1. THE JOY OF SIX
As Theresa May avoided a catastrophic Brexit defeat by just six votes last night, the sheer relief was palpable on the Government benches, in the whips office and in No.10. When Tory whip and teller Mims Davies (above, far left) read out the 307-301 victory, she confirmed the ‘Zombie’ PM had lived to die another day. Fifteen minutes earlier, there had been real panic as Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ united with Labour to win a vote on the European Medicines Agency by a whisker. The big difference between the two votes was that four Labour ‘Leave’ MPs (Kate Hoey, Graham Stringer, Frank Field and John Mann) decided to back the PM to rule out any possibility of the UK staying in ‘a customs union’ with the EU.
The Daily Mail has hailed those four Labour rebels as ‘heroes’ today, while at the same time attacking the ‘dirty dozen’ Tory rebels for disloyalty. Hoey is now facing a deselection threat, we report. But what may really worry the Government is that for once Anna Soubry’s hardy band of Remainers stood firm, despite all the blood-curdling warnings that they could hand the keys to Downing Street to Jeremy Corbyn. Deputy chief whip Chris Pincher actually warned the rebels that if the vote was lost, the Government would pull the third reading of the Trade Bill and call a vote of confidence, that could in turn trigger a general election. The threat didn’t work and 12 Tories still voted with Labour. Soubry was on the Today programme floating an idea Nicholas Soames has also backed, a ‘government of national unity’ made up of ‘sensible’ Tory, Labour, SNP and others to get the soft Brexit through Parliament. The very idea is ridiculed by senior allies of both May and Corbyn alike.
May certainly has a tough day ahead. She has PMQs at noon, a two-hour session with the Liaison Committee to cover the topics of Brexit, air quality, defence spending and the refurbishment of Parliament. At some point, Boris Johnson is expected to pop up on the backbenches for the first time and deliver his ‘resignation speech’. At around 5pm she faces possibly the toughest grilling of all as she gives an end-of-term address to the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee. Only by 6pm will she really know how her day’s gone. She may well need a stiff drink when she hosts a 7pm drinks reception with the Press Gallery in the Rose Garden at No.10.
Like a steeplechaser who spies the finishing line in the near distance, she will be hoping she can clear the last few hurdles bloodied but unbowed. One ill-advised plan to bring the finishing tape closer, by letting MPs take their summer break five days early, will be formally dumped today. But the PM’s allies think she can survive Corbyn’s jibes in their final duel before recess, that when Johnson breaks his silence he will wound but not kill, and that the Liaison Committee can be bored into submission. The real water jump will be the 1922 Committee as both Brexiteers and Remainers attack her Chequers compromise plan as either too ‘soft’ or too ‘hard’. Both groups have felt bitterly betrayed in the past week and trust is at an all-time low.
Yet the brute Parliamentary arithmetic, set in place by May’s disastrous snap election, has ended up imprisoning her and protecting her at the same time. As last night’s Labour votes showed, she now has a tight but unshakeable majority on all matters Brexit – a majority strong enough to survive the ‘meaningful’ vote expected on her final deal with Brussels later this year. Hoey, Stringer, Field and Mann are unlikely to ever budge. In a neat twist on Jacob Rees-Mogg’s warning that May would depend on ‘socialist votes’ to get her Chequers plan through, it’s the Labour Leavers who will in fact be the midwives to Brexit when it is finally born gasping and mewling on March 31, 2019.
As for the bigger no confidence votes that could spark an election, her supporters are convinced that traditional party loyalties would kick in and May would squeak home with DUP backing. ‘Back me or sack me’ still has resonance when there simply is no workable alternative candidate or programme that can unite the Commons. Still, Brexit is proving to be a marathon more than a steeplechase, with longer timelines than any expected. May will be relieved to stagger past the Exit Day mark next spring, but that’s precisely when both Brussels (happy it has a non-chaotic withdrawal agreement) and her backbenchers (happy the UK has finally left) may finally pounce and show their spikes.
2. HODGE-ING A COMPLAINT
Margaret Hodge’s admirers think she has ‘more balls than most of the men’ in the Parliamentary Labour Party. Well, last night she certainly kicked Jeremy Corbyn in the ballots as she let rip at him over his latest anti-semitism plans, plans that have sparked fury among the Jewish community. As I revealed last night, several MPs from different parties were present as the veteran MP laid into Corbyn behind the Speaker’s Chair just after the crunch Brexit votes.
MPs told me that Hodge dropped the f-bomb, telling him “you’re a fucking anti-semite and a racist”. Corbyn simply stayed calm and replied ‘I’m sorry you feel like that’. When I put the exchange to a senior Labour source, they told me ‘all the language is correct’ (and the Guardian later quoted a similar expletive-laden account). A friend of Hodge tried to calm things, denying she’d sworn but confirming she’d called him both anti-semitic and a racist. “It is not what you say, but what you do and by your actions you have shown you are an anti-semitic racist”. Supporters of Corbyn say Hodge’s conduct was aggressive and she could face disciplinary action or warning by the whips as a result. They also point out that Hodge was one of the MPs to first table a vote of no confidence in Corbyn in 2016, which sparked the failed ‘coup’ against him.
What sparked the anger yesterday was the decision by the party’s ruling NEC’s to stick with a new Labour code of conduct that its backers say ‘contexualises’ the international definition of anti-semitism (and allows a defence of legitimate criticism of Israel). During a heated two-hour session, MPs like Tom Watson, Shabana Mahmood, Margaret Beckett and George Howarth opposed the new wording but chair Andy Kerr refused to allow a vote. Instead the NEC agreed to launch a new consultation this summer with Jewish groups, a consultation that may be impossible given the breakdown in relations of late. When the Chief Rabbi makes a rare foray into politics, to warn that Labour is treating the community with ‘contempt’, you know things are very serious. Even friends of Corbyn think he should at least suspend the code of conduct plan rather than endorse it with the figleaf of a consultation offer.
This morning suspended MP John Woodcock announced the anti-semitism row was one of several reasons he could no longer stay in the PLP. He wrote to Corbyn to say he will sit as an independent.
3. WOMEN IN THE HOUSE
Margaret Hodge is undoubtedly among the most unbiddable MPs in Parliament. But two years after the murder Jo Cox, women in politics are still relentlessly targeted for their views. Death threats to Anna Soubry (she recounted more this week), to Diane Abbott and Theresa May (an independent councillor was yesterday referred to police after calling her ‘a bitch’ who should be hanged) are all too depressingly familiar. And when a female MP like Jo Swinson is disenfranchised because she is at home nursing a new-born, the way Parliament conducts its business needs an urgent review.
To cap it all, the Guardian has an exclusive that ex minister Andrew Griffiths - who was forced to resign over sexually explicit text messages sent to two barmaids - was appointed to his post despite being under investigation for allegations of inappropriate touching and bullying. Griffiths was a former chief of staff to Theresa May. Andrea Leadsom was sent the allegations last year. Asked by Newsnight if she had warned the PM about appointing Griffiths, Leadsom said: “No, as a matter of fact, the process was carried out by the leader’s office on the grounds that it wasn’t a matter for parliament, it was a matter for the party processes.”
Leadsom is also under attack for agreeing to grant anonymity to MPs under investigation for misconduct, as part of her new guidelines on bullying and harassment. A blanket anonymity plan sparked anger from the Standards Committee, which warned it risked “rolling back a key element of openness in the existing system”. The Sun reports Leadsom admitted in private that she had to offer anonymity to win support for the code of conduct from backbench Tory MPs. Meanwhile, as we were the first to spot yesterday, Sir Christopher Chope is in trouble again, this time for objecting to plans to host international women MPs in the Commons in November. Still, there was a bit of history made this week. Thanks to Leadsom and Maria Miller, MPs approved the first ever 50-50 male/female quota for a Parliamentary Committee.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Donald Trump’s excruciating moment as he reads from a script that he ‘misspoke’ when he said he believed Putin over interference in the US elections.
4. THE ECONOMY, STUPID
As the Mail splash reminds us (and May is bound to mention at PMQs), yesterday saw yet another record day for the economy as employment continues to be strong and unemployment fell again. Labour pointed to stagnating wages. Ironically, there is a political downside to sitting Governments when unemployment is low – some voters may think their own job is safe so they can take a ‘risk’ on a new Government that promises them even more.
Yet the bigger worry should be the Office for Budget Responsibility warning yesterday that May’s £20bn boost to the health budget - coupled with falling immigration that reduces the number of young and working-age people – will increase the public deficit unless the government moves to increase taxes or slash spending. That may well be fodder for Corbyn in PMQs.
5. CENSURE SH*T
Boris Johnson’s big speech today was somewhat overshadowed in advance by an ethics watchdog revealing he had breached rules on getting permission before taking paid employment after quitting as a minister. His Telegraph column was a damp squib on Monday yet that didn’t alter the fact that he should not be given any new outside earnings for three months. The advisory committee on business appointments will censure him in a letter soon but many say it’s time the watchdog had real teeth.
But when it comes to payments, the Scotsman deserves credit for getting the global exclusive that the US government has used its taxpayers’ cash to pay £50,000 to the President’s business for the hire of his golf resort in Scotland last weekend. It sounds unthinkable but it’s true. Speaking of sanctions, the Sun has the scoop that today the DUP’s Ian Paisley Jnr will be suspended for 10 days from the Commons after breaking strict lobbying rules during an expenses paid trip to Sri Lanka.
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