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20 October 2016

Trouble is stirring at Theresa May’s old stomping ground

The questions about who knew what, when about Lowell Goddard refuse to go away. 

By Stephen Bush

Theresa May is basking in another double digit opinion poll lead, this time from Ipsos Mori. The numbers: Conservatives 47 per cent, Labour 29 per cent,  the Liberal Democrats seven per cent and Ukip on six per cent.

But there is serious trouble ahead – and not because Yvette Cooper and Hilary Benn have been elected as chairs to the select committees for home affairs and Brexit respectively.

Although allies of Cooper were putting it about that Tory whips had tried to block her from getting on the committee, several Conservative MPs said that they had received no pressure from either side. They were openly scornful of the idea that the government had much to fear from Cooper or Chuka Umunna, whose friends were briefing that he had been the victim of wrecking tactics from the Tories.

Although Yvette Cooper is respected by many Tory MPs, others note that she failed to land a blow on Theresa May in four years shadowing the Home Office brief.

But it is the Home Office that is giving May cause for unease, with trouble stirring at her old stomping ground.

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At PMQs yesterday, Lisa Nandy asked a laser-focused question about what exactly May knew when about Lowell Goddard, the New Zealand judge brought in to chair the inquiry into historic cases of child abuse. Lowell Goddard, the Times has revealed, clashed with other members of the inquiry and is alleged to have made racist remarks.

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It’s now clear that May knew of the allegations against Goddard before she stepped down as chair, and yet allowed her to leave the post with a £80k payout.

“May accused of cover-up over abuse inquiry chief” is the Times‘ splash, while “Inquiry warnings ignored by May” is the i‘s line.

The PM’s defence is that she couldn’t have acted on the basis of “hearsay” and “rumour” about Goddard, but it’s also causing a tricky time for her replacement at the Home Office, Amber Rudd, who said that Goddard had left post as a result of feeling “homesick”.

Adding to the PM’s discomfort – and providing a reminder that there are serious consequences to bungling this inquiry – is the condemnation from Ian McFadyen, a survivor of childhood abuse, who tells the Times that it he takes it as a “personal slight”, having been promised by May that the inquiry will fit for purpose. 

The trouble for the PM is she can’t, as she might at any other department, make the problem go away with a short sharp sacking. The first and most obvious reason is that if Rudd is to blame, she is to blame.

But the second is that Rudd, as with Hammond, is a rare Remainer among a sea of Brexiteers at the top table. Losing either of them will make the PM more vulnerable and more dependent on the Brexit crew.

It’s all a golden opportunity for Cooper to do serious damage to May at last.

This originally appeared in this morning’s “Morning Call”, my free daily email to what’s happening in Westminster and beyond, to which you can subscribe here.