The five things you need to know on Tuesday, April 25…
1) THE SEARCH PARTY
Keir Starmer today unveils Labour’s Brexit policy for the general election. One one reading, his pitch appears to be not so much a change in policy from the Tories but a change in tone: let’s be nicer to the EU27 and they will give us a deal that helps both sides. The flaw in this could be that actually some in Brussels are in agreement with Tory Eurosceps: there is no such thing as a ‘soft’ Brexit. To give the UK a trade and customs deal that allows all the benefits of EU membership would hardly be a deterrent to others who wanted to leave the club.
But last night’s Newsnight gave a measure of where we now are in this election. Peter Mandelson, when asked what Labour’s strategy was on Brexit, replied: “Search me”. And the gaping hole in the overnight briefs on Starmer’s speech was the lack of any mention of immigration or freedom of movement. That may not be his fault, of course. I’m told the release of the extracts was delayed by several hours yesterday, as Corbyn’s office delayed on signing them off.
The other big news though in Starmer’s extracts (other than immediate rights to EU citizens, which is frankly a niche issue to many Labour heartland voters) was his vow to guarantee a ‘meaningful vote’ for Parliament on any Brexit deal. I understand he would be willing to go back to Brussels and negotiate further if MPs blocked the deal. The risk is a never-ending veto for Parliament over the EU referendum verdict. On the Today programme, Starmer confirmed he would be willing to ‘go back to the negotiating table’ in 2018.
Meanwhile, taking their lead from Tony Blair, all the pro-EU groups have joined forces to target leading Brexiteers, with a hit-list of ‘attack seats’ where voters should focus their Remain anger. Kate Hoey, Iain Duncan Smith and Theresa Villiers feature on it. A further list of 20 “defence seats” include Labour’s Mary Creagh, Angela Smith and Pat McFadden as well as the Lib Dems’ Norman Lamb and Tom Brake. Separately, there are mutterings that Corbyn’s own seat is being targeted by Labour Remainers and Lib Dems.
2) BLUE DRAGON
With all the caveats that one poll does not make a trend, let alone make a forecast, the ITVWales/YouGov survey yesterday was still a real shocker: Tories 40%, Labour 30%. The Red Dragon would turn blue if those findings were replicated on June 8, with the Tories getting the largest number of MPs in the principality since 1859. Given that Labour wasn’t even founded then and the franchise was not exactly wide, that’s a helluva stat.
The poll suggests the Tories would get 21 seats and Labour just 15. Few in CCHQ believe that, but some Conservatives think they can get up to 14 or 15, which is still remarkable. The reason is May is winning over ex-Labour supporters who voted UKIP in 2015 and/or Leave in the EU referendum. It remains debatable whether UKIP/Leave was a gateway drug to voting Tory, or whether having tasted the crack cocaine of Brexit those voters just want the safer, softer drug of Mrs May.
After chairing Political Cabinet in No.10 this morning, the PM heads to Wales to ram home her message in this morning’s Western Mail (the Cardiff-based paper): Brexit “should have been a wake-up call for a generation of politicians who have taken the people for granted for too long”. Sounds like indyref of 2014? You betcha. What was most notable last night was Labour’s First Minister Carwyn Jones’ response to the poll: “We know Jeremy needs to prove himself to the electorate here in Wales, just as we know the political weather is tough going, a fact underlined by the polling numbers released today.” Again, this may be Corbynsceptics using the dire polls to help reassure voters their leader won’t be PM but should still vote for their local Labour candidates.
Once more, the Tories didn’t need to do much yesterday. The Communist Party of Britain and the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition said Corbyn was such a good leader they would not oppose Labour in the election.
3) THE CHICKEN RUN
The Mirror’s chicken-suited hack continues to ask why the PM is running scared of TV debates, but yesterday the real clucking cowards appeared to be UKIP. After Douglas Carswell and Nigel Farage ruled out running for Parliament again, donor Arron Banks announced he was U-turning his plan to run in Clacton.
As a collector of political memorabilia/trash, I still have the Tories’ ‘Bottler Brown’ ale, marking the ex-PM’s decision in 2007 not to call an election. And the Kippers now look like they’re bottling it too. UKIP leader Paul Nuttall locked himself in a room yesterday to avoid questions on whether he would himself run as an MP. Carswell said UKIP was now officially ‘over’.
UKIP faced accusations of ‘full-throttled Islamophobia’ over not just its burka ban but also its call for girls at risk of FGM to face annual compulsory health checks. To be fair to UKIP, the French have similarly hardline policies, and FGM victim Nimko Ali pointed out yesterday that Labour’s Diane Abbott had in 2014 called for mandatory checks on girls. Some health professionals think checks are a good idea, but many campaigners think they will deter the vulnerable.
But while some are running away from the election, others are returning. We learned yesterday that the Tories are getting more of their 2015 election band back together. Obama’s ex online guru Jim Messina has been rehired by May, along with digital whizzkid Craig Elder - credited with the Tories’ wipeout of the LibDems last time.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
‘80s pop group Bananarama are re-uniting, so here’s their promo video in 1988 featuring some real MPs bopping along. A more innocent age…
4) OVER HERE
Labour may not be talking about EU migration overnight, but everyone else is. The Education Select Committee warns special visa rights for university academics to avoid a "damaging brain drain”. Meanwhile, the PM will resist pressure from Philip Hammond, Amber Rudd and both Johnsons (Boris and brother Jo, the unis minister) to take students out of the migration target.
A cross-party amendment to do so will be reversed in the Lords tomorrow as part of the ‘wash-up’ process before Parliament prorogues on Thursday. Sources tell the FT that May is ‘adamant’ the policy will be unchanged, and that No.10 is unhappy with JoJo for pushing it.
The FT also has a nice scoop that the Home Office is so worried about a new deluge of permanent residence applications that it is discouraging EU nationals in the UK from doing so. Its website now says: “Under EU law you don’t need a document to confirm your residence status in the UK. If you’re planning to apply for a document just to confirm your status, you can sign up for email alerts instead.” Email alerts?
Meanwhile, at the sharper end of the debate, the All Party Parliamentary Group on Refugees has a new report warning of a ‘two-tier system’ that leaves refugees homeless and destitute. Offically designated refugees, such as Syrians who come under the Home Office’s Vulnerable Persons Resettlement Scheme, get dedicated support. But people granted asylum face sudden withdrawal of financial help and paperwork nightmares that can leave them on the street.
5) DELAY DAY
The High Court should rule today on the Government’s application to extend yesterday’s legal deadline for publishing its air quality plan. Will the judges give ministers what they want because to do otherwise would risk running into tricky political waters of purdah and elections? In the Commons, Labour’s Fiona Mactaggart (who is not standing again) had a startling statistic for Environment Secretary Andrea Leadsom: between now and the delayed date of June 30 ‘there will be seven more dead people’ from air pollution in her Slough constituency. Environment Minister Therese Coffey shouted in response: “You’re embarrassing yourself now, dear.”
Leadsom did hint that her plan, when published, would be based on actual NO2 emissions rather than lab tests used by VW and other car firms. But she claimed that while the plan was ready now, it really needed consultation (even though if it had been published months ago that consultation could have happened) so had to appear after the election. No wonder Labour smelled a rat: that May doesn’t want to risk stories about winners-and-losers of a diesel scrappage scheme.
In fact, there’s a pattern of ministers just using the election as an excuse to bury potentially tricky news. The Sun points out Sajid Javid had tried to delay a £300m business rates relief fund on Friday but then executed a weekend U-turn. And almost unnoticed yesterday, Culture Secretary Karen Bradley used a written statement to say she would delay to June 20 the deadline for Ofcom and other reports on Fox’s planned takover of Sky.
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