The five things you need to know on Thursday, February 16…
1) DUCK AND COVER
The Cold War advice to school kids in event of a nuclear attack was famously, and ludicrously, to ‘duck and cover’. In the Copeland by-election, where the nuclear industry is the biggest employer, both Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn have been ducking and diving in the face of questions about big local issues.
Yesterday, the PM took a 700-mile trip to the Labour constituency and it exposed her flaws as a political campaigner. The photos of her gurning awkwardly at school pupils’ lego resurrected the ‘Maybot’ narrative. But worse was that May had arrived in the seat with little or no political ammo to help the Tory candidate (as well as irritating newspapers by refusing to confirm she was even in the constituency).
Asked for concrete pledges on the planned new power station at Moorside, the PM failed to give any. She could only say that Business Secretary Greg Clark had been in contact with Japanese firm Toshiba to seek reassurances. All of which undermined her own attack line that Jeremy Corbyn had failed to commit to the project. The FT’s front page on Government officials warning they want lower nuclear prices from industry (a move that could deter future investment) further undermines the difficulties any PM has on this issue.
Worse still was May’s failure to say if she personally opposed the planned downgrade of West Cumberland Hospital’s maternity service. Asked four times by ITV’s Dan Hewitt, she ducked the question each time. Finally, she said there could be a clinician-led review of staff retention in the area. This sounded like some kind of compromise but it was so vague and badly delivered that few noticed. And of course it was not outright opposition to the downgrade.
Labour is ruthlessly focusing on the NHS as its key campaign theme in the seat. The Tories appear to have ‘airbrushed’ the NHS out of their own leaflets. But Labour leaflets claim that ‘babies will die’ and ‘babies will be brain damaged’ if their mothers have to travel 40 miles to another hospital. That’s low politics, but low politics is often effective. And that footage of May sounding like just another slippery politician, avoiding the question on the future of a local hospital, is sure to be replayed again and again. For all the negative reaction on the doorstep to Corbyn, if Labour does hold on in Copeland, will it be Theresa wot won it?
2) WINNING THE POTTERY
If Labour felt it had a good day in the Copeland campaign, it looked even luckier in Stoke-on-Trent Central, where Paul Nuttall’s Hillsborough questions continued to reverberate. Last night the UKIP leader pulled down his entire website, as it emerged it contained another false reference to him losing a ‘personal friend’ in the football tragedy.
Nuttall still hasn’t accepted the resignation offer of his press officer, who took the blame for inventing his quotes. And before that website was pulled, we managed to spot his letter to the Liverpool Echo from 2012 in which he described himself as a “Leppings Lane survivor”. He’s also said he was in the 'upper tier' on the fateful day. Most people take the phrase ‘survivor’ to mean those who were on the terrace at Leppings Lane, some of whom had to be pulled out by those above them. And Nuttall’s ‘witnesses’ have yet to come forward to attest he was actually there.
Labour’s candidate Gareth Snell is still recovering from various sexist tweets he’d posted. Yesterday he sought to explain the fuss by saying it was all ’10 years ago’, even though he wasn’t on Twitter then. His most damaging tweet remains his Brexit is a ‘pile of shit’, however. But as I report HERE, Labour’s failure to vet Snell’s social media history looks all the odder given that another contender for the seat was barred because of tweets that were mildly critical of Jeremy Corbyn.
The Sun has a story that Muslims in Stoke are being warned that they face damnation if they split Labour’s vote and back the Lib Dem or other minority party candidates. As for Labour’s wider tensions, the ‘McDonnell amendment’ to make it easier to get MPs on a leadership ballot was debated by Progress’s Richard Angell and ex-MP Chris Williamson.
3) NEUBERGER, FRIES
Lord Neuberger, the outgoing president of the Supreme Court, is using his new-found freedom to have a pop at the Daily Mail, Liz Truss, Iain Duncan Smith - without naming them of course - and others who criticised judges over the Article 50 Brexit court case.
In interviews with the FT and Radio 4’s Today programme (media choices that are bound to be seen by critics as further proof of the patrician, Establishment nature of the judiciary), Neuberger makes his case. The Mail’s infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline, the day after the High Court said Parliament should trigger Article 50, is clearly in his sights. The Mail had also referred to the sexuality of one of the judges, as well as his own wife’s views on the EU.
"We [judges in general] were certainly not well treated,” he told Today. “I think some of what was said was undermining the rule of law”. Now that’s quite a charge indeed. He highlighted that Truss as Lord Chancellor has a statutory duty to defend the judiciary (and she waited several days before doing so).
And in the FT, he continues his understated yet pointed criticisms. Today, applications open to replace three outgoing Supreme Court judges. In a reference to IDS’s idea of US-style Parliamentary appointment hearings, Neuberger tells the FT: “I wonder what would be asked of the judge and what would the benefit would be”.
Neuberger says the three Supreme Court judges who dissented from the 8-3 verdict on Article 50 were “made heroes” by some in the media. But one could argue that those three judges did indeed prove that there was at least a rational case to be made for criticising the High Court’s ruling. One could also argue that the whole Article 50 court case in the end actually strengthened Theresa May. By forcing MPs, and Labour in particular, to take responsibility for triggering the process, the courts set in train a thumping Parliamentary majority for Brexit.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch this Dutch policeman get involved in a snowball fight with some kids
4) GONE FISHIN’
Just how much of a role Brexit will play in Copeland and Stoke is one of the most fascinating aspects of the two by-elections. Do voters think it’s even a political issue any more, now Article 50 is going to be triggered? With many in both seats having voted Leave, will they really worry about the exact shape of Brexit?
Whitehaven in Copeland is still a fishing port, so I wonder how voters will react to the Guardian’s leaked EU memo warning that the UK will still probably have to operate a common fisheries policy in order to meet UN requirements on sustainable fishing. Remember Farage’s ‘flotilla’ of trawlermen up the Thames, as well as Michael Gove and Boris Johnson’s talk of taking back control of our waters? How happy will they be if we really end up with the status quo? The Sun quotes the Fishing For Leave saying that if the CFP continues, the Government will have “betrayed fishing twice in a generation.”
Yesterday’s job stats offer more unease for both Leavers and Remainers. The number of foreign-born workers increased by 431,000 to 5.5 million - while the number of UK-born people in employment decreased by 120,000 to 26.3 million. But economist Jonathan Portes says employment of EU nationals is “flattening” in what looks like a ‘Brexit effect’. It seems Poles and others are going home, but Romanians continue to arrive.
5) RATE BRITAIN
The great business rate row is proving a boon to half-term news editors as it fills more column inches again. And there’s a treasure trove of projections of the impact of the rate hike from specialist firm CVS. The Sun first reported the news that Amazon warehouses would benefit while many high street shops were hit. Today it has a new line that firms in Copeland - like many in the north - will benefit by £4.1m in lower rates thanks to the revaluation. But it adds pub lobbyists claim a boozer in Stoke city centre faces a four-fold increase.
The Mail has now entered the fray and splashes its front page with a warning that the Chancellor will net £1bn while 500,000 small businesses will be hammered - including child nurseries and B&B owners - as out-of-town warehouses like SportsDirect get rate cuts. The Telegraph seizes on the £1bn figure too. For good measure, the Times has a new angle that universities in Manchester, Nottingham and Warwick are expected to be the worst hit when new business rates kick in.
You know things are bad when the Gauke is uncorked. The Treasury Chief Secretary last night played down rates-a-geddon. “Far from the picture painted by scaremongering ratings agents nearly three quarters of businesses will see no change or even a fall in their business rates bills,” he said. The Treasury says the changes will be ‘revenue-neutral’. Any overall increase in income is from new businesses, and proof of the booming economy, it adds. So that’s alright then.
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