1. GREEN FINGERED
Exactly two years ago today, when Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership was in its infancy, one Labour MP summed up his party’s mood with this immortal line: “Every day is like opening an advent calendar of shit”. As Theresa May plans her own countdown to Christmas, she faces not just Brexit hurdles but also the threat of yet another Cabinet resignation.
Yes, today’s political advent calendar contains an unwelcome present: a former police detective claims Damian Green viewed “thousands” of pornographic images on a desktop computer in his Parliamentary office. Neil Lewis, who has not spoken publicly before, told the BBC he had examined the computer during a 2008 inquiry into government leaks and was “in no doubt whatsoever” that Green had accessed legal pornography “extensively”.
A friend of Green’s told me this morning that he was “gobsmacked” by the new allegations, adding that it was “ridiculous” to suggest he had enough spare time on his hands to spend hours viewing porn. Green has put out at statement denying the claims. Andrew Mitchell, who himself had a run-in with the cops over Plebgate, told Today that Green had assured him he was telling the truth: “that’s good enough and I believe him”. Yet ex-cop Lewis said: “In between browsing pornography, he was sending emails from his account, his personal account, reading documents... it was ridiculous to suggest anybody else could have done it.”
Will Sue Gray accept his word too? She’s the ‘Propriety and Ethics’ chief at the Cabinet Office and the lead investigator into claims of Green’s inappropriate conduct. The Sun cites sources saying Gray’s report will be ‘damning’ and Green will face serious criticism, not least for the way he publicly responded to the claims (fellow MPs were struck by the way he amended his denials). Even today, the Green defence seems an odd one, with allies stressing that the porn is ‘legal’ (and one crumb of comfort from Detective Lewis, it’s not ‘extreme’). It’s unclear if Green broke the ministerial code, yet even if he hasn’t, will Theresa May still stand by her old friend and deputy if he’s not been fully honest? Downing Street keeps telling us the inquiry process is “not complete” but sources tell me the report is already finished. It’s extraordinary that Gray didn’t contact Lewis to hear his version of events. Surely she has to call him in and the report has to make a judgement call on whether Green or Lewis is telling the truth? Remember, no criminal burden of proof is needed, just a balance of probabilities.
The really worrying element in this saga is the suggestion that we won’t get to see Sue Gray’s report, even in redacted form. There appears to be no justification whatsoever for that. Indeed, few in Whitehall see Gray herself as independent, given she is a Cabinet Office official in the very department whose Secretary of State is under investigation. No.10 refuses to say whether the official ‘independent advisor’ on the ministerial code, Sir Alex Allen, has been involved. May was strong enough to stand up to Trump this week, but is she strong enough to ask her former Oxford friend to quit? If he’s criticised in any way by the Gray report, surely he will have failed Michael Fallon’s test of not meeting the high standards of office expected of a Cabinet minister?
2. BANKER BASH
Jeremy Corbyn is certainly in confident mood. Days after a merchant bank suggested he was a bigger threat to UK business than Brexit, the Labour leader put out a video hitting back hard. “When bankers like Morgan Stanley say we’re a threat, they’re right. The next Labour Government is a threat to a damaging and failed system that’s rigged for the few.” The clip, put out by his net-savvy social media team, had lots of shares. It’s a reminder that for many of the public, ‘bankers’ are the enemy and seen as untouched by the financial crisis that millions are still living with. The FT splashes with the story, showing Team Jez can make an impact in print as well as online.
And Corbyn’s confidence was further underlined with GQ making him their cover star yesterday, complete with him wearing a smart suit (an affordable Marks & Spencer one, not Savile Row). The transformation from shell-suit wearing pensioner to PM-in-waiting was noted by many. But GQ editor Dylan Jones decided to go on the Today programme to plug his exclusive. He proceeded to claim that Corbyn’s team didn’t know that he would need a cover photo shoot and “would need to be presentable and he couldn’t just turn up in his anorak.” “It was almost like he was being pushed around like a grandpa for the family Christmas photograph. He wasn’t particularly aware of what was going on.”
Jones added that Corbyn refused to be interviewed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair’s former press man who does GQ’s major political interviews. Instead interviewer Stuart McGork was deployed and went to interview Corbyn as “something of a fan” but was “quite quickly disillusioned”. Corbyn apparently couldn’t name any business advisors, or a book or film he had read (the middle one is particularly odd as Corbyn is an avid reader). But Jones is himself notorious for having been a fan of David Cameron, even co-authoring a much-ridiculed book with the former Tory leader. Worse still, older hands remember Jones had backed David Davis when it looked like he was winning the Tory leadership. Expect all that to be dragged up today.
3. SPECIAL SCHOOLED
As she repeated her spokesman’s line that Donald Trump had been ‘wrong’ to retweet far-right racists, Theresa May yesterday was extremely careful not to depart from her script. Looking down repeatedly at her text, her answer to journo questions in Jordan was designed to send out the message the President had crossed a line, yet also to insist that nothing would weaken the ‘special relationship’ between the UK and the US. As we discuss in our podcast this week, May won some early concessions from Trump on defending Nato and not ending Russian sanctions. If she can steer him away from tearing up the Iran nuclear deal and pulling out of the climate change accord, for many ministers that really would prove it’s worth holding his hand.
Which is why the invitation for a State Visit (a hastily-arranged stunt that is being blamed on former chiefs Fiona Hill and Nick Timothy) remains such an albatross. Several ministers think a full Royal-carriage-down-the-Mall visit has been shelved indefinitely and a downgraded ‘working visit’ is more likely next year instead. This alternative trip, to open the new US embassy in Battersea, has been put back to February. Justice Minister Sam Gyimah was brave enough to speak out on Question Time last night to say (three times) that he was “personally deeply uncomfortable” about a full State Visit. “He [Trump] is deliberately divisive, and this would be divisive at a time that we are trying to unite our country,” Gyimah said. Two former UK ambassadors to Washington tell HuffPost the invitation won’t be withdrawn as that would be a step too far.
Prince Harry and Meghan Markle have genuinely Anglo-American ‘special relationship’, but Whitehall is relieved protocol means Trump won’t get an invite (Obama didn’t attend William and Kate’s wedding, and Reagan didn’t attend Charles and Diana’s). Still, there’s talk of the Obamas being invited to Windsor Castle for the big day, which could send Trump into a fresh Twitter fit of jealousy. Tory MP Gary Streeter (whose Twitter game is rather excellent) spoke for many of his colleagues when he tweeted yesterday “#only3moreyears”. If Trump is re-elected, the State Visit will be difficult to avoid. Mind you, if Trump is re-elected, the world will have a lot more on its plate than worries about him getting a Royal red carpet.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Fort Worth police department hire Chewbacca as their ‘rookie’ ‘Wookie’.
4. RATION WAGON
The Budget was nine long days ago, but the backlash continues in earnest today after NHS chief Simon Stevens spelled out the rationing of healthcare that would be needed because he didn’t get the £4bn increase he wanted. Lots of papers carry the story, but the Mail splashes its front page with it (providing yet another prop Stevens can wave in front of MPs, perhaps).
Stevens said ripped up waiting-time targets for routine surgery, declaring that cancer, mental health and GP care should take priority. Patients will be told to stop expecting the NHS to treat coughs, indigestion and other minor conditions, and instead of getting prescriptions they will have to buy medicines over the counter. Some ministers think Stevens is ‘grandstanding’ but he can inflict significant political damage. Perhaps most worrying was his warning that new guidance issued by NICE could not be implemented next year unless funding is agreed in advance – a decision that could affect treatments for sight and hearing loss and arthritis and dementia care.
5. IRISH STEW
The DUP gave the Government a strong reminder yesterday that Theresa May is only propped up in power thanks to their 10 MPs. After an emergency meeting with the PM’s chief of staff at No.10, the DUP’s Sammy Wilson said: “If there is any hint that, in order to placate Dublin and the EU they’re prepared to have Northern Ireland treated differently than the rest of the UK, then they can’t rely on our vote”. Given that many people expect the only way to avoid a ‘hard border’ is indeed to treat the province as a special case, Wilson’s warning is a problem.
The Commons Brexit Select Committee has a new report which concludes that a return of customs checks between Northern Ireland and the Republic now seems inevitable. But four Tory members of the committee (and Sammy Wilson) have refused to endorse the report. Irish PM Leo Varadkar meets Donald Tusk today and the race is on to sort the issue before May meets Juncker on Monday. But the DUP warning suggests a form of words will have to be found that fudges or at least parks the issue to allow a breakthrough at the December EU summit. Finding the exact diplomatic wording to satisfy all sides will require real finesse. Speaking of Brexit, ‘Remainer rebel’ Nicky Morgan tells The House Magazine: “One person’s rebel, is another person’s freedom fighter”.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Trump-May relations, Brexit breakthroughs and where deputy PMQs left Damian Green (him again) and Emily Thornberry’s political futures. Oh, and there’s quiz about who the Queen has hosted for State Visits. Listen HERE on iTunes and HERE on Audiboom.