The Waugh Zone Thursday December 7, 2017
The Queen will be in Portsmouth today as guest of honour at the commissioning of the UK’s £3bn new aircraft carrier, HMS Queen Elizabeth. But Theresa May has reportedly cancelled her trip to the event as she focuses instead on rescuing her ‘Brexit breakthrough’ plan.
Exactly a week away from the next EU summit, May’s most pressing problem is on getting agreement on the Northern Ireland border issue. Irish PM Leo Varadkar said she’d told him yesterday “she wants to come back to us with some text tonight or tomorrow”, though he added that “we can of course pick it up in the New Year”. And although the DUP’s Nigel Dodds described the delay suggestion as “a dangerous game”, his own party is briefing it can wait too. A DUP source has a rather blood-curdling line in the Sun: “We’re going to slow it all down. This is a battle of who blinks first — and we’ve cut off our eyelids.”
Although May is looking forwards not back, the blame game within Government is well underway as to how on earth this week’s planned breakthrough could have collapsed. Several Tory MPs yesterday told me of their unhappiness with new Chief Whip Julian Smith, with one minister saying he failed to properly keep the DUP in the loop when tasked to brief them on Sunday. Some in the DUP also blame Damian Green, who is meant to coordinate with devolved governments, for the communications breakdown, but it’s Smith that’s in many sights now.
And even if May can come up with a form of words that gets the DUP back on board to move Brussels talks onto ‘Phase 2’, that next phase could be much more tortuous for the PM. Philip Hammond let slip that the Cabinet hadn’t even discussed, let alone agreed, on the ‘end state’ for Brexit. Yes, 18 months on from the EU referendum, our Government has not yet decided what kind of Brexit it wants.
The most notable feature of PMQs yesterday was the way May stressed the details of the Irish border issue could all be sorted in Phase 2 as part of wider UK-EU trade talks. That’s because the Cabinet hasn’t signed off such phrases as ‘regulatory alignment’. And Brexiteers think the DUP have done everyone a huge favour by focusing minds on what kind of trade we really want. Boris pushed back on ‘alignment’ in Cabinet on Tuesday, but Michael Gove kept his counsel, leaving others to suspect he was keeping his powder dry for the battle ahead over what the ‘end state’ will look like.
Chris Grayling insisted on Today that ministers “have had detailed discussions discussing the European Union issue”. Yet No10 told us yesterday the first ‘end state’ Cabinet discussion would take place by the end of the year. Brussels sounds even more intransigent on trade and transition than it does on the Irish border, divorce bill or citizens’ rights. With Hammond pushing in the ‘Norway’ direction on trade, Brexiteers pushing in the ‘Canada-plus’ direction and Brussels, May’s own future hangs in the balance as she tries to find a workable compromise. If she can’t sort the end-state, early 2018 may be the beginning of the end of her premiership.
David Davis is often seen as the leader of the Brexit Roundheads, full of military discipline and no-nonsense English pride. Well, after having reassured the Tory backbench troops on Tuesday that ‘regulatory alignment’ is not a phrase to fear, yesterday he faced heavy fire over those tricky Brexit ‘assessments’. Davis finally admitted that his Department had not conducted any formal assessments of the impact of Brexit on various sectors of the economy. But it was this argument that caught the ear: “The assessment of that effect is not as straightforward as people imagine. I am not a fan of economic models as they have all been proven wrong.”
Davis suggested there had been a ‘qualitative’ rather than ‘quantitative’ review of various sectors, though the value of this entire exercise was ridiculed on Twitter by Tory MP Sarah Wollaston (one of the few to read the documents). Davis added: “We will at some stage do the best we can to quantify the effect of different negotiating outcomes as we come up with them”. Yet it looks like the Treasury has already done such work. In another bit of Philip Hammond’s evidence that risked being missed yesterday, he revealed his officials had “modelled and analysed a whole range of potential alternative structures” post-Brexit. He said that placing them in the public domain now would be “deeply unhelpful to the negotiation”. Maybe Labour’s next move is to demand the Treasury assessment documents be released – because they at least exist.
Fortunately for DD, his Tory (and DUP) allies on the Brexit committee spared his blushes and concluded he had not misled Parliament. Davis has long had a tight-knit band of followers, although the Sun has a report that suggests his loyal lieutenant Andrew Mitchell has overreached himself. One DD ally told younger MPs at a drinks reception that “Theresa has the smell of death around her. She’ll be gone by Christmas. It’s time to rally around DD.” Under one ‘dream ticket’ plan, Davis would take over as caretaker PM then hand over to a younger successor in time for the 2022 general election.
Last month he declared ‘there are no unemployed people’. Yesterday, Philip Hammond’s reputation for being politically tone deaf was confirmed as he responded like a desiccated calculating machine to questions about the UK’s low productivity. The Chancellor replied that “very high levels of engagement in the workforce, for example of disabled people - something we should be extremely proud of - may have had an impact on overall productivity measurements”. Jaws dropped, charities like Scope were dismayed and Labour’s John Mann was swift to denounce his “appalling” comments.
Even on his own dry economic measures, let alone the political optics of this, Hammond has been accused of being flat-out wrong, with the number of disabled people in work barely registering on productivity levels. Labour MP Marsha de Cordova, who has impaired sight, pointed out the disability employment gap has barely changed since productivity started to stall.
And Hammond couldn’t resist continuing another row yesterday with new Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson over military funding. In full-on Treasury patronising mode, he said he would chat to Williamson about spending “once he has had a chance to understand the situation in the Ministry of Defence, and to get his head around the defence budget”. Williamson has plenty of backbench enemies, but Hammond has many more. And it’s all a reminder of how little classroom control the PM has over her ministers.
The number of long A&E waits across the UK has more than doubled in the past four years, a new BBC analysis has revealed. More than three million patients who visited UK A&Es waited over four hours in the past 12 months - up by 120% since 2012-13. The Beeb has a handy tracker to let you search your local wait times. Winter ‘crises’ are one thing, but longer waiting times are the kind of slow-burn issue that really eats away at a Government’s popularity, something Tony Blair spotted when he first drafted the targets in Opposition.
One minster told me yesterday “I wet myself laughing when I saw the story that Jeremy Hunt wanted to be PM”, adding the Health Secretary had “no idea” how toxic he was to the party’s brand. What’s no laughing matter is children’s mental health. In a blog for HuffPost, Justine Greening has defended the Government’s green paper on the subject, but today Labour’s Jonathan Ashworth and Angela Rayner have posted their own blog, arguing that without “significant extra staffing and funding” it’s a missed opportunity.
Here’s a bit of political trivia for you. Who is the longest continuously-serving member of Labour’s frontbench? The answer is Steve Bassam, who was made a junior Home Office minister by Tony Blair in 1999 and rose to become Shadow Chief Whip in the Lords. Well, that 18-year record is coming to an end after the Labour peer announced he will quit following controversy over his expenses.
Bassam said late last night that he would step down in the New Year after the Mail on Sunday exposed he had been wrongly claiming the £6,400 annual cost of travelling to and from his home in Brighton. He says he hasn’t breached the rules but admits it would have been “more appropriate” not to claim the money and has referred himself to the Standards Commissioner. Here’s a quirk though: Jeremy Corbyn has no direct say in who replaces him in his Shadow Cabinet. Under party rules, it’s up to fellow peers to pick his replacement, as his and the Shadow Lords leader role are both elected posts.