By Paul Waugh
1. NORWEGIAN WOULD?
This morning on the Norway-Sweden border, Business Secretary Greg Clark will get an up close and personal view of what life could look like after Brexit. The minister is in Svinesund, looking at cross-border trade with Norwegian government’s customs directorate. Of course, there is an infrastructure in place, so it’s not quite the answer to our Northern Ireland issue. But with Theresa May’s ‘customs partnership’ at the centre of an almighty Cabinet row, Clark’s intel on his return will be invaluable as he is part of the new working group looking at how a ‘maximum facilitation’ alternative could work in practice.
The Norway model is very much part of the debate right now. Some Brexiteers like Dan Hannan have recently suggested that they prefer the UK becoming a member of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA), of which Norway is also a member. And on cue, the country’s PM Erna Solberg has told the FT that she is now open to the UK becoming part of the European Economic Area (EEA), where it would be outside the EU but inside a single market. It would have a ‘political deficit’, but jobs would be protected.
The ‘customs partnership’ model certainly seems under real threat after Michael Gove joined Boris Johnson in publicly trashing it yesterday on the Marr show. This was despite Treasury minister Mel Stride telling Sky that the plan had ‘huge advantages’. Perhaps most interesting was Damian Green (who don’t forget used to oversee this stuff) telling The Westminster Hour last night that ‘some variant’ of the ‘max fac’ option was “the most likely end point”.
Crucially, Green also stressed that such a variant wouldn’t be ready by the end of the current transition period of December 2020. He said the transition would have to be extended. A six-month extension is exactly what the EU is looking at, as the Indy revealed this weekend. Yet Brexiteers like Gove and Jacob Rees-Mogg are not too keen on endless transitions. The working groups may not be ready with solutions until next week and that’s why talk is already shifting towards coming up with a proposal by the June EU summit, and possibly even by October.
What’s been noticeable of late is the way Remainers have been biting back and, bolstered by the Lords, prepared to take on the Government in the Commons. Former Cabinet minister Stephen Crabb was combative on the BBC yesterday, saying Gove and Johnson may find that “Parliament will be making the decisions for them”. Today, David Miliband joins Nick Clegg and Nicky Morgan on a platform to argue for MPs asserting themselves more forcefully. On the Today programme, Miliband said the EEA option should be taken up. He rejected the idea of a new centrist party, but did warn: “Jeremy Corbyn has got be very careful not to be the midwife of a hard Brexit” (he said that line twice, in case we missed it).
Given that Miliband couldn’t get the five extra MPs’ handshakes he needed to clinch the Labour leadership in 2010, he may have little chance of persuading Corbyn in 2018. Yet Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry could, however, nudge their leader more towards an EEA-style outcome. I’m told Jeremy Corbyn will address the PLP tonight, so maybe we will get more clues to his – and the party’s mood – there.
2. TESSA’S LEGACY
Some lovely photos of Tessa Jowell appear on many news websites and newspaper front pages today, and the tributes from her friends and family have been truly moving. Her husband David Mills and daughter Jessie were on the Today programme describing her last hours. “To the last moment, she was the most magnificent mother and person we adored,” Jessie said.
Even as she was dying, the former Labour Cabinet wanted to help others and it was fitting that overnight the Government announced it would double investment into a £40m ‘Tessa Jowell Brain Cancer Research Mission’. Theresa May and Jeremy Hunt said that new mission would cover several of Tessa’s campaign requests, and will include a boosted research fund, an annual global symposium and new commitments to clinical excellence in her name. The Brain Tumour Charity said: “In the last nine months of her life, Baroness Jowell used her voice on behalf of our entire community. The government’s pledge shows that she has been heard at the highest level.”
It was of course Tessa’s cross-party approach to politics that often ensured long-lasting change. Although others did huge amounts on the London Olympics, it was Tessa who really was instrumental in persuading Tony Blair to make the bid (and in working with Tories Lord Coe and Boris Johnson to make them a success). Yet there is one area where party differences are unavoidable: on Sure Start children’s centres. Jowell drove through that policy in the early 2000s and yet many have been cut or closed in recent years. Labour’s leader in the Lords Angela Smith last night told Radio 4: “Perhaps that’s the legacy for Tessa, for the government to reinstate some of the SureStart centres we have lost.”
3. PARTY TIME
The fast-tracked timetable for Labour’s candidate selection for the Lewisham East by-election has had to be slowed just a little, following protests from the local party. It emerged this weekend that, to give members more time to assess candidates, the final hustings and selection will be delayed three days from this Wednesday to Saturday instead.
One surprise yesterday was that early front runner Phyll Opoku-Gyimah pulled out of the race, citing ‘an unexpected family situation’. That boosts the chances of local councillors Sakina Sheikh and Brenda Dacres, plus NEC member Claudia Webbe. I’m told that former local councillor Abena Oppong-Asare will be interviewed this morning. Shortlisting is still tonight. Meanwhile, some insiders wonder how many members locally will be energised for Saturday’s new hustings date: it’s the Royal wedding and the FA Cup final too (though some could be uninterested in either, I guess).
As Lewisham prepares its selection, one former MP’s days may well be numbered in the party. Yes, Ken Livingstone looks on borrowed time after Shami Chakrabarti told BBC’s Sunday Politics that it is ‘very difficult’ to see how he can remain in the party. The Shadow Attorney General said he had repeatedly ‘brought shame’ on Labour through his remarks about Jews. Of course, it will be up to the quasi-judicial National Constitutional Committee (NCC) to determine his fate. But her remarks are a sign that Team Corbyn is preparing for his expulsion. Still, some party insiders were not pleased at Chakrabarti’s claim that new general secretary Jennie Formby has “probably taken more action to implement my report in the last month than has happened in two years.” With Jewish groups still ‘disappointed’ after last week’s meetings with Formby, there’s some way to go even if Ken is kicked out.
Someone else who wants Livingstone expelled is Clive Efford, who chairs the influential Tribune group of Labour MPs. “Ken’s got to go. He can’t be in the party, that’s it, these are the rules,” he says in a HuffPost interview. Efford adds that while Corbyn “hasn’t got a racist bone in his body”, the Labour leader has “let himself down over the anti-Semitism issue.” He also suggested the Shadow Cabinet needed freshening up. “There’s loads of talent knocking around. Yvette [Cooper] is the obvious example. She really socked it to Amber Rudd.” Corbyn is very loyal to his current top team but with David Lammy too making a real impact, will he further tweak his frontbench posts? Again, perhaps the PLP will hear more tonight.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this extraordinary video of how to get machines to deliver the cherry on your cake. Love the baby.
4. SPEAKER CORNERED
For a man who prides himself on transparency and holding power to account, John Bercow’s stance on his own future seems unusually opaque. Just days before the general election last year, almost unnoticed, the Speaker announced to SkyNews that he planned to continue in his post for another five years. This contradicted his earlier pledge to step down in 2018, but he justified it on the grounds that Theresa May’s own U-turn on a snap election proved “people are entitled to change their minds”.
His critics were not pleased, and even some of his admirers thought it odd, but when he was reelected last year few had the appetite to do anything about it. Fast-forward to today and the Speaker has been fighting for his political life following Newsnight’s reporting of alleged bullying claims against staff. This weekend, friends of Bercow told the Sunday Times that he now planned to step down in 2019, after 10 years in post. A spokesman said: “In the event he has anything to say on his future plans, he will make an announcement to the House first.” That sounded like a classic non-denial denial.
Well, some MPs don’t want to wait even that long. Tory MP and long-time critic James Duddridge tells the Times: “He made a manifesto commitment to go on June 22, 2018. Why should we trust him when he asks friends to brief he will go next year? He does not have a mandate to sit in the Speaker’s chair a day beyond June 22. The man has no honour if he breaks this promise.” If Bercow does announce soon that he will retire next year, will MPs like Duddridge formally try to get the Parliamentary Commissioner of Standards to investigate the bullying claims? That seems to be the only avenue left after the House authorities and Dame Laura Cox’s inquiry looked unlikely to probe the allegations. Let’s see.
5. UNF-AIR BNB
Even some of Bercow’s critics are willing to admit he’s been a reforming Speaker and in recent years Parliament has certainly become less supine. We’ve seen not just more urgent questions for ministers, but also innovations like e-petitions for Westminster Hall debates. And it looks like Theresa May was forced into widening the panel for the Grenfell Inquiry this weekend by the looming deadline of today’s debate on e-petition 206722 (signed by 156,000 people) on Grenfell. In the run up to the anniversary of tragedy, the Guardian has a black-edged front page devoted to the personal stories of the 71 people who died.
Grenfell has forced politicians of all parties to reassess the safety and availability of rented and other affordable housing, with tenants’ views finally getting a hearing after years of neglect. Yet the sheer shortage of properties ensures the housing crisis won’t go away soon. We report today our Freedom of Information requests showing around 2,000 households in Birmingham have been moved up to 100 miles away in the last five years. Often forced to live in bed and breakfast accommodation, the numbers have jumped by more than 1,000% in recent years.
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