The five things you need to know on Wednesday, October 19…
1) HIDDEN IN PLANE SIGHT
It’s all but certain now that Heathrow expansion will get the go-ahead next week. Theresa May switched on the ‘fasten your seat belt’ signs with her announcement yesterday that Cabinet ministers who disagreed with the final decision would be allowed some leeway to speak out.
What’s not certain is just why May felt the need to amend (not suspend) collective Cabinet responsibility on what she herself describes as an issue of ‘national interest’. Was she so worried about protecting the feelings of Boris Johnson and Justine Greening and their local interests that she needed to give them special protection? It seems strange indeed given that few expected Boris to quit over the issue, especially as he now has the Foreign Secretary job he always wanted as a stepping stone to No.10.
In the Times, Grant Shapps has accused May of failing to show “guts and authority” with a quick decision. “I am sorry this is going to be fudged for another year”. He added that it was a “strange world” in which ministers were free to oppose government-backed projects.
As for those claims of ‘delay’, Heathrow and No.10 insist there isn’t one and they may have a point. May’s letter to colleagues yesterday referred to a final airports National Policy Statement being ready for a Parliamentary vote by ‘winter 2017/18’. Industry insiders have long predicted that the consultation needed is so extensive that late 2017 was the earliest it could be completed.
The problem is the politics, not the planning process. Some in Whitehall and Westminster have in recent months fuelled the impression that MPs will get a vote this autumn, soon after the Cabinet sub-committee decision next week. It was only ever going to be a ‘non-binding’ vote, but will it happen at all now? Or will Boris and others’ feelings be spared further? No.10 is being pretty opaque on that today. Sadly, one spectacle is now not going to happen. Boris won’t be allowed to lie down in front of any bulldozers, as he previously threatened. May’s explicit guidance in her letter says no minister will be allowed to ‘campaign actively’ against the decision.
Another Parliamentary firework may still go off though. As HuffPost revealed last week, Zac Goldsmith is threatening to quit as a Tory MP and run as an independent in a by-election in Richmond Park. The Standard had the scoop that Twickenham MP Tania Mathias joined lots of local Tory association members and Zac on Monday night to agree his independence plan. CCHQ shows no sign of reprimanding them yet.
But will Zac actually quit when the Cabinet sub-committee comes out for Heathrow next week? Or will he wait for the final 2017/18 Parliamentary vote? Either way, should the PM really be that bothered by what one MP does in one seat in London?
2) ARTICLE OF FAITH
One reason Goldsmith may face a strong challenge in Richmond Park is that, despite his local popularity, the Lib Dems could run a campaign that centres on fears of a ‘hard Brexit’ (the constituency voted to Remain, like many middle class London seats that depend on City jobs) as much as Tory betrayal on Heathrow.
And on the key issue of whether Parliament will have a say over the actual shape of Brexit, there was some fascinating movement yesterday. James Eadie QC, the Government’s lawyer in the High Court challenge on Article 50, surprised some in court with a new statement that the final Brexit deal hammered out with Brussels would after all be subject to a Parliamentary vote. “The view within government is that it is very likely that this treaty will be subject to ratification process in the usual way. Most of them are,” he said.
That ‘very likely’ phrase was endorsed by No.10. But Government critics believe this is just a ruse to mislead MPs into thinking they will get the final say, when in fact leaving the vote until the end of the process would be too late. Keir Starmer is smart enough to work this out, which is precisely why he’s pushing hard still for a vote on Article 50 itself, rather than the final deal.
The pound rallied yesterday, with its biggest gains since mid-August. Was this because of the ‘very likely’ quote? Some think it was more to do with the Lord Chief Justice’s hints in court that he wasn’t impressed with the Government’s defence. If the court does uphold this challenge, the biggest issue of all is whether a Parliamentary rejection of Article 50 would mean keeping the status quo, ie UK membership of the EU.
The Guardian reports meanwhile that ministers been given detailed warnings that the UK pulling out of the EU customs union could lead to a 4.5% fall in GDP by 2030 and the clogging up of trade through Britain’s ports.
And on the Brexit Select Committee race, Hilary Benn is facing a strong challenge from Kate Hoey. I reported last night that there were some very interesting nominations backing Hoey, not Benn: Corbyn Shadow Cabinet allies Clive Lewis, David Hamilton and Ian Lavery.
The Telegraph reveals that Philip Hammond has told Theresa May that he will not be quitting the Cabinet. The very fact that he felt the need to say that may look odd, but the Chancellor has mounted a notable PR fightback this week.
3) DAVIES GOES DENTAL
Tory backbencher David Davies (known affectionately as ‘Top Cat’ to colleagues because of his middle TC initials) is no stranger to controversy. The part-time police constable once said ‘most parents would prefer their children not to be gay’ and attacked the National Black Police Association for not having white members. The gag among Tory backbenchers is that TC makes DD (his differently spelled namesake) ‘look leftwing’.
Today, he’s all over the news because he wants dental checks to prove if migrants from The Jungle camp really are children. Davies told Louise Mensch’s HeatStreet website: “I will be tabling questions in Parliament asking how many migrant children have undergone dental checks and whether those who wish to come here in future will be subject to dental checks.”
Davies went further on the Today programme, saying we should be ‘hard-headed’ about those who looked older than children - and less like ‘Lily Allen with tears in her eyes and all the rest of it’ (he said that not once, but twice).
Today’s Sun splashes his remarks with the header ‘Tell us the Tooth’, and photos of migrants who ‘look 40’ and have ‘crows’ feet’. The British British Dental Association said it is ‘vigorously opposed’ to ‘unethical’ dental checks on migrants. It also disputed claims that dental radiographs can accurately determine whether someone is under the age of 18 or not.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Boris loves singing in German, showing off his French and even dabbling in Russian. Watch him try Italian in the Commmons yesterday.
4) HUNT THE HEALTH CASH
It didn’t get much attention because of Heathrow, but Cabinet yesterday also discussed contingency plans for flooding, roads and the NHS for the coming winter. And the big question remains whether Jeremy Hunt will get more money to help stem the looming cash crisis in the health service.
The Health Select Committee has pointed out that the £10bn a year Hunt promised the NHS by 2020 is looking like a much lower figure. Hunt told the Committee yesterday: “Whether you call if £4.5bn or call it £10bn, it is what the NHS said it needed”. Labour thinks there’s been some creative accounting, including a six-year rather than five-year spending window.
But the most significant warning came from Simon Stevens, sitting just two seats along from Hunt, who said that health spending is set to fall per head (possibly for the first time in the history of the NHS). “If you just look at the population growth - even before you take account of ageing - 2018/19 will be the most pressurised year for us - where we actually will have negative per person NHS funding growth….For the next three years we didn’t get the funding that was requested .. so as a result we’ve got a bigger hill to climb.” Sounds like perfect ammo for Corbyn at PMQs.
5) FLAGSHIP DOWN
Another bit of the George Osborne’s legacy is being chipped away with the news that the Treasury has dumped plans to let pensioners raise money by selling their annuities to insurance firms. For all the ex-Chancellor’s bravado in hailing his pensions ‘revolution’, ministers have now admitted that this bit of the plan might have exposed pensioners to firms which lured them into making the wrong decision.
The other bit of the Osborne reforms, to allow pensioners to spend their pension pot however they liked (aka Steve Webb’s ‘Lamborghini’ plan) remains intact. Webb (now at Royal London pension giant) says the annuities plan founded because pensions firms were worried they’d be accused of ripping of little old ladies. The Mail is the only paper upset by the annuity plan axe, claiming ‘rip off’ annuities will continue.
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