1 BORIS’S OPEN RELATIONSHIP
Tory and Labour Remainers greeted Boris Johnson’s Valentine’s Day message with all the enthusiasm of a partner presented with a bunch of limp flowers bought at a late-night petrol station: too little, too late, too cheap. Brexiteers were however delighted that at last someone was making the ‘positive’ case for an open, welcoming Britain outside the EU – and was reminding us all of the ‘forgotten majority’ who voted to exit in 2016.
Johnson tried to be on his best behaviour, and stuck largely to Theresa May’s Florence script that the UK’s ‘bespoke’ deal with the EU would seek to diverge from or replicate European regulations on a case-by-case basis. Yet when asked if he could quit the Cabinet if his own red lines weren’t met, he ducked the question. Why would such a verbal gymnast fail to have a ready answer that pledged his unequivocal loyalty to the PM? As we discuss in our CommonsPeople podcast, he wants to keep his options open about the Tory leadership and knows he is one of the few in Cabinet whose arguments carry the leverage of a damaging resignation threat.
His speech was largely detail-free, but he did make a stab at a new wish-list for divergence, where the UK could ‘fish our own fish’, ban live animal exports, cut VAT on fuel ‘and other products’ (tampons?), develop new stem cell rules and even ‘innovative’ financial regulation. But some Brexiteers I spoke to were worried by his hint that some EU rules could remain even after a transition. “When it comes to standards for washing machines or hairdryers and vacuum cleaners, it may very well make sense for us to remain in alignment,” Boris admitted. Remainers think Boris has an open relationship with the truth. But some Leaver colleagues also doubt his loyalty to their cause and fear he could roll over to back a soggy Cabinet compromise at Chequers next week.
The best bits of Boris’s speech came when he captured the emotional disconnect between Brits and the EU, the basic need to know who is making your laws, to “interrogate them in our own language”, and know ‘how to remove them’. And it’s worth pointing out there’s no signs of ‘buyer’s remorse’ among Leave voters. Today, we have a powerful report from Thorntree, Middlesbrough, which returned the highest Brexit vote in the country (an eye-popping 83%). The main gripe from its residents is one to worry both Boris and the PM alike: they feel betrayed that the famous battlebus promise of cash for the NHS hasn’t been delivered.
2. DEATH ON OUR DOORSTEP
The rising numbers of homeless people is a slow-burn national scandal that shows no sign of abating. But the statistics were made all too real yesterday when a rough sleeper was found dead just yards from the Underground entrance to Parliament. The man is as yet nameless, but is understood to be in his 40s and had joined a group of four others sleeping in the Tube underpass in recent weeks.
Jeremy Corbyn wrote a personal card and left some flowers at the scene last night, with the message “This should never have happened. As a country we must stop walking by. Rest in Peace”. Some MPs’ staff, and Commons catering staff, have helped the homeless men (some of whom have been Eastern European migrants, some British ex-servicemen) with cups of tea and food in the past, but the shock of the death was palpable yesterday.
Housing minister Heather Wheeler said the Government is “committed to halving rough sleeping by 2022 and eliminating it altogether by 2027”. But the figures show the scale of the problem: the number of rough sleepers has soared from 1,768 in 2010 to 4,751 in 2017. And it’s not just a London problem, those figures are nationwide. Andy Burnham will give a speech today to address homelessness in Manchester at 10 am at Maxwell Hall, Salford University. I suspect MPs will demand an Urgent Question when the Commons returns on Tuesday. And I’d be amazed if it wasn’t raised in PMQs.
3 POLICE STATE
The Sun has an exclusive report of Cold War files showing Jeremy Corbyn met a Czech spy when he was a backbench MP in 1986, including once in the Commons. The papers dug out of secret service archives in Prague reveal that Corbyn was “negative towards USA”, his attitude towards Eastern Bloc countries was “positive” and he was “supporting the Soviet peace initiative”. Security expert Prof Anthony Glees, of the Oxford Intelligence Group, says: “it shows breathtaking naivete from someone who wants to head the British government”.
But does it? Corbyn was given the far-from-thrilling codename ‘COB’ and one note on him is full of bathos: “Owns dogs and fish….Behaviour is reserved and courteous, however, occasionally explosive (when speaking in defence of human rights), though the performance is calm and collected.” The reaction from Corbyn’s spokesman has been pretty strong: “The claim that Jeremy Corbyn was an agent, asset or informer for any intelligence agency is entirely false and a ridiculous smear.” Corbyn was also in contact with Czech dissidents at the time, sources say.
Labour right now is more concerned about the state of the police than a police state. The last time the Tories tried to attack the Labour leader on security was in the general election, but he managed to turn the tables by highlighting police cuts in the wake of the Manchester terror attack. Corbyn went for May on the topic in the last PMQs and this week shadow minister Louise Haigh exposed new stats showing police numbers had been cut by a further 1,200 cops in the last six months. Last night, Labour put out another of its highly effective ‘documentary-style’ party broadcasts, this time with ex-cops and community workers talking about how Government cuts worsen crime. It’s already flying on social media.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Schools minister Nick Gibb was busy promoting tough new times tables tests for eight year-olds. But watch him refuse to answer the question ‘what’s 8 times 9?’, telling ITV it would be difficult to get right because of the pressure of ‘live television’.
4. WORRYING ‘C’ LEVELS
Theresa May is preparing for her own Brexit speech on national security in Germany this Saturday. But Sir John Sawers, the former head of MI6 (aka ‘C’), has some pretty damning things to say. In a podcast for Prospect magazine, he warns “we won’t be round the table” when the EU sets vital rules on data sharing that is key to tracking terrorists. And on the PM, he says: “I don’t think she’s a natural at engaging on these big political issues with foreign leaders.” Ouch.
Sawers also says Brexit has left the UK adrift and suggests May has to pivot either to the US or rebuild links with the EU. “Right now, we have ended up turning our back on Europe and not having a real welcome mat laid out for us in Washington and we’ve got to work out which way we want to turn and be prepared to pay a price one way or the other.” May has long since ditched her Lancaster House threat to withdraw security and intel co-operation with the EU, and Brexiteers say the other 27 desperately need our expertise. But words from a ex-spook like Sawers will cause consternation in No.10.
5. FOSTER CARE
It’s not just a former head of MI6 who has little respect for the PM, it seems. The DUP made plain yesterday its disdain for May’s attempt to chivvy them into restoring devolution in Northern Ireland on Monday. Arlene Foster, whose relations with May have not been consistently smooth, went public to declare the PM’s visit to Belfast with Irish PM Leo Varadkar was ‘a distraction’.
The DUP suggested the move was a PR stunt aimed at forcing them into agreement, when No.10 had been warned “the deal [on restoring power sharing at Stormont] wasn’t done”. DUP negotiator Simon Hamilton was withering in his verdict that “all prime ministers get advice from time to time - they can take that advice or they can ignore that advice”. With the whole issue of the Irish border sure to flare up again in Brexit talks, Downing Street clearly needs to improve its comms with the party that can bring down the Government.