1 THE LIKELY VLADS
Theresa May impressed many on both sides of the Commons yesterday as she gave Russia a deadline of midnight tonight to provide a ‘credible’ explanation for the attempted murder of Sergei Skripal and his daughter. The PM said that it was “highly likely” that Moscow was responsible for the poisoning by a ‘Novichok’ military-grade nerve agent.
May certainly sounded deadly serious, but the Russian Foreign Ministry’s official Twitter account continued the Kremlin’s ridicule of Britain last night. It used the hashtag #HighlyLikelyRussia to highlight claims the country was responsible too for the Beast from the East snowfall last week. Putin’s dismissive tone yesterday to the BBC’s Steve Rosenberg was telling too (by the way, watch this must-see BBC documentary The New Czar to see what drives Putin). One problem with May’s own words yesterday was that she floated the alternative explanation that Russia had “lost control” of its nerve agent. She’s almost certain to dismiss that possibility tomorrow, but will need hard evidence to push for a really tough response.
Just what that response will be remains up to the Cabinet and the National Security Committee (which meets tomorrow morning ahead of a PM statement following PMQs). The options range from increasing troop deployments in Nato states bordering Russia to Magnitsky-style financial curbs. Yet the one act that may be the most powerful is perhaps the one May can talk about the least: a cyber warfare counter-attack against Russia. Some insiders say the UK is already very active in this field but both the Times and Mail have sources saying action against specific targets could be accelerated. There’s also talk of getting England to boycott the World Cup and of shutting down Russia Today, though either route could ironically open May up to the charge of Eastern Bloc-style political interference (the FA and Ofcom are proudly independent of Government).
May’s very deliberate use of the phrase “unlawful use of force” was designed to invoked international law for any action we may take. Yet it’s unclear just what action our allies will pursue, with some of the EU dependent on Russian energy and Trump’s White House refusing to blame Russia (and even though Secretary of State Rex Tillerson did indeed later do that, his semi-detached status is a gift to the Kremlin).
Politically, Jeremy Corbyn’s failure to explicitly blame Russia yesterday, while pointing to Tory donations from oligarchs, may be weaponised too. The Labour leader didn’t go quite as far as Nigel Farage, who last night said on LBC: ‘don’t poke the Russian bear’. Yet some of Corbyn’s own MPs were furious and privately wonder why he won’t show the same anger against Moscow as he does against Riyadh. David Miliband, on Today this morning, suggested Corbyn’s response was as weak as Donald Trump’s. Already Tory MPs are circulating two Guardian pieces by Corbyn’s strategy chief Seumas Milne, one rejecting comparisons between Stalin and Hitler, one warning against the ‘demonisation’ of Russia.
But there are also political risks for May. If she promises tough action against Russia and then fails to deliver a “credible” response of her own or gather a workable diplomatic alliance, her own judgement will be in question too. Wiping the smile off Putin’s chops is not easy, but the stakes are even higher than one localised poisoning incident. This could turn into a stress-test preview of how post-Brexit Britain can maintain its global clout.
2. SPRING THING
Philip Hammond has successfully managed to lower expectations so much for his Spring Statement that anything remotely newsworthy may get some attention. However, in the absence of tax or spending changes anything interesting may come in the form of ‘reviews’ or ‘consultation’ (the Treasury loves those almost as much as David Cameron did). The Chancellor will probably be happy in the knowledge anything he says won’t really compete for headlines with the PM’s possible ‘full spectrum’ response against Russia.
And yet, as Osborne’s legacy shows (the four-year benefit squeeze and the public sector pay freeze), these are political decisions as much as economic ones. The really big stuff is of course on long term funding of the NHS and social care, and the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg has picked up some Cabinet chatter that hypothecation of taxes is at least a runner among some. Will Big Phil surprise us all by putting in place the first steps on that, or by hinting at the direction of travel for public sector pay for medical and non-medical NHS staff? Former minister John Penrose blogs for HuffPost, saying it’s time to create Norway-style Sovereign Wealth Fund to tame the deficit and free up other spending.
Other things to watch out for are possible new taxes on firms like Google, and there may be more consultation on a ‘litter levy’ that will take on chewing gum (deemed a single use plastic in some countries), plastic containers and crisp packets. As for the numbers, the FT suggests the deficit will be £7bn lower than the November forecast. Given today is mainly about stats fro the Office for Budget Responsibility, its statement at 3pm will be more keenly watched than usual.
Hammond often has a tin ear for politics, but his main objective seems to be to defuse as many potential policy timebombs as possible. He wants a steady-as-she-goes message and for this Government simply hanging on in there is often the main task. There is a real danger with all these reviews and timelines, especially with a party that will have been in power 12 long years by 2022. If you keep promising ‘jam tomorrow’, the voters may see the Opposition’s jam-and-cream as much more tempting.
3. BULLY BEEF
John Bercow wasn’t prone to his usual rhetorical flourishes or reprimands yesterday as the Westminster bullying allegations finally made it on to the floor of the Commons. Green MP Caroline Lucas’s Urgent Question gave Tory James Duddridge the chance to have a pop at the Speaker to his face. A long-time critic of Bercow, he claimed he had tried to ‘suppress’ Newsnight’s report and wasn’t an ‘appropriate’ person to chair the debate.
But the most significant announcement was the new ‘short’, independent investigation proposed by Commons leader Andrea Leadsom into the allegations. And just as important was a letter from Commons Clerk David Natzler admitting there were “unresolved issues” on harassment and bullying of staff, “which needs to be addressed”. The FT’s report yesterday (months in the making, I’m told) on Labour’s Karl Turner allegedly making sexualised remarks to a cancer victim, and Debbie Abrahams’s alleged bullying now referred for investigation by Labour, this whole issue is not going away.
Leadsom was incredibly robust yesterday. Most pointed was her defence of her “excellent secretariat” for the working group on harassment, a secretariat that included Kate Emms, the Speaker’s former secretary who had to sign off sick with post-traumatic stress. The real issue now is whether Leadsom’s independent inquiry will focus on specific allegations against Bercow, Paul Farelly and Mark Pritchard (all of whom strongly deny the claims against them). Or whether it will focus solely on the broader “culture of fear”, and in the process avoid any judgements on individual MPs. Dave Penman, of the civil service First Division Association, tells us it’s time MPs stopped ‘marking their own homework’and created a truly independent system to protect staff.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch some American high school kids dressed as cows, dancing to a mash-up of music tracks. Yep, it’s had 11 million views so far.
4. MEAL TICKET
As the entrails of the Spring Statement are picked over, the Commons moves on to debate and vote on motions to annul four statutory instruments. That may sound dull, yet the politics are anything but. One of the most contentious votes will be on Department for Education plans to restrict the number of families on universal credit who will be eligible for free school meals. There is also one on moves to axe workplace childcare vouchers and use the tax system instead (critics say that could leave the lower paid worse off). The votes will take place between 6pm and 7pm.
As I wrote at the weekend, Labour are aiming to get on record just how many Tory MPs and, crucially, DUP MPs will back the Government. Last week, London took control of Northern Ireland’s budget and decided to uphold a more generous threshold for free school meals benefits claimants (£14,000) in Ulster, than in England (£7,000). Labour’s Owen Smith said last night that the Tories “billion pound partnership with the DUP means that Northern Ireland alone is being spared” from welfare, education and other cuts. With local elections in May, the Opposition is pushing this hard, but Government whips are being very active indeed in telling their troops to turn up. And on childcare vouchers, several DUP MPs have signed an open letter urging the Chancellor to keep the scheme open. I’m told the DUP have a meeting with Hammond and the Chief Whip today, so things could move.
5. AGAINST THE ODDS
Labour’s Tom Watson and Jon Ashworth will escape the Westminster bubble later to attend the country’s only NHS-funded gambling clinic. Most of the patients at the centre in west London, who are referred from across the country, are addicted to fixed odds betting terminals or online sports betting. And they come from all social classes, from those on the breadline to City traders. The NHS treatments range from drugs to cognitive therapy.
Gambling addiction affects 430,000 people in the UK and devastates families. But while it great strides have been made in people revealing alcohol addictions, the social stigma on gambling is still strong. In a blog for HuffPost, the Shadow Health Secretary and the Shadow DCMS Secretary say it’s time for the gambling industry to contribute to the estimated £1.2bn social cost of addiction. “It can’t be left to the NHS to pick up the increasing tab for this acute mental health crisis” they write.