This morning’s Waugh Zone is written by Owen Bennett.
1) Civil War
And so it continues.
After yesterday’s extraordinary exchange in the Commons, where Brexit Minister Steve Baker seemed to give credence to rumours Treasury civil servants were intentionally trying to sabotage the UK leaving the Customs Union, Jacob Rees-Mogg doubled down on the suggestion last night.
The MP told an event at the Mile End Institute in East London he believes civil servants are complicit in the “orchestration” of a pro-Remain conspiracy, citing the sequence of events from the CBI calling for the UK to stay in the Customs Union, Chancellor Philip Hammond then praising the CBI, and then a leak of a “Treasury-designed economic model saying the only thing to do is stay in the Customs Union.”
He added: “You just wonder if there isn’t a pattern in that, whether there is some orchestration rather than a constellation of the stars.”
While Rees-Mogg was doubling down, Baker was rowing back. Audio emerged of the debate with Charles Grant from the Centre of European Research showing he had not claimed Treasury civil servants had “deliberately developed a model to show that all options other than staying in the customs union were bad” – as per Rees-Mogg’s claim in the Commons.
Baker had initially said he had heard the claim, and Downing Street even backed him up, with a spokesman telling reporters there was “no reason” to doubt the Minister’s account.
But on Twitter last night Baker issued a correction, saying that although he had answered “based on my honest recollection of a conversation” he was wrong.
He added “I will apologise to Charles Grant, who is an honest and trustworthy man. As I have put on record many times, I have the highest regard for our hard working civil servants. I will clarify my remarks to the House.”
For Theresa May, that seems to be the end of it. She told Channel 5 News she would not be sacking Baker, saying: “The ministerial code says that the minister should take the earliest opportunity to amend the record that has given to Parliament and apologise to Parliament. He will do that.”
As my New York based colleague Graeme Deminayk pointed out last night, UK politicians seem to be following the US’s lead by adopting ‘deep state’ conspiracy theories.
2) Customs Check
Before he jetted off to China with the Prime Minister earlier this week, Liam Fox risked the wrath of hard-core Brexiteers by telling them they will have to “live with disappointment” with the Government’s EU deal thanks to May’s small Commons majority.
He claimed his remarks had been taken out of context, and in a bid to shore up support with the Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world – and counter rumours all that time fratenising with Remainers had rubbed off on him - he has declared the UK should not be involved with any EU customs union after Brexit.
The International Trade Secretary told Bloomberg TV that it was “very difficult” to see how any model that replicated current arrangements would free Britain from Brussels’s own priorities on trade.
Fox said: “It is very difficult to see how being in a customs union is compatible with having an independent trade policy, because we would therefore be depending on what the European Union negotiated in terms of its trading policies and we ’d be following behind that,” he said.
Theresa May and Chancellor Philip Hammond have consistently left open the option of joining ‘a customs union’ once the UK finally severs ties with the EU.
The FT reported last night that discussions in Whitehall are “live” over whether the UK could strike a customs union deal covering trade in goods with the EU.
The paper says it has three sources on the story, and one official close to May said: “If we can find a way of keeping goods in the customs union and retaining some independence on trade — particularly on services — we should look at it.”
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3) Over Compensate
On the domestic front, and NHS spending leads two of the papers this morning. The Telegraph reports the leaders of the NHS Confederation, the British Medical Association and the Academy of Medical Royal Colleges have written to Justice Secretary David Gauke calling for cuts in compensation payouts.
The NHS is facing a bill of £65billion for liability payments if all current compensation claims are successful, a rise from £29 billion in 2014/15.
In February last year, then-Justice Secretary Liz Truss approved a change in the law which meant higher sums could be awarded to victims of medical incompetence.
The first case under the changes, which came into effect in April 2017, saw East Lancashire Hospitals trust forced to nearly triple its payout to a 10-year-old girl left with cerebral palsy from £3.8million to £9.3million.
The letter says: “We fully accept there must be reasonable compensation for patients harmed through clinical negligence but this needs to be balanced against society’s ability to pay.
“This is money that could be spent on frontline care. Given the wider pressures on the healthcare system, the rising cost of clinical negligence is already having an impact on what the NHS can provide.”
One area where it seems the NHS could save money is on buying moisturiser. The Times reports this morning that the owner of Boots charged the health service £1,579 bill for a 500ml tub of cream for patients with skin problems in 2016. The cream has also been sold for as little as £1.73.
It seems companies are exploiting a loophole around medicines dubbed “specials”. “These are custom-made for patients who need non-standard medicines and include bespoke mixtures of skin creams for eczema and drugs in liquid form for those who struggle to swallow pills,” reports the Times.
Deirdre Buckley, chairwoman of the specials working group at the British Association of Dermatologists, told the paper that manufacturers were significantly overcharging.
“For many dermatology specials the ingredients aren’t expensive and it’s inexplicable why they cost so much,” Dr Buckley said. “It’s not right. We have a duty to conserve the resources of the taxpayer so that the money is used to actually care for patients.”
The Department of Health and Social Care called the practice “completely unacceptable” and tightened up laws would come into force from April.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR
Sure, everyone loves Matt Hancock now he has his own app, but what about his early, edgy days when he belted out ‘Don’t Stop Me Now’ by Queen. I was there. It still haunts me.
4) Land? Mine!
For many, Jeremy Corbyn is all about hope. But according to The Guardian, he is planning to take hope away – from landowners that is.
The paper is reporting today that a Corbyn-led Government would remove the “hope value” from land sales in a bid to get more homes built.
The “hope value” means the value of planning permission is factored into the price of land when it is bought by the state under compulsory purchase orders.
Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey has calculated such a move would significantly reduce the cost of building council homes, as local authorities would be able to buy land on the cheap. His estimate is it would cut the cost of building 100,000 council houses a year by almost £10bn to around £16bn.
While such a move very much fits into Labour’s view of the world, it does seem to have support with Tories as well. Nick Boles, who has long argued for radical thinking when it comes to solving the housing crisis, has attacked the current Section 106 system – which tries to claim back money from developers for infrastructure work after permission has been granted.
The Guardian reports that Boles accepts “there will be mass opposition” to radical changes, “but there aren’t that many landowners and they are not a huge voting block.”
Boles added: “Not all Conservatives would naturally feel comfortable with this but I have been struck by the positive reaction.”
5) War On Cancer
Prostate cancer is now a bigger killer in the UK than breast cancer, according to figures released by the charity Prostate Cancer UK.
The figures for 2015 showed that 11,819 men died in the UK from prostate cancer, with breast cancer the cause of death of 11,442 women.
The charity’s chief executive Angela Culhane said detection and treatment for prostate cancer had not benefited from “the big game-changing advances that breast cancer has had” – and pointed out that twice as much money for research goes to breast cancer as prostate cancer.
According to the charity, while 72,513 pieces of research had been published on prostate cancer since 1999, more than 146,000 had been published on breast cancer.
The Daily Mail refused to pass up the opportunity to turn this into a ‘battle of the sexes’ story, splashing with the headline: “Is this a case of bias against men?”
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