1. ZOMBIE AND SUMS
Yes, the bar was low after last year’s disaster. Yes, these are confected events whose detail passes most people by. But Theresa May’s successful conference speech has given her TV clips, newspaper headlines and political momentum that she hasn’t had in ages. The relief among her team was summed up by chief of staff Gavin Barwell, who tweeted: “Waited 12 months for that #outthepark”. By embracing her inner robot (see my snap verdict HERE), she left Birmingham having countered the Boris threat and at least started a fightback against ‘The Jeremy Corbyn party’. The main message from the much mocked ‘Zombie PM’ was this: not dead, yet.
Of course, a speech is only words and it’s action the public want. Eight years into a Tory-led administration, they’re weary of promises that the light is at the end of the tunnel. May’s most telling line yesterday was “A decade after the financial crash, people need to know that the austerity it led to is over.” Note she wasn’t saying austerity IS over, she was saying people need to know it is. Labour and the IFS have pointed out austerity is still going at full throttle. Some in the Treasury are already having palpitations at the idea that housebuilding borrowing by councils will add to the deficit, while Tory MPs are wary of jacking up taxes to pay for the NHS. It’s as if Corbyn has panicked the government into making, wait for it, uncosted spending commitments. If your financial sums don’t add up, surely that’s the most un-Tory thing of all? Maybe the simplest thing is to bite the bullet and grab the cash by adopting Labour’s plan to jack up corporation tax?
There’s lots of things we learned from Tory conference this week. Hunt is accident-prone, Javid and Raab look well placed for leadership bids, Liz Truss is omnipresent, Boris is even more hated by many MPs. May is the one most to blame for her Parliamentary purgatory, her government neither fully living nor fully dead, after throwing away her Commons majority last year. What surprised me most last night was that despite her success in the conference hall, some Cabinet ministers are still publicly reserving judgment until May refines her Chequers Brexit plan. On Peston on ITV last night, Andrea Leadsom actually refused to say she backed the PM for the long term. “That’s all for the future,” is all she’d say. If she wins her Commons vote in December, some will move for her to step down after Exit Day next year. Her moment of triumph could be her moment of maximum danger.
2. BREXIT BLUES
One of the smarter moves by No.10 has been to give Dominic Raab a prominent role this week, a true Be-Leaver who is batting hard for Chequers, even if ministers now refer to it as ‘the free trade proposal’. After Boris’s star turn, it was also shrewd to deploy another minister with unimpeachable Brexit credentials, Geoffrey Cox, as the warm-up man for the PM (watch his bonkers, booming recitation of Milton HERE). He was truly the anti-Boris Boris. And the signal to the hardy band of Johnsonites was obvious: you’ve got d*cks, we’ve got Cox.
The PM will embark on the next step of her survival strategy today by hitting the phones to EU leaders to finalise and finesse her Brexit offer. With less than two weeks to the EU summit, the Sun reveals lead negotiator Olly Robbins reopened secret talks this week. The Daily Telegraph’s impeccably connected Europe editor Peter Foster reports that a new British proposal will “suggest the U.K. remains in a de facto customs union with Europe, to avoid an Irish Sea border, while leaving Northern Ireland to align separately with single market rules”. Just what the DUP make of that remains to be seen, but as I said yesterday No.10 can be pretty bullish in threatening ‘no deal’ would be worse for Ulster.
Meanwhile, Brexiteers can point to a stark reminder yesterday of what we’ll be leaving behind from next year. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker spooked the markets after suggesting Italy’s budget plans would lead to Greek-style “crisis”. And Italy’s foreign minister Matteo Salvini hit back with a threat of legal action and a jibe at Juncker’s reputation as a drunk. “He should drink two glasses of water before opening his mouth, and stop spreading non-existent threats. I talk to sober people.”
3. ALL LOVE-DUP
Theresa May has some tricky conversations with the DUP’s Arlene Foster and Nigel Dodds in coming days, especially as the Northern Irish border issue is the key to unlocking the impasse in Brexit. The FT’s George Parker wondered if Foster’s sabre-rattling was all part of a cunning plan to get Brussels to move in response to the UK’s own compromises. It may be however that the DUP are just showing solidarity with the European Research Group, and trying to nudge the Cabinet in a ‘Canada’ direction.
But an indication of just how crucial the DUP’s 10 MPs are to May has emerged overnight. Our front page splash reports claims that the PM was so desperate to cobble together a stable government the day after the 2017 election that she agreed to offer the DUP a formal Coalition, with seats in Cabinet for the Ulster party. The claim comes in a new book on the general election by academics Phil Cowley and Dennis Kavanagh. But other sources have stood it up to me too.
Previously there had been suspicion that then Chief Whip Gavin Williamson had freelanced in making the Coalition offer, but it now appears he had the approval of not just the PM but senior ministers, and advised by Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood. Goodness knows what the move would have done to power-sharing in Stormont or Sinn Feinn’s overall mood. In the end, the DUP turned down the offer, preferring the looser alliance they now have. With £1bn in the bank, who needs the vanity - and hassle - of Cabinet seats?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
The ‘Gove clap’ is back. Watch him perform this extraordinary feat of seal-like agility.
4. HACKED OFF
The hot news in Whitehall last night (and we will get more details today) is the government has claimed a number notorious cyber attackers responsible for some of the biggest hacks in recent years are all in fact members of Russian military intelligence (GRU). Operating under names such as Voodoo Bear, CyberCaliphate and Pawnstorm, the National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) accused GRU of “working in secret to undermine international law and international institutions”. This comes as Vladimir Putin called Sergei Skripal, the Russian ex-spy who was poisoned with a military grade nerve agent, a traitor and a “scumbag”. Nice.
5. BAILEY BOND
Tory candidate for London Mayor Shaun Bailey got a namecheck from the PM yesterday, though plenty pointed out her reference to the Windrush generation was crass given she authored the ‘hostile environment’ policy. Today Bailey is under fire over claims he once made that multiculturalism “robs Britain of its community”. He wrote in a think tank essay in 2005 that working class British people are “lost” when they bring their children to school where “they learn far more about Diwali than Christmas”. Labour’s Dawn Butler is also not happy at May’s support for Diane Abbott, claiming it was disingenuous.
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