British reporters in Washington yesterday tried, with little success, to ask Boris Johnson about the latest fall-out from his Iran blunder. When he appeared on FoxNews he was instead quizzed on his view of Donald Trump. Boris didn’t hold back in his praise, saying Trump was “a huge great global brand” and “a lot of people relate to” his Tweets. No wonder the FoxNews host said the Foreign Secretary was “a great guest…you are made for television”.
The problem is that Johnson’s gaffe over British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe looks ‘made for’ Iranian State TV. And he’s not out of the woods yet on this one. One ally of the PM tells me that his Iran blunder means “the fuse has been lit” on Boris’s departure and that fuse is still burning down. If the Iranians do indeed increase her jail term, the PM would be loath to offer Tehran another propaganda victory by sacking Boris. But several Tories as well as civil servants think that putting at risk a British national overseas - thanks to a lazy, reckless disregard for precise language - is a bigger sin than anything else he’s done to date. And politically, it’s much easier for the PM to fire Boris over a matter of life and death than any disloyalty over Brexit.
If Nazanin’s jail term were to increase, the clamour from her family for the PM to sack Boris would become intense. Her husband Richard has recorded a powerful vlog for HuffPost in which he urges Boris to accompany him on a trip to Iran to get his wife and daughter home for Christmas. Former Foreign Office chief Peter Ricketts (crucially, also a former National Security Adviser) yesterday said Johnson was not a ‘serious’ enough figure to be Foreign Secretary.
Talk of a wider reshuffle rumbles on, though I still can’t see the PM wanting to do anything before the Budget or even the December EU council. Some around her undoubtedly want her to be bolder and take more risks either late next month or in the New Year. Boris’s scalp would have to be matched by Hammond’s, but scalping either could trigger more names for that magic 48 needed for a vote of confidence in the Tory leader. The Standard yesterday quoted one former minister saying “at least 40” Tory MPs now felt they were in a “leadership crisis”. Conversely, the Times has a new poll showing May’s personal ratings have risen (by one point) since the Fallon sacking. The party is also polling 40% nationally, which is still behind Labour (on 43%) but that’s not at all bad for a Government in apparent chaos.
There was Whitehall chatter yesterday that we may get the conclusion of the Cabinet Office inquiry into Damian Green next week. But ethics chief Sue Gray is hardly independent of Cabinet Secretary Jeremy Heywood and he may not want anything to disrupt the Budget or the EU summit, so it’s possible Green’s fate is timed for the bigger reshuffle.
David Davis meets Michel Barnier again today for a lunchtime press conference and all the signs are that this will be another ‘holding’ statement. But Theresa May wants to inject a sense of momentum and has used a Daily Telegraph article to announce Brexit Day of Friday March 29, 2019 will be written into law. The idea that Exit Day was unspecified in the bill was always strange (we hacks raised it at the very first DexEU briefing only to be told not to worry our pretty little heads over it).
More importantly, May also used the article to warn Tory Remainers that she “will not tolerate” attempts to use the EU Withdrawal Bill next week to “slow down or stop” Brexit. That’s the sort of front-foot tone many in No10 think the PM needs to now deploy to get her Government back on track after the distraction of Cabinet exits. Of course, with a wafer-thin majority, May has to use carrots as well as sticks and backbenchers are expecting a concession on Henry VIII powers soon.
And that give-and-take approach is also the key to success in the Brexit talks themselves. Brussels thought May’s Florence speech was just the opening bid on the vexed issue of the ‘divorce bill’ and the FT today suggests her team is looking at ways to “considerably increase the €20 billion she has already put on the table.” Given that cash is our trump card, expect DD and May to demand serious concessions in return.
Perhaps the best thing to read today on Brexit is this blog by former Brexit minister George Bridges. On the key issue of a transition period that will follow Exit Day, he suggests May should be honest and tell everyone that for two years we really won’t be fully ‘out’ of the EU. “Ministers should stop pretending an implementation period will begin at the end of March 2019… More clarity – and honesty – on this is needed, now.”
John Bercow made an appearance last night at Queen Mary’s Mile End Institute and the Q&A delivered some news lines. The Commons Speaker urged people to show some perspective on the current sex harassment allegations sweeping Westminster, pointing out that the MPs’ expenses scandal had affected more MPs.
Speaking just hours after Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones had insisted he’d had ‘no alternative’ but to suspend the late Carl Sargeant over groping allegations, Bercow even appeared to suggest that his death had been “predictable”. “In terms of protection of the frailties of the accused, I think that’s incredibly important in light of what has happened in Wales, but it was predictable” he said. Bercow added that if an MP was going to be “sacked or denied the Whip” after being accused of sexual harassment then “for god’s sake that member is entitled to know of what he or she is accused”.
Tory MP Charlie Elphicke, who has been suspended and claims against him passed to the police, yesterday broke his silence to issue a statement making a very similar point. “I received a call from the Chief Whip telling me that serious allegations had been made against me earlier that week and that these had been passed to the police. I asked what the allegations were and he would not tell me.”
But the sex harassment issue has not gone away. The House of Lords confirmed yesterday it would take back in-house the management of the Sports and Social bar in Parliament, where a former bar worker yesterday claimed she’d been repeatedly harassed by MPs. And Stateside, the post-Weinstein fallout continues in politics, with Senate nominee Roy Moore facing claims he assaulted a 14-year-old girl. Oh, and comedian Louis CK has been accused of misconduct by five women. As for wider women’s rights, today also happens to be Equal Pay Day – the day in the year when women start to work for free. The date has not shifted in the calendar for the past three years, suggesting the gender pay gap is stubbornly not shifting.
Watch this pallet-filled trailer on a US freeway, cruising in the middle lane. Then look and see what’s pulling it along.
Better late than never, the PM finally appointed Penny Mordaunt to the Cabinet yesterday to replace Priti Patel at International Development. Of course, May could have avoided a backlash on the backbenches if she’d promoted Mordaunt to Defence Secretary a week ago (she’s eminently better qualified than Gavin Williamson) but that ship had sailed. May also made up for the gender blindspot she’d shown last week by moving two other women up through the ranks, with Sarah Newton filling Mordaunt’s job at DWP and Victoria Atkins in turn replacing Newton at the Home Office.
Mordaunt’s strong Brexit views ensured that her appointment was welcomed by many Tory allies of Patel. I pointed out in yesterday’s WaughZone that some MPs felt that promoting Sir Alan Duncan (an ex-DFID minister) would have been seen as ‘rewarding’ the Foreign Office for the perception that it had ‘knifed’ Patel. In today’s Times, Patel’s friends say Duncan had “the means and the motivation” to leak against his colleague (he’s never hidden his Arabist views). Duncan’s friends insist he was out of the country during the Patel saga (he posted this vid of him arriving in Albania as she was jetting from Nairobi) and anyway his FCO brief didn’t cover the Middle East. Meanwhile, the Standard reports Patel may make a pointed intervention in the EU Withdrawal Bill’s Committee Stage next week.
One of the few things in every Budget that the public look for is fuel duty. Today, the FT has a story that the Treasury has decided to slap higher taxes on diesel vehicles, with the cash possibly used to fund air quality initatives. What’s not clear is whether Hammond will raise VAT on diesel or create a new levy.
The plan underlines the influence of Michael Gove, who has turned himself into the environmentalists’ friend (just as early on at MoJ he pitched himself as the prison reformers’ friend). Gove hinted at a new diesel tax in the Clean Air Strategy, which promised an end to sales of all non-hybrid petrol and diesel cars by 2040.