1. CROUCH END
The resignation of Tracey Crouch last night certainly left a sour taste for many MPs on all sides of the House. The Archbishop of Canterbury’s tweet of support (“May God bless her commitment to doing right”) was one of many from across the political and non-political spectrum. The letter Crouch received from Theresa May was certainly curt, with the PM repeating what many see as the fiction that there was no six month ‘delay’ in the crackdown on fixed odds betting terminals. Let’s see who No.10 gets to fill Crouch’s shoes. Given her own commitment to the loneliness agenda, the PM’s PPS Seema Kennedy would normally be a strong contender, but May will be loath to lose a key member of her inner circle right now. Gillian Keegan is one name in the frame.
The Telegraph’s Steve Swinford was first with the exclusive that Crouch was on the brink of quitting unless the Treasury and No.10 could somehow change track. Yesterday, there was a glimmer of hope she wouldn’t walk, but when Treasury Chief Secretary told the Commons that the FOBT timetable was not ‘an issue for the Finance Bill’ [ie the Budget], that was the final straw. For No.10 and the Chief Whip it came down to a simple issue of discipline. As one former minister put it to me: “Tracey’s been threatening this for weeks. But the bottom line is you can’t blackmail the Prime Minister”.
Still, the Government spin last night was unedifying. ‘Money isn’t the issue,’ one source told Laura Kuenssberg. Yet Culture Secretary Jeremy Wright had let the cat out of the bag earlier in the day when he admitted the Treasury needed all that cash in tax from FOBTs for another six months. Here’s his exact words: “It also has to be recognised that, right though this change is, money for public services coming from the use of FOBTs has to be replaced, or public services will have less funding.”
With the bookies warning they needed more time until a new remote gaming levy was introduced, the Government “concluded that October 2019 is the best date to make both changes”. The cost not delaying by six months is estimated at £120m, which is very small change compared to the Chancellor’s £100bn Budget giveaway this week. And the most explosive hint in Crouch’s resignation letter was that someone in government had caved to pressure from the gambling industry.
More than 30 Tory MPs are now threatening to join Labour to back an amendment to the Finance Bill to force through the April 2019 date anyway. It’s not clear such an amendment will actually be in scope, but the whips are nervous. What will also worry No.10 is the way ministers such as Penny Mordaunt and Margot James tweeted their support for Crouch. Only recently, the Government pulled a vote on the Offensive Weapons Bill because it feared a Tory rebellion, even though that rebellion was academic as it lacked Labour backing. The intention of that tactic was to keep MPs on board during this vital Brexit talks period. Those hopes of party loyalty were somewhat dented by yesterday’s events.
2. MORE CAMBACKS THAN ELVIS
The Sun certainly lit up Twitter last night with its splash that David Cameron wants a return to frontline politics, revealing his favoured option was the post of Foreign Secretary in any post-May government. Though many Tory MPs miss Cameron’s presentational skills, the idea has so many flaws (including the basic fact that he isn’t an MP any more) it’s surely a non-starter. No one has yet got hold of Danny Dyer (enjoy once more his forthright views HERE), though Iain Duncan Smith told GMB this morning a comeback would be “rather peculiar”. But even the hint of a return will spice up interest, and possibly sales, in his forthcoming memoirs. Tom Newton Dunn underlines a rash of recent speculation that Cameron will use the book to stick the knife into Michael Gove.
The Sun also had a line that Boris Johnson is telling friends he won’t go for the Tory leadership this time round if he thinks he lacks enough MPs’ support. Is this a bluff or is it realisation that he simply lacks the numbers? Well, his loyal band of allies don’t look like they’ve given up at all. Some stand accused of dripping poison against David Davis in recent weeks, a practice that DD has made clear to Johnson he dislikes intensely. The two Brexiteers are further apart than ever before.
Meanwhile, I’m told that former Brexit minister Steve Baker, who has real clout in the European Research Group, is now seen by some MPs as edging towards the Boris camp (he’s certainly not close to Davis). And Nicholas Soames, a longtime Boris fan despite his own Remainer views, has been lovebombing Baker. Soames has praised Baker as a man of honour who won’t get all he wants on Brexit but who has achieved much already.
On the comeback front, Amber Rudd’s hopes of a recall were boosted by today’s report suggesting she was let down by civil servants on the targeted removals policy during the whole Windrush affair. The Times had the scoop, that ministerial code adviser Sir Alex Allan concluded Rudd was “not supported as she should have been”. Rudd told the Today programme that she had been undermined by a “series of leaks at quite a high level definitely intended to embarrass me”. Rudd quit after ‘inadvertently’ misleading Parliament over the removals, yet it’s still not clear if special advisers or officials were to blame for the confusion. Her critics say she should have herself got a much firmer grip on the issue days before her Home Affairs Committee appearance. But if officials are to blame, surely they should be held responsible too?
The Brexit talks are set to make a comeback too and Dom Raab is in Northern Ireland today for the first time. But there’s a fresh squall blowing up over fishing rights and it could cause serious problems for the ‘backstop’ compromise being hammered out. Some EU states are warning they will oppose an all-UK customs plan unless they get an agreement their fishing fleets can continue to have access to British waters. In our CommonsPeople podcast, Brexit boffin Anand Menon points out ‘this is very EU’, reminding us that every single member state’s Parliament has a veto over the final trade deal.
3. HATE BREAKING NEWS
The hot news this morning is that the Metropolitan Police has formally launched a criminal investigation into claims of anti-semitism contained in a Labour party dossier. In its statement, the Met said it had acted after being handed the document by LBC in September. Former commander and hate crime unit chief Mark Chishty assessed the internal party dossier, which is said to have contained 45 cases of anti-Semitism. He concluded there were 17 race hate incidents. Met chief Cressida Dick told Today: “it appears there may have been a crime committed”, but she stressed “we are not going to investigate the Labour Party” itself.
LBC’s Theo Usherwood, who has led the way on this story, says the cases included one activist who posted on Facebook that a Jewish woman Labour MP should get a good kicking, a councillor accused of inflicting “ten years of hell” on a child, calling him a Jew Boy, and two MPs threatened with being thrown off a building. Deputy leader Tom Watson says the news is “thoroughly depressing, though sadly I’m not surprised”. Given all the coverage in recent days on police focusing too much on hate crime rather than burglaries, it’s perhaps a reminder that hate crime really does matter.
The party has formally issued a statement that it has “a robust system for investigating complaints” and where someone thinks they’ve been a victim of crime “they should report it to the police in the usual way”. Yet there are real questions as to why the MPs named in the dossier were not made aware of its contents. And it has to be asked why it took a radio station to hand it over to the police, rather than the party itself.
It’s clear that this issue won’t go away unless there is firm and concrete action taken. On Wednesday, Rabbi Baroness Neuberger told ITV’s Peston that Corbyn himself needed to do much more. And in one depressing reminder of some of the knots the party can tie itself in, it was reported this week that far-left members of Southend West Labour party actually amended a motion of condolence for the Pittsburgh massacre victims. They succeeded in removing a line that called on Labour “to lead the way in opposing antisemitism”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Check out the world’s highest statue, twice the height of the Statue of Liberty, that’s going up in India. It depicts Sardar Vallabhbhai Patel, who helped lead the country’s non-violent struggle for independence.
4. BANKS ACCOUNTING
Arron Banks sounded typically chipper yesterday despite the National Crime Agency launching an investigation into him and his Leave.EU campaign for alleged offences committed at the 2016 EU referendum. The Electoral Commission referred the case to the cops, saying it suspected Banks was not the “true source” of loans to the campaign and the money had come “from impermissible sources”. Of £8m being investigated, £2.9m was used to fund the pro-Brexit referendum campaign.
The most intriguing part of the story is the role of a Banks company called Rock Holdings, based in the Isle of Man. Because the island’s offshore status, any donations from there are classed as foreign and therefore impermissible under electoral law. The Guardian has looked at its accounts and found an almost total lack of transparency. Banks strongly denies any Russian links or any illegality, but the police will want to look very closely indeed at Rock Holdings.
Meanwhile, the Mail has a fascinating nugget in a Banks profile that may cause Theresa May a real headache. It states that as Home Secretary she declined a request by one of the security services to investigate Banks, because it would be “simply too explosive in the run up to the referendum”. Of course, No.10 doesn’t like talking about the security services, and any such request may be beyond the reach of FoI. But would the PM risk denying the claim, if it were true?
5. OFF CUTS
Allies of Corbyn were at least pleased that the Crouch resignation totally overshadowed its own internal divisions on tax cuts. Some 20 Labour backbenchers defied the whip (which was to abstain) and backed a Lib Dem move to oppose the Tory measures. What was notable was the way several MPs rebelled for the very first time, including Lucy Powell and Yvette Cooper. The rebels say that their numbers were made up of anti-poverty campaigners rather than anti-Corbyn refuseniks. When non-factional MPs like Karen Buck and Lisa Nandy vote against the whip, the leadership knows it is being nudged into being more radical in the next manifesto on helping the poorest.
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