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1 July 2018

Week Ahead: Chequers, Misbehaving Pugs and World Cup Woes

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By Patrick Maguire

This week, Westminster is even more desperate to skip straight to Friday than it is most weeks. After the government’s lack of a coherent Brexit plan resulted in a Brussels battering for Theresa May at the European Council summit, the message from the Commission and EU27 leaders was clear: we need detail, and fast. 

To that end, the prime minister is dragging all 29 members of the cabinet to Chequers for a Brexit away-day on Friday to finally thrash it out. Before then, she’ll spend some time schmoozing in European capitals in the hope of winning her counterparts round to her plans away from the prying eyes of EU officials.

Gloomy Tory MPs predict that her efforts will be pointless and reckon the cabinet won’t be able to sign off on anything more than another fudge. Fortunately for May, however, this week’s light parliamentary timetable gives her plenty of time to prepare. 

Monday and Tuesday will be taken up by the presentation of estimates for this year’s government spending. Mel Stride, the Financial Secretary to the Treasury, will do most of the heavy lifting in the chamber but Philip Hammond could still commit Brexit-related news when he faces MPs on Tuesday morning. 

Wednesday is when things start hotting up. May will doubtless face tricky questions on the EU at PMQs, while a rare SNP opposition day debate offers the potential for more headline-grabbing protests. Later on, the Ivory Bill, a rare piece of government legislation, will offer another reminder of how little the government is doing beyond making a fist of Brexit.

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On Thursday, the government will also publish the results of its year-long survey on attitudes to LGBT people, but by this point May will have jetted off ahead of her Chequers showdown on Friday.

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Should she offer a repeat of her performance this week in Brussels, which yielded no progress, the mood among Tory MPs will turn toxic. Ditto if the deal is unacceptable to Leavers. Expect Brexiteers plotting mutiny in the papers and Remainers talking up the prospect of amendments to the forthcoming trade and customs bills on Saturday and Sunday.

If it goes really badly for the Brexiteers, we might finally see a cabinet resignation. By this time next week, May’s Brexit could have been made or broken. Or, perhaps more likely, the can will have been kicked a bit further down the road.

Westminster whispers 

For the exhausted Westminster press pack, summer’s silly season looms invitingly on the horizon. But within the restive ranks of Conservative MPs, it’s already in full swing. The inertia gripping the government – and ready supply of warm prosecco on Westminster’s summer party circuit – is fuelling talk speculation as to what the race to succeed Theresa May will look like when it eventually happens.

For the moment, Jeremy Hunt and Sajid Javid are the clear frontrunners, though it’s worth remembering that this time last year David Davis was widely tipped as the favourite. That suggestion is now more of a punchline, and not a very funny one.

But I hear talk in the members’ tearoom and Commons bars has turned to a potential joint bid that’s more odd couple than dream ticket: education secretary Damian Hinds for prime minister, and Jacob Rees-Mogg for chancellor. 

The ERG chair has watched Hinds take a top job from the wings before: he beat him to the presidency of the Oxford union in 1991. Colleagues reckon his tilt at this top job would be much less successful.

“That worked well for Ken Clarke and John Redwood in 1997, didn’t it?” one MP quipped of the suggestion that remainer Hinds could woo Brexiteers with Rees-Mogg. Others are even less impressed. “He’s Jeremy Hunt lite,” sniffs another. “That’s the opposite of a unique selling point.” No wonder his odds are 66/1.

I’m told the perceived aloofness of another contender is getting up Tory noses too. Tom Tugendhat, the telegenic chair of the foreign affairs committee, is frequently talked up as a future star but some colleagues in the 2015 intake are grumbling that he hasn’t shown much in the way of gratitude and has stopped reaching out to them despite relying on their support to win his cushy post. 

Don’t forget that, unlike with Labour, it’s Tory MPs who winnow the field of leadership contenders to a final two. As petty as the complaints might sound, it’s the little things such as these that will determine just who gets May’s job.

Out this week 

An upsetting/exciting (delete as appropriate) time is upon us: with the World Cup group stage over, the TV schedules will no longer be completely saturated with football.

Luckily there is plenty in cinemas that can more than match the high drama on show in Russia. The 4K re-relase of The Deer Hunter, Robert De Niro’s Vietnam War classic, has been much-hyped. Our film critic Ryan Gilbey, however, reckons it’s part of a trend which is seeing familiar classics inhibit our viewing habits.

Also out in cinemas: Mary Shelley, a new biopic that dramatises the author’s experience writing Frankenstein, as well as her relationships with Lord Byron and Percy Shelley, and Leave No Trace, a critically-acclaimed drama about an army veteran struggling with PTSD raising his daughter in a remote Oregon park. 

I’m spending most of next week in my native Southport, so might have to settle for one of the many inoffensive summer comedies hitting screens at our local Vue. For obvious reasons I’m drawn to Patrick: a frothy rom-com in which the title character is a misbehaving pug. It has been panned by critics but I am embarrassingly tempted. 

In non-fiction, there is the much less breezy Squeezed, an extensive and harrowing study of the US’s growing middle class precariat – it tells the story of working professionals plunged into poverty by the dog-eat-dog American economy, and why the mythology of pulling oneself up by one’s bootstraps makes them willing to endure it.

Across the Atlantic, Robert Verkaik’s Posh Boys, a searing polemic on why public schools ruin Britain, strikes a similar note. I’m more drawn to the bucolic escapism of the aptly named Isabelle Tree’s Wilding, a memoir of the author and her husband’s battle to give 1400 acres of intensively-farmed Sussex fields back to nature.

It’s been ages since I read a good novel, and am hoping to break my duck with Crudo, Olivia Laing’s debut. Written in just seven weeks, it’s had rave reviews, and follows the inner struggle of a woman grappling with her commitment-phobia, anxiety about turning 40 and addiction to Donald Trump’s tweets ahead of her wedding.

Critics are also raving about The Shepherd’s Hut, the latest offering from two-time Booker Prize finalist Tim Winton. It follows a tearaway teen who goes on an unlikely cross-outback voyage with a defrocked Irish priest, though some reviewers struggled with the industrial-strength Australian slang. Those after something a bit more fun, meanwhile, should check out Caitlin Moran’s Britpop tale How To Be Famous, her second semi-autobiographical novel.
Office politics 

I had hoped to use this slot to boast about how much better I was doing than Stephen in the parliamentary press gallery’s World Cup tournament, which he wrote about in last week’s email.

Happily, results so far this weekend mean I can do just that: at 84th of 209 I am 114 places ahead of Stephen, who is languishing at 198th. Less happily, it’s clear by now that neither of us are seeing our £5 entry fee ever again. 

But who will salvage more pride? Yesterday we got our answer: I have France as my top-ranked team, Stephen has Argentina. Enough said. 
Lend us your ears 

Stephen spent the week enjoying the sun and a pile of books on the Cornish coast. Neither stopped him filing his column, which offers an altogether gloomier prognosis for efforts to get Jeremy Corbyn to change his position on Brexit.

He texts from St Ives to reveal the musical accompaniment to the writing process: “I’ll Make A Man Out Of You Yet” from the soundtrack to Disney’s Mulan, and, at a subscriber’s recommendation, Cardiff band Cadno: “They’re a lot like the Cranberries, but in Welsh.”

Both make great additions to his pleasingly eclectic column playlist, which you can listen to here.

On a lighter note 

A Polish charity has been plunged into the red after a free-flying white stork landed it with a £2,600 phone bill. Conservationists at EcoLogic fitted a GPS tracker to the bird in order to track its migratory habits last year, but then mysteriously lost contact before being lumbered with the hefty charge. The reason? Upon the stork’s arrival in Sudan, an enterprising local had removed the SIM card from the tracker – and used it for 20 hours of phone calls.