Parliamentary business is starting to wind down as MPs prepare for Christmas recess next week. Theresa May faces her final Prime Minister’s Question Time today for the year. But her in-tray remains as packed as ever, so there will be little time for jollity.
Following yesterday’s Commons debate on Syria, MPs will certainly want to ask the Prime Minister about the plight of war-torn Aleppo. Boris Johnson insisted that the government had been trying to reduce the suffering there with “every diplomatic lever at our disposal”, while Andrew Mitchell and George Osborne – speaking for the first time from the backbenches in 13 years – lamented Britain’s inaction.
Many Britons will share their concern, although some will be more annoyed about issues closer to home, like the ongoing rail strikes. The walkout by drivers and conductors on the Southern Rail line crippled more than 400 miles of track and 156 stations throughout Sussex, Surrey, Kent and other home counties, forcing trains to be cancelled for 300,000 commuters yesterday. Those affected won’t be too happy to know that they’ll be paying for this disruption, as the taxpayer has to pick up the £50 million bill.
The scale of disruption has prompted ministers to consider what action they can take to rein in the trade unions. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling said he would take a “careful look” at strike laws after the dispute ends. Tory MPs are increasingly suspicion that the unions are using coordinated action as part of a political campaign against the Conservative government. They won’t be reassured then by the Mail’s profile of the strike leaders, which found that one Aslef chief refers to Jeremy Corbyn as “the Messiah”. The strike action will continue today, and on Friday, followed by a further wave in the run-up to Christmas and the New Year, so this issue has longer to run
The Brexit process continues in the meantime. Boris Johnson used the Foreign Office’s Christmas party last night to joke about the recent row he was caught up in about whether or not he backed European free movement. “I’m in favour of free drinks, which you are all enjoying tonight, but I’m not necessarily in favour of freedom of movement,” he told those assembled. He also banged the drum for Brexit, declaring that Britain has to be “more energetic, more outward looking, more engaged with the world” outside of the EU. But when will it get there? Philip Hammond suggested that Britain should seek a transitional deal as part of a “smooth departure” that would take longer than two years. But some Brexiteers will worry that the Brexit he wants is so soft that it is barely an exit at all. He may win support from David Davis, as we report that the Brexit secretary privately accepts that Britain may have to enter into a transitional agreement to bridge the gap between a formal exit and the start of new trading relationships. Might he hint at this in public later this afternoon in front of the Exiting the EU Select Committee?
Philip Johnston defends Hammond’s stance on Brexit in today’s paper, but suggests he will need to show his “Eeyorish” rhetoric isn’t a sign of reluctance. “For now, Mr Hammond’s is the voice of common sense. But it wouldn’t take much for him to become Fainthearted Phil,” he warns.