1. CON AIR
There’s no PMQs today (Parliament is on a short recess) and so Theresa May doesn’t have the time pressure of a High Noon showdown with Jeremy Corbyn to speed her actions on Priti Patel. But the PM nevertheless senses the urgency of needing to sack her International Development Secretary after the latest proof that she ‘went rogue’ with her very own foreign policy.
At the request of the Prime Minister, Patel is now flying back to the UK from a trip to Uganda. While she’s up the air, her career isn’t – she looks finished. No.10 would not be telling us that May has summoned her minister for her second dressing down in three days, only to then let her off with a slap on the wrist. Almost exactly 16 months after being first promoted to the Cabinet (on May’s second day in office), Patel’s political career seems to be in a terminal nose-dive.
The reason for the sacking is yet another example of Patel failing to be straight with the PM over her links to Israeli officials and lobbyists. Last night it emerged she’d not told No.10 about plans to fund the Israeli Defence Force in the Golan Heights. This morning, it seems two meetings in September were not disclosed, and on top of that her trip colleague Lord Polak now seems to have links to lobbyists (as the Times points out, another breach of the ministerial code). There have long been concerns about Patel’s links to Indian PM Narendra Modi too. I’m told the PM wants to personally talk to Patel to hear an explanation of her Israeli links, but the outcome looks clear. Lying to the Guardian about your trip is bad enough. Trying to con the PM is another entirely.
Given we are so close to the Budget, a wide reshuffle looks unlikely and we may get another limited set of changes similar to Fallon’s demise last week. Will Sir Alan Duncan (ex-DfID, now FCO) get the nod? Will Alastair Burt (as expert on the Middle East complexities as any minister in government) get the promotion many thinks he deserves? Patel was well-liked by many Tory MPs, and was a Brexiteer. Will her replacement have to be a Brexiteer too? May can’t bodge this one like she did Gavin Williamson’s promotion last week.
The Sun has a devastating quote from an ally of the PM: “Priti wants to be leader, she’s made that very clear to all of us. Unfortunately for her, she’s too stupid and her actions here have proved that.” But Patel’s own allies suspect the Foreign Office has been briefing against her. However, few subscribe to the conspiracy theory of Nadhim Zahawi on Newsnight last night: “Some of this stuff is being drummed up because both Priti and the Foreign Secretary are big beasts in the Brexit campaign and some Labour Remoaners and others who think if we take out some of these beasts and derail the government then maybe we can actually do a U-turn on Brexit.”
May is acting now, despite her earlier prevarication, because she really has no choice. Some of her ministers want her to use this to really stamp her authority on the Government and fire both Boris and Patel at the same time and start a full scale reshuffle. For now, May just be relieved to have enough authority to sack anyone. There are huge questions as to why the PM hadn’t already referred Patel for ministerial code breaches, and further questions as to the effectiveness of Cabinet office ethics chief Sue Gray and the entire investigations process. But for now, the PM has at least to steady the ship of state. Again.
2. SORRY STATE
Boris Johnson got a proper mauling in the Commons yesterday as he tried to use a statement about Daesh to smuggle out a ‘clarification’ about his latest Iran blunder. Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry was withering with her disdain, Yvette Cooper told him to resign and Anna Soubry jibed that he should now ensure “his own ambitions” are secondary to the needs of the country.
It took exactly 56 minutes for Johnson to finally make something resembling an apology to the family of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, currently held in an Iranian jail and fearing a longer prison term because our Foreign Secretary said she was “simply teaching people journalism, as I understand it”. The implication was that she had indeed in the country (rather than being on holiday). Johnson said he was “sorry if” his words had been “misconstrued”. Yes, “sorry if”. The Standard reported yesterday Zaghari-Ratcliffe had been in tears over the latest incident. We talked to a former prisoner who describes the hell of being in Tehran’s Evin Prison.
Exactly why Johnson blurted out his line about journalism last week and refused to retract it in full, is obviously the key issue. Had he crassly misdescribed her previous and current career (she was in admin for BBC Media Action and Thompson-Reuters)? Was he reading from an FCO briefing note and jumbled things up? Had he garbled the Iranian court’s reason for bringing new charges in October (Revolutionary Guard claims that she worked for media groups undermining Iran)? Either way, such blunders would be extremely serious.
But just imagine, for a second, if Zaghari-Ratcliffe, really had been helping our security services (and there’s not a shred of evidence she was). If the Foreign Secretary, himself nominally the minister with oversight of MI6, had in any way put her in danger, that would be an even more egregious error. Lots of complex factors are in play, not least the power struggle in Iran between the doveish President and Iranian foreign ministry and the hawkish Revolutionary Guard. But it’s precisely because such complexity is in play that Boris’s “simply” line looks so irresponsible.
At least Boris has another ally on one issue close to his heart: getting students removed from the immigration figures. The FT has a fascinating report that Amber Rudd is leading moves to get May (who’s in ‘a minority of one’ on the issue in Cabinet) to change policy before the DUP and Tory rebels amend the Immigration Bill.
3. VOTE LEAVE, GET CASH
I’ve said it before, I’ll say it again. NHS chief exec Simon Stevens has as much power as any Cabinet minister, running a huge public sector organisation with more political street-smarts than many elected politicians. Today, ahead of the Budget, he will make an audacious pitch for more money by effectively trolling the Government over that famous Vote Leave bus claim that the NHS will get £350m extra week post-Brexit. (As it happens, I revealed earlier this year that Jeremy Corbyn was advised to make a New Year pledge committing to the £350m, but he decided against it).
Never forget that Stevens was Tony Blair’s health policy advisor in No10 and knows how Whitehall works better than most. He was also President of the Oxford Union one year after Boris Johnson and one year before Michael Gove, and could have had an officially political career if he’d gone for a safe Labour seat in the mid-2000s. Today, at a health conference in Birmingham, he will actually use as a backdrop a photo of the Vote Leave battlebus and will declare trust in politics will suffer if the NHS doesn’t get more money as promised. Stevens has form on this, having used a Daily Mail cutting on NHS shortages to tweak Theresa May’s tail at the start of this year.
Stevens is not quite saying he wants the full £350m a week. But he will say: “Trust in democratic politics will not be strengthened if anyone now tries to argue ‘You voted Brexit, partly for a better funded health service. But precisely because of Brexit, you now can’t have one’.” Meanwhile, the King’s Fund, the Nuffield Trust and the Health Foundation - publish a joint report calling for an extra £4bn to be given to health next year. Will Stevens’ tactics backfire with the Treasury, or strengthen Jeremy Hunt’s hand? Speaking of healthcare and politics, a whopping 78% of voters worried about losing Obamacare voted for Ralph Northam in Virginia as the Democrats scored a stunning victory last night.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch these Amercian baseball fans return a woman’s baseball cap after she dropped it during a World Series victory parade in Houston. Teamwork.
4. BREX APPEAL
Despite the woes of their Cabinet champions, Brexiteers were cheered yesterday when it new stats emerged showing that the UK had experienced a small but significant uptick in its national “wellbeing” since the 2016 referendum vote to Leave the EU. The ONS figures showed increases in “life satisfaction” and “happiness” across England.
But the FT has a bit of a reality check that we haven’t left yet, splashing on warnings to Donald Trump by Wall St banks that Britain’s unstable government and slow progress on Brexit is forcing many of them to look at moving thousands of jobs away from London. The warnings were made to US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross over lunch with execs from JP Morgan Chase, Goldman Sachs and HSBC in Wilton’s restaurant in St James’ last Friday. Morgan Stanley was invited to the hastily-arranged lunch but couldn’t send a representative in time.
Still, many Leavers think this doom and gloom is overblown and yesterday Brexit minister Steve Baker summed up their defiance, asking Labour critics in the Commons “whose side are you on?” That sparked anger from Pat McFadden, who didn’t like his patriotism being questioned. David Davis is due to restart his dangerous liaison with Michel Barnier tomorrow. Ahead of that, the Guardian has warnings from Brussels that we have less than a month to make concessions on the divorce bill in order guarantee trade talks. It also has a leaked EU document suggesting it will be impossible to sort a trade deal before March 2019.
5. HIDDEN, HOMELESS
Britain’s growing homelessness problem is a slow-burn national scandal that doesn’t grab the headlines like sex, sleaze or foreign policy. Many campaigners, charities and think tanks have tried to show the human misery behind the statistics but it’s often only when MPs raise the issue that any action is taken.
Last night saw an impressive Commons backbench debate, led by Labour’s Mitcham and Morden MP Siobhan McDonagh, on the fact that 77,000 families in need, and 120,000 children, are in temporary accommodation. McDonagh also has a shocking video of how 84 families in her own constituency are being forced to live in a disused warehouse on an industrial estate. Both she and David Lammy hit out at the ‘hidden homeless’ problem, with many in hostels, BnBs and other desperate “Dickensian” locations.
On cue, new research from Shelter shows that the depth of Britain’s housing crisis, with both the richest and poorest boroughs in London suffering some of the highest rates of homelessness. It’s not just Kensington and Chelsea either, as Westminster is among the most severe cases. Single mother of four Deserae Plante has lived in temporary accommodation since 2009, moved from Westminster first to Haringey and now to Romford in Essex. “I feel like I’m in a prison,” she tells us. Sajid Javid has been pushing for extra cash from the Treasury for homelessness and housing projects. Will Philip Hammond steal at least one announcement for himself in the Budget this month?