POLITICS

The Waugh Zone Wednesday November 22, 2017

The five things you need to know ahead of the budget today.

22/11/2017 08:41 GMT | Updated 22/11/2017 09:33 GMT

1. PHIL TIME, PHIL SPACE

Politics is often an expectations management game and as he prepares for his second Budget, it looks like Philip Hammond has already lost. Critics within and without the Tory party have piled huge pressure onto the Chancellor to come up with something big and bold. Few in Whitehall and Westminster expect him to do anything so game-changing.

Hammond looks boxed in on all sides and his allies argue his caution is not all of his own making. His attempts at being ‘radical’ have met with real pushback in recent weeks. Shire Tories have blocked his hopes to tweak the Green Belt for more housing, petrolhead Tories forced him to abandon any petrol duty or even diesel duty hikes, smallbusiness Tories and ‘WhiteVanMan’ Tories fought back against any cuts in VAT threshold for firms or the self-employed. Brexiteer Tories simply don’t trust him on anything and think he’s just filling time and space until a reshuffle sees the appointment of a more politically canny Chancellor.

Hammond has a tiny band of genuinely close supporters in the Tory party. But he may win plaudits from many of his MPs if he can somehow hint at an ease in austerity that recognises voters’ howl of pain from the June election, while also maintaining ‘sound money’. Few backbenchers want him to back off balancing the books and indeed many think he’s wise to resist the Fool’s Gold of apeing Jeremy Corbyn’s tax-and-borrow-to-spend policies. Fiscal Phil, with tweaks on stamp duty, housing and even schools and nurses pay, may be his best persona. I got a tip-off that Jeremy Hunt is due at a psychiatric hospital in Bristol as the Budget ends today, so maybe there will be even some new mental health cash.

The real problem is just how politically tin-eared is the man who promised he was ‘not deaf’ to the public’s concerns on things like public sector pay. As well as the traditional photo of Hammond hard at work at this desk, the Treasury last night put out a policy-free trail of Hammond’s speech, including soporific bromides that he wants to “look forwards, to embrace change, to meet our challenges head on”. It also revealed the Budget’s title would be ‘Fit For The Future’. This is a phrase used by Theresa May herself in recent weeks, and it seems to be the new version of Osborne’s ‘Long Term Economic Plan’. Yet as we report, ‘Fit For The Future’ is by-word for cuts programmes across the NHS, social care, local councils and even Transport for London. Before he’s even said a word, it looks like yet another “Hamm-fisted” Hammond gaffe.

The Telegraph reveals No.10 had to step in to pep up the ‘uninspiring’ Treasury announcement on new cash for maths teaching. “The worst Budget build-up in history” is how one cabinet source puts it, referring to his weekend gaffe that there are no unemployed people in the UK. But the Sun underlines that May is reluctant to sack him in her reshuffle, now expected in the New Year. A close ally said: “There’s no doubt Hammond would do ‘a Geoffrey Howe’ on her from the backbenches.” The FT quotes an ally of the Chancellor saying “the pressure is extraordinary..it’s ludicrous to be honest”. As the fractious Cabinet meets this morning, they know the pressure is on all of them to not fall apart and hand the keys of No10 to Corbyn.

Big Phil is not too big to fail.  But if he avoids the ‘Omnishambles’ Budget of 2012 and his own ‘Hammyshambles’ Budget of this year, the Chancellor may think a scoreless draw today is actually a win. And with expectations so low, if he manages to nick a goal, he may live to fight another day. Watch for our live coverage and snap verdict (and a WaughZone Special) later.

 

2. CHRISTMAS CREDIT

Labour activists dumped a pile of food tins outside No.10 last night, a symbolic protest against ‘Foodbank Britain’ amid fears that demand for emergency supplies will soar as Universal Credit rolls out this Christmas. And it turns out that a mountain of evidence of the problems with the new benefit has been sent to the Work and Pensions Select Committee.

We reveal today that the avalanche of material, almost unprecedented for a Commons inquiry, includes 130 pieces of written evidence from charities, housing associations and people working on the frontline of the UK’s poverty support networks. Among the problems are a rise in evictions, suicide warnings and call centre and other administrative chaos.

Jeremy Corbyn last week put evictions threats at the heart of his PMQs and today there’s talk that Philip Hammond will respond by cutting the key waiting time for Uni Credit from the current six weeks. Given the scale of the problems unearthed today, anything other than getting the wait down to four weeks may be seen as insufficient.

Whitehall insiders suggest Hammond may offer a small pot of cash to help tackle the UK’s growing scourge of homelessness. But Greater Manchester Metro Mayor Andy Burnham, who has made tackling the issue a priority of his administration, has blogged for us on why small measures are just not good enough.

 

3. BREXIT BUMP

May warned there would be bumps in the road to Brexit, but she may well surprise everyone by securing a deal at next month’s EU summit. The FT reports that Brussels and London have set a target of getting agreement within the next three weeks, with a dinner date with Jean-Claude Juncker and Donald Tusk penciled in for December 4.

Yet while the EU is pleased with May’s shift to offer more cash, there are ominous warnings from the Germans and French that they won’t allow the UK to hold back some money as leverage over later trade talks. One senior EU diplomat said such demands would take Britain down “a dangerous path”. And there’s still the thorny problem of the Irish border, with DUP leader Arlene Foster accusing Dublin of making ‘reckless’ demands and Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney pointing out even 40bn euro wouldn’t be enough for a breakthrough unless the Ulster issue was addressed. Belfast and Dublin know they have maximum veto powers right now, but Whitehall insiders doubt either will really want to delay a deal or prompt a crisis that could be more harmful.

Meanwhile, in the Commons last night, Tory whips were pleased that a Remainer rebellion was avoided, with just Ken Clarke voting for Labour’s amendment on the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights. This was all foreshadowed earlier when Dominic Raab offered a memorandum on future rights and Dominic Grieve pulled his own amendment, suggesting he could wait until Report Stage for ministerial movement. Will Grieve show similar patience with his big Exit Date amendment due next month on Day 7 of Committee Stage? The SNP was withering about the Tory Remainers, comparing them to ‘The Grand Old Duke Of York’, marching up the hill of rebellion only to march back down at the last minute.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this absolutely extraordinary clip of veteran Aussie MP Bob Katter as he reacts to his country’s vote for same-sex marriage. Just watch his face change midway through.

 

4. CENTRAL GOVE-RNMENT?

Some cynics think that today would be a good day to bury other news, including a possible announcement of the conclusions of the Cabinet Office inquiries into Damian Green and Mark Garnier. Such a naked attempt at news management is far-fetched, and in fact it seems that the investigation into Green’s case is getting longer not shorter. The Times reports that it’s taking time to go through every Government computer he’s had access to, to check for possible porn downloands.

If Green does indeed have to quit, Home Secretary Amber Rudd is one possible like-for-like replacement (solid, loyal, ex-Remainer). But Michael Gove is also being talked up for the role of First Secretary of State too. Strangely, Gove has also been tipped as Chancellor, but it’s unlikely that May, let alone other ministers, would trust him in the cross-Whitehall role at the Cabinet Office. As I’ve pointed out before, Green chairs nine hugely important Cabinet committees, and it may be that the job is too time-consuming to repeat Gordon Brown’s trick of handing the First Secretary title to a minister while expecting them to do the day job (as Peter Mandelson did at Business).

 

5. JUNGLE HUMS

Amid the row over its former leader jetting off to the ‘I’m A Celebrity’ jungle, Scottish Labour yesterday put out a statement that sounded like it was drafted by Ant and Dec themselves. “In accordance with standard procedure, Kezia Dugdale will be interviewed on her return…and have the opportunity to present her account of events.” (For non-fans of ImACeleb, each evicted contestant has an end-of-show interview in which they tell all).

Labour said Dugdale would not be suspended from the party, despite taking an “unauthorised leave of absence from her [Scottish] Parliamentary duties”. Many in the party feel let down by her conduct, not least her snap decision to quit. But note that canny Nicola Sturgeon is rooting for her as the only Scot in the jungle show. Dugdale’s partner is also an SNP MP, and talk that she might soon defect to her former bitter rivals is beginning to swirl more than ever. Rather than pay attention to the Budget, millions of ordinary Brits will tonight tune in to ‘I’m a Celebrity’. Boris’s dad Stanley Johnson is doing very well so far, so Dugdale has some tough competition in the political stakes.

 
 
 

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