1 SUBSTANCE ABUSE
Theresa May is expected to use PMQs to comment for the first time on the suspected poisoning of Russian double agent Sergei Skripal and his daughter Yulia. She may also update the Commons on the outcome of the emergency Cobra meeting convened by Home Secretary Amber Rudd this morning. The PM, like No.10, is much more circumspect than the freewheeling Boris Johnson so anything she says matters.
Newsnight’s Diplomatic Editor Mark Urban tweeted that his (usually impeccable) intelligence sources were worried because “we are treating symptoms, rather than causes, and that is not a good direction to be going in”. There’s lots of speculation about the possible substance used, with the Telegraph suggesting VX nerve agent and the Sun reporting our spooks’ “suspicion is focusing” on a hybrid version of the heavy metal poison Thallium. Thallium is colourless, odourless and tasteless, as well as slow-acting. Were the couple’s drinks spiked in a pub in Salisbury?
The Times reports that police are now extending their inquiry to include the deaths of Skripal’s wife Liudmila from cancer in 2012 and his son Alexander from liver failure last year. His son was just 44 and died in St Petersburg. One mystery is just why Russia would break all the usual conventions on spy swaps (Skripal was part of a US-Russia deal)? Andrei Lugovoi, the man the UK believes murdered Alexander Litvinenko, told the BBC that to murder Skripal would go against ‘the rules of the game’. Yet clearly our intelligence agencies think the Russian state is involved.
Security expert Ed Lucas told Newsnight last night that if this was a state-sponsored assassination: “It means they are taking things to a whole new level — it is in effect a kind of declaration of war.” Speaking of which, Boris was yesterday asked in the Commons how he would characterise Russian cyber attacks on UK infrastructure. He replied: “I increasingly think that we have to categorise them as acts of war”. Eagle-eyed Labour’s Chris Bryant spotted that and linked it to National Cyber Security Centre chief Ciaran Martin revealing last year that “Russian interference, seen by the NCSC, has included attacks on the UK media, telecommunications and energy sectors”. He’s now written to the Foreign Secretary to ask: is Russia now deemed to be ‘at war’ with the UK? Boris hint of a possible World Cup boycott had to be clarified yesterday. But has he again misspoken, this time on ‘acts of war’?
2. PHIL SPACE
Philip Hammond gets up at 2pm to deliver his own ‘road to Brexit’ speech, with a warning to the EU that it should include financial services in its free trade deal with the UK. The most pointed paragraph in the Chancellor’s speech will be this dig: “The EU itself pursued ambitious financial services co-operation in its proposals for TTIP [the defunct US-EU trade deal]”. That’s a reference to the fact that Michel Barnier was the EU’s man who did the pursuing in 2014.
However, with the EU27 set to publish its draft guidelines on a post-Brexit trade deal with Britain, there’s no sign yet that Brussels is backing down on its insistence that financial services can’t be part of the FTA. Sources close to Barnier say it’s precisely the intractable problems thrown up by TTIP that proved it was a non-starter. There is a much bigger point here though. May’s offer of a ‘comprehensive system of mutual recognition’ of EU and UK regulations is seen by many in Brussels as impossible, precisely because it misses the whole point of the EU’s internal market and institutions. A withering, detailed takedown of the PM’s plans is HERE in this blogpost by Oxford academic Stephen Weatherill.
The EU guidelines were written before May’s Mansion House speech and it will be interesting to see how conciliatory the EU are today. Will we get a mirror image of May’s own stance, ie a softer tone but no change in position in reality? The Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner says the EU draft has been toned down to prevent it looking like an offer of a ‘Canada-dry’, basic FTA deal. HuffPost, along with the Guardian and others, was last night passed a leaked copy of an internal EU report. It declares May’s speech was “long on aspirations, short on workable solutions” and that her new proposed trading model is based on “double cherry picking”. Meanwhile, the International Trade Select Committee has a new report calling Liam Fox “naïve” and suggesting he is risking a trade “cliff edge” with 70 countries after Brexit.
3. PRINCE CHARMING
During his Urgent Question on Russia yesterday, Boris suggested that some in the EU would backslide on tough sanctions because they were more interested in Moscow’s oil and gas supplies than matters of principle. “Plenty of other Governments trade freely with Russia, oppose sanctions and are massively dependent on Russian hydrocarbons, and it is up to the UK to stand up for decency and to resist what Russia is doing…” Yet critics say that today will prove Britain is itself sucking up to a hydrocarbon state, Saudi Arabia, rather than taking principled action on the international scene.
Yes, Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman is in town for a very controversial three-day visit. Theresa May is pulling out all the stops to charm the young reformer after he chose London for his first trip to a Western capital since taking power. The itinerary looks like a State Visit in all but name, as he will have lunch with the Queen and dinner with Prince Charles (and Prince William) tonight. A senior Cabinet ministers will meet him today in No.10 and he will get a special trip to Chequers tomorrow. With the two states having a deep, shared history on intelligence and counter-terrorism, Downing St clearly wants to hug him close.
The UK is the second largest supplier of arms to Saudi, but as it shifts its economy away from hydrocarbons May wants more access for British healthcare, education, legal and financial services. Yet as protesters gather this morning, it’s the Crown Prince’s policy in fueling the bloody civil war in Yemen that is uppermost for many. The PM’s spokesman told us yesterday that she would raise ‘deep concerns’ over the humanitarian situation, but all pomp and ceremony suggests those may be a footnote. Hard-headed realpolitik or values-free hypocrisy? Or is there a middle way? Corbyn could raise it at PMQs, given he has a firm policy of a Saudi arms boycott. Emily Thornberry told the Today programme why “rolling out the red carpet” was a bad idea. She denied the UK’s arms jobs would be “decimated” by ending sales to Saudi.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Michelle Obama dance to Taylor Swift’s ‘Shake It Off’ with a two-year old who liked her official portrait.
4. MOMENTUM BUILDING
A clutch of Labour NEC committees on equalities, disputes and organisation met yesterday. The equalities committee endorsed the new trans rights statement, but also saw an inconclusive debate on whether the party’s sex harassment procedures should be more independent. The disputes committee approved a raft of new referrals of anti-semitism cases to the disciplinary NCC body, after a strange opening riff from NEC member Pete Willsman. The leftwinger suggested it didn’t really matter whether people thought Israel or Palestine was their homeland “because we’re all from Africa anyway”. Youth rep Jasmin Beckett sarcastically thanked him for sorting the Middle East peace process.
But perhaps the most significant news came in the clues to the shifting alliances on the NEC as Unite’s Jennie Formby and Momentum’s Jon Lansman fight for the Labour general secretary job. The pair sat side by side yesterday, but veteran Left NEC member Christine Shawcroft finally came out on to declare her backing for Lansman for the top post. In a Facebook post she later said “nothing would induce me to support a candidate from a major trade union, they stick it to the rank and file members time after time”. And here’s the kicker: “It’s also time to support disaffiliation of the unions from the Labour party”. I’ve got more on this soon. Meanwhile, Momentum says it’s ‘on course’ to have more members than the Tories in two years’ time.
5. ANON AND ON
After the PMQs hubbub has died down, MPs will be facing an important vote as Labour tries to change the law to reveal the source of a rather large, mysterious donation to the DUP during the 2016 EU referendum campaign. The £425,000 gift was mostly spent on advertising outside Northern Ireland to support the Vote Leave campaign. If the money had been given directly to Vote Leave, it would have had to be fully declared, but the Northern Irish loophole meant it was not. The Electoral Commission is looking into it and wants more transparency.
Ministers want to change the law but are refusing Labour demands to backdate it to include 2016. Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary Owen Smith says: “The Tories must explain why they are doing the DUP’s dirty work by helping them avoid publishing the source of the funds received in the EU Referendum.” The Opposition managed to stop the Government’s plans being nodded through on a Statutory instrument this week and a full vote will take place today. There’s a Tory three-line whip, but ministers have yet to fully explain why they are defying the Electoral Commission. One to keep an eye on.