The five things you need to know on Wednesday, April 26…
1) FINAL PM CUES
It’s the final Prime Minister’s Questions of this short-lived Parliament. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn will want to send their troops away to the election battlefront with hope in their hearts, fire in their bellies and ammunition in their backpacks.
As she arrives with her binder full of answers, I’d be amazed if the PM failed to trot out her soundbite of the need for ‘strong and stable leadership’ (she said it 12 times in a 10-minute speech yesterday). She may even say that there’s one thing she agrees on with the Labour leader: the polls are not to be trusted. Yesterday, she tried to say with a straight face that the polls were wrong in 2015, wrong on Brexit and that Corbyn was a 200-1 shot to become leader.
For his part, Corbyn may try to flag up Labour’s new NHS policies unveiled today, with its three-point plan to end the 1% pay cap, legislate for safe staffing levels in hospitals and bring back nursing and midwifery bursaries. Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth’s plan could prove popular with patients and staff, but the Copeland by-election proved the limits of relying on health as your key electoral weapon.
How Labour funds its pledges is still not totally clear and it still has a ridiculously vague line that it will give the NHS ‘the funding it needs’. May’s comeback is likely to be that only the Tories can provide a National Wealth Service by keeping the economy and public finances on track. Still, Labour is having some effect it seems: the Times reports May is considering keeping the pension lock because of Corbyn’s line to protect it and a ‘fierce debate’ is going on in Government over whether to include in the manifesto.
The Tories are calming people down over the PM’s line yesterday that we need to stop “ducking” the long term issue of social care. But Camilla Cavendish, Cameron’s former policy chief, told Newsnight last night that inheritance tax should go up to pay for the elderly. “Labour proposed this in 2009, the Tories dubbed it a death tax, a RIP off. But we can’t afford decent social care unless we tax either the living or the dead”. Will Corbyn pounce on that?
This is a PMQs that cues up the big question as to who should be our PM. Tories are on a three-line whip to pack it, while some in Labour may abandon Corbyn as they spend time campaigning. For May the Labour ranks opposite her today could look like the living dead. She can’t be seen to be complacent, yet in her final flourish she may want to cite the farewell of this Welsh lifelong Labour voter, who in the BBC’s voxpop said yesterday that May was “absolutely wonderful”: “Mr Corbyn, bye bye!”
2) STARMER CHAMELEON
Keir Starmer has one of the most difficult jobs in politics. Not only does he have to formulate policy on the fiendishly complex Brexit process without a civil service for support, he has to contend with the political nightmare of being in a party whose supporters are more divided than any other on quitting the EU.
Fellow shadow minister Jenny Chapman introduced him yesterday as having ‘a brain the size of China’. But critics (inside and outside Labour) think he sometimes shows a political nous the size of Andorra, and lacks the oratory or oomph needed in the fight against the Tories.
Still, Starmer yesterday did pull off one of the trickiest managed migrations of recent times, the managed migration of Jeremy Corbyn’s and Labour’s line on freedom of movement. Corbyn said in January that he did not ‘rule out’ keeping the EU shibboleth. Diane Abbott said last month it was ‘a workers’ right’. But Starmer declared that it would go under Labour, and that immigration rules would change too. He was careful to say there would still be ‘movement’ of workers but it would be ‘managed’. Which sounded a lot like David Davis’s position.
Starmer also told ITV’s Robert Peston that a second referendum on the final deal was not in his thinking (though he did say ‘at the moment..’, a rider that sparked suspicions). But fellow shadow minister Paul Blomfield told Sky: “It may be that some way down the road there will be a popular demand for a second referendum and, as democrats, we would accede to that and I would hope other parties would too.”
As the Shadow Brexit Secretary spoke, I was sent a leaked script that Labour MPs will be expected to follow for the election campaign. Although Brexit is mentioned in the preamble (though without anything on immigration), it appears nowhere in the core list of pledges. Is that because the party’s line is too nuanced or too chameleon-like? The exact manifesto wording is yet to be agreed.
Back in the here and now, European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker and chief negotiator Michel Barnier meet May in No10 this afternoon. Meanwhile, Tory Remainers have quit Open Britain in protest at its targeting of Tories in the election, with some fearing it’s a Blairite plot to create a new party. When Andrew Tyrie, the Remainer chairman of the Treasury Select Committee, announced he was stepping down yesterday, one Brexiteer Tory texted me: “Tyrie retiring: Tory gain”. Complete with a kissing emoji.
3) WHAT A CARVE UP
Many in Labour are hunkering down for the coming storm, with gloomy conversations frequently about just how many seats they will lose, possibly some with five-figure majorities. But there are some boats that won’t be swept by the Tory tide and that’s precisely why there’s been an intense battle over the constituencies vacated by retiring MPs.
I’m told by multiple sources that because time is of the essence, a deal has been done to ‘carve up’ the juiciest plum seats, with the trade unions, Jeremy Corbyn’s office and Labour HQ all hammering out everyone’s “fair share” to balance various interests and wings of the party. That means that although in theory there’s a shortlist for each, some favoured candidates will get the nod from the NEC panel and regional boards deciding the emergency selections rather than local parties. Read my report HERE.
Those to benefit, I’m told, include Sam Tarry, Corbyn’s former leadership campaign chief, Stephanie Peacock, GMB political officer (and until recently Tom Watson's partner), Ellie Reeves, sister of Rachel Reeves, Katy Clark, a key Corbyn aide, and Mark Ferguson, the former LabourList editor and Liz Kendall campaign chief.
Normally when a sitting MP steps down in Opposition, there’s a clamour to replace them. But of the dozen seats up for grabs, several appear to have been written off already: Birmingham Edgbaston, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool and Slough. Moreover, several Labour candidates who stood in key target seats in 2015 have opted out this time, with Hastings, Harrow East and Elmet among them.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Listen to the groans from the German audience as Ivanka Trump defends her father’s record on women.
4) TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME
Boris Johnson’s shock of blond hair can provoke strong reactions when it heads down a high street. Whenever I’ve followed him on the stump, I’ve always been struck by just how many people want a selfie with the former Mayor of London. In fact, only Jeremy Corbyn (and I’ve also seen this several times) comes close to having the same selfie-appeal.
But while the Foreign Secretary was seen as electoral viagra in key seats in the 2015 general election, and became the Farage-free frontman for the Vote Leave campaign in 2016, his appeal looks like being counter-productive to all those 48% of the public who backed Remain.
The Times reports that at least three senior ministers want to sideline Boris from the campaign, with one source asking ‘What are we going to put on the side of his bus?’ The Mail says that despite colleagues’ concerns that Boris is “toxic” to Remainer Tories, the PM has decided to send him into battle in some key areas. Fiona Hill, May’s formidable No.10 aide and the comms chief for the election, has described as “bollocks” claims that Boris will be cut out. Bojo has largely been absent so far, but has a big foreign policy speech in the City tonight and will be on TV and radio tomorrow.
5) THE ECONOMY, STUPID
Nine years after the economic shocks of 2008, some of Britain’s public finances are just about getting back to where they were under Gordon Brown, with borrowing dropping to its lowest level since then. But the public finances were worse than market expectations for the latest month. And John McDonnell countered that national debt has gone up by £123.5 billion since March 2016.
What’s surprising is the way the economy has really so far not featured much in the general election debate. This may be a direct result of George Osborne’s Project Fear overselling the chaos that would follow a Leave vote, but there are plenty of economists who worry we ain’t seen nothing yet.
The Guardian’s monthly tracker of economic news reveals a complex picture where living standards fall as rising prices outpace meagre pay growth. One of the biggest, yet almost overlooked stats was the steep drop in retail sales recently, the biggest in seven years. Inflation is its highest for three years and trade has deteroriated. And yet unemployment remains low and businesses are expanding.
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