1. TALKING SHOP
So, after 10 hours of talks and threats of veto and walkouts, a deal was done in Brussels on EU migration policy. This time next week, when the Cabinet meets at Chequers for its crunch Brexit summit, will we see a similar negotiation marathon followed by an outbreak of uneasy harmony? Will Boris Johnson emerge blinking into the dawn to say he’d put up a fight and delivered for the people of his country? The meeting is set to start at 10am but every minister has been told to clear their diary for the entire day and possibly night. “It’s a nice place for dinner,” one No10 insider tells me, smiling.
Some of those attending next week worry that widening the discussion to include the full 25-strong Cabinet will mean Chequers will indeed resemble Brussels’ unwieldy, 28-nation talking shop, with each person insisting on having their say, even if they repeat what colleagues have said. (It could be worse: Labour’s 39-strong NEC spends many hours on its meetings). If the customs plans really are unpalatable, you can’t rule out one or more resignations. Few however expect any such public fireworks, but the PM knows she has to complete the most difficult balancing act yet of her premiership.
Jacob Rees-Mogg says that Brexiteers need not worry because David Davis has a ‘titanium-plated spine’ (though he backs it up in the Express with a warning that Tory MPs won’t approve the £39bn Brussels bill unless they get what they want on trade). All of the Brexiteers prefer the robustness of Theresa May’s Lancaster House speech (pre-snap election) to her conciliatory Florence and Mansion House speeches (post-snap election). Maybe that’s why she returned to her threat to pull security cooperation last night, telling the EU leaders: “I would urge you to consider what is in the best interests of the safety of your citizens and mine”.
That threat was laughed off in 2017, and looks like being laughed off again. Threats to the EU are hardly credible once you’ve already said (as May has) that her commitment to common European security is “unconditional”. Is the tough talk of putting lives at risk just a comfort blanket for her MPs back home? As I’ve been saying all week, whenever May toughens her language, Leavers suspect she’s secretly lining up a deal that will stiff them. Don’t forget that after the last Chequers meeting, some briefed that ‘divergence has won the day’, only for it to rapidly become clear in May’s Mansion House speech that ‘alignment’ had won the day.
Jean-Claude Juncker said yesterday: “We cannot go on to live with a split Cabinet. They have to say what they want and we will respond to that.” But what do they want? On paper, the majority look like backing the ‘soft, pro-business Brexit’ pushed by Philip Hammond and Greg Clark. In today’s Telegraph, Fraser Nelson warns that Culture Secretary Matt Hancock is now in the same place as Jeremy Hunt, Gavin Williamson and Sajid Javid – ambitious former Remainers who now strike a Brexiteer tone. Yet anyone who knows how close Hancock is to George Osborne may have their doubts about him pushing a ‘clean Brexit’.
Remainer ministers think Brexiteer colleagues will string out the meeting as long as possible to make it look like they put up a fight and won key concessions (even if those concessions are rhetorical not substantial). There’s a more prosaic reason why it could be a very long day and night next Friday: there’s no longer a pressing appointment with the Chequers big screen TV to watch the football. If England had beaten Belgium last night, their potential World Cup quarter final was set for 7pm on the day of the Brexit summit. Our loss means a match at 3pm on Saturday July 7 instead. Let’s hope the Cabinet have sorted their differences by then.
2. THE ROAD TO RENDITION
Dominic Grieve may have spared Theresa May’s blushes on the EU Withdrawal Bill lately. But he hasn’t held back from causing the PM and the security services some serious embarrassment over the UK’s complicity in US ‘extraordinary rendition’ and mistreatment of detainees. After years of claim and counter claim, the chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee published two reports revealing British intelligence agencies were indeed involved in the torture and kidnap of terrorism suspects after 9/11.
“We have found 13 incidents where UK personnel witnessed at first hand a detainee being mistreated by others, 25 where UK personnel were told by detainees that they had been mistreated by others and 128 incidents recorded where agency officers were told by foreign liaison services about instances of mistreatment,” one report concludes. Jack Straw faces fresh questions after the report said MI6 “sought and obtained authorisation from the foreign secretary” for the costs of funding a plane involved in an individual rendition case. Labour is calling for a full judge-led inquiry to investigate historic cases, but the PM’s response made no mention of the ISC’s calls for a fresh police investigation or verdict that the UK had breached an international prohibition on torture.
The Sun quotes ex-MI6 chief Richard Dearlove accusing the ISC of “blowing out of proportion” the role of the UK. But Grieve, like fellow Tory Andrew Tyrie before him, has been determined not to be fobbed off by such claims. In fact he was so furious that former intelligence officers were not allowed to speak to the ISC that he ended its inquiry early and just wanted to get its report out. Earlier this week, he accused the Government of an “unacceptable” attempt to undermine the report by leaking key details to the press. If the aim had been to “draw the sting”, it hasn’t worked: the Mail and the Guardian both lead on it. Ken Clarke tells the Times he feels “betrayed” that No.10 has so far not delivered the inquiry he had promised as Justice Secretary.
3. TRANS FORMERS
Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon was forced to sack a junior education minister, Gillian Martin, before she was formally appointed yesterday. Martin was fired after the Times revealed she had written a 2007 blog attacking trans women as “hairy-knuckled, lipstick-wearing transitional laydees” while she was a college lecturer. She had initially come up with the modern-day political excuse that the blog did not reflect her real views. But as the day wore on (Martin had written racially offensive stuff too about Jews and blacks), Sturgeon was forced to act.
It later turned out that the First Minister had known about at least some of the past transgender comments of her chosen nominee. When Martin was standing for Holyrood two years ago it was revealed that she had described EU funding for equality initiatives as a “tranny trove”. No wonder Ruth Davidson laid into Sturgeon yesterday, demanding to know why she’d tried to appoint Martin despite knowing what she knew. The SNP leader said she was ‘genuinely not aware of’ the race remarks, but that implies she was prepared to turn a blind eye to the transphobic stuff.
And trans rights are very much a live issue. This week the Cabinet had a presentation by Penny Mordaunt on the world’s biggest ever survey of LGBT people (108,000 people), the results of which will be published next week ahead of Pride celebrations. There was a hint that some of the findings won’t make for easy reading, with the PM’s spokesman telling us that Theresa May had told ministers “the survey results show showed we have more to do to improve the lives of LGBT people and make this a country where no one feels the need to hide who they are”. Don’t forget that May told the Pink News Awards last year she was looking at “demedicalising the process for changing gender, because being trans is not an illness”. It’s still unclear whether her reforms to the Gender Recognition Act will allow people to self-identify their gender.
4. YOUNG MINDS MATTER
In the past week, the WHO has recognised gaming addiction as a medical disorder. Now NHS chief exec Simon Stevens has warned social media companies they must do more to safeguard children, revealing that updated figures due this year “are bound to show that the level of undiagnosed mental health problems and distress among young people is much higher than has officially previously been recorded”. In an interview with The House magazine (that the Telegraph has turned into their front page splash), Stevens calls for a “major ramp-up” in youth mental health services.
But says that it can’t solely be an NHS response. “We’ve also got to look at root causes. There is a growing awareness that alongside some of the positive aspects of children’s online experience and social media, there are some important negatives. This is something that has got to be looked at by schools, by social media companies, in just the same way as alongside the epidemic of young people’s mental health and distress, we’ve got this epidemic of childhood obesity”. They are the “two new challenges facing our children’s generation”, he adds. With plenty of younger Cabinet ministers the parents of teens and younger kids, you can bet this won’t be ignored.
5. FRIED CHICKEN
Bradley Fried, the wonderfully named businessman who is the incoming chair of the Court of the Bank of England, was rightly given a real grilling this week by the Treasury select committee. Tory MP Simon Clarke attacked the ‘staggering’ £390,000 flight and taxis expenses racked up by just two members of the Bank’s Financial Policy Committee, Donald Kohn and Anil Kashyap. Both men work in the US and we the taxpayer have been picking up the tab for their trips to London.
One of Kohn’s flights cost an amazing £8,000, and today’s FT Insider says it’s ‘no mean feat’ to manage to spend such huge sums on planes in the modern age. But there’s more: the Bank spent £100,000 on its 2016 summer party. And the Bank’s luxurious sports grounds in Roehampton, which cost the public £1,400 a year to join, are open to Mark Carney’s well-paid staff for just £50 a year. Fried has offered to look at all this lavish expense, but backbencher Clarke deserves credit for warning it all has ‘disturbing echoes’ of the MPs’ expenses scandal.
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