Earlier this week, when asked if he would leave the government over the issue of a no-deal Brexit, Rory Stewart was quoted as saying he was "currently focused on trying to resign over prisons".
It was a witty retort from the minister in charge of jails who, last August, put himself in the dock, imposing a year-long timescale to reduce levels of drugs and violence in 10 target jails in England or he would step down in self-assigned failure. However, behind the humorous façade lies the serious reality of a considerable turnaround job on his hands, a situation that was further compounded yesterday with the news that HMP Birmingham, taken into state hands after falling into disrepair, was still too “fragile” to be handed back to its private contractor, G4S.
Stewart himself delivered the verdict that the Ministry of Justice takeover would continue beyond its original six months and instead extend into the summer when a further review would take place. The good news was that the prison had shown improvements, but this progress was at risk were the government to hand custody over to G4S too soon. To give an indication of the scale of the problem, when the prison first came into public hands an inspectors’ report suggested that a third of prisoners were using illicit drugs, while one in seven said they had developed a drug problem since being at the prison.
As the clock ticks down towards his own deadline, the minister will be hoping that the drugs figures are going the right way as there is no solace to be found when it comes to the disturbing trend around prison violence. Figures at the end of last month showed violence in prisons across England and Wales had soared to record highs, with assaults up by a fifth and self-harm rising by nearly a quarter during the past 12 months.
So plenty of hard work ahead for Stewart, who favours plans to scrap prison sentences under six months and introduce airport-style security in order to make prisons a place that can provide effective rehabilitation for offenders. Can he deliver the change he demands in the timeframe he has set? That is a judgment that will be ruled on in the summer by his own self-imposed court.
Olly Robbins, Theresa May’s chief Brexit negotiator, has suggested that the prime minister will ask MPs to decide either to back her deal or face an extension of Article 50. It is reported that Robbins was overheard in a hotel bar in Brussels saying that a lengthy delay to leaving the EU is possible, but if they don’t vote for the deal then “the extension is a long one”.
Alex Younger, the head of MI6, is expected to postpone his retirement in order to guide the secret intelligence service through the post-Brexit period. Younger was due to leave the post in November but Whitehall officials are keen for him to extend his appointment to cover the 12 to 24 months after Britain has left the EU which would see him become the longest-serving MI6 chief since the 1960s. (£)
A snap election in Spain could be called later today if rightwing parties and Catalan nationalists make good on their threats to reject the national budget in a key vote. Pedro Sánchez, the prime minister, is expected to call an election for April or May – a year earlier than planned – if, as predicted, his socialist government fails to garner the support of Basque and Catalan nationalist parties that it relies on.
Business & Economy
The British Chamber of Commerce (BCC) has called on the prime minister to answer 20 crucial questions before the 29 March deadline to prevent a chaotic no-deal Brexit. The UK business trade body has implored Theresa May to give businesses more clarity over matters such as import and export duties, border controls and customs procedures.
The AA has warned that dwindling membership is expected to leave a hole of more than 10% in its profits, but said that the company had enjoyed a rise in income from those who sign up for roadside assistance and from its corporate partners. In a trading announcement yesterday, the business said that trading profit would be not less than £340 million, down from £391 million last year.
Virgin Trains USA has halted its plans for an initial public offering, saying in a statement that the process had revealed demand from investors who are more interested in investing in it as a private company. It was also suggested that the decision - taken days from the end of an investor roadshow that it hoped would raise $510m – was made because the company felt that it could not achieve the valuation it sought. (£)
What happened yesterday?
Progress on security for the US-Mexico border which could avert a second partial US government shutdown delivered strong momentum for many European and US equities, but it failed to transcend to London’s blue-chip index. At the close of trading, the FTSE 100 was only four points higher, or 0.1%, at 7,133, whereby, at the same time, Germany's DAX had jumped 1.1% to 11,136 and the Dow Jones had risen 1.3% to 25,371.
The big faller was travel operator TUI, who saw shares fall 6.2% as its first-quarter loss widened following what they said was an “unusually long and hot summer in Northern Europe”. Energy firms were among the stocks to rise with SSE closing up 1.6% and British Gas parent Centrica rising 1.4%. It came as EDF became the second of the 'Big Six' firms to push up prices following an announcement by Ofgem last week that there would be an increase to the energy price cap.
The more UK-focused FTSE 250 dropped 0.1% as a plunge in Plus500 shares accounted for almost all of the index's 31-point fall. The online trading services provider saw its shares plummet after issuing a profit warning for 2019.
On the currency markets, sterling rose 0.3% versus the US dollar to $1.289 by close of trading. Versus the euro, the pound was down 0.1% at €1.139.
Gem Diamonds Ltd. (DI)
Marshall Motor Holdings
Morrison (Wm) Supermarkets
SafeCharge International Group Limited (DI)
Independent Inv Trust
Columns of Note
Former admirers are losing patience with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman. That’s the view of the FT’s David Gardner, who says that politicians in both the UK and US who have been known to ally with the crown prince have begun to see him as dangerous. And, although he still holds the support of Donald Trump, Gardner warns that his relationship is built on the rocky foundations of a transactional president expecting returns for his support in the shape of arms deals and multi-billion investment in the country. (£)
The Guardian’s Rafael Behr says that, regardless of the Brexit outcome, both Labour and the Tories will split as a result. Behr says that under the stewardship of May and Corbyn, the two broad political are “shrinking into intolerant sects”.
Did you know?
Shortly before his assassination, Abraham Lincoln's son, Robert, fell between a moving train and the platform. He was pulled to safety by an actor named Edwin Booth. Edwin was the brother of John Wilkes Booth who later assassinated Lincoln.
House of Commons
International Development (including Topical Questions)
Prime Minister's Question Time
House of Lords
Introduction of a uniform system for labelling plastic and bin collections in England - Baroness Neville-Rolfe
Providing greater clarity on constituency expenditure on behalf of a candidate and national expenditure on behalf of a party, following the verdict of R v Mackinlay, Gray and Little - Lord Rennard
Ensuring commercial air routes between the UK and East Africa are allocated sufficient departure slots - Lord Popat
Government advice to schools whose students plan to take part in the pupils’ strike on climate change - Lord Greaves
In recess until 19 February
House of Commons
Transport (including Topical Questions)
Business Questions to the Leader of the House of Commons - Andrea Leadsom
Debate on a Motion relating to the UK's withdrawal from the EU
House of Lords
Progress made implementing the EU Settlement Scheme - Lord Greaves
Salary levels in multi-academy trusts - Lord Storey
Cost to parents and local authorities of appealing education, health and care plan decisions - Lord Addington
Crown Prosecution Service’s policy for prosecutors in respect of cases of encouraging or assisting suicide - Baroness Blackstone