The Waugh Zone Wednesday December 20, 2017

It’s the final PMQs of the year and the only area where “nothing has changed” is that Theresa May is still Prime Minister and Jeremy Corbyn is still Leader of the Opposition. As they square up across the despatch box, May will want to trumpet her Brexit breakthrough. Corbyn may go off-piste and avoid Europe, preferring to highlight homelessness stats again, or Universal Credit, or even an IMF growth downgrade (Mark Carney and the IMF have a press conference this morning). The Labour leader probably won’t be tempted to cite an Iranian ayatollah who yesterday called Boris Johnson a ‘liar’, ‘womaniser’ and ‘a clown’.

May has a packed agenda, as she follows PMQs with a session before the Liaison Committee at 3.15pm, when all the select committee chairs will ask her about the following: Brexit and the transition; health and social care funding; her ‘burning injustices’ agenda; and sex harassment in the workplace (speaking of which, time is running out for the Damian Green inquiry to be published before the Commons rises for recess tomorrow). Blair used to fend off every question at Liaison Committee with aplomb, as MPs were notoriously bad at asking them. Brown stonewalled, Cameron arrived with gimmicky announcements in his back pocket. Will May yield any real insights today? Aides sound like they just want to get through it unscathed.

Over in Brussels, the EU publishes its draft negotiating guidelines. Michel Barnier’s “killer graphic” ridiculing May’s ‘red lines’ on Brexit emerged yesterday. But the backlash against Barnier is in full swing, with the Sun claiming the UK is winning round individual EU states and that even Jean-Claude Juncker was unhappy with him for ruling out a decent Brexit deal for the City of London.  The BBC reports the UK is offering EU banks easy access even under a ‘no deal’ Brexit. Is that a measure of the City’s desperation? Or a cleverly calculated olive branch?

A timely concession means May will avoid further defeat on the Exit Date for Brexit as the final day of Committee stage on the EU Withdrawal Bill takes place. (Watch out for a possible Labour rebellion on Chris Leslie’s amendment on staying in the customs union though). Yesterday’s lengthy but ‘lively’ Cabinet meeting on Brexit was most notable for Michael Gove warning colleagues against a re-run of ‘Project Fear’ doom and gloom on life outside EU rules. The Guardian reports he directed a pointed comment at Philip Hammond, who was in turn defended by Amber Rudd. Ex-Remainers insisted the UK should stick as close as possible to EU trade rules, but Brexiteers think Britannia should have its own rules. Come October, we will find out who’s really bluffing, in London and Brussels.

Still, I wonder what the PM thought of Sir John Sawers, former head of MI6, telling the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday: “We have to acknowledge that Brexit is damaging our economy. We do not want to go through a repeat of the 1970s where the UK went progressively downhill. We will need to turn it around. I am not sure how we are going to do it”.  Maybe Sawers should attend the Tories’ Bow Group event tonight, where John Redwood will deliver his “annual Christmas fairytale”…

Way back in the mid-1990s, I used to turn up to the old Department for the Environment building in London (its towers were dubbed ‘the three ugly sisters of Marsham Street’) for briefings on the annual local government finance settlement. That grey building has long been demolished, but yesterday Communities Secretary Sajid Javid revived a story we all used to write under John Major: millions facing council tax hikes.

Yes, families could see bills rise by up to £100 a year (the biggest rise in 14 years) after Javid said town halls could jack up taxes by 5.99% without any local referendums. The figures are provisional of course, but it looks like this is one area the Government is following orthodoxy and hiking bills after a general election rather than before one. Tory MP Bob Blackman tells Mail Online: “It is not a happy Christmas message to see for hard-pressed council tax payers.” Jacob Rees-Mogg warned against “a return to the Blair/Brown era of stealth taxes”. Tory LGA chief Lord Porter is even more scathing, warning we are now at “a financial breaking point which will threaten the existence of some local services”

Meanwhile, there’s more bad news for local taxpayers in the police funding settlement smuggled out yesterday. Forces will get extra money, but only if police and crime commissioners jack up their council tax ‘precept’. Shadow Police Minister Louise Haigh tells HuffPost that a swift Commons Library analysis has revealed the amount of money provided by the Home Office to local forces will fall by at least £100m in real terms next year. A further 1.3% cut on the 2017/18 settlement, that takes the total cut in central government funding since 2015 to £513m. Don’t forget ministers said they would ‘protect’ police funding.

Theresa May finally chatted on the phone to Donald Trump last night. It was the first time they had spoken since their public spat over the President’s retweets of far-right group Britain First’s propaganda videos. It’s not quite clear if Trump had been refusing to take her calls or she was refusing his (or they’d just been both very busy). But her failure to raise the tweets has been pounced on by Jeremy Corbyn, whose spokesman says she should have decided to ‘stand up against hate’.

Trump and May wished each other a Merry Christmas, but there was a hint of disagreement on Israel. “They discussed the different positions we took on the recognition of Jerusalem as the Israeli capital,” the official No.10 read-out said, which was diplo-speak for May repeating the UK official policy. May had declared 13 days ago she would challenge the President personally on the Jerusalem issue, and the delay suggests her anger, if she had any, was not exactly red hot yesterday.

Over in the States, however, Trump has secured his first big policy victory in Congress this morning with the Senate passing his ‘Tax Cuts And Jobs Act’ (Americans, they love an arresting title on their legislation).  The tax cuts are the most radical overhaul of the US tax system in 30 years, with big business and the wealthy benefitting most. That’s a bit awkward for Trump’s campaign trail promise to be on the side of ‘the little guy’, let alone the trillion dollars added to national debt. A bit like May, his inner circle will claim he’s got to Christmas by defying the doubters, with a major tax cut victory and an immigration ban that critics said would never happen. But as with May, there will be trouble ahead. My HuffPost UK colleagues report the tax cut bill is the least popular item of Presidential legislation since the 1990s.

Historically, the Public Accounts Committee used to deal only in dry topics like misspending and procurement errors. But today it brings its analytical heft to expose the growing scandal of the number of homeless people on Britain’s streets. Its new report found that 9,100 people are sleeping rough every night, with a further 78,000 families in temporary accommodation.

Since March 2011, the number of people who sleep rough has risen by 134%. The average rough sleeper dies before the age of 50, and children in long-term temporary accommodation miss far more schooling than their peers. PAC chair Meg Hillier wants targeted help for councils, rather than ministers passing the buck to town halls. Labour and the Lib Dems say benefit cuts are also to blame. As we approach Christmas, it’s not just Grenfell that has exposed Britain’s housing crisis.

A coalition of animal welfare and environmental charities has warned that more than 100,000 tonnes of plastic packaging will be thrown away and not recycled this Christmas. Michael Gove, who was famously ‘haunted’ by Blue Planet II’s footage of turtles caught in plastic bags, yesterday unveiled plans for a bottle deposit scheme and other moves to end single-use plastics, such as straws and coffee cups.

Unfortunately, Gove has a talent for embarrassing incidents while walking to and from Cabinet (who could forget this slip?). And yesterday, he suffered another political pratfall (or should that be Pretfall?) as the Sun reports he was photographed in Downing Street carrying a non-recyclable Pret A Manger coffee cup. Oops.