The five things you need to know on Wednesday February 21, 2018
It's PMQs day again. Theresa May has lost her usual ammo about the UK 'jobs miracle', with unemployment this morning rising by 46,000. Jeremy Corbyn could point to a study showing three quarters of the workforce will be worse off in 2018, or that one in three children with a working single parent are living in poverty. Will the PM reference the Corbyn spy allegations (she notably ducked the issue earlier this week)?
But with the Cabinet awayday due tomorrow, it will be intriguing to see if Brexit gets an airing in PMQs. The leaked letter of demands/suggestions from the 62 Tory backbenchers in Jacob Rees-Mogg’s European Research Group has sparked calls from Remainers like Anna Soubry and Heidi Allen for the PM to put the hardliners back in their box. The most striking thing about the letter was that it tried to tie May to the tough talk of her (pre-general election) Lancaster House pledges, while somehow ignoring her (post-general election) Florence speech concessions.
Yet as David Davis’s speech confirmed yesterday, the Cabinet Brexiteers seem to have agreed regulatory alignment is their starting point and the real issue is when divergence will start, or whether such divergence is meaningful.
Today, DD is due to formally set out the UK response to the EU’s transition proposals. Labour’s Owen Smith told ITV that Corbyn’s position on a customs union and a single market policy was is “evolving and deepening”. The FT’s Martin Wolf has an article predicting “a temporary standstill of up to two years”, then “a Canada-style deal” that would “impose substantial costs” on business. Former Treasury perm sec Nick Macpherson has tweeted that ‘sadly’ Wolf
‘has it about right’.
Our Owen yesterday interviewed Michael Gove and he came over all Gary Lineker when he explained why he wouldn’t personally be making a ‘road to Brexit’ speech. “DD and Boris are big hitters. They are the Messi and the Ronaldo of the Cabinet, and as for me I’m just a journeyman so I’ll carry on doing my job,” he said. The question is whether May is a strong enough team captain to keep her players, and backbench and public supporters, on the same side. The PM may adopt Moggy-style rhetoric, while quietly delivering what
Philip Hammond and others really want. It may even be enough for her to keep her job.
Finally breaking his silence on the Czech ‘commie spy’ claims against him, Jeremy Corbyn’s video message last night was his own version of the famous line from Network (currently starring Bryan Cranston at the National Theatre): he was mad as hell and wasn’t going to take it any more. Corbyn's decision to take the fight to newspaper owners (‘billionaire tax exiles’) ended with a warning that ‘change is coming’. Labour sources told me that meant: ‘Leveson 2’ media regulation, an inquiry into plurality of ownership, higher taxes on
the rich and a crackdown on tax-dodging.
Unsurprisingly, the Mail lets rip again today, declaring that “Corbyn’s threat to gag the Press only heightens suspicions he has something to hide”. The Sun, which has led the way on the claims by former spy Jan Sarkocy, says the Labour leader is ‘rattled’. Shadow Cabinet minister Barry Gardiner told the Today prog that the press was getting its ‘revenge in first’ because if feared fresh Leveson curbs. He added: "Some of us assume half the people we meet from embassies are spies.” Which begs the question, did Corbyn assume that too?
The BBC’s Mark Urban yesterday
quoted a former spook who suggested the claims about Corbyn being a paid informant were ‘nonsense’. The Guardian today quotes Radek Schovánek, an analyst with the defence ministry of the Czech Republic, who says Sarkocy is a “liar”. Warwick Uni’s Daniela Richterová says the files show Corbyn was never a ‘witting source’ and his file classification was different from that of ‘knowing colloborator’. Meanwhile, The German authorities responsible for the Stasi archive on Tuesday said they had found no documents on Corbyn. This included all files that can’t be released publicly for privacy protection reasons.
Corbyn’s critics say that while he was clearly furious at what he saw as a smear campaign, he could have killed off the controversy by being more open with his own recollection of meeting the Czech diplomat. There are echoes of the ‘shoot to kill’ row early in his leadership, when he eventually clarified his position. But since then he’s become much more self-confident and his team more robust. As for extra media regulation, it’s far from clear that would prevent similar claims like Sarkocy’s from being reported. Libel law remains a strong weapon. Will Corbyn use it against Sarkocy and others, and not just Tory MPs who tweet?
Yesterday, the Commons did its job well. As well as International Development Secretary Penny Mordaunt’s statement on the charity sector’s sex harassment scandal, there was thorough scrutiny by the select committee of Oxfam and Save the Children bosses. Oxfam revealed it had lost 7,000 regular donors and had received 26 allegations of misconduct since the scandal was made public two weeks ago. Boss Mark Goldring was full of contrition for his initially glib and dismissive reaction to the revelations. The Times sketchwriter Patrick Kidd put it well: it was as if he “were doing a sponsored two-hour apology to undo some of the damage".
suggested yesterday that Save the Children’s former chief exec (and ex-No10 aide) Justin Forsyth had questions to answer. Right on cue, he appeared on Radio 4’s PM programme to apologise for “unsuitable and thoughtless conversations” with female staff during his time at the charity. Now a deputy executive director at Unicef in New York, he faced three complaints after sending texts to young female staff about how they looked and what they were wearing. Save The Children’s current chief exec Kevin Watkins told MPs yesterday that it dealt with 193 child protection and 35 sexual harassment cases involving allegations against its staff around the world last year.
Meanwhile, the Sun reports Lib Dem peer Lord Lester has resigned his shadow post and the whip amid allegations of inappropriate conduct. As for sexism and mansplaining more widely, the row over Labour’s internal battles continues. Veteran activist Ann Black last night blogged about Momentum ‘lies’ about her, warned of the ‘deep damage’ caused by the NEC’s intervention in the Haringey row and even
suggested Jeremy Corbyn himself had disenfranchised tens of thousands of party members. And in a pop at NEC colleague Andy Kerr, she declared that voters would not warm to a party dominated by ‘shouty men with rulebooks’.
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Watch Britain’s dumbest burglar use a ladder to get into the home of a CCTV engineer – who captured it all on camera. He fled empty handed but was successfully nicked later.
At the National Farmers Union conference yesterday, Michael Gove dropped his heaviest hint yet that seasonal agricultural workers would get a special immigration deal post-Brexit. Our Owen was present as farmers warned the Environments Secretary that EU migration was “mission critical” for their businesses. Alison Capper, chairman of the NFU’s Horticulture Board, won applause when she told Gove: “In 2017, 60% of growers did not have enough workers. When will we get an announcement for 2018?”
Overall farmers like the fact that Gove is a Big Beast in the Cabinet and like what they hear, but are waiting for delivery. He didn’t exactly placate them yesterday by saying it was really an issue for the Home Secretary Amber Rudd. Yet Gove did have a hint: “I hopefully will be able to say more shortly”. Given that David Davis has also held out the prospect of special arrangements for agriculture, the question is just how many sectors will get deals, and whether Leave voters will mind.
In the UK, our Parliament doesn’t quite have the sweeping powers that the US Congress has in confirmation hearings for public officials. In recent years, however, our select committees have had the chance to question appointees and make them squirm. That certainly happened yesterday as the Treasury Select looked how the incoming head of the Financial Conduct Authority had invested cash in a tax avoidance scheme.
Charles Randell told MPs it had been an "error of judgement" to be involved in a controversial film partnership. The FT (which along with the Mail splashes the story) says the revelation is a “fresh blow" for the
authority, which has been criticised for refusing to publish a report on alleged mistreatment of small business customers by RBS. Lib Dem leader Sir Vince Cable said this “appears to be an inappropriate appointment”, adding “MPs need the power to block appointments of this nature”. Speaking of which, the DCMS committee is opposing former Cabinet minister Tina Stowell as the new Charity Commission chair. But again, it lacks the power to actually block the appointment. Let’s see if its views hold weight.