The five things you need to know on Monday, December 5…
1) JOHNSON & JOHNSON
Boris Johnson has spent a lifetime cultivating the ‘amiable joker’ persona, but anyone who knows him knows there’s a different, more serious Boris behind the scenes. The ‘buffoon’ is pretty smart indeed, and the rest of Europe is coming to see how our Foreign Secretary uses humour as a shield, a weapon and a smokescreen all at once.
But fellow ministers often don’t see the funny side, and he’s been subject to some serious counter-briefing of late. One Whitehall edict, leaked to the Mail on Sunday, tells ministers to refer to him as “Foreign Secretary" instead of “Boris”, in a bid to perhaps improve the respect required for one of the senior offices of state. Critics say that if Boris wants to keep on making jokes, he’ll be treated like a joke, but as the key Vote Leave figurehead in the Government, Theresa May knows how valuable he will be in keeping his supporters onside.
On his Sunday morning media run-outs (we watch these shows so you don’t have to folks), Boris showed how complex a political character he can be. He will have delighted Eurosceps by refusing to endorse David Davis’s hint of ‘large’ EU contributions continuing after Brexit. He didn’t back off his Liam Fox-style candour that the UK will ‘probably’ quit the EU customs union.
So far, so hard Brexit. Yet Boris is notably soft Brexitish on immigration. He refused on Marr to endorse May’s 100k migration target and on Peston he went further, stating he disagreed with the idea of including students in the target.
The many sides to Boris Johnson are just one reason people outside Westminster are wondering just what Brexit will eventually look like. (Then again, there are many sides to Labour’s stance on immigration, as the gap between Keir Starmer and Diane Abbott was in evidence again yesterday - he said on Pienaar it would be ‘fair’ to restrict EU migration to those with a job to come to)
Theresa May is on a mini-tour of Gulf states, pushing easier visas and lower trade barriers for a £30bn post-Brexit ‘bonanza’. She’s bound to be asked about Boris, but she may well retreat into no running commentary mode.
2) INDEFINITE ARTICLE
Brexiteers, Remainers, city traders, legal geeks and constitution wonks will all be huddled round their tellies or computers today, tuning for the live coverage of the Supreme Court’s Article 50 case. You can watch it on the court’s own website, or keep an eye on the BBC and other broadcasters throughout the four-day hearing.
The verdict is not expected until the New Year but everyone will be looking for clues in the questioning of the judges. Government sources were yesterday suggesting their chances of success were ’50-50’. Some Brexiters are sanguine, pointing out that even if the court upholds the High Court ruling, Labour’s vow not to block Article 50 means the end-of-March timetable for its triggering will be unchanged. More interesting will be whether the court feels it needs to address the issue of irreversibility of Article 50 (or not), or whether a referral to the European Court of Justice is needed. Many eyes will be on Brenda Hale, one of the sharpest brains in the court.
The Mail, meanwhile, renews its attack on the judges, calling them quangocrats whose appointments are not open to the usual norms of public scrutiny or transparency. The Telegraph has an advance from Attorney General Jeremy Wright of his warning to the judges not to “stray into areas of political judgement”. It has an intriguing nugget that the Government is ‘examining’ plans for the Supreme Court judges to be forced to make public more information about the ‘political interests’ of themselves and their family members.
3) DAME BLAME
Dame Louise Casey is a well-known maverick in Whitehall circles, admired and loathed in almost equal measure for her ability to shake things up. Her latest report on the lack of social and ethnic integration in the UK, commissioned by Cameron, fires its criticism like a blunderbuss at several targets at once: virtually all politicians (including T May) at national and local level, officials, community groups, you name it.
The 200-page report has already come under fire from some for being selective and unrepresentative in its depiction of a world where some Muslims are living totally parallel lives with misguided views of how Britain should work culturally and socially. Others praise Casey for lifting a lid on communities with lives utterly disconnected from the rest of Britain, particularly for women and girls in some backwards-looking areas. She underlined the point on the Today programme, saying Oldham’s Asian men ensured their wives and daughters couldn’t become councillors, claiming that was not an ‘isolated example’.
The Sun has a piece from Casey, plus a heads-up on her report, which claims some authorities tolerated suspicious practices for fear of being seen as ‘racist’. One key line, which seems written with headline writers in mind, is that ministers’ attempts to boost integration were little more “saris, samosas and steel drums for the already well-intentioned”.
Yet for all that Casey herself doesn’t seem to have many answers (despite the ‘oath of allegiance’) to the very difficult problem of increasing segregation. I remember when Ted Cantle produced his 2001 report in the wake of riots in Bradford, Oldham and Burnley. It called for quotas to stop schools becoming mono-cultural or mono-racial. But that problem has got worse, not better, with hundreds of schools now having 100% of one racial group (some just a short distance from each other). How do you stop people from living in certain areas, or from sending their kids to certain schools? That’s a long term problem with long-term solutions that will need more than easy headlines.
Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that outgoing Ofsted chief Sir Michael Wilshaw last month said many schools receive no recognition for their “incredible achievement” in helping immigrants integrate successfully into society. He also rubbished “tabloid claims” that British children suffer as a result of immigration, saying non-immigrant pupils do better as a result of having immigrant peers. But selling that message in some areas seems very difficult indeed.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Boris Johnson flee Sky News’s ‘pub quiz’ on foreign leaders, after just two questions.
4) PATIENCE, OLD PADOAN
Pier Carlo Padoan, Italy’s 66-year-old finance minister, is the favourite to replace PM Matteo Renzi after his comprehensive defeat in his constitutional referendum yesterday. The smart money is on the Italian president inviting Padoan to steady the ship rather than trigger a general election, which is due in 18 months’ time. With a plunging euro and fears about its banks, calm patience and keeping Renzi’s centre-left party in place with a different PM is what Brussels and others want.
Many have tried to see Renzi’s defeat through the ‘populism/Trump/Brexit’ narrative, but the resounding ‘No’ vote (60%-40%) has the oddity of being a populist pro-Establishment vote. Renzi was the one wanting to shake up his country’s sclerotic form of government, his opponents wanted the status quo. Still, as important as he felt the issue was, it was politically naive to link his own tenure with the outcome of the result. Some of his allies think Renzi could have survived a referendum loss despite its importance to him. It all feels a bit like David Cameron saying he’d quit if the AV referendum had gone against him.
The one good thing to come out of the past few weeks is that others in Europe have begun to see the real face of Beppe Grillo’s Five Star Movement (read this superb Alberto Nardelli piece on its links to Russian-backed ‘fake news’ sites). Grillo told people famously to ‘vote with your gut, not your brain’. That’s a very 2016 theme, of course. Jeremy Corbyn told a conference on Saturday that the response to the rise of the far-right should be to offer more socialism, not more of the centre. Just what he makes of Five Star remains unclear however.
Over in Austria, at least, the people had a gut reaction against Norbert Hofer, the far-right candidate for its ceremonial post of president. On Facebook he described himself as "infinitely sad" and congratulated Alexander Van der Bellen, former head of the Greens, who increased his previous narrow win tenfold. Sad, that.
5) OH SUGAR SUGAR
The May government has trashed key bits of George Osborne’s legacy (deficit targets, shares for rights, annuities reform), while upholding others (the ‘national living wage’). But what will it do about one of his final Budget flourishes, the sugar tax?
The Treasury produces draft legislation today amid warnings from the drinks lobby and from the Taxpayers’ Alliance that the tax won’t raise as much as expected, that inflation will be fuelled and that taxes will have to go up on other things to make up the shortfall in revenue.
But the FT has a report that will delight Osborne-ites: soft drinks firms are accelerating plans to cut sugar from their products, a move that was the whole point of the exercise. Coca-Cola says more than half of its drinks will be low or no sugar (thus avoiding the tax) by 2018, two years earlier than planned. Lucozade Ribena Suntory is to halve the sugar in all its products to escape the tax completely. Pepsi is promoting low-sugar options and even Irn Bru will see sugar slashed it seems.
Still, where the shortfall in revenue will come from is a moot point. But Simon Stevens, the NHS chief who has been evangelical in promoting sugar-free or low-sugar options in a bid to tackle our obesity crisis, will be pleased at the firms trying to change their products. I’m told that when Stevens worked in the States, his own weight ballooned. He then went on a zero-sugar diet and never looked back.
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