1. DESTINY’S CHILD
Jeremy Corbyn is “destined to lose the next general election”. That’s certainly the view of Boris Johnson’s supporters inside and outside parliament. But those are actually the words of one of Corbyn’s own MPs at a fiery meeting of centrist Labour activists in the Commons last night. Wes Streeting said there are growing numbers of shadow ministers “who know in their heart of hearts that we are being led by a hollow prospect” who will be beaten by Johnson at the ballot box.
The London Annual Meeting of the ‘Labour First’ group, in the committee room where the PLP normally gathers, was fascinating because it was rammed. We’re used to seeing young Momentum activists pack out meetings, but I was struck by the sheer numbers of long-standing party members lining up to hear speeches from Streeting, Margaret Hodge and others.
Anger about Corbyn’s stance on anti-Semitism and Brexit was palpable, but there was a wider unease about the party’s inability to prepare for the Johnson-led onslaught of coming weeks. Hodge let rip, saying “Jeremy Corbyn has been for me the worst and the weakest leader of the Labour Party in all our 118 years…Every day that Seumas Milne is devising our strategy, every day that [Unite boss] Len McCluskey is dictating our politics, every day that they are all refusing to stand up against anti-Semitism, Boris Johnson will sleep soundly in Number 10.” Hodge also said McCluskey and the Labour leadership were ‘weaponising’ the cancer diagnosis of party general secretary Jennie Formby.
Among those present at the Labour First meeting was shadow Brexit minister Dianne Hayter (a longstanding member of the group). And it is peers who have underlined the wider mood of discontent overnight with a new advert in the Guardian, accusing Corbyn of “having failed the test of leadership” over the anti-Semitism issue. The advert, signed by 64 Lords including a dozen former ministers, said thousands have resigned their membership “because of the toxic culture you have allowed to divide our movement”. A party spokesman hit back, saying Labour was taking decisive action against anti-Semitism “regardless of false and misleading claims about the party by those hostile to Jeremy Corbyn’s politics”.
As I wrote yesterday, there are some close to Johnson who think that Corbyn’s woes mean there’s no better time to hold a snap election than in coming months. The Times today splashes on its own intel, reporting that the Tory leadership frontrunner wants to hold an early general election “while Jeremy Corbyn is still around”, and is building up cash and campaign teams to get the party on an election footing. Summer next year is the target, but of course some around Johnson are preparing for a snap poll (forced by parliament or not) this autumn.
Johnson has his final hustings in London against Jeremy Hunt but looks to be cruising to victory. The driving reasons for his popularity among the rank and file are in fact similar to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaigns in 2015 and 2016: he is seen as the authentic voice of the grassroots, he’s been around longer than his rivals and members think it’s ‘his time’. As Thomas Hardy once wrote, character is fate.
But destiny is a curious beast in politics. Winning a party leadership on the back of your personal appeal to your core vote is one thing, winning an election of the wider public is something else entirely. Toby Harris, who has known Corbyn for 47 years (yes 47 years) says that “he is not cut out to be a party leader”. “He is a brilliant campaigner and yet I suspect the details, the managerial responsibilities, the day-to-day management of the way in which the party operates are not necessarily his skills.” Several Tory MPs may recognise that characterisation in their impending new leader too.
2. LEAVE IT, OUT
Of course, Johnson’s premiership will be defined by Brexit. Last night, Amber Rudd kinda let slip that the only reason she was backing no-deal was because she was convinced it would never happen. The idea this is all a bluff may or may not go down well with Team Boris. But Rudd told Politico that Johnson’s views “will collide with reality” once he starts dealing with parliament. Add to that Dominic Grieve’s warning that if a government “persists in trying to carry out a no-deal Brexit, I think that administration is going to fall”.
But Johnson knows that anti no-deal Tories will have to be weighed against Labour MPs who are now finally admitting they would rather leave with no agreement than not leave the EU at all. Yesterday, Emma Lewell-Buck told HuffPost as many as ten Labour MPs are ready to back no-deal. That was after colleague Sarah Champion told BBC’s Politics Live: “If it came to it I would take no-deal if that meant we could leave”.
Former Brussels chief Sir Ivan Rogers revealed again yesterday May’s own blunders in the Brexit saga, not least triggering Article 50 too early, a move that instantly gave away the UK’s leverage and had them ‘popping champagne corks’ in Brussels. He also set out how May and Johnson both ignored his warnings that the Irish issue would explode. “One of the more unpopular things I said to the prime minister in the autumn of 2016 was you’ve made three commitments in good faith to different audiences but they are not really compatible with each other.”
Rogers was good value before the Foreign Affairs Committee, but so too later were former Nato ambassador Sir Adam Thomson and former Paris and Washington ambassador Sir Peter Westmacott. Asked about the Darrock leak, Westmacott set out how Johnson had failed his duty to stand up for the civil service. He also suggested the leaker would be found. But just as interesting was how Ivan Rogers revealed there was no leak inquiry after he himself was forced out 2017. And how a wider issue with Wikileaks now means our diplomats can’t trust contacts with US colleagues. Westmacott revealed a former PM (Brown or Cameron?) refused to set foot in the US embassy in Paris.
3. CRYSTAL MAYS
Theresa May has a big speech this afternoon which will assess “the state of politics domestically and internationally”. Its contents have so far been shrouded in secrecy but I suspect we will get a valedictory summary of her achievements and perhaps a gaze into the crystal ball of life after she leaves office.
May will surely take aim at the rise of populist politics and its pitfalls. I wonder if she will take the chance to go further in condemning Donald Trump’s racism? Last night the House of Representatives passed a motion attacking his tweets. Even his former press man Anthony Scaramucci says Trump is issuing a clarion call for racists and has to stop. The latest new low came yesterday when Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway (who last week said May had already left office) asked a Jewish reporter “what’s your ethnicity?”
A visibly more relaxed May has certainly been enjoying life in recent days, dancing to Abba and watching some amazing cricket and tennis. A certain May nostalgia is already kicking in, even before she has left office, and you can expect glowing tributes in coming days from all those who toppled her. It’s easy to be nice about a politician once they are no longer a threat. But it’s worth recalling that this month’s final ConservativeHome survey of the May era found that Geoffrey Cox was the Cabinet minister with the highest satisfaction rating (+54%) among party members. May herself had the lowest rating (-61%), beating even Chris Grayling for the dubious honour.
Still, there are lots of swansongs being sung right now. Yesterday Greg Clark handed Rebecca Long-Bailey a model Mini car as a parting gift at the despatch box, last week Philip Hammond got his walking guide from John McDonnnell. Today is Rory Stewart’s final international development questions (will Dan Carden have a memento?) and Chris Grayling appears before what is likely to be his last select committee as transport secretary. May has her penultimate PMQs today at noon, but will surely save her best lines for next week’s finale.
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4. NEW POOR LAW
The good news for the government yesterday was that new stats showed a rise in earnings growth. The bad news is that a new Resolution Foundation study found that household incomes had declined by 0.5% in the period from 2016-17 to 2018-19. Some of the impact is because the continuing benefits freeze (austerity ain’t over in this area) really hit the working poor hard in the pocket.
At the report launch today, John McDonnell will commit “to ending this modern-day scourge, to eliminating in-work poverty by the end of Labour’s first full parliamentary term”. That’s quite a bold pledge (will it be a legally enforceable target?) and intriguingly part of his and Corbyn’s shift away from Labour’s usual stance of encouraging social mobility. He rejects the idea that “poverty is OK as long as some people are given the opportunity to climb out of it”.
5. FLOOD BANKS
Labour’s shadow minister Holly Lynch today has a 10-minute rule bill on using reservoirs to counter flood risk. She calls for new powers to force private water firms to reduce water levels in reservoirs to help tackle flooding problems. At present, companies are incentivised to keep reserves as full as possible to combat drought.
But Lynch knows all too well from her own constituency in Halifax the devastation that floods cause. The 2015 Boxing Day floods hit many towns in the north west and her action today is a reminder that governments take their eye off the ball at their peril. The next time (and there will be a next time) we get extreme weather lashing down, environmentalists won’t get any pleasure from saying ‘told you so’. Let’s see how the government responds.
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