1 TAKEN TO TUSK
The Cabinet this morning has its special Brexit meeting to hammer out the UK position on withdrawal, transition and future trade. Of course, much of the detail could be missing from Theresa May’s speech tomorrow, and it will be interesting to see if anyone who wasn’t at last week’s Chequers meeting has the guts to make a serious intervention around the Cabinet table today. With so many issues unresolved, will they be the ‘rubber stamp’ they once accused Blair’s top team of being?
Following Cabinet, the PM meets EU council president Donald Tusk for a working lunch in Downing Street. It’s unclear if cake is on the dessert menu. It’s also unclear if May will risk any dastardly Brussels leaks of her speech by giving Tusk a full sneak preview, or a limited one. “Ambitious managed divergence” is unlikely to satisfy him, so keep an eye out for his headline-generating, pop-song-laden Twitter feed this afternoon.
As I said yesterday, the real risk with the EU’s draft withdrawal agreement text was that it would prompt an almighty backlash on the Irish border issue, and raise temperatures at the very moment when cooler heads on both sides are trying to sort a deal. The Sun and the Times go big on David Davis’s letter to Tory MPs warning he won’t agree to pay the Brexit divorce bill unless Brussels ditches its Irish border option. Even Nick Boles, who seems to be a bellwether of Tory backbench mood, says “I will not be bullied by an arrogant Commission conspiring with opposition parties”. Tory hardliners are rubbing their hands that Brussels has confirmed Leave voters’ worst impressions, raising the prospect of a ‘no deal’ Brexit (here’s Six Ways we could end up there).
Boris Johnson is more suspicious of his own side after the leak of his own letter hinting the UK should play hardball and consider a hard border. One Bojo ally tells the Daily Telegraph that Tory Remainers were to blame: “The Irish border issue is being used as a proxy war to stop Brexit.” One leading Tory Remainer, Ruth Davidson isn’t giving up though, telling the paper that Boris’ Camden/Westminster comments showed a “casual disregard” of the Irish problem and proved more “serious minds” were needed.
The Business Select Committee has a report warning of the Brexit dangers for the car industry. But Leavers will point to Toyota’s pledge yesterday to build its new generation Auris model at its Burnaston factory in Derbyshire, securing 3,000 jobs in the process. And jobs and the economy are ultimately what may end up concentrating minds on both sides of the Channel. While we all focus on May’s Big Speech tomorrow for any extra detail or change, Tusk’s draft paper next week is the one to watch as it tries to address the crunch issues of trade and transition. More brinkmanship certainly won’t work.
2. FREE IS THE MAGIC NUMBER
Theresa May’s line that ‘no UK Prime Minister’ could ever tamper with the territorial integrity Northern Ireland has been thrown into sharp relief by two of her predecessors. Yesterday Sir John Major had a dig at May (pointing out Labour under a different leader could be miles ahead in the polls) Boris (ridiculing his ‘go whistle’ line about handing more cash to Brussels) and others. But when he suggested Tory MPs should be given a ‘free vote’ in line with ‘their own conscience’, the backlash began in full.
Jacob Rees-Mogg recalls Major whipping Maastricht almost as if he were there, saying it was ‘the most aggressive whipping in modern history’ and accusing the ex PM of ‘straightforward hypocrisy’. Iain Duncan Smith, who was there, told the BBC that “Damascus and conversion seem to come to mind”. Nadine Dorries said simply that Major had been a “traitor”, tweeting a video of him smiling alongside Margaret Thatcher.
Today, it’s the turn of Tony Blair, who told the Today programme: “I find it sickening that people should be prepared to sacrifice the peace of Northern Ireland on the altar of Brexit.” But Blair’s bigger pitch in a speech today is also another of his constant refrains: if the EU reforms free movement of people, that will be “key to getting Britain to change its mind”.
The problem is that no one in Berlin or Paris has shown any urgency about tackling this key pillar of the single market. David Cameron thought Merkel would, and look what happened to him. Getting the EU to shift on free movement seems to be, to paraphrase Brussels’ view of the UK, “magic thinking”. Still, away from the noise, the PM yesterday U-turned on EU citizens’ rights. Slipped out in a Home Office policy paper was the admission that new arrivals even in the transition period could get permanent residency.
3. BEAST MOSLEY
Max Mosley’s mysterious amnesia about his far-right past has finally caught up with him, it seems. The Daily Mail’s archive studies has revealed his role in a 1961 by-election campaign for his father’s Union Movement. Among the claims on a leaflet were the ‘coloured immigration threatens your children’s health’, raising the spectre of TB, VD and even leprosy to scare voters. The Mail has a full 11 pages on Mosley today (including a shocking report on him visiting Dachau with his dad), as Scotland Yard confirmed it was assessing a dossier to see if he had committed perjury in a High Court case when he denied he knew about such a leaflet as “absolute nonsense”
On Channel 4, Mosley said: “I think that probably is racist, I will concede that completely.” But he insisted he had “no reason to apologise to anyone”. But it’s all very embarrassing for deputy Labour leader Tom Watson, whose office has taken £540,000 in donations from Mosley after their work together on press regulation. Watson’s defence was this: “The views expressed by Max as a young man are not the views he holds now, just as the Rothermere family [owners of Associated Newspapers, the publishers of the Daily Mail] no longer uses its newspapers to support fascism.”
As the Telegraph’s Michael Deacon waspishly yesterday put it: “these days, thankfully, political campaigners would never seek to win votes by telling the public that immigrants are stealing their jobs, lowering their living standards and causing a housing crisis”. But there is a serious issue for Watson here, not least because Jeremy Corbyn’s spokesman announced after PMQs that the party had a new system of judging whether donations were ‘ethical and appropriate’. “There won’t be any more contributions to the Labour party or Labour party frontbenchers by Max Mosely.” But Tory deputy chairman James Cleverly tells the Evening Standard that Watson should return the cash already given. Will the party let him raid its own coffers, swelled by the Corbyn-supporting new members?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch a homeless man get kicked out of McDonald’s by police in South Carolina – after a stranger took him in off the street and paid for his meal. It’s gone viral Stateside.
4. COUNCIL MAX
Council taxes are going up on average by 5%, the highest for 14 years, a survey of town halls has revealed. The Chartered Institute of Public Finance and Accountancy’s annual study shows that average Band D properties will go up by about £80 a year, as town halls take advantage of government freedom to hike bills to cope with social care costs. But the regional differences are stark too: the average property in the North East will face a bill of £1,800, while in inner London the tax is just under £1,200. Given ministers’ repeated pledges to cut household bills through energy costs, income tax and fuel duty, a £80 average rise nationwide may not grab the headlines (like many ‘local’ stories), but it will be remembered by voters.
Meanwhile, the Institute for Fiscal Studies (IFS) has a report warning that new rules that will allow councils to keep more revenue from business rates could cause a widening funding gap between different areas. Local authorities in England will be able to retain 75% of business rates revenue by 2020, up from the current 50%, and is piloting 100% retention in some places. The IFS says councils that need more cash could get “left behind”.
5. THERESA JOLLY GOOD MELLOW
The Prime Minister tried her best, or at least her scriptwriters did, to shrug off her ‘Maybot’ moniker last night with a string of ‘jokes’ at the Westminster Correspondents’ Dinner in the Commons. She pointed out she’d had to cancel the speech last year: “I was looking forward to this event so much that I called a general election to get out of it. But I can’t pull that stunt two years in a row. Or can I? I am, after all, going walking in Wales at Easter.”
As she attempted to mellow her image, other ‘zingers’ about colleagues included these: if Boris Johnson was a smartphone app it would carry the warning “contains adult content”; Philip Hammond, was “like a drier, less frivolous version of LinkedIn”; the Culture Secretary’s infamous app admitted “there is a fault with Matt Hancock”; and David Cameron once worried about “ambitious female home secretaries” taking his jobs - with a knowing nod, or (was it a vote of confidence?) to Amber Rudd. Disclaimer: I wasn’t actually there for this rip-roaring, side-splitting event. At a snowy Wembley, the Westminster ‘bubble’ felt very far away indeed.