1. CULTURE CLUBBED
After daily, almost hourly, new allegations about sexual harassment in Westminster, Theresa May may today be hoping no more revelations emerge and that she can move the focus back on to her own Government agenda. The PM is also trying to regain the initiative in the scandal by calling for “a new culture of respect” in politics.
Yet the culture of disrespect, summed up by Sir Michael Fallon’s claim that people like him can’t say things they would have 15 years ago, may take some time to root out. Will May measure up to her own test that politicians must “act decisively, without fear or favour, to guarantee a safe and respectful working environment for everyone in the future”?
A Tory activist says she was raped by a senior party figure and asked the Commons Clerk to pass on her concerns to Commons leader Andrea Leadsom and Chief Whip Gavin Williamson. The case didn’t go to trial in the end, but the anonymous complainant told the BBC’s Victoria Derbyshire show she felt ignored. The Commons Clerk insists the criminal case made it legally impossible to refer the matter formally to the House. Still, the incident again shows the need for a new complaints procedure.
Theresa May meets Jeremy Corbyn and other Westminster party leaders today to discuss a common approach. Before an ‘independent’ complaints unit is set up in Parliament, there are still difficult issues about confidentiality, transparency, natural justice, funding and any sanctions applicable. It may be that the parties themselves have to lead by example, with expulsions the only language some wrongdoers will understand. Yet some MPs are wary of ‘kangaroo courts’, and Tories recall the way David Cameron forced repayment of their expenses for things they felt were unfairly used against them.
How will any of this affect the stability of the Government? The Telegraph rightly picked up on the significance of Amber Rudd’s hint on Marr yesterday that there will be a “clearing out” of MPs and ministers guilty of misconduct. Rudd also said that it was “completely disgusting” that Sir Michael Fallon had lunged at political journalist Jane Merrick and tried to kiss her on the lips. “It was right that he stepped down,” she said. But the Times reports on trouble ahead for May, with one minister saying: “There’s neither leadership nor grip. I’ve come to the conclusion she should go. In the past, Graham Brady [as chairman of the 1922 committee of backbenchers] would have made it clear she was over. We can’t wait until two years out and her departure then would cause an immediate election.” Jeremy Corbyn too has questions to answer. He said this weekend ‘the case had been closed’ over allegations against Kelvin Hopkins before he appointed him to the Shadow Cabinet. The Times says that six Labour MPs and an official are on a ‘list’ of misconduct.
The inquiry into Damian Green starts today and yesterday one accuser, Kate Maltby, alleged there are “others who have offered to give similar evidence in private” against him. Green will need to answer claims about alleged pornography found on his computer, and Ethics chief Sue Gray will have difficult task weighing up the evidence. The inquiry may not be as quick as some assume and if it drags on pressure will build on Green to step aside. The Tories’ internal processes will address claims about Stephen Crabb, Dan Poulter, Chris Pincher and Daniel Kawczynski. A female former member of Poulter’s staff tells The Sun: “He made my skin crawl.”
The ‘i’ newspaper reports that the Tory Whips’ office was passed allegations of serious misconduct a year ago. And the Whips have some explaining to do. Former whip Gyles Brandreth told me last week that there was not just one ‘black book’ but several, kept in a safe, and that the PM had regular access. But he also recalled that in 1996 the then Chief whip sent a message after the Neil Hamilton affair that whips should “keep writing notes – he needs the information, so does the PM. But sleep easy, boys: from now on the notes will be shredded on a regular basis.” Sir John Major has a speech in Westminster Abbey tonight on ‘the responsibilities of democracy’. As the man brought down in part by ‘Back To Basics’, will he tell us more?
2. PARADISE COST
Huge data dumps like the so-called ‘Paradise Papers’ are sometimes so big that it’s often hard to see the woods from the trees. The last ‘Panama Papers’ leak was pretty huge but can you honestly remember, dear reader, a single game-changing news story from it? David Cameron’s father ran an offshore fund for 30 years, but Cameron himself sold his shares before becoming PM. The ‘row’ swiftly disappeared, even though senior Tory donors were named too at the time.
The latest revelations risk a similar muted long-term impact as eyes glaze over at the complexity and scale of it all. Yes, the Queen’s Duchy of Lancaster invested in offshore funds, but it insists no tax was avoided and the Appleby law firm at the centre of the leak insists nothing illegal was done. The Guardian has the most interesting line, that the Queen had an investment in BrightHouse, the controversial white goods retailer that has been forced by watchdogs to pay £15m in compensation to 250,000 people mistreated by its loans conduct. (Labour MP Jim McMahon, who made a storming speech on VotesAt16 on Friday, is a pioneer in exposing the firm’s activities). But the Duchy says it had only a ‘negligible and indirect’ stake in the company.
The more immediate political fallout is actually Stateside, with Trump’s Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross revealed to have been doing business with Russian firms, leading to claims he misled Congress. Trump economic adviser Gary Cohn and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson are also named.
As ever, it seems this is all legal because governments can’t agree on global regulations on tax havens. On Westminster Hour last night Tory MP Kit Malthouse said his Commons Treasury committee may have to launch a new inquiry. “I haven’t seen anything so far that alleges anything that’s illegal. And therein lies the nub of the problem. It’s down to us as politicians internationally to sort this out.” Labour is far from relaxed, and John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn are hitting it hard today. We could even get an Urgent Question. As it happens, senior HMRC officials are due before the Public Accounts Committee today and chair Meg Hillier says: “we will be expecting frank answers on what it intends to do.” Gordon Brown tried and failed to get global cooperation on some of this stuff. Can anyone else do any better?
3. BREXIT’S BACK
The CBI conference starts today and both Theresa May (9.45am) and Jeremy Corbyn (11.50am) are due to give speeches, each referencing Brexit. CBI director Paul Drechsler says there is “exasperation” among UK business at the lack of progress in the Brexit talks with Brussels, and compares the negotiations to a ‘soap opera’ (I’m not sure it’s a TV show that would get decent ratings myself). New CBI research shows a third of firms will have ‘contingency plans’ (aka relocation and job cuts) if no transitional deal is sorted by January, and 60% will have such plans in place by March.
The Sunday Times had a fascinating story yesterday that May is preparing to cough up more than £50bn for our ‘Brexit bill’. Adviser Oliver Robbins was told last week that EU officials need to see only a “single sentence” in writing to indicate Britain’s acceptance of budget commitments known as reste à liquider (RAL) and the UK’s share of the cost of MEP pensions and aid budgets. A senior government source told the paper the bill would be a small price to pay for a better trade deal. “The value of getting a smoother process of transition and a smoother process of trade in the end game is worth quite a lot. These are sums that make any lubrication of the process look like small change.”
David Davis resumes his talks with Brussels this week. But what about Parliament’s role in all this? The Guardian has some quotes from Shadow Brexit Secretary Keir Starmer urging the Government to release its secret Brexit impact assessment papers before the Commons rises tomorrow. “If ministers fail to act then we will have no choice but to raise this matter with the Speaker of the Commons.” Could we really see Labour pushing for a ‘contempt of Parliament’ move? David Davis said papers would be released as soon as practicable but Speaker Bercow may insist on the deadline.
Former Clerk of the Commons, Lord Lisvane, told me that Labour’s ‘Humble Address’ tactic, demanding the publication of the documents, was “shrewd”. But he also had an ominous warning for Theresa May and Andrea Leadsom over their new practice of routinely ignoring or not opposing Opposition Day motions. Lisvane said that would make it much more likely that any ‘meaningful vote’ on the final Brexit deal would have to be in the form of primary legislation rather than a mere motion. One to watch.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
Donald Trump has sparked a feeding frenzy on Twitter after apparently losing his patience in spooning out fish food alongside Japanese PM Shinzo Abe. He dumped the whole box into the Koi pond.
4. GALL THE SINGLE LADIES
Single mothers will be £2,236 worse off under the government’s Universal Credit benefit than they would have been if Labour’s tax credit system had been left in place, according to a new joint study by the Child Poverty Action Group (CPAG) and the Institute for Public Policy Research (IPPR).
The analysis also calculated that one million more children are likely to be in poverty in 2020 as a result of cuts to the new benefit programme. It claims the government’s flagship benefits reform is a “colossal failure” that will leave a generation of children “scarred” by austerity.
As CPAG points out, David Cameron said in Opposition: “In Gordon Brown’s Britain, if you’re a single mother with two children earning £150 a week, the withdrawal of benefits means that for every extra pound you earn, you keep just four pence”. The sheer gall of that claim, in the light of the new study, is being seized on by Labour.
5. COPY THAT
Amber Rudd visits the US this week to demand tech firms do more to protection children online. Today, the Data Protection Bill is in the Lords and a couple of Committee Stage amendments are worth watching (there’ll be no vote at this stage but the responses of peers and ministers are the thing). First, children’s rights campaigner Baroness Kidron will confirm a minimum age of 13 for creation of accounts for Facebook, Instagram and other sites, as well as new protections on sharing of data. Digital minister Matt Hancock worries the move could be ‘disproportionate’.
But there’s an equally interesting amendment from Labour that introduces an individual right for online account users to be informed by data controllers when there is actual or intended commercial exploitation of their personal data. This idea of ‘personal copyright’ is not easy but has some support. The amendment would require firms to disclose both the intended use of data for commercial purposes and expected “gross revenues”. A chunk of such cash could go into a ‘digital education fund’ to help kids know the positives and negatives of sharing their data. Watch for DCMS minister Lord Ashton’s response today.
SUNDAY SHOWS ROUND-UP
Had a lie-in? Got a life? Catch up on the Sunday politics shows with our speedy round-up (including quick clips) HERE.