1. POVERTY OF AMBITION
Resignations from a ‘Social Mobility Commission’ are not the sort of thing that will get discussed down the Dog & Duck pub. But the walk-out yesterday of two former Cabinet ministers – Labour’s Alan Milburn and Tory Gillian Shepherd – hints at the cross-party unease at Theresa May’s failure to live up to her steps-of-No.10 mission to combat the ‘burning injustices’ that haunt Britain. The Spectator’s Fraser Nelson concludes: “No 10 is guilty of losing interest in this hugely important agenda”.
And when you add in headlines such as the new Joseph Rowntree Foundation (JRF) report on 700,000 more pensioners (yes, pensioners) and children living in relative poverty, the wider narrative risks turning into the one both May and David Cameron worked so hard to avoid: ‘same old Tories: the Nasty Party hasn’t changed’. The line-to-take from the DWP is that half a million fewer people are living in ‘absolute poverty’ as opposed to ‘relative poverty’. Yet Ryan Shorthouse, director of liberal Conservative think tank Bright Blue, says the axe has fallen “disproportionately and unnecessarily” on working-aged benefits since 2010.
Shorthouse added that ministers should restore the work allowances in Universal Credit (which could be the next U-turn in the spring). And with Christmas coming, Uni Credit continues to be a high risk policy issue for the Tory brand. The Mirror reported this weekend that its roll-out was indeed being delayed in some areas that include David Gauke’s, Iain Duncan Smith’s, Damian Green’s and Theresa May’s constituencies. HuffPost reports that cancer charities have attacked the way Uni Credit assigns ‘work coaches’ to patients with terminal illnesses. And as the JRF poverty report today shows, George Osborne’s 2015 four-year freeze in benefits continues to bite. For all his talk of social liberalism and ‘we’re all in this together’, Osborne calculated that working class voters’ loathing of benefit ‘scroungers’ would justify his hard line. Yet it seems it’s the ‘working poor’, many of them Brexit voters, who are suffering most from the continuing refusal to allow benefits to keep up with inflation.
Labour will later today publish the wording of tomorrow’s Opposition Day motion on Universal Credit. Even though ministers routinely ignore such motions, the phrasing of this one could cause a real dilemma for Tory rebels such as Heidi Allen and Stephen McPartland, (and some in the DUP). Alan Milburn’s main charge yesterday was that May is more focused on fighting Brussels than fighting poverty. The bigger challenge for the PM is to show the voters that she really can multi-task: carry out Brexit and also tackle many of the social and economic problems that led to the Brexit vote itself.
2. LUNCHEON VOUCHERS
Theresa May finally meets Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels at 12.15pm to hammer out a form of words on Brexit that could ensure a breakthrough at next week’s EU summit. But in politics as in life, there’s no such thing as a free lunch and May’s main task will be to reassure both her more hardline Tory backbenchers and the DUP that the price is right.
Some Tory Brexiteers set out a few red lines of their own (on the role of the European Court of Justice in particular) this weekend, though No.10 sounds quietly confident it can win everyone round. As ever, expectations management is in play, with Brussels sources sounding suspiciously upbeat about chances of reassurances on cash, a hard border in Ulster and citizens’ rights. Contrast that with the Daily Express story that a briefing from ministers has gone out to pro-Brexit groups saying that hope of a deal are now “50/50 at best”. Today is a ‘staging post’ in Downing St’s eyes, not an end point in itself.
With the EU demanding written guarantees, linguistic gymnastics will be needed to square the circle of Dublin’s demands on the border and the DUP’s demands of no new border with the rest of the UK. David Davis has a long-held mantra that hard-nosed self-interest, not sentiment, will decide all this. And Dublin fears a ‘no deal’ outcome even more than any other EU state. A joint statement could emerge this afternoon, allowing May to try to sell it to the Commons tomorrow. Still, some insiders think it could yet go to the wire and a few more days’ delay will help reassure home audiences this deal has been hard fought. Meanwhile, in the FT Alex Barker has a cracking long read on Brussels’ ingrained belief that its power relations with the UK are “asymmetrical”.
3. THE BIG MO
Team Corbyn were delighted by the Survation/MailonSunday poll putting Labour on 45% to the Tories’ 37%. With some private Tory polling said to be even worse, it’s no wonder some around the PM are jittery (a Survation/DailyRecord poll today puts Labour in second in Scotland too). Yet internal tensions are never far away in the Opposition. The growing muscle of Momentum as an organising vehicle within Labour continues to unnerve many of the party’s older hands. Former deputy leader Roy Hattersley warned in the Observer yesterday that the 1980s fight against the hard Left is being lost and “Momentum is winning by default”. From council deselections in Haringey and Manchester to key Westminster marginal seat selections, the battle is certainly hard fought at local level.
The Observer focused on Watford, one of the 76 ‘target seats’ and reported local fury among some that the party’s NEC had stepped in to restore London black cab driver Mike Hedges to the shortlist. Local moderates were upset that Hedges, backed by Unite, was reinstated after Jim Kennedy, a Unite official on the NEC, intervened. But even before the story surfaced, I was passed a letter from local members (and lots of unions) alleging proper procedures had not been followed in Watford and that Hedges had been unfairly excluded.
Local selections, like local by-elections, are often full of complexities and history that few outsiders see. The Left points out that New Labour has stitched up selections for years (some still mutter how both Tristram Hunt and Jack Dromey magically ended up in non all-women shortlist seats in 2010). Moderates counter that Unite and other unions ought to be very careful in their ‘dance with the devil’ of Momentum. In Haringey, three retiring councillors wrote a blog that really did worry many MPs, stating the real issue was not left or right, but ideological purity versus pragmatism in an age of Tory cuts. Last night Peter John, Labour leader of Southwark council, attacked Catherine West, one of Haringey’s local MPs, tweeting: “What have you been doing to help and support some of the great councillors who worked so hard to get you elected to Parliament? Or doesn’t loyalty work that way any more?” Diane Abbott addresses the PLP tonight, let’s see if any of this gets raised.
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4. GREEN SHIELD STAMP
The last thing the PM needs right now is yet another Cabinet resignation, but Damian Green’s fate hangs in the balance amid Whitehall chatter that the outcome of the inquiry into his conduct will emerge later this week. And Brexit, once again, colours everything. The PM wants to focus on the tricky negotiations with Brussels. Contrary to some over-enthusiastic briefing on Friday, David Davis’ friends tell me he’s unlikely to quit if Green was forced out precisely because DD “has an historic role in government and we are within touching distance of getting a major breakthrough on Brexit. Why would he walk away from that?”
DD and other ministers have been trying to throw a protective shield around their colleague, and anger at the cops is real among many Tory backbenchers. Yet Justine Greening yesterday hinted that Green had failed what Cameron used to call the ‘Daily Mail smell test’, saying it was “not acceptable” to use workplace computers to watch porn. The Sunday Times reported that May’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell wants Green to ‘fall on his sword’, partly because of the danger of the PM looking even more foolish if any fresh revelations emerge once he has been ‘cleared’.
5. LOCAL ZEROS
It’s Community and Local Government Questions today at 2.30pm. Council cuts, like benefit cuts, are a slow-burn political issue from the Cameron-Osborne era that will haunt the May era more than many realise. Labour CLG Shadow Secretary Andrew Gwynne today publishes the first of a series of monthly papers on the state of local government, highlighting childrens’ services cuts, linking them to the biggest annual increase in the number of children in care. John McDonnell is preparing a Finance Bill amendment to contrast those cuts with the Chancellor’s cut in the bank levy.
Today’s CLG questions was also due to feature a question from Luciana Berger asking about a £2bn funding gap in child mental health at council level. The question was pulled by DCLG last week, prompting Labour suspicions that ministers didn’t want it to stymie Jeremy Hunt’s Green Paper and weekend announcement of £300m in extra money. Will Hunt deliver an oral statement on the Green Paper? If he opts for a written statement, ministers could well face an Urgent Question on it.
SUNDAY SHOWS ROUND-UP