The five things you need to know on Tuesday January 5, 2016…
1) BIG BENN STRIKES
The Commons is back today. Health Questions (including on the junior doctors strike) and a statement on the floods may well concern voters outside the Westminster bubble more than Labour’s reshuffle.
But the reshuffle has sucked the life away from other political news and the big Parliamentary event will come when Jeremy Corbyn faces David Cameron across the despatch box for the PM’s statement on the December EU summit. And senior MPs expect that Hilary Benn will be sitting alongside the Labour leader on the frontbench, as would be normal for such a statement, in his role as Shadow Foreign Secretary.
‘Ask not for whom the Benn tolls, he tolls for thee’. That seems to have been the message among shadow ministers yesterday. In the very first one-on-one meeting with Corbyn, Rosie Winterton is said to have warned the leadership that sacking Benn (he wasn’t interested in any other job) would have sparked a wider walkout.
If Benn stays it would show that you can, like IDS, refuse to move and make yourself ‘unsackable’ in a reshuffle. Or, more aptly, you can signal you will quit if you’re offered another role. (IDS has written a resignation letter several times since 2010, I understand, with his most recent during the tax credits threat to Universal Credit). It’s a dangerous game though and is not always a long-term recipe for stability.
Winterton was later seen having a heated discussion with John McDonnell, but party sources deny they had a ‘big bust up’. In fact, I’m told McDonnell and Winterton ended the evening with him joking about her being a ‘pantomime Dame’ (a reference to her New Year’s Honours gong) and they both left late on good terms.
But bad blood remains. And Maria Eagle could be the biggest victim, with persistent suggestions that Lisa Nandy could replace her. Eagle infuriated the leadership during conference when she said Corbyn’s Today prog ‘nuclear button’ remarks were not ‘helpful’ for a ‘potential Prime Minister’. She further irritated Corbyn by backing Gen Nick Houghton on Marr over the same issue. Even if Eagle remains, as Gary Gibbon pointed out late last night, the leadership is determined to go ahead with another email plebiscite on Trident (as JC hinted in his HuffPost end-of-year interview). Bypassing the Shad Cab may be a smarter tactic than defenestrating it in one go, more cautious advisers say.
The hour-long talk with Benn may well have focused on the need to sing from the same hymn sheet and to publicly recognise Corbyn's authority and mandate on foreign affairs. The leadership’s team want this to be known as the ‘coherence’ reshuffle rather than the ‘revenge reshuffle’.
Allies say free votes and debate are one thing, but a leader has a right not to be openly undermined and his personal credibility as PM questioned for his views on Trident and foreign policy, for which he has a mandate from members. But some more hard line Corbyistas think the danger is the reshuffle will be seen as ‘botched butchery’ and the moment for a big clear out has passed. Corbyn’s own affability and natural caution could be the most important factors.
But what of the bigger picture? As the Sun points out, a new YouGov poll out yesterday showed the Tories are trusted much more than Labour on the economy, law and order, tackling unemployment and even on education (a nice fillip for Nicky Morgan’s own leadership ambitions?). Corbyn’s personal poll rating is minus 32. Wes Streeting put it thus: “You can rearrange the chairs around the table as much as we like, until these numbers change we won’t win a General Election.”
Shadow Cabinet is due to take place at 12.45pm today. Senior sources hope a new list be ready by then. Will it feature incremental change rather than revolution, with more women in more senior roles?
2) DOCTOR DOCTOR
It’s Health Questions at 2.30pm today (anorak alert: it’s normally 11.30am on a Tuesday but this is the first day back) and Jeremy Hunt is sure to be quizzed on the fresh threat of industrial action by the BMA after talks broke down yesterday. Talks could resume as early as today.
The BMA’s Mark Porter was on Today suggesting junior doctors have been left with no option, disputing Jeremy Hunt’s claim that there was a narrow gap between the two sides. Doctors point out that weekend pay is actually central to the entire dispute.
Speaking of pay, today is ‘Fat Cat Tuesday’, which is already trending on Twitter: top bosses have earned as much by today as the average worker does in a year.
3) MAN IN THE MASK
David Cameron yesterday described the latest ISIL propaganda video as “desperate stuff” that proved the terror group was “clearly now on the back foot”. Today’s papers are stuffed full of descriptions of the man believed to be behind the mask.
Siddhartha Dhar, 32, a British-Indian Muslim convert, is a former bouncy castle salesman (that makes the Star’s splash) from Walthamstow, east London. The Sun says Dhar was known as ‘Sid’ and grew up a fan of rock band Nirvana and Arsenal, but "changed" following the death of his father when he was 16, and abandoned plans to become a dentist.
The Telegraph splashes on a report that Dhar was travelled to Syria with his wife and four children despite being on bail for allegedly encouraging terrorism - after he reportedly failed to hand over his passport. The Times is more sceptical, as some audio and video experts said Mr Dhar's accent, inflections and facial features did not match the gunman in the footage. Dhar’s sister says she’ll kill herself if it’s all true.
The BBC’s Dominic Casciani has a Vine that shows how similar Dhar is to the masked man.
The Sun and Mirror focus on claims that the boy in the video is four-year-old London-born Isa Dare. Many papers report on an interview from a cabbie who claims his five-year-old grandson is the boy in the film, having been taken to Syria by his daughter in 2013.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch the bonkers viral video of a cat in a monkey suit.
4) SAUDI QUATTRO
Saudi Arabia is part of a quartet of nations that has now broken off diplomatic relations with Iran (Sudan, Bahrain and the UAE joined it yesterday) as Sunni-Shia tensions across the Middle East reach worrying new levels.
And the Saudi plan to deliberately provoke Tehran (to undermine Assad and the Syria peace talks, some suspect) looks like it’s working. Last night, the UN Security Council voted to condemn attacks on the Saudi embassy in Iran by protesters angered by the execution of a Shia cleric.
But the UN statement made no mention of the execution of the cleric, Nimr al-Nimr.
The Times reports that David Cameron has delayed a planned high-profile visit to Saudi Arabia for at least three months. Sources insist this is more because he wants to focus on his EU renegotiation but it does have other benefits, clearly.
The Indy, which has had a string of exclusives on Saudi, splashes a story that the country is the only major death penalty state to be omitted from a 20-page Foreign Office document setting out the UK’s five-year strategy to reduce the use of executions around the world.
5) THE SIMON COMMUNITY
It never rains but it pours for Simon Danczuk, the Rochdale MP. After a day of protests outside his constituency office from people he felt were mad leftists demanding his deselection, it emerged last night that Lancashire Police are looking at claims of an historic rape allegation dating from 2006. The MP described the claim as "malicious, untrue and upsetting”.
Danczuk then had another cringe-making interview with Newsnight where he again repeated that he liked ‘young women’ (who advises him to talk about his private life like this?), before being quizzed on new claims from Nick Davies that he takes cash from a photo agency that sells snaps of him to tabloids.
He defended the £1,100 he gets (and declares in the Members Register) from a photographic agency FameFlyNet. It was a properly declared payment for "media advice and [to] give ideas about what they might or might not do”, he said and added: "I don't make any apologies for it."
Danczuk is certainly not shy about appearing on the media. Perhaps what caught the whips’ and leadership’s ear too was his LBC interview in which he refused to rule out standing as an independent in 2020 if he was not restored to the party whip. He certainly won a huge majority in 2015 but there’s a big doubt that his personal appeal would be enough to retain it outside Labour. More worrying locally are claims that he just wasn’t around during the Christmas floods.
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