The weather outside is frightful, but for Theresa May the warmest noises about her premiership in months must be so delightful. Yes, the PM has a packed, Brexit-tastic agenda today as she chairs Cabinet a day early (she’s in Paris tomorrow for climate change talks) and then delivers a Commons statement on her ‘breakfast breakthrough’ deal from Brussels.
And so far, May has managed to pull off the toughest trick of all. Not squaring the circle on Northern Ireland/single market/customs union issues, but persuading all wings of her party that she can deliver what they want. Tory MPs in favour of a cleaner break with the EU felt last Friday’s deal gave them the flexibility they wanted. Yet ex-Remainers who want to stay close to the EU were very happy too. Perhaps that’s why No.10’s overnight snippets of her Commons statement included the line “this is not about a hard or a soft Brexit”. It seems it’s not about either, it’s about both.
The brute fact is that Friday’s 15-page progress check was hugely conditional and provisional, with more trapdoors and get-out clauses than a Hollywood contract. The small print revealed no cash would be paid until the final trade deal was sorted and even the Irish border issue had a new line that gave Stormont a veto. David Davis got into trouble on Marr yesterday for saying the deal was just a ‘statement of intent’ rather than a ‘legally enforceable thing’. Dublin got upset at that insisting it was ‘binding’. No10 weighed in behind DD with the PM reiterating her line that ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. The Sunday Tel revealed No10 aides had reassured Brexiteers that the line about ‘full alignment’ to EU rules was ‘meaningless’ until a final deal was agreed.
Labour has its own problems after Keir Starmer came up with his ‘easy movement’ line on EU migration on Marr, though it’s possible his position and the Government one end up being closer than many think. The real issue is one of certainty. The City and stock market were pleased on Friday that it at last had a roadmap, with a two-year standstill transition and then a possible Norway-style trade option. Yet Michael Gove’s warning that a future government could revise the deal, and DD’s insistence it was all provisional, prove there’s still plenty left unresolved. That constructive ambiguity has bought May some valuable space politically to calm her warring Tory tribes. You could call it her ‘Brexit-blur uncertainty principle’. But for business, certainty is more prized than a Bitcoin share right now. And if some firms feel this deal is not pinned down or binding, they may vote with their feet.
The resignation of Lord Kerslake as the chairman of one of the biggest NHS trusts has provided yet another reminder that the health service could well be Theresa May’s political Achilles’ heel. The former head of the civil service quit the board of King’s College hospital in London after a long-running dispute with the NHS watchdog and the Government over its finances.
Kerslake’s wider point is the one NHS chief Simon Stevens made after the Budget, that ministers are in denial about the scale of investment the service needs. Yet the Department of Health may think Kerslake jumped before he was pushed, as a report is due in days showing Kings’ financial performance is the worst in England. Thanks to ’24 Hours in A&E’, Kings is famous on TV for its superb medical work, yet its money managers lack the same high standards, NHS Improvement suggests. The hospital could be put into ‘special measures’ this week. Although Kerslake is a crossbencher, some Tories have already noticed he’s conducted independent reviews for Labour on various issues.
Meanwhile, there’s yet more evidence of Jeremy Hunt’s bullish approach to life. I don’t know what he puts in his Ready Brek, but the Health Secretary has in recent weeks been cited as a future Tory leadership contender, has warned colleagues to back May or risk losing Brexit and been combative on a range of issues. Yesterday he told Radio1’s Newsbeat he’ still waiting for Royle Family star Ralph Little to “show the evidence” that he hasn’t expanded NHS mental health provision. “When he provides that, I’ll happily come into your studio and debate with him,” Hunt added.
Labour’s much clearer opposition to austerity was a key plank of its general election campaign. But Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell is determined a Corbyn-led government would be just as radical in other areas and today tells the FT of plans to relocate most of the Bank of England to Birmingham. An interim report by consultants recommends shifting the Bank from London to the UK’s midlands hub, where it could join two other institutions Labour a National Investment Bank and Strategic Investment Board.
With Channel 4 under pressure to move its HQ to Birmingham and HS2 on its way, England’s ‘second city’ (as it styles itself) will be hoping this adds to its investment case. And Labour, which lost the West Midlands metro mayoral race this year, knows it needs to keep up. But just important as the Birmingham line is another recommendation in the consultant report today (due out at 11am): that the Bank of England’s mandate should be reviewed. It claims the Financial Policy Committee “is ignoring investment”, due to its focus on systemic risks, and “makes no distinction between unproductive and productive lending.”
Meanwhile, it’s the Second Reading of the Finance bill (which enacts the Budget) in the Commons today. McDonnell has targeted Hammond’s cuts to the bank levy (worth £4bn), and has an amendment saying it should be reversed and the cash spent on children’s services (bankers’ bonus v kids in need is the narrative). Stella Creasy has her own ‘reasoned amendment’, a cross-party effort to get the Treasury to release more data on how budget polices affect men and women differently. The Speaker is expected to pick only one of the two amendments.
Two days of hearings start today to establish the framework of the Grenfell Tower fire public inquiry. It’s still very procedural and in order to maintain the independence of the inquiry it looks like chairman, Sir Martin Moore-Bick, will resist demands to give more local people more of a role.
Jeremy Corbyn has accused the government of “failing” survivors of the 14 June blaze, with more than 100 still living in hotels. But a Government spokesman said that while it expects Kensington and Chelsea to do “whatever is necessary” to help families, the council was moving “at the pace of the families and individuals involved.” Still, with Christmas approaching, some residents have told the Today programme that they are still ‘living out of a suitcase’ in hotels.
Moore-Bick’s hopes of publishing an interim report by Easter have been shelved partly because the ongoing police investigation has to take priority. But the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) has now announced its own investigation, examining if authorities failed in their legal obligations to residents. It will also look at whether the government has adequately investigated the fire – including looking into the public inquiry – and expects to conclude its work in April. In terms of the politics of this awful tragedy, the EHRC report could be where the most immediate action takes place.
The Cabinet Office inquiry into Damian Green’s alleged improper conduct has been on ice for a while now, not least as the PM has had much bigger fish to fry in Brussels. But many in Whitehall are expecting the report by ‘Propriety and Ethics’ chief Sue Gray to report any day now.
The Times claims the PM herself will have to make two ‘judgements of fact’ on the separate allegations about pornography found on computers in Green’s Commons office and on claims he behaved inappropriately towards young activist Kate Maltby. The Sunday Times reported yesterday that ‘a male associate’ of Green’s came forward to the inquiry after a “Tory source” accused Kate Maltby of being “desperate to be well known” and had warned her to be “more careful the next time she’s asked to write a piece trashing a decent man”.
May’s Brussels breakthrough puts her in a stronger position to fire Green should she need to. The BBC’s Nick Robinson said on Saturday that there was an expectation among some in Whitehall that Green “will resign in the next few days”. So far, he’s shown no sign of wanting to do so. Part of his problem is that he’s so high in the pecking order that any future comeback would be humiliatingly at a lower level. This really could be the end of his Government career if May decides to send a strong signal on the Westminster sexual harassment claims.