1 SOUBRY SNAPS
As the Cabinet gathers this morning, MPs are trying to work out whether Anna Soubry’s latest outburst is just the dying ember of Tory pro-EU resistance to Brexit or a sign of a much wider threat to Theresa May’s authority. Soubers’ Newsnight interview certainly sounded like a howl of pain, going public with things she’s been saying privately recently: her frontbench is “in hock to 35 hard ideological Brexiteers, who are not Tories…it is about time Theresa stood up to them and slung ’em out”.
Soubry also signalled she was ready to walk herself. “If it comes to it, I am not going to stay in a party which has been taken over by the likes of Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson … And if that means leaving the party, form some new alliance, God knows, I don’t know.” Her Brexiteer critics think her wish should be granted, and she should be kicked out herself. Soubry is loathed by some of her own side, yet with a wafer-thin Government majority, she and fellow Remainer Tories know they have real clout. One risk is that by being so strident she deters colleagues from joining her.
There is certainly a palpable unease among Tory MPs right now. After a meeting with the Chief Whip yesterday, one normally loyal backbencher declared of May: “she’s bloody useless!” One MP told me that a set of disastrous May local elections would definitely be the next flashpoint for May’s leadership. Jacob Rees-Mogg didn’t calm things yesterday, telling journalism students “I don’t get the impression that it’s a lot of fun for her”. Moggy also kept his fans on tenterhooks, saying it would be “very difficult” for him to become PM as he was a “family man” with six children. Difficult, but not impossible, was the message. Our Owen has written a handy guide to all the Tory in-fighting, covering all the questions you were too afraid to ask.
One big question facing the Cabinet, and its Brexit sub-committee tomorrow and Thursday, is just what kind of Brexit they want. In London yesterday, Michel Barnier warned that life outside the customs union and single market would mean ‘unavoidable’ barriers to trade in goods and services. Just how big those barriers will be is the 64 billion euro question. A senior EU official told HuffPost yesterday that the latest No.10 plan for a ‘customs partnership’ (seen as rather out-there when first published last year) was “unrealistic”. That’s a polite way of saying it’s bonkers. Cabinet Remainers may share that view but believe some kind of extended transition could be the solution. Brussels seems very unkeen on any such extension, however. The EU is also digging in firmly against May’s suggestion that the UK should be able to treat new migrants differently during the transition. Officials believe rights, including permanent residency, are legally binding.
Amber Rudd was relaxed about the various chatter over future customs deals after Brexit. She told Today: “There’s a lot of kicking over ‘the’, ‘a’ [customs union], ‘partnership’, ‘arrangements’, customs..all these things need to be addressed” There was also a hint of movement. “I hope in the next few weeks we will be able to give some clarity…and reassure Nicola Sturgeon [who had said she wasn’t consulted over the UK dumping any form of customs union].”
Labour has its own problems too on Brexit. We report a new YouGov pollfrom the pro-EU Best for Britain campaign that claims Jeremy Corbyn would haemorrhage votes to the Lib Dems should Labour embrace Brexit at the next election. It suggests Vince Cable’s party would surge to 18% of the vote, while a pro-Brexit Conservative Party would lead the polls on 32% with pro-Brexit Labour trailing a distant second on 22%. Tory Remainers are desperately hoping that sometime soon Labour will seize its moment of opportunity and declare firmly for EFTA membership. They think there is a Commons majority for it and are prepared to go down fighting for one. In many ways, the ball really is in Jeremy Corbyn’s court.
2. HOPES FOR WOMEN
It’s the centenary of the first votes for women in the UK. Although there’s a long, long way to go in the battle for equality, those who prefer to see the glass as half full will at least take some heart from the fact that a woman Prime Minister and a woman Tory backbencher (Soubry) are leading the political headlines.
Theresa May is making a big speech in Manchester at 2pm but the policy trail overnight is she has ordered a Law Commission review of legislation on offensive online conduct, as well as new social media code of practice and an annual internet safety transparency report. The PM warned that ‘intimidation and aggression’ online was deterring many women from public life, and on Women’s Hour she points to Esther McVey and Luciana Berger as examples of abuse suffered.
Last night, Stella Creasy (and John Mann) made a passionate plea at the PLP for tougher action against those who sought to harass Labour MPs and the families with sexist or anti-semitic abuse. (MPs also defended Claire Kober, the outgoing Haringey council leader, and warned against ‘illegal’ NEC instructions to town halls).
Home Secretary Amber Rudd, seen by some in her party as a future PM herself, underlined her Women and Equalities Minister roles on the breakfast shows today. Aske on ITV about the millions of women who followed Kim Kardashian online, she replied “I would rather they followed me or the PM”. She has a Commons statement at 12.30pm. (One MP tells me that originally there was no plan for a Commons statement to match May’s speech and that Rudd was prodded into doing one. Surely that can’t be right, can it?)
But Brexit is never far away from any story. Labour’s Jess Phillips has told the Progress podcast this morning that plans to stop domestic violence abusers from cross-examining their victims in court have been dumped because “the government doesn’t have the capacity for any non-Brexit legislation.” “I’ve asked if it’s coming back, and the answer is ‘no.’ There is no political capital left in the building for people to push for anything.” That’s another question for Rudd later. Harriet Harman has blogged for HuffPost, tying together the #MeToo movement and ongoing battles to fund women’s aid refuges.
3 FARAGING FOR FACTS
Anyone looking for clues to Donald Trump’s tweet dissing the NHS yesterday didn’t have to look far. Yes, Nigel Farage had been on Fox News minutes before, claiming the health service was “at breaking point” because of too many immigrants. And Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt found himself praised by even his political foes for his Twitter riposte to Trump, declaring “I’m proud to be from the country that invented universal coverage - where all get care no matter the size of their bank balance”.
It was a measure of Hunt’s importance in the May Cabinet that he was given free reign to publicly tweet his displeasure with the US President. Downing St later said he spoke for the entire government, saying the PM too was “proud of having an NHS that is free at the point of delivery”. Note however, that May decided not to herself tweet a response to Trump. No.10 simply added a fact of its own: “in the recent Commonwealth Fund international survey, the NHS was rated the best in the world”.
Still, the PM’s own critics were pointing out facts were not that sacred to her recently on the NHS in Wales. The UK Statistics Authority chairman rebuked May yesterday for her claim in PMQs that more people waited more than 12 hours in A&E in Labour-run Wales than in England. Sir David Norgrove said her comparison was “not valid”. No.10 had to say later: “We would accept the assessment of the UKSA”. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth told HuffPost that May had to now correct the record in the Commons. Will she do so in PMQs tomorrow?
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
When a car stops on a pedestrian crossing, in Britain we tend to give the driver a Paddington Bear hard stare and walk around it. Not in Honduras, where these folks just walked all over the bonnet.
4. VIRGIN ON THE RIDICULOUS
If there weren’t so much going on with Brexit and other rows, calls for Transport Secretary Chris Grayling to quit would be dominating the headlines after the latest rail franchise fiasco. Grayling told the Commons yesterday that failures by Virgin and Stagecoach on the East Coast mainline contract meant it could again be taken over by the public sector, less than three years after it was re-privatised.
What really angered his Labour shadow Andy McDonald was that within minutes of this announcement, Grayling revealed that Virgin would be granted a further “direct award”, or contract without competition, to run the lucrative InterCity West Coast service, potentially until 2020. The west coast line has consistently returned large dividends to Sir Richard Branson, who owns 51% of the joint venture, and to Stagecoach, which own 49%, topping £100m in the last two years alone. Today, public-private ventures will be under fresh attack when the joint Commons Work and Pensions and Business Select Committees hold a joint grilling of Carillion’s former bosses at 9.15 a.m. We have a new story that councils are facing a 20% rise in fees from PWC, which is overseeing the firm’s liquidation.
5. DEEP DOO-DOO
Lots of people defended the honour and integrity of the civil service last week and minister Steve Baker had to apologise for suggesting officials tried to undermine Brexit. But Jacob Rees-Mogg is not alone in refusing to apologise and now David Cameron’s former policy guru Steve Hilton is the latest to claim a ‘deep state’ conspiracy by Whitehall against politicians and the people. In a blog for FoxNews (picked up by the Indy), Hilton says Tony Blair warned the Cameron transition team in 2010 to beware of the civil service.
Blair allegedly told Hilton: “You cannot underestimate how much they believe it’s their job to actually run the country and to resist the changes put forward by people they dismiss as ‘here today, gone tomorrow’ politicians…They genuinely see themselves as the true guardians of the national interest, and think that their job is simply to wear you down and wait you out.” Blair complained in 1999 about ‘scars on my back’ from Whitehall resistance to change. How ironic that his words are being cited to defend the one policy he himself wants to resist above all.