The five things you need to know on Friday, March 24…
1) THE FALLEN
It’s truly tragic that this morning the new Twitter hashtag #Westminster is a signifier not of politics but of terrorist murder. A fourth victim of the attack has been named by police: 75-year-old Leslie Rhodes from Streatham in south London was among those mown down by the killer’s car. A pensioner who was just walking across a much-loved bridge in his own city. He joins US tourist Kurt Cochran, college worker Aysha Frade and PC Keith Palmer on the list of those murdered.
Yesterday, in her speech to Parliament, Theresa May signalled that she did not want Westminster to become synonymous with terror and wanted it to remain a symbol of democracy and freedom. It was a powerful address, pitch-perfect in tone and content. Her speechwriter Chris Wilkins, who has been at her side for years, helped craft the words, but what was most striking for me was how heartfelt and authentic the speech was. Short sentences, strong messages, both compassionate and steely, it sounded like the Prime Minister had found her voice in the darkest moment of her career.
May’s “We are not afraid” message reminded us of those who really were not afraid when the killer struck: the brave police and NHS staff who put their lives at risk to help others. The PM visited the hospitalised yesterday. Today, 18 people are still in five London hospitals, seven in a critical condition.
From James Cleverly fighting back tears for his friend, to Tobias Ellwood modestly standing by the bar of the House as his own bravery was praised, the Commons captured the mood. The SNP’s Angus Robertson rightly revived the traditional title given to former members of the armed forces, calling Ellwood ‘the honourable and gallant gentleman’. And Labour’s Chris Bryant urged the House to look into honouring PC Palmer with a shield in the chamber, like those that commemorate MPs killed in war, or (like Ian Gow and Airey Neave) killed by terrorists. “He was our shield,” as Bryant put it. He was indeed.
This morning, the Metropolitan Police Federation justgiving page, set up to raise £250,000 for PC Palmer’s family, had raised a huge £422,000. And a Muslims United For London page raised £18,000 for all the victims.
My colleague Owen Bennett has produced a special edition of our CommonsPeople podcast, with interviews with MPs including Angela Rayner, Tim Farron and others. Even in the lockdown, there were moments of humour. Labour MPs claim the Tories devoured more than their fair share of sandwiches brought in during the five-hour event. Labour’s Mary Glindon reveals that Dennis Skinner sang anti-Tory songs to keep his side's spirits up in the Chamber. Listen to it HERE.
2) THE KILLER
Some front pages this morning prefer not to focus on the fallen, but on the murderer. The Times puts on its front page a photo of the moment he was shot by a ministerial bodyguard. Deciding to print that photo, which shows PC Palmer lying on the ground nearby, is certainly a controversial call. The Sun has exclusive video of the moment the PM was bundled into her Jaguar within minutes of the incident.
Police now say attacker Khalid Masood's birth name was Adrian Russell Ajao and not Adrian Elms as previously reported. Born in Kent, he appears to have converted to Islam some time after 2003. Some reports claim he was radicalised and then ‘re-radicalised’ in prison. His age, 52, was older than most Islamist recruits, and detectives are still piecing together how he turned into a killer.
Questions about Commons security are naturally being raised. But one MP and former armed forces veteran told me that it was an insult to say security had been ‘breached’, when the concentric rings of protection had worked: Masood got barely 20 yards into Westminster’s grounds before he was shot. Arming all police on the front gate is deemed difficult not just because of the fortress message it sends (our police often pose for photos with tourists outside the gates), but also because of the dangers to the public of using firearms in a public space. Westminster Tube has armed police at its entrance this morning, however.
The people of Birmingham are waking up to headlines in the Daily Mail such as ‘So how DID Birmingham become the jihadi capital of Britain?’ UKIP are doubling down on the idea that even though Masood was British-born, this was all about immigration. Nigel Farage went on Fox News to say it showed by Trump’s travel ban was right. Paul Nuttall said the ‘cancer’ had to be cut out. Polish PM Beata Szydlo said it justified her refusal to take Syrian refugees. All of which made you realise just how stateswomanlike was Theresa May’s response yesterday.
3) BREXIT WARM-UP
Although New Palace Yard is still cordoned off, and the House was eerily lacking in school groups and visitors yesterday, things are returning to normal in coming days. And next week, usual business will be back in earnest when Article 50 is formally triggered and the two-year process of Brexit really starts.
Ahead of the EU’s 60th birthday party tomorrow, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker has been on the BBC saying he was not in a ‘hostile mood’ about Brexit and would not try to punish the UK. Mind you, he told German paper Bild on Monday “Britain's example will make everyone realise that it's not worth leaving.”
The Sun reports that Liam Fox yesterday confirmed its story that he plans a Queen’s Speech bill to take back control of trade policy from Brussels, and transfer the power to collect tariffs back to Britain. It’s all part of showing the PM’s threat to walk away from talks without a new UK-EU trade deal is no bluff.
The Telegraph’s Chris Hope reveals that Arron Banks and Cameron’s former policy guru Steve Hilton have held talks about getting independent candidates to stand against Remainer MPs, including Tories. They have identified 103 MPs ‘we consider are not fit for purpose’. Remainer-in-chief Michael Heseltine is no longer an MP but in an interview with The House magazine he defies Basil Fawlty and mentions the War: “Germany lost the war. We’ve just handed them the opportunity to win the peace. I find that quite unacceptable.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Andrew Neil’s monologue last night: “You have the power to hurt us. Sometimes the hurt is more than we can bear. But you cannot defeat us"
4) EXODUS? MOVEMENT OF JEZ PEOPLE
One of the weirdest bits of “fake news” propagated on social media this week was that Jeremy Corbyn’s office is “being forced to run with only half the staff that Ed Miliband had”. General secretary Iain McNicol was failing to hand over cash generated by record membership numbers, a leftwing blog claimed, a claim repeated on Facebook feeds of many Corbyn supporters. But even pro-Jez NEC member Christine Shawcroft has now confirmed that the allegations are “incorrect”. In fact, the NEC heard this week that JC has 28 members of staff, with 4 vacancies. EdM had 25 at this stage of the Parliament.
HuffPost UK can reveal - read our story HERE - that three more members of staff from the leader’s office are quitting. Nancy Platts, the trade union liaison manager, Matt Zarb-Cousin, media spokesperson, and Jayne Fisher, in charge of contacts with community and minority ethnic groups, are leaving. Though it got buried amid the Budget U-turn chaos, it also emerged that the leader’s head of economic policy, Mike Hatchett, had resigned to join the Government’s Brexit department.
In another shake-up, David Prescott has moved from the leader’s office, amid claims that he had trouble “finding Jeremy’s authentic voice” when he helped with speechwriting. Seumas Milne and policy chief Andrew Fisher will take over speechwriting duties once more.
Allies of Corbyn insist that there is no “exodus” and that this is all natural “churn” in any organisation. They point to health-related reasons for Fisher and Zarb-Cousin’s departures, and defend office director Karie Murphy, saying she is “a forceful character” but “a good manager”. Murphy’s importance has certainly grown in recent months. And she was with the leader yesterday as he placed flowers on Westminster Bridge.
5) OH, DONALDCARE
Having years of promises to “repeal and replace” Obama’s Affordable Care Act, Trump and the Republicans are finding just how difficult it is to do that. A series of votes is expected in Congress today, but amid splits about just what they want instead, the President warned his party that they would “be stuck with Obamacare” if they didn’t back his new plan.
A group of Republicans wants to cut the ACA’s Essential Health Benefits rule, which requires insurers to cover ten health services, including preventive care — like breast cancer screening — for women. Senator Pat Roberts has had to apologise after telling a female reporter: "I wouldn't want to lose my mammograms”. But here’s a telling picture of the all-male group of Republicans who want to slash women’s healthcare.
Oh, and in case anyone forgot, Trump’s links to Putin are very much a huge issue Stateside. So this is a timely reminder of the nature of life in Russia: Denis Voronenkov, ex-Duma member turned Putin critic who had move to Ukraine, ended an interview with the Washington Post on Tuesday night saying “For our personal safety, we can’t let them know where we are”. Less than 72 hours later, he was dead, shot twice in the head in broad daylight outside his hotel in Kiev.
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