Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness address the media in front of the Houses of Parliament on July 2, 2014. Photograph: Getty Images.
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Will Sinn Fein MPs take their seats after the next election?

Some suggest the party could change its stance in the event of another hung parliament. 

The next parliament looks increasingly likely to be even more divided than the last. After several polls putting Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck, MPs speak of the possibility of neither being able to form a majority (326 seats) - even with Liberal Democrat support. In these circumstances, the small parties from the rest of the UK would take on a new significance.

The Tories are already talking informally to the Democratic Unionist Party (the largest non-English party with eight MPs) about the possibility of a post-election pact. The SNP, which is likely to return with an enlarged parliamentary party, and Plaid Cymru will increasingly be pressed on how they would act in in another hung parliament. More than at any point since the 1970s, all parties could hope to pocket concessions from the government in return for their support on key votes. 

It is this that has prompted some to ask a question that would once have seemed unthinkable: could Sinn Fein MPs take their seats after the next election? The party's Westminster representatives (of which there are five) have long refused to sit in the Commons on the grounds that this would legitimate a constitutional settlement they oppose and require them to swear an oath of allegiance to the Queen. But one Conservative minister told me yesterday that sources have suggested this could change if Sinn Fein stood to wield influence in a hung parliament. 

The party has already moderated its stance by allowing MPs to sit alongside peers for a speech by Irish president Michael Higgins and has also banned members from serving in both the Northern Ireland Assembly and at Westminster. The 2012 handshake between the Queen and Martin McGuinness was another landmark moment. 

In response to the suggestion that Sinn Fein MPs could take their seats after the next election, a party spokesman told me: "Sinn Fein is an abstentionist party and there are no plans to change that." But consider how many other times the party has changed its approach and the possibility no longer seems as implausible as it once did. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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PMQs review: Jeremy Corbyn prompts Tory outrage as he blames Grenfell Tower fire on austerity

To Conservative cries of "shame on you!", the Labour leader warned that "we all pay a price in public safety" for spending cuts.

A fortnight after the Grenfell Tower fire erupted, the tragedy continues to cast a shadow over British politics. Rather than probing Theresa May on the DUP deal, Jeremy Corbyn asked a series of forensic questions on the incident, in which at least 79 people are confirmed to have died.

In the first PMQs of the new parliament, May revealed that the number of buildings that had failed fire safety tests had risen to 120 (a 100 per cent failure rate) and that the cladding used on Grenfell Tower was "non-compliant" with building regulations (Corbyn had asked whether it was "legal").

After several factual questions, the Labour leader rose to his political argument. To cries of "shame on you!" from Tory MPs, he warned that local authority cuts of 40 per cent meant "we all pay a price in public safety". Corbyn added: “What the tragedy of Grenfell Tower has exposed is the disastrous effects of austerity. The disregard for working-class communities, the terrible consequences of deregulation and cutting corners." Corbyn noted that 11,000 firefighters had been cut and that the public sector pay cap (which Labour has tabled a Queen's Speech amendment against) was hindering recruitment. "This disaster must be a wake-up call," he concluded.

But May, who fared better than many expected, had a ready retort. "The cladding of tower blocks did not start under this government, it did not start under the previous coalition governments, the cladding of tower blocks began under the Blair government," she said. “In 2005 it was a Labour government that introduced the regulatory reform fire safety order which changed the requirements to inspect a building on fire safety from the local fire authority to a 'responsible person'." In this regard, however, Corbyn's lack of frontbench experience is a virtue – no action by the last Labour government can be pinned on him. 

Whether or not the Conservatives accept the link between Grenfell and austerity, their reluctance to defend continued cuts shows an awareness of how politically vulnerable they have become (No10 has announced that the public sector pay cap is under review).

Though Tory MP Philip Davies accused May of having an "aversion" to policies "that might be popular with the public" (he demanded the abolition of the 0.7 per cent foreign aid target), there was little dissent from the backbenches – reflecting the new consensus that the Prime Minister is safe (in the absence of an attractive alternative).

And May, whose jokes sometimes fall painfully flat, was able to accuse Corbyn of saying "one thing to the many and another thing to the few" in reference to his alleged Trident comments to Glastonbury festival founder Michael Eavis. But the Labour leader, no longer looking fearfully over his shoulder, displayed his increased authority today. Though the Conservatives may jeer him, the lingering fear in Tory minds is that they and the country are on divergent paths. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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