1 EXPEL, HE HARM US!
The biggest ever mass expulsion of Russian diplomats/spies from Western countries yesterday was a testimony to the power of UK intelligence on the attempted murders of Sergei and Yulia Skripal. The truly savage nature of this assassination plot was underscored by Theresa May’s sombre revelation yesterday to MPs that “their condition is unlikely to change in the near future, and they may never recover fully”. Nerve agents trigger a slow, horrible death that underscores the horror of the act perpetrated on British soil. And May has clearly proved effective with her warning to other leaders that Vladimir Putin has harmed not just the Skripals but Western security everywhere. The expulsions are not a magic wand, yet will undermine Russian espionage for years to come.
Boris Johnson, who has been as hawkish as anyone on Russia (including before the PM’s own big speech on the Moscow threat), has Foreign Office Questions today and can point to an impressive collective response, with 100 Russians kicked out of 18 countries, with more likely. Curiously, Donald Trump has yet to tweet a word about the US expelling 60 diplomats (is he that worried about compromising himself in the Mueller probe?) The Russian embassy in America continued the Kremlin’s sarcasm, conducting a Twitter poll of which US consulate it should close in retaliation.
More than one Tory MP yesterday wondered why other so many other nations had decided to believe the PM’s evidence against Russia, but Jeremy Corbyn hadn’t. And tensions within Labour boiled over in the Commons when Corbyn declared he had long criticised Russia over things like Chechnya and human rights. John Woodcock intervened on his leader to say that’s “just not true”. Woodcock was then heckled by Corbyn loyalist Chris Williamson, who suggested he should cross the floor and sit with the Tories. Woodcock, in response, put his left-hand to his ear in a ‘I’m sorry I can’t hear you’ gesture. Our Graeme Demianyk captured the moment with this gif that keeps on giving.
The Sun reveals that other states are following our lead in not sending ministers to the World Cup, with Poland, Iceland, Denmark, Sweden, Australia and Japan ready to snub Moscow. The bigger worry is just whether the Kremlin has totally given up on international norms. Estonia’s President Kersti Kaljulaid told the Today prog that in the Cold War everyone “knew the rules”. “What are the rules now?” As the BBC’s Moscow correspondent Steve Rosenberg points out, a Russian newspaper recently declared that “the gloves have come off… you can hit your opponent where it hurts most”. With the Skripals lying in Salisbury hospital in comas, those words seem particularly brutish. But Moscow may be hurt most in the pocket and co-ordinated Western action on Russian finances is what would really wipe the smile off Putin’s face. It’s nowhere near as simple as mass expulsions, yet that seems like the next real battle front in what could be a long war.
2. DAY OF ATONEMENT
Sitting outside the Parliamentary Labour Party last night, I realised I’d not heard voices that loud in in Committee Room 14 since the bitter infighting of 2016 and early 2017. As John Mann yelled ‘What kind of Labour party are we?’, there was no immediate response from the leadership because Corbyn was absent (he was in the chamber, but he’d already said he wasn’t going). Mann, Wes Streeting, Luciana Berger and Yvette Cooper all won applause from fellow MPs for urging real action on anti-semitism in the party. Yet it was the applause in Parliament Square that had been more important as more than a thousand Jewish protestors gathered to demand ‘enough is enough’.
Those who say demos achieve nothing were proved wrong yesterday. It was the very threat of the protest, and the withering letter from the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council, that forced Corbyn to finally make his clearest, most comprehensive denunciation yet of the debilitating virus of Jew hatred in his party. As I said yesterday, it wasn’t just the row over the East End mural that mattered. It was the long history of the use of the term ‘Zio’ as form of abuse, the singing of songs ‘rockets over Tel Aviv’, and repeated claims that Israelis treat Palestinians like Jews were treated by the Nazis. And on each, Corbyn made yesterday clear where he stood.
The Labour leader said ‘sorry’, in unequivocal terms, for his crass error on the mural. Crucially, his letter admitted that full implementation of the recommendations of the Chakrabarti report into alleged anti-semitism was “overdue”. Actions and not just words were promised as he vowed to speed up investigations into abuse and the programme of political education in anti-semitism. As Gareth Snell told the PLP, one simple further action Corbyn could have taken would have been to condemn the ‘Jewish Voice for Labour’ counter-demo claims that concerns about this issue were an attempt to ‘smear’ him. That’s the kind of denunciation that is still lacking.
Yet Corbyn’s letter marked a major step forward in finally addressing this issue, rejecting the ‘whataboutery’ of those who think it’s relevant to point out the far-right hates Jews more than the far-left. Leftwingers who can’t see their criticism of Israel tips into anti-semitism need to look in the mirror. There’s even chatter in Westminster that one MP has been heard drunkenly singing ‘Hey Jews’ to the theme ‘Hey Jude’. And for many, the real test of Corbyn’s new approach comes in the form of just two words: Ken Livingstone. Due process should be followed, but there’s no reason why the former Mayor’s case should not now finally be investigated by the disciplinary National Constitutional Committee. When she starts work in a fortnight, new general secretary Jennie Formby could prove her doubters wrong and follow through on Corbyn’s words.
3. RETURN OF THE MAC
Today at 10am the Migration Advisory Committee (known as MAC to its friends) publishes its long awaited interim report on the UK’s dependence on migrant labour. With Brexit making this a very hot topic, it will be pored over by both sides. It may well be that we are so reliant on overseas workers that the system was unsustainable even if we’d stayed in the EU. If so, the huge issue of vocational training and skills (unsexy but vital) must be on the agenda again.
As for Brexit more widely, Tony Blair was back in Parliament last night for the first time since he left in 2007 with those fateful words at his final PMQs: “That is that, the end”. But when it comes to quitting the EU, it’s not the end yet for the ex-PM. In his speech he basically dared Labour and Tory MPs to defy their whips and back a public vote on a final deal (while being heavily critical of Jeremy Corbyn). Those who hold out faint hopes of Labour backing a second referendum, despite the sacking of Owen Smith, may be buoyed by Tom Watson on Sunday saying you keep all your “options” open in a negotiation.
A hard-hitting new Fawcett Society report says Brexit risks ‘turning the clock back on gender equality’ and that women will suffer more from any further cuts to public spending and in industries like textiles. Leavers will counter there’s a whole lot of unproven assumptions in that. Politically, the big news today is that for the first time since the election, big name Tories will rejoin the Open Britain campaign trail. Anna Soubry will introduce Chris Patten as he warns plans for the Northern Irish border are “half-baked” and that the closest any minister has come to negotiating a free trade deal is “the check-out at Waitrose.” Patten last week told the Lords Brexit was a ‘political jihad’, so he’s stepping up the rhetoric. The latest instalment of our People’s Negotiation on Brexit is online HERE today.
4. WYLIE COYOTE
There’s an emergency Commons debate today on the allegations that Vote Leave breached spending limits in the EU referendum. Yesterday, former volunteer Shahmir Sanni and Christopher Wylie published a 50-page legal opinion which they argued pointed to “a prima facie” case. Still, even one of their lawyers admitted there was more a ‘strong inference’ rather than evidence that Vote Leave ordered smaller group BeLeave to spend cash with a data firm. The jury’s out on whether the ‘whistelblowers’ are crying wolf or have some real, concrete proof of illegality that hasn’t been seen by the Electoral Commission or police to date.
But the real drama came last night at the Frontline Club when Sanni broke down in tears over his ‘outing’ as gay by his former partner and Vote Leave colleague, current No.10 aide Stephen Parkinson. “I had to come out to my mum the day before yesterday….You know what, he knew, he knew that I wasn’t out to my mum.” BuzzFeed, which was there, points out No10 are saying they had no formal role in putting out Parkinson’s statement and just passed on his message. MPs may want more assurances despite May standing by her man yesterday. Just who is funding the expensive legal case is another question Leavers think deserves an answer. Wylie is before the DCMS Select Committee today at 10.30am.
5. NIL BY MOUTH
As the #MeToo movement grew in the wake of the Weinstein and Westminster allegations, more victims of harassment felt they could come forward. But (as we learned with Donald Trump’s affairs), the legal bar of non-disclosure agreements has been a powerful block on transparency. Today, the Equalities and Human Rights Commission urges legislation to stop bosses from using such contracts to silence harassment claims. Its inquiry found “corrosive” work cultures and “truly shocking” examples of sexual harassment, including a 17-year-old who locked herself in a toilet after men “joked” about rape, and a woman who revealed she lost her job and her health.
Theresa May highlighted NDAs when she first spoke on the allegations, so maybe change will come. The Times reports that two law firms that drew up gagging clauses to stop a former Harvey Weinstein employee from claiming that he tried to rape a colleague are refusing to hand over the agreements to MPs. Both firms have been called to appear tomorrow before the Commons women and equalities committee, which is investigating the use of NDAs. Weinstein won’t give his consent and the firms decline to give evidence.