The Waugh Zone Tuesday December 4, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Sitting through more than two hours of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox’s statement yesterday, one of the more striking things was him effectively admitting he was in contempt of Parliament. In refusing to publish his full legal advice on the PM’s Brexit plan, Cox knew he was defying the express will of the Commons. “The House has at its disposal the means by which to enforce its will...It can seek to impose a sanction, I fully accept that.” He sounded like a man ready and willing to be led to the stocks. And after a classic Sir Alan Duncan filibuster to buy time last night, Andrea Leadsom’s own amendment also seems to implicitly accept the Government is in contempt, but just wants to delay things.

Things have moved rapidly on overnight. The cross-party motion today seeks to bypass and fast-track the normal route for finding individual MPs guilty of contempt, which is to refer the matter to the Privileges Committee. Because that process can take months (as in the case of Dominic Cummings), Labour and others are instead seeking a straight up-and-down vote on whether ministers are in contempt (ie obstructed the workings of Parliament). Any sanctions, such as suspension or expulsion of Cox, is for another day. The main aim is to get ministers to publish the advice. With the DUP backing the motion, it looks certain to pass. Cox’s firm argument is that he was acting in the public interest, because publication would set a dangerous precedent that no Government could tolerate. There was a whisper around Westminster last night that the Government could offer other party leaders to see key bits of the legal advice on Privy Council terms. Barring some last minute U-turn, the public may never get to see it though.

Still, as embarrassing as a contempt motion would be, Government whips seem to be effectively saying ‘ok then, do your worst’. A motion to suspend or expel Cox could be tabled as early as tomorrow, but would any Tory or even DUP MP really punish someone they view as one of their own? Cox himself yesterday said that this was all basically a stunt, telling his critics “It’s time they grew up and got real!” And, like Michael Gove this weekend, his most disarming pitch to Brexiteers and to the DUP was sheer honesty. The Attorney General admitted the Northern Irish backstop had no unilateral exit mechanism and did indeed seem legally indefinite (though time-limited by political reality). He said the deal was far from ideal. But he said it was the best and only offer on the table.

Theresa May lacks Cox’s booming voice and often his candour. Yet she will be making essentially the same sales pitch as she opens the first day of the ‘meaningful vote’ debate today. Yesterday, the PM started the first of a series of chats with wavering backbenchers and the Sun has a bathos-packed report of one of the encounters. “Theresa just said all the same things again. It was very flat, and she persuaded none of us in the room. I told her it was nothing personal and I respected her. Theresa just said, ’Everybody says that to me, ‘you’ve done your best - but’.”

The PM even took the rare step of having dinner with MPs in the Commons Dining Room last night (something Cameron would do regularly when he wanted to show he was ‘in touch’ with his backbenches). One unimpressed Tory MP said: “She didn’t know what to do, or where to get her food. I’ve never seen anything more desperate”. The Times reports May is seeing MPs in groups of twos or fives in her Commons office. Meanwhile, we are all braced for five days of eight-hour debates from today onwards. The rough thematic and speaker run-down I’ve been sent is this: Tues Opener PM/Barclay; Weds Security/Immigration with Javid/Hunt; Thurs Economy with Hammond/Fox; Monday The Union with Lidington/Bradley. Tues TBC. Will the PM ‘unleash the beast’ ie Michael Gove, to open the final day of the vote, then close the debate herself (or vice versa)?

Speaking of Javid and Hunt and Gove, Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss was yesterday overheard talking loudly of the merits and demerits of her Cabinet colleagues as she lunched in the Royal Quarter Café in St James. Green party candidate Zack Polanksi tweeted her words (he tells me they’re verbatim, Truss is refusing to comment): “Two most likely scenarios next week is that she [May] gets her vote through or the vote goes to a no confidence vote. And Sajid needs to be really ready to deal with that…It’s going to be Sajid or Jeremy for leader.. Hunt is so charming..There’s no consistency though. One minute he’s all about the free market and the next….Theresa should have used Michael [Gove] more when making the deal..Michael’s got credibility… Mind you everyone hates him - they all blame him for not letting Boris be Boris.” Perfect chat warm-up for today’s Cabinet meeting.

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney is currently before the Treasury Select Committee saying his forecasts were ‘well grounded’, despite claims by his predecessor Lord King that they were ‘dubious’ and ‘questionable’. Brexiteers have this morning been avidly sharing King’s damning verdict (in a Bloomberg column), while Remainers have been cheered by the European court ruling that Article 50 can be unilaterally revoked by the UK without EU permission. Meanwhile, Tory Remainers in particular have teamed up with Oliver Letwin and Dominic Grieve to amend Parliament’s timetable to ensure any new Government motion on Brexit later this month will be amendable. One to watch.

The Transport Select Committee has rightly poured a bucket of manure over the government, Network Rail, private train firms and regulators for the dreadful timetable chaos in south east and northern England. The collective failure is truly appalling and individual complacency and systemic fragmentation of the system appear to be the main reasons. Getting basic things wrong like running the railways is truly politically toxic. But for the rows over Brexit, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling would surely be toast by now.

Today’s report admits Grayling was not kept fully informed of the looming shambles, but it argues he was not proactive enough. And it concludes he “is responsible for the structure of the system that controls and runs our railways” and therefore it was unreasonable for him “to absolve himself of all responsibility”. Grayling this morning announced Govia Thameslink has been denied any profits for this year and will have to pump £15m into improvements. But he refused to strip it of the franchise, claiming that would cause ‘undue disruption for passengers’. Meanwhile, he told the Today programme: “We [not ‘I’] should have asked tougher questions at the time”. So, he kinda took responsibility by blaming everyone else.

Back in the real world, rail users are facing New Year fare hikes. Today’s select committee report called for season-ticket holders who were worst affected to be spare from the 3.1 per cent season ticket rise they are due to pay from 2 January 2019. Meanwhile, if you’re a commuter standing on the platform in rainy Rochdale this morning, you may not be best pleased at the FT’s front page story that London’s Crossrail is to seek ‘hundreds of millions’ more in a third bailout for the £15.8bn project.

Watch this Tory party political broadcast from 1988. Ostensibly used to ‘sell’ the poll tax (sorry, ‘community charge’), it includes a section about councils wasting money on things like ‘gay seminars’.

Mark Carney will attract lots of attention before the Treasury Select Committee as he is quizzed over Brexit this morning. But perhaps more helpful for May’s deal will be support from car manufacturers appearing before the Business Select Committee. Tony Walker, deputy MD of Toyota Europe, told Today’s business section the PM’s plan achieved ‘huge progress’ on frictionless trade, common standards and most of all zero tariffs (even though the last of those is actually guaranteed in the Withdrawal Agreement). “If we kick it out now, we are back to square one,” he said, in a spooky echo of the Prime Minister’s own words.

As part of our regular reminder service that the PM pledged to ‘dedicate my premiership’ to fixing the housing crisis, Resolution Foundation’s latest research suggests things are getting worse. It shows young people whose parents have property wealth are now nearly three times as likely to be home-owners by the age of 30 than children of parents who rent. The gap has grown since the mid-90s and 2000s, when children of homeowners were twice as likely to become homeowners themselves. Labour’s John Healey is pushing his alternative plans, including a proposal to “give local people first dibs on new homes built in their area.” I must admit, ‘first dibs’ is not a phrase I’ve seen in the formal political lexicon before.

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