The Waugh Zone Friday October 26, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Guess what? Theresa May has got to another Friday and she’s still Prime Minister. Her backbench critics are in danger of sounding like those blokes who carry signs saying ‘The End Of The World Is Nigh’, only to see the planet keep on keeping on. Asked on Wednesday about the prospects of a vote of confidence in his leader, Tory MP Andrew Bridgen told Sky News on Wednesday: “I think we’re heading there this week”. MPs claim privately that more letters demanding such a vote have been sent in recent days, yet the fact remains that the tipping point has not been reached.

The PM has bought herself more time because she placated some Brexiteers with a tougher line on the vexed Northern Ireland border issue. Perhaps her most significant words of the entire week came on Monday, when she told MPs her solution to this conundrum (a temporary UK-EU joint customs territory) would be made so “legally binding…that the Northern Ireland-only proposal is no longer needed”. That cheered backbenchers like Steve Baker, and the DUP. It also underlined the power of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox, who led Cabinet demands to tell the EU its Irish ‘backstop’ plan was unacceptable.

Cox was the one who warned that agreeing to Brussels’ demands (for an indefinite insurance policy linking Northern Ireland to EU rules) would be like being stuck in Dante’s “First Circle of Hell”. Yet, as many pointed out, the first circle is a state of limbo, not fire and damnation. And the Cabinet is in a state of limbo, as May cancelled a meeting of ministers because a fully worked up proposal wasn’t yet ready. As the Sun and Bloomberg report, that proposal will go to Cabinet after the Budget is out of the way on Monday. Maybe the crunch point will come at a special meeting of ministers next Tuesday or Thursday.

Labour’s Jenny Chapman asked exactly the right questions in the House yesterday. When the PM said the EU’s solution was ‘no longer needed’, did she mean it would be cut from the Withdrawal Agreement? Or did she mean it won’t need to come into force because the UK’s plan would kick in first? Dominic Raab replied: “We will not be able to accept any Northern Ireland-specific arrangement that would leave Northern Ireland in a customs regime that was separate from that of the rest of the United Kingdom. It is as simple as that.” My guess is that the UK will allow the EU to include its wording, but will insert a unilateral break clause that will seek to make it redundant. That may be enough to get Cabinet Brexiteers over the line, if not backbenchers.

Which brings us back to failed doomsday cults. Back in the 1960s, a fringe American religious group called the Seekers predicted a cataclysmic flood was coming and that superior beings would arrive in a flying saucer to rescue them. The Seekers abandoned their jobs, possessions, and spouses, but cometh the big day neither the aliens nor the apocalypse arrived. After a tricky few hours of waiting, the group’s leader suddenly announced they “had spread so much light that God had saved the world from destruction.”

One study of unfulfilled religious prophecies shows the groups involved normally adapt by making minor adjustments to their beliefs. Maybe that will be the same with Brexiteers in coming weeks. If Theresa May makes it look like she’s killed off the EU’s plans for Ulster, and if she can avoid locking the UK into long term ties to Brussels rules, they could argue they saved us all from a Brexit fate worse than hell. And their moment of rapture, of removing May from No.10, can be revisited after next March.

Peter Hain’s audacious decision to use Parliamentary privilege to name Sir Philip Green yesterday certainly made waves. The Labour peer has been heavily criticised by judges and others, but he told Newsnight that he had had “overwhelming support – particularly from women”. Stressing that he acted after much careful thought, the former Cabinet minister said he had been contacted by someone “intimately involved” in the case. Green “categorically and wholly denies” allegations of sexual and racist misconduct.

Last night in the States, the #MeToo moment finally hit Google as the New York Times revealed 48 of its employees had left in the last two years amid sexual harassment claims. And it turns out the ‘Don’t Do Evil’ company has behaved like other big corporates, not least in the case of ‘the father of Android’, Andy Rubin. Even though the company knew of a ‘credible’ claim that Rubin had coerced a colleague into having oral sex, he wasn’t fired. He was asked to resign, given a $90m payoff and a hero’s farewell. Many of those involved were bound by confidentiality agreements.

Ever since the Harvey Weinstein affair broke a year ago, there’s been a wider debate about the legitimacy of non-disclosure agreements, ‘gagging’ clauses signed when employees leave a company amid such allegations. No.10 this week told us a review of the abuse of NDAs was due ‘imminently’, but it’s unclear if that will come next week or the week after. #MeToo matters because it exposes harassment and bullying is not just about big name firms and high profile individuals. Last night on Question Time, SNP MP Hannah Bardell revealed that she herself had signed an NDA. “I was being bullied and I was put in a very difficult position where I thought I was going to be pushed out the door so to speak and be unemployed, and it was the choice between taking a case to court or having to leave without a job.”

As for the even bigger picture of women’s rights in the workplace, there was good news and bad news yesterday. The good news was that the gender pay gap had fallen to its lowest on record. In April 2018, the gap for full-time workers was 8.6% - down from 9.1% in the previous year. The bad news was that he TUC said that the current rate of progress meant that it would take another 55 years for men and women to achieve pay parity.

By this late stage, most of the contents of Monday’s Budget have been signed off. But amid expectations that the Chancellor will stump up some cash for Universal Credit, today’s damning Public Accounts Committee report on the benefit shows why it may take more than just money to defuse this growing political mess. The roll-out of the system is causing “unacceptable hardship and difficulties” and the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) has developed a “culture of denial” over its failings.

The cross-party committee also accused the DWP of being “disturbingly adrift of the real-world problems and had a “fortress mentality”. Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey was forced to apologise to Parliament earlier this year after the National Audit Office complained that she had misrepresented its own critical report as positive. She recently delayed some of the roll-out and admitted some claimants would be ‘worse off’, but many campaigners want to see more concrete steps.

McVey’s predecessor David Gauke granted 100% advances and an additional two weeks of housing benefit, will we see on Monday similar emergency help for the other elements of Universal Credit too? One real problem has been the distrust between the Treasury and DWP. The former traditionally thinks the latter is incompetent, and some in Whitehall mutter that has been proven in recent years. But the Treasury was happy to bank the multi-billion pound savings, until it had to stump up emergency cash. George Osborne recently admitted “the immigration rhetoric was too harsh” when he was in office. Will he admit on Monday that his cuts to welfare were wrong too?

Ah the power of nature. Watch this viral clip of a forest in Quebec where strong winds make it look like the ground is ‘breathing’.

More casualties of Theresa May’s hostile environment drive were revealed yesterday as Home Secretary Sajid Javid apologised to immigrants who were forced by the Government to provide DNA samples. 400 letters were incorrectly sent and 13 people were refused immigration applications for failing to give the samples. Javid says “at the end of June it was brought to our attention” that the dodgy DNA practice had occurred. But if you need proof that the Home Office is a closed book, check out this tweet from our Graeme Demianyk, revealing his Freedom of Information request on precisely this issue was rejected by the department - because it would have involved too much work.

The Committee on Climate Change deserves credit for constantly trying to stir the nation from its torpor on the looming catastrophe of our overheated planet. Its report today warns that more than half a million homes and business properties on Britain’s coast are at risk of flooding and erosion – and that a sea level rise of nearly one metre will “almost certainly” happen. Some coastal communities are “unlikely to be viable in their current form”, with East Yorkshire, East Anglia and parts of the south coast particularly under threat. The emergency sirens are going off on climate change but few politicians are acting with the urgency required. It’s almost like every bit of new evidence is an irritating car alarm they just want to go quiet. Wake up sheeple, the alarms are getting louder.

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