1. MUTING THE MUTINY
With fears of a real coup going on in Zimbabwe, talk of ‘treachery’ in Parliament over Brexit may seem a tad hyperbolic. But accusations of disloyalty are precisely what most angers those Tory MPs who want the EU Withdrawal Bill to create a smooth exit from the EU, rather than a chaotic one. The Telegraph’s front page ‘The Brexit Mutineers’, complete with photos of the 15 Tory MPs whom the paper thinks will rebel against the Government, sparked an instant backlash last night.
Anna Soubry called it ‘bullying’, Chuka Umunna said it was ‘an ideological witch-hunt’. Brexit minister Steve Baker had to swiftly put out a statement that “I regret any media attempts to divide our party”. Of course, printing a list of the alleged rebels is itself not controversial. What is more worrying for some of them is the menace implied in putting them on a front page. And with MPs of all parties receiving death threats in the past year (one I can’t name but is very prominent), the fear is that this kind of treatment is grossly irresponsible.
There’s talk among some Tories that the Telegraph splash will stiffen their resolve, not weaken it. And yet I still doubt whether there are enough rebels to actually defeat the Government on the key issue of setting an Exit Day in statute. As I wrote yesterday, this is a numbers game and thanks to Labour Leavers it would take at least 13 Tory rebels to inflict any defeat. Some consider the Telegraph mugshots a cunning whips’ weapon, given that more than half the alleged rebels were unlikely to do anything more than abstain.
That’s not to say there’s real anger among some Tory rebels. Soubry said Monday’s meeting with the new (now who’s bright idea was it to move Gavin Williamson?) Chief Whip Julian Smith was ‘stormy’. And the most significant Commons speech yesterday was from Dominic Grieve warning he simply would not vote for the new Government amendment detailing a date for Exit Day. This was very unusual for Grieve, who normally tries to be accommodating. Grieve seemed most angry not just at the whips’ attempts to bully him but at the logical inconsistency of imposing an Exit Day that would undermine our negotiations with Brussels. He also spotted a fresh Government amendment (a new version of amendment 383, fellow anoraks) giving a backdoor power for ministers to change the day anyway.
Grieve has pledged to go away and craft another amendment. The Exit Day vote is not likely until next month on Day 7 or 8 of the Committee Stage. Few picked up Grieve’s hint “we are likely to reach agreement” on everything else other than the Exit Day. Will the PM back down or just rely on brute numbers to get this through? Robert Peston reports that some in the Cabinet were furious that they were not consulted about the new Exit Day amendment. Today, those ministers may agree more than ever with Ken Clarke (applauded by Labour MPs) who said yesterday it was a “silly” move designed to get “a good article in the Daily Telegraph but might eventually actually do harm”.
We have eight more hours of debate today and as with yesterday, few expect Government defeats. But Labour is stepping up its campaign to protect workers’ rights, post-Brexit, with an amendment. Our own Owen Bennett has talked to the experts at the ‘UK in a Changing EU’ think tank and has an explainer HERE on the Brexit bill flashpoints ahead.
Of course PMQs is back at noon and it’s possible neither Corbyn nor May will want to touch Brexit given divisions in their respective ranks. Both will also be wary of raising the thorny topic of Kensington and Chelsea. May could demand Corbyn withdraw the whip from MP Emma Dent Coad for her ‘ghetto boy’ slur on black Tory Shaun Bailey (Stephen Bush has an excellent dissection of the row HERE); But Corbyn could demand May apologise for a Tory residents’ survey asking people to rate the Grenfell fire from 0 to 10 alongside bin collection. Corbyn could press hard on the bruise that is Boris Johnson’s Iran blunder. New stats show unemployment fell by 57,000 again, but there are figures on earnings and universal credit (see below). Meanwhile, Labour’s interim Scottish leader Alex Rowley has stepped aside after a Scottish Sun story about his conduct. It could be a long day.
2. MANFRED MAN
Theresa May hosts Manfred Weber at No.10 today and his trip is certainly timely. The German MEP, often described as an ‘ally’ of Angela Merkel, leads the biggest political group in the European Parliament (the EPLP group from which David Cameron fatefully divorced the Tories from all those years ago, in order to beat David Davis for the leadership, at possibly the most important 1922 Committee meeting of recent years).
Weber has a habit of irritating No.10 and only yesterday claimed this December’s EU summit may break up without any Brexit deal. “It doesn’t look like negotiations are going to move onto the second phase,” he warned. Weber ridiculed the Tories last month, asking “Who shall I call in London [on Brexit]?” Who speaks for the British government – Theresa May, Boris Johnson, or even David Davis?” Expect smiles today on the steps of No.10, but Weber has his own press conference at 5.45pm at the European Parliament’s London HQ. And it never fails to amaze me that that HQ is in Smith Square, the very building that for years housed Tory Central Office.
As the BBC’s excellent Brussels correspondent points out, May’s Weber meeting is part of a wider charm offensive with MEPs. She is due next week to meet leaders of all the Strasbourg parties, including one Nigel Farage.
3. RUSSIAN OUR DEFENCES
The PM’s official spokesman had a very specific form of words yesterday when asked if there had been any Russian attempts to disrupt UK elections or the EU referendum. “We haven’t seen any evidence of successful direct interference in the UK’s democratic processes..The British electoral system is amongst the most robust in the world”. We tried, but failed, to get answers on any ‘indirect’ interference or even attempts at interference by the Kremlin or their intermediaries. This was odd, particularly given the PM had warned Moscow in her Guildhall speech that ‘we know what you’re doing’ (the Russian foreign ministry tweeted back yesterday ‘we know what YOU are doing as well’)
But today both the Guardian and Times splash their front pages on claims that Russian-linked cyber activity is very widespread indeed. The Times cites research from academics at Swansea and Berkeley universities that Russian Twitter accounts posted more than 40,000 messages on Brexit in just 48 hours last June (crucially, before the EU referendum). The Guardian has Edinburgh Uni research that more than 400 Twitter accounts tweeting about Brexit, before and after the Leave vote, were operated by the Russia Internet Research Agency.
The Sun meanwhile reveals that National Cyber Security Centre chief Ciaran Martin will today use a speech to confirm for the first time that Russia tried to hack into the UK’s energy grid. The assault on major power companies, ordered by the Kremlin, is not a one-off either. Martin (a spook who rarely talks) will reveal Russian agents tried to penetrate major British telecoms companies, such as BT. The NSCS reveals it has had to deal with more than 600 cyber attacks since it was created just over a year ago, or almost two a day. Of those 35 were deemed ‘significant incidents’.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this French bulldog discover a mirror for the first time. Hypnotic.
4. FUDGE-IT BUDGET
Philip Hammond’s Budget is just a week away today and the mood music is not good. He and the PM will jointly host an event for the UK tech industry, along with some small dollops of cash, but the unease between No.10 and No11 is marked for many in Whitehall. Housing is a key tension point, and we report that Hammond’s refusal to be ‘bold’, plus his backing for easing Green Belt restrictions, is causing real problems. Sajid Javid has a big speech tomorrow and has to somehow bridge the divide. Will he again float compulsory purchase orders, as well as borrowing to fund investment?
Treasury sources yesterday told the FT how exasperated they were at claims that this Budget is Hammond’s ‘last chance’. But today a Cabinet source tells the Daily Mail that it looks increasingly like “the Budget is going to be a car crash, a real disaster”. A ‘Political Cabinet’ took place before full Cabinet yesterday and clearly some were unimpressed. “There is so much riding on it, but the Chancellor seems oblivious. He has no idea about politics.” That sounds like the complaint about Hammond misreading the NI changes that led to his U-turn earlier this year.
The expectations management game is tricky at the best of times, but given his limited fiscal room it’s difficult to see how Hammond can really be radical unless he does something significant to raise money (like diverting cash from corporation tax cuts to public services). Even the public sector pay rises he may announce could suffer from being too little too late. Away from all this, John McDonnell had a very radical idea yesterday: factoring climate change risks and costs into official economic forecasts. Contrast that with a typically Hammondesque small scale plan to win back the youth vote from Corbyn: the Sun reports he will extend the 16-25 railcard to the under-32s.
5. CREDIT DEFICIT
Universal Credit hasn’t gone away as an issue. New statistics are due out this morning and there’s an Opposition Day debate in the Lords tomorrow, led by Patricia Hollis. It was of course Hollis who led peers’ charge against tax credits cuts, forcing George Osborne to U-turn back in 2015, so ministers may sit up and take notice again. She’s blogged for HuffPost on “heart-rending” accounts sent to her of people waiting up to 12 weeks for payment. And she lays the blame squarely at the door of the Treasury.
More heart-rending testimony will be heard in Westminster Hall today as Rachel Reeves leads a debate on loneliness. She tells us “loneliness can be as bad for your health as a chronic long-term condition - figures suggest it’s as bad as smoking 15 cigarettes a day”. Research shows that carers, the disabled and even parents all complain they fell lonely and isolated at key points in their lives. Reeves co-chairs the late Jo Cox’s Commission on Loneliness, along with Seema Kennedy (who is now the PM’s PPS, so expect this agenda to be taken seriously by No.10).