The five things you need to know on Friday, April 21…
1) ROLLING IN THE DEEP
The news from Paris, where the latest terror attack may bolster Marine Le Pen’s chances of becoming French President, throws into sharp relief our own general election and the sense of voter fatigue it has so far engendered. Over the Channel, the contest is deadly serious. Over here, it’s seen by many voters as either a joke non-contest or a needless distraction.
One thing the French impose from midnight is a ban on opinion polls and that’s something that Jeremy Corbyn supporters probably dearly wish was copied here. Still, the Labour leader sought to use his underdog status as an advantage yesterday with a passionate first big speech of the campaign that confirmed he really is up for it.
My full sketch/analysis of Corbyn’s speech is HERE. He played to his biggest strength, his raw authenticity in an age of overspun politics, while taking non-handpicked questions from the media and seeking to turn the scepticism to his advantage. But the real problem was the Trump tactic of claiming that the whole nation was going to hell in a handcart (‘American carnage’ as the Prez put it in his weird inauguration). In vowing to fight for those left behind by the ‘rigged system’, Corbyn sounded like he had little to offer the swath of voters for whom life isn’t awful but could be a bit better.
And just as Trump refused to change tactics from his own primary to the general election, Corbyn is not changing the message that won him his own two leadership elections. There was never going to be any tacking to the ‘centre’. What’s surprising is the absence of any attempt to persuade Labour doubters or sceptics, Tory switchers or Lib Dem flirters, preferring what looks like an attempt to preach to the converted to secure his base.
The Tories have talked about Labour’s ‘day of chaos’ on the first full day of campaigning. To me, it looked like the whole seven-week election campaign compressed into a few hours: a decent launch; then the wobble and confusion (over a second EU referendum); the expected Tory attack on Corbyn’s patriotism (Fallon saying Putin would welcome a Labour victory); Dawn Butler revealing the inexperience of those close to the leader (she last night apologised to Costa for claiming they dodged taxes); then Labour MPs disappearing (with 12 standing down).
Butler even went on Newsnight to suggest there would be a “rolling manifesto”, with pledges unveiled through the campaign. That may sound like the 'new politics' but old rules may kick in: either a policy is good enough to tell voters early on, or it isn't?
The Conservatives are already regretting the way expectations of a 140 seat majority have been ramped up. Yet when Ian Lavery introduced Corbyn yesterday as ‘the next Prime Minister of the United Kingdom’, it was hard to suspend disbelief, unless you were a member of the Labour congregation. Barring some rapid change in fortunes, for many Labour MPs their leader’s campaign resembles one of those huge exercises where the emergency services take over a city centre to cope with a fake disaster. Those playing the roles have to persuade themselves it’s real and that they can win, when in fact the reality may be much more grim.
2) COALITION OF THE WILLING?
Some around Corbyn think that if they can take a clutch of marginals from the Tories (though no side is actually naming their key seats this time), and the Lib Dems can damage May too, then it’s game on. The Mirror reports a senior campaign source saying the party is willing to "cut a deal" with the Lib Dems and Greens (and even the SNP) if there is a hung parliament.
The paper quotes its source: "Our number one goal is to deny the Tories a majority, and that is not beyond the realms of imagination. If we can take say 40 seats off them - and we’re only talking overturning small majorities - then we can be somewhere near parity. And if the Lib Dems do well too, the Tories will be out of government. Who is going to be able to cut a deal (with the other parties) over Brexit , us or them?” The only problem with all that is Corbyn ruled out any coalition with the SNP only this week.
The Times reports that Labour MPs listened to a presentation on polling by Marcus Roberts of YouGov on Tuesday and the news was sombre. Even seats with decent majorities were at risk because of their Leave vote percentage. “The basic advice was to stress your own personal story and not so much the national party message,” said one Labour MP who was present. “There was also some stuff on focusing the effort on under-25s, which was less helpful, frankly, since they don’t tend to vote.”
But the believers still persist. Corbyn yesterday pointed out he was a 200-1 shot for the Labour leadership in 2015 and still won. And Hackney Momentum put out a blog with a cunning plan: “The odds are against Labour - but if enough of us bet a tenner on Labour to get the most seats or Corbyn to be the next PM, the odds will shorten and the narrative will begin to change.” Call me a dinosaur, but wouldn’t that cash be better spent on Labour’s campaign?
The Lib Dems have way fewer members than Labour but have a momentum of their own right now. And they raised £500,000 from supporters in just two days, party sources said.
3) THE NUMBERS GAME
The Tories had their very own wobble on a key policy yesterday, but it’s a measure of Labour’s own plight that it couldn’t exploit it. Amid reports of taking students out of the migration figures, Cabinet minister Karen Bradley went on SkyNews and refused to recommit the Conservatives to their flagship pledge to cut immigration to under 100,000: “It’s not about putting numbers on it, it’s about making sure we can deliver where industries need skills, where the brightest and best want to come to Britain.”
The resulting speculation that May could execute yet another U-turn, this time on her own favoured (yet broken) promise, began in earnest. The PM then popped up at a factory in north London to give a soundbite (no questions again) confirming she was sticking by the migration pledge. “We have been very clear, as I was as Home Secretary for six years, that it is important that we have net migration that is in sustainable numbers. We believe sustainable numbers are the tens of thousands.” You know when May is in trouble when she has to say she’s been ‘very clear’ - and you know how annoyed she is when she uses the Royal ‘we’.
One newspaper has this morning come out strongly against May’s decision. “Setting a rigid, low figure - as the Tories intend in their manifesto - is counter-productive if it leaves employers short of workers, as in some areas and industries they already are. The “tens of thousands” a year target for net migration should be binned. It is a nonsense figure plucked from thin air.” Which newspaper is that? The Sun.
Another Brexit problem for May is the leaked report (in the Times and FT) that Brussels is demanding lifelong pensions, employment and welfare rights for EU citizens in the UK - a move that would undermine the PM’s pledge to end the remit of the European Court of Justice.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Andrew Neil fist-bump grime MC BigNarstie, as he asks if voters are bored of voting.
4) UNITE, THE UNION?
Its very name is ‘Unite’, but there’s deep division among the ranks of Britain’s biggest trade union. The scale of that split will be revealed to a select few today when the ballots in its general secretary election are counted behind closed doors.
Before May called the Big One, this was supposed to be the ‘proxy’ election on Jeremy Corbyn’s support in a key plank of the Labour movement. And reports varied wildly yesterday on just how close Len McCluskey’s challenger Gerard Coyne was to ousting Jezza’s loyal ally. The New Statesman’s George Eaton reported one source saying a sample showed Coyne was actually ahead by 46% to Len’s 44%. Others counter that McCluskey is on course for a landslide win.
Yet the union hit the headlines yesterday for its surprise announcement that it had suspended Coyne as regional secretary for the West Midlands, for an as yet unstated reason. Coyne had been given a previous written warning for addressing the new ‘Labour for the Common Good’ group. In a letter headlined “A serious breach of trust”, McCluskey told him “given that it is the brainchild of Chuka Umunna and Tristram Hunt who chose not to serve in a Corbyn shadow cabinet, it is clear that there are obvious differences with Unite’s political vision.”
5) BARNACLE BILL
One more barnacle has been scraped off the Tory election boat and it’s the hike in probate fees unveiled in Philip Hammond’s Budget. It’s hard to work out whether the Chancellor or Liz Truss will get the blame most for not stopping the plan earlier. But plenty of Tory MPs had been on the warpath about it, despite most of the post-Budget focus being on the bigger U-turn on the national insurance hikes.
There seemed a lot of political pain with little gain for the Government under the plans. The current fee off up to £215 per application could have reached £20,000 for some estates in England in Wales from May.
The official reason for dumping the idea is that there simply isn’t enough Parliamentary time left to get the measure passed. But the Ministry of Justice also refused to confirm that the plan will be re-introduced if Theresa May is re-elected. The Daily Mail, which has been pushing hard to scrap the so-called “stealth death tax”, had the scoop on its front page.
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