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Gaza Siege | Labour Wins | Parliament Returns (briefly)

The war between Israel and Hamas has continued to dominate the global media this week, with Western leaders including Joe Biden, Olaf Scholz and Rishi Sunak all flying out to Israel and its surrounding nations for talks. Back in the UK, two dramatic and stark by-election losses will have given the PM a headache, as some begin to talk up Labour’s potential of a 1997-style comeback…

Welcome to the weekly roundup from Navigate Politics, bringing you all the top news, publications and movements from UK politics over the past seven days, ensuring you’re fully briefed on the top stories ahead of the weekend. If you know somebody who would find this briefing useful, please do forward it on so they can subscribe and get it direct to their inbox each Friday.

Driving the Week 🚨

Parliament resumed in a much sombre tone with the events in Israel and Palestine taking over the Government’s agenda. On Monday, Rishi Sunak delivered a statement to the Commons outlining the measures the Government were taking, which included the deployment of the Royal Navy to the eastern Mediterranean; increasing Palestinian aid by £10 million; and working with state leaders on the ‘long-term prospects for a two-state solution’. However, he maintained the Government’s official position that Israel had a “right to defend itself”. In the wake of the horrific strike on Al Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza, PMQs took on a bipartisan hue as Labour leader Keir Starmer MP condemned Hamas’ attack, lamented the increase in both antisemitism and islamophobia, while also stating his support for Israel’s right to retaliate. He also urged the Government to advocate for humanitarian aid to be given to the Palestinian people; solidifying his awkward tightrope walk on the issue of Palestinian civilians caught in the crossfire in the wake of the resignation of the first Arab Muslim woman on the Manchester City Council from the Labour Party after he refused to condemn Israel’s move to cut off food and water in Gaza last week. Both Rishi Sunak and Foreign Secretary James Cleverly left for the Middle East soon after with the former landing in Israel for talks with Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and the latter visiting countries around the region. Both are on a hectic schedule, with Sunak having already talked with Israeli President Isaac Herzog, Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia Mohammed bin Salman, and President Erdoğan of Turkey; while Cleverly is on a three day trip to meet with leaders from Egypt, Qatar and Turkey.

While Sunak was gone, the Conservative vote collapsed in what should have been safe seats in Thursday’s by-elections. In Nadine Dorries’ former seat of Mid Beds, which the Conservatives previously held with majority of over 24,664, Labour candidate Alistair Strathern won with a 1,192 majority, saying, “People right across our towns and villages were turning their backs on the government and an MP who had not shown sufficient respect over the last few years”. Winning the seat is a serious scalp for Labour, as it has been held by the Conservatives since 1931. There had been concerns in Labour that the Liberal Democrats would scupper their chance to make history and turn over their largest vote majority post-1945, but despite the Lib Dems winning over 9,000 votes, Labour still won with a swing of over 20%.

And it only got worse in Tamworth, the not-so-Right-Honourable Christopher Pincher’s former constituency, where a similar scene played out as Labour’s Sarah Edwards overturned the Conservatives' 19,634 majority to achieve a 1,316 majority of her own. This made it the second highest post-1945 swing from Conservative to Labour, and was a 0.2% higher swing than the recent Selby and Ainsty by-election. Starmer started off his Friday morning by visiting Mid Beds and playing the humble victor, calling the victories “history in the making” before adding that “there’s a long way to go”. Conservative Party Chairman Greg Hands MP insisted he would not resign and argued that voter apathy, rather than enthusiasm for Labour, had been the driving force. Yet despite his blasé attitude, the day was so bad for the Conservatives that if the swing in Mid Beds was replicated at a general election (yes, we know that’ll never happen but it’s always fun to game all situations out), the party of Churchill and Disraeli would be reduced to just 20 seats…

Coming Up Next Week 📆

The long-awaited Renters (Reform) Bill, to abolish assured shorthold tenancies and section 21 evictions, finally arrives in the Commons for its second reading on Monday.

Four Secretaries of State are up in front of Select Committees next week in a bumper pre-prorogation week of evidence sessions. Foreign Sec James Cleverly, Environment Sec Therese Coffey, Justice Sec Alex Chalk and Northern Ireland Sec Chris-Heaton-Harris are all set for a grilling by their respective Commons committees.

The final PMQs of the 2022-23 Parliamentary Session will take place on Wednesday, with prorogation due to take place on Thursday, giving MPs a full twelve day gap until Parliament returns for the State Opening and King’s Speech on Tuesday 7th November.

The Government will also try to push through the final pieces of legislation on Wednesday and Thursday including the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, Non-Domestic Rating Bill, Procurement Bill, Energy Bill and Economic Activity of Public Bodies (Overseas Matters) Bill, in time to get them all signed and sealed by the King before prorogation, and to limit the amount of current legislation being carried over to the next session.

The Week in Stats 📉

Up to 14 years – Time someone could potentially spend in prison if found to be dealing Nitrous Oxide (laughing gas) according to Home Sec Suella Braverman, as the ban comes into force on 8 November.

7.8% – Wage growth between June and August, remaining higher than the 6.7% inflation rate for the same period.

£14.6bn – Government borrowing in September, £1.6bn less than the year earlier.

977,966 – Londoners receiving Universal Credit in September, up 300,000 since May.

1,300hours of legislative time that was spent debating HS2, spanning 4 Bills over 9 Sessions.

4% – Increase in crime in the 12 months to June, according to the most recent police recorded crime statistics.

3 – Sitting MPs who have lost the Conservative whip this year, as Peter Bone joined Scott Benton as an independent MP following allegations of sexual misconduct and bullying. (if anyone is interested, the third is The Reclaim Party’s own Andrew Bridgen MP who lost the whip in January).

80% – Percentage of by-elections won by Labour this year, after the party took Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth on Thursday night. Lib Dem Sarah Dyke is the only other victorious candidate this year.

60% – Percentage of rugby matches that the South Africans have been victorious when up against England (if that gives you any sense of hope when the two clash again in the World Cup Semi Final on Saturday night)

Other Political News 📰

Take two… migrants are returning to the Bibby Stockholm accommodation barge, two months after it had to be evacuated when Legionella bacteria was found in the water supply. The Home Office has asserted that the vessel is now “safe and secure”, but that didn’t deter protestors at the port calling it a “prison barge” or Just Stop Oil activists, who managed to briefly stop the coach carrying the asylum seekers. The Bibby Stockholm has capacity for up to 500 men awaiting the outcome of asylum applications, yet the asylum backlog is sitting at a record high, with more than 175,000 people waiting for an initial decision at the end of June 2023.

Climate change activist Greta Thunberg has been arrested and charged with a public order offence after protesting outside the InterContinental Hotel on Park Lane, where oil executives were meeting at the Energy Intelligence Forum – formerly called the Oil and Money Conference. Joining activists from Fossil Free London, she spoke at the rally: “people all over the world are suffering and dying from the consequences of the climate crisis caused by these industries who we allow to meet with our politicians.” Her trial has been set for 15 November.

Two new Government consultations have been launched this week, with one looking at the statutory levy on gambling operators. The gambling white paper, published in April of this year, set out plans for the government to modernise regulation of the gambling sector, including the introduction of a statutory levy. The consultation is seeking views on the structure, distribution and governance of the levy and submissions close on 14 December.

Banning wet wipes containing plastic is also on the agenda, with the proposed ban seeking to tackle plastic pollution and clean up waterways. This constitutes a key measure in the Government’s Plan for Water which aims to implement stronger regulation and tougher enforcement across the water system, tackling plastic and microplastic pollution and improving water quality. A number of major retailers including Boots, Tesco and Aldi have already stopped selling wet wipes containing plastic – the ban hopes to build on this action so that only plastic-free wet wipes are available to consumers. This consultation will close on 25 November.

Workers to get greater protection from sexual harassment in the workplace after the Worker Protection Bill, introduced by Liberal Democrat MP Wera Hobhouse, was approved by MPs. The new law will put a duty on bosses to stop harassment rather than putting the onus on employees to report incidents. Despite the Bill being “watered down” after opposition in the Lords raised concerns over exposing employers to costly lawsuits, it has now been approved in both Houses and is awaiting royal assent.

Around the World 🌍

World leaders have flocked to Israel to show their support for the country. German Chancellor Olaf Scholz was forced to hit the runway tarmac as soon as he disembarked in Tel Aviv as air raid sirens sounded, while US President Biden’s meetings with the leaders of Jordan, Egypt and the Palestinian Authority were cancelled abruptly following the blast at the al-Ahli Arab Hospital in Gaza. French President Macron is also due to visit the region in the coming days.

Australians voted against amending the constitution to empower Indigenous people in a painful defeat for the ruling Labor Party. The ‘Voice’ referendum had proposed amending the constitution to recognise First Nations people and create a body for them to advise the Government, but 60% of Australians voted against the proposals. Australia’s Indigenous people are not mentioned in its constitution, which itself has not been amended since 1977.

New Zealand’s National Party looks set to form the next government. It won 50 seats and will likely form a coalition with the Act Party, giving it a wafer-thin 61-seat majority in New Zealand’s 121-seat parliament. The Labour Party, which until this year was headed by Jacinda Ardern, suffered a crushing defeat and lost 28 seats, a painful reversal of fortunes for a party which in 2020 won New Zealand’s first outright majority since a proportional voting system was introduced in 1996.

Opposition parties have ousted Poland’s Law and Justice (PiS) party after eight years in power. Although PiS came first with over 35% of the vote, only the centrist Civic Coalition, led by former European Council President Donald Tusk, and other likeminded opposition parties will be able to achieve a majority in parliament. The right-wing populist PiS has overseen a steep decline in Poland’s democracy, heavily pressuring the media and installing sympathetic judges in its top courts. The turnout was over 74%, the highest since the fall of communism in 1989.

Centrist Daniel Naboa won Ecuador’s presidential election, making the 35-year-old the youngest leader in Ecuador’s history. Naboa defeated his left-wing opponent Luisa González to win 52% of the vote and pledged to “reconstruct a country battered by violence, by corruption and hate". The election was overshadowed by the murder of presidential candidate Fernando Villavicencio in August, in a country which has seen its murder rate quadruple since 2018.

It's been another week of pain for Donald Trump as he was issued with a gag order by a judge to stop him criticising prosecutors and possible witnesses ahead of his trial on election subversion charges. More concerning for Trump will be the news that his former lawyer Sidney Powell, a key member of his team involved in the operation to deny the result of the 2020 election, has pled guilty to six charges in the Georgia election interference case and will have to testify in future trials.

The farce in the US House of Representatives continued this week as Republicans flailed to solve a problem of their own making. Right-wing Republican and Trump supporter Jim Jordan moved to become the Speaker of the House but has so far failed to receive the necessary votes. It has now been suggested that Republicans will back a proposal to allow acting Speaker Patrick McHenry to temporarily remain in post. Meanwhile the machinery of the US Government has ground to a halt, blocking among things a White House request for aid to Israel and Ukraine.

Highlights from Parliament 🏛

Three weeks’ worth of oral statements took over business on Monday in the Commons with the PM and other Cabinet ministers trooping in to update MPs on the situation in Israel and Gaza, increased prison sentences and prison places, zero emission vehicles and HS2, and finally the PM’s Net Zero announcements made just after Parliament rose for the conference recess.

Limited legislation on the agenda meant a week of backbench debates on the green benches, discussing early years childcare, the protection of dark skies, birth trauma and Baby Loss Awareness Week.

Where legislation was debated… the Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill had what any public affairs professional working in infrastructure and planning is hoping will be its final visit to the Commons after a year and a half of debate. The Energy Bill also popped back to the Commons to consider amendments made in the Lords.

Over on the red benches it was a similar week of debates including on Net Zero, adult social care, water and sewage regulation, China, access to music education in school, the Western Balkans and the Dayton Peace Agreement, and the future of the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.

One piece of Government legislation – the Non-Domestic Rating Bill – did complete its third reading and now heads back to the Commons for consideration of Lords amendments; whilst Lord Harrington’s private members bill on the Royal Albert Hall, to update the Hall’s governance and members’ seat rate, passed its second reading.

Committee Corridor 📜

All the separate National Policy Statements (NPS) on transport should be brought under one overarching NPS, recommends the Transport Committee in its report on planning policy for major road and rail infrastructure projects. It has also told Ministers to redraft sections of the Government’s draft revised National Policy Statement for National Networks (try saying that quickly), warning that in its current form it would not achieve its intended aim of avoiding legal challenges on new projects based on climate and net zero grounds.

The roll-out of smart meters is too slow and the public don’t know about their benefits, argues the Public Accounts Committee in its latest report. With targets for installations missed and deadlines for completion moved, the Committee also noted that around 3 million smart meters were not working properly as of March 2023, with concerns raised about ‘built-in obsolescence’. Committee Chair Meg Hiller said that consumers had also been “understandably harmed by recent shocking reports of forced installations”.

Civil service impartiality should not be undermined by the appointment and removal of Permanent Secretaries, states the Lords Constitution Committee in its report on the subject. Highlighting how integrity, honesty, objectivity and impartiality are the core values of the civil service, the report concludes that recent ‘high-profile departures’ could have reflected a ‘desire’ among Ministers to ‘personalise appointments and assert their authority’, and recommends that departure processed be ‘formalised to guard against their improper removal’.

Mark McAllister would bring ‘obvious experience’ to Ofgem, says the Energy Security and Net Zero Committee in its report approving his appointment as Chair of the regulator. Committee Chair Angus Brendan MacNeil cited McAllister’s “understanding of the many challenges ahead of Ofgem”, expressing belief that he could be the “catalyst for a more intelligent Ofgem”.

Key Movements 🔁

Alistair Strathern and Sarah Edwards have been elected as the new Labour MPs for Mid Bedfordshire and Tamworth respectively.

Peter Bone MP has had the Conservative Whip suspended after an investigation found he had bullied and was sexually inappropriate around a former member of staff.

Mark McAllister has been approved as Chair of energy regulator Ofgem.

Lady Justice Simler has been appointed to the Supreme Court of the UK as a Justice.

Peter Freeman has been reappointed as Chair of Homes England for a further two years.

Baroness Newlove has been reappointed as the Government’s interim Victims Commissioner for a one-year term.

Air Vice-Marshal Tim Neal-Hopes OBE has been appointed as the second Commander of the National Cyber Force.

Andy Halford, Dr Vanessa Lawrence and Iain Mackay have been appointed to the Board of UK Government Investments as Non-Executive Directors.

Paul Methven has been appointed as the inaugural CEO of UK Industrial Fusion Solutions, responsible for the delivery of the UK's prototype fusion energy plant.

This Week’s Polls 📊

The majority of people think Keir Starmer will be the next Prime Minister, finds polling from Ipsos. 56% of respondents said it was likely, while 26% said the opposite. However the public is still undecided on the man himself, with only 37% saying they thought he’d changed the Labour Party for better since becoming leader.

30% of 55-75 year-olds would be more likely to stay or return to work if offered a 4-day week, according to a poll from Survation. For 44% of those surveyed, a shorter working week, for no loss of pay, wouldn’t make a difference, while 5% said that it would actually make them less likely to stay or return to work.

The Brits back their bed bug identification skills, based on this survey from YouGov in which 66% said they would either probably or definitely be able to recognise the blood-sucking insect if they came into contact with one. With there an apparent ‘global resurgence’ of the critter, these skills may prove useful in the coming weeks or months…

A month after its introduction, a majority of the Welsh public no longer support the default 20mph speed limit, finds Redfield and Wilton’s survey into the subject. Of the three main parties in Wales, only 2019 Plaid Cymru voters are still in favour, while the net support ratings for Conservative and Labour voters are -49% and -16%.

Think-Tanking 💭

The Institute for Fiscal Studies published its annual report on UK tax, spend and borrowing, entitled Green Budget 2023, which warned that the UK is in a ‘horrible fiscal bind as low growth and high debt interest payments mean no room for manoeuvre’.

The Resolution Foundation published a report on futureproofing the UK’s macroeconomic policy framework. Looking beyond the immediate policy challenge of high inflation, it focuses on ‘whether the current framework – largely set during the calmer economic times of the 1990s – is still fit for purpose’.

The Centre for Policy Studies released a briefing note in response to the latest edition of the International Tax Competitiveness Index, where the UK came in 30th of 38 OECD countries, down three places from 2022. The note illustrates a package of potential reforms which would catapult the UK to 3rd in the index, behind only Estonia and Latvia.

The Social Market Foundation published a report exploring the economic and environmental benefits of making the heat pump supply chain more robust, arguing that despite the Government’s target to reach net zero by 2050 the UK supply chain remains ‘much weaker’ than in Europe or Asia.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

The EDM of the Week award is back… and once again there is of course only one winner… Strangford MP Jim Shannon, for his early day motion on National Egg Week 2023. Not only does the EDM include the word egg eight times (which we’re going to hazard a guess is the most number of times eggs have been mentioned in any EDM, ever), it also includes high praise of eggs for being ‘a rich source of vitamins, proteins and essential fats, all coming from one small but powerful package’. A truly eggcellent EDM Jim.

The team at PoliticsJoe brought out another of their infamous mashups to coincide with Labour’s two by-election victories on Friday morning. Set to the tune of ‘It’s the end of the world and we know it’ by R.E.M… let’s just say it doesn’t predict a Conservative win at the next election.

And finally… we got a rare glimpse this week into what happens when one of our politicians is pulled up for saying something that’s not factually correct, and the workings of advisers who spring into action to try and turn the story around. The Scottish Government’s response to an FOI request this week revealed that a total of 53 emails were sent back and forth between advisers, spads and ministers between 22nd June and 21 July this year discussing how to deal with a request to correct the record in the Scottish Parliament for an incorrect answer the First Minister gave on Scotland’s renewable energy resources. Normally these types of emails would never be made public, and so it's a fascinating exposure of how ministers, officials and advisers deal with an error, including the comms involved. The emails include some great insights of a day in the life of a spad including making sure the First Minister has “some cover in FMQs”, and concerns an initial idea one adviser had “could end up causing more problems down the line”. Worth a read for as close to a live example as you’ll ever get of advisers scrambling to work out how to turn what politicians increasingly like to call a "misspeak" into an actual fact, with as few words as possible.


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