1. EPIC AYE ROLL
So, another week, another ‘crunch’ Cabinet? Well, although today won’t be a ‘decision-making’ meeting, ministers will be presented with a fresh update from Theresa May on her plans to secure a Brexit deal. With most areas of agreement sorted, it’s the vexed issue of the Northern Irish border - and the fear of permanent ties to EU rules – that remains the final stumbling block for Brexiteers in the Cabinet.
Both the EU and the Irish government made plain yesterday that they are not budging on their ‘backstop’ plan to keep the Irish border open. Yet Brussels and Dublin are open to May’s offer of a new “mechanism” that could resolve the issue. As the Times reports, the key is a ‘revision clause’ that would allow the UK to withdraw from any temporary customs arrangement. But the paper cites a crucial line from an EU source: “It is a revision clause, not a termination clause.” Still, a joint arbitration body overseeing the process could be one way for May to reassure her ministers that Britain would not be trapped by Brussels forever within its regulatory and customs orbit.
The question is whether Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab and Attorney General Geoffrey Cox will be satisfied with the new solutions on offer. And compromise has not been helped by the PM’s own heavy spin to MPs that her proposal will be so “legally binding…that the Northern Ireland-only proposal is no longer needed”. ‘No longer needed’ sounded to Brexiteers very much like ‘removed completely from the Withdrawal Agreement’. If, as is likely, it is still in there, will they be sanguine? No.10 is gambling that neither Raab nor Cox will actually quit, and is pressing hard the message that the bulk of the MPs just want a deal done before time runs out. May’s supporters view the grandstanding and naked leadership manoeuvring of the ‘Pizza Cabinet’ with the same epic eye-roll deployed an audience member behind Nigel Farage on last night’s Channel 4 Brexit special.
But even if the Irish issue is somehow finally sorted to the satisfaction of Raab and Cox, there’s still the DUP for No.10 to worry about, given their ‘blood red lines’ refusing any new regulatory difference between the UK and Ulster. And there’s the separate issue of up to 40 backbench Tories who are very unhappy with future plans to align the UK and EU to a common rulebook. With the clock ticking, the FT quotes a Eurosceptic saying: “She is going to try to roll the Cabinet” today. Yet rolling her backbenchers into the Aye lobby, when the ‘meaningful vote’ is held, won’t be easy. The Sun reports the Chief Whip thinks he can get a maximum of 15 Labour rebels to back Chequers, nowhere near enough to counter the hardcore Brexiteers.
David Davis and his allies believe the European Research Group won’t agree to the £39bn Brexit divorce bill payments on the back of vague statements in the ‘political declaration’ on future UK-EU trade. Speaking of which, the Centre for European Reform think tank yesterday revealed officials have “compared the declaration to a Twix bar: the solid commitments are the biscuit base, the economic partnership is the fudge, and everything is wrapped up in an enticing layer of chocolatey sweetness”. (Twix lovers know it’s key layer is caramel not fudge, but you get the point). I have visions of Remainer ministers in today’s Cabinet meeting channelling their inner Peter Mannion: “I’m bored of this, I’m going for a Twix.” The PM may be hoping that her MPs, and the public at large, have a similarly British response to her final deal.
2. TAKING A PHIL PILL
Former Chancellor Geoffrey Howe was famously dubbed ‘Mogadon Man’ for his soporific political abilities (note to Millennials: Mogadon was sleeping pill popular in the 1980s). Yesterday, current Chancellor Philip Hammond proved that you can be both monotonous and provocative at the same time. In his evidence on the Budget before the Treasury Select Committee, he managed to offend Brexiteers, teachers and anti-gambling campaigners all in one session.
The irony is that Hammond last week finally sprayed some cash around (in fact yesterday he notably left open the option of ditching his fiscal target of balancing the books by 2025). Yet the dismissive ‘little extras’ way in which he sought to apply the sticking plaster to school funding was more proof of his tin ear for the politics of economics. Yesterday, he compounded the error by warning those teachers who didn’t like his £50k-per-school offer that “there will be plenty of schools willing to receive the cheque on their behalf”. In days gone by, Chancellors would set traps for their opponents, not walk into them.
Hammond also sounded robotic on the issue of fixed odds betting terminals, ducking Nicky Morgan’s point that the impact assessment had expected reform by spring 2019. “I have absolutely no love for these machines,” said the Treasury’s very own desiccated calculating machine. “But government has to manage this process in an orderly and sensible way.” He confirmed our HuffPost story that he was using a rare Parliamentary device to avoid tricky amendments to the Budget. Hammond simply said “there is no obligation” on him, constitutionally or morally, to allow line-by-line scrutiny of his plans. We reported yesterday on growing anger among Labour and Tory rebels at the attempt to foil a vote on the timing of the crackdown on FOBTs. Iain Duncan Smith tells me he working on an amendment, but it’s hard to see how it could be deemed ‘in scope’ for next week’s Finance Bill.
We get Treasury Questions at 11.30am today so there will be fresh clashes between Hammond and his Shadow John McDonnell. I wonder if the Chancellor (or maybe the more punchy Liz Truss) will seize on McDonnell’s Newsnight admission that he won’t oppose Tory income tax cuts because he’s scarred by the 1992 ‘tax bombshell’ ad campaign against Neil Kinnock and John Smith. “The experience of ’92 is seared into me,” he said, pointing out he failed to win his west London seat by 53 votes. Funnily enough, that experience was the main driver for Blair and Brown’s fiscal rectitude too.
3. NOT THE SAVILE INQUIRY
When MPs last night debated the Dame Laura Cox report into bullying and harassment, there were several thoughtful, impassioned speeches. I was struck by the genuine cross-party agreement but also the repeated praise for Andrea Leadsom’s handling of the issue. It’s just a shame that not many MPs were present to hear it all. As Sir Bernard Jenkin pointed out, the main issue is one of ‘culture’ and the fact that every Parliamentarian has to step up and show some responsibility. “I look around this Chamber now and do not see all Members here. In fact, I see a rather small minority of Members here, and part of the problem is that the whole of the House of Commons is not engaged,” he said.
Jess Philips said urgent action was needed to avoid a ‘Jimmy Savile situation’, fearing Parliament could repeat the errors of the BBC in failing to halt abuse perpetrated over years, even though many were aware of its existence. MPs, staff members, and others should be allowed to log concerns to allow patterns to show up and avoid suspicions being ignored, she said. Philips stressed that she didn’t want “a Jimmy Savile situation where everybody says ‘Well, we all knew, oh everybody knew he was a bit like that, oh yeah, course he was’.”
Speaker Bercow had been expected to chair the debate last night, but instead opted to allow his two deputies to officiate. Today, Leadsom will unveil a brand new independent inquiry, this time into allegations that staff in MPs’ offices have been bullied and harassed. It will look at historical complaints as well as current ones. Some MPs, male and female, are notorious among the informal networks of researchers in the Commons for the way they treat staff. But for any of them to come forward they will need total trust and guaranteed confidentiality built into the system, as will MPs facing accusations. Let’s see what comes out today.
4. HUNGRY FOR CHANGE
Our front page splash this morning is an on-the-ground report from the Salvation Army foodbank in Preston, written by our locally-based reporter Aasma Day. The accounts of genuine hunger are shocking, and charity workers say the cause appears to be benefit delays in Universal Credit. Foodbank use has risen by 13% in the past year. Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey announced yet another concession yesterday, cutting the UC waiting time from five weeks to three. But will she also listen to the Select Committee report that today declares that harsher benefits sanctions introduced in 2012 are ‘pointlessly cruel’ and counterproductive?
5. YOU’RE FAKE NEWS
More trouble for Arron Banks today as Information Commissioner Elizabeth Denham is set to fine one of his firms unlawful use of customer data. BuzzFeed has the scoop on the report that is due to be presented to the DCMS Committee at 10.30am. Banks’ Eldon Insurance, plus Leave.EU will be fined a total of £135,000, it says. Meanwhile, Donald Trump seems to be trying to turn the US mid-terms elections into a referendum on racism. Last night CNN (whom he famously dubbed ‘fake news’) and other networks banned his last campaign advert that linked the ‘caravan’ of migrants to a Mexican who killed two sheriff’s deputies in 2014. Hell, even FoxNews and Facebook banned the ad.
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