1. TEXTUAL HEALING
The EU Exit and Trade (Strategy and Negotiations) Sub-Committee meets in Chequers around 2pm this afternoon. No.10 warned us yesterday the meeting could go on until 10pm, or even later. The Cabinet may be more united than many think as it gathers in the wood-panelled Tudor splendour of the PM’s country house. It is certainly united around not wanting any disagreements to spill over into a crisis that could topple Theresa May.
Some of the issues may seem intractable, but recent speeches by Boris Johnson and David Davis suggested they are coalescing around close alignment of rules as a starting point, with the crucial power to diverge later. Some Remainers in Cabinet think that the heavy lifting was already done last year, when the PM’s Florence speech signalled a status-quo transition and longer-term fudge that secured the December deal with the EU.
And as with that pre-Christmas deal, today may see an agreement on some elegantly crafted Whitehall-ese that persists with the ‘bespoke’, Canada-plus model which will maintain unity right through to this October’s crunch EU summit and Exit Day itself next year. The actual text produced could see another form of semantic gymnastics including ‘mutual recognition’ of rules and the state of the Irish border.
Some ministers think that Brussels will buy the fudge for the time being, but privately hope it will put its foot down and give the UK a reality check once the transition starts and a trade deal is really hammered down (not least on financial services and what some call the ‘bonkers’ customs union plans). Some think mutual self-interest will trump all. Yet others fear the EU27 will drive too hard a bargain on trade rule ‘recognition’ and replication. A new slide from the Commission yesterday suggested it would reject May’s ‘three baskets’ plan for variable levels of future regulation. One key question is whether the Cabinet committee will today come up with a Plan B or a basket case of a negotiation. Let’s see.
The flare-up over the implementation period yesterday, with backbench Brexiteers warning against any language that allows endless transition, was another indication of how fragile the current unity can be. But never forget that for Brussels, helping patch up Tory divisions is not their priority. And some in the EU think Cabinet Remainers and Leavers are united by one thing: a desire for cherry-picking. Will they stick to a ‘no cherries, no cake’ approach?
2. FACT CZECH
Theresa May yesterday made a weak gag about Jeremy Corbyn liking ‘Czechs’, but the Labour leader’s spokesman was on combative form immediately after PMQs, holding a marathon briefing that set out for the first time a detailed rebuttal of the ‘commie spy’ claims. Corbyn had been through his diary and discovered that on the day of one alleged meeting with Jan Sarkocy in the Commons, he had been 150 miles away at the Chesterfield Socialist Conference (check out the video of a young Paul Mason selling ‘Workers Power’). It was also a Saturday, and the Commons was closed. Moreover, it was the day after Corbyn’s mother died.
The Sun yesterday hit back with a newly-released file, claiming the meeting was actually two days earlier. But as Team Corbyn went all-in with their fightback (including, as HuffPost revealed, a demand for damages from Tory MP Ben Bradley), the overall message Labour wanted to push became clear. One senior insider put it to me thus: ‘the narrative is the Tory press and their MPs told you Corbyn was a spy and it was a lie, you can’t believe a word they say’. Chuck in the fact that the Stasi archive broke with convention to reveal there is no file on Corbyn at all, and it’s obvious why the leadership think they’ve won this particular skirmish with the press.
Unless his critics come up with hard evidence of his links to Communist regimes, the next chapter in this storyline may be Security Minister Ben Wallace deleting his own tweet comparing Corbyn to spy Kim Philby. Labour is confident that tweet is equally, if not more libellous than Bradley’s. And as Andrew Neil’s relentless grilling of minister Steve Baker proved yesterday, no one else wants to repeat it.
3. ECONO-ME, STUPID
Some Labour MPs were surprised Corbyn went in on Cabinet divisions over Brexit yesterday at PMQs, not least as he didn’t really lay a glove on May. He could have made more headway if he’d raised the rise in the jobless stats of 46,000 to a five-year high. The ONS said that two thirds of the net increase in unemployment could be attributed to people aged under 25. Bank of England governor Mark Carney added some more glum news later, telling the Treasury committee that real incomes at the end of 2018 will be 5% lower than the Bank had forecast before the EU referendum in June 2016.
Still, the Tories were prepped for any attack lines from Corbyn, with employment increasing and productivity rising. And the FT reports today some more good news for the Chancellor, reporting the UK deficit has now shrunk to less than £40bn over the most recent 12 months of data (the IFS points out we are now below the pre-financial crisis rate of borrowing).
Philip Hammond has his stripped-down Spring Statement next month but may want to add a few more minutes to the 15 he’s apparently set aside. The OBR indicated on Wednesday the growth upgrade will be “significant” - just four months after its much anticipated cut to productivity forecasts led Treasury officials to talk about a “bloodbath” in the public finances. Whether real incomes can start rising, and whether voters actually feel it, is another matter. Their personal finances, not stats about the health of the economy, may be the key.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this woman dry her knickers under an air vent on a plane flight to Moscow. The internet being what it is, it’s gone viral. Sadly, there is no clip of the passenger whose flatulence caused a plane into an emergency landing.
5. THE BAME GAME
This May’s local elections will probably only spark fresh leadership jitters for No.10 if they are truly dire and an intense game of expectation management is well underway. But a new poll for the Mile End Institute at Queen Mary University of London should really worry May’s team. Some 54% of Londoners are planning to back Labour on May 3 – a figure that would give Jeremy Corbyn the highest vote share of any party in the council elections in the capital since 1968.
One of the most striking statistics buried in the poll is that 78% of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) voters support Labour, compared to just 12% who would back the Conservatives. True-blue Wandsworth and Barnet councils really could turn red, though few in Labour tell me they really think the biggest prize of all, Westminster, is in reach. If that goes, the PM could be in real trouble. The Tories’ problems with the BAME and the youth vote were neatly summed up last night at the Brit Awards, as grime star Stormzy used a prime TV slot to declare “Yo, Theresa May, where’s that money for Grenfell? You just forgot about Grenfell.”
5. BULLY BEEF
Jeremy Corbyn has irritated some MPs in recent weeks by failing to convene the weekly, post-PMQs Parliamentary Committee of senior members of the PLP. Maybe that caught up with him when it finally met yesterday afternoon. PolHome reports that PLP chair Jon Cryer warned Jeremy Corbyn that the perception of macho ‘bullying’ at the weekend’s policy forum will cost Labour votes. NEC chair Andy Kerr, who seized a lectern from activist Katrina Murray, denies bullying but MPs felt it was a very serious incident indeed.
MPs said they feared it would encourage more hardline local activists to try to intimidate chairs in other meetings. Emily Thornberry’s claim that it was ‘one of those things’ has also sparked a backlash, and NEC member Ann Black has warned against the damage to the party’s public image if is seen as run by “shouty men waving rulebooks”. One MP tells PolHome: “This is making our party less attractive. Any suggestion that we as a party condone bullying will put people off from voting Labour.”