Would May agree to go quickly to get her deal through? She may yet hint at it. But watch the small print.

The idea might suit the leadership aspirations of some potential successors. But wishful thinking and stubborn reality don’t mix – at least not in this case.

Some hold Theresa May entirely to blame for the Government’s current condition – and Brexit’s.  They argue variously that she has never believed in it, or else given way to Remainers, or to else to Brexiteers, or else been “adamant for drift”, or else been run by Olly Robbins, or else simply cocked everything up, especially since calling the 2017 election.  Others claim that it is unjust to make her carry the can, amidst a divided Party, Commons, Parliament and Country.  Our own take is somewhere between the two.

Whichever view Conservative MPs take, they should all agree on one point – namely, that there is no sign of May wanting to leave Downing Street.  Prime Ministers almost never go willingly.  The only exception we can think of recently is Harold Wilson – and he was ill, so shouldn’t really count.  No, May looks dug in for the moment, unless there is a long extension.

Perhaps she will surprise us all.  Maybe she will emerge from Number Ten, for no apparent reason, to announce publicly that she is willing to resign.  But we doubt it.  It is more likely that, if the Prime Minister’s back is up against the wall, as it was during December’s leadership challenge, hints will be dropped and briefings given – but no pledge offered of an immediate departure.

Nor is there a means of forcing her out quickly.  There can be no ballot until next autumn. The 1922 Committee won’t move quickly.  Nor will the riven, quarrelling Cabinet.    Its Soft Brexiteers want to prop her up, for fear of Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab succeeding her – and of a new leader firing Philip Hammond.  The harder ones have lost their mojo.

Other potential successors, such as if Jeremy Hunt or Sajid Javid, will not want to spearhead a putsch, or try to – partly on the principle that he who wields the dagger never wears the etc.  (“After you, Saj.”  No, after you, Jeremy.)  So the suggestion that the Prime Minister might be prepared to stand down to get her deal through falls at the first hurdle – namely, that there’s no sign of her playing ball.

Tory MPs will be hunkering down for Meaningful Vote Three this weekend.  It will bring both principle and pragmatism into play, and the calculations they must make are not easy.  We will say more about the choice later this week.  But as they ponder the future, they can surely banish one scenario from their minds – namely, May quitting, during the next few days, in order to let her deal pass.  That might suit the leadership aspirations of some potential successors.  But wishful thinking and stubborn reality don’t mix, at least in this case.

Henry Hill: Hunt squares off with Sturgeon over prospect of second independence referendum

Also: Tory MPs lead the charge against prosecutions of ex-servicemen who served in Ulster; Ulster Unionist leader savages DUP; and more.

Hunt squares off with Sturgeon over independence vote

It looks as if there may be a fresh confrontation between the British and Scottish governments over the prospect of a second referendum on Scottish independence.

Yesterday the Scotsman reported that Nicola Sturgeon has said she intends exercise an apparent mandate she has to hold so-called ‘indyref two’ in response to the chaos engulfing Westminster over Brexit.

But the constitution as a policy area is reserved to London, and earlier this week Jeremy Hunt made it very clear that the Prime Minister has not changed her mind about refusing permission to hold another vote. According to the Daily Express, he said: “The answer of course would be no for the very simple reason that we think the Scottish Government should be focusing on the concerns of Scottish voters.”

This prompted fresh disarray in the ranks of the SNP after the First Minister was forced to slap down her deputy, Keith Brown, for suggesting that the Scottish Government might organise an illegal plebiscite without Westminster’s authorisation. For the moment the Nationalists have confined themselves to tabling a pro-independence amendment to Tuesday’s vote.

Another SNP politician was forced to apologise this week after branding Scottish Conservative MPs “traitors” for not backing the Nationalists over Brexit.

In a further blow to Sturgeon’s ambitions, a poll this week suggests a hardening of attitudes on the unionist side: one in three Scots reportedly believe that there should now never be another referendum on independence.

Tory MPs attack prospect of Bloody Sunday prosecutions

MPs have criticised the Government as prosecutors prepare to reveal whether charges will be laid against a number of ex-servicemen over the events of Bloody Sunday almost 50 years ago.

They claim that allowing prosecutions to be brought against Army veterans would be “shameful”, according to the Times, raising concerns about the ability to try the men fairly half a century on from the events in question.

Conservative MPs named include Richard Benyon, himself a former officer, and Leo Docherty, who this morning penned a piece for the Times Red Box setting out his objections. He argued that: “if a prosecution goes ahead it will be motivated not by new evidence, new testimony or anything else that would lead to a more meaningful trial but by nationalist sentiment in the legal system in Northern Ireland that seeks political retribution above all else.”

He also, inevitably, highlighted the contrast between the treatment of ex-servicemen and the so-called “comfort letters” – de facto pardons – issued to known IRA terrorists, one of which collapsed the trial of the Hyde Park bomber.

All of this come as Gavin Williamson, the Defence Secretary, announced earlier this week that new protections being introduced to protect soldiers would come (“sadly”) too late to shield veterans who served in Northern Ireland. However, the Sun reports his making combative comments about the need to focus on the “future” of Ulster.

Elsewhere, John McDonnell conceded that his past support of the IRA’s terror campaign may have helped to fuel sectarian violence.

Scottish Labour avoids split by equivocating on Brexit re-run

After last week’s public row over the apparent censoring of ‘People’s Vote’ campaigners, this week Labour appear to have managed to avoid a full-on confrontation over their Brexit policy.

The party formally backed a second referendum at their conference this week but without giving much indication that they are amount to stage a serious push for one, according to the Financial Times.

In this Scottish Labour, which is apparently “largely autonomous” on policy even when it comes to reserved issues, seems to be taking its lead from Jeremy Corbyn, who is himself formally committed to pursuing another vote but doesn’t seem to be letting it trouble him overmuch.

Ulster Unionist leader launches stinging attack on DUP

Robin Swann, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, made any prospect of unionist unity seem rather distant this week as he opened up on the Democratic Unionists, according to the News Letter.

Speaking at the UUP’s annual general general meeting in Belfast, the MLA accused his party’s dominant rivals of neglecting their duties towards good governance in Northern Ireland and gerrymandering local government boundaries, adding:

“At the party conference in October past, I said that there was a battle to save the Union from the DUP. I cannot say my view has changed. With the DUP at the helm, pro-Union politics lies in the gutter.”

Meanwhile Sam McBride reported that Karen Bradley’s conduct in the House of Commons had stripped the last “fig leaf” away from the reality of un-scrutinised civil service rule in the Province.

He wrote that the Northern Irish Secretary is consistently using fast-track procedures to pass Northern Irish business through the House with minimal time for scrutiny. This is putatively to give the devolved institutions as much time as possible to get back on their feet and take the decisions themselves, but given the complete lack of activity on that front it looks increasingly like a ruse to allow Bradley to avoid scrutiny which she appears ill-equipped to withstand.

All of this come as the Irish Independent reports the Prime Minister ‘threatening’ direct rule for Northern Ireland in the event of a no-deal exit. Given that the DUP have been calling for it for over a year, it isn’t much of a threat.

The five Secretaries of State who supported the Green Amendment

As a free vote, this may give us the clearest picture of the divisions at the very top of the Party over how to approach Brexit.

Whilst several senior members of the Cabinet were amongst the 66 Conservative MPs who voted against ‘Malthouse II’, there were Secretaries of State on the other side of the question too.

As a free vote, this Amendment perhaps offers the purest insight into the divisions deepening at the very top of the Party about how best to proceed over Brexit. Excluding junior ministers, they are:

  • Alun Cairns (Welsh Office)
  • Jeremy Hunt (Foreign Office)
  • Sajid Javid (Home Office)
  • Penny Mordaunt (DfID)
  • Gavin Williamson (Defence)

Andrea Leadsom, who attends Cabinet in her role as Leader of the House, also supported it.

Greg Clark, David Gauke, David Lidington, Claire Perry and Amber Rudd are reported to have voted against the motion, with all other Cabinet members abstaining.

WATCH: Happy Commonwealth Day, says Hunt

“The UK has an unbreakable commitment to our 2.4 billion friends across the world in the Commonwealth family.”

Our survey. Next Tory leader – Johnson is top again. Here’s why he’s in pole position with minimum effort.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead. Then again, he scarcely needs to stir – for the moment.

Last month, Boris Johnson led our Next Tory Leader question with 26 per cent of the vote.  This month, he is top with 24 per cent.  Dominic Raab was second with 12 per cent; now he is second with 13 per cent.  Michael Gove was third with nine per cent; this month, he is third with ten per cent.  The mass of potential candidates on single figures ratings continues.  These changes are footling.

It is striking how little the former Foreign Secretary is doing to maintain his lead.  This morning sees his weekly outing in the Daily Telegraph, in which he has pop at the apparently forthcoming Bloody Sunday prosecutions.  Most weeks, it rages against the Government over Brexit.

Otherwise, he is, by the standard of such a master of self-projection, withdrawn.  Although he is not absent from Brexit-related proceedings in the Commons – he quizzed the Prime Minister during her statement of February 12, for example – he is not at the forefront of them either, like say Yvette Cooper or Bill Cash.  For example, he didn’t participate in last week’s debate.

Nor does he appear on BBC Question Time or Any Questions.  Indeed, he doesn’t seem to like being on a panel, and expose himself to the scrutiny of other members, or the chairman, or the audience.  (Though he performed robustly in during the EU referendum TV debates.)  His preferred forum is the big set-piece speech, like that he delivered at last year’s Party Conference ConservativeHome fringe event.

So what is going on?  This site’s tentative answer is that the main obstacle to Johnson’s ambitions is not the voters.  Nor (clearly) is it Party members.  It is Conservative MPs, who may not forward his name to those members for the final stage of a leadership election.  Which is why his priority at present is wooing them.

In the meantime, activists’ confidence in the coherence of the Government is low, and this lowers the ratings of potential rivals.  So the former Foreign Secretary is able to sit it out, enjoying his regular double digit lead in this survey, with other polls also showing him in the lead.

The Daily Telegraph is many party members’ broadsheet of choice, so that weekly column is enough to remind them he’s still alive and kicking.  His main opponent is not hostile MPs or disillusioned Remain voters or Cabinet members.  It is the passing of time – and the prospect of someone else, someone new emerging who is less divisive, less scarred.

Alan Mak: To be fit for the future, the health service must “axe the fax” – and the pager

These archaic machines cause NHS patients to miss appointments, hospitals to lose records, and cost millions of pounds in paper storage each year.

Alan Mak is the MP for Havant and is the Chairman of the APPG on the Fourth Industrial Revolution. His NHS Fax Machines and Pagers Bill is presented in Parliament today.

Conservatives have a long and proud record of supporting and investing in our NHS. As Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, said when launching the new NHS Long Term Plan last month, the Health Service is “one of our proudest achievements” as a nation, and for over 40 of the NHS’ 70 years it has been under the care of Conservative Ministers.

Our Party has nurtured the NHS to serve generations of patients and the £20.5 billion a year delivered by the Long Term Plan is the biggest ever cash injection in its history. This means more investment in our hospitals, more doctors and nurses, and more resources to tackle major diseases. But extra funding alone won’t secure the NHS’s future. To boost productivity and improve patient care and safety, Conservatives must ensure that the NHS seizes the opportunities presented by new technologies too.

We have a duty to prepare the NHS for radical technological change, and in so doing, an electoral opportunity to strengthen our Party’s standing on the NHS by being the patients’ champion – harnessing technology to drive up clinical standards and improve patient care. That was the argument I made in my NHS technology report published last year by the Centre for Policy Studies and launched by the then Health Secretary, Jeremy Hunt. By adopting the new technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) in the Health Service we can put patients at the heart of a reformed digital-first NHS.

Rightly, the Long Term Plan shares this ambition and sets out the Government’s vision for a modern NHS that uses digital tools to improve patient care and safety. This means pushing forward with an unabashed desire to change the culture of a large public service organisation that has not always been the quickest to adapt to innovation. Decades of underinvestment in our digital health infrastructure has left the NHS at risk of being unable to take full advantage of the new waves of technological breakthroughs that are already revolutionising healthcare – and indeed other aspects of our society and economy. Fuelled by artificial intelligence, Big Data, wearable devices and personalised medicines, these 4IR innovations are set to turbocharge our fight against cancer, heart disease, dementia and other diseases and illnesses.

The Long Term Plan includes a welcome commitment for the NHS to become fully digital and paperless within the next decade. This digital-first NHS would see seamless interactions between GPs, hospitals, and community care; patients not having to wait for appointment confirmations in the post; and an end to health records being lost through human error. Embedding 4IR technologies into the NHS would also drive improvements in detection rates, pioneer new treatments and ultimately deliver better patient outcomes. Meanwhile, precision medicines, personalised for each patient and taking into account an individual’s genetic profile, can be at the forefront of treating disease in the years ahead, becoming a staple in the doctors’ toolbox. Put simply, the future of healthcare is exciting – and has the potential to catch-up with the smartphone era and patients’ digital expectations if we give the NHS the right tools.

But holding back the NHS from achieving these outcomes is a stubborn reliance, in some areas, on ageing technology such as pagers and fax machines. While the Long Term Plan clearly sets out a desire to “axe the fax”, there remain 8,000 of them in use across the NHS making the Health Service the largest consumer of fax machines worldwide. These archaic machines cause patients to miss appointments, hospitals to lose records, and cost NHS Trusts millions of pounds in paper storage each year, as well as being slow, unwieldy, and hard to maintain.

Meanwhile, the pager, which reached the height of its popularity in the mid-1990s, provides doctors and nurses with a limited amount of information, sometimes no more than a bleep, as they tackle a multitude of complex situations on hospital wards. This has led to 97 per cent of doctors admitting in a British Medical Journal survey that they use instant messaging services such as WhatsApp as an alternative, despite these being banned due to concerns over patient confidentiality. Of the one million pagers believed to be left in use worldwide, around ten per cent of them are used in our Health Service.

Yet there are cheap and easy-to-use alternatives available to NHS Trusts. As the Health Secretary has rightly pointed out, e-mail could be used as a way of communicating without the need for paper. And instead of relying on pagers, there are several specialist WhatsApp-style messaging systems available to the NHS. These include Medic Bleep, an app which when trialled at West Suffolk Hospital was found to save £4.5 million worth of staff time largely because doctors and nurses don’t have to wait by a landline phone to respond to pager bleeps. I visited the Hospital to see Medic Bleep in action first hand (see film above) and witnessed its obvious versatility when compared to old-fashioned pagers. If replicated across the 227 NHS Trusts in England new digital messenger systems that replace pagers could potentially save the Health Service more than £1 billion every year which can be redirected to frontline services.

The availability of modern replacements, and the need to rapidly upgrade the Health Service’s technology base, are the reasons I’m introducing new legislation in Parliament today that would ban fax machines and pagers in our NHS by 2021. My National Health Service (Prohibition of Fax Machines and Pagers) Bill can be a firm foundation on which to build a digital-first NHS that fully harnesses the benefits of the Fourth Industrial Revolution that is taking place in healthcare, consigning fax machines and pagers to the scrapheap of history.

Equally importantly, I hope the Bill also sends a clear message that we Conservatives are serious about renewing our NHS for the future, coupling serious financial investment with determined renewal of the tools that our doctors and nurses use and the care patients receive. By investing in the best technology – and phasing out the worst – we can ensure our NHS continues to serve us well for the next 70 years and beyond.

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.

Our survey. Next Tory leader. Stasis as Johnson carries on leading amidst little expectation of change.

Although the Prime Minister’s position is fragile, there is no sense of a contest in the offing any time soon.

Theresa May cannot formally be challenged as Conservative leader until this coming December – a year after the unsuccessful bid to topple her by the European Research Group and others.  There are doubtless other ways of toppling a Tory leader, and her position remains extraordinarily vulnerable.  But there is no current expectation of moves against her before March 29 – or afterwards in the event of extension.

It may be for this reason that there is little movement in our Next Tory Leader survey this month.  Boris Johnson leads on 26 per cent, 14 points more than the next contender, Dominic Raab.  Last month the latter was on the same total and Johnson’s rating was a point higher.  Michael Gove is up to third from three per cent to nine per cent.  Perhaps his swashbuckling winding-up speech in the recent no confidence vote provides the explanation.

Otherwise the main point to note is the gradual decline of Sajid Javid.  In our October survey he was second, and a point off Boris Johnson, on 19 per cent.  His scores since have been 12 per cent, 13 per cent and this month seven per cent.  There is no obvious explanation for the drop.  Against a background of very little media leadership speculation indeed, the pattern of the table suggests that many respondents have only half an eye on the prospect of change, if that.

Alastair Thompson: Corbyn – the apologist for the tyrant who rules Venezuela by fear. Let a Commons vote put him on the spot.

Let’s see if Labour stands with Venezuela’s oppressed. For what party could truly say that it supports labour, while lending support to the butchery of labourers?

Alastair Thompson is reading Politics and Economics at Bath University.

Venezuela, the poster child for a nation gone to ruin, is at a precipice. The former jewel of South America has been crippled by a form of typical socialist tyranny – a dictatorship. One whose origins have routinely been praised by not only odious backbenchers within the Labour Party, such as Chris Williamson, but even the Leader of the Opposition himself, Jeremy Corbyn.

Yet earlier this week, Venezuela took a step back from tyranny and a step towards freedom. Juan Guaidó took a public oath swearing himself in as the acting President of Venezuela. A move was recognised as legitimate by the Organisation of American States, Argentina, Brazil, Canada, Colombia, Ecuador, Peru and the United States. Yet his move has not been accepted by some within Venezuela itself.

Nicolas Maduro, the dictator who has overseen the mass murder of protestors and who has overseen political opponents detained, remains in power. His legitimacy lies under the faux authority of the Supreme Tribunal of Justice. This tribunal is the highest court of law within Venezuela: its authority cannot be challenged. Yet Venezuela’s judicial system is so barren of legitimacy that it was declared by the most corrupt in the world by Transparency International in 2014. This corruption was exceptionally apparent when, in early 2016, three lawmakers were stripped of their seats, preventing a challenge to Maduro’s dictatorship.

The United Kingdom should take a stand. The motto of the Conservative Party relating to Brexit has been a “global Britain”.  What could be more global than standing for the democratic rights of oppressed peoples abroad? Let us stand with the people of Venezuala, as we would hope they would stand for us under tyranny.

But let us not simply denounce Maduro, as Jeremy Hunt rightly did yesterday, and have the Government praise Guaidó.  Let’s not just have Theresa May announce that the Government recognises his legitimacy. If we wish to announce our support for democracy, we should do so democratically. Let’s have our representatives, our Parliamentarians, vote on the matter. Jeremy Corbyn and his cabal of appeasers should be challenged on their record, in Parliament – so let’s have them vote. Let’s see if the Labour Party stand with the many oppressed in Venezuela, or the few who oppress them for reasons of ideology and corrupt self-benefit.

Across the pond, Senator Lloyd Bentsen famously said to Senator Dan Quayle “Senator, I served with Jack Kennedy. I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you are no Jack Kennedy.” It is time for the Conservative Party to step forward and show that Corbyn is no Clement Attlee, no Harold Wilson. Rather, he is besotted with whichever left-wing dictator is in fashion amongst the Hard Left. He is not the friend to human rights that the other Attlee and Wilson were.  He is simply the friend of tyrants.

Let’s see that truth demonstrated in Parliament itself. If Corbyn is challenged on this matter, the likely outcome is that will he vote, in effect, for Maduro’s dictatorship, and show his support for tyranny in law. How then, could moderate Labour MPs stand with a man who prioritises ideology over innocent life? How can these MPs support a leader who stands by as lives are sacrificed on the altar of socialism?

So let’s bring forward a bill to recognise Venezuela’s rightful president. Let us help to save a country where even such basics as food are so devoid of supply that hard-working citizens have turned to eating their pets. And let us demonstrate to the people of the UK that we are seeing the death of any Labour Party worthy of the name. For what party could truly say that it supports labour, while lending support to the butchery of labourers?