POLITICS
21/09/2018 10:58 BST | Updated 21/09/2018 11:01 BST

The Waugh Zone Friday September 21, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

 

1. NOT WORK RAIL

It was Donald Tusk, the man normally thought of as friendly to the UK (he loves a British pop tune or two), who really made Theresa May choke on her Chequers plan in Salzburg yesterday. The EU Council president’s assessment of the PM’s Chequers Brexit ‘compromise’ plan was brutal in its brevity: “The suggested framework for economic cooperation will not work.” Will. Not. Work. You can’t get clearer than that. His candour, plus a gentle Instagram mockery of the PM’s ‘cherry picking’ approach, has prompted much gnashing of teeth by Brexiteers.

Yet as they rail against him, Tusk’s critics must have serial amnesia about his previous edible analogies. It was Boris Johnson who famously first claimed that Britain could “have its cake and it eat”. He wanted to keep all the things Leavers like about the EU (free trade), while ditching the things they don’t (migrants). But right at the start of this long road, back in October 2016, Tusk warned this was “pure illusion…To all who believe in it, I propose a simple experiment. Buy a cake, eat it, and see if it is still there on the plate.” After May’s snap election blunder forced her to change her stance in her Florence speech in 2017, Tusk said it looked like “the philosophy of having cake and eating it is finally coming to an end…at least I hope so.” Then Chequers put the cherries back on top.

The EU27 have consistently said that there are problems with May’s plan, not least its attempt to divide up goods and services. What caught her by surprise in Austria was that Tusk and others opted to highlight the sticking points rather than the progress in talks so far. Lots of papers have some excellent accounts of how the diplomacy broke down, but the Guardian has a telling report that May screwed things up over morning coffee with Irish PM Leo Varadkar. She dropped the bombshell that she didn’t think there could be a resolution to the Irish border issue by October’s EU summit. There had been irritation with May’s tone from the dinner the night before, but this seemed to seal it. Macron was outraged and the EU27 hardened their line collectively. Cue humiliating headlines.

Of course for May, humiliation is priced in to her very premiership and she won’t be too bothered by the media coverage. What will worry her is that more Remainer Tories like Stephen Crabb will now abandon Chequers too, believing the EU won’t wear it. She knows EU intransigence only bolsters some Brexiteers’ demands for a Canada-style or no-deal exit and the timing ahead of her party conference could not be worse.

Many Tory MPs have said that a ‘soft Brexit’ has always been a fantasy and the EU seems to agree. Cooler heads in London and Brussels believe there are ways through the impasse. But Tusk’s most chilling warning for No.10 was his final line: “There will be no Withdrawal Agreement without a solid, operational and legally binding Irish backstop.” It’s very difficult to see how May can keep her Tory MPs - and the DUP - on board if she signs up to that. The EU has a reputation for kicking difficult issues down the road, yet Brussels is the one saying this has to be resolved while May wants it fudged into the future. But the ticking Brexit clock, which she herself started by triggering Article 50, is counting down relentlessly.

 

2. ROCK STEADY CREW

The worst thing for May is that people like David Davis and Boris Johnson are now saying ‘see, we told you so’. They warned that Chequers’ half-in, half-out proposals were unworkable. And in his HuffPost interview (read it in full HERE), Davis makes clear that May will have to turn her plans into a Canada plus plus model if she wants to get enough Tory votes in the House of Commons. This will come down to hard numbers in November or December and DD warns the PM that there is a ‘rock solid core’ of around 40 MPs who will vote down Chequers.

The former Brexit Secretary was on typically confident form when I met him for more than 90 minutes in his office. He didn’t disappoint on the news front, describing the Treasury’s 15-year forecasts as ‘bollocks’ and suggesting May’s position was even more ‘fragile’ than John Major’s during Maastricht (and don’t forget DD was a Major whip back then). He had a tart response to all those blaming him for the snap election: “I recommended a general election, I didn’t recommend a crap campaign.” What struck me too was his warning that if May fails to deliver Brexit properly, Leave voters will feel so betrayed that they could turn to a new populist leader in Britain, from either the ‘far right or far left’. This was a theme of his speech in Munich yesterday but he went much further in person.

Davis warned that turning Chequers into a confidence vote was ‘very high risk’. And he was notably lukewarm about Boris’s leadership chances too. “Historically leadership races are decided in the 6 to 12 months before they happen. And if you look generally speaking the leader that emerges has not been in the running 12 months before: Thatcher, Major, Hague, Duncan Smith, Cameron and May. They have been not there, they’ve been in the weeds.” He added: “This is quite a young House. So, [with] a lot of people whose views are not widely known, you might get a new generation demand, you might not.”

Davis has got back in shape physically as well as politically. He has lost half a stone, and has restarted his HIT (high intensity training) exercises (“it’s a fucking painful five minutes).  He also told me that when he was Secretary of State, he had lunch with Mark Sedwill, the then National Security Adviser and now also temporary Cabinet Secretary. As ever, Davis was wearing his smart-watch, linked to both his phone and his bodily fitness. “I was sitting there and my phone went off and it showed on my watch. I hit the wrong button and instead of the text coming up, the graph of my heart rate came up. And he said ‘what’s that?’ I said ‘it’s my heart rate’. He said ‘well what is it?’ I said ‘in the last four hours it’s been between 42 and 62’ And he laughed. He said ‘You’re famous for being relaxed but that’s ridiculous’.” Let’s see whether May or DD get the last laugh in coming weeks.

 

3. BACK TO BLACK

In case you hadn’t noticed, the Labour party conference kicks off this weekend. HuffPost will be providing our usual expert analysis and exclusives (don’t miss our WaughZone Live with Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth on Sunday at 12.30pm). But the mood among MPs and some unions going into the conference has been soured by the NEC meeting this week, not least last-minute attempts to bounce them into rule changes without proper debate.

Labour’s Lisa Nandy was on the BBC’s This Week programme last night defending the current trigger ballot system, whereby sitting MPs avoid reselection contests if they get 50% of their local branches’ support. She pointed to the cost in time and money to local members if mandatory reselection was introduced, arguments that simply don’t wash with many Momentum members.

And it is Momentum that comes in for sharp criticism from outgoing NEC veteran Ann Black overnight. Her NEC report includes a withering verdict on the events of the past few days, pointing out she has been deluged with Momentum’s demands” as “one per cent of members are swamping all other” work. Black, who don’t forget was a leftwing thorn in Blair’s side for years, underlines Nandy’s point about the practical problems with ‘open’ reselection: every CLP has to elect a selection committee, advertise, read 50 CVs, longlist, interview, shortlist, organise meet the members’ events, postal votes and final hustings, all overseen by a regional officer and an NEC representative.

Yet Black’s most damning verdict is that what’s really behind this is that “a significant number of members hate Labour MPs, individually and collectively, especially for trying to get rid of Jeremy in 2016, and would be happy to purge the lot of them”. She quotes emails from members accusing MPs of having their ‘noses in the trough’ or of being ‘a wanker’. “This is not the kinder, gentler politics which Jeremy promised in 2015,” Black says.  

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch Chip, the mascot for the Colorado Uni Buffaloes take one for the team as his T-shirt gun backfires onto his nether regions.

 

4. BATTEN DOWN THE HATCHES

UKIP seem such a spent force these days, with little cash and few elected representatives, that it is tempting to write them off as cranks. But with David Davis warning that someone on the ‘far right’ could seize the populist moment in the wake of any Brexit betrayal, it’s worth being aware of what the Kippers are upto as they start their conference in Birmingham. And much of it shows a lurch to the Trumpish extremes, under the unabashedly Islamophobic leader Gerard Batten.  

Their new ‘interim manifesto’ would scrap hate crime guidelines, the Equalities Act, climate change act, the BBC licence fee, overseas aid budget, stamp duty and inheritance tax. Add in NHS ID cards and free hospital parking and you get the picture. Under a younger, charismatic leader could UKIP come back from the dead, as DD hints? The real danger, as the Republicans and other centre right parties have shown in recent years, is not just of such ‘populists’ getting into power in coalition. It’s that those parties co-opt and adopt the extremist policies in order to fend off the threat.

 

 

5. WEB POLICE

With Matt Hancock no longer Digital Secretary, and his replacement Jeremy Wright a relative online virgin, the Government’s agenda on all things web-related can look muted. But that may well change in coming months as a fresh debate will take place over the balance of security and civil liberties on the internet. BuzzFeed’s Alex Wickham has got a great scoop that ministers are planning a new internet regulator that would make tech firms liable for content published on their platforms - and have the power to sanction companies that fail to take down illegal material and hate speech within hours.

It’s true that one of the least-noticed bits of the Tory manifesto last year was a section about regulation of the internet, though it was couched in emollient language. And with Ofcom’s Sharon White this week calling for tech firms to be regulated like mobile phone and broadband companies, there’s a new mood abroad. Home secretary Sajid Javid and Digital Secretary Jeremy Wright are looking at the introduction of a mandatory code of practice for social media platforms, BuzzFeed says. Hancock was instinctively liberal about the net but his patience ran out when tech firms just didn’t turn up for online safety summits. They may not get another chance under Javid and Wright.

 

COMMONS PEOPLE

Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about May’s Brexit rebels, Lib Dem erotica and Labour’s NEC battles. Plus a quiz on mystery Tory leadership candidates. Click HERE for Audioboom on Android or below for iTunes.

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