1. RESERVOIR MOGGS
MPs return to Westminster after the conference break and Brexit is uppermost in the minds of front and backbenches alike. Yesterday, Tory MP and former Brexit minister Steve Baker put out a series of YouTube videos to explain the problems with Theresa May’s Chequers proposals. Standing in front of a quintessentially English country field, he started with the words: “With British politics starting the resemble the closing scene of a Tarantino movie…” But is the threat of the Tory party staging a Reservoir Dogs-style shootout now so cliched that it’s no longer useful?
Well, on the Today programme, Baker suggested that he and Jacob Rees-Mogg and the rest of their 80-strong backbench European Research Group (ERG) still had their guns cocked and loaded. “I try never to have a bluff to be called,” Baker warned. “Of course, the Government are going to whip this vote extremely hard. The whips would be doing incredibly well if they were to halve the numbers…my estimate is that there are at least 40 colleagues who are not going to accept a half-in half-out Chequers deal” or a Northern Ireland solution that leaves the UK in the single market. That chimes with David Davis’ own estimate to HuffPost last month that the ‘rock solid core’ of rebels was about 40-strong. As it happens, some in Government have told me they think they can whittle the rebels down to 15, but that’s still enough to wreak havoc with the PM’s wafer-thin majority even with Labour Leavers on board.
No.10 were clearly spooked by the EU’s positive mood music over the weekend, and yesterday hosed down expectations of a breakthrough this week. The PM’s team are acutely aware that Brexiteers scent betrayal if there’s any talk of compromise that’s not been squared with them beforehand. One of the most intriguing lines from Downing Street yesterday was that “There can be no withdrawal agreement without a precise future framework”. That word ‘precise’ was a hint that May knows her rebels won’t be bought off with fudge about future EU-UK trade links. Yet how can that framework be precise when key issues have yet to be resolved? Brussels may not yet be ready for such precision. The EU’s Michel Barnier has pulled his planned update from this Wednesday, but when it appears it may ‘park’ areas of disagreement.
The ERG MPs meet this evening, but many of them are still waiting for No.10’s next move. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, rather than the PM, will make an oral Commons statement on progress to date. This is another tactic to offer reassurance to backbenchers, while protecting the PM from being used as a lightning rod for grandstanders like Boris Johnson. Steve Baker talked today of a ‘concrete canvass of colleagues’, which sounded like a painful Mafia-style process. There’s still a fair way to go, but some Labour MPs I talked to yesterday were highly suspicious that the rebels would actually do the deed. The movie of Brexit so far has looked more like a Carry On comedy than a Hollywood gorefest. No.10, however, clearly still longs for a thoroughly boring, happy ending.
2. PENNY FOR THEM
International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt has just given a speech on the future of overseas aid post-Brexit. But she also decided to allow a Q&A afterwards. And in her responses Mordaunt made plain that she was still a sceptical Brexiteer within the Cabinet, an image that won’t do any harm to her long-term chances of as a dark-horse Tory leadership contender.
Asked if she supported the Chequers plan, she replied: “I’m not giving a running commentary”. Why couldn’t she just say ‘Yes, of course’, as someone like Philip Hammond or David Gauke would have? Mordaunt did say her role was to support the PM in getting the best deal possible, but added ” I feel we must honour the result of the referendum” and “I need to stand up for what is in the national interest”. Clearly aware her remarks were becoming A Story, she hastily upgraded her loyalty bonus, saying the PM “can count on my support and I’m not expecting that in any way to change”. There was this kicker though: “We need to know where this is going to end up”.
Mordaunt’s speech itself (previewed in the Sun) has sparked Labour criticism, as she outlined plans for private investors such as pension funds help foot the bill for the UK’s landmark 0.7% of GDP spent on aid. The Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development international currently constitutes aid spending, but there was a hint the UK could unilaterally change its own definition. Meanwhile, the International Monetary Fund (IMF) has advised the Chancellor to get ready to increase public spending in the event of a hard Brexit: “At a time of uncertainty, monetary policy should remain flexible.”
What would help Hammond is if firms like Facebook actually paid their fair share of tax. It emerged yesterday that the company’s posted an increased UK revenue last year to £1.27bn, but paid just £7.4m in corporation tax. The firm said its UK profits only amounted to £62.8m after “costs of sales” and “administrative expenses”. Hammond used his Tory conference speech to warn there could be a new digital services tax in the upcoming Budget. “The time for talking is coming to an end. The stalling has to stop.” MPs are urging him to take his own advice.
3. BROUGHT TO BOOK
A school sociology textbook has been pulled from sale after it emerged that it contained claims that Caribbean fathers are “largely absent” from their children’s upbringing. HuffPost UK’s Nadine White was first onto this story on Sunday, reporting that Hodder Education’s AQA GCSE (9-1) Sociology, by Rosie Owens and Ian Woodfield, had sparked fears that the text reinforced negative stereotypes for children in the classroom.
Many in the black British community, not least Tottenham MP David Lammy, have for years talked frankly about the issue of the engagement of fathers in family life. And the 2011 census revealed that 16.6% of black Caribbean households are lone parents with children, compared with 6.7% of white British households and 22.7% of mixed white British/Caribbean families. But the problem with the textbook was it suggested a majority of Caribbean fathers were not involved at all, and Lammy himself said such “sweeping generalisations” only served to entrench lazy stereotypes.
Tamu Thomas of the group Motherhood Reconstructed told the BBC: “I couldn’t imagine what it would feel like if you were a black child, sitting in class and reading a statement like that. I do acknowledge that the number of families with absent fathers is higher in the black community, proportionally. But when something is put forward as fact like that without explaining the historical reasons why that might be the case, without any context, that’s really dangerous.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this amazing split-screen, one-shot footage from Jim Carrey’s TV show ‘Kidding’. At triumph of behind the scenes teamwork and timing and proof that drama is as much about the technicians as the actors.
4. DAMNED LIES
With Brexit seeming to take up all the Government’s bandwidth, there’s a danger that voters will think other areas of policy are just being neglected. But is the neglect benign or wilful? It certainly doesn’t help if ministers are also caught lying to the public and yesterday’s warning from the UK Statistics Authority about school spending was stark indeed. The patience of the usually mild-mannered watchdog snapped as Sir David Norgrove attacked ‘misleading’ and ‘exaggerated’ claims by both the Education Secretary Damian Hinds and his schools minister Nick Gibb.
5. COP THAT
You know police cuts are beginning to bite when the Telegraph and Express report on the issue on the same day. The Express’s front page has figures showing that just six police forces in England and Wales have police officers rather than just civilian staff on their front desks. The Tel leader column hits out at cuts to bobbies on beat, while its columnist Tim Stanley says he no longer trusts the police to turn up if he calls 999. Meanwhile, the Guardian says the Met’s use of force has risen 79% in the past year, with black people disproportionately likely to be on the receiving end.
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