1. THE CUSTOM, ER, IS ALWAYS RIGHT?
Whatever way you cut it, you just can’t get away from Brexit. Even last week, amid the Windrush saga and rows over bombing in Syria, the pesky House of Lords ensured that the question of our future outside the EU managed to grab the headlines. This week, that question looms even larger as the issue of staying in a ‘customs union’ with the European Union plays out once more, a fresh proxy for the wider debate on just what kind of Brexit the Tory party wants – or can accept.
On Radio 4 last night, former Cabinet minister and keen Brexiteer John Whittingdale said that the Government’s position on a customs union was ‘clear and consistent’. Sadly, it is neither. The Sunday Times lit the blue touch paper yesterday with a report that Theresa May’s team has privately admitted she may have to accept permanent membership of an EU customs union - after a secret wargaming exercise concluded that even Brexiteers such as Michael Gove and David Davis would not quit in protest. Underlining something was up, David Davis made clear he felt the ‘customs partnership’ plan (one of the UK’s two alternatives to a ‘union’) would amount to a ‘betrayal’ of Britain.
Ex Brexit minister David Jones told the Mail on Sunday this partnership (which would mean the UK collective EU tariffs) was so complicated it was designed to fail. He even suggested it was part of a Remainer plot by Olly Robbins, the PM’s lead official in the negotiations. What’s curious about this dissing of the customs partnership plan is that it was trumpeted by DExEU itself (along with a more complicated ‘hi-tech’ solution of ‘highly streamlined’ customs checks) as an answer to the problem of avoiding a hard border in Northern Ireland. Still, it’s nice to narrow the options down and DD and fellow Brexiteers seem to be saying the ‘highly streamlined’ plan is their best bet. Davis is before the Brexit Select Committee on Wednesday. Maybe he’ll give preview of what the Times suggests he (and Liam Fox and Boris Johnson) will say in the Cabinet Brexit Sub-Committee: that it’s time to ditch the partnership plan and back the ‘maximum facilitation’ plan. Backers of the hi-tech solution point out that just because it hasn’t been tried before doesn’t mean it’s not doable (and customary ways of dealing with customs will have to end). Sceptics think it just won’t be ready by December 2020, the end of the Brexit transition. The real worry may be one of practicalities not policy, given Whitehall’s historic failures on technology and procurement.
The Lords rebellion on the EU Withdrawal Bill proved last week that Parliament still matters. Many ministers are dismissing this Thursday’s Liaison Committee customs union vote in the Commons as mere symbolism. But similar accusations were similarly levelled at the Lords vote last week, and yet the amendment is suddenly seen as so serious that ministers like Jeremy Hunt are hinting it should be turned into a ‘vote of confidence’ in the entire government (will a similar amendment to the Trade Bill be treated thus too?) Given such talk, will the Tory ‘Remainer rebels’ back down, when push comes to shove? They didn’t back down last year on a ‘meaningful vote’, but somehow that issue has since been consumed by fudge. And if the wording of the amendments is not tightened up, fudge is where this may end up again.
2. CITIZEN PAIN
It’s St George’s Day, but warm words celebrating national pride may feel like ash in the mouths of some of the Windrush generation. The Guardian has a new letter that suggests Theresa May’s Home Office knew that its ‘hostile environment’ policy would have an impact on Commonwealth arrivals. It now seems that ministers realise that the moral taint from this awful saga is so strong that they are actually considering legislation to give those affected full citizens’ rights. That, plus an offer of serious compensation, are the least these mistreated Brits deserve. Will Home Secretary Amber Rudd make pledges on either at the Home Affairs Committee on Wednesday? (Incidentally, Yvette Cooper’s decision to call Rudd to give evidence is yet another example of how Parliament can try to effect change).
One telling reason the Windrush victims are suffering is that they spent all their lives here working (‘paying in’ as one put it), not receiving state benefits or health treatment, until they became pensioners. Yet as the New Statesman’s Stephen Bush has pointed out, the next category to be hit by all this could be Ugandan Asians who fled Amin in the early 1970s. They too could be hit by the pre-1973 technicalities that have hit the Afro-Carbbean migrants. Northern Ireland minister Shailesh Vara is one such migrant, if I remember rightly. On Radio 4’s Westminster Hour last night, Caroline Slocock – Margareth Thatcher’s private secretary on Home Affairs – said that the real issue was May’s immigration policy “which is simply wrong” and should stop “blaming officials”. Slocock also revealed the helpline for Windrush individuals was so bad (it asks to give details to the Home Office) it should be called a ‘we-will-not-help-you line’.
Labour’s Equalities Shadow Dawn Butler ramped up the issue yesterday on SkyNews, suggesting the Government could be classified as ‘institutionally racist’ following the Windrush scandal. Some Labour MPs wonder if the party will regret calling for Rudd’s resignation, if it turns out that May was more to blame. Amid all the ministerial shock at the recent rash of stories, one answer that seemed telling yesterday was defence minister Tobias Ellwood on Sky. Asked why there had been no resignations, he simply said: “I can’t answer for that.” Labour too has some questions to ask itself. Lord Wood, Ed Miliband’s former key aide, told Radio 4 last night that the party’s decision to abstain on the 2014 Immigration Bill “was the wrong thing to do”. He pointed instead to backbencher Jeremy Corbyn making a courageous speech opposing it.
3. UNSPENT, UNSPUN
In an age of austerity, you’d think that councils would be desperate to spend any extra cash they can get to tackle the housing crisis. Judging from a HuffPost Freedom of Information investigation by our Owen Bennett, you’d be wrong. We’ve found that councils across the UK have failed to spend more than a third of a billion quid set aside for affordable homes. The data shows more than £375million is sitting in councils’ bank accounts instead of being used to tackle the housing crisis. Two-thirds of that cash - £235million - is being held by just 14 councils.
The cash comes from so-called Section 106 agreements, whereby private developers get planning permission for juicy sites in return for cash help for affordable homes, new libraries or other public goods (like free bus services to out-of-town supermarkets that often disappear a year later). On cash earmarked for housing, Labour-run Southwark has £52.6million in the bank, while Camden – also controlled by Labour – has £37.6million. Tory-run Kensington and Chelsea, which has yet to find new homes for two-thirds of those families affected by the Grenfell Tower tragedy, has £21million for affordable housing sitting unspent. And in an embarrassing twist for the Government, one of the worst offenders is in the constituency of Housing Minister Dominic Raab, with Elmbridge in Surrey sitting on £8million.
The culprits are of all political stripes, and so is the criticism. Housing Secretary Sajid Javid tells us he expects boroughs to spend the money. The National Housing Federation says the sheer scale of the unspent money “reconfirms our view that affordable housing should be delivered within new developments, rather than developers simply funding its delivery elsewhere”. We’ve got more on this big issue in coming weeks. Check out if your local council is one of those involved. Shadow Housing Secretary John Healey is at the PLP tonight, and the party’s new policies on affordable homes and tenants’ csar is sure to be a key part of the local election push.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Sir Anthony Hopkins has gone a bit odd. Check out this tweeted video of his.
4. CHINESE BURN
David Cameron’s news-free CNN interview last week (I’m told the BBC lost out because it refused conditions on which questions it could ask) doesn’t mean the ex-PM is not newsy himself. The FT has a fascinating story that Cameron discussed China in a meeting with Philip Hammond, just weeks before London and Beijing last year endorsed a $1bn investment fund he’s setting up with a millionaire PR veteran Lord Chadlington. Two months later, ACOBA, the body that oversees the revolving door between ministers and private sector, barred Cameron from lobbying ministers for two years. Yet again, as with George Osborne, the watchdog seems to fix the stable door after the horse has bolted. Labour’s Shadow Chief Secretary Peter Dowd is asking questions.
Meanwhile, there are also questions about the efficacy of Cameron’s shepherds hut, which he bought for peace and quiet to write his memoirs. The Telegraph reports that the ex-PM is delaying publication of his book (for which he had an advance of a cool £800k from publishers) amid claims that he has been hit by ‘writers’ block’. However his old pal (and ex-Telegraph writer) George Trefgarne tweeted this morning that “I think the truth is David Cameron wants to publish it after Brexit because emotions are raw and it would overshadow any promotion - he has written 270,000 words”. A quarter of a million words and it’s still not ready? Whatever happened to our ‘essay crisis Prime minister’, who could knock off a speech or campaign at the last minute?
5. ROUND TABLE SQUARED
Jeremy Corbyn meets the Board of Deputies of British Jews and the Jewish Leadership Council tomorrow to discuss their demands for concrete action on Labour’s anti-semitism problem. However, Jewish News revealed last night that a planned ‘roundtable’, planned for the following day with all Jewish groups, has been abandoned and replaced with a series of one-on-one meetings. The Board of Deputies had objected to giving legitimacy to Jewish Voice for Labour, many of whose members object to the existence of Israel and who claim the whole issue is a ‘smear’ against Corbyn. There’s a telling line from a Labour source describing the BoD and JLC as “the most representative groups”. The Times reports that Corbyn has cleaned up his Twitter account to unfollow people who liken Israel to ‘the Nazis’. Dame Margaret Hodge told 5Live yesterday she no longer felt ‘at home’ in the party she’d joined 50 years ago.
Meanwhile, fake news continues to swirl among those who think chemical attack in Syria is another attempt to undermine Corbyn. Our Chris York, who last week revealed the misinformed stuff circulated online on this, reports how an obscure British blogger became Russia’s key witness against the White Helmets. The White Helmets are the group that rescues people from rubble in bombed sites in Syria – and who were nominated by Jo Cox for a peace prize shortly before she was murdered. Vanessa Beeley believes the attack on French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo was staged, al-Qaeda wasn’t behind the 9/11 attacks and that “Zionists rule France”. But her real passion is trying to convince the world that the White Helmets is a terrorist-linked organisation that fakes its activities to elicit sympathy in the West for a regime change plot against Syrian leader, Bashar al-Assad. Speaking of conspiracy theorists, Labour faces extra questions about Mandy Richards, its prospective Parliamentary candidate in Worcester. The Sunday Times reported she was found by a court to have made vexatious claims against MI5, MI6, the Royal Mail, her broadband supplier and local council. Her Twitter feed included suggestions the Westminster terror attack and Jo Cox’s death were ‘bereft of evidence’.
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