The five things you need to know on Tuesday February 23, 2016…
1) BLUE-ON-BLUE MONDAY
Ever since Boris’s Sunday afternoon doorstep, the storm clouds have been looming. For all his protestations of loyalty, the Mayor’s verdict on Cameron’s Brussels deal sounded very much like a declaration of hostilities (‘I have to tell you now that no such undertaking on national sovereignty has been received, and that consequently this Boris is at war with Dave,’ he all but said).
Well, the phoney war was well and truly over by the time the PM got up yesterday in the Commons. His ridiculing of Boris was a real Parliamentary moment, as was Boris’s self-hugging stance and mouthing of ‘rubbish’. From the jibe about ambition to marriage vows to the ‘second referendum’, this was Cameron at the height of his powers and Labour MPs loved every minute (maybe because the PM did something they’ve never managed: to lay a glove on Johnson).
Farage has mocked Cameron as Oliver Twist begging for ‘more’ from Brussels. But Cameron yesterday mocked Boris as Mr Micawber, hoping ‘something will turn up’ if we vote ‘Leave’ and naively think the EU will give us a better deal to keep us in. Cameron’s most wounding line was this: “Some people who want to leave…apparently want to use a Leave vote to Remain”.
As it happens, friends of Boris told me that he didn’t even register the marriage vows or ‘agenda’ ambition jibes. (‘Whatever!’ he replied, when told later of the meaning of the slights). But more importantly, on the second referendum, Boris wanted to make clear last night he had some time ago dumped the idea and that his Telegraph column had been misinterpreted. He wants a ‘positive exit’ and a new free trade and cooperation deal after a Leave vote. He does not want talks about staying in the EU under new terms. That will be seen by No.10 as a victory.
Shares in Boris have been on the slide since their high point at 5pm on Sunday, when he first backed Brexit. By 10pm his Vicky Pollard hedging in the Telegraph did him damage and by 4pm yesterday the PM’s onslaught left those Inner allies of the Mayor shaking their heads with a look of ‘I told you so..’.
Still, the PM was warned by Steve Baker at the 1922 Committee last night to rein in his attacks, telling him to ‘be kind to Boris’. Some in Labour think that by holding the referendum in June Dave has screwed Zac Goldsmith’s chances too, forcing him as it has to come out for Brexit (when a million London voters are EU nationals). Goldsmith’s £1.3m income on his tax return yesterday also gifted Sadiq Khan the ‘amateur Trustafarian’ attack line he needs.
And with so many backbenchers expressing disquiet yesterday, it’s not just the Bojo-Dave phoney war that’s now over. So too is the phoney truce among Eurosceptics about whether Cameron should quit after a Leave vote. Owen Paterson led the way on Sunday and Liam Fox yesterday said “never say never” about a leadership tilt. One leading Euroscep told me months ago ‘Dave’s feet won’t touch the ground if we get a Brexit vote’.
The Sun’s Harry Cole has an excellent line today too on the existential threat to Cameron’s premiership. One member of the 1922 Committe exec told him: “Cameron has now proven himself to be a poor negotiator. If we vote to come out of Europe then we will need to send someone else to cut the deal, and that’s before he’s even negotiated with his own MPs….I’m going to the wardrobe for my grey suit already.”
2) STERLING WORK
We often have this phrase in Westminster that there are few ‘market-moving’ stories or politicians left. But the way sterling tanked on the money markets yesterday was proof that Boris has that power, as City types took fright at the implications of a serious risk of Brexit. Moody’s assessment of the negative rating following any exit from the EU added to No.10’s case that this would all be a ‘leap into the dark’. (If the PM got a euro for every time he says that phrase, as well as ‘best of both worlds’, we could pay off our national debt pretty quickly).
But Eurosceptics may counter: in this Big Short age of wariness about money men, how many really trust ratings agencies like Moody’s anyway? And there’s a similar credibility problem for the latest letter to the Times from a third of FTSE100 bosses urging an In vote. Yes, it looks impressive to have so many big firms coming off the fence to warn of the stranger danger of life outside.
Yet to paraphrase Michael Gove’s Brexit essay, this is analogue politics in a digital age. The well-worn device of ‘a letter to a newspaper’ looked a bit tired to many Tory MPs, and the Telegraph, Sun and Mail all point to the supermarkets and others who refused to sign it. As for that sterling plunge, I’m not sure it helped Cameron’s case when former Swedish PM Carl Bildt lectured British voters with a dismissive tweet: “If Boris Johnson didn't achieve anything else he at least succeeded in taking down the pound. Shows the #Brexit dangers.”
Still the Brexiteers need to have a better answer on what Brexit will look like. Nigel Farage told Anna Soubry in the BBC debate last night he didn’t want to be part of the single market, nor have even the status of Norway or Iceland. The PM is out on the road today to sell his EU vision to the punters.
Mark Carney appears before the Treasury Select at 10am. Maybe he should come clean on Brexit too though? When asked yesterday what contingency plans there were for an exit, No.10 trotted out the line that the PM was ‘focused on’ putting the In case. Yet aren’t the voters entitled to see all those Treasury contingency plans that undoubtedly exist?
3) LABOURED JOKE
Like Boris Johnson, Jeremy Corbyn found out yesterday that mockery is much more wounding than mano-a-mano political combat. Tory MP Chris Pincher’s heckle of ‘Who are you?’ prompted a guffawing that lasted a full 35 seconds. For once, Corbyn’s geography teacher hard stared failed to work, partly because his own side thought it funny too, as evidenced by Andy Burnham’s grin.
Today Yvette Cooper tries to get serious with a new think tank and a swipe at Corbyn for offering ‘yesterday’s solutions’ on policy. Angela Eagle has also set up a new business panel with a former Nike exec Anthony Watson chairing it, the FT reports. Chuka Umunna is ploughing his furrow outside the Shad Cab with a backbench debate today on gang violence. And at 2.15pm he will join others on the Home Affairs Committee quizzing Met chief Hogan Howe on the topic.
But it’s defence that is again the fault line for Labour today as the Shadow Cabinet meets. Emily Thornberry yesterday refused in her RUSI speech to commit to 2% defence spending, and also suggested money spent on four new Trident subs could be better spent on conventional forces.
The party’s commission on international policy meets today and will see Thornberry, Ken Livingstone, Hilary Benn and John Woodcock lock horns. And later Woodcock’s backbench defence committee will hear from both George Robertson and Des Browne offering rival views on Trident. Corbyn couldn’t make last night’s PLP but he will attend next Monday - just in time for Damian McBride’s first day working for Thornberry. Popcorn.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Tory MP Andrea Jenkyns (an opera fan who beat Ed Balls) belt out Mamma Mia on Radio 5’s Pienaar’s Politics.
4) CALL THE MIDWIFE
Anybody else remember Liam Fox’s Patients’ Passport, way back in 2003? The then Shadow Health Secretary had the idea (I’m such a saddo I still have one of the fake blue ‘passports’) to give patients the right to spend their own NHS budget. Labour ridiculed the plan, but today it took a step closer to reality.
Yes, a long awaited review of maternity services has concluded that the NHS in England should offer pregnant women their own "personal budgets", worth at least £3,000, for anything from one-to-one midwifery care to home births, the use of birthing pools and hypnotherapy.
Labour may argue the real danger here is not patient choice but a lack of NHS midwives and further ‘privatisation’: the cash can be spent on ‘independent’ midwives or social enterprises. Still, Baroness Cumberlege is a highly regarded chair of the review and it could lead to better care.
5) THE VACCINES
At 2.30pm, the petitions committee meets and its main item will be the massively popular call for a debate on the NHS’s decision to limit the meningitis B vaccine to babies under nine months. Forget the daft ban Trump petition (and by the way, check out my US colleagues’ piece on how Donald Trump could actually now win the Presidency), this online activism broke all records.
The petition, which calls for all children under the age of 11 to be given the vaccine, and which has been signed by more than 700,000 people. It wasn’t just rugby star Matt Dawson who gave this campaign huge traction. Yesterday Clare and Mark Timmins released a picture of the final days of their seven-year-old son Mason, who died of the disease in 2013.
Ben Howlett, the Tory MP member of the committee, told the Telegraph he would have “absolutely no hesitation” in asking for the subject to be debated and also backed calls for the vaccination campaign to be extended.
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