1. ARMAGEDDON OUTTA HERE
Parliament’s back and so too is the tick-tock of the Brexit clock. This week has a light legislative load, but it’s the calm before the storm of next week when the EU Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons, freighted with Lords amendments on the EEA, customs union and ‘meaningful votes’. Theresa May and leading Cabinet ministers meet senior business chiefs at No.10 today to give an update on the Government’s position. And BAe, Glaxo and Tesco bosses want reassurance that ministers really do have a plan.
Downing Street and DExEU were yesterday desperately trying to hose down the Sunday Times’ eye-popping story that various ‘Armageddon’ or ‘Doomsday’ scenarios have been drafted in the event of us leaving the EU with no deal. Talk of Dover’s port collapsing, of food and medicine shortages, was dismissed as either ‘false’ or ‘not recognised’. One real problem remains that ticking clock, however. With both Cabinet working groups on our customs options not due to report until next week, will there be a UK position ready for the June EU summit? Yesterday, Germany’s Brexit point man Peter Ptassek tweeted (helpfully retweeted by former FCO perm sec Simon Fraser) that not many were expecting much this month and October’s EU summit “would then have to solve ALL problems (withdrawal, NI, governance, future …) in one go. Odds still unclear”.
Many Brexiteers, and millions of Leave voters, will see the Armageddon talk as the latest ‘Project Fear’. But there is a mood among some Brexiteers for a hard-headed compromise, with a new report from Michael Gove’s former aide Henry Newman suggesting giving up sovereignty on goods is ‘a price worth paying’ for access to EU markets. Some ministers still use Philip Hammond’s phrase that we need a ‘sensible Brexit’. Even though they bristle at Standard editor George Osborne’s division of the Cabinet into ‘sensibles’ and ‘creationists’, some Leavers may surprise their critics with their pragmatism. If there’s an urgent question on US steel tariffs today, Liam Fox could sound more Paris than Washington in attacking ‘illegal’ moves that threaten a trade war.
Andrew Lloyd Webber nearly did his own political equivalent of ‘I’m a Celebrity, Get Me Out Of Here’ back in 1997, threatening to quit the UK if new Labour won (he stayed as the top rate of tax was unchanged). A Remainer on Brexit, yesterday he told the BBC that his former fellow peers should not vote against ‘the will of the people’. But London Mayor Sadiq Khan is ramping up the pressure on Labour and Tory MPs to defy their whips on the EU bill, telling the Guardian they should ‘think about your constituents’. Was that a canny way of putting pressure on Justine Greening, who may be the Tory rival to Khan for City Hall in 2020 (she’s now favourite after we reported Ed Vaizey had pulled out of the race to back her)?
2. JAVID AND GOLIATH
Sajid Javid is up for his first Home Office Questions today in the Commons and he’s certainly unafraid of making news in his new post. He has a speech on the main bit of his day job, fleshing out the counter-terrorism strategy long promised by the PM, amid fears that the Prevent programme is a counter-productive mess. The key new policy seems to be a move to declassify secret MI5 intelligence on up to 20,000 suspects, possibly passing info to local government and other agencies. How practical this is, or whether it’s a bid to shift responsibility when people slip through the net, remains unclear.
Yet on immigration policy, Javid may be shifting the PM from some of her entrenched positions on who is let into the country. On Marr, he refused to explicitly endorse the Tory 100k migration target and went further in saying that he wanted a rethink on foreign doctors and students coming into the UK. On student curbs, he admitted “there is a perception problem around this,” adding “It’s something I’ve long considered.” It was “something I would like to look at again”, he said. Few, including Amber Rudd, have managed to shift May from her stance on migration. In delivering on the terror strategy, has Javid got a quid-pro-quo for a more liberal approach on visas?
The Telegraph reports that the visa cap on non-EU doctors may be lifted ‘within weeks’. That would be a nice present for Jeremy Hunt, who is now the longest-serving Health Secretary since the NHS was founded, passing even founder Nye Bevan’s six-year tenure. Hunt has notched up 2,100 days in the post today, putting him ahead of fellow Conservative politician Norman Fowler, and Bevan. We’ve done a round-up of Hunt’s highs and lows.
3. THORPE PARKED
As even younger readers will now be aware, there was a time when the most famous Jeremy in Britain was called Thorpe, not Corbyn. The BBC’s brilliant ‘A Very English Scandal’, which concluded last night, has thrust the attempted murder of Thorpe’s lover Norman Scott back into public eye in a way only prime-time drama can. Yet it is the veteran investigative reporter Tom Mangold who deserves much credit for bringing this 1970s story bang up to date, with his BBC4 documentary suggesting a serious state cover-up of the whole affair. I’m normally allergic to conspiracy theories. But the idea that Home Secretaries, police chiefs (and even the BBC) all kept this stuff in secret safes to protect Thorpe is depressingly plausible.
As a result of Mangold’s film, which revealed that the main suspect was still alive, police may reopen the inquiry. The Mail on Sunday tracked down gunman Andrew Newton living under an assumed name in Dorking, Surrey. And today the Mail splashes with the yet more surreal news that when the cops turned up to question Newton, he had vanished. But away from the farce, there need to be real questions about the lack of justice in the Thorpe affair, particularly who in power covered it up. That surely can’t be parked once more. In a fascinating piece, the Guardian’s Martin Kettle reveals David Steel told him he was “absolutely not” aware that Thorpe was gay.
Of course, Thorpe and Steel were politically very much social liberals. Yet more than 50 years after Steel’s own Abortion Act, it still does not apply to Northern Ireland. Today, a cross-party alliance of backbench MPs (including Tory health select chair Sarah Wollaston) will demand an emergency debate on repeal of the 1861 Offences against the Person Act that makes it a crime for any woman to cause her own abortion. A debate is one thing, a vote would be much more worrying for Theresa May’s DUP allies, possibly by amending the Domestic Violence Bill due soon. Labour’s Stella Creasy said yesterday devolution would have to be respected, but it’s not clear how campaigns plan to square that circle. Jess Phillips tweeted that DUP leader Arlene Foster says the province should not be treated differently to the rest of the UK on Brexit. “I’m with Arlene. NI shouldn’t be treated different to rest of UK. So tomorrow I expect the Government to announce that women in NI will have same rights as my constituents.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
It’s the Isle of Man TT motorbike race this week. Here’s a taste of what it’s like to travel the route.
4. INTERN-AL DEBATE
At tonight’s Parliamentary Labour Party meeting, Chuka Umunna is to urge the party (and IPSA) to set up a fund to help MPs pay students a wage while they are on placement in Parliament. Umunna faced a serious backlash last Thursday when some students criticised his job ad for an unpaid placement with Leeds University. The Streatham MP announced last night he would no longer take such undergraduates on an unpaid basis. There is a real fear among some academics (like Tim Bale and Phil Cowley at Queen Mary, London) that in the absence of new funding, this will effectively end opportunities for students, many from BAME backgrounds. NUS guidelines state students can be exempt from payment if the placement is part of their degree course.
Yet Umunna has certainly shifted his position. And some of his colleagues say that’s long overdue. We reported last night that Emily Thornberry and Angela Rayner both paid students on placements, and other MPs like Caroline Flint revealed they had too. The LSE has now also said it will only place its students with Parliamentarians who pay the London Living Wage. If some can currently do it, why can’t all MPs and peers? It’s true that in some cases payment shortens the placement, but this is certainly an issue that needs a consistent approach. Universities fear that there is a wider lack of cash for paying students on vital ‘year-in-industry’ sandwich courses. Student nurses and midwives are also not paid while they work for the NHS during their own degrees. Let’s see who will pay up. And which MPs confess to not paying at present.
5. OFF THE RAILS
The chaos caused by Northern Rail’s new timetables continued today, with 9,000 services temporarily scrapped (a staggering 165 trains cancelled every day until August) in a desperate bid to avoid further disruption and delay. Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham has this morning called on the firm to offer “substantial compensation” to season ticket holders and to lower fares. With people literally unable to get to work, and missing vital appointments, MPs of all stripes say the saga would certainly have got more national prominence if the chaos had been in the Home Counties. Shadow Transport Secretary Andy McDonald is before the PLP to discuss it tonight.
I’d be amazed if MPs didn’t push for either an oral statement or urgent Commons question. Transport Secretary Chris Grayling, who has forced Northern to agree a ‘recovery’ plan, has put aside 90 minutes from 6pm to 7.30pm today to meet MPs. He and rail minister Jo Johnson will meet northern MPs, but also southern ones to discuss Thameslink complaints. But the 10-minute slots will be in the Commons tea room, not the DoT (to avoid any cameras?). Wigan MP Lisa Nandy told Westminster Hour: “I think he’ll be having a lot of cups of tea to try and calm [us] down”. Meanwhile, Grayling is due to publish his Heathrow third runway plans this week. With his own party and Labour both split, lots more tea will need to be swilled.
SUNDAY SHOWS ROUND-UP
Had a lie-in? Got a life? Catch up with the Sunday politics shows in our handy round-up HERE.
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