The Waugh Zone Monday January 8, 2017

The five things you need to know about politics today.

Parliament’s back after the Christmas break and several MPs are waiting for ‘the call’. Whether the call is good news (‘please walk up Downing Street at the scheduled time’) or bad news (‘the Prime Minister is on the line...’), it’s news nevertheless and Westminster will spend the day reporting every coming and going (we will have a liveblog). Politics is a brutal game and those publicly touted as for the sack will feel bruised by No.10, though not enough to go off-piste and foment backbench disquiet. Yet.

When May first drafted her Cabinet in 2016, and updated it in 2017, she made it in her own image: solid, dependable, unshowy ‘doers’ like David Gauke and Greg Clark got big jobs. Yet she failed to promote large numbers of women, a mistake she is set to rectify (though the biggest changes on that will come tomorrow at the minister of state rank that is one-rung below Cabinet). Still, with just six out of 23 full-time Cabinet posts taken up by women, it may seem strange that May is said to be ready to sack two of them in high profile equality roles (Justine Greening is also Minister for Women and Equalities, Andrea Leadsom is in charge of helping draft Parliament’s cross-party sex harassment procedures).

With jobs touted for rising stars James Cleverly, Kemi Badenoch and Suella Fernandes, May also wants to make her Government look more like modern Britain in terms of race as well as gender. But it is with Brexit proportionality that many Tories are more preoccupied. Some backbenchers argue the Cabinet and Government fails to reflect the 52-48% Leaver/Remainer split of the country, let alone the much bigger pro-Brexit majority in the party. That’s perhaps why (as the Telegraph reports) she’s thinking of giving Steve Baker a Cabinet-attending post (with or without the unofficial title of ‘Minister for No Deal Brexit’). As gimmicks go, it’s not quite in the same league as inserting the Exit Date into legislation, but it will unnerve Remainer rebels nevertheless.

Some ministers could yet be reprieved, and both Greening and Clark (in suggested in the Mail and Times respectively) could survive in different roles (Patrick McLoughlin and Leadsom get no such lifelines). I’m told that seems to have done for Greening is less her opposition to grammars but more the claims she was less than supportive of the PM more generally at key points last year, not least after the conference debacle. One insider claimed to me that Tory chairman McLoughlin offered his resignation last year but the PM wanted to wait for a wider reshuffle (this is before the serial resignations of Fallon, Patel and Green). While the ultimate responsibility for the disastrous snap election lays squarely with the PM herself, the party is desperate to have a new face in the chairman’s job and Brandon Lewis would prove a popular choice. But will Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who still harbours leadership ambitions according to colleagues, go quietly?

May’s own power and the limits of it are underlined today. Yes, she retains the power of patronage to hire. But when it comes to firing, both Boris Johnson and Philip Hammond have transgressed in the eyes of their critics yet remain ‘unsackable’. Will the public notice any of these changes? Probably not, though if it means changes in domestic policy they may (Robert Peston reports May wants a new Housing Secretary in Cabinet, which would be a copy of Labour’s own shadow structure). Mayism may never exist, but if it does it will be on domestic policy. The big question remains when - or whether - May herself gets ‘the call’: from newly-knighted 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady, telling her there are now enough signatures for a leadership challenge. In the meantime, those MPs getting the good news today know that thanks to last year’s election they’re all on probation.

Some close to the PM would really like to see Jeremy Hunt take on Damian Green’s Cabinet Office role, coordinating policy ‘delivery’ and chairing key Cabinet committees. Latest word is that she will dispense with the First Secretary of State title, however, and if so it’s a moot point whether the new job would be a sideways move for Hunt rather than the ‘promotion’ Labour claims (having spent years calling for him to leave Health, the Opposition may sound slightly wrongfooted if he does depart Richmond House). If she keeps the title, whoever gets it will have the job of deputusing for her in PMQs.

With the NHS currently having to cancel operations, the timing is not great to have a brand new Health Secretary. Hence the speculation that Chris Grayling, May’s former leadership campaign manager, may get the Cabinet Office job (which has the merit for unpopular politicians in that it does not involve meeting the public every day). What’s for sure is that May, like Cameron before her, admire Hunt’s doggedness under fire, and the way he delivers policy (such as the junior doctors’ contract).

Hunt has certainly cheered up some backbenchers with his punchier hits back at his critics on Twitter. But one minister I talked to recently was incredulous at suggestions he was preparing to succeed May. “He was utterly toxic on the doorstep for us last June. What level of self-delusion does it take to think you can become PM after that?”

Still, Hunt did a better PR job last week than the PM herself when confronted with the winter NHS problems, initially refusing and then finally having to apologise to patients. May on Marr yesterday again sounded tin-eared, telling him postponed operations were ‘part of the plan’ for the NHS and ‘nothing is perfect’. Her refusal to agree more cash contrasted with Marr telling her he’d be dead if he’d waited five hours for treatment after his stroke. That ‘nothing has changed’ tone is the big problem. And the Mirror’s splash today - about a baby whose heart op has been cancelled five times - shows the political risks of the NHS remain huge.

Carrie Gracie could teach Theresa May a thing about timing. The BBC’s China Editor quit her post last night in protest at not being paid the same as fellow male international editors. Her move coincides with 2018 being the 100th anniversary of women being given the vote, but also with her shift co-presenting today’s Today programme.

Gracie has been bombarded with messages of support after quitting her role. BuzzFeed News had her resignation letter, and the Times reports she was paid £135k compared to Jon Sopel (Washington) £250k and Jeremy Bowen (Middle East) £200k. The BBC offered her a £45k rise but she resigned instead. The BBC says “fairness in pay is vital”. It seems she will still work for the BBC in its newsroom (I remember Gracie telling Lord Foulkes at the height of the MPs’ expenses scandal in 2009 that she earned £92,000, a figure the Labour peer complained was far higher than MPs’ wages).

The BBC was admirably upfront about the story and gave it due prominence. John Humphrys even bent the rules a little on Today, as he read out the daily headlines. He pointed out impartiality rules prevent presenters from turning into interviewees, but asked for a reaction to the stories. “We are not doing an interview,” she joked, but added the response of other women inside and outside the BBC had “been very moving” and underlined the “scale of feeling” that “speaks for the depth and hunger for equal pay”. High Street fashion chain Phase Eight has the biggest gender pay gap published this weekend, a reminder that this isn’t all about those in the public eye.

Meanwhile, Theresa May yesterday decided Toby Young’s own past sexist comments were not enough to disqualify him from his Office for Students post, though warning he would be out if he made similar remarks in future. Of course, Sir Michael Fallon was in part fired by May for innuendo he allegedly once aimed at Leadsom. Young so far has been under attack for what he said rather than what he has done. If evidence emerged of him harassing women in person and not just via Twitter, the PM could yet regret her support.

Watch this dog, a three-year-old collie called Secret, go sledging in the snow.

Last week, it was the government on the defensive over rail policy, as Chris Grayling had to scramble a long-distance reaction to criticism of him being in Qatar as fares hiked. This week, it’s Labour on the defensive as hundreds of thousands of travelers face a wave of strikes by the RMT union. Its members on Northern, Merseyrail, South Western Railway and Greater Anglia will take action today, Wednesday and Friday in protest at plans for driver-only trains. RMT members at Southern will also stage a 24-hour walkout today too. Unlike in previous disputes under New Labour, the party is now backing the strikers’ demands.

Still, Theresa May on Marr yesterday proved again why she’s not the best rebutter of wider claims that passengers and taxpayers are facing uneccessary costs. May cited the new Crossrail as proof of better service for her own constituents, but that may not cheer up those in other parts of the country. She also refused to deny Andrew Adonis’s claim that Stagecoach and Virgin will not be paying the promised £3.3bn for their East Coast line contract. As for unions more broadly, I see that Unite’s Len McCluskey put out a statement at 6.15am today attacking the “manufactured row” over his re-election last year. He shows no sign of stepping down as his union’s executive gathers tomorrow. Will the judge appointed to look into the election agree?

While Labour has undoubtedly been winning the social media war against the Conservatives, what matters most is translating that into ground troops who not just deliver leaflets and canvass but also campaign locally on issues that matter. Jeremy Corbyn today launches a new community organiser ‘unit’ to target both traditional heartlands and coastal towns. As I’ve said before, one of the most striking stats in the June 2017 election was that while there was a swing of 5% from Tories to Labour in cities, there was a swing to the Tories from Labour of 6% in small towns.

Speaking of organisational ability, Momentum is set to prove itself again as the ballot for three new local party seats on the National Executive Committee (NEC) closes this Friday. Most in the party expect Momentum founder Jon Lansman and his two fellow leftwingers to triumph. But last night new MP Darren Jones warned on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that if “internal battles or deselection actually come through in reality” it would be “a dereliction of their duty to the people we seek to represent in government”. Will it be a year of living dangerously for the PLP? Or for their critics?


Had a lie-in? Got a life? Catch up on the Sunday politics shows with our handy guide (including short video clips) HERE. Including Franz Ferdinand’s drummer trolling the PM on the NHS, and a Tory MP thinking Margaret Thatcher was still alive.

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