1. JE SUIS JEZ, ALLEZ
Just 24 hours after his party conference speech, Jeremy Corbyn is building on his strategy of making Labour look like a government-in-waiting with a trip to Brussels to set out what he’d do on Brexit. He’ll have a private meeting with EU chief negotiator Michel Barnier, and the chatter over the Channel is that he may well also catch up with Commission chief Martyn Selmayr and Brexit taskforce head Didier Seuws. It’s all pretty serious stuff aimed at proving that PM Corbyn could sort the Tories’ mess by working out a ‘common sense’ deal with Brussels. Barnier got on famously with Corbyn during their last meeting and Keir Starmer has worked very closely with EU sources to see what’s negotiable and what isn’t.
One of the most intriguing new lines in his speech yesterday was his offer to May that Labour would give her its support in the Commons if she amended Chequers to “deliver a deal that includes a customs union and no hard border in Ireland”, as well as protected environmental and workers’ rights. Of course, the Tories suspect this is a big bluff because lots of their backbenchers would never allow a ‘vassal state’ customs union. It may look like a tactical device, but just imagine if Starmer can further progress Labour’s policy to somehow allow new migration curbs that would be compatible with such a union? Whether Brussels would allow Labour’s own version of cherry picking is in another matter entirely, and an extension of Article 50 would probably be needed to allow the time to hammer it out. The main aim for Labour is persuading the voters it has a credible plan of its own.
There are fresh reports in the Times that Tory Cabinet ministers are pushing for a Canada-style deal rather than Labour’s Norway-tinged option. Brexit Secretary Dominic Raab, Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, Home Secretary Sajid Javid and Environment Secretary Michael Gove are all mentioned. And that’s the PM’s difficulty: even if she wanted a customs union, and could get most of her MPs to back it, she faces a possible string of Cabinet resignations that would spark a leadership challenge. You can’t guarantee the payroll vote if the top of the payroll is in revolt.
All of which reminds me that one of the most significant moments of the year was when we were in China in January and Liam Fox declared that the UK could not take part in ‘a’ customs union, let alone ‘the’ customs union. He seemed at the time to bounce the PM into agreeing. The consequences of that decision are still being felt. It left many Remainer Tories feeling very sore, even though the PM wooed them back with her Mansion House speech. A proxy for the battle ahead could come in the Lords and the Commons this autumn, when Lord Stevenson’s Trade Bill amendment returns. It explicitly calls for ‘a’ customs union, and with Tory Remainer support it could pass.
2. GROUND CONTROL
Corbyn’s team will be pleased that he topped the nightly news with straight reports of his conference message of more ‘power to the people’. They may be less pleased at newspapers splashing instead on the identification of the Russian Salisbury poisoner, but that’s just unlucky timing rather than the MSM proving its hatred of him. They may not be overjoyed either with the clips of him getting shouty and angry (never his best look). Yet on the whole Team Corbyn felt that their media operation was smoother and are pleased he’s got his main themes across.
My round-up of 5 Things We Learned From Labour Conference is HERE. Despite its self-inflicted wounds of internal rule changes and anti-semitism, this past week the party has managed to paint in bold colours its vision for the future. But it’s an impressionist painting rather than a detailed one, and it’s remarkably fuzzy about how it will get to the pledges on cutting greenhouse gases or transferring power to co-ops. If we are four years from a general election, that’s understandable. Yet if, as Labour claims, we are just months away then it needs to get a move on with a detailed policy programme and costings (the shares transfer idea could see billions passed to the Treasury rather than workers directly). Corbyn’s tweet about the rail delays yesterday (“Couldn’t make this up. We need public ownership of our railways.”) was also a neat illustration that nationalisation isn’t always an easy answer: the signal failure was the fault of 100% state owned Network Rail.
Still, elections are often won with primary colours. Last night’s Labour political broadcast struck exactly the right tone on the struggling towns of England that drove much of the Brexit vote. Note the key line that “we lost the factories…we lost the jobs.. we lost confidence in our community… we lost control”. Yes, taking back control, the Vote Leave mantra, is still one of the most powerful slogans of 21st century politics in the UK. Labour’s Lisa Nandy has talked eloquently on this agenda, so perhaps the party needs to get her to draft its detailed policies in coming months. Last night, Politico’s Charlie Cooper and Tom McTague posted an excellent piece on why Corbyn’s revolution could be even more transformative than Brexit itself, and that’s definitely the gameplan of the ‘two Js’ (Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell).
Some Tories believe that the answer to Corbyn veering Left is not to veer off Right. They want to jack up the minimum wage again, revive a proper workers-on-boards policy, promote co-ops and mutuals, devise bold policies on the environment and more. Last year Philip Hammond’s conference speech was a classic example of complacency, lecturing the young on the dangers of 1970s socialism. Backbencher Rob Halfon writes on ConHome that “the problem for Conservatives is that the Corbyn description of what is going on resonates with millions of people”. Through sheer longevity and decay, Governments loses elections as much as Oppositions win them and the Tories next week have to convince the voters they can still be the ‘change’ party. Today, the populist Italian government seems to be outflanking even Corbyn by actually trying to legislate to ‘abolish poverty’ (as well as cracking down on immigrants). And the NorthernLeague/5Star alliance running Rome are rising in the polls. That’s the thing about populism: it’s popular.
3. COURT SHORT
Some British politicos’ West Wing-style fascination with American politics can be a tad obsessive at times. It’s all the more puzzling because US culture wars over things like abortion, plus the lifelong tenure of their Supreme Court justices, seem so alien to British life. But there are still plenty of things that go on Stateside that we should take an interest in, from the populist revolt that powered Trump to the #MeToo movement that started with Harvey Weinstein. And it’s the #MeToo solidarity of women accusers of Trump’s court nominee Brett Kavanaugh that will take centre stage today in Washington.
Christine Blasey Ford, the California professor who has Kavanaugh of sexually assaulting her when they were teenagers, will tell the US Senate judiciary committee she will “never forget” what happened to her. In her testimony, Ford calls Kavanaugh “the boy who sexually assaulted me”. But Senate staff have interviewed two unnamed men who claim that they were the culprits. What’s difficult for Kavanaugh is that he could possibly get away with one contested allegation. He now faces four different accusers with varying claims of assault. Overnight, a new allegation emerged that he shoved a woman up against a wall ‘aggressively and sexually’ in a bar in 1998.
What’s most surreal about all this is that the President of the United States has himself a string of accusations of sexual harassment and assault against him. Trump hinted, in another bat-shit crazy press conference yesterday, that he could drop Kavanaugh. He also said George Washington could have been a sex abuser, quoted Elton John and referred to a Kurdish journalist as ‘Mr Kurd’. More broadly, the damage Trump does to America’s image on the world stage grows almost every week. His silence on Russian interference in US elections, while claiming China was trying to do the same thing in the mid-term elections (the latter may not be as bonkers as it sounds folks), was pretty telling. Trump heaped praise on Theresa May this week but you can bet a Corbyn premiership would be very hostile indeed.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this seal chuck an octopus at a kayaker. No, really.
4. AMBULANCE CHASING
A new review of ambulance services is out today, conducted by Labour peer Lord Carter. An expert in NHS productivity, Carter has told the NHS Improvement regulator that an ageing fleet, high sickness rates and slow uptake of technology hampers the ability of the NHS to answer 999 calls quickly. He points out that modern tech means that patients can often be treated at the scene rather than ferried to hospital. It’s an agenda for reform and investment that ought to be the kind of thing in a Labour manifesto. Let’s see if Matt Hancock tries to get there first before the Opposition.
5. UNIVERSITY CHALLENGE
HuffPost UK has been pushing hard on the national scandal that is the number of university student suicides. Today we report that some of Britain’s top universities still lack comprehensive student mental health policies despite a surge in demand for pastoral care. We found that Birmingham and the London School of Economics do not have policies specific to student mental health; eight institutions with mental health policies in place are scrambling to revise them amid renewed scrutiny from Whitehall; and one university kept its policy within an internal system, meaning it was not able to be viewed by applicants or parents.
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