The Waugh Zone Wednesday October 17, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today

In Parliament yesterday, Pepper the robot’s arms and head moved while it gave pre-programmed answers to questions which had been sent in advance. The whole thing was a dreadful stunt, more artifice than artificial intelligence. This evening, as Theresa May makes her “moment of truth” pitch in Brussels, the fear is that she will be as just mechanically predictable, failing to give the ‘creative’ answers the EU27 leaders are demanding on Brexit. There may be no big moment, let alone much new truth.

Unless we are all being played, and unless this is all a cunning piece of expectation management cooked up by London and Brussels, it looks like tonight will be a damp squib. The EU’s Donald Tusk said last night he wanted something ‘concrete’ from May, but her MPs and Cabinet have not yet agreed a detailed new offer to get through the impasse. When I asked the PM’s spokesman yesterday if ministers had actually agreed anything rather than merely held a discussion, his reply was a peach. “Was this a decision-making Cabinet? The answer to that is no.” If Jeremy Corbyn doesn’t mention that answer in PMQs today, he’ll be missing a chance to make a wider point about the paralysis caused by Tory splits over Brexit. (For her part, May could seize on this Indy report that Corbyn told the Labour Leave campaign in the EU referendum to ‘keep up the good work’).

Mutual self-interest is the driver towards avoiding a no-deal outcome. And the EU’s Michel Barnier was helpful to May last night when it emerged he was warming to her idea of a UK-wide temporary customs arrangement to solve the Irish problem. He also sounds open to the idea of extending the UK’s ‘transition’ period by a year, to give more time to hammer out a solution. Flexibility is one thing, a willingness to give up on the EU’s ‘backstop’ plan is another. No.10 confirmed to us yesterday that Britain stood by in full the joint report from December, confirmed in March. And as Irish deputy PM Simon Coveney pointed out on the Today programme, the UK has legally agreed that the backstop will be in place “unless and until” another relationship can be approved. Will the Irish and the EU27 allow their hard-won insurance policy really to be junked?

As if to underline the lack of a breakthrough, May yesterday cautioned ministers not to be “downhearted” if the EU does not set a date for a special November summit. There is indeed a growing expectation that things are still so up in the air that any final agreement will be pushed back to the formal December EU summit. With exit day immoveable next March, some in No.10 have long wanted to go to the wire so that the Commons has little alternative but to either accept her Brexit compromises or go to ‘no deal’. A vote just before MPs go off for their Christmas break would give no time for a backlash.

But that game of chicken is incredibly dangerous for May. Some hard Brexiteers are perfectly happy with no deal. They will probably reject as a fresh ‘Project Fear’ the expected Treasury figures showing May’s deal is economically better than no deal. Just as importantly, if the non-Brexiteer Tory critics of the PM (and there are quite a few) think she will put everything at risk with an end-of-year high wire act, they could move in coming weeks to topple her with a vote of confidence. Those around May think she will still get through this, but it really will require some ‘creative’ thinking, not robotic responses. And that applies to everyone – the EU, the PM, her Cabinet, her backbenchers and the DUP.

Labour grandee Dame Margaret Beckett set alight the whole debate about John Bercow’s future when she told the BBC that the Commons Speaker should stay in post - despite bullying allegations made against him - because Brexit “trumps bad behaviour”. “I would say to him to keep his powder dry for now because we are going to embark on this huge constitutional experiment in which there may be a key role for the Speaker.” Beckett was not alone, as her remarks echoed those of Emily Thornberry and Ben Bradshaw.

There are several things wrong with this analysis, not least the way in which it overstates the Speaker’s role in any meaningful vote on Brexit. Yes, it’s up to the Speaker to decide if the Government motion on its Brexit deal is ‘neutral’ and therefore unamendable. But it’s almost always the clerks who really make that judgement and the Speaker announces it. There’s also the more obvious point that if MPs want a Speaker who they think will give them leeway on Brexit procedure, they can elect a Bercow replacement who will do just that. What’s remarkable is the way many Labour MPs seem to think that Bercow’s rightly-praised record on diversity and reform means the allegations of bullying can somehow be overlooked.

For many, the real difficulty is that the allegations of bullying against Bercow have not been independently investigated. It’s extraordinary that that has not happened, though a key (and overlooked) recommendation by Dame Laura Cox is that all historic allegations should now be investigated under a new complaints procedure. As with expenses, Bercow has himself long argued MPs should not police themselves but Dame Laura also hinted he had to depart to allow the change.

Yesterday, some Tory enemies of Bercow shamelessly exploited the Cox report, but some Labour MPs also fell into the same trap by politicking in response. Writing for HuffPost UK, Amy Leversidge, the assistant general secretary of the FDA, said they “should hang their heads in shame”. “MPs have shown, in spectacular fashion, how prepared they are to put party politics above action on this devastating inquiry into their own workplace”. She’s not wrong.

There’s an old joke that if you want to keep something secret, say it on the floor of the House of Commons. No.10 was pretty relaxed yesterday when asked about a BBC report that Universal Credit’s roll-out would be delayed. The PM’s official spokesman pointed out the hot news had in fact been revealed by Work and Pensions Secretary Esther McVey on Mondayduring oral questions. And it’s true. In a blink-and-you-miss-it concession, McVey told Tory backbencher and potential rebel Nigel Mills: “It will start not in January 2019, but later in the year. For a further year we will be learning as we go with a small amount of people—maybe 10,000—to ensure that the system is right. The roll-out will then increase from 2020 onwards. It will be slow and measured, and we will adapt and change as we go.”

But the BBC’s leaked email went much further of course, setting out the options for rescuing the battered policy. The Times today estimates the cost of the delay as £100m, but the Budget may well inject much bigger sums to avoid a Tory rebellion on the statutory instruments needed for the programme. A vote on that secondary legislation looks like it will now be delayed until after the Chancellor stumps up some cash. As with resignations, Commons rebellions often have their most power when they are threatened rather than enacted. As with their landmark tax credits cuts victory over Osborne in 2015, a clutch of Conservatives may secure billions more for welfare by using their leverage effectively.

A week after he raised Universal Credit in PMQs, Jeremy Corbyn may himself want to claim credit for the delayed roll-out. He will surely also pay tribute to Baroness Patricia Hollis, who died this week, for her key role in securing that U-turn on tax credits by Osborne. Labour hopes to pile on the pressure with another ‘Humble Address’ procedural device today, using an Opposition day motion to get rebel Tory MPs to force the publication of the impact of the new benefit on household incomes. McVey admitted last week ‘some people will be worse off’, but it would be nice to know just how many. Conservative MPs may fight shy of backing the Labour move though, given they’re on a promise of Budget cash.

Watch Speaker Betty Bercow help the Tory government scrape through on Maastricht in 1993, using her casting vote after a tie. Far from having any discretion, precedent dictated she could not create a majority where none existed.

Way back in 2008, the husky-hugging, modernising David Cameron vowed a Tory government would boost the number of health visitors for new parents by 2,700 by the end of his first term. In fact the Lib-Con Coalition managed to get the number up by nearly 4,000. But then councils were given control over public health policy rather than the NHS and, you guessed it, the cuts began. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth today unveiled new figures showing health visitor numbers had been cut by 8% in one year alone. School budget cuts since 2010 have also meant a 24.7% drop in school nurses. Meanwhile, today will see a mass rally of Parliament in protest at 45% cuts to the adult education budget. Angela Rayner, one of the few MPs to be taught at a further education college, blogs for us on how the cuts are removing ‘second chances’ for so many people.

Donald Trump has doubled down on his determination to maintain his alliance with the Saudis, telling an interviewer: “Here we go again with, you know, you’re guilty until proven innocent. I don’t like that. We just went through that with Justice Kavanaugh and he was innocent all the way as far as I’m concerned.” If I were Kavanaugh, I’m not sure I’d like to be compared to what looks like state-sanctioned murder, complete with bone saw surgeons. But again Trump at least was honest about what mattered most: “They made the largest order in the history of our country, outside of our country, for weapons.” I keep saying this, but we should be thankful that the US President is repeatedly laying bare the transactional nature of raw self-interest that drives American power around the globe.

If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get the WaughZone delivered to your inbox.

Got something you want to share? Please send any stories/tips/quotes/pix/plugs/gossip to Paul Waugh(, Ned Simons (, Rachel Wearmouth ( and Jasmin Gray (

HuffPost is part of Oath and on 25 May 2018 introduced a new Terms of Service and Privacy Policy which will explain how your data is used and shared by Oath. Learn More.

If you’re reading this on the web, sign-up HERE to get The Waugh Zone delivered to your inbox.


What's Hot