1. PROTECT AND SURVIVE
Boris Johnson’s Iran blunder continues to undermine his reputation, but today he has been thrown a political lifeline by Richard Ratcliffe, the husband of imprisoned British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratciffe. Showing a dignity and understanding that some Tory MPs believe our Foreign Secretary lacks, Ratcliffe told the BBC that he didn’t want Boris to be sacked – because he could do more good by actually now trying to get his wife released. They spoke last night for the first time (which is extraordinary in itself given how long she’s been jailed) and hope to meet face to face this week. In what could be a significant move, Boris told him Zaghari-Ratcliffe could be ‘eligible’ for ‘diplomatic protection’. If she is indeed protected, his political career could survive.
Johnson’s position wasn’t helped yesterday when Michael Gove failed to say that Zaghari-Ratcliffe was in Iran on holiday (the official Government line). Anna Soubry told the BBC: “It’s just bizarre to try and stand up for what Boris has done.” And few should be in any doubt about the seriousness of the situation. The imprisoned mother is said to be seeking a medical specialist after finding lumps on her breasts and is “on the verge of a nervous breakdown”.
Politically, Johnson is slightly safer after Ratcliffe’s words. Jeremy Corbyn told the Observer yesterday he should be fired for “undermining our country” and “putting our citizens at risk”. But Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer told the Today programme that while Boris should have been fired a while ago, “we should all reflect on what Richard is saying this morning”. Professor Mads Andenas, a former UN special rapporteur on arbitrary detention, also told Today that Government ministers should “be consistent in not casting doubt on her story”. “From my point of view it looks like a cock-up. They haven’t taken the briefing notes seriously,” he said. In Brussels this morning, Boris said: “We are working very, very hard and intensively and impartially on all those cases”. Note the word ‘impartially’.
2. BREX TRADE
Parliament is back and so too is the EU (Withdrawal) Bill (from tomorrow). Theresa May meets business leaders from across the EU in No10 today and everyone’s talking about transitional deals and trade deals and the clock running down to Brexit. The Times has a senior Downing Street aide now saying they expect Britain to be able to strike only a “heads of agreement” of a trade deal in time for March 2019. The paper rightly links this to May’s own political longevity, as Tory MPs may want another leader to hammer out the details of post-Brexit trade.
And the political jockeying around May continues, with the Mail on Sunday’s leaked “menacing” memo from Johnson and Gove to the PM – urging a hard Brexit – the latest focus of in-fighting. The Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce has a nice read on how the two Brexiteers have patched up relations since Gove knifed Boris in 2016 (a key intermediary has been Johnson’s new special adviser Lee Cain, who worked for Gove’s leadership campaign and for No10). The memo was drafted at one of their secret monthly meetings in September over a bottle of merlot. The Guardian has Cabinet ministers saying the memo was “Orwellian”. Another minister says May “will have to dress them down or look weak.”
One Government insider told me this week that No10 have been struck by just how much Labour had been getting its act together under Corbyn. From PMQs to UQs, from timing of calls for resignations to just better reaction times, the Opposition is sharper. Yet the more immediate problem for the PM is the claim (first reported in the Standard last week) that more than 40 Tory MPs have signed letters asking for a vote of confidence in the PM. Those MPs will remain anonymous and are from various wings of the party. As she walks the EU summit tightrope in coming weeks, that’s why May’s stance on the Brexit transition is effectively also the key driver of the real transition: from her Tory leadership to her successor.
3. SEXED UP?
It goes without saying that Theresa May can hardly afford to lose another Cabinet minister, not least one as important to cross-Government working as Damian Green. As I pointed out last week, the outcome of the inquiry by ‘Propriety and Ethics’ chief Sue Gray (who reports to Jeremy Heywood) could well be timed to avoid conflict with the Budget.
Yesterday, former Met Police Commissioner Sir Paul Stephenson revealed he too had been told pornography had been found on a computer seized from Green’s office nine years ago. But Green’s response yesterday was very different from his original reaction a week ago. Then he said the claims were false, yesterday he said simply they hadn’t been put to him at the time. One senior Tory tells the Times the latest revelations were “not good” and Green’s response should have been more circumspect. Still, it may well be difficult to prove who exactly was responsible for downloading the porn. Green’s bigger problem will be if other women have come forward and repeated claims similar to those of Kate Maltby, a party activist who says he touched her inappropriately.
As for Parliament’s wider sex harassment problem, the SNP’s Westminster leader Ian Blackford told Radio 4’s Westminster Hour that “MPs need to be trained on how they should behave..on an annual basis. There has to be a refresher course”. Meanwhile, speaking of sex and sexuality, there are several tabloid splashes today on the Church of England’s (eminently sensible) guidance that primary schools should combat bullying of children who try different gender roles when dressing up. It’s that kind of hysteria that is a reminder that wilful distortion and bile in our newspapers long predate the ‘alt Left’ or ‘alt Right’ online news sites.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Before the election, new Labour types could barely say Jeremy Corbyn’s name without wanting to punch a wall. Watch Gordon Brown barely say his party leader’s name…as he calls him ‘Jeffrey’. (key bit is 1m 10secs)
4. HOUSE ROOM
Britain’s housing crisis is one of the many factors that has helped fuel unease among public that the system is working against them, and can partly explain both Brexit and the last general election. Theresa May rightly recognised the political imperative in her party conference speech this year, promising “I will dedicate my premiership to fixing this problem”. Even Chancellor Philip Hammond wanted in on the action (housing is part of the key to our productivity and social mobility problems).
But the FT reports today that the Budget is not now expected to deliver radical change to either building on the Green Belt or giving the public sector a bigger housebuilding role. This may stem from Treasury frustration with No.10 (Hammond wants to tear up some Green Belt, the PM doesn’t, Sajid Javid is somewhere in the middle). Yet in the Sun, former housing minister Nick Boles floats his mini-manifesto including forcing developers to sell greenfield land.
5. GRENFELL DIVIDE
Boles, whose enthusiasm for building on Green Belt is not shared by Tory MPs in the shires (enough to wipe the PM’s wafer thin majority), also suggests a ‘Grenfell Housing Commission’ to build half a million new homes as a lasting legacy of the tragedy. And five months on from the awful fire, Labour’s new MP for Kensington and Chelsea Emma Dent Coad today publishes her own report on the deep inequalities that tell the wider story of the area.
Among the most shocking examples of deprivation in this wealthiest of boroughs are: children hospitalised with hypocalceamic shock caused by a lack of calcium; one child diagnosed with rickets; adults with TB; a man in the wealthy Hans Town area has a life expectancy of 94, 22 years longer than his counterpart in the deprived Golborne wards, where the average age of a man is 72. “If trickle down economics worked, we would not have four food banks in K&C,” she says.