The Waugh Zone Friday February 9, 2018

Paul Waugh
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The Waugh Zone Friday February 9, 2018

This morning, Theresa May’s top Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins is expected to make a ‘presentation’ to his Brussels counterparts on a ‘future relationship’ between the UK and the EU.

This morning, Theresa May’s top Brexit negotiator Olly Robbins is expected to make a ‘presentation’ to his Brussels counterparts on a ‘future relationship’ between the UK and the EU. But before anyone gets excited, this is not the holy grail. It will simply be an update of the government’s position after technical talks this week. Michel Barnier will then hold his own press conference at 11.30am UK time.

Tory MPs are sick of the way some in the British media hang on Barnier’s every word as if it were gospel rather than a negotiating position. And David Davis made clear his displeasure last night at part of an EU document (‘Footnote 4’) this week that suggested Brussels would exact retribution if it didn’t like the UK’s stance. “I do not think it was in good faith to publish a document with frankly discourteous language and actually implying that they could arbitrarily terminate in effect the implementation period,” the Brexit Secretary said. For many Leave-backing ministers, it’s an article of faith that mutual self-interest will kick in over the next few months despite all the posturing.

The fact that the EU did publish a legal text of its position is serious progress in this long, tortuous process. However, the Brits suspect more take-it-or-leave it rhetoric from the EU27, given Brussels has rebuffed a request to resume talks next week (as reported by Politico and the Times). London scents more bad faith, believing the EU wants to run down the clock to give the UK as little time as possible.

As for yesterday’s Brexit Cabinet sub-committee, DD told ITV: “There’s still progress to be made, but there’s a great deal of progress been made”. I’m told that there was no agreement on the key issue of regulatory alignment, or its definition. Remainers like Philip Hammond and Greg Clark must have been pleased when the Japanese ambassador yesterday emerged from a No.10 meeting to warn international companies could close their UK operations if there was “no profitability” after Brexit. Note he said Japanese firms arrived here because they expected they “will have free access” to the EU. Note too however that No.10 repeated its line it wanted trade to be “as tariff-free and frictionless as possible”. Some tariffs and some friction are seen as inevitable.

Aptly enough, Theresa May has ordered Cabinet ministers to thrash out the issue at a special Chequers meeting. Boris Johnson held a one-to-one meeting with the PM before yesterday’s session. Let’s see how he frames things if his Valentine’s Day speech goes ahead next week. Our Owen (sign up to his Brexit Briefing folks) has been told the speech will ‘set pulses racing’. Boris will address “why so many Remainers’ hearts are scarred by leaving.” Get your popcorn ready.

As a potential PM-in-waiting, Jeremy Corbyn has as big a judgement call to make as Theresa May on Brexit. Will he shift policy towards backing UK membership of the European Free Trade Area (EFTA) or European Economic Area (EEA), as many of his MPs, and party members, want him to? The idea’s backers say it’s key way to unite the party, and the country, after we have formally ‘left’ the EU next March. The calculation is that the number of Labour Leave voters reached its high water mark in last year’s election, but the prospect of attracting mainstream business votes (imagine the headline ‘CBI backs Labour’ in the next election) while locking in potential Lib Dem voters, is tempting.

Well, today the Telegraph’s well-connected Europe Editor Peter Foster has a leaked memo that suggests when Corbyn met Michel Barnier this week, he was ‘open’ to the idea of the UK staying in ‘the customs union’, backed a ‘unilateral guarantee’ on citizen’s rights, and was willing to submit to rulings of the European Court of Justice. Team Corbyn insist he had only said “a [not ‘the’] customs union was a viable end point”.  That’s still significant. Some form of customs union that replicates the current system is something Theresa May is hamstrung from offering, but Labour could yet end up there.

PoliticsHome yesterday had a scoop of its own that Labour MPs have written to NEC chair Andy Kerr to demand that the party’s National Policy Forum should set up a dedicated commission on Brexit policy when it meets in Leeds next weekend. Their letter says Labour should commit to staying in a customs union with the EU, as well as the single market. MPs like Conor McGinn and Phil Wilson, who represent working class seats with strong Leave vote contingents, back the idea. The party insists the ‘international policy commission’ includes the EU and looks loath to reopen an issue that it successfully avoided a vote on at party conference. (Speaking of which, I have a Labour story later today that you should stay tuned for, folks).

Some Remainers sound like they want party members to have a ‘direct say’ over Brexit policy, but that may open a whole can of worms that centrists (and unions) don’t want on other policy, such as Trident. After PMQs this week, JC’s aides denied reports that a ‘Brexit away day’ (a bit like May’s own awayday) had been planned for the small team of frontbenchers in charge of the brief. Still, I wouldn’t rule out a shift in position. Only this week, Stephen Hammond and nine other Tories signalled they would table an amendment to the Trade Bill to allow the UK to join EFTA. If Labour joined them, the Government could well lose that vote.

One of the biggest PR changes in the NHS under David Cameron was the decision in 2015 to end weekly reporting of A&E four-hour waiting figures, replacing them with monthly stats instead. For some time, it took the media heat out the issue. But this winter even the monthly figures are big news and yesterday the NHS reported that January was one of the worst months on record for seriously ill patients waiting for a bed.

The four-hour A&E target was still missed for the 30th month in a row, with just 85% of patients seen in that time. The drastic step of cancelling operations had led to only a small improvement in the stats. And the number of ‘trolley waits’, where patients wait more than 12 hours, soared to 1,000.  Prof John Appleby of the Nuffield Trust think tank said “corridors had become the new emergency wards”. Just let that sentence sink in.

Having stood up robustly to Donald Trump’s dissing of the NHS earlier this week, Jeremy Hunt’s reaction to the stats yesterday was interesting. In an interview with ITV News, the Health Secretary said he recognised the pressures NHS staff have been going through. “When they signed up to going into medicine, they knew there were going to be pressurised moments. But I also recognise that is not sustainable and not fair to say to them that this is going to be repeated year in, year out.”

Labour’s Justin Madders seized on the first sentence about staff ‘signing up’ for misery, piling on the snark that Hunt was ‘out of touch’. Lots of doctors and nurses reacted with outrage too when that bit of the quote was shared online. Yet it was the second sentence that seemed more significant. He admitted (for the first time, I’m pretty sure) that the current situation was unsustainable and unfair. “I think we are beyond the time when words from me will make a difference,” he added. “What they need to see is actions.” That also sounded to me like a clear message to the PM and Chancellor that they had better cough up some more money if the stats are ever to get really better.

Last week, I was with a group of fellow reporters when someone mentioned George Soros’s funding of pro-EU group Best for Britain was likely to be written up as a story. I said then that it wasn’t exactly a secret that the billionaire was backing them. More importantly, I said that the real danger with such a story was that it would inevitably be seen as part of the anti-semitic attacks on Soros, given the long history of racist conspiracy theorists claiming a wealthy Jew was using his cash to spread his influence across the globe.

Then came yesterday’s Telegraph splash with the headline: “Man who ‘broke the Bank of England’ backing secret plot to thwart Brexit”.  Not surprisingly, many (including academic Rob Ford) then pointed out the anti-semitic danger of such a framing. Former No.10 aide Nick Timothy, who had the lead byline on the story, was forced to deny he had intended any such slur. Today, the Daily Mail doubles down, using its front page to attack his ‘tainted money’. It looks like none of Soros’ critics is the mood to say sorry for any perceived insinuation about his motivations. In fact, pro-EU campaigner Gina Miller tells the Telegraph she’s ‘parted ways’ with Best for Britain because it is ‘not democratic’.

The hot news in tech circles last night was that Twitter had posted its first ever profit, 12 years after it was founded. It was only £91m but enough to spark a surge in its share price as investors scented that finally it (plus possibly Snapchat) could break the Facebook/Google duopoly over online advertising. Some users (including yours truly) may dislike the doubling of the 140 chara limit on Tweets, but it has proved very attractive to advertisers.

In a neat bit of coincidental timing, Twitter and Facebook were getting a grilling in Washington by the Commons DCMS Committee over their failure to tackle ‘fake news’ and to investigate alleged Russian interference in Brexit and UK elections.  Chairman Damian Collins told Twitter’s Nick Pickles: “If you wanted to spread a lie ... Twitter would be a pretty good way to do it.” Pickles said the company did not vet content on the platform for truth. However, he said the firm takes down or “challenges” 6.4m accounts every week.

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