The five things you need to know on Friday December 18, 2015…
1) A HARD DAY’S NIGHT
It was hard, really hard, you know. Emerging from his four-hour working dinner in Brussels, David Cameron said “this is hard, it’s very hard and it’s going to take a lot of work”. In case we missed the message, he added that each of his four demands for EU reform was ‘hard’ to get agreement on.
Tory Eurosceptics roll their eyes at this stuff, sniff the strong smell of expectations management and point out that it’s not really that hard to get agreement verbiage on three of the four Cameron areas (closer union, competitiveness, sovereignty). They add that on the one that matters most to many Brits - migration - the PM is in real trouble to deliver on his manifesto pledge to ban benefits for four years. More importantly, like John Major, the Eurosceps think this is all a sideshow to the bigger issue that the UK can’t control its borders while staying in the EU.
Still, the PM looked remarkably upbeat for someone who’s own words have come back to haunt him. Only yesterday he said he’d go ‘right through the night’ (the dinner broke up just after midnight). Yet despite the ridicule, he feels he really has got some ‘momentum’. A retreat on the 4-year plan to possibly a two-year ban (Hollande mooted that afterwards), an emergency brake or young Brits benefit ban could still happen when everyone comes back again in February.
Angela Merkel really did her bit to help Cameron, spending most of her post-dinner press conference focusing on the UK rather than the migrant crisis. Crucially she offered hope of some treaty change wangle (likely a ‘protocol’) to help the UK.
Michael Fallon was the Minister for the Today programme today, keeping a straight bat on the EU for the PM. And guess what? He said it was ‘hard’ to get agreement. On the four-year benefit ban, Fallon said “It cuts across a freedom that the others all believe in. It’s going to be very hard work.” But note that he watered down that manifesto pledge (which had said the Govt would ‘insist’ on the 4-year change): “the manifesto said we’ve got to tighten this up”. 'Tighten' doesn't sound like four years, but it could mean the alternative plans.
What about the big picture? In his invaluable Friday column in the Telegraph, Fraser Nelson reveals how in 2013 George Osborne got officials to work round EU restrictions to allow £25m of support for making the new Star Wars movie in the UK. Osborne was allegedly booed by some at the film premiere, but Fraser reveals something much more significant about his stance on Europe: “The Chancellor has decided, whatever happens on migrant benefits, that Britain’s future lies in the European Union.” Why? Because he thinks the EU won’t have enough “economic rationality” to deliver a decent free trade deal after Brexit. It will want to penalise the UK as an example to others who want to break away. ‘Pour encourager les autres’, you might say.
The PM will be cheered by the hot news on UKIP today though. Douglas Carswell giving a strong hint that he wants his party leader to quit. He has said on BBC Radio Essex that “The Oldham by-election to me said very clearly that we need a fresh face….Let me put it another way: I don’t want to wake up the morning after the European referendum and hear people saying ‘it was the postal votes’.”
Farage has hit back, telling the BBC Mr Carswell should "put up or shut up”. Carswell’s call "hasn't hit me cold - he has been saying this privately for some months” Farage said.
2) MIGRATION NET
Jonathan Portes, the NIESR think tank chief and former Treasury economist, is stepping down (earlier than scheduled) and I bet Downing Street can’t wait. It was Portes’ blog late on Wednesday that revealed the Government had EU migration stats but was refusing to publish them. HMRC said that to release the data would be ‘unhelpful to the negotiation process’ being conducted by the PM with EU states.
The Mail has splashed the story on its front page (and others have done it in great detail), pointing out 1.9m national insurance numbers have been given out to EU migrants, but only 751,000 arrivals have been logged. So where are the missing 1.1m?.
I see the HMRC have now issued a statement trying a reverse ferret: “It was wrong to suggest information was withheld because of the EU renegotiation. Not all the information that has been requested is held by HMRC. The information that is held is not in a collated, publishable form. HMRC will release that data when it is properly collated early in the New Year.” So that’s alright then.
The Home Affairs Committee report today attacks the Government’s net migration target for it’s ‘counterproductive’ cap on numbers from outside the EU - which it says has helped fuel the EU rise while excluding skilled workers.
3) TRASH OF THE TITANS
Way back in 2001, as the world came to terms with the horrors of the twin towers attack, Jo Moore issued that infamous email that it was a ‘very good day to get out anything we want to bury’. It was a joint Indy/Guardian scoop if I recall, and many of us working in Parliament were shocked at the naked cynicism of it (the small beer of it still astounds, Moore’s email referred to ‘councillors’ expenses’ not huge matters of state).
But few of us were surprised at the broader mood of trying to appear transparent, while not being transparent. Whitehall departments going back decades have use the last day of Parliamentary terms to push out a string of Written Ministerial Statements. It was just as much a 1970s ‘Yes Minister’ trait as a 2000s ‘Thick of It’ one. And ‘West Wing’ obsessives in No.10 know all about Season 1, Episode 13, which focused on ‘Take Out The Trash Day’, the White House’s own attempt to bury bad news late on quiet Fridays.
Yet given David Cameron’s boasts that ‘sunlight is the best disinfectant’, it’s more than a bit depressing that his Government tried to shove out so much stuff yesterday, some of it late to make life difficult for newspaper deadlines. Ministers released more 424 documents online by 5pm on Thursday, including 36 written ministerial statements on subjects of national importance. From bedroom tax impact to solar subsidy cuts to big council cuts (the FT has pounced on this), the news was not exactly good.
One of the buried items that Labour seized on swiftly was the 42% rise in the pay of the woman credited with George Osborne’s image makeover, Thea Rogers (formerly Nick Robinson’s producer). Rogers has been made chief of staff with a hiked salary of £98,000. Spad numbers fell overall, largely because there are no Lib Dem ministers. But with Short Money being cut for the Opposition, there’s more bite to this row than usual.
In what looked like an in-joke, one of those written statements put out with the trash was a Cabinet office ‘transparency update’. Tom Watson today has a lunchtime speech on his plans to protect the Freedom of Information Act.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch David Dimbleby get schooled by Jacob Rees-Mogg - in every sense of the word - on last night’s Question Time. One of the zingers of the year.
4) TED TALK
The Times has a nice scoop on a figure from Labour’s past coming back to haunt it: ‘Red’ Ted Knight - the man who led ‘loony left’ Lambeth council in the 1980s - has joined Momentum and attended two local meetings.
“I know Jeremy well, he’s a personal friend. I was once a parliamentary candidate in 1979 and he was my agent,” the 83-year-old said, but added that they have not spoken recently. But Peter Mandelson ain’t too pleased: “You couldn’t find a nastier, more divisive figure than Ted Knight.” As for discord, Momentum’s Jon Lansman wrote on a Facebook page yesterday that he was “quite disturbed” by some of the “personal attacks or harassment” among some members.
Another figure from those days of Labour discord, Shirley Williams, announced yesterday she was stepping down from the House of Lords. Many more peers would do well to follow suit in taking advantage of the new rules that allow them to retire. And after 50 years in politics, that’s truly the end of an era.
5) TORY TROUBLE
Speaking of the Lords, not surprisingly the Strathclyde review hasn’t gone down well among peers. There’s a handful of Labour old guarders who felt their own party overstepped the mark with its tax credits bloody nose for George Osborne, but most of its peers think they’ve craftily pushed the envelope of Parliamentary challenge without breaking it. And most believe the Strathclyde proposals are an overreaction.
Crossbenchers in particular are worried about weakening the legislature, but so too are some Tories. David Davis claimed there were around 20 Tory MPs who could oppose the Strathclyde plans in the Commons, enough to stop them. Surely the smart thing to do is for No.10 to hold any plans in reserve, as a deterrent to the Lords: if you pull off anything like that again, we will introduce a short bill to clip your wings. It kinda worked for Harold Wilson when he threatened a sword of damocles over the Lords.
There’s a bit of Tory trouble over bullying culture again today, after the Standard’s scoop on backbench MP Lucy Allen reported claims that she had subjected her staff to ‘vicious’ abuse. The party says all allegations were dealt with “appropriately and sympathetically”.
Listen to our latest round-up of the political week in the HuffPost Commons People podcast. Climate change, NHS funding, EU referendum and an awesome Star Wars quiz. Oh, and our verdict on the biggest winners and losers of 2015 - and what we’re looking forward to in 2016.
Finally, I’d like to wish all our HuffPostUK readers - especially readers of this morning memo - a very Happy Christmas. Getting up this early is only worth it because I get such great feedback from readers. Keep your emails, texts, tweets, DMs coming - and see you the other side. The WaughZone will be back on January 5, when Parliament returns.
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