PLUS: Twitterstorm in a teacup
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The Times and Sunday Times
Tuesday February 25 2020
Red Box
Matt Chorley
By Matt Chorley
Good morning,
A 62-year-old retired Marine has just set the world record for the longest plank.

Which is entirely separate to the world record attempt to have as many short planks in the cabinet as possible.

LISTEN: Catch me every weekday morning giving a sneak preview of what's coming up in Red Box at 7.30am with Julia Hartley-Brewer at breakfast on TalkRadio. Listen here
Matt Chorley
Red Box Editor
Twitter icon @MattChorley
The briefing
  • Boris Johnson chairs cabinet as he tries to put an end to the public squabbling between his ministers and officials. Later he chairs the XS committee which will decide the UK’s Brexit negotiating stance while Europe ministers of EU member states will agree to their mandate at the same time.

  • It comes as The Times reveals that a second senior senior civil servant has been forced out of the Home Office after falling foul of Priti Patel. And the Daily Mirror reports that the home secretary employs a former Ukip candidate who argued women shouldn't be frontline police officers and soldiers.

  • In a letter to The Times today the father-in-law of Dominic Cummings defends Patel — and possibly his son-in-law, who has also been accused of bullying behaviour. Sir Humphry Wakefield said that in his experience in most “long-established offices”, “relaxed disciplines” often become “the norm”, adding: “I have found it near impossible to change old habits without appearing to ‘bully’,” he wrote. “Throwing chilling water on attempted inspiration is a special skill of department leaders whose relaxed life is under threat.”

  • Doctors need to stop moaning and take responsibility for improving the NHS, the leader of Britain’s medics has said.

  • The independent inquiry into child sexual abuse publishes a report into allegations linked to Westminster.

  • Emergency legislation to prevent the automatic release from prison of terrorist offenders will become law later this week, just before the next terrorist prisoner is eligible to be freed.

  • Coronavirus latest: Britons returning to the UK from inside the "red zone" in Italy have been told to self-isolate even if they feel well. Matt Hancock, the health secretary, told BBC Breakfast: "It is not yet clear that it will become a pandemic. The number of cases in China is falling, and there have been new cases in Iran and South Korea, but if those countries get their response right there still is a possibility this is a relatively small outbreak in the UK."

  • Esther Webber's trivia question: Who is the only MP among the leadership and deputy leadership candidates to have attended Oxbridge as an undergraduate? Answer at the bottom of today's email.
Red Box: Comment
Maev MacCoille
Truth be told, what makes the news?
Maev MacCoille – Playwright
Whisper it... there's life after Nicola
Some things in politics can be taken for granted: Boris Johnson is hiding, Labour is taking a hiding, and the SNP are fiercely loyal to Nicola Sturgeon.

Not any more. Well not the SNP bit. Cracks are not just appearing, chasms are opening up. For the first time people are speculating that the Scottish first minister might not survive until the end of the year, perhaps not even until the summer.

And if you thought this was a niche issue affecting only a small bunch of people in yellow rosettes whose names you can't remember, think again. What happens to the SNP in the next few months could decide not just the fate of the party which has dominated Scottish politics for a decade but the future of the 300-year-old Union.

There was a time when it was almost sacrilegious to suggest that the Queen of Scotland would not rule forever. Now, though, a perfect storm is brewing that threatens to rage out of her control.

There are four challenges: the Alex Salmond trial, which is likely to see a lot of SNP dirty laundry aired in public, starts next month; growing dissatisfaction about the lack of progress towards independence; a tired and weak domestic policy agenda; and the jostling to be Sturgeon's successor.

When voters ask tough questions about the economy, the border with England or rejoining the EU after independence, the SNP has no answer, only platitudes. For a highly engaged electorate that is not good enough.

With 125,000 members, the SNP is now so big that it is almost unmanageable. There are the long-servers, who spent years in the wilderness before independence became cool and groovy. There are those who joined around the 2014 referendum and are now quite senior MPs and MSPs. And there are even more recent, less partisan recruits who find the tribalism wearing.

What unites many of them across the three generations is a growing impatience, with anger apparently boiling over in some local party branch meetings.

There is bafflement not that recent polls say half of people now back independence but that it is not higher. There is whispered but growing restlessness at the failure to capitalise on Brexit and another Old Etonian in Downing Street to drive the independence agenda forward. “I mean Christ, if we can’t win now when can we ever?" asks one long-serving MP.

Boris Johnson, who appointed himself minister for the Union when he became prime minister, has made clear he will reject any formal request for a second referendum. The most impatient just want the Scottish parliament to carry out its own Catalan-style local vote. The more sensible want Holyrood to legislate for its own referendum and then let Westminster challenge it in court.

Meanwhile thousands of people have been taking part in marches for independence across Scotland; so far they have been monthly but will soon be fortnightly.

What was once seen as a the idealised dream of nationalism has become a “desperate need” to deshackle from the UK. But while the SNP howl about the impact of post-Brexit immigration curbs (Scotland’s not producing enough homegrown workers to fuel the economy) opponents point out their record is not all rosy either.

The NHS is in crisis, education is failing, there is a multimillion pound ferry fiasco and a £1.35 billion Queensferry Crossing which has to be shut because the cold weather is, well, Scottish.

Despite the SNP increasing its haul of MPs in December’s election, they are now unsure what to do. With a big government majority and a triumphalist Tory PM, the Nats in London are having an existential crisis. “Westminster has a degree of pointlessness about it,” says one. And so attention turns to Holyrood.

There has been a lot of focus in recent days on Edinburgh Central, the Holyrood seat held by Tory Ruth Davidson which she will quit at the elections in May next year. Angus Robertson, a gradualist and former SNP leader in Westminster who lost his seat in 2017, has thrown his hat into the ring. So too has Joanna Cherry, the MP who led the court case against the government's unlawful prorogation in parliament, who is on the impatient wing.

Robertson clearly has his eye on the leadership, though many of his former colleagues in Westminster are, shall we say, doubtful. “That won’t be happening over the dead and rotting corpses of many of us.” Cherry is also suspected of having leadership ambitions should the vacancy fall after the Scottish parliament elections, though she too divides opinion.

Meanwhile Angus MacNeil, another SNP MP, is stirring things up with his call for all 47 SNP MPs to resign their seats and force by-elections to get a mandate for a second independence referendum. Sturgeon dismissed that at the weekend, telling The Andrew Marr Show it was not a "reasonable or a credible route forward".

This prompted Ian Blackford, the SNP leader in Westminster, to tweet: "There is a way forward for Scotland, completing the powers of the Scottish Parliament and taking us back into Europe. Nicola is demonstrably the person to lead us on that journey." Which slightly prompted the question: did I miss the leadership contest?

Sturgeon also felt she had to defend her own record: “I would say, humbly, that I’ve just led my party to another landslide election victory, winning 80 per cent of the seats."

Even this riles her critics in Westminster. “The campaign was shit,” says one MP. “The idea that this was proof of some genius SNP mastermind is ludicrous.”

It is impossible to over-emphasise what a shift this is. After the 2015 result it was impossible to get anything interesting out of SNP MPs, never mind the whiff of dissent.

I once sat through an interminable lunch with a backbench SNP MP (who brought her aide, uninvited) who declared everything off the record and proceeded to wheel out so many non-committal platitudes that if the whole thing had been broadcast live on telly Sky News would have cut away for the weather. And then she refused to share her mobile number to ever give quotes, in case her children's school needed to get through on the line.

How times change. Now you can't get SNP MPs off the phone. And it's not to tell you how much they love their leader. Even those trying to be loyal end up saying things like: “I still largely support Nicola’s approach."

Let's not get ahead of ourselves. The SNP are still well ahead of rival parties, the country is 50:50 on independence and there is no successor waiting in the wings.

Indeed YouGov polling last month showed that 46 per cent of Scots trust Sturgeon's claims about Scotland's future. This is up from 41 per cent on the eve of the 2014 referendum and includes 28 per cent of Labour voters, 29 per cent of Leavers and 22 per cent of those who voted against independence last time.

By contrast only 18 per cent trust Johnson, 8 per cent trust Jackson Carlaw, the new Scottish Tory leader, and 6 per cent Richard Leonard, the Scottish Labour leader.

But the genie is out of the bottle. The battle to oust/replace Sturgeon has begun. She is, it turns out, mortal. And her MPs and MSPs know it.
Red Box: Comment
Alex Massie
Edinburgh bunfight is key to the SNP’s future
Alex Massie – The Times
Storm in a teacup of the day
Confirmation that people on Twitter are mad: lots of people getting cross that someone they don't like drinks a tea brand that they do like.

Yorkshire Tea responded to complaints that Rishi Sunak, the new chancellor and Yorkshire MP, posed with a box of their bags with a message we could all learn from:

"We've spent the last three days answering furious accusations and boycott calls. For some, our tea just being drunk by someone they don't like means it's forever tainted, and they've made sure we know it. It's been pretty shocking to see the determination some have had to drag us into a political mudfight. But it's been lovely to see others speak up for us - we're so grateful to everyone who's done that in a civil way (and gutted to see some use it as a reason for more nastiness).

Speaking directly now, as the person who's been answering these tweets, I know it could have been much worse. It's easier to be on the receiving end of this as a brand than as an individual. There's more emotional distance and I've had a team to support me when it got a bit much.

"But for anyone about to vent their rage online, even to a company - please remember there's a human on the other end of it, and try to be kind."

Red Box: Comment
Ian Mulheirn
Chancellor must fix the flaw in the fiscal ceiling
Ian Mulheirn – Tony Blair Institute
Need to know
BLACKMAIL THREAT: Boris Johnson has said that he is prepared to sacrifice the interests of British business and walk away from trade talks with the EU if Brussels insists on a deal that compromises the UK’s “political independence”. (The Times)

MIND THE GAP: England has “lost a decade” to health inequalities in the country’s most deprived areas, with life expectancy stalling for the first time in more than 100 years, a damning report finds today. (The Times)

PAY-OFF PROBE: The defence secretary has begun an investigation into a £300,000 tax-free payoff handed to an official in his department. (The Times)

PRISON ACCOUNT: Hundreds of social media accounts had to be shut down last year because they were being used inside prisons. (PoliticsHome)

PEER PRESSURE: Authorities will come under pressure to block a peerage for Tom Watson in the wake of a report, to be published today, that is expected to find no evidence for his claims of a Westminster paedophile ring. (The Daily Telegraph)

PUMPED UP: White Van Man faces a £270 annual tax hike if the Chancellor ends the freeze on fuel duty. (The Sun)

MONEY GROWS ON TREES: Farmers will be paid to plant trees and improve soil quality under a post-Brexit subsidy scheme, under plans to be unveiled today. (the i)
Red Box: Comment
Jennifer Dixon
We can’t ‘level up’ the country without tackling health inequalities
Jennifer Dixon – Health Foundation
Labour leadershipwatch
The Guardian hosts a leadership hustings in Manchester.

Sir Keir Starmer, the frontrunner in the Labour leadership contest, faces an early battle with the party’s general secretary for control even if he wins, according to party officials.

Rebecca Long Bailey, has said that Labour will not “win elections by just putting on a suit” after being pressed to harden her attacks on the frontrunner. As Jeremy Corbyn showed, she didn't add. She is also calling for a windfall tax on oil companies.

Angela Rayner, the strong favourite to be Labour’s deputy leader, has spoken of her mother’s battles with depression and poverty. In a joint interview on ITV her mother, Lynn Bowen, revealed how a young Angela had to have her sectioned after she had cut her wrists. “I was in a very dark place,” Ms Bowen said. “If it wasn’t for her I don’t think I’d be here today.”
The Sketch
Rocky soon has critics on the ropes
Quentin Letts
Quentin Letts
Well, we got through Priti Patel’s immigration statement without her whacking anyone, but it was a close-run thing. The home secretary, arrived in the Commons at 4.07pm and loitered behind the Speaker’s chair, shakin’ it out, as we say in the boxing press. James Cleverly, a new foreign office minister, was finishing a discussion about Syria. Poor Cleverly did not live up to his name.
Read the full sketch >
Picture of the day
Some 45kg of Belgian dark chocolate went into this replica of the Elizabeth Tower, created for the opening of Neuhaus’s flagship store in St Pancras, London. They obviously ran out of time to make chocolate scaffolding.
Read the full story >
Red Box: Comment
Alistair Carmichael
We can no longer ignore rights abuses in Hong Kong
Alistair Carmichael – Lib Dem MP
I asked how much you would trust Priti Patel if you ran MI5. Not a lot, it turns out. Full result here
Have your say
Following yesterday's happy news about the first Red Box engagement, I asked what you thought was the perfect political wedding present.

Guy Clapperton said: "Obviously a maroon passport so they can travel wherever they want in the EU for their honeymoon and subsequent holidays next year, as distinct from the rather more restricted blue version being made offshore."

Jim McLeish said: "A full dinner service with the reminder emblazoned on every piece 'This is not normal' and for the avoidance of doubt on the source - the maker's mark on the base - your mast-head image."

Clare Laxton said: "When I got married my friends got me a signed Hansard from the date of our engagement. A political wedding pressie money can't buy!"

Gary Mackley-Smith said: "To be married in the Palace of Westminster by the Speaker's chaplain, with a reception in the Commons Tea Room."

Enda Cullen said: "Matt Chorley to deliver the homily."

TODAY: How should the prime minister get his ministers and their officials to stop squabbling? Email and we'll use some of the best tomorrow.
The best comment
Rachel Sylvester
‘I hate Tories’ won’t put Labour back in power
Rachel Sylvester – The Times
Hugo Rifkind
We should try to care about Assange’s fate
Hugo Rifkind – The Times
Giles Coren
My opinions are priceless and costing me a fortune
Giles Coren – The Times
Hubris and centralisation threaten the effective running of government
William Hague - The Daily Telegraph
The only way to a Labour victory may be a pact with the Lib Dems
Polly Toynbee - The Guardian
The cartoon
Today's cartoon from The Times by Morten Morland
Now read this
Hillary review
is an absolute monster. It’s a political mega-documentary that’s been culled from nearly 2,000 hours of backstage footage from Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign with contributions from more than 45 heavyweight players, including Barack Obama and Bill Clinton, and 35 hours of new, often revelatory, sit-down interviews with the forthright central subject. It was shown at the Berlin Film Festival in a formidable 252-minute cut (with a brief half-time breather). And it’s astounding.
Read the full story >
The agenda
  • The prime minister's mini-cabinet meets to sign off on the UK's negotiating mandate for trade talks with the EU.
  • European Union member states are expected to sign off on the European Commission's draft negotiating directives.
  • Matt Hancock, the health secretary, announces the date on which the opt-out law for organ donation will be introduced in England.
  • National Farmers' Union's (NFU) conference opens with speeches from Minette Batters, the NFU president, and Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI director-general.
  • A third runway at Heathrow could shift growth and jobs to the South East, according to a report by the New Economics Foundation think tank.
  • 1pm Andy Burnham, the mayor of Greater Manchester, and Paul Dennett, the mayor of Salford, hold a protest calling for government action to support those living in "unsafe" high-rise buildings.
  • 4.30pm Boris Johnson hosts talks with Sebastian Kurz, the Austrian chancellor.
  • 6pm Margaret Greenwood, the shadow work and pensions secretary, and Stephen Timms, chairman-elect of the work and pensions committee, take part in a Fabian Society event.
  • 6.30pm Sir Keir Starmer, Lisa Nandy and Rebecca Long Bailey participate in a Labour leadership hustings hosted by The Guardian.
House of Commons
  • 2.30pm Justice questions.
  • Ten-minute rule bill on Hong Kong.
  • Consideration of Lords amendments if necessary.
  • Opposition day debate on tax avoidance and evasion.
  • Opposition day debate on social care.
  • Consideration of Lords amendments if necessary.
  • Adjournment debate on the future of East Leake Health Centre.
House of Lords
  • 2.30pm Questions on the war widows’ pension; insulating housing; Afghan interpreters, and flooding compensation.
  • Committee stage of the Sentencing (Pre-consolidation Amendments) Bill (Law Commission Bill).
  • Committee and report stage of the Birmingham Commonwealth Games Bill.
  • Motion to regret the Electricity and Gas (Energy Company Obligation) (Amendment) Order 2019.
Today's trivia answer
Esther Webber's trivia question: Who is the only MP among the leadership and deputy leadership candidates to have attended Oxbridge as an undergraduate?

Answer: Richard Burgon, who studied at Cambridge. Sir Keir Starmer studied at Leeds before pursuing postgraduate studies at Oxford.

Send your trivia to
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