With Theresa May meeting Donald Trump and other Nato leaders in Brussels, it’s the turn of the deputies at PMQs today. You can expect Emily Thornberry to namecheck Trump, Boris and Brexit as David Lidington fills in for the PM. But all eyes will be on the US President after his mid-air tweets from Air Force One, railing at European countries for not spending enough on defence and slamming the EU generally for trade tariffs. EU President Donald Tusk had warned Trump: “Dear America, appreciate your allies, after all you don’t have that many”.
May has attempted to insulated the UK from White House criticism on defence with extra spending. She has also announced 440 more British troops will be posted to Afghanistan for the Nato mission there, joining the 650 already helping with the officer training academy and providing security in Kabul ahead of Parliamentary elections in October.
Of course, what worries many Western capitals is the way Trump cosies up to Vladimir Putin. One of May’s little-noticed successes in her dealings with him came on her visit to Washington in January 2017, when she got him to publicly commit to Nato and back off moves to lift sanctions on Russia. Yesterday before he flew out, the President said his Helsinki summit with Putin would be “the easiest” of his European trip. The PM’s spokesman valiantly tried to play that down, saying: “I interpreted that as being delivered in humour.”
But ahead of his visit here, No.10 didn’t look too amused at the way Trump described the UK as being in a state of ‘turmoil’. There are hardly riots in the streets (though who knows if we go out of the World Cup on penalties). Did Trump mean the recent Cabinet resignations or a broader sense of division after the Brexit referendum? May tried to shrug off Trump’s turmoil remark at her own press conference with Angela Merkel yesterday. Still, it was a reminder that with one throwaway line he has the potential to ruin all the carefully laid plans arranged for his ‘working visit’ on Thursday, Friday and the weekend.
Brexit will inevitably be the 800-pound gorilla in the room during Trump’s UK trip. Will he give the PM even stronger assurances that he will sign a UK-US trade deal soon after Exit Day next March? Yesterday, he praised his ‘friend’ Boris Johnson, suggesting he could even find time to meet the former Foreign Secretary. US ambassador to the UK, Woody Johnson (no relation), told the Today programme that such a diary stop was not planned. But he added “the President makes his own schedule” and will meet Bojo if Trump wants to.
The big fear among May’s allies is that Trump could somehow call for a bolder Brexit, thereby undermining her Chequers compromise and giving backbenchers encouragement to really go for her. Yesterday saw more carefully planned ‘rolling resignations’ and there’s lots of talk of ‘guerrilla warfare’ among the European Reform Group, with threats of multiple amendments to the Trade Bill next week and some planning to refuse to turn up for votes on key issues. In my report on the ERG’s meeting on Monday night, I quoted Andrew Bridgen saying of the Chequers deal: “This has got to be killed and it’s got to be killed before recess.” Yesterday he submitted a letter to the 1922 Committee requesting a vote of no confidence in May and the plotters think they have the numbers to trigger one.
Time is running out though and the ERG wants Boris to make his next move. Only yesterday, David Gauke spoke for many in the Cabinet when he said “If people don’t like this proposal what is their alternative?” The Sun reports that Johnson has been ‘stung’ by the criticism and plans to make a big speech on Monday to counter claims he has no plan of his own. Will it be a detailed WTO plan? I also wonder if Boris and David Davis, who is seen by fellow Tories as having come out of the whole affair with honour, will coordinate? Davis was planning his speech for next week too.
Expect No.10 to play up ‘no deal’ preparations, even though it was seen by Eurosceptics as a transparent sop tacked on to the Chequers deal. Labour’s position is what really worries some May allies. The party is adamant that the customs proposal for goods is bonkers and far short of the customs union it wants, while the absence of any mutual UK-EU rules on services (80% of our economy) is even more of a stumbling block. Keir Starmer seems convinced May will have to make more concessions. Yet if she makes any more she risks a leadership challenge this autumn, if not this summer. The lack of a Commons majority will be really felt then.
On this day in 1991, Labour MP Terry Fields was sentenced to 60 days in prison for refusing to pay his poll tax. Then Labour leader Neil Kinnock endorsed the court verdict, saying “Law makers must not be law breakers. I have always made that clear.” But when Fields came out of prison, a backbench MP called Jeremy Corbyn, convenor of ‘the Defeat the Witch Hunt’ campaign, led a march of 500 people at the party conference in Brighton that year to support him and fellow MP Dave Nellist. By December, Fields and Nellist and other members of Trotskyist group Militant were expelled from Labour.
Since Corbyn became leader in 2015, several former Militant members have been among the huge numbers who have re-joined the party or joined it for the first time. And for centrists, that’s pretty worrying. Last night, at his leaving do, former Labour compliance unit chief John Stolliday let rip, warning that it was time the party stopped welcoming such people. The party had “brought into its ranks those many people in the country who are disaffected, who want to oppose, who were previously attracted to the political fringes…it speaks to an existential crisis for Labour - is it a party of opposition and protest, or is it a credible party of leadership in the national interest to better the lives of millions of working people?”
Stolliday pointed out that it was Dora Gaitskell, wife of Labour leader Hugh, who told her husband in 1962 that the problem with his anti-Europe policy was that “all the wrong people are cheering”. “I’m afraid right now, all the wrong people are cheering [Labour],” the ex-staffer said, to applause. When I tweeted Stolliday’s words, the backlash from Corbyn supporters was strong (Corbyn staffers were more sanguine, with one saying his speech was ‘hilariously dull and pompous’). And there’s no doubt Corbyn believes in second chances, as proved by his appointment of Naz Shah as his shadow equalities minister last night, two years after she was suspended for sharing anti-semitic remarks. The anti-semitism definition row rumbles on meanwhile (Monday’s PLP agreed to discuss it next week).
Stolliday’s wider point was that the party’s coming democracy review could end its historic balance between its MPs, councillors, union members, party members – and voters. “It is a tyranny of a majority over those who this Party was founded to represent,” he said. Still, Tory Brexiteers may ponder the weak position of Corbynsceptics in Labour. Stolliday’s was one of several ‘rolling resignations’ earlier this year as Jennie Formby was appointed general secretary, and a similar tactic was deployed by Corybn’s shadow team in 2016. Yet the Labour leader has marched on, strengthened by his general election performance and support from the mass membership. May has no electoral triumph to keep her going, but she is learning from Corbyn that incumbency is a very powerful asset to have.
Parliament’s roofspaces were packed with builders, MPs, researchers, cooks and hacks as we watched the flypast to mark the RAF’s 100th anniversary. See 22 Eurofighter Typhoons fly in a “100” formation.
I get so bored by those who say they’re bored by football in general and the World Cup in particular. Thankfully, they’re a minority and today 37 million people are expected to tune in to watch England’s biggest match since 1990, with the chance of getting to a final we last contested 52 years ago (a few months before yours truly was born, yes it’s that long). Win or lose tonight, what many people have been cheered by is the way the team and manager have restored our tattered national pride.
Gareth Southgate’s measured tone and maturity has prompted calls for a knighthood and some even joked that he should take over Brexit talks. Monday’s EastEnders even had a topical plotline when Danny Dyer (the Shakespeare of our age) said: “I see he’s done the slips [walked off] an’ all, David Davis, this morning. Put Southgate in there!” When I put this ministerial suggestion to No.10, the Prime Minister’s official spokesman laughed and admitted he hadn’t got his “Zeitgeist tape” so had no idea of the soap’s latest storyline. He added quickly that Dominic Raab was already doing a good job: “We are very happy with the Brexit Secretary we have.”
In a life-imitates-art moment, Southgate did indeed appear to make a pitch for the job when he suggested to a press conference that England’s World Cup success could heal Brexit wounds. “Our country’s been through some difficult moments recently in terms of its unity…I think sport has the power to do that [create unity]. And football in particular has the power to do that.” As it happens, the entire Cabinet formally wished the team good luck yesterday. But backbencher Henry Smith has rejected the Chief Whip’s invite to watch the game at No.10, saying it’s because ‘the Prime Minister isn’t bringing Brexit home’.
May will catch bits of the match at the Nato summit in Brussels. But here’s a radical thought. If England make it to the final in Moscow, I wonder if Jeremy Corbyn will gazump her and fly out to watch the game? The PM is boycotting the World Cup because of the Skripal poisoning but Macron will be there for France (he was last night). Will Corbyn take the risk and say supporting the team is a separate matter?
The big news overnight from the Information Commissioner is that she’s fining Facebook the maximum £500,000 for data breaches. Elizabeth Denham said she will also bring a criminal action against Cambridge Analytica’s defunct parent company SCL Elections. She said Facebook had broken the law by failing to safeguard people’s information and had not been transparent about how data was harvested by others on its platform.
Of course, half a million quid is small change to Mark Zuckerberg, whose firm has a market value of 500 billion dollars. Denham told Today: “This is not all about fines... any company is worried about its reputation...in 2014 and 2015 the Facebook platform allowed an app to harvest 87m profiles of users around the world”. As it happens, if Facebook had breached GDPR rules it would be facing a much bigger fine of £500m. The FairVote UK campaign is preparing a class action claim against Facebook, which already has 84 claimants. All 1.1 million British citizens impacted by the Cambridge Analytica data breach can join the claim.
Other parties should be worried too though, as the ICO said it was looking at the Remain campaign’s use of data and the wider use of “data brokers”. The watchdog named one company, used by the Labour Party, called Emma’s Diary, a company that gives medical advice and free baby-themed goods to parents. All of the UK’s 11 main political parties will now be compelled to have their data protection practices audited. This can of worms is only just opening.
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