The five things you need to know on Wednesday November 11, 2015...
1) JA, WOBBLE
As the UK’s most important partner and constructive critic, Angela Merkel has long warned David Cameron that his migrant benefit curb plans are a real problem. And yesterday the PM said ‘Ja, OK’ and wobbled (the Sun depicts him as a jelly). He also blinked first (the Indy) and paved the way for a retreat (HuffPost, FT and many others). However you describe it, Cameron was backing off his key manifesto promise of a four-year ban on EU migrants claiming in-work benefits. Let’s see if the Germans can come up with an alternative he can sell to the British public.
I’ve blogged on the background to the wobble and how the PM has played with fire on the issue of migration for so long that he risks getting burned. And burned he was in the Commons yesterday as Eurosceptic after Eurosceptic got up to deride his ‘thin gruel’ of an EU reform package. In fact it was poor old Europe minister David Lidington who was forced to act as a heatshield, but was left looking like a chocolate fireguard. Tory MPs hated Cameron’s stress on ‘national security’ almost as much as his retreat on migration.
What may worry the PM most are the Sun, Mail and Telegraph. The Mail’s leader says this was ‘a pathetic list of timid requests’ and ‘he’s thrown in the towel before the bell has sounded for Round One’. The Telegraph says Cameron ‘has given up on trying to make real changes’. The Sun demands ‘border controls’ and says Cam ‘aimed low and missed’. But No.10 insiders say each of these papers has a real problem too: will they urge voters to vote Leave, and risk being on the losing side (which no paper likes to do)? Boris too has a similar problem: does he follow through his criticisms and lead a Brexit campaign? And if loses the campaign but wins the Tory leadership, won’t he face constant demands for a fresh referendum?
In a prelude to the coming battle, No.10 put out an exhaustive rebuttal document pointing out 16 mistakes in Vote Leave’s own response to the PM’s speech. Expect more robust exchanges between Downing St and Dom Cummings’ team. As for the DWP stats used yesterday on EU migrant benefits, some are already pointing to their flaws. The Indy reports that website FullFact has reported the DWP to the UK Statistics Authority.
2) CREDIT CRUNCH
The Work and Pensions Select Committee (which, like all select committees issuing critical reports today becomes ‘the Tory-dominated Work and Pensions Select Committee’) is making life difficult for George Osborne again on tax credits. Frank Field’s band of brothers and sisters says Osborne should delay his plans for a year and not raid Universal Credit.
Heidi Allen, the Conservative MP who used her maiden speech in the Commons to damn the cuts and is a member of the committee, tells HuffPost UK: “We talk about being a 'One Nation' party, that we are here for everyone, but it doesn't feel like that to those hit by this.”
As it happens, two former Prime Ministers are on newspaper front pages today on the issue of poverty pay. Gordon Brown is splashed by the Mirror (he’s written them and the Guardian a piece) as he attacks Osborne’s “most insidious myth, increasingly pervasive, that the poor are workshy”. And Sir John Major makes the Telegraph splash for a speech attacking the ‘shocking’ inequality in Britain today. But No.10’s favourite kite-flyer (he floated EU emergency brakes last year only for it to be shot down) is not being critical of the PM, adding ‘idlers and scroungers exist’. He wants charities and the private sector to help. Wasn’t that the Big Society?
3) IN THE PRIVY
Not since Michael Fagan has so much attention focused on one man’s appearance before the Queen. Yes, today Jeremy Corbyn will attend his very first Privy Council meeting with Her Maj. Will he kneel? Will he kiss her hand? Former Cabinet ministers tell me he will have to do both in some form - there’s a stool to kneel on and you ‘brush her hand with your lips’ (I’m not making this up).
I suspect the Queen has a fondness for Jezza’s unspun ways - don’t forget Michael Foot was a good friend of the Queen Mother (on Remembrance Sunday, she told him his ‘donkey jacket’ was “a smart, sensible coat for a day like this”) - and will do her best to accommodate his Republicanism. Protocol’s one thing, but really good manners mean making your guest comfortable. Tony Benn revealed he kissed his own thumb rather than the Monarch’s hand.
Meanwhile, we learned yesterday that Corbyn finally had another long-awaited meeting with an important woman: Maria Eagle, his Shadow Defence Secretary. And at Shadow Cabinet, the Guardian reports Corbyn slapped down colleagues for speaking without clearing things with his office and not adhering to collective responsibility: a clear pop at Eagle for backing up Sir Nicholas Houghton over Trident. What’s that hollow laughing sound you can hear? It’s shadow ministers remembering Corbyn’s loyalty to the party line in years gone by.
BECAUSE YOU'VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Sir Simon Burns say that breastfeeding should only be allowed in the Commons once it is allowed for supermarket checkout staff
4) CHICKEN LICKEN GOOD
Theresa May is currently fighting on two fronts in the spending arena: pushing ahead with ‘more with less’ police reforms despite top cops’ unease, while at the same time resisting George Osborne’s demands for even deeper cuts to her budget.
Yesterday encapsulated her dual fight. In her speech to the Reform think tank, the Home Secretary basically said the cops had been crying wolf - or rather playing Chicken Licken - for years over cutbacks. Forces had slashed £1.5bn without ‘the roof falling in’, she said, and urged fresh mergers of firearms, cyber and financial crime units. The Mail splashes on TaxPayersAlliance claims that police chiefs are claiming £55k to move house. But Met chief Bernard Hogan-Howe later told the Home Affairs Committee warned that cutting 5,000 officers from his force would hit counter-terrorism, gang crime and even child protection inquiries.
As for her tussle with the Chancellor, May is still resisting his demand for cuts of 25% it seems. And in her speech she signalled why: “The Home Office is a Great Department of State. The Home Office has a greater effect on this country than any other department.” That battle ain’t over.
5) HEALTH, WEALTHY AND PRIZED
The Times and British Medical Journal have an excellent joint scoop. Groups of family doctors who control local NHS budgets have handed at least £2.4 billion of taxpayers’ money to organisations that their members own or work for.
Under reforms introduced by Andrew Lansley £67 billion is given to 211 GP-led clinical commissioning groups (CCGs) each year to buy services for local patients. Each group is run by a board made up of a majority of GPs with other medics and lay members.
Now, using Freedom of Information laws and public board papers, the Times and BMJ have discovered that 50 out of 151 CCGs had given at least one highly prized contract to enterprises in which members of their governing body had declared interests. The DoH says a national audit is under way, but it’s not a good look.
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