The Week in Westminster: Brexit, Big Ben and business as usual

Your need-to-know guide to this week's UK political happenings

We’re now just two weeks away from the day on which the UK will officially leave the EU (transition period non-withstanding), so it comes as something of a surprise that, while Brexit is very much still on the agenda, for the first time in what seems like years, it did not entirely dominate this week’s political news. Instead, international relations, the breakdown of Flybe and the Labour leadership debate have been grabbing the headlines this week. Here’s everything you need to know.

Will Big Ben bong?

Okay so, like we said, Brexit was very much still on the agenda this week but the news was somewhat… trivial. Although there was much discussion about the impact of Brexit on serious issues such as discrimination against EU citizens in the UK, the risk of post-Brexit food shortages and how to match EU funding for deprived areas of Britain, until the withdrawal bill has been passed and trade deal negotiations begin, these remain warnings and concerns rather than substantive problems.

So, no, instead of these important issues the news was instead dominated by a decision over whether or not Big Ben would chime at 11pm on 31 January to mark the UK leaving the EU. The answer, it turns out, is no – but not after much blustering from Boris Johnson.

Big Ben is currently undergoing major refurbishment which means, with the exception of ringing in the New Year, it is currently not chiming. Early this week a group of Brexiteers called for a further exception to be made to mark the UK’s exit from the EU on 31 January – at an estimated cost of £500,000. On Tuesday Johnson announced the government was working up a plan to allow the public to donate to ‘make Big Ben bong’ which prompted a number of private crowdfunding pages to be set up. However, on Thursday Johnson was forced to backtrack on his promise after House of Commons authorities pointed out there were a range of barriers preventing the government accepting public donations, with the PM confirming there was no hope of Big Ben chiming. Instead the government is promising a number of relatively low-key events to mark Brexit, the details of which have not yet been released.

Brexit party MEPs were similarly disappointed in their wish to have a Union Jack flag lowering ceremony in the European Parliament. The MEPs had requested a ‘last days of the empire’ style occasion on 31 January but senior MEPs from other nations instead opted for a smaller, more ‘dignified’ event on 29 January. The Union Jack will be lowered without fanfare at an undisclosed time before being sent to EU museum, the House of History, in Brussels, with one source commenting that the occasion is ‘nothing to be happy about’.

A series of scandals

While this week’s Brexit news may have been relatively tame, that does not mean it hasn’t been another tough week for those in charge. On Monday it was reported that Flybe, Britain’s biggest regional airline was on the brink of collapse, after which it emerged that Flybe owner Connect Airways (a consortium of Virgin Atlantic, Cyrus Capital and Stobart Group) were in talks with the government about a rescue deal.

Soon after details of a package, including deferral of Flybe’s outstanding £106 million air passenger duty bill (ADP), a review of future ADP taxes and a potential loan of around £100 million, emerged causing outrage among Flybe competitors and opposition MPs. Many question the use of public funds to prop up a private company, especially after Thomas Cook was allowed to fail just a few weeks ago, while others argue that the government’s pledge to look at lowering ADP rates is in direct contradiction with its promises over carbon emissions and climate change targets. Representatives from British Airways have called the deal ‘a blatant misuse of public funds’ while Ryanair has threatened legal action against the government for illegally favouring Flybe.

Elsewhere, international relations made tense by last week’s US-Iran drama were exacerbated by comments from leading Republican figure Richard Goldberg, who suggested Johnson risked jeopardising a US-UK free trade agreement unless he agreed to pull the UK out of the Iran nuclear deal. In light of Brexit, the importance of a trade deal with America is greatly increased but removing the UK from the Iran deal also risks undermining relationships with other members of the United Nations Security Council, including France, Germany, Russia and China.

Meanwhile, back at home, it emerged on Thursday that Benita Mehra, an engineer picked by Boris Johnson to help lead the Grenfell Tower inquiry, has links to the cladding firm blamed for accelerating the fire. Mehra formerly ran an organisation which received a £71,000 donation from Arconic, the firm which made the unsafe cladding covering Grenfell Tower. Campaign group Grenfell United has called the appointment ‘a slap in the face’ and called for Mehra to step down before hearings begin on 27 January.

The Labour leadership race narrows

This week saw the Labour leader candidates canvassing for support from the party’s major unions and. Clive Lewis dropped out on Monday when it became apparent he would not get the support necessary but the remaining candidates, Rebecca Long-Bailey, Keir Starmer, Jess Phillips, Lisa Nandy and Emily Thornberry have persisted.

Starmer is currently the frontrunner after picking up the support of both environmental group SERA and Unison, the biggest of the unions, while Lisa Nandy has secured the vote of the National Union of Mineworkers. Although this union is small it is a symbolic victory due to Labour’s historic links with mining communities. Despite not yet securing any union backing, long-time Corbyn fan Rebecca Long-Bailey has won the support of leftwing grassroots group Momentum, which could prove to be a powerful ally in her leadership campaign. However, a number of Momentum members expressed dismay over the way the vote was handled, with ballots offering only a ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ vote on supporting Long-Bailey as leader and Angela Rayner as deputy leader, with no other candidates offered as an option.

All candidates attended a hustings at GMB, one of the five unions big enough to get a candidate on to the ballot with its backing alone, on Tuesday. GMB has not yet announced the result of the event but it, along with Unite, Community, Usdaw and the other eight Labour-affiliated trade unions and 20 socialist societies, must announce their support by 14 February to secure a nomination for their chosen candidate.

Catch up on last week’s political news here.

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