1. GUT ROT
Many expect Boris Johnson will try to dominate the Tory conference next week. He has a two-day blitz of mischief planned, starting with his Telegraph column on Monday and continuing with his much-anticipated ConservativeHome fringe meeting on Tuesday. The PM will bookend the event with her Marr interview preview and her Big Speech at the conference finale. But has Boris gone too early with today’s 4,600 ‘essay’, once again criticising Theresa May’s ‘Chequers’ compromise plan for Brexit?
You don’t need to wade through the acres of verbiage as the Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner has done a great job of picking out the best quotes: Chequers is a “moral and intellectual humiliation” which will “cheat the electorate”; it represents “a collective failure of government”; ministers must now have the “guts” to scrap the “democratic disaster”; the snap election was a “serious strategic mistake”; things have been made worse by the “pretty invertebrate performance” of the British negotiators in Brussels. Of course, there are plenty of MPs (Leavers included) who think Johnson himself showed a lack of ‘guts’ and spine in failing to stand up to the Irish backstop plan last December, and in waiting for David Davis to quit before he resigned himself this summer.
There’s no new policy in the Boris opus, so the danger is that next week he will have to ramp up the rhetoric to get a hearing. Any hint of a leadership challenge is perhaps the only thing that will get him the airtime he craves in his battle to outrank Jacob Rees-Mogg, but the risk of that is he’ll lose support among the mass of MPs who want the conference to unite and attack Labour. More interesting today is the Sun story about a man who famously sacked Boris for lying about his infidelity: Michael Howard. The former Tory leader has been caught putting May on probation until Brexit Day next March: “I think she’s the right person to take us through the next few months…”
Former Tory leader Sir John Major joins David Miliband today in issuing a fresh warning to the PM over her plans. Meanwhile, there’s an intriguing snippet in the Sun that Sir Oliver Letwin has told allies he will lead the ‘grey suits’ delegation if May doesn’t announce her own departure date next year. For now, No.10 still sound quietly confident that their plans will get through the Commons. Note Jeremy Hunt’s line yesterday, when he talked of Chequers as the “basis of an agreement”, adding the UK had “never said we can’t negotiate individual elements”. The big question is whether that means tilting the language (if not substance) of Chequers more towards Canada than Norway.
2. NOSTALGIA NEURALGIA
Tory nostalgia, it ain’t what it used to be. A string of Conservatives have in recent days expressed their unease at the way Jeremy Corbyn has been seizing the zeitgeist. The latest is George Freeman in The House magazine, declaring: “A new generation of aspirational professional voters under 45 are rejecting the old model. Unless the Conservative party reconnects with them, we risk becoming a rump party of nostalgic nationalists”. That sounded very much like endorsement for Corbyn’s own conference attack on Jacob Rees-Mogg and other Tories for “daydreaming about a Britannia that both rules the waves and waives the rules”.
That Labour ‘Our Town’ political broadcast is continuing to have an impact too. The Guardian reveals Chief Treasury Secretary Liz Truss told young Tories: “That video does capture the heart of where we need to be as a party. So we need to be talking about how people’s lives are getting better.” Universities minister Sam Gyimah says the Tories will never ‘out-Corbyn Corbyn’ but he has a dig at Boris with this line: “When we Conservatives veer between talking business down, ignoring voters’ concerns, and telling businesses to shut up – or worse – it is a clear sign we have lost our way.”
The Times has a poll putting the Tories six points ahead nationwide but the Sun has a poll that shows in key marginals Labour has a two point lead of 42% to 40%, not least because of the Government’s failure on the housing crisis. And we have a 38Degrees/YouGov mega-poll today showing that in swing seats, two thirds of Tory voters back the idea of a 1% rise in income tax to pay for the NHS. That’s good news for Theresa May if she wants to get a tax hike past her backbenchers, but bad news for Philip Hammond who is likely to be the one to get the flak. We have a blog from Trish Murray of 38Degrees on why the 1992 ‘tax bombshell’ Conservative campaign may now be out of date.
3. HATTON GUARDING JOB
The Hatton Garden bank robbery was a tragic-comic tale of septuagenarian chancers working their way into a once fortress-like system. Has former Militant poster boy Derek Hatton, now aged 70, managed to infiltrate his way into a Labour Party that tried so hard to kick him out and keep him out? Well, according to the Liverpool Echo, the ex-deputy leader of Liverpool council says he’s been readmitted. There’s no direct quotes and party sources say he is very much NOT a current member of the party. However, and this is a killer caveat, it is understood that Labour HQ is not aware of anything under the party’s rules that would preclude him from being a member. I asked Shadow Health Sec Jon Ashworth this week if Degsy should be readmitted and he replied ‘He does this all the time...’ [saying he’s applied to join].
It’s true that since Corbyn became leader the party has allowed back into its ranks several people previously barred, including PCS union chief Mark Serwotka. That was under former general secretary Iain McNicol, the man Hatton says repeatedly blocked him. Ken Livingstone’s former aide Lee Jasper was readmitted this year, but was suspended pretty quickly yesterday after posting a homophobic tweet.
Just as worrying for many MPs was the decision to lift the suspension yesterday of George McManus, an activist who had said that Tom Watson had spoken out on anti-semitism after receiving £50,000 from ‘Jewish donors’, adding “at least Judas only got 30 pieces of silver”. McManus’s news came less than 24 hours after Corbyn had used his conference speech to tell the Jewish community ‘we are your ally’. Labour’s old compliance unit would almost certainly have recommended expulsion for his remarks, which expressed the very worst anti-semitic trope of rich Jews. The current rules seem to be much more lenient.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Rod Liddle get burned on Question Time after an audience member calls for a second referendum on Brexit. “Did you vote Remain?” Liddle asks. “I vote Leave,” she replies. “Oh…right,” Liddle says.
4. ARE YOU KAVANAUGH LAUGH?
Yesterday’s testimony from US Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh and his accuser Christine Blasey Ford was truly gripping. Read our 9 Extraordinary Moments from the hearing HERE. Against Kavanaugh was not just Ford’s powerful recollection but also the manner of his answers. His scripted jokes, his lawyerly evasion, his claim this was a Clinton conspiracy and his asking a female Senator if she had ever got blind drunk (her father was an alcoholic) didn’t exactly enhance his case.
In his favour however was his swearing to God that he was telling the truth – and the vital Republican majority on the Judiciary Committee. Unless he can be proved to have perjured himself, he has the numbers he needs. But there’s a raw calculation here among Trump supporters: losing their Senate majority for a few years is nothing compared to getting a conservative on the Supreme Court for life.
5. CONTINUING CUTS
The political problem with Government cuts is that their effects can last for years. Today, the Law Society, in a submission to the Ministry of Justice, say public access to the justice system “has never been so restricted” owing to cuts to the civil legal aid budget. And one of the country’s most senior judges, Senior President of Tribunals Sir Ernest Ryder, has told a conference ‘We are running a system beset by austerity.’ Earlier this week, Supreme Court justice Lord Wilson said both Labour and Tory governments had tried to ‘dismantle much of our precious system of legal aid’. BuzzFeed has been running some excellent reportage on this neglected area of public life. Wilson’s words will ring true: “Our lower courts are now full of litigants who have to represent themselves, often of course very ineptly.”
Meanwhile, school funding problems will be highlighted starkly today when head teachers – not normally militant – march on No.10. In a survey of school leaders more than a fifth said their budget for 2017/18 was in deficit - an increase of 13% since 2015, according to the National Association of Head Teachers. SkyNews quotes head Rachel Burton: “When I became a head I always expected to manage budgets, what I didn’t expect to be doing was propping up roofs and knocking off rotten plaster with my site manager.” Schools cuts were a huge, under-the-radar factor in 2017 election. New Education Secretary Damian Hinds has some heavy lifting of his own to do next week at party conference.
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