1. THE LEVELLERS
Sunday is out, Saturday is possible, Monday is most likely. That’s the view of several ministers I’ve talked to on the timing of the crunch Cabinet meeting on Brexit that could finally pave the way for a deal with Brussels. There are obvious problems with tomorrow, given several of the Cabinet are actually overseas many thousands of miles away, and that the PM is due in France and Belgium for events marking the 100th anniversary of Armistice Day. On Sunday itself, the PM has to be at the Cenotaph in London.
No.10 definitely wants this sorted early next week, but Brexiteer Cabinet ministers and backbenchers have underscored their fears that the PM’s solution to the Northern Ireland issue could tie the UK indefinitely to the EU. In Brussels, there is word too of pushback from some of the EU27 who believe that unless Britain commits to a ‘level playing field’, it could gain a competitive advantage after Brexit. The Times cites Chris Grayling warning in Cabinet this week that in trying so solve the Irish border conundrum, the UK could end up in the EU single market ‘by the backdoor’. As for level playing fields, never forget that for many Leavers the whole point of Brexit is to walk off the EU’s pitch (and away from its rules) altogether. Some British Eurosceptics seem themselves as Levellers of a different kind, akin to the 17th century populist radicals who declared their independence as “free born Englishmen”.
Even if the Cabinet swallows the backstop medicine, it sounds increasingly unpalatable to members of the backbench European Research Group (ERG). In a significant intervention, Jacob Rees-Mogg (who represents the Somerset Levels, as it happens) tells the Sun that it’s unacceptable to have even independent arbitration, let alone any EU oversight, of the mechanism for quitting a temporary EU customs arrangement. “It is a breach of faith with the electorate to stay in it under the authority of a third party…One colleague who is wavering about what to do has approached me in the last 24 hours to say he will vote with us if Mrs May goes ahead with this.”
Just as importantly, ERG vice chair Mark Francois added: “Referring to some kind of third party arbitration procedure means, in simple terms, that we are no longer in command of our own destiny and the ERG would therefore oppose it”. I know ‘arbitration mechanisms’ for a complicated ‘backstop’ that may never be used all sounds like the worst kind of Brexit minutiae. But if the Brexiteers insist on turning this into an issue of British sovereignty, and if there’s no agreement with Brussels, we will head for no deal. Speaking of which, David Davis told the Today programme that relying on WTO terms would cause “some hiccups in the first year” but the UK would survive.
Given all that, the issue of publication of the Attorney General’s legal advice sounds like a sideshow, but in some ways it is a proxy for the wider worries. Davis said this morning the No.10 motivation for keeping it secret was “they think there are weaknesses in the public argument”. I remember Tony Blair only circulated a one-page summary of the Iraq War legal advice to his Cabinet. It’s possible May could use that as precedent to allow a slightly longer summary of advice on the NI backstop, on the strict proviso it was a paper copy and not leaked. Sajid Javid told Sky overnight: “I’m sure we’ll be seeing a lot of the written advice that has been put together and the Cabinet when it looks at that will hopefully be able to digest that and make a decision.” I still can’t see the PM publishing the summary, let alone the longer version, even if Parliament tries to force the issue next week.
2. SPARE US THE CUTTER
As the appalling death toll from knife crime continues, Home Secretary Sajid Javid has stepped up his demands for more cash to help the police tackle the problem. In that SkyNews interview with Beth Rigby he makes plain he wants the Treasury to stump up serious sums for the December police spending ‘settlement’. “I think resources is part of the issue, making sure that police as they deal with more of these complex situations that they have the resource they need… this is something that can be looked at very, very quickly.”
Labour, the Home Affairs Committee and forces themselves have repeatedly warned about the impact of years of cuts to funding. But Javid said of the Chancellor “I am very confident that he’s listening” ahead of next month’s announcement. His tone is different from that of the PM, who is obviously loath to admit that she sowed the seeds of the problem by agreeing to cuts as Home Secretary. And Javid’s words contrast with those of junior Home Office minister Victoria Atkins who this week tried to argue police numbers were not related to crime levels. “In the late 2000s there was a similar spike in violence and there were many, many more police officers on the streets in that day and age,” she told the BBC.
Javid also made plain he thinks May went too far in curbing stop and search powers during her tenure. “Stop and search is at its lowest in England & Wales for almost 17 years that’s when records began. And a lot of police officers say this is tool they would use more,” he said. If sufficient safeguards can be built into the system to avoid racial profiling, you can bet he will try to give the police the powers they want.
3. WHO BENEFITS?
Something else the Budget failed to tackle was of course the benefit freeze imposed by George Osborne until 2020. The contrast between £2.7bn in tax cuts and the £1.5bn in the continued welfare squeeze was pointed out by Labour, but now senior Tories are making plain how uneasy they feel too. In a special report on poverty, the Times quotes former Cabinet ministers David Davis, Nicky Morgan, Justine Greening and Iain Duncan Smith all calling for a review.
Morgan is explicit: “There are now increases in public sector pay and there should be a link between benefits and wages.” Davis said the “blanket freeze” was “in contradiction to the basic Tory notion of having a robust safety net and an effective ladder out of poverty”. IDS said he would be “very happy” if the freeze were scrapped. Referring to extra cash for Universal Credit, he added: “It was a step in the right direction but there will need to be more.” After its own muddle on this issue, Labour last week finally committed to a new policy of uprating all benefits. Will Hammond surprise everyone with an announcement in the Spring Statement? Or will that be too late?
Meanwhile despite winning billions more for Universal Credit in the Budget, Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey, has come under fire again for being economical with the actualite. McVey told MPs this week that the mental health charity Mind was one of several organisations that had said the department was listening to their concerns about Universal Credit. As we report, Mind was very unhappy, stressing “We remain clear that new #UniversalCredit regulations don’t go far enough” and MPs should vote against them. Caroline Slocock, a former senior civil servant who worked under Margaret Thatcher, was scathing. She said McVey had misrepresented the charity to Parliament. “This begins to look like repression of the truth or an inability to listen to it”.
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4. MEDDLE OF HONOUR
In a BBC documentary to mark his 70th birthday, Prince Charles has said that when he becomes King he will stop speaking out public policy - because he is “not that stupid”. But the heir to the throne made clear he would continue to convene groups of others on issues like the environment, poverty and architecture. “If it’s meddling to worry about the inner cities as I did 40 years ago, then if that’s meddling I’m proud of it.” In our famously unwritten constitution, the convention is that the Monarch as the right to ‘encourage’ but also to ‘warn’ her Governments. Sounds like Charles’ black spider letters will continue. And to be fair to him, he has proved he was way ahead of his time with warnings about soil pollution, plastics, species loss and, yes, the social fabric of our cities, all those years ago.
5. TOBY HUG
Defence minister Tobias Ellwood has warned that too many employers refuse to recruit Armed Forces veterans because they think they’re “doolally”. The former Army captain told The House magazine that while mental health services were important, he wanted to get across a sense of proportion and counter the impression given by Hollywood films and some ‘charities’ that servicemen and women were likely to be “damaged” mentally. Ex-service personnel were “less likely to have mental health issues, less likely to go to prison, less likely to commit suicide”, than their civilian counterparts, Ellwood said. He insisted however that the MoD was determined to change the stigma around talking about mental health, pointing to a detailed study to track all those who served in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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