1. CRETINAL DETACHMENT
Jacob Rees-Mogg certainly knows how to grab a headline. His Open Europe event yesterday guaranteed him coverage as he described the Government’s post-Brexit ‘customs partnership’ idea as ‘completely cretinous’, adding the barb that May’s negotiating strategy seemed ‘enigmatic’ at best. After a string of Lords defeats, the Honourable Member for the Nineteenth Century went on to warn unelected peers that they were ‘playing with fire’ and risked ‘burning down an historic House’. For good measure, he also blamed the Windrush scandal on ‘socialism’, claiming that the over-mighty state had blundered with individuals’ rights and documentation.
No.10 expected some pushback from Moggy after he was made to swallow some compromises over the transition deal, and seems relaxed about his semi-detached status. What may concern them more is just how detached Cabinet ministers are. Some plan to use today’s Cabinet sub-committee to effectively rule out the ‘cretinous’ customs partnership idea too. Don’t forget the EU swiftly dismissed the plan – to get the UK to act as tariffs collectors on Brussels’ behalf- as ‘magical thinking’ last year. Yet on the bigger issue of staying in some form of customs union, I’m told some this would cross a red line set by several Brexit ministers. Liam Fox probably won’t stand for it, nor Steve Baker, but David Davis may also think it’s an issue worth playing his trump card on. He’s loyal to May but is unafraid of principled resignations, as his history shows. Maybe when DD appears before the Brexit Select Committee today, he can be as candid as usual on this and other topics.
May knows that the leadership chatter hasn’t gone away entirely. One Cabinet minister told me yesterday that there are ‘still some people getting ready to install the phone lines’ (for younger readers, that’s a reference to 1995, Michael Portillo and things called landlines), but that anyone watching the PM up close – particularly as she hears dire newspaper headlines read out in her morning meetings - realises she was doing all this not for herself but out of a sense of national duty.
Meanwhile, the tricky issue of devolution and Brexit has flared up again after Nicola Sturgeon rejected a Government concession that ministers felt was close to being agreed by the SNP’s Brexit minister Mike Russell. It’s due to come before the Lords next Wednesday, but I’m told that the SNP’s demands are just impossible for ministers to accept. One confided that to hand over full devolution powers in the EU Withdrawal Bill would mean not just unpicking the 1998 devolution settlement but giving Sinn Fein (who jointly run the Northern Irish government when it operates) an effective veto over UK policy on Brexit. The Tories, not just the DUP, will never, ever allow that.
As for the Lords, there’s more action today, with another Government defeat (or ‘a victory for common sense’ as some in Labour call these votes) looming after 5pm. This is on former Commons Clerk Lord Lisvane’s amendment to prevent ministers making Brexit regulations where they deem it ‘appropriate’ rather than when it is just ‘necessary’. On other ‘Henry VIII’ powers, Government concessions on public authorities, tax powers and criminal offences will probably buy off potential rebellions. There’s also tonight Lord Trees’ amendment on animal sentience, and the Times reports claims that Michael Gove is considering backing it. That really would be a major detachment from No.10’s line, but Gove’s team have denied it.
2. WINDRUSH PUSH
Last week’s PMQs was dominated by Windrush, and it’s unclear whether either leader will want a rematch. Corbyn may want to point to Tory MPs who jeered him last week that minutes later No.10 confirmed it was officials, not a Labour Home Secretary, who decided on a ‘business case’ to destroy landing cards. May could point to Alan Johnson confirming her words that it happened ‘under’ Labour, and to a Johnson using the phrase ‘hostile environment’ and former immigration minister Liam Byrne saying in 2007: ‘We are trying to create a much more hostile environment in this country if you are here illegally’.
One issue that May will be mightily relieved has been solved in time for today is the case of Albert Thompson, who was denied NHS cancer treatment and whom she claimed would ‘get the treatment he needs’. The Guardian reports he has finally been given a date for the radiotherapy he should have started last November. He also has a meeting with immigration officials. What’s prompted the rush of action? “The Home Office has known about my problems for years. I think this is all down to the media noise,” he says.
Amber Rudd is before the Home Affairs Committee at 3.30pm and won’t be let off the hook on the detail despite Monday’s statement appearing to buy her time on Windrush. Some MPs may want to raise her ‘Marie Antoinette moment’ of levity about EU citizens registration being as easy as signing up for a LK Bennett shopping card. Others may want to raise MEPs’ claims that the Home Office app for ‘settled status’ won’t work on iPhones. But most will want to ask how the mistreatment of undocumented residents is spreading to other Commonwealth countries such as Pakistan, India and Ugandan Asians.
The Spectator’s James Forsyth had the scoop that Boris Johnson used Cabinet yesterday to propose a wider solution for those Commonwealth citizens, in the form of an amnesty. The PM made a barbed remark that he had previously urged an amnesty for all illegal immigrants as far back as 2008. She has long viewed his plans as naïve, but given Rudd’s own liberal instincts on the issue, will she today pick a side, if asked by the Home Affairs Committee?
3. THE EXPIDITE STUFF
Jeremy Corbyn’s meeting with the Board of Deputies and the Jewish Leadership Council last night was followed by very different verdicts from either side. The Jewish groups were pretty forthright in saying it was a ‘missed opportunity’ and that many of their key demands were not met with action rather than more words. An insider account by the Jewish Chronicle’s Stephen Pollard suggests that Corbyn ‘shrugged’ when asked why he wouldn’t forcefully condemn Jewish Voice for Labour activists who jeered protestors against anti-semitism. One source said afterwards: “They [Corbyn and general secretary Jenny Formby] think it’s all about process, that process is all that matters. Process is what they offer and it’s the excuse they give why they can’t do anything”.
Of course, process does matter and due process means ensuring disciplinary hearings are both fair and timely. Corbyn sources told me soon after the meeting that there were in fact lots of areas of agreement, not least on Ken Livingstone and Jackie Walker’s cases being ‘expidited’. They would be completed within three months, ie the end of July. The party was looking at time-limits on all cases, a key demand of critics, but needs time to consider the legal issues, insiders say. Corbyn also said for the first time that the Board of Deputies and JLC were the main representative bodies and he’d meet again in July. They were asked for their input on Labour’s implementation of an international definition of anti-semitism adopted by the party in 2016.
Sources said there was ‘agreement that elected officials should not share platforms with people found guilty of anti-semitism’, though Jewish groups would like that extended to those suspended for it too. On the Today programme, Shadow minister Barry Gardiner said MP Chris Williamson should not appear alongside Jackie Walker as planned next week. “My personal view is Chris is wrong to share a platform with somebody who has expressed the views that she has” (including that Jews were responsible for the slave trade). Nevertheless, Labour councillor Adam Langleben, who is fighting to take Barnet from the Tories next week, tweeted last night: “I’m ashamed to be in a party whose Leader hides behind process to avoid offering action in dealing with antisemitism. Racism. I’m just sick and tired of it. So demoralised, tired and drained.”
Corbyn’s Evening Standard did what he should have done long ago, saying sorry for the pain caused and setting out more clearly than ever that the abuse and claims of smears were not in his name. He also revealed that 20 more people had been suspended in the last fortnight alone. Today one such person, Marc Wadsworth – who reduced Jewish Labour MP Ruth Smeeth to tears remember – has his disciplinary case heard at Church House. ‘Labour Against the Witch Hunt’ are protesting outside the hearing. Smeeth is to give evidence, but I’m told another Labour MP wants to speak in Wadsworth’s defence. Let’s see.
4. HOMES UNDER THE HAMMER
With Jeremy Corbyn having launched his own housing Green Paper, and the Association of British Insurers’ new post-Grenfell report warning that fire safety tests are utterly inadequate, housing could get a look in at PMQs today. The Labour leader has also often raised rough sleeping and homelessness and he may today be tempted to pick up on yesterday’s comments by Tory MP Adam Holloway. During a Westminster Hall debate, the former soldier and TV reporter sparked criticism for saying that “sleeping rough in central London is a lot more comfortable than going on exercise in the army”.
He was swiftly hammered by Labour MP Laura Smith, but Holloway stressed he accepted that for the mentally ill, old or an addict, life was very tough on the streets. He also said he was just explaining what he’d personally experienced and witnessed when sleeping out a few weeks ago for ITV’s Tonight programme. Holloway’s wider claims included a rise in foreign national rough sleeping, and that it was fuelled by begging and provision of charitable services. We have a story out today on another element of the housing crisis: new problems with the Government’s cuts to mortgage interest help.
5. COAL HOLE
Amid Brexit, Windrush, Syria and more, the Cabinet still found time yesterday to discuss the often-neglected issue of our dirty air. The long-awaited Clean Air Strategy can’t be published during the current local election ‘purdah’ period, when the Government is barred from making major policy announcements. But Michael Gove’s presentation to colleagues stressed that without action the health impact would be over £1bn per annum by 2020 and nearly £2.5bn by 2030. Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt agreed on the importance in costs to the taxpayer and our public health. No.10 says the strategy will be published ‘shortly’, so early May looks likely now. Wars and conflict grab the headlines but it’s worth underlining that air pollution is just as much a real life-and-death issue, with scientists estimating it causes between 29,000 and 40,000 mortalities every single year in the UK. Every. Single. Year.
In a timely fact, yesterday just happened to be the longest the UK has spent without coal powered energy since the 1880s. The National Grid revealed it had not produced any electricity generated by coal for three consecutive days, from Saturday to Tuesday. Ministers have pledged to cease using coal altogether by 2025. The BBC reports that coal accounted for less than 7% of the power mix last year. It’s exactly a year since Britain went its first full day without coal since the 19th century. But here’s the kicker – coal is being replaced by another fossil fuel, gas, rather than renewables. Greenpeace and others want that tackled.
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