The five things you need to know on Tuesday July 21, 2015...
1) HARMING HARMAN
Parliament’s final day before summer recess is dominated by George Osborne today, with Treasury Questions, a Treasury Select Committee hearing and the Second Reading of the Budget. But the political presence of the Chancellor also loomed large last night as Labour MPs fell into his trap of forcing them to choose between opposition to his cuts and being seen as ‘soft’ on welfare.
The stats from Harriet Harman’s Black Monday are worth noting. There were 48 Labour rebels - exactly 20% of the entire PLP. The remaining 184 Labour MPs abstained...and 184 was the Government’s majority on the second reading of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill. That’s a figure you can bet the SNP will use as much as the 48 the Tories will cite in future.
Of the 48 rebels, 18 nominated Jeremy Corbyn for leader, 15 Andy Burnham and nine Yvette Cooper. None backed Liz Kendall. Half of the new intake of 2015 MPs defied the party whip.
But of the leadership contenders only Jeremy Corbyn voted against the whip. On one level this is unsurprising given he’s the only one not on the Labour frontbench, where rebelling would entail resignation. Yet Andy Burnham was swift on Facebook last night to say he was ‘firing the starting gun’ of a new attack-minded Labour party and pledged that if elected leader he would order his party to vote against third reading. He also claimed that the Harman amendment last night only happened because he’d demanded it.
But Burnham was getting it in the neck last night from critics on the left, right and centre of the party. Some MPs were openly mocking him on the Terrace after the vote, dubbing him ‘flipflopAndy’. Some Cooper and Kendall supporters were particularly incensed at the way Burnham had joked about ‘George and Harriet’s two-child test’ last week and at his decision to brief the media on his Shadow Cabinet plea for an amendment. One MP told the Telegraph: “His disloyalty to Harriet is outrageous - if during his whole parliamentary career he does half as much for families as she has done he’ll have been doing well.” There’s ridicule too of Burnham’s suggestion to a local radio station that he would still attend every Everton game even if Prime Minister (though was he joking about that, as he was about giving Corbyn a Shadow Cabinet post?).
As it happens, the Labour rebels will seize on the Guardian story showing that the Government’s own impact assessment of the benefit cap shows that 330,000 children from low-income families in England will be hit, costing an average of £63 per household each week. Single mothers will be hit hardest and 37% of those affected may be ethnic minority households.
Osborne effectively trolled Labour MPs with his Guardian piece yesterday. But what will really upset the Opposition is the suggestion that the Employment Support Allowance cuts are all a temporary ruse. The Speccie reports that Tory MPs have been told that the benefit cut will be reversed once the Government starts running a surplus.
Labour’s real problem is that the squeeze that hurt it in the general election could be getting worse: UKIP and the Tories are pushing the line that Labour isn’t serious about welfare reform, the SNP are saying the Harman-led abstentions proves that they are the real Opposition. Some modernising MPs are tearing their hair out that a third way message isn’t being sold strongly enough. John McDonnell said he'd 'swim through vomit' to vote against the bill, but Blairites are nauseous at the feeling that it may take another three election defeats for the party to find a hangover cure.
Whoever replaces Harman has a long way to go. No wonder some MPs are muttering that she is not the only ‘interim’ leader the party may get in the next few years.
2) ALL HANDS ON NECK
With the summer break beckoning, the Treasury may be about to enter one of its rare periods of rest between ‘fiscal events’ ie the Budget and the Autumn Statement. But George Osborne is a shark who never sleeps. And the Chancellor already has an eye on the big event that will dominate the next few years: his comprehensive spending review.
Adopting the usual practice of having a juicy announcement to coincide with Treasury Questions (at 11.30am today), the overnight HMT briefing is that Chief Secretary Greg Hands will write to Cabinet ministers asking for £20bn in departmental cuts. The tight grip of Hands around some departments’ necks will be felt, even without a traditional Star Chamber of torture. The date of the spending review has also been set for November 25.
And Osborne and Hands (one of the closest political partnerships in the business) want a serious sell-off of the £300bn of public land to help meet the target. Departments will be expected to show they are contributing to the government's target of building 150,000 homes on land previously owned by the taxpayer by 2020.
3) LOAN RANGERS
Several papers pick up on another bit of political Kryptonite buried in the Budget and now exposed by an analysis from the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Thanks to the switch from grants to loans, the IFS found that the poorest 40 per cent of students in England will leave university with debts of up to £53,000, rather than up to £40,500.
Replacing maintenance grants with loans will raise the debt incurred by poorer students by about a quarter, but do little to improve government finances in the long run, the think tank says.
But it’s not just the poorest being hit. The chancellor’s decision to freeze the repayment threshold for student loans at £21,000 for five years will deliver substantial savings of about £1.4 billion. The change, itself a breach of the promise made to students when controversial higher education reforms were passed in 2010, will hit middle-income graduates hardest as they will each pay over £6,000 more in total in 2016 money.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this hilarious attempt at synchronised swimming by boys in a school talent show.
4) GRAINGER DANGER
The Daily Mail has splashed on a privacy row after it got hold of a letter from a senior Government official demanding confidential details of millions of GP appointments. Tracey Grainger, a programme director for the PM’s Challenge Fund for seven-day NHS services, has asked a GP bookings firm to hand over postcodes, dates of birth, times and reasons for visits for millions of patients.
Privacy campaigners ain’t happy. But NHS England say the stats are needed to assess demand for seven-day GP services. Still, Jeremy Hunt is continuing to get it in the neck for his criticism of the lack of doctors at the weekend. After the #iminworkjeremy campaign, there’s now a petition signed by 60,000 seeking his resignation.
5) THE COST OF POLITICS
The Taxpayers Alliance is targeting a whopping £320k ‘golden goodbye’ for Electoral Commission chief Wardle. The Commission’s annual report includes a £219k compensation payment, the Sun reports.
Meanwhile minister Rob Wilson is defending a 9p expense claim for travelling 352 yards from his home to a ‘constituency engagement’ in the next street. As Wilson puts it: “I can see how small claims might look odd but it is important that all MPs do the job properly and stay connected with local people.’
Speaking of the cost of politics, the one thing that the PM is very wary of is the backlash from appointing more peers in his Dissolution Honours List. It looks like the list has been delayed again until well into August.
ONES TO WATCH
Simon Stevens, Amber Rudd, Philip Hammond, Jeremy Heywood and Theresa May all appear before Select Committees today on a packed schedule, as well as the Chancellor.
The Cabinet committees list is out today, giving us all a glimpse of where the real business is done behind the scenes (one of 17 Written Ministerial Statements).
The Times reports that Nicky Morgan is one of five Cabinet ministers who wants to use contentious new powers to handpick civil servants and boost her political office.
The Lords defeated the Government (the 8th so far this Parliament) last night on the Charities Bill and a move to undermine the Right to Buy plan for housing associations. Bob Kerslake’s speech was particularly strident.
A corking tale reported on the BBC this morning: more than 20,000 speeding tickets were issued to paramedics whilst on 999 calls between 2009 and 2014 (most were mistakes and only 400 upheld).
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