The Waugh Zone Wednesday June 28, 2017

The five things you need to know about politics today.

Eight long weeks ago, Theresa May ended Prime Minister’s Questions with the hubristic line: “Every vote for me is a vote for strong and stable leadership.” Her troops cheered, order papers were waved, battle lines were drawn. Today, in the first PMQs since the snap election, the only thing that hasn’t changed is that May still sits on the Government benches and Jeremy Corbyn still sits opposite her.

Perhaps the most important shift is that while the war is ostensibly over, there is no armistice. May’s minority government is now prone to years of guerrilla attacks in the one front line where the battle really has changed: austerity. Millions of voters made clear they’ve had enough of the incomes squeeze and cuts. Yet despite Chancellor Philip Hammond declaring “we’re not deaf”, it seems few in Government are proving they are listening.

Many Corbyn supporters have been saying for years that austerity is the most obvious way to undermine the Tories. And Labour’s amendment to the Queen’s Speech proves that sometimes in politics doing the obvious is under-rated. By forcing the Tories (and DUP - or will they abstain?) to vote for more cuts and a continuing pay cap on public sector staff, Corbyn wants to build on his own election momentum, and polling lead. The Government has the numbers to win the vote, yet Labour wants austerity to be the Tories’ Stalingrad, pinning them down with sniper fire over the consequences of continuing cuts to councils, police, universal credit and more, while the Labour tank army mobilises.

Corbyn has piles of ammunition for PMQs: the new poverty stats yesterday; the British Social Attitudes survey today backing more public spending; council chiefs have warned cuts to adult social care are hitting the elderly and disabled; Justine Greening slipping out the ditching of new grammars in a written answer. Corbyn can even point to this week’s GQR/TUC poll showing 80% - yes 80% - of potential Tory switchers to Labour want an end to the public sector pay freeze.

England’s young footballers last night lost again to Germany on penalties, and some Labour MPs will hope history doesn’t repeat itself and their leader shoots into the wide open PMQs goal today. Yet even if May does better than expected, Corbyn knows he has plenty of time on the clock, unlike the PM.

At his side, will be John McDonnell. As he prepares for his ‘People’s Assembly’ version of Glasto, his allies can point out the Shadow Chancellor was the one who predicted the following: austerity was Labour’s best weapon, the Tories would split over Brexit, the economy would falter and the polls would turn around because ‘something is happening out there’ under the radar. On every count, he’s been proved right so far. The challenge for him and Corbyn now is to win not just the battle, but the war.

Of course, in Stalingrad the Soviets famously shot dead any of their troops who were unwilling to fight the enemy. But while some Labour MPs may feel the Stalinists are in charge, it’s the Tories who are worried about friendly fire doing most damage on Brexit.

With Theresa May unable to knock heads together, her Cabinet yesterday decided to freelance on just what Brexit will look like. Philip Hammond’s jibe at Boris over ‘cake’ (in German, no less) was accompanied by his “ardent wish” to remain a European and long timetables over transition deals on the customs union. David Davis couldn’t resist pointing out Hammond’s historic remarks on timings (the Chancellor once talked of a four-year transition) were “not quite consistent with each other”.

The Sun has a story that a string of young Brexiteers have been given jobs on the first rung of the Government ladder, with even Kwasi Kwarteng made PPS to Hammond. Conor Burns, Nus Ghani, Tom Pursglove, Mike Wood and Gareth Johnson all get ‘bag carrier’ posts. Yet the PM has made Remainer (and rising star) Seema Kennedy her own second PPS too.

Our latest GQR/TUC megapoll of the public finds that jobs are viewed as more important than immigration in any Brexit deal. Labour still needs to convince voters that it has the right approach, however. Meanwhile, the Australian High Commissioner Alexander Downer yesterday urged May not to jack up EU trade tariffs even if there was no deal. We talked to one British expat teacher in Spain who fears she will be forced to move back home.

In their different ways, both Corbyn and May have claimed that they want to tackle a system that looks rigged against those who lack the advantages of the wealthy and well-connected in modern Britain.

Today’s Social Mobility Commission report Time For Change makes sobering reading, and is an indictment on how little progress has been made since 1997. Child poverty, which the Blair government did much to reduce, rose in the aftermath of the 2007/8 crash, with about 4 million young people now classified as poor. Wages have stagnated in real terms with the poorest most affected by the resulting falling living standards. Despite some progress, the best-paid jobs remain “deeply elitist”.

The school attainment stats are startling. The gap in rich and poor children at the age of five has only just begun to shrink despite billions of pounds of investment, and in early years education and it will take 40 years before it is closed. It will take a staggering 120 years before disadvantaged teenagers are as likely as their better off counterparts to get equivalent qualifications. The cost to all of us is not just in pounds and pence, it’s in the price of wasted talent.

It remains to be seen how much of this agenda May wants to tackle if she survives in office (will she accept that, for example, getting more working class boys into university needs something longer term than a few new grammars?) But Corbyn has the distinct advantage that as a critic of the Blair, Brown, Cameron and May governments he can claim to see the whole issue with fresh eyes.

Watch this little kid discover the power of a leaf-blower as he points it at his sister.

The Grenfell Tower aftershocks continue, not least with the growing realisation that something may have gone seriously wrong with our fire safety regulations and assumptions in England and Wales. Theresa May told Cabinet yesterday she wanted a ‘major national investigation’ into why 100% of the 95 building cladding tests so far had failed fire safety checks.

Sajid Javid, who deserves credit for at least showing some sense of urgency and responsibility, set up a new ‘expert panel’ yesterday (led by distinguished former fire chief Sir Ken Knight) to advise national and local government on the “immediate” steps needed to make our buildings safe. Labour’s Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey says the 100% failure rate “points to” a collapse in our system of fire safety checks and controls”. Last night he demanded more details on schools and hospital checks. Note some of the failed cladding was on private sector buildings too.

SkyNews reported yesterday the Building Research Establishment assured ministers last year the rules were “adequate”. Still, real questions need to be asked why Scotland appears to have much tougher rules than England, and seems to have learned the lessons of its own dreadful tower block fire in North Ayrshire in 1999. Maybe new SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford (we have an interview with him out later this morning) can mark his PMQs debut with that point.

As with austerity, are we seeing a cultural shift here too? That years of classing all regulations as ‘red tape’ (civil servants have long complained about the ‘two out, one in’ rule introduced by Cameron), and of moans about excessive “elfnsafety” rules, have allowed the gradual watering down of crucial fire safety? As we get to learn today of the any prosecutions over the Hillsborough disaster, the whole issue of culpability and accountability for failures is sure to be raised too.

Defence Secretary Sir Michael Fallon’s speech on cyber warfare was certainly well timed yesterday. Within minutes of him speaking, global corporations from Rosneft to WPP were hit by ransomware attacks that were even more sophisticated than those that hit the NHS last month.

Still, Fallon’s words were arresting because they showed that the very phrase ‘cyber warfare’, seen as over-hyped by many, was now very literal. He revealed that our spooks had launched cyber attacks on ISIS in Iraq and Syria. And he warned that any cyber hit on the UK “could invite a response from any domain - air, land, sea or cyberspace”. For anarchist hacktivists trying to target big corporations, rather than “state actors” targeting fellow nation states, such tactics may sound overblown when their tactics are so asymmetric.

Still, amid the chaos, I loved the Ukrainian government’s official Twitter feed reaction (click HERE). That really was a keep calm and carry on message for the digital age.

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