1. HEALTHY, WEALTHY, WISE?
Yesterday was a big, big moment in British politics as Theresa May announced her plans for a £20bn funding increase for the NHS. In some ways, the new 10-year spending horizon felt as tectonic a shift as Tony Blair’s National Insurance hike in 2002. Back then, Blair knew the best time for any tax rise was the year after a general election, not the year before. Yet Blair and Brown spent two years meticulously planning their announcement, and had a whopping Commons majority too boot. May has no majority, of course. And as the GMB union’s Rachel Harrison put it pithily yesterday, to many the panicked offer of new funding felt like a “kind of late night petrol station guilt-gifting”.
Yesterday wasn’t really a ‘plan’, it was a plan for a plan. And just where the money comes from is the biggest unanswered question. The Times reveals that Philip Hammond warned his colleagues in Cabinet that there would be no extra money for schools, defence, prisons or police. The FT says May has given the Chancellor a ‘free hand’ over where to raise the funds ahead of the Budget in the autumn. The IFS has warned one option is more welfare cuts, but in fact Hammond is most likely to halt planned tax cuts than to hike taxes. It seems that one serious option being considered is the cancellation of hefty corporation tax cuts – which was precisely Labour’s manifesto pledge at the last election.
If that happens, John McDonnell (known as ‘Big Mac’ to some Labour MPs) can claim a substantial victory on tax-and-spend and the burden on the wealthy and the rest. The Shadow Chancellor warned that any tax hikes could mean ordinary workers could “end up footing the bill for new NHS money”. Others spotted that any tax rise on workers could actually rob NHS staff of the pay rise they’ve been promised. And in another blow to the Tory narrative, George Osborne’s former aide Rupert Harrison appeared to let the cat out of the bag when he tweeted that the Coalition’s long period of health spending ‘restraint’ had been “unsustainable”.
Jeremy Hunt admitted yesterday that ending ‘subscriptions’ to the EU was not ‘anything like enough’ to fund the NHS rise. And 12 high-profile clinicians have written to HuffPost to say talk of a ‘Brexit dividend’ is ‘reckless’. But politically, never forget that the Boris Bus pledge had serious cut-through with Leave voters. As I revealed last year, Labour had drafted plans for Corbyn’s 2017 New Year speech to include a pledge to deliver the iconic £350 a week figure. In the end, it didn’t materialise, but just imagine if it had. Hunt has Health Questions today at 11.30am.
2. HOGG ROAST
Speaking of Brexit, the game is back on for a Commons showdown between May and her ‘Remainer rebel’ Tory backbenchers. Last night’s House of Lords defeat on a ‘meaningful vote’ amendment – with a huge anti-Government majority of 119 – paves the way for a fresh clash on Wednesday. It’s all down to whether Dominic Grieve can rally enough troops or whether the whips’ tactics have worked. Grieve’s own warning that the rebels could ‘collapse the Government’ was greeted with glee by May loyalists as an almighty own goal, as it will scare the bejeezus out of wavering backbenchers and their local Tory associations.
In the Lords yesterday, Viscount Hailsham (aka former MP Douglas Hogg) made an impassioned speech about putting the national interest before party interest. He paid extravagant tribute to Grieve, prompting fellow Tory Lord True to accuse him of being “Mr Dominic Grieve’s representative in heaven”. There was lots of unLords-like heckling and flared tempers yesterday. One low point came when Brexiteer Andrew Robathan savaged Hogg for wanting to ‘destroy Brexit at all costs’. “You are an idiot,” remarked one peer, loudly off camera. Knowing him well, I’m pretty sure that the peer in question was Lord Cormack, a staunchly pro-EU Tory. Grieve told the Today programme that while he believes Brexit is a “very bad idea”, he is trying to take “sensible steps” to manage what he sees as the “risky process” of leaving the EU.
It’s worth remembering that the new ‘Grieve II’ amendment is actually a watered down version of his original, and strikes out any attempt to ‘direct’ ministers in their Brexit talks. Hogg/Hailsham himself also admitted yesterday that the Commons motions in his proposals were amendable but not “justiciable” (a point backed up by the Lords’ lawyer-in-chief Lord Pannick). In other words, such motions would not be legally binding. It remains the case that even if the Commons passed a motion objecting to May’s final Brexit deal, it would have no effect. Article 50 means the clock could still tick down to exit day. Of course, even if not legally binding, Commons motions can appear politically binding, however. That’s the tightrope being walked by both No.10 and the rebels as we head into tomorrow’s crunch vote.
3. A NEW DOPE
Sajid Javid and Jeremy Hunt are currently giving other ministers a lesson in how to take the PM at her word when she talks of the need for genuine Cabinet government. Combining steadfast loyalty to May with a robust approach to arguing their case privately, they had a united front yesterday on the issue of decriminalising the medicinal use of cannabis. The debate has been made all too real by the case of 12 year-old epilepsy victim Billy Caldwell, who suffered multiple epileptic seizures after having his cannabis oil medication confiscated at Heathrow Airport.
Yesterday was a study in how quickly things can change. In the morning Hunt told the Today programme we were not “getting the law right”. In Cabinet, Javid asked three times to raise the issue (the Sun reveals), but the PM pointed out the meeting was about the NHS. Two hours later, the PM herself revealed ministers would look again at the licensing system, and then Home Office minister Nick Hurd announced a new expert clinicians’ panel to advise on individual applications to relax the rules. Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi said that wasn’t good enough and called for the immediate provision of cannabis-based medicines to all who need them.
What’s fascinating about this debate is how many Tory MPs agree there’s need for reform, from Iain Duncan Smith to Sir Mike Penning, who said yesterday he would personally lead a delegation to fetch medicines to treat a six-year-old with epilepsy. Labour’s Andy McDonald, whose son Rory died of epilepsy, wrote a letter to Javid to urge him to change the law. One area where the PM won’t relent however is decriminalising cannabis for recreational use, despite William Hague’s call in the Telegraph today. Some Tory MPs joke it’s one way to fill the tax black hole for the NHS, others point to The Wire’s ‘Hamsterdam’ experiment, and Canada and the US have implemented reforms in real life too. None of that is shifting the PM. As with immigration, she is open to some reform, but her innate caution may well block any major change.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch the opening of the very first Question Time from 1994, with Ken Clarke and John Prescott looking remarkably fresh-faced...
4. THE LONE RANGERS
Tracey Crouch, Britain’s first ever Minister for Loneliness, has joined the PM in unveiling a new £20m fund to help support lonely and isolated people. Timed to coincide with this weekend’s second Great Get Together, events set up in memory of the late Jo Cox to boost community links, the money will come from a combination of Government money and lottery cash. Among the schemes ministers have praised are mobile coffee vans to help the elderly in country villages, apps to help isolated young mums meet each other and even woodworking sheds for middle-aged men.
Blogging for HuffPost, Iona Lawrence, Director of the Jo Cox Foundation, says the Building Connections fund is a ‘fitting tribute’ to the late MP. “Like so many of Jo’s friends, I approached the second anniversary of her tragic murder last Saturday with a mixture of sadness and pride,” she writes. And she quotes one of the ‘best women’ at Jo’s wedding, to underline her distinctive approach to supporting other women. “Half holding you upright, half shoving you forward. That’s what it meant to have Jo’s arm around your shoulder.”
5. HITTING THE BOUNDARY
After his office was draped with protest knickers, Tory veteran Sir Christopher Chope admitted yesterday that he’d never even heard of ‘upskirting’ when he blocked a bill to outlaw it last week. Today, Labour is making a broader point, saying the entire Private Members’ Bill system is “broken” as it objects to the Government’s efforts to stymie another bill to equalise the size of Parliamentary constituencies.
In one of its Opposition day debates, Labour will force a binding vote in the House of Commons to get the Government to allow the Parliamentary Constituencies (Amendment) Bill to be debated in Committee. The bill has support of Tory MPs worried about losing their seats but ministers took the rare step of refusing to table a ‘money resolution’ needed to let it progress. If MPs vote down the boundary changes expected this autumn, this bill is a neat ‘Plan B’, but the Government is wary of undermining its own Plan A. Expect some Tory rebels today.
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