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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Friday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
CRIME WEEK REVIEWED: On Monday, Boris Johnson tried to take the fight to Labour and rejuvenate the Conservative base by launching what was supposed to be a series of daily crowd-pleasing announcements billed as “crime week.” By Friday, the prime minister had lost of one of his top advisers, endured a slew of damaging allegations of COVID rule-breaking by his Downing Street team, been accused of repeated dishonesty, surprised the country with sudden new Omicron restrictions, suffered a mauling from his own supporters in the media, watched more than 50 Conservative MPs publicly criticize his leadership, lose his poll lead to the opposition, and today he wakes up to Labour leader Keir Starmer calling for Tory backbenchers to remove him from office. A wounded No. 10 faces imminent threats on three political fronts — parties, wallpaper and its own Tory MPs — as well as mounting concerns over the Omicron variant, as it tries to limp through to Christmas.
GEIDT-GATE: The gravest danger to the PM this morning is Thursday’s revelation from the Electoral Commission that called into doubt Johnson’s testimony on the donations used to renovate his Downing Street flat — the row better known as “Wallpapergate.” The EC fined the Conservative Party £17,800 for failing to properly declare the donations. POLITICO’s Esther Webber has the story. The real cost however comes buried in the EC’s timeline of events, first spotted by Sky’s Sam Coates.
Back in May … Johnson assured an investigation carried out by Christopher Geidt, his independent standards adviser, that the first he knew of payments made by Tory peer David Brownlow to cover the costs of the revamp was in February this year. Geidt concluded: “At no point in the eight months until late February 2021, as media reports were emerging, was the Prime Minister made aware of either the fact or the method of the costs of refurbishing the apartment having been paid … I have spoken in similar terms to the Prime Minister who confirms that he knew nothing about such payments until immediately prior to media reports in February 2021.”
Over to the Electoral Commission … which obtained WhatsApp messages between Johnson and Brownlow that imply a different version of events. The EC found that Johnson messaged Brownlow on November 29, 2020 “asking him to authorise further, at that stage unspecified, refurbishment works on the residence. Lord Brownlow agreed to do so, and also explained that the proposed trust had not yet been set up but that he knew where the funding was coming from.”
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Question for No. 10: How can Johnson have told Geidt he knew nothing about the payments until February 2021, when in November 2020 he was asking Brownlow to sign off more renovations, with Brownlow agreeing and promising to find the cash? Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said this discrepancy showed Johnson had “lied” to the Geidt inquiry.
No. 10’s answer … is that Johnson had asked for a “blind trust” to be established to pay for the works, and as a result he did not know Brownlow himself was paying the bills.
Is this true? That’s the question Lord Geidt himself is asking this morning. In a development that would be a(nother) genuine bombshell, the Telegraph’s Harry Yorke and Gordon Rayner say Geidt will consider resigning if Johnson cannot satisfactorily explain the above. Whitehall insiders tell the FT’s Laura Hughes and Seb Payne that Geidt is “deeply unhappy” with the situation and may resign or try to reopen his investigation. The paper reports that only the PM has the power to reopen the inquiry into himself. It goes without saying that if Geidt were to quit that would heap yet more pressure on Johnson. Labour has called for the parliamentary standards commissioner to investigate.
Reminder: Johnson’s last Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests Alex Allan resigned in November 2020 after Johnson sided with Home Secretary Priti Patel following his report that found she had bullied civil servants. To lose one independent adviser on ministers’ interests may be regarded as a misfortune, etc.
Cabinet Office Grylled: Earlier this year, the Times’ George Grylls sent a freedom of information request to the Cabinet Office asking it to release all WhatsApps between Johnson and Brownlow related to the No. 10 flat. The Cabinet Office replied that it had searched and found no such WhatsApps. Which does not exactly inspire faith in the FOI process.
Partygate not going away: The second scandal engulfing the Tories is over those alleged Downing Street parties. On Thursday, ITV’s Paul Brand revealed that Downing Street Director of Communications Jack Doyle gave a thank you speech and handed out awards at the alleged No. 10 Christmas drinks on December 18. Playbook is also told Doyle gave a short speech to his team to thank them for their work, something he apparently does in the office at the end of every week, and gave out some jokey awards. The Times’ Steve Swinford and Chris Smith report this morning that the bash was planned for three weeks with invitations sent to officials and aides on WhatsApp.
How long till we know for sure? You’d imagine those WhatsApps will be a key part of Cabinet Secretary Simon Case’s investigation into the various winter gatherings. Downing Street would only say on Thursday that the probe will be completed “as soon as possible.” Insider’s Henry Dyer quotes a former official involved in such probes saying it shouldn’t take longer than a few days. Playbook wouldn’t put it past them to release it at 11 p.m. on Christmas Eve.
Worth 8 minutes of your time: The BBC’s Ros Atkins has a great Media Show segment with the two journalists who’ve made the running on Partygate — the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar and ITV’s Paul Brand — talking through how the tips came in and how they were published. You can watch it here.
BRING ON NEXT WEEK: Scandals aside, Downing Street also faces an almighty Commons rebellion next week on Tuesday’s vote on the new Plan B Omicron measures. Labour is voting for the restrictions so there is no prospect of defeat, though the story will be how much Johnson’s authority is undermined by the scale of opposition from his own side. The Sun’s Kate Ferguson says some Tories believe as many as 100 Conservative MPs could rebel on vaccine passports. The Mail’s front page by Harriet Line and Jason Groves reckons the rebels number around 60. Around 50 have already spoken out against Plan B measures on the record.
If they hate Plan B … Wait till they hear about Plan C. The Mail says ministers are drawing up proposals for extra measures in the new year if the Omicron variant proves more dangerous than feared. Plan C would include: “Having to ‘check in’ with the NHS Covid app again to go to a pub or restaurant, using face masks in all indoor spaces, and having to show a vaccine passport at even more venues.” The i’s Jane Merrick and Hugo Gye report similar, and Sky’s Beth Rigby also hears of a “Plan B Plus” being mooted for January. It feels like we’ve been here before.
Glimmer of hope: The European Medicines Agency on Thursday reported that Omicron cases so far appear to be “mostly mild,” though it cautioned it was still investigating the severity of the disease caused by the strain.
You’re on your own now: Business groups are also sticking the boot in once again after Treasury officials told the FT’s Daniel Thomas, Jim Pickard, Alice Hancock and Ian Smith that there would be no more financial support for firms despite the Plan B measures. In October, Playbook revealed an internal Treasury forecast had warned that Plan B would cost the U.K. economy £800 million per week.
Even scarier number: Pints could increase by 10p as pub owners put prices up in the wake of Christmas cancellations, the Times reckons.
Thrasher on the prowl: Former Cabinet Minister Andrew Mitchell gave this dark warning to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “The mood of the Conservative Party is sulphurous and we need to see some grip from No. 10… The history of the Tory Party is littered with ruthlessness on these occasions but I’m confident that Boris will get a grip.”
How bad is this for Johnson? The i’s Arj Singh and Richard Vaughan report that Johnson’s potential successors are circling. They say “supporters” of Rishi Sunak are said to have been canvassing support for the chancellor “if things fall down,” and that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has been “quietly wooing MPs on the sidelines in a bid to bolster her position.” The Mail’s Jason Groves asks: “Could the Tories really do the unthinkable and ditch Boris?,” with MPs’ inboxes in a dire state. Conservative Home Editor Paul Goodman argues: “A vote of confidence in Johnson is suddenly more likely than not.” A minister however tells the Times that Johnson will remain PM “by default” because there is no agreed challenger. Tory MPs tell the paper that more letters of no confidence are likely to have gone into backbench 1922 committee Chair Graham Brady, but that Johnson was unlikely to be forced out.
Labour lead: Two new polls both put Labour clearly ahead of the Conservatives. YouGov for the Times has Labour on 37 percent, up 4 points on last week; with the Tories on 33 percent, down 3 points. Survation for the Mirror has Labour on 40 percent, up 1 point, and the Tories on 34 percent, down 2 points. Survation’s Damian Lyons Lowe tweeted: “For the record, I think the 6 point Labour lead we’ve just published is well founded, judging by the follow-on questions we asked and I wouldn’t be surprised to see these types of figures from others into the weekend.”
Keir’s message to the ’22: Keir Starmer this morning tells the Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith that Tory MPs should oust Johnson now. “They have to decide — are we going to endure this for next two years, or however long it may be, degrading ourselves and our party, defending the indefensible? … So the question — and this is really the question that I think is central now — for the Cabinet, for ministers and for all Tory MPs, frankly, is are they prepared to endure the next two years of increased degradation of themselves and their party, being put out to defend the indefensible and bringing themselves and their party into further disrepute? Because this isn’t going to change — he’s unfit for office, it isn’t going to change. Or are they going to do something about it?” Playbook loves an end of year cliffhanger.
MEANWHILE, IN SCOTLAND: Public Health Scotland is asking Scots to cancel their Christmas parties. The move isn’t a legally enforceable ban and instead marks a change of guidance, as Omicron cases in Scotland rose to 109 yesterday. The BBC has more. Nicola Sturgeon is expected to hold a COVID press briefing later today.
And in Wales: Welsh FM Mark Drakeford also has a COVID press conference today, expected around 12.15 p.m. BBC Wales is reporting that no major changes to restrictions are forthcoming — despite Guido’s scoop Thursday that Drakeford privately called for a complete lockdown between Christmas and New Year in a phone call between the devolved administrations and a handful of Cabinet ministers. The Welsh government has not directly denied the report, only telling the BBC it doesn’t “comment on leaked reports from confidential discussions.”
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 50,867 new cases ⬇️ 475 on Wednesday. In the last week 336,783 new cases have been reported, ⬆️ 24,826 on the previous week … 148 deaths within 28 days of a positive test, ⬇️ 13 on Wednesday. In the last week 854 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 6 on the previous week. As of the latest data 7,347 COVID patients are in hospital.
OMICRON VARIANT: 817 cases detected in the U.K., ⬆️ 249.
VAX STATS: A total 51,183,457 people or 89 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a first dose, ⬆️ 21,700 … A total 46,640,237 people or 81.1 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a second dose, ⬆️ 29,437 … A total 21,715,504 people or 37.8 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 414,645.
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2 YEARS ON: Playbook highly recommends today’s episode of Westminster Insider by POLITICO’s Jack Blanchard — a special anniversary edition: “Two years on — What the hell happened in the 2019 election?” Jack has an all-star cast of true Westminster insiders taking you behind the scenes on the campaigns, speaking to Tory campaign chief Isaac Levido, Jeremy Corbyn’s head of policy Andrew Fisher, Brexit Party comms chief Gawain Towler, as well as Lib Dem 2019 election analyst Dorothy Thornhill, and prof. Rob Ford, co-author of “The British General Election of 2019.” You can listen to the podcast here, and here are some key quotes …
Isaac Levido on that slogan: “It basically came from a focus group in Bury, I think, and my now business partner, Michael Brooks, was observing. People were venting their ongoing frustration at what was happening. I think Michael wrote down on a piece of paper ‘Get Brexit done’ and handed it to the moderator and said ‘see what they think about that.’ And it was a bit of a lightbulb moment.”
Andrew Fisher on LOTO dysfunction: “We had no messaging strategy, no real electoral strategy, because of this divide about — do we target Leavers, do we target Remainers? None of that was settled.”
Gawain Towler on the deal with No. 10: “Through channels, we were in discussion with Boris — or Boris’ team. He made a commitment in a video to members that we’d asked him to make, on the Sunday. And on the Monday, we made the decision to stand down against sitting Tory MPs.”
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. to debate private members’ bills. First on the list is a bill from Labour’s Jeff Smith that aims to open up access to medicinal cannabis for patients on the NHS … Second is a measure from SDLP Leader Colum Eastwood that would require the government to declare a climate emergency and bring forward the U.K.’s net zero target date.
IN ISOLATION: Deputy PM Dominic Raab, Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, after they all met Australian Deputy PM Barnaby Joyce earlier this week before he tested positive for COVID. The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith has the story.
EUSTICE SHOCKER: The Mail’s John Stevens has the non-party scoop of the day, revealing that Geronimo the alpaca — slain on the orders of bloodthirsty Environment Secretary George Eustice — never had tuberculosis. Stevens reports: “Further tests have been carried out since to try to establish whether the animal in fact had the disease, including the developing of bacteriological cultures from tissue samples. The results, which have been finalised in the past week, showed no traces of the disease.” Forget a dead cat, what about a dead alpaca to move the news on?
WHITE PAPER LEAK: The Indy’s Anna Isaac has got hold of a leaked draft of the government’s leveling up white paper, which isn’t due for official release until early next year. The big detail in there is a radical plan to replace England’s multi-layered local government system with a single-tier mayoral-style system, which means in practice the scrapping or merging of England’s 181 district councils and 24 county councils. A similar local government system is already used in Wales, Northern Ireland and Scotland. According to Isaac, the document argues that “leveling up requires coherent local institutions.”
Mission impossible: The white paper also sheds light on how the government will define its flagship agenda with a number of end-of-decade “missions” on crime, health and living standards. The missions — 13 of them in all — include targets on narrowing gaps in life expectancy and reducing the numbers of people renting “non-decent homes.” The vague nature of some of the “missions” along with the distant 2030 target are likely to attract attention from opposition parties when the paper is formally published.
Low tax Labour? Another one to wind up Tory MPs … Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves has told City AM’s Stefan Boscia she would support a 2p cut to the basic rate of income tax amid reports last week that Rishi Sunak is considering the move before the next election.
THAT FRIDAY FEELING: Another Friday, another Brexit meeting. Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič meets his British Counterpart David Frost for talks today, as Boris Johnson maintains the threat of unraveling the Northern Ireland protocol.
CAMPAIGN TRAIL MACRON: French President Emmanuel Macron told reporters last night that the problem with the U.K. government “is that it does not do what it says,” as he lamented the “difficult relationship” between France and Britain. That relationship is unlikely to get any less difficult — in his presser at the Elysée he also found time to blame Margaret Thatcher for making the U.K. attractive to migrants by deregulating the labor market … Briefly broke into English to tell Boris Johnson to “be my guest” and fix the migration crisis … Accused Britain of being the driving force behind the AUKUS security pact that prompted Australia to cancel a submarine contract with the French … and pointedly said he was “terribly anxious for a government that wants to work in good faith with us.” On a more positive note for the government, he did confirm some progress had been made toward resolving the fishing row. POLITICO’s Rym Momtaz has a write-up of the rest of Macron’s presentation on his priorities for the French presidency of the Council of the EU.
Lords: Sits from 10 a.m. with the annual debate led by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby. He’ll be going on the theme of challenges to freedom of speech.
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Small Business Minister Paul Scully broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.).
Today program: Former No. 10 Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell (7.09 a.m.) … Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (7.20 a.m.) … Public Health England National Director for Health and Wellbeing Kevin Fenton (7.50 a.m.) … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (8.10 a.m.) … Tory MP Nus Ghani (8.30 a.m.).
Sky News breakfast: SPI-M member Rowland Kao (8.05 a.m.) … Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Tory MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (7.10 a.m.) … British Chamber of Commerce Co-Executive Director Hannah Essex (7.15 a.m.) … Royal Albert Hall chief exec Craig Hassall (7.40 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: SPI-M member Mike Tildesley (7 a.m.) … Mayor of London Sadiq Khan (7.50 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Night Time Industries Association chief exec Michael Kill (7.50 a.m.) … Tory MP Anthony Mangnall (8.05 a.m.) … Transparency International U.K. chief exec Daniel Bruce (8.20 a.m.) … Tory MP Nus Ghani (9.20 a.m.) … National Federation of Fishermen’s Organisations Barrie Deas (9.40 a.m.).
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): Fleet Street Fox Susie Boniface and political commentator Tim Montgomerie.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Boris under the cosh.
Daily Mail: Tories’ plan B mutiny.
Daily Mirror: Another day … another lie.
Daily Star: The tills are alive with the sound of music.
Financial Times: Treasury rebuffs business chiefs’ appeal for extra aid during curbs.
HuffPost UK: Johnson ‘misled ethics chief.’
i: Tory leader contenders circle a PM in peril.
Metro: Mum’s the word.
POLITICO UK: Italy’s lab leak — Technopopulism.
PoliticsHome: Boris Johnson accused of lying to inquiry over who paid for Downing Street flat decorations.
The Daily Telegraph: Lord Geidt on brink of quitting over PM’s flat.
The Guardian: Johnson accused of misleading watchdog over flat redecoration.
The Independent: Calls for fresh probe into PM’s flat refurbishment.
The Sun: WFP — How to get round new COVID rules … Working From Pub.
The Times: Poll blow for Tories as trust in Johnson falls.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
The Economist: What would America fight for?
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
Brexit and Beyond: Anand Menon speaks to Centre for German Transnational Relations Director Isabelle Hertner about post-Merkel Germany.
Chopper’s Politics: Christopher Hope talks to former Lib Dem MP Tim Farron and Tory MPs William Wragg and Jake Berry.
Encompass: Paul Adamson talks to former Polish defense minister — and Oxford contemporary of Boris Johnson — Radosław Sikorski.
EU Confidential: The POLITICO team discusses the new German government, the POLITICO 28 power list and talks to German language critic Peter Littger.
Iain Dale All Talk: Dale interviews former Greens co-leader Siân Berry.
Inside Briefing: The IfG team talks Christmas parties with the FT’s Laura Hughes.
Newscast: The BBC team talks through this week’s scandals with former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland.
Rachel Johnson’s Difficult Women: Johnson talks to former Political Editor of the Daily Mirror Julie Langdon.
The Bunker: Ros Taylor talks Eric Zemmour with Normandy-based journalist John Lichfield.
The New Statesman: Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush interview rebellious Tory MP Mark Harper.
The Political Party: Matt Forde talks to health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt.
Westminster Insider: Jack Blanchard looks back at the general election held this time two years ago, with help from Tory campaign chief Isaac Levido, former Labour aide Andrew Fisher and more.
YOUR WEEKEND IN POLITICS
SUNDAY SHOWS: No guest news yet for either Andrew Marr (BBC One, Sunday 9 a.m.) or Trevor Phillips (Sky News, Sunday 8.30 a.m.).
T&G host Tom Newton Dunn and his co-host Isabel Hardman will talk to Tory MP Matt Vickers and former No. 10 Chief of Staff Gavin Barwell (Times Radio, Sunday 10 a.m.).
Westminster Hour host Carolyn Quinn is joined by Tory MP Tim Loughton … Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Pat McFadden … Demos chief exec Polly Mackenzie … The Spectator’s Katy Balls (BBC Radio 4, Sunday 10 p.m.).
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️ ⛅️ ⛅️ Sunny in spells and breezy. Highs of 7C.
CONGRATULATIONS: To Carrie and Boris Johnson on the birth of their second child, a healthy baby girl. “Both mother and daughter are doing very well. The couple would like to thank the brilliant NHS maternity team for all their care and support,” a spokeswoman for the couple said.
BIRTHDAYS: Polling guru John Curtice … Crossbench peer and former BBC Director General John Birt … … Tory peer Michael Jopling turns 91 … Good Morning Britain presenter Susanna Reid … Freelance columnist Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.
Celebrating over the weekend: Mansfield MP Ben Bradley … Shadow Prisons Minister Ellie Reeves … PACAC Chairman William Wragg … Runnymede and Weybridge MP Ben Spencer … Tory peer and former Health Secretary Andrew Lansley … Former Labour MP Adrian Bailey … Crossbench peer Robert Fellowes … Former Labour European Parliament Chair Theresa Griffin … Outgoing Scottish government Permanent Secretary Leslie Evans … Repubblica U.K. Correspondent Antonello Guerrera … Daily Mirror columnist Paul Routledge … U.K. High Commissioner to Tonga Lucy Joyce … U.S. Climate Envoy John Kerry … North Antrim MP Ian Paisley Jr. … Former Foreign Office Minister Chris Mullin … BBC presenter Reeta Chakrabarti … POLITICO Europe’s Esther King and Guilherme Prochnow … Portuguese President Marcelo Rebelo de Sousa.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
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