1. CAT AND MOUSE GAME
While the cat’s away, the mice will play. Chancellor Philip Hammond, a man with as much political charisma as Bagpuss, is in Brussels for a meeting of EU finance ministers today. And while he’s absent from London, Boris Johnson is playing the role of the Cabinet’s rodent-in-chief, widely trailing his demand for £100m a week extra for health spending (half the net equivalent of his infamous £350m a week on the Vote Leave battlebus).
The Foreign Secretary’s maneouverings have raised fresh suspicions he’s putting down another marker for a future leadership bid – and that the real cat he is taunting is Theresa May herself. The Times splashes some new detail that Boris will tell a special Cabinet discussion on the NHS today that he wants the cash when Brexit formally kicks in next March, rather than after the two-year transition period when the UK will cease sending cash to Brussels. In a telling line, Francis Elliott says allies of the foreign secretary say that he has a “track record of winning” and will not relent on his demand “until it is secured”.
There’s a great irony in that the £5bn injection of cash is exactly the same figure that Jeremy Corbyn and John Ashworth are set to demand for the health service in a big London rally with doctors and nurses on Thursday. I reported last year that some in Labour felt that the party should have promised a ‘Brexit dividend’ for the NHS and outflanked the Tories with a pledge of its own.
Just where the money will come from for this new policy is unclear. Will Boris be bold enough to suggest a hypothecated tax hike for health and social care? Hammond had a nice Brussels burn for Boris this morning, reminding him he was not the Health Secretary. No.10 has been as cautious as the Treasury about Jeremy Hunt’s call for 10-year funding plans, but is that just a question of timing rather than substance? Tory MP Sir Nicholas Soames tweeted yesterday that May’s current pitch to voters was ‘dull, dull, dull’. Boris knows he ain’t dull, though his critics will say his NHS plan is as uncosted and unprepared as his bridge over the channel. Let’s see how the PM reacts today.
2. WOMEN AND EQUALITIES
The Fawcett Society’s report out today has some depressingly familiar themes - but it still ought to shock everyone. It concludes that sexual harassment and abuse against women and girls is ‘endemic’ in the UK and urges big changes to the criminal justice system. Half of all women have experienced harassment at work, and some 64% have experienced it in a public place.
Speaking of women and equalities, today is the first full meeting of Labour’s new-look NEC and I’m told we should expect a brand new statement of the party’s stance on trans women’s rights. In particular, the NEC is set to make clear that trans women are welcome on all-women shortlists, confirming and formalising a policy that has been informal for some time. Crucially, it seems the party wants to give full rights to those who ‘self-identify’ without the need for a medical diagnosis or ‘gender recognition certificate’.
Some feminists in the party have been threatening legal action, claiming that “self-identification does not define men as women, in law or in fact”, and arguing that the party conference has never agreed nor debated rule changes on all-women shortlists. But Last week’s NEC Equalities Committee endorsed a recent statement from LGBT Labour that it was “concerned” that the debate on an inclusive definition of trans women had been “reopened” of late.
One other issue that has been reopened of late is the issue of reselection of Labour MPs. At last night’s PLP meeting, Chris Leslie highlighted the Sunday Times report claiming whips had warned rebel MPs not to ‘rock the boat’ or face a deselection ‘hit list’. Shadow Chief Whip Nick Brown was dismissive, warning on the one hand that the party could not ignore rebel amendments on Brexit, but saying it was ‘nonsense’ the whips office had such a list. Others have pointed out the list would be held by MPs’ critics, not the whips themselves. Leslie refused to discuss the PLP meeting but told me: “I’m not going to be cowed or intimidated by threats of deselection”.
3. COCK-A-DOODLE DOO DOO
The never-ending panto that is UKIP shows no signs of ending its current run. Our Owen has the inside-story on what happened behind closed doors in the party’s NEC meeting (which had a surprisingly civilised coffee break), with Henry Bolton telling his enemies “it’s the NEC that will destroy the party”. One source told us “Henry is a cock-led, conceited ass”. I wonder if anyone will stick that on a party leaflet?
Bolton’s statement to the media outside his Folkestone hotel had yet more elements of farce (he literally couldn’t be heard initially because he stood 20 yards from the cameras and mics). Read our 5 Times Bolton Went Full Partridge HERE. But his defiant message that it’s time to “drain the swamp” (his non-romantic friend Jo Marney tweeted ‘FlushTheBog’) that suggests he’s opting for a reversal of the traditional break-up line of ‘it’s not you, it’s me’.
Most ominously of all, it seems Nigel Farage is backing Bolton in his Telegraph article this morning, declaring his refusal to accept the NEC’s demands “could provide a lifeline for UKIP”. Farage even compares Bolton to Jeremy Corbyn, who was similarly elected by the party members only for his elected colleagues to demand his resignation.
Farage suggested on his LBC show last night that Bolton had been “selfish” and “stupid”. He told the Today programme that his successor had shown ‘poor judgement’ in not being straight about his relationship with Jo Marney. Yet he also said all UKIP leaders had been ‘frustrated, held up’ by the NEC too. “Hands up I did chicken out [in reforming it],” he said. But will Farage now put his money (or someone else’s) money where his mouth is and turn up to the planned UKIP Extraordinary General Meeting and rally the members to back Bolton? Would he risk the members actually defying him for the first time? He kept everyone guessing this morning. He did say however “If it doesn’t reform, it will die”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
ICYMI. Watch this baby elephant slide down a hillside, just for fun.
4. OFF THE RAILS
Even before the Carillion collapse, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling was under fire over another public-private controversy: the botched East Coast mainline rail franchise. Last night, he finally appeared to admit to the Transport Select Committee that the Treasury would not get as much as it was promised by Virgin/Stagecoach, stating the line was not “making as much operating profit as was forecast”. He still rejected claims that the taxpayer would end up £2bn out of pocket, though the amount would not be “as much as was originally forecast”. Will he reveal at some point just exactly how much?
The other political problem from Grayling was his admission that the Virgin East coast bid failed because the Government accepted an “overambitious” bid. He said since then the Department of Transport has “looked to take a more sensible approach to the risks in the franchise”. Admitting it was not ‘sensible’ in the first place is yet more ammo to Labour and they will use it. Especially as some analysts think other bids - the Greater Anglia franchise, run by Abellio, and TransPennine Express, operated by Firstgroup - were too ambitious too. Note that Grayling said it was ‘quite difficult to turn away the top bid’ on East Coast.
5. MENDING DEFENCES
The Chancellor is under pressure not just on the NHS but also on defence. The Sun reports that last night Sir Michael Fallon made his first real return to the frontline with a speech urging the PM to find an extra £1bn for this year, and an increase long-term to 2.5% of GDP a year on defence, up from the 2% Nato target now. I remember when Fallon bounced David Cameron into the original 2% target, putting it into a Tory conference speech as a last-minute edit. Will his latest plea have the same impact?
Fallon’s main case for cash was increased Russian cyber and conventional warfare threats and ‘unforeseen’ new Trident costs. William Hague says in his Telegraph column that defence cuts risk undermining Brexit itself. Ciaran Martin, the head of the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, has told the Guardian that a major cyber-attack on the UK is a matter of “when, not if”, raising the prospect of devastating disruption to British elections and critical infrastructure. The chief of the general staff, Sir Nick Carter, had his own speech last night too. He said Russia’s cyber and other weapons presented “the most complex and capable security challenge we have faced since the cold war”. If Hammond finds the cash for both the defence and the NHS, will he insist on deep cuts elsewhere?