1 RESPONSIBLE OPPOSITION?
In case you missed it, Jeremy Corbyn launched his general election campaign last year with these words: “I don’t play by the rules”. So no one should be surprised that in his response to the Salisbury poisoning, the Labour leader has defied the usual convention of cross-party solidarity on such occasions.
Some MPs, Labour included, still adhere to the idea of “Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition”. That ‘loyalty’ of the Opposition is not of course to the Government of the day, but to Queen and country. And despite the obvious worries of many of his backbenchers, Corbyn clearly thinks he’s doing his duty in being loyal to what he sees as ‘due process’ and public scepticism about politicians’ use of intelligence. It won’t convince his critics, but he actually believes he’s very much playing by the rules – international rules on chemical weapons verification - in insisting on evidence to prove links to Russia and the nerve agent.
Corbyn’s Guardian article at least proved that his spokesman Seumas Milne was not misrepresenting his views in that infamous huddle with us hacks on Wednesday in the Commons. He really does believe that the Iraqi WMD blunders are grounds to avoid similar “emotion and hasty judgements” this time. Some of his Shadow Cabinet think the Iraq comparison is baloney and that Corbyn and his team misunderstand the chemical weapons rules on sharing samples with those suspected of launching an attack.
On Question Time last night Keir Starmer tried to be loyal to both his leader and to the PM. He stressed that Theresa May was right to take the action she did, declaring “responsibility lies with Russia”. Corbyn hasn’t allocated such ‘responsibility’, but what’s strange is that neither he nor his shadow team have used the c-word either: culpability. May said on Wednesday that “the Russian state was culpable” for the attempted murders. And culpability means blame. Labour MPs point out Corbyn has supported the expulsion of the Russian diplomats, yet hasn’t said why, given his doubts over culpability.
Corbyn floats in his Guardian piece the idea Russian ‘Mafia-like groups’ could be really culpable. But leading Putin critic Mikhail Khodorkovsky told Newsnight that only secret service agents could have carried out the nerve agent attack. “Either Putin has given his consent to this operation, or he doesn’t control the secret service to such an extent they can do it without his approval.” Saying gangsters and the Government are much the same thing is a very different point from Corbyn’s suggestion that ‘rogue’ elements had got their hands on poisonous material.
Meanwhile on Question Time, Russia Today presenter Afshin Rattansi actually said that Yulia Skripal was also a spy, implying the attack was justified. “Obviously everyone condemns this attack, it’s terrible for the police officer and these two spies,” he said, with a Moscow-style sarcasm. That was echoed in the Morning Star’s leader which called Skripal “a mercenary Russian turncoat”. Add in the conspiracy theories on some far-left websites that Israel was trying to ‘frame’ Russia and you can see why Labour MPs want their leadership to distance itself from the fringes.
Crucially, what will Corbyn’s stance do for his political impact domestically? The Times has a YouGov poll showing most of the public preferred May’s response to his. Yet some spot a big split in the age profiles (though sample sizes make this a hazardous exercise), with many older voters coming down very hard on Corbyn, while the youngest voters seem to give him support. More importantly, 44% of those asked didn’t have a view either way. Labour MPs think he’s made himself even more toxic with older, working class voters. But those around Corbyn sound confident he can emerge from this with credit. Given pollsters’ poor reputation, we may only really find out in 2022. And the world may look a very different place by then.
2. LORRY PLEASURE, BEN DOVER
Transport Secretary Chris Grayling burnished his Brexiteer credentials last night on Question Time as he announced that there would be no new customs or trade checks on lorries coming through Dover after we quit the EU. His words are worth repeating in full: We will maintain a free-flowing border at Dover — we will not impose checks in the port. It is utterly unrealistic to do so. We don’t check lorries now, we’re not going to be checking lorries in Dover in the future — [I’m] absolutely clear it cannot happen.”
That will delight haulage firms and business worried about any delays. Yet when asked how his plan would work, Grayling replied: “We’ll check them electronically.” This sounds very much like the Government’s answer to the vexed Northern Ireland problem too, an as-yet detailed plan to use technology to keep trade as ‘frictionless’ as possible. One real problem with that is that we have little time to devise the tech or systems needed in any transition, especially if that transition ends on December 31, 2020. But it’s notable just how confident ministers like Grayling and David Davis sound on this point.
As it happens, the Northern Ireland Select Committee has a new report out today and it states that there is no evidence to support the claim Britain could have a post-Brexit open Irish border without any checkpoints. Committee Chair Dr Andrew Murrison MP is a Brexiteer, so he will get a hearing in Government when he says: “We have heard no evidence to suggest that there is currently a technical solution that would avoid infrastructure at the border. Furthermore, we have no detail on how checks on goods and people will be undertaken away from the border.”
3. HEALTH INSURANCE
Laura Kuenssberg revealed earlier this week that the Cabinet had privately discussed in January the thorny problem of NHS funding, with some even floating the idea of a hypothecated tax. Today, the Daily Mail’s Jason Groves has similar mood music with senior sources suggesting the Cabinet has accepted the need to ‘make an intervention’ on the NHS in the coming months, which will involve releasing billions in extra cash.
And one eye-catching proposal is to increase National Insurance by 1p, taking the rate paid by most workers from 12 to 13 per cent. The last time that happened was at the height of New Labour’s popularity, when Blair and Brown decided after their second landslide election result in 2001 that the time was right for a tax hike. An NI rise could actually gain cross-party support if handled properly, and many Leavers would welcome anything that could be tied to ‘Brexit dividend’.
The Tories certainly need a ‘big idea’ on the NHS to avoid even more of a hammering on the topic at the next election. But don’t forget that the next Conservative leader at that election almost certainly won’t be Theresa May, and that we will have left the EU. Some insiders think the idea of putting up NI will need to be implemented well before 2022 to have a real impact. Backbenchers like Rob Halfon will hope it’s the best political insurance policy the Tories have on health policy.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
ICYMI. Watch Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson’s much-ridiculed, first ever national media press conference. Truly excruciating and no wonder Tory MPs are still baffled May gave him such a rapid promotion.
4. COVER STORY
It’s more than a week now since Newsnight aired its explosive report laying bare the extent of alleged bullying and harassment of Parliamentary staff by MPs, including Speaker Bercow. Commons Leader Andrea Leadsom appeared pretty forthright in her response this week, calling for an independent inquiry into the claims. Bercow, who denies the claims, had to step aside from a House of Commons Commission meeting next Monday to decide the next steps.
As I said on Tuesday, the real issue is whether the inquiry will focus solely on the broader “culture of fear”, and in the process avoid any judgements on individual MPs. Well, last night Newsnight’s Lucinda Day tweeted that individual cases would not be examined, only the overall HR policy. As Labour’s John Mann said, if so that may well point to “a whitewash and a cover up”. Let’s see if any of the MPs present on Monday really will try to stop just that.
5. MELROSE PLACE
One story that’s been going on under the radar in recent weeks (a bit like Carillion did until it went off like a firework) is the hostile takeover bid by Melrose Industries for engineering firm GKN. Well, yesterday it burst into life as not just politicians but shareholders and business figures piled in to warn of the dangers of the move. GKN’s biggest single customer, Airbus, told the FT it would be “practically impossible” to give new business to the British firm if it was taken over by Melrose.
And Jupiter Asset Management’s UK Growth Fund became the first shareholder to reject publicly Melrose’s cash-and-share offer. Labour and trade unions have been pushing this issue hard and today the Daily Mail (which has form in opposing ‘foreign’ takeover bids as with AstraZeneca/Pfizer) puts it on its front page. It’s a pointer that with Brexit looming, ‘economic nationalism’ could unite Left and Right.