1. FRIDAY WRITE-DOWNS
It’s Black Friday, but few are expecting Theresa May to get an immediate discount deal on Brexit as she meets EU council president Donald Tusk offline in Brussels today. The Telegraph reports that while May will confirm her offer to increase our divorce bill payments, the EU is playing hardball and insisting on written guarantees. There’s word too that May could have a bilateral meeting with Angela Merkel in the margins of today’s meeting.
The day after our own Budget forecast gloom, the FT reports that the eurozone economy powered ahead in November, with 17-year highs in new manufacturing orders and jobs growth. And Irish broadcaster RTE has a leaked document showing EU officials think the UK’s Brexit negotiations have been chaotic and incoherent, branding Boris Johnson ‘unimpressive’. Ian Forrester, the British judge on the European Court of Justice for the past two years, candidly told Irish diplomats that there were “issues around the quality of politicians in Westminster at present” and that ministers still don’t ‘grasp’ the complexity of quitting the EU.
Michael Gove was on the Today programme and was very reluctant to confirm the Cabinet had agreed to up its financial offer, stating only that “I think the Prime Minister has the right negotiating stance”. But the Sun reports that Gove has won a Cabinet battle with Philip Hammond and Amber Rudd to allow the UK to make a ‘clean break’ with EU regulations even in a transitional period. A Cabinet source told the paper: “We’ll be bringing EU regulations into UK law when we leave, but thereafter we’ll want to diverge. We won’t be rule takers. The Prime Minister is now of that view, along with Michael and Boris.” The words ‘thereafter’ and ‘want to’ could be crucial. Many ministers believe ‘divergence’ will be more theoretical than actual for two years, just as our new ‘control’ over immigration may still see roughly the same numbers coming into the UK. The exact terms of the transition itself is a whole other battle due to be waged early in the New Year, but shots have been fired by the Brexiteers.
International Trade Secretary Liam Fox is another who wants more flexibility during a transition/implementation period. And today he has built on his previous complaint that some British firms had become “too lazy and too fat” within the comfy confines of EU. He tells The House magazine: “I can agree as many trade agreements as I like, but if British business doesn’t want to export, then that doesn’t do us any good.” The DUP’s annual conference takes place tomorrow and will see more journos present than ever before. But anyone expecting swivel-eyed, angry Ulstermen talking about social issues like abortion and gay rights are likely to be disappointed. A hard line on Brexit, in Gove and Fox style, could be the main story.
2. LOST, DECAYED
Chancellor and PM looked pretty comfortable on a joint visit to Leeds yesterday, but while their internal party disquiet has been put on hold by the Budget, there’s public unease about more “lost decades” of wage growth. ‘Day Two’ analysis by the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Resolution Foundation both underscored just how dire the earnings squeeze now was. And most worrying of all to ministers will be testimony like that of young mother Adele, from Basildon. On the BBC News At Tenlast night, she said: “I’ve been working for years and I haven’t had a pay rise in years…food’s gone up, rent’s gone up, you are literally working to live, working to survive.” You don’t need an overnight ‘pasty tax’ disaster for a Budget to cause slow-burn, long-term decay to your political prospects.
The backlash over the lack of cash for the NHS (and police, schools and councils) could well wipe the smile from the Chancellor’s face too. The Mail reports how NHS chiefs will meet next week to consider fresh rationing of everything from painkillers to routine operations. With Hammond’s £2.6bn way below the £4bn demanded, the Health Service Journal quotes one NHS boss saying: “This level of funding still means we’ve got to decide which of the children to shoot first.”
Meanwhile, the Chancellor’s Parliamentary Aide Kwasi Kwarteng has reminded everyone that he was a staunch Leaver in the EU referendum campaign, unlike his Remainer boss. Asked on Radio 5 Live (with Emma Barnett proving what a canny journalist she is once more) about the infamous Boris Bus claim that Brexit would deliver £350m a week for the NHS, Kwarteng replied: “I think actually that we could deliver that. That’s my own view. That’s a personal view…It would be possible, if you were a Chancellor or someone leading a government, to use that money on the NHS…That is the truth”. The truth, you hear. And nothing but the truth. We’ve done ‘3 Bits of Bad News Buried By The Budget’, as well as five things everyone can cheer about the Budget (including the plastics ban).
3. AWKWARD SQUAD
Westminster sex harassment claims are back in the news, not least as Labour’s Ivan Lewis was formally suspended yesterday over for alleged inappropriate conduct. Lewis strongly disputes the allegations, but after a BuzzFeed investigation this month said he was sorry for making women he worked with feel “awkward”. Government minister Greg Hands sniffed a conspiracy, tweeting Lewis was being dealt with more harshly than Kensington MP Emma Dent Coad (who described a black Tory rival as ‘ghetto boy’) because he was a “Jewish Blairite”. Hands later deleted the tweet.
With the Damian Green inquiry due to report soon (the Guardian quotes sources saying the probe had “run its course”), one ministerial colleague points out the First Secretary of State looked decidedly more relaxed this week than last. One very curious element in all this has been the absence of any focus on Sir Alex Allen, who is still the independent advisor on the ministerial code. When I asked the Cabinet Office, they refused to deny that the ex-joint intelligence committee chairman had played a part in the investigation, as well as ‘ethics’ chief Sue Gray. Yet if Sir Alex was involved, why not say so publicly? As I say, curious.
Meanwhile, Westminster bullying is perhaps an even bigger problem than sex harassment. The Indy reports Unite the union has a new poll of Parliamentary staffers showing one in five have been bullied by the MP they work for or by a line manager. The Telegraph reports that sexual violence specialist Dr Helen Mott is offering a cross party group of MPs specific guidance relating to rape and harassment, as they draft a new grievance procedure. And behind the scenes, all the parties are working through more allegations. How many see will the light of day is unclear.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Gotta love this video of a police dog doing press-ups with cops in Alabama.
4. UNI-REVERSAL CREDIT
While much of the focus was on the Budget’s gloomy wage and growth numbers, David Gauke’s Commons statement yesterday was well worth watching as it included yet more concessions to critics of Universal Credit. Gauke told MPs that rent payments would now continue to be paid directly to landlords rather than to tenants, answering concerns over soaring personal debt.
Yet the Work and Pensions Secretary still isn’t out of political danger, as the small print of the Budget announcements revealed that some of the changes to UC wouldn’t kick in until much later than thought. New advance payments won’t be available until January, the cut in waiting times to five weeks won’t take place until February, and the housing benefit help won’t arrive until April. No wonder charities, councils and claimants have told us that it could be a very tough Christmas indeed for some of the poorest.
5. LEO BLUR
It’s really not that hard to spell out the name of Irish PM Leo Varadkar. His name seems no more difficult to remember or say than ‘Kilclooney’, for example. But Lord Kilclooney (not even his real name as he’s the former Ulster Unionist MP John Taylor) described Varadkar yesterday in a tweet as ‘the Indian’. He later semi-apologised for any “upset and misunderstanding”, adding “I am no way racist and accept that Varadkar is 100 percent Irish Citizen”. He compounded the blunder by saying ‘the Indian’ was just ‘shorthand’ because Twitter restricted the number of characters. I think we call that a self-inflicted character-assassination.
Varadkar has a lot more on his plate than a former Ulster Unionist MP’s blundering on social media. This morning a pre-Christmas snap general election may be triggered as the Opposition Fianna Fail party table a motion of no confidence in the PM’s deputy Frances Fitzgerald. Fitzgerald is accused of interfering in the case of a police whistleblower, Varadkar stands by her. With Brexit talks looming, London is taking notice.