1. SUITED, BOOTED?
You know things are bad when a PM’s defenders’ best case is this: robots don’t cough, so no one will call her a Maybot again. I’m paraphrasing of course, but the morning after That Speech, there’s a desperate desire among Theresa May’s allies to steady the ship.
Unflappable Business Secretary Greg Clark was on the Today programme praising her “guts and grace” under pressure. The line-to-take seems to be that the Tory leader received ‘admiration and respect’ rather than sympathy or pity from her fellow ministers. Michael Gove kinda overdid things when he claimed yesterday he’d “witnessed a great speech from a Prime Minister at top of her game”. More telling was former May aide Nick Timothy writing in the Telegraph that the Tories this week failed to ‘reset’ and show they had the policies Britain needs.
May’s critics certainly feel it’s time to organise the endgame of her premiership. As I wrote in my WaughZone Special last night (read it HERE), even before the speech one former Cabinet minister felt that the PM had to knock it out of the park to survive. He has a list of MPs (triple checked to make sure none are flaky) who are ready to tell May that it’s time to go. I’m told there were 26 names on Tuesday and the Telegraph says that figure has gone up overnight to 30. The sharks scent blood in the water.
To trigger any formal leadership confidence vote, 48 letters need to be sent to the backbench 1922 Committee chairman Graham Brady. But the plot against May is not about the formal route, it’s more a group of MPs who want to adopt the ‘men in grey suits’ approach of the 1950s, offering May the political equivalent of a pearl handled revolver and glass of whisky (and perhaps a cough sweet). As Newsnight’s Nick Watt rightly reports, some plotters think she’s one more mishap (what on earth could that be?) away from an ultimatum, others want to act now. In a sign of the panic, Cabinet ministers have been ringing Downing St urging the PM to stay.
No.10 will be hoping to rely on four key factors: the consensus among MPs that nothing should derail Brexit, the lack of an obvious alternative PM (Boris’s chances are now rated at close to zero after this week), May’s own resolve to stick at it and the unease among post-2015 intake MPs at the idea of toppling their leader. If either of those factors changes (plotters point out it’s DD in charge of Brexit talks, not her, and say there’s time before Christmas to act), the game could be up.
Labour is famously terrible at regicide, but the Tories are past masters at it. They are also experts in the timing of assassinations (Thatcher and IDS were both dispatched after suitable warning shots) and in the value of showing fierce loyalty right up until loyalty is no longer strategically sensible. It will take more than a couple of dozen MPs to dislodge May, but the date of her departure has drawn closer after this week.
2. RUDDY HELL BORIS
Home Secretary Amber Rudd and party chairman Patrick McLoughlin are facing some difficult questions about conference security (the Times suggests immigration minister Brandon Lewis could get McLoughlin’s job). Under party rules, prankster Simon Brodkin must have had his pass countersigned by someone, and just who that was may emerge soon. Cabinet ministers were amazed security didn’t intervene to grab Brodkin sooner.
But it was Boris himself who was hoist by his own petard of buffoonery during the P45 stunt. And Radio 4’s Eddie Mair last night laid into Rudd and the rest of the Cabinet for not demanding Johnson be sacked over his latest Libyan gaffe. In a brutal interview, Mair set out a long list of Johnson quotes, from calling Obama ‘part-Kenyan’ to ‘watermelon smiles’ of Congolese, the Hillsborough disaster and more. Rudd has been one of Boris’s most outspoken critics, yet even she must have felt uncomfortable defending his ‘colourful way of expressing things’.
It’s hard to capture the anger among ministers and MPs at Johnson’s antics this week. Justice Minister Philip Lee was the first to go public last night, attacking Boris’s lack of ‘decency’. And while May is wounded, Boris’s leadership hopes look dead in the water. Some on the backbench 1922 Committee want a formal reprimand to be issued, others just want him sacked.
Meanwhile, to underline the conference organisers’ incompetence (who can’t get letters to stick down?), Calvin Harris and Florence Welch have both objected to their music being used as the intros for May’s speech yesterday. Harris said it was a ‘happy song’ unsuitable for such a ‘sad’ event. Welch said the Tories had no permission to use ‘You’ve Got The Love’. Will either now demand fees?
3. CAP GUN
So what of the policy offers yesterday? Well, the shift to opt-out organ donation is not a small thing at all, and the Mirror splashes its front page on a victory for its own campaign on the issue (relatives broke down in tears yesterday when HuffPost talked to them about the announcement).
As well as lifting the inherent cap on the number of life-saving organ transplants, May also signalled she’d finally implement her promised cap on energy prices. A new bill next week is designed to get Ofgem to finally help 12 million customers on existing tariffs to save up to £100 a year. Business Secretary Greg Clark, who had been waiting for more consensus, will have to deal with the CBI’s irritation at such statist intervention. He told Today that he wanted Ofgem to act this winter, without any need for legislation.
May also tried to tear up the effective cap on council housebuilding that’s existed for years, unveiling new freedoms for town halls to construct more affordable homes. Yet the £2bn new money has been described as ‘chicken feed’ and critics have pounced on No.10’s admission that its plans entail just 5,000 new extra homes a year.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch again that moment when Amber Rudd gets Boris Johnson to get off his backside and help the PM.
4. WTO WTF?
As the Government machine resumes post-conference season, the Brexit talks are again a huge preoccupation. As Nick Timothy rightly points out in the Telegraph, the irony is that the Tories have this week given the impression “of being even more divided than they really are”. Leavers and Remainers are united around most of the main principles of a transition. Heck, even Stanley Johnson today came out as a Leaver (on the BrexitCentral website).
Brexiteers are pleased that at last contingency plans are being drafted for a ‘no deal’ outcome. The ‘no deal’ scenario was something else in May’s speech that risked getting missed yesterday, when she offered Eurosceptics some red meat on the prospect. The PM said there was a “responsibility as a government to prepare for every eventuality. And let me reassure everyone in this hall – that is exactly what we are doing.”
For those who back the idea of falling back on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs, and who hope that Trump will help Britain post-Brexit, there is some bad news this morning. The FT reports that the White House has joined a group of nations (including Brazil, Agentina, Canada, New Zealand) who have written to object to EU-UK plans to split up agricultural import quotas after 2019 exit. In better news for Leavers, the BBC hints that the British pharmaceutical industry is more reassured Brexit can be handled smoothly.
There’s a further difficulty too. Governments often lose elections more than Oppositions win them and this is a Government in its seventh year. In 2022, it will be in its 12th year. All week, ministers trotted out the mantra that the voters always turn to the Tories to clean up the financial mess and ballooning deficit left by Labour. But the political cycle is driven by another factor: the voters also tend to turn to Labour when they tire of a Conservative ‘compassion deficit’. Whoever replaces May has to buck that trend.
5. UNIVERSAL DISS CREDIT
David Gauke managed to get through this week by quietly defusing the row over Universal Credit’s roll-out. He is one of the few ministers who has enough goodwill that he can tweak a policy at the edges but carry on largely as before. Yet Gauke is also smart enough to know that his good luck may not hold for long and the criticism, and MPs’ caseloads, may get worse in coming months.
Today, we have a report from the frontline in this welfare war, explaining the debts and arrears built up by those most affected. So far, Labour has stuck with the consensus that UC is a worthwhile simplification of the complex benefits system. But that patience may not last forever. Labour’s Jess Phillips has written a powerful blog for us on her own brother’s experience of claiming it.