The Waugh Zone Monday January 22, 2018

Paul Waugh
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The Waugh Zone Monday January 22, 2018

Theresa May heads to Davos later this week and, after a bit of a wobble, it looks like she may get a bi-lateral meeting with Donald Trump (though the White House warns talks to end the US Government’s shutdown could prevent him from attending).

Theresa May heads to Davos later this week and, after a bit of a wobble, it looks like she may get a bi-lateral meeting with Donald Trump (though the White House warns talks to end the US Government’s shutdown could prevent him from attending). Today the IMF releases its global outlook and it’s expected to forecast that the world economy is looking rosier than for some time, with the US and China and the EU all powering ahead with strong growth.

Brexiteers will point out that forecasters don’t have a great record of late, and former Treasury minister Jim O’Neill tells the BBC in Davos that he’s ‘almost embarrassed’ that he and other Remainers had kinda predicted the sky would fall in after the Brexit vote. Yet there was a strong whiff of ‘despite Brexit’ to the Goldman Sachs man’s remarks, as he added strong global growth “means the country’s going to be able to cope with Brexit better than certainly somebody like me might have thought some time ago”. Don’t forget O’Neill told a German paper at the start of the year that Brexiteers were ‘clueless’ on economics. May famously jibed at the Davos elite as ‘citizens of nowhere’, but critics like O’Neill say how ironic it is that the EU’s growth looks like a key factor in helping the UK.

As Angela Merkel looks closer to getting a fourth term (thanks to the opposition agreeing coalition talks), there are certainly hopes that 2018 will be calmer than the past two years. Yet for Theresa May, there are still plenty of bumps in the road on Brexit, not least as Brussels hardens its line on a bare-bones trade deal. The FT reports that several Remainer Cabinet ministers want to secure a better deal through ‘Norway-style’ payments to the EU. This cunning plan would not mean any explicit payments for single market access (a red line for Brexiteers), but instead paying ‘over the odds’ for EU science, social and research projects (including in poorer parts of the continent) that otherwise risk being underfunded after Brexit.

Still, the strength of the internal opposition May that faces is underlined by new research which shows 75% of Tory MPs want free movement to endin post-Brexit transition. Anand Menon, director of The UK in a Changing Europe think tank, also says in his blog for HuffPost that the survey found a fresh contrast between Tory MPs’ views and those of economists.  Just 37% expect an uptick in the economic picture this year, but over the long-term 89% believe it will get better over the next decade after Brexit.  Will it be that long before the public decides if they’ve really ‘had enough’ of experts? Or before their faith is restored in them?

Is cross-party working on the NHS a pipedream? Yesterday, the PM sent what appeared to be a ‘thanks but no thanks’ response to a pre-Budget letter from Tory Sarah Wollaston, Lib Dem Norman Lamb and Labour’s Liz Kendall, calling for a non-partisan convention to look at funding of the NHS and social care. Some 90 MPs had signed the letter days, from former Tory policy chief George Freeman to Treasury select chair Nicky Morgan.

The PM yesterday said Jeremy Hunt would write to set out the next steps but revealed little other than ‘we are committed to engaging with all parties’. Yet what most struck me yesterday was the vehemence of the Tory responses to May’s response. Johnny Mercer said it was ‘disappointing’ and warned his party would get “a reality check at the ballot box” unless it sorted the health service. Heidi Allen added “We have waited since 18 November for this reply? Not good enough”. Wollaston called on May to ‘reconsider’.

Ex minister Nick Boles last night piled in to say he shared the dismay. And Boles spoke for several Tories disillusioned at the way the year had started, with this Friday evening Tweet: “There is a timidity and lack of ambition about Mrs May’s Government which means it constantly disappoints. Time to raise your game, Prime Minister”. Boles pointed to reports that the PM’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell felt the Tories couldn’t compete with Labour on NHS funding. Boris Johnson thinks he has backing from Hunt, Gove, Grayling and Mordaunt in demanding £100m extra a week for health post-Brexit ahead of a Cabinet meeting on the issue tomorrow. Philip Hammond has been notably quiet on Hunt’s 10-year funding idea, though that doesn’t mean it won’t happen.

On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night, ex party chairman Grant Shapps said ‘nothing’ had changed his view since conference that May should go (he also, intriguingly said that vice chair Ben Bradley’s controversial blogposts were ‘an issue’ and his continued role was ‘for him to consider’). Another former minister Ed Vaizey added: “It won’t harm the prime minister if she comes out more boldly with what she wants to see”. Matt Hancock is being radical with plans to slash fixed odds betting terminal stakes from £100 to £2 (bookies’ shares all plunged this morning). But on the really big stuff like the NHS, perhaps the real reason for No10 timidity is simple: the last time the PM really was bold, and went for a snap election and backed a radical social care manifesto idea, things didn’t turn out too well.

Is UKIP set to get its seventh leader in less than two years? Henry Bolton certainly looks doomed after his party’s ruling national executive voted nearly unanimously (Bolton voted for himself) that it lacked confidence in him. Now, we learn that deputy leader Margot Parker has quit her post, telling BBC Radio Northampton her leader should go ‘sooner rather than later’. I must confess I hadn’t heard of Parker until this morning, but hey it’s tough keeping up with this story.

Bolton warned on Robert Peston’s show yesterday that if he was ousted by his colleagues ‘the reality is that the party is probably over’. He also confirmed a HuffPost story from earlier this week that Ukip’s finances are in such a parlous state it would not be able to afford what would be its its fourth leadership contest in 15 months. A well-placed source had told us a fresh leadership election to replace the under-fire Bolton could cost between £30,000 and £60,000, and it might need to axe staff in order to finance the contest.

For UKIP’s critics, the slo-mo car-crash of its demise is only just starting. Yesterday’s decision automatically triggered an EGM [Extraordinary General Meeting] of the party, to allow the (dwindling) membership a chance to endorse or reject the vote of no confidence. There are 28 days to stage the meeting, unless Bolton resigns in the meantime. Bolton confirmed yesterday that “for the past 9 months, with one exception, we have lost between 800 and 1,000 members every month”. At that rate, the party would cease to exist anyway within two years.

Meanwhile, former Tory MP and now UKIP Welsh assembly member Neil Hamilton (of cash for questions fame) this he has the answer, suggesting a ‘calm, experienced person like’ MEPs Gerard Batten or Mike Hookem (who was accused of punching ex-leadership hopeful Steven Woolfe, keep up at the back) could replace Bolton. Former donor Arron Banks then hit on a brainwave on Twitter, suggesting Hamilton could put himself forward for leader, adding “nice chap like you could do well”.  No wonder the Conservatives are rubbing their hands with glee.

The Sunday Times reported yesterday that a Labour whip has been privately telling moderate MPs ‘not to rock the boat’ or face deselection. Claims that a ‘hit list’ of up to 50 MPs is floating around have been played down on both sides of the party, but with the NEC staging its first full meeting tomorrow, the D-word is worrying some.

Asked about the ‘hit list’, backbencher Mary Creagh told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour she didn’t know “whether it’s an aspiration or whether it’s brave talk in the bars”. “We need to be a broad church. We need to appeal to the voters who left us at the last election. I want to see Tory MPs losing their seats, I don’t want to see hardworking Labour MPs put in difficult positions.”

A new ‘Trust Barometer’ from comms firm Edelman reveals that the public is falling out of love with social media, believing firms like Facebook and Twitter should do more to tackle extremist content and trust in search engines like Google has dropped. In an age of ‘fake news’, trust in traditional media such as TV and papers has shot up, and trust in online-only media (such as HuffPost) has also gone up, by five points.

But as Boris Johnson prepares to meet US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson today (Tillerson famously refused to deny he’d called Trump ‘a moron’ last October), what’s striking is the collapse in trust in American institutions at home and worldwide. The survey of 33,000 people in 28 countries came despite a growing economy, stock markets hitting record highs and a president vowing to make America great again.