POLITICS
17/05/2018 09:34 BST | Updated 17/05/2018 10:26 BST

The Waugh Zone Thursday May 17, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

1. GAMBLING CRACK, DOWN

Fixed-odds betting terminals (FOBTs) have long been seen by their critics as the ‘crack cocaine’ of the gambling industry, letting addicts bet £100 every 20 seconds. The machines have effectively turned high street bookies into mini-casinos. Well, this morning the Government took a major step towards killing them off, slashing the maximum stake to £2. Finally, Theresa May can say she’s delivering on her steps-of-No10 claim that this is not a laissez-faire government.

The Sun and the Mail both announced the story last night at 10pm, but Culture Secretary Matt Hancock and ‘Minister for Sport and Civil Society’ (both bits of that title were stressed by officials today) Tracey Crouch confirmed the plan to the stock market at 7am. And there’s no doubt the news will have a major impact on bookmakers, with some fearing the loss of millions from their profits and warning thousands of jobs will be hit.

In what looks like an attempt to slightly sweeten the bitter pill for the bookies, and to ensure the Treasury doesn’t lose out on income, the DCMS said “the change will be linked to an increase in Remote Gaming Duty, paid by online gaming operators, at the relevant Budget”. It’s certainly a ballsy move by Hancock as his Suffolk constituency includes Newmarket, the home of flat horseracing. Horse trainers have warned cutting FOBT income will mean a drop in prize money for racing and would hammer ‘a very big nail in the sport’s coffin’. Some ministers think the warnings are overblown, but even if there are closures of bookmaker shops, few MPs will mourn their passing.

Labour’s Tom Watson (who has overseen a marked break from the Blair era love-in with the industry) said: “It’s not often that the Opposition congratulates a Government minister, but Tracey Crouch has made the right decision today.” And Crouch deserves much credit too for sticking to her guns, helping persuade the PM the move was worth it. This whole policy shift is a salutary lesson in how to effect change. Given that secondary legislation is needed for the move, May’s wafer-thin Parliamentary majority was vulnerable to Tory MPs siding with the Opposition to slash the limit if ministers had failed to do so. But most of all, it’s a testimony to the cross-party work of gambling addiction campaigners, who have been showing the awful human cost to society and individuals. The cultural change that now sees this as an addiction similar to nicotine or drug addiction is the biggest victory of all.

 

2. PURGATORY PROTESTANTS

Whoever writes Jeremy Corbyn’s new PMQs openers deserves a payrise, after he hammered home Cabinet ‘friction’ yesterday. Yet when it comes to resolving big Brexit problems, Theresa May’s main enemy is not Corbyn, it’s time. The clock is counting down to next March when we formally exit the EU. And it’s become clearer with every day that she needs more time to come up with a credible way to avoid a hard border in Northern Ireland, while sticking to her red line to pull out of ‘a customs union’. 

The simplest answer is to buy more time by extending the status quo ‘transition’ period beyond the end of 2020. And that’s what Tuesday’s Cabinet sub-committee appears to have agreed in its revised plan for a ‘backstop’ to help Northern Ireland avoid disruption: extending key elements of current customs rules across the whole of the UK for more months, if not years. The Telegraph, Times, PoliticoEurope and Bloomberg all have versions of the story, with Michael Gove and Boris Johnson failing to block the plan.

in the Telegraph, leading backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg used a typically Catholic concept to express his worries: “The horizon seems to be unreachable. The bottom of the rainbow seems to be unattainable. People voted to leave, they did not vote for a perpetual purgatory.” Still, this is all about the withdrawal agreement don’t forget, not the ‘future relationship’, and although there will be a fight, May could get away with it.

The real problem is whether Brussels will agree. I understand that the EU is dead against any ‘pick and mix’ of extensions of rules on bits of customs, believing that if the UK wants more time it will have to apply formally for an extension of the entire transition period (with the implication it will cost us more money too after the EU’s new budget in 2020). Moreover, Brussels is not keen on May’s customs partnership, but it seems even less keen on the Brexiteers’ ‘Max fac’ plan. The FT quotes manufacturing group EEF ridiculing the idea as ‘pie in the sky’. Irish PM Leo Varadkar also dissed it as less helpful than a ‘deodorant’.

Liam Fox has International Trade question time in the Commons today. Maybe he will give us his thoughts on Trump’s new threat to use trade deals to hike NHS drug prices, on the latest Lords defeat, or even on our HuffPost Italy scoop that the nationalist League and Five Star Movement coalition are plotting to ditch the euro.

 

3. HACKITT, LONDON

After months of prevarication, Theresa May finally confirmed yesterday that the Government would fund a £400m operation to remove dangerous cladding from tower blocks owned by councils and housing associations. The needless delay in making this announcement was in keeping with her initial ham-fisted response to the Grenfell tragedy in west London, the inquiry into which begins next week.

Yet it was a non-politician, Dame Judith Hackitt, who sounded most evasive and slippery on the Today programme this morning as she failed to explain why her technical review into Grenfell had concluded a ban on all external combustible materials was not needed. Hackitt’s review Is formally out at 9.30am but Inside Housing magazine (which has led the way with some impressing reporting before and after the fire) has already revealed that she will oppose a ban and instead recommend a new regulatory system instead.

Hackitt said she wanted “a wholesale change in culture” but as Labour MP Karen Buck said, she was not convincing on why you can’t have stronger guidance and a ban at the same time. Several groups including the Royal Institute of British Architects, the Housing Select Committee, and the Local Government Association (LGA), have called for bans on combustible materials on tower blocks and on so-called ‘desktop studies’, which use information from previous tests on cladding systems to extrapolate results for untested systems. The Association of British Insurers only recently suggested the current lab fire tests did not reflect real-world conditions. Hackitt is before the Housing Select at 3.30pm.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Our sister site in the US has yet another instance of everyday racial strife in the land of the free. Watch this guy get very upset that staff in a New York restaurant dare to speak Spanish to customers. Yep, it’s gone very viral, very quickly.

 

4. JUSTINE TIME MANAGEMENT

Justine Greening has kept her powder dry since being effectively sacked by the PM in the reshuffle. But the former Education Secretary popped up at the Bright Blue Tory think tank last night to warn of the long-term problems that the Conservatives face as a party. In what felt like the kind of wake-up call that a certain T May delivered all those years ago (though without the phrase ‘nasty party’), Greening rammed home that the Tories hadn’t won a proper Parliamentary majority for a long, long time.

PolHome has the best quotes: “It’s unacceptable that in Britain today where you start still so much shapes and determines your future. This party should be the first to want to challenge that, yet sometimes it does feel like we’ve been the last. I think we have to recognise as Conservatives that it has now been 31 years since this party last won an election with any kind of substantial majority. And I think that was the last time we were a party that really connected with people’s aspirations.” The last general election showed that May herself is clearly unable to connect to those aspirations. I wonder if Greening is among those who think the only Tory figure who can credibly connect with modern Britain is Ruth Davidson? Next Monday, newly-pregnant Davidson will attend the launch of Onward, a fresh group aimed at energising the youth vote. One to watch.

 

5. BELIEVING BERCOW

John Bercow has a lot to thank Labour’s Kate Green and Tories Sir Chris Chope and John Stevenson for this morning. The three members of the Commons Standards Committee voted against authorising an investigation by the Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards into bullying allegations against the Speaker. Two MPs voted for the probe (Tory Gary Streeter and Labour’s Bridget Phillipson) but it was not enough. Bercow’s accusers may feel that the last credible avenue for seeking justice has just been closed off. The Times’ Henry Zeffman has the scoop that lay members of the committee (ie non-MPs) were keen on an investigation, but they don’t have votes.

All of this will fuel suspicions that MPs simply can’t be trusted to police one another’s conduct. The very fact that current rules mean the committee even has a role in this matter (any allegation that dates back more than seven years needs the committee’s approval for investigation) will astonish many of the public. That lay members can be ignored (assuming they were even consulted) is also deeply depressing. Meanwhile, MPs are still waiting for Bercow to announce that he will retire this year or next. When he does, Chris Bryant, Lindsay Hoyle and Harriet Harman are sure to be in the race to succeed him. And it will be whoever secures most cross-party backing that wins.

 
 

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