It seems a long time ago now, but it was just last Wednesday that Jeremy Corbyn made Windrush – and demands for Amber Rudd to quit – the focus of his Prime Minister’s Questions. Yvette Cooper, furious at May’s attack on her, had a scorcher of a question of her own and the next day famously followed up with a killer question in the Home Affairs Committee that led to Rudd’s resignation. The presence today of a new Home Secretary on the frontbench will be stark reminder of just how ephemeral and tenuous any politician’s grip on power can be. Will Rudd appear on the backbenches? Everyone is waiting to see just how loyal she will be.
Today, as both leaders inevitably give one last push to their local election campaigns, Corbyn could again choose to major his six questions on Windrush and wider migration blunders. The Labour leader could point to the FT story suggesting overseas students were wrongly deported over language tests, or the Standard story claiming May herself blocked moves to lift a cap on much-needed foreign doctors for the NHS. As I pointed out yesterday, there is also the key issue of whether Home Office civil servants were paid cash bonuses to hit deportation targets. The Times picks up on Cooper’s line that such a culture would be ‘very disturbing’.
After PMQs, Labour will try to ambush the Government with its now-practiced method of using a Humble Address motion to try to force the publication of secret Whitehall documents. Every email, letter, paper linked to Windrush is demanded in the motion, with a clear eye on nailing May herself to the scandal. The motion is binding and was used successfully to get the Brexit department to publish its own impact assessments. No.10 has yet to say how it will respond in the vote today. Last night, there were tears, cheers and jeers as Windrush citizens attended a Commons meeting of David Lammy’s all-party group on race and communities. Just one Tory MP turned up - immigration minister Caroline Nokes. “I want to say how sorry I am that this has happened on my watch, and how determined I am to get it right,” she said.
I wonder if May will be asked just when the phrase ‘hostile environment’ was dumped by the Home Office? And has the policy changed in name only? This inspector’s report in March said that it had been “since re-named by the Home Office the ‘compliant environment’.” And this Home Office document covering Aug-Dec 2017 uses the phrase ‘Compliant Environment’ no fewer than 11 times. Sajid Javid said on Monday he preferred the new title and that ‘hostile environment’ “does not represent our values as a country”. When I asked No.10 if the PM agreed with that verdict yesterday, they ducked it – and referred me back to, you guessed it, the need for a ‘compliant environment’.
Meanwhile, the Express’s ComRes poll suggests that none of the events of the past week have made an impact on the headline figures. The Tories are neck and neck with Labour on 40%. Another bunch of crazy ol’ Conservative leaflets emerged yesterday, with one candidate suspended for suggesting Labour spread ‘hepatitis’. Another Tory leaflet managed to photoshop ex-MP David Burrowes and his ‘floating dog’ into an image. Tomorrow we’ll get to test the old adage that ‘the only poll that counts’ is a real election.
The public’s stubborn refusal to change its mind about the two parties since the last election echoes the other immovable poll rating: the percentages for those wanting to Leave or Remain in the EU are very similar to those cast in the referendum in 2016. The country remains deeply split, almost 50-50. That hasn’t stopped MPs and ministers on both sides from seeking to shift the shape of Brexit their way. And today, as the Cabinet Brexit sub-committee meets, our future customs relations with the EU is the main focus.
The hot news overnight is Jacob Rees-Mogg’s 60-strong backbench European Research Group is warning it could ‘collapse’ the Government if May goes ahead with plans for a ‘customs partnership’. On the Today prog, Moggy denied he was ‘threatening’ the PM but warned the proposal would “not deliver on the Conservative Party manifesto or the Prime Minister’s other commitments”. No.10 are playing down suggestions today will see a ‘showdown’ or a resolution of the issue, despite strong support for the Mogg approach from David Davis, Michael Gove and Liam Fox. A rival plan to create a hi-tech border in Northern Ireland is favoured by the Brexiteers, though some Remainers in the Cabinet think it is even more impractical.
A senior Government source hinted yesterday that the two options would be narrowed down into a fixed position at some point, and that’s why there’s lots of talk of a compromise solution. Some hope that calling this a ‘maximum facilitation’ option can persuade Rees-Mogg and co down the ladder of confrontation. The real problem, as I’ve said lots of times, is the sheer complexity of the solution, as well as Brussels’ willingness to agree to it. That complexity is probably inevitable but it will take time to deliver, not least given the tech isn’t ready. The chatter in Whitehall is that it could take five years, but that would enrage some backbenchers already upset at the ‘status quo’ transition.
As ever, this is all about the balance of power in the negotiations: Brussels has time on its side, we have money on our side. The latest EU Budget plans due today have a Brexit-sized hole that will cause member states a serious headache and underline our leverage if thinks get messy. Yet the bigger issue right now is not the UK’s fight with the EU, but the UK’s fight with itself. Theresa May told her Cabinet yesterday she wanted a ‘robust’ response to recent Lords defeats, and made plain she opposes plans to let Parliament bind her hands on the shape of her Brexit deal. But are the people who are really binding her hands those 60 Tory backbenchers?
BBC Newsnight’s Chris Cook and Lucinda Day last night produced another report that made very difficult viewing for Speaker John Bercow – and for all MPs. His former Private Secretary Angus Sinclair broke a non-disclosure agreement to claim Bercow had bullied him repeatedly. He claimed he was shouted at, mimicked and physically intimidated. In one Gordon Brown-style moment, an angry Bercow is alleged to have thrown his mobile phone on a desk, smashing it into pieces.
Finally, he was paid a £86,250 severance pay-off (that’s our money as taxpayers) and left the Speaker’s employ. Sinclair told the programme: ’’I signed a cover up... and in a cynical way, I’d been paid to do it. That’s not a good feeling.” Watch his testimony in full HERE. It’s backed up by diaries and corroboration of other witnesses, Newsnight says. Bercow “strenuously denies that there is any substance to any of these allegations”, his office said. “Mr Speaker has a superb team of dedicated, effective and long-serving staff - five of whom have worked for him very happily for a combined total of over 40 years.”
Labour peer Helena Kennedy made a strong defence of Bercow, making a string of points that are familiar to anyone who is disbelieved when they report bullying: that there was a ‘personality clash’, that non-disclosure agreements are sometimes necessary, that what matters is the establishment of a pattern of behaviour, not one-off incidents. The real problem for Bercow is that there does appear to be such a pattern. Sinclair’s successor Kate Emms was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder.
For some staff, Bercow’s talk of ‘zero tolerance’ of harassment and bullying sounds more ironic than ever. Despite all this, the Commons Commission has decided its independent inquiry will not investigate individual allegations. So, it’s now left to MPs – particularly Labour MPs who have benefitted from Bercow’s wider approach to Parliamentary business – to take action themselves. Let’s see if there are any Urgent Questions submitted or points of Order today. The involvement of public money in the payoff is what may move this issue on. And the death of Michael Martin this week is a reminder that Speakers can be forced out if they lose the backing of colleagues.
If anyone doubts the impact a Speaker can have, they should check out yesterday’s Government U-turn on tax haven transparency over ‘dirty money’. In a classic bit of Parliamentary gamesmanship, ministers had tabled a string of late amendments aimed at watering down moves to toughen the Sanctions and Anti-Money Laundering Bill. But Bercow rejected them and instead forced consideration of an amendment by Labour’s Margaret Hodge and Tory Andrew Mitchell.
Faced with up to 20 Tory rebels, Foreign Office minister Sir Alan Duncan recognised ‘the majority view in this House’ and reluctantly accepted the plan to force 14 British overseas territories to adopt public registers of ownership by the end of 2020. Of course, in lots of ways the crackdown does not go far enough, not least as it doesn’t include the Isle of Man or the Channel Islands, but it was proof that a cross-party approach can reap dividends when a Government lacks a majority. “This is evidence in a hung parliament power moves from the Cabinet room to the floor of the House of Commons,” Mitchell said. That’s overstating it, but it’s a point not lost on No.10 and the whips.
The extra transparency for overseas territories was proposed by David Cameron and George Osborne in 2013, but dumped by May when she became MP. Yet one area of forced openness where the PM has proved more radical than her predecessors is on the gender pay gap. Harriet Harman’s 2010 Equality Act was all primed and ready to go in forcing firms with more than 250 staff to publish their male-female pay divide, but Cameron just didn’t run with it. Last month, May’s own determination paid off and we found out just how bad the situation was: women earned 18.4% less than men.
Yesterday, new equalities minister Penny Mordaunt updated Cabinet and revealed an even newer statistic. On current trends, it will take until 2052 for the pay gap to end. And the PM and Mordaunt told every Cabinet minister that they should now tell each of their sectors (eg construction under the Ministry of Housing, finance under the Treasury) they had six months in which to come up an action plan. If that results in more women in senior positions (Sajid Javid pointed out there was record number of female police chiefs), then this may turn out to be one May legacy worth shouting about.
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