The five things you need to know on Wednesday, October 12…
1) QUESTIONS TIME
After the conference recess, it’s PMQs day once more and Jeremy Corbyn may be hoping to score a victory similar to that on grammar schools in his last outing. Theresa May’s plans to curb foreign workers and foreign doctors may be another rare unifying theme for Corbyn if he wants to get his MPs behind him again.
But it is questions about Brexit that dominate Labour’s overnight attack lines, with 170 unanswered questions for David Davis (one for every day between now and the Article 50 trigger on March 31) on the details of what our withdrawal from the EU will involve.
And the big Parliamentary event after PMQs is the Opposition day motion from Keir Starmer and Corbyn that “calls on the Prime Minister to ensure that this House is able properly to scrutinise that plan for leaving the EU before Article 50 is invoked”. No.10 was cagey all day about how to respond to this and last night we found out why. In a bid to reassure Tory MPs worried about the lack of a vote on a Brexit deal, it tabled a late amendment. This accepts the motion but adds politicians must not “undermine the negotiating position of the government”.
(It’s worth an aside here that Starmer has managed early on to assert his own position. Corbyn refused repeated calls from Owen Smith during the leadership race to insist on Parliament having a say before the Article 50 trigger, but that’s Labour’s stance now.)
DD is showing some muscle, though, and appears to be winning his battle against the Treasury. No.10 pointedly refused to endorse the Treasury's April £66bn Brexit cost warning yesterday. And today, DD has produced a report for Cabinet colleagues that says it is extremely unlikely that the UK would end up with the worst case scenario of having to trade with the EU under WTO rules (though he promises that ministers would act to mitigate the impact if that did happen). A pal of DD tells the Telegraph he thinks Treasury officials are 'pulling the rug from beneath us'.
The Guardian has dug out quotes from a DD adviser Raoul Ruparel writing a while back that leaving the EU customs union would cost £25bn a year but would be worth it over time. The Treasury’s displeasure with Liam Fox (who told me last week he was relaxed about quitting the customs union) is growing. The Telegraph reports a senior Treasury official saying "Liam is the one who needs to watch his back. Of him and Philip Hammond, I know which is more sackable, and it's not the chancellor.”
Add to all this Newsnight’s scoop that an unnamed Cabinet minister thinks we will end up ‘paying quite a lot’ to get access to the single market after Brexit, and you can see why this story is never-ending (and why the new Brexit select committee has its work cut out). Don’t forget DD’s PPS Stewart Jackson told a Tory fringe that an end to the UK’s EU contributions was a ‘red line’.
The Resolution Foundation warns Brexit could hit the wages of the low paid, and the FT reports that Russia’s VTB bank has become the first big lender to say it will quit London because of Brexit instability. As for the plunging pound, we may have seen nothing yet. There’s chatter, just chatter, that at the point we trigger Article 50, the UK may have to impose capital controls to prevent the ‘fright-flight’ of capital overseas….
2) BORIS GETS SYRIAS
Boris’s decision to pick up Ann Clwyd’s call for a demonstration outside the Russian embassy has certainly made waves. Clwyd said she wanted “2 million, 3 million or 4 million people outside the Russian embassy day after day” to protest at its bombing of civilians in Aleppo and elsewhere in Syria. A backbencher floating such a plan and a Foreign Secretary endorsing it are very different things but Boris went for it, adding ‘Where is the Stop the War coalition at the moment?’. Within minutes, the Russian embassy in the UK was tweeting taunts that the UK had done nothing to help in Syria.
As it happens a spokesman for Stop The War this morning confirmed it wouldn’t march on the embassy, warning against "jingoism and hysteria" against Russia. That’s the kind of talk that infuriates Labour MPs, many of whom were upset at Emily Thornberry’s and Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to more explicitly condemn Putin yesterday. Alison McGovern's moving tribute to Jo Cox was one of many impressive speeches.
Of course, Government-inspired marches on embassies aren’t exactly the British way, and it’s worth remembering that we rightly objected when Iran instigated protests outside our embassy in Tehran 2011. But for Labour and Tory MPs alike there is still real anger at the way many on the left want to march against the US but not against Moscow.
Boris also raised the idea of chasing the war crimes culprits through the ICC. “I am personally very attracted to the idea of holding these people to account before the International Criminal Court, so that is certainly something that I would like to pursue,” he said. When I asked No.10 if this was the Goverment’s position and not just the Foreign Sec’s ‘personal’ view, they were unclear.
Is the idea of no-fly zone over Aleppo another area of Boris freelancing? Downing St stressed yesterday just how difficult it would be to try to stop Russian planes from flying without escalating the conflict. But the Sun says Bojo is in favour of committing the RAF to just such a mission and "has urged Theresa May to try to persuade America to adopt the plan after the US elections in November”. Hillary Clinton is certainly expected to get tougher if she wins, but will she be this tough?
In other Boris-related news, the Sun also reports he was stopped by No10 from including a line backing the ‘bring back Britannia’ campaign in his conference speech. That dead horse is far from being finally flogged.
3) LABOUR PAINS
Jeremy Corbyn is up before the Women and Equalities Select Committee at 9.30am (along with Tim Farron and Patrick McLoughlin) to give evidence on “women in the House of Commons after 2020”. Expect him to point out how many women he has promoted to his top team in his reshuffle, though it’s not yet clear how many of the remaining vacancies in his team he still plans to fill.
Emily Thornberry, who has turned into one of Jez’s key allies, recently lost her battle to keep both her Shadow Brexit job and her Shadow Foreign Secretary job. But that hasn’t stopped her defending her boss, saying that all those who condemn him as ‘weak’ now complain when he shows strong leadership with his reshuffle.
A Lib Dem attempt to embarrass another of Corbyn’s high profile female supporters backfired badly in the Lords yesterday. Tim Farron claimed Shami Chakrabarti had ‘sold out’ on civil liberties because Labour planned to abstain on a Lib Dem amendment on the IP Bill - only to see his own peers Ming Campbell and Alex Carlile attack it and Brian Paddick to withdraw it. ‘Farcical’ is how Baroness Hayter described it to us.
But Labour pain over the tensions between the PLP and leadership continue. Jon Ashworth was finally booted off the NEC yesterday, without a vote or a full Shadow Cabinet discussion. Ashworth said how sad he was to have been removed, and Tom Watson put on record his objection. But I’m told Watson was irritated with his colleague for ‘failing to stand his ground’ after Corbyn announced the news. Ashworth’s allies point out he had no choice.
One reminder of the pressures of politics came from Liam Byrne at the Times Cheltenham Literary Festival yesterday. He revealed that after David Laws made public his ‘there is no money’ note, he walked to a Dorset cliff edge and “was kind of ready to throw myself off”. He was also trying to overcome grief at his father dying of alcoholism. Worth remembering that Philip Hammond to whom that note was addressed (he was Shadow Chief Sec remember) has said he would not have breached convention and would have kept it private.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch a Trump supporter explain that Trump is ‘not running for Pope’.
4) WOOLFE BITE
Just in case you forgot that all the parties have their own splits, the Guardian has news that Stephen Woolfe could face a challenge from former deputy leader Paul Nuttall. MEP Jonathan Arnott says Woolfe “could not possibly be a unifying force” after the ‘altercation’ with colleagues in Strasbourg last week. It seems strange that a bloke who was hospitalised just a few days ago could now be kicked while he’s down, but hey this is UKIP and this is 2016, normal rules don’t apply. Nuttall has previously opted out of running and some believe he is keen to keep his private life private. Let’s see if this is just more than frustration with Woolfe for daring to suggest joining the Tories was an option.
5) PENSION TENSION
Another bit of the Osborne legacy is being trashed again today as the OBR says his plans for pension reform could cost the public finances £5bn a year by 2035. The Telegraph splashes the tale and others give it prominence. The Times has a different pensions story that shows May wants to do things differently from her predecessors. It says a new scheme considered by the Treasury could give tax breaks to younger workers, paid for by capping pension relief for higher paid older workers. It’s one way to tackle the ‘intergenerational unfairness’ Millennials talk about. Meanwhile, David Cameron resurfaces today in the Telegraph to say his next job will be as chairman of National Citizens’ Service Patrons. That’s one legacy he is determined not to see die.
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