The Waugh Zone Wednesday May 16, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

It’s PMQs day again and Theresa May will surely want to ram home the latest fall in unemployment, as well as the fact that wages are finally outstripping inflation. For his part, Jeremy Corbyn has a range of topics he could choose, from the Gaza killings to his own Opposition Day motion on Grenfell, to the 63 possible Windrush deportations revealed yesterday. Speaking of PMQs itself, we have a nice blog from former Labour staffer Tom Hamilton on how it’s ‘a joust, not a seminar’, and how Blair’s team only once guessed incorrectly in 10 years the issue the Leader of the Opposition was going to ask. (Tom has a new PMQs book out with Ayesha Hazarika. She’s told Radio 4 that before one session with Cameron, Ed Miliband panicked about his grey hair streak: “I’ve got to ask you something. Just look at me honestly, do you think I look like a badger?”).

Last week, Corbyn wrongfooted May by actually going in on Brexit. Labour has another ‘Humble Address’ vote today to try to get more secret papers published, but that may all be academic after the Brexit Department revealed last night it would finally produce a comprehensive White Paper on its latest plans. The 100-page document will include granular detail on everything from aviation to agriculture and, crucially, is expected to finally narrow down to one option the future customs deal we want with the EU. David Davis rightly said last night this will be the “most significant” publication on the EU since the 2016 referendum itself. It will also mark a victory for DD, who wanted the UK to get on the front foot at last, as the paper will be published next month, before the EU summit.

While Gove and Johnson have gone public in their criticism of the ‘customs partnership’, Davis has preferred to keep his own concerns private. The Times reveals he has written a private letter to the PM attacking the proposal, pointing up the prospect of a legal challenge. Attorney General Jeremy Wright has been asked to provide urgent legal opinion on both the partnership and the ‘max fac’ option.

On the Today programme, May’s de facto DPM David Lidington stressed that what mattered was not ideology but which plan was “most practical”. Yet he also said that the Government was not asking for any longer transition period to allow time to work out that very practical detail. It’s unclear how that tension gets resolved. As for the need for legal advice, Lidington said it was “not something that is special, this is a normal part of everyday Government business”. Maybe. But with some critics suggesting both customs plans are incompatible with EU rules, this could be the most contentious Attorney General advice since Lord Goldsmith ruled Blair’s Iraq war plan was legal.

Today there’s a Westminster Hall debate on the 70th anniversary of the NHS. Yet as we laud the achievements of the service, over in the US the idea of ‘socialised medicine’ seems increasingly unpalatable. And there are real fears that Donald Trump will use a post-Brexit UK-US trade deal to try to get American healthcare and big pharma companies stronger access to the British market. Only this week, Trump’s Health Secretary Alex Azar warned Washington will use its muscle to push up drug prices abroad, to lower the cost paid by patients in the United States. “On the foreign side, we need to, through our trade negotiations and agreements, pressure them,” Azar said. “The reason why they are getting better net prices than we get is their socialised system.”

Former Chancellor Ed Balls and fellow Harvard research fellow Peter Sands have published overnight a punchy new Brexit ‘working paper’, in which they reveal the latest thinking of senior trade negotiation officials in the US and UK. The paper will be formally launched by the authors at King’s College, London tonight. Blogging for HuffPost UK, Balls and Sands warn that the Americans want us to cut our EU standards and regulation on agriculture and healthcare, in return for opening up their services market. But officials suspect there is little chance of a deal that could benefit both sides. “It is unclear how much more there is realistically to gain,” one US official tells them.

“Our analysis suggests it is simply a fantasy to believe that Britain stands to make significant gains from negotiating a Free Trade Agreement with the US,” Balls and Sands say. “If the price of doing such a deal is leaving a customs union with the UK’s main trading partner, then that looks set to be a very bad deal for British business.” A big new trade deal with the US (promised by Trump in his friendlier moments with Theresa May) is seen by many Brexiteers as a key driving factor for getting out of the customs union. But if even the Americans are backing off, where will that leave them? Don’t forget too that lots of Leave voters expected a Brexit dividend for the NHS, not an NHS penalty. Anything that offers Labour more ammo on that will worry Tory ministers for sure.

New Home Secretary Sajid Javid’s appearance before the Home Affairs Committee yesterday was notable for two things. First, the revelation that up to 63 Windrush Britons could have been wrongfully deported. Second, his admission that he still has no idea how many people have been wrongfully detained. Javid himself is only just beginning to realise what a mess the Home Office’s records are, though he is putting his stamp on the department already. Yesterday, he appeared to have suspended plans to freeze bank accounts under the ‘compliant environment’ policy, given huge errors.

But as committee chair Yvette Cooper pointed out afterwards, the answers from the Department’s Permanent Secretary about targets and bonuses has provoked more questions. It seems there were previously unknown returns targets and possible links to performance assessment and bonuses. There’s much more work to be done, from cutting immigration fees for undocumented children to introducing appeals and providing a Windrush hardship fund.Meanwhile, the BBC reports that the Government’s skilled migrant cap has denied entry to more than 1,600 IT specialists and engineers offered jobs in the UK between December and March.

Diane Abbott is due to this morning give a speech on Labour’s immigration policy post-Windrush. Expect detail on things like detention policy, human trafficking and modern slavery. (We have a report today on what it feels like to wait for an asylum decision in the UK too). This afternoon, Parliament’s Joint Committee on Human Rights will hear from Windrush victims themselves on the human cost of this scandal. Former Commons cook Paulette Wilson, who was nearly deported despite living in the UK for 50 years, will be among the witnesses. She’ll be joined by Anthony Bryan, Janet McKay-Williams and Natalie Barnes. The session starts at 3.15pm.

Remember the internet fuss over the gold/blue dress? Our US site reports that a YouTuber has gone viral with a new bot sound clip that seems to divide the public into those who hear ‘Yanny’ and those who hear ‘Laurel’. I wouldn’t want you to miss out on this crucial question of our times.

A damning new report out today has concluded that babies and mothers died after the Nursing and Midwifery Council failed to act against midwives suspected of providing dangerously poor care, despite the police raising concerns about their conduct. The Professional Standards Authority (PSA) found that the NMC was “frequently incompetent” in its handling of the Furness General Hospital scandal.

The watchdog lost records and treated bereaved families appallingly. In one case, a father was asked by an investigating panel to refer to his late son as ‘Baby A’. He refused and used his real name instead. NMC staff were also asked to monitor his social media activity and spent £240,000 in legal advice on how to respond to his demands for greater transparency.

Nurses and midwives have long complained about their watchdog’s sheer incompetence. Don’t forget that they are forced to pay an annual £120 registration fee to the NMC simply to practice their profession. This is all at a time when the number of staff leaving NMC register is greater than the number joining. Will Jeremy Hunt, who ordered the investigation, make a Commons statement today? Or will we get an urgent question? And is it time to perhaps radically reform the NMC or even abolish it and create a new body?

It was billed as Jeremy Corbyn’s very own Glastonbury, a fun summer day out packed with politics, music and possibly even sunshine. But the party’s ‘Labour Live Festival’ in north London next month has so far sold around 15% of its ticket allocation, HuffPost UK has been told. One senior source said that just over 2,500 tickets have been purchased for the planned gathering in White Hart Lane Recreational Ground in Tottenham – well below the site’s capacity of 15,700 people.

In a bid to boost attendance, free coaches will be offered to local constituency Labour parties (CLPs) across the country and extra musical acts are now being lined up. Trade unions are also being asked to help underwrite the costs of the event, in case the public response to the festival leaves a shortfall in funding, sources said. One source even tells me that the bill could run to between £1m and £1.5m, dwarfing an alleged £500,000 the party spent on its entire local elections campaign this year. I haven’t been able to confirm those figures, but it seems yet more money would be needed to get really huge acts on board.

Corbyn allies are split over the whole festival idea, with some thinking ticket sales will get a boost in coming weeks as the June event approaches. Momentum certainly urged its members to sign up this week, and Labour MPs were asked to share it on Instagram and other social media feeds. Others think the concept just wasn’t thought through enough given a busy summer of other events, and the sheer logistics of creating a festival from scratch. There’s also the old adage of booking a smaller venue that can be easily packed, rather than a huge venue (White Hart Lane rec is very big) that can leave even a big crowd looking small. Let’s see just who the ‘new acts’ are. It’s not as if JC is without celebrity or star musician supporters. Maybe some will now play for free?

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