The five things you need to know on Friday November 27, 2015…
1) JEZ’S BLACK FRIDAY
Late last night, Jeremy Corbyn cancelled today’s planned trip to Oldham West & Royton, citing ‘a number of necessary engagements in London’. And - shot in the dark this - I’m guessing some of those ‘necessary engagements’ may be to discuss the growing war within Labour over Syria. Thursday’s Shadow Cabinet meeting was extraordinary, but will today be even darker for the Labour leader?
That Shadow Cabinet meeting, held straight after the PM’s Syria statement, was certainly strange. I’m told Corbyn opened it by reading out a prepared text, rather than speaking normally. There followed a ‘grown up’ discussion as others set out their views, with many - including deputy leader Tom Watson - saying the PM had made a powerful case. A shadow minister tells me that one of the more surreal elements of the meeting was the way Diane Abbott mimicked Lucy Powell’s speaking style. The meeting ended abruptly with no summing up from Corbyn other than a ‘see you next week’.
When Corbyn’s own letter to MPs emerged, several in the Shad Cab were stunned and furious at not being consulted. After Abbott had gone out publicly to express her own opposition to military action, Hilary Benn had licence to go on the BBC to declare his own personal view that Cameron had made a ‘compelling case’. Some MPs suspect the Corbyn letter was not a reaction to Benn's bold statement but part of bigger, pre-prepared plan to galvanise activists’ support ahead of the vote. Almost all of Corbyn's top team attended the Shad Cab yesterday for the first time.
If Corbyn tries to push his Shadow Cabinet into a collective position against the war on Monday, there will undoubtedly be resignations, if not a mass walkout, but few expect him to do so. Benn told Today: “I’m not going to resign because I’m doing my job as Shadow Foreign Secretary”. But on the key issue of whether there would be a free vote, Benn added: “It may be that that is where we end up”.
Benn’s role in all this has been fascinating. Few can call the Harry Potter-ish son of one of Labour’s best-loved left-wingers a Blairite neocon. In fact, as I’ve pointed out before, few realise that it was Benn who was the driving force behind Ed Miliband’s decision to oppose military action in Syria in 2013. But in recent months it’s obvious Benn has become convinced that the UK has to act on the ISIL threat.
One of the most significant events this week was not Cameron’s statement (and accompanying paper) but the security chiefs private briefing to the senior Shadow Cabinet on Wednesday night (exclusively revealed by HuffPost yesterday). I understand that the briefing - to which Corbyn allegedly turned up 15 minutes late - made crystal clear where ISIL’s command and control centres were in Syria, and how they had directed terror across Europe. Our spooks know who they are, where they are and when they are there. Benn confirmed on the Today programme that the security briefing had made the ISIL threat to the UK ‘very clear’.
Benn will say this isn’t a factor, but I wonder just how wise it was for Corbyn to oust him from the NEC during party conference? And the spat between Andrew Fisher and his niece Emily can’t have helped either.
Cameron was impressive yesterday, for once leaving behind the artifice and sounding genuinely conciliatory and frank about some of the weaknesses of bits of his case. He made clear it was not a perfect plan of action but was necessary nonetheless. That candour impressed many shadow ministers.
Corbynistas aren’t backing down however. On BBC’s Question Time last night, an increasingly confident Ken Livingstone said that Tony Blair was to blame for the 7/7 deaths. Emily Thornberry was on Today earlier as the main JezWeCan shadow frontbench representative, pointing out Cameron’s thinnest argument yesterday was his claim that 70,000 ground troops could be relied on to take on ISIL. Reports of civilian deaths from Western airstrikes in Raqqa don't help his cause either (though he says RAF weapons would eliminate that risk).
On the thorny issue of whether Corbyn would ever agree to any military action, Thornberry replied ‘no, not never’. But the man himself famously struggled with that question in the leadership campaign - but of course it didn’t do him any harm (and maybe lots of good) with the mass membership.
Meanwhile, Fiona McTaggart has broken cover and called for Corbyn to stand down. As for Oldham, allies of candidate Jim McMahon may be relieved at JC’s absence today, given UKIP’s claims that Corbyn is now ‘toxic’ on the doorstep in the by-election. Corbyn doesn’t appear on any Labour leaflets.
2) SPENDING ROUNDABOUT
The day after the Spending Review, the IFS briefing came up with its verdict and (as usual) it wasn’t pretty for the Treasury. It said taxes may have to rise because Osborne had only a 50-50 chance of hitting his surplus target, adding for good measure that 2.6 million working families stood to lose an average £1,600 from the Universal Credit.
But the Telegraph has an interesting angle on the movement ahead of the spending review. As Osborne’s former chief aide Rupert Harrison revealed on Newsnight on Wednesday, the Chancellor would have first got the OBR’s news of its £29m windfall six weeks ago. That’s a fortnight before the Lords defeat on tax credits.
The Tel adds some extra info, namely that Cameron was informed of the windfall three weeks ago. And shortly after that, Mr Osborne met Theresa May and agreed that the Government would not have to cut the police’s budget after all. I wonder if that was before or after that Home Office question time when she hinted she was protecting police staffing ‘in the round’. The Times however claims that both IDS and May were kept in the dark by the Treasury that they were surprise winners of the spending review/autumn statement.
3) MIGRATION NATION
It never rains but it pours. Yesterday’s immigration stats were horrendous for the Government - surging to a record high of 636,000, with net migration of 336,000. The Sun splash is ‘A Green And Pleasant Crammed’. Bulgarians and Romanians - remember Eric Pickles got in a pickle over that one in the last Parliament? - are driving the new numbers and Nigel Farage hasn’t been slow to pounce. With Labour already under pressure in Oldham West, could these stats shift sentiment UKIP’s way still further?
The new stats came out after Philip Hammond had used a speech to up the ante with the EU (part of a carefully choreographed ‘row’ we all expect the PM at the December summit?). He pointed to the ‘uncontrollable wave’ (sounds like a hair tong malfunction) of immigration sweeping across the continent. And referring to the PM’s plan for a four-year ban on migrant benefits, he set out what seemed like a red line: “That is non-negotiable if we want to get agreement that Britain’s future is in the European Union”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Diane Abbott say that Mao did a ‘a lot more good than harm’.
4) NHS EMERGENCY
Another big U-turn was buried (perhaps all too deliberately) on the day of the Autumn Statement, and that was of course Jeremy Hunt’s decision to go to ACAS to try to sort the junior doctors row. There’s cautious optimism that some progress can be made to avert the strikes after nine hours of talks yesterday - more are set to continue today.
But just as Simon Stevens held all the best cards in his battle for front-loading more cash from Osborne this week, the junior docs know the Government is all too terrified of an NHS winter crisis. And today’s report from the Royal College of Emergency Medicine says an increasing number of hospitals are missing Accident and Emergency waiting times. Dr Clifford Mann was on Today urging a swifter response time - from ministers. But he added that he saw the ‘logic’ of the industrial action, but didn’t support withdrawal of labour.
5) FRACK TO THE FUTURE
The irony of this won’t be lost on Greg Clark: the Government’s most passionate localism advocate has stepped in to give himself the big decision on local fracking in Lancashire. Cuadrilla’s appeal against the local council will now be decided not by an inspector but by The Man In Whitehall.
In a letter to Lancashire County Council (seen by the Lancs Evening Post), the Communities Secretary’s staff yesterday wrote: The secretary of state hereby directs that he shall determine these appeals instead of an inspector. This means that instead of writing a decision, the inspector will prepare a report and recommendation, which will be forwarded to the secretary of state.”
The reason? Well the decisions on exploring and developing shale gas “amount to proposals for development of major importance having more than local significance”. So to go forward to the fracking future, Clark has had to go back to old centralising habits of ministers’ past. Plus ca change.
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