How the coalition sneaked through a law making it easier to sack workers

While all eyes were on press regulation, MPs quietly voted to halve the consultation period for redundancies from 90 days to 45.

While the Commons noisily debated press regulation, MPs elsewhere in the House quietly signed away workers' rights. On a delegated legislation committee (a backdoor means of sneaking through contentious amendments), nine Conservatives and two Liberal Democrats voted to reduce the consultation period for collective redundancies from 90 days to 45. 

At present, employers planning to make 100 or more redundancies are legally required to consult with trade unions and other employee representatives for this period to help minimise the impact and seek alternatives to job losses. Unite cites the example of Jaguar Land Rover, which proposed making over 1,000 staff redundant in 2009 but later avoided any job losses after identifying £70m of savings during the consultation.

The reduction to 45 days, based on a proposal in the infamous Beecroft report, means fewer companies will now adopt this enlightened approach. As John McDonnell, one of the seven Labour MPs who voted against the measure (only 18 MPs can sit on the committee), noted: "We know that the reduction to 45 days means that the opportunity for consultation is hopeless. It will not happen and will be meaningless. There will not be the time for the employees to work with the employers to look at alternative plans for that company." 

The Labour leadership is also opposed to the measure. Shadow minister for employment rights Ian Murray said: "Collective redundancies are, or course, one of the most dramatic forms of job loss. That is why the current legislation on collective redundancy is so vital; it allows for particular care to the process of achieving business restructuring, ensuring that employees are involved as much as possible in the decision-making and if job losses are necessary then all employees and their representatives are closely involved."

The change will now come into force on 6 April but you will search in vain for a mention of yesterday's vote in today's papers. 

Unite trade unionists at Unilever's Port Sunlight factory picket outside the main gates of their factory. Photograph: Getty Images.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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What type of Brexit did we vote for? 150,000 Conservative members will decide

As Michael Gove launches his leadership bid, what Leave looks like will be decided by Conservative activists.

Why did 17 million people vote to the leave the European Union, and what did they want? That’s the question that will shape the direction of British politics and economics for the next half-century, perhaps longer.

Vote Leave triumphed in part because they fought a campaign that combined ruthless precision about what the European Union would do – the illusory £350m a week that could be clawed back with a Brexit vote, the imagined 75 million Turks who would rock up to Britain in the days after a Remain vote – with calculated ambiguity about what exit would look like.

Now that ambiguity will be clarified – by just 150,000 people.

 That’s part of why the initial Brexit losses on the stock market have been clawed back – there is still some expectation that we may end up with a more diluted version of a Leave vote than the version offered by Vote Leave. Within the Treasury, the expectation is that the initial “Brexit shock” has been pushed back until the last quarter of the year, when the election of a new Conservative leader will give markets an idea of what to expect.  

Michael Gove, who kicked off his surprise bid today, is running as the “full-fat” version offered by Vote Leave: exit from not just the European Union but from the single market, a cash bounty for Britain’s public services, more investment in science and education. Make Britain great again!

Although my reading of the Conservative parliamentary party is that Gove’s chances of getting to the top two are receding, with Andrea Leadsom the likely beneficiary. She, too, will offer something close to the unadulterated version of exit that Gove is running on. That is the version that is making officials in Whitehall and the Bank of England most nervous, as they expect it means exit on World Trade Organisation terms, followed by lengthy and severe recession.

Elsewhere, both Stephen Crabb and Theresa May, who supported a Remain vote, have kicked off their campaigns with a promise that “Brexit means Brexit” in the words of May, while Crabb has conceded that, in his view, the Leave vote means that Britain will have to take more control of its borders as part of any exit deal. May has made retaining Britain’s single market access a priority, Crabb has not.

On the Labour side, John McDonnell has set out his red lines in a Brexit negotiation, and again remaining in the single market is a red line, alongside access to the European Investment Bank, and the maintenance of “social Europe”. But he, too, has stated that Brexit means the “end of free movement”.

My reading – and indeed the reading within McDonnell’s circle – is that it is the loyalists who are likely to emerge victorious in Labour’s power struggle, although it could yet be under a different leader. (Serious figures in that camp are thinking about whether Clive Lewis might be the solution to the party’s woes.) Even if they don’t, the rebels’ alternate is likely either to be drawn from the party’s Brownite tendency or to have that faction acting as its guarantors, making an end to free movement a near-certainty on the Labour side.

Why does that matter? Well, the emerging consensus on Whitehall is that, provided you were willing to sacrifice the bulk of Britain’s financial services to Frankfurt and Paris, there is a deal to be struck in which Britain remains subject to only three of the four freedoms – free movement of goods, services, capital and people – but retains access to the single market. 

That means that what Brexit actually looks like remains a matter of conjecture, a subject of considerable consternation for British officials. For staff at the Bank of England,  who have to make a judgement call in their August inflation report as to what the impact of an out vote will be. The Office of Budget Responsibility expects that it will be heavily led by the Bank. Britain's short-term economic future will be driven not by elected politicians but by polls of the Conservative membership. A tense few months await. 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics.