The five things you need to know on Tuesday February 16, 2016…
1) BRUSSELS BOUND
David Cameron is visiting his least favourite capital, but today he’s got to woo the very people he’s spent years either ignoring or deriding. Yes, MEPs have to be squared ahead of the Thursday summit, and they may or may not want to extract their pound, or kilo, of flesh.
No.10 got into a bit of a pickle at Lobby yesterday over the role of the European Parliament, which ever since the Lisbon Treaty has greater powers. As ever, the danger is of oversell. The PM insists this is a ‘legally binding’ deal (though that is disputed), but it is certainly not legally binding on the Parliament. Downing Street knows that technically MEPs can unpick his draft deal with other EU leaders, but believe that in practice that’s very unlikely.
Cameron has opted for private meetings with Parliament president Schulz, as well as other key group leaders (prompting Farage to call him ‘gutless’ for avoiding a two-hour debate with him and others). Jean-Claude Juncker gets a visit today too.
The concern ought not to be MEPs, but EU leaders themselves. The Guardian’s Ian Traynor reports the exasperation of many at the rushed way the UK package has been drafted. The last-minute glitches that will need ironing out include Eastern Europe’s worry over child benefit cuts. The Poles and others fear Cameron's crackdown will affect not just British payments but German ones and others too. (Stat alert: there are 100,000 ‘euro orphans’ in Poland, kids left at home while parents work in Western Europe, and 40% of Polish benefits to them come from Germany). And they want the curbs to affect only new claimants in the UK, not existing ones.
Traynor quotes Anglophile Finnish finance minister Alex Stubb complaining about Osborne’s plans to have a say over eurozone affairs: “The UK is one of the most civilised countries in the world with one of the most uncivilised EU debates.” With Donald Tusk tweeting his warning last night that “risk of breakup is real as #UKinEU negotiations very fragile”, maybe the tensions at this summit will be more real than stage-managed.
Way back in 2005 during the Tory leadership race, Cameron won vital Eurosceptic backing after telling the 1922 Committee he would pull the Tories out of the centre-right European People's Party. That decision has dogged him since in his relations with Merkel, but if he gets the EPP on board he'll say it was all worth it. Ditto his lobbying against Juncker may not ultimately have harmed this EU reform deal. In the end, Cameron knows the EU needs the UK as much as it needs the EU. That's the real Realpolitik.
2) SHOTS FIRED
No.10 sounds pretty confident that all the obstacles can be overcome. And after a couple of weeks of hints otherwise, a senior source confirmed to me yesterday that there would indeed be a Cabinet meeting this Friday should the PM get the deal he wants. (As it happens, IDS met the PM for a chinwag just minutes after I tweeted the Friday concession: timing that No.10 insists was purely coincidental”).
That allowed us hacks to all wheel out the biggest cliche of all: that Cameron was set to ‘fire the starting gun’ of the EU referendum itself, within hours of the summit. If all goes to plan, the PM will whiz back to London and Downing Street will host the historic Cabinet meeting where he tells Brexit ministers he’s suspending collective responsibility and they can campaign for Leave.
It remains unclear if there will be a 'Political Cabinet' (ie one which features Boris Johnson) as well as normal Cabinet on Friday afternoon. How exactly will Boris deafen us with his 'eclat'? TV crews who doorstep him in his beanie nearly every day can maybe finally get some rest if he does side with Cameron. If he doesn't, well....
The Grassroots out rally on Friday will be packed. Will the In campaign have something similarly passionate? Will the PM do an address to the nation on telly? Let’s see.
The Times lists 12 ministers outside Cabinet who could back Brexit, from Dom Raab (a cert surely?) to John Hayes, both justice and security ministers. How forgiving will the PM be in practice, once this is all over? The difficulty is underlined when even hardline Eurosceps like Des Swayne are tempted to back the Remain camp purely out of personal loyalty to the PM.
As soon as he signed up to Twitter, Europhile Tory Nick Soames looked like he’d found a natural home for his combative talents and yesterday he proved it: “I must say to be told how to vote in Referendum by J Redwood in an email to colleagues marks a new low in my life in the House #buggeroff". Soames couldn’t resist a Twitterspat with my Lobby room colleague Robert Peston either.
3) A WEEK CASE
The Guardian has a powerful front page splash, revealing an internal Department of Health draft report which casts real doubt on Jeremy Hunt’s claims that a 7-day NHS is needed to cut weekend ‘death’ rates.
The report states the department “cannot evidence the mechanism by which increased consultant presence and diagnostic tests at weekends will translate into lower mortality and reduced length of stay”
Critics have long argued Hunt’s stats are misleading and that patients who attend hospital at weekends are far likely to be sicker or unable to access alternative palliative care services. The leaked report points out a raft of other problems: community services can’t cope with weekend discharges, 4,000 more doctors and 3,000 nurses would need recruting, the cost could be £900m.
Meanwhile the Indy has its own NHS splash, with an anonymous NHS finance director telling the Public Accounts Committee that hospitals are under pressure to ‘cook the books’ and underplay the scale of their deficits.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this hypnotic video of a murmuration of starlings in Gloucestershire. Just the sort of soothing stuff we all need today amid all this euro-talk.
4) MARRIAGE FLOP
Labour has had some fun with new stats showing that just 8% of those eligible had claimed the Tory tax break for married couples. Jonathan Ashworth has denounced the figure as an “utter flop”.
The prime minister said that 4 million married couples and 15,000 civil partners would benefit but Tory MPs have long warned that the allowance, worth £4 a week (you read that right), was too tiny to get folks to sign up. IDS is pushing for the tax break to be raised, as is his former think tank the Centre for Social Justice (which hosts Justine Greening today, talking about social mobility, including her own).
Still, the Treasury will be pleased at the Times story today that it will get a windfall of more than £20 billion in next month’s budget because of tumbling government borrowing costs and lower-than-expected inflation.
5) HOUSEY HOUSEY
The Treasury was equally pleased at a new Resolution Foundation report claiming that many families are now better off than they have been at any time since the recession. The average household disposable income is now £24,300 a year and has not been higher since 2009 – just before the effects of the recession hit.
But there’s bad news for the worst off, who will see their incomes fall by 2020. And there’s bad news in a separate study by the think tank on housing for young people. Those aged 16-34 now account for just 10 per cent of homeowners, down from 19 per cent in 1998 – a 49 per cent drop. If home ownership were to continue to decline at the same rate in London, it would “all but end by 2025”, dropping below 1-in-20.
Meantime, the Government's own Help to Buy analysis has found that 3% of all loans - just short of 2,000 - were granted households with an income of more than £100,000.
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