1 JEZ BEFRIENDS
Jeremy Corbyn’s Big Speech on Brexit has been well trailed, but that doesn’t make it less important. As he sets out his views in Coventry this morning, the main shift is to back ‘a customs union’ with the EU. There’s also his claim that “Labour would negotiate a new and strong relationship with the single market” too. The new direction, driven by Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer, certainly puts Corbyn more in tune with his party membership, while raising big unanswered questions.
Brexit-backing Labour MP Frank Field says such plans would betray those who voted to take back control of immigration, laws and money and he suggested Corbyn is treating the party’s Leave voters as if they were ‘thick’. Chuka Umunna, who is today in Paris with Anna Soubry to discuss Brexit with French ministers, counters with polling showing Labour Leave voters back permanent single market and customs union membership by 37% to 26%. That’s still 26% who would be unhappy. Labour’s Shadow International Trade Secretary Barry Gardiner refused the humble pie offered him on the breakfast sofas today, insisting that when he last summer attacked a customs union as ‘disastrous’ he meant a Turkish-style customs union. Note that John McDonnell made a similar point last week, hence today’s talk of a ‘bespoke’ deal.
But just as Donald Tusk said that May’s Chequers plan was based on the “pure illusion” of a cherry-picking UK-EU deal, Corbyn’s call for a ‘bespoke’ trade relationship suffers from the same problem. David Davis’s main point in the Telegraph today is that at least the Tories are realistic enough to see you can’t have an independent trade and migration policy while staying in ‘a’ customs union or single market. One DExEU official told HuffPost: “It looks like ‘cake and eat it’ — only the cake is soggy, and there’s no icing”. Corbyn’s main pitch seems to be that because he’s more friendly to the EU27, they will somehow grant him a better deal than they would the Tories. There’s no evidence for that to date.
The only reason any of today matters is if it brings closer – or makes more distant - the prospect of a Corbyn government. In signalling a possible alliance with Tory rebels, Labour thinks it has Theresa May on the back foot. Yet there are several problems with this. First, the trade bill, which is so far the only vehicle for such an alliance, depends on an oddly-worded amendment keeping us in the customs union (Solicitor General Robert Buckland rightly warned on Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night that its wording would create “legal uncertainty” for the government). Second, the Tory rebels may melt away if whips really do put the thumbscrews on by warning a rebellion could effectively be a confidence vote (others counter the Fixed Term Parliaments Act makes clear it would be no such thing). Third, it’s the ‘meaningful vote’ on the final deal that really matters this autumn.
The Northern Ireland problem remains unsolved too. The FT reports the draft legal text on December’s UK-EU agreement will this Wednesday omit wording inserted by Britain that had promised “no new regulatory barriers” would develop between UK mainland and Northern Ireland. The DUP certainly don’t want a new EU border in the Irish sea, so that may cause an almighty bust-up. Yet the Irish question is a real headache for Brussels too – it has to formally come up with its own position even if the UK’s is confused or contradictory.
2. SPINNING JENNIE
Labour’s NEC officers meet today to start the process of replacing Iain McNicol, who surprised the party on Friday night by announcing his intention to resign after nearly 7 years in post. The officers will draft a timetable amid claims from some sources that they want to fast-track the process and ‘railroad’ through Unite’s Jennie Formby in the top job. There are even suggestions that her supporters will draft a shortlist of one name.
Some senior figures think Formby is a “dead cert” for the general secretary job. But she is deeply unpopular with some other trade unions and even some NEC members and Shadow Cabinet ministers who are close to Corbyn fear should could prove too divisive. We report that a search for a compromise ‘unity’ candidate is well underway, with Unite political director Anneliese Midgley, the GMB’s Lisa Johnson and Labour’s executive director for governance and membership Emilie Oldknow all being urged to run.
Some sources tell me McNicol’s departure is the real reason for the row last week that saw the postponement of the election of the party’s national policy forum chair (which looked being run by veteran activist Ann Black). The NPF chair gets a slot on the all-important NEC officers group who oversee the general secretary appointment. But Unison, with more than a million members, and even some on the Left on the overall NEC, want a credible shortlist and a ‘unifier’ to replace McNicol.
With men occupying the posts of Labour leader, deputy leader, Scottish and Welsh leaders and Metro Mayors, many think the case for a female general secretary is unarguable. There are two men whose names have cropped up however: Corbyn’s ex chief of staff Simon Fletcher and Unite’s Andrew Murray. I was told last week Murray now spends one day a week on secondment working in the leader’s office, but it’s thought he is unlikely to pitch for McNicol’s job. As for Ken Livingstone, senior sources are playing down his chances of a quick return but it’s unclear what the leadership’s next move is on that. All ripe for discussion as the PLP reconvenes tonight.
3. TAXING TIMES
The highest council tax bills in years are due to land on people’s doormats soon, but the cross-party Local Government Association (LGA) is warning today that the extra £1.1bn cash raised will not be enough to reverse £1.4bn government cuts. Children’s centres, libraries and other services are set to close, a reminder that a large chunk of George Osborne’s austerity plans are still rolling out through local councils.
The LGA’s Tory lead, Lord Porter, is again warning of serious shortfalls. And Yorkshire East Riding council’s veteran Conservative leader Stephen Parnaby has called for a ‘fundamental review’ of council tax, telling the Yorkshire Post: “If we are just passing on national tax increases, that’s really not what the council tax system is about”. Labour’s Andrew Gwynne has hinted at a review of local government finance, but there’s no sign the Government wants one. Yet.
And after a renewed focus on Labour’s ‘one party state’ in Newham in London, the Times’ Lucy Fisher highlights what happens when the Tories are the only party represented on a council. All 44 of East Hampshire district council’s councillors are Conservative and its leader Ferris Cowper is suggesting he could reduce council tax to zero through an ‘ESI’ strategy (efficiencies, sales and investments). Reminds me when Wandsworth set its poll tax at zero for two years in the 1990s. That’s the same Wandsworth where senior Tories think Labour could take control this May.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this video of a downtown shootout between cops and robbers in Kuala Lumpur. It’s gone viral, but the local police force has had to reassure people it was in fact a movie being made (the lack of nearby camera crews led others to disbelieve him).
4. ENERGY FREEEEEZE
With the weather outside so frightful, today’s Domestic Gas and Electricity (Tariff Cap) Bill will be welcome news for some of the 11 million househoulds paying over the odds on energy bills at present. The bill is introduced to Parliament this afternoon, but critics claim Government should have acted much earlier and the delays mean it won’t affect prices until next winter at the earliest.
Still Gillian Guy, chief executive of Citizens Advice, said the Bill was “a significant step towards an energy market that works for everyone”. Energy UK, the industry trade body, said it was “vital the cap doesn’t halt the growth of competition”. Business Secretary Clark is much maligned by some in his party, but he’ll claim today as real progress. And the FT describes the bill as “the biggest single intervention in the UK energy market since privatisation in the 1980s”, so it’s not to be sniffed at.
5. CLASS ROOM
BBC Breakfast presenter Steph McGovern gets plenty of coverage today after she told the Sunday Times “posh women . . . are paid a hell of a lot more than me”. “We concentrate too much on ethnic diversity and not enough on class…what the BBC doesn’t do enough of is thinking about getting people from more working-class backgrounds.” Yesterday she clarified to the Guardian she didn’t mean the Beeb should do less on BAME recruitment, just more on working class recruitment.
Middlesbrough-born McGovern is the daughter of a teacher and hospital radiographer and would be described by some as lower middle class. But it’s hard to deny her point that class is often the forgotten element in public sector and corporate diversity policies. Just imagine if targets were set for the percentage of kids from working class backgrounds in various professions - or if there were a debate about narrowing the ‘class pay gap’ as much as the ‘gender pay gap’?