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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
BIG PLAYBOOK NEWS: POLITICO is very excited to announce that Eleni Courea will be the new London Playbook deputy editor starting in the new year. Eleni has smashed it at the Times over the past couple of years and has become one of the Lobby’s leading and best-connected journalists, in particular on the Labour Party. Just last week she scooped everyone — including Labour’s deputy leader — breaking news of Keir Starmer’s imminent reshuffle in one of the top political stories of the year. Eleni will write Playbook on Fridays and when I’m away, as well as feeding in stories throughout the week, and writing exclusives and features for the POLITICO website as well. Playbook can’t wait to see her make this email more well-rounded with more scoops and insight from January. You can follow her on Twitter if you don’t already here.
DRIVING THE DAY
NIGHTMARE BEFORE CHRISTMAS: Today is the worst news day for Downing Street since, well, the last time Playbook said that a few weeks ago. The government stands accused of dishonesty on two fronts this morning as Boris Johnson prepares for his toughest Prime Minister’s Questions yet. Yesterday’s truly bombshell video leaked to ITV’s Paul Brand revealed that Downing Street aides joked about their alleged Christmas party last December while rehearsing for the then Press Secretary Allegra Stratton’s doomed TV briefings. This week No. 10 has denied a party took place. Meanwhile, Downing Street also seems snookered on its position that the PM did not intervene in the case of animal rescuer Pen Farthing during the disastrous evacuation from Kabul — a letter from Johnson’s parliamentary private secretary seen by LBC’s Theo Usherwood appears to suggest otherwise. This political storm is breaking just as Johnson considers implementing Plan B restrictions with the Omicron variant surging — a COVID press conference is planned imminently.
Chatty Strat: ITV’s video of the mock Stratton press briefing on December 22 last year, four days after the No. 10 party was reported to have taken place, now has 5.5 million views on Twitter alone. ITV News at Ten (about 2.5 million viewers) began last night with furious host Tom Bradby telling the nation: “They literally look as if they are laughing at us. You, me, all of us.” The story led the BBC News at Ten as well (some 4 million viewers). Ant and Dec took another pop at the PM on I’m a Celeb (around 5 million). The papers aren’t much better: the Mail’s splash calls it a “sick joke” — no suggestion of an easier ride from new editor Ted Verity so far — while the Metro blasts No. 10’s “party clowns” and the Guardian accuses the PM of lying.
Morning round pulled: As Playbook sends this email out, the government is not planning to put a minister out on broadcast this morning. Multiple broadcasters tell Playbook that No. 10 informed them last night they would not be putting anyone up on radio or TV. Three broadcasters said a health minister was due to go on to talk about the booster campaign, but they were pulled. This is obviously extremely unusual.
**A message from Goldman Sachs: Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses report shares how small businesses are the UK’s Engines of Growth. Browse the report.**
Recap: It is worth running the Stratton quotes in full. The leaked video showed the PM’s then press secretary taking part in a rehearsal Q&A session with a No. 10 colleague playing a journalist last December. The colleague asks: “I’ve just seen reports on Twitter that there was a Downing Street Christmas party on Friday night, do you recognize those reports?” Stratton jokes: “I went home,” before responding: “Umm, errr, ahhhh … what’s the answer?” Another colleague suggests: “It wasn’t a party, it was cheese and wine.” Stratton asks: “Is cheese and wine alright?” The colleague seems to reply: “No, joking.” Stratton then answers “it was a business meeting,” warning the room “this is recorded,” before joking again: “This fictional party was a business meeting and it was not socially distanced.” ITV has the full exchange.
Going very viral: Handily, on December 17 — the day before the party/wine and cheese/not socially distanced business meeting — the gov.uk Twitter account tweeted the official rules on Christmas parties: “Although there are exemptions for work purposes, you must not have a work Christmas lunch or party, where that is a primarily social activity and is not otherwise permitted by the rules in your tier.” Nearly a year on, that surely provides a knockout blow for Starmer at PMQs.
Not laughing now: The FT’s Lobby team notes that on the day the footage was filmed, 691 people died from coronavirus. On December 18, the day of the drinks and Secret Santa in Downing Street, 514 people were reported to have died.
How’s Crime Week going? The Metropolitan Police, which has been criticized for not investigating the scandal, last night said it was reviewing the vid: “We are aware of footage obtained by ITV News relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at a Government building in December 2020. It is our policy not to routinely investigate breaches of the COVID-19 regulations, however the footage will form part of our considerations.”
No. 10 repeated its denial last night: “There was no Christmas party. COVID rules have been followed at all times.”
Labour scents blood: Starmer’s first move was to accuse the government of lying and call for Johnson to apologize: “People across the country followed the rules even when that meant being separated from their families, locked down and — tragically for many — unable to say goodbye to their loved ones. They had a right to expect that the government was doing the same. To lie and to laugh about those lies is shameful. The prime minister now needs to come clean, and apologize. It cannot be one rule for the Conservatives and another for everyone else.” Starmer tweeted that Johnson is “socially distanced from the truth.”
He may go further at PMQs: Other Labour spokespeople have been punchier, and Starmer will likely ramp it up today. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper blasted: “Incredible. They had a party. They knew it broke the rules. They joked about how to deceive us. They knew they couldn’t say the prime minister condemned it. Because he didn’t. All while they canceled Christmas for the rest of us.” Labour’s Twitter account pushed the strong line: “They’re lying to you and they’re laughing at you.” Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy will likely repeat that as he gets a free hit on Labour’s morning broadcast round. MPs in the Commons are obviously not allowed to accuse each other of lying, though the way things are going Playbook wonders whether Starmer fancies a John McDonnell-style grab-the-mace moment for the cameras today.
The other opposition parties are going hard: Scottish National Party Westminster leader Ian Blackford called for Johnson to resign over the scandal. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey called for an inquiry.
Johnson will probably be more worried about … the response of his own party. Speaking to Tory MPs and aides last night, the general view of how things are going for the government is probably as low as it has ever been. That disquiet is starting to manifest itself in increasingly hostile briefings from both inside government and the Tory benches. A Downing Street official tells the FT’s Laura Hughes: “It’s pretty disastrous, the government and PM denying it and then this footage leaks out saying otherwise.” A Whitehall source tells the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “It looks hypocritical. It looks like PM doesn’t know what is going on or the operation is so shambolic that they thought that was acceptable.” A government source tells Laura K it’s “as bad as the [Dominic] Cummings road trip for sure.” A pithier source tells the Telegraph’s Harry Yorke and Dani Sheridan: “We are f***ed.”
On the record: Veteran Tory backbencher Roger Gale tweeted: “The No.10 party has all the hallmarks of another ‘Barnard Castle’ moment. No.10 clearly has some serious questions to answer. Fast.” There might be no minister on the morning shows but a smattering of other Tory MPs including Miriam Cates (talkRADIO), Andrew Bowie (GB News), Charles Walker (Times Radion) and Richard Holden (Politics Live) will be out and about, not necessarily in a mood to reel off lines to take. Tin hats on.
Gav di Gavi: The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar broke the original party story and she has another top scoop this morning, revealing that on December 10 last year the then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson threw a party with “drinks and canapés” in the department for education café. Ministers and officials reportedly knocked back glasses of wine and a source tells Crerar: “There were lots of people gathered in the café area, mingling and drinking wine. It was just so reckless.”
Crucial difference: Very interestingly, DfE have taken the opposite approach to No. 10 in handling this story. DfE did not deny that COVID rules were broken — perhaps easier for them now Williamson is out of government — and admitted fault: “The gathering was used to thank those staff for their efforts during the pandemic. While this was work-related, looking back we accept it would have been better not to have gathered in this way at that particular time.” As Downing Street aides meet to prepare Johnson for PMQs, it’s not impossible that No. 10 may look to follow this DfE line and take a more conciliatory tone.
What else can No. 10 do? The expectation is that Johnson will have to come to PMQs armed with something, otherwise it’ll be a total bloodbath. Tory MP Tobias Ellwood told BBC Newsnight that the PM “has to get ahead of this story” and called for Cabinet Secretary Simon Case or “another senior independent voice” to investigate. (H/t Lewis Goodall.)
The immediate political threat … for Johnson is what difference this makes at the North Shropshire by-election next week. The seat was already becoming difficult for the Tories in the wake of the Owen Paterson lobbying scandal. The Lib Dems will be looking to take full advantage over the coming days and will hope the story cuts through enough to tip the seat in their favor.
There’s also a potential health impact … It’s not impossible that Johnson will have to implement new COVID restrictions in the weeks ahead. One of the chief concerns in Whitehall last night was that the perception of rule-breaking in government will negatively affect compliance with any measures. Tory MP Charles Walker tells Laura Kuenssberg: “The No. 10 party means that any future lockdowns will be advisory, whatever the law says.”
Still, it could be worse: Finland’s Prime Minister Sanna Marin is in trouble after a magazine published photos of her at a nightclub in Helsinki until almost 4 a.m, just hours after a minister she had been in contact with had tested positive for the coronavirus. Though her night on the town didn’t formally break any of Finland’s COVID regulations, opposition politicians accused her of a lack of judgment. POLITICO’s Charlie Duxbury has the story.
OVER-40s BOOK TODAY: Today brings the first sign that the booster campaign is creaking into action, 12 days after Boris Johnson ordered the rollout to be ramped up. From this morning, over-40s who had their second vaccine doses more than three months ago will be able to book online on the NHS website. The Times’ Chris Smyth says that means seven million more people are eligible. They will also be able to book a month in advance of becoming eligible.
PLAN B PLANS: There have been reports for a few days that officials are drawing up plans to implement so-called Plan B restrictions including working from home over the Christmas period. The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith hears similar and splashes on those contingency measures today. Yesterday a Downing Street spokesperson told Lobby that the “early signs” were that “Omicron is more transmissible than Delta” and that “We are able to move relatively swiftly” with more restrictions if needed — confirming Playbook’s report on Tuesday that things were not looking good.
More measures? The FT’s George Parker, Seb Payne, Sarah Neville and Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe reckon Johnson is “increasingly concerned” about Omicron’s rapid spread, and that officials will present ministers with proposals on new mask mandates and social distancing “within days.” Today’s Times splash by Chris Smyth, Oli Wright and Tom Whipple reports that ministers are looking at vaccine passports for nightclubs and mass events, with ministers expected to meet this week to discuss whether strong measures are needed.
Cabinet split: Both the Times and Telegraph say the Cabinet was split on vaccine passports on Tuesday. Ben Riley-Smith reports: “Michael Gove, the Communities Secretary, and Nadine Dorries, the Culture Secretary, are both believed to have backed the move, but others around the table resisted.” Chris Smyth and Oli Wright also say Gove was in favor and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps was against.
Presser coming: The FT also says Johnson is planning a press conference this afternoon to announce that a new antiviral drug, molnupiravir, will be given to vulnerable patients from next week. Playbook is also told by several sources that the presser was scheduled for today, though last night government officials said the timing was still TBC, and just that there will be a COVID presser this week.
Good news: The FT’s Oliver Barnes and John Burn-Murdoch bring the cautiously fantastic news that early data from South Africa suggests the disease caused by Omicron could be less severe than previous forms of COVID. They write: “Early data from the Steve Biko and Tshwane District Hospital Complex in South Africa’s capital Pretoria, which is at the centre of the outbreak, showed that on December 2 only nine of the 42 patients on the Covid-19 ward, all of whom were unvaccinated, were being treated for the virus and were in need of oxygen.” The story carries the important caveat that the expected greater transmissibility of Omicron means hospitals could still be overwhelmed.
Less good news: More worrying from the experts in South Africa is the revelation that two doses of the Pfizer vaccine are just one-fortieth as potent at neutralizing Omicron infection in cells as the Beta variant. That sounds like a very scary number and it does suggest that Omicron is considerably more able to escape vaccine protection than other strains. However, the researchers found stronger protection in people double jabbed after being infected, which suggests the boosters will help prevent serious disease and death, the Times reports. “We have highly effective vaccines that have proved effective against all the variants so far, in terms of severe disease and hospitalisation, and there’s no reason to expect that it wouldn’t be so” for Omicron, said the World Health Organizations Dr Mike Ryan.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 45,691 new cases, ⬇️ 5,768 on Monday. In the last week there have been 336,893 new cases, ⬆️ 36,339 on the previous week … 180 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, ⬆️ 139 on Monday. In the last week 857 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 25 on the previous week. As of the latest data 7,317 COVID patients are in hospital.
OMICRON VARIANT: 437 cases detected in the U.K., ⬆️ 101.
VAX STATS: A total 51,138,245 people or 88.9 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a first dose, ⬆️ 19,979 … A total 46,582,425 people or 81 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a second dose, ⬆️ 25,012 … A total 20,909,809 people or 36.4 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 329,165.
Happy anniversary: Today is one year since the first COVID vaccine in Britain was given to 90-year-old Margaret Keenan in Coventry.
**Tune in tonight: Frans Timmermans, executive vice president for the European Green Deal at the European Commission and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, director general of the World Trade Organization, will headline our POLITICO 28 class of 2022 unveiling event this evening. Register today.**
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with Northern Ireland questions followed by PMQs at noon … Followed by half a day of the remaining Nationality and Borders Bill stages — Home Secretary Priti Patel will be up in the Commons for her first major event in Crime Week … Labour has a debate and awkward vote on the integrated rail plan aka the government’s “rail betrayal” … and then Tory MP Andrew Mitchell has an adjournment debate on assisted dying.
PERM SECS ON THE BEACH: On pretty much any other day, Tuesday’s shambolic testimony of senior Foreign Office officials in front of the foreign affairs select committee would be driving the day. Philip Barton, permanent under-secretary at the FCDO, unbelievably told the committee he did not return from holiday until 11 days after the Taliban had taken Kabul. “I have reflected a lot. If I had my time again I would have come back from leave earlier,” Barton said, but remains in post. The Times leads on Barton’s admission.
Poison Pen letter: There was a huge amount in whistleblower Raphael Marshall’s testimony that was damning for the government, though questions today will likely focus on how exactly charity worker Pen Farthing managed to get his animals on a plane out of Kabul, when so many desperate Afghans were waiting outside the airport. Downing Street yesterday flat out denied that the prime minister or his wife Carrie had intervened in the case. Then LBC’s Theo Usherwood got hold of a letter from Johnson’s PPS Trudy Harrison to Farthing telling him he had been authorized to proceed on a flight out.
A No. 10 spokesperson said last night: “This was an operational decision. Neither the PM nor Mrs Johnson were involved. This letter was nothing to do with Ms Harrison’s role as the PM’s PPS, she was acting in her capacity as a constituency MP.” What constituency business did Harrison have writing to Farthing about the operational details of his evacuation? Expect further scrutiny along those lines today.
More on Afghanistan: The Institute for Government has a well-timed event on Afghanistan this morning, where a panel will discuss what the U.K.’s 20 years in the country accomplished and what should happen next. Former Foreign Secretary Jack Straw, defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood and former Afghan Minister for Women Hasina Safi will join the IfG’s Bronwen Maddox from 11.30 a.m. — register here.
SCOOP: Labour is calling for an inquiry into £6.5 billion worth of fraud from the COVID business support loan. New Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Pat McFadden and Shadow Business Secretary Johnny Reynolds have written to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng asking them: “When did you both first become aware of the scale of fraud attached to the Covid-related business support scheme? … What steps were taken and when once you became aware of the scale of this fraud? … Why were there no electronic checks of applications to check whether the businesses had previously submitted a tax return before automatically becoming eligible for this support? … Given the significant level of fraud which has resulted from this policy , will you agree to initiate an independent inquiry into this matter to begin immediately?”
Eye-catching stat: Labour notes that according to Companies House, 2020 to 2021 saw the highest number of incorporations on record — a little fishy to say the least. McFadden and Reynolds ask: “How many of the new companies set up around the time these loans were introduced, and were simple checks conducted to check whether a company had existed for over a year before awarding them with support?”
HELL YES I’M TRUSS ENOUGH: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has a keynote address this morning at Chatham House, her biggest speech since taking on the role. Truss will outline her foreign policy vision, including plans for a “network of liberty” involving deeper ties with British allies and a warning that the democratic world order has “taken its eye off the ball” in recent years. The Sun’s Harry Cole says Truss will argue that culture wars and “woke” attacks on Britain are a gift to the country’s enemies (another line to please the Tory base as she pushes ahead in the race to be the next PM). The event will be streamed from 10 a.m. here.
BIDEN VS. PUTIN: U.S. President Joe Biden on Tuesday warned Russian President Vladimir Putin that the United States and European allies would join together to impose “strong” economic penalties and other punitive actions on Russia should it mount an invasion of Ukraine. In a highly anticipated secure video call, Biden “voiced the deep concerns of the United States and our European Allies about Russia’s escalation of forces surrounding Ukraine and made clear that the U.S. and our Allies would respond with strong economic and other measures in the event of military escalation,” according to a White House readout. My POLITICO colleagues in the U.S. have the story. My Brussels Playbook colleagues report the U.S. will urge Germany to stop the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline if Russia does invade Ukraine. Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli and Vanessa Dezem have more; the FT splash follows that story.
Speaking of Germany: The new German coalition government, to be led by Chancellor Olaf Scholz, takes office in Berlin today. You can follow the events of the day with POLITICO’s live blog, which kicks off from 7.30 a.m.
SMELLING MBS: A suspect linked to the killing of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was arrested in France on Tuesday, according to NBC News. The arrest took place just days after French President Emmanuel Macron held talks with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, who denies ordering Khashoggi’s killing in Turkey by a team of men linked to the crown prince. Shortly after the arrest, the Saudi Embassy in Paris posted a statement “clarifying” that the man arrested has nothing to do with the case and requesting his release. Mmhmm.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: Work and Pensions Secretary Thérèse Coffey is up at the work and pensions committee (9.15 a.m.) … Immigration Minister Kevin Foster will be questioned by the Northern Ireland affairs committee on immigration checks within the CTA (9.30 a.m.) … The international trade committee will look at the impact of the NI protocol on trade between GB and NI (10 a.m.) … The Welsh affairs committee has Welfare Delivery Minister David Rutley and Welsh Minister David TC Davies (10 a.m.) … and the joint committee on human rights takes evidence from Justice Secretary Dominic Raab (3 p.m.).
LORDS: Sits from 3 p.m. with questions on the community renewal fund, a national memorial for those who died during the pandemic and Ukraine … Followed by the third reading of the Education (Assemblies) Bill and the Rating (Coronavirus) and Directors Disqualification (Dissolved Companies Bill … Then consideration of Commons changes to the Armed Forces Bill … and then peers begin report stage consideration of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill.
POLITICO 28: The POLITICO newsroom will tonight unveil its annual list of the 28 personalities tipped to drive the day across Europe next year. WTO Director General Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala and European Commission VP Frans Timmermans will attend an event marking the unveiling, which starts from 5.30 p.m. Watch here.
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Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (6.45 a.m.) … Today program (7.09 a.m.) … LBC (7.10 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Imperial College prof. Neil Ferguson (7.15 a.m.) … Crossbench peer Beeban Kidron (7.20 a.m.) … NHS England Medical Director Stephen Powis (7.50 a.m.) … Education committee Chairman Robert Halfon (8.30 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: COVID Bereaved Families for Justice’s Saleyha Ahsan (6.30 a.m.) … NHS England Medical Director Stephen Powis (7.10 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: U.K. in a Changing Europe’s Jill Rutter (7.10 a.m.) … COVID Bereaved Families for Justice’s Fran Hall (7.35 a.m.) … Tory MP Charles Walker, the vice chair of the 1922 committee of backbenchers (8 a.m.) … Comedian and actor Stephen Fry (9.45 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Armed Forces colonel Ash Alexander-Cooper (7.15 a.m.) … Grenfell United Vice Chair Karim Mussilhy (7.40 a.m.) … Former media adviser to Theresa May Joey Jones (8.05 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former Armed Forces colonel Ash Alexander-Cooper (7.20 a.m.) … ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton (7.33 a.m.) … Tory MP Miriam Cates (8.05 a.m.) … Labour MP Graham Stringer (8.20 a.m.) … Public accounts committee Chair Meg Hillier (9.50 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 11.55 a.m.): PLP Chair John Cryer and Tory MP Andrew Bowie.
Politics Live (BBC Two 11.15 a.m.): Tory MP Richard Holden … Labour MP Clive Lewis … The Mirror’s Aleta Adu … The Academy of Ideas’ Mo Lovatt … Shadow Armed Forces Minister Stephen Kinnock.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns … North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll … Former Tory MP Edwina Currie … Byline Times Chief Westminster Correspondent Adam Bienkov.
Peston (Twitter 9 p.m. and ITV 10.45 p.m.): Shadow Leveling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy … Former Brexit Secretary David Davis … Labour MP Dawn Butler.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and Mail’s Andrew Pierce … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Tory MP Christopher Chope and Labour MP Jack Dromey.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: We need a shot in the arm now.
Daily Mail: A sick joke — Moment PM’s spokeswoman laughed about ‘illegal’ party held at No 10 last Xmas … while nation was in lockdown.
Daily Mirror: Another top Tory broke COVID party rules.
Daily Star: Newsflash — Raab’s brain is still missing.
Financial Times: U.S. urges Berlin to block Russian gas line in event of Ukraine strike.
HuffPost UK: One yule for them.
i: 2021 — It’s beginning to look a lot like last Christmas.
Metro: No 10 party clowns.
POLITICO UK: Germany’s new climate minister aims for a green economic miracle.
PoliticsHome: Early indications show Omicron is more transmissible than Delta.
The Daily Telegraph: Plans for Christmas work-from-home order.
The Guardian: PM accused of lying after No 10 team filmed joking about party.
The Sun: Sorry, it’s the wrong kind of wind — Energy bosses’ lame excuse for power cuts.
The Times: Cabinet rift over plan for vaccine passports.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Dry, cloudy and breezy. Highs of 8C.
AWARDS DAY: Press Gazette will announce the winners of their British Journalism Awards this evening— see the shortlists here. Good luck to everyone nominated.
BIRTHDAYS: SNP Chief Executive Peter Murrell … Tory peer Anne Jenkin … Crossbench peer Peter Levene … Alliance MLA Stewart Dickson … Demos think tank Chief Executive Polly Mackenzie … and housing magnate Richard Desmond.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
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