1. GRU-SOME TWOSOME
Theresa May stunned MPs yesterday by revealing that the two men suspected of the Salisbury poisoning attack were serving officers in Russia’s intelligence service, the GRU. Her most telling words pointed the finger at Vladimir Putin’s regime: “This was not a rogue operation. It was almost certainly also approved outside the GRU at a senior level of the Russian state”. The pair’s real names are not public, but they used the aliases
Cyberwarfare looks like it will be stepped up, with May warning “we will deploy the full range of tools from across our National Security apparatus”. One senior security source tells the Sun: “Nothing is off the table now.” The UK will raise the issue at the UN Security Council this afternoon, where the US is expected to give its full backing. It’s perhaps a testimony to May’s dogged engagement with Donald Trump that he authorised the expulsion of 60 Russian agents earlier this year. The New York Times’ extraordinary anonymous op-ed by a senior administration official includes a line that will worry Whitehall: “The President was reluctant to expel so many of Mr. Putin’s spies”. Trump has done a clip calling the piece ‘gutless’, and tweeted ‘Treason?’
Some have tried to tack Brexit onto the affair, pointing out a European Arrest Warrant has been issued by the UK. May insists such security cooperation will continue once we’ve left the EU. But in reality it’s highly unlikely the two GRU men will ever be extradited or caught on European soil anyway. Don’t forget that Andrey Lugovoi, the ex-KGB agent Britain says murdered Alexander Litvinenko, fled the UK years ago before being made an MP and honoured by Putin. The Russian foreign ministry dismissed May’s new claims yesterday, but more telling perhaps is that Putin earlier this week signed a presidential decree making information about ‘freelance agents’ working for Russia’s foreign intelligence agencies a state secret. Security Minister Ben Wallace said this morning Putin was ultimately responsible because “it is his government that controls, funds and directs” the GRU.
So far, it looks like there won’t be much of a knock-on effect on domestic politics (although I note Theresa May’s popularity has been boosted by two things only in recent months: Brexit breakthroughs and her tough handling of the Salisbury affair). Jeremy Corbyn, who was briefed on Privy Council terms beforehand, condemned the attacks and said ‘the evidence points strongly’ to the Kremlin. That didn’t stop Boris Johnson accusing him of using ‘weaselly’ words, but Corbyn’s spokesman insisted he was sticking to his “proportionate, evidence-based approach” and the importance of international bodies. MPs this afternoon hold a debate on threats posed by Russian aggression. Let’s see if ministers give any further updates.
2. ‘HORRENDOUS’ DISABILITY CUTS
John McDonnell has picked up on this week’s HuffPost ‘Austerity Bites’ series, not least the case of a disabled man who took his life after benefit cuts. In an interview with yours truly (we have lots more lines out later this morning), the Shadow Chancellor signalled that a Labour government would act to cut the number of suicides linked to welfare reforms.
McDonnell, whose recent media drive has reduced the pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to be constantly seen as the only face of the Opposition, reveals Labour will next week launch a new campaign to get to expose the mental health impacts of work assessments and the Personal Independent Payment system. He told me that his interest in the issue was first sparked by the ‘horrendous’ case of a constituent who attempted suicide after benefit changes.
As part of the interview, McDonnell also suggests that foodbanks would gradually die out under Labour. “We shouldn’t need foodbanks under a Labour government. When I grew up as a child in the 50s and into the 60s beggars were in fairy tales, they weren’t on the streets.” More later today on his views on the anti-semitism row, the IPPR’s tax plans, a second referendum, carbon taxes and Labour’s democracy review.
3. ANOTHER COUNTRY
Are rumours of the death of the Chequers agreement much exaggerated? Dom Raab meets Michel Barnier in Brussels again today. There was a stand-out flashpoint yesterday during the Brexit Select Committee’s session between him and Labour’s Stephen Kinnock. Kinnock claimed that Michel Barnier had told him that Chequers was ‘dead in the water’. At which point Raab decided to go on the attack, asking ‘are these your words or his?’
Kinnock replied: ‘Er, it was all in French so I can’t give you the exact description…he said les propositions sont mortes, or something like that’. (PolHome has the exchange HERE). For fans of The Day Today, it all sounded like an homage to Brussels correspondent Peter O’Hanrahanrahan. Watch this wonderful CLIP (thanks for the reminder, the Indy’s Tom Peck), with the intrepid reporter being asked ‘what language did you conduct this conversation in Peter?’ Kinnock rightly said the exchange would be published so others could make their mind up. Wait for that transcript folks.
This is about more than semantics. It’s about just how feasible May’s Brexit plans are and how prepared the EU27 are to swallow them. Barnier himself may be backing off the shroud-waving over Chequers, despite his weekend interview with a German newspaper in which he said it would involve an ‘insane’ amount of red tape and the UK could not cherry pick EU benefits. His aide Stefan de Rynck last night tweeted he had told MPs that the plans had ’positive elements”. Meanwhile, Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer was in Brussels and declared Labour would vote down any Canada-style free trade deal (which has been floated by both David Davis and Barnier). And Laura Kuenssberg blogs Jacob Rees-Mogg and his allies are set for a media blitz that could include setting out an actual alternative to Chequers.
4. STELLA PERFORMANCE
As an Opposition backbencher, Stella Creasy can rightly claim to have effected more change than many frontbenchers. Wonga’s collapse arguably stems from her battle against online loan sharks, and her Parliamentary tactics forced Theresa May to grant women in Northern Ireland access to free abortion services in England. Last night she had another policy victory as the Government agreed to a Law Commission review that could make misogyny a hate crime.
Creasy had won Labour backing for her amendment to the Voyeurism Bill and faced with possible defeat Minister Lucy Frazer announced the key concession. She said that although the bill was not the right vehicle, the Government would fund a review by the Commissionn into “how protected characteristics, including sex and gender characteristics, should be considered by new or existing hate crime law.” Will this also signal better relations between Creasy and the Labour leadership? She wasn’t even aware of her frontbench’s support for her amendments until told by HuffPost earlier this week.
5. ’APPY DAYS ARE HERE
Within days of his getting his big promotion to Health Secretary, Matt Hancock told me there was lots of ‘low hanging fruit’ in the NHS on the advantages of pushing hi tech solutions for patients. Famous as the first MP to devise his very own app, the former Digital Secretary (he even created that title) can see the win-win for the Treasury and the health service if the online revolution can cut costs and improve services. As we reported this year, it’s amazing that many hospitals actually use fax machines.
Of course, big Whitehall IT projects have an awful record and the NHS has the further challenge of the need for ultra-secure patient confidentiality. But Hancock will today set out plans for a new service to allow users to book GP appointments, repeat prescriptions and receive urgent medical advice with the swipe of a smartphone. On the Today programme, he said it was all about ‘delivering better value for money’. He also revealed his own sister’s GP wasn’t aware of her serious accident, and said online bookings could reduce missed appointments by a third. Meanwhile, Labour is complaining that the new chair of NHS England is Tory peer Lord Prior – who once said that the premise of a tax-funded NHS ‘has to be questioned’ if demand outstrips economic growth.
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