1 RUSSIAN TO JUDGEMENT
Home Secretary Amber Rudd will make a fresh Commons statement on the Salisbury spy poisoning case today, but she’s already been on the breakfast sofas giving key updates. One good bit of news is that the brave policeman who first attended Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia was now on the mend. “The policeman is talking and engaging, I am more optimistic for him, but it’s too early to say,” Rudd told ITV’s Good Morning Britain. She told Today he’s no longer in intensive care though his condition remained “serious”.
But the two targets of the attack are still in a “very serious condition”, she added. The Times has a Whitehall source saying Sergei is the one with most exposure to what Rudd confirmed this morning was “a very rare nerve agent”: “The feeling is that he is not going to make it out of this..I think it could be more positive [for Yulia]. They are hopeful that she might be able to pull through.” Newsnight’s Mark Urban said last night the nerve agent was “exotic” and could even be “a synthetic form of snake venom or shellfish toxin”.
Note that Rudd said yesterday it was a time for “cool heads”, a line that sounded like advice for her Cabinet colleague Boris Johnson. On Today, she rejected the Russian embassy’s claim that the Foreign Secretary was “unpredictable” and “inconsistent” (Prince William is boycotting the World Cup it seems, not the England team). “Boris and I are absolutely united on this,” she said. And she signalled a major UK response had been lined up once Russia’s role in the attempted assassination was confirmed: “If we attribute we will have a plan.”
Rudd also warned that when Britain takes “action” “you may not hear about it all”. That sounded like our under-the-radar cyber measures as well as traditional spook work. Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson told ITV “we have to change the way that we deal with it [Russia] because we can’t be in a situation in these areas of conflict where we are being pushed around by another nation.” Some action we take may of course be in the arena of cyber warfare. General Chris Deverell yesterday warned of the danger Russia posed on that front. And Channel 4 News quoted a Russian exile saying Skripal was still working in cybersecurity, as well as with MI6. Let’s see how much more the Home Secretary says later.
2. A GENDER FOR CHANGE
Rudd’s other day job is as Minister for Women and Equalities and it’s fitting that on International Women’s Day she, along with Theresa May, is a very visible symbol of a powerful woman politician dealing with issues ranging from counter-terrorism to gender equality. The IWD flag is flying above Parliament today, courtesy of John Bercow, and the Government has a raft of proposals aimed at tackling domestic abuse and pay discrimination.
The new ‘domestic abuse protection orders’ (‘DAPOs’), new electronic tags for suspects and a wider definition of abuse to include economic and psychological control have all been welcomed. Rudd points out that two million women suffer abuse “at the hands of those closest to them”. But Katie Ghose of Women’s Aid warns all the “ambition will be undermined if there is not a long-term, sustainable funding plan for refuges in place”.
As for the gender pay gap, some firms will face severe embarrassment when the stats are released this year. But Labour wants more than embarrassment, it wants to fine those firms who fail to comply. Dawn Butler is pushing a policy that was in Labour’s manifesto in 2017 but few people noticed at the time: a civil enforcement system to ensure compliance with pay auditing. She tells the Guardian: “We don’t just want people to identify the pay gap, we want the pay gap to close.” Will a system of fines, like Iceland’s £355 a day, focus minds? Butler hints the fines could apply not just if firms fail to produce figures, but also if they fail to produce a plan to narrow their gender pay gap.
And on International Women’s Day, as May said yesterday, the Crown Prince of one of the world’s worst countries for women’s rights will be spending it with a female Prime Minister. Yes Mohammed bin Salman will be with her at Chequers (see below). No.10 said last night: “The Prime Minister welcomed recent reforms in Saudi Arabia, including on women attending sporting events and the cinema, and being legally able to drive from June.” That very list of the ordinary being made to sound extraordinary shows just how far the country has to go. But the Weinstein scandal shows how far the West has to go too. Here’s our HuffPost video from members of the #MeToo and #TimesUp movements to mark today.
3. COUNTRY FILE
Theresa May’s charm offensive with Saudi’s Crown Prince Mohammend bin Salman (known as MBS) continues as she takes him to her country house of Chequers today. Last night, No.10 revealed the big bucks involved here, with £65bn of new trade deals over ‘coming years’ after we’ve quit the EU. What was notable was the way Downing St stressed a new ‘education partnership’ to help get more women into education in the notoriously unfeminist Arab state, with British experts hired to ‘embed gender equality’.
If it weren’t for an aggressive foreign policy, MBS may have gone down in history as the Gorbachev of Saudi Arabia, bringing in historic cultural and democratic reforms. Yet as Jeremy Corbyn made clear in PMQs, the bloody conflict in Yemen is unignorable. No.10 and the FCO are furious at the claim of Corbyn (expanded on by his spokesman) that British military personnel are literally helping the Saudis ‘target’ schools and hospitals in bombing raids.
As a backbencher, Corbyn would have been on last night’s demo outside No.10. As leader, he opted not to attend, but that didn’t stop Shadow Justice Secretary Richard Burgon. Meanwhile, the FT reports on all those pro-Saudi taxi and Tube posters and newspaper ads, praising the Crown Prince (“He is bringing change to Saudi Arabia”, “He is empowering Saudi Arabian women”). They are sponsored by Arabian Enterprise Incubators, a consultancy founded by Adam Hosier. He’s a former employee of BAE Systems, the defence firm. Hosier declines to say if the Saudi government is funding the campaign.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this piglet try to get comfy on a sofa. Yes, it’s gone viral.
4. LINK-ED IN
Labour NEC member Christine Shawcroft certainly sparked a huge reaction yesterday over her Facebook post message calling for an end to the historic link between trade unions and the party. The backlash was substantial, not just from the main unions she accuses of stitching things up, but also from Momentum’s Jon Lansman, as he moved to insist her views were not his. Shawcroft told me she would not be quitting (“I’m going to serve the rest of my sentence”). Academic Tim Bale blogs for us on how nearly a third of Labour members are union members (the percentage dropped slightly under Corbyn) and why ending affiliation is a non-starter.
Yet it’s worth remembering what sparked Shawcroft’s outburst. It was her claim, along with another Momentum-backed NEC member Darren Williams, that the union reps had voted with others to send a string of cases of anti-semitism, sexism, racism and bullying for formal investigation. She and other reps (including Lansman) felt that warnings were preferable to full disciplinary hearings, amid claims ‘natural justice’ was being denied. Many others on the NEC disputes panel tell me some of the cases were so shocking that they were baffled why a handful of colleagues wouldn’t want them investigated further.
5. HAMMOND FISHING FOR MAMMON?
Philip Hammond has been accused by Brexiteers of trying to use Britain’s fishing industry to get a better Brexit deal for the City after he said he was “open” to allowing EU trawlers into UK waters. The Sun cites a source close to Michael Gove saying such a fish-for-bankers swap would be unacceptable: “Michael has been clear that we need to take back control of our waters. The suggestion of the same access in future is totally unacceptable and goes against the result of the referendum.”
As for the bigger economic picture, the FT says the Chancellor will use his stripped-down Spring Budget next Tuesday to spell out the decades of continued UK payments to the EU. That may cause a bit more Brexiteer backlash. And in the Telegraph ex-No10 chief of staff and Hammond-baiter Nick Timothy says he should use his new surplus to announce ‘austerity, Mr Speaker, is no more’. Hammond faces a fresh headache later today if Trump confirms steel tariffs, while exempting Canada and Mexico. But will there be a hint of special treatment for the UK after Brexit?