David Lidington is one of the great survivors of the past 20 years of the Tory party. A key ally of William Hague during his leadership, he was later protected in Government by his old boss at the Foreign Office despite repeated complaints from Eurosceps that he had ‘gone native’ as Europe Minister. Now Justice Secretary, he retains possibly the best links to EU capitals of anyone in government. But Lidders, as he’s known, also has strong links to those Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ threatening to defeat Theresa May over the Exit Day amendment to the Withdrawal Bill.
And yesterday, Lidington told the Press Gallery lunch something that sounded pretty significant. Asked if ministers were looking at pulling their amendment, he replied “there are various constructive suggestions” from colleagues. The big PR problem for the PM is that she wrote in the Telegraph a week ago today that March 29, 2019 “will be there in black and white on the front page of this historic piece of legislation”. It would be humiliating to totally U-turn on that, but given the Exit Day amendment is only a week old, maybe she could strangle it at birth. No.10 has hardened its stance saying there will be ‘no movement’ on the fixed date. As I wrote yesterday, more likely will be an attempt to buy off Dominic Grieve and others by highlighting the new reserve power to in fact amend Exit Day in extremis (an altered Amendment 383, look it up folks).
The great irony of that Telegraph ‘Mutineers’ splash (and as I say in our podcast this week, it was in fact journalistically brilliant in its use of a broadsheet front page) is it may have undone all the work of the previous week’s exclusive. The Mail, as expected, tried to play catch-up in the treachery stakes yesterday, seizing on Bill Cash’s attack on Tory Remainer ‘colloborators’. Writing in the Times’ Red Box, Antoinette Sandbach hits back: “My family were thrown out by the Nazis, I’m no collaborator”.
Many Remainers suspect the PM was panicked last week into her Exit Day ‘sop to Brexiteers’ in order to bury the bad news of more fundamental sell-outs in the negotiations. David Davis’s speech in Berlin last night hinted at a two-year transition where not much changes, and crucially retains a role for the ECJ (he told the BBC it would start off in the ECJ but end up with a hybrid judge system). And far from telling the EU to ‘go whistle’ (copyright B Johnson) the Brexit divorce bill could go up from the Florence figure. However, the FT reports today the bill it may be 32bn euros, half the original Brussels demand so both sides can claim victory.
The PM is in Sweden today and faces a reality check from Donald Tusk that the UK needs to do more to get a deal next month. The Politico scoop of a leaked paper suggesting we won’t get a ‘bespoke’ trade deal certainly helped Tusk’s case. As ever, the PM is on a tightrope, trying to balance her tiny majority with Brussels’ hardball tactics. She looks wobbly, but will she fall off? In the end, it may all come down to how good she is at spinning the December summit deal to her MPs. Selling well, not ‘selling out’, that’s the key.
In his speech yesterday, John McDonnell underlined his call for a big shift in the way our politicians think about not just austerity but borrowing. Swapping the orthodoxy of ‘borrowing-bad, cuts-good’ with a new emphasis on investment, the Shadow Chancellor hoped to lay the groundwork for Jeremy Corbyn’s Budget response next week (don’t forget Parliamentary convention means the Leader of the Opposition responds to Budgets).
Corbyn could seize on calls from Sajid Javid, a former banker, for more borrowing to invest in housing, using historically low interest rates and the state’s huge leverage to get bonds that would deliver much-needed funds for public services. And today the Institute for Government has a big report, ‘Public Versus Private’, on how both New Labour and the Tories often got the balance wrong. “Successive governments have had a clear bias for private finance when it comes to infrastructure,” it says. The IfG’s Nick Davies blogs for us on how ‘untested assumptions and personal biases’ led to the PFI explosion. Team McDonnell will be pleased.
McDonnell yesterday also repeated Labour’s call to pause the rollout of Universal Credit. As predicted, the Government failed to oppose the backbench vote on UC yesterday, and Frank Field spelled out more ‘horror’ stories of hardship. The Guardian has a story that Iain Duncan Smith’s CSJ think tank is calling for planned income tax cuts to be cancelled and the money used to reverse cuts to UniCredit. Meanwhile, productivity figures were again dire for Hammond yesterday. And Damian Green (remember him?) slipped out a statement that a green paper on social care would not now appear until next summer.
Sajid Javid yesterday taught Hammond a lesson how to win favourable newspaper (and online) front pages by putting the politics into policy. The Communities’ Secretary’s speech, in which he attacked baby boomers for blocking young people’s hopes on housing, certainly had a great line. Brimming with anger, Javid said those “who have long since paid off their own mortgage” wrongly blame the housing crisis on an “over-entitled” Millennial generation spending their cash on “nights out and smashed avocados” rather than saving for a home.
Those words felt very much like a pop at Hammond for failing to agree anything big or bold on housing in his Budget. Treasury insiders suggest he’ll instead come at the problem from various angles, with tweaks and smaller pots of cash here and there, even if that risks sounding overly technical. Note too however that Javid parked his tanks on Hammond’s lawn, revealing that the Chancellor’s local Runnymede Council was one of 15 local authorities which had ‘incredibly’ not completed a local plan for new homes.
Javid gets that the Tories have to be nicer to the youth vote to have a hope of squeezing those Lab-Con micro-marginals into a Commons majority in 2022. Hammond’s defenders point out his own really radical idea is too radical for the PM: using more Green Belt land. And today Policy Exchange’s Susan Emmett has blogged for HuffPost on how “targeting sites on the edge of towns and cities would be more cost effective and deliver faster results”.
Ahead of the Budget, Hammond will face all the usual competing demands from motorists lobby groups and environmentalists on fuel duty cuts/rises. But as the awful impact on air quality of diesel cars becomes clearer every week, the BBC’s Freedom of Information expert Martin Rosenbaum has a very important story. Following a two-year battle with the Treasury, Martin has unearthed documents that show just why Gordon Brown went ahead with his ‘dash for diesel’.
The first point is that the papers show ministers were warned more diesel cars would damage air quality. But the second is that civil servants actually advised against higher taxes “so we are not seen as being overly harsh on diesel users”. The only argument they had against a higher levy was how it would look “presentationally”. This is officials, not spads, advising on how to spin policy.
Several former new Labour insiders now admit Brown’s encouragement of diesels was one of the worst air quality disasters in public policy of recent years. And today, the NAO has a report that the UK will be a decade late in meeting EU targets on cleaner air. It will be 2021 before we get there. Ministers have delayed a review of legislation until next year. Will they seize the initiative while flagging up Labour’s poor record?
Tory veteran Keith Simpson has become the first member of the Intelligence and Security Committee (ISC) to express dismay at the six-month delay in its re-establishment. Going public with the private unease of many on the committee, which oversees MI5, MI6 and GCHQ, he told me it was ‘unacceptable’ that it’s taken so long to appoint members. Committee members never talk about their work, other than through their reports. Don’t forget their meetings are held in a secure location away from Parliament in order to guarantee the spooks’ security and anonymity.
But Simpson felt it was time to speak out on the process of appointments, blaming both ‘No10 and the usual channels’ (ie the Government and Opposition whips offices). Other sources claim part of the delay is because some in Team Corbyn floated the idea of nominating Kelvin Hopkins, but he was deemed too ‘leftwing’ to pass security vetting. Party sources say only three names were put forward (Caroline Flint, Kevan Jones and David Hanson) and the Hopkins issue is a ‘red herring’. No pun intended on the ‘red’ bit, I think.
If Hopkins had been appointed, he would have needed to be made a Privy Councillor. That’s exactly what has happened to SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford, to allow him to join the ISC. There will be a bit more delay as the three new members are inducted into the particular ways of the committee. But next week Dominic Grieve is set to be re-elected as chairman by his colleagues. Away from Brexit, the PM may worry about the other clout he has in Parliament.