In a week that, yet again, included Brexit intrigue, rumours of a Cabinet resignation and a cross-party grilling for an incompetent Secretary of State, it was business as usual in Westminster as MPs returned from their Whitsun recess.
Both the main parties have spent a large portion of the week prepping for another Brexit test, with the EU (Withdrawal) Bill returning to the Commons on Tuesday. As tension mounts, the Conservatives and Labour are still struggling to clearly articulate their vision for life outside the EU.
The Labour Party continues to confuse both its members and the general public by attempting to be all things to all men. Just hours after announcing they will table an amendment aimed at keeping the benefits of the single market but not its responsibilities, Shadow Brexit Secretary, Keir Starmer, swiftly acknowledged the ‘differing views’ amongst his parliamentary colleagues which had led to the decision. Ultimately, it leaves Labour without a distinctive vision that both its members and the public can get behind. Many may also be disappointed that Corbyn is not directing his MPs to defeat the Government and force a ‘soft’ Brexit; Lord Alli’s amendment on the EEA would have a much greater chance of being successful owing to the support of Tory rebels, whilst Mr Starmer’s version is very unlikely to go anywhere at all.
May has also failed to deliver a robust response to a number of pressing Brexit issues, and was left holding last minute crunch talks on Thursday with key cabinet members in order to secure agreement on the Government’s proposed ‘backstop’ plan for a temporary customs arrangement. She also needed to prevent the much speculated potential resignation of David Davis, who seems to enjoy threatening to resign on a relatively regular basis. With political commentators on Twitter unable to decide who precisely was the eventual victor out of May and Davis, the much anticipated plan sets out a customs proposal that would see the UK match EU trade tariffs temporarily if talks broke down, bringing regulatory alignment to the whole of the UK and avoiding a hard Irish border. It does not, however go as far as saying the UK would continue to be bound by ECJ rulings. Significantly, the published plan now includes the expectation of an ‘end date’ to this situation, of 2021. EU spokespeople have already cast doubt on the proposal, and it remains to be seen whether it will be accepted as a workable solution.
Despite the importance of the ongoing Brexit saga and the upcoming votes next Tuesday, the Government did not escape facing challenges on issues closer to home this week. Transport Secretary, Chris Grayling, was savaged for the railway chaos by colleagues in both the Tory and Labour ranks. Few using Northern or Southern rail over the last few weeks will have failed to register the disastrous timetable changes, with the blame in Parliament laid squarely at Grayling’s feet. As he was forced to both apologise in the Commons and cancel meetings with MPs due to an over-packed schedule, this should have been an easy win for Labour. However, despite the Transport Secretary deflecting blame onto the industry, Labour failed to capitalise on the fiasco and make a case for the renationalisation of the rails – a flagship policy.
A nervous Grayling was again up at the dispatch box in the week, giving the go-ahead for a third runway at Heathrow – one more step in a debate that has been ongoing for nearly half a century. Given the constituency obligations of his Cabinet colleagues, this is by no means the final say on a runway that is unlikely to be built for another 10 years. The rail issues will also continue, so unfortunately for Grayling, it is unlikely there will be much let up in the grilling from across the House.
By Emily Fisher, Account Manager, Four Public Affairs