The Waugh Zone Friday May 11, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Keeping her party happy over grammar schools is a minor headache for Theresa May, compared to the ongoing migraine of splits over post-Brexit customs plans. Ahead of next Tuesday’s sub-Cabinet committee on the vexed topic, the PM’s latest solution is to assign individual ministers to work on improving each of the two options. The Times, Sun and ITV all got wind of the plan to create two new ‘working groups’ to refine the options. Liam Fox, Michael Gove and David Lidington are in charge of refining the ‘crazy’ customs partnership, while David Davis, Greg Clark and Karen Bradley will review the ‘highly streamlined’ customs arrangement option.

Some Brexiteers are scathing about Greg Clark’s dire warnings that ditching the partnership idea could devastate our car industry. One Cabinet minister has told our Owen (read his Brexit Briefing here): “Greg appears to be re-fighting the referendum, this is Project Fear 3.0. Instead of listening to vested interests he should pay more attention to the 17.4 million who voted to take back control of our trade policy.” The car industry are indeed a ‘vested interest’, but Government’s don’t normally describe them as such.

Still, criticising each option is the easy bit. The hard bit is coming up with ways of making them more palatable politically and more workable practically. If the combined brains of the civil service can’t do either, what chance have the politicians? One answer, yet again, is delay. The new working groups mean progress may not happen until the week after next. Yesterday Andrea Leadsom announced the coming Parliamentary business for the next fortnight and there was no mention of the EU Withdrawal Bill (laden with 14 Lords amendments) coming before MPs.

The Telegraph reports that Gove fears Brussels will use the threat of a hard border in Northern Ireland to hold the UK ‘hostage’ over Brexit, which is unfortunate phraseology to say the least. But there’s more. Steve Swinford reveals Gove made his remarks to a private dinner, warning the EU’s ‘backstop’ idea could be ‘trojan horse’. Meanwhile, Jacob Rees-Mogg appeared on BBC Northern Ireland last night to set out why he didn’t need to visit the region. “I don’t think my visiting the border is really going to give me a fundamental insight into the border, beyond what one can get from studying it” (Watch the clip HERE).

Exactly two years on from the launch of Boris’s Brexit bus, rival Leave.EU was fined £70k this morning for breaking rules on EU referendum spending. But there is a bigger politics in play in all this, especially given the ‘vested interests’ mentioned above. Remainer Tories fear that just as May wasted the party’s strong card on the economy in last year’s general election, she also risks undermining free market economics by backing any Brexit that curbs trade and jobs. By saying ‘some things are more important than free trade [ie sovereignty]’, they worry May will concede vital territory to Jeremy Corbyn, whose main message is roughly ‘many, many things are more important than free trade’. Economic nationalism/populism is a dangerous game for a Conservative party to play, especially when it can be outbid by the Left. The next few weeks may tell us which side May’s really on.

Theresa May’s spectacular loss of her Commons majority last year has meant she has had to junk a fair few manifesto promises. Plans to create a grammar school in every town were among the most notable casualties, but Education Secretary Damian Hinds is today at least trying to reassure Tory MPs and newspapers that all is not lost. A £50m fund for selective schools to build more classrooms has become a ‘New Dawn for Grammars’, according to the Mail, which says it will mean 2,000 more places. The Telegraph, which has an interview with Hinds, says it could mean 14,000 new places.

The backlash from teaching unions like the National Association of Head Teachers has been swift. But note too that Michael Gove’s former special adviser Sam Freedman was scathing on Twitter: “2000 places split over seven year groups. 300 new places for each cohort of 650k kids. A ‘new dawn’. Laughable.” Freedman is not a fan of grammar expansion, but many Tory MPs believe that parents will like the extra choice and that even 2,000 places means 2,000 changed lives. It’s also true that £50m is relatively speaking a drop in the ocean (0.1% of the DfE budget), but it’s big enough to get critics saying it could be better spent on schools suffering cuts.

Hinds has also ditched a plan to make it easier for religious groups to open free schools, preferring instead to divert cash to a new generation of ‘voluntary aided’ faith schools. But to my mind the more interesting policy buried away in the Green Paper could well be on private education. The Times Education Supplement (TES) reveals that the Government has dumped plans to remove charitable status tax breaks from independent schools that failed to meet ‘benchmarks’ on joint-working with state schools.

Way back in the heady days of 2016, the Dfe vowed: “We think it is essential that independent schools deliver these new benchmarks. If they do not, we will consider legislation to ensure that those independent schools that do not observe these new benchmarks cannot enjoy the benefits associated with charitable status, and to result in the Charity Commission revising its formal guidance to independent schools on how to meet the public benefit test, putting the new benchmarks on to a statutory footing.” Now, instead of sanctions, there are just ‘partnership’ proposals and a “joint understanding” with the Independent Schools Council will be published. Maybe this is a political quid pro quo: no fully-fledged grammar expansion, so no crackdown on private schools either. But it’s all a long way from the rallying cries of Theresa May on the steps of No.10.

Tory vice chair Kemi Badenoch is seen as one of the more ‘normal’ MPs of the 2017 intake. Yesterday, at a Parliamentary event, she urged her party to chill out over the whole row over Oxford students pulling down Theresa May’s photo from their geography department (May was a geography graduate). While she was ‘glad the photo is up’, she told colleagues not to get too irate at students being, well, students. “I also think people should be allowed to say ‘I don’t like Mrs May’, ‘I don’t like Mrs Thatcher’ without the Right getting all sweaty about it. That’s part of free speech.” For good measure, she added: “I have a huge problem with calling young people snowflakes,” she said. “We shouldn’t be doing that.”

Meanwhile, Tory backbencher Philip Davies was busy in the tea room getting ‘sweaty’ with DCMS minister Tracey Crouch, ‘verbally attacking’ her over plans to cut the stake in fixed odds betting terminals to £2. Labour MP Graham Jones was the eye witness, pointing out Davies is a big backer of the gambling industry. The Times revealed yesterday that Esther McVey, a close friend of Davies’, had been leading the ministerial opposition to the crackdown on the ‘crack cocaine’ gaming machines. Still, Iain Duncan Smith, McVey’s former boss at the DWP and a big supporter of hers, disagrees. He was among 40 MPs to sign a cross-party letter urging the PM to take tough action.

Here’s yet another example of policing, US-style as an officer uses a choke-hold to arrest a man at a waffle shop.

Sadiq Khan has become Jamie Oliver’s favourite politician this morning, with the celeb chef tweeting that his new plans to ban junk food from London transport is “a lesson in how to lead”. If the proposal is approved, all adverts for “unhealthy food and drink” will be banned on the London Underground, Overground, buses and bus shelters. It’s unclear however where Khan will get other ads to fill the £13m hole left by banning Maccy Ds et al.

The Mayor of London says he wants to tackle the “ticking time bomb” of child obesity in the capital. And here’s a key stat: capital has one of the highest child overweight and obesity rates in Europe, with almost 40% of children aged 10 and 11 either overweight or obese. Russell Viner, president of the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health, said advertising was “one of the leading contributors for the growth of child obesity”, adding: “It is therefore vital, especially in cities like London where deprivation is high, that it is tackled.”

A week after the local elections gave us real votes in real ballot boxes, opinion polls are back to pose questions about each of the parties’ strengths. Yesterday’s YouGov showed Theresa May extended her lead over Corbyn in the ‘best PM’ stakes, although the finding is kinda academic, given that she almost certainly will never again be allowed to lead her party into a general election. More interesting was an internal Labour survey obtained by the Times that read across from the local elections and found the party’s support had increased in 23 Westminster seats – but had fallen in 20 others.

The analyst Ian Warren is often one of the most fascinating people on longer term shifts showing increasing Labour support in cities, but increasing Tory support in small towns. He also has a Guardian pieceshowing younger, better-educated people who move out of London are causing the Conservatives problems in the south east. Yet here’s another remarkable spot of Ian’s: among social classes ‘C2DE’, the Tories are now on 43% to Labour’s 40%. That’s a big shift from January when the figures were 35% Tory, 46% Labour. The Policy Network think tank has a big report out today, stressing Labour cannot win a Parliamentary majority by piling up votes in metropolitan areas. That’s last week’s Nuneaton and Amber Valley losses for Labour writ large.


Our latest Commons People podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Boris’s unsackability, what next for Ed Miliband, Iran and Trump. Oh and we learn about Owen’s university drinking days. And have the usual weekly quiz. Click HERE to listen on iTunes and HERE for Audioboom.

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