1. NURSING A GRIEVE-ANCE
The day is finally upon us. Yes, MPs are bracing themselves for up to eight hours on the Committee Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill. And this is just the first of eight days of Committee Stage, with hundreds of amendments tabled. Events will kick off later than expected, thanks to Speaker Bercow granting an emergency debate on the PanamaPapers (with a hint of ‘detention’ time for ministers).
We may not get anything that dramatic today despite two voting points at 6.45pm and 10.45pm. The first four hours will see clerks group debate on Brexit ‘Exit Day’, with a possible vote on Labour Leaver Frank Field’s plan to stage it on Saturday March 30 (though the real vote on this will come on Day 7, in coming weeks, when the Government plan for Exit Day on 11pm Friday March 29, will be discussed). Today, the second four hours will focus on Brexit ‘transition’ and Labour’s amendment 278 formalises Theresa May’s Florence offer to have a two-year transition. Its amendment 301 maintains European Court of Justice jurisdiction during that period.
But don’t expect the Tory rebels to today join forces with Labour. The first crunch moment will come on Day 3 next week, when Dominic Grieve’s amendment on the EU charter of fundamental rights is expected. It will be backbench Tory and Labour amendments that matter most, not least on transition, Exit Day dates, ‘meaningful vote’ and Henry VIII powers.
The big question is just how strong is the resolve of the Tory Remainers. Last night Anna Soubry was pretty unimpressed by David Davis’s offer of a new piece of legislation to confirm any Brexit deal. But after the Remainers’ private meeting broke up, some were willing to engage. And despite his initial skepticism in the chamber, Grieve himself (the brains behind the rebels) struck a constructive tone on Radio 4’s The World Tonight. Still, Laura Kuenssberg reports potential Tory rebels attended a packed meeting with new Chief Whip Julian Smith yesterday, and there was real anger at the Exit Day ‘gimmick’ wiping out the already thin room for flexibility in talks with Brussels.
And as our Owen Bennett explains HERE, David Davis’s Parliamentary offer yesterday changes nothing about the fundamentals of Brexit. MPs signed the death warrant of the UK’s EU membership as soon as they voted for Article 50 and its two year countdown. Davis confirmed yesterday, almost casually, that voting against a deal would indeed mean us exiting with no deal. And Brexit minister Robin Walker (himself a former Remainer) confirmed on Today that “the UK will be exiting the European Union at the end of March 2019”, even without an implementation deal.
As ever, it comes down to numbers. May has a working majority of just 13 but with ‘Labour Leave’ MPs that rises to nearly 25. Apart from Soubry and Ken Clarke, how many Tories will really defy their party to rebel in coming weeks? How many will really risk triggering a general election if they again rebel on the deal months before Brexit?
2. FROM RUSSIA WITH SHOVE
The Prime Minister’s annual Lord Mayor’s Banquet speech always focuses on foreign policy. Last night Theresa May trained her guns on Russia and said the Kremlin is seeking to “weaponise information” by planting “fake stories” and “photo-shopped images” in an attempt to “sow discord in the West and undermine our institutions”. The Telegraph reveals that one such instance was a misleading image of a Muslim woman walking past Westminster Bridge terror attack victims while looking at her phone. The photo was spread by a ‘SouthLoneStar’ Twitter account that US Congress has been told is actually a Russian propaganda ‘bot’.
The PM last night talked about Russia using such methods to “meddle in elections”, without being explicit about the vexed issue of Kremlin interference in the biggest election of all, the US 2016 Presidential race. She was also silent on Russia’s alleged role in trying to influence our Brexit vote, yet that same ‘SouthLoneStar’ account tweeted “I hope UK after #BrexitVote will start to clean their land from muslim invasion!” Labour’s Ben Bradshaw, who has been pushing this issue, tried and failed to ask Boris Johnson yesterday about a photo that has emerged of him alongside Joseph Mifsud, a ‘professor’ linked to the Trump-Russia investigation. Trump, meanwhile, has tweeted he will be making ‘a major statement’ on his return to Washington from his overseas trips. It emerged overnight that Julian Assange’s Wikileaks messaged Trump’s son during the 2016 election. Another reason for Jeremy Corbyn and his team to be very wary indeed of Assange. Trump and Brexit voters resent suggestions Russia shoved them into their decision-making, but the Kremlin wasn’t unhappy with either decision.
In May’s speech last night she stressed that while the UK “must beware, we must also engage - which is why in the coming months the Foreign Secretary will be visiting Moscow”. That sentence will hardly strike fear into the hearts of the Kremlin, give Johnson’s own diplomatic gaffes of late. Yesterday, he finally apologised for his Iran blunder, admitting for the first time that he had “caused” “distress and anxiety” for Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and her family (note however that Boris failed to explicitly say he’d been wrong to say she’d been training journalists, only that he’d been wrong to say she was there ‘in a professional capacity’).
In normal circumstances, that admission of causing distress would be a cause for resignation. These are not normal times for Theresa May, but it’s very telling that the attack on Russia’s meddling had to come from her, not her diminished Foreign Secretary. Some Tories wish Boris was Down Under on ‘I’m A Celebrity’ rather than his dad Stanley.
3. LETTERS OF ST PAUL’S
More evidence of the extent of the Westminster sex harassment scandal is on plenty of front pages today after TV producer Daisy Goodwin revealed she was groped by an official in No.10. Writing in the Radio Times, she says “at the end of the meeting we both stood up and the official, to my astonishment, put his hand on my breast”. Goodwin didn’t report the incident but now says she wonders if she should have done. Downing Street told us it would look into any formal complaint, so the official in question may be pretty worried right now.
Goodwin writes that her treatment felt like she was in a boys’ public school. But the #MeToo campaign has now prompted revelations of sexual abuse at Britain’s leading private girls’ school, St Paul’s Girls. A letter from the High Mistress, published by HuffPost UK, reveals that several former pupils, known as ‘Paulinas’, have passed on information, writing about their personal experience over a period stretching from the 1970s to 1990s.
The £24,000-a-year fee-paying school, in Hammersmith, West London, regularly tops the national league tables for exam results. Old Paulinas’ include Tory MP Vicky Ford, journalists Sophie Raworth and Susanna Reid, TV presenter Victoria Coren Mitchell and actresses Rachel Weisz, Emily Mortimer and Joely Richardson. Novelist and broadcaster Rachel Johnson also attended the school. There is no suggestion any of them have alleged abuse. But High Mistress Sarah Fletcher has asked affected former pupils to consider naming individuals to the police. “We can never say ’it could never happen here,” she writes. “We can, however, try our hardest to make sure that we are robust in setting the highest standards in safeguarding that we can.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this driver’s dashcam record the heart-stopping moment a boy gets off a school bus and crosses the road without looking. If it’s shared among schoolkids around the world, it could help save lives.
4. CONMAN HAMMOND?
Just over a week to go until the Budget and Philip Hammond gets an editorial tongue-lashing from former Theresa May chief of staff, Nick Timothy. Writing in the Sun, the PM’s ex-bearded, ex-‘Rasputin’ ideas man says “the Chancellor lacks a burning desire to change people’s lives for the better, and the imagination to see possibilities”. From more borrowing to fund housing, to energy costs and ‘gig economy’ worker protection, Timothy says Hammond is a block on progress and gives ‘conservatism’ a bad name. You can imagine the PM may share some of this analysis.
Speaking of housing, the Grenfell disaster which symbolised years of neglect has itself again highlighted the tin ear of some Tories. Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservatives actually sent out an electioneering survey to wealthy residents asking them to rank from 0 to 10 how important the fire had been to them, compared to other issues like bin collection and council tax rates. I spoke to the man who publicised the leaflet. So far, CCHQ and local MP Greg Hands have remained silent but they may need to condemn it soon, given PMQs is tomorrow.
Of course, Nick Timothy is blamed by many in the Treasury and elsewhere in Government for losing the Tories’ their majority thanks to his ‘brilliant’ plan for social care. His article today is also silent on education, but Hammond faces fresh demands for Budget cash as headteachers representing 5,000 schools march on Downing St. They call for an end to their “desperate requests to parents for ‘voluntary’ donations”. School cuts are another key reason the Tories lost their majority, but can Hammond stump up more?
5. DEBTS OF HONOUR
In contrast to the tortuous progress of the Brexit bill, the emergency Northern Ireland Budget Bill passed through all its Commons stages in a single day yesterday, without a vote. And even before the £1bn extra that stems from the DUP-Tory power deal, this budget for 2017/18 shows an increase in health spending of 5.4%. Expect Labour to demand the same for England.
But real debts rather than political ones are troubling the Money Advice Service, which reports a big 14% jump in the use of bailiffs to collect arrears owed. Council tax debts make up the bulk of the bailiff deployments but 50,000 overpayments of housing benefit will worry the DWP in particular, given the Universal Credit controversy.