The five things you need to know on Thursday, February 23…
1) NOT-SO-SUPER THURSDAY
The Washington Post has a punchy new strapline: ‘Democracy Dies In Darkness’. Democracy may not be quite dead in the Stoke Central and Copeland by-elections today, but it could be on life support as voters are expected to trek to the polls in the dark (most will vote after work and we are still on winter hours) amid the wind and rain.
All the parties worry we could see really low turn out in Stoke, which already recorded a pitifully low voting level of just 49% in 2015. And that was in a general election, with summer daylight hours. Add in that the seat is small to start with - that's precisely why it's being abolished in boundary changes - and the three-way split between Labour, Tories and UKIP, and you can see that it may take just 7,000 votes to win. The stakes are certainly high for Paul Nuttall: a loss would leave many thinking what is the point of UKIP at all in a world where Brexit is a looming reality.
In Copeland, the Tories sound increasingly confident of pulling off an historic victory. Labour has chucked everything at the NHS as a campaign issue. If it can't benefit from the worst health crisis in years or a direct local hospital threat, it may be forced to admit that economic and national security, a credible plan for Brexit and a leader with broad appeal, really are what the voters want.
Having said that, if Labour wins in Copeland, expect Jeremy Corbyn to say he's once again defied the doomsayers within and without his party. Still, a senior Labour source speaking after PMQs yesterday sounded as if he was softening us up for defeat, pointing for the first time to the party's dire national poll ratings. "The overall level of support in the country is well known, and that has implications in any electoral contest and as we know by-elections are notoriously volatile." It's worth repeating: Labour are in Opposition, not Government, and should easily be winning these contests.
Don't forget that in many ways No.10 sees this as a win-win by-election day. It sees Corbyn as its biggest electoral asset and won't be too gutted if he squeaks home and delays once more any threat to his leadership.
The results will come through in the early hours. We will know then whether Labour supporters have voted with their feet, by staying at home in protest, or have braved the democratic darkness to put an X on a ballot paper.
2) I CAN’T GITMO SATISFACTION
Tony Blair knows how to disrupt PMQs even when he’s no longer PM. Just a few minutes after May and Corbyn started at each other yesterday, his office tweeted his withering attack on both the Daily Mail and the Tory Government over the ‘Guantanamo compo’ story.
Blair pointed out that Jamal al-Harith (aka Ronald Fiddler), the ex Gitmo detainee who was this week identified as an IS suicide bomber in Iraq, had been paid £1m in compensation by the Tories in 2010. The ex-PM stuck the boot into the Daily Mail, which he says blamed him for the payment. He lashed at its ‘hypocrisy’, as the paper campaign for the release of Guantanamo inmates.
In a statement, the Mail said last night: “Our sister organisation MailOnline, which is an independently edited website, did publish a misleading headline which said that Mr Blair’s government was responsible for the £1million payout to Fiddler.” As it happens, Fiddler’s family have told the BBC he did not receive the money.
But it’s Theresa May who is most at risk over this story, not a newspaper. She is facing questions about whether she approved of any of Ken Clarke’s compensation deals, and whether as Home Secretary she did enough to stop Fiddler from going to Syria in 2013. MI5 failed to pick up his movements, as he had been deemed a low security risk. No.10 even suggested last night there was no evidence Fiddler had been the suicide bomber. What seemed farcical was the PM’s spokesman refusing to say anything at all about the case in the post-PMQs huddle with journalists. Read my account of the Q&A HERE.
Will the Speaker force an Urgent Question on Liz Truss (the MoJ do compensation) or Amber Rudd (the Home Office oversee MI5) today? Labour sources yesterday said Gitmo was to blame for 'generating terrorism', and sound like they agree with the compensation, so usual Opposition may not apply.
3) EX-RATED ROW
What a difference a few hours makes. Asked about the business rate rises threatening half a million small firms, Theresa May said at PMQS: “I have asked the Chancellor and the Communities Secretary to ensure that there is appropriate relief in those hardest cases.” Immediately afterwards, when asked if there was no new money and the PM was simply seeking to reassure people about existing transitional relief, her spokesman said ‘that’s fair’.
Fast-forward to 4pm and Communities Secretary Sajid Javid tells MPs that in fact something new was indeed on its way: “I am working closely with the Chancellor to determine how best to provide further support to businesses facing the steepest increases. We expect to be in a position to make an announcement at the time of the Budget.” The No.10 spokesman (he had a tough time yesterday, poor bloke) then uttered the immortal words: “I don’t think it’s chaos”.
I’m told that May has in fact been very much alive to the issue after feedback in her own constituency. She and Javid are 'in lock-step', apparently. And while no one will now talk publicly about the Budget (tho Javid did just that), ‘the door is open to further funds’ to ease the pain for the worst hit cases. Councils may also need to use existing powers to offer protections, especially in rural areas, I hear.
Labour has been all but silent on the issue until this week, but I understand that’s because of tensions among shadow ministers, some of whom like the big cuts in rates for northern areas. Getting approval for the new policy urging a ‘review’ was a struggle. The FT picks up on the split between Labour’s London wing, where rates hit hardest, and its traditional heartlands.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this off-duty LA cop try a citizen’s arrest on a 13-year-old Latino boy. The boy had spoken out to defend a girl who had walked on the cop’s lawn. Will Trump tweet about it?
4) LORDED BY CRITICS
There’s been some new movement on the Brexit Bill overnight that makes a Government defeat in the Lords more likely. A Tory peer, Lord Bowness, has signed a Labour amendment giving EU and EEA citizens unilateral rights. The Lib Dems who had been pushing their own version have now also backed the Labour move. Add in ex-diplomat Lord Hannay and finally the ‘Lab/Lib/Tory/Crossbench’ alliance that normally does for Governments is in place either for Committee Stage next week or Report Stage next month.
But there’s also an intriguing Sun story that Cabinet ministers are in secret talks to give fresh reassurance to peers and MPs that they will have a meaningful vote on the final Brexit deal. Government worries were sparked by former Supreme Court judge Lord Hope on Monday, who said the court’s decision meant Parliament had to have the final say. “If we don’t either they will force us, or the courts will. That is now becoming clear,” one Cabinet minister says. Labour Lords have been pushing hard for a new pledge. But if minsters intend merely another verbal commitment, rather than a new clause, will peers or MPs be bought off?
Ex EU ambassador Sir Ivan Rogers told MPs yesterday May’s plan to fall back onto WTO rules would be “nuts” - and that trade deals for individual sectors were ‘not on offer’. Speaking of bespoke sector deals, the PM finally talked to Peugeot chief Carlos Tavares last night. Tavares talked of the ‘iconic’ Vauxhal brand. But Prof David Bailey of Aston Business School told Today it was much easier to sack British workers than other EU workers - even before Brexit.
5) INADVERTENTLY, MR WATSON
Teenagers around the world cringe at the spectacle of ‘grown-ups’ trying to ‘dab’ [it’s a dance move, folks]. So it was perhaps no surprise that when Tom Watson struck the pose during PMQs, as if to celebrate Jeremy Corbyn’s question on the NHS, the internet lit up.
I caught Tom straight afterwards and he told me: “Did I do a dab? I’ve been doing them with my kids in the holidays so I may have inadvertently done one.” He made it sound like a dab-form of Tourette’s, breaking into dance moves at random. I suspect that was kidology. Did he do it for a bet? Anyway, the SkyNews slo-mo of the incident is a thing of wonder.
But the deputy Labour leader is making the news for other reasons too: a new MPs Register of Interests revealing he had a £300,000 donation from Max Mosley. Watson said Mosley was a friend. Yet with the ex F1 boss also funding controversial media regulator Impress, there’s a real risk that whenever Labour talks about the issue the wall of Mosley cash looms large. After all, it was to avoid the ‘perception’ of policy being bought that Blair handed by another F1 boss’s largesse 20 long years ago.
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