The five things you need to know on Thursday, March 30…
1) TERROR FIRMER
It’s nine long months since David Dimbleby told a waking nation “The British people have spoken - and we’re out!” Of course, we are still in and will be in the EU until midnight March 29, 2019 (when “Big Ben bongs”, as one No.10 source put it). But yesterday Theresa May finally started the formal process of Brexit and tried, in her Commons statement at least, to strike a note of upbeat optimism.
Unless you were living under a rock yesterday, you’ll know the guts of May’s message. My WaughZone special is HERE, covering everything from her hints of transitional deals to the EU’s response. Newspapers and news reporters of all kinds report on what’s ‘new’ (the clue is in the name) and the PM certainly gave everyone a story by explicitly linking security to trade for the first time.
No.10 tried to say the PM was just ‘stating facts’ about close working on crime and terror. Yet given that yesterday was just a week since the Westminster attack, it seemed crass to many that this was being used in a negotiation. Amber Rudd was sent out to hose down the row. But she chucked petrol on it instead, telling Sky that the UK was the largest contributor to Europol and “if we left..then we would take our information with us”. Europol happens to be headed by former MI5 man Rob Wainwright, who has warned 2,000 criminals were sent back to Europe under the European Arrest Warrant
Was it just one of those May-like spasms of Euroscepticism, a ‘Remainer-trying-too-hard’ pitch to her backbenchers (who don’t forget were unhappy when she opted in to EU home affairs rules as Home Secretary)? If it was another bluff, it may well be as effective as her threat to quit the EU with ‘no deal’ and opt for a ‘Singapore slim’ model of an offshore economy.
Now the clock is ticking, however, the time constraints may work in the EU27’s favour, not ours. Donald Tusk’s stand-out phrase yesterday was that this was now about “damage control”. Angela Merkel proved immovable in saying a new trade deal could only be discussed once the ‘divorce’ bit of Brexit was sorted. If we quibble over the divorce bill, for example, the Germans won’t mind a bit as it squeezes the time for a new trade deal.
I remember when striking electricians on the Jubilee Line extension won huge pay rises because bosses were terrified they would run over their deadline of getting it ready for the Millennium eve. The immovable deadline for Brexit is now March 2019, and the EU27 know we are in a hurry, not them.
2) COURT OF REPEAL
Brexit Secretary David Davis was manning the airwaves for the Government this morning ahead of the publication of his new Great Repeal Bill White Paper. DD had to firefight the security issue, stating it was “not a bargaining chip”, but his wider point on the Today programme was that he and the PM want a good deal not just for us but for Europe.
He stressed that “the boss” will be the UK’s chief negotiator, though he will of course be her main sherpa doing the heavy lifting. And his mood was as conciliatory as May’s: “there are always quid pro quos in any negotiation, of course there are”. DD even rowed back from his own line earlier this year that he wanted a free trade deal with “the exact same benefits” as single market membership (see below).
Of course, the PM faces ranks of her own Eurosceptic MPs ready to cry ‘betrayal!’ if she gives too much ground to the EU on freedom of movement (markedly absent from her letter) or transitional deals. Davis pointed out that one of such “troublesome” rebels would “probably would have been me a few years ago”. The Sun, which carries a piece from him, describes DD as an “SAS hard man”. Yet in many ways David Davis is the Martin McGuinness of the Brexit movement. A hardliner who has the backing of his military wing, and is now committed to a peace process. On Today, he didn’t rule out Tory MPs objecting to anything they felt uncomfortable with: “They are going to make a decision on whether it’s acceptable or not”. Those Eurosceps, they haven’t gone away, you know.
He will know too that the other two Brexiteers in the Cabinet won’t want to be marginalised. The Times reports that Boris Johnson was not involved in drafting the Article 50 letter and was shown it only on Tuesday, hours before it was sent to Brussels. And he’s the Foreign Secretary. Liam Fox was only shown it late too. After Philip Hammond’s jibe yesterday that we ‘can’t have our cake and eat it’, those Cabinet tensions haven’t got away either.
As for the Great Repeal Bill, even senior Tories have told me they find its title ridiculous. The ‘Great Cut And Paste Bill’ is how many in Whitehall know it, as the legislation would simply transpose 20,000 EU laws and regulations into British law. The issue of a lack of scrutiny of the sheer scale of those changes, many done by Statutory Instrument, is sure to feature. But other stand-alone bills on immigration and customs will make life tricky for May and DD, with Leavers and Remainers ready to unpick them with amendments.
The next general election won’t just be a verdict on May’s handling of Brexit, it will also be a referendum on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership. And the poll news remains grim. Yesterday, YouGov revealed that for the first time more 2015 Labour voters (and don’t forget they’re pretty loyal) think May would make the best PM than think Corbyn would make the best PM. Today’s New Statesman declares war on Corbyn, again, with a headline: “WANTED: An Opposition”.
As Nicola Sturgeon talked yesterday about Brexit being “a leap in the dark” (unlike, Scottish independence?), the Labour leader’s words on other referenda were picked up. He told Andrew Neil that he wasn’t in principle opposed to a poll on the reunification of Ireland. “If the Northern Ireland Assembly wants to have one then they should be allowed to,” he said. Perfectly in keeping with devolution, of course, but it won’t endear him any more to the DUP.
And on a second Scottish referendum, Corbyn said Westminster should not “block” one (a line Kezia Dugdale agreed with him last night), before agreeing with May it shouldn’t take place until after Brexit talks are completed. A new National Centre for Social Research (NatCen) study today has more bad news for the SNP. Most Scots want Brexit to result in stronger curbs on immigration and do not see any need for Scotland to be given a different deal from the rest of the UK.
In the Commons, the Labour leader’s best question was to pick up on Keir Starmer’s ‘sixth test’, that any Brexit deal should have “the exact same benefits” (copyright, David Davis) as single market membership. It is, of course, unanswerable because such a high bar will be almost impossible. No.10 refused to repeat DD’s phrase yesterday, but May does want something that delivers ‘frictionless’ trade. DD himself told the Today programme: “I make no apology for being ambitious”. But he also said he was only ‘aiming’ for the same benefits, ‘achieving it’ was something else. A small, but significant distinction.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this little girl think a water heater dumped in the street is a robot.
4) OH, SUGAR
Last year, the big Brexit scare was that Toblerone would be less chunky because of soaring import costs. Today, it looks like we’re going to have smaller choc bars entirely of our own accord. Public Health England has published its targets for food manufacturuers to cut sugar in their products by 20% by 2020. It also suggests three ways for firms to get there: lower sugar levels, smaller portions or directing customers to healthier alternatives.
All very laudable, but it won’t exactly get the food giants quaking in their boots. For a start, I can imagine kids buying two small bars rather than a big one. More importantly this is all about entreaty rather than compulsion. Alison Tedstone, chief nutritionist at PHE, said that it was quicker to shame firms rather than devise legal regulation to force them to cut sugar content. “We think that if we were to develop regulation for a reformulation programme at the moment, it would tie us up in knots for a long time and we have an urgent crisis with childhood obesity."
Speaking of health crises, the Telegraph reports that a flu jab blunder that contributed to the largest increase in deaths in a generation may have brought unexpected benefits for Britain's pensions black hole. The Institute and Faculty of Actuaries says the increase in the mortality rate in 2016 - when the flu jab was mismatched for the main strain of influenza - cut life expectancy and removed about £28bn of pension liabilities from the balance sheets of leading firms. At least someone wins from death.
Meanwhile, the Times reports on other businesses worried about healthier lifestyles. It says restaurants in the City of London are suffering because many firms now ban staff from drinking during the working day. To make their margins, some are now serving a selection of teas in wine glasses instead - with one charging £18 for a 500ml glass.
5) TELLY TIME
Last night, former Ed Miliband aide Stewart Wood secured his first ever Government defeat, with his amendment to the Digital Economy Bill winning a majority of 31 votes. The amendment requires Sky and other on-demand TV platforms to prominently display public service broadcasters (such as children’s BBC shows). Wood blogged for HuffPost earlier this year on this and other ways to strenthen the public service remit. As well as winning two votes, he also won a Government concession on updating rules guaranteeing major sporting events remain accessible to all on free-to-air TV.
The Daily Mail reports that Ofcom, which takes over as the BBC's regulator next year, wants to force BBC Radio 2 to carry at least three hours of news and current affairs every day at peak time. That could have a real impact on the much-loved Jeremy Vine show (the old Jimmy Young slot), which is currently at lunchtime. The BBC's Controller of Radio, Bob Shennan, says he thinks his channels already carry enough news and current affairs.
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