This week in politics: Bill, Boothroyd and Bercow
The week that was
The Government published its much hyped Modern Industrial Strategy Green Paper this week, which outlined provisions to give businesses the opportunity to create ‘sector deals’ driven by the interest of firms and employees to face up to sector-specific challenges, reforms to the education system and a ‘new, active role’ for Government to work with business.
The Government lost its Supreme Court case by a margin of 8 to 3, which means the Government cannot trigger Article 50 without an Act of Parliament. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer confirmed last night that Labour had tabled amendments, including a requirement for a parliamentary vote before the Government can agree a deal. Following Tulip Siddiq’s resignation from the Labour frontbench, there was speculation Shadow Transport Minister Daniel Zeichner and Opposition Whip Thangam Debbonaire will follow suit over leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to enforce a three line whip on voting for Article 50.
Following Tristram Hunt’s resignation, Labour announced its candidate for the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election as Gareth Snell, a Remain campaigner who comes from the moderate wing of the party. The by-election will coincide with that for Copeland, after Jamie Reed – who wrote about his Parliamentary experience for Politics Home this week – resigned late last year. Elsewhere, defence Secretary Michael Fallon delivered a statement to the Commons after a report that a Trident missile strayed off course during a test off the coast of Florida last year.
On the benches
Rock of ages
Select committees can be fraught with risk for witnesses as they allow MPs to fulfil the role of the Grand Inquisitor, grilling their subject as they squirm into the floorboards of Portcullis House. Not so at the DexEU Committee this week, where the First Minister of Gibraltar gave such an impassioned and patriotic response to a question about why the headland should not be handed to Spain that MPs present hammered their palms on the table in support with a single tear running down each Tory cheek.
Speak now or forever hold your peace
Speakers of the House of Commons, both past and present caught our attention this week.
Current Speaker John Bercow made a bit of a faux paus when he was caught on mic apparently describing the actions of a Secretary of State as ‘stupid.’ Defence Secretary Michael Fallon was defending the Government’s position on Trident, following reports one of the missiles had misfired. Stonewalling, Fallon ended up in a spat with the Chair of the Defence Select Committee Julian Lewis, making it all the more likely that he will be hauled up in front of the Committee soon to explain himself. Bercow then said ‘How the Secretary of State wants to deal with [Julian Lewis] is entirely a matter for his judgement to exercise to the best of his ability.’ But clearly unimpressed, Bercow muttered under his breath, ‘Picking a fight with the chair of the select committee is a rather stupid thing to do.’
Meanwhile in the other place Baroness Boothroyd, the first female speaker of the House of Commons was finding old habits die hard. With Lord Reid trying to get in ahead of her on questions to the Government and some Lords clearly not paying attention the Baroness reverted to type shouting out ‘My Lords, My Lords, Order, Order!’ The House promptly dissolved into laughter with the Lords, many of whom would have served as MPs during her tenure as Speaker, clearly being brought back to a simpler time.
Good week/Bad week
Good week for: Parliamentary theatre. Following mounting pressure on Theresa May to publish the Government’s Brexit plans in a White Paper this week, the PM chose the opportune moment to announce the Government would release the document after all. In response to a planted question during PMQs, May unexpectedly revealed the change of approach. The question immediately preceded Corbyn’s turn to quiz the PM, catching the Labour leader off-guard.
Bad week for: Jeremy Corbyn. When your name dominating a word cloud based on a survey asking why the Labour Party is doing badly isn’t the worst thing to happen to you all week, you know it must be bad. Corbyn was left red faced this week when offering his condolences to the family of a police officer in Northern Ireland who ‘had lost his life’, only to be told by another MP minutes later that the officer is actually still alive. To make matters worse, the two Labour candidates for the upcoming by-elections are both arch anti-Corbyn, with one even saying ‘it’s political madness to vote for Corbyn’.
Tweet of the week
Brexit Bill has the ring of an especially hard core Eurosceptic MP. But in actual fact it’s one Twitter users idea of envisaging the Bill going through Parliament that will allow the Prime Minister to trigger Article 50 as a person.
We think of Brexit Bill as a happy guy who doesn’t understand what all the fuss is about and now finds himself centre of attention for a short period of time. We hope they treat him with care during the parliamentary process.
‘Any change in the law to give effect to the referendum must be made in the only way permitted by the UK constitution, namely by an act of parliament. To proceed otherwise would be a breach of settled constitutional principles stretching back many centuries.’ – President of the Supreme Court, Lord Neuberger of Abbotsbury
‘I trust that Parliament, which backed the referendum by six to one, will respect the decision taken by the British people and pass the legislation quickly.’ – Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, David Davis
Commons Timeline of the Article 50 Bill
- Tuesday 31st January – Second reading – Full day’s debate
- Wednesday 1st February – Conclusion of second reading – Debate until 7pm
- Monday 6th February – Committee of the whole House
- Tuesday 7th February – Committee of the whole House
- Wednesday 8th February – Committee of the whole House + Report stage + Third reading
- Thursday 9th February – Monday 20th February – Recess
- Monday 20th February – Process of Lords scrutiny of the Bill expected to begin
In focus: May opens doors to industry
Many Conservatives thought that Margaret Thatcher had buried industrial strategy for all time. Under Tony Blair, the free market approach continued. But from the moment Theresa May created the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, intervention was back in vogue. This week’s Green Paper underlines its centrality to the May Government’s domestic agenda.
Why does this matter politically?
While economic considerations underpin the Green Paper, wider political concerns are also apparent. The prospect of a Labour collapse gives May the opportunity to secure a bigger mandate at the next election by winning seats, particularly in the Midlands and North, where the Tories have traditionally been weak.
Demonstrating that the government is committed to delivering economic growth across the country is essential if May is to realise that ambition and the industrial strategy is central to her political narrative. Driving that from behind the scenes has been May’s co-joint Chief of Staff, Nick Timothy, whose Birmingham upbringing informs his commitment to regional economic growth.
On a broader level, the Industrial Strategy must also be viewed through the prism of May’s Brexit strategy. The Industrial Strategy is intended to be concrete evidence of how the UK will be more competitive in a post-Brexit world.
Continuity and change
While the renewed emphasis on an interventionist industrial strategy represents a break from the recent past, there are nonetheless certain aspects of the Green Paper that mark a continuation with previous policy.
Existing Sector Councils retain their importance where ministers and business leaders will identify industry priorities, potential funding areas, skills gaps and fruitful areas where the UK can commercialise research. This will sit alongside the UK’s existing network of Catapult Centres. From an organisational point of view, ministers view this relationship as an important part of telling the Government’s story so business will need to consider how they can influence the thinking of the Sector Councils representing their industry. The desire for a root and branch review of sector strategy does give new impetus to executing a fresh plan if the institutional elements remain unchanged