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19 October 2016

Theresa May’s political position is more fragile than it looks

And three other things we learned today.

By Stephen Bush

Elections to select committee chairs are often revealing, as well as being vitally important to scrutiny, but this set – which saw Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn elected to chair the Home Affairs and Brexit committees respectively – were particularly interesting. 

A dog hasn’t barked

Allies of Chuka Umunna are putting it about that their man only fell short because the Conservatives regard him as a greater threat than Yvette Cooper, and were keen to prevent him using the role of Home Affairs committee chair as a stepping stone to launch a bid for the party leadership later down the line.

Friends of Yvette Cooper are saying that their candidate was the victim of an organised attempt by the Conservative whips to block her from becoming the candidate.

But MPs from across the house say that Umunna was not organised against so much as out-organised, by Cooper, who despite getting into the contest late after taking a while to decide to run or not, still has a formidable machine behind her, and by Caroline Flint. Multiple Conservative MPs, meanwhile, said that they had recieved no instructions on how to vote.

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There were some Tory MPs who voted for the candidate they perceived to be the weakest candidate, though they appear to have split fairly evenly between the candidates. Although many Tory MPs regard Cooper as a formidable operator, others see her as the politician who provided indifferent opposition to Theresa May as Home Secretary. For every MP who sees Umunna as Labour’s best weapon, another sees him as shallow and callow. Flint, while generally higher-rated by MPs and staffers across the aisle than she is by the press, also received some votes from Tory MPs who believe she would have been a less exacting scrutiniser for Amber Rudd.

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It speaks to an interesting thing that mostly hasn’t happened since the introduction of elections to select committees: MPs aren’t voting for worse accountability, at least not in large numbers. One Conservative MP actually switched their vote to Cooper after a colleague told them they were voting against her as they saw her as the biggest threat to Amber Rudd.

Caroline Flint is underrated

The surprise result of the home affairs race was Caroline Flint’s strong second-place, despite barely featuring in most of the coverage of the race to replace Keith Vaz as chair of the home affairs select committee. The Evening Standard tipped Chuka Umunna, who came third, to win the race, with Yvette Cooper the other major opponent.

But in the end, it was Flint who secured a strong second place, partly as a result of her superior organisation – don’t forget that she has a strong base in the parliamentary Labour party, and was the only rival to Tom Watson who was able to secure a place on the ballot without relying on “borrowed” nominations in the deputy leadership race.

It was a reminder that Flint is hugely underrated by many in SW1.

…at least by the press

Well, sort of. Clearly the MPs who backed her for the post of chair and for deputy leader rate her highly, as do many senior figures in the backrooms of both parties, including Jeremy Corbyn’s office. One senior ally of Corbyn’s told me last week that they regarded Flint as the most formidable of the Labour right/moderates/Corbynsceptic standard-bearer, while allies of Umunna and Cooper knew they had a serious fight on their hands when she entered the contest.

The referendum’s splits haven’t gone away

Another person who did much better than many thought was Kate Hoey, who got 209 votes to Hilary Benn’s 330.
Hoey, a rare Labour leaver, had the backing of the leader’s office, but still significantly outperformed previous candidates with the backing of the leader’s office. She did notably better than Barry Gardiner did in the race to chair the environmental audit committee, despite the fact that Gardiner is more widely respected among Labour MPs and that Creagh’s reputation is mixed. What made the difference was the support of Leave-supporting Conservative MPs.

It highlights one of Theresa May’s biggest problems – there is a majority in the Commons of Remain-backing MPs who incline towards as soft a Brexit as possible. But there is not a majority within the majority party, ie, hers.

It will be difficult indeed for her to navigate those two poles without an early election. And although Downing Street is still clear they don’t want one, as I wrote back in September, they may be forced to have one.