1. ACCELERATOR PEDDLE
Theresa May’s working ‘dinner’ with Brussels chiefs was more of a ‘high tea’, given it took place at 6.30pm local time, way before any self-respecting European would deign to dine. It ended with a swift joint statement from the PM and Jean-Claude Juncker that told us very little other than a willingness to “accelerate” Brexit talks in coming months.
It seems EU chiefs were a bit bemused by the whole event. The word ‘accelerate’ papered over divisions: Brussels wants us to speed up the divorce bill settlement, the UK wants to get quickly onto trade and transition talks, but neither side has budged in its negotiating position. Indeed May made clear to Juncker she could go no further than her Florence speech.
Try as London might to enlist the help of Spain, Netherlands and other EU states, the real players on Brexit remain Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron. The FT, often spot on with intel, says May will back off a showdown at the EU summit this Thursday because Merkel made clear in her weekend phone call she still thinks the UK needs to be more specific in its promises of hard cash for the Brexit ‘divorce’ bill. “This is all about money,” a source tells the paper. “May said she wanted to make a deal on the transition but Merkel said that first she wanted May to make concrete what she said in Florence — to make it part of the negotiation.” Exactly how May ‘makes concrete’ her promises is the 60bn euro question. Both sides will have to find a way to sell any deal to their domestic audiences in December, and both will claim the other blinked first.
Merkel ally Michael Fuchs told the Today programme that Boris was to blame for the impasse: “His influence is pretty strong... otherwise, I guess she’d come up with better proposals.” Last night on Newsnight, German MEP Elmar Brok admitted the EU was shifting to at least prepare for transition talks, but digging in on cash. “We prepare for this second phase already. A fight within the Tory Party about leadership is stopping us from coming to such a result.” As the Cabinet meets this morning, the Brexiteers round the table may be happy with such flak.
2. LEAVING COSTS
Britain’s poorest families will be up to £500 a year worse off from a ‘hard’ Brexit, thanks to price hikes on basic items such as food and clothing, a study by the Resolution Foundation think thank warns. The research is based on the UK dropping out of the without a deal and relying on World Trade Organisation (WTO) tariffs instead. Brexiteers are already saying this kind of thing feeds into yet more Project Fear.
Speaking of prices, the latest inflation figures are out at 9.30am and if they hit 3% expect some market reaction. The knock-in impact on real wages and the public sector and benefits freezes will worry many outside the City too.
Peter Kellner says YouGov’s new poll for the Times suggests Brexit ‘buyers’ remorse’ is starting to kick in: 44% C2DEs are now against it, up from 37% in August. Still, the New Economics Foundation (not exactly a Tory think tank) has a new analysis of the June election showing that the Conservatives are resurgent in small towns suffering the worst economic decline, while Labour surged in the cities. This growing ‘towns v cities’ split is one to watch, people.
At least Business Secretary Greg Clark has some good news today, as he outlines plans to protect critical national infrastructure while maintaining foreign investment. Airbus has taken a majority stake in the C-Series jets programme, offering hopes that Bombardier workers in Northern Ireland will get fresh job security. Proof that Brexit is not deterring at least some commercial European cooperation?
3. BOJO’S BOUNDARY ISSUES
Away from Brexit, there’s no subject that preoccupies MPs more than the fate of their own constituencies. Today’s final Boundary Review plans for England, Wales and Scotland is very much a mixed bag for Theresa May, after big changes were made to the original proposals. The top line good news for the PM is that the new plans would give her a narrow Parliamentary majority, if the June election results were replicated. source tells me internal Conservative projections suggest they would end up with roughly 306 seats out of 600, up from the 299 when the last study was published. Labour would go down to around 250 seats. All sides lose seats, but the Tories lose fewer than others.
But as we report today, one of the high profile casualties would be Boris Johnson. The new seat of Hillingdon and Uxbridge would take in heavy Labour-voting wards from Ealing, creating a narrow Labour marginal (one projection says a notional Labour majority of just 159 votes, another of more than 1,000 votes).
However, Iain Duncan Smith has been spared a similar fate, not least as Labour locally joined him in opposing the addition of a chunk of Walthamstow to his Chingford seat. Jeremy Corbyn’s seat disappears, but he and Diane Abbott are expected to take up new constituencies and the domino effect means either Meg Hillier or Jim Fitzpatrick would lose out. Other big names who may be worried: David Davis would lose most of his seat to Andrew Percy, Justine Greening’s Putney seat would get a notional Labour majority, Priti Patel’s Witham would be abolished.
Given the overall result would net the Tories a Commons majority, No10 are sticking to their line that this is worth pursuing. And some previous party critics yesterday texted the whips to congratulate them on securing changes that tipped them over the magic 300 number. But it’s precisely because of this that the whole thing may be blocked. A Tory majority would rob the DUP of their current kingmaker role, and the DUP are already mightily furious at the projected cut in their seats from 10 to 7. The final Northern Ireland proposals are due in January and unless they radically change, there’s no way turkeys will vote for Christmas. With May’s leadership in question, she won’t want to upset her own backbenchers either.
The final vote is due next October, and Labour sources think it’ll never pass. That won’t deter Jeremy Corbyn and Emily Thornberry from their ‘unseat Boris’ campaign. The only chance of cross-party consensus is if MP numbers are kept at 650, while equalising all seats for voter size. That would mean a massive new review, but it may be the only option other than the status quo. And after Brexit, and the loss of MEPs, some argue its more important than ever to keep the number of MPs the same.
4. END OF THE PEERS SHOW
New peerages could have a 15-year limit under plans to finally reduce the size of the House of Lords, the Times reveals. A Lords committee tasked with tackling the issue is set this month to suggest the simple reform as a way of slimming what is the second largest upper chamber the world. There are nearly 800 peers, compared to 650 MPs.
The time limit could be introduced without the need for primary legislation, with a majority vote on a change to Lords standing orders instead. There’s a tantalising reference in the Times story to the Lords committee preparing to ask each of the main parties to commit to cutting the size of their voting blocs in stages. For Labour, Tories and Crossbenchers, their ageing cohorts mean retirements will make that easier, but the Lib Dems had a swath of young peers since 2010. Just how will Vince Cable reduce his Lords numbers (they have 100 peers compared to just 12 MPs)?
Last night Andrew Lloyd Webber became the latest “noble Lord” to voluntarily step down. He’d voted just 42 times in 20 years. One of those was when he flew back from the US to back George Osborne’s tax credits cuts, after which he complained he felt like mere ‘lobby fodder’. I’m not making this up.
5. HEALTH N WELFARE
One of David Cameron’s big causes when modernising the Tories was to stress not just how much he believed in the NHS but also in proving how it could help tackle disadvantage from the cradle onwards. Key to that was his plan to increase the number of health visitors who help new parents. Today, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth has some new stats: numbers of health visitors are at their lowest since 2013 and since last year they’ve dropped by 900. At this rate they will fall below 8,000 by January, wiping out all previous gains.
Meanwhile, Universal Credit won’t go away as a political issue. Frank Field’s Work and Pensions Select Committee is due to grill David Gauke tomorrow, but it has fired off a warning shot already about his department’s failure to provide statistics on how the new benefit roll-out was progressing. It’s either incompetence or deliberate concealment, says Field. Neither is a good look. Those helpline charges are sure to feature tomorrow too.