1. NICK AND FEES
When Justine Greening sat in the ‘naughty corner’ of the Tory backbenches in PMQs yesterday - among Remainer rebels Dominic Grieve, Anna Soubry and Nicky Morgan - she appeared to signal she had no intention of becoming a meek or mute former Cabinet minister. But today she’s finding out just what it’s like if you cross the PM too many times.
Former joint chief of staff Nick Timothy denies he had anything to do with the reshuffle, but gives us a strong clue to Theresa May’s irritation with her former Education Secretary: not only did Greening do little to create new Free Schools (and hated his grammars expansion), she also opposed plans to cut tuition fees. The Telegraph splashes on his revelation that May wanted a review not to just freeze fees but reduce them.
The Times revealed last autumn that Greening (and Jo Johnson) opposed the freeze, preferring instead to inject more cash into maintenance grants. Greening felt it was mad to offer young voters a watered down version of Corbyn’s plans and I remember when she ridiculed Labour’s proposal as ‘for the moneyed, not the few’ (one of her sharpest ever soundbites). Johnson, who also paid the price with a job change this week, has Tweeted his support for Greening in the face of Timothy’s criticism.
And what’s striking is just how much liberal Tories like Greening (and her Clarkeite colleagues) have in common with Blairite Labour types. Both think abolishing or freezing fees is regressive, as it helps the middle classes most. Both also believe passionately in the EU, partly because it boosts free trade and free markets. Both are wary of interventionist ‘gimmicks’ pushed by May and Timothy. Yet right now, centrists on both sides of the Commons look like an endangered species. No wonder there’s fresh chatter about donors being ready to fund a new political party.
New Education Secretary Damian Hinds is seen by some hardline Tory backbenchers as ‘drippingly wet’, and he may not appreciate suggestions from Timothy (and Michael Gove in a ConHome column) that he could square up to Gavin Williamson in a possible left-right future leadership contest. Gove told Today that Hinds and Williamson had the right kind of backgrounds to lead the new ‘pipeline of talent’. Yet he curiously ducked questions as to his own leadership ambitions, saying instead ‘my focus is…[my current role]’.
As for other reshuffle backwash, we reported Labour’s claim last night that May herself had breached her new ministerial code by using Downing Street for a party parade of her new vice-chairmen (No.10 points to an ‘exemption’ for official residences). But with the new list of PPSs due soon too, the increasing size of the Government payroll vote (those vice-chairs have nice new salaries) will worry constitutional Tories who fear the executive already has too much power over the legislature.
2. BOTTLING IT
The PM has her Big Speech on the environment today and with most news lines trailed in advance we were left with the overnight topline that she wanted to phase out all ‘avoidable’ use of plastics within 25 years. Oh, and she also wants supermarkets to look at ‘plastic-free’ shopping aisles.
The Green Party and others have pointed out that if the plastics choking our oceans and clogging up landfill are such an urgent problem, waiting a quarter of a century is hardly the answer. The lack of any legislative commitment (some of this is voluntary entreaty) on diesel cars, bottle deposit schemes or plastic use is more proof that the Government is bottling it on the big judgement calls, environmentalists claim. Nudging business can work and Tesco said last night it was looking at a bottle deposit scheme. On the other hand, some retailers point out if you have loose-veg aisles you increase food waste.
The Tories’ main political task is to prove that they really mean it. On green issues, Michael Gove often has the air of a high-flying student handed a brief in an Oxford Union debating competition, who then delivers the argument with characteristic brio. And Theresa May’s commitment seems even more opportunistic than Gove’s. Her former communications chief Katie Perrior reveals in the Times: “When I was at No. 10, Andrea Leadsom, then the environment secretary, was told to make the [25-year environment] plan as boring as possible”. Still, the new strategy could yet work. Our Owen wrote this piece on how No.10 changed tack on the environment after realising how much voters, young and old, cared about it. May will have to show in her Q&A this morning just how committed she is personally.
As for nudging, the sugar tax shows that the state can persuade business to act if faced with higher costs. May refused to rule out a ban on high energy drinks for kids yesterday. And the Sun reports 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady is backing Frank Field’s call for sugar tax proceeds to go to school holiday breakfast clubs. He has a private members bill next Friday that has attracted cross-party support.
3. HUNT THE DOSH
In his finale in PMQs yesterday, Corbyn quoted our HuffPost story that Jeremy Hunt had told the PM ‘a captain doesn’t abandon his ship’. “Is that not an admission that, under his captaincy, the ship is indeed sinking?” the Labour leader asked. That was met with yells of agreement from doctors and nurses across the land.
Yet for all the criticism, could Hunt be the Tory who uses his political clout with May to get the extra cash that Labour wants? In the Opposition Day debate yesterday, the Health Secretary said he wanted “significantly more funding” for the NHS and urged a cross-party consensus for a 10-year settlement rather than the five-year ‘forward view’ that operates at present. I’m told Hunt believes he can’t credibly deliver on his record expansion of medical training places without such a long-term funding pledge. It takes seven years to train doctors yet current cash planning lasts just five-years.
And the need for more money is even more starkly highlighted this morning as NHS Providers, which represents hospital trusts, warns that they need tens of billions more. Its chief Chris Hopson told Today the NHS cannot deliver its ‘constitutional’ standards of care “without a long-term funding settlement…For the first time ever in NHS history, last year, all of the key targets were missed.”
In its first flush in July 2016, the Timothy/May agenda was all about state interventionism. Yet the PM seems as reluctant as her Chancellor to invest the cash needed to tackle her biggest non-Brexit policy priority. Let’s see if Hunt gets his way.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this guy slip-slide on a driveway covered in black ice.
4. TOBY MUG
Toby Young’s remarks about women’s breasts and other sexist views appalled many of his Tory colleagues (not least Andrea Leadsom, who could have played a key role in nudging him out of the student regulator job). But student journalists may have discovered another reason why Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s pal decided to step down: he had attended a secret conference on eugenics at UCL last year. Private Eye and London Student have the details. And the Guardian reveals it was Tory Education committee chairman Rob Halfon’s devastating warning to the Commons on Monday about Young’s ‘dark and very dangerous’ views on eugenics (reported by HuffPost) that sealed his fate.
Amber Rudd is up in the Commons this morning for her first outing as Minister for Women and Equalities. Strangely the Home Office wouldn’t confirm for me that she actually had the new responsibility and referred all queries to No.10. Downing St yesterday was asked why this crucial area was a part-time job for Rudd rather than a full Cabinet post (as Labour have made it with Dawn Butler). The reply was that the PM herself had managed to be both Home Secretary and Equalities minister from 2010 to 2012. Yet with sexual harassment and women’s rights such a huge political issue, it seems yet another reshuffle error or oversight by May. The FT quotes unease about this further own-goal.
5. MATT GLOSS
The Lords last night inflicted another Government defeat, voting by 238 votes to 209 to demand Theresa May launch a second phase of the Leveson inquiry into the behaviour of the press. New Culture Secretary Matt Hancock was swift to denounce the vote as a ‘hammer blow’ for local newspapers. But Gary Lineker tweeted Hancock’s stance was “the old press freedom myth. The House of Lords have voted for press honesty, decency and some sort of code of conduct. Long overdue”. No.10 made clear the statutory process would be followed but it had no intention of shifting from a manifesto pledge not to implement Leveson 2.
Speaking of freedom of the press, Jeremy Corbyn effectively trolled Richard Branson yesterday over his ban on the Daily Mail on Virgin Trains. After PMQs, his spokesman told us: “Jeremy is an enthusiastic supporter of a free press and pluralism of the press. Private companies will decide what they want to stock on their trains - but obviously under a Labour government the rail system will be brought back into public ownership and a hundred flowers will bloom. There will be no bans on a publicly owned railway.” He couldn’t hide his smile.