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PMQs review: Tory Brexiteers are turning on Theresa May

After further concessions to the EU, Jacob Rees-Mogg ordered May to “apply a new coat of paint to her red lines”, which were becoming “pink”. 

Ever since Theresa May became prime minister, she has sought to appease her party's Brexiteer wing. Having been a "reluctant Remainer", May embraced "hard Brexit" by vowing to withdraw the UK from the single market and the customs union. In return, as the Prime Minister made concessions to the EU on the UK's divorce bill, citizens' rights and a transitional period, Conservative Brexiteers remained unusually quiescent. 

But today's PMQs provided the most significant signs yet that May's Brexit alliance is beginning to fray. Three Tory MPs - Jacob Rees-Mogg, Peter Bone and Bernard Jenkin - challenged the Prime Minister over her handling of the negotiations. Rees-Mogg ordered May to "apply a new coat of paint to her red lines" because "I fear on Monday, they were looking a bit pink". Bone offerred to travel to Brussels with May to help "sort them [the EU] out". And Jenkin warned that new trade deals with non-European countries would be impossible "if we remain shackled to the EU".

In response, May insisted that nothing had changed: the UK would still leave the single market and the customs union. But the government's proposal of "regulatory alignment" with the EU to resolve the Irish border problem has visibly unsettled Tory Brexiteers. May insisted that all would be resolved in "phase two" of the Brexit talks - but that she is struggling to make it this far reflects her political troubles. In a sharp question, Labour's Louise Haigh told May to drop either her "red lines", the DUP or "the pretence that she can govern the country".

Such is the Conservatives' disarray that even Jeremy Corbyn, who rarely raises Brexit, felt compelled to lead on the subject. Corbyn mocked the Tories' own "coalition of chaos" and quipped that there were "one and a half billion reasons" why May should not have "forgotten" to brief the DUP. 

The Prime Minister responded by mocking Labour's own divisions on Brexit. "The only hard border is down the middle of the Labour Party," she declared. As I wrote yesterday, Corbyn is playing a shrewd game by keeping all options open (including no Brexit) and, through ambiguity, holding his party together. Labour's own lack of clarity made it harder for Corbyn to unsettle May today. But though the PM enjoyed mocking Labour's divisions, it is becoming ever harder for her to disguise her party's own. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

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Labour’s renationalisation plans look nothing like the 1970s

The Corbynistas are examining models such as Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and John Lewis. 

A community energy company in Nottingham, a credit union in Oldham and, yes, Britain's most popular purveyor of wine coolers. No, this is not another diatribe about about consumer rip-offs. Quite the opposite – this esoteric range of innovative companies represent just a few of those which have come to the attention of the Labour leadership as they plot how to turn the abstract of one of their most popular ideas into a living, neo-liberal-shattering reality.

I am talking about nationalisation – or, more broadly, public ownership, which was the subject of a special conference this month staged by a Labour Party which has pledged to take back control of energy, water, rail and mail.

The form of nationalisation being talked about today at the top of the Labour Party looks very different to the model of state-owned and state-run services that existed in the 1970s, and the accompanying memories of delayed trains, leaves on the line and British rail fruitcake that was as hard as stone.

In John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn’s conference on "alternative models of ownership", the three firms mentioned were Robin Hood Energy in Nottingham, Oldham credit union and, of course, John Lewis. Each represents a different model of public ownership – as, of course, does the straightforward takeover of the East Coast rail line by the Labour government when National Express handed back the franchise in 2009.

Robin Hood is the first not-for-profit energy company set up a by a local authority in 70 years. It was created by Nottingham city council and counts Corbyn himself among its customers. It embodies the "municipal socialism" which innovative local politicians are delivering in an age of austerity and its tariffs delivers annual bills of £1,000 or slightly less for a typical household.

Credit unions share many of the values of community companies, even though they operate in a different manner, and are owned entirely by their customers, who are all members. The credit union model has been championed by Labour MPs for decades. 

Since the financial crisis, credit unions have worked with local authorities, and their supporters see them as ethical alternatives to the scourge of payday loans. The Oldham credit union, highlighted by McDonnell in a speech to councillors in 2016, offers loans from £50 upwards, no set-up costs and typically charges interest of around £75 on a £250 loan repaid over 18 months.

Credit unions have been transformed from what was once seen as a "poor man's bank" to serious and tech-savvy lenders where profits are still returned to customers as dividends.

Then there is John Lewis. The "never-knowingly undersold" department store is owned by its 84,000 staff, or "partners". The Tories have long cooed over its pledge to be a "successful business powered by its people and principles" while Labour approves of its policy of doling out bonuses to ordinary staff, rather than just those at the top. Last year John Lewis awarded a partnership bonus of £89.4m to its staff, which trade website Employee Benefits judged as worth more than three weeks' pay per person (although still less than previous top-ups).

To those of us on the left, it is a painful irony that when John Lewis finally made an entry into politics himself – in the shape of former managing director Andy Street – it was to seize the Birmingham mayoralty ahead of Labour's Sion Simon last year. (John Lewis the company remains apolitical.)

Another model attracting interest is Transport for London, currently controlled by Labour mayor Sadiq Khan. TfL may be a unique structure, but nevertheless trains feature heavily in the thinking of shadow ministers, whether Corbynista or soft left. They know that rail represents their best chance of quick nationalisation with public support, and have begun to spell out how it could be delivered.

Yes, the rhetoric is blunt, promising to take back control of our lines, but the plan is far more gradual. Rather than risk the cost and litigation of passing a law to cancel existing franchises, Labour would ask the Department for Transport to simply bring routes back in-house as each of the private sector deals expires over the next decade.

If Corbyn were to be a single-term prime minister, then a public-owned rail system would be one of the legacies he craves.

His scathing verdict on the health of privatised industries is well known but this month he put the case for the opposite when he addressed the Conference on Alternative Models of Ownership. Profits extracted from public services have been used to "line the pockets of shareholders" he declared. Services are better run when they are controlled by customers and workers, he added. "It is those people not share price speculators who are the real experts."

It is telling, however, that Labour's radical election manifesto did not mention nationalisation once. The phrase "public ownership" is used 10 times though. Perhaps it is a sign that while the leadership may have dumped New Labour "spin", it is not averse to softening its rhetoric when necessary.

So don't look to the past when considering what nationalisation and taking back control of public services might mean if Corbyn made it to Downing Street. The economic models of the 1970s are no more likely to make a comeback then the culinary trends for Blue Nun and creme brûlée.

Instead, if you want to know what public ownership might look like, then cast your gaze to Nottingham, Oldham and dozens more community companies around our country.

Peter Edwards was press secretary to a shadow chancellor, editor of LabourList and a parliamentary candidate in 2015 and 2017.