1. BILL STICKERS
In Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe’s long, rambling, ‘non-resignation resignation’ speech yesterday so angered his party he may be gone within the next 24 hours. In Germany, Angela Merkel’s hopes of forming a government have collapsed overnight as she fails to cobble together a coalition with common interests. In London, the lessons of both won’t be lost on an embattled Theresa May as she tries to hold together a fractious party and Cabinet ahead of big Brexit bill talks.
The newly-reformulated Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit and trade (strategy and negotiations) meets today and the PM will be chairing. The main item on the agenda is just how much hard cash the UK is prepared to offer to break the logjam at the December EU summit. The FT says May is preparing to nearly double her €20bn ‘divorce bill’ offer to Brussels to €38bn. That’s still well below the €60bn some in the EU have demanded, but way above the ‘go whistle’/‘not a penny more’ noises from Boris Johnson. But although some Brexiteers are resigned to paying more, I’m told Boris has been “pushing back hard” and there are several sticking points yet. The Telegraph says he will block a higher bill unless there is more “clarity” on the trade/transition deal we get in return.
And on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night, former Tory minister Rob Halfon (a former Remainer) warned: “If we start saying that we’re going to give £40 to £50 billion to the EU, I think the public will go bananas, absolutely spare..I cannot believe the public would accept such a huge amount when we need money for our schools, our hospitals, our housing, and many other things.” With cash our trump card in these negotiations, it may be that current and future liabilities are separated out. David Davis certainly wants to retain some leverage for coming months. Any bill plan agreed today will be put to full Cabinet tomorrow and could even be laid out to Donald Tusk this Friday. As I said last week, the crucial thing here is not really in the sums involved, it’s in how you spin them to your own side.
2. PHIL SPACE
George Osborne, like Gordon Brown before him, was often criticised for being ‘a political Chancellor’. Ever keen on a voter-friendly gimmick or Budget soundbite, their stewardship at the Treasury certainly offers a sharp contrast to Philip Hammond’s reign. But Hammond is proving that no Chancellor can really escape politics, and on the Andrew Marr Show yesterday he lived down to expectations of those who say he’s the wrong man to persuade the public this Government is on their side. There’s a big blank space where the politics of the Treasury is meant to be.
Yes, Hammond’s irritated swipe at Marr - “Where are all these unemployed people? There are no unemployed people” – will go down in political history alongside other great Tory Chancellor gaffes, such as Norman Lamont’s claim that higher joblessness was a ‘price worth paying’. Of course many economists will tell you the UK has near ‘full employment’, despite the 1.4m people official registered as unemployed. But as with the NI rise earlier this year, Hammond’s political blindspot is exasperating many of even his natural supporters. Add too his dismissive attack on NHS chief Simon Stevens for “Armageddon”-style warnings about health funding, and you can see why Tory MPs are selling shares in the Chancellor.
Hammond committed another PR blunder by declaring on Marr that he would mark the new industrial strategy by taking a spin in a driverless car today. “I’m promised to go in one when we visit the West Midlands tomorrow,” he said. An obvious metaphor for a leaderless Cabinet, the photo-opp has since been killed off, the Telegraph reports. “He is not getting in a driverless car,” aides now say. It’s a reminder that it’s not just the Chancellor who often has a political tin ear. The PM does too. No wonder, some Tory MPs want to get rid of both of them.
3. STRATEGY MEETING
Getting Philip Hammond to commit serious funds to any policy area is a struggle, but we learn today he’s putting £2.3bn extra in new cash (we don’t know yet how it will be funded) towards research and development in the Government’s Industrial Strategy, plus a £1.7bn transport fund to connect city regions outside London. Crucially, the Government will pledge to spend 2.4% of GDP on R&D by 2027, which is a major shift from the Osborne years when there was a ‘flat cash’ increase. That 2.4% pledge may not be as well known as the 0.7% GDP on overseas aid or 2% GDP on defence, but with science and tech one way of securing our post-Brexit prosperity, it really matters.
The full Industrial Strategy will be outlined a week today by Business Secretary Greg Clark. Given that the Budget will have a low productivity-shaped black hole in the public finances, both the research and transport spending are important in turning the situation around. And the politics here are significant too. Improving rail and road links between cities and towns helps boost the economy of many areas that voted Brexit (the agenda Labour’s Lisa Nandy has been pushing hard). Clark tells me “there will be a strong ‘towns’ feel to the strategy”.
But for any industrial strategy to work, it will have to tackle the current gap in skills and labour costs between UK and EU migrant workers. The Sun today has a striking story that 80% of those building the new polar research ship RSS Sir David Attenborough (aka Boaty McBoatface) are foreign staff. Cammell Laird, which had pledged to hire local workers at its shipyard in Birkenhead, has fewer than five welders and platers hired locally, the paper says. Most workers are Romanian and Polish, and many are bussed to the yard each day.
ITV’s ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ always features a bit of politics and as this year’s series started last night, presenter Dec Donnelly couldn’t resist referring to Boris Johnson as someone who wants to be our “future Prime Minister”. Boris’s father Stanley is on the show, but so too is Iran-born comedian Shappi Khorsandi. Will either of them refer to the Foreign Secretary’s notorious gaffe over Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe? And will Stanley let slip Boris’s Brexit views?
Also on the show, though not quite yet, is former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale. Her appearance stunned the party because the MSP will miss two weeks in Holyrood, even though she’s pledged to give to charity a pro rata chunk of her salary. Fellow MSP Neil Findlay said her participation ‘demeans politics’, though Jeremy Corbyn says she shouldn’t be suspended.
Meanwhile, a mini-earthquake in Scottish Labour politics took place this weekend as leftwing union veteran Richard Leonard was elected as Dugdale’s successor. He was narrowly ahead among members but way ahead among union members. Leonard will try to capitalise on ‘the Corbyn effect’ to take on the SNP, which is why Dugdale taking a large fee on a reality TV show may be so unhelpful. The Indy reports Dugdale has deleted a portion of her register of members interests pledge to donate “any and all” outside earnings to charity. Her aides say it’s all about tax, not a jungle cash dodge.
5. VIEW BLUE, GO GREEN?
As May’s Cabinet committee on Brexit sits today, it’s a reminder that Damian Green is still very much in post - and that he chairs a staggering nine Cabinet sub-committees. The Cabinet Office inquiry continues into his alleged inappropriate conduct (including what he called ‘false’ claims about porn on his office computers), and the Sunday Times reports claims that May wants to draft in William Hague to replace her deputy should he be forced to quit. The one snag is that Hague, now a peer, has indicated he doesn’t want to return to politics. The other is that many Brexiteers view him as even more of a Remainer than Green.
Still, the Westminster sex harassment claims keep on coming. Scottish Labour councillor Carol Hughes told The Sunday Herald that a senior Labour MP groped her under a restaurant table, even though his wife was sitting opposite them. “The next thing, his hand was right inside my dress and up my thigh. He was caressing my thigh,” she said. Hughes said she felt “degraded” but had kept the incident bottled up until other women came forward recently after the Weinstein and Westminster allegations.
Meanwhile, the Sun reports Lib Dem deputy leader Jo Swinson has called for Lord Rennard to be kicked out over claims made against his conduct towards women. “I remain deeply frustrated that he was not expelled from the party through its disciplinary process,” she wrote online. “It just feels wrong, and I do not want Lord Rennard to continue as a member of the party. As far as I am concerned, he is not welcome.”