1. INTENTION TENSION
England expects every member of the national football team to do his duty tonight (see below for how MPs and peers are clearing the decks for the 7pm kick-off). But just how Theresa May will do her duty by the English NHS is the hot political topic today. We love an anniversary in Britain, from the 52 years of hurt since England last won the World Cup, to the 70 years since the founding of a health service free at point of need. And Prime Ministers, like England managers, know they risk a fierce public backlash if they put a foot wrong.
The Prime Minister has her well-trailed Big Speech on a ten-year NHS funding plan today, and to underline the importance of the moment there is a Cabinet meeting at 10am beforehand. The overnight extracts included her pledge of £20bn extra for the health service but had this telling line: “This money will be provided specifically for the NHS. And it will be funded in a responsible way.” ‘Specifically’ suggests some kind of hypothecation, so will we get either a National Insurance rise or some other device? The ‘responsible’ bit is the hard bit – is it spending cuts, tax hikes, borrowing or all three? The PM gave a hint of the tax rise on LBC, saying “we as a country will contribute a bit more”.
May broke down her £20bn figure into “£394 million a week”, even more than that infamous Boris Bus pledge in the EU referendum. Presentationally at least, it looks like Boris Johnson won his battle to get the Government to deliver on what many Leave voters wanted. The IFS ridiculed the idea of a ‘Brexit dividend’ (the PM didn’t use the phrase, but the No.10 Twitter feed did), but even Jeremy Hunt persisted on the Today programme with the argument that not paying ‘subscriptions’ to the EU would save us billions. Hunt, a former Remainer turned Brexit-deliverer, clearly hasn’t ruled out a long shot at Tory leader one day. (Hunt sounds a bit like Prince Harry, it seems. Meghan Markle’s dad told GMB this morning that Harry saw Brexit as “something we have to try…I think he was open to the experiment”). Having refused to quit in the reshuffle, Hunt has since got his way on NHS funding, and on visa caps on doctors and nurses. He’s undoubtedly one of the more powerful ministers in the Cabinet right now.
As for the key question of tax rises, Hunt said this morning that “we are clear there will be an increased burden of taxation”. That was even more unambiguous than anything May said yesterday. The Health Secretary claimed this was consistent with the Tory manifesto. Yet that manifesto stated: “It is our firm intention to reduce taxes on Britain’s businesses and working families.” Will voters feel misled, having been told the Conservatives ‘intended’ to cut taxes but in fact had to put them up? Or will the public swallow the rise, given they constantly tell pollsters their priority is the NHS?
Ministers have more wriggle room because Philip Hammond scrapped the Osborne-era 2015 promise not to put up NI, income tax and VAT. Hunt said on Today there will be “discussions…with Parliamentary colleagues” about possible NI rises. One problem for the Tory brand over the longer term is making uncosted spending commitments, something it used to hammer Labour over. With voters’ trust in statistics and politicians’ promises lower than ever, and a few Brexiteers saying some things (ie national sovereignty) matter more than money, some Tory MPs fear that the party is giving up its hard-won reputation for economic orthodoxy - and paving the way for Corbyn’s Labour party to tear up the rules of the game.
2. COLLAPSED BUNG
With the England match scheduled for 7pm, the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) has rather sensibly decided that it will hold a mere ‘business meeting’ rather than its full meeting tonight. And in the House of Lords, I’m told Labour will start proceedings on the EU Withdrawal Bill by urging peers to consider taking the big votes before the rest of business, by 6.30pm, “in the national interest” (code for ‘cmon, there’s a match on’).
Tory peer Lord Hailsham will table this morning a replacement “manuscript” amendment based on the compromise plan Dominic Grieve thought he’d agreed with the PM last week. The aim is to allow Parliament more of a say if there is a ‘no deal’ scenario on Brexit. Given the large rebellions previously in the Lords, there’s likely to be another Government defeat tonight and then all eyes will be trained on Grieve and his ‘group’ (as he calls the Remainer rebels) for the return of the bill to the Commons. A new report by consultants Oliver Wyman suggests households could be £1,000 worse off under a ‘no deal’ scenario. Though Grieve says he sometimes wakes up “in a cold sweat” thinking about that outcome, few in No10 believe it will come to that.
Grieve finally raised the stakes on BBC’s Sunday Politics, warning “we could collapse the Government”. That raised temperatures among Brexiteers and the PM’s loyalists, but given the way the former Attorney General feels he was misled, it’s no surprise. Grieve insists he wants an ‘advisory’ vote rather than ‘directing’ ministers, so could we see one last tweak from the PM later this week? Brexiteer backbenchers will be wary of any bungs given to their enemies, though, especially as the whips are confident they’ve peeled off some rebels. I note the Sun on Sunday yesterday reported that May met some Labour Leave MPs last Monday. They could be crucial again this week.
3. TIME OFF IN LOO
Many Tory MPs will tell you that it wasn’t just voter unease over the NHS that came up on the doorstep in the general election. School cuts were a frequent topic, not least as a union-backed website pointed to specific funding reductions in every single postcode. And although not as life-and-death and headline-grabbing as health, both parties know that education spending is a big issue for many key voter groups in target marginal.
The issue reignited late last week when the local paper in the PM’s Maidenhead constituency revealed that a primary school had been forced to appeal to parents to crowd source essentials like pens, paper - and loo roll. St Edmund Campion Catholic Primary School, which has suffered £70,000 in funding cuts, sent an Amazon wish list link to parents. HuffPost has found similar Amazon wish list pleas to parents across the country, including pencils, rubbers and even wall clocks.
The Government is repeating its defence that core school funding will rise to a record £43.5bn by 2020. Yet similar protests didn’t work in the last election. I reported during that campaign that schools had used JustGiving pages to fund whiteboards and computers, and some had even been forced to cut the length of the school day to save money. This is not an issue that’s going away, especially if any NHS increase further squeezes education spending.
4. SKIRT HURT
Tory veteran Sir Christopher Chope has told his local paper the Bournemouth Echo that he is not “a dinosaur”, despite his blocking a private members’ bill that aimed to make ‘upskirting’ a criminal offence. After an avalanche of criticism, including from his fellow Tory MPs, he added that “it’s very depressing some of my colleagues have been perpetuating” the idea that he was in any way supportive of those who secretly take photos up a woman’s skirt. That hasn’t stopped some pranksters this morning placing women’s knickers outside his Commons office.
And there’s no doubt Chope’s objection, based on his principle that Governments shouldn’t use backbench time for their own ends, has caused the party serious reputational damage. David Lammy wondered what Chope had done in his Parliamentary career to merit a knighthood at all. The PM herself yesterday said she was ‘disappointed’ by his actions. And former Deputy Speaker Nigel Evans told Westminster Hour last night he was so “angry” he’d written to the Procedure Committee chairman to review the arcane ‘Object’ procedure. He also wants a review of the practice, used by the SNP, to try to halt PMQs last week.
5. PUMP PRIMER
The last time Philip Hammond dared try to hike national insurance (for the self-employed), he felt the full backlash of White Van Man. And if there are tax rises for the NHS coming down the track, ministers may want to at least try to sweeten the pill by reassuring motorists of all kinds that it’s doing something about ‘rip off’ motorway petrol prices. The Sun reports today it could be three years before there’s a full probe into the practice.
The paper reveals that officials from the Competition and Markets Authority have told Transport Secretary Chris Grayling it could take that long for any formal investigation to start. Grayling earlier this year suggested drivers were being ripped off by as much as a tenner-a-tank. It looks like he may now try to get action sooner, but it’s unclear what power he has to do so.
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