The Waugh Zone Monday March 4, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

Theresa May has announced a new £1.6bn funding package to help small towns after Brexit, claiming “for too long in our country prosperity has been unfairly spread”. Before the ink was dry on the No.10 press release, Labour was saying this was a bribe to get MPs in northern and midlands areas to back her Brexit deal. No, no, no, protested Housing Secretary James Brokenshire on Today this morning. “This funding is there regardless of the outcome, obviously we want to see a deal happening…but no there’s no conditionality in that sense.”

Brokenshire confirmed the cash would be dispersed “through until 2026”, adding: “These are focused funds, transformative funds, to invest in productivity that actually then supplement the work of councils and indeed other funds we have in place.” Many are at least relieved much of this cash will be for infrastructure (though a really radical move would be to switch some HS2 funding to a trans-pennine high speed link, but hey call me a northerner).

The fact that this dosh is to stretch over six or seven years won’t impress those it’s aimed it. Labour’s Ruth Smeeth told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour it was “an extraordinarily pathetic sum of money”. Lisa Nandy tweeted “My vote is not for sale and any long overdue investment in towns is no substitute for a permanent trading relationship with the EU that protects jobs in towns like mine.” (Translation: give me a customs union and we can talk). Gareth Snell points out the entire £212m, four-year allocation for the West Midlands “is LESS than the total value of cuts faced by Stoke-on-Trent City Council alone over the same period”. (Speaking of council cuts, see below).

Many Labour MPs want to see much more money given to towns in this year’s spending review, but that big event will come too late for any Brexit vote (civil servants expect the review this summer, or even, whisper it, this autumn) next week. Still, the FT reports the Chancellor is set to receive a multi-billion-pound windfall for the public finances when he presents his spring statement next week, increasing the size of his promised Brexit “deal dividend” if MPs finally back the EU withdrawal agreement. Will Labour’s second referendum, rather than government cash, force Labour MPs to back May’s deal? John Mann tells the Sun up to 35 MPs could support her. Meanwhile, if minsters want to see what northern voters really think about Brexit, they should check out our HuffPost Listens piece on views across the M62.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is heading to Brussels again tomorrow to push for all three backbench Tory demands for any revised Brexit deal (Malthouse-style technical plans, a time limit and an exit mechanism on the ‘backstop’). But the Telegraph has an exclusive that Cox has already told ministers that Brussels won’t go for either a hard time-limit or a unilateral exit mechanism. As for Malthouse, some waffle about technical solutions may go into the political declaration.

All of which seems thin gruel really, if you’re a Brexiteer. Cabinet minister James Brokenshire stressed several times this morning that Cox would be “ensuring we are not trapped in that backstop” that there is “clarity around that”. True, the Attorney General is looking instead at a beefed up ‘arbitration mechanism’, but European Research Group vice chairman Steve Baker says: “This seems to indicate a satirical approach”. So, is ‘Cox’s codpiece’ going to turn into a tiny figleaf to spare Brexiteer blushes? The Ulster Unionist peer Reg Empey warned this weekend that even the DUP was ‘cooking a fudge’.

UK politicians love to set ‘x-tests for Europe’. Ed Balls had five for euro membership, Keir Starmer has six for May’s deal. Now the Sunday Times reports Tory backbench legal eagles have set ‘three tests’ for Cox: a “clearly worded, legally binding, treaty-level clause” that overrides the text of the withdrawal agreement, wording that goes beyond ”simply re-emphasising/re-interpreting the temporary nature of the backstop”, and a “clear and unconditional route out of the backstop if trade talks fail”. But EU deputy chief negotiator Sabine Weyand swiftly pointed out the ERG demands were way beyond anything she’d countenance.

No.10 thinks things are moving its way nevertheless. Rory Stewart told SkyNews: “I think there’s been a huge amount of movement. I think that people are becoming more pragmatic.” Crucially, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds told Westminster Hour the change “has to be treaty-level, legally binding, which makes it very very clear that the current interpretation, the current meaning of the Withdrawal Agreement, is re-opened and changed”. All of which a ‘joint interpretive instrument’ would solve, No.10 hopes. Everyone seems to be missing the fact that the Attorney General gets to mark his own homework here. His legal advice will be crucial, but that advice will be on a form of words he has himself helped hammer out. As much as they like Cox, maybe that conflict of interest will dawn on some Leave MPs soon.

Many Labour MPs believe that over the past year the party has failed to take sufficiently tough action against those accused of anti-semitism. Their suspicions may well have increased after the Observer’s exclusive yesterday, which reported that an official working for general secretary Jennie Formby had opposed several recommendations from expert staff to suspend activists accused of abuse. In 13 cases, Unite official and Corbyn aide Andrew Murray was asked his advice too.

In one case, specialist staff recommended the suspension of Kayla Bibby, a member in Louise Ellman’s Liverpool constituency who posted a white supremacist image of an alien with the star of David printed on it. Formby’s official instead suggested that she be given a “reminder of conduct” only. As I reported last month, Bibby was finally suspended (10 months later) after further evidence of her conduct came to light. The party insists the number of cases where disciplinary recommendations had not been followed was small and a highly selective sample.

Tom Watson’s row with Formby shows no sign of easing since she upbraided him last week by suggesting he risked data protection breaches by demanding copies of all anti-semitism complaints. Formby announced that Lord Falconer had agreed to a new role of anti-semitism commissioner. The peer himself, who is studiously loyal to Corbyn, told the Sunday Times his remit was not yet decided. “There’s nothing wrong with the deputy leader or any other MP asking for information about how complaints are going. To say that is a breach of data laws is obviously wrong.” John McDonnell condemned activists who suggested anti-semitism was a smear against Corbyn yesterday. Meanwhile, this Twitter thread shows how far the party has to go.

Formby will definitely be at the PLP tonight, I’m told. It’s only seven days since Chris Williamson defended Jeremy Corbyn as he addressed the PLP. And seven days since one MP walked out left mid-way through Williamson’s contribution, muttering: ‘“I can’t bear listening to any more of that c*nt’. The PLP’s Parliamentary Committee flexed its muscles last week to force Williamson’s suspension and Formby took action after reviewing a ‘pattern of behaviour’. Expect questions tonight about whether Corbyn tried to block the suspension, and on the next steps on the Watson-Falconer-Formby balance of power.

Watch this clever bird go fishing.

A new BBC/Ipsos-Mori poll has found that the number of people who think immigration has been bad for the UK has plummeted in recent years. From 64% in 2011, it the figure now stands at just 26%. Conversely, the number who think migration has been a good thing stands at 48%, up from just 19% eight years ago. The reasons for the trend are unclear, but Remainers will be thinking it could shift the dial in any second Brexit referendum. Ed Balls used to always say that if you had a five-minute conversation with voters about immigration, it felt negative but if you chat to them for 30 minutes a more nuanced view came out. Is this all about better informed debate?

That’s all about legal migration. Meanwhile, the Hungarian government has been running a poster campaign claiming EU chief Jean-Claude Juncker and George Soros back illegal immigration. After complaints from European People’s Party boss Manfred Weber, the Hungarians have replaced Juncker’s image with deputy EU chief Frans Timmermans. But the image of Soros - in a notoriously anti-semitic trope about a Jewish billionaire - remains intact.

HuffPost UK has teamed up with the Bureau of Investigative Journalism to produce a major report today on the scale of council asset sales that have been taking place under the Tory-led austerity era of recent years. The local government funding crisis has become so dire that councils are being forced to sell thousands of public spaces, such as libraries, community centres and playgrounds – and are using some of the cash to pay for further service cuts and redundancy payments.

In April 2016, the then Chancellor George Osborne relaxed the rules to allow local authorities to spend the proceeds on cost-cutting measures, such as merging back-office functions with other authorities, investing in new technology or other reforms which have upfront costs but reduce spending in the long-term. Freedom of Information requests found 64 councils in England have spent a total of £381m made from property sales using the new freedom since the policy came into effect. Almost a third of that money – £115m – was spent on making council workers redundant. Let’s see if any of the small towns funding helps them.

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