The Waugh Zone Monday June 25, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Even if football’s coming home, Boris isn’t. Yes, despite Westminster being awash with World Cup euphoria off the back of England’s 6-1 win, the Foreign Secretary is set to be overseas in order to miss the key Commons vote on Heathrow at 10pm tonight. Greg Hands, who quit his ministerial job to vote against the third runway, skilfully trolled Johnson with this tweet yesterday ahead of the match: “Great to arrive back in the UK at Luton Airport in time for the match today and to vote against #Heathrow expansion tomorrow. I wouldn’t want to be abroad for either of those. #commitments.” Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who has pulled out of a northern trains summit to tend to Heathrow, candidly told the Today programme: “I have no idea where Boris is”. Ex Cabinet Minister Stephen Crabb added: ”“He’ll need to look his constituents in the eye and explain where he was on the night of the Heathrow vote.”

And today may indeed see a ‘reverse Priti’ media frenzy, with Boris’ overseas movements tracked closely as he heads away from, rather than towards, a Cabinet resignation. Despite talk of him being in an African country, his team have been unsurprisingly tight lipped on where exactly he’ll be when the vote take places this afternoon. Tory Health select chair Sarah Wollaston, told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night the public “might expect him to use this as an opportunity and to resign on a point of principle”. Still, with around 80 Labour MPs set to use their ‘free vote’ to back Heathrow, including shadow Brexit minister Jenny Chapman, even abstentions from the SNP won’t stop this going through.

May’s team think Boris will end up looking more ridiculous than she does. And there’s a bigger objective for the PM in using Heathrow to underline both her pragmatism (Tory rebels bought off with night flight and environment curbs) and her message that ‘post-Brexit Britain’ will be open to the world. There’s also the stark contrast with David Cameron, whose critics will argue he put party before country in opposing, delaying and fudging Heathrow. On Brexit too, of course, that’s the most serious charge Cameron may never live down in the eyes of Remainers and Brexitees alike: his EU referendum was a tactical wheeze to calm his party, rather than a genuine mission to consult the people on their place in the world.

On Brexit as much as on Heathrow, May’s allies think she can defy the doubters and restore her political reputation as a dogged deliverer. Even though she lacks an outright majority, never underestimate the sheer power of being in power. Holding the reins of Government means you can control the agenda in ways which an Opposition can only dream of and the canniest PMs co-opt or steal their opponents’ best ideas to broaden their appeal. Issue by issue, May is seeking to defuse a series of political timebombs - the NHS, ‘responsible capitalism’ (see below), the obesity crisis (see below). Keeping all sides happy on Brexit is, however, the trickiest task of all.

Business is certainly unhappy with Jeremy Hunt’s declaration on Marr that it was “inappropriate” of Airbus to threaten to pull out of the UK (a great Times scoop last Friday) if a ‘no deal’ Brexit occurs. Outgoing CBI chief Paul Drechsler was scathing on Twitter, replaying to Hunt his own line that the NHS can’t survive without a strong economy and strong businesses. Junior Welsh minister Guto Bebb told BBC Wales: “The dismissive attitudes shown towards our business community by senior Cabinet ministers is both unworthy and inflammatory.. Do the leadership aspirations of multi-millionaires trump the need to listen to the employers and employees of this country?”

It was not difficult to see that millionaires line as a jibe at Hunt’s wealth, but it may also have been a pop at Boris. And Johnson infuriated some company bosses even more than Hunt when the Telegraph revealed he’d told an EU diplomat worried about the Brexit: “f*ck business”. Yet Boris’s remarks in the Sun this weekend may give his Remainer Cabinet opponents more heart, not less. His line that the public won’t tolerate a “bog roll Brexit” that was “soft, yielding and seemingly infinitely long”, suggests he knows he’s already been outmanoeuvred. With the crunch Chequers Cabinet meeting on customs plans looming, May’s biggest task is to allow Johnson and others to somehow sell a soft Brexit as a ‘pragmatic, clean Brexit’. EU president Donald Tusk is in London today. Let’s see which side he helps most.

Anti-Brexit campaigners were delighted at the turnout for their big march on Saturday, but some of the most vitriolic clashes over the demo were between the different wings of the Labour party. Corbynsceptics wondered why the leader wasn’t present (he was visiting Syrian refugees), Corbyn supporters attacked the marchers as variously too white, too Metropolitan, too middle class (all charges normally levelled at Corbyn fans). Some even contrasted 100,000 people marching against Brexit with the million who marched against Blair’s war in Iraq.

And the battle over Labour’s direction continues behind the scenes. In tonight’s Radio 4 documentary, Long March of Corbyn’s Labour, Shadow minister Andrew Gwynne warns “it’s going to take time” to reverse Tory austerity and “build up capacity in local government”. Momentum founder Jon Lansman backs a slow, steady approach too, but he is more focused on the political project of embedding Corbynism through more leftwing councillors, and MPs. “The effect of having so many new members will eventually flow through. It hasn’t got there yet. We’re still in the early days of trickling through the system. For local government and then for Parliament - because you select a proportion of candidates every time - that will flow through. I don’t think there is any going back”.

And the programme also reveals fresh moves to change the leadership rules to shut out MPs entirely, allowing just 10% of affiliated trade unions to ensure a candidate is on the ballot. Momentum-backed Seema Chandwani says: “You have got these shortlisting gatekeepers called MPs who have been elected to have that role. The leader of the Labour Party is there not as the property of the MPs, they are the property of the whole party.” In 2016, Tom Watson has in the past floated the reintroduction of the ‘electoral college’ to boost MPs’ role, not diminish it. He cited Labour’s ‘Clause One’, to ‘maintain in Parliament and the country a political Labour party’. The party in 2018 seems very different indeed.

Watch this timely prediction of how England football TV pundits (and most English football fans) accelerate from nought to ’66 while watching the World Cup.

There’ll be more co-opting (and more co-ops), from de facto DPM David Lidington in a speech today on the reforming capitalism theme. The 2017 Labour manifesto pledged to use the £200bn private sector procurement to boost everything from workers and union rights to greening the planet. And in the wake of the Carillion collapse, Lidington says the Government will have to examine “social value”, and not just cost, when awarding contracts to private firms. Bids by smaller firms, mutuals, non-profit charities and co-operatives will be made easier.

Believe it or not the Coalition introduced something called the 2013 Social Value Act, but Lidington wants to strengthen and extend its range to include things like racial diversity, gender pay gaps, and even modern slavery. I noted last week during PMQs May’s warm words about helping co-ops and I wonder if she’ll go further. It would be ironic indeed if MPs from the ‘Labour and Cooperative Party’ (there are 38 who represent both) were outflanked on one of the movement’s most innovative and oldest ways of ‘reforming capitalism’. Meanwhile, Labour is sounding tougher than ever on failing procurement firms. After ’10 out of 10 risk’ firm Capita were handed a £500m MoD deal, Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffiths has a speech warning Labour would not hesitate to bring contracts back ‘in-house’.

Another area that shows the power of both Jeremy Hunt and the power of co-opting opposition ideas is the ‘new’ Childhood Obesity Plan, Chapter 2 of which is formally published in a Written Ministerial Statement today (and shrewdly trailed for the Sunday papers and TV). Bans on sweets at checkouts, on pre-9pm junk food TV ads and on caffeine energy drink sales to kids were welcomed by the Royal College of Paediatrics.

Solving this crisis is a lot more complex than banning things. But given that the obesity crisis is one of the worst timebombs ticking away at our health and public finances, there’s anger from the National Obesity Forumthat this is yet another consultation, not action. And Professor Graham MacGregor, chairman of Action on Sugar and Action on Salt, added: “Simply consulting about the nation’s biggest public health crisis is not going to save lives.” Meanwhile, the Times reports entrepreneur Ruth Lee has made more than £100,000 from orders for overweight (40st) mannequins used in the training of paramedics and firefighters.

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