POLITICS
15/03/2018 10:30 GMT | Updated 15/03/2018 12:22 GMT

The Waugh Zone Thursday March 15, 2018

The five things you need to know about politics today.

1 MOS-GO CALLING

Theresa May captured the mood of the Commons yesterday when she attacked Russia for treating the use of a military grade nerve agent against two civilians “with sarcasm, contempt and defiance”. After she expelled 23 diplomats, the Russian Embassy in London proved her words in spades when it tweeted a photo of a thermometer, adding the temperature had dropped to “minus 23, but we are not afraid of cold weather”. Moscow could respond today with expulsions of our own diplomats. A senior Cabinet minister tells HuffPost: “It’s tit for tat now – it will escalate so we had to have other options open to us…No one wants to be the first not to retaliate.”

Last night at the UN in New York, as the Americans and others rallied round the UK in condemning Moscow, Russia’s representative Vassily Nebenzia, claimed there was no “material proof” that his country was involved. Continuing the sarcasm theme, he even cited Arthur Conan Doyle’s “hapless character” Inspector Lestrade, who is “not particularly smart” and comes up with “banal conclusions, only to be overturned by Sherlock Holmes”. On the Today programme, Boris Johnson attacked Russia and Vladimir Putin’s “smug sarcasm” and countered that “we’ve eviscerated his intelligence capability for decades to come”.

Today, the UK’s National Security Adviser Sir Mark Sedwill will go to Brussels for the Nato council meeting and try to build more international support. Johnson said “we are sending a sample” of the nerve agent to the Organisation for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, insisting it was Russia not Britain who had failed to comply with international treaties on such incidents.

But the Foreign Secretary sounded much less sure about the economic reprisals Russia would face. He repeated the No.10 line yesterday that police action in tracking criminal finances were operational matters, but sounded confused over what ministers were doing. “We will go after the money,” he said, before changing that to “we are going after the money”. He said “work is underway” to use ‘unexplained wealth orders’ against individuals. Yet he then said on plans to freeze assets, “we are launching steps which have been underway for some time”. Either you launch them, or they have been underway. Which is it?

Of course, the PM yesterday made clear the expulsions were just the first phase of our response, but some are worried that the economic measures are unformed and uncertain. Russia’s Opposition leader Alexei Navalny yesterday tweeted that “23 Russian diplomats will be expelled from Britain. 23 Russian oligarchs and corrupt officials will keep enjoying life in London”. He then deleted it, but his ally Bill Browder added May’s response so far was “hardly a meaningful response to a chemical weapon attack on UK soil”.  Still, even the threat of asset seizures is already leading to ‘self-sanctions’ in the City, with some investors now reluctant to back Russian deals. Labour’s Helen Goodman tells us the Government only recently did its best to prevent Magnitsky-style crackdowns. Let’s see just how far May’s money trail is prepared to go.

 

2. NIA DEATH EXPERIENCE

Jeremy Corbyn’s own response to the Prime Minister yesterday certainly set him apart, not just from Theresa May but from many of his own MPs. For the second time in three days, the Labour leader upset his backbenches (and some on his frontbenches) by appearing to echo the Moscow line that more time and more evidence was needed to prove Putin really was responsible for the Salisbury attack. Chuck in an attack on Tory cuts to the diplomatic service and you can see why he was accused of breaking with the convention of a unified approach to alleged foreign aggression on British soil. 

Corbyn is nothing if not unconventional, believing he has been proved right on Iraq and other issues when he was a lone voice in the Commons. And in our weekly post-PMQs huddle, his spokesman went even further, pointing to the “problematic” history of WMD and intelligence in the UK.  He also claimed May had herself left open the option that another state or group could be behind the attack, saying “the break-up of the Soviet state led to all sorts of material ending up in random hands.” Even if the nerve agent is proved independently to be Soviet-era material, that suggests Corbyn may still not blame Putin or the Russian state directly for the attempted murders.

Corbyn received some cover for his demand for more evidence when a French government spokesman said it was waiting for “definitive conclusions” and evidence that the “facts were completely true” before taking a position. Yet several shadow ministers were very uneasy about appearing to be less than wholehearted in condemnation of Russia and Shadow Defence Secretary Nia Griffith (who nearly quit over Trident) was certainly concerned. On the Today programme, Griffith said of Corbyn: “Perhaps I speak in a more plain-speaking way…He has made it clear in subsequent statements, the important thing is that’s our position now. I can assure you that’s our frontbench position…His statement is very clear, we fully support the government’s action because we hold Russia responsible”. But without evidence (which may be impossible to get, short term) that Moscow directed the attack, is that Corbyn’s position? ‘Responsible’ and ‘culpable’ were elastic terms for some yesterday. The PLP supports Corbyn on his anti-austerity domestic policies, but on foreign policy they are still a long way from his long-held worldview.

And asked directly about Corbyn’s spokesman’s WMD comparison, Griffith said: “I think the situation is very different when you have the attempted murder of two people, we have very clear evidence. We do have some very, very fine intelligence services and great expertise on these matters.” Griffith also named him personally (something many news organisations don’t do, just as we don’t name the PM’s official spokesman): “I wasn’t there and I can’t speak for Seumas Milne, the spokesperson, he has to speak for himself.” Meanwhile, this photo of Milne and Putin is doing the rounds among Tory MPs.

I’ve written HERE on whether the Salisbury attack is May’s ‘Falklands’ moment. She may well be hoping for a Thatcher-style payback for taking on Putin, though Corbyn allies are already saying last year’s election confounded claims he was as unpopular as Michael Foot. But with the Tories almost certain to use this kind of ‘Putin puppet’ poster attacking him in the next election, the immediate impact may be on Brexit. One of Corbyn’s most vociferous critics yesterday was Tory Anna Soubry, who shouted ‘shameful!’ as he made his remarks in the Commons. She and other Remainer rebels may now think they can’t possibly ally with Labour on any amendments on the EU, for fear of letting Corbyn into No.10. Maybe that’s the other ‘toxic’ legacy of the past few days.

 

3. ROTTERDAM NATION

After nearly 100 years in Britain, Unilever has confirmed this morning that it is moving its legal HQ from London to Rotterdam. The story was first broken by the Brexit Central website two days ago, and Brexiteers are insisting this decision has nothing to do with the attractiveness of the UK to business once we’re out of the EU. Dutch PM Mark Rutte used to work for the giant Anglo-Dutch firm and has been busy wooing it lower taxes and other perks. Brexiteers point out it proves the need to be competitive overseas but stress that 7,000 jobs will stay in the UK.

David Davis was on robust form during Brexit Questions in the Commons this morning, DD told Newsnight that he could “live with” a shortened transition period for Brexit if it helped secure a deal with Brussels next week on the issue. He told MPs today: “Our immediate goal is to agree on implementation period by the European Council summit next week, we are confident we can reach this aim.” Some Remainers in Cabinet think ending the implementation period on December 31, 2020 is just too soon for business to be ready, and want us to be able to extend it, not shorten it.

The Times reports more good news for Leavers, stating EU negotiators have agreed Britain will be free to negotiate and sign free trade deals even during the transition. We won’t have to defer to Brussels in WTO talks too, as long as we don’t ‘contradict’ EU policies. And there was further progress even on the vexed issue of the devolved governments’ roles in Brexit yesterday. Nicola Sturgeon emerged from a meeting with the PM to declare their differences were “not insignificant but not insurmountable”.

 

BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...

Watch Stephen Hawking respond to the tricky question of Zayn Malik leaving One Direction and its ‘cosmic effect on the universe’. 

 

4. WHAT’S YOUR POISON?

Some MPs today are focused not just on the poisoning of two or three people in Salisbury, but on the poisoning of millions of Britons from air pollution. An unprecedented joint report by four Commons Select Committees has warned that our dirty air is a “national health emergency” that costs 40,000 lives and £20bn a year. The Environment Food and Rural Affairs, Environmental Audit, Health and Social Care, and Transport committees have all teamed up to give their verdict. Maybe the Government should show a similar joined-up approach?

And Labour’s Geraint Davies (who’s on the Environmental Audit committee) goes one step further, saying that there could be half a million more deaths from pollution after Brexit if the Government fails to take robust action. He says the EU Withdrawal Bill “fails to safeguard public health from air pollution by excluding air quality standards and enforcement agencies”. Ministers robustly deny any such implication. Meanwhile, the poison risk from plastics is again in the news, with the World Health Organisation (WHO) launching a review of the micro-plastics risk in bottled water.

 

5. TRIAL AND ERROR

MPs, unions and lawyers are calling for a blanket ban on unpaid shifts amid claims that there has been a six-fold rise in complaints about the practice over the past three years. Unite the union is leading the campaign and SNP MP Stewart McDonald has a private members’ bill tomorrow which seeks to change the current law. They say current legislation, which bars “excessively long” trials, is not tough enough. Sometimes the ‘trials’ are for jobs that don’t exist.

The BBC’s business correspondent Nina Warhurst has talked to people across the country suffering the problem, and found in one café in Liverpool that had four-week unpaid trials. And Warhurst underlined the gap between the older and younger generations on the phenomenon when she appeared on the Today programme just after 6.35am. Presenter John Humphrys sounded a bit baffled by the practice. “How does it work, this trial shift thing, Nina?” he asked. “I can tell you in detail John, because I’ve done plenty of them,” the young hack replied. Sick burn, as I think the youth of today might say.

 
 
 

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