1. LIFE LESS IN GAZA
The sheer number of deaths and injuries in Gaza yesterday has shocked and appalled many, including Israel’s supporters in the UK. The Palestinians say 52 protestors were killed and 2,400 wounded after Israeli troops opened fire at the border. Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas condemned what he called Israeli “massacres against our people”, and declared three days of mourning. There have been six weeks of protests so far, and the biggest demonstration is expected today to mark the 70th anniversary of what Palestinians call ‘the catastrophe’ of the creation of the state of Israel. Add in the funerals of those killed yesterday and more bloodshed looks highly likely.
Last night, Foreign Office minister Alistair Burt criticised both Hamas and the Israelis. “It is deplorable that extremist elements may have been seeking to exploit these protests for their own violent purposes,” he said, in a carefully calibrated statement. “We will not waver from our support for Israel’s right to defend its borders. But the large volume of live fire is extremely concerning. We continue to implore Israel to show greater restraint.” Will the Israelis show that restraint today? Will Hamas try to calm things too? Or will critics of the Netanyahu government be once more allowed to argue that a life is simply worth less if it is lived in Gaza?
Israel’s ambassador Mark Regev claimed on Today that it used live rounds ‘in a measured way, only when there is no alternative’. The White House was unrepentant too yesterday about the opening of its temporary embassy in Jerusalem (shrugging off the nepotism of a US President sending his unelected daughter and son-in-law to oversee such an historic move). It also described the Gaza protests as ‘gruesome propaganda event’. Yet the contrast between the images of the two events couldn’t be starker. Boris Johnson has Foreign Office Questions in the Commons at 11.30am, will he agree with the US’s line that there is a ‘new reality’ in the region? Given the anger on this, the Speaker may grant an Urgent Question too.
2. NO WAY, NORWAY?
The Cabinet sub-committee on Brexit meets today, but no one expects a puff of white smoke on the vexed topic of which customs option will get the go-ahead. As I revealed yesterday, Greg Clark was on the Norway-Sweden border looking closely at how it worked, and he’s expected to report back to his ‘working group’. Liam Fox is gearing up to go public in joining Boris and Gove in opposing the customs partnership. David Davis has been studiously silent on specifics so far.
The PM met backbenchers yesterday and spelled out some home truths to Jacob Rees-Mogg after he suggested the UK should basically dare Ireland to erect border controls. The Times has the best account, revealing May pointed out the EU had a legal duty to protect its single market and that she was not prepared to risk a border poll that could see moderate nationalists vote for a unite Ireland. Newsnight’s Nick Watt says the new Government line is there should be ‘no hard infrastructure’ in Northern Ireland. But would number-recognition cameras be ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ infrastructure? As ever, there’s the Tory leadership issue bubbling under here. Some 150 MPs were invited in for the No.10 briefings. Yet Boris is holding his own regular drinks for MPs too, with another one last night, I’m told. Few believe the gatherings are for the good of their health.
At least there is more clarity on Labour’s position. Last night, when asked directly to keep open the option of UK membership of the EEA, Jeremy Corbyn told the PLP that he didn’t want to be a ‘rule taker’. His spokesman signalled afterwards that the party’s Lords whip to abstain on an EEA amendment would be repeated in the Commons. As ever, it was difficult getting a totally clear answer (Chris Leslie felt Corbyn had indeed kept his options open) but we were left with the impression that Norway was not the way forward. Labour is going to have to spell out soon what ‘a customs union’ looks like, or risk losing the backing of Tory Remainers.
Perhaps left out by the Lords getting all the attention on the ‘constitutional crisis’ front, the Scottish Parliament is adding its own grit to the Brexit oyster today. Labour and the Lib Dems are expected to join the SNP and Greens in refusing consent to the UK’s withdrawal plan in protest at a Westminster ‘power grab’. Meanwhile, the Royal College of Nursing annual conference continues today and I’m told the million-strong organisation could be the first trade union to formally vote to call for a referendum on the final Brexit deal. Wherever you look, you can’t move for Brexit today folks.
3. PAP A MARKLE
Even those so far uninterested in the Royal Wedding coverage can empathise with Meghan Markle’s distress after her father’s shock announcement that he won’t be at her wedding to Prince Harry on Saturday. The story obviously dominates many news websites and newspaper front pages, with many reporting that Thomas Markle didn’t want to embarrass his daughter further after it emerged he had staged photos for a paparazzi photographer.
For those just catching up on this story, the Mail on Sunday revealed this weekend that Markle colluded with a picture agency to produce the widely circulated photographs showed him being measured for a wedding suit and looking at newspaper stories about his daughter. He says he made no money out of the photos, but they were sold for large sums by the agency. US celeb website TMZ also reported yesterday that Markle suffered a heart attack a week ago, although this has not been confirmed by the family or palace. All may not be lost. The BBC’s Nicholas Witchell reports that he understands “it is still very much Meghan Markle’s wish that her father should be there on Saturday to support her”.
But will we see a political reaction to all this today? Last night, the House of Lords voted 252-213 in favour of ‘Leveson 2’ being set up to investigate media standards and ethics. And with the amendment to the Data Protection Bill set to return to the Commons today, the fear among some newspapers is that Tory MPs will seize on the Markle story as proof that paparazzi agencies and the tabloids that fuel them need to be subjected to fresh inquiry. Several Conservative waverers were gently guided into abstaining or voting against Labour’s motion last week, but could now be wobbly again. Ministers tell me there’s a heavy whip for today’s vote, so let’s see.
BECAUSE YOU’VE READ THIS FAR…
A reminder of just how difficult life in Iran is for women. Here’s a video (it’s gone viral in the country and beyond) of female football fans sporting beards to watch their favourite team.
4. WOMEN TO WIN
This Saturday, for Labour members in south London there’s something even more interesting than the Royal Wedding and the FA Cup final. Yes, the Lewisham East party will hold its hustings and select its candidate for the coming by-election on June 14. After a day of interviews, Labour’s NEC panel yesterday picked its first ever all-women, all-BAME shortlist for a by-election as it narrowed the race down to four candidates. (Kate Osamor was selected in Edmonton by the first all-women, all-BAME shortlist during a general election). And within minutes of the shortlist, Unite sources told me they were backing Claudia Webbe, the long-standing ally of Jeremy Corbyn (she’s a councillor in his Islington backyard) who currently sits on the ruling NEC. Find out more about her in this HuffPost interview HERE.
Webbe has other strong backers high up the party and close to the leader but she won’t be taking anything for granted. Newly-elected Lewisham councillor Sakina Sheikh has some local Momentum backing, while fellow councillors Janet Daby and Brenda Dacres have impressive experience and seen as from the more centrist wing of the party. One NEC member tells me it’s a “genuinely balanced” list of “four credible candidates – stronger than similar panels from the Miliband days”. There will be one quirk if Webbe becomes the MP: she will have to step down from the NEC and is expected to be replaced by Bex Bailey (next down on the ballot, under party rules).
5. FROM RUSSIA, WITH SHOVE
Chris Bryant’s All-Party Parliamentary Group on Russia convenes at 1pm today for what could be a fascinating session. Giving evidence will be the Russian ambassador to the UK, Alexander Yakovenko, who has been particularly forthright in his criticism of the Theresa May and Boris Johnson over the Salisbury poisoning. He has also pushed back hard on issues like Syria (aided by a Twitter account that has often left No.10 unamused). Bryant, for his part, has been particularly forthright in calling for tougher financial sanctions on Moscow.
I wonder too if Yakovenko will pick up on the UK’s wish to continue cooperation with Moscow, and Beijing and Tehran and others, on the Iran nuclear deal, given Trump’s unilateral withdrawal from the agreement. As it happens, the Foreign Secretary is in Brussels later today, meeting EU counterparts and Iran’s foreign minister Javad Zarif on just that issue. And overnight Richard Ratcliffe has urged Johnson to do more to help his wife Nazanin, after Iranian media suggested she was due to face possible new charges in a court next week.
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