It’s Valentine’s Day and Boris Johnson’s bid to woo Remainers looks like it has backfired even before his serenade begins. The Foreign Secretary is set to say he understands the ‘fears’ and ‘noble sentiments’ of those who opposed Brexit. Last night Chuka Umunna, Caroline Lucas, Frances O’Grady and others all rejected his advances, declaring he’s variously a liar and a scaremonger who exploited immigration and misled the public about a Brexit ‘dividend’ for the NHS. Former Cameron pollster Andrew Cooper tweeted last night: “Cutting immigration & boosting the NHS is what Johnson, Gove & co. sold to the British people. Deeply cynical & dishonest for Johnson to try to re-frame Brexit as *liberal* now.”
Yet what was most striking about the pre-briefing overnight is not the message to Remainers, but to Leavers and to his fellow Cabinet colleagues. Although his speech has been vetted by No.10, Boris has been allowed to stray onto the territory of future trade with the EU. And the Telegraph (his favoured paper) reveals he’ll say that having to abide by EU directives would “be intolerable, undemocratic, and would make it all but impossible for us to do serious free trade deals”. It reads like a poem to the PM: “Roses are red, Brexit is Blue/My lines are red, are yours too?”
Boris has an ominous warning too, stating that reversing the 2016 vote “would be a disastrous mistake that would lead to permanent and ineradicable feelings of betrayal”. Still, it’s betrayal by Boris of the metropolitan liberal cause that upsets some in London who remember him winning the Mayoralty by appealing across the political divide. He will try to stress today he wants to open up the UK to more immigration, not pull up the drawbridge, though few of his critics will believe him. Thankfully, there’s a Q&A after the speech today. Brexit is seen by many as ‘a column that went wrong’, yet the journalist in Johnson may not be able to resist freelancing on his main themes. (He was up early jogging on the Mall, giving yet another image of the loneliness of a long-distance Brexiter).
Many think that Johnson backed Brexit to further his own career, but given the reputation-trashing backlash he’s felt since, his friends say it’s difficult to argue that he put expediency over principle. Boundary changes in his own west London seat already put him at risk of a Labour ‘decapitation’ strategy, and he risks losing more Tory Remainers in Uxbridge. As YouGov’s Joe Twyman rightly puts it, Boris has gone from being a ‘Heineken’ politician (refreshing the parts of the capital the Tories couldn’t reach) to being a ‘Marmite’ one (loved and loathed in equal measure). Yet in a Eurosceptic Tory party, an anti-Brussels passion can still get you to the leadership. Perhaps that’s the real Valentine’s message of today.
Ever since the Tories were hammered in the 2017 general election by viral campaigns about foxhunting and the ivory trade, they’ve known animal welfare is a really hot political issue. Today, Labour seeks to ram home its advantage with a new 50-point plan covering everything from protecting lobsters from being boiled alive in restaurants to an outright ban on live exports of animals for slaughter.
Shadow Environment Secretary Sue Hayman is withering about Michael Gove’s conversion to the cause of tackling plastic in the seas after being ‘haunted’ by watching Blue Planet II. She tells HuffPost that Labour’s strong track record contrasts with the Tories’ recent announcements: “Unlike Michael Gove, we’re not swayed to develop policy after the last BBC documentary we’ve seen. The Tories so-called commitment to animal welfare is as disposable as the coffee cups Gove wants to replace.”
Today’s wish-list reads like a Jeremy Corbyn policy manifesto from his 2015 leadership bid: packed with micro detail (extending the definition of an animal to include ‘cephalopods’ like squid) and unafraid of any possible tabloid ridicule (forcing landlords to let tenants keep a pet unless there’s ‘evidence’ it’s causing a nuisance). One of the most eye-catching (and potentially very popular) ideas is to help those on low incomes with vets’ bills. And as a new dog owner myself (a fox red Labrador, and he’s lovely thank you), I’m often amazed at the sheer cost.
In fact, it’s a measure of how seriously Corbyn is now taken, and of how much the public care about the issue, that no newspaper today has mocked the Claws Four plans. There’s a line in the policy that states: “Recognising that currently for the majority of people under 30, buying a home is sadly less and less of an affordable option, Labour would seek to improve the rights of renters to own pets.” In the heat of an election, one can easily imagine how that would have been presented as ‘Labour says forget about a house, here’s a pet instead’. Not today.
The Oxfam backlash is in full swing, as the Times reveals the charity worker at the centre of the sexual misconduct scandal in Haiti was hired by Oxfam two years after he left another aid agency amid concerns about his conduct. Actress Minnie Driver yesterday quit as the charity’s global ambassador, after 20 years. The Mail says 1,200 people cancelled their monthly donations. Big name sponsors like Visa and M&S are reviewing their links.
We report how Oxfam is scrambling to ensure safety in its high street shops. It tells us it is reviewing the use of Disclosure and Barring Service (DBS) checks on the 23,000 volunteers, including those who help run stores where it allows 14-year-olds to work. Oxfam also confirmed 52 safeguarding incidents occurred within its trading retail division last year, and a former Oxfam volunteer manager told HuffPost of her fears abuse could “absolutely” take place in shops. The Duke Of Edinburgh award scheme is reviewing placement of youngsters in the shops too.
For some, Oxfam is being hoist by its own petard, having spent so much time on its ‘brand’, only to see that brand trashed virtually overnight. And the rest of the charitable sector looks like being dragged into the scandal too. The Sun has an exclusive that the International Rescue Committee, run by David Miliband in the US, had its funding frozen by DfID over allegations of sex abuse, fraud and bribery in the Democratic Republic of Congo. A leaked report shows the Department for International Development cut off funding to the charity “based on direct reporting of sexual harassment and fraud”. The Charity Commission now wants to see a copy of the reports.
The Government is very keen to protect the overall integrity of its 0.7% aid target and Penny Mordaunt will use a speech in Stockholm to warn charities she will pull funding if reforms aren’t made. “Sexual abuse and exploitation is an issue the entire development sector needs to confront,” she’s set to say. But she is also pledging an extra £5m to the Global Partnership to End Violence Against Children. In his Telegraph column, William Hague says “the Oxfam scandal should not lead us into the blunder of cutting aid”.
The Work and Pensions Select Committee has produced a typically withering report on the Government’s reforms to disability benefits, revealing errors in assessments have destroyed trust in the system. The committee got an ‘unprecedented’ response when it asked claimants for their stories of the shift to the new Employment and Support Allowance (ESA) and Personal Independence Payments (PIP).
As ever, the headlines can often mask the real human story here. We report how Martin Corr, a registered blind man, was sent printed forms which had to be dictated to him by his wife. And when an assessor from private firm Capita went to his house, she noted his white stick but didn’t list it as an essential aid. Part of his claim was rejected. “She came armed with a laptop and set of tick-box questions which were very clearly designed to filter people out of the system,” Martin tells us. After help from the RNIB, he won his appeal. 11 months later.
Further evidence of the new mood among Labour members was provided yesterday as it emerged the party’s longest-serving mayor was facing ‘deselection’. Newham’s Sir Robin Wales, who fought Militant in the 1970s, is now facing a tough challenge after local parties demanded an open selection contest rather than automatic endorsement in a trigger ballot. Insiders tell me this is not ‘Haringey Mk II’, but it does show the grassroots want more of a say.
Meanwhile Momentum founder and new NEC member Jon Lansman was a bit trigger happy himself on Twitter last night, tweeting a quote from a wonkish economics blog that declared “neoliberal bosses have something in common with child molesters: both lack restraint in pursuit of their own self-gratification in situations where they think they can get away with it”. Lansman hit the delete button not long after.