1. HOWAY (DAY), THE LADS
Theresa May has taken her Cabinet to the north east to prove her Government is listening to the nation beyond London. A good idea, as long as it’s not a gimmick, and many recall Gordon Brown’s similar awaydays around the country didn’t help him survive a pretty shattering collapse in Labour seats in 2010. The best bit of today’s schedule ought to be the PM coming into contact with actual real life northerners, as she takes part in a televised Q&A with workers at a local firm near Gateshead.
Today is the start of a summer charm offensive at home and abroad to sell her Chequers Brexit deal. Many of her close aides have long advised her to follow through on the ‘burning injustices’ speech on the steps of No.10 with regular regional ‘town hall’ events. Chris Wilkins, her former speechwriter, told Westminster Hour last night that after the snap election shock he asked her what she’d do differently. “One of the things she said to me was ‘I’d really like to get out of Westminster more and go and see people’. Well absolutely, go and sell this deal to the country and get the country onside…she needs to be the Prime Minister talking to the country not the Conservative party”. Given many parts of the north east voted to Leave, yet could be hardest hit if things go wrong, it’s an apt place to start.
One Blair/Brown innovation that has long since fallen by the wayside is a monthly Downing Street press conference. Cameron swiftly ditched it, though his ‘PM Direct’ events did give him a chance to sharpen skills that came in useful in winning his tight majority in 2015. With neither a regular presser nor meet-the-people events, May can often look blind-sided on the politics as she tries to work out the policy. One of the most curious things about the May premiership is that the Conservatives have managed to make inroads in the north despite the fact that in 2016 she appeared to lose interest (and a minister, Lord O’Neill) in the Northern Powerhouse. A Tory metro mayor on Teesside, Labour majorities slashed in various Leave areas, taking Middlesbrough South from Labour. Have the party reached a high water mark in the north east, or only just started?
Angela Merkel is unafraid of the media. Every year, she gives a big press conference just before she goes on holiday. On Friday, she used it to attack a “certain brutalization of political speech” in the migration debate in Europe (Trump, Seehofer, Oban, take your pick), PoliticoEurope reports. “By setting an example, I try to keep this process of coarsening a bit under control — because I believe there is a pretty close link between thinking, speaking and acting.”
2. THE GRAND TOUR
Speaking of Berlin, that’s where Jeremy Hunt starts his own grand tour today as he and May start a summer plan to visit every 27 EU capitals. The new Foreign Secretary has previewed his trip by warning that “our European partners must show much more flexibility and creativity in negotiations if we are to avoid a ‘no deal by accident’ scenario”. The PM will be visiting Austria, the Czech republic and Estonia this week to help sell that Chequers plan. Of course, Cameron and David Davis both clocked up the air miles, but there’s been little evidence to date that the EU 27 ever divert from a common line.
The FT reports that Barnier told colleagues on Friday that he couldn’t accept one bit of Chequers that many have so far ignored - plans for City of London access to European markets. He is said to have claimed the proposals would rob the EU of its ‘decision making autonomy’, itself perhaps a wry reference to the ‘take back control’ Vote Leave slogan. It’s also a reminder that talks on the future partnership UK-EU deal will be fraught, and that’s precisely why Brussels prefers to focus on getting the withdrawal agreement sorted first. At some point, I guess May or Hunt will try to revive ‘nothing is agreed until everything is agreed’. There’s a Lords debate on the White Paper today, and we could see more Tory divisions on display.
The Times has a cracking splash that Amazon’s UK chief told new Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab on Friday that his firm would have to cope with “civil unrest” within a fortnight if Britain crashes out of the EU without a deal. When told of the story, eading backbench Brexiteer Jacob Rees-Mogg told Radio 4 last night “this is the silly season”. The Moggster is the gift that keeps on giving to the God of News, however. In a podcast, he appeared to admit that it could take 50 years before any of us could work out the real economic impact of Brexit. Our Graeme has done up the story
Meanwhile, Emily Thornberry’s opposition to a second referendum may not be shared by many local Labour parties. ‘Remain Labour’ claims that 300 CLPs are ready to table motions urging MPs to ‘vote against the Withdrawal Agreement in Parliament’ and to support ‘a People’s Vote on the Withdrawal Agreement and to campaign to Remain in the EU in that referendum’.
3. ILL DISCIPLINE
Labour has its own Shadow Cabinet AwayDay today (in London), but its anti-semitism row shows no sign of abating. The issue is set to be revived at the final Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) meeting of this term, when Ruth Smeeth and Louise Ellman have tabled a motion demanding the party adopts the full internationally accepted list of examples of anti-semitism. At his Tolpuddle Martyrs event yesterday, Jeremy Corbyn urged MPs to wait until September to look at the issue again. The NEC ignored last week’s PLP motion, so I wonder if there will be something else to move things on tonight?
The issue was brought to a head last week by Margaret Hodge’s outburst at Corbyn. Talking about it for the first time, he said yesterday: “I felt not pleased about it, I felt upset about it but as always I am very calm and treat people with a great deal of respect. I don’t shout at people, I just listen to what they have to say. A complaint has been registered and that will have to be dealt with by the party, but that is independent of me.” What’s curious here is that it’s not clear who made the complaint about Hodge’s conduct, though I’m told it may be down to a member of the Shadow Cabinet who was present.
For her part, Hodge was on the Today programme, and revealed that “within 12 hours of talking to Jeremy Corbyn I received a disciplinary letter”. I wonder whether this won’t now be quietly dropped. Labour’s Lords leader Angela Smith said last night she ‘suspected’ it would. “It happens to any Labour leader, and I think people lose their temper from time to time and people are entitled to make their views known to other people in the Labour party and to the leader of the Labour party.” Just as importantly, John McDonnell also seemed to see the PR disaster of disciplining Hodge. “My view is let’s resolve this very, very quickly, almost drop the complaint and let’s move on or if someone wants their complaint investigated let’s get that done quickly,” he told Sky yesterday.
On the main issue, Hodge this morning refused to back down on calling Corbyn an anti-semitic racist. “People have to be judged on their actions, not their words. It’s not what you say, it’s what you do. I stand by those remarks. I don’t want to be in this position…It’s like everyone saying ‘I’m not a racist, but…’.” The veteran MP added that she’d received hate mail since last week, with some calling her a ‘Zionist bitch’. She did however dismiss speculation that she would resign the party whip in protest, saying she “could have walked away” from the party during her battle with the BNP, after her husband died, and didn’t. “I’m going to fight within the Labour party.”
4. FIGHTER NOT A SPLITTER
Mystery continues to surround Vince Cable’s absence from the Commons for a crunch vote last Monday. The dinner he attended must have been pretty important, and yesterday on Pienaar’s Politics he said that while it had been a “mistake” to miss the vote, he refused to confirm the dinner was about a possible new centrist anti-Brexit party. The Lib Dem leader has been pushing this for a while, suggesting May and Corbyn are behind the splitting of their parties, not him.
But his words in full from yesterday are intriguing: “In the longer term there may be a re-alignment because of the deep splits in the parties and I want my party to be at the centre of it. The tensions building up in the Conservative and the Labour Parties are so severe it’s difficult to see them surviving in their present form”.
5. BREADLINE BRITAIN
Shelter have a Freedom of Information request release showing that of all the families living in temporary accommodation (and classed as homeless) – some 55% of them (33,000) – are in work. The problem is partly low wages, partly the sheer lack of affordable accommodation. The charity found this was an increase of 73% since 2013, and it said losing a tenancy had become the single biggest cause of homelessness in the country, accounting for 27% of all households considered homeless last year. There’s a Channel 4 Dispatches special on the issue tonight.
Meanwhile, the Government’s flagship weapon in its fight to ‘make work pay’, Universal Credit, is under fire yet again. The Guardian has whistleblowers saying the IT system is ‘fundamentally broken’ and could push benefit claimants into more hardship. The problem could get worse next year when 3 million people switch over to the new system. Citizen’s Advice have a report that current claimants are finding it difficult to access extra support needed to tide them over, and wants the process made simpler.
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