INDEPENDENT 2024-02-19 04:33:40


Keir Starmer calls on Gaza fighting to ‘stop now’

Keir Starmer has called for the fighting in Gaza to end “now” as Labour faces another difficult week over its stance on the war.

He told Scottish Labour’s conference in Glasgow that his party wants “a ceasefire that lasts” in the beseiged enclave.

“Not just for now, not just for a pause, but permanently. A ceasefire that lasts. That is what must happen now. The fighting must stop now,” he said. as he also reiterated his warning to Israel not to extend its military offensive to the city of Rafah.

His comments came after Labour members north of the border backed calls for an immediate ceasefire and before an expected Commons showdown on the issue next week.

In November 10 of his frontbenchers quit or were sacked after a mass rebellion over a similar ceasefire vote.

In a stance that has created deep divisions within Labour, Sir Keir has refused to back calls for an “immediate” cessation of the fighting, instead backing the government in urging a “sustainable ceasefire”. Labour sources said there had been no change in the party’s position.

Labour has yet to say how it will instruct its MPs to vote this week, saying it needs to see the wording of the SNP motion on a ceasefire.

Earlier, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy said he understood Scottish Labour’s decision to support a motion for a ceasefire but said he wanted to make sure any pause in fighting was “sustainable”.

He told the BBC’s Sunday With Laura Kuenssberg: “I fully understand that Scottish colleagues want the fighting to stop now, we’ve been saying that for weeks, so we agree with them. We want the fighting to stop now.” However, he added: “You can have a ceasefire that lasts for a few days. We want the ceasefire to last and to be permanent and to move towards the diplomatic solution. It will only be a political solution that brings an end to this.”

Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar has called on the SNP, which faces losing potentially dozens of seats to Labour at the election, to work with them on the Commons ceasefire motion. The SNP have offered Sir Keir a meeting to discuss the issue.

In his speech, Sir Keir warned Labour could still lose the general election.

He said some communities had found a new “political home” in the SNP and winning them back would be hard.

He added: “No matter what the SNP say, the Tories can win the next election. Of course they can, politics is volatile. It’s ridiculous to say otherwise.

“So I would also say this. Imagine – even if only for a second – what it will feel like if you wake up on the day after the election, and the Tories are back. Encouraged again, emboldened again, entitled again.”

Earlier, former Labour leader Lord Kinnock said he was “convinced now that we’re not going to lose”.

Asked on Sky News whether Sir Keir would be in No 10, he said: “Yes. And I look forward to that very much because I think he would be a mature, honest, dependable leader of a party. And by God, we need all that now.”

Last week Labour was forced to ditch its candidate in the upcoming Rochdale by-election after he claimed Israel had allowed the Hamas massacre that killed 1,200.

New Airbnb rules to stop the ‘hollowing out’ of local communities

Michael Gove has announced proposals to require planning permission for short-term lets, such as Airbnb, to tackle a “hollowing out” of communities.

The new law would require people letting out their property as a short-term holiday home to seek permission from the local authority under a new “use” category.

The rules would not apply to people renting out their main home for 90 days or less in a year.

A mandatory national register would be set up providing councils with information on short-term lets in their area.

Mr Gove, Secretary of State for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities, said: “These changes will ensure people have more control over housing in their cherished communities.

“We know short-term lets can be helpful for the tourist economy, but we are now giving councils the tools to bring them under control so that local people can rent those homes as well.

“These changes strike a balance between giving local people access to more affordable housing, while ensuring the visitor economy continues to flourish.”

Tourism minister Julia Lopez said: “Short-term lets provide flexibility for homeowners and give tourists more accommodation options than ever before, but this should not prevent local people from being able to buy or rent homes in their area.

“The Government is committed to getting the balance right to ensure both local people and our visitor economy can thrive.”

Linda Taylor, leader of Cornwall Council, welcomed the proposals to tackle the “escalating” number of holiday lets in the county.

She said: “Alongside the introduction of the 100% premium on second homes from April 2025, I’m pleased the Government is providing the fiscal, planning and regulatory powers to help rebalance Cornwall’s housing market and allow us to provide even more decent and secure homes for local people and help all our communities to thrive.”

A Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities spokesman said: “The Government also intends to introduce associated permitted development rights – one allowing for a property to be changed from a short-term let to a standard residential dwelling, and a second that would allow a property to be changed to a short-term let.

“Local authorities would be able to remove these permissions and require full planning permission if they deem it necessary.

“Both of these measures are focused on short-term lets, and therefore the planning changes and the register will not affect hotels, hostels or B&Bs.

“Further details of these measures will be set out in the Government’s response to the consultations, including the timeline for implementation of the register, the use class and the individual permitted development rights – with the changes being introduced from this summer.”

Amanda Cupples, Airbnb general manager for northern Europe, said: “The introduction of a short-term lets register is good news for everyone.

“Families who host on Airbnb will benefit from clear rules that support their activity, and local authorities will get access to the information they need to assess and manage housing impacts and keep communities healthy, where necessary.

“We have long led calls for the introduction of a host register and we look forward to working together to make it a success.”

Navalny’s ‘bruised body seen in morgue’ as family demands it is returned

Vladamir Putin believes that he is “untouchable” after years of an iron grip on Russia, the wife of jailed opposition figure Vladimir Kara-Murza has said, as she accused the autocrat of murdering Alexei Navalny.

Speaking to the BBC, Evgenia Kara-Murza said: “All that impunity that lasted for decades has led [Putin] to believe he’s somehow untouchable.”

It comes as an independent Russian newspaper cited an anonymous source claiming that Mr Navalny’s body had been delivered to the Salekhard District Clinical Hospital.

The unnamed source, identified as an experienced paramedic, said the body was bruised and had been transported from the nearby town of Labytnangi.

Some Russian media reported that a special team of investigators had arrived from Moscow. It is unclear when the post-mortem will take place.

Mr Navalny’s mother, Lyudmila Navalnaya, visited the Salekhard morgue on Saturday but was told her son’s body was not there.

The Russian opposition figure’s team have accused authorities of deliberately hiding his body to “cover traces” of what they claim is a clear act of murder.

Adult human bones found in grisly discovery near Birmingham Airport

Human bones have been found by a member of the public in a grisly discovery near Birmingham airport.

Police said the remains, belonging to an adult, were found on land near Digby Drive, Marston Green, at around 5.30pm on Saturday.

The Solihull branch of West Midlands Police said an investigation has been launched and enquiries remain ongoing to identify the deceased.

“This will include specialist forensic tests which will take some time,” the force said.

Digby Drive is a residential street located just a 10-minute drive away from Birmingham Airport.

Solihull Police said in a statement: “We were called to land off Digby Drive, Marston Green, at around 5.30pm yesterday after a member of the public discovered bones.

“They are those of an adult, and enquires continue to identify the deceased.

“This will include specialist forensic tests which will take some time.”

It is not the first time human bones have been found near the airport in Birmingham.

In November 2020 police found remains just off Old Damson Lane, near a Jaguar Land Rover plant, where officers had previously searched for missing boys David Spencer and Patrick Warren.

At the time police suspected former Shropshire agricultural worker and convicted child killer Brian Field of having kidnapped the youngsters.

But West Midlands Police said there was no evidence to link the remains to the missing pair.

David and Patrick were 11 and 13 respectively when they disappeared from their homes in Chelmsley Wood on Boxing Day 1996.

Keir Starmer’s chief of staff Sue Gray denies she was a spy

Keir Starmer’s new chief of staff Sue Gray has taken the extraordinary step of denying she was ever a spy.

Ms Gray shot to fame when she compiled the Partygate report into events at Downing Street during lockdown.

Her damning findings were widely seen as hastening Boris Johnson’s departure from No 10.

Once so powerful in the Cabinet Office that she was described by a minister as the person who really “runs Britain”, news of Ms Gray being hired by Labour while still a civil servant was greeted with fury by the former prime minister.

Rumours that she was a spy centre on a period in her life when, during a career break in the 1980s, she briefly ran a pub in Northern Ireland – the Cove Bar in Mayobridge, Co Down, a short drive from the border with the Republic of Ireland.

Asked in a new biography of the Labour leader if she had been working for British intelligence at the time, Ms Gray laughed and said: “I’m definitely not a spy and no, I never have been.”

The book also reveals that Sir Keir had always wanted a civil servant for the post, to help him prepare for transition into government.

On Ms Gray, he said: “When all this nonsense blew up and some people were asking if I should still go ahead, I was willing to wait for her because of Sue’s obvious integrity, rather than her lack of it.”

Keir Starmer: The Biography, serialised in The Times, also reveals Sir Keir considered resigning after a crushing defeat in the Hartlepool by-election in 2021. Labour had held the seat since it was created in 1974.

Biographer Tom Baldwin was told the party leader told close aides in the immediate wake of the vote that he was going to quit, before being persuaded otherwise.

According to the book, Sir Keir’s wife Vic was among those who urged him not to act hastily.

Another key figure who helped keep Sir Keir in his post was Morgan McSweeney, who remains Labour’s highly influential director of campaigns.

Since then, Labour has seen a dramatic turnaround in the polls, suggesting it is on course to win the keys to No 10 later this year.

Versatile Vienna: from concerts and culture to wild swimming

The elegant city of Vienna, Austria’s capital, perches daintily on the Danube River, and is renowned for being a hotbed of culture. Art and music are woven into Vienna’s very DNA; it has been called the ‘City of Music’ because so many famous musicians, such as Beethoven and Mozart, lived here, and it’s where you’ll find one of the world’s most beautiful paintings – Gustav Klimt’s The Kiss – among a whole host of museums and galleries to lose yourself in. What’s more, it also boasts a wealth of wonderful natural sites and outdoor activities to enjoy, from vast parks, to pretty forests, refreshing pools and stretches of river, all within the city.

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Here are just some of the reasons why Vienna makes the perfect choice…

For great places to stay in this incredible city, Jet2CityBreaks has you covered. You can choose from the likes of Am Konzerthaus MGallery by Sofitel, which combines stylish surroundings with an Art Nouveau character, a sleek cocktail bar and a stunning restaurant offering fine cuisine. Or Ibis Wien Mariahilf, a modern boutique hotel close to the Westbahnhof train station and the famous shopping mile of Mariahilferstraße, where guests can enjoy cocktails in the cosy boutique bar, or dine at the buzzy restaurant.

Boutique Hotel Donauwalzer offers bright, quirky decor, a sleek art deco bar and easy access to the sites, museums, galleries and shops of Vienna. Or immerse yourself in Austrian culture at the Best Western Plus Amedia Wien, located in the city’s third district. Here you can enjoy a lavish buffet breakfast of local delicacies before heading out to explore the local markets and enjoy summer strolls along the Danube.

Alternatively, up the elegance factor with a stay at the Grand Ferdinand, a beautifully restored landmarked building in an enviable location. With St Stephen’s Cathedral, Hofburg Palace, the Museums Quarter, City Park and Vienna State Opera all within walking distance, it makes the perfect luxurious base to explore this fascinating city.

Culturally, you can’t do better than starting with The Kiss. The final painting of what was known as Klimt’s Golden Period, its depiction of two entwined lovers makes use of gold leaf and flakes of gold, silver and platinum, creating a stunning luminous effect that needs to be seen first-hand. Located in the beautiful, 300-year-old Upper Belvedere Palace, the piece rubs shoulders with works by other famous artists, including Monet and Van Gogh. While you’re here, make sure to enjoy a stroll through the landscaped gardens of this elaborate Baroque palace complex.

For even more inspiring artworks and cultural events, head to the MuseumsQuartier Wien, better known as MQ; the area is home to a cluster of museums, galleries and theatres, with dozens of exhibitions that will appeal to adults and children alike.

Finally, immerse yourself in Viennese history with a trip to Hofburg, the former Imperial Palace of the Habsburg dynasty. Once you’ve visited the grand Imperial apartments and the Sisi Museum – dedicated to the Empress Elisabeth, or ‘Sisi’, of Austria – make your way to the Palace’s Spanish Riding School, where you can watch the handsome Lipizzaner horses train, exercise, practice and perform dressage.

You can enjoy all the fun of the fair at the Prater amusement park, from roller coasters to ghost trains, but its standout attraction is the Wiener Riesenrad, or Big Wheel, which sits just by the entrance. Constructed in 1897, it stands 212ft high, and offers incredible views over the city. The iconic structure has even featured in several films, including 1940s film noir The Third Man, and James Bond classic The Living Daylights.

If you’re here in the warmer months, you might be surprised to discover that there are several outdoor swimming spots within the city, perfect for a refreshing dip. Along the Danube you’ll find the likes of Strandbad Gänsehäufel, one of the most popular stretches of the river with locals; An der Unteren Alten Donau, which has piers from which you can dive straight in, comfortable wooden reclining seats and a wide boardwalk; and the lively An der Oberen Alten Donau, known for its pier parties and night swimming.

After any exertion, it’s time to do as the Viennese do, and spend the afternoon in a Kaffeehaus. Kaffee und kuchen is a popular Austrian tradition, and the best-known cake in the country is the Sachertorte, a rich, luxurious combination of chocolate sponge, dark chocolate ganache and a thin layer of apricot jam. Try it in the red-velveted, gilt-mirrored surrounds of the Hotel Sacher, where it’s said to have been first invented, or at the historic Cafe Central, which dates from 1876 and has played host to writers, intellectuals and public figures including Leon Trotsky and Sigmund Freud.

You can also escape into nature via one of the many gorgeous green spaces dotted across Vienna. Prater Park is carpeted in forest and meadow, perfect for picnicking, while the national park of Lobau, known as the city’s jungle, houses more than 800 types of plant and over 100 bird species. There is even a wine region – where you’ll find sprawling vines and rolling hills – in the city’s 19th district.

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Rishi Sunak cannot afford to become consumed by by-election defeats

At a time when Vladimir Putin is asserting his brutal power ever more blatantly, when Ukrainian forces are being pushed back, and when the situation in Gaza is bleaker than ever, the British prime minister cannot afford to be distracted by the protest votes for a minority party in by-elections.

The Reform UK bandwagon may appear to be picking up speed. In Wellingborough, Ben Habib won 13 per cent of the vote and in Kingswood, Rupert Lowe won 10 per cent. This suggests that national opinion polls, putting the party on an average of 10 per cent, are accurate.

The prime minister has responded by launching an appeal for all voters who oppose a Labour government to unite behind the Conservative Party, making the argument that “a vote for anyone other than the Conservatives will just help Starmer”. That this is obviously true does not conceal Rishi Sunak’s desperation.

Call Toby Jones – Post Office drama could be due a sequel

Toby Jones should clear his diary. Extraordinary new allegations suggest his hit ITV drama, Mr Bates vs The Post Office, could be due a sequel. And the escalating row also threatens to spread to other areas where victims are still waiting for compensation.

It has been described as the most widespread miscarriage of justice in UK history. More than 700 branch managers were given criminal convictions after faulty Fujitsu accounting software made it appear as though money was missing. The official inquiry into the Horizon scandal heard that Fujitsu executives knew of faults with the system as early as 2008. But the prosecutions continued until 2015.