1. BRIDGE OF SIZE
Boris Johnson has shown once more why his admirers think he’s a breath of fresh air and why his critics think he’s a showboating idiot. Yes, the Foreign Secretary raised the idea with French President Emmanuel Macron yesterday of a 22-mile bridge over the English Channel. At the Sandhurst summit, Bojo made clear to Macron that a new fixed link between the UK and France was needed. A source close to him said: “It’s crazy that two of the biggest economies in the world are connected by one railway line when they are only 20 miles apart”. Several hacks present for the briefing added that the source then claimed Macron had replied: “I agree, let’s do it.”
Of course, Boris has form on grand projets. As London Mayor, his new Routemaster buses were hugely expensive and overheated in summer. His cable car over the Thames is seen by critics as another very costly personal folly, heading from nowhere in particular to nowhere in general and taking few passengers. His idea of a new island airport off the coast of Kent has been ridiculed by many, including many ministers. His ‘garden bridge’ plan (inspired by Joanna Lumley and underwritten by George Osborne) was killed off by Sadiq Khan as a costly indulgence that wasted £37m in public money just for a feasibility study.
Yet some voters quite like the idea of politicians coming up with bold new ideas (as long as they don’t cost them too much). The real issue as ever will be practical. Such a bridge would have to be very tall indeed to avoid the huge vessels in the cramped Channel. Building it in one of the busiest shipping lanes in the world “might come with some challenges”, UK Shipping pointed out. It all sounds a bit like Trump’s ‘great big beautiful wall’. On which, the President was last night forced to deny claims by his hard-headed chief of staff John Kelly that his view on the Mexican border wall plan had “evolved”. Kelly claimed Trump had not been “fully informed” when he pledged to build one and make Mexico pay for it. Trump tweeted a slapdown, but he can ill-afford to lose Kelly (who many say is often the only grown-up in the room in the Oval Office).
The real bridge-building yesterday was meant to be between Macron and May. And the PM may be relieved that the ‘Boris Bridge’ (to add to ‘Boris bikes’ and ‘Boris buses’) took some newspaper attention away from the fact that the French President gave a firm ‘Non’ to the idea of the UK having easy access to EU finance regulations. Macron may not have ruled out Boris’s bridge, but he did appear to eat Boris’s cake. After a crafty question from the FT, he made May squirm as he insisted: “If you want access to the single market - including the financial services - be my guest. But it means that you need to contribute to the budget and acknowledge European jurisdiction.” You could sum that up as: ‘Norway, or the highway’. Macron did say some bespoke deal was possible but indicated it would be closer to Ottawa than Oslo. He added the EU cannot display any “hypocrisy” on the issue as to do so “would destroy the single market and its coherence”.
2. SELECTION BOXING
Jeremy Corbyn has given an interview to the Guardian in which he expresses bafflement at the idea he’s too old to become Prime Minister (tellingly, he had no idea that the Indy had reported some frontbenchers were concerned about his age) “It is not a secret – and I consider myself perfectly fit and able to do what I do. I’m actually younger than other leaders,” he said. “Do I look fit or not?”
Yet for me, his answers on calls for mandatory reselection of Labour MPs looked more interesting. He played down changes to the NEC this week but when asked about Paul Mason’s call for the threat of deselection to hang over MPs every five years, the Labour leader replied: “Look, [we] will look at democracy within the party and look at the process of selections. We should all be accountable all the time. I’m accountable to my party, I’m accountable to my constituency and I’m quite comfortable with that.” He’s repeatedly told the PLP he has no plans on the issue, but those words sounded like an open door for possibly radical Momentum plans. And given the big majority he had on the NEC this week, with some unions even backing more democracy in selections, I wouldn’t be surprised if there is real change.
Corbyn also revealed that while he wasn’t ‘friends’ with Tory MPs (Laura Pidcock will be pleased) he did “have a civilised relationship with a number of Tories – I discuss issues with them”. He points out he and David Davis worked very closely to try to get Guantanamo Bay inmate Shaker Aamer back into the UK. “The Brexit secretary is a complex character because he and I have worked together on issues of justice,” adds Corbyn, before making clear that he “fundamentally disagrees” with Davis over the strategy around leaving the EU.
As for Momentum, the Indy reports that the group’s membership has surged past 35,000, up 4,000 in three months. A quick glance at official figures published by the Commons Library shows that’s higher than UKIP (34,000) and on course to overtake the Greens (46,000). In the Times, Philip Collins says dissenting MPs need to ‘show guts’: ”Labour MPs should now do what they have threatened many times in private and what they told The Times this week they would do” – form their own independent, anti-Corbyn grouping in the Commons (if enough do so, they could become the official Opposition) and then form their own centrist party at the next election. I suspect few will take him up on the offer.
3. RESTORATION COMITY
The long saga of the massively expensive yet urgent refurb of Parliament continued yesterday as Commons leader Andrea Leadsom revealed that on Wednesday January 31, MPs would finally have to make their minds up. Two government motions will be tabled: one to effectively allow MPs to keep working in the current building and postpone the multi-billion pound project until 2022; one to let a delivery group start looking at options.
Leadsom told MPs that “It is a genuinely open decision that the House needs to make.” But is it really ‘open’? Her shadow Valerie Vaz pointed out the Government had ignored the recommendations of the joint Commons and Lords Restoration and Renewal Committee (known as the ‘R&R Committee’, yeah that’s how we roll here in SW1). There will be a free vote on the two options but there are real suspicions Theresa May (who has privately indicated to MPs she backs a quick, but more expensive refurb) is ducking the whole issue amid fears of a public backlash.
The idea of MPs authorising a £4bn plan to upgrade their own building is seen by some MPs as politically toxic in a time of austerity. But the Sun reveals Leadsom is to table a special measure announcing neither of her two motions will be amendable. A source said: “It’s a take it or leave it offer. For the first time in history MPs won’t be able to table amendments.” Labour’s Chris Bryant is not happy: “May’s irresponsible cowardice means Parliament could slide into the Thames or go up in smoke.”
As for other building work nearby, the hot news yesterday was that plans for a statute of Margaret Thatcher in Parliament Square look like being rejected by Westminster City Council’s planning committee next week. There are too many monuments already in the square, critics say. One objection is that Thatcher is a “controversial character” whose statue would be likely to be a target for vandalism and “abuse”. But planners say the real reason is the Thatcher family objects to its design.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this Dutch security cam footage of a woman pushing a pram who narrowly dodged a falling tree blown over by strong winds.
4. KIPPING ARRANGEMENTS
Could UKIP’s dire state actually be the reason leader Henry Bolton is spared the axe this weekend? Our Kipper expert Owen Bennett reports sources saying the party would struggle to meet the £30,000 cost of a leadership election given its lack of donations. UKIP is losing a thousand members a month but after several such contests it’s difficult to afford another one. ‘There is no money,’ one insider tells us, in a neat echo of Liam Byrne’s infamous note.
In yet another surreal twist to this bonkers story, Bolton showed the Mirror his taxi receipts to prove he had not spent the night with race-slur model girlfriend Jo Marney this week. He told UKIP officials she had not spent the night at his home despite photos of them getting off a train in Folkestone, where he stayed a hotel. He says she stayed for just 28 minutes to pick up her things (I can’t believe I’m typing this), then took a taxi back to Maidstone. Asked if they had sex during her visit, a UKIP spokesman told the Mirror: “Come off it.”
5. BANQUETY BANKS
Yesterday’s first meeting of the Government-led ‘task force’ on Carillion (which notably includes trade unions as well as business) had a concrete success, with high street banks announcing they would make £225m available to firms dealing with the construction giant’s collapse. Business Secretary Greg Clark welcomed the “quick and positive move” by Lloyds, RBS and HSBC (the first two of which received massive state bailouts a decade ago, don’t forget). Will banks finally look like they are helping smaller firms, rather than dining on their woes? Corbyn has picked up on May’s PMQs line that the state was the mere ‘customer’ and not a manager of Carillion. “If these are public contracts we should be the manager and not have a middleman like Carillion creaming off the profits,” he tells the Guardian.
Labour’s probing Parliamentary questions have revealed no top ministers met Carillion in the three months immediately after its profits warning last July (Greg Clark insisted on Today that ministers will still kept up to speed in that period). Data on the three months from September are yet to be released. As for RBS, it’s under separate attack after the SNP highlighted a leaked internal memo (titled “Just Hit Budget!”) that showed how its Global Restructuring Group described struggling firms as “basket cases” and urged staff to give customers enough rope to “hang themselves”. Meanwhile, the Times reports how few City traders are prosecuted for ‘white collar’ crime. With John McDonnell heading to Davos next week, expect this all to form part of his wider case for reforming capitalism.