The five things you need to know on Tuesday, January 31…
1) GIVE ME YOUR HUDDLED MESSES
Theresa May will be keen to shift the political focus today from Trump’s travel ban to our own EU ban, aka Brexit. Yet the controversy continues over just how she reacted - or didn’t - to the US President’s plans.
Last night, Channel 4 News’s Gary Gibbon revealed that Team Trump had told the PM, while she was in the White House last Friday, that the executive order on refugees was coming. The detail of the extra ban on nationals from seven ‘Muslim-majority’ countries was not apparently mentioned, nor any suggestion of a ban on dual nationals. The Times reports that May was told of the move before her joint press conference and that UK officials were then braced for the major shake-up.
What we still don’t know is what May said in reply, when told of the Trump plans in private. That is surely a task for Jeremy Corbyn at PMQs tomorrow. What you knew, and when you knew it, remain powerful questions even in this age of ‘alternative facts’.
But the prior knowledge, plus the mess of the way the White House handled all this, does perhaps help us understand why May was so reluctant to criticise Trump in Turkey on Saturday. An anti-immigration former Home Secretary who herself believes Syrian refugees should stay ‘in region’, the PM may not have blanched at all at the idea of a dramatic ban. It may be that it was only when the dual national issue and seven-nation ban became clear that she decided a more critical voice was needed.
Meanwhile, Trump has fired his acting Attorney General for openly defying his wishes on the ban. That’s not a surprise. What is more worrying is the way press secretary Sean Spicer attacked a State Department “dissent channel” memo that said the new policy ran counter to ‘core American values’. The dissent channel was created in the Vietnam era to formally allow foreign service officers an outlet without fear of retribution. But Spicer said such officials now had to "get with the program" - or leave. Oh and Trump will announce his new judicial nomination on prime time TV tonight. And remember that a President is for eight years maximum; a Supreme Court judge is for life.
Prince Charles told a World Jewish Relief dinner last night that we live “in a time when the horrific lessons of the last war seem to be in increasing danger of being forgotten”, a remark seen by some in his audience as a reference to Trump. Was that the faintest whisper of Royal disquiet at the visit? The PM may turn Labour’s ‘Theresa the Appeaser’ jibes to her advantage, saying such remarks are a crass comparision. But she can’t say the same about the heir to the throne.
2) ORANGE SQUASH
As thousands of protestors crammed into Whitehall last night to protest at Trump’s travel ban, one placard slogan was impeccably English: “I'm really rather cross now”. The crowds were so big that Ed Miliband couldn’t even get to the speaking point near Downing Street (Jeremy Corbyn couldn’t make it either, but Clive Lewis did).
Over in the Commons, Government whips decided not to contest Miliband and Nadhim Zahawi’s motion on the “divisive” US ban, and it was passed unanimously. The wording of the motion - that the House ‘has considered the matter’ - was felt vague enough to be let through.
Opposition to the Trump State Visit has generated a million online signatures as well as street protests. But if you really want to worry the Establishment, a letter to the Times can still do the trick. The paper rightly splashes on a missive from former Foreign Office chief and national security adviser Lord Ricketts, who warns the invite has put the Queen in a ‘very difficult position’. However many in Whitehall assume a state banquet at Buckingham Palace was the quid/dollar pro quo of Theresa May’s honour of being the first foreign leader to visit Trump’s White House.
May herself refused to budge on the invitation last night, but there could be more wriggle room on the actual events on the State Visit. It got missed amid the ‘appeaser’ row, yet Boris Johnson hinted in the Commons that the idea of Trump addressing both Houses of Parliament was not set in stone. No wonder, given that MPs could easily disrupt the event, which would be a bigger PR disaster than a boycott.
And as I reported yesterday, any invitation to speak in Westminster Hall will have to be approved by just three 'keyholders': one of whom is Speaker Bercow. The others are Lord Fowler, the Lord Speaker, and a Royal flunky, the wonderfully titled 7th Marquess of Cholmondeley. It’s perfectly possible that Bercow and Fowler, both from the socially liberal wing of the Tory party, could suggest a Westminster Hall ceremony is not appropriate for a President so soon into his term of office. The snub of being refused a joint address to Parliament is perhaps where this story should go next.
By the way, we yesterday did a list of six stories that risked getting buried this weekend amid the Trump row. They range from a fall in NHS spending per head to delays on climate change plans.
3) ARTICLE OF FAITH
The House of Lords was told by the Government yesterday that it wants the European Union (Notification of Withdrawal) Bill approved on March 7. The following day, Philip Hammond presents his first Budget. The day after that, May can invoke the Brexit clause at the EU summit in Malta. That’s going to be quite a week.
Today, the second reading of the bill starts. The Daily Telegraph says it can disclose that Conservative ministers and MPs have been told to stay in the Commons until midnight, amid fears of an "ambush vote" by pro-Remain MPs. But word among Lib Dem and Labour circles is that the Tory Remainer rebels will bottle it even when amendments are voted on at committee stage.
David Davis will start proceedings with his ‘point of no return’ catchphrase: “It is not a Bill about whether or not the UK should leave the EU, or how it should do so. It is simply about implementing a decision already made, a point of no return already passed.”
The splits between Remainers and Leavers was all too evident at last night’s Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting, with several backbenchers making clear they would defy the part’s three-line whip. Yet shadow Brexit minister Matthew Pennycook has written a blog (see HERE) that is well worth reading.
An MP for a strongly pro-Remain constituency in London, he will not vote against Article 50 even though he knows that could cost him his seat at the next election. He warns voting against the bill risks further social division that could fuel the far right. And he is ruthless candid about Labour’s unpopularity. Blocking the bill “would almost certainly trigger a snap general election fought solely on the issue of Brexit - that in all likelihood would return a Conservative Government with an increased majority to enact any form of departure they wish”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Tory MP Nicholas Soames (aka Churchill’s grandson) apologise, kinda, for making ‘woof, woof’ noises at a female SNP MP.
4) WHO CARES?
Health minister David Mowat moved on from the row over his pharmacy cuts yesterday with a new line on the care crisis that makes plenty of front pages. ‘Care For Parents Like Your Children’ was the Telegraph headline and that’s a neat summer of Mowat’s quote to the Commons CLG Committee that “no one ever questions that we look after our children..caring for our parents [should be]..similar”.
Mowat was making a wider cultural point about our personal responsibilities to look after the elderly. Yet it’s always dangerous for a politician if they appear to be blaming either individuals or ‘society’ for their own funding crisis (I remember Jeremy Hunt suggesting in 2013 we Brits should copy the 'Asian culture' in the way we 'personally treat our own parents and grandparents'). And Mowat's remarks came as the Local Government Association (which includes many Tory councils) warned that the social care system was on the brink of collapse.
Cuts to council budgets mean they’re unable to meet new legal duties to ensure the elderly’s dignity, and many town halls privately admit they are rationing care. The LGA says it needs an extra £2.6bn - but will the Treasury, let alone No.10, listen? Meanwhile, here’s a new stat that puts the cost-benefit ratio into perspective: falls at home among the elderly cost the NHS £2.3bn every year.
5) THE APPRENTICE: YOU’RE FIRED
All political parties profess their love for apprenticeships and under the Coalition there was almost a bidding war between the Tories and Lib Dems and Labour to see who could promise most places. Now the Institute for Fiscal Studies has poured an ice bucket of analysis over the current levy scheme (which many employers see as a simple extra tax, courtesy of G Osborne)
An IFS report suggests that of the £2.8bn raised by the new levy by 2019-20, spending on apprenticeships will only increase by £640m. Ministers love to ‘rapidly expand’ things but the think tank says that the Government has shown a "cavalier use of statistics” to justify their case and suggest a more gradual approach is needed.
The IFS says ministers "failed to make a convincing case for such a large and rapid expansion in apprenticeships" and warns of "wildly optimistic" claims for how much extra earnings could be generated by the investment in apprentices.
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