The Cabinet meeting has just started, and Home Secretary Amber Rudd is expected to have an update on the case of Sergei Skripal, the double agent who is today fighting for his life amid fears of a fresh Russian poison plot. Rudd could even make a Commons statement later, although with the details sketchy so far and the need to protect the state of the police inquiry (and our spooks), she or another minister may instead face an Urgent Question.
Skirpal and a female companion were rushed to hospital on Sunday after collapsing on a bench near Maltings Shopping centre in Salisbury. The nearby Zizzi pizza restaurant has been closed ‘as a precaution’, Wiltshire Police said, revealing the pair had been exposed to an ‘unknown substance’. The story sounds like a bizarre mix of Midsomer Murders and James Bond, but the implications are deadly serious if the fears of an assassination attempt are confirmed.
May has toughened her stance on Russia recently, but that hasn’t stopped Russian exiles criticising the UK for failing to send a stronger message after Alexander Litvinenko was poisoned by radioactive polonium in 2006 in London. BuzzFeed are rightly getting praise for their own in-depth look at deaths of Russian exiles in London. Last night, Garry Kasparov (who incidentally is scathing on Russian influence in the Italian elections) tweeted: “After the U.K.’s pathetic response to Litvinenko’s assassination with polonium in London, why wouldn’t Putin do it again?”
That point was echoed the Today programme by Litvinenko’s friend Alexander Goldfarb, who said any assassination of a defector could be part of Putin’s presidential re-election campaign. “The majority of Russians would perceive it as the right thing to do and boost Vladimir Putin’s image as a tough nationalist leader”. Goldfarb said the UK had been guilty of ‘appeasement’ of Putin’s regime and “so I don’t think he would be deterred in any way by possible Western reaction”. Former UK ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton didn’t dispel Goldfarb’s characterisation, claiming “the locker is pretty bare” in terms of new sanctions available. Instead “we need to be starting a conversation” with Moscow to persuade Putin to ditch his latest nuclear weapons plans. Only yesterday, Putin met senior FSB (the new KGB) staff to praise them for “uncovering 397 spies”. In 2010, he warned: “Traitors will kick the bucket - trust me”.
Meanwhile, Tory backbencher Philip Davies has been on Russia Today’s RT channel (see below). Remember when Boris Johnson said Corbyn’s own appearance on the TV station was “an absolute scandal”? Maybe the Foreign Secretary will have strong words for his fellow Brexiteer (and his own dad Stanley) for colluding with the ‘enemy’. Or maybe not.
There may be some Cabinet table banging after the PM’s Mansion House speech and statement yesterday (during which her backbenches were the most united they’ve been in a long time). The Euro Parliament’s Brexit link man Guy Verhofstadt is in London and is set to meet David Davis and others in No10 after Cabinet. DD is then before the Brexit Select Committee this afternoon at 2pm. Sadly, we won’t get his hot take on Brussels’s draft guidelines on a future UK-EU trade deal, as they appear to have been delayed until tomorrow.
What gripped some Labour MPs in the chamber yesterday was an FT story revealing that the US is offering Britain a worse “Open Skies” deal on aviation rules after Brexit than it had as an EU member. British and American negotiators secretly met in January for the first formal talks on a new air services deal, with one saying “You can’t just scratch out ‘EU’ and put in ‘UK’.” A British official said it showed “the squeeze” London will face as it tries to reconstruct its international agreements after Brexit, even with close allies such as Washington.
Chancellor Philip Hammond often likes to talk about planes in the sky and he told MPs yesterday that the UK needed a transition deal with the EU pinned down by this April in order to keep the status quo. “Airlines will need to know on April 1 whether they can safely schedule flights in April, 2019”. Hammond tried to reassure hardline Brexiteers by saying Britain needed to plan for a ‘no deal’ outcome right until the end of the transition. But he will have worried them by failing to definitively rule out extending the ‘implementation period’ beyond two years. “We have no plans to make provision for an extension,” he said. No plans, as we all know in Westminster, is a classic get-out clause.
Iain Duncan Smith yesterday told the PM to stand firm with Brussels: “Could she remind them that cake exists to be eaten and cherries exist to be picked?”. But last night at the LSE, Michel Barnier’s chief adviser Stefaan de Rynck was equally firm, while trying his best not to sound confrontational. He gently said May’s big idea of ‘mutual recognition’ of standards to help the UK’s financial services would not work. “The EU has moved away in the wake of the financial crisis from mutual recognition of national standards to a centralised approach with a single EU rule book and common enforcement structures and single supervisory structures.” He also said that EU businesses “are more concerned with maintaining the integrity of the EU single market than any loss of access to British markets”. No.10 really rely on EU ‘self-interest’ driving these talks, but de Rynck’s words suggests Brussels disagrees.
The debate within and without the Labour party over trans rights moves on significantly today as the NEC Equalities Committee meets to approve an historic new statement on all-women shortlists and other policy areas. HuffPost has been passed the wording of the statement, which is due to be endorsed by the full NEC later this month.
After a consultation with ‘key stakeholders’, the party says that its women-only Parliamentary shortlists and other “women’s reserved places” will be open to “self-defining” trans women - without the need for medical or other certification that they have changed their gender. This is seen formal recognition of equal rights by many in the party, but some feminists have threatened legal action because they object to the ‘self-identifying’ definition of womanhood.
The party says it recognises “a diversity of views on what is a very complex and emotive issue, but discussions should never take the form of abuse and intimidation”. And it’s not going to put up with abuse: “Transphobia and the abuse of members based on their Trans identity will not be tolerated in the Labour Party.” Labour thinks the Government is stalling on a new gender identity bill and promises a Corbyn government would introduce one itself.
We all need cheering up today. So watch this video of the ‘chicken police’ breaking up a fight between two rabbits.
Ahead of International Women’s Day (IWD) on Thursday, Theresa May attended a Citigroup event last night, warning firms “not to be the odd one out” when it came to new requirements to reveal data on the gender pay gap. The Telegraph reports that the PM also advised women not to dwell on losing a job because they are female, but to instead look at which areas they could improve on for next time. “If you’re too casual about things you may miss mistakes that you’ve made ... but you can’t take it so much to heart that it prevents you from getting on [with things]”.
With the headline ‘Man Up, Girls’, the Sun reports May also advised women to “get up and dust yourself down” after setbacks. She said if women blamed low points in their careers on gender and did not “make the necessary changes, there will be men out there…who will go out improving”. Meanwhile, Tory MP Philip Davies (a veteran of IWD) had a heated meeting with a comedian Luisa Omelia yesterday. He also found time to appear on Russia Today (yes, you read that right) to lay into Stormzy, after his Brits attack on May over Grenfell. Davies said the grime artist was “boring” and “playing to the gallery to try and look cool”.
Theresa May’s genius PR team did their best to ruin her decent run of late with a bizarre fake wall backdrop for her big speech on housing yesterday (my favourite Twitter take was this mournful one). But after she lambasted councils and developers for not doing more to build homes, it was the Sun’s Harry Cole who asked if she was a ‘Nimby’ [Not In My Back Yard]. “Yes, I have opposed a number of developments in my own constituency,” she said. He since found out she had opposed dozens of building projects that would have eased the housing crisis in the South East, even using her first ever speech in the House of Commons to promise to fight “the threat of development.”
Tory LGA chief Gary Porter was particularly blunt, tweeting: “If we want more houses, we have to build them, not plan them. If we want cheaper homes, we have to build them, not plan them…[otherwise] The nonsense will go on and nothing will change. Less homes built next year than there were this year.” Meanwhile the Guardian reports the Government has quietly failed to deliver on a Budget 2017 plan to give councils more powers to crack down on empty homes.