The Waugh Zone Monday July 17, 2017

The five things you need to know in politics today.

“We are not a group of clones,” declared Cabinet minister Chris Grayling on Radio 4 this morning. The fact that he then proceeded to trot out a Maybotic line on Brexit (“we are determined to get the best deal for Britain”) didn’t detract from his pointed admission that there was indeed a difference of view in Cabinet over the UK’s exit from the EU.

Grayling (dubbed ‘Greything’ even by his friends) is a Brexiteer, of course. Asked if fellow Vote Leaver Boris Johnson was ‘four square behind’ Philip Hammond, he replied “what do you mean by four square?” (clue: I don’t think John Humphrys was talking about the mobile app). For Theresa May’s critics, the passing overnight over the director of ‘The Night of the Living Dead’ was never more apt, as they witness the Zombie Government lead by the politically undead Prime Minister.

The clone wars continue as the Telegraph splashes a fresh attack on the Chancellor, with a senior Cabinet minister saying Hammond is deliberately working to “frustrate” Brexit and treating pro-Leave ministers like “pirates who have taken him prisoner”. The minister says: “What’s really going on is the Establishment, the Treasury, is trying to fuck it up….This is a crucial moment. That’s why we have to keep Theresa there. Otherwise the whole thing will fall apart.” Meanwhile, a source tells the Sun: “It’s Michael Gove behind all of this.”

One key issue is of course the length of any transition period for Brexit. Hammond suggested on Marr that he had got his way for this idea of a ‘couple of years’ (down from his four year opening gambit, note), even in the process appearing to needlessly jibe at Liam Fox (who said last week the transition could last a few months). Fox was unabashed yesterday, saying he wanted any transition clearly “time-limited”, stressing he must be able to negotiate trade deals as soon as possible (“one of the conditions we would want to set”). The Brexiteers are determined not to let Hammond railroad them, that’s for sure. The FT reports that the backbench 1922 Committee wants May in place and wants her to sack anyone leaking. “She can enforce cabinet discipline however she thinks is appropriate,” one senior figure tells the paper. Somehow, I can’t see that happening.

All this as David Davis heads off to Brussels for the second, and more substantive, round of talks with counterpart Michel Barnier. Amid all the excitement about ‘gender-swapping’ Doctor Who, this is the real battle of the Timelords, with each trying to warp or weft the April 2019 Brexit deadline to their own ends. With many Brexit voters seeing the EU27 as the real Daleks, it’s only the end of the beginning, not the beginning of the end, of this particular war.

Philip Hammond signally failed on the Marr show yesterday to deny a claim (as reported by The Sunday Times’ superb political editor Tim Shipman) that he’d told the Cabinet last week that public sector workers are “overpaid”, when you take into account their pensions and comparisons with private sector counterparts.

Uniformed public sector workers – including a firefighter, paramedic, prison officer and teacher – will join TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady in a photocall next to Parliament this morning, calling for the government to lift the 1% cap. The TUC has new stats suggesting the Chancellor should get his hands dirty and end the pay freeze, claiming some workers like paramedics have lost £3,800 a year since 2010. The Mirror has a classic Fat Cat Tory splash, attacking “Hammond the hypocrite” for being a multi-millionaire living rent-free in two plush homes, while renting out his own house for £10,000 a month.

But what struck me most about Hammond’s Marr interview was the wriggle room. He said “fact that the Cabinet has been discussing issue sends a clear signal” it is listening. “You can’t eat your pension, you can’t feed your kids with your pension contribution, I understand that….there are areas in the public service where recruitment and retention is becoming an issue.” The Chief Secretary’s ‘remit’ letter for the NHS pay review body is due in July, but I can’t see how it can deviate from the 1% without first getting the authority of the autumn Budget to pay for it. I wonder if we get loose-ish language, followed up by Hammond’s detail in November. Or will that be too late?

While Hammond didn’t deny Tim Shipman’s Sunday Times scoop, he did contradict claims made on Saturday that he’d told the Cabinet that driving a modern train was so easy “even a woman can do it”, triggering a rebuke from Theresa May. “I wouldn’t say anything like that,” he told Andrew Marr. “I’ve got two daughters in their early 20s, both high achievers”. The online backlash was still substantial as Hammond’s alleged sexism inevitably became a meme. Labour’s Jess Phillips has penned a new blog for HuffPost UK, titled ‘Even a woman’.

Speaking of the living dead, that’s exactly how many Jeremy Corbyn supporters view Tony Blair whenever he makes a foray back into domestic politics. As Corbyn started his summer tour of Tory marginals this weekend (in Southampton and Bournemouth), Blair had his own flurry of media appearances. His main point was to say Brexit is reversible, but inevitably he couldn’t resist commenting on the state of Labour.

On Newsnight tonight, Blair will finally admit that “it’s possible Jeremy Corbyn could become prime minister and Labour could win on that [left wing] programme”. “For most of my political life I’ve been saying, ‘I think this is the right way to go and what’s more it’s the only way to win an election’. I have to qualify that now.” The ex-PM insisted that it is still “a surer route to power to fight from the centre”, and the country would be worse off after an “unreconstructed far-left programme”.

Blair’s argument has shifted from saying the Left are ‘unelectable’ to saying its programme would be unsustainable and damaging. His backers will point out he won three general elections that allowed the 13-year Labour rule needed to effect long-lasting change, whereas even on current polling Corbyn may squeak a small majority that could be overturned.

Yet the Left will still see Blair, and his whole philosophy, as in retreat. Over in the States, our Graeme Demianyk reports on how the American Left has been buoyed by Corbyn’s election performance. “We’re popping bottles to celebrate the absolute top boy, Jezza,” says one, underlining Corbyn’s cult status among some Stateside. Having been told that Bernie Sanders was ‘unelectable’, Hillary Clinton’s defeat is persuading many Democrats to push for a more radical Jez-like policy platform. With Trump as the enemy, could it work?

Watch this young girl’s reaction to finding out that the new Doctor Who is a woman.

The controversial HS2 high-speed railway took another step forward early today with the awarding of major construction contracts and the confirmation of the route north of Birmingham through Yorkshire. But as Transport Secretary Chris Grayling did the morning media round, it’s worth remembering that the extension is one of the bills in the Queen’s Speech – and that a tight majority could put it in peril.

Lots of Tory and Labour MPs are not happy about the precise route, but more than that many see the £55bn project (though critics warn it will rise to £100bn) as a waste of cash, some of which could be directed on more local schemes. Even Jeremy Corbyn, who likes both railways and public spending, said during the first Labour leadership race HS2 “benefited the few rather than the many”. John McDonnell too was a sceptic, and even Ed Balls was pretty lukewarm. Keir Starmer is still battling hard against bits of the plan.

And last week there was this straw in the wind. In the Commons, Dennis Skinner urged Grayling to “real and understand that there should be a reassessment of HS2”. “He only has a tiny majority, and believe me, a lot of Members on both sides of this House are fed up with the idea of spending money in the far distant future on HS2 when there are all these projects on today’s Order Paper on which they want action.” In a left-right bit of unity, Labour’s John Spellar called for “a reassessment of this increasingly troubled scheme”. With Speaker Bercow too under pressure in his own back yard, could we see a series of knife-edge votes on amendments in coming months? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Post-election polling showed that worries about the NHS were one of the main reasons for the ‘Corbyn surge’ and nothing worries the public more than threats to paediatric services. A new survey by the Royal College of Paediatrics and Child Health has found that sick children are at risk from chronic shortages of doctors and nurses, with a fifth of jobs unfilled. Nine in ten children’s units are worried about how they will cope in the next six months as they increasingly struggle to fill gaps on wards.

Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth, who blogs for HuffPost UK on the topic today, will speak at the Royal College’s conference today, where he will unveil FoI and Commons Library stats showing child public health at risk too: 10% of school nurses, 11% of health visitors and 12% of district nurses have been lost to the NHS in the past two years. More than 12,000 surgical procedures on children and young people cancelled last year alone, an increase of 35 per cent in three years. These cancelled operations include procedures for broken bones and treatments under anaesthetic.

Meanwhile the Daily Mail splashes on a whistleblower’s revelations that patients who dial 999 are being assessed over Skype or FaceTime instead of being sent an ambulance. Trials, it says, are under way across England to see if video consultations via smartphone apps could be used for thousands of “lower priority” calls involving conditions such as back pain, abdominal pain, falls or heavy bleeding.


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