1 CLARITY BEGINS AT HOME
It’s PMQs again and Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn square up for their last session before the half-term recess. Corbyn could go again on the NHS, demanding the PM repeat her sort-of-apology for using misleading statistics on waiting times in Wales. May phoned Trump last night to agree intelligence sharing on crime and terrorism, but no mention was made of Trump’s tweet about the NHS ‘going broke and not working’. With the Conservatives ‘Black and White Ball’ tonight in the Natural History Museum, will Corbyn risk a joke about Tory dinosaurs?
As the Cabinet sub-committee meets to discuss Brexit straight after PMQs, both May and Corbyn may want to continue their parties’ policy of ‘constructive ambiguity’ on Brexit. But clarity is exactly what the British Chambers of Commerce is demanding today, its leaders pointing out business patience is ‘wearing thin’ at the lack of a Government position on what a future UK-EU trade deal will look like. In an open letter to the PM, it issued “an urgent appeal for clarity” as companies start to make key investment decisions ahead of Brexit in just 13 months time. “Businesses need those elected to govern our country to make choices — and to deliver a clear, unequivocal statement of intent”.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd said yesterday “I hope in the next few weeks we will be able to give some clarity”, only for the PM’s spokesman to issue a gentle riposte, saying she had been “providing clarity throughout this process”. One Cabinet minister told me yesterday they felt being clear was indeed the most important priority. But they suggested it could be ‘the summer’ before it was provided. Minds will be focused once the two big papers from this week’s sub-committees are circulated ahead of the full Cabinet, they said. On the Today programme, Greg Clark said “clarity” was key to the negotiation - without being clear on when or what the UK position would be.
In Brussels, they too just want the UK to be clearer (though Eurosceps argue the EU27 are far from clear on what they really will accept). And they want the UK to draft a legal form of words on avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. The FT reports an EU source saying Ulster is the battleground for future trade ‘alignment’: “If this blows up over the next two months, it will be over Ireland”. As it happens, the NI issue along with immigration is the subject for today’s Cabinet sub-committee. (The bigger, UK-EU relationship is for tomorrow’s meeting). But with the backbench Tory European Research Group now meeting fortnightly, the pressure is on the PM to stand firm. One ERG source told me that the group didn’t take the Brussels line on the Irish border “even slightly seriously”. “Were May to affect to, we’d have a very jaundiced take on that pretence.”
2. FROM BORIS WITH LOVE
Boris Johnson is still one of the big beasts in the Cabinet and will make his views plain at the sub-committee today and tomorrow. As the most prominent figurehead of the Vote Leave campaign, some of his friends see him as the ‘conscience’ of Brexit, and it seems he’s not going to be gagged by anyone. HuffPost (along with Mailonline, Buzzfeed and the Indy) reports that the Foreign Secretary is going ahead with his big speech making the case for a “liberal Brexit”, with a date of February 14 -yes, Valentine’s Day - pencilled in.
Although he wants to unify the party, and country, behind an open, tolerant UK outside the EU, the danger is it will be seen inevitably through a leadership prism. As one source puts it: “the way things are, it could easily end up as the Valentine’s Day massacre”. With the PM due to make her own speech a few days later at the Munich Security conference, Boris is being careful not to be specific on a future deal with the EU.
That leadership chatter continues, with Justine Greening telling the BBC yesterday that it “might be a bit of a stretch” to stay in the party if Jacob Rees-Mogg takes the top job. The Times reports that some Tries are trying to find a “Stop BoMogg” candidate to prevent either man becoming PM. One cabinet minister privately told Matt Chorley that there was a “whiff of death” about Theresa May’s premiership. As it happens, a growing number of Tory MPs think Amber Rudd is the perfect anti-Bojo candidate. Still, the cult of Mogg shows no sign of abating. He warned last night against any ‘punishment’ dished out by Brussels. He will pop up this afternoon to discuss free speech in universities before the Human Rights joint committee.
As for Boris’s department, former FCO chief Sir Simon Fraser let rip before the Foreign Affairs Committee yesterday, claiming other countries think Britain has “lost the plot” by pursuing Brexit. He also accused the PM of “mushy thinking”. “Global Britain, at the moment, is a slogan. We need much more clarity of thought behind it.” Clarity, it’s in demand. Will Boris give us some? (Fraser also went off-piste with a pop at Tony Blair’s era: “It is hard to think of an example where the European Union has stopped us doing what we wanted to in foreign policy. Perhaps, in the case of Iraq, it would have been good if they had.”)
3 SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Theresa May’s data swapping with the Trump administration is only one of the areas where she wants to intervene online. Last night, during her Vote100 speech in Parliament, the PM ordered a review of the law on ‘offensive communications’ and intimidation of politicians and candidates. However, it seems the cops aren’t keen on new laws for the sake of it. Chief Constable Mike Barton QPM, of the National Police Chiefs Council (NPCC), says “law enforcement and policing are content with the law” as it stands. “There is a view that, with the advent of the internet, some of our more ancient laws are probably not applicable, but we do not find that”.
Adam Wagner, a human rights barrister from Doughty Street Chambers, told The Independent the proposed law would propose a “real risk” to free speech, adding: “With criminal laws it’s not just the enforcement that’s the problem it’s the chill it creates because people are suddenly worried their behaviour falls into the category.” He added that “heated” political debates are a necessary part of democracy. The Spectator’s James Forsyth also has doubts about the need for new legislation.
In her main speech yesterday, May said that Haringey’s Claire Kober had been ‘hounded out of office’ by sexist and other abuse. New minister Victoria Atkins told 5 Live yesterday she had ditched Twitter because of death threats. Newsnight reported that Anna Soubry has also received death threats since her outspoken interview with the programme on Monday. The Daily Mail meanwhile has a piece titled “Tory traitor Anna Soubry’s venomous comments about Jacob Rees Mogg and the Remainer’s addiction to the limelight”.
Twitter was also the forum for some robust exchanges between Labour’s Stephen Kinnock and former Cabinet minister Damian Green yesterday. Green ridiculed Kinnock for going on ‘hunger strike’ for 24 hours to support proportional representation, jibing his protest was “little more than a diet”. Kinnock hit back: “Glad to see you are using your computer for Twitter this time.” Still, my phone was hot with plenty of Labour people attacking Kinnock for seeming to appropriate the Suffragette anniversary.
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4. WHO WANTS TO BE A CARILLIONAIRE?
The Carillion bosses were put in the stocks yesterday and boy did MPs chuck plenty of rotten fruit at them. In a rare post-session critique by select committee chairs, Frank Field and Rachel Reeves were so irritated by the business chiefs’ explanations that they issued a magisterial dismissal of their evidence. “A series of delusional characters maintained that everything was hunky dory until it all went suddenly and unforeseeably wrong,” Field and Reeves said. Read their statement in full HERE.
In case anyone thinks the worst is over, our Rachel Wearmouth reveals that the fall-out is still continuing. Councils are being hit with steep new charges as PWC, which is overseeing Carillion’s liquidation, is demanding local authorities stump up on average 20% extra for contracts such as library services and construction work as the Official Receiver attempts to claw back the firm’s losses. Cabinet Office Minister David Lidington joins civil service chief John Manzoni to discuss the firm’s collapse before a special meeting of the Commons liaison committee at 4.50 p.m. NAO chief Amyas Morse is up at 4.30pm.
It’s the local government finance settlement today, when Sajid Javid confirms all the figures on which town halls will have to base their council taxes. Following serious heat from Tory boroughs, Javid yesterday tried to sweetened the pill of some tight finances with an extra £150m for social care costs, plus £16m for ‘rural’ authorities to deliver services. Labour’s Andrew Gwynne says the new cash (which comes from underspends) is dwarfed by the £6bn in cuts to social care of recent years. “This bung may stop a rebellion on the back benches,” he says, “it will not provide the funds urgently needed.” He suggests the bung is aimed at just one party: the Tories.
Yet it’s a Conservative council that’s in the spotlight right now. Tory-led Northamptonshire County Council became the first local authority in nearly 20 years to ban all but essential new spending at the weekend amid major financial pressures. New minister Rishi Sunak told MPs the issue was one of ‘governance and culture’. But my ears pricked up when he failed to deny claims that at least 10 other councils were in similar dire straits. Sunak said it would be “wholly inappropriate” to comment. Was that just the nervous caution of a new minister, or does he know something we don’t? If Corbyn felt bold, he could make councils his theme at PMQs.