The Waugh Zone Monday May 21, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

After the Royal Wedding celebrations, several politicos felt the mother of all hangovers coming on yesterday morning when the Sunday Times reported that some Brexiteer MPs were planning for (another) snap general election this autumn. Given that deputy pol ed Caroline Wheeler correctly called the last snap election, we were all BrendaFromBristol at the thought of a fourth trip to the polling station in four years. The rationale for the MPs’ preparations was that if the Government is defeated on its EU customs plans, there will have to be a motion of confidence in the PM, and a likely election as a result. The one teeny, weeny flaw in the Brexiteers’ plan is that no Remainer Tory MP is ever going to bring down their own Government and allow Jeremy Corbyn a sniff of power. Especially when Labour’s policy is ambiguous (see below) on what kind of Brexit it wants.

On a trip to Argentina, Boris Johnson has told hacks that the PM should be given “time and space” to negotiate Brexit. “I’m convinced that the prime minister will be true to her promises of a Brexit deal…” Given that he only recently called May’s preferred customs proposal “crazy”, you don’t have to be too cynical to read the Foreign Secretary’s words as a threat as much as a show of support: if she doesn’t deliver on her promises, someone may have to show her how to do it. Note too, however Boris’s retreat on the Northern Ireland ‘backstop’. “Brexiters fearing betrayal over the customs backstop must understand that the PM has been very clear that it is not an outcome we desire,” he says.

Today, we may get a clearer glimpse of life-after-Brexit for the Tories. A new think tank ‘Onward’ is being launched tonight, with the aim of producing policies that will appeal to the under-45s. Remainer Ruth Davidson and Leaver Michael Gove will be there to give it a push. The formidable duo are also teaming up at the Policy Exchange conference on the future of the UK today. Add in George Freeman’s ‘Big Tent Ideas Festival’ (mocked last year but bigger than ever this year) and it’s clear the Tories are once again trying to reinvent themselves while in office. On the down side, Labour is already dubbing ‘Onward’ as ‘Backward’, given it was conceived last year ‘over dinner at the Mayfair home’ of donor David Meller (who quit as a Government adviser this year for his role in the Presidents’ Club controversy). The Times also reports hilarious plans to give discounts to Nando’s in a bid to boost the party’s flagging membership.

Yet Davidson, a young (she’s only 39 folks), pregnant lesbian with a gift for communication, is seen by some Labour MPs as their worst nightmare if she ever became Tory leader south of the border. Keen to operate in enemy territory, she admitted in the Guardian this weekend that the “crash generation simply don’t trust the motivation of the right”. Her solution was ‘strong government’ on housing and education to persuade the young the party was on their side. Many voters still trust the Tories more than Labour on the economy. If Davidson can give the party an emotional as well as a transactional connection to the electorate, her star will rise even faster among the party’s MPs. There’s a long way to go, but giving the Tories their confidence back after last year’s election fiasco would be a start.

One of my former newspaper editors used to trot out the old gag that ‘no man is an island…unless he’s called Barry’. (If you’re not aware of south Wales’ Barry Island - and even if you are - the joke may be lost on you). Anyway, as Labour’s own rows over Brexit continue, Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner is certainly looking a tad isolated right now among his Shadow Cabinet colleagues. Gardiner (who sometimes sounds like a Tory Eurosceptic) struggled on Marr yesterday to deny that he’d suggested in private that Dublin was playing politics with the Northern Irish border problem. Tory comms chief Carrie Simmons must surely get a performance-related bonus after the wire copy was topped by her tweet that it was a ‘car-crash’ interview.

To be fair to Gardiner he had a point when he once described as “bollocks” the idea that the UK’s withdrawal treaty could have the ‘exact same benefits’ of EU membership. It’s just as much bollocks when it’s one of Labour’s ‘six tests’ for Brexit as it was when David Davis ambitiously proclaimed that’s what he wanted. Yet allies of Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer say he often has to ‘clean up after Barry’s blunders’. Starmer, who has gently nudged the Labour leadership towards a customs union, may once again have to ‘clarify’ the party’s position when he addresses the PLP (along with Labour Lords leader Angela Smith) tonight. Last week’s PLP saw Jeremy Corbyn warn that he wouldn’t be a ‘rule taker’ from Brussels, suggesting he will whip against EEA membership when the issue returns to the Commons.

Last night, Labour MP Seema Malhotra told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour “we should be arguing the case for staying in the single market and, particularly, if there are issues, then certainly within the EEA”. And on Saturday, while most of the country was watching the Royal Wedding, Labour’s Lewisham East constituency party chose as their by-election candidate Janet Daby, who is also committed to staying in the single market. Meanwhile, Labour’s youth wing, Young Labour, is split over whether to call for referendum on the final Brexit deal.

Britain’s first ever ‘space defence strategy’ is launched by Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson today and he’s rather shrewdly added a bit of RAF credibility to a policy brief that can sometimes sound like boyish politicians acting out Star Wars fantasies. Yes, RAF Air Command will take on ‘command and control’ responsibility for UK military space operations. The new strategy is about tackling “emerging space-based threats”, such as the “jamming of civilian satellites” used by broadcasters, sat-nav firms and others.

Moscow didn’t seem particularly scared when Williamson (whose office have denied Standard diary reports that he had elocution lessons to lower his voice) declared this year that Russia should “go away and shut up”. Yet Brussels too seems singularly unmoved by his and the UK’s threats to go it alone in developing an alternative to the EU’s Galileo satellite navigation programme. Today’s space strategy will review the UK’s participation in Galileo and look at a possible rival, British-based scheme.

The FT splashes its front page with the news that Australia is looking at getting involved with the UK’s new project. Even the most EU-friendly Cabinet ministers like Business Secretary Greg Clark have been appalled by Brussels’ intransigence on Galileo and a flat refusal to allow British firms to retain contracts for the most sensitive bits of the project after Brexit. To be treated like other ‘third party’ countries has certainly irked London. However, I understand EU Brexit negotiators have made clear this is a matter of ‘sovereignty and principle’, not technicalities. The irony of Brussels deploying those two words, dear to the hearts of many Tory Brexiteers, is not hard to see.

Watch burglar David Seale break into a law firm in Fresno, California, and then proceed to breakdance. He nicked some laptops but was swiftly nicked himself.

Data has been getting a bad press of late (thanks to Cambridge Analytica, Facebook and all those relentless GDPR warnings). But today Theresa May is promoting the benefits of pioneering work by the NHS, charities and British companies in how to use algorithms, data and artificial intelligence to provide early diagnosis of chronic diseases and preventable cancers.

In a speech in George Osborne’s former backyard of Cheshire (will she dare use the words ‘Northern Powerhouse’?), the PM will announce plans to help “prevent 22,000 cancer deaths each year by 2033”, No10’s overnight briefing declares. It’s all very impressive and the UK is a world-leader in this field as it can combine the scale and planning of the NHS with our hi-tech expertise. Still, in the here and now, there are real problems of transparency and policy on some cancer treatments. As the Times reported last week, NHS England is restricting access to chemotherapy drugs even though they’re approved by NICE.

Motability, the scheme that allows the disabled to access specially adapted cars, has long been a source of pride in the UK. But in recent months, it has been in the headlines mainly because MPs have complained about tens of thousands of benefit claimants having their cars taken away as they are denied eligibility for personal independence payments (PIP).

Today, a new report by the Work and Pensions and Treasury Select Committees points to a different problem. Motability Operations’ chief exec Mike Betts is being paid an “unacceptable” £1.7m a year, part of a package that has grown by 78% in ten years, the MPs found. The organisation, which is a monopoly funded by state aide, is also sitting on £2.4bn of cash reserves. Frank Field and Nicky Morgan say it’s time the National Audit Office looked into the value for money provided.

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