The Waugh Zone Thursday June 7, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

So, will he or won’t he? Speculation that David Davis could sensationally quit the Government swirled around Westminster last night as he held rather tense talks with Theresa May over Brexit. They’re expected to have another private discussion this morning, ahead of a crunch ‘war Cabinet’ meeting at lunchtime. And as ever, time and timetables are key. May is due to fly to Canada for the G7 this afternoon. She’s leavin’ on a jet plane and though we do know when she’ll be back again (this weekend), if no agreement is hammered out in the next few hours, this could all be kicked into next week. It’s a Mexican standoff that few in Cabinet want to last long.

In a bit of delicious timing, next Tuesday, June 12, is not just the first day of the EU Withdrawal Bill crunch votes. It’s also the 10th anniversary of Davis walking out of David Cameron’s Shadow Cabinet (he was fighting for civil liberties back then, he’s fighting for national ‘liberation’ from the EU now, his friends say). Most of the public will be baffled about the details of the current row (Belfast, Brussels, backstops), but they will sit up and take notice of the Brexit Secretary basically resigns because he fears the UK will be tied indefinitely to the EU even after we formally quit next March. One key DD ally told me last night: “No resignation…not tonight…He’s fighting his corner”. That caveat ‘not tonight’ was hardly reassuring for a No.10 that knows the PM may not survive such a massive resignation right now.

On the detail of the row, Davis was furious that a four-page document on the ‘backstop’ plan to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland was set to be published today without full agreement. He’s irritated at being sidelined in favour of the PM’s Brexit civil servant Olly Robbins, but more importantly thinks the UK is giving away leverage by refusing to be tougher on the backstop idea. One way out of this row is for May to kick the can down the road yet again and postpone it until her return from the G7. Is it possible that Davis could settle for some form of words giving the UK the right to unilaterally pull out of any backstop deal with the EU? May’s real difficulty is she wanted to give Brussels something to work with on the issue, precisely by not pinning down the detail. Former Brexit minister David Jones told the Today programme: “Anything that caused him [DD] to leave would be deeply regrettable and deeply damaging to the country”. It’s make-your-mind-up time for the PM: just how much does she need Davis in her Cabinet?

Other Brexiteers have felt bounced on the backstop idea, but have not opposed it outright. Still, if Davis quit he really would put huge pressure on Boris Johnson, Liam Fox and Michael Gove to do the same (though the Sun reports he’s given up on wanting to be Chancellor). As it happens, Johnson was in chipper mood at the Conservative Way Forward summer reception last night. So chipper that he appeared to breach the PM’s ‘waiver’ on not talking to any media other than his local paper about Heathrow. “It’s the right idea, not in the right place,” he said.

It was the Commons v Lords annual tug of war competition yesterday and Tory Eurosceptics were delighted that they won. Andrew Bridgen told the Sun that it was a sign of things to come ahead of Tuesday’s crunch votes. “MPs on the Government benches ought to be shouting ‘leave’ not ‘heave’ as we pull against the Lords and try to drag them out of the European Union kicking and screaming.” Labour of course has its own problems on Brexit and is braced for a serious rebellion by its backbenchers on the EEA amendment. I’ll have more on that later today, but don’t forget that there’s a sizeable number of Labour MPs who think the EEA is unacceptable because it would allow unchecked EU immigration.

Theresa May has decided to give the NHS a “significant increase” in its budget to coincide with its 70th anniversary this year, Jeremy Hunt has told the Guardian. What caught my eye was just how much the Health Secretary stressed, repeatedly, the PM’s role, rather than that of the Chancellor. “She is unbelievably committed. You should not underestimate how committed she is to the NHS. So she is absolutely 100% behind getting this right.

Getting the PM onside in any Whitehall turf war with the Treasury is crucial of course. Hunt is pushing for a 4% rise and Philip Hammond has been suggesting anything more than 2.5% is unaffordable. Hunt reveals that one of the arguments he uses is not just the Tories need to be seen as more compassionate, but that such compassion can only come from competent management of finances. “People generally think of Conservatives as competent and they need to see that competence in action in delivering the public services that matter to everyone,” he says.

But there was other interesting stuff in the interview, including Hunt admitting Brexit had contributed to staff shortages and that he’s likely to miss his 2015 pledge to get 3,000 more GPs by 2020. Meanwhile, yesterday the GMB union voted by 87% to reject the NHS pay offer. All the other unions have been minded to accept the deal but I note that some are now extending their consultation period. Even if he’s getting more cash, it’s unlikely Hunt will be able to persuade Hammond to spend it on even higher pay demanded by the GMB.

Theresa May met Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday at No.10 and there were smiles and handshakes that one suspects would not be forthcoming from Jeremy Corbyn, if he were PM. May told him of her “concern about the scale of casualties in Gaza in recent weeks, and around Israel’s use of live fire”. In a clip for the cameras before their talks, she told him: “We have been concerned about the loss of Palestinian lives…with 100 Palestinian lives lost and a deteriorating situation in Gaza, I hope we can talk about how we can alleviate that situation and how we can ensure that we can get back to a position where we are able to find a way through to talk about a two-state solution.” Netanyahu insisted Gaza protestors were “being paid for and pushed by Hamas”.

Plenty of Netanyahu’s critics will see May’s words as less than robust, not least after it emerged that a 21-year-old Palestinian paramedic Razan al-Najjar was shot and killed in the clashes last month. But some of her own MPs may also be worried by the Jewish Chronicle splash today which reports that Britain is now “far more likely” to side with Trump rather than the EU over Iran’s nuclear programme. It quotes a Whitehall source saying Mossad had handed over “damning” files showing Tehran had breached its obligations. “The government is unlikely to make this public but if it comes to a stand-off between the US and the EU over Iran, we are now far more likely to be on the US side.”

Meanwhile, Argentina has cancelled its final World Cup warm-up friendly match with Israel. The move to pull out of the match (originally scheduled in Haifa but moved to west Jerusalem) followed public pressure in the wake of the Gaza killings. Striker Gonzalo Higuain told ESPN that “they’ve finally done the right thing”. Palestinians cheered the move, but Israel says it was prompted by death threats made to the Argentinian team. The Palestinian FA chief had on Sunday called for the burning of replica shirts and pictures of Lionel Messi. “He is a big symbol and we are going to target him personally,” Jibril Rajoub had said.

In the most bizarre game of ‘Simon Says’ ever, watch Vice President Mike Pence copy Donald Trump in removing a water bottle from a table last night. Mesmerising.

Taxpayers will foot a bill of at least £148m to clear up after Carillion’s collapse, a damning National Audit Office report of the government’s handling of the crisis has revealed. Despite the outsourcing giant having £1.7bn worth of public sector contracts, a major profits warning in July 2017 “came as a surprise” to ministers, the investigation found. Around two-thirds of Carillion workers - 11,638 - have found new jobs but more than 2,300 have been made redundant and 3,000 are still employed on contracts.

And there’s bad karma on the way for those making good profits out of the collapse. John McDonnell’s plan to crackdown on the ‘Big Four’ accounting firms ‘cartel’ seems more relevant than ever. Business Select Committee chair Rachel Reeves said that PwC, who profited from Carillion as it inched towards collapse, “are expected to wring at least another £50m from its ruins as the government appointed special managers to the insolvency, while thousands of smaller creditors will get nothing at all.” Frank Field, chairman of the Work and Pensions Committee has written to the Official Receiver to demand answers about PwC’s role.

At around 9.45 am, the Supreme Court is due to hand down its judgment in the case brought by the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission (NIHRC) over the laws on abortion in Northern Ireland. In 2015, the Belfast High Court ruled that Northern Ireland abortion law – one of the most restrictive on the planet - breached women’s rights. That ruling was overturned in June 2017 in the Court of Appeal. The Supreme Court case is considering whether Northern Ireland’s abortion law breaches women’s rights by not allowing abortions in cases of sexual crime (rape and incest) and fatal foetal abnormalities.

The judges won’t of course be swayed by the politics of all this, and can’t take into account the Irish referendum decision let alone calls by MPs this week for reform. But whatever the outcome, this issue won’t go away from Parliament. And it’s worth pointing out that many campaigners believe that talk of a ‘referendum’ in Northern Ireland is mistaken. The only reason one was undertaken in Ireland was because that’s the only way to change its constitution. North of the border, legal change can be undertaken through the Assembly and Executive or via Westminster. And with no Stormont government, many MPs think women’s rights can no longer be ‘devolved’.

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