1 RACE TO THE BOTTOM
In PMQs yesterday, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn proved that ruthlessness in politics only really works if it is matched by competence. May’s attempt to link Labour to the Windrush row backfired badly when it emerged that no minister had been involved and that in fact the specific order to destroy landing cards came in October 2010. Her answer on the case of Albert Thompson, the man denied NHS treatment despite living here for 44 years, also appeared to unravel when he said he’d been told of no change in his case. Many Tories were pleased the PM defended herself from Corbyn’s ‘callous’ charge, but even his Labour critics were appalled that she weaponised the anti-semitism row to get herself out of a hole on Windrush.
The landing cards issue may be a red herring, but No10 appeared most uncomfortable yesterday when asked whether she was apologising for mistakes made under Amber Rudd, or mistakes made under her own tenure at the Home Office. Downing Street is robust that the crackdown on illegal immigration was legitimate, yet there are real questions as to whether May ignored warnings that the policy could affect long-standing Commonwealth-born residents. The Daily Mail has dug up a telling 2014 impact assessment that warned: “Some non-U.K. born older people may have additional difficulties in providing original documentation… Some may have had their immigration records destroyed. Some will have originally come into the country under old legislation but may have difficulty in evidencing this.” May told Diane Abbott in the Commons in 2014 she had ‘given a very great deal of thought’ to how the crackdown would affect minority ethnic communities.
Some in the black community are already saying this is about racism, and Corbyn, Abbott and John McDonnell can point to the fact that they were among just six Labour MPs who voted against the 2014 Immigration Bill. However, David Goodhart on Newsnight did absent ministers’ jobs for them by saying ‘the only thing wrong with the ‘hostile environment’ policy is its awful name’. He also pointed out that many in minority communities are the most keen to root out illegal migration, especially people trafficking. Many Tories point out that many Asian families also voted for Brexit. Michael Gove on the Today programme claimed that the UK was more liberal than any other country in Europe on migration: “Because we have control, we are capable of exercising generosity”.
Former civil service chief Lord Kerslake certainly fuelled the racism claims when he told Newsnight that some ministers had warned that the policy was ‘reminiscent of Nazi Germany’. Those unnamed ministers (surely Lib Dems?) may or may not regret sounding like Ken Livingstone. Tone, as much as policy, is always crucial on the immigration debate and ramping up the rhetoric up in either direction is dangerous. More important was Kerslake saying civil servants were advising on the challenges and it was “a very contested piece of legislation across government departments”. Some suggest officials had no responsibility for the Windrush saga, others suggest ministers had none. The truth is probably both played a key part, with the politicians driving a policy that over-zealous immigration staff used to avoid any discretion.
May rightly pointed out that she had commissioned an audit of systemic race discrimination in the UK. Yet as the Queen formally opens the Commonwealth Heads of Government meeting today, Windrush casts a long shadow. And as we learn of more cases, it’s the human cost that is so heartbreaking. May missed a chance yesterday to really seize the issue by offering not just an apology but also the promise of compensation to those who have so been so cruelly treated. If the number of cases is as limited as ministers hint, that will be a small price to pay to regain some trust. Jamaica’s Prime Minister Andrew Holness (pictured above) demanded ‘justice’ yesterday and David Lammy (surely Corbyn will give him a Shadow Cabinet post sometime soon?) has overnight demanded reparations. This story isn’t over.
2. OH LORDY
The House of Lords confirmed yesterday that it has the numbers to inflict big defeats on the Government on its Brexit legislation. The Lord Kerr amendment on a customs union was passed with a whopping 123 vote majority, while the one on keeping worker protections had a majority of 97. Some 25 Tories rebelled, but a detailed look at the voting figures suggests there’s a couple dozen more who may have abstained. With a raft of further votes due on both the EU (Withdrawal) and other Brexit bills, the Government’s Lords problems may be even bigger than they appeared last night.
As I said yesterday, the key here is just how much cover it gives to Tory Remainer MPs in the Commons when the issue returns there next month. The PM seemed earlier this year to reassure potential rebels like Sarah Wollaston and Nicky Morgan with her Mansion House speech and the whips may think they can squeeze any dissent. Former Osborne aide Rupert Harrison speculated on Twitter last night that ministers would ‘probably be forced to accept some form of ongoing customs union (even if not permanently’ to solve the Irish border problem)’. Henry Newman, director of Open Europe, agreed. Yet it’s hard to see how the PM would allow anything other than a semantic softening of her red line on this issue.
The Kerr amendment was so easily supported precisely because it did not commit the UK to staying in a customs union, and merely asked for a statement on plans to keep the option open. Any amendment (even if Soubry et al were to put aside their distaste for Jeremy Corbyn) would face a tough battle if it explicitly sought to bind ministers’ hands in the Brexit negotiations. Some Remainers in Cabinet felt bruised when Liam Fox seemed to bounce the PM into ruling out any form of union, but the 80-plus clean Brexiteers in the European Research Group are already bruised by transition concessions. They may not tolerate another one. Michael Gove told Today the PM would have to ‘rely on the persuasive powers of ministers’.
The FT has a significant story that Brexit Secretary David Davis is urging the PM to get ahead of the EU by publishing a detailed paper on British plans for a bespoke trade deal “as soon as possible” rather than wait for Brussels to lay down its own terms. Hardline Remainers and Brexiteers alike want more detail. The problem is that fudge, not detail, is what has so far helped May to unite her party and Cabinet. “The more general it is, the easier it would be to get through cabinet,” one source tells the FT. “There is obviously some tension around how much detail we can agree.” Some in Brussels think the UK’s talk of a ‘broad and deep’ relationship is ‘negotiation by adjective’ and sounds more like a pizza delivery order than serious negotiation. The Mansion House speech went some way to changing that. Yet even if the PM now wants her plans to be ‘as detailed as possible’, some issues like Northern Ireland are really very complex indeed. It’s that complexity, not necessarily political caution, that is probably driving any delay.
Meanwhile, the EU seems to be privately hoping for fudge, as it knows it’s in a stronger position to drive a hard bargain on a trade deal once we are ‘out’ next March. The Remainers in Cabinet already seem docile, and if the ‘Remainer rebels’ on the backbenches repeatedly back down (as many in Labour suspect), the PM will be under pressure to come up with a ‘harder’ Brexit for the long term.
3. THE LAST STRAW
Michael Gove’s reforming zeal continues with the overnight confirmation that the Government plans to ban plastic straws, cotton buds and drinks stirrers in England. The announcement has been shoehorned into the Commonwealth summit with the PM urging other states to sign-up to the newly-formed Clean Oceans Alliance. I see that leading organisations like WWF have welcomed the move, while pushing for a ban on all avoidable single-use plastic by 2025. Gig economy firm Deliveroo has put out figures suggesting the public are ahead of the curve, with 91% of its orders taking advantage of its ‘no plastic cutlery’ opt-out.
Still, even Gove’s desire to work at breakneck speed is sometimes frustrated. In a session before the Commons Environmental Audit Select Committee yesterday, he said he planned to introduce an Environmental Protection Act at the beginning of the next Parliamentary session, with possible deposit return scheme legislation (a big boost to reuse of glass bottles) in that. Chair Mary Creagh said it was “disappointing that having announced the DRS scheme last year, the Government will not be bringing this vital part of tackling plastic waste until 2020 at the earliest”.
It’s set to be the hottest day of the year but as smog seems to accompany higher temperatures, it’s a reminder that the environment needs even more of a political profile. A new study shows that 30% of the Great Barrier Reef coral was killed off by a 2016 heatwave. Climate Change minister Claire Perry made one of the most potentially significant speeches of the year so far this week, when she announced the UK could implement a target cut carbon emission to “net zero” by 2050, even greater than the 80% cut already pledged. Given the radical changes this will need across Whitehall and policy from transport to housing and industry, Perry may face substantial opposition from other departments, so that’s one to watch.
4. HOUSING LAB
It may have looked like an odd time to launch it, given the Windrush saga, but Labour is today unveiling its new housing policy in the hope that it can continue to outflank the Tories. Don’t forget Theresa May told her conference last year that she would ‘dedicate’ her premiership to fixing the housing crisis and this week’s news that one in three millennials will never get to own their home is a demographic and political timebomb that ticks away relentlessly.
The most interesting topline in the policy drafted by Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey is a redefinition of ‘affordable homes’, pledging to link house prices to average incomes, instead of allowing them to be dictated by local market values. This seems like a bid to persuade the ‘squeezed middle’ (aka May’s JAMs) that it’s not just the poorest who will benefit from a Labour government. The majority of the party’s million “genuinely affordable homes” over ten years will be for social rent, not for sale. Post-Grenfell, Labour also says it’s time for a ‘tenants czar’ to stand up for all renters. With housing a key issue in the local elections, the timing of all this may not see so odd after all.
5. EMERGENCY WORK
Private Member’s Bills rarely get Government backing to make them law, but sometimes an issue is so cross-party that the case is irresistible. Chris Bryant’s Assaults on Emergency Workers (Offences) Bill seeks to give special protection for paramedics, nurses, firefighters, police and other 999 staff who are abused, attacked or spat at while carrying out their work. Some front-line staff told me of their experiences HERE last year.
Ministers have promised to give Bryant’s bill Parliamentary time (though with a two-year session, he wants that time sooner rather than later). Well, today he is amending his bill to include sexual and not just physical assaults, after evidence that it is on the rise. And among those set to sign up to the amendment are Tories Bob Seely and Philip Davies, I’m told.