1. STITCH IN TIME
To misquote Sir Alex Ferguson, it’s squeaky sum time for Theresa May today as she weighs up whether she really will have the numbers to get her Brexit compromise plans through Parliament. As she convenes an inner circle of Cabinet ministers for a key 5pm meeting, the DUP’s 10 MPs are playing a game of brinkmanship that looks dangerously like it could deprive the PM of her Commons majority. I’m told the DUP and the backbench Brexit European Research Group are acting ‘in lock step’ to pressure May not to make any more concessions on the Northern Ireland issue. And that sounds ominous indeed.
May is clearly digging in and her decision to convene what looks like the disbanded strategy and negotiations sub-committee of the Cabinet is a sign she means business. The meeting may well finalise new plans for NI-Britain checks required by the EU to get a withdrawal agreement sorted. David Davis told ITV’s Peston last night how tricky this issue is. He said he had warned the PM last December of the problems with the ‘backstop’ plan to keep the UK linked to EU rules. Referring to a newspaper report at the time that ‘Davis has been stitched up’, he added: “If I could be stitched up by No10, Britain can be stitched up by the European Commission in exactly the same way, if we don’t get absolutely explicit guarantees on timetable.” DD underlined once more the huge sums involved, warning Tory MPs would not pay the £39bn Brexit ‘divorce bill’ if there was a fudged Brexit.
The DUP is threatening not just to vote against the Budget, but also (as its Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson says in today’s Telegraph) Brexit legislation, welfare policy and more. Of course, all those areas are explicitly mentioned in the ‘confidence and supply’ arrangement signed by the Tories and the DUP last year, so it would naturally follow that they would be in jeopardy if relations really did break down. And yet, and yet. Don’t forget that former Chief Whip Gavin Williamson is still very close to the Northern Irish party. There’s a theory that this is part of a coordinated game designed to put pressure on the EU. And when it comes to the crunch, some in No10 are firm that the DUP will ultimately be given an offer it can’t refuse: a Corbyn government or May’s plan.
And some of the PM’s supporters are confident that ‘no deal’ is such a nightmare for the DUP that their MPs can’t vote for one. A clue to this confidence came in a little-noticed debate on the Agriculture Bill in the Commons yesterday. DUP MP David Simpson said that if the UK opted for WTO terms “and tariffs of 14% or 15% are introduced, that would decimate the Northern Ireland lamb industry overnight, given that we export 90% of our lamb”. He also pointed out the province relied on EU migrant farm workers. Simpson added that the UK still had to get ‘the right deal’ with Brussels, but his wider worries were telling clues that his party may not want to try May’s patience too much.
2. CREDIT SHOCK
Universal Credit just won’t go away as an issue. After Gordon Brown’s ‘riots’ warning yesterday, another former PM John Major today predicts that the government could run “into the sort of problems the Conservative Party ran into with the poll tax in the late 1980s”. His words to Nick Robinson’s BBC Political Thinking podcast centre on that explosive claim that Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey told colleagues that millions of people face losing £2,400 a year. “If people think you have to remove yourself from fairness, then you are in deep political trouble,” Major says.
No.10 has been trying to hose this down by pointing to the £3bn in transitional relief that David Gauke secured earlier this year. But that fund does not apply to new claims and ducks the issue, as May did in PMQs yesterday. What’s more interesting is why McVey said what she did. One theory is that she, like her old pal and predecessor Iain Duncan Smith, is in a battle with the Treasury to get more money to ensure the reform genuinely gets people into work, rather than saves the Chancellor cash. She could of course use the issue as a principled reason for resignation, freeing her from the whole Chequers compromise which many Cabinet Brexiteers so dislike.
We splash our front page today with exclusive new figures showing that half a million people could lose out in the roll-out of the new benefit. Latest data shows that a “worryingly high” rate of claims are not being successfully processed onto the new system, with 29% closed or not paid. If the current claim failure rates were replicated in the next stage of Universal Credit roll-out then 580,000 people who are currently receiving benefits, including many low income families who are in work and receiving income support, would lose out on payments. When you add in SkyNews’s report yesterday that there’s no evidence that benefit sanctions actually work, maybe it’s time for a fundamental rethink from the Government?
3. BAME, RANK AND SERIAL NUMBER
It’s a year since the PM unveiled her first racial disparity audit and today she’s announced new plans to force companies to publish their race pay gap figures. The proposal for mandatory ethnicity salary reporting idea follows similar rules on gender pay. The CBI gave it a cautious welcome but pointed out sample sizes could be so small that there were ‘legitimate’ concerns about ‘intrusiveness’ for individuals affected.
More broadly, public services including the NHS, armed forces, schools and the police force will be told to set out plans on how they will increase the proportion of leaders from ethnic minority backgrounds. As with her opposition to stop-and-search of black men, May is certainly determined to build a legacy in this area (even though critics would say her Windrush hostile environment policy means it’s too late to repair her reputation). She told the Cabinet earlier this week that every government department had to assess its racial inequality, and if it ‘cannot be explained, it must be changed’.
Jeremy Corbyn today has his own take on historic injustices inflicted on the UK’s black and minority ethnic (BAME) communities. He is in Bristol to declare that a Labour government would ensure that more school children are taught about black British history, the legacy of the British Empire and the nation’s role in slavery. The main aim is to say Black History Month is all well and good but teaching it all year round is long overdue. However, Labour aides yesterday fought shy of saying the party would demand the subject was part of the history GCSE national curriculum.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this newly colourised footage of British troops during the First World War.
4. MORE THAN A WOMXN
The vexed issue of feminist/trans rights flared up twice in one day yesterday. First, the Wellcome Foundation’s London museum apologised for making ‘the wrong call’ in advertising an event with the trans-inclusive word ‘womxn’. It faced a wave of feminist anger when its plan to “include diverse perspectives” backfired. Typical of the responses was this: “I’ll be a womxn when men become mxn. Until then jog on and stop eroding women’s rights.” Second, the Metro newspaper is facing criticism from trans campaigners after carrying an advert from the Fair Play for Women group. The ad urged women to respond to the government’s consultation on gender recognition reforms and reject plans to allow trans people to self-identify as women without any medical documentation.
5. GIFT AID
For many years, those covering London council politics (as I did more than 20 years ago) have watched with interest the career of one of Westminster Council’s longest-serving Tory councillors, Robert Davis. As chairman of its powerful planning committee for 17 years, he had a huge say over key developments in the centre of our capital. Earlier this year, the Guardian revealed he had received gifts or hospitality, many from property developers, a massive 893 times in just six years. Lunches, theatre tickets, trips to Mallorca, you name it. Today, Davis finally quit after an internal inquiry found he had breached the council code of conduct. He denies any wrongdoing.
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