The five things you need to know on Friday April 15, 2016…
1) EURO AWAY DAY RETURN
I know it’s felt like it’s been going on for years already, but today is legally the first day of the EU referendum campaign. Alistair Darling has a speech warning of the economic risks of Brexit, while Boris has a speech in Manchester as the Leave camp say billions more could be spent on the NHS if we stop sending cash to Brussels.
Meanwhile hardline Eurosceptic Tory MPs have been shunning the PM’s ‘bonding session’ (“no my dear boy, it’s not a ‘Bondage Session’, despite recent events,” one veteran MP told me) in Chipping Norton overnight. Some Outers did manage to turn up, however, just to prove that they aren’t churlish.
The most chilling feature was the dread dress code: ‘casual’. Ever since William Hague and David Lidington organised these ‘away days’ back in the late 1990s (many of us hacks wasted hours doorstepping them for titbits about Michael Ancram strumming his guitar late into the night), many MPs have loathed them. In a pure Thick Of It moment, it seems there was little mobile phone reception. One source with a signal tells me Anthony Wells did a session on why the pollsters got 2015 so wrong and Andrew Neil did a talk about the US elections. Some Tories whisper that the party expects to make life very difficult for Corbyn in the May local elections - but they won't shout it from the rooftops during the 'truce' over the EU vote.
The FT’s George Parker points out that a bit of bonding is in dire need given the mutinous mood among the Parliamentary Tory party. He cites a Eurosceptic underlining the message we’ve been getting that a narrow ‘In’ vote would spark a leadership challenge. “The letters would flood in,” one MP says, claiming that Graham Brady would receive more than the 50 letters from MPs needed to trigger a vote.
On the Today prog, Alistair Darling said that the EU referendum felt closer than the Scottish independence referendum. He said "the nationalists fell because they couldn’t make an economic case” and the Brexiters were struggling similarly. But “It’s too close to call”. Asked if he was worried about the result, he replied “Yes I am”.
Yet Darling himself is blamed by some on the Left for ruining Labour’s chances in Scotland. Many Corbynistas think his sharing of platforms with Cameron was deadly and yesterday’s snaps of Neil Kinnock grinning alongside the PM made them distinctly queasy.
Corbyn’s own speech on the EU yesterday proved that he retains his scepticism about Brussels. Kate Hoey even told the BBC: “I don’t believe Jeremy has gone back on all his views at all” and she wasn’t far wrong (Owen Smith admitted on Question Time Jez's euro-enthusiasm was only '7/10'). But Red Ken is in the headlines again, gifting the Brexiters a story: he’s told his local paper the Ham & High (my own former employers) that if there’s an Out vote “I would personally start thinking about emigrating to somewhere the economy is not going to collapse”.
Jacob Rees-Mogg has told The House magazine that Barack Obama’s decision to back Cameron on the EU will boost the Brexit cause. But ahead of the President’s UK trip, his deputy national security adviser has briefed this: “He will be very straightforward and candid as a friend on why it's good for the UK to remain in the European Union”.
2) CHILLAXED ON TAX
Some MPs think the PM is already too ‘casual’ when it comes to chillaxing. Although the PM survived this week largely unscathed by the Panama Papers, the FT quotes a well-connected Tory explaining why the row was allowed to get out of hand last week: “The PM didn’t want to take calls on it — he wanted a holiday.” Punters on Question Time last night certainly expressed their anger at the tax issue.
George Osborne declared yesterday that the UK and other EU states were dealing a ‘hammer blow’ to tax avoiders. But that deal notably didn’t include the US and the Government isn’t out of the woods yet on tax avoidance.
The Public Accounts Committee’s report today is pretty damning on the record of HMRC over the past five years. The tax man has ‘no clear strategy’ for stopping tax fraud that costs us a whopping £16bn every year. The PAC’s main concern is the lack of prosecutions, pointing out just one resulted from the HSBC Swiss scandal last year. Its report states: “HMRC told us it investigates around 35 wealthy individuals for tax evasion each year. But it did not know how many wealthy individuals it had successfully prosecuted.
PAC chairwoman Meg Hillier has written a blog for HuffPost pointing out just 35 wealthy individuals are investigated every year, and the plan to increase that to 100 a year by 2020 proves much more can be done. “Most people sweating over their tax returns will be worried about whether they’ve made a minor mistake. They need to know that HMRC is actively pursuing those who wilfully don’t pay their dues.”
3) NHS EMERGENCY
The NHS continues to be a real political headache for the Government. With the most severe junior docs strike looming (will the consultants stepping in mean it’s a ‘safe’ strike?), there were fresh stats yesterday showing waiting times in A&E were getting worse. Heidi Alexander said “we’re heading back to the bad old days of patients waiting hours on end in overcrowded A&E departments or stuck on trolleys because no beds are available’.
The FT reports that the stats show that ‘tight funding’ (yes despite ring-fencing) is increasingly having a toll on performance and that the figures were the worst month in six years.
The Indy reports on how Chorley Hospital in Lancashire has been forced to stop running its A&E department, warning that staff shortages (caused by agency staff working in Scotland and elsewhere) left it with “no other safe options”. The A&E will be temporarily downgraded to an urgent care centre, meaning it will close at night and will not be able to take the most seriously ill patients until further notice.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this gorilla at Twyford Zoo execute an incredibly balletic pirouette
4) BAKER DAY
Nicky Morgan’s plans for ‘forced academisation’ look to be in even more trouble after a significant intervention on Newsnight by former Tory Education Secretary Ken (now Lord) Baker. Baker, in his amiable, elderly peer kind of way, managed to gently savage the current plans by making it sound obvious that forcing all schools to convert to academies was plain daft and unnecessary.
Echoing the points made by many Tory backbenchers this week, Baker pointed out that it has taken decades for his own City Technology Colleges (business-backed forerunners of academies) to develop organically. Baker also stressed how important parent governors were.
Morgan (like Gove before her) shares the PM’s belief that pupils can’t wait years for radical reform, but Baker is such a senior Tory voice on all this that it adds further pressure for a ‘clarification’ (aka ‘concession’ or even U-turn) ahead of the Queen’s Speech. Gove himself clashed with Baker, but in the end had to bow to the man who is still seen by many Tories as the most genuinely radical Education Secretary of modern times.
5) AN MP’S LOT
Talk about trust in politicians is yet again on the agenda. Yesterday, the Hansard Society audit of political engagement found some good news: levels of claimed interest in (57%) and knowledge of (55%) politics have both risen eight points in the last year (something Team Corbyn believes is partly because of the impact he’s had in enthusing disaffected voters, young and old). More people say they will definitely vote in the next general election too.
Today, we have an exclusive piece on a new study of the way MPs view their job - and are viewed by the public. The Commons Administration Committee publishes will today publish its report of views of 50 MPs who left Parliament in 2015 (many couldn’t cope with the long hours and lack of family life). Committee chairman Sir Paul Beresford has written us a blog on how MPs need to get across their real work in Parliament - even though many people think their own local MP is doing a good job, voters tend to view negatively MPs as a whole.
Writing for the Times today, Philip Collins points out that the first MORI poll on this in 1983 showed just 18% of voters trusted politicians to tell the truth and that has risen to 21% in 2016. But he adds that the UK is also one of the least corrupt systems in the world and that other countries have a much lower opinion of their MPs. More importantly, Collins says it’s not a bad thing that politicians are not trusted to tell the whole truth: “Trust is always linked to the nature of the activity in question and it is in the nature of politics that trust’s most vital ingredient is missing. The politician is not, and can never be, impartially motivated.”
Our latest Commons People podcast is now out HERE. Hear us discuss the Brexit camp designation, Corbyn’s EU speech, tax transparency and that Tory revolt over forced academisation.
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