POLITICS
02/10/2018 10:16 BST

The Waugh Zone Tuesday October 2, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

IAN KINGTON via Getty Images
 

1. FRINGE BENEFITS

Boris Johnson finally arrives in Birmingham for his mega-fringe (with 1,000 seats). Will the blond bombshell’s on-off leadership ambitions finally ignite? Or will he just land with a heavy thud, an unexploded device destined to be found in a field decades later by curious schoolboys excavating the Tory party’s history? Those snaps of him running through a field yesterday were seen as childish trolling of Theresa May’s own youthful, wheat-based excitement. His allies say the pic was not set up, and I’m told the snapper with the long lens had been tracking him for days, so maybe that’s true. The field is not even of wheat, it is apparently ‘false oat grass’. As ever with Boris, there’s often less to it than meets the eye.

From the overnight extracts we were handed, this certainly looks like an alternative Prime Minister’s agenda. He’ll range wide beyond Brexit to tax cutting, crime crackdowns and housing. To avoid this all being a massive anti-climax, however, he has to say something new or hint that May’s time is running out. Given Johnson’s notorious lack of detail on Brexit, it’s hard to imagine he has a thoroughly thought-through set of domestic policies. And the backlash among MPs and activists is already stronger here than at any previous Tory conference I’ve attended. The benefit of being backbencher on the fringe is you can roam freely, the disadvantage is you end up losing any sense of statesman/womanship.

The Sun reveals an odd plan Boris is cooking up to delay Brexit by six months so he can sort things out while in No.10. And it quotes his successor as Henley MP, John Howell, saying: “As far as I’m concerned, Boris can just f*** off.” There are plans for ‘anyone but Boris’ campaigners to heckle him today. The Daily Record has a cracking tale that Scottish Tories have launched ‘Operation Arse’ to stop him becoming PM. “We called it that so we’d be clear who we were talking about,” one says. On the Today programme, May was in full robot mode when asked how she ‘felt’ about Johnson’s antics. “What I feel is that I and this government and this party are getting on with the important job..”

But Johnson isn’t the only possible future leadership contender here at conference. I’m told that during a Business Day private event yesterday morning Jeremy Hunt ranged far beyond foreign affairs to talk about health, education, the economy and other policies. ‘It was obvious what he was doing,’ said one attendee. Hunt however has endured a second day of trouble over his claim that the EU is like the USSR, including from EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis, who pointed out he was born in a Soviet gulag. May herself told BBC Breakfast: “As I sit around that table in the EU, there are countries there who used to be part of the Soviet Union. They are now democratic countries. And I can tell you that the two organisations are not the same.” Ouch.

For many activists here, their mood is summed up by a killer quote reported by the Times’ Francis Elliott today. “When the history of Brexit is written, it will show that men spent conference ‘dicking around’ trying to further their leadership ambitions while a woman worked to get a deal in [the] national interest,”

Still, if you stay onside with the PM, a bit of ambition is not a bad thing, it seems. Sajid Javid is quietly emerging as a better more unifying option than Hunt and today’s speech (a middle class drug user crackdown as well as migration curbs) won’t harm his chances. Brexit Secretary Dom Raab yesterday won an ovation after talking for the first time his own backstory, with his family wiped out by the Holocaust.  ITV’s Paul Brand had this brilliant video round-up yesterday of various Tories refusing to say if they’d run for leader, with only James Cleverly being candid enough to say in the ‘dim and distant future’ he may consider it. Watch Hancock, Truss, Raab, Ellwood, Rudd, Patel, Greening all duck the question. Priceless.

 

2. TOWER OF VISAS?

Conference tumbleweed is every minister’s worst fear, and Jeremy Wright yesterday had the humiliation of speaking to a near-empty hall (even Ruth Davidson had vacant seats). Years ago, I remember Dominic Grieve suffered a similar fate when he was Shadow Home Secretary. As activists queue round the block to get into the Boris Show, it will be interesting to see how many prefer him to Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has a rival fringe just beforehand. Yet Sajid Javid is perhaps the person who has most to fear. His own speech is due at noon and Boris’s is at 1pm - and the punters here in Birmingham have been prepared to stand in a line for up to an hour to guarantee a seat to hear their favourite Brexiteers.

Javid is the real rising star in the Tory leadership stakes and any ovations he gets today will be watched keenly for their length and fervour. What may get them on their feet are his new immigration plans post-Brexit, plans that he has jointly announced with the PM overnight in a clear attempt to seize back some of the initiative from Bojo.

The details are sketchy so far but the broad brush includes: new curbs on long-term migrants, including a minimum salary threshold to ensure they are not competing for jobs that could otherwise be recruited in the UK; immediate family will be allowed to accompany high skilled migrants but only if sponsored by employers; all EU and non-EU short-stay tourists and business people would have passports scanned at e-gates in airports, train stations and ports. The PM sidestepped the issue of whether Brits will face new delays, curbs or checks on work and travel but I guess reciprocity will demand exactly that. Business will be worried if new US-style ‘visa waivers’ are required to hop over to Europe and vice versa.

But beyond all the talk of migration curbs, it’s clear the Government want some flexibility to keep EU workers coming here. Chequers had a telling line about “mobility partnerships” for key sections of the economy. The PM tried a sleight of hand today, by declaring on the one hand “immigration rules are not part of our discussions with the European Union” and in the next breath admitting that ‘elements’ of the EU/UK trade deal will include ‘mobility’. “We will be ensuring that we recognise the needs of our economy,” was another telling phrase. Still, she is sticking to her net migration target and some business may also be worried by her line that “I’m not saying that lots of different sectors of economy” will have exemptions like agricultural workers. The battle within and without Government on this very issue is still ongoing.

 

3.  DEALER’S CHOICE

As we get closer to the crunch on Brexit talks, the shifting sands are fascinating to watch. Yesterday, Dominic Raab was explicit at the IEA fringe that he backed the idea of slashing corporation tax to 10% if there was a ‘no deal’ outcome. He said it could help the UK cope with ‘short term buffeting’ and sounded much more relaxed than Hammond, May, Clark and others about surviving on WTO terms. Sajid Javid also upped the ante at a fringe, saying no deal would allow £40bn to be spent on tax cuts. Javid also praised Singapore and said after Brexit it would be possible for the UK to “have the ability to look at some rules and regulations” currently in place. Labour has pounced, pointing out that the Tories are reviving the threat of a low tax, low regulation ‘offshore’ model for the economy.

Of course, ‘no deal’ is still viewed as unlikely both in London and Brussels. Perhaps more interesting than the sabre-rattling are the moves behind the scenes to get compromise. Bloomberg had a scoop yesterday that the UK is easing its opposition to checks on goods between Northern Ireland and Britain, but on condition that the EU shows some give too. Raab hinted the report was not wrong, saying the UK was “open to looking at options on the regulatory side”, though he added “it’s absolutely crucial that any backstop has finality to it”. On Today, May gave her own hints of a breakthrough, suggesting flexibility on regulation.

And the Times reports the PM is ready to propose a “grand bargain” which would keep Britain tied to European customs rules on goods after the transition period ends in December 2020. It quotes a senior minister saying “We have to move to unlock the talks and that is going to mean compromising on signing comprehensive free-trade deals immediately.” Of course any fudge on signing such deals could lead to someone like Liam Fox quitting the government (he’s in South Korea today so will miss the fun).

I suspect as ever it will come down to the language used to sweeten the pill. The UK may remain in a customs union, but neither side will call it that. The Irish border backstop (re-Christened by May this morning as a ‘guarantee to the people of Northern Ireland’) could be variously interpreted as either temporary or indefinite. No.10 will need to keep the DUP on board, especially as Arlene Foster hinted to the BBC should could back a Canada-plus deal, and Boris. I heard one senior former Cabinet minister say privately yesterday that Foster was ‘a very strange woman’. But she still has plenty of clout.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch this ‘Newcastle-under-Lyme Conservative’, the curiously named ‘Enoch Manto Liu’ get kicked out of a fringe after slapping a delegate. What was a Chinese state media journalist doing infiltrating the Tory conference?

 

4. GOOGLEWHACKED

Amid all the noise around Brexit and Boris, the Chancellor yesterday slipped out a pretty important announcement. He declared that if international agreement cannot be sorted, the UK will “go it alone with a ‘Digital Services Tax’ of its own”. This is all about getting Google and Facebook and others to “contribute fairly to funding our public services”. Hammond has already asked President Obama’s former chief economist, Jason Furman, to review digital competition regime.

But critics think the last thing the UK needs post-Brexit is a unilateral tax that will push the online giants to relocate. And the Telegraph quotes a warning from the Coalition for a Digital Economy that the real losers would “not be the tech giants, but growing British tech businesses”. Tech firms are still spooked by that nugget buried in the 2017 Tory manifesto: “Some people say that it is not for government to regulate when it comes to technology and the internet. We disagree.”

 

5. MATT OR GLOSS

Matthew Hancock is one of the few Cabinet ministers who has a big increase in funding heading down the track, thanks to the £20bn promised by the Treasury and No.10 (though Labour say’s it’s still not enough). Today, he’ll try to meet twin concerns about a winter NHS crisis and elderly people bed blocking in hospital, with an emergency £240m pumped into social care.

The money, to be channelled through local authorities according to their relative adult social care needs, could buy 71,500 domestic care packages or 86,500 “reablement” packages, he will say. Let’s see how local councils respond. In the past they’ve been pretty sceptical about Government spin on similar announcements.

 

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