The Waugh Zone Thursday October 26, 2017

Jeremy Corbyn extracted yet another U-turn out of Theresa May in PMQs yesterday with her announcement that she was scrapping plans for all social housing tenants to have their housing benefit capped. No.10 were tight-lipped about the cost of the policy (other than telling us to wait until Tuesday for the full announcement) but some suggest it could amount to £500m, adding yet another price tag to the Chancellor’s Budget calculations.

And on Universal Credit, the Treasury may have to sign off mooted changes in the six-week waiting time currently experienced by claimants. Frank Field’s Work and Pensions Select Committee steps up the pressure today, and Tory think tank Bright Blue yesterday repeated its demands for the wait period to be cut. Ministers are looking at options, and note that May didn’t knock down Corbyn’s line that Iain Duncan Smith should be listened to on the topic.

But there’s a wider constitutional issue looming too, after the Commons’ vote for a pause in the Uni Credit rollout last week. The Government’s three-line whip (ordering Tory MPs to abstain) prompted claims that it risked turning Parliament into a debating society. And last night, the abstention trick wasn’t even needed as again Tory whips refused to oppose the two Labour Opposition Day motions on social care plans and housing benefit caps. No recorded vote was called. Our original HuffPost story – that the Government decision to ignore Opposition Day votes on NHS pay and tuition fees were not one-offs – looks more true every day.

And lo and behold, today’s Order Paper includes a Written Ministerial Statement from Andrea Leadsom titled ‘Opposition Day Debates’. Will it formally announce that they will in future be treated like backbench business committee debates (ie Govt takes part in debate, but not the vote). If so, that would upend the constitutional convention (it’s no more than a convention but an important one) that a Government has to win Opposition Day votes or change policy. Leadsom has her Business Statement at 10.30am today. Will Sir Edward Leigh and Peter Bone rise up once more to express their opposition to future ‘tyranny’ by the Executive? Given DD’s hint on a lack of a ‘meaningful’ vote over Brexit (see below), how strongly will ‘constitutional Tories’ insist that Parliament should ‘take back control’ from the executive?

David Davis was as candid as he was relaxed when he appeared before MPs yesterday. The Brexit Secretary suggested that a promised Parliamentary vote on the final Brexit deal “could be” delayed until after Exit Day itself, on March 29, 2019. His point was that the EU has a habit of pushing things to the wire and if so then logically there could be a delay in a Commons and Lords vote.

DD’s office was forced several hours later to issue a clarification that “we expect and intend” a vote to take place before the UK actually leaves the EU. When asked why the statement had been issued, a No.10 spokeswoman said simply: “talk to his team”. Among others in Downing Street, there was certainly some irritation within at Davis’s offhand remarks. The PM herself said at PMQs that she was ‘confident’ a deal would be done and a vote held well before Exit Day. Dominic Grieve warned there was a ‘serious risk of legal challenge’ if we left without a vote.

But note that No.10 and DD are in fact on exactly the same page: neither will give a guarantee the vote will take place by March 29, 2019. That’s partly to keep our options open, partly because May insists we will be leaving the EU no matter what motion Parliament votes on. The real difference between DD and No10 was his line to MPs (was it a joke?) that he would “expect” Brussels to try to do a Brexit deal at 11.59pm before Exit Day. No.10, which has a mantra that it never answers ‘hypothetical questions’, said the Brexit Sec was simply answering hypotheticals from MPs. The problem was that Davis had himself raised the hypothetical situation himself, unprompted, by riffing on Brussels’ penchant for eleventh-hour deals.  DD later agreed with Downing Street that Michel Barnier was aiming to sort a deal by October 2018, giving our Parliament and Europe’s, lots of time to approve it.

Perhaps more worrying in Whitehall was the evidence of May’s former Brussels chief Sir Ivan Rogers yesterday. He suggested there was no chance the EU would give us the bespoke trade deal we wanted. Sir Ivan also said he had warned the PM the UK would be “screwed” in the Brexit negotiations if she triggered Article 50 too early – but she did it anyway. When the history of Brexit is written, that warning may prove just as important as David Cameron’s own hubristic claim to EU leaders that he would secure victory in the referendum: “I’ll win this, I’m a winner”.

The Health Service Journal had a cracking exclusive yesterday on plans in Essex for the NHS to pay the public £50 a night to look after hospital patients who are recovering from surgery. It’s only a pilot scheme idea but very notion that start-up firm CareRooms is recruiting “hosts” has naturally prompted lots of ‘NHS Airbnb’ front page headlines this morning. Shadow care minister Barbara Keeley writes in the Mirror that the plan is “terrifying” as there are “clear safety risks” if patients are forced to accept this “cut-price” care.

Prospective hosts, who can earn up to £1,000 a month, need to pass security checks before they are approved for the scheme. Southend University Hospital insists only “preliminary discussions have been held”, but I’d be surprised if Jeremy Hunt isn’t forced to kill off the idea pretty sharpish. Then again, maybe he won’t. Care minister Jackie Doyle-Price told MPs yesterday – in a quote that will surely appear on future Labour leaflets – that “austerity is the mother of invention”.

The sheer lack of hospital beds is blamed for NHS trusts looking at desperate measures and Hunt faces a real challenge from his own side on the wider issue of ‘bed blocking’. Radio 4’s Today programme reveals that Nick Rushton, the Tory leader of Leicestershire county council, is furious with the Health Secretary over an apparent Government threat to slash town hall budgets if more isn’t done.

Hunt wrote to 32 councils in July warning they had until the end of the year to reduce local bed blocking in hospitals. They recently received a new letter suggesting that unless the issue was tackled by next Tuesday there would be ‘a review’ of Better Care Fund cash they were expecting. Leicestershire is set to lose £22m and Rushton has asked ‘how long can we put up with the Secretary of State?’ It’s a question Labour may echo, certainly in next week’s PMQs.

Jared O’Mara’s time as a Labour MP looks like it may well be over. The due process of the party’s investigatory procedures will now kick in, but few think he can survive. What did for the Arctic Monkeys fan and Sheffield Hallam MP was GuidoFawkes’ latest revelation yesterday morning of a music review he’d written in 2009 in which he’d made sexist remarks about virgins.

This prompted Jeremy Corbyn to finally agree to suspend O’Mara (something Lucy Powell and Lisa Nandy had demanded). The decision by the leader’s office was so swift that even the Labour press office were kept out of the loop (not a good look) and it was announced in a TV pool clip recorded by John McDonnell. Shami Chakrabarti had just been on Radio 4 saying O’Mara deserved a ‘second chance’.

After the issue was raised at PMQS, a senior Labour spokesman told us yesterday that since the Naz Shah case, the party was following Chakrabarti’s inquiry lead and now taking a more ‘graduated’ response to such disciplinary cases in the interest of ‘natural justice’. But the spokesman got into a pickle when explaining why things O’Mara had written when he was 21 (‘fudge packers’) and 24 (‘sexy little slags’) were not a matter for suspension, but something he’d written when he was 28 (virgins and mothers) was a matter for suspension.  “He was obviously significantly older when that was written,” the spokesman said. The Lobby pointed out that Mhairi Black was an MP at the age of 20.

The Sun reports that Corbyn himself got up at the PLP on Monday to say that O’Mara shouldn’t have had to quit the Commons equalities committee. What has made life difficult for the MP among his colleagues however has been his sheer lack of activity since his election (he has yet to make his maiden speech or ask a question). There is muttering about the fact he was given the former Opposition leader’s office behind the Speaker’s chair this summer. As one Shadow Cabinet minister put it to me yesterday: “He should just f*ck off now”. But whips fear that even if he’s expelled, O’Mara may hang around for years rather than do the decent thing and trigger a by-election. “He may not want to give up £80k a year,” one MP told me. Let’s see.

The Daily Mail splashes on what it describes as a “string of examples” of senior figures at universities speaking out in favour of the European Union. It believes it’s a “troubling insight” into the extent of anti-Brexit bias at universities, following the row about a Conservative MP who asked professors for details of their courses on the UK’s departure from the EU.

Jo Johnson, the universities minister, insisted yesterday that Heaton-Harris had been pursuing an “academic inquiry” that may “lead to a book on these questions”. But the Times quotes Tom Brake, the Liberal Democrat Brexit spokesman, saying that because a book is “a private activity for which he might reasonably be expected to earn money”, he might have breached the MPs’ code of conduct by using parliamentary headed notepaper.

Tory backbencher Paul Scully tweeted last night a pro-Remain leaflet handed to his student daughter by a lecturer, who he said should be teaching her ‘engineering, not politics’.