The five things you need to know on Tuesday September 15, 2015...
1) OUTWITH THE IN CROWD
On leaving the PLP last night, one veteran Labour MP told me: "I feel like I've just walked through the back of my wardrobe...And it's snowing." But as MPs still take in the Narnia that is a Jeremy Corbyn-led party, one pressing question is whether he will lead the UK through the backdoor of Brexit.
Hilary Benn’s claim on Today yesterday that Corbyn had told him ‘we will stay to fight for a better EU’ has been challenged by Chuka Umunna, who has made clear he received no such assurances. And last night, Corbyn admitted to the PLP that his stance was that ‘we can’t just give Cameron a blank cheque’ to back his renegotiation plan.
This is yet more confirmation that the Labour leader is determined to keep up the pressure to protect workers’ rights. When I asked him during a Labour hustings in July if he’d rule out campaigning for an ‘Out’ vote, he replied “No I wouldn’t rule it out”.
Of course, Corbynites will point out that even the fear of Labour backing Brexit has already forced No.10 into a retreat on a full opt-out of the social chapter and employment rights (as the FT splashed on recently), and they may just want that on the record before relenting.
The Indy quotes one Brussels insider saying: “An anti-EU Labour Party would be a disaster for Britain and Europe. It could tip the balance in the EU debate in the UK.” And today, HuffPost reveals that Unite’s Steve Turner will use the TUC to warn Cameron: “you will lose our members votes to stay in the EU by worsening workers’ rights”. He’ll add: “For far too long EU institutions have advanced a nakedly neo-liberal agenda at the behest of member states.”
New Shadow Chief Secretary Seema Malhotra on The World Tonight on Radio 4 last night even said that there was now a ‘review’ of the party’s EU policy. “It isn’t a weakness, it’s a strength. It's the first time we are having a review and having a discussion about this..and I think actually an important and healthy way to be doing politics”
Even though she insisted the majority of the PLP view EU membership as ‘vital’, that will worry many. Cooler heads believe that Corbyn will eventually agree to campaign for ‘In’, but his very prevarication worries many MPs that he can’t shrug off the atavistic anti-Common market reflexes of the Left.
As for Jez’s speech to the TUC, it isn’t being briefed in advance (yet another new approach to the media) and we’ll have to actually wait and see what he says (novel huh?)
As one aide put it: "Jeremy tends to write his speeches as he delivers them.”
Meanwhile, it’s BIS questions in the Commons from 11.30am, expect more Eagle v Javid flare-ups.
2) FOR QUEEN AND COUNTRY
David Cameron’s attack on Corbyn’s patriotism certainly provoked many, and the Russian embassy (and ambassador) gave No.10 perhaps the perfect response: Moscow defending Corbyn was a dream come true in CCHQ.
But the new leader’s stance on defence seems to veer from instinctive pacifism to diffidence about using our armed forces overseas. Last night at the PLP, it was Simon Danczuk who pinned him down on wearing a white poppy on Remembrance Sunday. Corbyn replied “whatever poppy you wear it's a memorial of those who die". But he was pressed on whether he’d attend the Cenotaph ceremony (with shades of Michael Foot) The party press officer said "he then said he attended memorial events in his own constituency and he wasn't sure what would happen this year”. Wasn’t sure? Within a couple of hours Labour HQ insisted Corbyn would only wear a red poppy.
The Sun today highlights some quotes of Corbyn’s from 2012, saying of Prince Harry’s service in Afghanistan: “He shouldn’t be there. I think he’s been used by the Army, or the Air Force rather, as a way of giving them some prestige, by his being there.”
The PM is at a Battle of Britain commemoration event today. Will Corbyn be there - and if so will he avoid questions afterwards?
As for matters Royal, the Sun also splashes on HuffPost’s story from yesterday that Corbyn has indeed agreed to join the Privy Council. Already however, many are pointing out there’s no link between the post and the Opposition receiving Short Money.
More interesting is Corbyn’s change of heart. He told the Guardian this summer he didn’t need the Right Hon title to have intelligence briefings. “I am quite capable of having private discussions with anybody whether I have got a handle on my name or not”. I’m told Corbyn told the PM on Saturday that he would join and would write to confirm that. But Cameron yesterday hinted Corbyn hadn’t been keen at first. And the Guardian claims today that Whitehall officials are understood to have rejected Corbyn’s calls for a different mechanism to be found to allow him to attend intelligence briefings.
As for matters defence-led, Cameron’s really significant statement yesterday was on a Commons vote on military action in Syria. He shifted from ‘consensus’ to signalling he wanted Labour MPs to rebel: “That [decision] would depend on parliament; it does not necessarily depend on the views of one person,”
3) CORBYNOMICS LESSEN?
As John Healey’s blog for HuffPost yesterday underlined, policy is not set by the leader but by the PLP and party conference. That’s precisely why he and others are relaxed about the new ‘debates’ going on over policy: because they have the safeguard that Corbyn has lots of hurdles to cross before changing anything.
But the appointment of John McDonnell continues to rankle with even Corbyn sympathisers. The Times points out Len McCluskey lobbied for a woman to the get the job. Dave Prentis, general secretary of Unison, said that Mr Corbyn would have to “grow into the job”. Sir Paul Kenny, general secretary of the GMB union, said that Mr Corbyn’s “real tests” would come at local elections, and votes in Scotland and Wales, next year.
As for the deficit, McDonnell has hit back in the Guardian at those who suggest he’s not in favour of ‘living within our means’. The only problem is just what his timetable is for that. As I reported last night, Alison McGovern had a fascinating conversation with Corbyn when offered the Shadow Chief Sec job: and the leader didn’t appear to like her condition that the books had to be balanced ‘over the economic cycle’.
As for the row over women in high places, this too still worries many. Jess Philips last night won applause at the PLP as she said “I’ve never felt more alienated by this party than when I saw there were no women on stage on Saturday. And Seema Malhotra told Radio 4 last night: “People did miss the presence of women at the leadership conference on Saturday, there was no woman that came onto the stage at all.”
The Telegraph has got hold of Corbyn’s ex wife Jane Chapman. She explains: “Jeremy is a feminist, it's just that the big divide is anti-austerity or not and McDonnell is clearly on Jeremy's side with that. It's a question of his tactical priorities, I think.” But she added: "It's not as if most women have to prove their capabilities, it's just that they are somehow not recognised in the same way.”
Melanie Onn, the Great Grimsby MP, added: "Relegating the women to the nursing and teaching jobs is a bit disappointing. His line up does present that he has a woman problem.
No wonder Simon Fletcher is said to have said on Sunday night the leadership was on “taking a fair amount of sh*t out there [on social media] about women”.
Meanwhile there’s the wider economic debate. In the Times, George Osborne writes: “Far from celebrating this turmoil, for me, as chancellor, this means going back to first principles, and winning again the arguments made by both Conservative and previous Labour governments alike.”
Labour will at least unite in opposing tax credits cuts today. On the Today prog, the IFS’s Paul Johnson said that the national living wage would go ‘nowhere near’ making up for the cuts to tax credits. The IFS, like the Resolution Foundation before them, have concluded only 13% of the in-work credit losses for poor families would be compensated by the NLW.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Nick Boles’s reaction as Labour MP Wes Streeting points out the new Trade Union Bill wouldn’t have stopped recent Tube strikes.
4) QUOTA SHUN MARKS
Fractious meetings were all the rage last night. The EU’s justice and home affairs meeting on quotas broke up without agreement and yet again we can hear what is a familiar tinny sound in Brussels: a can being kicked down the road.
Ministers will meet again next month. Former Communist states aren’t happy at the mandatory quota idea, but it’s significant that the bloc is trying to aim for consensus - even though it has a majority that could impose the new numbers. Eurosceptics here will point out that on such a crucial matter, qualified majority voting applies. Schengen looks in real trouble, as the Mail rightly splashes on the countries now reimposing border controls.
Hungary is unafraid to shun refugees and economic migrants and has overnight again proved that it is the most hardline state on this issue, with new laws to criminalise those who cut its new fence (but has it got enough police cells to house anyone prosecuted?). Not for nothing has the European Commission tried to push its own plans for stronger deportation - the only problem is that eastern states think that’s putting the cart after the horse.
5) GUNS N POSES
Mental health checks on those wanting to own firearms are less rigorous than those for bus drivers, top cops have warned. Her Majesty's Inspectorate of Constabulary has released a report warning that it was “highly likely” that another gun-related tragedy would occur unless forces improve scrutiny of applications.
“Firearms licensing is not an area which police forces can afford to get wrong,” their report says.
“Lessons from past tragedies have not always been learnt and this fails the victims of those events, including their families, unacceptably.” This is an issue that Yvette Cooper has pushed hard over the last few years, and Andy Burnham is sure to keep up the pressure.
ONES TO WATCH
It’s a packed day on the Select Committee corridors, with Jeremy Hunt, Justine Greening, Greg Clark, Tony Hall and Robert Chote all appearing as witnesses. Mike Penning and varioius profs appear before Home Affairs Committee after 2.30pm to talk psychoactive substances.
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