Next, watch pro-Remain and pro-Soft Brexit Ministers push for the postponement of Brexit

Today, May is swinging towards her Party’s leavers. The logic of the Chancellor’s position, and that of his allies, is to block her – or try to.

This site’s reading of the Prime Minister’s Commons’ reaction to the record defeat of her deal was that she would none the less stick with it.  Our assessment of her intentions suggested that cross-party talks would lead nowhere, since opposition MPs would insist on Customs Union membership.  More broadly, they would push her further towards a Norway-type solution.  Either of these ideas would divide her own Party further – and the backbench rebellion against her deal is already the biggest Tory revolt of modern times.  Furthermore, roughly half the Cabinet is opposed to a softer Brexit.  More than half of Tory MPs take the same view.  So will most Party members.  She is now formally safe from a confidence vote for the best part of a year, but other ways of ousting a Conservative leader can be found in a crisis.

In these circumstances, May was always likely to cling to her Party rather than go cross-party – especially since support from Labour MPs is bound to be even less reliable than backing from the European Research Group.  In the last resort, dealing with Jacob Rees-Mogg is easier than dealing with Yvette Cooper.

We aren’t right about everything – far from it – but appear to have been correct in this case.  Cabinet members told ConservativeHome over the weekend that a core weakness in the Prime Minister’s position is that the EU doesn’t know what the Commons wants, and believes that she can’t persuade the House to back her in any event.  So she must now demonstrate that it will support the deal if the EU will agree to in exchange to amend the backstop.  That means relying on Tory MPs, the ERG included, to carry a vote to that effect, with the aid of the DUP.  There is excitable talk of a new Anglo-Irish treaty being proposed, based perhaps on the David Davis “reserve parachute” proposal, or something like it.

We suspect that May is more likely to propose a version of the so-called Murrison amendment, which proposed slapping an expiry date on the backstop.  Readers will remember that the Speaker refused to select it for debate last week.  The ERG is in emollient mood at present, and both it and other Brexiteers might swallow this plan. Whether the EU would do so too is rather more debatable, to put it mildly.

The Prime Minister’s scheme therefore shortens the odds on No Deal – since it revives her game of chicken, eats up more Parliamentary time, and leaves No Deal as the default setting as March 29 approaches.  Philip Hammond and the rest of the Cabinet Remainers and Soft Brexiteers know this.  The next move, as the Prime Minister prepares to make a Commons statement today, is theirs.  First, they must brief that it will fail and that cross-party talks must be revived, perhaps under the Lidington-Gove-Smith troika.  This is already starting to happen.  Second, there will doubtless be further talk of mass Ministerial resignations, featuring Richard Harrington and others.  Third, they will brief in favour of free votes on the battery of pro-Customs Union, Norway Plus and Second Referendum proposals due next week.

Finally, they will throw their weight behind the extension of Article 50.  Hammond hinted at precisely such a development during the phone conversation between senior Ministers and big business leaders last week.  This is where the Wesminster Village conversation will go as the mood in parts of the rest of the country hardens in favour of No Deal.

The minor parties in the Commons mostly back extension already.  So do the band of Soft Brexit Labour MPs among whom Yvette Cooper is prominent.  So do Dominic Grieve and Nick Boles and assorted other Conservative Second Referendum or Norway Plus or Customs Union supporters.  They can rely on the Speaker’s aid.  Jeremy Corbyn will be very reluctant to nod assent.  Backing extension would mean legitimising claims of Brexit betrayal in Labour’s midlands and northern heartlands.  But it is hard to see where else he can go.  He is opposed to a second referendum.  Much of his own party outside London is resistant to it.  All his eggs are in the basket of Labour’s fantasy renegotiation.  What little credibility it has left will soon vanish if he does not back a later deadline for it.  That requires supporting extension.

Which leaves the Prime Minister.  The logic of her chicken game requires a firm deadline – in order to bluff MPs into supporting her deal rather than risk No Deal or No Brexit.  This explains why she has been resistant to extension when the idea has been pushed by Lidington and others.

None the less, in the last resort, a bid for extension without a clear outcome in sight would represent kicking the can down the road again, or trying to.  And we all know that May isn’t averse to doing that.  Menaced by Remainer resignations and a No Deal deadline, it is conceivable that she would throw what weight she has left behind extension.  If a Grieve or Cooper or other Bill is successful, she could argue there is no alternative.

But let the fledgling extension consensus be warned: to put back the date of Article 50 would revive both the hard right, in the democratic form of Nigel Farage, and perhaps the far right, in its various undemocratic guises.  All would claim that extension was but a milestone on the road to revocation.  And they might well be recorrect.

Today, the Prime Minister is swinging towards her Party’s Leavers.  Tomorrow, it could be back towards its Remainers.  From one perspective, it is all a great, mad, glorious game – chess crossed with chicken crossed with the wild card of the Speaker, as we’ve said before.  It would be fabulous entertainment were most of the country not heartily sick of it – and the honouring of the biggest electoral verdict in our country’s history at stake.

25 questions about (another) early general election – and the horror show it could be for the Conservatives

The more one thinks about it, the more problematic one becomes.

I wrote in the Times last August about Brexit that “the most likely cathartic event is neither a new prime minister nor a second referendum but a general election”.  Of which there is talk again in the Westminster Village.  William Hague is reportedly saying that the media is underestimating the chances of a poll.

As Mark Wallace points out, the former Foreign Secretary pressed for an election before Theresa May obtained one in 2017.  We know how that turned out.

For the record, this site believed that she’d increase her majority, once she called it.  But we were very dubious about her calling the poll in the first place.  We take the same view now (as may Hague).  For although an election could become unavoidable before too long, believing that one could happen isn’t the same as thinking it should happen.  Here are some questions that help illustrate why.

  • What would the manifesto say about Brexit?
  • If it repackaged Theresa May’s deal, how would Conservative MPs who believe that No Deal is now inevitable, or back Norway Plus, or a Canada-type deal, or a second referendum, respond?
  • If it didn’t propose ruling out No Deal, what would the Cabinet group headed by Philip Hammond say and do?
  • If it did rule out No Deal, what would the Cabinet members who backed Leave in the EU referendum, plus Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt, do?
  • Would the manifesto rule out extending Article 50?
  • How would May go about seeking to prevent a 1997-election type revolt – that time round, it was about ruling out joining the Euro – from Leavers?  Would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of hardline pro-Leave MPs?
  • By the same token, would she be prepared to bar the candidacies of their pro-Remain equivalents?
  • How would the Party handle Associations seeking to deselect their MPs?
  • What would the manifesto say about everything else bar Brexit?  The spending review?  Tax?  Social care?  Universal Credit?  Reducing net migration “to the tens of thousands”?  Health and food and lifestyle?  Selective schools?  Knife crime?  The pursuit of British servicemen through the courts?  Tuition fees?  Home ownership? HS2?  And what would it say about how Britain should be different after Brexit?
  • In particular, what would it say about Scotland, and what role would Ruth Davidson and/or Scottish Conservative MPs have in drawing up the contents, if any, especially about fishing?
  • What’s to stop the election turning into one on other matters than Brexit entirely, as the last one did?
  • Would the Party run candidates against the DUP in Northern Ireland?
  • Who would run the manifesto process – since Chris Skidmore, who was in charge of the Party’s policy review, has now been made a Minister and not replaced?
  • Would the Pickles review recommendations for drawing up the next Conservative manifesto be implemented – in other words, would senior Ministers play a major part in overseeing it?
  • Who would write it?
  • Since successive Party leaders have outsourced the running of recent election campaigns, who would run this one?  (Labour’s team from last time round would presumably remain much the same.)
  • Since Lynton Crosby is reported to be advising Boris Johnson, how could he return to CCHQ to spearhead a campaign?
  • Would such a solution be desirable anyway, given the Crosby/Textor/Messina contribution to the failure of the last campaign?
  • Even if it was, would Crosby accept this poisoned chalice in any event?
  • And why would anyone else do so, either – such as James Kanagasooriam?  Dominic Cummings?  (Who wouldn’t be asked anyway.)
  • In the absence of anyone else, has CCHQ really got the capacity to run an election campaign in-house, especially at almost no notice?
  • Given almost no notice, is CCHQ in a position to identify the right target seats?
  • If it can, doesn’t it need an equivalent of Team 2015 to help campaign in them and canvass them?  (And there isn’t one.)
  • Even if there was one, is the prospect of a Corbyn Government enough to get Party activists out campaigning, or will disillusion with the May Government hold them back?
  • What’s the answer to the same question when applied to donors?

And that’s all more or less off the top of my head.  There will be many more questions and better ones too.

P.S: And before you ask, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act isn’t an insuperable barrier to an election, as the events of 2017 proved.

P.P.S: The Prime Minister has of course promised recently, as before the 2017 poll, that she definitely won’t seek one…

May’s statement about the Government’s plans now. What she said and what she meant.

The biggest defeat in modern times and the largest Tory rebellion won’t stop her trying to resurrect her deal.

“Mr Speaker, the House has spoken and the Government will listen.”

And I am not resigning – though another Prime Minister in my position would.  The deal on which I gambled has just been rejected by the Commons by the biggest margin in modern times.  Conservative MPs voted against it in the biggest rebellion in modern times.  Some 63 per cent of Tory backbenchers went into the lobbies to oppose it.

However, the Fixed Terms Parliament Act offers me some protection.  Furthermore, a leadership challenge now can’t be launched against me until December.  In any event, here is no agreement within my Party on a successor.  It would be irresponsible to foist a leadership election on it, with March 29 looming, and there is no obvious alternative Prime Minister.

“It is clear that the House does not support this deal.  But tonight’s vote tells us nothing about what it does support.  Nothing about how – or even if – it intends to honour the decision the British people took in a referendum Parliament decided to hold.”

In other words, it will soon become clear that the Commons can’t settle on an alternative to my deal, after all.  The same MPs who rejected it this evening will be forced to swallow it – with, God willing, some real change on the backstop – when this becomes clear.  The deal is also a known quantity with the EU, which the alternatives aren’t.

Better mention the referendum, too.  Honouring its result is still the default position of most of the Parliamentary Party.  I must keep Sajid and Jeremy and Steve and Penny and Andrea and Chris onside.  Best to say nothing about an extension to Article 50, though.  With any luck, that can still be avoided.

“People, particularly EU citizens who have made their home here and UK citizens living in the EU, deserve clarity on these questions as soon as possible.  Those whose jobs rely on our trade with the EU need that clarity.  So with your permission Mr Speaker I would like to set out briefly how the Government intends to proceed.”

That’s a nod of the head to all those tiresome people who drone on about EU citizens – don’t they see that the priority is to get immigration down to the tens of thousands? – plus the CBI and the car manufacturers.  Anyway, I must keep David and Phil and Greg and Amber and David onside.”

“First, we need to confirm whether this Government still enjoys the confidence of the House.  I believe that it does, but given the scale and importance of tonight’s vote it is right that others have the chance to test that question if they wish to do so.  I can therefore confirm that if the Official Opposition table a confidence motion this evening in the form required by the Fixed Term Parliaments Act, the Government will make time to debate that motion tomorrow.  And if, as happened before Christmas, the Official Opposition decline to do so, we will – on this occasion – consider making time tomorrow to debate any motion in the form required from the other opposition parties, should they put one forward.”

That’s you pre-empted, Corbyn.  Mind you, once he’s lost his no confidence vote he’ll come under even more pressure to support a second referendum.  And whether he folds or not, he hasn’t got much alternative but soon to call for an extension to Article 50, in order to carry out his imaginary Labour Government’s imaginary “Labour renegotiation”.

That will be tricky for him, because calling for an extension will look like backsliding on Brexit.  We must nail him on that.  Hmm, hang on a minute.  I might need an extension too – to get my deal through, or else…and I must keep very quiet about this…to try to stave off No Deal chaos.  Best not to push him too hard.  Anyway, while there isn’t a majority in the Commons for revocation, there might be for extension.

“Second, if the House confirms its confidence in this Government I will then hold meetings with my colleagues, our Confidence & Supply partner the DUP and senior Parliamentarians from across the House to identify what would be required to secure the backing of the House.  The Government will approach these meetings in a constructive spirit, but given the urgent need to make progress, we must focus on ideas that are genuinely negotiable and have sufficient support in this House.”

This is the trickiest bit of all.  I need Yvette and her gang to come round to my deal.  That suggests flirting with a Norway-type solution and Customs Union membership.  Which would please David and Phil and Greg and Amber and David.  But I also need Jacob and his lot.  That implies no Customs Union and a Canada-flavoured deal.  Which would please Sajid and Jeremy and Steve and Penny and Andrea and Chris.

Better to keep talking and listening and listening and talking until they all concede the obvious: that there’s no alternative to my deal – the only offer that’s “genuinely negotiable”.  I won’t win Yvette and Hillary and the rest round by next week, but the seeds will have been sown.  So I must be very nice to them…but not so nice as to upset Brandon and Graham and the ’22.”

Third, if these meetings yield such ideas, the Government will then explore them with the European Union.

Fat chance!

“Mr Speaker I want to end by offering two reassurances.”

“The first is to those who fear that the Government’s strategy is to run down the clock to 29th March.  That is not our strategy.”

Yes, it is. But –

“I have always believed that the best way forward is to leave in an orderly way with a good deal and have devoted much of the last two years negotiating such a deal.”

That’s the point: the deal, the deal, the deal. Nothing has changed.

“As you confirmed Mr Speaker, the amendment to the business motion tabled last week by my Right Honourable and Learned Friend the Member for Beaconsfield is not legally binding, but the Government respects the will of the House.  We will therefore make a statement about the way forward and table an amendable motion by Monday.”

Let Dominic table his Second Referendum Bill.  Let Nick try to get the Commons to settle on Norway Plus.  And let the Speaker bend over backwards to help them, which he will do.  Let them have their indicative votes and new Bills – which I probably can’t stop now, anyway.  It’s one thing to table a Bill but quite another to get it through the House.

So let’s table a motion next week that dresses up my deal with a bit of new language, sit back – and enjoy the show.  Sure, I can see how the House might, just might, settle on some Norway option before the end of March.  But accepting it would risk splitting the Party in two.  And it wouldn’t sort immigration.  Which will force MPs back to my deal…

“The second reassurance is to the British people, who voted to leave the European Union in the referendum two and a half years ago.  I became Prime Minister immediately after that referendum.  I believe it is my duty to deliver on their instruction and I intend to do so.”

Better mention the referendum again. Kill off any speculation that I’m backing off the result.

“Mr Speaker every day that passes without this issue being resolved means more uncertainty, more bitterness and more rancour. The Government has heard what the House has said tonight, but I ask Members on all sides of the House to listen to the British people, who want this issue settled, and to work with the Government to do just that.”

Except, of course, it won’t be resolved.  When my deal passes, we’ll have the trade negotiation to sort.  The Political Declaration to flesh out.  Getting the deal and a Bill to enact the Withdrawal Agreement is only the start.  Years more of Brexit lie ahead!

And to get the best out of them, the country will need leadership. Knowledge of the process.  Experience.  A settled hand on the tiller.  When I promised the ’22 I’d quit before the next election I meant it, of course.  But perhaps some things can change, after all…

“No-one voted for Brexit to become poorer.” Really? We vote to deny ourselves money all the time.

Security, cohesion, integration, solidarity: all are intangible. But we pay – literally – to gain them. Why single out self-government?

Philip Hammond may have coined the phrase – an appropriate use of the term, in this case.  “No-one voted to become poorer or less secure,” he told the Conservative Party Conference in 2016, less than six months after the Brexit referendum vote.  As others have taken those words up, the last three have tended to drop off it.  But was he right?

Obviously, even as senior a Minister as the Chancellor cannot have read the minds of all 17 million plus of those who backed Leave – the largest number of people who have ever voted for anything in a British poll.  But let us leave the point there, and turn to his own department’s forecasts.  The Treasury’s median long-term estimate is that a WTO-based outcome would reduce cumulative growth over 15 years from about 25 per cent to about 17 per cent.  In other words, GDP would, under this scenario, be eight per cent lower than it would otherwise be.  It would rise more slowly, not fall.

So even the Treasury, the high temple of Remain, doesn’t expect us to become poorer – but rather, less rich than we would otherwise be.  You may counter that this lost growth would mean lost wages and tax receipts, lower spending and higher tax.  Or that some short-term forecasts do suggest that we will become poorer this year in the event of No Deal.  (The CBI is pushing a very-worst-case scenario today.)

We could come back by pouring cold water on all such forecasts, starting with George Osborne’s referendum campaign projections of an “immediate” recession, half a million more people unemployed, and house prices 18 per cent lower than they would otherwise have been.  Instead, the economy grew, unemployment fell and house prices rose.  But rather than vanish into a statistical snowstorm, we ask our readers to view Hammond’s statement from a different angle – two angles, to be precise.

The first is from the Left.  Trident costs the taxpayer roughly £2 billion a year.  That money could instead be spent on tax cuts or public services.  Very many on the Left (and some on the Right) argue that it should be.  They say that we don’t use Trident, wouldn’t ever use it, shouldn’t ever use it.  The cash should go instead on schools or hospitals or benefits or childcare.

Next, mull an argument from the Right.  Overseas aid comes at a price of about £14 billion annually.  Again, that money could be spent on public services or tax cuts – or, the Right being the Right, on debt repayment.  A lot of people on it – and a sprinkling on the Left – hold that development aid is wasted or stolen and perverts incentives and is subject to the law of unintended consequences.

Now stand back from the fray, and ponder a stubborn fact.  Voters consistently back Trident and aid.  No, that’s not quite right.  Rather, put it this way: voters consistently return governments committed to both.  Then turn to another subject to illustrate the same point.

Pro-migration campaigners argue that it makes us richer – both overall and per head.  Others dispute that claim.  Let’s assume for the sake of the argument that those campaigners are right.  Even if every single voter could be persuaded of this, there is reason to doubt that all of them would come round to wanting higher rather than lower migration.  Very many would believe that there would still be costs in some places to higher immigration – in terms, for example, of pressure on housing.  And then there is the i-word: integration.

At which point, it is worth standing back from Hammond’s statement, and asking not whether he was right or wrong, but what he actually meant – or implied.  Who is the “no-one” in question?  Who are those to whom he glancingly refers?  Obviously, the British people.  But that’s a term which invites further thought.

In one sense, the British people is a single entity; in another, it is lots of groups of people, breaking down in turn into families and individuals.  Many of them help to pay for others.  Older people tend not to use schools, but they help to fund them.  Younger people use the NHS less than older ones, but they help to pay for it.  Londoners, some say, subsidise the rest of the UK.  And so on and so forth.

Readers will see where all this is going.  At each election, we vote to “make ourselves poorer”, in the sense of becoming less rich than we otherwise would be.  We plump for Trident because we worry about our security (to reprise the Chancellor’s word); or for lower migration because we think it will mean more cohesion, or for overseas aid because of solidarity with those who suffer. We vote to fund public services we don’t use and parts of the country we don’t live in.  Security, cohesion, solidarity: these are intangibles.  They can’t be touched or smelled or tasted – seen or heard.  They may lead to material gains, but they are not material themselves.  None comes with a price tag, but all have value.

Let’s end by illustrating the point.  John Hume was fond of quoting his anti-sectarian father, who used to say: “you can’t eat a flag”.  True – and anyone who has tried to do so has presumably been disappointed.  But the reverse also applies.  No-one, we suspect, has ever sung: “I vow to thee, my breakfast.”  Those intangibles – such as self-government, to cite another – matter.  From one point of view, the desire for the last is a form of solidarity or even for, to use a more EU-ish word, subsidiarity.

You can properly reply that self-government and patriotism aren’t the same thing, or even that they don’t overlap at all.  So be it.  What you can’t do, this site believes, is claim that Brexit alone, uniquely, exceptionally, will make us less rich than we otherwise would be (if it does so at all).  By commission, by omission, in the ballot booth and out of it, we opt to do this all the time – almost without noticing.

This rotting Cabinet

The conventional wisdom is: weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet. But what we see is: weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.

If Theresa May loses the Commons vote on her deal next week, she will make a statement to the House about her response plans.  Note the way that last sentence is written.

It doesn’t say: “the Government’s plans” or “the Cabinet’s plans” (which are, in effect, the same).  This is because the latter collectively – and as far as can be discerned its members individually – don’t know what these might be.  She could announce her resignation.  She could throw the Government’s weight behind No Deal.  Or No Brexit.  Or an extension to Article 50, rather than revocation – perhaps with a second referendum in mind, perhaps not.  Or the Norway or Canada-type deals that she has rejected.  Or some other variant that no-one has anticipated.  Or say that her deal has clearly failed, and that she is now the servant of the Commons, paving her way for indicative votes.

Or, most likely of all, play for time, say that she will re-open her conversations with Brussels to seek real movement on the Northern Ireland backstop.  The logic of her present position is to do exactly that: the closer to March 29 she gets, the more pressure will come to bear on the EU to make concessions, real or token, and on MPs to back her deal, for fear of the No Deal or No Brexit to which different groups of them are opposed.  This is the logic of her game of chicken.

Some of those other options are more likely than others, and some can be ruled out altogether. Openly throwing her weight behind No Deal would risk a small number of Remain-orientated Conservative MPs voting with Jeremy Corbyn in the a confidence vote.  Backing No Brexit would divide the Conservative Party to the point where it might split altogether.  This takes us back to where we started – the role of the Cabinet.

The Prime Minister will not go to the Commons with plans without discussing them with the Cabinet first: that would clearly be a risk too far.  But it is striking that, less than a week out from the “meaningful vote”, its members have no idea what these might be.  It is possible that May doesn’t know herself.  But if she does, she is not the sort of person to take her colleagues into her confidence, especially under current circumstances.  One Cabinet Minister wearily told ConservativeHome late last year that “the problem with Theresa is that doesn’t trust anyone”.  Until the last general election, her inner circle consisted of three people: Nick Timothy, Fiona Hill – and Philip May.  Only one of them survives.

The conventional wisdom is: big majority, strong Prime Minister, weak Cabinet; small majority, weak Prime Minister, strong Cabinet.  In some senses, it holds true.  Consider an example from this morning.  On the one hand, Greg Clark is preparing his department for No Deal.  On the other, he today urges Parliament to “move quickly and act responsibly to establish what will, and will not, command support. Parliament can establish that it wants a no-deal Brexit to be ruled out”.  In short, he is urging MPs to seek to block No Deal if May’s deal falls – thereby urging them to oppose an outcome which he is tasked to prepare for.  This is not the Government position.

In one sense, Clark should resign.  In another, one can’t really blame him for not doing so.  After all, Cabinet disciple has broken down altogether, with its members openly briefly journalists about what they plan to say in its meetings, and reporting back about what happens afterwards.  Why should the Business Secretary quit while others stay?  One senior member of the lobby told ConservativeHome yesterday that this is the leakiest Cabinet in his experience – not, he added, that any journalists should complain about it.  “It’s a political Mogadishu out there,” he said, presumably thinking back to Black Hawk Down, “with Cabinet members firing off their machine guns from the back of trucks”.

None the less, there is reason to argue that what we are actually seeing is: small majority, weak Prime Minister, weak Cabinet.  The ultimate weapon of an unhappy Cabinet member is the threat of resignation.  But May has survived the loss of four Cabinet members in scarcely more than six months: David Davis, Boris Johnson, Dominic Raab, Esther McVey.  The last discovered the hard way that the Prime Minister controls the agenda and minutes of Cabinet meetings, and that there are no votes.

Those Leavers who didn’t resign over the deal have been forced to swallow the logic of their decision.  The Michael Gove who joked in Cabinet this week about anti-deal Conservative MPs was recently such a person himself – turning down the Brexit Secretary post rather than propound the Prime Minister’s position.  At Cabinet level, passive acceptance of a view must ultimately morph into active propagandising for it.

Short of resignation, there is always the more politicianly option of working with Cabinet colleagues to shift the Prime Minister’s position.  But this takes us to the heart of the matter.  There is no Cabinet consensus about what to do if the deal goes down.  Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt and the surviving referendum Leavers lean towards No Deal in extremis.  Philip Hammond, David Gauke, Clark and others are setting themselves against No Deal completely.  Furthermore, May, though scarred by last month’s confidence ballot, survived it.  She cannot be formally challenged as Party leader until the end of this year.  In a way, then, she now draws power from her Cabinet’s divisions and indecision.  In the kingdom of the blind, the one-eyed woman is queen.

The European Union complains that the Government doesn’t know where it wants to end up.  Closely aligned to the EU or more distant?  Norway or Canada?  It is absolutely right.

Cabinet members are united on one point, however.  All now hope that May’s deal passes Parliament, if not next week, then later.  And, collectively, they will carry on hoping – as authority drains away from them to Dominic Grieve, Steve Baker, and the Opposition, among whose numbers we of naturally include the Speaker.  This Cabinet is firewood.

Universal Credit. Noble aim, thorny problems – and Rudd’s decision. If the scheme is to work properly, it must be paid for.

If you appoint Duncan Smith to the post she now holds, as Cameron did in 2010, it follows that you must fund his plan fully.

ConservativeHome spoke yesterday to Conservative MPs in marginal seats about Universal Credit.  One switched-on Parliamentarian told us that food banks in his seat hate the new scheme and that job coaches love it.  He said that the former claim it pushes people into debt, homelessness and destitution.  And the latter counter that makes it easier for them to help benefit claimants move into work and get better-paid jobs.

Both perceptions can reflect reality.  It was never going to be easy to make a major change to the system which is reliant on people reporting changes to their income in real time, complete with new computer systems to enable this to happen.  This helps to explain why Universal Credit, originally intended to be fully operational by 2017, will now not be so until 2023.  The payment poses particular challenges for claimaints migrating to it from what Ministers call the legacy system.  Last autumn, the Resolution Foundation calculated that 2.2 million families were expected to gain under the system and 3.2 million to lose, with single parents especially adversely affected.

The Government has chucked transitional relief at Universal Credit.  Ministers argue that claimants can take on more work to increase their income.  Philip Hammond announced more support and an increase in work allowances in last autums’s Budget.  But the bottom line is that too many people are being paid late: last summer, the National Audit Office said that it a fifth of those expecting their first full payment were in this position.

A Commons vote is due on transferring three million claimants from the old to the new system.  David Cameron had a small majority, but his Government was vulnerable to defeat on welfare-related and many other issues: remember George Osborne’s U-turn on planned changes to tax credits.  Theresa May has no majority at all.  A handful of backbench protesters could sink the change.  Amber Rudd thus had little alternative but to postpone the vote, and has duly done so.  She will now seek Parliamentary approval for a pilot plan that transfers just 10,000 people from the old to the new system.

The operation of Universal Credit is complex, but the politics are simple – or straightforward, at any rate.  The Universal Credit system is the brainchild of Iain Duncan Smith’s work in opposition at the Centre for Social Justice.  It has a visionary aim: to roll six benefits into one, make the system more simple and flexible, and improve incentives to work.  Writing on this site last autumn, Alok Sharma, the Employment Minister, complained of three cliff-edges in the legacy system that deter claimants from seeking work, and reported that 86 per cent of people on Universal Credit are actively looking to increase their hours, compared to just 35 per cent of people on Jobseekers Allowance.

If you are going to appoint Duncan Smith as Work and Pensions Secretary, as Cameron did in 2010, you cannot do so without allowing him the room to implement his scheme.  And if you are going to do so, it follows that the Treasury must take the funding consequences on the chin.  It didn’t.  Think back to that Osborne tax credits U-turn.  The reason for Duncan Smith’s resignation in 2016 was precisely that the then Chancellor was not prepared also to reverse planned savings to disability benefits (which in turn impacted upon Universal Credit).

Amber Rudd is the fifth Secretary of State for Work of Pensions to hold the post since he left – a turnover rate of about one every six months.  She has started by doing what every new Cabinet Minister should do if confronted by a policy problem: namely, to promise that she will listen and learn.  There is more to this than the usual bromides.  Rudd is particularly sensitive to the position of women in the system.  She will campaign for more money: Downing Street’s Brexit-driven weakness may thus well be Universal Credit’s gain.  That she is on broadly the same wavelength as the Chancellor over EU policy can’t do her cause any harm.

Writing on ConservativeHome last autumn, Tom Clogherty of the Centre for Policy Studies identified what new money could do to help realise Duncan Smith’s goal: a report from the think-tank, he said, “advocates bold action on Universal Credit, suggesting that the taper – the rate at which benefits are withdrawn against each pound of post-tax earnings over any work allowance – should be cut from 63p to 50p. This would give a huge boost to the lowest earners, while also giving them a strong incentive to increase their hours and make progress in the workplace”.

Separately, senior backbenchers and former ministers are piling on pressure for an end to the benefits freeze.  A coalition of five former Secretaries of State, ranging from Nicky Morgan to David Davis, made the case last year.  Davis said that the freeze contradicts “the basic Tory notion of having a robust safety net and an effective ladder out of poverty.”  Rudd can be expected to make the same case in private.  Whatever your take, one thing is certain.  If Universal Credit is to be introduced in the first place, it must be paid for.

Hiten Ganatra: Why Help to Buy should be extended – not curbed

Applying it to second properties would see more stimulation in the market and see a quick and notable rise in established properties selling.

Cllr Hiten Ganatra is a Milton Keynes councillor and Managing Director of Visionary Finance.

Owning your own home is one of the most exciting dreams any young person can hold. For many aspiring first-time buyers without the bank of mum and dad, that dream is increasingly more difficult to achieve. If you are fresh out of University, in your first job with an average salary, and perhaps renting a flat or room and after your weekly shop and bills, you find it almost impossible to put away the savings you would need for a full deposit on a first home. Help to Buy has helped thousands in such a situation realise that the dream isn’t as far away as they thought.

There are currently three different types of Help to Buy schemes, the ISA, where if you save £200 you get a £50 bonus. Shared Ownership, where you buy a share of a property between 25 per cent – 75 per cent, and the main Equity Loan scheme, where the government lends you up to 20 per cent of the cost of your newly built home, so you only need a five per cent cash deposit and a 75 per cent mortgage to make up the rest.

Since its creation in 2013, the Help to Buy schemes together have helped over 350,000 people in the UK to cross the threshold and buy their own home. Furthermore, the schemes have supported individuals and families in all corners of the UK, with over 93 per cent of completions across the Help to Buy schemes taking place outside of London.

However, there is a growing school of thought that Help to Buy has run its course. Indeed, housebuilders and potential first-time buyers were steeling themselves for an end to the Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme in the Autumn Budget – but it wasn’t to be. In fact, the scheme was extended by two years to 2023.

Its critics argue it has done little but inflate the housing market further. I argue otherwise. We can’t ignore the positive impact the scheme has had.

The equity loan had two primary purposes. The first was, as the name suggests, to help people buy. The scheme has unquestionably succeeded in delivering this, 350,000 new home owners will tell you. The second was to help builders build. As Steve Turner, of the federation trade group, recently said, Help to Buy is meeting “all of its objectives.”

We can’t hide from the fact we have a shortage of homes. The consequences of the lack of supply and the increase of demand has had some significant consequences. For example, on average, house prices are now almost seven times people’s incomes. There are now more than nine million renters in private rented accommodation. And since 1999, house prices have risen across the country from 104 per cent in the North East, to an eye watering 222 per cent in London.

The Government has committed a total of at least £44 billion of capital funding, loans and guarantees to support the housing market through to 2022-23, which will help deliver 300,000 net additional homes a year on average by the mid-2020s. They’ve also launched Homes England, which will bring together planning expertise and land buying powers to acquire, prepare, and develop land in areas of high demand, with a focus on brownfield sites.

But the big boost on the ground for house builders has been Help to Buy. In the first year it was launched, housing starts in England rose by 15 per cent, from 28,630 to 32,890. Today one in three new build properties outside London are bought through a Help to Buy. Housebuilders have widely welcomed the role that Help to Buy has played in boosting supply. Stewart Baseley, the Home Builders Federation Executive Chairman, said in 2014 that “The Help to Buy Equity Loan scheme is supporting demand for new build homes – and if buyers can buy, builders can build.”

The critics of Help to Buy do have some valid concerns, but I don’t believe that the answer is to stop the scheme. And the rumours that surrounded that last Autumn Budget were concerning, not least for taxpayers who have millions invested in equity across the country. This is not a debate that will go away, and will undoubtedly rear its head again in the spring and again next autumn. My analysis: it would be a more sensible option to extend the scheme.

Figures show an unbalanced market. Average prices for new properties have grown 15 per cent faster than for older homes since Help to Buy was introduced. If property prices for new builds continue to grow, we know there is always a risk of negative equity issues in the future. Many Help to Buy owners have built up equity in their homes as prices have risen, but that is far from a given.

In recent years, a clear line has divided the property market into two groups, and the trend is likely to continue if the current norm continues. The second-hand market continues to be hampered by a lack of supply, with the number of properties on estate agents’ books hovering just above a record low.

Extending Help to Buy to second properties would see more stimulation in the whole market and unquestionably see a quick and notable rise in established properties selling. Importantly, though, developers would still have the guarantee of the Help to Buy scheme, albeit they would no longer have the monopoly on it. They would still have a scheme that guarantees sales and therefore guarantees more building. I suspect it would also mean new builds would likely have to be more competitive.

Rolling out Help to Buy to the second-hand property market would also mean first-time buyers aren’t compelled to buy a new build to get the support they need from the government. Giving them more flexibility. I believe it would see a far more balanced market in the medium-long term.

Help to Buy is one of the flagship successes of the Conservative Government and I believe it will continue. There are always risks, everything in the housing market has cause and effect. It is evidently a nervous period as we work through head winds such as the uncertainty of Brexit. But a bold move could provide fruitful results for the home owning aspirational class the government are desperate to tap into.

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:

Our survey. Next Tory leader. Johnson is top again. Javid second, Raab third. Hunt is now fourth.

There are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures,

It’s much the same story in our final Next Tory Leader survey of 2018.  Boris Johnson is top with more than double the score of the man who stays second – Sajid Javid.  The Home Secretary continues narrowly to fend off Dominic Raab, who stays third.

Last month, Johnson was on 24 per cent.  He moves up a bit to 27 per cent.  Javid puts on a point to come in at 13 per cent.  Raab does likewise and is now on 12 per cent.

David Davis drops from ten per cent to seven per cent.  Jeremy Hunt is up from seven per cent to nine per cent, and displaces Davis in fourth place.

But the snapshot picture is that there are three contenders in double figures, one well ahead of the other two – and a very long tail of names in single figures, to which we must add Esther McVey, new in the table this month.

Footnote: Theresa May can’t now be challenged via a confidence ballot for the best part of a year, so as a courtesy we’ve suspended a question we’ve asked since July last year – namely, if she should resign as Party leader and when.

However, it would be foolhardy to assume that she will necessarily be in place in twelve months’ time or earlier.  So the Next Tory Leader question stays pertinent.

No deal planning. Hancock goes early, orders it – and sets an example.

“We’ve instituted it within the NHS already and I would like to see the whole Government going to that position because it’s the responsible thing to do.”

“Obviously, I can’t comment on what will be discussed in Cabinet tomorrow, but we all want to make the necessary preparations.” That’s more or less what a Minister would usually say, if cornered by a media enquiry, about today’s discussion on No Deal plans.

But these are not normal times.  Some Ministers, like Penny Mordaunt today, lean towards a managed No Deal – if that’s possible – when Theresa May’s deal fails to clear the Commons in January, assuming that to be the case.  Others, like Greg Clark or David Gauke, want an indicative vote and a second referendum.  Amber Rudd who, seemed recently to be all for Norway Plus, may have joined them.

Matt Hancock’s breaking ranks over No Deal preparations must be seen in that light.  He ordered the NHS to go to full No Deal planning last week, thus taking matters into his own hands at a time of paralysis at the top.  (Downing Street would have been consumed by the leadership ballot challenge.)

“We’ve instituted full No Deal planning within the NHS and the department already, and I would like to see the whole of Government going to that position – because its the responsible thing to do,” he told Newsnight.  He said that he doesn’t want No Deal to happen, but that it might happen, so government must be prepared (a point we made yesterday).

The Health Secretary’s allies say that he didn’t want to make a fuss about the decision – which is why it didn’t become public last week – and has only spoken on the record because news of it leaked very recently.  The Prime Minister has now decided to step No Deal preparations, they add, so he wasn’t speaking out of turn by being interviewed yesterday.

Be that as it may, getting ahead of the game won’t do Hancock’s standing any harm, either within the Party or out of it).  In a recent profile of him for this site, Andrew Gimson wrote that he inspires “a mixture of admiration, amusement, astonishment and frank dislike, and rival theories abound to explain how he got where he is today”.

But “beneath the laughter could be detected a note of respect,” the profile continued, and this is the key to cutting through those theories.  The Health Secretary has made the transformation from an integral ally of George Osborne to the Prime Minister’s Cabinet table through hard work, puppyish enthusiasm and administrative grasp.  The tech-enthused Hancock has only just turned 40.

He has kept his head down over Brexit and his fingerprints off any plots.  A former Remainer, the Health Secretary has steered clear of anything to do with a second referendum, and hasn’t done anything so definitive as taking a clear position on the Canada-versus-Norway question.  More broadly, he sees himself as a keeper of the modernising flame.

“Hancock’s car keeps pitching up outside Number Eleven Downing Street,” Liz Truss said during her joke-crammed speech at the Spectator recently.  He is believed to have his eye not on Number Ten but the Treasury, which would suit an economist who cut his teeth at the Bank of England before moving on to become Osborne’s Chief of Staff.

Certainly, he is no fan of Philip Hammond – suggesting in Cabinet that the latter is a “stubby-fingered accountant” in a clash about immigration and wages.  The Chancellor had complained that a restaurant in his constituency couldn’t hire enough staff from abroad.  The Health Secretary replied that it should pay higher wages to attract British staff.  He is a healthy fourth in this site’s Cabinet League Table.

Hancock is far from being the only Cabinet member pushing for full no deal preparations.  Sajid Javid has been pushing very hard.  The Cabinet members who voted Leave make up the mass of others taking the same view.  One Minister who sits at the top table said that planning at DEFRA and Transport is relatively well advanced.

At any rate, May finally seems to have got the message that moving to full No Deal preparation is not only a prudent move to make, but might just persuade the EU to move.  But as ever it will be worth searching the small print of whatever is announced today.