1 POISONING RELATIONS
Whatever confidential intelligence Theresa May shared with Angela Merkel and Emmanuel Macron yesterday, it had the desired effect. “The Prime Minister provided the President and Chancellor with a detailed update on the investigation into the reckless use of a military nerve agent, of a type produced by Russia, on the streets of Salisbury,” No.10 said. France and Germany put out strong statements of support and the PM was delighted that last night the EU as a whole said it “agrees with the U.K. government’s assessment that it is highly likely the Russian Federation is responsible and that there is no plausible alternative explanation”.
The EU’s decision to pull its ambassador from Moscow came too late for the papers, but it is further proof that May’s case has been persuasive. An alliance of the big two of Berlin and Paris, plus Eastern European states who know all too well what Russian aggression looks like, was crucial. At least five EU states, including France and Lithuania, could expel Russian diplomats too. But as with our own response to Moscow, kicking out spies and withdrawing diplomats in a way is the easy bit. Will the EU toughen its sanctions or financial rules, often the only language that the Kremlin really understands?
The Russian Ambassador in London summed up his country’s mix of machismo and sarcasm yesterday when he invited in the media. He hit back at Boris Johnson’s ‘offensive’ Hitler comparison, but when asked by a reporter about a crass tweet that compared the Salisbury attack to an episode of Poirot, he replied “Did you like it?”.
Meanwhile, Donald Trump has appointed the most hawkish of hawks as his new national security adviser. John Bolton has backed pre-emptive strikes on North Korea and will push for an end to the Iran nuclear deal (where the UK is allied more with Paris and Berlin than Washington). Trump has obviously forgotten their very different views on Iraq. But Bolton is hawkish too on Russia (he wrote last July that when the Presidents met “Trump got to experience Putin looking him in the eyes and lying to him, denying Russian interference in the election”). Bolton’s appointment is scary to many, but No.10 will at least take comfort that it has a fresh ally against Moscow.
2. DEAL ME IN
On the road to Brexit, another milestone will be passed today when the EU leaders formally ‘welcome’ progress on the transition deal and approve guidelines for the all-important future EU-UK trade agreement. The PM is set to do a brief TV clip when she gets back to Blighty later today. PoliticoEurope has an intriguing report that Brexiteers in Cabinet think the next big battle could be pressure from Remainers to dump preparations for ‘no deal’. The Times reports that “thousands” of City jobs will start migrating to Europe next month, with firms worried by the uncertainty of ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’.
The Irish question is still unresolved, though parked for now. Our Rachel Wearmouth has written a fascinating despatch from the Northern Irish border, talking to (wait for it) real people on the ground, from all sides of the debate. She meets the O’Reilly family, whose back garden has the border running right through it. You get a feel for why the DUP is so strongly pro-Brexit, why there are real practical problems with resurrecting ‘infrastructure’ on the border and also why young people are talking about a ‘border poll’ on a united Ireland as way of getting back into the EU.
Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith is pushing the envelope of collective responsibility with a Guardian article in which he argues that his party can only “serve democracy”, by recommending a new referendum on the Brexit deal. “Labour needs to do more than just back a soft Brexit or guarantee a soft border in Ireland,” he says. Smith adds Labour has the right to ‘ask’ “that the country has a vote on whether to accept the terms and true costs of that choice once they are clear”. Whether he gets the sack or a mere reprimand may tell us where Corbyn is heading.
3. UNDERCOVER OF THE LIGHT
The Cambridge Analytica affair has shed a lot more heat than light on the actual effectiveness of data in modern campaigning. But at least politicians are beginning to take an interest and get better informed about the power of data and limits of that power. The DCMS Committee has recalled CA’s suspended boss Alexander Nix to give evidence, warning him that “giving false evidence to a select committee is a very serious matter”.
The FT (which had hired the firm on some projects) reports the split between the firm’s data scientists and the ‘few bad apples’ who oversell its services. “The problem with Alexander is that he is not technical at all,” says one former employee. “After two or three meetings, you realise he doesn’t know what he is talking about and he is selling well over his ski poles . . . 90 per cent of the time, we could do amazing things, [but] he was promising things that wasn’t finished and developed yet.”
On BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster tomorrow, ConHome’s Mark Wallace and Labour’s Matthew McGregor will explain how the merits of data in politics have been both overstated, and understated, at the same time. Matthew (who worked on the Obama campaign) has today written a superb blog for HuffPost on why new regulation may be needed.
Nix and his colleague Mark Turnbull were exposed by undercover reporters. But it’s undercover activity of an altogether different kind that is also in the news today. Gordon Brown has called on the police to launch a criminal investigation after a private investigator employed by the Sunday Times for 15 years said he had gained access to his bank and mortgage accounts by deception. And this morning Scotland Yard has admittedundercover Special Branch officers passed information to a controversial network that blacklisted construction workers who went on strike, political marches or complained about health and safety. A growing scandal all of its own.
4. SHOTS FIRED
It’s a defining feature of the Trump White House that the extraordinary is somehow made to look ordinary. Yesterday, the President fired the first shots in what could be a very damaging trade war between the two biggest economies on the planet, slapping $50bn in new tariffs on Beijingover repeated violations of intellectual property on tech, robotics and pharmaceuticals. On one level, this is similar to his line on North Korea, tackling a long-standing problem that no President was bold enough to tackle. But as with nuclear brinkmanship, the reason for that history of inaction is the huge risks involved.
China has responded with a relatively modest $1bn in tariffs, but the real fear is it will escalate with serious retaliation on US cars, Boeing aircraft and agricultural imports. The Chinese Commerce Ministry said it “is absolutely not afraid of a trade war”. And you can see why, given its economy is much less open the America’s and not affected by stock prices (which plunged this morning). As with the tit-for-tat over Russian diplomats, the question is who decides when to stop the spiral of responses. The EU and others would be caught in the collateral damage, although you can bet Airbus will be delighted at any hit to Boeing. Maybe that’s partly why Trump decided in the early hours to give Brussels a temporary exeption from his new steel tariffs.
5. GUESS SPEAKER
Harriet Harman has told The House magazine that she would “consider” running for the job of Speaker when a vacancy next arises. Already, she’s had the backing of Labour figures like Neil Kinnock and Baroness Prosser, but it’s Tory support she’ll need too. Nicky Morgan says it’s time for a second female Speaker, while the Times’ Matt Chorley reveals today that David Cameron has told her he was “rooting for her”. Cameron is famously a longtime critic of John Bercow.
And speaking of the Speaker (so to speak), Harman stuck to the usual Parliamentary convention of not being seen to criticise the incumbent. “Actually, I do think when you have a Speaker you’ve got to support the Speaker.” Well, that convention is of course being tested by allegations that Bercow mistreated a female clerk. And last night’s Newsnight had further testimony on the wider bullying culture, with serving clerk Emily Commander calling for MPs to have no role in disciplining other MPs accused of harassment. As I’ve written before, some senior women MPs, not just men, have a terrible reputation for bullying staff. But it takes real courage do what Commander has done, and go public.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Brexit fish dishes; Cambridge Analytica and big data myths; a family whose garden is literally on Northern Ireland’s EU border; and our usual mad quiz (this week on EU fishing catches). Click HERE to listen on iTunes and HERE to listen on Audioboom.