The five things you need to know on Monday, January 9…
1) MINDS, THE GAP
The New Year is the perfect time for a PM to try to frame their premiership and No10 will be quite pleased at their handiwork of the last few days. As she battles to prove there’s political life ‘beyond Brexit’, Theresa May has shrewdly chosen mental health as a key plank of her new credo of a “shared society”.
The contrast with her last major foray into domestic policy could not be greater. The grammar schools kite-flying last autumn was instantly divisive, both within and without her party, and the proposals felt rushed and unformed. Mental health provision generates much more consensus, tapping into a wider sense that as a society we are finally recognising that anxiety, depression and other conditions have been neglected for too long.
HuffPost has long campaigned for better children’s mental health services, as our YoungMindsMatter series last year highlighted. In an exclusive blog for us today, the PM praises the work of the media and charities, but makes clear it’s time for government to deliver on its promise to end the gap between physical and mental healthcare. Showing a passion (and compassion) that her aides have long wanted her to display, May writes that “no parent should feel helpless when watching their child suffer…no child should ever be left to feel like their life is not worth living”.
Of course, the task of government is to match the poetry of rhetoric with the prose of policy. Campaigners have welcomed the new pledge to give all secondary schools specialist training and a fresh impetus to ending the scandal of children travelling hundreds of miles for care. A review of workplace discrimination (jointly run by Peter Mandelson’s old friend Lord Stevenson) and an end to the cost of GP forms proving your condition are welcome. But as Labour’s Luciana Berger points out, cuts to school nurses, pastoral care staff, youth workers and children’s centre staff have made things worse in recent years.
And the big issue is still funding. And although extra money was pledged by David Cameron only a year ago for mental health, former minister Norman Lamb tells us of the “criminal” raid on funding by local commissioning groups set up by Andrew Lansley. Will the PM ensure that money is ring-fenced from now on, rather than used for other priorities? With May herself pointing out that mental illness costs the country £102bn, that’s surely a smart investment. Jeremy Hunt admitted on Today that funding had been ‘patchy’.
2) CRISIS, WHAT CRISIS?
As common as New Year’s political resolutions at this time of year are stories about the NHS ‘winter health crisis’. And with social care now at breaking point many people, medics included, are warning that 2017 could be one of the worst. The PM all but uttered the words ‘crisis, what crisis?’ on Sophy Ridge’s new SkyNews programme yesterday, ducking the question of whether an emergency injection of funds is needed.
May appeared to turn down Jeremy Corbyn’s request for an emergency statement on the NHS, but maybe there could be an Urgent Question from Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth? The Red Cross’s arresting line about a ‘humanitarian crisis’ certainly ensured that No.10 didn’t get their own way this weekend. The Sun today splashes on ‘Kill By Mouth’, a report that two people a day are dying of thirst or starvation in hospitals or care homes.
Hunt was on the Today programme if we make it “just about money, we miss a trick”, when standards of care were just as important. But he also did a big ‘thank you’ to NHS staff, pointing out Tuesday was the busiest day in the service’s history.
And there are some in Labour who know that worries about the NHS weren’t the panacea to its own problems in the 2015 general election. The party is hammering it home in Copeland, where a hospital is under threat, but MPs know that in the Sleaford by-election (where Labour came fourth), the NHS had no impact. Caroline Flint told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night: “It’s always about ‘crisis... the NHS is on its knees.’ The truth is, that is not winning an election for Labour. We’ve got to be a bit more grown up about this.”
3) THE HAIR APPARENT
One of the most extraordinary moments of Sophy Ridge On Sunday came right near the end when she put Donald Trump’s ‘grab them by the pussy’ remarks to the PM. Hearing the words aloud brought home just how Teflon-coated Trump’s campaign was in the end, and May stresed the special relationship was “bigger than the relationship between two individuals”.
Overnight, we discovered that Boris Johnson is in Washington on a hastily arranged trip to meet Trump’s team, including Breitbart man Steve Bannon and the President-Elect’s son-in-law. Talks on policy were ‘frank’ we’re told, which is code for ‘Boris got serious folks’. Note that the PM gave a strong hint on Sky that Trump told her he would stand by Nato’s Article 5 to defend fellow members: "from the conversations I've had, the US remains committed to Nato”.
Today, Bojo meets Congressional leaders with foreign policy expertise. I’m told that he will be pushing hard on fears among Republicans on Capitol Hill about Russia’s links to Iran. On Syria, the UK’s demands for a post-Assad settlement will feature too. May will go to the White House in the spring, but it may be some time before Boris meets the other most famous hairdo in Western politics (that infamous grafitto from the EU referendum didn’t stop either of them).
The Guardian has great fun disinterring some of Boris’s previous quotes about Trump after his Islam ban idea (“clearly out of his mind….stupefying ignorance… unfit for office”), to contrast with his recent defence of Trump against the “whinge-o-rama” by his critics. He’s a big man and he’s out of shape, but Boris would surely win the Olympic gold in verbal and political gymnastics.
Nearly a year ago, the Commons was debating if Trump should be banned from the UK (BBC Parliament re-transmitted the debate this weekend). But the President-Elect still faces some backflips of his own, as former Mexican president Vicente Fox tweeted: “TRUMP, when will you understand that I am not paying for that fucken wall. Be clear with US tax payers. They will pay for it.” And that was not from a parody account.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Meryl Streep at the Golden Globes awards as she highlights one ‘performance’ of the year - Trump’s imitation of a disabled reporter.
4) BREX APPEAL
It’s apt that there’s a renewed focus on Russia right now, but the real Kremlinology comes in trying to work out just exactly what Theresa May wants Brexit to look like. On SkyNews she reformulated previous statements to nudge just a little further towards what sounded like ‘full Brexit’ (copyright Eurosceptics) aka ‘Hard Brexit’ (copyright Remainers).
In yet another hint that she wants to quit the single market and the customs union, May said it was all about “getting the right relationship, not about keeping bits of membership.” “We will be able to have control of our borders, control of our laws, but we still want the best possible deal for U.K. companies to be able to trade in and within the EU”.
It’s slowly dawning on many that May is serious about putting border control ahead of single market membership, appearing to take the DD line that the UK has to call Europe’s bluff on trade and tariffs. The real issue is still whether the PM can persuade the EU27 to agree a transitional deal to take the cliff-edge off our hard/clean Brexit.
Within hours of the EU referendum result, May got the reality of Brexit quicker than any other fellow ‘reluctant Remainer’. And she ‘got it’ that the UK’s loveless marriage to the EU now had to end in divorce. May is like the divorcee who is ready to give her ex the big house, most of the CD collection and the car, and is willing to pay some alimony for access to the kids. She’s just relieved to be out of there - and she’ll never be forced to host his relatives ever again. And as with many divorces, Eurosceptics think it’s worth living in a bedsit for a bit until they get a bigger place of their own again. Just how long or how difficult life in that bedsit will be, we have yet to see.
Today, Michael Gove writes for BrexitCentral that we are ‘trapped’ inside the single market and customs union: “We need to deliver a full Brexit, not settle for fake Brexit”. Think tank Civitas claimed that even if Britain failed to get a post-Brexit trade deal with the EU and had to operate under World Trade Organisation rules, it would not lose out.
As for Labour, its confusion over Brexit and freedom of movement continues. Keir Starmer told the World This Weekend that ‘the economy comes first’ (which sounded like ‘soft Brexit’) but that immigration was a priority (which sounds kinda harder). Tom Watson on Sky said Labour would lose the election if it failed to connect on immigration. Yet neither managed to square the circle of trade and migration any more successfully than the PM.
And the East Anglian Daily Press reports how popular May is proving in the grassroots. Tory membership in North-West and South-West Norfolk associations had increased by between 25pc and 30pc since last June, and included new joiners as well as people returning. And the party says it has increased members in more mariginal Norwich too.
5) LIGHTNING STRIKES
Given that most of the Metropolitan Elite work in central London, you can expect a high profile for the Zone1 London Underground strike today. As with the Southern Rail dispute, the unions say it’s all about safety, with more passengers and fewer staff.
Southern commuters face more misery with three days of industrial action planned this week over the role of conductors with franchise owners Govia Thameslink Rail. BA cabin crew will strike on Tuesday and Wednesday, while the boss of Northern Rail warned that industrial action on the rail network is “inevitable”.
A government source tells the Daily Telegraph: "This action is clearly co-ordinated to inflict maximum pain on hard working commuters”. Sadiq Khan, who vowed not to have Londoners suffer a single day of strikes, finally got on the Today prog (was the radio car or his car stuck in traffic?).
He condemned the strike as “completely unnecessary” - but added he accepts the union’s argument the stations need more staff. “There is a legitimate concern about the lack of staff at stations”. Transport for London made a new offer to the TSSA union yesterday but it wasn’t enough. Maybe we will get questions about this in Parliament today - as well as Labour's leadership position.
It is traditional for Labour leaders to address the PLP at the start of a New Year term - but latest word is Jeremy Corbyn may not be present, which may not help MPs' mood (he's going next week apparently). As the PLP meets tonight, I suspect they will be less sanguine than Shami Chakrabarti is about the dire polling position of the party.
Friday's YouGov survey showed that just 14% believe Corbyn would make the best UK leader (his lowest ever), compared to 47% for Theresa May. But PoliticsHome has got hold of a new video of an Oxford Union Q&A reveals the Shadow Attorney General saying: "People that base their values on polls are mistaken, and people that base their predictions on polls it would seem are also mistaken...in the end, it’s values, not polls for me." She's right that polls have proved spectacularly inadequate guides in 2016. Yet as even some around Jezza now accept, no poll has overestimated progressive support in the UK in recent history.
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