1 SHERLOCK HOMES
After the largely warm reaction to her Mansion House speech (and the first Sunday papers in months that lacked bitter Tory infighting stories), No.10 will be pleased that its ‘grid’ of media planning is working out as it gets housing back on the agenda. The PM’s conference speech was famously marred by her coughing fit, but don’t forget that she did use it to announce that she would “dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem [the housing crisis]”.
Yesterday, we got some warnings to councils to get their act together on housing targets. Today, the PM will use a setpiece speech to have a go at developers, telling them to “do their duty”, warning planning permission would be given to those who “build houses, not just sit on land and watch its value rise”. The reaction of Labour can be summed up with: ‘No, sugar, Sherlock, what’s taken you so long?’
However, May and Housing Secretary Sajid Javid (and don’t forget the PM’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell is a former housing minister) could finally be looking a serious measures. HuffPost has in the past reported on how developers use a legal loophole to wriggle out of building affordable homes by using “viability assessments” which suggest their profits would be hit. I’m told we should watch later for new Government moves on the viability issue, though it will be complicated. “It will put the wind up some property developers,” one insider says. Javid told the Today programme “there are too many developers…who try to wriggle out…we need to end that”. He said a ‘new rulebook’ would ensure developers kept their promises, on section 106 deals too.
One thing the PM won’t do is tear up the Green Belt in any way (though some of her backbenchers will want such promises nailed down). It’s worth noting that the Tories have relied on hefty donations from developers over the years. And ConHome’s Paul Goodman had an intriguing titbit yesterday that “ministers say that she has been known to ask why new housing can’t be concentrated outside the home counties”. That sounds like NIMBYism with knobs on and could be a double-edged sword.
Finally, I wonder if the PM will commit to quitting if she doesn’t personally hit her housing targets? Last night, on Radio 4, housing minister Heather Wheeler was asked what would happen if rough sleeping got worse on her watch. “Well there are two answers to that: a) it won’t and b) I’d resign.” Now there’s a novel approach to ministerial accountability. Will it ever catch on...?
2. MANSION FACTS
Theresa May is set to make a Commons statement this afternoon, updating the House on her ‘hard facts’ Mansion House speech on Brexit. In terms of party management, her new tone appears to have worked on Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ who were plotting a possible alliance with Labour on a customs union in a coming trade bill amendment. Sarah Wollaston gave her first hint of retreat on Radio 4’s Week in Westminster on Saturday, when she said: “The purpose of signing an amendment is to get the Government to talk to you. We all have to accept we’re not going to get our own way on this”.
In case we didn’t get the message, other Remainers agreed. Stephen Hammond told SkyNews amendments were only there to get “more clarity and have discussions with government.” Nicky Morgan told Sunday Politics “the reason that backbench MPs like me put down amendments is to get ministers to explain their positions more fully and that’s what we began to see in the prime minister’s speech”. Leavers may crow that their enemies are on the run, but the Remainers will argue May’s new direction is a much bigger prize than an amendment to a minor bill.
As I said in my analysis of May’s speech HERE, she managed to reassure Brexiteers like Iain Duncan Smith (though not Jacob Rees-Mogg) by giving them a sneak preview beforehand. Yet what may worry some backbenchers is the revelation on Westminster Hour last night that May consulted David Cameron too. Dave’s former press secretary Gabby Bertin said “they were in contact over the speech…a couple of days before”. Meanwhile, a new YouGov poll for Best for Britain says the Tories would get a 10-percentage-point lead at the next election if Labour backs Brexit - and a five-point lead if Labour opposes it.
Of course, we now await the reaction of the EU27. The Guardian quotes one EU diplomat involved in drafting its response, saying May’s talk of regulatory alignment “doesn’t really solve any problems”. Yesterday, JC Piris, the former legal supremo in Brussels, tweeted that: “EU not ready to sacrifice its IM integrity/credibility to make a favour to U.K. (and why not others?)…U.K. continues to lose precious time with irrealist requests”. Ahead of his own big speech on Wednesday (and the EU’s draft trade guidelines tomorrow), Philip Hammond today appears before the Commons European scrutiny committee on Brexit at 4.30pm. Let’s see how ‘irrealist’ he sounds….
3. ANGER MANAGEMENT
It’s perhaps a sign of Theresa May’s increasing confidence that she rang Donald Trump yesterday to relay her “deep concern” at his plans to whack a 25% tariff on steel imports and 10% on aluminium. With the EU, China and others threatening retaliation, the prospect of a trade war is all too real. But most worrying of all for the PM will be the line by Trump’s top trade adviser Peter Navarro on CNN yesterday that no exceptions could be made in the tariff hike i.e. including the UK. The FT rightly splashes its front page on Navarro’s remarks. His fellow ‘economic nationalist’, Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross, also used the US Sunday politics shows to dismiss the EU’s threat of retaliation as “pretty trivial”.
European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker certainly risked ridicule among some Trump supporters with his plan to hit the US with tariffs on all-American goods like Harley-Davidsons, blue jeans and bourbon whiskey. Still, the EU’s 2.8bn euro ‘counter-measures’ on steel and agriculture are not insubstantial. Yesterday, housing minister Dom Raab hinted on 5 Live that once the UK is out of the EU, exceptionalism in UK-US trade will be easier. But as it stands, British officials know there’s no legal way of avoiding Trump’s move as long as we are in the bloc. The PM’s ‘citizens of nowhere’ line from 2016 looks like it’s going to haunt her as the White House goes to war everywhere. (Meanwhile, Trump joked yesterday the US could copy President Xi’s review of term limits).
But perhaps the most telling report on all this comes from Axios in the US. Last night, it had a fascinating story on a key meeting in January in the Oval Office, when Trump oversaw a bitter row between Navarro and Ross on one side and chief economic adviser Gary Cohn and political aide Rob Porter, on the other. Trump described himself as an economic ‘nationalist’ and those who counselled against a trade war as ‘globalists’. As ever with the President it was a fit of pique that did it. Last week, he was furious with ex press secretary Hope Hicks (partner of Porter) and at Attorney General Jeff Sessions over the Russia probe. Trump was “angry, agitated, and fed up.. So he cut ‘the globalists’ out of the picture, told Ross and Navarro to bring him the tariffs he’d been demanding for months, and made the announcement”. He still has to sign a formal order on the tariffs – will he have been deterred, or emboldened, by the negative reaction so far?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Silvio Berlucsconi is barred from running for office but his centre-right grouping did well last night. Watch him tell a BBC reporter her handshake is so strong it could prevent her from getting married. No, really.
4. WHEN IN ROME
Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell yesterday told SkyNews that Tom Watson should “seriously consider” any “finances” given to him by Max Mosley. Labour’s deputy leader is certainly under fresh pressure to return the £540,000 given to his office by the ex Formula One boss, after Mosley told the Guardian at the weekend that “financial inducements should be offered to persuade [immigrants] to go home”. Watson’s defence had been that Mosley’s racist sympathies had changed since his youth.
As for the anti-immigrant, ‘radical right’ across Europe, news from Germany and Italy yesterday carried a mix of relief and fear. Angela Merkel finally got the go ahead for a Government coalition from her SPD rivals, leaving the AfD out in the cold, but now the official Opposition. In Italy, their own election also resulted in a hung Parliament, but with a real prospect that the anti-migrant The League party could ally with the Five Star Movement in power.
The League has threatened to expel all illegal immigrants en masse, describes Islam as ‘incompatible’ with Italian values and one of its candidates recently said immigration threatens to ‘wipe out’ ‘our white race’. The party has tried to clean up its image and no longer threatens a referendum on EU membership. But will the ‘populists’ of 5Star decide to join forces with it to run the country?
5. THE AUDACITY OF DOPE
The DCMS Select Committee is leading the news with its damning report on doping in UK sport. Cyclist Sir Bradley Wiggins and Team Sky “crossed an ethical line” by using drugs allowed under anti-doping rules to enhance performance, instead of just for medical need, the MPs found. Other big names also come under fire: IAAF president Lord Coe gave “misleading answers” in evidence about his knowledge of doping allegations in Russian athletics; MPs were also “shocked” that Sir Mo Farah received an injection of the legal supplement L-carnitine before the 2014 London Marathon that was not recorded on Farah’s medical records.
Most of the allegations are not new and an inquiry by the UK Anti-Doping Agency closed last year with insufficient evidence of Wiggins using banned substances. He, Team Sky, Coe and Farah all deny any wrongdoing.
But the crucial factor is that Select Committees know their proceedings and reports carry the legal protection of Parliamentary privilege. Highlighting ‘ethical’ lines and not just legal ones also guarantees headlines, especially as Team Sky and Wiggins talk of ‘zero tolerance’ of drug abuse. Team Sky manager and former British Cycling chief Sir Dave Brailsford is urged by the MPs to “take responsibility”, code for resignation. Let’s see.