1. RUNNING ON THE SPOT
With latest Mexican earthquake, North Korea threat and Rohingya refugee crisis, you’d think there was enough to keep our Foreign Secretary focused on his day job. But as Boris Johnson proved yesterday, it’s Brexit (and his own leadership ambitions, cynics add) that often preoccupies him most.
The spectacle of Johnson being cornered by journalists, outside a New York lift after a sweaty jog, and asked if he would or wouldn’t quit this weekend, may have been Peak Bojo-Mojo in this whole saga. He’s given an interview to the Guardian in which he says he’s ‘mystified’ by where all the talk of resignation has come from, hinting his enemies spread the rumours to keep the ‘snore-athon’ running.
His favourite paper the Daily Telegraph certainly piqued interest yesterday when it ran a headline saying he ‘will resign before weekend’ if May doesn’t agree to his demands. The headline was swiftly watered down, but Boris loves a bit of ‘constructive ambiguity’ on his own intentions. He tells the Guardian “I am loving this job. It is one of the greatest jobs in the world. It is a fantastic privilege”, yet a day earlier he refused to say if he’d quit, adding “When the burden of office is lifted from my shoulders I will of course look back with great pride on my time doing all sorts of things.” The Times reports the PM’s chief of staff, with her in New York, has been carrying out ‘shuttle diplomacy’ to square the Cabinet on the Florence speech.
Boris himself once claimed that trying to nail down Tony Blair was “like trying to pin a jelly to a wall” and that’s exactly how many ministers now feel about him – and his apparently changing demands on Brexit. As I said yesterday, Boris had looked like a man who had lost the Foreign Office’s empire over Brexit but not yet found a role. After the last few days, his allies think he’s at least a player once more. If he walks or is sacked he will be a martyr to Tory Brexiteers. If he stays, he will claim he’s stopped a ‘soft Brexit’. How he spins the Florence speech (see below) on Friday afternoon will be the next stage, but he’s ensured everyone will be watching his reaction as much as May herself.
Still, Boris’s leadership hopes could well be hamstrung by the low number of MPs willing to get him on the ballot paper. As one Cabinet minister pointed out to me yesterday, the Right of the party don’t want anything to disrupt Brexit and Boris’s challenge to May risks doing just that, as any new leader would find it difficult to resist a general election. And there is the wider perception of Heseltinian disloyalty, and (as the FT reports) even the Tory grassroots who agree with Boris’s worries about a soft Brexit are very much against any threat to the PM.
2. THE ITALIAN JOB
Just whether Boris has extracted any meaningful concessions from May at all remains in doubt. Government sources say she was never going to specify which Brexit model she wanted, be it a ‘Swiss roll’, an ‘EEA-minus’ or a ‘CETA-plus’.
But will she use her Florence speech to include any specific figures on the ‘divorce bill’ or pay-to-trade payments during the transition? Thankfully, the FT has the scoop that May’s Brexit sherpa Olly Robbins has been ringing EU diplomats to say the PM will indeed offer £17.7bn (a very specific number) until the end of 2020. This is a bid to break the deadlock in current talks, where Brussels says it won’t move onto trade negotiations in October unless progress is made on hard cash.
Again, on this key issue Boris’s position appears as more jellylike than concrete. His Telegraph piece warned that “we should not pay to access EU markets”, but it’s unclear if that referred to the transitional period or just beyond 2020 (when the EU’s budget will be reset). He tells the Guardian “Where our lawyers say we are on the hook for stuff, then we are going to have to pay”. He adds “we should pay our dues – we are a law-abiding country – during the period of membership”, but does that mean no more cash-for-trade after March 31, 2019? Will May set out anything more than settling past debts, or will she talk about future access payments?
The Times reveals that Boris is gunning for Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, who is thought to have come up with ‘EEA-minus’ as a gameplan. Boris allies even say Heywood’s ‘fingerprints’ were all over the Statistics Authority’s attack on the £350m/NHS letter, a claim denied by the Cabinet Office. As for that jelly, Blair wants to break the mould of British politics once more. He’s told Bloomberg (spotted by the Sun) that “there’s a 30 per cent chance it [Brexit] won’t happen”. He’s not alone in the Labour party on that.
3. LEFT HOOK
For many on the Left, yesterday’s six-and-a-half-hour meeting of Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) was one of the most significant in the party’s history, marking a big power shift away from MPs and towards members.
Ahead of the Brighton conference, Jeremy Corbyn’s authority has certainly been strengthened as there was no opposition to rule changes on future leadership bids (fewer MPs’ nominations will be needed) or the expansion of the NEC to include three more seats for local party members (the real Corbyn powerbase).
There will also be a longer-term review of party democracy at all levels, conducted by political secretary Katy Clark and report directly to Corbyn and party chair Ian Lavery. The range of this review is extensive, including everything from policy making to local party executive committees and the extension of one-member-one-vote (OMOV) to BAME Labour, Young Labour and Scottish and Welsh NEC reps. In a nutshell, it’s all about giving party members much more power.
But nothing happens on the NEC without the unions and what’s interesting is the way Unite, GMB, Unison and others have worked behind the scenes with the leadership to get compromise (the 10% not 5% on leadership nominations, the extra NEC seat for moderate union Usdaw) and workable solutions. Unions are loathe to give up their key role but couldn’t hold out against the wider move to give members more power off the back of the 2017 election ‘Corbyn surge’.
Yet the key test will be what happens in the Clark review over the next year. Moderates were relieved that the one item not on its agenda was mandatory reselection of MPs. And while everyone is happy for a review, when its conclusions report will the unions really agree to dilute their own power by the extension of OMOV everywhere? Some centrists believe that giving more power to members is in the long-term their only hope, as they think ‘moderate’ members of the public will replace more leftwing activists. Let’s see about that.
The role of women has certainly been boosted (60% of target seats to get all-women shortlists), and yesterday the NEC defied the leadership over one small area: Ed Balls’ old seat of Morley will now be selected on an all-women shortlist. Unison had wanted to keep the selection open (they backed the male candidate this year) but CLP and other unions had the numbers to insist on AWS.
4. BURYING GOOD NEWS
Communities Secretary Sajid Javid had a big announcement yesterday, but blink and you may have missed it. On the very day that a new National Housing Federation report showed a massive slump in housebuilding, Javid addressed its conference to unveil a “top-to-bottom” review of social housing in the wake of the Grenfell tragedy.
But amazingly, the first the world knew of this brand new Green Paper was when it was tweeted out by his DCLG press office at 11am. It was a classic example of failing to roll the pitch and could easily have been briefed the night before for more impact.
Most strikingly, Javid said many of those who lived in Grenfell were treated like “problems that needed to be managed” after raising safety concerns, adding it was less likely such a blaze would have happened in a “privately owned block of luxury flats”. The green paper “will be the most substantial report of its kind for a generation” and carry out “a wide-ranging, top-to-bottom review of the issues facing the sector”.
If Javid is true to his word, and if some of the solutions are radical, his little-noticed speech yesterday could prove to change more lives than many other Cabinet speeches. How strange that with Boris kicking off in NYC, someone in Whitehall felt it was a bad day to bury good news.
5. MIND GAMES
Theresa May, like David Cameron before her, has tried to put mental health policy high up her agenda. But as with her predecessor, the reality of making real progress is much tougher than rhetoric about ‘parity of esteem’. Today, two new reports underline the scale of the problem.
Former shadow mental health minister Luciana Berger (could she get a recall in a Corbyn reshuffle?) has revealed new Freedom of Information figures showing that 50% of cash-strapped Clinical Commissioning Groups (CCGs) in England will reduce the proportion of their budgets spent on offering mental health support in 2017/18. This is despite previous commitments from Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt that spending would rise.
Meanwhile, Liverpool University researchers have found that a quarter of girls and nearly one in 10 boys show signs of depression at the age of 14. The Millennium Cohort Study found teens from poorer socioeconomic backgrounds are more likely to report depressive symptoms than peers from better-off families.
And in a not-unrelated story, a GMB survey has found that frazzled ambulance staff took 80,000 days off for sick leave due to stress.