The five things you need to know on Wednesday, March 22…
1) INDEPENDENCE DAY
Another PMQs looms. And as Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn square up over the despatch box, the former Home Secretary may well talk of the new aircraft laptop ban. A fresh terror threat forms a particularly poignant backdrop to the tributes to Martin McGuinness that are sure to feature too today. Will any Tory backbencher dare to raise Corbyn's support for Sinn Fein during the Troubles?
But the big issue that is sure to play out at PMQs is the vexed question of national independence. Theresa May told the Cabinet yesterday of her plans to write the ‘historic’ letter triggering the Article 50 Brexit process next Wednesday. She wants ‘an independent UK prospering outside the EU’, she told colleagues. Isn’t there a party that has ‘UK Independence’ in its title? Will the PM dare to declare, with a Farage-iste flourish, that March 29 will be Independence Day?
And Scottish independence will certainly be on the agenda, not least as at 2pm Holyrood is expected to vote for the Section 30 order requesting a fresh referendum. May could cite Scots Labour leader Kezia Dugdale from the PLP warning that the best way to ‘deliver for working people is from the Government benches’. She could cite Corbyn’s line that he was ‘absolutely fine’ about a second referendum. She could even quote Ruth Davidson’s jibe that ‘a big Tory did it’.
The SNP’s Mhairi Black caused a bit of a kerfuffle with her line yesterday that Scotland’s 59 MPs can be outvoted by London’s 73. The FT's Seb Payne was quick to point out that London’s population is 40% larger than Scotland's, yet it has just 20% more MPs.
May’s holding line in rejecting a second indyref before Brexit is that “now is not the right time”. Which is exactly the phrase being used by Treasury minister Jane Ellison (in a letter seen by the Telegraph) to rule out a pensions tax raid to make up for the £2bn black hole cause by Hammond’s Budget U-turn. So where will the money for the NHS come from? And after last week's debacle, will Corbyn dare tread on that ground?
2) LEN ME YOUR EARS
Relations between Tom Watson and Len McCluskey plumbed new depths yesterday as the Unite boss used a HuffPost UK blog to launch a withering attack on his former friend. McCluskey said the deputy Labour leader operated in “a world of skulduggery, smears and secret plots”. Watson behaved like he was in ‘a low-budget remake of The Godfather’, he added. (Funnily enough, I know of one Labour MP and devout Corbynsceptic who actually does have the movie’s theme tune as his phone ringtone).
In a particularly savage dig, McCluskey said he’d suppported Watson publicly and privately “when he was under great personal strain because of his courageous campaign against the Murdoch empire”. On the point of substance, he also denied he was “in cahoots” with Momentum’s Jon Lansman in a bid to take over Labour.
But Watson responded: “I am sorry that Len McCluskey has to use personal insults instead of arguing his case. It would be more productive if he would state categorically that Unite will never fund Momentum” (something the Unite general secretary failed to rule out in his blog, Watson allies say).
As it happens, we have published a video of McCluskey from 2012, with John McDonnell seated beside him, telling a meeting of leftwing activists about ‘entryism’ and how to ‘take over the party’ for the Left. Len’s campaign insist he was talking about getting more trade unionists into Labour. But Watson tells us: “These remarks provide further evidence that there is a long-standing plot by the hard left to take control of the Labour Party by employing the same methods Jon Lansman outlined”.
I can’t see Watson sitting alongside Corbyn in PMQs today after all this. As I reported on Monday, at the PLP they sat side-by-side, “like two skittles not ever touching”.
2) CLASS ACT
As well as being Len McCluskey’s public enemy number one, Watson’s day job happens to be as Shadow Culture, Media and Sport Secretary. And today his team are highlighting the way working class kids are being excluded from acting and playwright jobs. Shadow ministers Gloria de Piero and Tracy Brabin (one a former TV reporter, the other a former Coronation St actress) are holding their first evidence session into a Labour inquiry into access into the performing arts.
Among those giving evidence will be Eastenders actress Michelle Collins, but also the best political playwright of our times (miles better than the turgid David Hare), James Graham, whose play ‘This House’ has wowed audiences, including many MPs. Gloria has written a HuffPost blog in which she points out new figures show that 51% of actors surveyed were from privileged backgrounds and just 16% were from a working class background.
Speaking of meritocracies, George Osborne is under fresh attack from Watson today over his impending Evening Standard editorship. Watson has asked culture minister Matt Hancock to avoid conflicts of interest in dealing with his “former boss and powerful patron” (as it happens Hancock’s links to Osborne weren’t enough for him to secure one northern Tory candidacy he once sought, and he only narrowly won West Suffolk). Osborne has written to his constituents pointing out “one of the greatest newspaper editors ever, CP Scott, combined editing the Manchester Guardian with being an MP”.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Watch Republican senator Jeff Flake (great name) ask Trump’s Supreme Court nominee: “Would you rather fight one horse-sized duck or a hundred duck-sized horses?”
4) CHOCS AWAY
One of the more bizarre PMQs moments in recent months came when the PM appeared to agree with Tory MP Fiona Bruce that Christians were ‘fearful’ about talking about Christmas at work. Well, as the other key religious date in the calendar approaches, there’s a fresh fake row over Easter eggs.
Yes, Cadbury’s has been forced to slap down claims that its British eggs are Halal-certified. The firm’s Twitter account has spent hours taking on far-right accounts who point to a photo of a company employee holding a certificate showing its products are halal-certified. A Cadbury’s insider tells HuffPost UK the picture is many years old and originates from the firm’s Asia-Pacifc market. It points out none of its UK products are Halal.
Meanwhile, the Times puts on its front page an exclusive that Cadbury, along with Mars, Nestle and Kelloggs (yes a cereal firm - a clue to how sweet its breakfasts are) have warned they won’t be able to hit a Government target of cutting sugar in their products by 20% by 2020. May is already under fire for abandoning bits of Cameron’s anti- child obesity plans. What will she do about this? Only yesterday, we learned record numbers of kids are having milk teeth extracted because of sugary diets….
5) IRATED PUPILS
The consultation on the Government’s plans for a new school funding formula ends today. Pretty soon, the PM is going to have to decide whether to make concessions to Tory MPs furious at the way the changes will leave many of their local pupils worse off (as well as the backlash from parents in London and other Labour-dominated areas).
A little noticed moment in PMQs last week was when May was asked by backbencher Jeremy Quin if she favoured a ‘minimum’ funding compromise, that would keep the new system but ensure a floor below which no school would fall (the PM said ‘we will be looking at it carefully’). That argument is backed up by today’s IFS study warning that new pressures mean could leave 1,000 schools with extra cuts of up to 7% after 2020.
The minimum funding idea is further backed by the National Governors Association today which says that the new system will tackle unfairness but adds ‘we need more per pupil in every school’. Governors responding to a BBC questionnaire warned the cuts could force a shortening of the school day, fewer subjects in the curriculum and reduced mental health support. The latter contrasts with the PM’s own big speech on the topic earlier this year.
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