The five things you need to know on Wednesday, May 3…
1) TAX WHACKS
There are plenty of people old enough to actually remember the 1992 Tory ‘tax bombshell’ campaign as a living event rather than a bit of political folklore. I’m one of them, and so too are millions of voters, not to say most of the New Labour cadre who vowed never again to be so hammered on the basics of tax and spend.
But it’s deja vu all over again today as the Tories mark the first day of the campaign proper (Parliament was dissolved at midnight) to fire off their attack ad on Labour tax plans. The tagline: ‘No Bombs For Our Army; One Big Bombshell For Your Family’ isn’t particularly clever but it is brutal. David Davis and Philip Hammond will be holding a press conference to underline it this morning.
All parties try to cost opponents’ promises and declare them ruinous. Alastair Darling did a very effective job on the Tories in 2001, but Labour and the Tories were less successful in 2015. Of course, there’s lots of phoney stuff in the Conservative claim of a “£45n black hole” in Labour’s plans, but until the party’s manifesto launch it cannot say what its funding proposals are.
Yet Diane Abbott’s struggle to explain police funding plans, something you’d expect her to know backwards, yesterday may have more impact on voters than any old reheat of a tax bombshell ad. Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell attacked the BBC this morning but said “Let me give this assurance….I’m the person who will determine what the levels of spending will be…I’ve got a reputation for being a hard-nosed bureaucrat..professionally and politically…”
Labour will be trying to make its case to halt hospital closures today, and maybe it will lift the NHS Action party tweet claiming ‘Tory NHS bombshell: 24 A&E units earmarked for closure’ (see, these bombshells, they’re everywhere). Or maybe it could point to the IFS study yesterday showing that an extra £15bn of tax rises or spending cuts will be needed by 2022, despite ‘two Parliaments of pain’ of austerity.
Yesterday, Theresa May was finally confronted by A Real Voter who was upset about Tory cuts and Brexit. She had an Ed Miliband-style awkward photo-opp eating some chips. Yet the party tried to literally lock in a room the local paper to restrict any tricky questions (on social care, for example). If May is indeed trying to get a real mandate, surely it would be strengthened by her arguing her case with real people - especially when it's uncomfortable - so that if she wins handsomely she can say that everyone knew where she stood?
The PM visits the Queen today to pay her the courtesy of confirming Parliament has been dissolved. It’s all a bit phoney as the Fixed Term Parliaments Act means the process happens automatically. Let’s see if the ‘phoney war’ feel of this election continues after today.
2) EURO BOMB
Given that the PM’s whole approach to this election was to claim it was about giving her a stronger mandate to fight for the right Brexit (a claim the EU thinks is immaterial), it’s no surprise that she’s trying to make ‘Brussels’ as much of a bogeyman as Corbyn. What’s perhaps surprising is the way ‘Brussels’ is fuelling exactly the narrative she wants, as EU sources reveal they think she’s on a different planet from reality.
Bogeymen aren’t easier to find than Jean-Claude Juncker, so No10 was delighted her line that he’ll find out she’s a ‘bloody difficult woman’ led the BBC News last night. Michel Barnier, the suave Frenchman leading the Brexit negotiations, is an altogether cannier beast but even his diplomatic light touch may not hide the hardball as he sets out the EU27’s guidelines for the talks.
Into all this the FT’s superb Brussels Editor Alex Barker has dropped another bombshell, with a fresh calculation that the UK’s ‘divorce bill’ could run to 100bn euros, not the 60bn previously thought. The French, German and Poles are keen on filling the funding black hole of our departure. Again, something that could only help May’s pitch to the voters. The real problem for her is how she will deal with all this after the election. And the Times splashes that May won’t be allowed by the EU27 to personally negotiate with “prime ministers, presidents and chancellors of Europe”. Will the talks really be May, with DD at her side, in a room with Michel Barnier?
DD told the Today prog that 100bn euros was 'nowhere near where we will end up'. He also said of Barnier: "He’s tough, he’s straightforward, he’s French… but he’s also done deals in the past." He also said no one wanted to walk away with no deal, while pointing up the merits of trade with non-EU partners.
George Osborne made his own intentions plain yesterday with his first Evening Standard splash highlighting Brussels turning ‘the screw’. May triggered laughter at her Bristol rally last night when she told BuzzFeed ‘Can I wish George all the very best…?’ One Tory MP texted me to say “Osborne, cheap and bitter. She has the job he’ll NEVER have!”
3) LABOUR PAIN
A northern Labour MP told me yesterday that one in four voters now mention Corbyn on the doorstep, and not in a good way. And on a recent canvassing event a party staffer, a Corbyn fan, asked one traditional Labour couple just what they didn’t like about the party leader. “Everything!” came the reply. For Corbyn’s supporters, this is all just evidence of mainstream media bias. But MPs fear it’s the tip of the iceberg and proof that their leader’s politics and personal beliefs are killing them on the ground.
The common theme among some Labour MPs hoping to cling on is that their personal brand will save them, as well as a strong message that Corbyn won’t become PM and so a strong Opposition is needed. Yet as one MP put it to me: “Back in 1997, I don’t think there were many Tory voters saying ‘Oh, we think Tony Blair’s going to be Prime Minister, but we need a strong Opposition so I’ll vote Tory’. They just voted Labour.”
That’s why the contests for ‘safe’ Labour seats have been so intense, with Corbyn supporters keen on getting their allies installed to boost the numbers of MPs needed to nominate any left-wing successor. With Rochdale suddenly vacant after Simon Danczuk being dumped, Corbyn aide Katy Clark is being lined up. The local party is strongly opposed, and former Manchester MP Tony Lloyd is now in the running, but word is that the leader’s office have finally worked out how to sort the NEC panel making the decision. Maybe they are learning from Gordon Brown’s six hours in 2010 in a party backroom securing Chris Leslie’s nomination. And he was PM at the time.
The Guardian reports one Labour insider expects the party to raise just £7m for the election, way down on the £12m Ed Miliband had in 2015. Will all Labour's new members, plus unions, step up to narrow the gap, given the Tories will have a wall of cash themselves? A wall of cash that will go on targeted ads about tax bombshells and the like. Still, after Abbott's interview, one Tory aide said he couldn't get the smile of his face. The Tories tweeted it out in full - an attack advert that cost the grand total of zero pence.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Diane Abbott tell the BBC that she ‘misspoke’ when she got her figures muddled on LBC. It looks like a very modern form of torture to see her forced to listen to it all over again.
4) TRUCE PLEA
Jo Cox’s husband Brendan has urged the political parties to hold a one-hour truce in the general election campaign on Sunday May 21 to spend some time supporting local charities and groups that try to unify their communities. The short break in hositilities would be a prelude to the Great Get Together, a nationwide series of street parties, bake-offs and other events that will mark the first anniversary of the death of his wife next month.
In an interview with HuffPost UK, Brendan also talked movingly about his loss, and how a new memoir about his late wife has helped him try to deal with her death. But the pain is still there. “I was climbing mountains this weekend with my friends. And grief hits you in very funny ways. And on the tops of some of the mountains that I used to climb with Jo, that sense of absence and that partnership we had previously…you know you’ll never replace.”
The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness - co-chaired by Labour’s Rachel Reeves and Tory MP Seema Kennedy - is marking the start of Men’s Month with some new research today showing that more than one in 10 men admit to feeling lonely, but would never tell anyone. They have a new video of pensioners telling how they cope.
5) GREEN WAY
The Greens’ co-leader Jonathan Bartley is this morning joining a school assembly in Streatham, south London to call for clean air and highlight the threat to environmental protections posed by Brexit. The school is one of 90 hit hard by air pollution. I remember when a certain T Blair got into hot water for launching his 2001 general election campaign at a school on the Old Kent Road, so it will be interesting to see how the kids (and parents) respond.
Overnight the Greens have also put out new figures showing that the cost of running and buying a car has fallen by 20% since 1980, while rail fares have risen by 63% and bus and coach fares are up by 64%.
No.10 yesterday revealed it would not after all appeal a court decision on its delayed air quality plans and will publish them this Friday. The Telegraph claims the scheme will include a compensation scheme to help diesel drivers scrap their cars, but only for older vehicles and in certain polluted postcodes.
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