The five things you need to know on Friday, February 17…
1) BLAIR’S BACK
Tony Blair knows that he has a certain toxicity, to put it mildly, among some voters. But the former PM clearly thinks he still has an appeal and reach to large swaths of the electorate and will try today to urge them to ‘rise up’ against the threat of a hard/clean Brexit. And regardless of his popularity, it's plain he just thinks he has a duty to speak out on the biggest issue facing the UK.
HuffPost UK, along with some other media outets, had extracts last night of Blair’s speech to Bloomberg this morning. And the old maestro, famous for ‘eye-catching initiatives’, certainly knows how to grab his audience’s attention. The backlash has already started before he’s even uttered a word, with one Brexiteer accusing him of ‘trying to resurrect his political corpse” with fresh deception.
Blair was given a bit-part role in the EU referendum campaign last year, popping up only alongside John Major to warn of the possible break-up to the UK following Brexit, as well as the threat to the Northern Ireland peace process. Today, he will repeat his hint that a second referendum may be needed, but do so in much more forceful and colourful tones. He is bound to get a kicking for suggesting voters need “‘easy to understand’ ways” to realise how Brexit “will cause real damage to the country”.
For me, one of the most fascinating lines in his Open Britain speech is Blair’s veiled warning that Leave voters will feel betrayed if they don’t see non-EU immigration reduced after Brexit. He says that while some Eastern European migration caused worries (given he was responsible for the Polish influx, many will say he’s underplaying that hugely), it is immigration from further afield that is the real concern.
“But for many people, the core of the immigration question – and one which I fully accept is a substantial issue - is immigration from non-European countries especially when from different cultures in which assimilation and potential security threats can be an issue.” That ‘different cultures’ line sounds more UKIP than UKIP and it’s not clear what his answer is to those concerns.
Former Remain campaigner Roland Rudd has blogged for us on why Mr Tony is right.
Meanwhile, Theresa May welcomes French PM Bernard Cazeneuve to Downing Street today and she has written a piece for Le Figaro suggesting a conciliatory tone. And the PM also tries to exploit the EU’s most frequent criticism, with another clear signal of a hard/clean Brexit: "We do not, to borrow the phrase, seek to cherry-pick which bits of membership we desire.” No, I don’t think she meant ‘Cherie pick’.
2) DONE UP LIKE A KIPPER
Paul Nuttall will try to recover from a torrid few days of questions about Hillsborough with his first speech at UKIP leader at its spring conference in Bolton. And in what may look like a patronising pitch to northerners, he will actually pledge his party would slash VAT on fish and chips if it got into power. I’m not making this up. It’s as if the pasty tax was all a distant dream.
In fact, there may be method in this apparent madness as Nuttall’s message is all about bread-and-butter issues for Labour voters who are flirting with his party. Using new-found freedoms of a post-Brexit world, he will pledge to exempt domestic energy bills from VAT - and promise to spend billions of pounds a year more on the NHS and social care and to focus more resources on mental health.
Nuttall will also restate his party's commitment to an Australian style points-based system, but will go further with a new tweak. He will say entry should be allowed on the twin premise of "aptitude and attitude" - stressing that immigrants should sign up to British values such as gender equality.
The UKIP leader went missing from one Stoke Central hustings but he did finally realise that when you’re a candidate in the Potteries, talking to BBC Radio Stoke was perhaps wiser than talking to Liverpool’s Radio City. Referring to Hillsborough, he told the local station that he was the victim of ‘an evil smear campaign’ and said ‘I can prove I was at the game’. Many will now want to see that proof.
3) TRUMPTON RIOTS
Yesterday’s Donald Trump press conference was a 75-minute spectacular, turning the once-prestigious White House East Room podium into a Vaudevillian music hall. It was a riot of braggadocio, half-bitten soundbites, flashes of anger and threats to the media. Few people will have seen the whole thing but we have the best bits HERE. Trump’s main thrust is that the media is now the US’s ‘opposition party’. It all reminds me of when Alastair Campbell, irritated by the title ‘spin doctor’, declared that the biggest distorters were ‘spin journalists’.
Within minutes of Trump talking about his ‘fine tuned machine’, the FT reported that retired Vice-Admiral Robert Harward had turned down the President’s offer to replace Gen Mike Flynn as his National Security Adviser. Asked about reports that he’d wanted to bring in his own staff, Harward said: “I think that's for the president to address."
Nikki Hayley, who as US ambassador to the UN appears to be one of the few ‘orthodox’ Trump appointments, yesterday tried to reassure allies that “we absolutely support a two-state solution” - 24 hours after Trump questioned whether it was still an American foreign policy priority.
But there was an even more telling moment when new US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson attended his first event with Russian counterpart Sergei Lavrov yesterday. Lavrov answered Russian reporters’ questions, but Tillerson said only some prepared remarks then told the US media to leave the room. “Why did you shush them out?” Lavrov asked. Not answering questions, on either side of the Atlantic, is not always the best policy.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch the BBC’s Jon Sopel clash with Trump at that extraordinary press conference. ‘Another beauty..’
4) WHO CARES?
Theresa May has been careful of late to try to pitch for Labour and Lib Dem voters who want a sensible, centrist government, and her party’s huge poll lead would appear to show she’s been very successful in that task. But the stresses on the NHS, particularly from social care, remain her biggest Achilles’ heel.
And you know things are bad when the normally very loyal Daily Express is urging more money should be spent. The ‘i’ newspaper today has six pages devoted to the NHS crisis. The Mirror splashes on a study from Oxford University claiming that 30,000 excess deaths in the UK one year were ‘down to cuts’. The Mail quotes a Department of Health spokesman saying “This report is a triumph of personal bias over research”. Which is kinda punchy for a civil servant.
The Times has an excellent story that Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood forced the big pharmaceutical companies into a £250 million bailout to help to plug a £500 million hole in the NHS budget - by threatening statutory price caps on drugs. But instead of funnelling rebates back to areas that spent the most, ministers opted to use the money to prop up the central NHS budget - and Whitehall was caught short when rebates were less than predicted.
5) DOING THE BUSINESS
The half-term recess clamour over planned business rate rises is a perfect study in how a Government can lose control of a political narrative simply by not saying much. Today’s front pages are full of new lines on the backlash among small firms outraged at the move to hike their rates for the first time in seven years.
The Mail and Telegraph both splash their front pages again, the former seizing on plans to curb business’s appeals against the changes, the latter with some eye-catching warnings from small shops queen Mary Portas and Tory party vice-chairman Mark Field.
Business Secretary Greg Clark meanwhile is battling hard to help Vauxhall workers keep their jobs after the Peugot takeover. But the FT says his talks in Paris yielded ‘thin’ assurances from the French car firm. Clark appeared to pull off a coup with Nissan committing to the UK post-Brexit. Yet Clark’s talks with Peugot, and Toshiba on new nuclear plants, highlight how difficult it is to negotiate individual deals with individual firms.
George Osborne, who once lorded over such issues, is now making lucrative speeches. But the Times’ investigative reporter Billy Kember has a fascinating story on how it appears the former Chancellor was hired for £80k to deliver a two-hour speech in New York last year - by a 34-year-old futures broker looking to ‘show off’ his contacts. The fee has yet to be paid.
We have a new theme tune! Owen Bennett’s homage to ‘Stranger Things’ opens up our latest CommonsPeople podcast. Listen HERE to hear us chat through Nuttall’s Stoke problems, May’s Cumbrian sausage machine and how Donald Trump is proving that ‘political professionals’ are actually not a bad thing (call me controversial).
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