1. MUFFLED SHUFFLE
‘Shuffle’ is an old English word defined as ‘to walk slowly without lifting the feet’. As she squares up to Jeremy Corbyn for PMQs, Theresa May’s task is to show how her ministerial re-shuffle is not a sign of a doddery Government but a fresh-faced reflection of modern Britain.
The PM faces cannon to the Left of her (more private school Cabinet ministers, no net change in full-Cabinet women, a drop in LGBT ministers) and cannon to the Right of her (the Mail splashes on ‘the massacre of the middle aged white men’). The Sutton Trust told us yesterday that the increase in privately-educated Cabinet ministers (up to 34% from 30%) was “disappointing”, not least as that’s five times the proportion of the general public.
The educational background stats certainly contrast with May’s own words last night that her Government now “looks more like the country it serves”. Significantly, No.10 stressed the Cabinet’s private school percentage was still a lot better than Cameron’s era (a staggering 50%). The Cameron-Clegg Coalition Cabinet of 2010 actually had 62% of its ministers who had attended non-state schools.
In our Lobby briefing yesterday, the removal of a few white blokes from ministerial ranks prompted questions from the Mail and Telegraph about ‘positive discrimination’ and signals that ‘white men can’t do the job’. The PM’s spokesman said it was more about “getting talent in place” and “a contribution from MPs of all intakes and of all types”. He didn’t point out that the number of women has risen from 29 to 38, a rise of just nine. But men still outnumber women by more than two to one, with 82 males in total at all ranks.
Asked by the Mail if the reshuffle amounted to “positive discrimination” for minority ethnic MPs, the PM’s spokesman said: “It’s important the government reflects the country it serves. It is a case of getting talent in place.” When the Telegraph asked if May was sending a signal that ‘white men can’t do the job’, the spokesman replied: “If you look across the Government it’s very clear there is going to be a contribution from MPs of all intakes and of all types.” It was a move to “bring fresh talent through to government and to give that talent an opportunity to shine”.
2. AYE, AYE CAPTAIN
Tuesday’s shake-up of the junior ranks certainly promoted some impressive talent, but the aftershocks caused by Monday’s senior level refuseniks are still notable. We reveal another reason why Jeremy Hunt persuaded the PM to keep him at Health: he told her ‘a captain does not abandon his ship’ (citing the sense of duty he shared with his late father, a Navy admiral), adding it was ‘a matter of honour’ to him not to leave when doctors and nurses were working so hard with winter pressures. The PM was as impressed by his passionate sense of personal duty as she was by his rationale for putting health and social care together in DH.
If Jeremy Corbyn picks the NHS at PMQs, he may find that nautical comparison irresistible though (and some doctors on Twitter are already saying the NHS ship is ‘sinking’). The stats this week on delays for patients, plus a new Times splash on a hospital in Oxford delaying chemotherapy due to chronic staff shortages, are decent ammunition for him. Labour has decided to hold its Opposition Day debate on the winter ‘crisis’ in the NHS. Tory MPs are again expected to be told to abstain, a practice that some accept prevents anti-attack leaflets, but other backbenchers think is a failure to take the fight to Labour.
As for the other big reshuffle kerfuffle, all eyes will be on Justine Greening. Having jogged off from the Government on Monday, she smiled to the cameras as she put on her running gear yesterday morning. But the Mail’s Andrew Pierce, who has the inside track on her two-hour meeting with May, was there were no smiles in No10. ‘It got very ugly between them,’ one source says. Greening complained about briefings that described her as ‘dead wood’ and said she was being scapegoated for schools cuts agreed by No.10 and the Treasury.
That particular line could be another gift for Corbyn, not least as Labour undoubtedly won votes in the June general election from parents worried by teaching union websites showing how much their school’s funding would be slashed. But will Greening be in PMQs today? And will she make a clear statement of intent by sitting with the Remainer rebels like Nicky Morgan and Anna Soubry?
3. TAXING TIMES
Inequality statistics are due out at 9.30am. Yet it’s the inequality in funding at local level that worries Jeremy Corbyn’s close ally and shadow minister Chris Williamson. In an interview with HuffPost, he sets out his plan for a ‘Differential Progressive Council Tax’, which would double council tax for the most expensive homes in Band H, and hike bills for ‘average’ homes in Band D (on the old valuations worth more than £68,000).
Williamson, who stresses his plans are not official party policy but have been well received by various Momentum groups, tells me that his proposal would allow a freeze on Bands A to C, where many Labour voters live (in his Derby backyard, 85% of homes are rated as worth less than £68,000, he says). It would also allow raise enough cash for town halls to halt all Tory cuts in council funding. Enacted through a local referendum, the proposal would have safeguards to protect ‘income poor, asset rich’ individuals like widows, he added.
The MP, who was visited personally by the Labour leader in his election campaign last year, says his plan would help the party’s town halls “seize the initiative” in their fight against Government austerity. “There is a lot of support for it. Regrettably no local authority has taken the plunge and implemented it yet. I can understand the anxiety because it would no doubt attract a lot of adverse publicity,” he says. “You can imagine the Daily Mail and Daily Express would go to town on a proposition like this. It’s not a panacea, it’s a response to a terrible situation. I think it’s an argument that could be won.”
January is a key month for council budgets and tax rates being set across the land. Many Tory authorities, not just Labour ones, are set to use new freedoms to raise bills by 5.99%, to help fund social care costs. Conservatives on the LGA continue to complain local authorities are squeezed too hard. But with May’s local elections looming, will any Labour group take up ‘the Williamson model’?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this dude ice skate on the frozen sea on a beach in Maine.
4. BERLIN CALLING
David Davis and Philip Hammond are in Germany and have a joint article in Frankfurter Allgemeine arguing it would ‘make no sense’ for German business or citizens if the UK was faced with new trade barriers after Brexit. The hope is German business will pressure their government, though as one leading German economist told me last year, the UK’s hope that car producers will push Merkel to change her stance “might be an illusion”. Still, I’m amazed no minister has yet picked up on the recent new statistic that Germany’s biggest trade partner now is not any other EU member, but China.
The Telegraph splashes on a secret briefing to the Cabinet before Christmas, when officials warned that Angela Merkel will oppose any ‘managed divergence’ away from EU rules. Instead, alternative plans for three different levels of compliance were mooted, plans that ‘effectively torpedo’ David Davis’s hopes of a ‘Canada-plus-plus-plus’ trade deal. DD will dispute that, I suspect. Michel Barnier played hardball yesterday, warning the City of London would lose ‘the benefits of the single market’.
Speaking of the Brexit Secretary, the FT has a splash that he’s furious with the EU sending out ‘be prepared notices’ to firms in 15 sectors of the UK economy, warning airlines, pig breeders and others the UK will become ‘a third country’ with no formal access to the single market from next April. That’s no way to treat an existing EU member state, DexEu says. Meanwhile, the department got an extra minister yesterday in Suella Fernandes. But will she or any of the others get special ‘no deal’ responsibilities? The idea of a Cabinet-level rank for such a minister is dead. But we find out their duties in coming days.
5. SHOPPERS’ GOT A BRAND NEW BAG
The PM is following Michael Gove’s lead and trying to put the environment at the heart of the Tories’ pitch to voters. With George Osborne again using his Standard leader column to attack May’s competence, maybe someone in No.10 will point out that he was the one who did more damage than anyone to the party’s ‘green’ brand. Under the former Chancellor, the ‘vote blue, go green’ approach was dumped, persuading even David Cameron to abandon that ‘green crap’.
I’m told there was excitement around the newly-expanded Cabinet table yesterday as they discussed the PM’s big speech due on the environment tomorrow. The Times’s Francis Elliott reports that the PM will set out plans to make all small shops impose a 5p charge currently used in supermarkets. In days gone by this would have prompted outrage from some in the Tory party. I love the detail that exemptions could be made for shops selling goldfish. Is that still a thing?
Note that the PM also hinted this weekend on Marr that she wanted a similar scheme to curb plastic bottle use. A plan to enact that is not ready, but the fact that it’s being considered is another sign the Tories now see an opportunity to build on their own tradition as the ‘conservation party’.