1. UNSPECIAL RELATIONSHIP
When Theresa May met Donald Trump privately in the White House in January, she came away genuinely shocked at his superficial knowledge of policy but still felt it was in the UK’s national interest to maintain the ‘special relationship’. Within hours, she was reminded of just how unpredictable and unreliable an ally Trump would prove as he ordered a Muslim travel ban just before she flew out of the country. After an embarrassing refusal to criticise him directly, eventually she indirectly criticised the travel ban.
May is overseas once more and will have to be much more robust with the US President this time as she deals with a media Q&A in Jordan later. Trump’s decision to hit back at her personally on Twitter last night marks an unprecedented breakdown in US-UK relations. But so too was May’s earlier decision to authorise her official spokesman to directly attack Trump (she was in Iraq at the time but still managed to get out a message that his actions were ‘wrong’). May will be wary of fueling the row further, and attacking Trump on camera is much bigger stakes than getting your spokesman to do it, but her own reputation is very much on the line. For all her hopes of a ‘special relationship’, she’s found out she’s not so special to Trump after all. From trade protectionism to anti-Muslim rhetoric, she now knows he really means it when he says ‘America First’.
Those of us who travelled with the PM in January were struck by just how determined she was to swallow any political difficulties over getting close to Trump. But what was most extraordinary was the way a State Visit (playing on Trump’s vanity of meeting the Queen) was used as a bargaining chip, without any serious consideration of the reputational risk to Her Majesty and her government. Of course the Queen has shaken hands with some unsavoury characters over the years, but the prospect of mass demos outside Buckingham Palace is real. That’s why the visit has been put on the back-burner and all sorts of ways of downgrading it considered. Some in Government point out Trump had a warm welcome in Paris this year from Macron, sans serious disruption, but no such prospect is likely here. Forget the snap election, inviting Trump to the UK could turn out to be one of the worst decisions of May’s political life.
Sajid Javid was the first Cabinet minister to be firm with his response last night, saying “I refuse to let it go”. Education Secretary Justine Greening preferred cold contempt today as she underlined how May was seeking to avoid long term damage to US-UK relations. “Our relationship with Us has longevity that will remain after Presidents come and go. This is a President that behaves unlike any other in the nature of the tweets he puts out,” she told Today. But behind the scenes, some in the Cabinet may now advise the PM that a State Visit should be shelved indefinitely. Don’t forget Trump’s term is due to end in January 2021, May’s government technically won’t end until June 2022. The President may find he’s the subject of a different kind of travel ban himself.
Poor Theresa Scrivener, the British woman with six followers and a locked Twitter name @theresamay, may be feeling bombarded today after being wrongly addressed in Trump’s original tweet. And it’s a measure of the asymmetry of power of Twitter itself that Trump’s ratio of followers-to-following is nearly 1 million to 1. (He has 43 million followers but follows just 45 people).
Among the 45 people he follows is right-winger Ann Coulter, who was on the Today programme defending the President and giving an insight into the workings of his brain. Coulter said she didn’t bother checking Twitter bios, so had no idea she was spreading Britain First’s propaganda. Not that it mattered, as she kept saying ‘a video is a video’. “You guys have the Muslims, we have the Central Americans and the Muslims,” Coulter added. And that’s really what this is about: immigration and fear of ‘the other’. As abhorrent as Coulter’s views are, she does give real insight into Trump’s determination to both excuse and use far-right, white supremacist lies to exploit his own voters’ fears about migration. What’s truly shocking perhaps is that anyone, particularly in No.10, should be shocked by that.
2. BREXIT DOOR
As I said yesterday, the most notable thing about the rash of recent Brexit stories has been the disciplined reaction among Brexiteer backbenchers and Cabinet ministers. That continued yesterday as the £45bn ‘divorce bill’ figure played out. Iain Duncan Smith typified how on board the Eurosceps still are, claiming that was a ‘bargain’ compared with the £400bn saved over 40 years from quitting the EU. Today, the Mail and the Sun both back the PM too (though the latter works out we will keep paying £2.5bn a year for decades). Even though a handful of hardliners such as Peter Bone could vote against, May expects she can rely on Labour to get any Parliamentary vote passed with a big majority.
With the cash payments and EU citizens’ rights close to being sorted, now even the thorny Northern Ireland issue may not hinder progress at the EU summit next month. The Times reports that both London and Dublin are hoping for movement after the UK tabled fresh plans to avoid a ‘hard border’. An EU source says a transition/implementation deal will be “ready in principle” by January, and British sources say Brussels would “move on transition by the end of January, with a fair wind”.
For an interesting forecast of what will happen on the EU talks, the Centre for European Reform’s Charles Grant has written 10 Predictions of how the summit will work out. He’s a firm pro-European (and is not infallible) but some of his points will cheer up ministers (in sum, we will get a deal). Note that he warns however that the best trade deal we can hope for is a ‘Canada-plus’ that would require more cash and compliance with EU and ECJ rulings to allow our all-important service sector to continue to do business. And if the City isn’t to suffer, we may have to be rule-takers, not rule-makers.
3. COMPASSION FATIGUES
After years of being depicted as ‘uncaring’ (the Prime Minister might even say ‘nasty’), the Tory party is hitting back in the compassion battle. Backbench MPs were invited into No.10 for meetings with the PM’s chief of staff Gavin Barwell this week on the new ‘Building a Britain Fit For The Future’ narrative, the Guardian reports.
But as part of the briefing they were told polling shows that while the Tories are seen as competent, they were still viewed by voters as not caring enough in their values. The backbenchers were told there will be seven new guiding principles for the party, covering housing, schools and public spending on tackling injustices, but with the environment central to it all. “Underpinning all this is our commitment to protect our environment so we leave our planet in a better state than we found it, with cleaner air, stronger protections for animal welfare and greener spaces,” the briefing document declares.
This follows Michael Gove’s recent decision to hit back at fake claims that the Tories have ditched a recognition of animal ‘sentience’ in UK law. Of course, the PM herself is responsible for some of the missteps on animal welfare, such as a promise of a free vote on foxhunting and omitting ivory bans from her manifesto. Meanwhile, last night most Tories abstained on the SNP’s Opposition Day motion on Waspi women pensioners. But five voted for it. David Gauke is trying to turn round the party’s image with a new strategy to help the disabled into work, though Universal Credit is still a big worry for many of his colleagues this Christmas.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Labour MP Fiona Onasanya show her meme savvy as she quotes from fictional rapper Big Shaq’s ‘Man’s Not Hot’ tune: “2 plus 2 is 4, minus 3 is 1 - quick maths”. Earlier this week, Stanley Johnson on I’mACelebrity got the meme wrong by referring to it as ‘Man’s Hot C*ck’. Larks.
4. FACTION STATIONS
Labour’s own internal battles continue and today the ballot opens for the extra three NEC places devoted to local party members. Jon Lansman and his two fellow Momentum candidates are widely expected to be elected, though independent contender Eddie Izzard released an 8am video urging people to back him. Yesterday, I reported that one other crucial NEC place, for youth rep, was almost certain to swing leftwards after a change in the rules. Supporters of the change say it was driven by the need for more democracy rather than factionalism, but there is criticism that the party democracy review has been pre-empted.
And as Haringey Council tries to pursue a controversial public-private housing redevelopment, a row about deselections of councillors simmers on. One resident tells the Indy this is about housing not a Momentum coup, and Owen Jones makes a similar point in the Guardian. Yet former Blair government adviser Adrian McMenamin argues on Progress today that the Haringey row is “Corbyn’s Year Zero”. Meanwhile, the Bakers’ Union has joined the CWU in affiliating to Momentum.
5. AUTISM SUICIDES
Today, MPs across all parties will stage a backbench debate on the “horrific” level of suicides in the autism community. The SNP’s Dr Lisa Cameron, backed by Tory Anne-Marie Trevelyan, will lead a debate in the Commons calling for the Government to do more to provide support to those on the autistic spectrum who also suffer from mental illness.
Dr Cameron tells HuffPost that suicide is “a leading cause of death” among people with autism. A 2016 study in Sweden confirmed the fears, while research from Coventry University in 2014 showed 66% of adults newly diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome reported having contemplated ending their own lives.