The Waugh Zone Tuesday May 22, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

The Cabinet met this morning, but it was the ‘political Cabinet’ beforehand that provided yet another opportunity for Ruth Davidson to burnish her credentials as a Tory-leader-in-waiting. Along with Jeremy Corbyn, the Scottish Tory leader was one of the few big winners in the botched snap election last year, driving her party to its biggest total of MPs in years norther of the border – at exactly the same time as May failed to connect with English voters.

Yesterday, Davidson wowed the crowds at the Policy Exchange and later at the packed launch of the new think tank Onward she outshone Michael Gove by a long way. Canny enough to know when she’s committing an act of news, she proceeded to risk a veiled criticism of Theresa May’s own awkwardness in front of the camera. “We look a bit joyless, a bit authoritarian sometimes. We don’t get to win if we start hectoring the people we need to vote for us. We don’t get to say ‘just stand on the right’ like every tube message out there. We’ve got to learn to be a bit more joyful and that’s something that we have tried to learn in Scotland….When you do it with a smile, they actually get behind you.” Did someone say Maybot?

This was all a stark contrast to Gove too, who at the Onward launch ventured a dodgy comparison with wife-beater Ike Turner. Yet in some ways Davidson sounded like her old Brexit foe Boris Johnson, who has always called for sunny optimism (while managing to point up the PM’s own limitations). And she also shares Johnson’s scepticism about the Tory 100,000 net migration target too, repeating on the BBC yesterday that it should be ‘reviewed’. As she expects her new baby later this year, some Conservatives are pregnant with the possibility that change is coming. It’s unclear whether all Tory Brexiteers, who look like they’re swallowing a lot of status-quo compromises on the EU, are yet ready for the change Davidson wants.

Ken Livingstone’s resignation from Labour last night certainly looks like the end of his formal links to the party he joined 50 years ago. In a statement, he finally apologised to the Jewish community for his remarks about Hitler and Zionism, saying he was “truly sorry” thathis words had “caused offence and upset”. Jeremy Corbyn said his resignation was ‘sad’ but ‘the right thing to do’. Having reported on Livingstone for nearly 20 years, it really felt like his time was up. Labour’s NEC meets today and it will be interesting to see if anyone marks his political passing. Corbyn is unlikely to be present, given the big Manchester memorial today.

In many ways, last night’s resignation was a very Ken thing to do. Despite the apology, he made clear that he was quitting under sufferance and that his main priority was to avoid anything ‘distracting’ attention from Corbyn’s policies and path to power. On a practical level, it allows him to resume campaigning on issues like climate change, from outside the party. I’m told he had been weighing up for some time the idea of resignation as a better alternative to fighting a law suit that would have taken years. Livingstone’s Achilles heel was always his stubborn refusal to admit when he’d gone too far, but he showed as Mayor that he could in fact be a pragmatist when needed. The great irony is that his final act of pragmatism may well have been quitting Labour.

Meanwhile, there’s another suspension that preoccupied many in the party overnight. Very early today, sources confirmed Lewisham East chairman Ian McKenzie faced disciplinary action over his tweets about Emily Thornberry from three years ago. He had already been forced to quit as an adviser to Newham Mayor Rokhsana Fiaz over the sexist and violent tweets, unearthed by Owen Jones. After a delay, the party has now informed him via email he is indeed suspended. In a real role-reversal, moderates smell a ‘witch hunt’ and say this is purely revenge for McKenzie out-organising Momentum and the leader’s office to secure a centrist candidate in Lewisham East.

Michael Gove has proved once again that he has a talent for getting favourable newspaper headlines for announcements that environmentalists see as small beer. His Clean Air Strategy has plans to curb particulates from wet wood burning (though it doesn’t look like a ban as such), ammonia emissions from farms and pollution from tyres and brakes.

Green party co-leader Caroline Lucas tells us it’s as if the Government is “using a water pistol to put out the air pollution wildfire”. And there are plenty of critics pointing out today’s announcement says little about the major pollution caused by vehicles on our roads. Campaigners say DEFRA has only been forced to move on may issues thanks to EU rules and court cases lodged by groups like ClientEarth.

Labour says this is yet another ‘consultation’ rather than real action, and it’s far from clear whether there will be any decent compensation or scrappage scheme for all those families who bought diesel cars after the Labour government told them they were better for the environment. With a new report showing London has the second worst air quality of EU capitals, this also tests the limits of faith in devolution. Councils and mayors fear the buck is being passed to them as ministers fear voter anger over any tough measures.

Watch this horse rescued by kindly motorists after it was found running on a Texas highway. Love the accents.

Are Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt quietly preparing for a significant U-turn on Tory health policy? The BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg reports that as part of a new approach to the NHS the Government is considering scrapping or amending bits of the controversial 2012 health reforms introduced by Andrew Lansley. Cameron pushed through the legislation to give GPs more power over spending, despite having pledged in Opposition ‘no top-down reorganisation’ of the NHS.

Given the grief Cameron suffered then, it’s unlikely we will see a wholesale reversal and yet another massive organisational change. But it sounds like ministers want to tweak the reforms (which many say wasted cash) before agreeing to new money the NHS needs. In fact, the real story may be just how much extra Hunt extracts from the Treasury and whether No.10 agrees to his demands for a ten-year settlement.

A few weeks ago, John Bercow won applause from Labour and other MPs as he savaged Boris Johnson for his “frankly sexist” language about Emily Thornberry (he’d called her ‘Lady Nugee’, a reference to her High Court judge husband). Yesterday, remarkably few Labour MPs seemed worried about the Speaker’s own alleged sexism as he admitted to referring to Commons leader Andrea Leadsom as “stupid”.

Bercow refused to apologise, but many Tories are convinced he had called Leadsom a “stupid woman” last week in a row over Government moves to eat into Opposition debate time. Conservatives point to Labour’s double standards in defending Bercow on allegations of bullying and sexism. And it was striking to see ten women Tory MPs line up on the front bench (five whips, five ministers) in support of Leadsom. Most odd of all was that Bercow didn’t look her in the eye once as he delivered his statement.

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