For some Brexiteers, the biggest news last Friday was not Theresa May’s decision to defy the Shapps leadership revolt but the outcome of a meeting of EU ambassadors in Brussels. The hot news was that Germany and France were playing hardball, signalling they will not agree to future EU-UK trade and transition talks unless there’s much more clarity from London on our Brexit ‘divorce bill’.
The topic will sure to be the main theme today as Theresa May marks the return of the Commons with an oral statement. The overnight pre-brief was that the EU 27 should realise that after her apparent concessions in the Florence speech, “the ball is in their court”. But that ball had already been thwocked right back at the PM on Friday, and hopes of getting movement in time for the October EU summit look very slim now.
May’s main weapon in the Brexit talks is hard cash, while the EU’s is a hard deadline. The DexEu department seem pretty chilled about the prospect that the timetable will now slip to the December summit, though there are hopes that the UK’s offer on EU citizens has acted as a catalyst for progress. Officials restart talks in Brussels today but David Davis is not due to do another presser with Michel Barnier until Thursday, (insiders suggest he could shuttle to Belgium earlier if needed). Denmark’s finance minister Kristian Jensen says Brexit deals were “not rocket science” and he wants a “speedy” agreement, but smaller countries rarely get their way if the Franco-German view holds.
Barnier is more flexible in private than many think, but the FT reported that one EU ambassador told his colleagues on Friday: “We are not here to save the Tory party.” For their part, the Tory Brexiteers are ready to kick off if Berlin and Paris fail to budge. Senior backbencher Bernard Jenkin told Today that “they are just stringing us along”, adding that the “transition” should instead be “an interim period”. Expect several Eurosceptics to issue similar warnings today during May’s marathon Brexit statement (two hours judging by previous Bercow strictures). For them, ‘Stoptober’ means their party giving up its addiction to the EU for good, even without a deal. Speaking of which, Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Dianne Hayter has become the first senior figure in the party to say she expects a ‘no deal’ outcome.
2. RESHUFFLE PUFF
Thanks to his duties on the frontbench for the Oral Statement, Jeremy Corbyn won’t be attending the PLP tonight (John McDonnell will be the guest star instead). The Tory backbench 1922 Committee on Wednesday is more likely to see fireworks as several senior MPs are furious with both Grant Shapps (for his leadership plot) and Boris Johnson (for overshadowing conference).
Bernard Jenkin insisted on Today that his piece in the Guardian - attacking the Treasury for wanting access to the EU single market ‘at any price’ – was not an attack on the Chancellor himself. Still, amid hints from the PM of a Cabinet reshuffle, many Brexiteers want Philip Hammond fired rather than Johnson. The Sun quotes a close ally of Boris: “In a Cabinet full of such dullards, to send your star striker off the field seems a pretty odd thing to even contemplate.” Several Tory MPs tell me they are unhappy not just with Hammond but also with DD and Liam Fox for agreeing the transition demand.
The gossip in Whitehall is that the reshuffle could come after the October 18/19 EU summit. In her Sunday Times interview, May was asked how she’d treat Boris and replied she won’t “hide from a challenge”. A demotion rather than a sacking is being actively discussed, though the Telegraph reports Boris would walk rather than take such humiliation. May has to prove her authority somehow. One of the many nuggets in Tim Shipman’s write-through yesterday was that at least three Cabinet ministers on Thursday night were talking about getting rid of her. And he had this brilliant bit of intel about Boris’s hurt pride. Johnson apparently told pals: “I really hate it when people say the Tory party should skip a generation — and go to Amber Rudd.” The joke was that Rudd is 54, a year older than Boris. Bojo was out running again this morning (see pic above), providing yet more metaphors for everyone.
Amid all the names swirling around for possible promotion, would Ruth Davidson be the perfect party chairman, as Matt D’Ancona suggests in the Guardian? (You don’t need to be an MP, though it would be odd not being in the Cabinet). The Scottish Tory leader left the door a crack open yesterday about her future leadership ambitions, saying she was not looking beyond “2021”. The next UK election is in 2022 of course. Those looking at a Davidson leadership think she’d be a contender after Brexit actually happens in 2019, as the party may unite once more. But sceptics think her strong Remainer past means she’d split the Tories even more during a fraught transition period. And after all, she’s never held Shadow Cabinet let along Cabinet status, the doubters add.
3. CREDIT CHECK
The very first item on the Commons agenda today is Work and Pensions Questions. And the very first question is from Plaid Cymru’s Hywel Williams asking for progress on the roll-out of Universal Credit. There’s fresh pressure on David Gauke after John Major yesterday wrote in the Mail on Sunday that UC needed to be reviewed as it was “operationally messy, socially unfair and unforgiving”. “It is time for the Conservative Party to show its heart again, which is all too often concealed by its financial prudence.”
Gauke told me at our conference fringe that he hoped some of the 12 Tory rebels who had expressed concern would now accept his changes on advance payments. The Telegraph reports the rebellion has doubled, and uneasy Tory MPs meet today, but without an obvious Parliamentary trigger point (all the secondary legislation is long gone) it’s unclear what they can do. Work and Pensions Sec Stephen Crabb admitted on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that there were “other operational issues” with UC, “but I don’t think John Major is actually right that all of the operational aspect of the policy is flawed”.
Another area where Gauke’s inner Treasury emerged in our fringe (he was candid enough to say he wanted to be Chancellor) was when I asked if he’d reconsider the four-year benefit freeze imposed by Osborne. If there’s ‘flexibility’ for public sector workers to cope with inflation, why not welfare claimants? Gauke was firm that there were no plans to revisit uprating, but today the Times reports on a Joseph Rowntree Foundation study that an extra 470,000 people will be living in poverty as a result. Higher inflation means the Treasury has saved even more money from the freeze (it’s £4.8billion not the £3.9bn Osborne forecast). One to watch.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
In case you missed it, watch this Airbus A380 jet land at Dusseldorf airport in high winds.
4. ABUSE REEXAMINED
The Independent Inquiry into Child Sex Abuse today begins its examination into claims of abuse by the late Rochdale MP Cyril Smith. The allegations relate to Cambridge House Boys’ Hostel and Knowl View School, where Smith was a governor. The inquiry will hear evidence over three weeks of hearings and examine claims of institutional failings.
I declare an interest here as I’m not only a Rochdalian myself but also helped to uncover the allegations against the former Liberal Democrat MP in 2012. I spoke to former residents of Cambridge House, one of whom told me: “I was scared, Cyril Smith was God in Rochdale”.
The late, great investigative journalist Liz Mackean (ex BBC and then Channel 4) then revealed a separate scandal at Knowl View residential school (where Smith also had keys to every room). Since then, Rochdale Council’s chief exec has apologised for its failings in both homes, saying the council’s response to reports of abuse was “unforgiveable”. But a police investigation, published this year, found no evidence of a cover-up or corruption over claims of abuse at Knowl View. Let’s see if the new inquiry can find out more.
5. YELLOWS N GREENS
The party conference season hasn’t finished quite, as both the SNP and the Greens continue with their own get-togethers. SNP leader and First Minister Nicola Sturgeon is notably reticent to get into how she’d respond to a declaration of independence by Catalonia.
My colleague and former Holyrood reporter Rachel Wearmouth has done a temperature-take HERE on whether we’ve hit ‘peak SNP’ (the indy polls are still roughly 44% Yes 56% No) amid a Tory and Labour resurgence (their leadership election is ongoing). Westminster leader Ian Blackford speaks around 11am the conference.
Meanwhile, the Greens continue their own plucky defiance despite getting royally squeezed in the election. Co-leader Jonathan Bartley will say his party has been the ‘most influential’ of the 21st century. Caroline Lucas told us this weekend that May will come unstuck over Brexit, but had some surprisingly warm words about Michael Gove putting animal cruelty, ivory trading and air quality back on the agenda. I wonder whether the PM can see radical environmental policy as a necessary condition in winning back the votes of under 30s?
SUNDAY SHOWS ROUND-UP
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