1. STARMER CHAMELEON
It’s PMQs day again and there are lots of topics for Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn to choose from. As a keen train traveller, Corbyn could well focus on rail chaos, north and south. He could pick up on top cops criticising austerity, on Tory summer leadership drinks parties, or the £2bn loss from the RBS sell-off. For her part, May could joke about Labour handing out free tickets to JezFest. She may, however, prefer to seize on Corbyn’s own woes over Brexit after the latest tweak to the Opposition’s position on the most important public policy issue facing the UK today. The real question is whether Labour’s chameleon-like changes in the colour of its proposals, and its steady shift to a ‘soft Brexit’, will build a formidable Parliamentary alliance.
Within minutes of Labour unveiling its new plan last night (having been agreed at Shadow Cabinet), its Remainer ultras like Chuka Umunna and Chris Leslie were saying it was a blunder. They believed victory was within sight next week on the Lords amendment backing UK’s membership the European Economic Area (EEA). Leslie told HuffPost: “Labour members up and down the country will be aghast that Jeremy Corbyn is going to bail out Theresa May next week, just as we have Tory rebels ready to join us on EEA”.
However, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer this morning made clear that his priority was to keep Labour MPs unified. I’ve reported two PLP meetings of late where it was obvious several MPs in Leave areas were determined not to sign up to the EEA, known as the ‘Norway model’. Starmer’s backers also point out that Umunna and co have misread the Tory rebels too, arguing that only a handful were ever going to vote for the Lords amendment. That said, those Tories are also never going to back a Labour frontbench amendment either. The real key to this is for somehow Starmer and Umunna to end their clear mutual dislike and for a cross-party, backbench amendment to be drafted that incorporates what they both want.
On a practical level, Labour’s decision to whip to abstain on EEA next week guarantees Corbyn will suffer a damaging rebellion while May wins the vote (if it is even put). But amid this strange standoff between Labour’s front and backbenches, the ideas in Starmer’s plan may actually pave the way for a cross-party alliance on the final Brexit deal. Talk of ‘shared institutions’, ‘common standards’ and a separate new comprehensive ‘customs union’ could tempt Tories and keep Labour together. With the ‘meaningful vote’ the most important amendment next Tuesday, it’s a package that could shape the real showdown later this year after May returns with her final deal.
Starmer told the Today programme “I’m injecting some honesty” into the debate. He also made plain that Brussels is prepared to work with his proposals. Without betraying confidences of who in the EU he’d talked to, he said “there’s a negotiation to be had” and “it will involve some tools in the Norway-style toolbox”. Most importantly of all on the final deal, he this morning confirmed that Labour will not merely abstain if it looks like a hard Brexit looms. “If those tests [Labour’s impossible-to-meet six tests for a soft Brexit] are not met, we will be voting against.” Can Starmer can pull off not just a Maastricht-style alliance with Tory Europe rebels but also get the nod from Brussels? Some Brexiteers suspect May would be privately happy to have her hand forced by Parliament to stay in ‘a customs union’ and ‘a single market’. And you can bet the Brexiteers won’t just lie down and take that.
2. SACK CRACK BACK
Yesterday’s Heathrow expansion go-ahead announcement had the rare distinction of uniting both the Institute of Directors and Len McCluskey in approval. But politically it once again laid bare just how weak the PM was when it comes to her ‘unsackable’ Foreign Secretary. The contortions in collective responsibility, with a ‘waiver’ seemingly designed purely to keep Boris from being fired, had some surreal consequences.
Under the waiver, Boris won’t be allowed to criticise the Heathrow process or appear in the Commons to express opposition to the third runway. But ministers who write to the PM for special permission will be allowed to oppose Heathrow “within their own constituencies and to local media”. We had a fine old time at the Lobby briefing trying to tease out from the PM’s official spokesman what this would mean in practice. Is the Evening Standard ‘local’ media? Is LBC radio (which has a national audience)? Will Boris only be allowed to talk on the issue to the Hillingdon Times and Uxbridge Gazette? If, during a national TV interview he is asked about Heathrow will he have to terminate it? Maybe he’ll get a voiceover double like Gerry Adams had in the 1980s?
Focus now switches to the actual vote on Heathrow, which will take place between now and July 10. The Government announced a three-line whip for all Tory MPs but it was discreetly made clear Boris could be allowed to be absent overseas on FCO business. Tory Remainers, who have been threatened with the thumbscrews over Brexit votes, are muttering that if Johnson gets special treatment then they should too. Labour is so furious over the EU Withdrawal bill being railroaded in one day that I’m told it may refuse to ‘pair’ Johnson, so his absence will count in the numbers. And the biggest threat to May is that Labour looks like it may whip to vote against Heathrow. John McDonnell (who once grabbed the Commons Mace in protest at a third runway) may have succeeded in pushing his party to say its four jobs and environment tests are still not met by Grayling’s plans. With the SNP still not totally on board either, the vote could be on a knife-edge.
The temptation for Labour opposing Heathrow is strong, not least as many northerners yesterday pointed out the stark contrast between a Government that oversees chaos on the Manchester and Leeds railways while approving a massive boost for a London airport. If Labour does indeed whip to vote against the proposals, some of its MPs (who made clear yesterday they back Heathrow) will rebel. But many Corbyn supporters will be delighted if he follows the edict that Oppositions should oppose. And that anything that destabilises the Government could bring closer a general election. It could also depict May as the one who has abandoned her principles, given her promises to her Maidenhead voters to oppose expansion. May’s allies argue she is indeed putting the national interest before her own personal or party interest (a principle Remainer Tories say she should apply to Brexit). But there could be some serious turbulence ahead if Labour isn’t just shadow boxing.
3. WESTMINSTER’S WILL?
Stella Creasy’s emergency debate on abortion yesterday saw several MPs make very personal and heartfelt speeches. Heidi Allen explained how she’d had a termination due to ill-health, Jess Phillips, another MP who had an abortion, said she and Allen “are not criminals”. Several MPs talked openly about how many miscarriages they’d experienced. By and large the tone was respectful while being highly charged, with the only exception the DUP’s Sammy Wilson talking about babies being ‘put in a bin’.
There was, as expected, no vote on the motion. But with the Supreme Court due to rule tomorrow on whether Northern Ireland’s abortion ban breaches the UK’s global human rights obligations, Theresa May is under huge pressure from her own ministers to somehow give local people a say while respecting devolution. Northern Ireland Secretary Karen Bradley talked of the risk that Westminster could ‘disenfranchise’ 1.8m people in the province, citing her colleague Maria Miller. Yet Miller had pointed out “it feels as though the rights of Northern Irish women were traded as part of the devolution settlement…we have clear international responsibilities to outlaw discrimination against women”.
It was left to Penny Mordaunt, the International Development Secretary and Minister for Women and Equalities, to make by far the most striking intervention. She Tweeted after the debate: “Message from NI Secretary of State today: NI should take that responsibility. Message from the House of Commons: if you don’t, we will #trustwomen”. Mordaunt clearly believes the DUP should not be allowed to block reform (as a well-liked Leaver, she’s also a real dark horse for future Tory leader). If there is a carefully drafted amendment on the right bill in coming months (either instituting a referendum or imposing reform), May won’t be able to stop it as she is committed to a free vote. If the DUP don’t get Stormont up and running soon, this issue won’t go away.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Many Brits will recall John Redwood’s infamous nod-along to the Welsh national anthem. Well, last night Donald Trump looked like he didn’t know the words to ‘God Bless America’. Watch this priceless video.
4. DICK DASTARDLY
If Corbyn does indeed want to major on crime cuts, he has plenty of ammo thanks to testimony of three senior police chiefs in the Commons yesterday. Met Police Commissioner Cressida Dick (along wi th the National Crime Agency’s Lynne Owens and police chiefs council chair Sara Thornton) explained how cash shortages were posing a risk to public safety. Dick said it would be “naive” to suggest reductions in police officers was having no impact on rising crime. “It is having a massive strain on our people and it cannot go on. It cannot go on without hard choices – either more money, smaller mission, greater risk of attack.” She added “of course austerity has probably had something to do with it, by which I mean, of course, the other services as well as the police”.
Corbyn could also quote Sajid Javid telling Marr that he wanted the Chancellor to listen. “We have got make sure they are properly resourced”. Many Tories may try to shift blame onto London Mayor Sadiq Khan for the soaring incidence of moped-riding muggers in the capital. The Sun has exclusive photos of comedian Michael McIntyre being robbed at knifepoint on his school run. The Mail splashes on stats that the scooter robbers are striking 60 times a day (citing Lib Dem Ed Davey saying London was ‘like the Wild West’), while the Express asks ‘Have We Lost Control Of Our Streets?’. Yet given Dick’s words about austerity, the PM is in danger of getting politically mugged on crime today – a topic that used to be her strongest suit.
5. LOAD OF BANKERS
Many seem to forget that the rise of ‘populism’ across Europe and the US stems from the 2008 financial crisis. The politicians that capture public anger over bankers recklessness are the ones who can benefit, more than a decade on. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell was quick to pounce yesterday as ministers tried to quietly slide out the news that the Government was selling yet more RBS shares at a loss. The FT points out the paper loss was a whopping £2.1bn, but Philip Hammond stuck to his line that the state “shouldn’t be in the business of owning banks”. He looks more motivated to raise some cash, even if not as much as planned, to drive down the deficit.
Meanwhile, bankers’ reputation hit another low this morning as the FCA financial watchdog launched a stinging attack on the chief executive of TSB over the bank’s failure to be open and transparent with customers when an IT upgrade went badly wrong. Up to 1.9 million customers were locked out of their accounts. And as if that weren’t enough tricky City business, the FT reports Cambridge Analytica boss Alexander Nix withdrew $8m from the firm shortly before it collapsed.
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