1. LE CRUNCH
Cometh the hour, cometh the plan. At 2.30pm (or possibly 3.30pm if there is a statement on Hampshire hospitals) today, Theresa May will find out whether her gameplan to outfox her ‘Remainer rebels’ really has worked. That’s when we should get the “meaningful vote” vote on the Dominic Grieve amendment to the EU Withdrawal Bill. It really is crunch time for the PM and for her backbench opponents. The sick (there’s talk of a Tory MP getting medical treatment), the lame and the pregnant will all be corralled into the voting lobbies.
No10 and the whips have dug in overnight, signalling no more last-minute concessions. Even if the PM should suffer a shock defeat today, the logic is that she will have gone down fighting and shown Brexiteers she was on their side. There’s also the fact, as I pointed out yesterday, that even if the rebels win, an ‘amendable’ motion on her Brexit deal will not be legally binding (as Lords Leader Baroness Evans confirmed). One former Cabinet minister had another take: procrastinator May always tries to kick the can down the road unless she’s so boxed in she has no choice. And boy is she boxed in by the Brexiteers.
With numbers so tight, Labour Leavers have been targeted by both Government and their own party. I spotted Keir Starmer having a private chat with John Mann yesterday and it will be fascinating to see if Labour whips can pull off the feat last December when there were just a handful of rebels and abstainers. Graham Stringer claimed last night that Jeremy Corbyn was ‘a friend of Brexit’. But we reported overnight that Corbyn will seek to make life easier for Tory rebels by not pushing for a no confidence vote if May loses today. If the Tory rebels do melt away, you can bet Labour will struggle to trust them ever again.
Philip Lee, who quit to vote against the Government last week, was on the Today programme suggesting the rebels would not crumble. “My understanding is that the position taken by colleagues is solid”. Lee also revealed: “I took soundings privately myself before I announced my resignation, around Europe in capitals, not in Brussels”. One Tory Brexiteer swiftly texted me: “What a pompous bellend”. Expect Lee’s revelation of plotting with ‘the enemy’ to be cited against him by Brexiteers and May loyalists (not always the same thing) later. It’s the rebel waverers that matter most this afternoon, not your Anna Soubrys or Ken Clarkes. And although both May and Corbyn say this is about the national interest, not party interest, it’s how their MPs interpret their conflicting loyalties that will swing the decision today.
2. PRODUCTIVE MEETING
Productivity is an issue today, in more ways than one. The Guardian reveals that Philip Hammond only agreed to the NHS’s £20bn budget boost on condition that chief exec Simon Stevens backed the deal. No.10 and the Treasury have long insisted that any new money has to be linked to improved productivity and efficiency in the health system, an issue that will help the PM sell the plans to backbenchers worried about tax hikes. Stevens did indeed give his support on Sunday, saying the 10-year settlement ‘provides the funding we need’.
But the Conservatives may be worried by Stevens’ more recent formulation, that the new cash “represents a clear gear change in the amount of funding that will be available for the next five years, compared to what we have had over the last five years.” Although factual, that will be seen by some as a clear reference to Tory austerity being too tight. One unnamed hospital chief says: “The money we have got is more than a drop in the ocean, or a trickle, but it is hardly a torrent.”
As the PM stresses only a strong economy can fund NHS spending, a review for Labour of the financial system has this morning recommended the Bank of England’s mandate should include a new target to grow productivity by 3%. That’s quite an ask, but John McDonnell says it contrasts with May’s unfunded health spending pledge. Meanwhile, Carillion-style private contract worries remain a live issue as it emerged Capita has been handed a new £500m MoD firefighting contract - days after getting the highest possible risk rating. Some private firms don’t get it all their way though. The Sun reports Greg Clark has blocked a Chinese firm from taking over Northern Aerospace limited, amid security fears.
3. SUCKER PUNCH
More than 26 long years ago, it was independent Presidential candidate Ross Perot who famously warned that the US’s free trade deals with Mexico would lead to ‘that giant sucking sound’ of jobs being lost south of the border. Donald Trump is of course Perot made flesh and his aides think his rising popularity in recent months is linked to his tough stance on trade and ‘America First’ rhetoric on jobs.
But while financiers and global markets continue to worry about a US-China trade war (the FT splashes on a stocks slide), the uglier side of his antipathy with Mexico has been all too apparent in the new immigration policy of separating children from their parents at the border. Only last night, a Mexican official revealed that a 10-year old girl with Down’s Syndrome was among those separated from their families. Yesterday, No.10 tried to distance itself from Trump, stressing how ‘humane’ Britain’s policy on child migrants was. Yet with the President’s UK visit looming, Downing Street pulled its punches. Jeremy Corbyn, whose own wife is Mexican, could use PMQs to attack ‘weak’ May for continuing to suck up to Trump.
Last night Trump further defied convention by pulling the US out of the UN Human Rights Council, his UN ambassador Nikki Haley describing it as a “cesspool of political bias”, particularly against Israel. But the valid criticism that the UNHR fails to deal seriously with Venezuela and Iran is undermined by Trump’s own record on human rights, at home and abroad. Who can forget his praise for Kim Jong Un, whose people have been starved and executed, as being “very talented” because he “is able to run [North Korea] and run it tough”. Boris Johnson said only that the UNHR decision was ‘regrettable’. It took Labour’s Jess Phillips to point out he’d recently suggested Trump deserved the Nobel peace prize. With ironic timing, it’s World Refugee Day. Government minister Margot James has blogged for us on what she learned from hosting a refugee. Maybe Trump should try it?
4. HEATHROW LANDING
If she survives today’s Brexit vote intact, the PM is clearly determined to get another tricky Commons challenge out of the way soon after. MPs have been told that next Monday will be the day for the big vote on Heathrow expansion. Surprise, surprise, Boris Johnson will be allowed to be out of the country and the Sun reveals he’ll be at the EU foreign affairs ministers’ meeting, suggesting this may (just may) have dictated the timing. Yet this tricky vote looks tricky no more. I reported last night that Labour’s Shadow Cabinet had agreed a free vote, allowing all its Unite-backed and other pro-Heathrow MPs to back the Government.
The party also revealed this morning the DfT plans hadn’t met its own four tests on air quality and regional benefits (a verdict that will help third runway opponent John McDonnell). But given the free vote, that is academic now. The SNP’s backing for May looks certain too. Still, there was a warning for the PM on another key vote last night. The DUP abstained on the boundary changes motion (one MP even backed Labour) and several Tories went missing.
5. WEED CONTROL
Parents of children with epilepsy have reacted with tears of joy at the news that the Home Office is relenting on the use of cannabis oil to help treat the condition. Charlotte Caldwell, whose son Billy sparked the coverage, said the change in policy showed “the power of mummies of sick children has bust the political process wide open”. Sajid Javid’s announcement in the Commons went further than many expected, ordering a review that goes beyond individual cases. At the same time, Javid stood firm on the ‘recreational’ use of cannabis and No.10 was very robust yesterday in saying it had not lost the war on drugs.
NHS chief Simon Stevens gave invaluable backing by pointing to the risk of long-term psychiatric conditions from cannabis smoking. There was some wriggle room, however, on just how police implemented the law overall. The PM’s spokesman said: “The law is very clear. It’s for the police to decide how they take operational decisions on the ground.” And the Times reports the Police Federation’s board have voted to review policy, saying 100 years of prohibition have failed. Ministry of Justice figures show that enforcement of cannabis laws has collapsed over the past seven years.