1. TRUSS THE PEOPLE
If Jeremy Corbyn wants to score some goals at PMQs today, all he has to do to is ask Theresa May which of her squabbling Cabinet ministers she agrees with. On Brexit, does she prefer Boris Johnson (‘f*ck business’), Jeremy Hunt (“inappropriate” Airbus) or Greg Clark (“listen to with respect”)? On defence, does she back Gavin Williamson (“I made her, I can break her”) or Liz Truss (“not macho to demand more money”)? On a sugar tax, does she back Hunt or doughnut-loving Truss? On wood-burning stoves or plastic straws, who’s right, Michael Gove or the Treasury Chief Secretary? On resigning over Heathrow, does she back Greg Hands (“it’s about being true to your word”) or Boris (quitting “achieves nothing”)? That’s five of Corbyn’s six PMQs, right there.
Truss’s speech to the LSE last night certainly made waves, despite the bizarre efforts of one aide to unsay what she’s said about Michael Gove. Given her penchant for publicity (with Instagram and Twitter accounts that capture her very, ahem, distinctive voice), it’s not a surprise that she would want to ‘joke’ about fellow ministers in order to ram home a wider message about Tory sound money and personal freedom. But what is surprising is that No.10 would give prior approval to a speech that highlighted Cabinet divisions so starkly in this week of all weeks. Some backbench MPs think that at a time when they are all whipped with merciless discipline, ministerial splits suggest there’s one rule for the troops and another for the officers. And as Truss would put it herself: That. Is. A. Disgrace.
Many Tories will instinctively agree with Truss’s ‘trust the people, not governments’ approach. Yet the real problem for the Chief Secretary is that many of her ministerial colleagues are simply not scared of her. If you’re neither feared nor respected (let alone actually liked), any job in politics is much tougher. And on all those counts, Theresa May has also struggled since her snap election debacle. That’s why former policy chief George Freeman hit a raw nerve yesterday when he told Radio 4 about the dangers of a squabbling top team. If the Tories fight the next election having lost their pro-business/anti-tax reputation, he said, “I fear we will lose - and we’ll deserve to.”
2. WISE GUYS DO COME FIRST?
Former Chief Secretary David Gauke was on the Today programme trying to clean up the mess after Truss’s attempted drive-by-shooting of several Cabinet colleagues. But Gauke couldn’t resist taking the opportunity to stand up for business in the Brexit row. “Business drives wealth and prosperity in this country, I think we should listen to what business has to say. I certainly don’t anyone should be dismissive”. Crucially, on Boris Johnson’s infamous “f*ck business” line, Gauke said it was “probably not wise”. But in modern politics, do wise guys (and gals) come first?
Gauke is not a member of the Cabinet’s Brexit Strategy and Negotiations (“S&N”) sub-committee, but he along with others in the full Cabinet will get an equal say at the Chequers away-day now planned for next Friday. After months of headline-grabbing by Johnson, Gove and others, Gauke and the increasingly assertive Business Secretary Greg Clark finally seem to be getting their ‘soft Brexit’ message across. It feels like there’s a ‘no more Mister Nice Guy’ message from the usually low-profile Remainers. And while the S&N committee is split down the middle, the full Cabinet has a 15 to 10 majority in favour of self-described “sensible” ministers. Will the day-long discussion of the Brexit White Paper next week see May herself finally come down on their side?
Clark’s speech to the Times CEO summit yesterday was notable for the way he went even further on the ‘shut up/don’t shut up business’ debate. He backed “evidence before ideology” on Brexit and even suggested a single market in services as well as goods, with “labour mobility” the key. Impeccably loyal to the PM, the Business Secretary is invoking the ire of pro-Brexit backbenchers and newspapers alike. That’s because he seems to part of a No.10 strategy (as spotted by the FT) to use business to give May cover for the softest possible Brexit. Many Remainers moaned during the EU referendum that firms were too scared to warn of job losses, but firms look less cowed now.
What may further upset Brexiteers is this brutal assessment of US embassy officials in London. In the new Channel 4 documentary, they suggest the British economy ‘is going to tank’ after EU exit, that May hasn’t prepared the public for the bad news and that voters who are ‘very, very tired’ of austerity will react badly if Brexit leaves them poorer. Asking the PM if she disagrees with this analysis of our American allies could be Corbyn’s final PMQ today.
3. REHAB REBOOT
At the DWP, David Gauke built up a reputation among colleagues as a minister who could balance the competing pressures to push through public service reforms, make the Tories appear more compassionate and also win Treasury backing. At the Ministry of Justice, he’s trying to do the same and today’s announcement on women’s offending is a case in point. Gauke has abandoned plans for five community prisons for women in England and Wales (which saves a hell of a lot of cash) and instead pushed trials for five residential centres to help offenders find work and drug rehab.
The Justice Secretary says short custodial sentences had failed to halt the “cycle of offending”, a point made by his fellow minister Rory Stewart. Both feel the wrath of the Daily Mail’s splash – ‘A Green Light For Criminals’ - which quotes Tory backbencher Philip Davies saying the plans are “idiotic”. Gauke wins praise from the Prison Reform Trust, which says the new strategy is a “welcome recognition of the futility of short prison sentences” for women whose offending is often driven by “unmet mental health needs”.
But as in his DWP days, not everyone is convinced by all of Gauke’s motives and some see his inner-Treasury minister as the key driver. Former MP and now Police and Crime Commissioner chief Vera Baird says the £50m saved from not building new prisons should be pumped into rehab (the residential centres pilot costs just £3.5m) and not handed back to the Treasury. And the Prison Reform Trust says the MoJ has “not provided the resource to deliver that change, and no timetable to drive it”. Gauke told Today that scrapping the community prisons was not a cost-cutting measure: “Even if we had extra resources, this wouldn’t be a good way of using it.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Speaking of criminals, in case you missed it, watch this shocking CCTV footage (tweeted by TV star Amanda Holden) of motorbike muggers approaching a mother and her child in a Richmond street. They are chased off by a group of heroic scaffolders.
4. COUNCIL OF DESPAIR
Labour centrists are despairing at fresh moves to shift the party irreversibly leftwards. At a meeting with unions on Monday, Ian Lavery gave some initial findings of the internal ‘democracy review’. One proposal is to reduce the nomination threshold for leadership candidates to just 5% of MPs (ie just 12 on current figures). But the other big reform would be to allow party members choose local council leaders rather than groups of councillors. Dozens of ‘moderate’ council leaders could be in danger. The Guardian and Times both got the story.
One moderate tells the Times today: “This is the next and final step in the hard left cementing their grip on the party. That’s it, the party is dead.” Yet as revealed on Monday, Momentum’s Jon Lansman told the BBC the grass roots would slowly change the nature of Labour through new local government candidates. “I don’t think there is any going back”. Left-backed candidates are on the march in the US too. Last night, a 28-year-old former Bernie Sanders volunteer trounced a more traditional Democrat in a New York selection race for Congress. Will the grassroots democracy bug one day come to the Tories here? PolHome has a fascinating report on the Tories’ own internal elections for the National Conservative Convention.
5. FOR ENGLAND AND ST GEORGE
What is worrying some Cabinet ministers is that next Friday’s all-day Chequers Brexit meeting could clash with a 7pm World Cup quarter final, if England win their group and their last 16 game. No wonder No10 confessed yesterday that the PM’s favourite sport was cricket not football, though she was obviously delighted with England’s 6-1 World Cup win. In the Commons, Boris Johnson (who has never really liked or understood football) shocked MPs when he said England fans in Russia should “not let their hopes get away with them”. Fans remember the Foreign Secretary floated the idea of a World Cup boycott earlier this year, before quickly withdrawing it.
Will the Foreign Office or No.10 respond to the Sun’s front page call todayfor all Whitehall buildings to fly the flag of St George for as long as England remain in the competition? With no other home nations in the cup, you never know. Sports minister Tracey Crouch is undoubtedly a proper football fan, as her Panini sticker album for Russia 2018 shows. Speaking of which, if you have any spare ‘swapsies’, she needs numbers 2, 5, 6, 32, 65, 75, 109, 144, 195, 201, 222, 232, 276, 295, 331, 352, 362, 370, 372, 392, 401, 412, 442, 511, 516, 562, 572, 619, 628, 632 and 677. That’s what you call public service journalism.
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