1 TOUR DE FARCE?
In case you missed it, folks, it’s now exactly one year to go to Brexit. Given the transition, it’s actually two years and nine months until the real Exit Day, but that won’t stop Theresa May from making a big deal of today. She’s just started a whistle-stop tour of the four nations of the UK, kicking off in Scotland with a trip to a textile producer. I’ve written an in-depth analysis HERE on the challenges for the next 12 months, including invaluable advice for the PM from her former aides Chris Wilkins and Katie Perrior, and the top King’s College, London think tanker Anand Menon.
Menon’s ‘UK in a Changing Europe’ hosts a long day of events including interviews with Tony Blair and Nigel Farage. And despite clear missteps along the way so far, he’s got a point when he says that the decision by No.10 and the Brexit Department to push the Irish border issue further back actually strengthens their hand. “The Government’s negotiating position is more rational and more coherent than the Government make it seem,” Menon says, dryly.
No.10 told us that we won’t today get a repeat of the farcical stage-managed snap election stunts of 2017, where May interacted more with warehouse backdrops than the voters around her. Her former speechwriter and strategist Wilkins, who back in 2016 advocated that the PM should regularly tour the nation to engage with the voters, tells me: “Rather than talking about the process of Brexit or focusing on the end of March next year, she needs to look beyond it and focus on the kind of country we want to build.”
The key pinch point in the coming year will be the EU summit in October when the political ‘deal’ on future UK-EU relations should emerge. Yet word in Whitehall is that May will delay the ‘meaningful vote’ in Parliament until the first week back in January 2019, robbing MPs and peers of the time to send her back to Brussels to renegotiate anything they don’t like.
And the issue of deadlines may most worry Remainers, and businesses, as it looks like we could just shift the ‘cliff edge’ from March 2019 to December 2020. Both Brussels and hardline Brexiteers seem united in not allowing any extension to the transition period, should we fail to hammer out complex issues like hi-tech customs. Liam Fox told Today that he would not “like to see an extension” and argued the public “would find that too slow” too.
As for Labour, John McDonnell today had to mop up after what he called Emily Thornberry’s ‘saracastic’ personal ‘style’ yesterday, when she suggested May’s final deal would be so ‘blah blah blah’ that it could even meet Labour’s six tests for Brexit. The Shadow Chancellor did however tell the BBC he wasn’t expecting a free vote on the final deal “I would expect political parties to operate in the normal way,” he said.
The last video in our People’s Negotiation on Brexit series is up today, with Chuka Umunna and David Campbell-Bannerman taking part in a Gogglebox-style reaction to the public’s views.
2. THE MANY NOT THE JEW
McDonnell, who was intending to attack Government failures in taxing Google and other corporations, couldn’t avoid questions this morning about Labour’s ongoing anti-semitism revelations. The Times and Mail had the scoop on NEC Disputes committee chief Christine Shawcroft opposing disciplinary action against a council candidate embroiled in a Holocaust denial row. Shawcroft was forced to quit her post by Jeremy Corbyn last night, but when pressed repeatedly on SkyNews Sunrise, McDonnell refused to say if she should step down from the NEC altogether. He said it was ‘an elected position, it’s up to the electors to decide’. Of course, she could be asked to quit by Corbyn, but many will suspect that the real reason she won’t is because that would automatically (though very briefly) be replaced by Eddie Izzard, the next on the list in the NEC elections.
New general secretary Jennie Formby will be tasked with clearing out the stables. Critics on left and right point out she was very vocal in January in stating that Shawcroft would make an excellent new chair of the disputes committee. The GMB too played a key role in backing her along with Momentum members. This was despite some unease that veteran Ann Black was being ousted simply to boost the leadership’s strength on the crucial NEC Officers’ Group that often wields the real power in Labour. The balance of forces on the NEC as a whole depends more on inter-union rivalries than simple left-right numbers. Some are suggesting Shawcroft’s critics on the Left may have leaked the email that did for her, but long experience tells us it’s always smarter not to second guess media sources.
Corbyn’s hopes of trying to take the initiative on this whole row have been derailed overnight. Still, his interview with Jewish News got a mixed reaction. Some were pleased he said Labour MPs had a ‘right to demonstrate’ in support of Jewish groups in Parliament Square. “Any abuse that’s done is not in my name,” he said, offering his personal support to both David Lammy (one of those to nominate him, don’t forget) and Luciana Berger. I’m told Corbyn got a warm reception at the Labour peers meeting last night, though the division bell meant he missed a call by Lord Touhig for him to personally visit Berger and Louise Ellman’s constituencies and literally stand side by side with them. I also hear that Peter Hain told Corbyn an activist filmed him in Parliament Square and told him he intended to drive him out of the party.
It remains unclear whether MP John Woodcock really will resign the whip in protest at Corbyn’s leadership on everything from anti-semitism to Russia to the Dan Jarvis nobbling. But one real fear in London is that the row could hit Jewish votes in the key Tory target of Barnet. Labour’s group leader Barry Rawlings tells HuffPost that Corbyn’s ‘blind spot’ on Jewish abuse is turning off the community the party needs, even though it has a proud record of Jewish candidates and local engagement.
The Salisbury poisoning case took a new twist last night as police revealed that the highest concentration of the nerve agent Novichok was found on the front door of former spy Sergei Skripal’s home. Deadly serious stuff, you’d think. Yet Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson couldn’t resist playing for laughs last night as he gave a speech in the Mansion House Easter Banquet.
Boris pointed out that Star Wars, shot in the UK, was one of the highest grossing movies last year. “That tells you all you need to know about the difference between modern Britain and the government of Vladimir Putin. They make Novichok, we make lightsabre - one is a hideous weapon that is specifically intended for assassination; the other an implausible theatrical prop with a mysterious buzz”. He said that the economic power of the lightsabre proved it was the more effective ‘of those two weapons’. That will sound pretty crass to many. It also undermines the UK’s case that it’s Russia treating this all as a joke.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
In case you missed it, watch again Lord Keen’s magnificent Father Ted expletive as he drops a glass of water in the House of Lords. Full marks to the brilliant Esther Webber for capturing it so quickly.
4. CAB RANK LAWYERS
A political backlash over the John Worboys case was unleashed yesterday after the High Court overturned the Parole Board decision to release the black cab rapist. Justice Secretary David Gauke has refused to quit, despite one of the victims telling the Telegraph it was ‘disgusting’ that he forced parole chief Nick Hardwick to resign his own post. And there is some degree of sympathy for Hardwick, while Gauke is accused of scapegoating him.
Still, it’s hard to find any MP who will go on the record to demand Gauke’s resignation and many felt he had no choice but to follow the legal advice presented to him. In the chamber he had the full support of former Cabinet lawyers like Ken Clarke and Dominic Grieve. Clarke said “it would be a very bad day if Ministers started intervening in criminal sentencing cases in response to campaigning”. But the Sun says the ruling is a victory for a free press, after its successful legal bid to reveal details of the parole board decision making. Worth noting that Lord Justice Leveson and Mr Justice Jay were the chair and lead counsel of the inquiry into press standards.
5. BORDERING ON RIDICULOUS
In the days before Commons recesses, Governments of all stripes try to take out the trash in the form of an avalanche of Written Ministerial Statements. The Sun and Times were quick to pounce on a withering report by Chief Inspector of Borders and Immigration David Bolt, which says ‘exit checks’ data can’t be trusted. As a result, the Home Office has no idea if 600,000 people who overstayed their visa have actually gone home. The Sun’s eagled-eyed Steve Hawkes also reveals that up to 700 rich Russians are being investigated by the Home Office to see if they were wrongly allowed into the country.
Amber Rudd on Wednesday revealed her officials were trawling over millionaires allowed in from Russia between 2008 and 2015 – before so-called Tier 1 visa rules were tightened. Rudd also left Tory Brexiteers aghast on Tuesday when she admitted migration controls could be up for grabs in the Brussels talks. She said her job was to provide the Prime Minister with “proposals and alternatives” on different immigration systems for the negotiations. One to watch.
The WaughZone is taking a break along with Parliament. Back when the House returns in April 16. Have a happy Easter! Keep sending your tips, comments and texts in the meantime.