1. CRAZY PAVING
Theresa May’s embarrassment was palpable yesterday as she failed to answer any of Jeremy Corbyn’s six PMQs on Brexit. Proving that short, sharp questions can often be the most effective, the Labour leader duly exploited Boris Johnson’s “crazy” description of May’s customs partnership idea. And minutes later the Foreign Secretary underlined the PM’s weakness, telling MPs he couldn’t be accused of breaching Cabinet ‘conformity’ on customs “since that policy has yet to be decided”. It was a pretty brazen show of defiance.
The Cabinet’s Brexit sub-committee will return to the customs options again next Tuesday. Irish PM Leo Varadkar gave May some cover yesterday, suggesting her ‘customs partnership’ plan was “something we could make workable”. Remainer ministers were cheered by that, but Brexiteers made even more sceptical. So, has former minister Nick Boles now paved the way for a solution? Boles, still close to Michael Gove, tweeted yesterday that one option was to extend current rules to 2023, giving enough time to adopt the alternative, hi-tech ‘maximum facilitation’ model. The Sun picks that up and runs with it, pointing out ex No10 aide Nick Timothy also likes the idea. But will Brexiteers really swallow an even longer ‘transition’?
Whatever solution is found is likely to be complex, but of course many people in the Brexit debate prefer simple certainties. And the Daily Mail has guaranteed yet more coverage after splashing its front page with an attack on the “traitors in ermine” in the House of Lords who have fuelled 14 Government defeats on Brexit of late. Quentin Letts had previewed all this yesterday when he pointed out that hereditary peer, the Duke of Wellington, had led a Remainer rebellion. The Lord looked “ripe for the abbatoir”. Today, the paper vies with the Express to see who can pour most vitriol on the peers.
George Osborne has already ridiculed Jacob Rees-Mogg’s previous refusal to reform the Lords. And it didn’t take long last night for Twitter to point out the Mail had in 2012 opposed the Coalition’s plans too. Yet one can go back even further in the Mail archive. Its leader on September 19, 2003 thundered: “The truth is this prime minister (Tony Blair) hates the robustly independent Lords, which has proved a more effective check on an over-mighty executive than the Commons ... Now he wants a Lords full of placemen, puppets and toadies.”
2. JUNE, OH AND THE PAYBACK
Jeremy Corbyn clearly wants to sort the Lewisham East Labour selection as quickly as possible. As I revealed this morning, the date of the by-election is now set for June 14 and the party will formally move the writ in the Commons today. At 10.30am, the NEC officers’ group will convene to approve a fast-tracked timetable, selecting the candidate by next Wednesday. Just seven days to pick a contender, then just four weeks for a by-election campaign.
Lewisham East’s party chairman Ian McKenzie (John Prescott’s former spad) is furious that local people won’t get a chance to develop the shortlist themselves. “It is not like this is a Copeland [where Labour tried a quick poll to avoid giving the Tories an advantage]” he’s told local members. As for the contenders so far, senior Corbyn allies and Unite look like they will throw their weight behind Phyll Opoku-Gyimah. In an interview with me yesterday, she told me that the Windrush scandal had vindicated her decision to reject an MBE from the Government in 2016. She’s one to watch, folks.
Local councillor Sakina Sheikh is getting some Momentum backing, and I’m told that other contenders have been quietly informed that the leadership wants an all-women, all-BAME shortlist. Progress’s Richard Angell says the whole thing is a “stitch up” which proves Team Corbyn is not too hot on local democracy. Allies of Corbyn say this is payback for all those times Blair fixed selections. Some on the Left even mutter it’s all payback for Heidi Alexander quitting the Shadow Cabinet in 2016 with her swipe at the leader’s competence. With nominations having to be in by this Sunday, candidates need to get their skates on, for sure.
3. GRIM UP NORTH LONDON
Barnet is in north London, and as such it is a short Tube ride from Islington. But Margaret Thatcher’s former backyard looks as far away as a Hebridean island for Jeremy Corbyn right now. Despite pleas from Jewish councillors and former councillors for the Labour leader to come and visit them in the wake of the party’s shattering defeat in the local elections, he still hasn’t commented publicly on the results.
As I reported yesterday, defeated councillor Adam Langleben had been cheered by a private meeting with John McDonnell in which the Shadow Chancellor pledged to call out ‘fake news’ about anti-semitism. McDonnell had also suggested he and Corbyn would personally visit Barnet, but yesterday a senior Labour spokesman hinted that there had been crossed wires and in fact McDonnell had only said he would ‘raise’ the idea of a visit with Corbyn. “There are no plans for Jeremy to go to Barnet at the moment,” the spokesman said.
And here’s further confirmation. Barnet Labour group’s Barry Rawlings requested a meeting with Corbyn in the wake of last week’s poll results. But I’m told that the leader’s office is now offering a meeting with Andrew Gwynne and Ian Lavery instead. It’s all very curious, not least as the Jewish Chronicle reports that one activist Corbyn did meet in Barnet recently has now been kicked out of Labour for membership of the far-left Socialist Resistance Group. Meanwhile, general secretary Jennie Formby meets the Jewish Labour Movement formally for the first time this afternoon. And as I’ll report today, JLM have real concerns.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Our Graeme Demianyk has turned this into a gif-tastic classic but watch the full video of Ed Miliband saying ‘how dare they?’ at least twice during the Leveson debate yesterday.
4. NO, SIR RENDER
As Robert Peston revealed last night, today we will see the Attorney General Jeremy Wright formally apologise to Abdel-Hakim Belhaj and his wife Fatima Boudchar for the role played by the UK state in their kidnapping and rendition to Libya in 2004. The statement (will it come in Attorney General Qs?) will settle a long running claim against former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw and Sir Mark Allen, former head of counter-terrorism at MI6. Belhaj has demanded a token £1 in damages. It will be the closest the UK has come to admitting its role in ‘extraordinary rendition’ cases, and throws the spotlight on Tony Blair’s controversial policy of helping Colonel Gaddaffi.
Dissident Belhaj says MI6 helped the US kidnap him from Thailand. He was hooded and shackled to the floor of a plane, beaten, blindfolded and hung from his wrists in a secret prison and sent to Libya. He was then kept for six years in hideous jails and interrogated by foreign agents, including some believed to be from the UK. Human rights charity Reprieve will be in Parliament today to see some justice finally done. Meanwhile, Gina Haspel, Trump’s nominee for CIA director has defended the use of waterboarding. Coincidentally, she once headed a Thai detention centre where the technique was allegedly used.
5. DATA WITH DESTINY
In yet more proof that backbench MPs can make a difference, digital minister Margot James yesterday announced she was suspending ‘with immediate effect’ a deal under which NHS Digital shared 3,000 patient’s details with the Home Office to check their immigration status. This key element of the “hostile environment” policy was deterring people from seeking treatment, doctors have warned. It has now been shelved after James accepted an amendment to the Data Protection Bill tabled by Health Select chair Sarah Wollaston and Labour MP Paul Williams.
Meanwhile Jeremy Hunt has fired a warning shot over migration caps. He’s told Health Service Journal that he will discuss with Sajid Javid plans to create a separate visa system for doctors and nurses to effectively exempt them from the monthly cap on the number of skilled workers from overseas who are allowed to come to the UK. Some 400 doctors have been denied permission to work for the NHS since December. “It’s invidious when the NHS gets traded off against other sectors in the economy,” Hunt said. NHS chief Simon Stevens is at the King’s Fund summit today, maybe he’ll have more to add.
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