The week in politics: Crusts, Corbyn and climbdowns
What the parties said
This week, Prime Minister Theresa May announced a package of measures to reform mental health support in schools, workplaces and communities during her annual Charity Commission lecture, which provided a neat distraction from the current NHS crisis. A cross party group of MPs called for ‘inclusive, open and urgent’ action to deal with the strain, whilst Simon Stevens appeared before the Public Accounts Committee during which he accused May of ‘stretching’ the truth over NHS funding. Elsewhere, Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill seemed to suggest it was Government policy to extend the ‘immigration skills levy’ imposed this April on foreign workers. Downing Street quickly denied the suggestion, saying the policy was ‘not on the agenda’. Goodwill said his comments had been ‘taken out of context’.
It was billed as the week of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s ‘re-launch’, however things did not go to plan after he was forced to make a series of ‘climbdowns,’ following suggestions he would like to see a cap implemented on the maximum wage that can be earned in the UK. This was replaced by the end of the day for proposals for pay ratios. In addition, Corbyn used his major speech to declare that the Labour Party is ‘not wedded’ to the principle of free movement; but Corbyn cast doubt on this position within hours.
Elsewhere, politicians in Norway rejected Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon’s ‘Norwegian style’ Brexit plan for Scotland to remain in the single market, with Svein Roald Hansen saying the plan would be impossible unless Scotland voted for independence.
What the papers said
A much repeated criticism of Theresa May since she assumed office is one of indecision and not knowing her own mind. Some refer to her as an ideological enigma, a Prime Minister, who, having assumed office at a huge moment in the UK’s history, has no plan to steer the country and economy through Brexit. Janan Ganesh this week took to the Financial Times to tackle this stereotype head on. He argues that the PM knows exactly the direction she wants to take the country in. No-one is ‘obliged’ to like this conservatism, he wrote, but reading it as indecision is ‘a transparent coping mechanism for the liberal minded’.
Respected and influential political journalist, Isabel Hardman, took to the Telegraph this week to write a moving piece on her battle with depression. She wrote candidly about how her mind ‘stopped working’ and described how she ‘cannot shake the feeling I’ve encountered an American style healthcare system when it comes to mental health care’. Regardless of political persuasion or party affiliation, everyone in delighted to have Isabel Hardman back covering the chaotic day to day events at Westminster. UK politics is the better for her writing, and this article demonstrates that perfectly.
Anoosh Chakelian interviewed controversial Tory backbencher Philip Davies this week in a revealing piece published in the New Statesman. Davies, a member of the Women and Equalities Committee, who is against the literal existence of the committee, sparked outrage in December as he tried to talk out a bill seeking to ratify an international convention tackling domestic abuse. Davies’ argument was simple: a bill which simply applies to women is ‘sexist’. A controversial figure indeed, however an interesting interview which doesn’t shy away from getting to the heart of Davies’ very philosophy and outlook itself.
On the benches
Inadvertently, disingenuously getting it wrong
Tobias Ellwood received a thorough scalding from Commons Speaker John Bercow this week during FCO Questions. Ellwood was forced to withdraw remarks about Shadow Foreign Secretary Emily Thornberry when he accused her of ‘disingenuously misleading the House’, but was further embarrassed when he tried to redeem himself by instead accusing Thornberry of ‘inadvertently disingenuously misleading the House’, leading to Bercow telling Ellwood that ‘if somebody is disingenuous there can be nothing inadvertent about it, which I would have thought the hon. Gentleman was well-educated enough to recognise; do try to get it right, man!’
Transport Minister John Hayes was, as ever, in the fine form during an otherwise stuffy Transport Questions on Thursday. There are few parliamentarians who would dare to analgoise Cicero with the uptake of low emission vehicles, nor many who would use a question about Freeports as a means of outlining his ministerial ambition of Britannia once again ruling the waves. The Highways England design guide, FYI, is, Hayes informed a chuckling Commons, no less than a tome to ‘dismay crass modernists and harsh brutalists’, with Hayes’ role ‘only this: to rediscover the age-old golden thread with which all of that will be woven’.
It’s easy to forget that politicians are human too, weird quirks and all. The Times this week revealed that former Prime Minister David Cameron refuses to eat the crust off his bread.
The revelation was made by Jake Berry, MP for Rossendale & Darwen, who says he discovered this at a Conservative Party away day. Seeing a plate full of toast when he came down for breakfast Berry did what any person would do and helped himself. Despite Berry’s protestations that there was enough toast to go around Cameron protested ‘But I’d had the crusts cut off for me’.
Good week/Bad week
Good week for: The Lib Dems. The Liberal Democrats have enjoyed a good week after winning a council by-election in the usually safe Labour ward of Sandhill. Local Lib Dem candidate Stephen O’Brien took the seat with 45 per cent of the vote, gaining almost double the amount of votes won by the Labour candidate. The victory in Sunderland was followed by a slashing of odds on the Lib Dems to win the Stoke-on-Trent Central Westminster by-election later this year, with odds tumbling from 50/1 to 7/1 within minutes. Following Jeremy Corbyn’s softening on immigration policy on Wednesday, the Liberal Democrats have certainly got a lot to shout about at the moment.
Bad week for: Jeremy Corbyn. Jeremy Corbyn held his ‘relaunch’ on Tuesday this week, which saw a series of policy announcements and climbdowns. One of the reversal focused on a policy area he was due to discuss, immigration, whereas the second was a surprise feature on a proposed maximum wage. It was heavily pre-briefed that Corbyn would use his set piece speech to announce that Labour was no longer ‘wedded’ to freedom of movement, but, by the end of the day, Intelex was left wondering quite what their relationship status is: divorced? In a complicated relationship? Not speaking, but likely to text after a long night out?
‘I am not saying there are not financial stability risks in the UK, and there are economic risks to the UK, but there are greater short term risks on the continent in the transition than there are in the UK.’ – Governor of the Bank of England Mark Carney in front of the Treasury Select Committee this week.
‘That’s something that currently applies to non-EU [citizens]. That may be something that’s been suggested to us that could apply to EU.’- Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill floating the idea that companies could be charged £1000 per person to hire EU workers post Brexit.
“What areas should be considered for transitional arrangements? I think financial services would be quite obvious but it also depends on the demands that will be put by the British government.’ – Maltese Prime Minister Joseph Muscat on a transitional deal.
Tweet of the week
During the Treasury Select Committee session this week the Governor revealed that the Bank did indeed monitor the social media activities of the soon to be President of the United States Donald Trump for any ‘market moving’ tweets.
This prompted one user to tweet that there was one (presumably junior) economist in the Bank whose sole job it was to monitor the tweets of the President elect. To be fair, it would be all over the news in any event.
In focus: Immigration, immigration, immigration.
It’s the first week back at school for MPs and already we have seen an issue that will continue to dominate for the foreseeable future. Immigration.
Firstly, Jeremy Corbyn and his team came to the realisation over Christmas that they were sinking in the polls and had to do something new. They settled on the always successful ‘relaunch’ idea, this time relaunching Corbyn as a left wing populist. More importantly, Corbyn appeared ready, at least according to the pre-briefing received overnight on Monday, to have moved significantly on freedom of movement.
At his relaunch speech Corbyn was expected to say ‘Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle’, a significant volte-face for the Labour party, and one intended to reflect the reality that much of Labour’s northern heartlands voted leave, many on the premise that they would be able to control their borders.
What followed though, was a somewhat farcical scene where Corbyn refused to endorse those exact words in several interviews and ended up amending his speech to say ‘Labour is not wedded to freedom of movement for EU citizens as a point of principle, but I don’t want that to be misinterpreted, nor do we rule it out.’
An unenviable position for Labour on freedom of movement (their vote in urban areas is strongly in favour of freedom of movement, while their northern, less urban heartlands feel that freedom of movement has harmed them irreparably) was made all the worse by Corbyn’s contortions on the issue.
It was not plain sailing on the issue for the Conservatives this week either. Despite Theresa May being very clear that the UK will seek to take back control of its borders, this week saw Immigration Minister Robert Goodwill appear to suggest that in a post-Brexit environment the UK may impose a £1000 surcharge per EU citizen who comes to the UK for work.
This immediately prompted uproar from Labour, the business lobby and senior European politicians. No. 10 quickly performed their own about turn and said the policy was not on the Government’s agenda and suggested Goodwill’s remarks had been ‘misinterpreted’.
While the Conservatives may be in a stronger position on immigration (in that they have a definite policy on it) May’s decision to apparently pursue a ‘hard Brexit’ alienates 48% of the population and her promise to reduce immigration down to the ‘tens of thousands’ looks no more likely to happen than it did under Cameron. Labour meanwhile seem to be trying to please everyone and are likely to end up pleasing no one, losing votes on the left to the Liberal Democrats and to the Conservatives on the right.
With Brexit negotiations not even begun and a strong right wing press pressing May on immigration controls the issue is unlikely to be put to bed any time soon.