1 CLERKS’ SHOES
Newsnight last night finally lifted the lid on what many in Westminster have felt is the really big untold story about life in SW1: bullying by MPs of staff is even more prevalent than sexual harassment. And the bullying isn’t always by male MPs, there are some senior women guilty of it too. I know of one frontbencher whose staff have all left, some to work for their party leader. What Newsnight revealed was the kind of treatment Commons ‘clerks’ – working for select committees, but also in other roles – have had to endure over the years.
Speaker John Bercow has declared that he wants a “zero tolerance” of bullying and harassment in Parliament and yet he himself faces claims about his conduct. The programme (watch in full HERE) reported that his former private secretary Kate Emms suffered post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) after working for him, citing witnesses who saw him undermine and shout at her. The Speaker’s spokesperson responded that he “completely and utterly refutes the allegation that he behaved in such a manner, either eight years ago, or at any other time”. A House of Commons spokesperson added it “does not tolerate bullying or harassment of any kind”.
Labour’s Paul Farrelly and Tory Mark Pritchard were also named in the report and will now have questions to answer to their own parties (though both deny misconduct). Farrelly’s case in particular raises the problem with the Commons’ complaints procedures and the way MPs have the final say over staff allegations. There is a bigger issue of whether, as with IPSA taking control of expenses, an independent body should oversee allegations of mistreatment of staff. Instead of relying on whips to ‘have a word’ with a member, or referring the matter to the Standards and Privileges Committee or the House of Commons Commission, it feels as though staff are now demanding an HR system that is normal for any other workplace. Trade unions like Unite and GMB have long demanded better protection and the civil service First Division Association chief Danny Penman told me last year it was time for radical change to end MPs’ power over staff procedures.
Of course, the reason bullying often gets ignored is because it can be even harder to prove than sexual harassment. It can be more subtle, more psychological and often the perpetrators see nothing awry in their conduct at all. Labour’s Jess Phillips tweeted that the Newsnight report proves allegations must be “investigated, independently and fairly”. Green party leader Caroline Lucas told Today that the new Parliamentary harassment working group had not agreed on how to deal with ‘historic’ complaints. As for the Speaker, there is fresh speculation that he cannot be allowed to serve for this whole Parliament. He was due to step down this year, but last year decided he wanted another five years in post. How both the House and the individual political parties react next will be the real test of how seriously they take last night’s report.
2. ROCKET AND WALL NUT SALAD
Donald Trump has done it again, confounding his critics and springing another big surprise. Yes, the man who wants that ‘great big beautiful wall’ has announced he wants to break down barriers with North Korea by holding the first ever face-to-face talks with Kim Jong Un. Having derided the Korean dictator as a ‘little Rocket man’, Trump last night offered the tempting prospect of a ‘Nixon in China’ style moment with a meeting to discuss de-nuclearisation. On our CommonsPeople podcast, we suggested there was method in Trump’s apparent madness and that his belligerence could actually deliver something Obama never did.
What really shocked reporters in the White House last night was that Trump himself made his first ever appearance in the press briefing room. Peeking around a half-opened pocket door, Trump caught the eye of a small handful of reporters and drew them closer to him. He spoke off camera but on the record, saying: “South Korea’s going to be making a major statement at about 7 o’clock”. When asked what that was, he replied “The big subject”, then grinned. Our HuffPost US colleagues have the report HERE.
Trump tweeted: “Kim Jong Un talked about denuclearization with the South Korean Representatives, not just a freeze. Also, no missile testing by North Korea during this period of time. Great progress being made but sanctions will remain until an agreement is reached. Meeting being planned!” There’s talk of a meeting possible before May. It all just goes to prove Trump is as unpredictable as his North Korean counterpart. Then again, here’s a tweet the President issued in 2014: “Crazy Dennis Rodman is saying I wanted to go to North Korea with him. Never discussed, no interest, last place on Earth I want to go to.”
3. FOX AND FRIENDS
Trump’s hopes for a second term depend on him delivering on his campaign promises. While that ‘wall’ with Mexico still seems a distant prospect, it looks like his move to jack up tariffs on steel and aluminium in the interests of ‘national security’ is actually going to happen. In a typically quixotic move he now lists Mexico (and Canada) among the “friendly” nations who will be exempt from the new tariffs. The President said he would show “great flexibility and cooperation toward those that are real friends … I have a right to go up or down depending on the country, and I’ll have a right to drop out countries or add countries.”
Trump namechecked Australia as a friend, but made no mention of Britain, pre or post Brexit. If we don’t get any such exemption, it will indeed by a blow to Theresa May’s efforts to claim we really still have a ‘special relationship’. Last night on Question Time, even Liam Fox was exasperated by the Trump edict, pointing out that we expert high-value steel to the US, adding “We also make steel for the American military programme so it’s doubly absurd”. Fox has close links to Republicans on The Hill, many of whom share his worries about sparking a new trade war. Trump’s biggest problem is that there is little evidence his tariffs will actually help the steel workers he posed for the cameras with yesterday.
If the EU retaliates, there will be a fresh battle among Leavers and Remainers here. Pro-EU supporters will say that once we’ve left the bloc the UK won’t have such big collective clout and could get trampled over by the White House. But Brexiteers will argue that if Trump offers the UK exemptions post-Brexit, it will be another ‘bonus’ of being independent of Brussels (Fox yesterday suggested the EU’s posturing on Brexit proved it was a ‘gang’ rather than a ‘club’). The real danger that some Tories are wary of is being seen to ‘take back control’ from the EU – only to hand it to Washington, not London.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
A daughter followed her dad around with a confetti gun for days on end. Safe to say, he got a shock each time.
4. GRAVE SITUATION
Police yesterday sealed off a section of the Salisbury cemetery where Sergei Skripal’s wife, Liudmila, was buried in 2012 and where his son, Alexander, is commemorated with a plaque. It was a precaution against the media trampling over the grave, but inevitably sparked a fresh round of speculation in this extraordinary case of what looks like a state-sponsored assassination.
Home Secretary Amber Rudd was impressive in the Commons yesterday, declaring for the first time this “attempted murder” was “a brazen and reckless act”. She repeatedly warned ‘we must avoid speculation’ as to the identity of the culprits as that would not help our police and intelligence investigators. As we discuss in our podcast (see below), it’s possible that Boris Johnson is deployed as a “licensed hawk” on the whole issue, but Rudd herself said “There will come a time for attribution, and further consequences will then follow”.
The Sun reports that such consequences will include a ‘full spectrum response’ including expulsions of diplomats, bank asset freezes and fresh NATO military deployment on Russia’s borders. A senior minister tells the paper: “This is all about debilitating the West, so we have to reverse the psychology and make Putin look weak.” Still, with Putin quite happy with Trump in the White House, the real problem is just how supportive the US will be. Russian TV mocked Britain yesterday as the place where accidents befell “traitors”. Moscow may well be similarly dismissive of any boycott by England of the World Cup. John McDonnell signalled Labour would oppose such a plan, saying “I’m loathed to bring sport into politics”.
5. PAYBACK TIME?
The Shadow Chancellor told Today this morning that Labour’s strong anti-austerity 2017 election campaign had “forced” ministers to finally take action on the public sector pay freeze and the NHS recruitment crisis. Philip Hammond had been trying to play down expectations in the coming Spring Statement, but was that a deliberate ploy to prepare the ground for a ‘surprise’ pay rise for NHS staff?
The Guardian’s excellent health editor Denis Campbell reports that ministers are set to offer a million NHS staff a 6.5% pay rise over the next three years – on condition that workers give up a day’s holiday in return for the £3.3bn deal. Trade unions may well swallow the holiday concession as long as they get a decent deal on pay. Lower-paid staff could get big rises, but the key will be whether nurses and medical staff see increases that match inflation – which stands at 3%.
So far, despite the Tories facing a raft of problems, Labour hasn’t built a sustained opinion poll lead and is often neck and neck. But the local elections could spell real trouble and last night Corbyn supporters were delighted at a ward by-election victory, taking Rochester West (Medway) with 47.5% of the vote, up a massive 26.5%. The Tories were down to 39%, and it seems Labour mopped up the Kent former Kipper vote, as UKIP plunged 16%.
Our latest CommonsPeople podcast is out. Hear us chinwag about Boris’s Trump-like approach to diplomacy on Russia , the housing crisis, sexist abuse suffered by MPs and more.