1. PERSIAN CARPETED
There is a stack of evidence today for all those who believe Theresa May is a Prime Minister who is in office but not in power. A ‘strong and stable’ PM would by now have sacked either Boris Johnson (for putting at risk a British national abroad), or Priti Patel (for bypassing No.10 and breaching the ministerial code), or both. There is also no Cabinet meeting today, itself a sign that while Brexit paralyses Whitehall there is little actual Government business worth holding a meeting about (the fact the Commons rises for a recess later is a lame excuse). Terrified of losing another minister to the sex harassment scandal, more than ever the PM looks like a hostage of her party, not the leader of it.
Boris Johnson’s latest blunder is his claim that British-Iranian national Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, arrested for spying in Iran last year, was in fact “teaching people journalism”. This one phrase, made to MPs on the Foreign Affairs Committee last week, has been seized on by the Iranian courts, who were itching for any excuse to increase charges against Zaghari-Ratcliffe on the grounds of “spreading propaganda” against the state.
It is also a claim that happens to be untrue, as pointed out by her husband and her employers, the Thomson-Reuters Foundation. The 38-year-old had once worked for BBC Media Action, its overseas aid charity, but was always only ever involved in administration not journalism, as with her current job. The Iranians claim she ran a BBC Persian online journalism course, and boy do they hate BBC Persian, thinking it’s an arm of MI6.
Liam Fox tried to defend Boris on the Today programme this morning, but did suggest he had been guilty of a “slip of the tongue”. The Foreign Office are understandably reluctant to let Iran get its own propaganda victory out of this, but what’s baffling is why Johnson hasn’t publicly retracted his claim. MPs and Oppositions never talk about submitting Urgent Questions (there’s a ‘Fight Club’-style culture on that), but I’d be amazed if Speaker Bercow didn’t grant one to Tulip Siddiq, Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s local MP. Will Boris then finally admit he had made a mistake? Or will he send another FCO minister to stall on his behalf, while he rings the Iranian foreign minister? That really would add cowardice to the other long list of political charges against our Foreign Secretary.
2. PRITI VACANT
What’s notable is just how much it is Cabinet Brexiteers in the firing line right now. As well as Boris, there is Priti Patel and David Davis (who is facing demands from Speaker Bercow today to send a minister to explain why he’s not yet handing over secret impact assessments on Brexit). But Patel’s case is really quite something.
BBC dip corr James Landale has had some fantastic scoops of late and his revelations about Patel would in normal times have led to a resignation. Some will argue that the International Development Secretary did nothing wrong in trying to build better links with the Israeli government while on holiday. But there’s a very strict expectation that no minister of the Government will freelance on foreign policy or represent the Government overseas without prior approval. Just as worrying for No.10 is that Patel was not just ‘imprecise in her language’ when trying to explain her conduct last week. It’s that it sounds like Boris knew about the trip, as it was happening, without telling May either.
The latest news is that Patel didn’t just meet PM Benjamin Netanyahu, she came back and formulated policy, including a new plan to give British aid to the Israeli army’s humanitarian efforts. No10 told us yesterday that May had summoned Patel to a meeting and reprimanded her by “reminding her of her obligations under the ministerial code”. May has even asked for the code to be clarified on overseas representation. Cabinet Office ethics chief Sue Gray will not be investigating either Patel or Johnson, but she is investigating whether a minister talked about a sex toy years before he was a minister. This all shows that as well as an independent system for sex harassment complaints, we need a truly independent system in Whitehall for investigating breaches of the ministerial code.
When asked if Patel had been given ‘a bollocking’, the PM’s spokesman didn’t demur. The problem is that, as one wag on Twitter put it, ‘bollocks with no sack’ is good description of the Government right now. When I put to the PM’s spokesman that the only reason Johnson and Patel were in post, and not facing investigations, was because the PM was in a politically difficult place right now, he didn’t really answer. There is the extra difficulty of May’s own future being closely linked to any Brexit transition deal (see below). Let’s see if there’s yet another Urgent Question on the Patel case. Or whether the Speaker thinks a hat-trick of dressings down for Brexiteers is just too much.
3. TRADING PLACES
Brexit is back, people. Liam Fox is publishing the Brexit Trade Bill today, setting out a legislative framework to implement existing EU trade deals after we quit the EU. (Remember all those predictions that Fox would be the first Cabinet minister to quit this Government? After Fallon, and Boris and Patel, he looks positively bedded in right now).
Today’s bill is one of nine extra bits of Brexit legislation in the pipeline. But Fox seems convinced that that he will still have the freedom to strike new trade deals with other states even before exit day, and during any transition. And this last point is very important indeed, particularly as Brussels has been hinting it won’t tolerate such a situation. US Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross has given Fox a helping hand, telling the BBC and the Telegraph that the EU are guilty of ‘extreme protectionism’ (though he did suggest a US-UK trade deal could take 10 years and couldn’t start until a UK-EU deal was clearer).
Moreover, it’s worth revisiting what Theresa May said in the Commons last month, namely that any transition could not be agreed without first agreeing a wider trade deal with the EU: “The point of the implementation period is to put in place the practical changes necessary to move to the future partnership and, in order to have that, you need to know what that future partnership is going to be.” David Davis had also been clear: “a transition phase would only be triggered once we have completed the deal itself”.
Why does this transition stuff matter? Well, because of the Tory party’s own ‘transition’, to a new leader. There is a growing school of thought among Tory MPs that if May can secure a deal in December’s EU summit (that allows the EU to claim victory on us paying more for divorce, but us to claim we have moved on to proper trade talks), she will make herself instantly expendable. Cabinet Remainers will be delighted to get an outline deal allowing the UK a post-Brexit transition period to 2020. Cabinet Brexiteers will be pleased exit and transition will happen on their terms. Neither may see the need to keep May.
And some MPs believe it will be much easier to change leader and PM, without a general election, in New Year 2018 than it would be in 2019 or 2020 (when the public may be more ready for a new election). The supreme irony of May getting ‘success’ in Brussels this winter could be that rather than securing her authority, she could sign her own political death warrant.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
The CIA has revealed that Osama Bin Laden entertained himself during his long hideaway by watching viral videos, including this classic ‘Charlie Bit My Finger’ clip, featuring two cute English kids. Never gets old.
4. THE JERSEY BOYS
There’s a wonderful scene in the comedy ‘Veep’ where the US Vice President tours a Facebook-style tech giant in the West Bay area and is told by its fictional CEO that “repatriation tax” “just stops so much innovation.” His firm is “post-tax.” Today, as the ‘Paradise Papers’ lays bare Apple’s own tax planning, those words look all too prescient.
We learn that after the Irish government decided no company could be ‘stateless’ for tax purposes, Apple sent an extraordinary questionnaire to offshore finance law firm Appleby (which is not an Apple subsidiary despite its name). It wanted to know which countries it could move to where it could get tax exemptions and where the rules were not so ‘publicly visible’. Step forward, the island of Jersey, which makes its own tax laws and has a 0% corporate tax rate for foreign firms.
Apple insists its tax bill is not lower thanks to its move to Jersey, which begs the question: why move there at all? It also trots out the now familiar line that nothing it’s done is illegal. Leeds University tax professor Rita de la Feria told the BBC the only surprising thing was that Apple had actually written this stuff down. But to my mind the most significant line in its questionnaire was this: ‘is there a credible opposition party or movement that may replace the current government?’
And under Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell it seems that much firmer action would indeed be taken against Britain’s ‘crown dependencies’ and other territories. In an extraordinary interview on Newsnight, Cayman Islands Stock Exchange boss Anthony Travers actually said the whole story was ‘fake news’. But Shadow Treasury Chief Sec Peter Dowd declared on the same show there was “immoral” tax avoidance “on an industrial scale”. Unlike previous Labour leaders, Corbyn may actually implement radical reform (and lets not forget Jersey isn’t exactly a normal democracy). Meanwhile, the FT reports that MPs’ own pension fund has £6m invested through an offshore unit trust – in Jersey. Oh and that firm is Blackrock UK Property Fund. Doesn’t George Osborne work for Blackrock….?
5. MAY-A CULPA
Someone has finally apologised for the Westminster sex harassment scandal. But that person is not a male minister or MP accused of wrongdoing. It’s Theresa May, who last night emerged from her Commons meeting with party leaders to say: “I’m sorry that we have seen these abuses of power – too many taking place over too many years.”
Earlier in the day, May also revealed yesterday that “A number of issues were raised with me that didn’t appear in the press. And, as you have seen, action has been taken.” Rather than that being a reference to any more secret scandals, that is being interpreted by insiders as a reference to the private intel she had received from Andrea Leadsom and journalist Jane Merrick, about Sir Michael Fallon.
The cross-party meeting last night (the photo reveals just how important Corbyn’s head of office Karie Murphy is, sitting right across the PM) agreed the outlines of an independent complaints procedure, better HR support and the involvement of trade unions. Green leader Caroline Lucas was disappointed there was no agreement on Parliament directly employing MPs’s staff or widening MPs’ training to include ‘consent’. “It’s quite clear some MPs do not get that,” she told the Guardian.
Some Tory MPs told me yesterday that they felt the steam was running out of the revelations. “The expenses scandal involved hundreds, this is barely double figures,” one said, adding that there was also a whiff of homophobia in some claims. Yet the claims keep coming. Last night, Ed Miliband’s office staff was dragged into the allegations. It also emerged the Lib Dems had taken six months to suspend a member accused of raping a teenager at last year’s party conference (the Sun has details).