1 CESSATION OF HOSTILITIES
Theresa May is meeting Caribbean leaders in the margins of the Commonwealth Summit today to finally discuss concerns over her government’s treatment of the ‘Windrush generation’. It says a lot about the cack-handed, defensive approach of Downing Street to this whole issue that only two days ago it was insisting no such meeting would take place. Cabinet Office minister David Lidington told the Today prog that as soon as the PM was personally told of the issue “she countermanded the decision of people in her office and agreed to the meeting”.
But it is May herself whose judgement is most in question after Home Secretary Amber Rudd apologised for the Home Office’s “appalling” treatment of undocumented migrants who had arrived here with their parents in the 1950s. “I am concerned that the Home Office has become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual,” Rudd said. Many blame May’s 2013 policy of making the UK a “hostile environment” for illegal immigrants, restricting access to jobs, driving licences, benefits, health care and accommodation.
Lidington said that ‘we know of no cases’ of actual deportation of the Windrush pensioners but stressed Rudd had asked officials last night to urgently check. Immigration minister Caroline Nokes set the hare running yesterday when she said some people had been ‘potentially’ deported by mistake and if so ‘it’s very much in error’. Even if no one has been actually kicked out, the very fact that many have been sent to detention centres is truly dreadful. The Guardian, which has led the way on this story, was the first to pick up in November the case of Paulette Wilson, a former Commons cook sent to Yarl’s Wood. She was saved from deportation by her local MP Emma Reynolds and the Refugee and Migrant Centre in Wolverhampton. Many of those involved point to legal aid cuts making their situation even harder. Compensation and formal apologies are surely the next step.
The U-turn is a salutary lesson in how to effect change. May and the Home Officer ignored the issue for months, but it took a cross-party approach to really pile the pressure on, not least David Lammy’s letter signed by 140 MPs demanding action. Communities Secretary Sajid Javid’s tweet of his concern followed papers like the Mail and Sun picking up the issue too. The online petition signed by more than 150,000 people, coupled with the Speaker’s decision to grant the Urgent Question ahead of the Syria vote, and the timing of the summit, all forced ministers to act. But with the Home Office now set to register three million EU citizens post-Brexit, it will take more than 20 dedicated officials in Rudd’s new unit to sort out similar pitfalls ahead.
2. MEANINGLESS VOTE
The phrase ‘meaningful vote’ has dominated the Brexit agenda of late, but last night there was a meaningless vote on Syria as MPs divided on the vaguely worded motion ‘This House has considered the current situation in Syria and the UK Government’s approach’. The SNP called the division to register their protest (it was won by 314 votes to 36) but Labour’s Alison McGovern, who led the emergency debate, said it was a ‘nonsense’.
Despite the more than six hours on Syria yesterday (May’s statement was three hours 15 minutes long with 140 MPs asking her questions), we get another three hours today as Jeremy Corbyn leads his own emergency debate on a motion that ‘That this House has considered Parliament’s rights in relation to the approval of military action by British Forces overseas’. Yes, it’s another meaningless vote in that there is nothing in the wording that is specific about either a new War Powers Act or the authorisation of the weekend’s airstrikes.
As I said yesterday, it remains baffling why May hasn’t proposed her own motion sanctioning the military action, given so many Labour MPs made clear they would support it. Ken Clarke was wonderfully waspish when he told Andrea Leadsom last night “I cannot rid myself of the unworthy suspicion that there may have been some doubts as to whether we would get a majority for it, and whether we might repeat the 2013 experience”. Is Chief Whip Julian Smith really so worried about numbers that he ran scared of a vote? McGovern praised May’s ‘fortitude’ late last night. Earlier, Corbyn faced significant warnings from his own MPs that Labour should not abandon its ‘noble tradition’ of intervention that included Robin Cook’s ethical-based foreign policy. Tory MP Gareth Johnson also asked ’whose side is he on – theirs or ours? [Assad’s or the UK’s]’.
Some around May suggest the real reason is they didn’t want a precedent of retrospective approval. Yet the case for a vote ahead of the strikes was strong, given Trump’s own prevarication and the PM’s emphasis on Russia vetoing investigations by the UN last week. William Hague has U-turned on his own 2011 pledge to codify such votes and sounded unconvincing on Today when he said it was because it was ‘very difficult to draw the line’ to provide exemptions for urgent and security-sensitive missions. Reports in the US suggest Trump wanted to widen triple the air strikes and include Russian and Iranian targets, but was persuaded by Defense Secretary Jim Mattis against it. That will help Corbyn today, despite May’s epic eye-roll at his suggestion she was taking ‘instructions’ from the White House. Russia’s changing dog-ate-my-homework story of why it’s refusing access to weapons inspectors (first it was the airstrikes, then it was lack of UN permits, now it’s mines on roads) will help May. But without a substantive vote, the bite has gone from it all. Which is just what the PM wants.
3. NAZI TOLD
A more liberal approach to the benefits of immigration seem far from the thoughts of Leave.EU. And it’s the DCMS Committee’s taped interviews between an academic Emma Bryant and various witnesses that is making the weather this morning. Leave.EU’s Andy Wigmore (right hand man to Farage donor Arron Banks) explained its approach to the Brexit referendum thus: “The propaganda machine of the Nazis, for instance – you take away all the hideous horror and that kind of stuff – it was very clever, the way they managed to do what they did…In its pure marketing sense, you can see the logic of what they were saying, why they were saying it, and how they presented things, and the imagery.”
Committee chair Damian Collins said of Wigmore’s remarks: “Given the extreme messaging around immigration that was used during the referendum campaign, these statements will raise concerns that data analytics was used to target voters who were concerned about this issue, and to frighten them.” Brittany Kaiser, former Director of Program Development, Cambridge Analytica appears before the DCMS Committee’s hearing into ‘Fake News’ today. Maybe she’ll be asked about fresh claims that CA boss Alexander Nix called up Julian Assange and asked if Cambridge Analytica could help WikiLeaks to disseminate Hillary Clinton’s emails.
Meanwhile, the Sun online has picked up UKIP’s Neil Hamilton telling BBC Radio Wales that Enoch Powell had been essentially proved right since his Rivers of Blood speech. “The idea that Enoch Powell was some kind of uniquely racist villain is absolute nonsense. Powell actually changed politics by articulating the fears and resentments of millions and millions of people who are being ignored by the establishment.”
4. IMPOSING SANCTIONS
As Labour’s Barry Sheerman pointed out yesterday, the sheer chaos of the Trump White House does a better job than the Kremlin of undermining the US’s reputation overseas. The latest confusion is over Trump’s refusal to agree fresh sanctions on Russia post-Douma, despite his UN ambassador announcing they’d be unveiled yesterday.
Today, we report on sanctions of a different kind, with new research showing single parents are more likely than any other claimant to suffer withdrawal of benefits. The Gingergbread charity’s analysis of latest Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) data, seen first by HuffPost UK and BBC Radio 5 Live, shows 62% of single parent sanctions were overturned when formally challenged, compared with 55% for other claimants.
New Work and Pensions Secretary Ester McVey has overseen some significant U-turns since she took office. Will the ‘Windrush’ effect of a more compassionate approach to policy now spread to benefit sanctions? McVey did little to reassure her critics yesterday with a clumsy line to the Scottish Parliament that the ‘rape clause’ for universal credit could give victims an ‘opportunity’ to talk about their ordeal and gain extra support.
5. TROPE BURNS
Today also sees the Parliamentary general debate on anti-semitism. Some of Jeremy Corbyn’s allies initially saw this as a Tory trick to highlight the party’s problems, but it could provide an opportunity for Labour to prove it really wants to deliver on its leader’s own new warning that it is not a ‘smear’ to raise the issue. Yesterday, Shami Chakrabarti told Today: “I think it is time to tackle some of the tropes that have been promoted on the left of politics as well as on the far-right of politics, particularly any confusion between anti-elitism and anti-Semitism. That really has to stop.”
And in a little-noticed piece in Haaretz, David Feldman, the vice chair of Chakrabarti’s inquiry, points out Labour’s historic problem with Jew-hate. He quotes George Orwell: “The starting point for any investigation of anti-Semitism should not be ‘why does this obviously irrational belief appeal to other people?’ But ‘why does anti-Semitism appeal to me?’” Feldman added: “In failing to acknowledge this inheritance, Labour leaders disavow a painful and dishonorable aspect of the movement’s past. And as events in recent weeks have shown, these problems have not died away.”
Last night, new general secretary Jenny Formby told the PLP she wanted to do more, but the mood was not helped by her decision to send current PLP secretary Dan Simpson (who is Jewish) on gardening leave. I’m told PLP chair John Cryer raised the issue. Others raised Thangam Debbonaire’s treatment by her local party for attending the anti-semitism rally.