The Waugh Zone Tuesday March 5, 2019

The five things you need to know about politics today

As if Brexit hadn’t harmed her reputation enough, Theresa May’s political credibility and competence are under fresh scrutiny as attention focuses on her time as Home Secretary. Once seen as a strength, her tenure at the Home Office has already been savaged thanks to her ‘hostile environment’ policy that led to the Windrush scandal. Now her complacency over cutting police numbers is returning to haunt her too.

Despite the spate of knife murders in recent days, May took time out on a visit to Salisbury yesterday to rigidly stick to her line that numbers of cops and crime were not linked. “There is no direct correlation between certain crimes and police numbers,” she said. Even the usually sure-footed Home Office minister Victoria Atkins claimed last November that police numbers were unrelated to crime. “In the late 2000s there was a similar spike in violence and there were many, many more police officers on the streets in that day and age,” she said then.

But the Police Federation’s John Apter (remembering when May accused them of ‘crying wolf’ over cuts) was scathing yesterday in response to the PM’s words: “Our Prime Minister is delusional…What makes this all the more sickening is that it was predicted. This is the true cost of austerity that we warned of but were ridiculed for doing so.” Of course, the Police Fed have history with the PM. But former chief crown prosecutor in the North West Nazir Afzal told Newsnight he was ‘aghast’ at her words.

The Met’s deputy assistant commissioner Graham McNulty pointed out police shifts have had to be extended after a series of knife attacks this weekend. “I can’t magic officers out of thin air,” he said. And new Home Secretary Sajid Javid, who has pleaded with the Treasury for more cash to boost numbers, told MPs yesterday police must be given the resources to tackle violence. It seems he disagrees with his boss’s basic premise that crime is not linked to cop numbers, but can’t quite say so. There’s a further problem for May: she often blames London Mayor Sadiq Khan for knife crime in the capital (suggesting it’s a question of political responsibility), but never blames herself for her own funding decisions (denying it’s question of political responsibility).

Tom Watson is due to meet Jeremy Corbyn privately today to discuss the party’s handling of anti-semitic abuse by members. They already have lots to talk about and after Margaret Hodge’s remarks on the Today programme there’s even more. The former minister met Corbyn herself last week and assured her his office played no part in Labour’s complaints process. Today, she’s released a letter to Corbyn saying this weekend’s Observer report directly “contradicts what you told me to my face last week”. That report detailed how at least one adviser to Corbyn, Unite’s Andrew Murray, questioned a proposed suspension for a party activist accused of abuse.

Hodge said there were other cases too. “They interfere and they lower the sanctions so people aren’t suspended, they are just given a warning letter. What is so awful about this is that Jeremy always proclaims zero tolerance on anti-Semitism, when it comes to the actual cases, if they’re his mates he doesn’t demonstrate zero tolerance.”

Charlie Falconer was famously a ‘mate’ of Tony Blair’s, but has been a loyal supporter of Corbyn’s in recent months and is ready to serve his leader and his party. After the PLP last night, the peer said he had still not decided whether to accept a post to oversee the whole complaints process. The PLP’s own Parliamentary Committee is very uneasy about Falconer’s input, with some believing it would undermine Watson’s own plan to take a bigger role. If Falconer does get the position, he will be allowed full access to email trails, general secretary Jennie Formby suggested last night.

This morning Hodge said that after her own clash with Corbyn last year: “I was absolutely bombarded by telephone calls from Charlie Falconer, they were not about the rights and wrongs of the case, they were all about trying to force me to give an apology. He’s not independent. We need somebody from outside the Labour Party otherwise this becomes a Chakrabarti fiasco.” Formby came under heavy criticism last night from Hodge and other MPs at the PLP for failing to respond to their concerns. Meanwhile, a Labour councillor has been suspended for joking about ‘Jew process’ in handling complaints.

Attorney General Geoffrey Cox is in Brussels this afternoon and is expected to table for the first time a British wording of ‘legally binding’ guarantees needed to get May’s Brexit deal through the Commons. As I said yesterday, there is the danger that Cox’s legal advice on these guarantees will be him effectively ‘marking his own homework’, and the European Research Group has woken up to that prospect. That’s why Sir Bill Cash and his team of MPs with legal backgrounds (including the DUP’s Nigel Dodds) want at least 48 hours to scrutinise the new guarantees.

But the Sun reports that the deal may not be done by Sunday night, with MPs only informed on Monday afternoon, the day before the Big Vote next week. Many Brexiteers fear being ‘bounced’ into agreeing with Cox’s new advice. What many Remainers expect is for the ERG to be forced to eat huge helpings of humble pie, swallowing Brussels and No.10 spin that the everything has changed when nothing really has. The key will be a new ‘arbitration mechanism’, but will tweaks to that really amount to the unilateral exit demands and time limits some Brexiteers have been demanding?

Attention is already shifting to whether the government will whip MPs to vote for or against a no-deal exit should May’s deal fail on Tuesday. And on the Today programme, Jeremy Hunt was asked a question all ministers will face between now and then: how would you vote on no-deal? The Foreign Secretary replied “I don’t think anyone in the Cabinet wants no-deal.” But he equivocated on the prospect of a free vote, saying no decision had yet ‘been taken’. A free vote would of course kill no-deal, while a whip for it would spark ministerial resignations of Remainers. That’s why May doesn’t want to get there.

Meanwhile, the boss of HM Revenue and Customs yesterday told MPs that his department is still 1,300 employees short of the expanded capacity it needs to cope with no-deal.

Watch this group of Labour members slam The Independent Group of MPs, saying ‘good riddance’ to ‘selfish’ ex-Labour MPs who ‘betrayed’ those ‘they deem below them’. One member (possibly forgetting Jeremy Corbyn’s serial rebellions) adds: “It’s important to toe the party line.” The video was distributed by Labour Grassroots, which thinks Momentum is not left-wing enough.

Amber Rudd has a big speech this afternoon to announce a fresh reversal of her predecessors’ welfare reforms. She’ll announce disabled pensioners won’t have to undergo regular Personal Independence Payment (PIP) assessments. Given the Office of Budgetary Responsibility said in January that PIP now cost 20% more than the system it replaced, Rudd is dealing with a pretty difficult legacy.

In the Times, Rachel Sylvester has a must-read piece detailing how Rudd has decided she won’t go for the Tory leadership. That liberation may explain her candour on everything from admitting the link between foodbank use and Universal Credit flaws to writing op-eds on a no-deal Brexit. Rachel also reveals relations between No.10 and Rudd are in the deep freeze, with the DWP Secretary ‘banned’ from live Today prog interviews and some aides suggesting May now regrets bringing her back into Cabinet. “They’ve been calling people and dumping on Amber,” says one ally of Rudd.

The government’s decision to pull its financial services bill yesterday was explained away as merely the result of a crowded Parliamentary agenda with statements and urgent questions squeezing the time allowed. But just as the firearms bill was pulled recently amid fears of a backbench rebellion, many suspect the real reason was party management. The last thing No.10 wanted was another Commons defeat on Andrew Mitchell and Margaret Hodge’s amendment to force British territories to publish a register of firms they host.

John Bercow said it was ‘a rum business’. Hodge (whose amendment, in a rare moment of harmony with the Labour leadership was going to be backed by her frontbench) said it was a ‘blatant, deliberate and arrogant snub’ to Parliament. Expect more of this when John McDonnell tackles Philip Hammond in Treasury Questions today.

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