1. THE EGO HAS LANDED
The RAF Voyager jet carrying Boris Johnson and Theresa May touched down back in London this morning after an extraordinary few days in north America. The pair of them are next off to the special 10am Cabinet meeting to discuss the PM’s Brexit speech, ahead of its delivery in Florence tomorrow.
Word is that May spent most of the flight soundly asleep, even though Boris was not far away (having agreed to join her in a show of unity, rather than get an earlier commercial flight as originally planned). And one can imagine why her shut-eye was undisturbed, given that the Foreign Secretary appears to have retreated on most of his EU demands.
Yes, for all the sound and fury, insiders say Boris has agreed he won’t argue for time limit on the transition period, and crucially won’t oppose the UK continuing to pay for access to the EU single market in a transition. What his critics saw as an ego-trip, but allies saw as valuable restoration of Cabinet consultation, looks to have abated. And Boris won’t be quitting, because he will be joining David Davis and Philip Hammond in the audience in Florence (originally one plan was just to have May and DD there, but addition of Boris and Spreadsheet Phil is a broad-church display now).
As for May’s speech, even loyalists in the Cabinet have been irritated by the way No.10 have handled it, not least the idea they were to be presented with a ‘fait accomplit’, with the final speech presented to them this morning. After this morning, firm collective responsibility will be applied – to the Chancellor as much as Boris, some ministers have been told. In the Telegraph (more than ever the go-to paper of Brexiteers), ex May aide Nick Timothy suggests that Hammond sparked the unwelcome Boris outburst by freelancing himself.
Still, the message from Downing Street is that May won’t offer a specific ‘divorce bill’ figure but will make a ‘generous offer’ and make clear in her wording that she doesn’t want any EU state to lose out financially from the UK’s departure. Some papers say May wants to pitch over the head of Michel Barnier directly to the EU27 leaders. Politico reports Barnier saying in private meetings that the UK “has done little to earn the trust it expects from the EU27” and that it will take years to seal the deal. He is even using a graph David Cameron once used to show how much individual states rely on being in the EU to punch above their weight.
There’s a fantastic PA photo of May biting her lip as Boris points behind her at the UN (see above). Yet ultimately, for all the humiliation and theatre, May’s allies say she is the one who has come out of this with a more unified position. Our Owen has done a nice guide to 7 Cabinet ministers who quit in a huff in previous years. And it looks like Bojo won’t be joining them. Yet.
2. TRUMP CARD
Theresa May’s speech to the UN saw a fair few empty seats and tumbleweed. She may have been more than a tad irritated that the event had been overshadowed by The Will-He-Or-Won’t-He Boris Show. Yet we shouldn’t ignore that the PM used her address to the General Assembly to put some distance between herself and Donald Trump on climate change.
What was bold was actually comparing Trump’s stance on the Paris accord to North Korea’s flouting of international agreements on nukes. “It is this rules-based system which we have developed – including the institutions, the international frameworks of free and fair trade, agreements such as the Paris climate change accord, and laws and conventions like the non-proliferation treaty – which enables the global co-operation through which we can protect those values.”
Yet for my mind, the most interesting foreign policy issue yesterday was Iran, with the UK, France, Germany, Russia and China all urging Trump not to dump the nuclear deal. US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson emerged from a meeting to concede Iran was abiding by the letter of the 2015 deal, but claimed it was not fulfilling ‘expectations’. Crucially, Tillerson said Trump had decided on his policy but was not sharing it publicly. And get this: he has refused to tell Theresa May what he plans. “Prime Minister May asked if he would share it with her - and he said No,” Tillerson revealed. Maybe that’s why the PM had more grit in her speech yesterday. But critics will point out it shows the ‘special relationship’ is often a mirage.
3. FEARS FOR TIERS
Away from leadership rule changes and NEC seats (both of which seem settled), the big issue many are gearing up for at Labour conference is Brexit and EU migration. We report that an emergency motion calling on the party to keep free movement has been accepted for the priorities ballot and looks likely to go into the ‘compositing’ process.
The motion would cause problems because it directly challenges Labour’s 2017 manifesto line that free movement ‘will end’ after Brexit. The Conference Arrangements Committee sorted its final appeals yesterday and the motion is set to get strong backing from local party delegates. The crunch will come when trade unions, many of whom have Leave voters as members, try to water down the wording on Sunday.
The Labour Campaign for Free Movement –which has a powerful coalition of Momentum activists and Progress pro-EU types - has also seized on a new report warning that unskilled migrants face ‘super-exploitation’ if a ‘tiered’ visa system is introduced after Brexit. Pushing in the opposite direction is former Cabinet minister John Denham, who is launching the English Labour Network group, and tells me Labour will fail to regain power if it backs plans “to benefit the migrants rather than people who already live here”.
Meanwhile, the Guardian reports that Momentum is again showing how well organised it is. The group has a new app to alert its supporters to key votes on the conference floor.
4. SOFA, SO GOOD
The Electoral Reform Society’s report on the House of Lords has certainly garnered the headlines it wanted, with new figures suggesting peers are ‘couch potatoes’ collecting expenses for doing little.
The stats show peers who had spoken five times or fewer in the chamber in 2016-17 had claimed more than £4m in expenses. And almost 4% of peers had not spoken or voted at all. This kind of exercise is always fraught with difficulty (and some individuals singled out for not speaking have been seriously ill), but that hasn’t prevented the LibDems and SNP from claiming it shows the need to radically reform the Lords.
The Lords have put out a staunch defence, pointing out that speaking is not in fact where the real work is done, with 320 peers serving on committees and many tabling amendments and questions.
But the FT has perhaps the best line with former minister Digby Jones justifying his own inactivity. Jones has spoken three times in the last four years, and has not sat on any committees or asked any questions of late, the paper says. He says he uses his membership “to learn and meet people”. “I see the Lords as a non-executive director of the country,” he adds. Brexiteer Jones last year denounced Remainers for sitting in their cosy “expenses-paid Westminster office”.
5. LAWNMOWER MAN
The battle to be Labour’s new leader in Scotland saw its first hustings last night and observers say it was kinda like watching paint dry. However, with a seat on the national NEC and Scotland a key route to power at Westminster, this election matters in London too.
Backers of ‘centrist’ candidate Anas Sarwar think he has the edge because the party membership in Scotland had in fact backed Owen Smith in the leadership race last year. But his rival Richard Leonard, a lifelong trade unionist and new MSP, has built momentum and we report that he now has the backing of the ‘moderate’ shopworkers union Usdaw, as well as Unite and others.
But for Nicola Sturgeon, the real fun last night was in taunting Sarwar over his claim that he had his political tanks on her lawn ‘every day’. She tweeted “If he could mow it occasionally, it’d save @PeterMurrell [her husband] a job. I’ll even pay him the real living wage”. The latter was a reference to an excruciating BBC interview in which Sarwar was quizzed about his dad’s firm not paying more than the minimum wage. Sturgeon may have problems of her own after suggesting to the New Statesman that she “doesn’t know” when Indyref2 will happen.