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The Conservative Party will open a new party headquarters in the North of England next year in a bid to secure the seats won in Labour’s former “red wall”.

The new office is understood to be opening in a prominent northern town and in a seat held by Labour until the 2019 general election, leading to speculation that Darlington, Middlesborough, Wakefield or a location in Bolton could be in contention. 

Party co-chair Amanda Milling will make the announcement on the precise location on Saturday morning, on the first day of a digital version of Tory party conference.

The scramble to get a northern HQ up and running comes after a dire few weeks for Boris Johnson’s leadership with backbenchers, including those from the 2019, growing increasingly frustrated and vocal over coronavirus restrictions and the econonic impact on their communities.

Milling, who is interviewed today in The House magazine, said that her mission as co-chair is to ensure the 58 gains they made, many in the north and Midlands remain in their hands at the next election, due in 2024. 

“We are fully committed to the manifesto commitments, and in particular the levelling up agenda.

“I always argue that my seat [Cannock Chase] was one of the first bricks in the blue wall and we’ve got to turn some of these light blue bricks into dark blue bricks,” she said. 

The former market researcher, who served as a local councillor in Rossendale, Lancashire, was elected to Parliament in 2015 and was part of the team that rapidly assembled around Boris Johnson during his first stab at the party leadership in 2016.

The specific northern powerhouse minister role was removed earlier this year and the brief moved into transport secretary Grant Shapps’ brief. 

According to information given to PoliticsHome the new northern base is intended to be a permanent presence in the north, not a temporary pop-up, with considerable party cash behind it so a joint headquarters can operate long-term.  

Number 4 Matthew Parker Street in Westminster has been home to the party’s central office for the past six years and will continue to be its head office.

Unhappiness among Tory backbenchers over the Covid-19 restrictions in parts of the north spilled over this week with a group of 2019-intake Conservatives on Teesside demanding health secretary Matt Hancock and the leaders of local councils hold back on a region-wide lockdown. 

Jacob Young (Redcar), Matt Vickers (Stockton South), Peter Gibson (Darlington), Paul Howell (Sedgefield) were joined by 2017 Tory MP Simon Clarke (Middlesborough South and East Cleveland) in signing a joint letter saying the restrictions needed more time to bed in and they had concerns on the 10pm curfew. 

Young and Clarke both thanked Hancock publicly after the restrictions were placed on Hartlepool and Middlesbrough only but not the wider Teesside region.

North West Durham MP, Richard Holden, who also elected in 2019, said asked the government for far more consultation with Parliament before measures are introduced. 

“I ask the government to listen to us, because every decision they make without total victory will be a judgment call.

“I would like them to hear the balanced and thoughtful words, particularly from these Benches, and from elsewhere, and to continue to consult the House so that we can speak up for our constituents at an incredibly difficult time for so many of them.”

Milling told the House that the Conservative Party still has the values of freedom and liberty at its heart and the public understand they are having to take meausres in extraordinary time to try and counter the spread of the virus. 

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US election 2020: Trump and Biden feud over debate topics

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  • US election 2020

media captionWho really decides the US election?

US President Donald Trump and his White House challenger Joe Biden are feuding over plans for their final TV debate.

The Republican president’s campaign accused organisers of this week’s showdown of helping the Democrat by leaving out foreign policy as a topic.

The Biden camp shot back that Mr Trump was trying to avoid questions about his response to the coronavirus pandemic.

Mr Biden has a commanding lead nationally in opinion polls with two weeks to go until the election.

But he has a smaller lead in the handful of key US states that will ultimately decide the outcome.

  • The Countdown: Biden, Beastie Boys and early votes

What did the Trump campaign say?

On Monday, the president’s camp sent a letter to the Commission on Presidential Debates calling for topics to be adjusted for the final primetime duel this Thursday.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said in the letter that the campaigns had already agreed foreign policy would be the focus of the third debate.

The topics were announced by moderator and NBC News correspondent Kristen Welker last week: American families, race in America, climate change, national security and leadership.

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image captionMr Trump has been holding large campaign rallies

During a campaign rally on Monday afternoon in Prescott, Arizona, Mr Trump described Ms Welker as a “radical Democrat” and said she would be “no good”.

Mr Stepien accused Mr Biden of being “desperate to avoid conversations about his own foreign policy record” and the commission of trying to “insulate Biden from his own history”.

“The Commission’s pro-Biden antics have turned the entire debate season into a fiasco and it is little wonder why the public has lost faith in its objectivity,” he wrote.

He also accused Mr Biden of trying to avoid questions over reports about purported emails from his son, Hunter, and alleged conflicts of interest.

How did the Biden campaign respond?

The Democrat’s camp hit back that it was actually Mr Trump who was trying to duck questions.

“The campaigns and the Commission agreed months ago that the debate moderator would choose the topics,” said national press secretary TJ Ducklo.

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“The Trump campaign is lying about that now because Donald Trump is afraid to face more questions about his disastrous Covid response.

“As usual, the president is more concerned with the rules of a debate than he is getting a nation in crisis the help it needs.”

What are the debate rules?

Following public criticism over the handling of the first debate, the commission has adopted a new rule to mute microphones in the final event.

The 90-minute debate structure will be divided into 15-minute segments. At the start of each new topic, both candidates will have two minutes of uninterrupted time – during which the opponent’s microphone will be off.

The rest of the time will be open discussion – and the microphones will not be muted during this period.

In a statement announcing the decision, the debate commission said they determined it was “appropriate to adopt measures intended to promote adherence to agreed upon rules”.

The commission noted that “one [campaign] may think they go too far, and one may think they do not go far enough”, but that these actions provided the right balance in the interests of the public.

What happened with the last two debates?

The Trump campaign chief noted on Monday that the moderator of the cancelled second debate on 15 October, Steve Scully, had been suspended after tweeting to a prominent Trump critic, then lying that his account had been hacked.

Mr Stepien also accused the moderator of the first debate, Fox News’ Chris Wallace, of having acted as “a third combatant” against Mr Trump.

The first Trump-Biden duel back on 29 September descended into insults between the candidates, with the president interrupting many more times than the Democrat did, according to post-debate statistics from US media outlets.

How is early voting going?

Nearly 30 million early voters have already cast their ballots, compared with just six million at this point before the last presidential election in 2016.

Experts say the coronavirus pandemic has spurred many to cast their ballot ahead of time to avoid crowding at polling stations on 3 November, though some early voters have faced long queues.

On Monday, Republicans were dealt a defeat by the US Supreme Court as it declined to take up a case on postal ballots in the critical swing-voting state of Pennsylvania.

Republicans had argued only ballots received by election day should be counted, and were contesting a state Supreme Court decision to allow late ballots to count.

Now that America’s highest court has refused to hear the case, any ballots received within three days of 3 November will be counted, even if they do not have a clear postmark.

Chief Justice John Roberts sided with the court’s three liberal justices in the case.

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Trump announces plans to remove Sudan from state sponsors of terrorism list

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“GREAT news! New government of Sudan, which is making great progress, agreed to pay $335 MILLION to U.S. terror victims and families. Once deposited, I will lift Sudan from the State Sponsors of Terrorism list. At long last, JUSTICE for the American people and BIG step for Sudan!” he tweeted.

Trump’s announcement comes months after the US and Sudan reached a bilateral settlement agreement. The tweet was welcome news for Sudanese officials as well as some of the American survivors and families of the victims of those bombings, who have urged Congress to pass legislation so that it can be disbursed. However, others remain opposed to the settlement, which pays lesser amounts to foreign nationals who worked at the embassy and employees who became US citizens after the attack.

Behind the scenes, the Trump administration has been pushing for the transitional government in Sudan, led by Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok, to normalize relations with Israel. Such a move would present a foreign policy win to Trump just weeks ahead of the election.

The President’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, and a team of international negotiators from the White House and State Department had taken the lead on brokering these deals between Israel and a number of countries, including Sudan, Oman and Morocco, according to people familiar with the discussions, and their efforts have thus far yielded two successful deals — with Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates.

During a visit to Khartoum in late August, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and Hamdok discussed the rescission of the terrorism designation, but Hamdok appeared to rebuff the potential of normalizing relations with Israel, saying the transitional government did not have the authority to pursue such a change.

Senior government sources in Sudan told CNN that the designation change was a requirement by Hamdok before talks on normalization could proceed.

“Prime Minister Hamdok was insistent during negotiations with the US that the removal from the list not be linked to normalization as Sudan has met all the criteria for its removal. Now that the designation has been changed discussions can begin afresh on normalization. The designation change was our priority and normalization is theirs,” one source said.

Sudan has been listed as a state sponsor of terrorism since 1993, and it is one of only four nations total designated as such. Iran, North Korea and Syria are also listed. As a result, Sudan faces a series of restrictions including a ban on defense exports and sales and restrictions on US foreign assistance.
Sudan’s strongman leader, Omar al-Bashir, was ousted in a military coup in April 2019 after three decades in power.

‘A critical step in advancing the US-Sudan relationship’

With the nation under a transitional government, Pompeo has voiced support for delisting Sudan with certain prerequisites.

“This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along often. We all know the history of Sudan and the tragedy there,” Pompeo said at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing in late July. “There’s a chance not only for a democracy to begun to be built out, but perhaps regional opportunities that could flow from that as well. I think lifting the state sponsor of terrorism designation there, if we can take care of the victims of those tragedies, would be a good thing for American foreign policy.”

More than 200 people were killed and thousands were injured in 1998 when twin al Qaeda bombings rocked the US Embassies in Nairobi, Kenya, and Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Sudan, under the leadership of al-Bashir, sheltered Osama bin Laden and was found to have assisted the al Qaeda operatives. The US and Sudan reached a settlement in which the latter would pay $335 million to compensate survivors who worked at the embassies and victims’ families. The money will be deposited in an escrow account. Sudanese government spokesman Faisal Mohammed Salih told CNN that “the required compensation amount has been deposited in a neutral account.”

The State Department declined to comment on Trump’s announcement Monday, although the top US diplomat in Khartoum congratulated the Sudanese government and its people on the news.

“This will be a critical step in advancing the U.S.-Sudan relationship and we hope will open the way for new engagement by the international community,” charge d’affaires Brian Shukan wrote Monday on Twitter.
Hamdok said in a tweet Monday, “We very much look forward to your official notification to Congress rescinding the designation of Sudan as a state-sponsor of terrorism, which has cost Sudan too much.”

“This Tweet and that notification are the strongest support to Sudan’s transition to democracy and to the Sudanese people,” he said. “As we’re about to get rid of the heaviest legacy of Sudan’s previous, defunct regime, I should reiterate that we are peace-loving people and have never supported terrorism.”

The role of Congress

Three congressional aides told CNN that the administration had yet to notify Congress of the delisting. The notification triggers a 45-day period in which Congress could override the decision, but it would require both the House and Senate to pass a veto-proof joint resolution of disapproval.

Edith Bartley, spokesperson for some the families of Americans who were killed in the embassy bombings, said in a statement Monday that they welcomed the announcement.

“On behalf of the families killed in the 1998 bombing of the Nairobi embassy, I wish to express our appreciation for the long hard work of the State Department, and the new civilian regime in Sudan, to secure Sudan’s payment of compensation to our diplomatic families for that act of terror,” said Bartley, who herself lost her father and brother in the attack in Nairobi.

“The escrow fund established by that agreement, once it is released to the victims, will fulfill a longstanding commitment first made by President Bush, honored by President Obama, and now affirmed by President Trump, to condition normalization on compensating survivors and the families of those who were lost to acts of terror. In so doing, we vindicate the sacrifice of our diplomats abroad,” she said.

In her statement, Bartley also called for Congress “to immediately pass the legislation that is needed to implement the agreement, and begin the payment process. Congress cannot let this agreement fall victim to legislative gridlock and bickering.”

Sen. Chris Coons, a Delaware Democrat who has been spearheading efforts on the matter, said Monday that the “Trump administration and Congress must redouble efforts to pass legal peace legislation for Sudan to deliver long-awaited justice and compensation to terror victims and families.”

Stuart Newberger, an attorney at Crowell & Moring who represents US victims and their families, told CNN that Congress must pass the legislation because the agreement between Washington and Khartoum “requires that Sudan be basically relieved of being sued in federal court as a sponsor of terror under the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act.”

“So that’s why Congress has to get involved to provide Sudan what’s called ‘legal peace.’ The President can’t do that on his own; that’s something only Congress can do,” he said.

The settlement faces opposition from those who see it as unfair and inequitable — it would give different payouts to those embassy employees who were US citizens at the time of the attacks, those who have since become US citizens, and those who are still foreign nationals. Some 9/11 victims’ families are also opposed to the immunity that Sudan would receive under the deal, which they fear could jeopardize their own claims against the nation.

Doreen Oport, who worked at the embassy in Nairobi and was injured in the attack, said in a statement Monday, “We want a resolution but cannot accept one that betrays so many US embassy victims and the most basic principles of American justice.”

This story has been updated with additional developments Monday.

CNN’s Vivian Salama, Nima Elbagir and Yassir Abdullah contributed to this report.



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Senate Republicans cringe at Trump’s stimulus negotiations

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It is quite unusual for the Trump administration to negotiate legislation that turns off most members of Congress in President Donald Trump’s own party. If all Senate Democrats supported the legislation, it would still need more than a dozen Republicans to clear the 60-vote threshold needed to overcome a filibuster.

And GOP leaders are looking dimly at the prospect of waltzing a bill with mostly Democratic support through the Senate, even if it does have the president’s backing.

Republicans’ “natural instinct, depending on how big it is, and what’s in it, is probably going to be to be against it,” said Senate Majority Whip John Thune (R-S.D.). “I think we’re going to have a hard time finding 13 votes for anything.”

Senate Republicans have been on the attack now for weeks, hoping to send a signal to the Trump administration that they far prefer touting the impending Supreme Court confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett over a debilitating intra-party fight over a relief bill right before the election. McConnell has privately expressed concern about a coronavirus deal delaying Barrett’s confirmation, according to someone who has spoken to him.

Some GOP senators have also warned it would damper enthusiasm for Republicans at the ballot box, while Sen. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) simply said Monday that $1.8 trillion or more is “way too high.”

“It would divide Republicans if it’s anything like the kind of contours we hear about,” said Sen. Pat Toomey (R-Pa.), a fiscal conservative.

Trump has presented a cheery view of the possibility of getting sufficient Republican support. When asked last week during an NBC town hall whether Senate Republicans would go for a big number on a stimulus, Trump predicted: “they’ll go.”

And given the number of Republican senators in tough re-election races, it’s conceivable that some of them would support a massive spending deal.

“I’m glad they’re still talking. I think we do need a COVID-19 package. But it does depend on what’s in it,” said Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who is up for reelection.

Senate Republicans are far more enthusiastic about their more targeted, $500 billion legislation for schools, hospitals and small businesses that will see a vote this week. The party has unified around that proposal and had high hopes of hammering Senate Democrats if they opposed it.

But as long as Mnuchin and Pelosi are still talking about hundreds of billions in aid for states and cities and extending expired unemployment insurance coffers, there’s little reason for Democrats to feel any political pressure to take a lower number from McConnell.

Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) called McConnell’s legislation this week a “partisan bill so full of poison pills that it is obvious he designed it to fail.” He said the most offensive portion is a broad corporate immunity shield amid the coronavirus pandemic.

A Pelosi-Mnuchin deal did not appear imminent Monday as the speaker ticked off many of the outstanding disputes during a private call with House Democrats. Pelosi said she and Mnuchin were still haggling over several key issues including appropriations for state and local aid and language covering liability and worker protections — a Republican demand which she described as “a big nut to crack.”

Pelosi has given Mnuchin until the end of Tuesday to reach an agreement — a timeline Democrats say is necessary if a bill is to be passed before the election. And she directed her committee chairmen to begin working with Republican ranking members to “reconcile differences” after another hour long call with Mnuchin on Monday afternoon.

But even the process of simply drafting the bill and haggling over all the particulars in the House and Senate appropriations committee will take days.

“I want this as soon as possible because I don’t want to carry over the droppings of this grotesque elephant into the next presidency,” Pelosi said on the call, according to two Democratic sources. “We’ve got to get something big and we’ve got it done soon and we’ve got to get it done right.”

A number of Republican senators were keeping their options open on Monday night as the chances for a deal, while low, were still alive. Sen. Rick Scott (R-Fla.), who had panned ongoing discussions between Mnuchin and Pelosi for sending too much money to blue states, was among the senators taking a wait-and-see approach on Monday.

“If there’s an agreement, I think we should try and vote on it before the election,” added Sen. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), a member of GOP leadership. “But I’m skeptical there can be an agreement.”

As majority leader, McConnell could decide simply not to hold a vote before the election, too. That would provoke a fight with Trump, but it might be the more popular position among Senate Republicans.

That’s because some of McConnell’s diehard conservative members are worried that if a roughly $2 trillion coronavirus bill does get a vote in the GOP-controlled Senate, it would narrowly pass.

“You’ll lose a lot of Republicans on whatever that is,” said Sen. Mike Braun (R-Ind.), who would oppose it. But he conceded: “If they bring it up for a vote, I’m guessing there will be enough to get it across the finish line.”

Heather Caygle contributed to this report.

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