1. MAY POLL DANCING
As the great British public showed in the snap general election last year, no one can take their votes for granted. Today, as 150 councils and 4,000 council seats are up for grabs in the English local elections, none of the parties is banking on anything. Indeed, there’s a real sense of nervousness among them all. I’ve written a handy guide to tonight and tomorrow (including times of counts to look out for) HERE. And one key theme is that few politicos are ready to believe canvass returns or postal vote indications pointing to victory – particularly outside the M25. “Everybody is burned by the general election, when virtually nothing went to plan,” one source said.
In London, the Tories could well end up with a record low number of councillors, and may be left with zero in some more boroughs, or as a rump in places they once ran not long ago. The capital’s demographic changes, with younger and more diverse voters, are truly daunting for the Conservatives. Labour is quietly confident of winning the hugely symbolic council of Barnet, but Wandsworth and Westminster would require very big swings. Hillingdon has got little coverage but it could turn out to be a surprise Labour win if the party can mobilise its forces and if Tories stay at home. And don’t forget Hillingdon is home to Boris Johnson’s Uxbridge seat.
Outside London, the collapse of UKIP’s vote virtually guarantees both Labour and the Tories will increase theirs overall compared to 2014, when most seats were last fought and when Nigel Farage won the Euro elections on the same day. It will be fascinating to see just which party benefits most from the Kipper collapse. The Tories and Labour alike would be delighted to take Dudley or Walsall from no overall control, as well as Basildon, Thurrock and Cannock Chase. Trafford, an island of blue in a sea of Greater Manchester red, may well see the Tories lose control but it is really difficult for Labour to win seats needed to take it outright. If it does, however, it may come down to the party causing an upset in Altrincham. Yes, that’s the backyard of Sir Graham Brady, the chairman of the backbench 1922 committee – the man who knows just how many Tory MPs want to get rid of their leader.
In some ways, even a terrible night may not worry No.10 too much. As academic Tony Travers says, eight years into a Tory-led government, Labour would be expected to be well ahead in the share of the national vote by now. The current opinion polls putting the parties neck and neck on around 40% confirm the post-UKIP landscape and the Lib Dem squeeze of last year. But real votes in real ballot boxes, not answers to pollsters’ questions, have a recent habit of biting the PM on the backside. And with her Cabinet kicking up rough over Brexit, the last thing she needs is more proof of her electoral toxicity.
2. SAJ OF HONOUR?
Will Theresa May come to regret her bold move to appoint Sajid Javid as Home Secretary? He proved he was certainly not in the PM’s pocket yesterday as he debuted at the Cabinet’s Brexit sub-committee and promptly made life difficult on the issue of EU/UK customs. May made clear she wanted the ‘customs partnership’ plan to remain on the table. This is despite it being vigorously opposed by Brexiteers (though Remainer ministers mutter that none of the critics seemed that fussed about it last year).
In the Times, Francis Elliott has a telling line that May told colleagues that “despite its drawbacks she believed it had the best chance of securing the support of Brussels and Parliament”. The Mail (which has an excellent account HERE) reveals Javid said: “I know I’m the new kid on the block, but to me this new customs partnership looks untested and unprecedented. I would have significant concerns about it going ahead.” The Sun reports his stance left May “visibly shocked to have lost the room” according to one insider. Jason Groves adds this quote: “If Amber had still been there I think we could have reached a different outcome.
Javid, who backed Remain ‘with heavy heart’ in 2016, undoubtedly won his badge of honour among the Eurosceptics. But both Philip Hammond and Greg Clark made impassioned pleas for the plan, claiming it was the best way to protect jobs. In the end, the 11-strong sub-committee divided 6 against and 5 for the partnership. No.10 talked about the position ‘evolving’ yesterday but will any change in language be enough to buy off the Brexiteers? The wider Cabinet has a much bigger pro-Remain majority, so if May wants to push a compromise there she may get what she wants. But the damage yesterday was done. If she can’t rely on Gavin Williamson and Javid, both of whom she has elevated with big promotions, just who can she rely on?
3. MISS THE SPEAKER
For a few hours yesterday, things looked very difficult indeed for John Bercow. Newsnight’s latest report of his alleged bullying prompted an unprecedented intervention from Downing Street. Speaking to us hacks in the weekly post-PMQs ‘huddle’, the PM’s spokesman read out a very carefully worded statement: “It’s a matter for Parliament to decide how to proceed, but the latest allegations are concerning and should be properly investigated.” And that was followed up at the afternoon lobby with three No.10 suggestions as to how Parliament could proceed: the [Dame Laura Cox] inquiry could change its remit to include specific allegations, the ‘House authorities’ could look at it, and the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards could look at any breach of the rules of conduct for MPs.
Bercow himself was robust in the chamber, after senior Tory Maria Miller asked him about non-disclosure agreements being used to allegedly gag staff from speaking out. The problem is that the three options outlined by No.10 today look threadbare. A spokesperson for the Cox inquiry said: “We are focused on our existing terms of reference and the inquiry is under way.” The ‘House authorities’ put out a statement that its current Respect policy for staff does not cover allegations from 2009/10 and therefore “no investigation is planned”. The last option is the Parliamentary Commissioner route. Some Tory MPs may want submit a complaint, but the Commissioner may have other ideas. It’s been Bercow’s most dangerous 24 hours of his 9 year tenure, but he could yet survive again.
4. AIMING FOR COVER
Labour’s attempted Parliamentary ambush over Windrush failed last night, as MPs voted by 316 to 221 against the Opposition motion demanding publication of all documents on the scandal. Strangely, just 180 Labour MPs turned out (barely 70% of their total), but was that a deliberate ploy? Because for Jeremy Corbyn, the ‘defeat’ was in fact a PR victory, as it allowed him to claim that the Tories had voted for a ‘cover-up’ of the facts. What’s truly surprising is that, having spent months denying time for Opposition Day motions, the Government business managers decided in their wisdom to grant such one on the eve of the local elections.
Hours before the vote, Theresa May and Sajid Javid had announced “a full review of lessons learned, independent oversight and external challenge”. This jarred with the previous line-to-take, that holding an inquiry would distract the Home Office from its important work in fixing the problem (James Cleverly told me that on 5 Live on Sunday). Having conceded the principle that it was worth investigating how things had gone so badly wrong, it’s difficult for ministers to justify the review being conducted internally, rather than by an independent outsider. In the debate, David Lammy savaged Javid’s use of the phrase ‘compliant environment’. The government’s review is due to be published by the end of July. Just how much detail it includes, and whether it attaches specific responsibility to the PM, is an open question.
5. COMPUTER SAYS NO
It was truly shocking to hear Jeremy Hunt reveal yesterday that a computer algorithm failure has directly led to the deaths of to up to 270 women from breast cancer. The blunder meant that in some cases, women approaching their 71st birthday were not sent an invitation for a final breast scan as they should have been. Announcing an independent review and apologising ‘wholeheartedly’ to families involved, the Health Secretary told the Commons that 450,000 women aged 68-71 had failed to get invitations since 2009.
After the shock, the anger. The BBC has spoken to breast cancer survivor Patricia Minchin, who says her traumatic journey” could have been “avoided”. Brian Gough, whose wife Trixie died in 2015, also says she might have survived if her cancer had been diagnosed earlier. The Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR) think tank is one of many asking why a fall in the number of women getting screened did not ring any alarm bells. In a recent report on the NHS, the IPPR said the number of women who accepted invitations had fallen to 71%, a 10 year low.
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