1. JUSTIN TIME
Theresa May is in the air and on her way to Canada to meet Justin Trudeau. It’s the first leg of a globe-trotting tour that will take in the UN General Assembly and end with her Big Speech on Brexit in Florence on Friday. But all eyes today will be on her version of that famous musical showtune, ‘How To Solve A Problem Called Boris’. She has a joint press conference with Trudeau at 5.30pm UK time, where inevitably questions about global cooperation in fighting terror attacks (like the Parsons Green tube incident) will be overshadowed by questions about her Foreign Secretary.
Just what form of words May comes up with today about Boris (will she talk on the plane to hacks or wait for the Trudeau presser?) will be telling. I wrote in a WaughZone back in July that our on-probation PM “looks more and more like a supply teacher struggling to keep control of her unruly classroom” (Vince Cable this morning told BBC Breakfast she was like a headmaster ‘barricaded in her own office’). Boris’s extraordinary intervention in the Telegraph on Saturday was a reminder that he may always be the unruly kid at the back of the class, but also a reminder of Tory unease about the shape of Brexit.
Johnson has felt increasingly squeezed out of the picture as David Davis, Philip Hammond, Damian Green and Amber Rudd are in the PM’s inner circle driving EU policy. He felt he wasn’t properly consulted about (let alone invited to) the Florence speech, so the Telegraph opus was where he let his frustration show. Yet his timing was crass in the extreme (Dan Hodges claimed in the Mail on Sunday that Boris decided to publish his article once it emerged there were no dead in the Parsons Green bomb attempt, with allies checking with newspapers to see if there would be space for a Brexit story on Saturday), and the anger in No.10 was real. Francis Elliott in the Times has an excellent read-through.
Amber Rudd’s line on Marr was clearly authorised: “You could call it back-seat driving, absolutely. I don’t want him managing the Brexit process, what we have got is Theresa May managing the process, driving the car.” Of course it was Margaret Thatcher who wanted to be John Major’s back-seat driver, but the echoes of Mrs T’s demise resonate. Just as she was away in Paris in 1990 when the Tory plotters got to work, May is away and her Foreign Secretary is creating havoc back home. Was Boris’s appetite whetted by the recent revelation that a tearful May was grateful to receive his text after the election promising not to challenge her? The danger now is that he ends up in a position worse than Michael Heseltine’s, with the Brexiteer Right still not trusting him and many loyal backbenchers angry that he’s destabilised the party ahead of its conference.
May will be wary that a harsh put down of Boris could give him the excuse he needs to quit. But not reprimanding him would make her look even weaker than she does now. Rudd tried the dismissive approach, saying Boris was “an important part of the cabinet, adding enthusiasm, energy and entertainment”. But as the Larry the Cat Twitter feed remarked: “What the Home Secretary has described here is a labrador, not a Foreign Secretary”. The Sun reports May’s aide George Hollingberry has told Tory MPs “the boss isn’t stupid” and “knows there’s a game of succession going on”.
Boris meets May in New York, ahead of her UN speech tomorrow and the Telegraph reports it could be ‘showdown’ where he will say the UK should pay ‘nothing’ to the EU to access the single market even during a transition period. Here is the guts of the row: Boris fears a ‘status quo’ transition, Hammond and many others in the Cabinet actively want a ‘status quo’ transition (speaking of which, will DexEU risk publishing their position paper on trade this week?) The only thing that is certain from the past few days is that Boris will have guaranteed his own speech gets more attention than May’s at the Tory conference in Manchester. If he’s still in post.
2. GROSS POINT BLANK
Boris Johnson knows the difference between gross and net, but he also knows the power of Big Numbers. That’s precisely why he originally backed, and has now resurrected, the claim that the UK ‘sends’ £350m a week to Brussels, much of which he wants to spend on the NHS instead.
For Boris’s detractors this just proves that he is a wilful liar, prepared to cynically inflate a stat to win round the public. For his defenders, it shows he can get to the heart of one of voters’ biggest bugbears with the EU: us ‘sending’ large sums overseas when charity should begin at home etc etc.
There’s no question that the £350m figure is untrue. Margaret Thatcher’s rebate means we ‘send’ roughly £250m to Brussels (the rebate comes out at source). Moreover, as the BBC Reality Check rightly points out, some £88m in supports UK farmers and regional aid, and £27m to UK university and company research. The row with the UK Statistics Authority chief Sir David Norgrove risks damaging not just Boris but May too. But as the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson points out, by reviving the £350m figure, Boris has got everyone talking about just how much we do send to Brussels. Even if it is ‘only’ £150m a week in reality, it’s something that really upsets Leave voters. As Redwood put it on Today: “We send an awful lot of money that we don’t get back.”
The Boris Bus pledge of ‘£350m-on-the-NHS’ is undoubtedly one of the few things the public remember from the entire EU referendum campaign. It’s for precisely this reason that some around Jeremy Corbyn urged him in January to pledge that exacdt sum for the NHS post-Brexit (though via taxes on the rich as well as some no longer going to the EU). Corbyn felt that risked buying into Boris’s lie, but the whole NHS-Brexit boost issue hasn’t died. Don’t forget that Gove’s own ill-fated leadership launch included a pledge of £100m a week for the NHS, and both parties are still looking actively at how to formulate policy on this very issue.
3. YOUNGER, POORER, ANGRIER
In a refreshing break from all those Boris splashes, the Sunday Times yesterday chose to put on its front page a story that Philip Hammond was looking at plans to slash the tuition fee cap from £9,250 to £7,500. The Treasury have described that as ‘pure speculation’ and the Times today reports that Hammond is dismissive of another idea of slashing the 6.1% interest rate on loans, believing it to be ‘a fair market value’ given the high default rate. May’s Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell also worries cutting the rate would benefit wealthier students most (but to be frank most fees reform does just that).
But as Theresa May gears up for a party conference in which she will try to win round younger, and poorer, voters, some action on tuition fees is on its way. The Times says the Chancellor is sympathetic to raising the £21,000 threshold at which loans are repaid. More helpful to those on lower incomes could be the restoration of maintenance grants and it seems he’s open to that too in key subjects.
Many Tory MPs know that they can’t outflank Labour on tuition fees among young people (the Lib Dems brand is still ruined on the topic too), but they do get complaints from their parents and any gesture to help is a way of shoring up or regaining their backing. George Freeman, who is Chair of the PM’s Policy Board, last night told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour he was working on a plan to create “a new Youth Policy Champions network of ambassadors for people to reach out into communities”.
4. FARRON. AND ON.
The huge EXIT BREXIT slogan sketched out on Bournemouth’s sandy beach is more proof that even the Lib Dems are coming under fire from hardcore Remainers for not opposing Brexit strongly enough. A tense session of the party’s conference yesterday saw members try to dump the policy of holding a second referendum in favour of a more radical idea of just reversing Article 50 without any direct public vote.
The move failed and Tim Farron’s pledge to hold a second referendum stayed in place. Farron himself, of course, is not in place but will today give a speech defending his tenure, saying he revived the Lib Dems in local government and in membership numbers (he may gloss over them gaining just 4 more seats and a lower national share of the vote). He will also claim Brexit will “reduce immigration without changing a single law. Because if you turn Britain into a poorer, meaner, insular place, no-one in their right mind will choose to come here”.
Vince Cable (who had varying views on a second referendum idea himself) has a tough gig this week to stop his party from being squeezed out of the debate. He surprised many at the weekend by saying he could become PM, adding on Marr “I think it’s perfectly plausible, actually”.
5. REMEMBER RE MEMBERS
With the Lib Dems so far from power, the lead-up to this year’s Labour conference is more intense than ever. Jeremy Corbyn and his allies know Brighton offers a key chance to embed his vision for the party and his promises to extend more power to the hugely-expanded membership. We reported last week on some of the more radical plans to change party rules in both directions (though most are warning shots for 2018) and perhaps the most significant move was the leadership’s decision to submit a late paper on “party reform” for tomorrow’s meeting of the ruling National Executive Committee.
The NEC will also finalise the speaking arrangements, and it still seems that few expect Sadiq Khan or Andy Burnham, or most of the Shadow Cabinet, to feature prominently. Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner was among those who were cut from the speaker schedule to make way for more debate for members and last night on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour he confirmed it: “I’m one of those Shadow Secretaries of State who will happily resile my position on the platform so that more members can speak.”
Gardiner, who like Emily Thornberry impressed many Corbyn-supporting party members during the election with is stoutly loyal defences of the leader, added he was relaxed about plans to cut the threshold for MPs nominations for leadership contenders. “Quite honestly, 15, 10, 5, 2 [% of MPs], I don’t care, it’s the members ultimately that need to decide this”.
Meanwhile, the Guardian’s Jess Elgot reports that Corbyn is backing a rule change at the NEC to make it easier to discipline members who express anti-Semitic, Islamophobic, racist or sexist views. At present, no member can be reprimanded for “the mere holding or expression of beliefs and opinions” but the Jewish Labour Movement has a motion to amend that. Some on the Left are debating the exact wording but the Corbyn’s backing, change looks likely.
SUNDAY SHOWS ROUND-UP
Had a lie-in? Got a life? Catch up on the Sunday politics shows with our round-up (complete with bite-sized clips).