The Waugh Zone Monday October 15, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are expecting a baby “in the spring of 2019”, Kensington Palace announced this morning. Let’s hope the pregnancy and labour goes more smoothly than that of another new arrival expected at the same time: a mewling infant called Brexit Britain. After a gestation period longer than an elephant, the UK’s exit from the European Union has an immoveable, elective ‘due date’ of March 29, 2019. And this week’s EU summit feels like the 120-week scan of the Brexit baby, giving us the first real clues to its weight and shape. Following a weekend of frenzied speculation that the technical outlines of a UK-EU deal had been agreed, then not agreed, it’s going to be a heck of a few days of high stakes diplomacy.

Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab remains the key figure in both the Brexit talks and in any attempt to secure Tory party unity. He knows that if he quits, another five ministers could quit too, and the PM’s government would be on the edge of collapse. If he digs in and somehow persuades Brexiteer ministers and MPs that he’s managed to get the EU to compromise on the vexed issue of Northern Ireland, the PM has a way out of her political problems. Raab, apparently with the full authority of May, last night kiboshed one plan to break the deadlock, declaring it ‘unacceptable’. The Cabinet meets tomorrow in a real state of uncertainty, though some still hope that a form of words about ‘conditionality’ of a Brexit guarantee for Ulster will satisfy all sides.

Some civil servants mutter that one of Theresa May’s biggest mistakes, apart from triggering early the Article 50 Brexit process that set us on a firm track to March 2019, was in creating the Brexit department itself. At the time, some wanted her to just create a bigger No.10 unit dedicated to the issue, particularly as the PM herself is ultimately in charge of negotiations. But installing David Davis was seen by May’s allies as a way of bringing in a big hitting Brexiteer, while diluting Boris Johnson’s power and keeping the ‘Europhile’ Foreign Office at arms length. In the past year, the growing influence of the Cabinet Office Europe Unit, led by Olly Robbins, suggested May had realised she needed more of a personal oversight. But after Robbins appeared to sideline David Davis, Raab is now making clear he wants to ‘take back control’ of what Brexit will look like.

It’s unclear exactly when Raab’s ‘Department for Exiting the European Union’ will itself be dismantled. Logically, once we have formally ‘exited’ next March, its very title will look strange. Practically, it may be needed to oversee the transition period, but after that the Foreign Office will want to reassert its previous authority. A fascinating piece in Prospect magazine details just how demoralised and disconnected the FCO has become during the Brexit preparations, though lots of this is due to Boris Johnson’s wider non-Brexit blunders. Some greeted the arrival of Jeremy Hunt as a welcome change, until his recent EU-USSR jibe dented not just his and the Foreign Office’s reputation but also his hopes of uniting different wings of the Tory party. Meanwhile, tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, with both Keir Starmer and Jeremy Corbyn due to speak, could give extra clues on just how many Labour MPs could back the PM in the ‘meaningful vote’ due this autumn.

Back in the here and now, there remains a big, big gap between the EU’s version of a guarantee on Northern Ireland (‘under all circumstances’) and the UK’s (‘time-limited’ with an ‘expected’ end date of December 2021). With Davis urging mutiny among the Cabinet, it’s worth remembering that Raab is the one future leadership contender who could have the formidable backing of both Davis and Michael Gove. So for him, there’s as much at stake as for May in coming days. Some around the PM still suspect Davis wants the top job for himself, and indeed Nadine Dorries said he’d make a fine “interim leader”.

Yet perhaps the most telling quote of the entire weekend was from sources close to DD, pointing out he was unlikely to “volunteer for the worst job in the world”. He doesn’t want to be left holding the Brexit baby if it’s not quite the one he planned. Still, as long as no one else wants May’s job right now, and as long as Raab is on board, the PM may well get through yet another ‘week from hell’. She’s used to them by now, after all.

In an overnight interview, Donald Trump has deployed once again that lethal cocktail of scientific illiteracy and political ruthlessness that has lead the United States to abandon any world ‘leadership’ role on tackling climate change. “Something’s changing and it’ll change back again…I don’t know that it’s manmade. I will say this. I don’t wanna give trillions and trillions of dollars.” Trump has said some scary things since taking over at the White House but this is one of the scariest. Suggesting the planet’s temperature can simply ‘change back’, and questioning the human role in global warming, betrays a wilful ignorance of last week’s IPCC report, which was stuffed with scientific evidence and warnings that radical action is needed to avoid irreversible damage.

Yet Trump is not alone in the United States, far from it. Yesterday, Larry Kudlow, the director of his National Economic Council, suggested the IPCC report’s forecast was an “overestimate”. “I don’t think we should panic,” he added. And Republican Marco Rubio added this extraordinarily witless line-to-take: “I think many scientists would debate the percentage of what is attributable to man versus normal fluctuations.” This is just as dishonest as anything Trump says, including the President’s claim that “scientists…they have a very big political agenda”.

This side of the Atlantic, our two main parties are at least closer on the facts. Yesterday Theresa May wrote to the independent Committee on Climate Change to “advise on targets for net zero emissions”, in the light of the hugely important IPCC report. This could see the Government agree to Labour’s own recent policy shift to a new target of net zero emissions by 2050. May’s letter marks the start of the Green GB Week initiative. The renewable energy industry RenewableUK called for more “robust action..Conservative ministers took the bold decision in 2015 to phase out coal; they need to be bold again.” Let’s see if the Budget does indeed hint at a post-Brexit boldness on the one policy issue that affects every single one of us on the planet.

The suspected murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul looks like it will finally have high-level repercussions. Tory MP Tom Tugendhat on Saturday called for possible “downgrading diplomatic relations…restricting support”. Last night it emerged that US Treasury Secretary Steve Mnuchin and UK International Trade Secretary Liam Fox might not attend (boycott is perhaps not the word they would use) an investment conference in Riyadh this month.

The conference is the latest in a series of events pushed by Crown Prince Mohamed Bin Salman, who is the real power behind the throne in the desert kingdom, as his father King Salman is rumoured to have dementia. MBS, as he’s known, has been feted in parts of the West in recent months as a reformer, allowing women to drive, reopening cinemas, curbing the powers of the morality police. But he’s shown no signs of wanting political freedoms and has overseen an unprecedented war in Yemen, with warnings of the worst global famine in 100 years.

Khashoggi’s disappearance looks like the export of brutal repression that’s gone on for years at home in Saudi. This weekend, tension ratcheted up, with the Saudis warning they would “respond with greater action” to any sanctions, putting out a bizarre tweet saying ‘the outcome of these endeavors, like their predecessors, is demise’. But in the last few hours, the Saudis have offered a possible joint investigation with Turkey into the Khashoggi case. Whether that will turn into a genuine search for the truth is, on past form, highly unlikely.

Yet another example of everyday racism in the US, as a white woman tries to stop a black man from entering his own apartment in an upscale block in St Louis. Unsurprisingly, it’s gone viral.

Esther McVey’s admission last week that some groups would indeed be ‘worse off’ under Universal Credit has prompted 27 Tories to write to the PM urging extra cash in the Budget. But many Tories think the system is working just fine thank you very much, and Health Secretary Matt Hancock told Marr “I have had no letters on it at all”. Fellow Tory MP Gary Streeter said something similar recently, but Labour’s Andrew Gwynne tweeted “I don’t believe him!” Labour, however, seems to be wobbling on whether it will indeed scrap Universal Credit, as suggested by John McDonnell recently. Emily Thornberry said the party wanted “fundamental reform”, while Shami Chakrabarti added she didn’t think the benefit “in its current form is sustainable”. Will Labour reform and rebadge the six-benefits-into-one system? And if so is that ‘scrapping’ it?

Theresa May has certainly shown some personal commitment to the whole agenda of loneliness, creating the world’s first minister for the issue (Tracey Crouch), and today she puts her own Prime Ministerial stamp on tentative policy solutions. Among them are ‘social prescribing’ by GPs to refer patients to things like cookery classes and walking clubs. Postal workers will be encouraged to check in on isolated individuals in a pilot scheme. There’s lots of cross-party support for this agenda, which was pioneered by the late Jo Cox. Never forget that the PM’s Parliamentary aide Seema Kennedy and Labour’s Rachel Reeves co-chaired a commission to tackle the issue. Let’s see just how radical some of the policy answers will be. Crouch pointed out in an interview with HuffPost this summer that young professionals and students are as much at risk of loneliness as older people, if not more.

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