1. ALWAYS WORKING
The Tory Brexiteer reaction to Priti Patel’s ‘resignation’ last night underlined just why Theresa May had held onto her for so long. But as well has her strong anti-EU views, there is also a sheer likeability about Patel - an oft forgotten quality in politics - that has also ensured her rise through the ranks. Well known to many of us in the media from her days as William Hague’s doggedly loyal press secretary, she impressed her colleagues as she moved from adviser to backbencher to “the first British Indian Cabinet Minister” (as the PM phrased it in her ‘sorry-you’re-leaving’ letter). Patel’s Apprentice-style departure, smiling from the ministerial car that she was allowed to take her home as one last courtesy, was in the end smooth rather than bitter.
The immediate focus for the PM is to find a replacement and Penny Mordaunt, as the sole female Brexiteer Minister of State in the entire Government, may be a smart choice. Many fancy Alastair Burt, another very likeable but straight-as-a-die minister, as the best qualified candidate. Sir Alan Duncan has his backers too, though May will be wary of ‘rewarding’ the Foreign Office given muttering from Tory MPs that the FCO ‘knifed’ Patel (with briefings about her blunders in not telling it or No.10 about her Israel meetings and policy ideas). Few would want to bet just who May will choose but it seems certain this will be a limited set of changes.
Iain Duncan Smith, an old ally of Patel’s, told the Today programme that while “we are all Brexiteers now”, a minister with “strong Brexit views” should be the candidate the PM picks for the vacant post. IDS added that “this is not a reshuffle” and “Theresa May is the one person who can unite the Cabinet”. He may well be right about both, at least right now. But as I wrote last night (read my analysis of the implications of Patel’s demise HERE), there is strong pressure on May to stage a wider reshuffle to get her government back on track and end the anarchy of the last few months.
There remain real questions as to why May didn’t refer Patel for an investigation under the ministerial code, and the Conservative Friends of Israel and Lord Polak now face much greater scrutiny (some Tory MPs whisper it’s time CFI lobbying was exposed and its influence reduced). Yet the bigger picture is the Prime Minister’s own political longevity. Some allies argue that the commentariat fail to realise she can hang on like John Major and Jim Callaghan did, as long as she is seen as the best choice to balance competing interests.
The Budget and the December EU summit are the big milestones ahead and few expect May to execute an unforced wider reshuffle before either. Yet assuming she lasts to the New Year, January is the time of maximum opportunity and maximum danger for her. Sacking Philip Hammond as Chancellor would certainly ensure his replacement wasn’t as openly rebellious, but it may spark a backlash from enough middle-of-the-road MPs to trigger the 48 names needed for a leadership confidence vote. Sacking Boris could lose her the Brexit support she needs.
Party chairman Patrick McLoughlin and Liz Truss look vulnerable, but there are very few Cabinet ministers May is unhappy with. Gauke has impressed her at DWP, Brokenshire is needed in Ulster, Javid is essential to her ‘premiership priority’ on housing, Clarke is getting on with the industrial strategy. Only the resignation of Damian Green would necessitate a bigger reshuffle. That curve ball aside, new blood could be promoted, but don’t expect anything radical, insiders say. Priti Patel’s WhatsApp bio continues to state she is “Always working” (irony, I know), accompanied by an emoji of a winking smile with a poked out tongue. Fellow workaholic Theresa May doesn’t ‘do’ emotion, let alone emojis. Yet her own WhatsApp bio right now ought to read: ‘Still Here’.
2. TEHRAN-ICAL REGIME
Of course, Patel’s demise makes Boris Johnson’s survival look like further proof that he really is ‘unsackable’. No wonder the Foreign Secretary was swift last night to do a clip from Washington paying tribute to his fallen fellow Brexiteer. Yet Boris’s blunder over British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe continues to haunt him.
BBC Persian Washington Correspondent Hadi Nili tweeted last night that Iranian state TV had welcomed Johnson’s remarks about Zaghari-Ratcliffe ‘teaching people journalism’ as an “unintended confession of the UK government about the real plot” behind her trip to Iran. Boris’s remarks were “proof” of the Revolutionary Guard’s accusations against her, the TV station declared. The Iranian judiciary’s news website also carried a news article on Wednesday with the headline: “Spy or human rights activist”.
Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s local MP Tulip Siddiq said it seemed that Johnson’s assurances to Iran had been ‘ignored’. Stella Creasy said: “A stronger PM would have forced him to apologise. A decent man would without asking.” As I wrote yesterday, there are real complexities in this case, not least the power struggle between the Iranian foreign ministry and the Revolutionary Guard. Note that Iranian TV also reported that foreign minister Mohammed Zarif had called the judiciary to ask for Nazanin’s release.
In Washington, Johnson repeated what he’d said earlier this week – that he was willing to meet Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s husband Richard (surprisingly he’s not done so so far) and accompany him on a trip to Tehran. “As I said in the House of Commons, I am very happy to meet the family and Mr Ratcliffe. In fact, I very much hope I can see him before I go to Iran in the next few weeks.” This story has some way to run folks.
3. CARWYN SPEAKS
This morning, Welsh First Minister Carwyn Jones is expected to make a statement reacting to claims that Carl Sargeant was not treated fairly over allegations of sexual misconduct made against him. Former Welsh Government minister Sargeant is understood to have killed himself just four days after being forced to resign his post. Sargeant’s family say he was deprived of “natural justice” and their lawyer yesterday released correspondence between him and the Labour party. Their spokesman said: “Up to the point of his tragic death on Tuesday morning Carl was not informed of any of the detail of the allegations against him, despite requests and warnings regarding his mental welfare.”
Note the word ‘detail’ here. The correspondence in fact does reveal that Sargeant was made aware of accusations of “unwanted attention, inappropriate touching or groping”. In this kind of inquiry, there is an obvious need to protect the identity of the complainant while giving the accused the chance to defend themselves. Some in Labour will think that when allegations of groping have been made, it would be difficult not to ask a serving minister to step aside (Labour nationally has called for Damian Green to do just that, pending the inquiry into his conduct).
Carwyn Jones is facing anger from some fellow Labour Assembly Members amid claims he had not followed due process in giving a TV interview on the case on Monday. The BBC’s Vaughan Roderick reports Jones had discussed allegations of misconduct with Sargeant even before last week, and ‘had received an explanation’. Jones may claim that ultimate responsibility for the duty of care and detail given to Sargeant rested with Labour HQ, which took over his suspension. But he has questions of his own to answer. Will he say there were not just one but several individuals making similar accusations? Or will that be too soon?
Meanwhile, the wider sex harassment story hasn’t gone away. The Lib Dems face fresh questions about handling of an alleged rape at their conference last year. Jeremy Corbyn aide David Prescott has been suspended amid claims made against him. And the Sun has an exclusive account by Alice Bailey, a former bar worker in the Commons Sports and Social bar. She says one SNP MP ‘begged her for sex’ and one Labour MP sank 12 pints then followed her home and groped her.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this truly inspiring video clip of Cliff, a semi-paralysed former diving coach who still loves the water. The reaction of the little girl poolside is a real joy.
4. BRUSSELS BOUND
David Davis is back in Brussels to meet sparring partner Michel Barnier and after weeks of shadow boxing will the fight get real today? Maybe not, as the Brits view the next two days as a stock-taking exercise ahead of the really serious business of the crucial next few weeks. The EU has expressed its irritation that today and tomorrow could be “non-talk talks” rather than the real start of the sixth round of negotiations proper.
The FT reports on yet another Brussels ‘deadline’ that is likely to be greeted with an eye-roll by London. EU officials are giving the UK until the end of November to give more clarity on the size of its ‘divorce’ bill liabilities - or risk missing the chance of getting a ‘trade and transition’ commitment hammered out in time for the December EU summit.
The British side need no reminding that the next few weeks are crunch time if this deal is to be sorted before Christmas. But there’s a quiet optimism that mutual interests –and hard money- will ensure a breakthrough next month. Irish PM Leo Varadkar yesterday said a deal was ‘likely’. Brussels is still concerned by Davis and May’s recent line that no transition deal can be sorted unless a trade deal is ‘completed’. And Barnier told MPs he expects UK-EU trade deal can’t be finalised until the end of 2020. But one Government source reminds me of the EU’s own mantra, “nothing is decided until everything is decided”. The source adds: “They want our cash…”
Davis this week staged yet another ‘charm offensive’, this time visiting Rome and Warsaw, as part of his plan to build bilateral support. Italy’s Europe Minister Sandro Gozi sounded glowing about DD on Today. And the Sun reports that the EU itself is going down the bilateral route on voting rights for citizens, post-Brexit. It’s another hiccup, but not one that looks too terminal.
5. HUNT THE CASH
Away from the drama of Priti Patel’s political crash landing yesterday, NHS chief exec Simon Stevens delivered on his threat to highlight the public’s demand for Brexit to result in more cash for the health service. Stevens also warned that if the Budget failed to include more funding, waiting lists would increase by an extra million (to five million, the highest ever) and cancer and mental health targets would have to be dumped. It was strong stuff, and a high risk move that could see the end of his nearly four years at the NHS helm. The Guardian reports Stevens feels frozen out of Budget negotiations, and had no choice but to speak out.
Stevens was pretty withering yesterday about claims by Jeremy Hunt (only minutes beforehand on the same conference platform in Birmingham) that the UK spends the EU average on health. “Only if you think bundling in austerity-shrunken Greek and Portuguese health spending should help shape the benchmark for Britain,” the NHS boss retorted.
And yet Hunt had at least backed up Stevens on his main plea for more money. In what seemed a highly significant remark (but got lost amid the Priti hoopla), the Health Secretary openly supported the idea that the Vote Leave £350m/week pledge should not be ignored. “The NHS should be the first port of call” for any “Brexit dividend”, he said. But is Phillip Hammond listening?
Shadow Health Secretary Jonathan Ashworth blogs for HuffPost today on why the Budget has to do much more than finally end the public sector pay cap. And he rightly points to the long list of dire warnings made by NHS chiefs this week, bad news often buried by the Cabinet’s chaos. In 24 hours, NHS Improvement Chief Executive Jim Mackey has warned the NHS could“pop” without emergency cash; Andrew Foster, former Department of Health senior civil servant, warned of excess patient deaths because of unsafe staffing levels; the Royal College of Nursing’s Chief Executive Janet Davies’ said the service was “teetering on a financial cliff edge”, and Sir Robert Francis’ warned of a new “crisis”. In February, he suggested cost pressures made another Mid Staffordshire scandal “inevitable”.