to Christmas and for Theresa May just two more PMQs left in 2017. The employment stats are due out at 9.30am, so she’ll be hoping for good news to add to her ‘Brexit breakthrough’ of the past week. Jeremy Corbyn may want to focus on any evidence of a continuing wages squeeze, but he may find it difficult to avoid talking about the EU for a second week running. As if to underline how seriously she takes these weekly jousts, No.10 tweeted a pic of May doing ‘PMQs prep’ on the plane back from Paris last night.
This morning, the immediate focus for May is to avoid her first Government defeat on the EU (Withdrawal) Bill, with last-ditch efforts to stop the Tory rebellion on a ‘meaningful vote’ on any final Brexit deal. Perhaps stung by claims that he’s the Remainers’ very own Grand Old Duke Of York (marching his troops up to the edge of the voting lobbies and back down again) Dominic Grieve was unusually robust yesterday: “I don’t see any possibility of my backing down at all”.
As ever, there’s a mix of carrot and sticks from the whips, maybe even one of Gavin Williamson’s “sharpened carrots”. One Government source played hard cop to David Davis’s soft cop, telling the Daily Mail: “There can be no surrender on this. We need to put the squeeze on them and see what they are made of.” As we report, rebels were called in to see the new Chief Whip Julian Smith last night and were unimpressed by his warning that ill-discipline would ruin the narrative of the PM’s excellent week. So far, they have refused to be bought off by the promise of a new Written Ministerial Statement from DD. Published unusually early, the statement (read it HERE) says a meaningful vote will take place “as soon as possible after the negotiations have concluded” (not the same as an earlier promise of holding one before the European Parliament votes on it). Grieve remained very bullish on the airwaves this morning, but ministers will hope the assurances will be enough to splinter the Rebel Allliance.
Shadow Brexit minister Matt Pennycook tells us Labour wants “a cast iron guarantee that Parliament will have the final say on the withdrawal agreement” and Keir Starmer announced his party would formally back Grieve. DD’s letter to Tory MPs this morning reassures them he wants to “listen and value” MPs’ views. Justine Greening told the Today programme “we have genuinely listened to the debate” and promised a meaningful vote before the new Withdrawal Agreement and Implementation Bill. Yet it seems the only thing some Remainers will settle for is an actual Government clause adopting the Grieve amendment. A U-turn is less damaging than a Commons defeat, but if Grieve loses this one he may also lose next week’s vote on fixing Exit Date itself. It’s game on.
2. INTIMIDATION GAME
Lots of MPs will welcome today’s report by the Committee on Standards in Public Life into online and offline intimidation of candidates at the general election (with 68% of Tories reporting abuse compared to 36% of Labour’s). It recommends the introduction within a year of a new specific offence in electoral law to halt widespread abuse when voters go to the polls. It also wants to shift the liability for illegal content on to social media firms such as Facebook and Google. And there’s a Brexit angle (as with many things these days): this is a legal change which will be easier once Britain leaves the European Union.
The Committee’s chairman Lord Bew has said he is normally “allergic” to proposing new legislation to fix society’s ills, but his report has a stack of demands that ministers and internet giants will have to address. The Sun picks up on the possibility that individuals found guilty of abuse will face tough fines and removal of voting rights. An earlier parliamentary inquiry, published by the Commons Home Affairs Committee in May, concluded that technology companies were “shamefully far” from taking action to tackle illegal and dangerous content.
Tech UK, which represents the industry, warned this morning that the issue was more complex. “Blanket legislative solutions may appear attractive but are unlikely to be effective. Moreover, there is a real risk that serious unintended consequences could result from tampering with the fundamental framework that underpins the whole of the digital economy.” Still, pressure works. The Times reports that Facebook has agreed to pay millions more in tax, after bowing to demands to no longer book advertising sales made to larger customers located outside the United States via Dublin, its international headquarters.
3. DISCOMFORT BREAK
May could be spared at least one extra PMQs headache today if the Damian Green inquiry is indeed delayed again. Both the BBC and Sky say the report by Cabinet Office ‘Propriety and Ethics’ chief Sue Gray will not be presented today. The Guardian reports worries from friends of Kate Maltby, who alleges Green harassed her, that he will be cleared because the incident took place when he was not a minister in 2014. Yet it is still far from clear whether Gray is indeed limiting her scope to breaches of the ministerial code. If that were so (as I’ve been banging on for ages) the independent adviser on that code, Sir Alex Allen, would be in charge.
The pressure on May is of course to send a message on wider sexual harassment and abuses of power, particularly in the light of Andrea Leadsom’s ‘uncomfortableness’ test that led to Sir Michael Fallon’s downfall. The Sun reports an open letter from Labour MP Jess Phillips to the PM in which she addresses May “woman to woman”: “What I have learnt from the sexual harassment cases I have heard is that it is not my own personal loyalties that matter.” As for Labour, it too has a raft of allegations to still sort through, despite a complaint against MP Clive Lewis being dismissed. The case against Kelvin Hopkins is due to be considered by an NEC sex harassment panel tomorrow, sources tell me.
A former women’s aid worker, Phillips rightly made a wider point about public policy and domestic violence in Westminster Hall yesterday. In an emotional plea for more funding for women’s refuges, she recounted a story about a family whose lives she saw transformed by a refuge. She said the onus for providing sanctuary falls disproportionately on poorer councils - with Windsor and Maidenhead council, in Theresa May’s own constituency, not providing a single bed.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this dog discover snow for the first time. Truffle goes kinda crazy.
4. NO MOORE
Usually, there’s no particular reason for Brits to be even interested in a special election to the US Senate, but the upset in Alabama overnight was remarkable. Doug Jones, the first Democrat to win such a seat in the state in 25 years, hailed his victory by quoting Martin Luther King and deployed a line used by the late Jo Cox: “The people of Alabama have more in common than divide us”.
Moore was dogged by allegations of sexual misconduct with teenage girls. He also opposed the removal of segregationist language from the state’s constitution, and said homosexuality should be illegal. The exit polls suggested that defeated opponent, Republican Roy Moore (who actually arrived on horseback at the polling station) lost because of a huge turnout by black, urban voters and a defection of women with college degrees. But one of the starkest statistics was this: among mothers with children under 18, Jones won by a 34-point margin, 66 percent to 32 percent.
The defeat means Donald Trump has a wafer-thin 51-49 majority in the Senate, though it remains to be seen if his tax plans will now stall. Trump tweeted his grudging congratulations to Jones (though my US colleagues say that Moore is demanding a recount). Back here, the Times reports that No.10 is in the dark about details of Trump’s working visit to the UK. It also has a telling line that British diplomats in Washington have indicated that ’avoiding embarrassing the Queen was a top priority”.
5. NOTHING BUT THE RUTH
Ruth Davidson offers the Tories that rare electoral X-factor that proves the party lives in the modern world. Young, eloquent, punchy, likeable, the Scottish Conservatives’ leader is often seen wistfully by some MPs as their best hope of really transforming their image. For many months she has ducked the issue of getting a Westminster seat, preferring to say she wants to be Scottish First Minister.
But she’s now told the Spectator: “I haven’t ruled it out. If devolution is going to work, then actually there has to be the ability to move between chambers and parliaments.” Pushed as to whether that would mean standing for a Scottish constituency, she said: “Yes.” Even some Brexiteers admire Davidson, despite her being such an avid Remainer in the EU referendum. And once we formally leave in 2019, some of them think it’s time to move on to the next generation.
Of course, becoming an MP, even if she could find a seat for 2022 is not the same as becoming leader. Unless there was a by-election, she would simply be ineligible to run as party leader in time for the next general election. Boris tried to become leader last year despite not having held a junior or Cabinet ministerial post, but at least he had run London. Still, it’s to Davidson’s credit that she’s loyal to Scotland, and smart enough to realise that short cuts in politics often fail.