1 COMMONWEALTH SHAME
It’s the first PMQs since the Easter break and both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have plenty of ammo. Having bombarded her opponent over Syria and Russia, the MP may be tempted to do more on the same topics. She could also point to the fact that the earnings squeeze passed a milestone yesterday with pay rising higher than inflation for the first time in years (though by a mere 0.1%). Corbyn could go off-piste with the housing crisis facing millennials, or he could cite the fact that it’s a year since May called her disastrous snap election (Labour has a list of ’25 broken promises’ since then).
But of course many Labour - and Tory - MPs think there’s only one story in town: the appalling treatment of Windrush migrants. Corbyn can point to the fact that he’s raised this issue before (he may even shoehorn it as another ‘broken promise’). What’s certain is that it has ruined May’s plans for a successful Commonwealth summit that was meant to project an image of a ‘global Britain’ open to the best and brightest in a post-Brexit future. She may have to go further than Amber Rudd in offering compensation, not just an end to deportation and other threats. (Speaking of the Commonwealth summit, Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan blogs for us today on why it should not forget the Rohingya crisis).
The Guardian again had the scoop last night as it revealed that the Home Office destroyed thousands of landing card slips recording Windrush immigrants’ arrival dates in the UK, despite staff warnings that the move would make it harder to check the records of older Caribbean-born residents experiencing residency difficulties. May is sure to be asked just who authorised the cards’ destruction. The line that it was all for data protection may not stack up if data laws include exemptions for such crucial documents.
So is May most at fault or is it Amber Rudd? The blame-game has started and you can see it played out in the newspapers today, with both the Mail and Sun gunning for Rudd. Tawdry as it may seem given the seriousness of this story, Brexit is the proxy war, with Rudd seen as too pro-Remain by some Tory MPs and commentators. Yet this Twitter thread from former Nick Clegg aide Polly Mackenzie firmly blames May for her ‘hostile environment’ policy while at the Home Office. The Telegraph reports Rudd’s ‘allies’ are furious she’s blamed as she tries to ‘clean up Mrs May’s mess’. Rudd’s line the other day to MPs that the Home Office had “become too concerned with policy and strategy and sometimes loses sight of the individual” may not have been a direct attack on the PM, but some around May felt it was. Diane Abbott blames both May and Rudd, blogging for us: “The Windrush scandal was made at the Home Office. Not by officials, but by these two leading Tory politicians.” She told the Today prog that Rudd should ‘consider her position’.
One thing’s for sure, the PM will today have to make a heartfelt Commons apology to the Windrush migrants. Saying it to Commonwealth leaders yesterday was not enough: saying it to the Parliament of the country these migrants call their home will matter much more. Real leadership is about taking responsibility for this national shame, not shunning it.
2. BREXUAL HEALING?
Brexit is back with a bang today as UK and EU officials meet in Brussels and as the House of Lords starts its first of six Report Stage days of the EU Withdrawal Bill. In the Lords, watch for the votes after 4pm on the customs union and retained EU protections (on workers and consumer rights and the environment). Ministers are expected to talk up some minor concessions but none will have much bearing on how the bill plays out.
An amendment to keep the UK in the Customs Union looks like it could pass with a healthy majority of 50, as Labour’s Baroness Hayter joins forces with Tory Chris Patten, crossbencher Lord Kerr and Lib Dem Baroness Ludford. (I note that former National Security Adviser Lord Ricketts tweeted this morning he would back the amendment). As ever, what matters is how this impacts on the Commons. May’s conciliatory tone in her Mansion House speech, plus the postponement of the separate Trade Bill, bought time and good will with Remainer rebel Tories. Ten of them signed a customs union amendment to that bill, enough to defeat the Government. Will the Lords cross-party vote give them enough cover to face down their whips and local associations when the Withdrawal Bill returns to the Commons in May? Or has the PM healed the divisions in her party?
A key issue will be one of tone. Patten has already accused some Brexiteers of waging a ‘political jihad’, while Jacob Rees-Mogg has called arch Remainers ‘cave-dwellers’. The rhetoric may have to be dialled down if the 25-strong Remain group in the Commons is to make any headway, especially with a PM newly-strengthened in her party over Russia and Syria – and with figures like Anna Soubry and Dominic Grieve appalled by Corbyn’s stance on both. Keir Starmer has his work cut out to rebuild alliances.
Over in Brussels, May’s chief Brexit official Olly Robbins meets Michel Barnier’s deputy Sabine Weyand. The BBC says some progress has been made on technical details lately but they vexed issue of a harder border in Northern Ireland shows little change. Ireland’s foreign minister Simon Coveney said yesterday he was ‘putting down a marker’ that without movement from the UK before the next EU summit in June, there will be ‘serious questions’ as to whether the whole deal will be ready by October. London sees that as more posturing, but detail on its own proposed wording for the ‘backstop’ on this issue is not yet ready. Meanwhile, a new report by the Global Future thinktank has costed May’s ‘bespoke’ trade deal and says it will cost the UK £40bn a year in extra borrowing by 2033.
3. FAR FROM ACADEMIC
The whole anti-semitism row has tended to be seen in the abstract, but Labour MPs Luciana Berger and Ruth Smeeth last night brought home just how real and personal it was to them as they read out the appalling abuse they’ve endured. Berger pointed out that much of the abuse was from Labour activists accusing her of smearing her leader and using the hashtag #JC4PM. It’s no wonder both MPs received standing ovations.
As I revealed yesterday, the British Board of Deputies and Jewish Leadership Council have rejected an invite from Corbyn and new general secretary Jennie Formby to meet next Wednesday for a ‘roundtable’ with Jewish groups. They say they first need concrete assurances of action in their own meeting with him the day before. Many suspect they also don’t want to legitimise the group Jewish Voice for Labour, who are due to be at the roundtable but seen by critics as leading the ‘smear’ charges.
Meanwhile, we published a letter from Formby sent to all Labour MPs yesterday setting out her own efforts to tackle delays in disciplinary cases. Some NEC members, including those previously critical of her, welcome her approach. But some insiders see plans for a new team of seconded lawyers as a way of creating a ‘parallel’ structure to undermine the Governance and Legal Unit. Formby backers suggest some delays were down to staff, while staff say they were due to a lack of political will by the NEC and leadership and court action by defendants.
Our reporter Rachel Wearmouth reports on one academic who defended Jeremy Corbyn over the anti-Semitism storm is herself being investigated over social media posts about Jews and Zionism. Jane Dipple, a lecturer in media and communication at the University of Winchester, commented online about “a Zionist attempt at creating a pure race” and “rampant zionism across the media”. She also questioned what the Holocaust Remembrance Alliance was about and shared a post by the far right website The Daily Stormer. It had the headline: ‘BBC to Replace Male Jew Political Editor with Female Jew’. The party is investigating.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch this stunning (and scary) Buzzfeed video made by Barack Obama and filmmaker Jordan Peele as they use voice impersonation and skilful AI-led video manipulation technology to show the newest Fake News threat. Robert Peston highlighted this new video tech in his recent book WTF, and rightly so.
4. YOU CANNOT BE SYRIA’S
After yesterday’s emergency debate, MPs have now spent nearly 10 hours in two days discussing Syria, airstrikes and Parliament’s rights to be consulted on military action. Both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn managed to refine and hone their arguments – though both still had glaring holes (May couldn’t say what was materially different about last week’s military action and that planned in 2013, Corbyn couldn’t say if he’d ever back any military intervention). As Alison McGovern warned on Monday, the voices missing in much of the debate are those of Syrians suffering.
But in party management terms, it was the Labour leader who suffered most as his MPs were baffled by conflicting whipping advice and by the final order to vote against Corbyn’s own motion. Some 52 Labour MPs (20% of Corbyn’s team) abstained. Chris Leslie told me: “I didn’t feel it appropriate to take part in procedural game-playing.” Note however that John McDonnell tried to outflank the Tories on financial sanctions against the Assad regime yesterday, urging a crackdown on ‘dirty money’. Philip Hammond hinted he’d look at accelerating a transparency register – let’s see if he does.
5. PENSION TENSION
The economy will at some point return as the key dividing line between the Conservatives and Labour and it’s the battle for lower earners that often determines elections. Tory MPs in Treasury Questions yesterday pointed to record rises in the National minimum wage and tax cuts as proof of their commitment to low income workers. Labour points to miniscule relaxation of the pay squeeze and if interest rates rise will surely pounce on that too.
But another way to help those just about managing classes is suggested today by the RSA, the think tank run by Tony Blair’s former policy chief Matthew Taylor. It calls for a new flat rate of pensions tax relief of 30% that would be progressive (cutting perks for the richest, putting cash in pockets of the less well off), cost-neutral and help the self-employed. Some 40% of government spending on pension relief currently goes to the top 10% of those claiming relief, who earn £70,000 a year or more. If John McDonnell doesn’t steal this policy, Theresa May (who hired Taylor to review white van man’s rights after Hammond’s NICs fiasco) may be tempted.