The five things you need to know on Friday, October 21…
1) BRUSSELS OUTS
This is Theresa May’s first ever EU summit as British PM. But it’s also the first summit when the reality of Brexit kicked home: we are now as truly marginal to proceedings as the 52% wanted us to be.
With Russia (in Syria and Ukraine) top of their agenda, and worries about closing a cherished trade deal with Canada, EU leaders made sure Brexit and May looked like irritating afterthoughts at the working dinner. It wasn’t until 1am that the PM made her five-minute speech (‘Brexit means Brexit’ is not hard to simultaneously translate into several different languages, though I paraphrase). No EU leader spoke in response. The tumbleweed rolled. At this ‘working dinner’, we weren’t so much the pudding or cheese course as the rotten post-prandial cigar with a nasty aftertaste.
Francois Hollande, who is fighting his own general election next year don’t forget, warned yesterday that if “Madame Theresa May wants a hard Brexit, then talks will be hard too”. He may be showing a poor grasp of the English vernacular of hard/soft Brexit there, (surely he meant that if she wants to keep trade but dump free movement, she’ll find it difficult?). Angela Merkel was more on the money, warning of the pitfalls to the UK of cutting off its trade nose to spite its migration face: “In practice, that will be a tough road.”
German MEP Manfred Weber told BBC Radio 4's Today programme: "It's not really normal that such a member who wants to leave a club like the EU also wants to decide the future of this club. That's really creating a lot of anger; the behaviour of the British government."
As for Brexit Secretary David Davis, it’s a good job he is a robust individual, given the criticism of him and his department overnight. Sir Brian Unwin, a former Treasury mandarin who helped deliver Thatcher’s famous EU rebate, says DD is living in “cloud cuckloo land” for thinking “the negotiating odds were unbelievably, heavily stacked in our favour”.
Ex-Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis told BBC1’s Question Time that Brexit terms were being “decided behind closed doors by this Pythonesque department of exit, staffed by several people of very low IQ”. To cap that, former EU Commissioner and Cameron helper Jonathan Hill just told Today that the choice was between 'stupid Brexit' and 'intelligent Brexit'. I'm not sure calling your opponents idiots is the right strategy. It didn't really work in the EU referendum.
It's her 100th day in office. Let’s see if May has anything enlightening, stupid or intelligent to say at her first ever post-summit press conference later.
2) KICKING THE CAM DOWN THE ROAD
So, we have two new MPs this morning: Tory Robert Courts in Witney and Labour’s Tracy Brabin in Batley and Spen. Given the Labour seat was uncontested after the murder of Jo Cox, the real politics of last night were in David Cameron’s Oxfordshire seat.
And politics there were plenty. The Lib Dems, who piled everything into this by-election in a way that recalled their formidable operations of old (Romsey, Christchurch, Winchester), slashed the Conservative majority from 25,000 to 5,700. That 19.7% swing is the biggest Con-Lib switch since 1997. It echoes similarly ominous messages from council by-elections in recent months and it’s no wonder Tim Farron (who visted the seat five times) is delighted.
The Lib Dems say the vote was a verdict on ‘hard Brexit’, and given the seat voted 54% to Remain in the EU, you can see why. But claiming you know why the voters voted is perhaps as risky as claiming you know why exactly the public voted for Brexit itself.
But Labour’s performance undermines the theory that Jeremy Corbyn’s undoubted revival of the party in the south in terms of membership will somehow translate into a revival at the ballot box. The party was pushed into third. And when you make by-elections (at Parliamentary and council level) a measure of your electoral health, as JC has done, that’s not easy reading.
Cameron won’t be too chuffed by the result, not least as his own local party failed to select as their candidate the woman who had worked closely with him for years. In fact, it’s not been a great week for the Cameron legacy in general. This week alone, his ‘no ifs, no buts’ pledge on Heathrow looked dead. And other Cameron-era policies like no resits for Year Sevens and pension annuity freedoms were quietly dumped too.
3) CUMMINGS AND GOINGS
Early in his new role, Vote Leave director Dom Cummings said its essential task was to persuade voters Brexit would not be bad for the economy and living standards. That tack was changed dramatically - and very effectively - in the EU referendum campaign when his old boss Michael Gove in April put ‘controlling our borders’ at the heart of the Leave message.
As former Cameron aide Daniel Korski revealed in his Politico piece yesterday, No.10 and the Remain camp couldn’t counter the incoming about incomers - even though they could not find any ‘hard evidence’ that EU migration was putting public services under strain. “At one point we even asked the help of Andrew Green at MigrationWatch…But all he could provide was an article in the Daily Telegraph about a hospital maternity ward in Corby.”
Of course, migration and how to curb ‘freedom of movement’ is at the heart of the ‘soft’/‘hard’ Brexit debate right now. Which is perhaps why No.10 got in a pickle yesterday when asked about Philip Hammond’s barbed remarks about perhaps getting students out of the net migration target. At first Downing Street said student migration would be ‘very closely looked at’, but by the afternoon this had change into a slapdown for the Chancellor: “We are categorically not reviewing whether or not students are included.”
Over in France, as expected, centre-right Presidential favourite Alain Juppe has warned he wants to put the border controls back to Dover, not Calais after Brexit. Gary Lineker is facing online abuse for defending migrants. The Guardian and Indy report that 2,800 Britons applied for citizenship in 18 European countries in the first eight months of 2016 - a 250% rise on 2015. That purple passport is more useful than some think.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch a Polish migrant say on Question Time that she has been discriminated against since Brexit - and get booed for saying it
4) SANDERSON SHELTER
There’s a long-established convention that we political hacks don’t name special advisers, or individual Government or party spokespeople. But sometimes when the spinner becomes the story (Alastair Campbell, Tom Baldwin, Craig Oliver, Andy Coulson), it’s unavoidable. And today Liz Sanderson, who was Theresa May’s adviser at the Home Office, is in the spotlight after Labour’s Lisa Nandy tells the Sun the PM has to answer more questions about the child sex abuse inquiry chaos.
Nandy is urging Yvette Cooper, the new Home Affairs Committee chair, to summon May and Sanderson to give evidence on precisely what they knew and when about “tensions” between the panel and ex-chair Dame Lowell Goddard. Sanderson in particular should be grilled over reports in the Times that she was aware about “serious failings” not just weeks ago but months ago. John O’Brien, the Secretary of the Inquiry, has questions to answer too.
No.10 is very protective of the PM, insisting she has been tightly constrained by strict laws barring ministerial interference with independent inquiries. Yet Nandy is right to press on the bruise, not least as May told Nick Robinson on Today that righting the injustice of child sex abuse was one of the main reaons she was in politics. “What makes me angry? Child sexual abuse. Modern slavery. When we see the powerful abusing their position.”
Given that anger, surely it would have been wiser for the PM’s team to sit down and think through a proper strategy for revealing publicly, in one full statement, exactly what she knew and when - rather than having it dragged out through the drip-feed of Commons Urgent Questions, PMQs, Lobby briefings and so on?
5) CONCENTRIX CIRCLED
Concentrix, the private firm accused of stopping tax credits to thousands of vulnerable people based on “flimsy” evidence, is to have its contract ended six months early. The Indy says staff have been told of the move by HMRC, although employees will transfer in-house and not lose their jobs.
Maria Eagle slammed the firm in PMQs and a Parliamentary debate this week saw a string of MPs tell of how their constituents were forced to pawn their late parents’ jewellery and how food in their freezer spoiled after their electricity was cut off suddenly. PCS union general Secretary Mark Serwotka says “the fiasco is further evidence it is a false economy to hive off important public services”.
But just as interesting was the ‘Nudge Unit’ report yesterday that there’s a wider failure to protect benefit claimants from sanctions and ‘conditionality’. No frontbencher has commented yet on its warning that forcing the unemployed to attend job centres is counter-productive.
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