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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Thursday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
HANGOVER FROM HELL: Boris Johnson’s new “Plan B” coronavirus restrictions to combat the Omicron variant face being overshadowed by the fury of the public, outrage in the press and near mutiny from Conservative MPs in response to Downing Street’s Christmas party scandal. Prominent Tories who spoke to Playbook last night were unanimous that Wednesday was Johnson’s worst day politically since becoming prime minister. It’s sometimes easy to get carried away about the long-term, real-world consequences of a breaking news story, which can turn out to be less dramatic a few weeks on. This does not feel like that. The view of pretty much everyone in Westminster — including shellshocked ministers and government officials — is that this crisis could be a turning point for Johnson’s premiership and something that will stay in the minds of voters until the next general election.
You only need to look at the snap polls … to see how bad this is for the Conservatives. Redfield & Wilton find 63 percent of Britons think Johnson should resign as prime minister, with Labour on a 4 point lead, its biggest since the 2019 election. Savanta ComRes reckons 54 percent think the PM should quit. Opinium has the number at 53 percent.
The front pages are Johnson’s worst to date: Anyone thinking Johnson might receive an easy ride from some sections of the press should look at today’s splashes. The savage Sun Page 1 by Harry Cole labels him “the Grinch PM,” blasts that it’s “one rule for them: you can do as you please till you get found out,” and captures the problem for ministers as they try to convince people to follow the new rules: “Do as I say, not as I Christmas do.” The Mail’s Jason Groves and Daniel Martin agree it’s “One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us.” The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith, Lucy Fisher and Harry Yorke went viral with a mockery of the contradictory Plan B measures: “Don’t go to work, but do go to parties.” These three papers are supposed to be broadly sympathetic to Johnson — that sympathy appears to be drying up. It is probably not ideal to have Ant and Dec rinsing you in front of 5 million people every night either.
All over Twitter and Tory MPs’ WhatsApps this morning … will be an excoriating piece by the Telegraph’s Allister Heath which asks if it is the “beginning of the end for Boris.” Heath is a respected figure in right-wing and libertarian Tory circles and is well-read by ministers and MPs. He writes today: “There is an overpowering fin-de-regime stench emanating from Downing Street that can no longer be ignored. Why do all governments end up taking their voters for fools? Why do they feel that they have the right to break the rules that the rest of us must follow? That senior advisers chose to party at a time when the rest of the country was in a traumatic Christmas lockdown betrays an appalling lack of judgment, but it is their shocking sense of superiority, the sneering elitism and the subsequent lies that are most angering voters.”
**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.**
24 hours later: He was supposed to be on the morning broadcast round Wednesday only to have it pulled, but Health Secretary Sajid Javid will be on the airwaves in the next few minutes. Good luck.
PLAN B BOMBSHELL
4 NEW RULES FOR US: Ministers were last night privately questioning the impact partygate would have on compliance with the new COVID restrictions — one told Playbook that the most serious charge leveled at the government was that it had created a climate where people may not take the Omicron threat seriously. From Friday, face masks will be compulsory in most public venues such as cinemas, theaters and places of worship (you won’t have to wear them in restaurants, pubs and gyms). From next Monday, people will be told to work from home if they can. From next Wednesday, COVID passports will be implemented via the NHS app for nightclubs and mass events like gigs and football matches. You’ll be able to enter if you’ve been double jabbed or registered a negative test result. The other change is to isolation rules for Omicron case contacts. These are actually being eased, with isolation being replaced with daily testing to prevent a return of the pingdemic.
The question everyone is asking … is why the government is now advising people that they should not go to the office to work, but that they can go to the pub and drink with their colleagues without masks for their Christmas parties. Former Lib Dem spinner Ben Rathe put it best: “Last year if you wanted a Christmas party you had to claim it was a work meeting. This year, if you want to have a work meeting you have to claim it’s a Christmas party. Everyone clear?”
Might this explain it? You don’t need to believe in dead cats to acknowledge that Johnson’s announcement has the benefit for the government of (sort of) moving the news agenda on. My POLITICO colleague Esther Webber hears that by 6.30 p.m. on Tuesday, when Sajid Javid was being prepped for the morning broadcast round, an imminent application of Plan B was not under discussion and that the department of health still expected Wednesday’s press conference to be on antivirals. The plan laid out on Wednesday was scrambled together late last night, several officials told Esther, with instructions arriving at 11 p.m. from No. 10 for DHSC to present its latest work on certification and start readying the necessary regulations. The speed at which it was put together is underlined by the fact that passports are not coming in for another week, whereas masks will be extended on Friday. Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty does not object to the current plans but is said not to be especially happy, having signed these options off some time ago as part of a suite of possible options but not necessarily seeing them as ready to go. A government official stressed to Playbook that work on Plan B had been going on all week, that ministers received more concrete data on Tuesday and that it would have been irresponsible not to take action on Wednesday.
That scary data: Javid warned MPs Wednesday that the U.K. Health Security Agency believed there are around 10,000 Omicron cases in Britain. The variant’s apparently huge transmissibility gives it an estimated doubling time of every two and a half to three days. That means that Omicron cases could exceed 1 million by the end of the month, the health secretary said. The Guardian’s Hannah Devlin has the numbers.
Blowing up: Johnson’s threat at Wednesday’s presser that there should be a “national conversation” about mandatory vaccination if the alternative is ongoing restrictions on people’s way of life. Mandatory vaccination has always been seen by senior Tories as something that “more authoritarian” countries in Europe would do, rather than “freedom loving” Britain (their words). Johnson’s decision to openly mull the idea is a major sea change that will enrage Tory MPs. It will also be interesting to see if there is any form of cross-party political consensus for the idea. Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham last night came out against the idea. The level of ideological Tory opposition means Labour leader Keir Starmer could kill it dead if he wanted.
In parliament: The new regulations on face coverings will be laid today, the others will be published on Monday. Parliament will debate the changes next week, with a vote coming on Tuesday. Labour has said it doesn’t oppose Plan B but there will be huge interest in the Tory rebellion. The Sun’s Kate Ferguson reckons 60 Tories will vote against vaccine passports.
BACKBENCH FURY: Here’s a selection of Tory MP rage at No. 10, much of it directed at the change of restrictions: Ben Bradley said he wouldn’t vote for Plan B and described vaccine passports as “ineffective and discriminatory” … 1922 committee Chairman Graham Brady spoke of “déjà vu all over again” in the Commons as Javid announced Plan B … John Redwood said he expected a “record number” of Tory MPs to vote against Plan B … Mark Jenkinson retweeted a Michael Spicer video taking the mick out of the new rules and Christmas parties … Stephen McPartland said Plan B “makes little sense. The Guardian’s Jess Elgot reports that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps opposed Plan B at Tuesday’s Cabinet, accusing Michael Gove of wanting to “kill the whole economy.”
Backbench fury II: Arch-rebel Mark Harper asked “why should people listen to the prime minister’s instructions to follow the rules when people inside Number 10 Downing Street don’t do so?” … His fellow arch-rebel Steve Baker said it was “vital” Tory MPs voted against Plan B … … Simon Jupp tweeted: “Vaccine passports are divisive & discriminatory. They do not stop the spread of Covid. Plan B will cost jobs in many sectors, including hospitality. Working from home won’t help our social or economic recovery. I won’t vote for these measures” … Bob Neill said he was “disappointed and angered” by the reports of a party in Downing Street. Similar sentiments were echoed by Roger Gale and Charles Walker when they spoke out Tuesday night …
Backbench fury III: Brendan Clarke-Smith cryptically tweeted this Simon Cowell gif … Greg Smith said further restrictions “are simply unnecessary” … William Wragg tweeted this pic from Father Ted and posted post-midnight about Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries “haranguing” him in the Commons tea room … Neither Angela Richardson nor David Jones nor Alexander Stafford support the idea of a “national conversation” about mandatory vaccines … Peter Bone told Newsnight he would call for the PM to resign if they were introduced … Philip Davies accused Javid of bringing in “arbitrary, unnecessary, socialist measures” … Plus Craig Tracey … Robert Syms … Greg Clark … Esther McVey … Liam Fox … David Davis … Steve Brine … Richard Drax … Christopher Chope … Anthony Mangnall … Jane Stevenson … Pauline Latham … Alicia Kearns … and Craig Mackinlay all indicated opposition to or concern over the new restrictions either in the Commons or online. (Not to mention Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross said Johnson should resign if he misled parliament over what happened.)
By Playbook’s maths … that’s 33 MPs who have spoken out against the government on the record in the last two days — or just under 10 percent.
Prepare for letters? One minister told the FT’s Seb Payne, George Parker, Laura Hughes and Oliver Barnes the situation was “completely appalling,” adding: “In a way I haven’t heard before, colleagues I wouldn’t have expected are talking about what the end-game might be for the PM.”
THE PARTY IS OVER
COLD CASE FILES: The government is now facing accusations that ministers, aides and officials attended at least seven different parties while the rest of the country abided by lockdown restrictions last winter. At Wednesday’s press conference, POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio asked the PM if he would widen Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s probe to include all No. 10 parties alleged to have broken COVID rules, beyond the No. 10 Christmas drinks. In a potentially significant development last night, Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi told ITV’s Robert Peston that Case would be free to investigate any party alleged to have taken place. Let’s go through them in chronological order …
November 13, 2020: Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings claimed on Twitter on Wednesday that a party was held in Boris and Carrie Johnson’s Downing Street flat on the night Cummings famously walked out of No. 10 carrying a box of his belongings. England was in the middle of the November firebreak lockdown at the time, so holding or attending a party would have been a clear rule breach. Johnson on Wednesday denied there was a party in his flat that night.
November 13, 2020: Separately that evening, Johnson gave a leaving speech for his outgoing comms chief Lee Cain. The Times’ Steve Swinford, Oli Wright, Henry Zeffman and George Grylls report: “Questions are now being raised about whether the event to mark Cain’s departure breached the rules.”
November 27, 2020: Also during that lockdown, a leaving do is reported to have been held for another departing No. 10 aide, Cleo Watson. A source tells the Guardian‘s Aubrey Allegretti that the PM attended and gave a speech, and even remarked on how full the room was. The Telegraph’s Gordon Rayner, Lucy Fisher and Harry Yorke say around 30 aides were present including Johnson’s former chief of staff Ed Lister. Downing Street’s response: “Some No. 10 staff briefly said goodbye and thanked a colleague on the day she left. There was not a party. Covid rules were followed at all times.”
December 10, 2020: Then there’s the party at the department for education attended by then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson and DfE perm sec Susan Acland-Hood, as revealed by the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar. At the time London was in Tier 2, with indoor social mixing banned. DfE fessed up to the event and admitted it shouldn’t have taken place.
December 14, 2020: The Times has a strong scoop today that a party was held at Conservative Campaign Headquarters with Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey and “at least two dozen party aides and volunteers.” The paper says it was a “raucous” bash with boozing, Christmas hats and dancing late into the night. Things apparently got so rowdy that there was damage to a door. A Conservative spokesperson tells the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “CCHQ staff became aware of an unauthorised social gathering in basement of Matthew Parker St organised by the Bailey campaign on 14th Dec. Formal disciplinary action was taken against 4 CCHQ staff seconded to the campaign.”
December 18, 2020: Next up is the now infamous Downing Street wine, cheese and Secret Santa night that culminated in the resignation of press aide Allegra Stratton Wednesday. The Times reports it went on until 2 a.m. and several attendees left “rat-a*sed.” A No. 10 official who attended tells the FT’s Laura Hughes: “It was huge, there must have been 40 to 50 people. It was really bad. There was cheese and wine ordered in by No. 10 staff. There was music.” The Telegraph hears that No. 10 will tell Simon Case’s inquiry the event was an “impromptu affair” that took place while aides worked late preparing for the announcement of the Kent strain the following day. “Knowing they would be at their desks past midnight, staff went out to get cheese and wine from the local Tesco above Westminster Underground station,” the paper reckons. “As far as there was any ‘party,’ that was the extent of it,” one source claims. Alternatively, the Times says Secret Santa gifts were planned in advance and exchanged on the night.
… ‘Ello ‘Ello ‘Ello: The Met Police on Wednesday said they would not investigate the December 18 bash, despite the footage that emerged of No. 10 aides joking about the event. Johnson did however commit to handing everything the government knows about all parties in No. 10 to the Met, which if incriminating could convince them to open an investigation. Lib Dem analysis reported by the Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth shows over 70,000 people were not so lucky and got fined for their rule-breaking lockdown parties.
December ? 2020: The Times also reports that Downing Street officials and advisers held a Christmas quiz in Downing Street, with attendees again drinking late into the night. No. 10 conceded to the paper that some may have taken part in the quiz “virtually” from their desks. Incoming No. 10 Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield is reported to have taken part.
Unfortunate quote of the day: “To us, Downing Street was an island where we had to work and lockdown wasn’t happening in the same way it was for the rest of the country,” a No. 10 source tells CNN’s Luke McGee.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with DEFRA questions followed by any UQs, the weekly business statement from Jacob Rees-Mogg and any other ministerial statements … The defense committee then has a short statement on its report on women in armed forces … and then the main business will be backbench debates on the contribution financial services make to the economy and on consular support for British citizens.
REMEMBER CRIME WEEK? It feels like about a month since Crime Week got under way on Monday — h/t to the ministry of justice press officers doing their best to keep it alive. Today’s story is about reforms to how victims of crime are treated with a consultation for a new Victims’ Law, as well as scorecards published to increase transparency.
BEIS ANNOUNCEMENT: More than 200 firms that breached minimum wage rules have been named — the Indy has a write-up.
POLITICO 28: Chancellor Rishi Sunak (“Doer” #5) and the PM’s wife Carrie Johnson (“Disrupter” #8) were among the Brits mentioned as POLITICO launched its annual ranking of the most influential people in Europe last night. Italian PM Mario Draghi took top billing as the overall most powerful person in Europe as judged by the newsroom — find out about the other 27 top influential doers, dreamers and disrupters here.
WHITE PAPER ASKS: The leveling up white paper should clearly define how they will negotiate devolution deals with county areas, a new IfG report recommends. The report argues that beyond core principles, little detail has been shed on the proposed working of county deals — which would see government powers transferred to county areas — and says skeptical local leaders could be convinced if the government’s plans were more defined.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The DCMS committee will question the government’s preferred candidate for chairman of the Charity Commission, Martin Thomas (10 a.m.).
LORDS: Sits from 11 a.m. with questions on the disabled student’s allowance, the U.N. Relief and Works Agency and the Future Farming Program … The main business will be debates on Scotland’s contribution to the economic recovery, TfL funding and the role of nuclear power in the future.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 51,342 new cases, ⬆️ 5,651 on Tuesday. In the last week there have been 339,861 new cases, ⬆️ 34,609 on the previous week … 161 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, ⬇️ 19 on Tuesday. In the last week 847 deaths have been reported, ⬇️ 7 on the previous week. As of the latest data 7,317 COVID patients are in hospital.
OMICRON VARIANT: 568 cases detected in the U.K., ⬆️ 131.
VAX STATS: A total 51,161,757 people or 89 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a first dose, ⬆️ 23,512 … A total 46,610,800 people or 81.1 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a second dose, ⬆️ 28,375 … A total 21,300,859 people or 37 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 391,050.
STATE OF THE UNION
TODAY IN HOLYROOD: Finance Secretary Kate Forbes will unveil the Scottish government’s budget in the Scottish parliament this afternoon. In comments briefed overnight, Forbes said it would secure a “fairer, greener and more prosperous country” — the middle part is the most interesting, with this budget being the first since the Scottish Greens entered government with a big pile of spending wants. Forbes will be up after 2.30 p.m., after First Minister’s Questions at noon.
Oh dear: Not the best pre-budget story for Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar, whose pre-written budget attack lines were revealed 24 hours early. Top scoop from the Times’ Kieran Andrews, who reports that Sarwar’s A4 script branding the budget a “rehashing of old ideas” was found lying around in Holyrood yesterday. An SNP spokesperson told Andrews that Sarwar had “missed his calling as a fortune teller.”
**A message from Goldman Sachs: As the UK confronts the impact of the pandemic, we face key questions of how to level up and build back better. Small businesses must be central to the solution. They are more than just the engines of the economy, they are engines of growth. 10,000 Small Businesses UK is helping small businesses to drive the agenda on sustainability, diversity and the skills crisis. Leveraging the insights of over 1,800 UK small business leaders, this report demonstrates the impact of 10,000 Small Businesses over the past decade. Learn more.**
Health Secretary Sajid Javid broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.).
Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (6.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (7.10 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.35 a.m.) … Today program (7.50 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Tory MP Marcus Fysh (7.09 a.m.) … SPI-M member Mike Tildesley (7.30 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Former Scottish Tory leader Ruth Davidson (6.30 a.m.) … Former Tory MP Edwina Currie and Guardian columnist Owen Jones (8.15 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast: NERVTAG member Andrew Hayward (7.30 a.m.) … Former Downing Street comms director Jonathan Haslam (7.40 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Johnson adviser Guto Harri (7.10 a.m.) … The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush (8.10 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: SPI-B member Gavin Morgan (8.05 a.m.) … Deputy Chief Executive of NHS Providers Saffron Cordery (8.15 a.m.) … Ian Maxwell, brother of Ghislaine (8.35 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former Downing Street comms director Jonathan Haslam (7.20 a.m.) … JCVI member Adam Finn (7.50 a.m.) … Tory MP Chris Green (8.05 a.m.) … Former Tory SpAd Mo Hussein (9.05 a.m.) … Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael (9.40 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Tom Hunt … Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle … Former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith … Broadcaster Timandra Harkness.
Spectator TV (YouTube 6 p.m.): Government health adviser Carol Black … Former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith … Former NATO adviser Angela Stent … Professor of Ecology Alastair Grant.
Question Time (From Hendon, BBC One 10.35 p.m.): Tory TBC … Labour Party Chair Anneliese Dodds … Businessman Steven Bartlett … Former Defense Secretary Michael Portillo … Actor Adjoa Andoh.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and Editor of the Courier David Clegg.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: PM — Plan b best chance for ‘close to normal’ Xmas.
Daily Mail: One rule for them, new rules for the rest of us.
Daily Mirror: Plan B for us … Plan ‘lie, lie, lie’ for him.
Daily Star: Cluebo — It was everybody else, in the N0 10 drawing room, with wine and nibbles.
Financial Times: Johnson adopts plan B to check virus as anger festers over parties.
HuffPost UK: Allegra Stratt-gone.
i: PM’s 24-hour U-turn on COVID plan B.
Metro: ‘PM taking the public for fools.’
POLITICO UK: Mario Draghi: The most powerful person in Europe.
PoliticsHome: Tory MPs question Boris Johnson’s competence over ‘disastrous’ handling of party row.
The Daily Telegraph: Don’t go to work, but do go to parties.
The Guardian: PM triggers COVID plan B as party scandal engulfs No 10.
The Independent: Johnson tightens rules to crack down on Omicron.
The Sun: Do as I say … not as I Christmas do — New curbs as PM reels over party.
The Times: PM orders return to working from home.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO Europe: How coronavirus split science in two.
Prospect: How cancel culture became a blood sport.
The New European: Now that’s what we call bullshi.
The New Statesman: Christmas special.
The Spectator: High time — Is the government ready to tackle Britain’s drug problem, asks Fraser Nelson.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Light clouds and a gentle breeze. Highs of 7C.
CONGRATS TO: All the big winners at last night’s British Journalism Awards. Political highlights include the FT’s politics team winning in the politics and investigation category for their Greensill stories … The Sunday Times’ Gabriel Pogrund and John Collingridge took home the anti-corruption category for a ton of great sleaze stories … The Sun got scoop of the year for the Hancock smooch … The BBC’s Emma Barnett won interviewer of the year thanks to her work on Newsnight and Women’s Hour … and ITV’s Robert Moore was deservedly crowned journalist of the year for his jaw-dropping report from inside the U.S. Capitol at the start of the year. Read all the winners here.
BIRTHDAYS: Former European Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker … Brighton Pavilion MP Caroline Lucas … Health Minister Ed Argar … Crossbench peer David Currie … Former Supreme Court judge Jonathan Sumption … Deputy Governor of Gibraltar Nick Pyle.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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