The Waugh Zone Wednesday January 17, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today.

It’s PMQs day again and Jeremy Corbyn could surprise us by citing nurses leaving the NHS, Tory MP Ben Bradley’s call for vasectomies for welfare claimants or even Boris’ ‘gross’ figures on the Brexit dividend for the health service. For her part, Theresa May may want to quote Keir Starmer’s advice to Labour not to ‘rub out’ the Brexit vote or Chris Williamson’s council tax plan. But surely it will be impossible for either not to focus on Carillion’s collapse.

The FT has played a blinder (to quote Sir Humphrey) on reporting the private outsourcing giant’s woes. It splashes its print edition on new papers laying bare the scale of its problems. Carillion had just £29m in cash when it collapsed, owing £1.29bn to its banks (higher than previous guidance of £900m). PwC and EY rejected requests to be administrators amid concerns they would not be paid. And it may not just be Carillion. The FT’s digital edition splashes on a report that the Cabinet Office has pulled together a team of officials to keep watch on another private firm Interserve which has £7bn of contracts - many in the public sector. Its share price plunged 15% this morning.

As for the politics, we’ve already seen some Tory fightback lines that May could deploy at noon: a third of the Carillion contracts were dished out under Labour (which actually may help Corbyn distance himself from the old regime), Labour peer Sally Morgan was a non-exec director of the firm (ditto) and Business Secretary Greg Clark yesterday urged a fasttracked process to see if directors payoffs could be clawed back through penalties. Corbyn will want to hammer home his line that privatisation and public-private deals have been an historic mistake. He may have some detail to flesh out John McDonnell’s line that the Tories were ‘too close’ to Carillion and point out EU rules did not prevent ministers halting its contracts last year. State-owned RBS took steps to distance itself from the firm too.

Still, away from the argy-bargy, there’s one thing that thankfully unites both sides today: the PM is hosting No.10 event in memory of Jo Cox and has appointed Tracey Crouch as the new minister with responsibility for tackling loneliness, one of Jo’s main causes. On a day when there will be so much to argue about, it’s worth remembering the unity on all sides on this key topic.

Day One of Labour’s newly expanded National Executive Committee (it now has 39 members) underlined the strength of the ‘pro-Corbyn’ majority on the party’s ruling body. Its first act was to remove Ann Black, a soft Left veteran and expert on the party rulebook, as chair of the Disputes Committee in charge of disciplinary cases. After a 22 to 15 vote (Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson were not present) Black was replaced by Christine Shawcroft, who is as much of an old hand as her colleague, but has the added advantage of being a senior figure in Momentum. My full report is HERE.

Momentum sources say Black was ousted because people had long memories of her vote in NEC in 2016 to keep out of the leadership election those new members who had paid £25 specially to take part. Her role as chair of the disputes body had also prompted criticism, with some activists thinking decisions were either too heavy-handed or painfully slow. Her defenders point out she was always rigorously impartial and herself had complained about the need for speedier systems.

What upset some on the disputes committee yesterday was a decision not to go ahead with an official recommendation to refer for fuller investigation an alleged anti-semitism case (among the charges was that the member had quoted claims that Tony Blair was influenced by ‘a cabal of Jewish advisers’). NEC members disagreed with the recommendation and issued a formal warning instead. But in one other case, the NEC rejected a recommended warning and referred it to the National Constitutional Committee. During the meeting, I’m told by two sources there was a discussion about whether the word ‘Yid’ was anti-semitic abuse. The defendant had claimed there was nothing ‘intrinsically offensive’ about the term and at least one member of the NEC agreed. The case was still sent for full investigation.

Shawcroft didn’t vote on any of the decisions. But she did make a chair’s ruling to defer discussion of one case of alleged racist bullying in Tower Hamlets. There was disquiet about this, not least as she had a personal link to the case. A majority of the NEC committee voted against her ruling, but it still stood because a two-thirds majority is needed to reject a chair’s decision. In a statement, Shawcroft told HuffPost “often cases will come up where we know people or we’ve been involved. I don’t think there’s a conflict of interest”. Critics point out the member in question would have been barred from standing as a councillor in May’s elections if the committee had followed the recommendation for further investigation yesterday.

There’s snow and ice in parts of the country but will life outside the EU be a chilly experience - or will it lead us to sunny uplands of restored sovereignty? Another key meeting of the Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit takes place this afternoon, I’m told. Boris Johnson’s doubling down on his £350m a week for the NHS claim certainly underlines the new-found confidence of some Brexiteers that for all the hardline noises coming from Brussels, at some point mutual self-interest on financial services will kick in. Some kind of regulatory equivalence, no matter how complex, will be worked out, one Cabinet minister tells me.

But Ministers weren’t privately impressed at Donald Tusk’s veiled plea for a second referendum yesterday. The EU Council chief had said Brexit would go ahead in 2019 “unless there is a change of heart among our British friends…Wasn’t it David Davis himself who said ‘if a democracy cannot change its mind, it ceases to be a democracy’…our hearts are still open to you.” It sounded more like a Clintons card message than a negotiating tactic.

Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has been chosen as the new chair of the backbench European Research Group, has a Boris-like eye on how Brexit can be used politically to help the NHS. On his first ConHome ‘Moggcast’podcast yesterday, he suggested that austerity on health had gone far enough and more money was now needed. Meanwhile, as part of our ’17 from ‘17’ series with new intake MPs, we’ve interviewed Tory MP Paul Masterson (one of the Telegraph’s ‘Mutineers’). “I am not and have never been a Brexiteer. To me, respecting the will of the people isn’t about happy-clappy cheering like a seal every time someone says we’re leaving the European Union, it’s about recognising that yes we are leaving, but how are we going to do it.” As for the emotional impact of Brexit, we have a story coming up later that will interest a few folks.

The leader of Britain’s nearest EU neighbour is in town tomorrow and the Times has a nice scoop on French President Macron’s trip, revealing he will loan us the Bayeux tapestry for the first time. In another seatwarmer, the Sun reveals May has done a deal to pay more cash and accept more child migrants in return for France keeping UK border posts in Calais. Ahead of Macron’s visit to Sandhurst, the paper also reports former defence minister Sir Mike Penning warning “enough is enough” on armed forces cuts.

Watch this dash-cam footage of a car in California crashing into the second story of a building.

The BBC has dug up some startling figures showing the NHS is “haemorrhaging” nurses, with one in 10 leaving the service in England each year. More than 33,000 walked away last year - a rise of 20% since 2012-13 - meaning there are now more leavers than joiners. The number of EU nurses leaving has trebled since 2012-13 to nearly 4,000 last year (the BBC has this clip of one European nurse quitting over abuse), and the number of joiners has halved since the EU referendum. It underscores why Jeremy Hunt’s expansion of training places is so vital.

Meanwhile, doctors and campaigners told the Health Select Committee yesterday that seriously ill migrants and pregnant women were refusing to turn up for medical appointments for fear of being deported. One GP said: “Just this morning someone who was eight weeks pregnant was on the phone to us in tears, saying she was too scared to go to a GP, she was too scared to go to an antenatal clinic.”

More than a week after Toby Young quit from the Office for Students regulator, it has emerged that ministers turned down three other ‘appointable’ candidates in order to give the provocateur-journo his post. Labour MP Kevin Brennan, who got the facts in a Parliamentary answer, accuses ministers of ‘jiggery-pokery’.

Tory MP Robert Halfon said the appointment of Young “smacks of the elite” and was the “chumocracy at work”. There are concerns over the due diligence failures in the case and how more ‘suitable’ candidates were overlooked. It’s unclear when Young’s replacement will be chosen.

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