The Waugh Zone Wednesday July 12, 2017
As the UK heads off on its Brexit voyage, the feeling that the Tory party is a ship without a captain is all too palpable. Theresa May’s ‘relaunch’ speech yesterday confirmed that impression, as she stumbled on her words, dodged questions and admitted her lack of a majority meant she couldn’t be sure of legislating on anything. At the Taylor Report launch on workers’ rights in the ‘gig economy’, the PM even had to face the ignominy of Robert Peston asking if she had a personal interest in the fate of those in ‘insecure employment’. May smiled weakly at the impertinence.
The fact that May will be absent from PMQs today underlines the rudderless mood. Deputy Damian Green will face off against Emily Thornberry as May attends a state visit event for Spain’s King Felipe (an event Labour believes could have been easily scheduled not to clash with PMQs). The Trump visit has already been postponed and the Sun reports May’s planned trip to China has been put back to later in the year, which is bound to fuel speculation she thinks she may not be in post this autumn.
There is also a feeling among MPs on all sides that No.10 wants to keep everything as quiet as possible in this ‘Zombie’ Parliament’s next few days. I’ve written before about the sheer lack of business in the Commons, with the Repeal Bill unlikely to face a vote before October. And as ministers limp towards the finishing line of summer recess, I’m told next week MPs will have no legislation at all to contend with, as general debates are used to fill space in the Parliamentary timetable. Today, we have a Grenfell Tower debate, select committee chair elections and a Westminster Hall debate on abuse and harassment of candidates in the general election (Labour has hit back hard at Tory allegations of ‘hate mobs’, pointing out the vitriol poured on Corbyn by CCHQ).
The sense that May just wants to put everything on hold until the summer is further fuelled by Francis Elliot’s story in the Times that the PM has delayed a planned ‘race audit’ until the autumn, despite “explosive” Whitehall findings of failings in public services for ethnic minorities (the n-word remarks by MP Anne Marie Morris wouldn’t have made a great backdrop either). Details of a new post-Brexit migrant worker visa regime have also been shelved, it seems.
This is the state, or stasis, we’re in. Leavers want a buccaneering leader and PM bristling with confidence, Remainers want someone ‘sensible’ to prevent Brexit Britain floating off the edge of Europe. Having a PM who seems adrift right now, on a Government ghost ship, isn’t helping either cause.
At exactly the same time as the PM was relaunching herself yesterday, Boris Johnson just couldn’t help himself to second helpings of Brexit cake in Foreign Office questions. Asked by Philip Hollobone if the UK shouldn’t pay a ‘penny piece’ to Brussels in our divorce, Bojo agreed the EU could ‘go whistle’ if it demanded “extortionate” sums. It’s true that the EU27 are determined to extract up to £60bn in liabilities, and fear the loss of our annual income too, as Eurosceptics such as Jacob Rees-Mogg have long argued. But Boris’s language was a tad strong for No.10, which insisted “we will meet our legal obligations”, while DD himself told peers we won’t “pay any more than we need to”.
Just as troublesome was Boris’s classically flip remark in FCO questions that “there is no plan for no deal because we are going to get a great deal.” Davis’s former chief of staff James Chapman (who is tweeting more rapidly than Donald Trump these days) described this as “factually incorrect”, as his boss had indeed done the contingency planning on a WTO-only exit. Downing Street also had to issue a gentle slapdown, pointing out that a “responsible Government” (what, Boris was being irresponsible, surely not?) was “planning for all eventualities”.
The contrast between Davis and Johnson couldn’t have been greater yesterday, with the Brexit Secretary telling a Lords select committee that sheer “practicalities” meant there would have to be some kind of transition period for Brexit. He even said the dramatic fall in EU nurse NHS registration may have been due to a “too rigorous” English language test. That’s the thing about Davis: he’s so trusted by fellow Brexiteers that he doesn’t need a dog whistle to reassure them that the destination will be reached, despite the bumps in the road.
Another area of DD pragmatism emerged this week with claims he was overruled by May and told the UK had to pull out of the nuclear material treaty Euratom. Labour’s shadow Brexit minister Paul Blomfield has a Westminster Hall debate on it this morning. He and Keir Starmer have blogged for HuffPostUK on why the PM needs to ditch her opposition to the ECJ.
Another issue where No.10 looked like they were not in control yesterday was over the contaminated blood scandal. Thousands of NHS patients – many of them haemophiliacs – died in the 1970s and 1980s after being given US imports of tainted blood products infected with hepatitis and HIV. A further 2,500 people survived but still suffer from severe health problems.
Campaigners suspect that this was yet another problem May and the Department of Health wanted to file away for the autumn, but political pressure and shrewd Parliamentary tactics forced them into action. Andy Burnham had said he was ready to go to the police with allegations of a cover-up within days. A weekend letter from six Westminster Opposition leaders urged an inquiry, and included (very significantly) the DUP’s Nigel Dodds.
Most importantly, Labour MP Diana Johnson secured an emergency debate from Speaker Bercow, scheduling it for lunchtime yesterday. The debate posed the prospect of a Parliament demanding an inquiry and ministers again having to delay. Just hours beforehand, May decided to tell Cabinet that she had agreed to a probe, either a judge-led public inquiry or a Hillsborough-style panel.
A lot of people deserve credit for years of campaigning for the victims and their families: MPs from all parties, national and local journalists Caroline Wheeler and Emma Youle. Former Labour health minister David Owen warned in the 1970s he wanted the UK to stop US imports of blood products, and pushed calls for an inquiry as early as 2002. Owen instinctively dislikes conspiracy theories but yesterday he repeated on SkyNews his claim that his own and other health ministers’ papers on the issue had disappeared or been destroyed. There’s a whole issue there about how Whitehall dealt with this, and whether or why the Blair Government or others junked invaluable paper records needlessly.
Donald Trump will be using the ‘Manuel defence’ today (“I know NOTHING!”), after his eldest son revealed just what a chip off the old block he really is. Donald Trump Jnr stunned Washington yesterday by tweeting an email confirming he had welcomed a meeting with a Kremlin-linked Russian lawyer offering damaging material on Hillary Clinton. In a Fox News interview overnight, he said he did not tell his father about the 20-minute meeting, which he described as “just a nothing”.
Don Jnr admitted “this was Opposition research” and, despite his father’s endorsement of him as “a high quality person”, could well fall foul of strict US anti-Treason laws which prohibit attempts to solicit material from a foreign adversary. Trump’s (normally smarter) son-in-law Jared Kushner was at the meeting and will now face serious questions too, possibly from a Senate inquiry.
As for the President, don’t forget he’s still popular among Republican voters. Which is why some of his party are still reluctant to go for him ahead of the mid-terms. Meanwhile, meet British PR Rob Goldstone, the man who set up the fateful meeting. He once made a phone call from a duck.
The Lords EU external affairs sub committee doesn’t normally make waves, but its report on the Royal Navy and EU’s Operation Sophia mission to combat people trafficking across the Mediterranean rightly gets attention today. The £6m operation rescued many migrants but its tactic of destroying smugglers’ boats has led to more people dying as they risk the journey in small dinghies.
“Operation Sophia has not in any meaningful way deterred the flow of migrants, disrupted the smugglers’ networks or impeded the business of people smuggling on the central Mediterranean route,” said chairwoman, the ex-Tory minister Baroness Verma. “An unintended consequence of Operation Sophia’s destruction of vessels has been that the smugglers have adapted, sending migrants to sea in unseaworthy vessels, leading to an increase in deaths.” As both Home Secretary and PM, Theresa May has been closely involved in defending Sophia as the one EU mission she likes, it’s not a good look.