1. END GAME
Theresa May hosts another Cabinet today and after a week of talk of plots, reshuffles and Brexit backsliding, there will be more than a few anxious looks around the coffin-shaped table. Try as she might to get back onto her ‘burning injustices’ agenda, Brexit continues to dominate the domestic scene as she struggles with the perception she is held hostage by her warring fellow ministers and backbenches alike.
May’s Commons statement yesterday was notable for several reasons. First, she kept talking about ‘the end state’ of Brexit, rather than the transition (pleasing Brexiteers). Second, she admitted the transition may well replicate current EU trade and court arrangements (upsetting Brexiteers). Third, she again floated the possibility of a ‘no deal’ outcome (delighting Brexiteers). Fourth, she hinted that things were so damned complicated that the UK will not have negotiated any trade deal “until, I suspect, close to the end” of the two-year Article 50 process that comes to a halt on March 31, 2019 (terrifying UK business). After much prodding, at least the PM actually answered some questions directly. She should try it more often (she’s on LBC at 5pm for a live phone-in).
Jacob Rees-Mogg was not slow to express dismay at the PM’s line in the Commons that the UK would have to “start off” its transition period still being ruled by the European Court of Justice. She had “gone further than I wished her to go”, the Moggster complained. Boris Johnson and Michael Gove were at pains to keep fellow Brexiteers onside, taking to Facebook and Twitter respectively to quote the PM’s emphasis that what mattered most was ‘the end state’. As for May’s own ‘end state’, she’ll be totally over the moon that Sajid Javid this morning told Today he “absolutely” felt she could fight the next election as PM. If she wanted to.
Nervy Eurosceps were at least cheered by the preparations for a ‘no deal’ outcome. The Sun reports that one Cabinet minister puts the chances of no deal at ’50%’ (read this Twitter thread too) and says another wants the Budget to invest in contingency plans. It also has an arresting detail that land is being identified near Dover for a new lorry checks park. Newsnight’s Chris Cook has been asking invaluable questions on this for some time, and last night Nick Watt said the ‘no deal’ plan was being labelled “Project BATNA”. The acronym stands for “best alternative to a negotiated agreement” which is indeed “a posh way of saying Plan B”. (Still, it has echoes of The Thick Of It: quiet Batna people, anyone?) Meanwhile, Hammond has to deal with less cash in his coffers after the OBR confirms today it got its forecasts wrong on productivity. Brexit or no Brexit, deal or no deal, our low productivity is the flip side of all that high employment, folks.
2. RACE TO THE TOP
At 12.30pm, the Government’s new Ethnicity Facts and Figures website will go live and we are promised an avalanche of datasets covering 130 areas of public life from schooling to criminal justice and ill health. The PM is determined to make the “racial disparity audit” one of the priorities of her premiership, building on her own worries as Home Secretary of the impact of disproportionate stop-and-search powers used against young black men.
But while May did something about stop-and-search, will there be any action actually taken on other areas of discrimination? The Times has some nuggets on the stats: Dorset police being seven times more likely to arrest black people in its area than in Essex last year; in Stockport’s primary schools less than a quarter of black 11-year-olds reached the required standard in reading and maths, while in Sunderland the figure was more than three quarters; white teenagers are four times more likely to smoke than black ones; whites on free school meals are performing worse than any other ethnic group at the end of primary school. Sajid Javid told Today that his integration strategy later this year would pick up on the finding that Bangladeshi women were less likely to speak English.
Critics point out that discrimination doesn’t operate in a vacuum and we report on a Runnymede Trust study showing that austerity has had an impact. The research found the poorest black households stand to lose an average of £8,400 a year - a fall in living standards of nearly a fifth – through this decade. The study quotes May’s own words back at her from 2010, warning of “real risks” that “women, ethnic minorities, disabled people and older people will be disproportionately hit by cuts”.
Meanwhile, tonight is the National No2Hate Crime Awards, supported by HuffPost UK and Jewish News. We today reveal who has been shortlisted, including the mother of murdered goth Sophie Lancaster and Jack Stanley, a schoolboy who befriended a Syrian refugee while being filmed for Channel 4 series Educating Manchester.
3. THE BIG MO
Momentum’s founder Jon Lansman is expected to run for one of the three seats on Labour’s National Executive Committee, we revealed last night. An announcement is due today on the grassroots group’s candidates, but several sources said Lansman was the popular choice to get one of the slots. It would indeed mark the latest stage in his growing influence over the party.
Back in 1981, Lansman was the twentysomething campaign co-ordinator for Tony Benn’s deputy leadership bid and came within a whisker of defeating Denis Healey. He and his colleagues on the Left of the party spent years in the wilderness as Neil Kinnock then Smith, Blair and Brown all sought to keep them on the margins. But they’re on the margins no more and Jeremy Corbyn’s two leadership election victories, plus the general election ‘surge’, have cemented Lansman’s position as an eminence grise among the young Momentum members.
Some insiders say it’s Lansman’s lifelong ambition to be on the NEC, though others point out he’s achieved a lot more than that in the past two years. The Brighton conference confirmed just how much organisational muscle Momentum now has, securing votes and policy with its huge email and app reach. It’s all a far cry from last year, when deputy leader Tom Watson clashed with Lansman and Len McCluskey over ‘entryism’. If the two sit around the same NEC table, will Lansman relax his longheld views on mandatory reselection of MPs? Or seize his moment to push through sweeping change?
4. BOJO A-GO-GO?
Some Tory MPs feel that May will avoid a ‘major changes’ reshuffle and keep both Boris Johnson and the Chancellor in their place, with the only real movement coming from Patrick McLoughlin’s departure as party chairman. But others think Boris is going to be moved and in the Times Rachel Sylvester quotes a No.10 insider saying the PM’s view is “coalescing” around offering him a new job and then firing him if he refuses it. “She wants a slightly safer pair of hands as foreign secretary. She is completely exasperated with Boris,” they say.
For his part, Johnson took to WhatsApp to complain about those claiming to speak for him (one in the Tel yesterday said he’d “just say no” if offered a demotion). GuidoFawkes revealed the Foreign Sec had blamed “a sinister band of imposters”. But in a fresh twist, the Standard reported leading anti-May plotters had been “going around the conference in Manchester saying the aim was to make Boris leader”.
The Guardian reveals the backlash Grant Shapps has felt from colleagues since his move to oust the PM. It has got hold of an email from him complaining at the “abuse and bile” he was subjected to on the Tory MP’s WhatsApp group late last week. He points out some of the abuse came from MPs who “most rail against cyberbulling” and who have held “similar views” on the timing of May’s end-point. The paper also reveals Johnson’s Sunday Tel piece pledging loyalty to the PM (and describing plotters as “nutters”) was commissioned by No10 and sent by them directly.
5. HEALTH EMERGENCY
The NHS is never very far away from the political agenda and today it has plenty of chances to dominate. We have a double helping of health bosses today with Jeremy Hunt facing Health Questions in the Commons at 11.30am and then NHS chief exec Simon Stevens before the Health Select at 2.30pm. I was particularly struck by two polls since the election: one showing NHS worries were the top concern of Tory voters thinking of backing Labour, and another showing the NHS – not tuition fees – was the main priority of those young voters who powered the ‘Corbyn surge’.
Lots of papers focus on the overnight release of the annual report by the Care Quality Commission (CQC) warning that the health system is “straining at the seams” due to staff shortages, rising demand and the number of patients with preventable illnesses. The Mail seizes on claims that ‘lifestyle choices’ are to blame, while the Guardian picks up a report on the global obesity epidemic. The BMA warns we are ‘one bad winter away’ from an NHS crisis.
One glaring CQC finding was that the number of detentions under the Mental Health Act went up by a fifth in two years to more than 63,000 last year. It’s World Mental Health Day today and Labour MP Luciana Berger blogs for us on her letter to the PM (signed by 160 MPs) demanding mental health spending be ring-fenced. Will the Chancellor consider it? We also have a blog from Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke, revealing he’s pondering new ways to offer support through the benefits system. Meanwhile, Gauke stood firm on Universal Credit roll-out yesterday, even though Frank Field and John Mann warned families would go hungry this Christmas due to benefit payout delays.