Mrs McCain, right, with her family at a 2010 Republican event

Cindy McCain apologises after police dispute human trafficking claim”:

Cindy McCain, the widow of former US Senator John McCain, has apologised after police disputed her claim that she stopped a human trafficking case.

Mrs McCain told KTAR radio she thwarted a crime by alerting Phoenix airport police to a woman of a different ethnicity than the child she was with.

But Phoenix police told the station on Wednesday that they found no criminal wrongdoing after performing the check.

Critics on social media have accused her of racial profiling and harassment.

What exactly happened?

“I came in from a trip I’d been on and I spotted – it looked odd – it was a woman of a different ethnicity than the child, this little toddler she had, and something didn’t click with me,” said Mrs McCain, 64, who also co-chair’s the Arizona governor’s anti-trafficking taskforce.

“I went over to the police and told them what I saw, and they went over and questioned her, and, by God, she was trafficking that kid,” she told the radio station on Monday.

“It was a toddler. She was waiting for the guy who bought the child to get off an airplane,” she added.

Phoenix police told local media that on the date in question – 30 January – police performed a welfare check based on Mrs McCain’s tip, but found “no evidence of criminal conduct or child endangerment”.

Mrs McCain, who has an adopted daughter from Bangladesh, later took to Twitter, saying: “I reported an incident that I thought was trafficking… I apologise if anything else I have said on this matter distracts from ‘if you see something, say something'”.

What has the reaction been?

Critics have attacked Mrs McCain, claiming that she had police “harass” an innocent family due to her own racial profiling.

Many more found her claim puzzling, considering that she herself has a daughter that is a different ethnicity from her.

End of Twitter post by @Ugarles

Mrs McCain and her daughter Bridget at the 2008 Republican political convention
Mrs McCain and her adopted daughter Bridget at the 2008 Republican political convention

Many also took issue with her apology, which they note did not include a direct apology for falsely claiming to have prevented a genuine trafficking case.

Others defended her for alerting police to her hunch.

Last year, Southwest Airlines issued an apology after asking a California woman to prove that she was the mother of her bi-racial son.

Human trafficking is the fastest growing criminal enterprise in the world, according to the United Nations.

Trafficking in the US often spikes around the time of the Super Bowl in early February, as experts recently told BBC News’ Cut Through the Noise Facebook show (best viewed on mobile).

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring

Virginia’s attorney general admits wearing blackface in college”:

Virginia Attorney General Mark Herring has acknowledged wearing “brown makeup” to a party, days after the state governor admitting wearing blackface.

The second-in-line to the governor’s seat said in a statement on Wednesday that he wore a costume to a party when he was 19 years old at university.

Mr Herring had joined calls for Governor Ralph Northam to quit over a racist photo and blackface scandal.

The lieutenant governor is meanwhile battling a sex assault claim.

All three men are Democrats. If they were to resign over these controversies, Virginia could be led by the Republican Speaker of the House of Delegates, Kirk Cox.

What exactly has Herring admitted?

On Wednesday the attorney general confessed that he also once used blackface.

Mr Herring said that in 1980, he and his friends donned costumes after “some friends suggested we attend a party dressed like rappers we listened to at the time, like Kurtis Blow, and perform a song”.

“It sounds ridiculous even now writing it. But because of our ignorance and glib attitudes – and because we did not have an appreciation for the experiences and perspectives of others – we dressed up and put on wigs and brown makeup,” he said.

Ralph Northams page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School in which he reportedly appears in blackface with a friend in a KKK costume
Ralph Northam’s page in the 1984 yearbook of Eastern Virginia Medical School

“That conduct clearly shows that, as a young man, I had a callous and inexcusable lack of awareness and insensitivity to the pain my behaviour could inflict on others.”

Mr Herring did not offer to step down and wrote of his “efforts to empower communities of colour” and “to combat the rise in hate crimes and white supremacist violence that is plaguing our Commonwealth and our country”.

On Saturday, Mr Herring joined a chorus of fellow Democrats calling on Mr Northam to resign after an image surfaced from his 1984 medical yearbook page showing a person in blackface, and another in Ku Klux Klan robes.

Mr Northam has denied it was him in the racist photo, but has acknowledged wearing blackface on a separate occasion that year while dressing up as Michael Jackson.

Mr Herring said it was “no longer possible” for Mr Northam to serve as governor.

A Washington Post editorial on Wednesday called on Mr Northam to resign.

Presentational grey line

The scandals metastasise

Analysis box by Anthony Zurcher, North America reporter

Virginia Democrats are running out of top officials not beset by scandal.

With Attorney General Mark Herring’s revelation that he, too, once wore blackface, the situation has metastasised from a controversy ensnaring one man – Governor Northam – to an indication of a larger problem.

Cruel, intolerant actions that were once considered acceptable, at least among a certain crowd, are now, decades later, having political consequences.

In her response to the president’s State of the Union address on Tuesday night, Stacey Abrams – the black woman who narrowly lost her bid to be Georgia’s governor – obliquely addressed the issue.

“We continue to confront racism from our past and in our present, which is why we must hold everyone from the highest offices to our own families accountable for racist words and deeds and call racism what it is, wrong,” she said.

Virginians – and Democrats across the US – are now grappling with racist deeds within their own family.

It has thrown the state’s leadership into turmoil. Accountability, however, could be harder to realise. The cold political reality is that the more top politicians are touched, the less likely it is any of them will go.

What about the deputy governor?

As the blackface scandal engulfed the governor’s mansion, many Democrats said his deputy, Lt Governor Justin Fairfax, should take over.

But since Sunday Mr Fairfax has been denying a woman’s claim that he sexually assaulted her 15 years ago.

On Wednesday, Vanessa Tyson came forward to recount the alleged assault in disturbing detail through a statement issued by her lawyers.

Now a California college professor, she says Mr Fairfax forced her to perform a sex act on him during the 2004 Democratic political convention in Boston.

Prof Tyson said he had invited her back to his hotel room during the political jamboree to retrieve some documents.

Governor Northam: I am not the person in that photo

While in the suite, she says, they kissed. But, her statement adds, “what began as consensual kissing quickly turned into an assault”.

“I cannot believe, given my obvious distress, that Mr Fairfax thought this forced sexual act was consensual,” she said of their encounter.

“After the assault, I suffered from both deep humiliation and shame.”

On Wednesday, Mr Fairfax said reading her statement had been “painful”, but insisted he was innocent.

His office meanwhile denied an NBC report that he used an expletive-laden outburst in reference to Prof Taylor, during a private meeting on Monday night.

The National Organization for Women has called on Mr Fairfax to resign.

The state's top three Democratics are now all facing scandals
Justin Fairfax (second left), Ralph Northam (centre) and Mark Herring (second right) in happier times
AFP

Families and fighters flee IS’s last village’ Syria war:

Islamic State group (IS) members and their families have been fleeing the group’s last sliver of territory in eastern Syria, as US-backed militia advance towards them.

Men, women and children, some with serious injuries, others describing running out of food, have been leaving the group’s rapidly shrinking enclave, which the US military on Tuesday said amounted to about 50 sq km (20 sq miles).

They have been arriving at the village of Baghuz to surrender to the US-backed Kurdish-led Syrian Democratic Forces (SDF).

On Wednesday US President Donald Trump said said territory held by the Islamic State group in Syria and Iraq could be “100%” liberated as early as next week

Saudi Prince al-Faisal warns against US Syria pullout.

Syria’s Kurds say Trump US troop pullout harms anti-IS fight

People fleeing from IS-held territory in Baghuz
AFP

Many of those arriving in Baghuz have injuries, including those sustained from incoming strikes by the array of forces battling IS.

SDF commanders were negotiating with IS over a possible deal to free several SDF members held captive by IS and possibly give the militants safe passage to the province of Idlib in north-western Syria, which is not under Syrian government control, the New York Times reported.

Woman and children arrive in Baghuz
A woman waits to be screened by members of the US-backed Syrian Democratic Forces

Most of those emerging from the desert over the past two weeks have been IS militants’ wives and children, reports say. Once they have arrived they wait to be screened by the SDF before being told they will be taken to detention camps in northern Syria.

Germans Sabine and Leonora arrived in Baghuz on 31 January

However, fighters themselves have also been fleeing. Germans Sabina (L) aged 34 and Leonora (R), 19 are two of the three wives of German jihadist Martin Lemke, who also fled and was detained by the SDF, his wives said. They arrived in Baghuz at the end of last month.

Map showing last IS-held territory in Syria (7 February 2019)

The fighters include Syrians, Iraqis who had earlier moved to IS strongholds in Syria as the US-backed Iraqi army retook IS-held territory in Iraq, and foreign fighters from European countries and elsewhere who travelled to the region to join the group.

Some are taken to detention camps, others to prison, the New York Times reported.

SDF fighters in an IS prison in Hajin

In the nearby town of Hajin, SDF fighters have found evidence of how IS administered it. Here they are seen examining an IS prison.

Hajin's mayor shows an IS document

The town’s mayor Ali Jaber has found documents including this one urging residents to review their accounts with the local alms tax centre.

Syrians return to their homes in Hajin

Some displaced Syrians have already begun returning to their homes in Hajin after it was retaken by the SDF last month, but much of the town was destroyed in the fighting.

Syria map

All pictures copyright

Emiliano Sala search team recover body from plane wreckage

Emiliano Sala search team recover body from plane wreckage

A body has been recovered from the wreckage of the plane which crashed with Cardiff City footballer Emiliano Sala and pilot David Ibbotson on board.

The Air Accidents Investigation Branch said specialist contractors joined the operation in “challenging conditions”.

It was carried out in “as dignified a way as possible” and the men’s families were kept updated throughout, it said.

Emiliano Sala search team recover body from plane wreckage
It is not yet known whose body was recovered from the plane wreckage

The wreckage of the plane, which vanished two weeks ago over the English Channel, was found off Guernsey.

The Geo Ocean III, the boat carrying the body, arrived at Portland Port in Dorset on Thursday morning as it is the nearest part of the British mainland to where the plane was located.

Dorset Police said: “The arrival of the body into Dorset has been reported to the coroner for Dorset.

“The coroner will investigate the circumstances of this death supported by Dorset Police. A post-mortem examination will be held in due course.”

No formal identification has taken place, but the force said both families had been updated.

Emiliano Sala and David Ibbotson
Emiliano Sala (left) was on board a plane being flown by pilot David Ibbotson

The Piper Malibu N264DB was en route from France to Cardiff, after the 28-year-old Argentine striker made a quick trip back to his former club Nantes two days after his £15m transfer to Cardiff was announced.

Mr Ibbotson, 59, from Crowle, North Lincolnshire, was at the controls when the flight lost contact with air traffic controllers on 21 January.

An official search was called off on 24 January after Guernsey’s harbour master said the chances of survival were “extremely remote”.

But an online appeal started by Sala’s agent raised £324,000 (371,000 euros) for a private search led by marine scientist and oceanographer David Mearns.

Working jointly with the AAIB, his ship and the Geo Ocean III, began combing a four square mile area of the English Channel, 24 nautical miles north of Guernsey, to make best use of the available sensors.

Mr Mearns said the plane was identified by sonar, before a submersible with cameras was sent underwater to confirm this.

Footballers and fans pay tribute to Emiliano Sala at Cardiff City Stadium
A minute’s silence was held for Sala and Mr Ibbotson ahead of Cardiff’s home game against Bournemouth
Fans place flowers and T-shirts with messages in tribute of Emiliano Sala before Cardiff's Premier League match against Bournemouth at the Cardiff City Stadium on Saturday
Cardiff fans left a sea of flowers outside the Cardiff City Stadium in tribute to Emiliano Sala

The AAIB used a remotely operated underwater vehicle (ROV) to aid the search, with no divers involved.

The body was moved first, and separately from the wreckage, to maximise the chances of it being successfully brought to the surface.

It said efforts to recover the crashed plane as a whole proved unsuccessful, before being abandoned due to poor weather.

“The weather forecast is poor for the foreseeable future and so the difficult decision was taken to bring the overall operation to a close,” the AAIB said in a statement.

However, the AAIB said video footage captured by the ROV would provide “valuable evidence” for its safety investigation.

Meanwhile, it has emerged that Sala’s former club, French Ligue 1 side Nantes, has demanded Cardiff City pay his £15m transfer fee.

Sala, 28, was Cardiff’s record signing but never played for the club.

The fee was due to be paid over three years but Cardiff have withheld the first scheduled payment until they are satisfied with the documentation.

A supporter stands in front of flowers placed in front of a giant portrait of Emilianio Sala outside La Beaujoire stadium before Tuesday's French Cup match between FC Nantes and Toulouse FC
Supporters in Nantes have also been paying tribute to Sala
Black Saturday was Australia's deadliest bushfire event

Black Saturday: The bushfire disaster that shook Australia”:

Ten years ago, Australia experienced its worst-ever bushfire disaster when 173 people died across the state of Victoria. Immediately branded “one of the darkest days in Australia’s peacetime history”, Black Saturday has left a profound legacy. Sharon Verghis reports.

“It was like the gates of hell. There is no other way to describe it.”

For Tony Thomas, 7 February 2009 began as another ordinary day. It had been a summer of record-breaking temperatures, prompting days of safety warnings.

But Mr Thomas wasn’t overly concerned; they had had scorching days like this before.

In the lush, peaceful hills on the outskirts of tiny Marysville, about 90km (55 miles) north-east of Melbourne, he and wife Penni had carved out a fruitful life running a bed and breakfast on a 60-acre property.

Rahaf al-Qunun: UN ‘considers Saudi woman a refugee’

His in-laws had arrived for a birthday lunch. It was a pleasant gathering, despite the suffocating heat. But in the late afternoon, they spotted smoke in the west. Going for a closer look, they saw fire.

The remnants of Australia’s worst day of fires

“It came out of the forest behind us on the other side – at 100k [kilometres] it just roared towards us,” Mr Thomas tells the BBC.

At 18.45, the fire hit – “and pretty hard”. Mr Thomas’s family and the B&B guests ran for shelter in the house as he, his brother-in-law and an employee battled the fire. It was effectively three men with buckets and garden hoses against a roaring, wind-whipped blaze.

At 21.30, another wind change swung the fire towards the hay shed: “That threw flaming hay bombs at us for the next hour or so, massive embers and hay landing on us.”

“When you’ve got 20 to 30 metre-trees burning and the flames are well above that, like a huge ball…” his voice trails off.

“Why people say gates of hell is because everything turned from light to dark very quickly – the sun got blocked out by the smoke.

Bluebottle jellyfish: Thousands of Queensland beachgoers stung

“The only thing you could see is the glow of the fire through the smoke. We were choking. We only had large tea towels which we were wetting down constantly and wrapping around our faces so we could breathe.”

Nearby, David Baetge was also fighting for survival on his property near the town of Buxton, directly adjacent to a large state park.

An aerial view of a road passing through a forest of burnt-out trees near Kinglake in Victoria, Australia
The town of Kinglake and surrounding regions were devastated

Armed with a comprehensive fire plan and previous firefighting experience, he had seen the smoke but chosen to stay. Like Mr Thomas, the decision would almost cost him his life.

At about 1830, Mr Baetge spotted fire on top of peaks about 3km (2 miles) away – with what he estimated to be 100m-high fireballs.

Even for a bushfire veteran, he was shocked at the speed of the fire as it raced towards him. “The sky was iridescent red with a deafening roar like standing next to a 747 jet,” he would later recall in his blog.

“It was like being inside a cocoon of smoke with a maximum visibility range of about 30m and the whole of this hemisphere in every direction was glowing cherry red.” He said it was “like being sandblasted – but with burning embers”.

All through this once-bucolic landscape, others faced similar struggles.

Karen Curnow was among them. As her house caught fire, she fled in her car with her old dog, hurtling over and around burning trees, guilt-struck at having to leaving her panicked horses behind.

‘I escaped the inferno – then found my horse’

Nearby in Kinglake West, local artist Michelle Bolmat was also making a mad dash to safety.

“The ash started to fall, and the darkness came… it became completely black everywhere,” she tells the BBC. A tree came down in front of her; but as the heat started to build, she revved her engine and drove over it. “I looked back and saw the fire coming.”

All four got through that nightmare night.

But when the sun rose the next morning, it was eerily quiet. The lush landscape was gone.

“Our world turned from beautiful colours to black and grey,” Mr Thomas recalls. “There wasn’t a spot on the property that wasn’t burnt and it was the same across the whole area.”

Sydney Opal Tower: Residents forced to leave for second time

Kinglake suffered the heaviest toll, with 120 perishing. In Marysville, 39 people died – 34 of them locals – and the town was effectively obliterated.

“Probably 22 of those 34 were friends of ours,” Mr Thomas says.

An aerial view of a row of houses in Kinglake shows houses destroyed
Like Marysville, Kinglake had rows of buildings destroyed

After the final embers were doused (the Black Saturday fires continued to 14 March), the true scale of the fires was revealed.

About 400 blazes had burned, most sparked by faulty power lines and lightning, but there were also cases of arson.

A total of 173 people died – Australia’s deadliest ever bushfire event. It left several hundreds more injured, more than 2,000 homes destroyed, and more than 7,500 people displaced. The RSPCA estimated that up to one million animals died.

It was unprecedented – even for a country long used to bushfires.

Over the years, Australia has been hit with several deadly blazes. But the Black Saturday fires of 2009 were singular in their ferocity – equal to 1,500 atomic bombs.

The fires scorched houses and vehicles

So what made this event so severe?

Kevin Parkyn, a Bureau of Meteorology senior forecaster, says it was a combination of record temperatures, unusually strong, howling north-westerly winds in excess of 100km/h (60 mph), and a tinder-dry landscape courtesy of a long-running drought. In Melbourne, the temperature reached 46.4C.

“That’s a record for Melbourne in 100 years,” Mr Parkyn says. “When you went outside, there was just this blast of hot air – it was like having a hairdryer to the face.”

No firefighting force stood a chance, especially when the blazes hit Australia’s highly flammable eucalypt forests, he says. Spot fires sprang up kilometres downwind of the main front.

A helicopter prepares to fight bushfires in Victoria's Bunyip State Park
Firefighters continued to battle blazes in the weeks after Black Saturday

Did climate change play a role? Mr Parkyn refers to his scientific training: he says it would be hard to say there’s no link given the record temperatures now being experienced in Australia in particular, and the frequency of extreme weather disasters internationally. He points to last year’s California fires, the US state’s deadliest, as one example.

The damage from Black Saturday was also exacerbated by urbanisation, he says. Risk Frontiers, a research centre, has estimated that nearly a million addresses in Australia are located less than 100m from bushland.

In the aftermath, a royal commission inquiry was announced, resulting in widespread changes in bushfire preparation and protocols. The inquiry put the financial cost of the disaster at A$4.4bn (£2.4bn; $3.14bn).

Survivors also secured a A$500m payout the biggest class action settlement in Australian legal history. But this didn’t account for the invisible toll.

A farmer struggles with the conditions on his property near Labertouche, Victoria
A farmer struggles with the conditions on his property

The Beyond Bushfires report, which surveyed more than 1,000 people affected by the fires, found evidence of significant mental health issues including depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and severe psychological distress. The rates were significantly higher than what would be expected in the general population, it found.

Lead researcher Prof Lisa Gibbs, from the University of Melbourne, likens the disaster to a fractured window: the cracks spread far and wide, magnified by the small rural populations. She has seen a measurable increase in domestic violence along with mental health issues.

Out of the embers, however, some good has also come. Australia is now significantly better prepared for fires, with new measures including redesigned building codes and improved warning messages.

Internationally, Australian researchers are now leading the way in many firefighting technologies – from tanker perseveration strategies to a world-leading electrical-fault study. The Beyond Bushfires report is now used internationally.

A fern grows in a bushfire-ravaged region, in an image taken two years after Black Saturday
A bushfire-ravaged region, pictured two years after Black Saturday

Regeneration and growth has taken place on a more personal level as well. Mr Thomas is amazed by the resilience of the locals. Communities have rebuilt, the bush has regenerated.

For Karen Curnow says it gave her a chance to start anew: “I don’t see myself as a victim or a survivor. I just consider myself a very lucky person.”

This week, solemn events have marked the anniversary of the tragedy.

But for many scarred directly by Black Saturday, there will be relief when Thursday is over and people can move on, Mr Thomas says. Marysville is slowly recovering but “it will never be the same town”.

“But as a community we stick together,” he says. “We’re still here. We’re still standing.”

Additional reporting by Simon Atkinson and Hywel Griffith.

Recent Posts

The yellow-vest anti-government protests in France began in November

France recalls ambassador to Italy as diplomatic row deepens”:

A diplomatic row between France and Italy has deepened, with France complaining of “unfounded attacks and outlandish claims” by Italian leaders.

France recalled its ambassador to Italy for talks on Thursday, saying the situation was “unprecedented” since the end of World War Two.

It comes after Italian Deputy PM Luigi Di Maio met French “yellow-vest” protesters near Paris on Tuesday.

France warned him not to interfere in the country’s politics.

Relations between the two countries have been tense since Italy’s populist Five Star Movement and right-wing League party formed a coalition government in June 2018.

The two governments have clashed over a range of issues, including immigration.

What happened with Mr Di Maio?

The latest spat began after Mr Di Maio, the leader of Five Star Movement, met leaders of the anti-government “gilets jaunes” protests on Tuesday.

He posted a picture of himself on Twitter with a group including Ingrid Levavasseur, who is heading a yellow-vest list for elections to the European Parliament in May.

What has France said?

“For several months France has been the subject of repeated accusations, unfounded attacks and outlandish claims,” the foreign ministry said on Thursday.

“The most recent interferences constitute an additional and unacceptable provocation. They violate the respect that is owed to democratic choices made by a nation which is a friend and an ally. To disagree is one thing, to exploit a relationship for electoral aims is another.”

Italian Deputy Prime Minister Luigi Di Maio. Photo: January 2019
Luigi Di Maio tweeted that “the wind of change has crossed the Alps”

Italy’s fellow Deputy Prime Minister Matteo Salvini later sought to ease tensions, saying he would be happy to hold talks with President Emmanuel Macron.

But to “reset” relations he said France had to address “fundamental” issues. He called on Paris to hand over left-wing militants wanted by Italy and to stop returning migrants. He also complained of lengthy French border checks causing traffic jams at the frontier.

Mr Salvini launched a direct personal attack on Mr Macron last month, saying he hoped the French people would soon be able to “free themselves of a terrible president”.

Writing on Facebook he said: “The opportunity will come on May 26 (European elections) when finally the French people will be able to take back control of their future, destiny, (and) pride, which are poorly represented by a character like Macron.”

On Wednesday, the French foreign ministry called Mr Di Maio’s visit a “new provocation” that was “unacceptable between neighbouring countries and partners at the heart of the EU”.

The BBC’s Mr Ben Rory, in Paris says the row represents a new low in the fast deteriorating relationship between Paris and Rome.

What is the background?

Much of the tension between the two countries has been about migration.

When France criticised Italy for not allowing rescue boats carrying migrants in the Mediterranean to dock, Italy responded by accusing France itself of refusing to accept migrants.

Italy says France has sent migrants back across Italy’s northern border.

In January, France summoned Italy’s ambassador after Mr Di Maio said Paris had “never stopped colonising tens of African states”.

Also last month, Mr Salvini accused France of harbouring 14 “terrorists” wanted by Italy, after a fugitive ex-militant was extradited from Bolivia.

France has also grown impatient with Italy over the building of a Lyon to Turin high-speed rail link which the Italian coalition partners cannot agree on.

Who are the ‘gilets jaunes’?

The gilets jaunes protesters first took to the streets in November, angered by fuel tax increases. They said the measure hurt those who lived in remote areas of France and who depended on cars.

France recalls ambassador to Italy as diplomatic row deepens":
France fuel protests: Who are the people in the yellow vests?

The movement derives its name from the high-visibility yellow vests protesters wear – and which French motorists are required by law to carry in their vehicles.

Brexit: What’s behind Corbyn’s letter to May?

Jeremy Corbyn has outlined Labour’s five demands for supporting a Brexit deal in a letter to the prime minister. But Labour MPs campaigning for another referendum are not happy and some are considering leaving the party.

What’s missing from Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit demands is as important as their content.

While his office insists that his basis for a deal represents the “practical application” of Labour’s six tests

it is significant that there is no mention of this one: Does it deliver the “exact same benefits” as we currently have as members of the Single Market and Customs Union?

This was a test which Labour believed could not be met and cheekily played back to the – then Brexit Secretary – David Davis, his own words.

Its purpose was to give Labour cover to vote down any Conservative deal while “respecting” the result of the referendum.

Its absence now is designed to signify that Labour is serious about a deal.

On one level, it is astute politics.

EU negotiators have signalled their willingness to have a “closer relationship” with the UK than the May deal would allow.

And that they are willing to be more flexible if a proposal could command a solid majority in Parliament.

Win-win-win?

Politically, the Labour leadership believe they have a “win, win, win” scenario.

Win: They appear reasonable but Theresa May won’t play ball for fear of sacrificing her party’s unity on the altar of a customs union. She is potentially blamed by voters if Brexit goes badly.

Win: Theresa May accepts their customs union proposal – and splits her party.

Win: While pushing this option, any talk of a “public vote” is put off. It’s party policy to keep the referendum option on the table, but it’s teetering at the edge.

But by expressing a willingness to do a Brexit deal, those Labour MPs campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ are expressing, at the very least, their dismay. And some are going further.

Owen Smith
Owen Smith unsuccessfully challenged Mr Corbyn for the leadership in 2016

Former party leadership challenger Owen Smith – a strong supporter of EU membership who was sacked from the front bench for supporting another referendum – has told the BBC he is considering his future in the party.

And a handful of others are considering when, or if, to resign the Labour whip.

Some on the left of the party will say good riddance to people they see as “centrists” or “Blairites/Brownites”.

But the left-wing campaign group Another Europe Is Possible – led by a member of Momentum – is pushing emergency motions to Labour constituencies urging MPs to vote down any Brexit deal which Theresa May supports.

Michael Chessum, from the group, told me recently that the morale of young pro-EU activists is waning because the party leadership has not been outspoken enough against Brexit and has suggested the whole Corbyn project – putting power in the hands of members – was in danger.

That said, some non-Corbynista Labour MPs who back “Norway Plus” – single market participation and a customs union – have welcomed the leadership’s stance.

Anti-Brexit protests outside Parliament
The People’s Vote has support among many members of the Labour Party

As Labour’s offer to the prime minister is presented as a serious offer, its terms will come under increasing scrutiny.

In particular, that as part of a customs union the UK would get a say over EU trade deals.

That would, in effect, mean a non-member state would have more influence over the EU’s future trading relationships than any one member state currently has.

Labour supporters of the People’s Vote campaign regard this as the equivalent of a herd of unicorns and are pressing for Labour to put this forward as an amendment in next Thursday’s parliamentary votes – in the hope it’s defeated.

The campaign itself has issued five questions on Labour’s letter, suggesting Brussels won’t buy it.

One frontbencher – Matthew Pennycook – has suggested the party must move to support a referendum, if Labour’s new offer isn’t accepted.

And his boss, Shadow Brexit Secretary Sir Keir Starmer, has had to reassure concerned Labour members that Thursday’s offer to the prime minister does not rule out the option of another referendum – and that Jeremy Corbyn will be writing another letter, spelling this out.

So the Brexit Rule applies to Labour as well as to the government: Every Solution Brings A Problem.

Brexit: UK will not be ‘trapped’ in backstop, May to tell EU”:

Theresa May will return to Brussels later to press EU leaders for legally binding changes to the Brexit deal.

The PM will insist the UK will not be “trapped” in the backstop – the plan to avoid the return of Irish border checks should no UK-EU trade deal be in place.

She will say the deal must change if it is to win the support of MPs who urged her to seek “alternative arrangements” when rejecting the deal last month.

However, the EU has repeatedly ruled out changing the withdrawal agreement.

And Mrs May’s visit is being overshadowed by the row over Wednesday’s outburst by Donald Tusk, who declared there was a “special place in hell” for those who campaigned for Brexit without a plan to deliver it.

Brexit: What are the new ideas for the Irish backstop?

MPs who backed Leave in the 2016 referendum reacted with anger to the comments, accusing the European Council president of “arrogance”.

Donald Tusk: “Special place in hell” for those without Brexit plan

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has set out five demands for his party to support a Brexit deal – calling for them to be enshrined as objectives in domestic law.

In a letter to the prime minister, he said Labour wants a UK-wide customs union, close alignment with the single market, “dynamic alignment” on rights and protections, “clear commitments” on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes and “unambiguous agreements” on the detail of future security arrangements.

He said Labour did not believe that “simply seeking modifications to the existing backstop terms is a credible or sufficient response” to the scale of defeat suffered by Mrs May on her deal last month.

Mr Corbyn added that EU leaders had been clear that changes to the political declaration were possible if a request was made by the UK government “and if the current red lines change”.

Brexit: Theresa May ‘determined’ to leave EU in March’.

Analysis: What awaits Theresa May in Brussels?

Jean-Claude Juncker and Theresa May (file picture)

By BBC Europe editor, Katya Adler

There’s pretty much zero expectation that any real progress will be made on Thursday when Theresa May comes back to Brussels looking for changes to the backstop.

Mr Tusk is not alone in Europe in his frustration at leading Brexiteers’ unrealistic promises…

EU leaders are irritated too that – as they see it – the UK voted for Brexit but keeps looking to Brussels to come up with ways to make its exit workable and painless.

But most senior European politicians are keeping those thoughts quiet – in public.

Considering the tortuous political dance Theresa May is trying to pull off in Westminster, they realise outspokenly critical EU opinions may not be helpful if, in the end, they want to get this Brexit deal done with the UK.

Where are we in the Brexit process?

The UK is due to leave the EU at 23:00 GMT on Friday 29 March, when the two-year time limit on withdrawal negotiations enforced by the Article 50 process expires.

In January, MPs overwhelmingly rejected the withdrawal deal that the government had negotiated with the EU, backing an amendment for the government to seek “alternative arrangements” to the backstop.

The backstop is an “insurance policy” designed to avoid “under all circumstances” the return of customs checkpoints between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic after Brexit.

Many fear creating physical infrastructure along the border could threaten the peace process.

But the Democratic Unionist Party and Brexiteers believe the proposed temporary single customs arrangement could threaten the integrity of the UK, leaving it bound by EU rules if no trade deal is agreed.

Mrs May is due to meet European Commission president Jean-Claude Juncker, European Council president Donald Tusk and other senior figures on Thursday.

Downing Street said one of the Mrs May’s key messages will be that the Commons has now made it clear it could support the withdrawal agreement, as long as concerns about the backstop are addressed.

‘A trusted friend’

The prime minister will use the meetings to state that Parliament has sent “an unequivocal message that change is required”.

Mrs May is “open to different ways” of achieving her objectives on the backstop, Downing Street said.

She will also stress that Mr Corbyn shares the concerns about the backstop, saying that it is not just an issue for the Conservatives and the government’s DUP allies.

Both sides must “show determination” to get an exit deal “over the line”, Mrs May will say.

Downing Street said the government wanted to bring back a “meaningful vote” on a Brexit deal to the Commons as soon as possible.

On Wednesday, Mr Tusk said the Irish border issue and the need to preserve the peace process remained the EU’s top priority.

He hoped Mrs May would “give us a deliverable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend” that can command a Commons majority.

Taoiseach (Irish prime minister) Leo Varadkar said that while he was “open to further discussions” with the UK government about post-Brexit relations, the legally-binding withdrawal agreement remained “the best deal possible”.

And the backstop was needed “as a legal guarantee to ensure that there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

He is due to meet Mrs May for talks in Dublin on Friday.

Jeremy Corbyn promises pay rise for low-paid workers”:

The UK’s lowest-paid workers will get a pay rise of more than £2,600 per year under a Labour government, Jeremy Corbyn will say.

During a visit to Worcester, the Labour leader will set out policies including a pledge to raise the National Living Wage to £10 an hour in 2020.

He will also accuse the government of creating a “perfect storm of low pay, insecurity and working poverty”.

The Conservatives said there had been a £2,750 wage rise under its government.

The National Living Wage is the legally binding hourly rate for workers aged 25 and over.

It was set at £7.83 an hour in April 2018 and is reviewed every year, like the National Minimum Wage (for under 25s). It will rise to £8.21 from April.

Mr Corbyn will also say his party wants to stop the roll out of Universal Credit and ban zero-hours contacts.

Labour says Commons analysis shows its pay pledge would give a rise of £2,640.

During his visit to Worcester Housing and Benefit Advice Centre later, Mr Corbyn will say: “With real wages lower than they were 10 years ago, deep cuts to social security, rising borrowing just to make ends meet and the growth of insecure work, the Conservatives have created a perfect storm of low pay, insecurity and working poverty.

“This rising insecurity, with so many without savings to fall back on, is causing terrible stress for millions of families across the country.

“These scandalous levels of in-work poverty are unacceptable and must be brought to an end.

“Every job should provide dignity and security.”

Research by Labour shows the number of adults living in families where one or more person is working, and who do not have any savings, has risen to 12.8m.

The party says this was an increase of 2.5 million since 2010.

Labour’s 2017 manifesto promised to raise the minimum wage to £10 an hour by 2020.

But a Conservative spokesman said Mr Corbyn’s numbers “don’t add up”.

“It’s because of our National Living Wage that millions of hard working British people have seen a pay rise increasing their wage by £2,750, with the lowest paid seeing the biggest pay rise whilst over three million people have been helped into work,” he said.

“At the same time we’ve cut taxes for 32 million people, taking the lowest paid out of paying income tax altogether, and taken action to reduce the cost of living.”

Donald Tusk: "Special place in hell" for those without Brexit plan

Donald Tusk: Special place in hell for Brexiteers without a plan”:


European Council President Donald Tusk has spoken of a “special place in hell” for “those who promoted Brexit without even a sketch of a plan of how to carry it out safely”.

He was speaking after talks with Irish leader Leo Varadkar in Brussels.

Brexit-backing MPs reacted with anger to the comments, accusing Mr Tusk of “arrogance”.

Downing Street said it was a question for Mr Tusk “whether he considers the use of that kind of language helpful”.

The prime minister’s official spokesman said: “We had a robust and lively referendum campaign in this country. In what was the largest democratic exercise in our history, people voted to leave the EU.”

He added that everyone should now focus on delivering that.

Mr Tusk’s Twitter account tweeted his comments immediately after he made them in a news conference.

And at the end of their news conference, Mr Varadkar was picked up by the microphones telling Mr Tusk: “They’ll give you terrible trouble in the British press for that.”

Mr Tusk nodded at the comment and both laughed.

Brussels officials were quick to clarify Mr Tusk’s remarks, stressing to BBC correspondent Adam Fleming that the Brexiteers’ special place in hell would be for when they are dead and “not right now”.

Jean-Claude Juncker tried to laugh off the comments at a later press conference with Mr Varadkar, saying the only hell he knew was doing his job as the president of the European Commission.

And Guy Verhofstadt, the European Parliament’s chief Brexit negotiator, referencing Mr Tusk’s comments, later tweeted : “Well, I doubt Lucifer would welcome them, as after what they did to Britain, they would even manage to divide hell.”

But leading Brexiteers in the UK took to social media to express their anger at Mr Tusk’s remarks.

Former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who is now an independent MEP, tweeted: “After Brexit we will be free of unelected, arrogant bullies like you and run our own country. Sounds more like heaven to me.”

Commons leader Andrea Leadsom, who also campaigned for Britain’s exit from the EU, said Mr Tusk should apologise for his “disgraceful” and “spiteful” comments.

“I’m sure that when he reflects on it he may well wish he hadn’t done it,” she told BBC Radio 4’s World at One.

Former Brexit Secretary David Davis, when asked on ITV Peston’s programme how he felt “when President Tusk practically reserved your place in hell?”, said: “Perhaps he’ll join us there.

“When people throw insults around it says more about them than the people they’re insulting.”

The Democratic Unionist Party’s Brexit spokesman Sammy Wilson said: “This devilish Euro maniac is doing his best to keep the United Kingdom bound by the chains of EU bureaucracy and control.

“It is Tusk and his arrogant EU negotiators who have fanned the flames of fear in an attempt to try and overturn the result of the referendum.”

Leadsom on Tusk: "The man has no manners"
Leadsom on Tusk: “The man has no manners”

But Sinn Fein President Mary Lou McDonald backed Mr Tusk, arguing that it was the position of “hardline” Brexit-supporting MPs like Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg that was “intemperate” and “untenable”.

And Labour MP Ben Bradshaw, who supports having another EU referendum, said Mr Tusk was “absolutely right” and it was “painful” for leading figures in the Leave campaign, such as Boris Johnson and David Davis, “to have the truth pointed out to them”.

Theresa May – who supported the UK staying in the EU during the 2016 EU referendum but has always insisted that Brexit must be delivered because that was what people voted for – is due to arrive in Brussels on Thursday to seek legal changes to the withdrawal deal she signed with the EU. She hopes these changes will help her get it through the UK Parliament.

BBC political correspondent Iain Watson said the government was likely to publish a new employment bill before the next vote on Mrs May’s deal, with the aim to maximise support for it from Labour MPs.

Meanwhile, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has set out five demands for his party to support a Brexit deal – calling for them to be enshrined as objectives in domestic law.

In a letter to the prime minister, he said Labour wanted a UK-wide customs union, close alignment with the single market, “dynamic alignment” on rights and protections, “clear commitments” on participation in EU agencies and funding programmes and “unambiguous agreements” on the detail of future security arrangements.

He said Labour did not believe that “simply seeking modifications” to the backstop was a sufficient response.

Mr Corbyn added that EU leaders had been clear that changes to the political declaration were possible if a request was made by the UK government “and if the current red lines change”.

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Still open to a solution?

Leo Varadkar and Jean-Claude Juncker

By BBC Brussels reporter Adam Fleming

The EU has been absolutely scathing about some of the British political class today.

The dam broke on Donald Tusk’s pent-up feelings about the leaders of the Leave campaign.

The Irish prime minister suggested that MPs either didn’t know what they were doing or were misled when they voted to look for alternatives to the Irish backstop.

But – and it’s a big but – they have all been open to the prime minister coming to Brussels with a solution to break the deadlock.

And while Jean-Claude Juncker ruled out the idea of the UK having the right to pull out of the backstop if it were ever needed, he didn’t say anything about the other idea doing the rounds – a time limit.

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Donald Tusk said that the other 27 EU members had decided in December that the withdrawal agreement was “not open for renegotiation” – a message echoed by Mr Juncker.

Mr Tusk also had a message for Remain supporters in the UK, with 50 days to go until Brexit happens, with a deal or without one, saying: “I have always been with you, with all my heart”.

But he added: “The facts are unmistakable. At the moment, the pro-Brexit stance of the UK prime minister, and the Leader of the Opposition, rules out this question.

“Today, there is no political force and no effective leadership for Remain. I say this without satisfaction, but you can’t argue with the facts.”

Mr Tusk said the Irish border issue and the need to preserve the peace process remained the EU’s “top priority”.

He hoped Mrs May would “give us a deliverable guarantee for peace in Northern Ireland and the UK will leave the EU as a trusted friend” that can command a Commons majority.

Mr Varadkar said that while he was “open to further discussions” with the UK government about post-Brexit relations, the legally-binding withdrawal agreement remained “the best deal possible”.

And the backstop was needed “as a legal guarantee to ensure that there is no return to a hard border on the island of Ireland”.

He later said he will meet Theresa May for talks in Dublin on Friday.

Jean-Claude Juncker said alternative arrangements – the form of words backed by MPs in a vote last week – “can never replace the backstop”.


A Nasa graphic showing the global temperature anomalies between 2014 and 2018 - higher than the long term trend is shown in red

Climate change: World heading for warmest decade, says Met Office”:

The world is in the middle of what is likely to be the warmest 10 years since records began in 1850, say scientists.

The Met Office is forecasting that temperatures for each of the next five years are likely to be 1C or more above pre-industrial levels.

In the next five years there’s also a chance we’ll see a year in which the average global temperature rise could be greater than 1.5C.

That’s seen as a critical threshold for climate change.

If the data matches the forecast, then the decade from 2014-2023 will be the warmest in more than 150 years of record keeping.

Will the forecast temperature rises bust the Paris climate agreement?

The Met Office says that 2015 was the first year in which the global annual average surface temperature reached 1C above the pre-industrial level, which is generally taken to mean the temperatures between 1850 and 1900.

Each year since then, the global average has hovered close to or above the 1C mark. Now, the Met Office says that trend is likely to continue or increase over the next five years.

Warmest decade infographic

“We’ve just made this year’s forecasts and they go out to 2023 and what they suggest is rapid warming globally,” Prof Adam Scaife, head of long term forecasting at the Met Office, told BBC News.

“By looking at individual years in that forecast we can now see for the first time, there is a risk of a temporary, and I repeat temporary, exceedance of the all-important 1.5C threshold level set out in the Paris climate agreement.”

Last October, UN scientists published a special report on the long-term impacts of a temperature rise of 1.5C.

They concluded that it would take a massive carbon cutting effort to keep the world from tipping over the limit by 2030. The Met Office analysis now says there’s a 10% chance of this happening within the next five years.

“It’s the first time the forecasts have shown a significant risk of exceedance – it is only temporary. We are talking about individual years fluctuating above the 1.5 degree level,” said Prof Scaife.

“But the fact that that can happen now due to a combination of general warming and the fluctuations due to things like El Niño events in the next few years does mean we are getting close to that threshold.”

Met office graphic
Temperature data for the five major global climate databases

How confident is the Met Office of its prediction?

The Met Office says it has a 90% confidence limit in the forecasts for the years ahead.

It says that from 2019 to 2023, we will see temperatures ranging from 1.03C to 1,57C above the 1850-1900 level, with enhanced warming over much of the globe, especially over areas like the Arctic.

The research team says it is pretty certain in its predictions because of its past experience. The team’s previous forecast, made in 2013, predicted the rapid rate of warming that’s been observed over the past five years. It even predicted some of the lesser known details such as the patch of cooling seen in the North Atlantic and the cooler spots in the Southern Ocean.

If the observations over the next five years match the forecasts, then the decade between 2014 and 2023 will be the warmest in more than 150 years of records.

What about other climate agencies?

The Met Office forecast comes as a number of agencies publish their full analysis of temperature data from 2018, showing it to be the fourth warmest since records began in 1850.

The World Meteorological Organization (WMO) has published an analysis of five major international datasets showing that the 20 warmest years on record have been in the past 22.

“Temperatures are only part of the story. Extreme and high impact weather affected many countries and millions of people, with devastating repercussions for economies and ecosystems in 2018,” said WMO Secretary-General Petteri Taalas.

hot city

“Many of the extreme weather events are consistent with what we expect from a changing climate. This is a reality we need to face up to. Greenhouse gas emission reduction and climate adaptation measures should be a top global priority,” he said.

Other researchers in the field said the new forecast for the next five years was in line with expectations, given the record level of CO2 pumped into the atmosphere in 2018.

“The forecast from the Met Office is, unfortunately, no surprise,” said Dr Anna Jones, an atmospheric chemist at the British Antarctic Survey.

“Temperatures averaged across the globe are at a record all-time high, and have been for a number of years. They are driven predominantly by rising concentrations of greenhouse gases, such as carbon dioxide, that result from our continued use of fossil fuels.

“Until we reduce greenhouse gas emissions, we can expect to see upward trends in global averaged temperatures.”