The Waugh Zone, Thursday December 21, 2017

It’s the darkest day of the year folks, but from tomorrow the light starts to slowly return. Theresa May may well think the Winter Solstice is aptly timed as she heads towards Christmas recess after the third resignation/sacking from her Cabinet in just seven weeks. Fallon, Patel, now Green – just what is it about Wednesdays that mean they quit on that day? (Each of them stepped aside only after PMQs was out of the way – is Jeremy Corbyn really that scary?)

Damian Green’s departure was sealed by the two main Cabinet office findings: that the minister had made ‘inaccurate and misleading’ statements about pornography on his Commons computer, and that Kate Maltby’s claims about his inappropriate conduct towards her were ‘plausible’. The weirdness of 2017 is summed up when Whitehall focuses on not just ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ Brexit, but ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ porn.

The Cabinet Office findings made it impossible for May to do anything other than sack Green when she presented him with the report last night. Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood took ownership of the inquiry, but he and ethics chief Sue Gray and independent adviser Sir Alex Allan all found the First Secretary of State had breached the ministerial code (I’ve banged on about Allen’s role in this before, but it seems he simply read Heywood report and then had a quick chat about it – nice work if you can get it).

The old Watergate adage – that it’s the cover-up that gets you not the crime – is a bit tired, yet in Green’s case what did for him was his bizarre decision to lie that he’d known about the porn. Some Tory MPs are upset about “coppers’ revenge”, but the minister himself clearly was at fault. And if you can’t trust his word on the porn, can you trust him on his account of other alleged misconduct? Some in No.10 feared more allegations could emerge in coming weeks.

Sacking Green was not an act of strength, but that doesn’t mean May is weak. With no obvious rival for the top job, her successful completion of the first phase of the Brexit talks means that she is in a position where she can survive three resignations and just move on, her attention fixed on the bigger job at hand. If those three resignations had happened straight after her awful party conference, with mutiny in the air, there would have been a much greater sense of crisis and a direct threat to her own position.

I’m told the PM will wait until the New Year to replace Green, which is itself an indication that his job is not exactly as urgently crucial as say a Defence Secretary. Still, he had a key role as May’s fixer, chairing Cabinet sub-committees on everything from immigration to Brexit detail to social reform and ‘implementation’ of policy. It’s possible that the PM will not recreate the same role and may split it up. Amber Rudd could get the title (as William Hague and Peter Mandelson did while doing their day jobs) to allow her to deputise at PMQs. Someone like Brandon Lewis, Ben Wallace or David Lidington could get the Minister of the Cabinet Office job, taking on some cross-government roles, while Cabinet committees could see departmental ministers retake control of key areas.

Jeremy Hunt confirmed his status as the new Minister for the Today Programme (Fallon’s old job), calming things down in the PM’s hour of need.  Hunt was blunt that Green had “lied” and praised May for setting standard of conduct “that would not apply to many other countries” (was he thinking of D Trump?). A former Remainer turned loyal Brexit backer, Hunt himself is tipped by some to replace Green. He told Nick Robinson “I want to carry on doing what I’m doing now” before adding “obviously these things are a matter for the Prime Minister”. A non-denial denial if ever there was one.

Battle-scarred but unbroken by his own time at Health, Hunt today praised May for being “someone of the most extraordinary resilience” after a year of problems. While the PM was not to blame for personal misconduct by Green, Fallon or Patel, critics inside and outside the Tory party can argue that her own political misconduct is what matters most. Yes, she’s been remarkably resilient in 2017. But it is her own self-inflicted wounds of the past year – a disastrous snap election and triggering Article 50 without a firm Brexit plan – that could fester in 2018.

Some Tory MPs would dearly love Michael Gove to step up to replace Damian Green. Just like Hunt, he is seen as deeply toxic by many voters, yet there’s no doubting his ambition or his gift for reinvention. And his record shows he’s as much of a dogged political survivor as May is. Having been pilloried by teachers and parents during his time as Education Secretary, he wooed prison reformers at the Ministry of Justice and is trying to do the same to green groups as Environment Secretary.  The PM has forgiven (if not forgotten) his ‘trojan horse’ schools row with her Home Office, and his disastrous spell as Chief Whip. Gove even appears to have made up with Boris despite his knifing his leadership hopes.

My colleague Owen Bennett has a timely profile of Gove’s latest reincarnation at DEFRA, where he is impressing Tory MPs by combatting ‘fake news’ about the party’s record on animal welfare (he has a Commons statement on badgers and Bovine TB today, which will be interesting as a metric in his farmers-v-animal lovers stance). A Defra source tells Owen that Gove’s determination to take back control of fishing policy hardened after watching summer blockbuster ‘Dunkirk’. “This shows why we should care for our fishing industry – it was there in our hour of need,” Gove apparently said after seeing how 850 private boats, many of them fishing vessels, sailed across the Channel to help rescue Allied forces. Note too that Brexiteer emphasis on Albion as a nation alone and proud.

Of course, what most cheers many backbenchers is the intellectual case Gove makes for Brexit. Yet while the PM has no choice but to recognise Gove’s currency in the party, his still retains a capacity to irritate his Cabinet colleagues. His ‘economicky words’ prompt suspicions he’d really like to replace Philip Hammond as Chancellor. And only this week, in the ‘end state’ full Cabinet meeting, I’m told he tried his usual trick of holding back while everyone else spoke, before making some debating points including a dig at Hammond. Only this time, Amber Rudd outfoxed him and herself held back to have the final word. She not only stressed the need to keep close to the EU’s single market, but also put Gove in his place.

Speaking of the single market and customs union, last night saw Jeremy Corbyn suffer his biggest Labour rebellion yet on Brexit legislation. Minutes after Green was sacked, some 62 MPs (plus tellers) backed Chris Leslie’s amendment to the EU (Withdrawal) Bill to try to make the UK stay permanently in the customs union. Some big names turned out with Rachel Reeves and Ian Austin among the first-time dissidents. Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer’s team sent a note to the PLP stating “it is not possible” to unilaterally achieve membership of customs union, but that didn’t stop the rebellion (which of course failed given Tory numbers). Watch this clip of Labour MPs open mocking Leave-backing Kate Hoey yesterday to understand the depth of passions on this topic.

Taking a pro-EU line is very popular among the vast majority of Labour members, uniting young Momentum types with old former Blairites. So far the Shadow Cabinet has united (they again discussed it this week) in backing Starmer’s slow and steady drift towards a policy of saying the UK should negotiate with Brussels to get a ‘Norway-minus’ deal (EFTA membership but with some different rules on free movement). And for Labour, some ‘creative ambiguity’ is no bad thing, it seems. A Times Higher Education Supplement poll yesterday found 55% of students think Labour’s policy is to remain in the EU (it isn’t) and 32% think Labour’s policy is to leave the EU but remain in the single market and customs union (it isn’t, yet).

Meanwhile, Brussels turns the screw. The EU’s negotiator Michel Barnier said yesterday he wants the post-Brexit transition period to expire on December 31, 2020, giving us just 21 months to sort out what we really want. No.10 says there’s not much difference between that and our 24 month plan for a transition. Some Brexiteers welcomed the shorter timetable, but it given how hugely complex any future trade deal will be, it’s no wonder some in Whitehall are nervous. Campaign group Unearthed get a splash in the ‘i’ newspaper with new claims Liam Fox wants to keep secret his trade talks with the US. Maybe the Brexit Select Committee will today publish a version of David Davis’s secret Brexit impact papers too.

With Christmas looming, will we see Universal Credit reignite as a political issue if families are left with no money to survive on? Individual cases can’t be ruled out, but Work and Pensions Secretary David Gauke sounds pretty confident his new system of advances will tide most people over the break. And after months of criticism, Gauke is certainly going on the front foot, yesterday taking on Frank Field on Twitter over claims that one particular constituent had been left penniless.

A bit like Jeremy Hunt and Michael Gove’s decision to come out fighting on Twitter against their critics, Gauke tells HuffPost he “won’t let the hard left win” on the “social media battlefield”. He is winning not just retweets but also plaudits from fellow Tory MPs for his proactive defence of a flagship policy. I’m told that even Labour MPs have been impressed by UC ‘work coaches’ who help people get into work through the simpler benefits system.

Still, taking the fight to your enemy doesn’t always work. Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan says May’s dismissive response to her complaint in PMQs – that 2,500 Wandsworth children would be in temporary homes on Christmas Day – sounded like the PM was saying the kids should count themselves lucky they weren’t on the streets. May’s over-confident line proved it’s not just Philip Hammond who is politically tone deaf at times. The Scrooge headlines that follow just sum up the PM’s problem as she heads into 2018: she diagnosed the Tories as ‘the nasty party’, yet sometimes blunders her way into making that charge stick.

Amid the coughing chaos of her conference speech, it’s sometimes easy to forget Theresa May’s housing crisis pledge, when she declared “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem”. The Budget failed to deliver the big bang (or big bucks) Sajid Javid had wanted, but today the Communities Secretary has announced a major reform that will help one part of the broken housing market.

Developers are to be banned from selling new houses with leasehold contracts and ground rents on all new leases will be set at zero. Some 4 million people face ‘rip off’ charges and Javid says it’s time to make sure these “feudal practices” are at least prevented for new homeowners. Housebuilding firms are already upset and claim the plan could lead to 20,000 fewer homes a year. Labour claims ministers are nicking their manifesto pledge, but I’m told Javid’s policy adviser Nick King has been pushing this for a long time. Curiously, it was blocked by May’s pre-snap-election No.10 chiefs. At it happened, it’s King’s last day tomorrow so this is his swansong.

As Parliament rises for its Christmas break, so too does the WaughZone. It’s been a hell of a year but through it all I’ve been grateful for all your texts, emails, phone calls, DMs and old-fashioned tip-offs. It’s you the readers who make this early morning slog worth it all. Many thanks for reading and subscribing and putting up with the punning headlines. I’ll be back when the Commons returns on January 8, 2018. We have our final CommonsPeople podcast out later.