1. LETTERS PRAY
Theresa May is in Davos, but back home the grumbling about her leadership is growing. Earlier this week one senior Tory confided to me that there had been a ‘mood change’ in the wake of a series of missteps including the shambolic reshuffle. Stories of the PM’s stiffness in private (one fired minister actually had to give her the words to fire them) abound, but more importantly her lack of strategic vision is now the main worry.
Bang on cue, the Sun’s Harry Cole reports that backbench 1922 Committee chairman Sir Graham Brady was ‘ashen faced’ at the prospect of ‘one more letter’ demanding a vote of no confidence in the PM. Under party rules, a vote is automatically triggered once 15% of the party (48 MPs) backs one. Back in September, the number was estimated in the thirties, but is it now over 40? Brady, a wise old owl despite his youth, has warned colleagues to ‘be careful’ given a leadership race could dismantle Brexit talks. May will be praying her backbenchers heed his advice.
Having conducted her reshuffle, the PM’s room for defensive or offensive manoeuvre is limited. But her critics know they need a trigger and one former Cabinet minister tells PoliticsHome that could be the local elections. “We’re probably going to lose every seat we’ve got in Birmingham, for example.” Others fear the loss of Barnet, Wandsworth or Westminster in London, defeats that will concentrate MPs’ minds. “Jeremy [Hunt] could run, Boris, Amber [Rudd], and a younger name,” one senior Tory told me. “We all know she’s terrible. Why not just get on with it?” One option is a short, sharp leadership race in May, leaving key ministers in post to get on with the day job (and get a new Government in place by the summer). After all, as one MP points out, May continued to be Home Secretary while a leadership candidate in 2016.
Iain Martin writes in the Times: “The timing [of a leadership contest] is of course sub-optimal — but May 1940 was hardly ideal either.” Aptly enough, the Telegraph reports that Trump phoned May last month, just after watching the movie Darkest Hour, and told her “You could be this generation’s Churchill”. But as May meets Trump for a bilateral in Davos today, will she get a word in edgeways? Tim Shipman reported last yearhow Trump dominates with opening lines like ‘Theresa I’ve loved you, I missed you’, refusing to let her make her points. One aide said: “He’s a crazy person but…in speaking like that he prevents all sorts of conversations. He’s completely in control.” Bloomberg has a May interview today, but Piers Morgan has landed a Trump one for ITV.
Yet it’s the PM’s lack of control over her own party that is most obvious (as the Boris NHS flare-up this week showed). This morning she may also get some very bad news on her own cherished Home Office record too. One source tells me the crime stats due out at 9.30am are expected to be dire. Add in the missed immigration target, and MPs may wonder: just what is Theresa May for?
2. KEEP THE FAITH
It appears the PM will make no direct reference to Brexit in her speech today, other than perhaps a general message of being open for business. But boy is there a lot of Brexit stuff around. The FT reports Britain is seeking a special “good faith” clause in its Brexit transition deal, fearing the EU may otherwise exploit its position to impose deliberately harmful rules on the UK. This is complicated by the fact that we want to exclude ourselves from existing “good faith” provisions in EU treaties to allow a more independent trade policy. Brussels stresses ‘sincere cooperation’ is the concept that guides all their body of laws.
David Davis’s message to Eurosceptics wary about May selling them out has so far been ‘I’m one of you, so keep the faith’. But their patience is running thin, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s questions to him at the Brexit Select Committee showed yesterday. JRM accused DD of ‘weak’ answers on whether the UK will keep have to abide by EU rules during a two-year transition. Some think the penny has dropped for backbench Brexiteers who now fear May’s Florence speech tore up key parts of her Lancaster House speech in agreeing to a status quo period after 2019.
There was much hilarity at David Cameron’s unguarded remark that Brexit was a mistake but ‘not a disaster’ and ‘it’s turned out less badly than we thought’. Speaking of which, Treasury Perm Sec Tom Scholar told MPs yesterday that Osborne’s Project Fear forecasts totally failed to take account of fiscal or monetary responses to the Leave vote or global growth. The damage to the Treasury’s reputation caused by the whole affair should not be underestimated.
But it’s not all a rosy picture for the Brexiteers. The Times reveals Bank of England Governor Mark Carney told a Davos breakfast that the Brexit vote has cost the UK more than £200m a week in lost growth. Asked to measure the cost in ‘Brexit buses’, he did a bit of mental arithmetic and concurred that the missed opportunity “equated to between two thirds and three quarters of the £350 million” on Boris’ battlebus. OBR chief Robert Chote tells the New Statesman the UK economy is ‘weak and stable’.
Meanwhile International Trade minister Greg Hands was candid with MPs yesterday that there were ‘resource’ issues if 40 countries with EU trade deals wanted to renegotiate them. A new NAO report warns his department is not fit for Brexit, having failed to set out the “capabilities and level of capacity” it needs. Oh, and the Institute for Government says May’s reshuffles in the Brexit Department and elsewhere are undermining policymaking.
3. CULTURE CLUB
May’s leaden-footed political instincts were once again on display in her reaction to the Presidents Club groping scandal. After PMQs, her office said merely that she had been ‘uncomfortable’ on reading the FT’s damning report. By 10pm last night that had been upgraded to a new source quote: “The Prime Minister is appalled by what has been reported. This shows there is a long way to go to ensure all women are treated properly as equals.”
As it happens, two female ministers were the strongest performers yesterday. Education minister Anne Milton in the chamber had the right mix of integrity and candour that showed once again why it’s baffling she was overlooked for a Cabinet post. Her response was a sharp contrast to Nadhim Zahawi’s failure to even turn up to the frontbench, despite being seen briefing her minutes before behind the Speaker’s chair in PMQs. And on Newsnight too, minister Margot James (a former businesswoman) denounced the misconduct and hinted at changes in the law.
But the questions continue. Zahawi met the Chief Whip last night and one gets the impression that if the PM was in the country, he could be in more trouble. It’s still odd that the minister at one point said he couldn’t comment on the event as he left early, yet now it turns out he left early because he felt uncomfortable that the women were paraded around the room. Having been to previous events, had he seen similar displays or worse? We’re told he attended as a private individual, but did he use a ministerial car to get to or from the event?
Just who, if anyone, in Government (or in Cameron’s Cabinet) knew about the unsavoury element to the dinners remains unclear. And No.10 has close links to Presidents Club co-chair David Mellor. May’s deputy chief of staff and two ministers attended an ideas meeting at his Mayfair home only last October. As we report, Meller made donations to Michael Gove’s leadership bid in 2016, as well as donations to the party more widely. A key backer of the pervasive Policy Exchange crowd of wonks-turned-MPs, just what did they know? And we have yet to be told which ministers attended the men-only event previously. On the Today programme, Culture Secretary Matt Hancock just said the club’s closure was “goodbye to bad rubbish” and “I comfortably describe myself as a feminist”. He added “in my time in public life I’ve never attended anything like that”.
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Watch this baby rhino enjoy its first ever shower.
4. GREEN GOVE-RNMENT
Michael Gove’s drive to burnish the Tory party’s green credentials has been well documented. Like Boris Johnson’s bid to hail a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS (a dividend that the IFS has again suggested is illusory), the Environment Secretary suggests the UK’s environmental protections can be strengthened not weakened outside the EU. He’s written a long piece for Politico Europe this morning, saying how we can ‘take back control’ for a ‘Green Brexit’.
And yet, Greenpeace’s investigatory arm, Unearthed, revealed yesterday leaked EU officials’ notes showing that British officials told their counterparts the UK will be unable to support an EU-wide target of recycling 65% of all municipal waste by 2035. Diplomats from three other EU nations, speaking on condition of anonymity, agreed that UK officials had been ‘quite blunt’ in voicing opposition to the binding recycling target. Not quite what Sir David Attenborough would want? Let alone plastics-strangled turtles. Maybe in DEFRA Questions at 9.30am, Gove can clear up the confusion.
5. YES SHE KHAN
Eight months ago, in the wake of the Manchester terror attack, Theresa May promised a new Commission for Countering Extremism. Today, campaigner Sara Khan (who has worked for several Government departments) has been appointed to head it. But within minutes of the announcement, former Tory chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi was highly critical, doubting Khan’s likely independence and credibility in a series of tweets and warned of “destructive and dangerous games” being played.
The main criticism seems to be that Khan strongly backs the controversial Prevent programme, the anti-radicalisation scheme that a UN Human Rights Council report in 2016 described as “inherently flawed.” But Khan is not alone in criticsing the balance between security and civil liberties. New reviewer of counter-terror legislation Max Hill has been vocal in opposing new ‘thought crime’ laws. In a neat bit of timing, his latest report will be published today in a Written Ministerial Statement from the Home Office.