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By JACK BLANCHARD
Good Thursday morning from Birmingham, where the Playbook summer tour continues.
DRIVING THE DAY
BREXIT’S BACK: The Brexit talks resume in Brussels today as negotiators struggle to find a breakthrough with only two months to go until the crucial October summit. Discussions will focus on the thorny issue of the Irish border, ahead of further talks tomorrow on the future trade relationship. Bloomberg’s Tim Ross had this story earlier this week about one possible way forward on Ireland.
Trouble brewing: Ace scoop this morning from the Telegraph’s Europe Editor Peter Foster, who reveals the European Commission drew up a damning set of documents attacking the PM’s Chequers compromise, which it planned to publish on the very day of the Chequers summit. He reports the U.K. got wind of the plan and made successful representations “at the highest level” for the documents to remain private. The most titillating line in the story — splashed across the Telegraph front page — is that EU officials now suspect British security services of obtaining the slides by illicit means. Possibly more significant is the revelation that Brussels is fiercely opposed to not just the complex customs element of the plan, but to other key aspects of the Chequers deal too. Full details in Foster’s second article here.
Tick tock: The clock is ticking louder than ever, though the Guardian’s Jennifer Rankin reports that EU officials are playing down the importance of next month’s informal summit in Salzburg, which Downing Street hoped would be used as a key opportunity for Theresa May to hold direct Brexit talks with the EU27 leaders. No. 10 remains bullish, however, with a senior government source insisting to Playbook that host Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor, personally offered to put Brexit on the agenda during May’s visit to Salzburg last month.
Pattern emerging: Also in the Telegraph, Transport Secretary Chris Grayling (who is fast approaching that dangerous point where a minister gains the epithet “embattled” … or possibly even “hapless”) got another battering last night for his supposed lack of knowledge about the implications of a no-deal scenario. Road haulage reps who visited Grayling recently were said to be shocked at his dismal level of understanding about the issues facing the haulage industry.
Incoming: Downing Street really ought to have been braced for this, but the Sun and the Mail both report Boris Johnson is planning a major Brexit intervention at a fringe event at the Tory Party conference in Birmingham. A friend of the ex-foreign secretary seems to be enjoying winding up No. 10 too, telling the papers gleefully: “Boris has always been the biggest draw. He will make the fringe meeting look like the conference hall — and the conference hall look like a fringe meeting.” Which is probably true.
Also on Boris watch: Not really Brexit-related, but a smart FoI request by Scottish news site The Ferret reveals Boris blew almost £20,000 of taxpayers’ money on that extremely important mission to Afghanistan this summer that allowed him to dodge the vote on Heathrow … and so postpone his resignation for another fortnight.
Repeat after me: There is no ‘no deal.’ Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith gets a big op-ed in the Telegraph today to try to reset the terms of debate about the Brexit talks. And it seems the new line to take from the Brexit Squad is that all this unpleasant talk of “no deal” is a big red herring. “There is in reality no such thing as a ‘no deal,’” IDS explains helpfully. Instead Britain would then simply be facing a “different deal” — one that involves trading on WTO terms.
All-change at the Mail: Interesting preview in the FT this morning of the imminent change of leadership at the Daily Mail. Reporter Matthew Garrahan says former PM John Major — an ardent Tory Remainer — recently addressed incoming editor Geordie Greig on the need to shift the paper’s tone on Brexit. A witness says Major told Greig he has “the power and the potential to change the political discourse of our country,” which is presumably what Paul Dacre, the outgoing editor, fears most. A former colleague of Greig adds that the new-look Mail will be more likely to include a “balance” of views in its Brexit coverage, and avoid using words like “Remoaner” in its headlines.
Hoey down: Planet Remoaner meanwhile is going after Labour MP Kate Hoey in revenge for her decision to back Theresa May on the customs union. The “Another Europe is Possible” campaign has launched a mock website calling for Hoey to be installed as the new Conservative Party leader.
Remainiacs vs. the Left: It was all kicking off on the Twitter last night between Remainer bible the New European and various lefty journos, as the “stop Brexit” campaign tries to pile the pressure on Labour. Editor Matt Kelly was sending keyboard verbals at everyone from the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush (“bullsh*t”), Guardian columnist Owen Jones (“a tantrum-throwing cry-baby”) and Corbynista commentator Aaron Bastani (“an absolute pr**k”) … which is not normally the sort of thing you see from a newspaper editor. It followed heavy criticism of the New European’s latest cover article and cartoon, which attack Jeremy Corbyn and his allies for their refusal to oppose Brexit. In response, Jones accused Kelly of “Trump-like rhetoric.”
A TALE OF TWO CITIES
MAGICAL MYSTERY TOUR: Playbook is traveling the U.K. throughout August in search of political news from beyond SW1. I’m currently in Birmingham, and spent most of yesterday hanging out with Brummie Labour MP Jess Phillips as she showed me a very different side to her hometown.
BORDERLANDS: Yardley is a 20-minute cab ride out of Birmingham city center, in what Jess Phillips calls the “borderlands.” The endless cranes, busy streets and tower blocks of the city quickly give way to bed shops, lighting stores, a Nissan garage. There are rows of shabby but well-built Victorian semis. Phillips’ office is among a row of shops, beside a hairdresser. Plenty of MPs’ offices have tiny signs in the windows or are hidden away around the backs of buildings as if they don’t want to be found. Jess Phillips does not do hidden away. You can see her office from miles away — it has a vast red banner across the top with “Jess Phillips MP” printed in huge yellow letters. It’s open all day for the public to walk in without an appointment and ask for help.
Office politics: I turn up after the morning rush has passed, and it’s a moment of calm inside. Phillips introduces me to her caseworkers Salma and Matt. We sit and chat for 20 minutes about what goes on in an MP’s office … or at least in this MP’s office. They get 20 to 30 new cases every day, they tell me — people calling or ringing in with nowhere else to turn. “We’re the only open office in the city,” Phillips says. Previously the door was open five days a week — now it’s telephone-only on Tuesdays and Thursdays to let the caseworkers keep on top of the work. The main issues are housing, disability payments, Universal Credit (UC) and domestic violence. UC has already been rolled out in Birmingham, and there are a steady stream of cases where people suddenly find they’ve lost big chunks of their monthly income.
This is what a housing crisis looks like: The atmosphere in the office is lively, with constant back and forth, chatter, anecdotes, jokes. Phillips and her team have fun. But the work is not funny. People arrive with all sorts of issues, she says. Victims of domestic violence will walk through the door and ask for somewhere to live. Whole families come in, desperate, she says, because their private landlord is selling the property and there’s nowhere available with affordable rent for a five-person family. “They’re almost always working,” Phillips says. “But it’s the cost of the housing. They get sent all over the place to temporary accommodation. Gloucester, Ludlow. Milton Keynes.” There are more minor cases too — an elderly man whose boiler keeps breaking. “I’m not going to send him away,” Phillips shrugs.
Cost of living: After 20 minutes or so a young woman comes in with a one-year-old baby in a pram and a four-year-old in tow. Phillips and Salma leap into action. There are boxes of toys, coloring pens, children’s books, all lined up by the window. Phillips sits the four-year-old down at a table and gives her some pens. “Draw me your favorite thing,” she tells her. The child scribbles happily. Her mum has lost £10 a week from her housing benefit and doesn’t know why. She’s trying to keep calm but is clearly worried. She runs through her outgoings — gas, electric, shopping. “I don’t want to fall into arrears.” She mentions the cost of the formula for her baby. “She doesn’t need that,” Phillips tells her kindly. “You’ll be bloody fine on full fat milk. I had mine on tea from eight months.” The woman laughs and nods.
Uniform policy: The woman has four kids and has been caught by the benefits cap. She has tried to fill out a form for discretionary housing payments — the short-term safety net set up to help people at risk of falling into arrears — but says: “I’m not very good at filling in forms.” Salma has a direct line to the council’s benefits department, and talks through the case with them while the woman waits and chats to Phillips. The four-year-old is off to school in September, and there’s a uniform to buy. “I’ve got the polo shirts and the socks,” her mother says. She’s going to buy a plain cardigan from Asda until she can afford the proper one with the logo. She’s worried her daughter will stand out.
It’s a trap: Phillips’ main concern is that the woman is not already in rent arrears. “A bit,” she says, suddenly looking close to tears. “Probably about £18. Or probably a bit more, I’m not sure.” She looks worried, but Phillips is visibly relieved. “We have people in here with arrears of thousands,” the MP says. “It’s a horrible trap.” The woman shakes her head and says she wouldn’t be able to sleep at night with debt like that — she’s worried enough about the £18. “You’re doing a good job,” Phillips tells her, looking her in the eye. “You’re doing lots better than others we get in here.” The woman looks relieved, grateful. “Thanks. Thank you.”
Busy day: More people arrive. A middle-aged Asian couple. A mother with a toddler in a pushchair. The small office is filling up and getting warm. Then a film crew from Channel 4 turns up — Phillips has agreed to do a clip about women’s refuges. “Where do you want to do it?” she asks them at the front door. The cameraman suggests the office will be quieter than out on the main road. “Erm, I doubt it,” Phillips says, looking behind her at all the people waiting to be seen. They go out the back.
Universal problems: The next case is also about housing, and the next too. People are always polite but always anxious. “It’s our housing benefit,” the woman says. “It stopped in April, but we had no idea. We got a letter in July from the housing association saying it hadn’t been paid and we were in arrears. Nobody told us. When I phoned them they said you need to apply for UC.” Salma frowns. “They shouldn’t have told you that.” She gets back on the phone.
Case after case: Another younger man arrives. He needs a food bank voucher for his mother. “And one for me,” he adds. He sits and waits. Then a young woman arrives. Phillips and her staff are all busy now, and there are not enough people to answer the door. Those waiting in line take it in turns to get up and let more people in. The young woman clearly knows Phillips, and has an ongoing domestic violence case. Her husband is facing prosecution and Phillips is offering advice and support on how to prepare for the hearing. It takes the best part of an hour. “You’re well rid of him, bab,” Phillips says as the woman leaves. She nods and smiles.
Filling the gaps: The office feels like a community center or a social worker’s office. There must be plenty of other MPs who work like this, but I know for a fact there are plenty who don’t. “People have nowhere else to go,” Phillips says. “What can you do?” They keep working through the cases, discussing others they’ve seen that morning. One woman was an A&E nurse who can only work 16 hours a week because her daughter is on dialysis. Her top-up UC payments (which replaced her tax credits) suddenly stopped without warning. She sent an email and got a bounceback saying her caseworker is on holiday. “She literally can’t get to work,” Phillips says, shaking her head, angry. “We had to give her a food bank voucher.”
Gift aid: They shut up shop soon after 4 p.m. Salma offers round a box of chocolates. They receive gifts all the time from grateful constituents, she says. “I had to take home a whole thing of Krispy Kreme the other day,” Phillips says. “My children ate them.” There is a whole wall of ‘thank you’ cards. Phillips points out a child’s crayon drawing of a house, with “my dream home” scrawled across the top. “They were homeless,” Phillips explains.
Street life: I tell her about my interview with the ultra-positive West Midlands Mayor Andy Street the previous day, and ask about the rosy picture he paints of a city on the up. “He’s right,” Phillips says. “As someone who has lived in Birmingham all my life, there is definitely a feeling of it being on the up. I wouldn’t criticize him for saying that. But what I’m saying is it only reaches some people. It reaches me, because I’m wealthy so I can feel it. I go out to the fancy bars, I travel to London and it’s quicker and easier. But it needs to spread out.”
Share the wealth: Matt interjects optimistically about the positive decade that lies ahead for Birmingham, assuming any negative effects of Brexit can be mitigated (he is very pro-Remain). He lists the Commonwealth Games in 2022 and then the arrival of HS2 in 2026 as potential game-changers for the city. Phillips too is positive, saying there is “definitely an effort” to spread the wealth beyond the gleaming city center. The Games will be based in Perry Barr; the new city museum is coming to Yardley. “Only after we had a massive bloody campaign,” she adds.
Different story: But in the meantime, these borderlands feel forgotten. “There is very little development. If you were to go to, not even a council estate, but a normal estate, in, say, Sheldon, and say ‘Do you feel like Birmingham is on the up?’ They’d just go — ‘What? It’s a sh*thole. No one’s picking up our bins. The grass in our parks is no longer being cut. It’s not what it used to be.’” The private money is pouring into the city center, but not into these inner city suburbs. And at the same time, cuts to council budgets mean local services have been stripped back. “So what people see is their roads not being fixed,” she says. “You’d be surprised how few people even go into the city center from my constituency. Lots of kids will never have been there.”
After hours: It’s nearly 5 p.m., and Phillips heads home to take her mother-in-law out for a curry. It’s the mother-in-law’s birthday, and Phillips and her husband Tom have bought her tattoo vouchers as a gift. “She always said she wanted one,” Phillips grins. She invites me out for a beer later on, at a bar near her home in King’s Heath. It’s a smarter-looking suburb, a few miles west of the office. Both she and Tom were born here and have lived here their whole lives, watching with some bemusement as it slowly gentrified into a suburb which the Times recently told people to head for if they’re moving out of London. “We have wine bars now!” Phillips cackles. “This place serves cheese!”
My home town: Phillips and Tom know everyone — half the people walking past seem to stop and chat. After a couple of drinks we head to another bar nearby. Phillips puts Whitney Houston on the jukebox, and some bloke starts to dance. “That’s got them going now,” she grins. We drink more. She and Tom swap endless stories about growing up in Birmingham in the 90s. Phillips recalls the time she and a mate blagged free tickets to see Gladiators; Tom has tales of how he worked as a roadie at the arena. “I got bollocked for nicking a can of pop off Britney Spears’ rider,” he says happily. “She was never gonna drink them all!” They both went to school round here, and now their kids do too. Neither can imagine living anywhere else.
Today on tour: Playbook is heading north of the border to see who’s making waves at the Edinburgh Festival this year. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
A-LEVEL RESULTS DAY: Education Secretary Damian Hinds is touring broadcast studios this morning. Expect pictures of photogenic young people celebrating their results to start dropping within the next couple of hours.
TIME FOR ACTION: Important letter in the Times today from the Palace of Westminster’s former visitor services manager, Victor Launert, who says permanently closing off the roads around parliament is long overdue. “Given the devastation caused by the  IRA Baltic Exchange blast, it beggars belief that the road outside parliament remains open,” he writes. “Cars are one thing, but a lorry bomb is another, especially with parts of the Palace of Westminster only yards from the kerb, to say nothing of queues of visitors waiting to pass through security and the staff who assist them.” Launert blames the years of inaction on “a combination of pressure from local residents, the reluctance of MPs and peers who demand direct vehicular access, and a foolish desire not to be seen to be ‘giving in.’”
SUNSHINE ON WREATH: The Times reckons one of the men standing alongside Jeremy Corbyn at his now-infamous wreath-laying ceremony in Tunisia is “a senior official from a terrorist group that murdered a British rabbi in a Synagogue attack a month later.” Which, if true, is not a great look.
HOUSING WEEK: More news on housing from Communities Secretary James Brokenshire today as the Sun reports he will press ahead with plans to give renters minimum three-year tenancies. The idea was first floated in a government consultation paper last month … and before that in Labour’s 2015 election manifesto.
COMING ATTRACTIONS: Full line-up now announced for this year’s Tory Glasto, otherwise known as the “Big Tent Ideas Festival” organized by Tory MP George Freeman. Speakers include Environment Secretary Michael Gove, International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt, ITV Political Editor Robert Peston, Commons foreign affairs committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat, former Tory Chairwoman Sayeeda Warsi, and many more. This year’s event will be a day-long festival in Cambridge on September 8 — full details here.
MUTINY IN THE RANKS: Home Secretary Sajid Javid wrote a letter to Theresa May warning her that failing to hike police pay by 3 percent was the “wrong decision,” the Telegraph’s Steven Swinford reports.
FANCY SEEING YOU HERE: Comedy item in today’s Times diary, which reckons Nigel Farage was nipping into The Speaker in Westminster for a couple of swift ales before his LBC Radio show recently … and walked straight into another former UKIP leader, Henry Bolton, plus girlfriend Jo Marney. “I’m told Bolton wanted to blabber on about his new party,” the diary notes, “but Farage was keener to talk about the revelation that Bolton had once wore Marney’s leopardskin knickers to a UKIP NEC meeting.”
Education Secretary Damian Hinds broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … LBC Radio (9.05 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Tory peer Mohamed Sheikh (8.10 a.m.).
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
City A.M.: Khan wants minicab cap.
Daily Express: “We just ran for our lives” — British family’s bridge terror.
Daily Mail: Are house prices set to take a tumble?
Daily Mirror: Meghan should look after me… but I haven’t had a dime.
Daily Star: PC gone mad — Safety nuts try to close iconic shop.
Financial Times: Spooked investors push emerging market stocks into bear territory.
HuffPost: Anger in Italy over bridge collapse.
i: Unis offer £1,000 bribes to smart students.
Metro: Rugby star Danny “cop assault.”
The Daily Telegraph: EU fears Brexit talks are being bugged.
The Guardian: BBC faces bill for millions after dropping Cliff Richard.
The Independent: No-deal Brexit “will raise risk of disease outbreaks.”
The Sun: Cipriani held over bar ruck.
The Times: Italy blames Brussels and big business for tragedy.
On the Continent: Read what the rest of Europe’s papers are saying in POLITICO’s EU press review blog here (updated daily at around 8 a.m.).
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
New Statesman: The inside story of Mossad.
The New European: How they blew it — The Opposition’s great missed opportunity.
The Spectator: The bluffocracy — The chancers who run Britain.
BEYOND THE M25
TROUBLE AHEAD: The honeymoon is almost over for Italy’s populist government, POLITICO’s Jacopo Barigazzi reports. He sets out the five big problems coming down the track for the 5Stars-League coalition.
SPLIT PERSONALITY: POLITICO’s Executive Editor Matt Kaminski reports from Warsaw on the endless contradictions inherent in modern-day Poland. “One buzzes with youthful optimism: the economic success story of post-1989 Europe on daily show,” he writes. “Its dynamism is the envy of Europe. Another is ill-tempered and divided, obsessed with quarrels with each other and its neighbors — Germany and Brussels above all.”
WHATEVER HAPPENED TO AL-QAEDA? The troops waging America’s 17-year-old war in Afghanistan are confronting a puzzle, POLITICO’s Wesley Morgan reports. “What has become of the enemy who drew them there?”
ACCESS DENIED: Donald Trump announced last night he was withdrawing security clearance for one of his arch-critics — former CIA Director John Brennan. In what was presumably a rare outbreak of satire, Trump’s spokeswoman said the charge sheet against Brennan included “wild outbursts on the internet,” “lying,” “increasingly frenzied commentary” and “erratic conduct and behavior.” Imagine a politician behaving like that, eh. POLITICO’s Rebecca Morin has more.
Westminster weather: ☔️🌦🌤 Heavy rain showers through the day, though hopefully brightening up this evening. Highs of 20C.
Travel: Major delays expected until 6 p.m. on London North Eastern Railway between Leeds and Kings Cross. Full details here.
Happy birthday: Penistone and Stocksbridge MP Angela Smith … Shadow Local Government Minister Roberta Blackman-Woods … Former Respect MP George Galloway … and Madonna, who turns 60.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich.
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