1. NASTY TASTE
A year since she took over as PM, it’s Theresa May’s big relaunch speech today. Last July as she stood outside No.10, she was full of optimistic talk and reforming zeal on behalf of ‘ordinary working families’ and looking forward to a long, five-year plan (no snap election she told us repeatedly) for Brexit and beyond. On the side of the worker not the wealthy, ‘red Tory Theresa’ sounded positively revolutionary.
Today, the mood is more Hobbes than Hobsbawm, as some fear May’s premiership will be nasty, brutish and short. The woman who first coined the phrase ‘the nasty party’ is desperately trying to avoid that tag as the Conservatives struggle with a fresh race row. HuffPost UK’s exclusive recording of Anne Marie Morris’s remarks at a Brexiteer event yesterday prompted May to remove the Tory party whip from her backbencher. The PM’s slim DUP-dependent majority was cut by one, to just 12.
Of course, Morris is a loyalist and is unlikely to vote against the Government. Yet it’s the damage to the Tory brand that is the real worry for many Conservatives. Jeremy Corbyn managed to mobilise the minority ethnic vote in unprecedented numbers in this year’s election and this latest controversy risks cementing the view that some Tories are stuck in the 1950s on race. Morris claimed her “n***** in the woodpile” remark was “totally unintentional”, but apologised only for “any offence caused” rather than the remark itself.
Given the damage done, it’s hard to see how Morris can regain the Tory whip, no matter what the ‘investigation’ by Tory campaigns HQ concludes. Which raises the issue of whether she will be booted out for good, and whether she would quit to trigger a by-election. Her majority in her west country seat is 17,000. But as this year has taught everyone, electoral norms can be upended.
Morris had already been forced to distance herself from her electoral agent and partner Roger Kendrick last month, after he claimed “that the crisis in education was due entirely to non-British born immigrants and their high birth rates’.” Kemi Badenoch, the Tory MP for Saffron Walden, told the Telegraph she spoke to the Chief Whip “to express my dismay, and I am pleased that decisive action has been taken”. Maidstone MP Helen Grant said she was “so ashamed” that a fellow Tory could use the phrase without knowing its history (and it’s an awful history) or impact.
Way back in 1978, Labour Foreign Secretary David Owen used the woodpile phrase, but it was a Tory MP who at the time condemned his “deporable” comment. And Anne Marie Morris is only 60, so can’t claim this is a ‘generational’ issue. Theresa May is also 60 - and told us on the steps of No.10 last July she wanted to end the “burning injustice” of a criminal justice system where “if you’re black, you’re treated more harshly”. One year on, like much of the rest of that speech, those words look very different now.
2. GIGGER BITES
Yesterday the PM’s de facto deputy Damian Green suggested May would announce something bold in response to Matthew Taylor’s report into the ‘gig economy’. From the overnight extracts of her speech, it’s hard to see anything bold, with mere bromides that ‘this Government will act’ to protect workers. She even praises the flexibility of firms like Uber and Deliveroo.
What’s really new is Taylor’s call for such firms to pay National Insurance (the firms, not their staff, note) and an end to the ‘cash in hand’ economy for the self-employed (the Government won’t uncork-the-Gauke on that one I suspect). The TUC’s Frances O’Grady and GMB’s Tim Roache both fear Taylor has caved to corporate interests when he should have urged the outright abolition of zero hours contracts. Labour’s Shadow Business Secretary Rebecca Long-Bailey told Today she doesn’t use Uber because it was “morally unacceptable”.
Taylor, a former policy chief for Tony Blair, was commissioned precisely because he’s a blue skies thinker. But unions may not be happy with the Times draft of his report which suggests he will suggest social media like Twitter is as powerful a tool as unions for lobbying for harassed workers.
A draft report seen by The Times suggests that he will not recommend any of these. It also appears to sideline the labour movement. “The combination of social media and other online forms of communication with an absence of formalised trade union organisation appears to open up the potential for increasing the collective voice of self-employed individuals operating in some parts of the ‘gig economy’.”
3. UP AND ATOM
Fears of ‘Brexit backsliding’ is now very much a thing among Tory Eurosceptics (who have already christened their arch enemies as ‘reversers’). And their worries won’t have been eased by Damian Green’s remarks yesterday when he suggested the UK could still be signed up to the European Court of Justice in a transition phase beyond 2019. His comments signalled for the first time that the PM’s deep ‘red line’ on this issue could in fact be more a lilac pink, or rubbed out altogether.
And it’s the ECJ’s role in monitoring the EU-wide Euratom treaty governing the movement of nuclear material that is causing most trouble right now. The PM was in ‘nothing has changed’ Maybot mode in the Commons, insisting the UK could have a Swiss-style close cooperation with the atomic body. Yet even Dom Cummings, the outspoken former Vote Leave chief, tweeted that only Government ‘morons’ wanted to quit Euratom (he warned the idea “must be ditched or she will be”).
George Osborne’s Evening Standard had a ‘CANCER PATIENTS IN BREXIT SCARE’ headline, as a leading radiologist said pulling out of the treaty would threaten the import of isotopes needed for treatment. In keeping with recent tradition, Osborne’s leader column had another nugget: David Davis and Greg Clark were overruled by May in Cabinet when they suggested staying in Euratom. Osborne’s editorial actually tried to goad DD into a leadership challenge. Davis and Osborne have never been close, however. I recall the ex-Chancellor joking soon after 2010 that Davis should be given a Government job: as envoy to Kabul.
The Guardian reports the Government is drawing up plans to replicate the benefits of remaining a member of the Euratom treaty, as nine Tory MPs warned they could rebel on the issue. It also has something to cheer No.10: Brussels sources say staying in Euratom is impossible once you quit the EU. So it’s all about the nuance of transition, again.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Anne-Marie Morris’s other famous outburst, when she got rather over-excited during a PMQ to David Cameron…
4. HEY TEACHER, LEAVE THOSE QUIDS ALONE
The teachers’ pay review body was published yesterday. It had some strong words, warning of “a substantial risk” to the public education system if wages were capped for much longer. Yet it gave the Government some breathing space by ultimately recommending a 1% rise in line with the Treasury cap.
For Theresa May, that was just a matter of lucky timing. The teachers review body completed its report before the PM’s election disaster prompted calls from her own ministers and MPs for the cap to be lifted. The body was also acting in accordance with the remit handed to it. Teachers’ pay rises start in September, not April like some other public sector workers, and there was little time to get real change.
Still, that didn’t dampen the anger felt by teachers who felt the continuing freeze was “an insult”. And the real focus now is on the ‘remit letter’ due to be sent to the NHS pay review body by Treasury Chief Secretary Liz Truss ahead of its recommendations due early in 2018. The letter is usually sent in July before the Commons summer recess (it was sent on July 13 last year), but will we get it this month? Or will it be sent when MPs are away?
Chancellor Philip Hammond is already £2bn out of pocket from his cancelled National Insurance rise and has to find £1bn for Northern Ireland. The Times says Justine Greening is looking at winding down expensive plans to build more Free Schools in order to fund her £4bn pledge for more cash for all schools. Meanwhile at the chalkface, the Guardian reports primary pupils have been marked down in tests for misshapen commas. No, really.
5. END TO END STUFF
Over in the US, Donald Trump’s links to the Kremlin face increasing scrutiny amid claims his son knew of Russian attempts to discredit Hillary Clinton. No wonder Trump had to swiftly disown plans for a joint US-Russia cyber security unit after an outcry from Republicans. (In other news, SkyNews reports Trump’s state visit to the UK has been put back to next year)
But here in the UK, it looks like another of May’s pet policies – forcing WhatsApp and other firms to hand over encrypted messages - may well be doomed by a combination of tight Commons majority and expert opinion. The PM has strong DUP backing for her counter-terror strategy overall but more than a handful of civil liberties Tory MPs now have the ammo they need to vote against any legislation cracking down on encryption.
Why? Because Robert Hannigan, the former head of GCHQ, yesterday ridiculed Home Secretary Amber Rudd’s threat to pass new laws to build “back doors” into secret messages. “Encryption is an overwhelmingly good thing - it keeps us all safe and secure. Building in back doors is a threat to everybody and it’s not a good idea to weaken security for everybody to tackle a minority. I don’t think there is a magic solution where you can just legislate it away.”
Words like those will make it very difficult to get such a move through Parliament. Meanwhile, it emerged yesterday that three MPs had their email accounts compromised by the recent cyber attack on Parliament. Not having a secure email password looks like an open back door indeed.