1. JEAN-CLAUDE. VIN. DAMN.
Theresa May has dinner with Jean-Claude Juncker in Brussels tonight and she’ll be hoping the perpetually thirsty European Commission President spends more time thinking than drinking. May will be accompanied by Brexit Secretary David Davis and chief ‘sherpa’ Olly Robins, while Juncker will have his utterly sober chief of staff Martin Selmayr and negotiator Michel Barnier by his side. All of them will hope things go better than the PM and Juncker’s previous disastrous Downing Street supper back in the spring.
No.10 insiders insist this dinner has been in the diary for a while, but virtually no one in Brussels, let alone Whitehall or Westminster, was expecting it. Is it a desperate move to get the EU27 to shift ground ahead of this Thursday’s summit, or just sensible prep with the PR advantage that it makes the UK look like it’s being pro-active? The Brits hope Juncker will stay off the claret and off his previous ‘whine list’ (geddit?) of complaints that the UK has not offered enough to allow a talks breakthrough. London has been encouraged by Barnier’s hints that he wants to talk trade as well as divorce terms. Given Germany is the country playing hardball, maybe a private dinner tomorrow with Angela Merkel would be just as sensible (May rang her yesterday for a chat).
I wrote last week that the ‘Phoney War’ over Brexit was set to end by Christmas, and Brexiteers have certainly been cranking up the pressure on the PM. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the Marr Show yesterday that UK farmers would simply grow more food in the event of a ‘no deal’ Brexit. He argued such an outcome will mainly be bad for the EU and “Britain will succeed whatever happens”. Boris, meanwhile, has been messing about in boats.
Tory Remainer MPs have realised that the fight against ‘no deal’ is a Parliamentary battle they have a chance of winning. Ken Clarke told the Today programme that while his EU Withdrawal Bill amendments had no intention of reversing the EU referendum, “Parliament can veto whatever it wants” and “a majority” of MPs would be unhappy with a ‘no deal’ outcome. “Parliament can start binding in the ultra-Right members of the Cabinet and the ultra-Left members of the Shadow Cabinet,” Clarke said. That was a nod to those of his colleagues wary of looking like they are siding with Labour’s frontbench, especially after John McDonnell warned MPs could block a ‘no deal’ Brexit.
2. TO PROTECT AND SERVE
It’s not just through amendments to Government legislation that a backbench MP can directly change the law. Thanks to Private Members’ Bills (PMBs), they have a long-shot chance of persuading ministers to adopt measures that win cross-party backing. In 1960, a newly-elected Margaret Thatcher managed to stop councils from excluding the press from council meetings (she still gets insufficient credit for that). And as we reported last night, it now looks as though Labour MP Chris Bryant will get his own place in Parliamentary history.
The Government is set to back Byrant’s Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill, which seeks to give special protection for paramedics, nurses, firemen, police and other 999 staff who are abused, attacked or spat at while carrying out their work. Figure show the number of attacks has risen in recent years, often fuelled by alcohol. Emergency staff are due to lobby Parliament this Wednesday ahead of the Second Reading of the Bryant bill on Friday. The Mail and Mirror have the story too.
Amber Rudd’s Parliamentary aide Robert Jenrick confirmed our story on BBC Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night. After a year in which our emergency staff reacted so superbly to Grenfell and the Manchester and London terror attacks, Jenrick said: “I’m sure that it [the Bill] will receive support across the House”. There will be less cross-party agreement about the Sun’s splash that the Met Police are now so overstretched they won’t investigate some burglaries, assaults or shoplifting offences.
3. BUDGETING FOR OLD AGE
So, will Philip Hammond really deliver a “radical Budget”, caving to pressure from No10 and Cabinet colleagues to shift the dial for the Tories among the youth vote, and attention away from endless Brexit rows? Hammond was badly burned earlier this year by his U-turn on National Insurance rises, though since then the PM was even more burned by her own snap election. Only last week, some MPs had been warned to expect a “safety-first Budget” because of the tight public finances. Hammond may want to leave Downing Street his own ‘there is no money left’ note, with a cutting of today’s Telegraph story that Britain is a whopping £490bn poorer thanks to an ONS write-down of foreign assets.
But the Sunday Times sparked a frenzy yesterday with a report that Hammond was being urged to look at everything from borrowing more to building on the Green Belt and writing off student loans (see below). Today, the Telegraph goes big with a story that the Treasury is considering taxing older people more to fund tax cuts for younger workers. David Gauke ruled out changes to pension tax relief recently, but this would be something else. Tory MPs have already called it ‘a tax on age’. That’s a reminder that it’s not just tight finances, but a tight Parliamentary majority, that hems in No.10 and No.11 alike.
The Mail suggests publicly-owned Green Belt land could be released for housing. I’m told May and Hammond are being urged to back one really radical plan: to use compulsorily purchase powers to seize unused and disused land for affordable housing. The PM is usually instinctively against such drastic state invervention, but it’s a sign of the times that it’s even being considered. If anyone doubts the extent of the UK housing crisis, read this Tweet from Stephen Timms MP about an 11-year-old constituent living with her family of four – one room.
Still, you know things are bad when there’s gossip that Michael Gove should be installed as Chancellor, and gossip that Hammond having lunch with George Osborne is a sign of sinister motives. One DUP source had told the Telegraph they were “deeply concerned about Philip Hammond’s behaviour” over Brexit. But Hammond won support from Nicky Morgan yesterday, as she inadvertently appeared to reveal on Peston on Sunday that Amber Rudd was also “appalled” at Brexiteer plots against him.
4. SUPER SI’S ME
I’ve said before that NHS chief exec Simon Stevens has more power than many Cabinet ministers and he is certainly more adept at grabbing headlines than many of them. Today, he is making waves again with his campaign to fight obesity, banning ‘supersize’ chocolate bars and ‘grab bags’ of sweets in hospitals.
Stevens has instructed trusts not to stock confectionary of more than 250 calories per pack. Tony Blair’s former health adviser believes obesity could bankrupt the NHS, and the public finances, without radical measures. I’m told for him the personal is also the political: he went on a strict ‘sugar fast’ for months after returning from a job in the US, and lost a serious amount of weight.
At 4pm, Stevens and DH Permanent Secretary Chris Wormald discuss health finances before the Public Accounts Committee. Apart from obesity, he may give us a clue to his pitches for extra Budget cash for the NHS to cope with rising demand.
5. NEVER NEVER LAND
Philip Hammond doesn’t have to look for to see intergenerational unfairness on personal debt. The BBC has done a superb job on new stats from the Insolvency Service showing that young people – particularly in seaside towns – are suffering from a rising tide of debt. Borrowing on loans, overdrafts, credit cards and car finance has accelerated since 2011. The Isle of Wight has the highest level of insolvencies young adults, according to the Insolvency Service, followed by Torbay and Scarborough. Coastal towns are particularly hard hit because much work is low-paid and seasonal.
It’s a reminder of the damage that any rise in interest rates can have, and that many are expecting the first hike (albeit small) in 10 years next month. Meanwhile, the chief executive of the Financial Conduct Authority has warned of a “pronounced” build up of debt among young people. Andrew Bailey told Kamal Ahmed the young were having to borrow for basic living costs.
He also said he “did not like” some high-cost lending schemes. I wonder if that’s enough of a warning to the Treasury to persuade it to go even further on student financing – and cut the 6% repayment rates on loans introduced last year? The Sunday Times reported yesterday that David Davis (long a loans sceptic) is lobbying for all historic student debt to be written off. But there’s a hefty price tag of up to £10bn.