POLITICS

The Waugh Zone Wednesday July 19, 2017

The five things you need to know about politics today.

19/07/2017 08:33 BST | Updated 19/07/2017 08:33 BST
 
 

1. CLASS WAR

It’s the final PMQs before the summer recess and there’s certainly a ‘last day of term’ feel about Hogwarts, SW1. Although MPs are in theory meant to stick around for tomorrow, many will head off tonight for their six-week break.

But as Theresa May takes on Jeremy Corbyn for one more high-noon session, she looks more and more like a supply teacher struggling to keep control of her unruly classroom. With all the pupils keenly aware of her probationary status, her attempt to read the riot act in Cabinet yesterday was met with a flick of an elastic band and a disingenuous looking at shoes, I’m told.

And like all supply teachers in need of support, it took the hardman colleague to intervene and tell the class that they shouldn’t be horrible to Miss. Yes, Sir Michael Fallon’s used a Policy Exchange reception last night to warn colleagues to show military virtues such as “loyalty, discipline, cohesion”. Sadly for May, his words only served to underline her own lack of authority.

May had opened Cabinet by warning the 27 ministers the recent round of leaks and negative briefing had shown they were “not taking their responsibilities seriously”. Damian Green backed her up but tumbleweed went around the rest of the room as no Brexiteer spoke up. And as the Sun reports, there was a further excruciating moment afterwards as the school photo was taken of the new Cabinet. The reason everyone is laughing in the pic is the photographer made a joke about Boris Johnson “showing too much ankle”, seen as a jibe about both his half-mast trousers and his leadership ambitions.

The problem for May is that despite all the backbench calls on her to sack squabbling ministers (and 1922 deputy chairman played the role of supportive prefect yesterday), it’s hard to see who she could fire without causing a fresh upset (there’s one exception: I’m told when a group of ousted MPs visited party chairman Patrick McLoughlin last week, one said ‘I’m out of a job, why are you still in yours?’)

Still, May’s nominally in charge. A decent-ish PMQs by either or both leaders would send their classes away with a spring in their step. And May is still on the Government side of the despatch box, until further notice.

 

2. ELEMENTARY, WATSON

While Theresa May struggles with her Cabinet, Jeremy Corbyn is now master and commander of his own team like never before. And yesterday’s meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) underlined that as never before.

While the meeting was very friendly, there was an undercurrent of the old centrist-left battles of last year, with a small but significant change to the way some Parliamentary candidates are selected. In a boost to the Left and Corbyn’s vision of more democracy in the party, local members will now be able to sit on selection panels choosing candidates in 75 target seats in England. This will end the longheld system of local party executive committee members (many of whom were longstanding activists) being in charge of the process.

So far, so navel-gazing you may think. But in fact what really was significant was Tom Watson decided to stay away from the NEC meeting. He instead attended other meetings, and was in the Commons supporting new Slough MP Tan Dhesi for his maiden speech. Watson’s absence infuriated some members and MPs who have always seen him as a bulwark against the radical left.

Yet I understand that the Deputy Leader told Corbyn before the meeting that he was giving him space to make his next move, allowing him to show whether he wanted to unite the party or risk further splits. Allies of Watson believe that Corbyn can now turn the coming party conference in Brighton into an outward facing team effort from a Prime Minister-in-waiting, “or use his new found authority to be the most dominant hard left faction leader in post-war history”.  Either way, Watson will not get in the way. That in itself is big news (and a long way from the Deputy leader’s defiant conference speech last year). Other NEC battles over leadership rules and other issues will continue, yet Watson is effectively telling Corbyn: it’s your call now, make sure it’s the right one.

 

3. PUNISHMENT BLEATINGS

The UK’s Brexit talks with Michel Barnier have barely started in earnest and already the brinkmanship over hard cash has begun. Politico had a great scoop that EU diplomats suggested Barnier would ‘stall’ the talks unless Britain presented detailed offer on the ‘divorce bill’. Yesterday, the Brits threw the hardball back, with sources saying they won’t present a paper on the issue this week, and will be going through the EU £80bn demand in detail, challenging key assumptions.

The Times has a piece from a German MEP Hans-Olaf Henkel that will cheer Brexiteers no end. He claims Euro Parliament chief Guy Verhofstadt “wants to punish the British, full stop”, while Barnier also wants to ensure “Brexit is such a catastrophe that no country dares to take the step of leaving the EU again.” David Davis is due back in Brussels tomorrow, but the Sun reports British officials have upset the EU by insisting they want an August Monday bank holiday break. That brings a whole new meaning to DD tell Brussels ‘see you next Tuesday’. The FT reports Thatcher’s prized 1984 rebate is snagging talks too.

But don’t forget that Labour’s position on Brexit is not a bed of roses either. While the vast majority of its members are Remainers, MPs on the centre and Left are united in trying to respond to working class voters’ demands that Brexit should be seized as an opportunity to reconnect with millions. At a Policy Exchange event on Monday night, Caroline Flint essentially told Labour’s Remainers to belt up – and warned that if Labour vote down all the Tories’ Brexit Bills they will “look like liars”. And Harvard prof Richard Tuck said Brexit could finally allow a genuine left-wing government to change Britain.

Former Cabinet minister Tina Stowell has written a fascinating HuffPost UK blog in which she is scathing about May’s snap election performance, but more scathing about both the Tory plotters and Labour’s refusal to work to get the right Brexit. “The only good news is that Mrs May has decided to ditch any pretence of remaining a politician for the long-term and instead re-found her inner public servant and sense of duty when the country needs it most.  The bad news is, at a time when the nation needs all its politicians to do the same, she seems to be on her own.”

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Some foreign ministers (no, not ours) are actually prepared to call out Donald Trump’s sexism. Watch Australia’s Julie Bishop take a swipe at the President’s jaw-dropping line to President Macron’s wife.

 

4. SPINNING DOOR

The revolving door between Whitehall and government and big business is now spinning at a furious rate, and no one is stopping it. That’s the stark verdict of the National Audit Office report into the ‘business appointments’ rules. In fact, Whitehall departments have not stopped a single civil servant from taking a job in the private sector for three years because they do not have the power to do so, the NAO found.

Labour’s Jon Trickett told HuffPost UK that former chancellor George Osborne - now the editor of the Evening Standard - was a prime example of the lack of bite of the current Acoba watchdog.  “There are rules intended to stop this cosy club but today’s report shows that the system is completely toothless and there is a total lack of oversight.”

Trickett said “the Tories hold the system in complete contempt”, through their conduct and by watering down the rules so that they don’t apply to former special advisers earning under about £95,000 – meaning most spinners can go straight into lobbying using privileged information. “Top ministers ignore the rules, like the former chancellor George Osborne has done twice since leaving office for his ‘think-tank’ and for editing the Evening Standard.”

 

5. ACID TEST

There was a cacophonous beeping of reedy moped horns in Parliament Square yesterday as food delivery drivers protested about the rise of acid attacks. Our man Owen Bennett talked to them about the demo, and found that many wanted the police to treat the issue much more seriously. It’s bad enough working in the insecure gig-economy, but now they’re facing real danger too.

Last week, five people were sprayed with acid in a wave of attacks over the course of 90 minutes in north-east London. One of the victims, Jabed Hussain, was a delivery driver - fitting into a growing trend of gangs focusing on moped and motorbike riders.

One Ubereats driver said: “Our lives are on the line. We are there to do our job, mate, and we can’t do our job. It’s getting worse everyday.” Khalique, a 36-year-old courier, told HuffPost UK how he was attacked by a gang of youths on bikes. Most of his friends now cut their hours so they won’t work after 9pm. “When it gets dark this is the scary time to work.” With a paramedic the latest to be sprayed by a gang, Labour is pressing ministers to do much more.

 

SPORTING CHANCE

Seven long years ago, I started the UK’s first daily political email. Inspired by Mike Allen’s superb Politico Playbook in the US, it seemed the right time to deliver a regular diet of news and insight direct to inboxes to start the day. MPs, ministers, civil servants and others loved it (not least as a refreshing alternative to the Pravda-like internal party summaries of the good news in the media overnight). At one point, David Cameron even confided that he now finally knew what was going on his own government, and in the Opposition. 

Since 2010, others have followed down the political email track, many have come and gone (it’s a grueling life dear reader, especially for those of us who do a full day’s work on top of the early turn) and new outlets have started.  But while there’s natural rivalry, there’s a camaraderie among us emailers and today we have our first ever Sports Day next to Parliament. The WaughZone will feature alongside Red Box, PoliticsHome, the Telegraph, newbies The Spoon and maybe even Stephen Bush, as sports minister Tracey Crouch leads an MPs’ team in the various events. It’s all for the Met Police Benevolent Fund. After the death of PC Keith Palmer, we know more than ever just how much we rely on the police to protect us all in Westminster.  Please click here to make a donation.

 
 

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Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Paul WaughNed SimonsKate Forrester Rachel Wearmouth and Owen Bennett.