The five things you need to know on Monday, September 26, 2016…
1) LYNCH PIN
Monday at Labour conference is normally the day the Shadow Chancellor/Chancellor makes big waves with a major policy announcement.
Overnight we had some words about being more “interventionist” in manufacturing post-Brexit, but the only policy nugget was a joint statement with Emily Thornberry: that Labour would use savings from leaving the EU to maintain funding for deprived regions. I understand that a much bigger policy surprise is being kept back until the speech itself.
McDonnell can’t help attracting controversy however and he’s made the front pages for another reason: his refusal to retract his attack on former welfare minister Esther McVey as a ‘stain on humanity’. McDonnell, who had previously dismissed as a joke his line about ‘lynching’ McVey, told Robert Peston “sometimes you need to express honest anger”.
McVey herself pointed to McDonnell’s history of remarks about assassinating Margaret Thatcher, and honouring the IRA (remarks that Tory HQ have stored up and plan to deploy to maximum effect in a general election). Yvette Cooper added “it’s really, really not okay…he should have apologised”.
On the BBC this morning McDonnell claimed Labour was heading in the right direction before the coup. “We were winning elections… we were ahead of the Tories in the polls.” At our fringe yesterday, Lisa Nandy said “senior members of the leadership are out saying we were ahead in the opinion polls, and we were doing well and just needed to go back to what we were doing before. I just don’t agree with that because I can feel the public moving away from us.” Our BMG/HuffPost poll has found that 70% of the public prefer May/Hammond to just 30% for Corbyn/McDonnell.
2) RETURN TO MEND, ER…
One of the most interesting things that leapt out of McDonnell’s Today programme interview was his hint that the Shadow Cabinet reshuffle wouldn’t happen until after decisions on Shad Cab elections. Asked if the top team would be changed before then, he said: "I can't see that happening...” and “we want to try and wrap that up as a party" at its awayday in November, possibly followed by a special “Rules revision conference”.
This sounded like more twigs from Jeremy Corbyn’s olive branch, especially as many MPs have signalled that some form of Shad Cab elections is a precondition of their return. But I’m told that when Corbyn said on Saturday he planned an ‘imminent’ reshuffle, he meant it. And soon after conference ends, we are due to see a batch of appointments at all levels of frontbench jobs.
The idea of returning to mend the party’s divisions appeals to some, and big names like Keir Starmer and Dan Jarvis have floated around with good reason. Even Ed Miliband sparked fresh speculation about his own possible return in some role, telling a fringe he anticipated staying on the backbenches but “these are matters for Jeremy and for discussion". Seema Malhotra is another who could make a comeback. Others have real doubts, most notably Lisa Nandy, whose eloquent and thoughtful pitch at our WaughZone Live event yesterday underlined just why many see her as a future Labour leader.
There was a wild rumour among the Left on Twitter this morning that Chuka Umunna and others were poised to announce a new breakaway party. Was this a misreading of the new ‘Labour 2020 Group’ which the Times says some centrists are planning, with a team who refuse to join the frontbench?
Most ‘centrists’ were out in force last night insisting they weren’t going to quit the party. At the Progress rally, Tristram Hunt had a jab at Momentum, Andy Burnham and Corbyn all in one long gag. But the serious stuff is on the threat of deselection and the leader’s words on Marr that the “vast majority” of MPs had nothing to fear were not taken as reassuring. Usdaw chief John Hannett vowed to fight any deselections last night and Community also circled the wagons around Anna Turley. Expect more on this today.
3) TRADING PLACES
One of the most fascinating and important battles at Labour conference is taking place behind closed doors so far. And it is over plans to expand the number of places on the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC). By adding two new reps for Scotland and Wales, centrists believe that they can turn the current narrow ‘pro-Corbyn’ majority into a ‘Corbynsceptic-majority’.
This has been a plan long in the making, particularly the move to ensure those new places are appointed by the executives of each devolved party (who are Corbynsceptic to say the least), rather than by Corbyn-supporting party members in one-member-one-vote. It seems that the Left have woken up to the implications of this apparently small rule change, and how they have been outmanoeuvred. Some trade unions on the NEC aren’t very keen on OMOV, for fear of the threat it poses to their own power in the party.
Last Tuesday’s marathon NEC agreed to put the extra places plan to the conference. But at Saturday night’s meeting, Corbyn himself tried to delay it. He was met with a wall of anger from Scots Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, who will sit on the NEC herself if the plan is approved. PolHome has a corking quote of what she told Jez: "How dare you preach unity and then try to undermine me as Scottish leader?” As a result, just hours after his re-election, Corbyn was rebuffed by his own NEC.
Yesterday, some leftwingers tried to get a separate vote on the extra places. But the plan’s backers had rather cleverly insisted it was part of a wider package of rule changes including the Left’s coveted move to ensure sitting leaders don’t need MP nominations to get on a leadership ballot. As I reported last night, conference voted by a show of hands to reject moves to have separate votes. Len McCluskey wasn't pleased.
Fast-forward to this morning’s 7.30am meeting of the NEC and Carwyn Jones told Corbyn to his face it would be a big mistake to delay the Scots/Wales plan. The vote is due to go before the full conference on Tuesday - and the trade unions will be key. Will the GMB cave to pressure to delay?
I was passed extracts of an email at the weekend that claimed Tom Watson's NEC tactics were part of a 'Project Anaconda' strategy to slowly squeeze the life out of a Corbyn leadership. "Project Anaconda’...will involve isolating and weakening JC and ultimately crushing the life out of his leadership,” one email claimed. “Every concession JC makes will be used to tighten the grip." Watson and his team categorically denied any such plot and had never heard anyone use the Anaconda phrase. But if Corbyn is defeated on the NEC expansion, the squeeze will be on.
One other key pointer for this week: general secretary Iain McNicol is very chipper at this conference and his speech yesterday had a series of warnings not to pick on his staff, on previous Labour governments or on the PLP. As long as he's around, MPs believe the real power struggle at the top of the party is winnable.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
4) EMERGENCY FAKE?
No10’s very swift and brutal rebuttal of claims that Theresa May was opposed to an ‘emergency brake’ on EU incomers show just how determined she is to stamp out any talk that she’s soft on immigration.
Tim Shipman’s new Brexit book has some juicy claims that David Cameron muttered to colleagues that May was ‘lily-livered’ (such an old-fashioned, yet utterly Cameroonian turn of phrase) on the issue. Why? Because she’d urged him not to go public in a November 2014 speech for fear of upsetting Angela Merkel.
The letter extracts released by No.10 overnight suggest that May was not faking it. They suggest she was totally signed up to the policy of a ‘brake’ but just felt that mentioning it in that one speech was bad poker-play. She’d not only written previously to endorse the policy, she wrote again in 2015 in even more forthright terms.
Of course much of this is academic, though the EU may itself have to think the unthinkable on such ‘brakes’, but it yet again show the bad blood between the May and Cameron regimes is still being spilt. As for Sir Craig Oliver’s own book claims that May was viewed as an ‘enemy agent’ by Remainers, the Sun has an insider quote that the ex-spin chief “should write novels..it’s so dishonest that we are assuming everyone will just laugh.”
Still, the reason May’s team are not laughing about the claims that the PM wavered on migration is part of a wider unease. They know that the nickname ‘Theresa Maybe’ is picking up among Tory MPs worried about just where she stands on Brexit. And on wider domestic policy, especially after the botched grammar schools launch.
5) DIE HARD, TOO
The FT meanwhile splashes on City jitters that No10 is shifting towards a ‘hard Brexit’ stance, having previously hoped that Philip Hammond and the Treasury would prevail. It reports that leading bankers who have held talks with government ministers believe May “will end up taking Britain out of the EU’s single market and customs union”.
The chief exec of Heathrow warns of huge costs to airports and Eurotunnel from killing off the UK’s role in the customs union. John McFarlane, chairman of Barclays has a telling quote: “[Liam Fox] needs to look at the numbers. There has to be a balance between the rational and the political. It can’t just be politics.”
Again that ‘Theresa Maybe’ trope crops up, with some wondering if the PM may want to shore up her position with hardline Eurosceptics inside and outside her Cabinet by abandoning her previous ‘reluctant Remainer’ instincts.
As for immigration and the EU, more Labour politicians are talking about the need to rethink the party’s stance on free movement. Lisa Nandy (have I mentioned her before?) yesterday said it was time to think about measures like new qualifications requirements for migrants, higher minimum wages for care workers and a real understand of why seats like hers voted 3-1 for Leave.
Still, for Labour perhaps the most worrying thing said on Marr yesterday came not from any politician. Labour-supporting Olympian Sir Bradley Wiggins said that Jeremy Corbyn was ‘a lovely fellow’, but “I think Theresa has done a fantastic job of stabilising the country in the short term after the whole debacle in the summer.” No.10 will take that.
COMMONS PEOPLE ON TOUR
Don’t forget that our Commons People podcast is live from a pub in Liverpool tonight. The ‘pubcast’ is with Wes Streeting and Alison McGovern. 6pm at The Crown Hotel, 43 Lime St, Liverpool, Merseyside L1 1JQ.
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