1 HEALTH CHEQUE UP
Theresa May’s new move to finally give the NHS more cash will delight her backbenchers, while proving the Jeremy Hunt really is winning his battle with the Treasury to shift orthodoxy towards 10-year spending timetables. Her words to the Liaison Committee yesterday came late and were bogged down by her opacity, but aides told us the message was clear. Health spending will be pulled out of the wider comprehensive spending review due next year and fast-tracked to coincide with July’s 70th anniversary of the founding of the NHS.
The PM said she wanted a “long term” and “multi-year” approach. “Ensuring the NHS can cope with demand ahead of the spending review, I would suggest we can’t wait until next Easter. I think in this 70th anniversary year of the NHS’s foundation we need an answer on this.” Her lack of a soundbite meant some didn’t immediately see how huge a political moment this was. The swift response from NHS chief Simon Stevens was telling, as he said May’s words were ‘very welcome, timely and significant’. The big question is whether it’s as big a moment as Blair’s momentous statement on the David Frost show in 2000 that he would bring UK health spending up to European levels.
Labour can rightly point out that Hunt’s description of the ‘feast and famine’ in NHS spending is down to the famine imposed by George Osborne after 2010. May herself has previously been rebuked by Stevens for claiming the health service got the cash it wanted. Yet if spending does indeed go up by £20bn over the next five years, the Conservatives believe they can neutralise one of Jeremy Corbyn’s biggest weapons while starting the long battle to claw back support of public sector workers who flirted with the Tories before austerity kicked in.
The reverse-anniversary of Brexit just being one year away is another factor. Part of May’s calculation will be to appease Brexiteers like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg who want to show a ‘Brexit dividend’ after 2019. And overall the move is part of a wider sense that the PM has had her most impressive week since the disastrous snap election – and that Corbyn has had his worst week at the same time. The contrast between May’s success (on the global stage over Russia and in clearing the transition stage of Brexit) and Corbyn’s internal party rows over anti-semitism and Brexit referendums) has certainly been stark. May will hope that PMQs also allows her to head into the Easter Commons recess with her MPs’ tails wagging even more vigorously.
2. LAWYERING UP
Labour’s anti-semitism problem has certainly cast a dark cloud over the party in recent days. Corbyn’s comprehensive letter of denunciation of Jew hatred on Monday, plus plans for concrete action, at least offer a way forward. Of course, if he’d taken such a clear stance two years ago, in the wake of the Chakrabarti inquiry, it’s possible that things wouldn’t have reached such a fever pitch as they did this week. If anyone needs a reminder of this evil, look no further than yesterday’s news that French police were investigating an anti-semitic motive for the murder of a Holocaust survivor, 85-year-old Mireille Knoll.
We report that Corbyn has told colleagues that new general secretary Jennie Formby will make anti-semitism her ‘first priority’ when she starts work after Easter. Key to this will be the appointment of a General Counsel, a QC to advise the general secretary on disciplinary cases, as well as an in-house legal panel to report to the National Constitutional Committee (NCC). A special working group has already been set up to review disciplinary processes after complaints by the Disputes Committee that too many cases were bogged down. The backlog stands at ‘around 70’ cases of alleged abuse and I’m told that only a third of those are actually being investigated by the NCC. MP John Mann tells the Mail, which puts the figure at 74, that a further 130 cases have not even reached first base.
Some on the NEC tell me that the real problem has been a lack of political will from the leadership, as well as left-wing members of the Disputes Panel pushing repeatedly for cases to be sorted with a formal warning rather than full investigation. Momentum-backed Darren Williams said this month it was “deeply disappointing to see party members put on a path to likely expulsion when the evidence of their supposed wrongdoing is far from compelling”. The new legal counsel could satisfy all sides that due process was being followed but that justice was quicker too. Part of the problem is down to accused members ‘lawyering up’ and getting delays, some insiders claim.
We reported yesterday how emotions ran high at the Shadow Cabinet, with some wanting Corbyn to speak more extensively on anti-semitism, and Chakrabarti revealing her dismay that Ken Livingstone had “continued to let the party down” since her 2016 report. Meanwhile, those MPs and peers who attended Monday’s Parliament Square demonstration are furious at being targeted for criticism by some on the Left. Labour peer Glenys Thornton revealed her local Camden party refused to endorse Corbyn’s own letter on anti-semitism last night, blaming Momentum members. The Sun and PolHome report the backbench Parliamentary Committee hopes to raise the issue if Corbyn turns up to their meeting today. I’m told he will address Labour peers tonight.
3. TERROR FIRMER
The Government’s National Security Capability Review is finally published today. Two main points were highlighted by senior Whitehall officials to us hacks yesterday: the terror threat will remain high for the next two years at least; and a new ‘fusion doctrine’ will combine military, cyber, diplomatic and economic weapons to counter the threat. The splintering of so-called Islamic State as it’s driven from Syria and Iraq to other hideouts, plus easier online radicalisation, is what worries our spooks most.
And the Skripal poisoning was the first example of the PM’s determination to deploy the new doctrine, using diplomatic pressure and ‘unprecedented’ intelligence sharing with EU and Nato allies to trigger an international response. Sources also told us that Jeremy Corbyn was given a security briefing on the nerve agent attack that was based on the same material shown to foreign leaders. They ducked the question as to why the Labour leader had not concluded that the only ‘plausible’ explanation was that Moscow had directed the attack.
Max Hill, the Government’s independent review of terrorism legislation, publishes his latest report today. Hill often errs on the side of civil liberties and due process rather than more hawkish experts, so his words will be worth scouring. Labour has an Opposition day debate on police cuts that it may use to underline its general election case nearly a year ago today, in the wake of the Manchester terror attack, that community policing is the crucial to counter-terrorism.
4. PLASTIC POLICE
Michael Gove is due among the dinosaur bones at the Natural History Museum tonight to trumpet his new plans for a deposit-and-return scheme for plastic and glass bottles. The proposals, first reported in the Sun and Mail at the weekend, are aimed at boosting recycling rates and ending the scourge of plastic in the oceans. I remember it was common practice in the 1970s to pay a few extra pence on a bottle and later claim the deposit back when returning it.
As with Brexit and as with the Tory tradition of cracking down on litter, that’s why this is a perfect pitch for older voters (and Daily Mail readers) who won’t baulk at paying up to 22p per bottle, that they can reclaim later. There’s another post-Brexit flavour as the Government plans to make plastic bans a key theme of the Commonwealth summit its hosting next month (with an eye on ‘global Britain’, the Cabinet were told it will be the biggest ever summit in British history).
Along with the 5p tax on plastic bags and planned ban on microbeads, Gove is certainly proving he’s a can-do minister. He’s also given the PM some nice ammo ahead of PMQs. But as he promoted the plan on SkyNews, he also denied any knowledge of an alleged breach of spending limits by the official Vote Leave campaign ahead of the EU referendum. He said he was unaware of a £625,000 donation made by Vote Leave to a youth Brexit group called BeLeave until after the 2016 referendum had concluded - despite being the co-convener of the campaign committee tasked with ensuring all pro-Leave groups were working together effectively.
5. BREXIT DETAILS
It’s the last day of the marathon Committee Stage of the EU (Withdrawal) Bill in the Lords. In spooky timing, the pro-EU group Best for Britain launches a £500k ad campaign calling for a ‘People’s Vote’ on the final Brexit deal. Minds in No.10 are certainly focused on getting the deal through Parliament in the last legislative heave later this year. ‘The Deal’ will take two legislative forms: a motion on the ‘political agreement’ with the EU on a future relationship (a full legal text can only be completed after we’ve left in 2019); and the withdrawal treaty itself. Crucially, Downing Street knows that the level of detail in the political agreement has to be extensive enough for Parliament to vote for it. Jacob Rees-Mogg yesterday hinted May would be ousted if she bottled Brexiteers’ red lines.
Which is why it’s worth noting the PM’s other interesting words at Liaison Committee yesterday, hinting that detail may be so elusive on some things that delay is needed. On customs in particular, she said “as we get into the detail and as we look at these arrangements, then what becomes clear is that sometimes the timetables that have originally been set are not the timetables that are necessary when you actually start to look at the detail and when you delve into what it really is that you want to be able to achieve”. No.10 seems confident that on the Irish border the technological solutions will be more swiftly available than sceptics think. But on customs generally, May’s words suggest the devil really is in the detail. Meanwhile, we have the latest in our People’s Negotiation pieces today HERE.