The Tory truce on Theresa May’s provisional Brexit deal largely held together in the Commons yesterday. The PM was in really confident mood and figures like Iain Duncan Smith and John Redwood sounded supportive. But the unease wasn’t far away, with Jacob Rees-Mogg maintaining a rare silence and Philip Davies warning her not to send needless billions to Brussels at a time “when she is continuing a policy of austerity at home”.
And within hours of May’s marathon statement (it lasted 1 hour 45 minutes) Nigel Lawson let rip last night in the fourth Margaret Thatcher Memorial Lecture. We splashed the story, mainly because Lawson’s words were so dramatic: May should stop “begging” Brussels for a good deal, get off her “knees” and end the “humiliating state of cringe” towards the EU. She’d “lost her nerve” since Lancaster House, the former Tory Chancellor (who lives in France) said. For good measure, he added that Mrs T “would have been appalled by the explicit rejection of Thatcherite economics to which the present Government appears committed”.
Still, No10 is pleased that Lawson appears an isolated voice, for now. The ‘i’ newspaper even has a cut-out-and-keep headline for the PM’s team: “May’s Triumphant Return To The Commons”. And the Times carries a YouGov poll putting the Tories ahead again for the first time since June (42% to Lab’s 41%). Watch for fresh muttering among Labour MPs as to why they are not (to quote George Osborne) 10 points ahead and hammering May.
The EU (Withdrawal) Bill is back and concessions over Henry VIII powers show that May is perhaps more worried about the backbench 1922 Committee than the ‘Remainer rebels’. One flashpoint for Dominic Grieve and his merry band is tomorrow’s ‘meaningful vote’ amendment, but I still suspect the narrowest vote will be on next week’s ‘Exit Date’ amendment (will we see a clever olive branch?) May also has the Damian Green inquiry to deal with (Robert Peston suggests Green will not have to quit), and the first ‘end state’ Cabinet discussion on Brexit, before she can finally achieve her main political aim of just getting through to Christmas. A New Year reshuffle, if handled well, gives her the chance to relaunch her government in 2018. Lawson’s warnings prove there could be more trouble ahead, but after her annus horribilis, that’s not a bad place to be.
The US’s new ambassador to London, the wonderfully named Woody Johnson, has told Radio 4’s Today programme that Donald Trump will “absolutely” come to the UK in the New Year. With the full State Visit in the deep freeze, this will be a working visit aimed at dedicating the new US embassy in Battersea. But that doesn’t mean it will be ‘low key’, as mass demos are planned for the trip in late February.
The irony is that the embassy is moving from Mayfair to its new site in order to cut costs and be more secure. Yet February’s protests could make the famous 1968 anti-Vietnam war demo in Grosvenor Square look mild. Trump excites such vehement opposition that huge numbers are expected to mobilise, though it’s harder to get iconic images of crowds packing Battersea’s newtown than similar protests packing Parliament Square, Whitehall or central London (as with the anti-Bush and anti-Iraq war protests).
Johnson said Trump didn’t believe in a ‘namby pamby’ approach to politics and “maybe he’ll ruffle feathers”. The President’s failure to build coalitions and instinctive isolationism will be highlighted again today when Theresa May joins others in Paris to mark the second anniversary of the climate change accord. One curio here: Emmanuel Macron (who says the US will have to change its mind on pulling out) has been among Trump’s most outspoken critics, yet still hosted a trouble-free state visit for him this year. Meanwhile, Chancellor Philip Hammond has joined four other EU finance ministers to warn the US that Republican tax cut plans could tip over into a trade war. ‘America First’ really isn’t as simple as it looks.
I warned in the WaughZone yesterday that Bob Kerslake was bound to come under attack for his high-profile decision to quit an NHS trust in protest at Government cuts. And it didn’t take long for Government sources to reveal Kerslake was asked last Friday to resign as chair of King’s Hospital in London. The knives were out for the former civil service chief, with one senior Whitehall source telling me that other NHS trusts with much more difficult problems had managed their finances better than King’s. Kerslake’s tenure in Government even came in for criticism, and his spats with Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood are well-known.
In Bill Clinton’s famous 1992 war-room (once visited by a young Yvette Cooper), the slogans on the wall included not just ‘the economy, stupid’, but also ‘don’t forget healthcare’. Over here, the two have always been linked. In an interview with Health Service Journal, outgoing NHS Improvement chief Jim Mackey suggests Simon Stevens was “bloody stupid” to expect ministers to meet their £4bn demand for more cash in the Budget, adding they would have been “pissed off” by the “negativity” shown by NHS chiefs since. But note that Mackey still agrees that Hammond’s £1.6bn cash injection is “not enough”.
Mackey also attacked King’s failure to meet “any of the numbers it had put to us” in the two years he was at the NHSI. But in the FT Sally Gainsbury, senior analyst at the Nuffield Trust think-tank, said: “I don’t think this is a story about King’s. I think King’s is the canary down the coal mine.” She said hospitals had been asked to cut their costs in real terms by 4 per cent annually since 2011, adding that this was “the equivalent of spending this year £750 in real terms on a patient that you would have spent £1000 on in 2010”. Sounds like a pretty serious problem.
Watch Otto the bulldog skateboard his way through a tunnel of human legs in Peru.
Just as he surprised folks with a zeal for prison reform at the Ministry of Justice, Michael Gove is determined to defy his doubters in his new job as Environment Secretary by being a real greeny on plastic waste. There’s a proud Tory tradition of taking on litterbugs (think Mrs T and pre-disgraced Shirley Porter) and conservation but Sir David Attenborough’s Blue Planet II has made plastic-polluted oceans a worthy cause for the Government.
The Times, which now has an ‘oceans correspondent’, reports Gove is pushing for more of the UK’s overseas aid budget to be spent tackling the problem, after a study found that 90 per cent of the waste came from just ten rivers in Asia and Africa. The Guardian has an analysis of how Tory MPs bombarded Twitter on Sunday night, as Blue Planet II’s credits rolled, with graphics pushing the party’s environmental policies. Today, Gove marries his pet themes (pun intended) of animal welfare and Brexit with a previously-trailed draft bill to toughen the law on cruelty.
It’s a long time since Google used its corporate mantra ‘Don’t Do Evil’. Today, web giants are under fire on several fronts. The Times splashes on a report due tomorrow from the Committee on Standards in Public Life, recommending the law be changed to shift liability for illegal racist, extremist or abusive content on to social media firms. The Sun splashes on an investigation claiming Twitter allows paedophiles to share messages because it deems their actions are not illegal.
The Mail and others go hard on ex-Facebook exec Chamath Palihapitiya telling Stanford graduates that his old firm is ‘ripping society apart’, ‘eroding human interactions’ and manipulating everyone. One one level, it’s no surprise that the backlash is so strong, given the stranglehold Google and Facebook now have on the advertising market that once kept newspapers alive, and all web publishers are trying to avoid dependence on them. But ministers think the online giants need to do much more. And Labour too has worries, as Tom Watson told us yesterday when he warned tougher laws may be needed to stop ‘algorithmic discrimination’ against the poor and minority ethnic communities.