Henry Hill: SDLP link-up with Fianna Fail has a rocky start as senior MLA quits

Also: Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax; Labour AM apologises for antisemitic comment; and Scottish Tories say they’ve stopped Johnson.

SDLP ‘on back foot’ after senior resignation over merger

The alliance between the Social Democratic and Labour Party, Northern Ireland’s smaller and more moderate nationalist party, and Fianna Fail suffered a blow this week when the former’s most high-profile MLA resigned.

Clare Hanna, the SDLP’s Brexit spokeswoman, resigned from its Assembly group (although not her actual party membership) after a special conference on Saturday approved the new ‘policy partnership’ with the Republic party, the News Letter reports.

She said that: “I remain unconvinced that an exclusive partnership with Fianna Fáil is the right vehicle to deliver the non-sectarian, transparent and social democratic new Ireland I believe in”.

SDLP members backed the proposal at the conference, although 30 per cent voted against it. There apparently remains a lot of uncertainty around what exactly the new relationship entails, with senior figures being coy as to whether it would mean a joint manifesto or similar.

Hanna may not be the last to leave: Colum Eastwood, the SDLP leader, was reportedly warned that a group of members were “considering their options” after the link-up was approved.

In other Irish nationalist news, Sinn Fein have reiterated their belief that a no-deal Brexit would trigger a border poll in Northern Ireland.

According to the Guardian, Mary Lou McDonald described such a vote as a “democratic necessity” in the event that Britain left the EU without the backstop in place – but declined to say when a referendum should be held.

Writing on this site today, David Shiels has warned ministers that by talking up the prospect of a border poll – in a bid to shepherd unionist MPs behind Theresa May’s withdrawal deal – they are playing into the hands of the republicans.

Leo Varadkar, the Irish Taoiseach, continues to insist that such a Brexit can be avoided – even has he refused to negotiate with the Prime Minister during her visit to Dublin earlier this week. However Geoffrey Cox, the Attorney General, did meet with his Irish counterpart on that Friday, as well as meeting separately with senior figures from the Democratic Unionist Party.

Sammy Wilson, the MP for East Antrim and DUP Brexit spokesman, has had to insist this week that his party remains united in its opposition to the backstop. The News Letter reports that Arlene Foster had earlier refused to be drawn on whether or not she was still demanding its complete abandonment.

Backlash grows against SNP’s new tax

Teachers have announced that they will demand compensation out of public funds if they are subject to the Scottish Government’s new car park tax – in a move the Tories estimate could cost £1.7 million in Edinburgh alone.

According to the Daily Telegraph, this move by the unions comes as part of a growing public backlash against the proposals, which would see charges levied on private car parks such as those operated by businesses and other places of work.

There was also outrage when it was revealed that such a tax is liable for VAT if the cost is passed on to employees, pushing the cost to workers up to around £500 per year.

Derek Mackay, the SNP’s Finance Secretary, accepted an amendment tabled by the Scottish Greens introducing the levy in order to win their support for his budget, which could not have passed without them.

Opposition parties have also this week criticised Nicola Sturgeon, the First Minister, for talking up the prospect of independence whilst on an official trade trip to the United States.

This prompted Stephen Daisley, writing in the Spectator, to urge the Government to re-assert its prerogatives over foreign affairs and start attaching conditions to the Scottish Government’s use of public funds outwith its remit. Probably too much to hope after ministers’ foolish retreat over post-Brexit devolved powers, but definitely a good idea for a bolder, more imaginative leadership to consider.

In other news, the Scottish Conservatives have reportedly declared victory in their campaign to stop Boris Johnson becoming Tory leader. I wrote about the significance of ‘Operation Arse’ earlier this week.

Labour AM apologises for ‘unacceptable’ comments about Jews

Jenny Rathbone, a Labour member of the Welsh Assembly, has apologised and been issued a formal warning over “unacceptable” comments she made about Jewish communities.

Wales Online reports that the Cardiff Central AM said it was “really uncomfortable” how certain security-conscious synagogues now resemble ‘fortresses’, and that “siege mentalities” might be driving this change. She will now undergo antisemitism training by the Community Security Trust.

Meanwhile Mark Drakeford, the new First Minister, is apparently trying to ease out Wales’ most senior civil servant in order to get a “fresh start”.

Hunt loses pole position in our Cabinet League Table as overall ratings languish

The Chief Whip has enjoyed something of a boost from last month’s victories on crucial votes, but the overall picture reflects a settled disenchantment.

Our last survey of 2018 revealed a Cabinet whose standing with the membership had scarcely recovered from the previous month, where we recorded our lowest-ever results since we started posing this question.

Has the New Year ushered in any re-appraisals or revivals of fortune? Alas, no.

  • Still 14 ministers with negative scores… And no change in the membership of that unhappy band, either: the Cabinet’s Remainers continue to predominate at the lower end of the table.
  • …but Smith almost breaks out. That the Chief Whip remains in the red doesn’t completely eclipse an impressive rebound, from -34.4 to just -3.8. Perhaps this is an outworking of the Government’s unexpectedly strong performance in those crucial Brexit votes – let’s see how this score fares after Valentine’s Day.
  • The rise of Leadsom continues. Last month we suggested that the Leader of the House’s big leap up the ranks might be a product of our readers’ loathing for John Bercow. If so, that well runs deep as she is up almost nine points and breaks into the top three.
  • Cox takes the top spot… But he does so whilst going backwards. Last time he was second-ranked with over 55 per cent, today he scoops the gold with less than 49.
  • Hunt loses his place on the podium. The Foreign Secretary records a serious fall, from over 60 to less than 42. We suspect this may be related to his becoming one of the most senior Cabinet members to float the idea of an Article 50 extension.
  • Javid falls into the mid-table. A loss of ten points takes the Home Secretary out of contention for the top three, reducing him to eighth place.
  • Are the non-Cabinet posts a barometer? Interestingly, both Paul Davies and Ruth Davidson have suffered some decline in their scores, despite neither featuring in any major stories and indeed the latter being on maternity leave.

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: For Cox to speak with such force suggested how desperate May’s predicament has become.

The Attorney General suggested it would be absurd to reject the Government’s motion merely because of the Northern Ireland backstop.

The inexhaustible riches of Geoffrey Cox’s advocacy poured over the Tory benches as he opened for the Government on the final day of the Brexit debate.

Here was a lost cause worthy of the Attorney General’s powers. He boomed, he declared, he pleaded, he went quiet for a moment, he turned again and again to face the Conservative benches, he jabbed his finger at his opponents on his own side, told them not to behave like children, lauded compromise as if he were Moses leading the chosen people through the wilderness towards a land flowing with milk and honey.

Beside him sat the Prime Minister. She looked white with exhaustion, mournful, almost hopeless. Yet during the hour he spoke, she revived like a wilting pot plant rescued at the last moment by a drink of water.

Cox opened by praising “the most passionate appeal to understand the role of compromise” voiced at midnight last night by the Member for Gedling – a Labour MP, Vernon Coaker, who according to Cox had been “heartfelt and eloquent”.

So the Government still hopes it can get its motion through with the help of Labour moderates. That at least was what Cox appeared to imply.

But as Rachel Reeves complained from the Labour benches near the end of this performance, for most of the time Cox turned to address his own party. Even the Speaker, John Bercow, asked the Attorney General to address the House rather than the Conservative Party: “This perambulation is very uncommon and irregular.”

“You upbraid me entirely justly,” Cox replied. But for the rest of the time, he did the upbraiding: “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground, you are legislators.”

And as legislators, they must understand it would be “the height of irresponsibility” to pull the rug from under anyone who needs legal certainty, and can only get it if Parliament accepts the procedure for leaving the European Union which the Government has negotiated.

The Attorney General offered the curious analogy of an air lock, which we must enter in order to adjust our bodies to the different pressure we shall find when we pass through the second door on the far side and begin life outside the European Union.

Hilary Benn suggested, from the Labour benches, that beyond that second door lies “a complete vacuum”. Cox insisted on the contrary that we would find a “bright new world”.

But he offered another analogy. Removing ourselves from the EU is “as if we were to separate from a living organism with all its arteries and veins”.

It is a dangerous and complicated operation, about which we must be wholly pragmatic: “Do we opt for order or do we choose chaos?”

We cannot hurl the one million British citizens living on the continent of Europe, and the three million Europeans living here, “into a legal void”.

If MPs vote down the motion, “the path to Brexit becomes shrouded in uncertainty…and because of the Northern Ireland backstop”.

Cox had done his best to make rejecting the motion merely because of the backstop seem absurd, dangerous and disproportionate. When he realised he was in danger of going on too long, he quickly and skilfully brought his remarks to a close.

He had at least managed to cheer up the Prime Minister. Indeed, with this bravura performance, he had cheered up many people who are heartily sick of the whole Brexit debate.

But for him to need to speak with such force suggested also how desperate the Government’s predicament has become.

WATCH: Cox – “What are you playing at? What are you doing? You are not children in the playground. You are legislators.”

The Attorney General warns MPs that they will play with people’s lives if the reject Mays’ deal.

Hunt seizes the top spot in our Cabinet League Table, but overall ratings continue to struggle

Meanwhile, Leadsom makes huge gains following her rebuke to the Speaker over alleged sexist remarks.

The above chart shows our final Cabinet League Table of 2018. Given that last month saw the worst ever approval ratings in the history of this question on ConservativeHome’s Party members survey, it is unsurprising that this month’s picture is still pretty grim.

In total, 14 members of the Cabinet have net negative ratings – only two of last month’s record tally of 16 have managed to escape minus figures.

Andrea Leadsom, presumably on the back of her remarkable question to the Speaker over allegations of sexism, leaps from -16.3 to +34.2, a dramatic change of fortunes that I suspect illustrates how deeply many Conservative members dislike John Bercow as much as anything else.

The second Cabinet minister who escaped from the reputational dungeon in the course of the last few weeks is Liam Fox, who registers a rise from -11.8 in our November survey to +7.7 this month. That will no doubt be welcome news for the International Trade Secretary, but it’s somewhat cold comfort when you consider that in January’s survey he was in fourth place with a mighty +60.6.

At the top of the table, Jeremy Hunt sees his rating improve from +41.7 to +60.6, and leapfrogs Geoffrey Cox to seize the top spot. The Foreign Secretary has certainly been active, and has evidently been impressing the grassroots with his performance. Further announcements since the survey closed – of a review of policy on the oppression of Christians, and of his proposals for post-Brexit economic reform – are unlikely to have hurt him, either.

Jumping from fifth place to third is Penny Mordaunt, who almost doubles her rating from +19.2 to +37.9. Reports that she is campaigning within Cabinet for a Managed No Deal will have aided her in regaining some of the points which she lost when the Prime Minister’s proposed deal was published.

And that’s really what this month’s story is about – for those in positive territory, at least. Some ministers in the upper third are managing to recover lost ground faster than others, while several of those in the bottom third are continuing to sink.

Chris Grayling loses another 11.4 points – on the back of the drone farce – to overtake the Chancellor at the very bottom of the table. Hammond manages to slip another 1.3. Theresa May is essentially bobbing level at -41.6 from last month’s -42.

Meanwhile, the Chief Whip has lost 13.5 points, falling to -34.4, I’d suggest due in no small part to reports he had been talking to Labour MPs to secure opposition votes for the Prime Minister’s Brexit plan. David Gauke, too, continues to suffer further damage by association with the proposed deal, losing 19.2 points to plumb -25.5, following high profile comments criticising No Deal proponents in Cabinet for selling “unicorns”, which he pledged to “slay”.

While last month’s Cabinet League Table was pretty dire all round, this month’s is a more complex picture. Some are clearly recovering better and faster from the harm done to them by May’s deal than others – and the table overall is diverging. The top ten ministers saw their combined score rise from +206.1 to +339, while the bottom ten saw their combined score fall from -302.7 to -351.2.

Overall, that means the Cabinet as a whole benefited from a small rise in its total rating, from -140.5 to -16. However, that still makes this the second time ever that our survey has delivered an overall negative approval rating for the Cabinet. Putting this month in the context of the last year is quite stark:

ConservativeHome Awards: Cox scoops another gong as ‘Minister of the Year’

The Attorney General saw off strong competition from Michael Gove and Sajid Javid, with Liz Truss missing out on a podium spot.

Another day, another round of announcements for the 2018 ConservativeHome awards. After yesterday’s Brexit-focused categories, today we’re shifting focus.

First up: Minister of the Year, where our survey panel cast their ballots to decide which Conservative has been most effective in government over the past 12 months. The candidates were:

Michael Gove: With aggressive moves to ban plastic straws and ivory, the Environment Secretary is helping the Government make its mark on green issues.

Geoffrey Cox: The Attorney General has played a key role in forcing the Cabinet to confront the legal reality of May’s deal

Liz Truss: As Chief Secretary to the Treasury, she is perhaps the most ardent champion of small-state Thatcherism on the list

Sajid Javid: The Home Secretary has tackled the thorny subject of grooming gangs head on, and broken with May’s approach in his new department

And the winner is… Geoffrey Cox! It appears that not even the unprecedented event of the Government being found in contempt of Parliament is sufficient to dent our readers’ confidence in the senior law officer.

Of the rest of the pack, both Gove and Javid took around a quarter of the vote each, with Truss bringing up the rear with around 12 per cent.

Here are the results in full:

ConservativeHome Awards: Cox wins Speech Of The Year

Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant Attorney General, rousing himself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking his invincible locks.

As is traditional, our final Party members’ survey of the year includes the ConservativeHome Awards, recognising the greats, the gaffes, the hopes and the nopes of 2018.

Our first award is for Conservative Speech of the Year. The nominees were:

Geoffrey Cox at the Conservative Party Conference – “Methinks I see in my mind a noble and puissant nation rousing herself like a strong man after sleep, and shaking her invincible locks”

Jeremy Hunt at the Conservative Party Conference – “Never mistake British politeness for British weakness.”

Theresa May at the Conservative Party Conference – “When we come together there is no limit to what we can achieve.”

Liz Truss at the LSE – “Airbnb-ing, Deliveroo-eating, Uber-riding freedom fighters”

Despite being up against the Prime Minister, the Foreign Secretary and the Queen of Public Speaking Gifs herself, this year’s winner received a crushing 63.1 per cent of the vote.

Step forward and shake your invincible locks, Geoffrey Cox QC MP.

It isn’t altogether a surprise. Not only did he receive rapturous applause in the hall as he delivered his 12-minute speech, but the Attorney General instantly trended on Twitter, being dubbed (among other accolades) the Tory Mufasa.

Here are the results in full:

And here, just one more time, is the winning speech itself:

Iain Dale: On Newsnight, I erect my Tower of Power

And: For May, there should be no way back from losing. My Tory leadership straw poll. Cox, a man of substance and integrity. Plus, Tower of Power extra: Dick for Iain.

Iain Dale is Presenter of LBC Drive, Managing Director of Biteback Publishing, a columnist and broadcaster and a former Conservative Parliamentary candidate.

We live in momentous times. When I write this column next Friday, Theresa May could not longer be prime minister.

Wednesday next week will be a more interesting day than Tuesday. No-one now expects the Government to win the Brexit deal vote, and the only debate about what will happen is about is the size of the defeat. If the size of the majority against the Government motion is more than 100, it is very difficult to see how the Prime Minister, in all conscience, could stay on. There’s no way back from that, I’d have thought.

But we don’t live in normal times, and we know all about the Prime Minister’s stickability. The Opposition, whatever the size of their win, will no doubt call a vote of confidence. They’d be mad not to. The Government will win it, surely, but it could be a pyrrhic victory.

It must be likely that by midday on Wednesday, Graham Brady will have received the 48 letters needed to force a vote of confidence in May’s leadership. Again, she may well win that vote, mainly because of the absence of a clear alternative leader, but the size of the victory would be crucial. Could she really carry on if more than 100 Tory MPs voted against her? And they surely would.

– – – – – – – – – –

Twitter polls aren’t exactly scientific, and are just a bit of fun, but they do attract large numbers of people to vote.

I put up a poll on Wednesday offering people the choice of Boris Johnson, David Davis, Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt as next leader of the Conservative Party. In Twitter polls, you can only offer four choices.

Within 15 hours, nearly 10,000 people had voted. The result? Johnson got 41 per cent, Davis 25 per cent, Javid 21 per cent and Hunt 13 per cent. Make of that what you will.

The important electorate would of course initially be Tory MPs. My guess is that Johnson would not be in the top two. His performance in the Brexit debate this week will hardly have improved his chances.

– – – – – – – – – –

Another senior Conservative whose fortunes have fluctuated this week is the Attorney General, Geoffrey Cox. His bombastic performance at the Dispatch Box on Tuesday led many to speculate that he could be a dark horse candidate for the leadership. And you could see why.

But less than 24 hours later his body language on the front bench was somewhat different, as Andrea Leadsom announced that the government would heed the vote of MPs and publish the Attorney’s legal advice on the Northern Ireland backstop. He looked a broken man and I wondered whether he might be thinking about resigning.

I’m sure he considered it, but he remains in post. And a jolly good thing too. I am sure he has a massive contribution to make to Conservative politics, and despite what happened this week he is still seen as a man of substance and integrity.

– – – – – – – – –

“Hello, it’s Newsnight here – are you free to come on tonight and take part in a panel with a difference?” said the producer. “What’s the difference,” I asked nervously. “Well, we’ve got a Tower of Power and we want you to explain who the most important players are in what’s going on at the moment by pinning them from top to bottom on our model of Big Ben.” “Oh well,” I thought, “at least it’s not a whiteboard”.

So Paul Mason, Bronwen Maddox from the Institute of Government and I did our best to explain to the audience why we thought MPs were now more important in the process than the Cabinet. They had, to coin a phrase, taken back control. Yes, it was a gimmick, but it proved a very good way of explaining with a visual aid, something which is actually quite complicated. I suspect we might be seeing more of the Tower of Power…

– – – – – – – – –

Each day I spend several hours at LBC preparing for my radio show with my two producers. On Tuesday, I got a bit of a surprise when I was flicking through the list of clips and interviews on our computer system: I saw a clip called ‘DICK FOR IAIN’.

“Well this is going to be a different sort of show,” I thought to myself. I was somewhat disappointed to find that it was a clip of the Cressida Dick talking to Nick Ferrari. Oh well.

ConHome’s Cabinet League Table. Everyone’s rating is down – and half of the top table is now in negative territory. Worst ever results.

Not for the faint-hearted. Contains intense violence, blood and gore, strong language and Philip Hammond.

 

Abandon hope, all ye who enter here.

The aftermath of Chequers saw the ratings of every single Cabinet member fall. It was its worst collective performance to date.  But it is a measure of how shocking our latest monthly results are that those members would be justified in tumbling to their knees – and begging for those post-Chequers results to be resurrected.

Then, six Cabinet Ministers were in negative territory: Brandon Lewis, Greg Clark, Julian Smith, Chris Grayling, Philip Hammond…and Theresa May.

Now, they are joined by Jeremy Wright, David Gauke, Claire Perry, David Lidington, Liam Fox, Amber Rudd – on her return to the top table – Caroline Nokes, Andrea Leadsom, Karen Bradley and, on his debut, by Steve Barclay. Unsweet sixteen.

Yes, that’s sixteen Ministers in the red, rather than six – outnumbering the 13 of its members who get into the black, some of them by tiny margins.  No fewer than seven ministers have positive ratings of lower than ten points: James Brokenshire, Gavin Williamson, David Mundell, Alan Cairns, Damian Hinds and, yes, the mighty Michael Gove, who topped the table as recently as June.

Geoffrey Cox led the pack with a 67.5 approval rating last month.  He is still top, but his rating is down by about a third.  Ditto, roughly, the table’s other top performers, if that label can be used in the same sentence as this dismal return.

And never mind the ratings – look at the falls.  Liam Fox was at 35, but is now in negative territory.  Andrea Leadsom’s score follows a similar pattern.  Penny Mordaunt hasn’t publicly defended the deal. Maybe that’s why she’s still in the black. Just about.

So is there any good news for anyone at all?  It depends what you mean.  Theresa May’s rating was actually lower after Chequers, but her scores are still horrible: – 48.1 then, – 42 this month (she was – 42.3 last month, since you ask).  However, Philip Hammond is at -46.7, which must be a new low, even for him.

Ruth Davidson would have cause to think, as she gives Baby Finn a cuddle: what’s the point of coming back?

Andrew Gimson’s Commons sketch: May cannot sell her compromise and centrist MPs are preparing to take over

Power seems to be seeping away from the ancien regime.

“Life depends on compromise.” So said Theresa May soon after she began her long, dogged, uninspiring defence of her deal.

How despondent her little band of supporters looked. The Chief Whip’s hair seems thinner every time he enters the chamber. Pained sympathy was the dominant expression on their faces.

They admire her unflagging industry and courage, but sense that she is neither eloquent enough nor sufficiently fertile in expedient to win back the supporters who are deserting the Government.

Stuart McDonald, a Scottish Nationalist, remarked that it “feels like the fall of the ancien regime”, and that was indeed how it felt. One had the sensation that power is seeping away from  this administration, and that the votes it lost this afternoon just demonstrated something which had already begun.

The Prime Minister strove to frame the choice facing the House: “This deal, no deal, or the risk of no Brexit.” MPs must support her deal because anything else would without question be worse.

And for a long time she strove to sell the Northern Ireland backstop. Conor Burns (Con, Bournemouth West) rose, remarked that he comes from the Province and as “a Catholic and a Unionist” understands it pretty well, and asked why her view of the backstop is “not shared by those who understand Northern Ireland the best”.

Lady Hermon (North Down), a former Ulster Unionist who now sits as an independent Unionist, sprang to May’s defence,  declaring from a position just behind Nigel Dodds, the parliamentary leader of the Democratic Unionist Party: “The DUP do not speak for the majority in Northern Ireland.”

She turned with spirit on the Labour benches and reproached them: “I’m sorry that people think this is funny. It’s really serious for the people of Northern Ireland.”

It’s really serious for May too. Hermon is alone, but Dodds commands ten votes, which provided her with a majority, and which are no longer at her disposal. “It’s what’s in the legal text that matters,” Dodds said, and it was clear from his white, intransigent expression that as far as the Prime Minister is concerned, the DUP is pretty much a lost cause.

Yvette Cooper (Lab, Normanton, Pontefract and Castleford) told the Prime Minister that “by over-claiming what is in the Political Declaration she is undermining trust”, and asked her to “be straight with the Parliament and the country about the Political Declaration”.

This was damaging, because May did indeed seem to be bending her deal a bit in order to make it look a bit better. She dared not risk the generous candour about its defects shown the previous day by the Attorney General.

And some of us recalled how, as Home Secretary, May walked all over her Labour opponent, who for a time was Cooper.

George Freeman (Con, Mid Norfolk) wondered whether, “as she confronts the inevitable contradictions” of this process, May has “considered a free vote”.

Ah yes, a free vote as used by Edward Heath when he was taking the United Kingdom into the Common Market, so  that Labour rebels led by Roy Jenkins would find it easier to lend him their indispensable support.

Perhaps May can pull off something similar, but one cannot say she looks as formidable as Heath did when he was taking Britain in, for he plainly believed in what he was doing, whereas she just looks as if she is engaged, albeit with the utmost conscientiousness, in a damage limitation exercise.

Two senior Conservative backbenchers, Dominic Grieve and Sir Oliver Letwin, had earlier spoken in favour of an amendment which if May’s deal fails, and by 21st January no agreement has been reached, will enable the majority in the House of Commons which opposes a no deal Brexit to take control and avert that outcome.

In the early stages of a revolution, there are usually some members of the establishment who believe they know how to steady the ship.

Letwin said that in his view, leaving without a deal would be “a catastrophe for our country”, and the aim was to ensure “the right to crystallise and express” the majority in the House against such an option should the need arise.

Hilary Benn (Lab, Leeds Central) rose to express his agreement: “It is essential” – what heartfelt emphasis he gave to the word “essential” – “that the House of Commons has the opportunity to give itself a voice to express a view about what happens next.”

Andrea Leadsom, for the Government, spoke against the Grieve/Letwin amendment, but it was passed by 321 votes to 299. A coalition of centrist MPs is getting ready to take over if May is seen definitively to have failed. It may not have long to wait.