The Waugh Zone Friday June 23, 2017

Five things you need to know about politics today.

In case you missed it, today is the first anniversary of the UK’s historic referendum to quit the EU. As a weakened and wounded Theresa May mingled with leaders at the Brussels summit last night, few of them knew whether this would be the last time they’d see her. Neither popular back home nor a table-bashing Brexiteer abroad, politically speaking she really is a citizen of nowhere right now.

Caught between the rock of a Remainer-friendly Parliament and the hard place of the hard Brexit crew in the Cabinet, May’s predicament was summed up by two quotes yesterday. First was EU council president Donald Tusk riffing on John Lennon’s Imagine, raising the prospect of the UK changing its mind about leaving. “You may say I’m a dreamer, but I am not the only one,” he trilled. But just as important was the voice of Wendy, a hardcore Leave voter on Question Time last night, who declared that “none of us need to know” what the PM privately wants to get out of the Brexit talks.

Tusk’s wistful tone was not matched by the EU27. “I am not a dreamer and I am not the only one,” Belgium’s prime minister, Charles Michel said. And there was similar division in the response to May’s offer to EU citizens’ rights. Angela Merkel said it was “a good start”, but Hungary said it fell a long way short. The Sun points out that May warned EU leaders those who arrived after Article 50 was triggered in March will only get guaranteed residency if European judges are stopped from meddling in UK affairs.

Still, a YouGov/Times poll has fresh signs that the public is leaning towards a softer Brexit. 58 per cent said Britain should be able to trade freely with the EU even if it meant allowing EU citizens to live and work in the UK. Some 33 per cent of Leave voters who said that a transitional agreement on existing terms would be acceptable. The Today programme’s Zoe Conway crystallised the migration issue yesterday when the Polish manager of a fruit farm in Surrey told her “in the last five years” only “one British person” had applied to work for him. He lasted a day before deciding the work was too hard. “Polish and Bulgarians, they work hard. He said they worked too fast.”

The PM has her Brussels press conference at 12 noon.

The other key finding in the YouGov/Times poll today was that Jeremy Corbyn has overtaken Theresa May for the first time as the voters’ choice for who would make the best prime minister. Yep, 35 per cent said that they would prefer Corbyn to be in No 10, while 34 per cent favoured May. To get this into context, when she called the election in mid-April, 54 per cent backed May, and just 15 per cent preferred Jezza. Corbyn is ahead in all age categories under 50.

The Times also says today that the PM is planning to call the bluff of her party critics by tabling a vote on the Repeal Bill before the Commons rises for summer recess. It’s unclear if this is just a second reading, but it could be enough to get her ‘over the line’ of July 20, when MPs then disappear for their break.

The lead member of the PM’s Praetorian Guard is Damian Green, who has known May since their Oxford days and is now First Secretary of State. And in an interview with The House magazine, Green has circled the wagons around his party leader. Asked if he thought she would be in Number Ten in two years or even three years, he replied: “Absolutely. For as far ahead as I can see.” What about into another general election? “For as far ahead as I can see,” he said again. “What matters is not tomorrow’s poll or what’s moved over three days, it’s what actually happens. That, in the end, is what people will judge her on.”

And another Cabinet minister was looking to the longer term. New Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke told the Press Gallery lunch yesterday he “cannot see in all honesty” how the ‘triple lock’ guarantee of generous rises in the state pension could continue in the long term. Whether that means reviving the idea of a ‘double lock’ after Brexit in 2019, or putting it off to the next Tory manifesto, is unclear.

Theresa May’s sombre Commons statement on Grenfell Tower struck the right note yesterday, but as soon as questions came from Labour MPs, she looked increasingly uncomfortable. It was a pattern that was to continue through the day, and was proof that no matter how many times she takes one step forward, she somehow ends up taking two steps back.

At lunchtime, a grainy phone video emerged of her being booed the night before by Grenfell residents. And over the next few hours, there was yet more No.10 confusion, as it wildly varied its estimates of numbers of the tower blocks that could have similar cladding problems to the one in west London. The PM’s spokeswoman initially suggested 600 blocks had the same issue as Grenfell. Yet by 4pm, she had changed the line. “What I explained this morning was…there were 600 buildings with a certain type of cladding, but actually the update DCLG [Department for Communities and Local Government] have provided throughout the afternoon is that the figure is now 600 buildings, we understand, that have cladding – that could be any type of cladding, that’s the clarification they have made.” It felt like a DCLG cock-up but wasn’t a great look for Downing Street. So the figure for blocks clad in combustible material went from three (May’s statement), up to 600 (No.10), down to seven and back up to 11 (in a letter to MPs from Communities Secretary Sajid Javid). What a mess. The number could rise much higher today as more councils report back.

As checks were taking place across the country, residents at tower blocks with cladding being removed in London have told HuffPost UK they are now too scared to sleep. Chantal Peters, who lives on the 16th floor of the Dorney block in Camden with four of her six children, condemned the building she has called home for 22 years as a major fire risk. She told us: “If there was to be a fire, I wouldn’t be able to get out of my house. There’s no fire alarm, there’s no sprinklers – there’s nothing to alert us. The only safety [advice] I give to people in my block is if there was a fire, you put your taps on. Your bath tap and the sink and the kitchen and you flood your house.”

Premier Inn hotel chain told Newsnight that at least three of its hotels have cladding that doesn’t meet safety rules. In its leader, the Sun today says the number of Labour-run boroughs with questionable cladding “makes fools of the ‘Tory austerity kills’ mob”. “It is not credible that they were fitted instead of slightly pricier, more fireproof ones to spare council budgets a few quid. The savings would have been tiny in the context of the millions spent. Labour is shamefully using the Grenfell Tower deaths to stoke class-war hate against the Tories.”

Yet a stark example of just how severe the housing crisis now is for young people was revealed by new Labour MP Laura Pidcock. She’s told Radio 4’s Week in Westminster that she can’t afford to buy her own home, even with an MP’s wage.

Watch David Dimbleby ask a bloke to leave the Question Time audience. It was a first, but perhaps an indication of how shouty our discourse has become.

Amid the terror attacks and talk of police cuts, the price of austerity was a huge issue for Labour in the final weeks of the general election campaign. Today, it seems that it’s not just Cabinet ministers who are off the leash thanks to May’s diminished authority, and senior public servants like serving police officers are using their freedom to speak out.

Chief Constable Dave Thompson, of West Midlands Police, has blogged today (modern huh?) that police in England and Wales would struggle to deal with riots on the scale of 2011 due to budget cuts - and the “strain is showing” after multiple terror attacks. “We’d have real challenges in dealing with something like the 2011 riots again,” he wrote on the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) blog on Friday.

Amber Rudd told MPs yesterday that the police response to attacks in Manchester and London required “additional work” in law enforcement. She said: “I recognise the fact that we cannot carry on at that emergency level indefinitely.” London is very much a case in point. Leaked emails seen by the Evening Standard showed that Sadiq Khan is planning to close 50% of police station front counters to save money (something he slammed Boris Johnson for doing). Met Chief Cressida Dick told the London Assembly: “We will be reducing the number of police stations, yes”.

Given how much we all talk about the price of austerity, many Greens find it extraordinary that the waste and inefficiency of nuclear power is often just not part of the conversation. With Labour – and the Lib Dems since Ed Davey changed their policy in the Coalition – wedded to new nuclear, it often seems as if there is little debate.

Today, the National Audit Office has a withering report that the Government’s decision to commission a new nuclear power station at Hinkley Point – which will receive an estimated subsidy of £30bn – is a “high cost and risky deal”. The NAO said ministers had failed to look at alternative ways of funding the power station to get the best deal possible, saying officials expect it will add up to £15 to annual electricity bills up to 2030.

The renewable energy industry accused the Government of “ignoring the most cost-effective forms of electricity generation” – onshore wind and solar. And Greenpeace pointed out that this year’s school leavers would “still be paying for Hinkley when they approach their pension age, so it is concerning that the National Audit Office is suggesting it may not be worth their money”. That’s perhaps worth citing the next time Mrs May trots out the mantra that we have to tackle the deficit to avoid our children being saddled with today’s debts.


The latest edition of our CommonsPeople podcast is out. Click HERE (iTunes) or HERE (Android audiboom) to listen to us discuss the Queen’s Speech, the politics of Grenfell Tower, Brexit and more. Oh, and there’s a kinda tricky quiz about Queen’s Speeches gone by.

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