The Waugh Zone Tuesday October 16, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

Fasten your seatbelts, folks. The next three days could well determine Theresa May’s future as Prime Minister and the shape of Brexit for years to come. Even if the issue is kicked down the road for a few more weeks, what’s said today, tomorrow and Thursday may narrow the options available. And, as ever, there are three key groups who have May’s future in their hands: frontbench and backbench Brexiteers, the DUP and the EU27.

The first test comes this morning as the Cabinet convenes for an extra-long, two-hour session to thrash out the UK’s negotiating position with Brussels. There’s no question that there is deep unease among some senior Leave ministers that the PM is refusing to give a specific time limit on any temporary customs arrangement with the EU after we leave the bloc next March. Last night, the so-called ‘Pizza Club’ of Brexiteers met in the office of Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and indulged a bit of group therapy at the problems ahead.

One aide told me: “When did sharing a slice of pizza with colleagues become evidence of sedition?” But the very fact that a third of the full Cabinet attended (and five more passed on apologies) a pre-Cabinet caucus underlines that a chunk of ministers feel conflicted right now. No.10 may take heart from the fact that the group was so diverse that it couldn’t come up with a ‘line’ of its own. That indecision was one key ‘takeaway’ (pun intended) May’s ultra-loyalists took from the events of last night.

Leading Leaver Penny Mordaunt walked into Downing Street this morning declaring that: “No one is planning on resigning”. That still leaves the possibility that some could walk out today, depending on how hard May pushes things. It also depends on the purpose of a resignation: is it to oust the PM (as many suspect Boris Johnson tried to do) or is it to get her change policy (as David Davis claimed)? Many of the Tory backbench Brexiteers are now openly urging the Cabinet to demand firm promises. As one put it to me yesterday: “We are telling them ’you have to sort this out…or you’re liable to be chucked out along with everything else.”

If the Cabinet won’t walk, the next test is how the rest of her MPs react. The packed Tory benches in the Commons yesterday (more rammed than a Budget) proved just how high the stakes are. May signally failed to give the reassurances that Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson, John Redwood, Bill Cash and others (Owen Paterson was given a particularly brutal slapdown) wanted. The mood among the Eurosceptic backbenchers is pretty disciplined but there are ominous signs for the PM that letters demanding a vote of no confidence are again the subject of speculation. “We never wanted to go down the letters route, but things are spiralling out of control,” a source told me.

Most of the European Research Group are largely allergic to leadership challenges, but non-Brexiteer critics are ready to join their colleagues to make up the numbers needed to topple her. Even if May can sort out the Northern Ireland safety net, her main ‘Chequers’ plan for a common EU-UK trade ‘rulebook’ is still deeply disliked by a hard core of Remainer Tories as much as the Eurosceptics. Crucially, the DUP’s Nigel Dodds didn’t look happy yesterday either. And last night he told Newsnight that while his party wouldn’t ‘push’ for a general election, it could withdraw support for May’s “domestic and financial and welfare agenda which does not trigger the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn coming into No. 10”.

On Wednesday night, May will make a pitch to the EU27 leaders in Brussels, pleading with them to look again at her plan to provide an alternative to the key problem of avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. They will then mull on that and Thursday will be the key day when they respond. Will they give her more time and allow a special summit in November?

May said yesterday that the two sides are not ‘far apart’. Two sides of a deep crevasse may not be far apart either, but the danger of jumping across one is very real. A bridge of sorts may be provided by her new proposal for what looks like a break clause rather than a time-limit. No.10 said there are still ‘a number of ways of achieving that’, but it’s clear the EU need more time to discuss them. The EU 27 will probably give May one last bit of rope. Whether she uses it to pull herself to safety, or her party uses it as a noose, is still an open question.

If anyone thought Universal Credit cuts stories had lost their power to shock, Frank Field yesterday disabused them of that notion as he told MPs that some claimants in his constituency had been forced to turn to prostitution. Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey offered to see what help could be offered to the women affected, before adding the inimitable line: “Perhaps there are other jobs on offer.”

Today, the BBC has an exclusive leak of DWP emails showing the department plans to further delay the national roll-out of the controversial benefit. Some four million people (that’s a heck of a lot of voters) are due to be ‘migrated’ onto Universal Credit, with testing due next January and letters sent to them next summer. Under the delayed timetable, the testing won’t happen until next summer, letters sent in late 2020 and the whole system in place by December 2022 - nine months later than previously stated. Labour – and rebel Tory backbencher - calls for the roll-out to be put on ‘pause’ may now intensify.

There are also plans to increase cash support. When the whole issue last blew up, McVey’s predecessor David Gauke gave claimants two weeks help with housing benefit. Now it seems that the extra leeway will provided for income support, employment and support allowance, and job seekers allowance a fortnight after a claim for universal credit has been made. The self-employed and those getting child tax credits may also get fresh help. But there’s a big ‘but’ in the email: “We can currently offer no assurance that ultimately these proposals will prove to be deliverable, can survive legal challenges where they can be delivered, and do not invite new political criticism by generating new policy issues.”

John Bercow is nothing if not stubborn. But following the damning report into Commons bullying and harassment yesterday, pressure is intensifying for him to think not just about a radical overhaul of staff procedures but his own position. Dame Laura Cox QC found a culture of “deference, subservience, acquiescence and silence” and listed some appalling examples of staff being screamed at, as well as women subjected to inappropriate touching.

Cox did not name Bercow but given the allegations against him, it was obvious he was in her sights when she wrote: “When reading this report, some people may privately recognise their own behaviours in some of the alleged abusive conduct I have described.” That was a canny line as bullies often don’t realise they’re bullying until they genuinely look at things from another viewpoint. Business minister Claire Perry, who has suffered several put-downs from the Speaker, put it diplomatically as she could yesterday to link Bercow’s chairmanship in the chamber to a wider malaise. “You get put in your place often with a rather acerbic comment. It’s not respectful to MPs, it must be horrendous to be a staffer working in some of these offices.”

And this morning Sir Kevin Barron, the outgoing standards committee chairman, tells the Times: “The change in culture has to come from the top, and unfortunately I no longer believe that the Speaker, John Bercow, is the correct person to provide that leadership, so he should step down.” Sir Kevin’s replacement Kate Green has been painted as an admirer of Bercow, but some fellow MPs think she will prove more independent than some think. The Speaker will seek to retire in his own time and put distance between this report and his departure. Yet for many MPs, the countdown clock to life after Bercow is ticking louder than ever.

Watch this little boy help his sister after she hurts herself playing basketball.

Brexit has sucked the life out of some of the usual pre-Budget speculation, lobbying and mischief-making. But Chancellor Philip Hammond is under intense pressure to find cash for big ticket items like the NHS and Universal Credit, while somehow keeping taxes low and magically ending austerity. The IFS warns that something’s gotta give, with a radical hike in income tax, VAT or national insurance needed to avoid further spending cuts and keep the deficit on track. The Sun’s Matt Dathan has a scoop that Hammond is to go ahead with plans to increase the climate change levy businesses pay for gas usage to match that of electricity. It will raise £500m a year and some firms ain’t happy. As it happens, the insurance industry is also sick of consumers being fleeced by regular increases in insurance premium tax (here’s its latest canny ad campaign).

The Law Commission has announced its review hate crime laws will look at new protections for elderly people, men and even goths. The move follows Stella Creasy’s successful attempt to get ministers to widen the review to include misogyny as an aggravating factor in offences. It hasn’t attracted many headlines but the Home Office has at the same time announced an extension of funding to protect places of worship vulnerable to attack, including nine churches, 22 mosques, two Hindu temples and 12 Sikh gurdwaras. Nick Bourne, the Minister for Faith (yeah, I never knew we had one either) confirmed the extra spending.

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