1. CHINESE WHISPERS
The row over Huawei’s access to the UK’s 5G network has turned into a hunt for whoever leaked the National Security Council’s private deliberations on the Chinese telecom firm this week. I talked to one minister yesterday who said it was “beyond belief” that someone in Cabinet would reveal such confidential discussions, not least as the NSC’s paper on the topic was drafted by intelligence officials.
Ever since it was set up by David Cameron in 2010, the internal work of the NSC has been seen as even more sacrosanct than Cabinet meetings, precisely because it covers briefings by the heads of MI6, MI5, GCHQ, military intelligence and armed services chiefs. The fact that the Cabinet Secretary Sir Mark Sedwill is also the National Security Adviser (a twin role many thought would end last year) may mean he will be more determined than most to root out whoever was responsible for the breach of trust.
What particularly irks many is the way the leak was spun to the Telegraph as Theresa May defying warnings from colleagues about Huawei. In fact, although several ministers voiced concerns, they all agreed the NSC paper after intelligence chiefs set out their approach of ‘managed risk’. The Times’ Francis Elliott has a corker of a quote from a senior figure who says the story was a “hit job..evidently briefed to make a leadership candidate look tough on China”. Take your pick from the list of ministers said to have raised concerns: Sajid Javid, Jeremy Hunt, Gavin Williamson, Liam Fox and Penny Mordaunt. Two of those aren’t leadership contenders and two are so close to intelligence briefings that it’s unthinkable they would risk such a breach.
It’s rare for a Whitehall ‘leak inquiry’ to ever get anywhere, but this time things may be different. If any official was responsible, they face the sack, but if a minister was directly to blame then their future is at risk too. Via the BBC, Nicholas Soames has called for a criminal investigation, although that seems frankly unlikely. Still, Labour is piling the pressure. Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett said: “Critical issues of national security should be handled with utmost care, not used as political ammunition in a Tory Party civil war.”
It’s worth pointing out that Ciaran Martin, who heads the UK’s National Cyber Security Centre, told a cyber conference in Scotland that the ‘Five Eyes’ intelligence alliance was robust. “We can and have coped with certain differences in the past… We have different remits,” he said. But for many Tory MPs, particularly those with a military background, the idea of letting the Chinese firm anywhere near UK telecoms is very worrying. Many backbenchers have seized on the FT’s quote from Rob Joyce, a senior cyber security adviser to the US National Security Agency, who said: “We are not going to give them the loaded gun.” Then again the FT also quotes one British telecoms tech chief disputing US claims that 5G would make even its non-core functions susceptible to hacking: “The argument that 5G is a completely new architecture, it’s bullshit.”
And for Labour, there’s a real political opening here on public spending. On some estimates, the cost of banning Huawei totally would be £7bn. Philip Hammond gave the game away when he told the Treasury select committee yesterday he wanted “good value for money” and solutions that “avoid the most economically costly outcomes”. Labour’s Jo Platt said yesterday: “You cannot keep the country safe on the cheap. Labour will put security first and promote the British digital industry.” Can Corbyn execute the same judo throw he’s done on police cuts, but this time on security too? Given the Tories attack line that he’s a threat to national security, that would be quite something.
2. MAY TO DECEMBER?
Theresa May survived yet another coup attempt last night as the executive of the backbench 1922 Committee voted narrowly against the idea of changing party rules to force a new no-confidence vote this summer. And narrow it was indeed. The vote was by 9 votes to 7, with two abstensions, I’m told. Chief whip Julian Smith briefly joined the hour-long meeting and left smiling. In the full 1922 meeting, I hear Nicky Morgan had a well-aimed jab at Andrew Bridgen, pointing out the second referendum-style irony of demanding a re-run of a vote everyone thought had been settled.
It all means that for now the PM can breathe another sigh of relief. But Sir Graham Brady also made plain that MPs didn’t need a formal confidence vote to register discontent with their leader and could write to him to demand a change. He also said the 1922 Committee had asked May for more “clarity” for a “roadmap” and “schedule” for her departure. When ITV’s Robert Peston put to Brady that she could stay as PM until December, he replied: “I think that would be a surprising response”.
The real next moment of danger for May comes in that worrying 20-day window between the local elections next week and the May 23 Euro elections. If results are bad next week and if May’s Brexit deal is defeated a fourth time and the Strasbourg elections go ahead, then she could face mass ministerial resignations and an MP letter-writing campaign from even more than the 37% who voted to oust her last December. Tory peer and the party’s official historian Lord Lexden has told the Times he wants a leadership rule change: “As Churchill said, leaders who fail must be poleaxed.”
Technically speaking May can indeed remain unchallenged now until November 1, the date when our extension with the EU runs out. One option that is increasingly talked about in No.10 is publishing the Withdrawal Agreement Bill (WAB) next week, so it can be used to tempt Labour MPs with workers’ and other rights they want. As I wrote yesterday, publishing the WAB is fraught with danger too as Eurosceptics will be horrified by its wording. Let’s see if Andrea Leadsom includes the WAB second reading in her Business Statement this morning.
3. TORY LEADERWATCH
It’s not just the Huawei story that is a focus for the Tory leadership race. Virtually every policy speech or announcement is now seen through that prism. Matt Hancock (who’s picking up support as the main rival to Jeremy Hunt for centre-right MP votes) has a speech to the Royal College of Physicians in which he will talk about boosting NHS staff ‘wellbeing’ and praise women doctors for their #NHSMeToo campaign against harassment.
Unlike many ministers, Hancock has an ability to talk freely about his feelings and those of others. In a piece in the Guardian, he said he been shocked by stories of doctors working through periods of ill health or family funerals because of inflexible working. “I have doctors in my own family who have often missed important family events because the rota says no,” he said. And the story of the woman who had worked through a severe miscarriage risk “has really stayed with me”, Hancock added. He told the Today programme it was “outrageous” that equal parental leave was still not implemented for NHS staff.
But Instagram star Liz Truss has a real following among grassroots young Tories too, not least for her uncompromising shades-of-Mrs-T message about personal freedom and entrepreneurship. She yesterday put out a new video of herself talking about an ‘enterprise revolution’, praising those who set up online fashion retailer BooHoo. Truss hails those young women who have “side hustles where they do their businesses alongside normal jobs”. Was that also a description for a Treasury chief secretary with a neat sideline in leadership videos?
And even prisons minister Rory Stewart (one of the most stalwart defenders of May and her Brexit deal in recent months on the media) has let slip to the Spectator’s Katy Balls his own ambitions for the post of PM. “One of the reasons why I would be tempted towards this job is that we desperately need to rebuild ourselves internationally after Brexit. I am one of the only people in Parliament who is a genuine specialist. That’s been my life. I’ve done it as a developer, as a diplomat, I’ve done it in war zones.”
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR...
Watch Father Martin McGill receive a standing ovation at Lyra McKee’s funeral as he chastises the politicians for failing to come together until now. “Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get to this point?” If part of Lyra’s legacy is the restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland, that may be some comfort to her family.
4. ON THE BUSES
Those local elections are just a week away and Jeremy Corbyn is in Nottingham to unveil his latest big policy offer: reversing cuts to thousands of bus routes axed since 2010, using £1.3bn a year from vehicle excise duty. The car tax is one of our very few hypothecated taxes (George Osborne’s brainchild) as it goes on road maintenance. The Tories have been quick to say motorists will see fewer road repairs. One thing Corbyn is certainly not scrapping is free bus passes for the elderly, despite a new Lords report on intergenerational fairness demanding the end of such pensioner ‘perks’ to help the younger population.
5. THE VACCINES
Thanks to cranks like Andrew Wakefield, anti-vaccines groups were in the vanguard of ‘fake news’ long before the term existed. Today, the Guardiansplashes on a shocking Unicef warning that nearly 170 million children in the world under the age of 10, including half a million in the UK and 2.5 million in the US, are unprotected from measles in the face of growing outbreaks of the disease. NHS chief exec Simon Stevens says: “Getting yourself and your children vaccinated against killer diseases is essential to staying healthy, and vaccine rejection is a serious and growing public health timebomb.”
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