The Waugh Zone Friday May 18, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

As I pointed out yesterday, time is Theresa May’s real enemy on Brexit. But as the clock ticks down, it has also proved difficult for Brexiteers too. Apart from Jacob Rees-Mogg’s lines about ‘purgatory’ and Boris Johnson’s harrumphing in the Cabinet sub-committee on Tuesday, the PM seems to have so far succeeded in securing Tory agreement for her new plan to avoid chaos on the Northern Irish border. If it means extending EU customs rules for a few more months beyond the current December 2020 transition deadline (and certainly no longer than the 2022 general election), May can probably get away without a major backlash. DUP MP Sammy Wilson has told the Telegraph he would rather walk away without a deal than stay in a customs union into 2021. But Iain Duncan Smith, a real weathervane of Tory backbench opinion, told the Today programme he was not opposed to an extension of “a month or two” as part of a “very, very limited” delay. No.10 will be pretty pleased with that.

The more serious problem is whether Brussels or Dublin (or Paris or Berlin) is prepared to allow it. Leo Varadkar welcomed May’s shift in position after meeting her for bilateral talks yesterday but had this warning: “Any move on customs with the UK would be welcome but I need to be very clear that avoiding a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland is about more than customs. The single market and aspects related to regulation are important as well.” And Varadkar has the full authority of the EU here. It’s worth repeating this. I understand Brussels is dead against a ‘pick and mix’ of extensions of rules on bits of customs. It thinks that if the UK wants more time it will have to apply formally for an extension of the entire transition period (with the implication it will cost us more money too after the EU’s new budget in 2020). One hope was the flexibility on timing could be inserted to the ‘future relationship’ deal, while sticking to December 2020 red-line deadline in the ‘withdrawal’ treaty. But Brussels thinks that’s illogical, captain.

Buying time was certainly the tactic yesterday as Commons leader Andrea Leadsom confirmed to MPs that the EU Withdrawal Bill will not be considered by MPs again until after the upcoming week-long Whitsun recess. No.10 also refused to confirm that the legislation will be passed before the Commons rises for the summer at the end of July. It took Labour’s Jenny Chapman to remind us of the original title that ministers had wanted for this bill: “Theresa May’s flagship Brexit legislation has gone from being the Great Repeal Bill to the Great Delayed Bill.”

Labour too has its divisions over Europe of course. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock has given an interview to HuffPost in which he tells Labour MPs to “vote for the country” (and not necessarily their party) when the Lords’ EEA amendment eventually returns to the Commons. He’s also backing a ‘Labour Say’ campaign for a referendum on the final deal. In the Lewisham East Labour selection contest could be a key test of just how strongly members feel on all this. In a fascinating test of the strength of Momentum, their candidate Sakina Sheikh tweeted that she will not follow Heidi Alexander’s lead in defying Corbyn’s whip on Brexit. In a heavily-Remain constituency, will members put loyalty to Corbyn ahead of Brexit worries? Rival Janet Daby says the UK should ‘remain in both the single market and the customs union’. The selection is tomorrow at 9.30am, before the Royal Wedding hoopla, so we’ll find out then.

John Bercow really looks on borrowed time now. The Telegraph’s Harry Yorke had the scoop that during an angry aside on Wednesday in the Commons, the Speaker referred to Andrea Leadsom as a “stupid woman” who was “f*cking useless”. Most importantly, the Speaker’s office has not denied that he used such language. A spokesperson said: “Wednesday was an unusual and controversial day in how business was handled in the House by the government and some strong and differing views were expressed on all sides on the subject.”

Bercow was upset that the Government had again used its own statements to eat into Opposition Day time on Wednesday. That’s a legitimate concern for a Speaker. Yet the language he used suggests he really does have an anger management problem, as well as a lack of respect for women that runs counter to his years of professed feminism. Both perceived failings could spell the end of his career in the Speaker’s chair. And if so, BBC’s Newsnight deserves real credit for exposing them.

Even his supporters on the Labour benches have noticed Bercow’s tendency to patronise, mock and belittle MPs. I personally think it is extraordinary that he insists on a lame impersonation of Ken Clarke whenever he calls him to speak (Bercow thinks his ‘Claaaaaaark’ mimicry is funny), no matter how grave the subject matter. But it’s the apparent hypocrisy that is dawning on MPs too. The new intake were told by Bercow last year they were every bit as important as more long-standing members, yet he frequently chides them for not following procedure. He will also slap down MPs for asking long questions, but does so with a verbosity that robs members of time themselves.

The Sun says Leadsom herself didn’t hear Bercow’s alleged ‘stupid woman’ remark. But yesterday she got her own back, making plain she had wanted an investigation into his alleged bullying. She told one MP: “I completely agree with the right honourable gentleman’s basic premise that nobody in this place should be bullied and, where we believe that there is wrongdoing, we should be free to investigate it.” If Bercow doesn’t announce by this summer’s recess his plan to step aside, he may well face the humiliation of being forced out by Labour MPs who once supported him so strongly.

Dame Judith Hackitt proved yesterday that appointing ‘independent’ experts is no guarantee that difficult policy areas can be somehow magically be set free from politics. She started off badly yesterday and it was downhill all the way afterwards. On the Today programme she struggled to explain why her review had failed to recommend an outright ban on combustible cladding. That was followed by an almost comical U-turn, saying that perhaps she should have recommended a ban. Then Housing Secretary James Brokenshire announced he would consult on a ban. It was not a coincidence that the panicked responses came after David Lammy, who has a moral authority ministers cannot ignore these days, declared the review a ‘whitewash’.

But things looked even worse later, when she told reporters “I am not an expert on Grenfell” and “has not looked into the details” of the fire that killed 71 people. With a Whitehallese worthy of Sir Humphrey Appleby, she declared her review was instead “triggered by the discovery that there were many other buildings that were not safe”. That’s true, but to say also that “my review was not triggered by the tragedy at Grenfell” was just plain daft.

On Question Time last night housing minister Dominic Raab said: “I’m sorry it’s taken so long” [to respond to Grenfell]. Meanwhile, a new report says four million homes are needed to solve the UK’s ‘epic’ housing crisis. Brokenshire needs to get a handle on his new brief rather quickly.

Like most newborns, twin brothers Caleb and Weston Lyman were wailing pretty loudly soon after entering the big wide world. But watch what happens when a nurse places them cheek to cheek. As a twin myself, it just shows how special your wombmate can be.

Will Theresa May really be cynical enough to use the cover of the Royal Wedding to bury her latest attempt to pack the Lords with new Tory peers? The Daily Mirror splashes on a great quote it has from a source close to the Cabinet Office’s Honours Committee: “This has been on and off, on and off for months, but they’re likely to do it this weekend. They believe the Royal Wedding will be a good time to bury bad news.”

The ‘weekend’ could even include today, as No.10 considers when to reveal the news that a string of former MPs – including Eric Pickles, Peter Lilley, Andrew Tyrie, Edward Garnier, Julian Brazier – will get their ermine coats. As HuffPost revealed earlier this year, the DUP will get a peer and the Mirror says it could be Willie McCrea. For Labour, Kate Osamor’s mum Martha is the lead contender, but will former general secretary Iain McNicol get a peerage too? Let’s see.

The Sun and Times both reveal that the UK is considering up to 400 more troops to Afghanistan to train local forces following an upsurge in violence. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson has written to the PM to make the request, and the MoD wants the Treasury to fund the extra deployment, Harry Cole reveals. The Times adds that the real backdrop is reassuring Donald Trump that Nato still matters, and that May will make the announcement at the Nato summit in July. Trump said last night that countries that did not meet 2% the target for defence spending (ie Germany) would be “dealt with”.

Meanwhile, the MoD is quietly looking at fresh plans for Yemen, according to Tory MP and former Army man Bob Seely. Blogging for HuffPost along with expert Dr Elisabeth Kendall, he argues for military and development help for tribespeople in eastern Yemen. The plan could help the UK boost our ally Oman, combat Al Qaeda and be a smarter approach than relying on the Saudis. It’s the kind of grassroots approach that often gets overlooked. Seely drafted a similar plan for the MoD when he was in the Army. Kendall is a modern-day ‘Lauren of Arabia’ with deep knowledge of the tribes and the region. I understand that we will get more clarity on the new strategy within the next few weeks. Keep an eye on this one, folks.


Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Grenfell, Labour’s EEA rebels, the Tories’ gift for reinvention and more. And amid the ticket sales problem for JezFest, a quiz on Red Wedge. Listen HERE on iTunes and HERE on audioboom.

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