The five things you need to know on Wednesday, November 23…
1) HAMMOND’S ORGAN
He has been Foreign Secretary, Defence Secretary and Transport Secretary, but the public still don’t really know who Philip Hammond is. In many ways, the Chancellor quite likes being seen as unshowy, unflashy. And to paraphrase Margaret Thatcher, he came into politics not to be somebody, but to do something.
But as he steps into the limelight to play his first proper Parliamentary solo, Hammond knows he has a front-of-house job to do to complement his behind-the-scenes heavy lifting. There will be no Os-Brown stye crescendo in the Autumn Statement, we’re told. On the big picture of low growth and more borrowing, as well as Brexit, he will try to convince the jittery markets and business that he’s a steady hand.
While he rarely plays to the gallery, Hammond doesn’t lack bite. His sharp intellect, patient doggedness and barbed wit (often seen privately) are proving useful weapons as he tries to balance his fiscal rectitude with the demands from No10 for headline-grabbing announcements and from Eurosceptics for a ‘clean Brexit’. Some colleagues say we should never forget that he still adheres to Treasury orthodoxy that immigration is good for the economy - and that evidence to the contrary is thin on the ground.
He’s been called ‘Spreadsheet Phil’ (for his love of figures), ‘Big Phil’ (a nickname ingeniously devised by former spad Paul Stephenson to sex up his boss’s image, but was really a joke about Brazil manager Phil Scolari) and even Box Office Phil (by one broadcaster who was offered him instead of a more senior Cabinet Minister back in early coalition days, and exclaimed: “Oh God, not Box Office Phil, please….”). The FT has a lovely line today that Hammond is “the type of man who wears suits on aeroplanes”. No polo shirt, Angry Birds, Fruit Ninja for him.
Osborne, like Brown, used to rattle through unwelcome growth and borrowing figures like faulty machine guns (you get suspicious when your shorthand can’t keep up). Hammond may take his time today, to ram home how serious his task is. But it will be the OBR this afternoon that has the real bad news (though many Eurosceps will point out its forecasts have been notoriously faulty in recent years).
The national living wage rise is a crowd pleaser, and No10 are pleased they’ve got him to take the edge off some Universal Credit cuts (though it’s only around £500m compared to the £3.5bn that a full-scale scrapping of work allowance changes would have cost). For the ‘struggling’ classes, the distributional impact charts - handed out after the statement - will be worth watching once the cheers and jeers have died down.
2) RENT, THE MUSICAL
Housing has long been the unglamorous cinderella of British politics and policy, but it’s rapidly shot up the agenda in recent years. Many voters will be tired of the battle of the figures on housebuilding, but the move to help Generation Rent shows May is keen to move into Labour territory.
The radical plan to ban up-front fees imposed by letting agents has “delighted” Shelter, which has long campaigned against them. Ed Miliband was quick to point out that this had been in his 2015 manifesto. But many Tory MPs see it as a crafty move, the political equivalent of that Picassco saying: “Good artists copy, great artists steal”.
Labour’s John Healey is keen to stop housing being used as a game of musical chairs, and says the letting plan is “too little too late”. Plans for longer term tenancies and caps on rent rises, and to make all rented homes ‘fit for human habitation’, and investment in housing repairs, have all been opposed by the Tories, he says.
The Association of Residential Letting Agents was on Today warning that when the upfront fees ban was introduced in Scotland, rents went up by 4.7% (as landlords found other ways to get their dosh) while they went down in England. Only in September, housing minister Gavin Barwell tweeted the ban would be ‘a bad idea’.
But if we needed a reminder of the soaring costs of house buying in London, the Standard yesterday reported that a house on the London council estate where Only Fools and Horses was filmed has broken through the £1m barrier…
3) CHANGED CLIMATE
The politics of envoy were in full flow yesterday as No10 circled the wagons around our Washington ambassador Sir Kim Darroch - even to the point of Downing Street revealing that the PM had held a meeting in London with him, seen as a symbolic vote of confidence.
Boris Johnson (who met Darrock privately on Monday and offered his support) showed his diplomatic side yesterday when asked about Trump’s view that climate change was a Chinese ‘hoax’. Bojo suggested that it was the rhetoric of the campaign trail and that he was “sure” the US would meet its Paris deal ‘responsibilities’. (Boris was on fine form at the The House magazine's 40th anniversary party at the Foreign Office last night).
And lo, in his live-tweeted, surreal chat with the New York Times yesterday, Trump said he had an ‘open mind’ about climate change. Of course he could flip back any time, but it looks like he may sign up to Paris.
Nigel Farage continues to make the weather, and there’s barely a day he’s been out of the news since Trump’s victory. I understand he and his team are making a pretty penny out of that famous photo of them with the President Elect in the golden Trump Tower entrance - the rights have been sold to a photo agency and the BBC and others have to pay for its use.
One green policy Trump certainly won’t change his mind on is wind power and on this the blurred lines between Trump’s financial interests and his politics get even blurrier. The Sunday Express had a scoop that Trump had told Farage and his aides to campaign against windfarms. Trump added that Scotland, where he has fought and lost legal battles against plans for turbines near his golf course, was being "sullied by these awful windmills".
Asked by the New York Times if the claims were true, Trump admitted “I might have brought it up”. Farage aide Andy Wigmore today tells the FT that he and Arron Banks would indeed be doing more to stop windfarms ‘spoiling the countryside’, though UKIP policy is already very anti.
As for Trump supporters making seig heil gestures at a weekend rally, Trump to the New York Times that white supremacists were “not a group I want to energise”. Which isn’t exactly a condemnation.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this baby try broccoli for the first time. Mmm. Not.
4) POLLING IN THE DEEP
A presentation by Jon Trickett, Labour’s general election coordinator, didn’t win a rapturous reception at the NEC yesterday, I’m told. But at least Trickett was refreshingly honest with Labour’s ruling body, admitting that the party’s opinion poll ratings were “dire” and that it would “have to defend some seats” at the next election.
In what seemed to those present like a dig at Tom Watson’s 2015 list of 106 target seats, Trickett said he would ‘never’ repeat the exercise because it was a ‘disaster’ last time.
Tom Watson showed a gallows humour yesterday on the polling issue, using an ITV Lorraine video clip message to Ed Balls to declare: “Now that your dancing is better than your karaoke, I see that you’re getting more points than Labour in the opinion polls”. (Note Watson also handed to Michael Dugher, sacked by Corbyn this year, a new role overseeing an inquiry into ‘fake news’ websites),
As for this week’s ICM 33-point gap between Corbyn/McDonnell and May/Hammond on the economy, word is that Theresa May in PMQs may pick up on a line from a Labour aide that “on economic competence, it's going to be a long march.” Still, the Shadow Chancellor’s team are steering us away from any Mao-style stunts this year (yes it was 12 months ago folks).
At the NEC, Keir Starmer impressed all sides with his Brexit presentation (as he had done at the Labour peers meeting the other week). Rebecca Long-Bailey presented on the Autumn Statement, but while some liked it, not everyone did. The Left were upset at the party endorsing the increase in the 40p tax threshold. And new Welsh NEC member told Long-Bailey ‘you have slogans but no strategy’.
5) SPIDERPLAN, SPIDERPLAN
The Sun has a fun story about the Chief Whip Gavin Williamson’s pet spider, a tarantula kept on his desk in theory to ‘intimidate’ wayward MPs. But the arachnid, named Cronus, has fallen foul of the Commons ban on keeping pets and the Serjeant at Arms Kamal El-Hajji ain’t happy.
Williamson is refusing to back down, claiming what happens in his office is ‘Government business’ not a matter for the Commons. His aides add, rather cheekily, “when they remove all the mice here, we may then think about removing Cronus”. And as anyone who works here knows, the mice are a stubborn guerrilla outfit who show no signs of surrender. A Commons spokeswoman insists anyone who brings in an animal is “reminded of the policy and gently asked not to do it again.” Someone’s going to lose face on this.
Former whip and now Brexit Secretary David Davis refused yesterday to be the fly caught in the spider’s web of Brussels and Strasbourg. German MEP Manfred Weber sparked a flurry of speculation by saying DD had told him he wants to stay in the single market. In fact, DD said he wanted the freest possible trading relationship and wasn’t specific - he’s hardly going to breach his own self-denying ordinance and tell MEPs the UK negotiation demands.
In fact, amid all the talk of transitional deals and Brexit betrayals, the message sent to worried Tory backbenchers in recent days has been to ‘calm down’. Attacks from Europeans like Weber (he called Boris ‘arrogant’ yesterday and said DD had offered nothing new) are quite helpful to internal Tory politics. And Guy Verhofstadt’s 15-month timetable for concluding Brexit talks is seen by some in Government as helpful in focusing minds on 2018 as the real year of crunchy negotiation.
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