The Waugh Zone Tuesday December 5, 2017

Theresa May heads to Cabinet to explain how her plans for a Brexit breakthrough fell apart yesterday. But will she have to repeat that explanation to Parliament? The long-held convention is for a Prime Minister to update the House with a statement on any significant EU talks (David Cameron once had to answer an Urgent Question to tell MPs about an informal EU council), but I understand No.10 has decided no such statement will occur today.

Commons sources told me that Government whips had told the Opposition last week to clear “several hours” today for a “major” statement. Speaker Bercow helpfully confirmed it had been “very much my expectation” the PM would make an EU statement on Tuesday. Instead of spending hours trumpeting a diplomatic triumph, May faces a gruelling session being asked repeatedly about the DUP. May said alongside Jean-Claude Juncker yesterday that she needed further “consultation” and Labour argues there’s no better vehicle for consultation that the House of Commons. I’d be surprised if there is no attempt to force her hand with an Urgent Question. And if she ducks a statement, maybe David Davis will be put on the rack instead.

I wrote last night HERE on how the Brexit deal victory yesterday slipped through May’s fingers. It appears the DUP were spooked by early leaked over-sells of the agreement, but more worryingly Arlene Foster’s party were not fully signed up to the exact wording. Was Damian Green too distracted by his own woes to carry out one of his key duties as First Secretary of State, reassuring the DUP? Was the absence of Gavin Williamson (the Chief whip who sorted the DUP confidence and supply deal) a factor? May is due to meet the Northern Ireland party today and No.10 is remarkably upbeat about chances of progress.

Tom Newton-Dunn points out there were last minute quibbles over the European Court of Justice. Yet the key to yesterday’s difficulties was that deliciously diplomatic phrase ‘continued regulatory alignment’ between Ulster and the Republic after Brexit. It seemed like a classic EU fudge to get both Dublin and Belfast on board and move onto ‘Phase 2’ of talks (on trade and transition). Some in London felt it was a key concession from Dublin, as alignment is not the same as convergence, no matter what Irish PM Leo Varadkar says.

What’s the way out of the fresh impasse? Well, as Robert Peston has pointed out, one answer is reassuring the DUP that ‘alignment’ is UK-wide and not just for Ulster. That however poses a problem for Cabinet Brexiteers like Michael Gove and Boris Johnson, who have long wanted the freedom of ‘regulatory divergence’. Another option is to explicitly say the alignment is only on Good Friday Agreement legal precedent on specific areas such as animal welfare, agriculture and a single energy market. Another is to beef up the ‘no hard border’ written guarantees.

But one other option is for a newly ingenious diplomatic phrase. As the head of Northern Ireland’s Institute of Directors put it this morning, ‘regulatory co-operation’ may be acceptable to both Dublin and Belfast. So too may ‘regulatory equivalence’. Those alternatives imply similar trade arrangements to now, but turn them into parallel lines rather than convergent ones. The phrase may be enough to get May through to Christmas with her Government intact. After a weeks of leadership plots and Cabinet resignations, that would be a triumph in itself. But the bigger battle over trade and transition starts in the New Year and the DUP has given the PM just a taste of the trouble ahead if she doesn’t mind her language.

Further Commons misery looms for the Government in the shape of an Opposition Day motion on Universal Credit. As we report HERE, Labour hopes to again pull off the Parliamentary trick of deploying an ancient Commons device – the ‘Humble Address to Her Majesty’ – to force ministers to publish secret documents. Last month, it managed to get David Davis to release confidential Brext impact assessments, and today its motion demands the publication of the DWP’s five “Project Assessment Reviews” on Uni Credit.

These secret papers were drafted between 2012 and 2015 to alert civil servants and ministers to potential pitfalls of the Tories’ flagship welfare reform programme. A big battle has long waged over the documents (pushed by Freedom of Information campaigners John Slater and Tony Collins) and the Information Commissioner has ruled they should be released. Minsters have yet to comply, so today’s motion – which Labour says is ‘binding’ – could force the issue.

The bigger picture is David Gauke’s attempts to smooth the roll-out of UniCredit and whether this Christmas will see an increase in poverty or hard cases for families moved onto the new system. Gauke’s package – extra advances, cut in waiting times to five weeks and new housing benefit help – doesn’t kick in until the New Year, with some changes as late as April.  In an impressive Commons speech at 1am last night, Labour’s Jim McMahon attacked Universal Credit sanctions, revealing how he had relied on tax credits as a young father and had fallen into debt because of clawbacks of overpaid benefit. “I worked for 40 hours a week, but it still was not enough, especially when large or unexpected bills arrived”. Today, the Residential Landlords Association says 73 per cent of landlords still lack confidence that they can recover arrears when tenants move across to universal credit.

Here’s another New Year’s headache for both commuters and the Government. At 7am, we learned that rail fares will go up an average of 3.4% from January – which is in journo-jargon “inflation-busting” (inflation is 3%) and a real terms rise. The privatised rail companies say that out of every pound spent on fares they take just 3p in profit, ploughing the rest back into investment.

One big issue is the way the Government has loaded the burden onto the customer. Ticket sales continue to make up an increasing proportion of the investment in the railways. In effect, individuals rather than the state are bearing the burden and rail fares are a bit like shifting taxation from income tax to VAT. Of course, millions who use cars and buses may not want to pay through general taxation for rail commuters, but that won’t make the political pain any easier for the Tories.

And in the end the rises are a political decision. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald has a simple, doorstep-ready answer on this: renationalisation of the railways. Ministers however struggle to come up with anything populist. And as Paul Plummer, chief executive of the Rail Delivery Group, said this morning: “Government controls increases to almost half of fares, including season tickets, with the rest heavily influenced by the payments train companies make to government”.

Jeremy Hunt (whose new-found Brexiteerism and stern defence of the PM has not gone unnoticed in the Commons tea room) often says that he has increased the number of nurses in the NHS. But yesterday new UCAS figures (spotted by the Indy) revealed that 700 fewer nurses had started training in England in 2017 – the first year since the nursing bursary was scrapped.

But guess what? In Scotland and Wales, where the bursary was kept by devolved governments, numbers increased by more than 8%. The Department of Health insists it’s pushing ahead with Hunt’s party conference plan to expand nurse training. Yet the scrapping of bursaries by George Osborne in 2015 (yes, another of his legacies) continues to be a political and managerial problem, just like his public sector pay freeze. As Lisa Nandy has pointed out, restoring nurse bursaries could have been an easy ‘Brexit dividend’ for the Government, persuading Brits in Leave areas to train up, as EU nurses leave the country.

It’s nearly a year since Donald Trump landed Theresa May with a huge political headache by announcing a ‘Muslim travel ban’ in the final hours of her special-guest trip to the White House. Given how half-baked the original plan was, it’s no surprise it’s taken this long for a revised (third) version to finally clear the Supreme Court. Still, last night, it ruled the ban on Chad, Iran, Libya, Somalia, Syria and Yemen was lawful.

Some appeals have still to be heard, but in a 11.40pm tweet Jeremy Corbyn was moved to condemn the ban as “shameful”. But Nigel Farage had a point when he said Trump now had both tax cuts and the travel ban as concrete examples of key campaign pledges being carried out. And the Republican party’s deal with the devil continues: it reinstated its support for Roy Moore, the Senate candidate accused of groping or propositioning teenagers. “Go get ’em, Roy,” Trump told Moore in a phone call yesterday.