The five things you need to know on Friday April 22, 2016…
1) ALL THE PRESIDENT’S MIEN
Barack Obama is in town, armed with both his bulletproof limo The Beast and a beastly attack on Brexiteers. Behind that 100-watt smile, there’s a steel to Obama and his mood today is one of ruthless determination to protect vital US national interests and to help his friend David Cameron. And Downing Street hopes that combination of his sunny optimism (he is still hugely popular in the UK) and his deadly serious assessment of the high stakes, will have a real impact on the referendum.
The President chose the Telegraph for his article setting out why the UK should stay in the EU. It was a smart choice for the op-ed, given the paper’s readers include those wavering Tory target voters who have an instinctive loyalty to the PM but worry about uppity Brussels. Writing about dead American soldiers in European cemeteries is not the sort of thing a President does lightly and there’s no question he genuinely believes the EU will be weaker without the UK.
Obama’s most eloquent case was that, in areas like Iranian nuclear talks and climate change, the UK’s influence is ‘amplified’ not muted by being in the EU. Let’s see how he delivers similar lines at the No10 press conference expected around 5pm.
On the Today prog, the doughty Brexit minister Dom Raab was unperturbed by the size of the Obama juggernaut. He cannily seized on a line by former Washington ambassador Westmacott that compared Britain’s grumbles with Brussels with individual US states’ tensions with Washington. Raab said such talk reduces the UK to “little more than a North Dakota or an Alabama”. Ouch.
“US interests are not always the same as UK interests,” Raab added, with a dollop of ‘Love Actually’ defiance that once again showed how Eurosceptic Tories can sound like wizened old lefty Labour MPs. Sharp, photogenic, young: don’t rule Raab out of a 2025 Tory leadership race folks. Boris, in the Sun, is similarly punchy in attacking American ‘hypocrisy’ over sovereignty.
As for the EU debate itself, the stat attack continued. No.10 were delighted by UK Statistics Authority chief Sir Andrew Dilnot describing as ‘potentially misleading’ Vote Leave’s famous claim that we ‘send £350m every week’ to the EU.
Yet sending £175m a week to Brussels is still not an easy sell to a hard-pressed British public. And on Question Time last night, there was one audience member who had his own 'back of the envelope' calculation that the Vote Leave camp should surely turn into a viral video: quitting the EU will generate enough money to repay the national debt by 2030.
Yesterday’s tributes to the Queen on her 90th birthday had some highlights and lowlights. The Telegraph’s waspish sketchwriter Michael Deacon records for posterity ‘the single most boring anecdote ever’ by an MP, as Tory Michael Ellis told a story about Her Maj and a stained glass window.
In contrast, Jeremy Corbyn pitched his own response rather shrewdly. Referring to his own age and that of the Monarch was a nice self-deprecating touch which got over just how long he’s been around too. The gag about the Queen being an Arsenal fan kinda worked (it had a kind of 1950s flavour). But smartest of all was the way the Labour leader managed to deftly (yes deftly) separate his own lifelong Republicanism from his admiration for Her Majesty’s public service. He managed to disentangle the institution from the individual and you could tell Labour MPs around him were relieved.
Yet will Corbyn pull off a similar, and possibly much harder, trick when it comes to Barack Obama? Again, he has a lifelong opposition to US ‘imperialism’ in foreign and economic policy. On the other hand, the first ever black President, a man who introduced even a mild form of public healthcare to the US and looks like closing Guantanamo, is perhaps someone Corbyn can admire - while parking his loathing of the ‘institution’ of decades of Amercian foreign policy orthodoxy. And actually on foreign policy, this year’s Atlantic interview suggests Obama is the only President to have challenged that orthodoxy, with his inimitable line ‘don’t do stupid shit’.
We still don’t know if the two men will meet at some point, or if there will be an historic pic of them together. If there isn’t, that’s surely a huge missed opportunity.
Still, while he may be getting the hang of PMQs and set-pieces in Parliament, the unease in Corbyn’s own ranks hasn’t gone away. In The House magazine, Stephen Kinnock says Labour must take ‘remedial action’ if it does not make gains in the coming local elections. And in her speech this week Alison McGovern said: “Losing control of a single council at this stage would be an unacceptable betrayal of the people who depend on this part”.
3) BAD NEWS BURIED
The Queen’s birthday was, as guessed here yesterday, a good day to bury some policy changes you wouldn’t normally want to get much profile. A string of Written Ministerial Statements revealed things like: a massive hike in immigration appeals fees, some backtracking on legal cuts, a refusal to take 3,000 child refugees from Europe (though that same figure will be taken from camps in and around Syria) and a U-turn on a previous refusal to part-nationalise steelworks.
Yet some of the worst news was not delivered via Whitehall. The ONS’s borrowing stats made unhappy reading for George Osborne, but worse still was Iain Duncan Smith’s interview in the Spectator in which he revealed that the Chancellor’s figure for £12bn in welfare cuts was, as everyone suspected, plucked out of thin air. "A massive cut to working-age benefits had been announced before an election, with no work done to see where the cuts were going to be found."
Still, there was one bit of good news for the PM yesterday: the Parliamentary Standards commissioner decided not to go ahead with an investigation into his shares in Blairmore, although without giving any reasons why. (Meanwhile Politico rightly raises the problems the Panama Papers cause for Jean-Claude Juncker and his record in lax tax Luxembourg, a fact I’m surprised the Brexiteers haven’t push properly yet).
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
This teacher’s reaction to the death of Prince went viral last night.
4) RATION WAGON
If you’re too fat or smoke, you can forget about routine surgery in some ares of the UK, a new FoI investigation has found. The Royal College of Surgeons has found that 31% of local clinical commissioning groups and one health board in Wales are rationing operations. This is the sort of stuff that keeps talkshow radio busy for hours.
But just as worrying for both sides in the junior docs dispute are the Health Service Journal leaked emails showing some docs have discussed indefinite strike action. BMA lead Dr Johann Malawian talked about forms of ‘permanent action’ One doctor said :”[we] should be openly mentioning this before the first [all out full walkout], even if as a casual ‘well maybe if it gets really bad all the juniors will walkout forever’.”
And as the first all-out A&E strike gets closer, ministers scent they are starting to turn the political tables for the first time in ages. Shadow Health Sec Heidi Alexander (who don’t forget got her way in telling Shad Cab ministers to avoid picket lines) will undoubtedly be very nervous of explicitly supporting the all-out action given the risk to patients.
Jeremy Hunt has written to her to ask if she “supports the withdrawl of potentially life-saving care from some of our most vulnerable patients”. It’s a question Labour will have to directly answer at some point. You can bet Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell want to give full support, but the rest of the party may not be too keen.
5) TEST FAIL
Schools minister Nick Gibb has a lot on his plate at the moment. Today he’s confirmed he’s scaring a national spelling test for 7-year-olds in England after it was published in “human error” on a government website. Charlotte Smiles, the primary school teacher who spotted the mistake after a pupil gave the game away, and ATL union chief Mary Bousted were on the Today prog.
But with the huge row over the plan for forced academies (which sounds a bit like ‘forced rhubarb’ in more ways than one) rumbling on, primary schools certainly are in the political front line more than in years. As I’ve written before, the looming concern for many parents, pupils and teachers in primaries is this year’s new SAT exam for grammar, an exam that English graduates say looks too hard.
Shadow Education Sec Lucy Powell has today claimed that the original concept of Free Schools is also “all but dead”. Labour says the Government has snuck out new criteria for Free School applicants that actually removes the requirement for those proposing Free Schools to conduct a survey demonstrating demand from local parents.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Listen directly HERE (or download on iTunes HERE) to our discussion of Corbyn’s PMQs win, the Gove-Cummings tag-team, Maccy Ds and the PLP and how the House of Lords shows there are fifty shades of Government U-turn. Oh and our quiz: which stalls were NOT at Labour's conference last year?
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