The Waugh Zone Thursday July 5, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Theresa May’s new Brexit customs compromise appears to be a weird hybrid of both heavily criticised previous proposals, the customs partnership (aka ‘crazy’, copyright, B Johnson) or the ‘maximum facilitation’ plan (aka ‘bonkers’, copyright, Brussels). So, we now seem to have a set of words that look like an anagram of both: the ‘facilitated customs arrangement’.

This ‘third way’ is aimed at countering the Brexiteer criticism that the UK should not act as a ‘tax collector’ for the EU. It seems to envisage the UK being free to set its own tariff on goods destined for the UK while allowing EU tariffs on the minority of goods that arrive on their way to the rest of Europe. Crucially, it relies on new tech to track destinations of goods. It also seems to incorporate the regulatory alignment that Brussels is demanding and which is key to avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland.

Given that Jaguar Land Rover (one of the biggest employers in the West Midlands) are the latest big firm warning of the need to continue ‘frictionless trade’, is this new plan the answer? Its boss has become the latest business chief to join Airbus, Nissan and BMW is warning of the dangers to British jobs. “If I’m forced to go out because we don’t have the right deal, then we have to close plants here in the UK and it will be very, very sad,” he tells the FT. But arch Brexiteer Owen Paterson told Today that quitting the EU single market and customs union would leave firms like Jaguar LandRover in ”a wonderful position”.

Is the Third Way already dead though? The Telegraph have the scoop that David Davis has already written to the PM to warn that Brussels will reject the plan out of hand. To be fair, DD has a point, given everything Michel Barnier has said to date. May is in Berlin today to try to drum up backing from Angela Merkel, but can either the German Chancellor (who puts EU unity ahead of all else, most of the time) or Brussels show the UK any flexibility at all? If not, the Brexiteers may well push harder than ever for ‘no deal’ (or a ‘clean Brexit’ as they prefer to call it). Davis, seen as the pragmatic ‘conscience’ of the Eurosceps, could be key to getting this sold on both sides of the Channel.

Home Secretary Sajid Javid has more pressing things on his plate right now than the precise shape of EU customs arrangements. He’s chairing a meeting of the Government’s emergency Cobra committee today on the shock news that a man and woman found unconscious in Wiltshire were exposed to Novichok – the Russian nerve agent that poisoned former spy Sergei Skripal.

This is indeed a fast-moving story. Charlie Rowley, 45, and Dawn Sturgess, 44, fell ill at a house in Amesbury on Saturday and remain in a critical condition. The BBC’s security correspondent Gordon Corera said: “The most likely hypothesis is that this is leftover Novichok from the attack on the Skripals back in March.” Chemical weapons expert Richard Guthrie said it was possible that the Novichok which poisoned the Skripals may have been disposed of “in a haphazard way”.

The BBC’s Mark Urban, who has always had superb contacts on this story, said the couple had visited Queen Elizabeth Gardens in Salisbury, which is now cordoned off. Urban revealed last night he met Skripal last year and the Russians had hacked his daughter’s email account. Scotland Yard have 100 detectives on the case and are stressing this is a brand new investigation. But given that many UK allies expelled Russian diplomats this year in retaliation for the Skripal attack, it’s no wonder there’s huge global interest in this story. Having just come back from Russia myself, I can tell you its security is as tight as ever. And there were more than a few Russians chanting support for Colombia against England in their World Cup match. I couldn’t possibly relate the English fans’ reaction to the Ruskies when we actually won that shoot out.

Tracey Crouch is the world’s first Loneliness Minister and boy is she in demand at home and abroad. Other countries want to know how to tackle what is becoming a growing public health issue across the developed nations, with isolation now a feature not just of elderly people but also young people living on their own, new workers in cities and towns and young parents cut off from contact too.

The PM has made this a big priority, helping with a new £20m fund recently for specific projects. Crouch has a new strategy due to be published this autumn, but in an interview with yours truly she’s hinted at some possible new thinking – including a special ‘loneliness’ test for all new policy changes. This would be similar to the impact assessments that are now routinely currently conducted for gender and disability. From cuts in to SureStart children’s centres to rural bus routes being axed, the assessment could state what ‘unintended’ consequences could be on social isolation. Read our story here.

Crouch is well-liked among Tories but also across the House and she is pretty robust about some of the initial criticism of her new ‘Eleanor Rigby’ title. “I think I’d much prefer to be the Minister for Happiness and Wellbeing, because ultimately that’s what I’m trying to achieve,” she says, referring to the title of a counterpart in the UAE she met recently. “But you will remember that when David Cameron and the Coalition Government came in [in 2010], they had a Happiness Index and the Fourth Estate ripped it to shreds!” Crouch is also sanguine about mickey-taking by US talkshow host Stephen Colbert. “I’m grateful to have been the butt of a joke if it means that legislators, those who have controls over public health start to talk about the issue.”

Watch baby chimp Limbani as he’s reunited with the foster parents who first raised him after he was abandoned by his mother.

The NHS is 70 years old today and is as mired in political controversy as it was when it was born. If you’re wondering why all those big week-long TV specials have already been aired last week and last month, there’s a simple reason: the BBC’s packed Wimbledon schedule meant it lacked airtime this week, ITV’s World Cup commitments ruled out this week for the same reason. As it happens, we have an interview with Dame Julie Moore, the chief exec of University Hospitals Birmingham, who says we should be as obsessed with the care crisis as we are with football. “Why do we value kicking a ball more than caring in a skilled way for an elderly person who has a lot of needs?”

We also have lots of testimony of Birmingham people’s perceptions of the NHS at 70. Meanwhile Lord Porter, the Tory chief of the Local Government Association, warns the PM that social care will only improve if the Government cuts through the “horseshit” which sees the NHS and councils not working together. He also argued the rebranding of the Department of Health to include “Social Care” in the title was merely window dressing.

When Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey arrived in her new Cabinet post earlier this year, she surprised a few people by continuing David Gauke’s new tone of compassion and reform to the harder edges of policy. But any hope of consensus appears to have gone after yesterday’s wounding attack on her by the National Audit Office chief Amyas Morse. An NAO report published earlier this month painted a dire picture of the Government’s flagship Universal Credit policy, saying it has not delivered value for money and it is impossible to know if it will help get people off benefits and into work.

But appearing before MPs to discuss the report after its publication, McVey claimed the report called for the roll-out of Universal Credit to be sped up, that it was indeed working, and the inquiry was not based on up-to-date information. Morse took the unusual step of writing an open letter to McVey to set the record straight, saying her statements were not correct and her behaviour was “odd”. As it happens, we’ve talked to local MPs in Birmingham and their constituency caseloads are bulging with benefits cases. Curiously, local police seem also to be using MPs to get the public to raise any problems with service cuts.

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