1. CREDITS ROLL
It’s PMQs day again and Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will have lots of topics to choose from. The PM may cite fresh unemployment stats (due at 9.30am), if they continue to show the British ‘jobs miracle’. She may also want to attack Corbyn over Young Labour’s recent vote to quit Nato. For his part, Cabinet splits over Brexit or tuition fees may tempt Corbyn. With the PM expected to use the session to confirm backing for a new bill (from Labour’s Chris Bryant) protecting emergency workers, he could even claim his party was again setting the agenda.
But Corbyn may instead decide the best course at this PMQs would be to renew his successful attack from last week on Universal Credit. And the topic is certainly a hot one right now. New stats on the roll-out of the new benefit are due at 9.30am, just as Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke gives evidence on its progress to MPs. All this is ahead of Labour’s Opposition Day vote this afternoon, urging a pause in the Uni Credit plan.
SkyNews’ Beth Rigby shrewdly spotted something was up last night as three Tory rebels (Heidi Allen, Johnny Mercer and Sarah Wollaston) marched up Downing Street for a private meeting with May. DWP minister Damian Hinds held a well-attended Q&A session with MPs last night too. I understand that Gauke is not in the mood to budge on either the fundamentals of the roll-out or the advance payments of the system, though he is open to tweaks.
On the BBC, Tory MP Stephen McPartland called for the six-week payment wait to be reduced to four weeks, as well as a change in the ‘taper’ rate that hits working families. Gauke seems unlikely to yield on either, though more efficient processing could cut the six week wait over time. Could there be changes to the controversial Uni Credit hotline, so it charges only 3p rather than 55p a minute? Or more help for hard cases where direct landlord payments are needed?
Allen claims she has up to 25 Tory rebels on her side, which would be enough to defeat the Government in today’s vote. Yet the rebels (and the DUP) may not want a pause, only tweaks. Still, voting against a pause would risk terrible PR locally, and any abstensions could still see a Labour victory. Will the Government risk simply not oppose the motion, preventing any recorded vote (as it did on tuition fees and NHS pay last month)?
One indication that the whips are relaxed about the vote is that they’ve allowed new Scottish Tory MP Douglas Ross to indulge his part-time job as a football linesman, officiating in the Barcelona-Olympiacos Champions League football match in Spain tonight (the game kicks off at 7.45pm, the Commons vote is at 7pm). It’s an odd whips’ decision, given that Ross told me this summer: “I’ve made it very clear during this campaign that my footballing and refereeing hobby won’t impact on my Parliamentary duties”.
For a reminder of real-life experience of benefit delays, read our piece today on the case of Maria Amos. She nearly took her own life after she was left without money for heating or food, following the end of her seasonal job. “I’ve worked all my life,” Maria says.
2. MIND YOUR LANGUAGE
Yesterday generated lots of splits-and-Blitz headlines over Brexit. But it was also a salutary lesson that language in politics matters and any stray word can cause a story in the current frenzied atmosphere. Asked directly by Yvette Cooper about the impact of a ‘no deal’ on security issues, Amber Rudd replied such an outcome was “unthinkable”. If you read her full words, the Home Secretary was clearly referring to security matters (and the PM herself has said post-Brexit UK-EU cooperation on crime and intel is ‘unconditional’), not trade. But given many people suspect that’s also Rudd’s view on a trade deal, her words took off.
Similarly, OECD secretary general Angel Gurria was not really comparing Brexit to ‘the Blitz’ in his flamboyant press conference yesterday. He actually said: “What was that thing Churchill said? Stay calm and carry on. This is like in the Blitz, except fortunately, not the Blitz.” More worrying for ministers was his OECD report flirting with a second EU referendum, and warning of the dire consequences of ‘no deal’ on trade. There was also a key line urging the Chancellor to dump planned cuts to Corporation Tax and spend the money on infrastructure instead. Will Corbyn seize on that, given it’s Labour policy too?
David Davis’s own language in the Commons yesterday was notable for refreshing candour rather than slips of the tongue. He told MPs Brussels was “using time pressure to get more money out of us. Bluntly, that is what’s going on. It’s obvious to anybody.” The Indy shrewdly spots he also told Tory MP Rishi Sunak (a rising star to watch folks) that “a transition phase would only be triggered once we have completed the deal itself”. If DD really wants the ‘end state’ sorted before 2019, that sounds much tougher than May or Hammond’s line so far.
Meanwhile, Liam Fox told the BBC: “Leaving without a deal will not be the Armageddon some people predict.” But the Sun picks up on the other key line in the Home Afffairs Committee session: Home Office perm sec Philip Rutnam saying the Army could be used as ‘a last resort’ to man our borders under a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Iain Duncan Smith on BrexitCentral explains why going on WTO rules would be a liberation. In the Commons yesterday, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan rolled their eyes at such suggestions.
3. RED FACED BORIS
Boris Johnson was on rumbustious form in the Commons yesterday. He was clearly enjoying himself, attacking Labour for being “supine, invertebrate protoplasmic jellies” over Brexit. Like many Boris gags, it was not new (he’d used exactly the same line to attack Labour on the London Assembly over fire station cuts).
Unfortunately for the Foreign Secretary, his desire to go on the offensive against his opponents can often be undermined by inconvenient facts. In what looked like a planted topical question, he was asked his view of Labour MPs appearing on Moscow-backed TV channel Russia Today. He replied it was “an absolute scandal” that Corbyn and others would ‘validate and legitimate’ Russian propaganda. But, as we report, Boris’s own dad was plugging his latest book on the channel a few weeks ago. We’ve found 11 Tory MP who’ve been on Russia Today too, validating and legitimating all that propaganda.
We also report Labour MPs Anna Turley and Wes Streeting saying that it’s time for all MPs to stop using the channel. As Streeting says: “Russia Today is nothing more than a propaganda machine for an autocratic government, which is why many of us on the left will have nothing to do with it.”
4. ANTIPATHY AND THE JOHNSONS
Boris is not the only Johnson who’s on the PM’s trouble radar right now. His mild-mannered brother Jo, the Higher Education Minister, is one of several ministers unhappy about Theresa May’s university tuition fee reforms, the Times reports. It says that Johnson and Education Secretary Justine Greening were “furious” at the £2bn party conference pledge to freeze fees at £9,250 a year and to raise the student loan repayment threshold to £25,000.
May’s bigger announcement was that there would be a wide-ranging review of university finance and it seems she’s faced with a deeply divided ministerial response. Greening thinks the current system is “progressive” and May’s announcements help only the better off. Others think it’s time to formalise a graduate tax. When even the architect of the entire reform, Labour’s Andrew Adonis, now thinks the fees system is broken, it’s certainly time to think again.
5. INFLATION STATIONS
After inflation hit 3% yesterday (the highest in five years), Bank of England Governor Mark Carney warned that the cost of living was set to rise still further. But Carney surprised the markets by hinting that the long-promised hike in interest rates would actually go ahead in November. Many City analysts say that the Brexit-related plunge in sterling is one of the main causes of inflation and warn the pound will plummet further next month if there’s no action. The FT points out two new members of the Bank’s monetary policy committee yesterday told MPs they’re not yet ready to vote for rate rises.
Some ministers think we’ve been spoiled for years by record low inflation, but many in Government worry about the politics of rising rates. Pensions are now set to go up even higher (they’re automatically linked), while benefits are still frozen (for many a bigger factor in in-work poverty than Universal Credit tapers). Public sector workers will expect even higher pay rises. Today, in PMQs May is expected to back Chris Bryant’s bill protecting emergency workers from assault (we have some telling case studies this morning). But those workers want an end to real-terms pay cuts too.