POLITICS
19/02/2018 09:27 GMT | Updated 19/02/2018 11:01 GMT

The Waugh Zone Monday February 19, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today.

1. FINDING HER VOCATION?

Theresa May has her Big Speech on post-18 education today. Perhaps the most telling bit of the overnight briefing from No.10 was that the PM will “acknowledge that many young people, their parents and grandparents, have serious concerns – which she shares – about aspects of the current system”. Yes, while Labour may have mopped up the youth vote, it’s those ‘parents and grandparents’ who Tory MPs tell their whips are the very people the party is in danger of losing if it can’t come up with a credible plan for higher education. Today’s speech is in Derbyshire, a county stuffed with Labour-Tory marginal seats.

‘Acknowledging’ ‘concerns’ is a classic May-ism, and the year-long review risks yet more fudge from a leader who likes kicking thorny problems down the road. Perhaps the most ‘no sugar, Sherlock’ line in the PM’s speech is that social mobility “is not made easier by a funding system which leaves students from the lowest-income households bearing the highest levels of debt”.

May won’t be tearing up the central principle of getting students to pay their fees (Downing St sources say that’s an auction they’ll never be able to outbid Corbyn on). Yet the hints of more ‘maintenance support’ (the word ‘grant’ seems to be forbidden these days) may please some of her backbenchers that they can start to convince voters they are at least listening. The reputational problem, as with nursing bursaries, is that her government’s first act was to implement the abolition of maintenance grants.  Maybe she’ll listen more closely now to people like Rob Halfon and Justine Greening?

This is not just about students, of course, and May will try to address the key issue of training, apprenticeships and vocational education. If the Tories can possibly neutralise the university costs row, the bigger prize is to commit to a convincing, radical overhaul of the vocational system for all those millions who don’t go on to study for a degree. Cambridge University recently pledged to offer apprenticeships. But IFS director Paul Johnson captured the problem brilliantly when he explained the dire lack of post-18 options for his non-academic son (read his blog HERE). If either of the main parties wants the votes of those ‘Labour Leavers’, this could be one direct route. A party leader who can treat skills as importantly as degree subjects could find their own vocation as a Prime Minister to really unite post-Brexit Britain.

 

2. THEM TOO

The Oxfam backwash continues as the charity publishes its own 2011 report revealing that three of the men accused of sexual misconduct in Haiti had physically threatened witnesses during an investigation. The report also warned that “more needed” to be done to prevent “problem staff” working for other charities, raising fresh questions as to why Oxfam failed on this central recommendation. Several men linked to the alleged abuse later took up roles elsewhere. The charity is expected to apologise today to Haiti’s government for “mistakes” made.

The family of Jo Cox have said they will support her widower Brendan “as he endeavours to do the right thing by admitting mistakes he may have made in the past”. Others are not as forgiving after Cox quit charities set up in his wife’s memory this weekend following allegations of sexual harassment. The focus may shift to Cox’s former employers Save the Children, and the way they allowed him to resign before completing an investigation into his conduct. The charity’s new chief exec Kevin Watkins is due before a select committee tomorrow, but his predecessor (and ex-No10 aide) Justin Forsyth has questions to answer too.

The wider issue of problems faced by women in the workplace are starkly highlighted by a new YouGov survey showing a third of bosses think it reasonable to ask a woman about her plans to have children during the recruitment process, 59% said she should have to disclose if she is pregnant and almost half (46%) said it was also reasonable to ask a woman if she had small children. The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) warned that many businesses were “decades behind the law” and its chief exec accused firms of “living in the dark ages”.

 

3. LABOUR PAIN

At its National Policy Forum this weekend, Labour appeared to spend more time rowing over the election of its new chair than it did debating Brexit. Anger among MPs continues to be felt over the conduct of NEC chair Andy Kerr, after he literally grabbed the lectern to pull rank on NPF chair Kristina Murray. You can read the detail of the row in my report HERE. The party leadership may be relieved there’s no Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting tonight (Parliament is still in recess until tomorrow) at which this could all have been aired again.

My phone nearly melted yesterday (as it had on Saturday) with MPs upset that Angela Rayner was on Marr talking about an incident she hadn’t seen. Emily Thornberry, who was there, dismissed it as “one of those things”. Last night, Lucy Powell, who had confronted Kerr over his conduct, told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that many women in the room felt his behaviour was “very intimidatory”. “He might not understand that it was, but when you’re six foot five, and you are a man in a position of power and you march over towards somebody and you demand to take over chairing a meeting, that is intimidatory. And in the context of all the ‘MeToo’ and everything else that we’ve seen over the last few months, it’s that kind of power play that really some men need to appreciate.”

Speaking of men on the NEC, I’m told it was a well-known male MP and NEC attendee who described mixed-race member Sarah Owen as being ‘half’ an ethnic minority at a recent meeting. As for the party’s troubles with race, many Jewish members were relieved that at least it had finally expelled Tony Greenstein for breaches of party rules. Greenstein, who is vice chair of the ‘Labour Against The Witchhunt’ Group, was accused of abusive conduct including use of the word ‘Zio’.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Sorry, couldn’t resist sharing. Watch social mobility in action as the poorer relations show the millionaires how to play football.

 

4. CUTS PER CAPITA

Labour has dismissed Mail and Telegraph front page reports that its MPs were paid up to £10,000 to meet Eastern Bloc agents during the Cold War. A spokesman attacked the source of the stories - a former Czech spy - as “a fantasist”. Jan Sarkocy (who also claims he was behind LiveAid) said Ken Livingstone was ‘a good boy’ who liked to drink whisky. Livingstone responded yesterday: “Whisky is not my drink of choice, it’s brandy.” Matt D’Anconca rightly reminds us in the Guardian why the Cold War matters, but it’s unclear if this rash of stories has harmed Corbyn with voters.

In the last election, Corbyn managed to respond to Tory attacks on his security and terror record with counterclaims about cuts to police. Today, can his team capitalise on the Sun’s cracking exclusive that the armed forces’ recruitment is suffering because of outsourcing? The paper blames private firm Capita for the fact that 100,000 people tried to sign up to the military but only 7,500 joined because of months of red tape delays.

Oh, and guess what? The ‘politically correct’ recruitment ads have been a big success. It’s the bureaucracy that has failed to translate the demand generated into real hires. Capita was hired in 2012 to run recruitment in a £3bn deal. The Army is 4,000 troops short of what it says it needs to defend the country.

 

5. PUSHING THE BOUNDARIES

Labour’s Shadow Cabinet Brexit sub-committee meets today. Jeremy Corbyn will not be making a statement afterwards, but yesterday Emily Thornberry came very close indeed to suggesting the party would back a customs union with the EU. “We’ve looked at it and we cannot see a way forward when it comes to Northern Ireland or to tariff-free trade across Europe without us being in some form of customs union that probably looks very much like the customs union that there is at the moment,” she told ITV’s Peston on Sunday.

Brexit certainly hasn’t gone away. The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is back in the Lords on Wednesday and the Cabinet has its Chequers away-day on Thursday. Vince Cable tells us it is causing a ‘non-violent civil war’. Ex-Brussels commissioner Lord Hill blogs today that “an immigration policy that encourages talent to keep on congregating in the City of London is more important than passporting [EU rules]”. But closer to home, many MPs are looking at their own borders. The Commons public admin and constitutional affairs committee today warns boundary changes planned for September are unlikely to get enough support. Yet the Times reports the PM is sticking to her guns and plans to cut Commons numbers from 650 to 600. Given the upset on her own backbenches, that suggests she thinks she’s stronger than many assume.

 
 
 

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