1. NEVER MIND THE BALLOTS
It’s going to be a long day for Jeremy Corbyn and Tom Watson as they try to settle on a form of words for Labour’s stance on a Brexit referendum in the party’s European election manifesto. The shadow cabinet meets first (9am), then the ruling National Executive Committee (NEC) debates and decides from 11am. The NEC meeting could last many hours as all 39 members get their say (these events make 28-member EU summits look like a picnic).
In all my two decades covering politics, there’s never been any real attention before on the content of Labour’s - indeed any party’s - manifesto for Strasbourg. And there are several shadow ministers and MPs who think today’s row is in fact a sideshow to the main event of how Labour actually votes in Parliament on May’s Brexit deal.
For them, the main battle has already been won in moving party policy on since the conference compromise last September, with a ‘confirmatory ballot’ on a bad Tory deal now the official Opposition line. Both Jeremy Corbyn and Keir Starmer agreed in February that May’s deal “should be subject to the lock of a public vote”. “It’s what happens in Westminster that really matters, not the European Parliament manifesto,” says one insider.
Of course, in recent days and weeks Watson and some big trade unions have been pushing hard for an even broader formulation of a referendum on “any” Brexit deal and that’s the battle that will go on in the NEC today. However, the leader’s office are pretty confident of resisting that move. One source tells me that at least 22 of the 39 members of the NEC will vote against the ‘in any circumstances’ referendum.
The significant opposition to a Watson-style formulation was underlined yesterday by Lara McNeill, the Young Labour rep on the NEC who thinks it would not be ‘wise’ to even have Remain as an option in any fresh vote. The most important blocs of support for Corbyn are Unite and Momentum-backed CLP members, who haven’t always seen eye to eye on issues of late. But on this, after much hard work behind the scenes, they are on the same page and both believe a restatement (or ‘reformulation’) of the conference composite is the best way of keeping the party united.
The idea of a future toughening of policy won’t be ruled out, and we may get some language to that effect. But that will all be a battle for another day: the much more important ‘Clause V’ meeting that sets Labour’s UK general election manifesto. Right here, right now, People’s Vote MPs will be happy to get any form of referendum on their euro leaflets (several said at PLP last night they risked losing members and voters without it). And they know the real fight remains in Parliament’s votes in coming weeks and months.
2. TALK TALK
At some point, Theresa May will have to deal with the fact that roughly two thirds of Labour MPs won’t back any deal without a confirmatory ballot. As for what that deal looks like, the talks between government and Opposition yesterday were at least healthier in tone than they have been for some time.
After the latest ‘plenary’ session between David Lidington and Labour’s team, neither side was claiming any breakthrough in the negotiations. But shadow environment secretary Sue Hayman underlined the new mood by saying the government seemed “open to moving forward in our direction”. The atmosphere was ‘much better’ than last week, one senior No.10 source agreed. Then again, things can’t have been worse than last week.
There is a real suspicion among critics in both parties that the new mood music is another tactic: May gets to limp on by telling her Cabinet this morning there is real progress; Corbyn can string things out beyond the local elections. There was a danger that if negotiations had totally collapsed yesterday, May would have been under intense pressure to look at her nightmare options of publishing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill or a meaningful vote a fourth time.
Speaking of the WAB bill, Francis Elliott’s Times piece yesterday on May delaying the Queen’s Speech looks bang on. No.10 all but confirmed it by saying that the Withdrawal Bill was the PM’s priority and “that is part of the current Queen’s Speech cycle and we need to finish that work”. Once the locals are out of the way, the real work begins to try to stop MEPs from taking their seats by June 30. An optimistic-sounding Jeremy Hunt told Today we ‘definitely will get a deal’, though he warned a customs union would lose more Tory MPs than it would gain Labour MPs.
But as I reported last night, there is real scepticism on the Labour side about the second plank of May’s plea to MPs before Easter - for both parties to agree to be bound by a series of indicative votes. In little-noticed remarks last Thursday, Lidington said: “You actually need a process that means that parliament has to endorse a third outcome, even if that for many MPs is the second or third best of what is available.” That sounded like a forced ‘run-off’ procedure, but any business motion would need Labour backing. Shadow ministers are asking why on earth they should be required to ‘own’ the result of a government process without being sure of the outcome beforehand.
3. BLOODY HELL
The contaminated blood scandal is truly awful but there is a handful of reporters (often local reporters) who have done great work to expose it over the years. Caroline Wheeler (now on the Sunday Times, Aasma Day and Emma Youle (both now at HuffPost UK) have been true pioneers in highlighting the injustice suffered by victims and their families.
Today, the public inquiry into the scandal begins and the PM has overnight announced more money to help victims. But the reaction from victims’ groups has been an angry one, with some calling the announcement a “derisory offer” that they claim is an “attempt to overshadow an important day for the victims”.
Des Collins, senior partner at Collins Solicitors, which represents more than 1,000 victims, their families and eight campaign groups, said: “The increase in the payments heralded today by the government is miniscule in real terms for those whose health has suffered so significantly, for so long.”
Aasma reports on how some victims are campaigning for a new NHS screening test for anyone who may have been given infected blood. Michelle Tolley, 53, a mum-of-four from Norfolk, only discovered three years ago that she had been infected with hepatitis C from blood transfusions given to her following childbirth in the 1980s and 1990s. Read her story HERE.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Former Labour leader in Scotland Kezia Dugdale stood down yesterday from Holyrood. Here’s a reminder of a time when she rather literally put the boot into the media on the campaign trail.
4. SINS OF COMMISSION
The Social Mobility Commission’s latest State of the Nation report has found that inequality in the UK had remained “virtually stagnant” since 2014. It calls on ministers to provide additional funding for older teenagers in education and to extend free childcare to more low income families. Education secretary Damian Hinds told Today that social mobility was “a very difficult thing to move”. This is a gaping political wound for the PM as it exposes the lack of action after her 2016 rhetoric about ‘burning injustices’ in the UK. After the last SMC board resigned en masse, new chair Martina Milburn is proving she can throw some punches too.
5. SHARKS CIRCLE
The PM has upset several backbenchers by effectively shrugging off last week’s demand by the 1922 Committee for more ‘clarity’ on a ‘roadmap’ and ‘timetable’ for her departure from No.10. Of course May sees her future as bound up with her Brexit plan, but the Sun reports that yesterday Andrew Sharpe of the National Conservative Convention delivered some bad news in Downing Street. Some 70 constituency chairmen have now signed a petition to demand an EGM for a vote on May’s leadership – passing the 10 per cent threshold of 65 of them. The EGM will take place in June and while its conclusions will be non-binding, it’s a reminder that May’s ‘delay and regroup’ tactic is running out of road.
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