By Paul Waugh
1. IRISH STEW, IN THE NAME OF LA LOI
The end is nigh! Two long years after the referendum, Brexit could finally be sorted in two weeks, folks! I know, I know, it sounds too good to be true. But there’s a flurry of excitement in Brussels and on the money markets this morning after a Reuters Tweet that Brexit negotiators revealed last night that a deal was “very close”. Key to resolving the impasse is of course The Irish Border Question and noises from the Rue de la Loi (the European Commission’s HQ) suggest the UK’s compromise could just work. Irish PM Leo Varadkar said “there is a good opportunity to clinch a deal over the next couple of weeks.”
The big ‘if’, as ever, is ‘if the DUP’ can be made an offer they can’t refuse. Westminster leader Nigel Dodds told the Today programme his party had not been dogmatic, but he stressed that “the consent of both communities” in Northern Ireland was needed for any new regulatory deal. Today is the 50th anniversary of the start of the ‘Troubles’ and the presence of Sinn Fein in Brussels is a reminder that there are indeed two communities that need to be squared. Because the PM depends so much on the DUP, there’s a tendency in London to forget that the party does not speak for all of Northern Ireland on Brexit. Sinn Fein leader Michelle O’Neill rightly said that her party, plus the SDLP, Alliance and Greens represented the “majority” who voted Remain in the referendum in the province.
Still, if that Irish stew can be properly cooked (through No.10 making it palatable for the DUP, plus some verbal gymnastics for MPs and Brussels), all the other bits of this massive jigsaw can finally slot into place. There was good news for Theresa May this morning as Unilever announced it had scrapped plans to move its corporate headquarters from London to Rotterdam following talks with shareholders. And she’ll be cheered by a Bloomberg interview with International Trade Secretary Liam Fox, in which he said even if the Brexit deal was not perfect “it’s self-evident that if it’s a bilateral treaty, it can be revised later on”. That’s the Michael Gove line too, and it is a brutal rebuff to Boris Johnson’s rallying cry this week to avoid a “bodge it now, fix it later” approach.
EU Council president Donald Tusk has got it in the neck from British tabloids for telling the UK to stop using ‘emotional arguments that stress the issue of dignity’. As a Pole, Tusk was withering about Jeremy Hunt’s ‘insulting’ EU-SSR jibe. But his main point was that the dignity of the EU’s single market cannot be torn up. And he tweeted the EU27 had always offered “a Canada plus plus plus deal” on trade, security and foreign policy cooperation. Some saw this as unhelpful to May, but in fact if she can rebrand Chequers in similar terms she may cut the size of the Brexiteer Commons rebellion. What will also help her to sell it to wavering backbenchers is France’s claim that Chequers could give the UK the kind of deal that Cameron dreamed of: keep lots of EU trade but control EU migration. Next Wednesday, Michel Barnier sets out his future partnership plan. We’ll find out if today’s market optimism is borne out then.
2. RUSSIAN TO JUDGEMENT
When we hacks were guided through the bowels of the Cabinet Office yesterday for a confidential briefing on Russia’s latest spying blunder, it became rapidly clear why Theresa May has been so bullish about laying the blame for the Salisbury poisoning at Vladimir Putin’s door. The stack of evidence handed to us, as the Dutch authorities revealed the story of the GRU attempt to hack into a chemical weapons watchdog, was extensive. This was no ‘dodgy dossier’, it was a clear evidence trail that proved what the four Russian agents had been up to. They were ‘caught in flagrante’, as one senior British security official put it neatly to us. The key for our spooks is not to escalate a cyberwar but to expose publicly these operations to help build international support.
Full Marx to the Sun’s sub-editors today for its inspired front page splash headline ‘The Novichokle Brothers’ (I particularly loved ‘To me, to GRU’). We’ve done ‘7 Scarcely Believable Blunders Russia Made When Trying To Hack Basically Everyone’. What’s amazing is the sheer incompetence of the Russian unit in not covering their tracks and in leaving on their laptop key pointers to other operations in Malaysia and Brazil, and Google searches exposing their routes. A cash-strapped attempt to claim back on expenses a taxi receipt revealed their link to a military intelligence base in Moscow. And cash maybe to blame ultimately for the blunders. Some claim that Russian intelligence is so inept because all the best operatives headed to the private sector after the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The Dutch and the UK have had this intel for months, though they wanted to make the evidence safe before going public. So it’s all the more extraordinary that Donald Trump, who would have had known about the foiled hack operation, recently avoided condemning Russia and attacked only China for cyberwarfare. As for Jeremy Corbyn, it shows he was wise to change tack last month in his scepticism about Moscow’s role in Salisbury. Still, I understand some close to him are sanguine about the new GRU revelations, pointing out that the US’s own NSA spies tried to hack the UN’s HQ in 2013. Never forget that Team Jez views America with just as much distrust as any other foreign power. If not more.
3. GIBB FIBS?
School pupils are taught daily about the importance of honesty, integrity and careful use of evidence. But the Department of Education itself is accused of failing on all three counts after the latest complaints to the UK Statistics Authority over claims ministers made about school budget cuts and standards.
The statistics watchdog said yesterday it would investigate after school standards minister Nick Gibb declared that the UK’s spending on education was the third highest in the world. The claim, based on OECD figures, was revealed by the BBC to include university student tuition loans as well as the fees paid by private school pupils, which fall outside the DfE’s budget.
Education Secretary Damian Hinds is also facing a Labour complaint for telling delegates at the Tory conference that there are 1.9m more children in good or outstanding schools since 2010. Experts at the Education Policy Institute have said the Government should “ditch their favourite line” because the figure was “flawed in several ways”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Jeremy Corbyn turn into a veritable Spiderman as he scales a climbing wall. He doesn’t look like a 69-year-old.
4. LAB RATS
The perception that Scottish Labour is fighting like rats in a sack was furthered yesterday as leader Richard Leonard executed a ‘purge’ of moderates in his Shadow Cabinet. Defeated leadership rival Anas Sarwar and Jackie Baillie were both sacked as Leonard vowed to “refresh” the party north of the border to “focus on unity and the public, not ourselves and internal battles”. This matters because it’s yet another clue to the wider weakness of ‘centrists’ in Labour nationally. Don’t forget that only two years ago, Scots Labour members voted for Owen Smith rather than Jeremy Corbyn (6,856 votes to 6,042), the only part of the country to do so. Meanwhile, SNP Defence Spokesman Stewart McDonald tells The House magazine that his party could come to “an arrangement” to prop up a Corbyn government if it agreed to scrap Trident.
5. WASTE TEST
The Health Service Journal continued its fine reputation for scoops yesterday with a shocking revelation that hundreds of tonnes of human body parts and dangerous waste from NHS patients has been stockpiled by a leading private disposal company. Health Secretary Matt Hancock convened a secret emergency Cobra meeting last month and ordered £1m to be spent on helping trusts cope with the issue. Healthcare Environment Services Ltd says that over the last year, “reduced incineration capacity has been evident across all of the industry and has affected all companies”. The Dept of Health says there’s no health risk, but regulators are clearly worried. Meanwhile, HES’s most recent annual accounts saw it record a gross profit of £15.4m, with sales growing 18 per cent year on year.
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