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If you are going to U-turn, do it quickly. That’s what Boris Johnson did over an immigration health surcharge including NHS and care workers. So maybe the Prime Minister is brighter than we in the LME usually give him credit for. 

He was challenged on the issue at Prime Minister’s Questions and among several commentators, Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow judged that after two weeks when Labour’s Sir Keir Starmer had the field to himself, “this felt much more like a return to normal parliamentary service - a contested exchange, with no obvious victor, and both principals scoring points.”

Starmer’s “point about a care worker on the minimum wage having to work 70 hours to pay for this was a powerful one. Johnson’s defence was glib, but it did not feel like a decisive exchange.”

That judgement may have stood, had not LME executive member and MP Seema Malhotra smelled a rat, with John’s claim that the charges to migrants raised £900 million. Malhotra knows her numbers. Now shadow employment minister, she was formerly a shadow Treasury minister. 

She asked for a briefing from the House of Commons library and, guess what, Johnson’s figures were misleading in two ways. The £900 million was the sum raised over four years and it was what was paid by all migrants. The analysis shows the true cost is “somewhere between £1.2m and £35m”, depending on who exactly would be exempted among health and care workers.

Malhotra said: “Either the Prime Minister was poorly briefed or deliberately misleading at Prime Minister’s Questions. This isn’t about cost, it’s a political choice and hypocritical of a government that weekly claps for carers.

“In a fair immigration system, why would we want those who are coming to work in our NHS to support us and save our lives, to be paying for NHS care themselves? With these new figures, it’s time for the government to change its mind.” 

She appeared on Newsnight to press that view and had an embarrassed Tory MP Tobias Ellwood struggling to defend the government.

The revelation flushed out Tory MPs who signalled they were ready to rebel.  There was also a viral video made by a Syrian refugee and NHS worker Hassan Akkad.

The U-turn was announced the next day. 

So what was it?  Was Johnson badly briefed or did he deliberately set out to mislead MPs? 

It would be in keeping with his reputation for not being interested in details that he would simply have latched on to the £900 million without asking any questions. 

On the other hand, he is a proven liar – sacked by two bosses, one journalistic, one political for peddling untruths. 

For now, let’s score it as a victory for smart opposition and teamwork on Starmer’s front bench.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

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Anatomy of a U-turn

If you are going to U-turn, do it quickly. That’s what Boris Johnson did over an immigration health surcharge including NHS and care workers. So maybe the Prime Minister is...

To extend or not to extend. That is the question which soon will have to be settled. The Coronavirus crisis goes on and on to its indefinite horizon. But very soon, barely a month, Boris Johnson will have to take a big decision.

Does he tell the business world, and the wider political community, that he is prepared to heap crisis upon crisis, by pulling the plug on negotiations with 27 governments in the rest of Europe, now that we have quit the EU?

It is a matter of international law that by 31 June, Britain must decide whether to ask for an extension for the Brexit talks to allow any hope of a deal being agreed. So far there has been close to zero progress. The shutdown of face-2-face negotiating sessions has not helped.

The UK has not involved senior ministers. The diplomat who leads for Britain, David Frost, is an intelligent, and in person very nice, diplomat who was Ambassador to Denmark. He is clever and diligent but this international treaty needs to be led by senior political ministers. All previous UK deals with Europe, to forge various Treaties, had senior ministers and even the prime minister leading from the front.

Johnson has had other things on his mind. The virus, his brush with death, his new baby son. But in the end, nothing will happen unless he wills it. Many loyal pro-Brexit Tory commentators like Harry Cole and Iain Martin have urged caution in going for a crash out No Deal, which is inevitable given the non-progress, unless Johnson requests more time.

Now David Cameron’s former speech writer, Clare Foges, has weighed in in The Times, writing: “Before the virus hit, a no-deal exit would have been deeply unwise. Today it would be unhinged. The WTO predicts that world trade could fall by up to 32 per cent this year. Several countries have started blocking the export of goods considered vital in the fight against coronavirus, and as they seek to recover, this nationalist instinct may well persist.

“Global recovery will take years, during which time negotiating a free-trade deal with the UK will not be foremost on many agendas. A no-deal Brexit wouldn’t be stepping into the sunlit uplands of a thriving global economy but something closer to a wasteland.”

Ms Foges is correct.  Labour shadow ministers and MPs should talk to the businesses in their portfolio areas or constituencies, local Chambers of Commerce, and regional CBI councils, to urge them to politely talk to Tory MPs to get an extension before it’s too late.

85 per cent of our fresh vegetables and fruit, and two thirds of our pig meat, like bacon and sausages, arrive in lorries via Channel ports into Dover. To apply a 22 per cent WTO tariff on all food imports and to have the normal regulatory checks on each lorry would see queues going back to the Belgian border and empty food shelves in our super-markets.

We are a one-man led nation. Everything depends on what is in Johnson’s head. Professor Tim Bale, one of our smartest political analysts, has number crunched MPs and thinks there is a majority for an extension if Johnson asks for it. Labour should make it clear it will support an extension in the national interest, rather than make the economic costs of Covid19 crisis far worse.

Now the prime minister will have to show if he can face down the League of Brexit Loyalists or whether, in truth, he is their prisoner.

By Denis MacShane - former Labour Minister of Europe. His latest book is “Brexiternty. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” (IB Tauris-Bloomsbury)

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Johnson Must Decide: Face Down his Brexit Zealots or add No Deal Brexit to his list of Problems

To extend or not to extend. That is the question which soon will have to be settled. The Coronavirus crisis goes on and on to its indefinite horizon. But very...

When Boris Johnson is toppled, who will get the credit who for exposing his incompetence and mendacity?

That will surely be owed to Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition, who has had the Prime Minister on the ropes in the three rounds of their head-to-head confrontations in the Commons.  

Just a few months after his Brexit-fuelled victory, Johnson is getting awful reviews for Commons outings. For a tribalist – which I admit to being a lot of the time – the reports of the last Prime Minister’s Questions make fun reading.  

John Crace in the Guardian  said “incompetent and unprepared PM crumbles at PMQs... the prime minister isn’t particularly bright: after all, it takes a very special type of cleverness to keep making the same mistakes over and over again.”

The Guardian giving Labour the victory is no surprise, but what will worry Johnson loyalists is three papers which might be expected to be more sympathetic.

In Johnson’s old paper, the Brexit-hugging Telegraph, Michael Deacon, says Starmer took Johnson apart “like a Duplo train set.... The new Labour leader asked a series of calmly factual questions – and the Prime Minister visibly struggled.”

Then we get Brexiter journalist and former UKIP MEP Patrick Flynn in the Spectator saying Johnson’s “sloppy PMQs performance is becoming a problem.”

You will recall The Evening Standard is edited by one George Osborne; anti Brexit for sure, but a Johnson backer in the Tory election. Joe Murphy demonstrated his journalistic independence.  

“There is a terrifying quality to Sir Keir Starmer’s weekly interrogation of Boris Johnson. He doesn’t raise his voice, nor display anger; he just calmly, chillingly, dissects the facts he has assembled for the jury.

“His face is dispassionate, pitiless even, the expression of a prosecutor who has sent down bigger villains and merely wonders how long before the pathetic wretch in the dock trips himself up and realises the game is up.”

All four pieces make great reading for Starmer fans. There is guilty fun to be had, too, from a couple of Johnson spoofs – by Little Britain comedian Matt Lucas which has had more than 5 million viewings and the brilliant must-watch Jamaican Refix show, which has had around 15,000 views but deserves many more.

So far, lots of fun at Johnson’s expense. Then the guilty bit. This is the man who is running the country at a time of national crisis and his failure to measure up to the job is no laughing matter.

Yet, we know that the only people who can remove him are the 365 Tory MPs, who outnumber Labour by more than 150, and give Johnson an overall majority of 80.

The Tories did, of course, have a gigantic majority of 213 in May 1940. That didn’t stop Neville Chamberlain being ousted, paving the way for Churchill to form a coalition with Labour leader Clement Atlee as his deputy. It was to Atlee that we owe the headline quote: “You don’t measure up to the job.” It was his short sharp explanation to Ministers he sacked, when he himself became PM in 1945.

We can be sure history won’t repeat itself any time soon. After all, many of the current crop of Tory MPs owe their seats to Johnson, who obliged them to sign a declaration to support Brexit as a condition of being a candidate last December. Johnson has set his face against an extension to EU negotiations even though the deadline is a few weeks away.

It will be the opinion polls and local election results which do it for Johnson. Currently, they are looking fairly rosy, although as Mike Smithson records, Starmer has edged ahead of Johnson in personal ratings and government approval has been in decline since the lockdown. 

Former YouGov President Peter Kellner, says “ratings are currently similar to those of Thatcher and the Tories at the end of the Falklands War...

“Johnson will certainly lack one of Thatcher’s great advantages: a Labour leader, in Michael Foot, whose reputation then was much the same as Corbyn’s today.

“Johnson plainly hopes that the worst of the pandemic is now over. But the political challenges he will face for the rest of this parliament are only just beginning. “

Don’t be surprised if Johnson fails to stay the course.

By Don Brind - Labour Movement for Europe Press Officer & Former BBC political correspondent

Join us as an LME member here.

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Message to Boris Johnson: “You don’t measure up to the job”

When Boris Johnson is toppled, who will get the credit who for exposing his incompetence and mendacity? That will surely be owed to Sir Keir Starmer, Leader of the Opposition,...

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