The five things you need to know on Friday March 18, 2016…
1) SUGGESTION TIME
It’s the job of this morning email to not just give you a round-up of what’s in the morning papers or online, but also a feel for what’s moving in politics. And yesterday our early radar system picked up George Osborne’s first hint of a rethink over disability benefit cuts. With one key line on BBC Breakfast (it was 7.20am, I do this so you don’t have to), the Chancellor said the magic words: “I’m always happy to listen to proposals that others might have on how we can improve [the PIP reforms]”.
After a day of growing Tory backbench anger - which saw private worries turn into full-blown public yelling on the World At One and elsewhere - the rethink was made even more explicit by Nicky Morgan on Question Time last night. The £4.4bn cuts were now only a ‘suggestion’ and part of a consultation, she said.
The blame-game over the PIP cuts has started in earnest in Whitehall. Some DWP-friendly MPs whisper that the Treasury just grabbed the consultation rather too eagerly as a last-minute attempt to make its welfare cap look even less ridiculous. Some Treasury-friendly sources mutter that the DWP has failed to make a clearer case about the rationale and legal hearing that sparked the changes.
What is undeniable is that we have seen Osborne’s fabled ‘tin ear’ once more. And the protestations and justifications for the policy remind me so much of the Treasury’s steadfast refusal last year to back down on tax credits cuts - until it was forced to. The merits of the policy are now almost a sideshow to the long-term political damage that's being done to the 'Compassionate Conservatism' brand. How long before Boris gets in on the act...?
Despite its reputation, the Tory party has a long and proud tradition on disabilities and charitable work and its members are furious to see it trashed so easily. The Mirror scoop on Zac Goldsmith being axed as the patron of a disabilities group (like other Tory MPs) is just one telling factor in all this. And when Tory backbenchers say a policy as ‘zero chance of getting through’, you know things are bad.
The IFS had a bumper day yesterday, slating everything from the sugar tax to the perks for the rich in the Budget. Wrap in a tight majority and Eurosceptic MPs out to duff up Osborne for anything and you have a very sticky wicket. What’s surprising is how this ‘safety-first Budget’ has proved anything but. In fact, it looks like a curdled mixture of hubris and political self-harm.
2) OPPOSITION POSITION
One of the laziest political tropes around right now (it’s repeated by Ian Birrell in the Telegraph) is that there is ‘no functioning Opposition’, so the Tory government can get away with what it wants. Well, Team Corbyn have their flaws - and not a few critics internally- but on the disability benefits cuts, no one can accuse the Shadow Cabinet of not providing effective opposition.
Jeremy Corbyn made the disability cuts a centrepiece of his response to the Budget, John McDonnell unequivocally vowed to reverse the PIP cuts and Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith was swift to spot the original ‘Friday night drop’ from DWP that started this whole political row last week.
And if disability cuts turns out like tax credit cuts, don’t forget that it was Labour in the Lords that really forced that issue. Of course, Tory rebels are crucial in all this, but the Opposition needs to do its job and it’s being doing it. On defence, Labour have also spotted that hundreds of millions have been shifted around in the Budget (is Mr McBride behind that I wonder?).
The Mirror’s new YouGov poll has cheered some Labour MPs too. Labour are on 34% of the vote - one point ahead of the Conservatives on 33%. Ukip was on 16% and the Lib Dems on 6%. The key factor is the Tories have dropped. Was that ICM poll a rogue after all?
Still, internal Labour battles aren’t far away. The Times reports activists in Lambeth Momentum cheered calls to picket a fundraiser of the “Progress Blairite" Greater London Authority candidate Florence Eshalomi. Joan Twelves, a fellow Momentum activist and a former left-wing leader of Lambeth council, read out the address and details of the “pizza and politics” event being hosted next Wednesday by Heidi Alexander, the Labour frontbencher, and Neil Coyle MP. Momentum says it’s ‘fully behind Flo’s campaign’. Right behind her, with a stiletto? Chaka Umunna says the Left are doing the Tories’ dirty work for them.
3) ZERO TAX. PERIOD
A hint of a rethink over disability cuts wasn’t the only thing George Osborne signalled yesterday morning on the breakfast airwaves. He also revealed that within the ‘next few days’ the EU would allow the UK to abolish the 5% VAT ‘tampon tax’. And last night, at the EU summit no less, David Cameron got 27 other EU leaders to ‘welcome’ a reform package to allow just that.
The Chancellor put out a statement: “We heard people’s anger over paying the tampon tax loud and clear’..It just shows how Britain can make a case for a reform that will benefit millions as a powerful, confident voice inside a reformed EU.” Vote Leave chief exec Matthew Elliott retorted: “We shouldn’t have to hold a referendum every time we want to alter a tax rate.”
There is, as ever, some small print. The EU deal is expected next Wednesday - the day after the Commons vote on Paula Sherriff’s amendment to axe the tax. Sheriff, supported by Tory Eurosceps, is not backing down. And officials say it’s unlikely the EU will agree the final package before the June 23 referendum. There’s also the issue of how to fund the £17m for domestic violence and other charities being doled out (£5m already plus £12m in the Budget) from the tampon tax.
It’s all a far cry from the days of Gordon Brown cutting the tax from 17.5% to 5% in 2000. I remember Brown couldn’t bring himself to say the word ‘tampon’ in the Budget, and one MP said at the time: “We tried to get him to say ‘sanpro’…But even that didn't seem to appeal”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch George Osborne face some pesky kids and a netball.
4) MCCAIN-ING IT
Speaking of Gordo, he’s due to make a star appearance on the EU IN campaign trail, Alan Johnson tells The House magazine. The ex-PM has a mixed record in big polls, having swung some Scots pensioners in the independence referendum, but then failed to make any impact in the get-Corbyn campaign last summer.
No10 is more happy about another big name backing the In camp this morning: Senator John McCain. A veteran and hawk on matters military, he joins his old foe Barack Obama in making the point that the West needs the UK in the EU and not just in Nato. And he plays the Putin card too:
“British membership in the EU is a vital contributor to the security and prosperity of Europe and the United States. Whatever the outcome of the referendum on EU membership, it will send a strong message to Vladimir Putin.”
On the ‘strong security’ front, as the EU presents its final migrant package to Turkey this morning, the PM has been pushing an Aussie-style approach to get patrol boats to turn back vessels carrying refugees from Libya. At the same time, an internal audit shows the EU wasted two thirds of a fund to stem migrant flows.
5) CUP THAT
Ah, Defra Questions. One of the quietest backwaters of Parliamentary life actually yielded a story yesterday. And with ‘freethinking’ (aka ‘loose cannon’ to some colleagues) Rory Stewart around, it was only a matter of time before something interesting came up.
The Environment minister said a tax on plastic bags had been a success and - wait for it - “coffee cups seem to be a very good thing to look at next.” Yes, with just one in 400 coffee cups recycled, it was time to act. Except it wasn’t. Within hours, a Defra spokesman said that there were ‘definitely’ no plans to tax coffee cups. The Mail, which called for the plastic bags tax (it’s one of the few taxes it likes), splashes the story.
In a spooky coincidence, coffee cup taxes feature in our Quiz of the Week in the latest Commons People podcast: Listen HERE (the quiz is 16 mins in). It’s a Budget-tastic special with lots on disability cuts, sugar tax, lifetime ISAs and more.
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