1. DARROCH AND A HARD PLACE
It seems like an age ago, but on Sunday night Donald Trump reacted to the leak of Sir Kim Darroch’s diplomatic cables by declaring: “I can say things about him, but I won’t bother.” Last night, he bothered. “He is not liked or well thought of within the US. We will no longer deal with him,” Trump tweeted. Darroch was swiftly disinvited from a dinner for the Emir of Kuwait.
Severing ties with an ambassador to Washington is of course the kind of thing that US Presidents do to signal displeasure with hostile states, as opposed to those with which it shares an allegedly ‘special relationship’. Last night, No.10 put out an unusually blunt riposte, saying Darroch continued to have the PM’s “full support”. It could have added, but didn’t, that Trump’s suggestion that May should have sued the EU to get a better Brexit deal was frankly the ridiculous blathering of a man-child ignoramus.
Sir Kim is caught between the rock of staying in post (with the risk his lack of access to the White House makes his job worthless) and the hardplace of quitting early (which would send a signal Trump can effectively fire a British public servant and give the leaker exactly what they wanted). It’s perfectly possible he can still prove effective if other parts of the administration and Republicans in Congress work with him. Darroch’s own sense of duty will be what swings it either way.
Which brings us to Boris Johnson. Darroch’s tenure is due to end in January. However Johnson has yet to tell us whether he believes the ambassador should stick to his planned deadline for departure. Sadly, he was not asked this direct question at the Telegraph hustings last night, but you can bet ITV’s Julie Etchingham won’t let him off the hook in the live TV debate tonight with Jeremy Hunt.
Darroch’s description of Trump as a man who ‘radiates insecurity’ and is notoriously thin-skinned has of course been confirmed by the President’s response to the leak. By contrast, Johnson said last night that he was “well-accustomed” to being “hated” by the British public. “You need a thick skin in this business,” he said. The best way to message that to the White House would be to say Darroch should stick to his exit timetable.
Nigel Farage (who may have encouraged Trump’s latest attack, given the President admitted he didn’t know Darroch well) has suggested bringing in a businessman as the next ambassador. That’s something Johnson is unlikely to do. He has vied with the former UKIP leader for Trump’s ear over the past three years. But (as with Brexit itself) he has a lot to gain from telling Tory members - and the wider public - that you can achieve Farage’s aims without deploying Farage’s tactics. Saying Darroch should not be forced out early would be one way to prove his own premiership would not be pushed around.
2. THE OTHER JEREMY
Tonight’s ITV debate is Hunt’s last chance to deliver a knockout blow, but it may have no impact as many Tory voters have already cast their ballots for the leadership. Still, Team Corbyn will be watching for pointers in how their own Jeremy would fare in a general election TV debate. What’s likely is that both Hunt and Johnson will use tonight to highlight Labour’s latest move to back a second referendum on any Brexit deal. Expect lots of talk about Corbyn defying the will of the people, including Labour Leave voters.
Yesterday’s trade union meeting did indeed find a ‘common position’ for the first time on the issue. People’s Vote supporters were pleased that Unite had finally agreed formally to a referendum-and-Remain stance on a Tory deal or no-deal. They were sceptical about the second scenario approved by the unions, which had raised the surreal prospect of a Labour government hammering out its own Brexit deal then campaigning to reject it in a referendum.
Today’s shadow cabinet will discuss the union statement and we should get Corbyn’s own words either tonight or tomorrow. If he puts it out late on Wednesday, that will be seen by some MPs as a naked attempt to deflect attention from the Panorama programme on anti-Semitism. Given that little will drown out the programme, some around him think tonight may be better for the Brexit statement.
The real problem on Brexit for Corbyn is that he will have to say something pretty unequivocal in order to win back those Labour voters who have drifted to the Lib Dems, Greens and nationalist parties (in the Euros and in general election opinion polls). He can now do that on a Tory Brexit or no-deal, but as soon as he gets into what a Labour government (and many think that’s the only way a referendum will now happen) would do, he is back into blancmange. That’s why the annual conference may still see a push for referendum-and-remain in all circumstances, to give MPs the ammo they need pending a manifesto commitment.
It’s a busy day for Labour, with Chris Williamson’s case due to be heard at the NEC disputes committee. The Guardian has come under fire after it published a letter from more than 100 Jewish supporters of Williamson - including the expelled Jackie Walker and Tony Greenstein. Curiously, it also carries the name Ed Asner, whom older hands will remember as Lou Grant, the fictional US TV journalist.
3. LEGACY DEAL
We should find out from the Speaker’s office this morning (or from the Speaker himself at the start of the debate) which amendments have been selected for the Northern Ireland bill. If he picks the abortion and same sex marriage ones, we could see votes around 4.30pm. If he picks the more controversial anti-prorogation one, a vote would be around 6.30pm.
It’s Dominic Grieve’s bid to stop a new PM pushing prorogation to ram through a no-deal Brexit that is the tricky issue for John Bercow. The amendment looks like it is based on the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act (drafted by a Blair government with memories of the national fuel protests, foot and mouth crisis and 9/11). Even if it is selected, it may prove too strong beer to win a majority. Grieve told the Today programmeprorogation would be “the end of democracy”.
Meanwhile, the Times’s Steve Swinford has a nice scoop that Philip Hammond is close to signing off a £5bn cash boost for education that May wants as another bit of her ‘legacy’, but on condition that she allows a free vote on a no-deal Brexit. Unless Grieve’s amendment is selected today, May obviously won’t have any remit over whipping on no-deal under her successor. Let’s see if the schools cash materialises nevertheless.
As for Johnson’s famous GATT 24 route out of a no-deal, the current head of the WTO has told Prospect magazine the idea is a non-starter: “If there is no agreement, then article XXIV would not apply, and the standard WTO terms would.” Now that’s a nice quote to put to a candidate in the ITV debate.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Yes, watch Snowball the dancing cockatoo everyone’s talking about.
4. RORY TALKS
Rory Stewart continues to riff on Brexit and last night made plain his disappointment that Matt Hancock and George Osborne had supported a man who was ready to enact a no-deal Brexit.
“I feel quite sad about people who are oddly pessimistic about their ability to change the world or to stop Boris winning, because of their inability to change the minds of Conservative association members. They are even pessimistic about winning another election. There is a fin de siècle feeling to the whole thing.” Hancock may retort that realpolitik is a dirty business but someone has to do it.
5. OFF THE LEASE
Away from the noise of Brexit, Labour is trying to outflank the Tories on housing policy, targeting the 4.3 million leaseholders who currently face exploitative ground rents and arbitrary fees. Labour’s John Healey and Sarah Jones have vowed to ban the sale of new leasehold houses and flats, and existing leaseholders would be able to buy the full, free-hold ownership of their home for 1% of the property value. It’s radical, alright.
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