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By ESTHER WEBBER
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Good Friday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
LIB DEM GAIN: The Liberal Democrats have pulled off their second seismic by-election win this year, overturning a majority of 22,949 in North Shropshire, a seat the Conservatives have held since its inception. Helen Morgan is their newest MP. From start to finish this is a miserable story for the Tories, who arguably brought the contest on themselves through an unforced and massive error of judgement, only to see themselves punished in the polls amid a series of damaging stories about rule-breaking Christmas parties. This is to take nothing away from the Lib Dems, who set their sights high from the beginning and have succeeded in producing a very uncomfortable morning for the prime minister. Boris Johnson begins the Christmas recess with Omicron surging, most of the country in self-imposed lockdown and his MPs fuming. At least he has one fewer of them to deal with, as of today.
By the numbers: Morgan won 17,957 votes — compared with 12,032 for the Conservatives’ Neil Shastri-Hurst, with Labour’s Ben Wood a distant third on 3,686. That’s an extraordinary 34 percent swing to the Lib Dems and the seventh-biggest by-election swing ever. Turnout was 46.2 percent, pretty decent for a December by-election.
In her own words: Morgan addressed Johnson: “Instead of taking action to support Shropshire’s farmers, you spend your time misleading the nation on how you and your office partied during lockdown. Tonight the people of North Shropshire have said enough is enough. They have said that you are unfit to lead and that they want a change.” Lib Dem leader Ed Davey, who is isolating with COVID, said: “This result is a watershed moment in our politics and offers hope to people around the country that a brighter future is possible.” He’ll be on a victory lap/broadcast round this morning.
Pen portrait: Playbook’s favorite fun fact about the new MP for North Shropshire is that she narrowly missed out on a county council seat at the most recent local elections — what a turnaround. She has impeccable local credentials as she lives in the village of Harmer Hill near Wem, and she and her husband both work for local businesses. As a parish councillor, she has campaigned for road safety and set up a COVID response group. Her by-election campaign focused heavily on cuts to ambulance services in the local area. She becomes the 13th Lib Dem MP and their ninth woman.
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A bit of context: In snap analysis for Playbook by JL Partners, James Johnson takes us through the true significance of the result. He points out it’s the biggest swing away from a governing party in a defensive by-election since 2014 in Clacton — or, discounting 2014 UKIP gains, since the Lib Dems’ 1993 victory in Christchurch on 35.4 percent. It’s the third-biggest swing against the Tories in a by-election since 1945, beaten only by Christchurch and Clacton.
Here’s the rub: James describes it as “a very significant by-election result” because it’s “a sign the Conservatives may genuinely be in electoral trouble.” He notes: “By-elections often get hyped up. But just two weeks ago, Labour mustered only a 10.3 percent swing against the Tories in Old Bexley. One big thing has changed since then — the release of the Christmas party video and the ensuing stories around it. We already knew from the polls, with the Tories going from level pegging to significantly behind Labour, the importance of that event. This result crystallizes the brand-changing impact that has had — and shows that we are now in a very different world as far as public opinion is concerned.”
Party’s over: Was it really the Christmas parties that swung it? One senior party official told Playbook the answer was unequivocally yes. They said the party allegations “really cut through unfortunately” and “people were livid about it.” A common response on the doorstep, they explained, was: “I’m a Conservative, have always been a Conservative and I will be a Conservative at the next election but I cannot vote for you this time.” Playbook heard from sources on both sides that the Owen Paterson affair was raised by voters toward the beginning of the campaign but that by the end it was “all about” Partygate.
Nowhere to hide: Another Tory official texted something closer to the party line, acknowledging: “There’s no hiding from the fact that this is a bad result.” They said Paterson and “the backdrop from Westminster” presented an uphill struggle, but went on to claim: “This was a classic protest vote by-election which offered voters a free hit against the government. I think the fact that a 60 percent Leave constituency just elected a Remain ultra who got 10 percent in the general election here two years ago shows that. But we are not complacent — this result shows we need to refocus on delivering the people’s priorities in the new year.”
About those parties: They keep coming. The Guardian’s Peter Walker and Rowena Mason with the Independent’s Anna Isaac and Simon Murphy have a strong joint investigation which says Boris Johnson joined Downing Street officials for a party at No. 10 during the first lockdown in May 2020 — with the prime minister apparently telling one attendee they deserved a drink for “beating back” the virus. No. 10 seems to accept staff gathered in the garden, without commenting on whether rules were broken. The Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth keeps their unbelievable streak going with the scoop that Transport Secretary Grant Shapps’ staff held a party on December 17 last year (Shapps himself wasn’t there) while the Met are now speaking to some of those involved in the Shaun Bailey knees-up. We’re gonna need a bigger advent calendar to keep track.
Not angry, just disappointed: The archbishop of Canterbury has waded into the row, telling BBC Newscast he was “disappointed” to see the photo of Conservative activists having what looked like a catered party at Tory HQ last December. He stressed that leaders needed to be honest, candid and willing to apologize — and that they should stick to the rules. The Telegraph splashes his comments.
Just in case: Although hopes were raised that Cabinet Secretary Simon Case would publish his investigation this week, Playbook hears it’s more likely to come next week now. Perhaps unsurprisingly.
Tin ear of the day: Enjoyable listening from the Northern Agenda podcast, which interviews Paul Howell, Conservative MP for Sedgefield. He describes going to visit people affected by Storm Arwen, insisting “there was no mention” of “all of the rhetoric that had gone on about Downing Street and this and that and the other until I was just about to leave the property… and then as I’m walking out the door, all that these people said to me was ‘look, we’ve suffered, we know all this that’s going on. But can you just tell Boris that he’s doing a canny job, and we need to get on with it?’” The PM needs to find these people, quick.
What now for Boris Johnson? Several Conservative MPs were keen to stress to Playbook last night that a loss could be reversed at the next election and it was normal by-election business — but even the loyalists saw problems ahead. As one ex-minister described it, the 2019 intake won’t be looking at “historical psephologies” but only at their seats. Another said: “I never read too much into by-elections but I am sure those who are sharpening their knives will seize on it if we lose.”
Over to the knife-sharpeners: As your Playbook author reported earlier this week, Johnson was facing two big tests: the vote on new COVID rules and the North Shropshire by-election. They could both hardly have gone worse. One 2019-er characterized the defeat as “toxic” while another said: “The mood is very grim right now.”
So which is it? It’s possible to acknowledge North Shropshire proves a couple of near-universal truths about by-elections — people enjoy duffing up the party government, and Lib Dems are quite good at campaigning — at the same time as recognizing that it’s not just a blip. It will cause lasting worry for Tory MPs and drains away another slurp of the prime minister’s authority. The only comfort for Johnson is that MPs on all sides of the party seem to think Christmas will take the heat out of things and give him time to regroup. Regroup how? This remains less clear.
Looking further ahead: There are those in the party who think sleaze and scandals cause brief flare-ups and eventually die down. But what’s concerning them is that the Conservatives might also experience damage to their reputation for economic competence as inflation rises, the cost of living goes up, new taxes are introduced and mortgages get more expensive. Kate Andrews asks in the Spectator: Has Boris made you better off? Playbook keeps thinking of a conversation with a government adviser who said “the cost of living is going to be a very big deal [at the next election] and if people feel radically poorer that could make a big difference.”
Not having a good day: Conservative MPs in seats with a strong Lib Dem presence must be feeling rather edgy today. Has anyone been round to check on Dominic Raab?
Tough gig: Party Chairman Oliver Dowden has the morning broadcast round. The post-mortem that might be expected to follow a defeat such as this one will be perfunctory, Playbook hears, because the root cause is so widely accepted.
Hero of the hour: Whoever writes Shropshire Council’s Twitter feed. They pitched the idea of a Christmas movie which sees a fancy big city media star getting stranded in North Shropshire, and rescued by a handsome young farmer. “Sadly the truck needs a new wheel or something and she will have to spend Christmas in the county.” Playbook is sold.
RISHI’S RETURN: The chancellor makes an early return from his ill-timed trip to California to meet business representatives — in particular the hospitality industry — who are being clobbered by what’s now widely been dubbed “lockdown by stealth.” There’s some anger and consternation that he found himself abroad at this time, leaving it to Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke to speak to food and drink chains on Thursday. In a particularly caustic aside, one industry leader joked to the FT’s team that the chancellor had been too busy drinking “organic kale smoothies.”
Sunak hits back: Sunak came back into view last night, telling CNN it had been “a long-planned trip” to meet tech leaders who could bring investment and jobs to the U.K. He stressed the government stood ready to provide support to the country as required, and in the same CNN interview emphasized: “The situation is very different to what we’ve encountered before — the government is not telling people to cancel things.” It sounds as if he may have some sympathy with the ministers described by the Times’ Henry Zeffman, Steven Swinford and Ben Clatworthy as “privately furious” with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty’s rather more cautious advice. In the same vein, the FT has heard Sunak was “surprised” by Whitty’s comments.
Whitty putdowns: Tory MPs were openly furious with Whitty Thursday. Take ex-Minister Steve Brine, who accused the CMO of changing government policy “at a stroke,” adding: “Advisers are now running the show. I’ll bet none of them run businesses facing complete ruin as a result of what was said.” Meanwhile Whitty expanded on his intervention in front of the health committee, insisting: “If the most important thing to them in the next 10 days is to go to a football match, that’s the priority for them. I’m still trying to avoid making other people’s choices for them.” No. 10, for its part, defended its top medical adviser, describing him as “a hugely respected and trusted public servant.”
How bad is it? The papers are full of tales of the cancellations hitting restaurants and bars, especially in the capital. The MailOnline’s Jack Wright and Martin Robinson report almost every one of the 90 restaurants in London’s West End have suffered cancellations in the past week. Richard Burge, chief executive of London Chamber of Commerce and Industry, says the hospitality sector is “on its knees” due to a combination of the “protect Christmas” narrative, a surge in COVID cases, staff shortages and the declining footfall. Jamie Njoku-Goodwin, chief executive of Music UK, has a letter in the Times warning of a “no man’s land” in which “we are allowed to operate but government advice means there is no demand.”
Worse and worse: Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds has the morning round, highlighting analysis by the Labour Party which indicates that tens of thousands of businesses fear they may not survive in the new year. Labour’s reading of ONS data is that one in every five businesses reported they were at risk of going under, while one in three reported lower festive sales.
Spare a thought: While most of the headlines shouted about doom for boozers, the Sun’s Harry Cole, Kate Ferguson and Johnny Reilly found oil rig worker Greg Wilson, who said: “All I’d say to Mr Whitty is, he should try having Christmas with my family. I’d feel a lot happier and safer in the pub with my mates.” Playbook hopes Mr Wilson’s relatives are not reading.
What’s the answer? When the chancellor meets business leaders today they will no doubt make the case for a new support package, arguing for a return to the emergency VAT rate of 5 percent for hospitality, reinstating full business rates relief for the sector and more grant funding. Treasury officials did not exactly lean into any of these ideas last night, with one pointing to £250 million of grant funding which they say has not yet been handed out by local authorities. “The chancellor’s first priority is to unlock that cash and get it out the door for the businesses that need it,” the official told Playbook.
Wales of a time: Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford becomes the first U.K. leader to shut venues of any kind, announcing that nightclubs will close after Boxing Day and the two-meter social distancing rule will return. Shops will have to put in extra safeguards such as one-way systems and physical barriers. Drakeford will give a press conference today to explain the changes, and the South Wales Argus has more.
Elsewhere in Omicron: It’s obviously not just the commercial sector being hit by the massive rise in cases, which went above 88,000 on Thursday. Kat Lay paints a worrying picture in the Times, reporting that NHS hospitals have begun canceling operations and redeploying people as health bosses warn of growing staff shortages. The number of NHS employees in London not at work because they had the virus or needed to self-isolate has shot up by 40 percent in a week. Also in the Times, Nicola Woolcock writes up Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi’s plea for retired teachers to help out, while the i’s Richard Vaughan highlights that ministers won’t commit to schools reopening in January. Grimace emojis all round.
About time: Advisory group on vaccines the JCVI has put pregnant women on the priority list for jabs, similar to people with underlying health conditions. It follows months and years of confusing advice for mothers, who have been told to seek medical advice before getting vaccinated. The BBC has the story.
On the plus side: 745,183 people received their booster jab yesterday, taking it to 44.3 percent of the population. With many still facing long waits, Downing Street said it would increase the number of booking slots at existing testing sites.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 88,376 new cases ⬆️ 9,766 on Wednesday. In the last week 442,378 new cases have been reported ⬆️ 105,595 on the previous week … 146 deaths within 28 days of a positive test ⬇️ 19 on Wednesday. In the last week 803 deaths have been reported ⬇️ 51 on the previous week. In the last week 6,013 COVID patients were admitted to hospital.
OMICRON VARIANT: 11,708 cases detected in the U.K., ⬆️ 1,698.
VAX STATS: A total 51,360,987 people or 89.3 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a first dose, ⬆️ 28,067 … A total 46,881,291 people or 81.5 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a second dose, ⬆️ 38,794 … A total 25,477,345 people or 44.3 percent of the population aged 12+ have received a booster/third dose, ⬆️ 745,183.
**Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister of the economy, finance and the recovery will join the 7th edition of POLITICO Live’s Finance Summit for an exclusive interview in Paris and online. Discover the profile of our stellar line-up of speakers as they will tackle Europe’s recovery, green finance, fintech and much more.**
PARLIAMENT: In recess until 5 January.
IT FINALLY HAPPENED: The Brits and the Aussies have signed off the first British trade deal negotiated from scratch since Brexit. To be fair, it was done in record time — but this deal has been on the cusp of being finished for months, which saw its cheerleader Liz Truss climb even higher up the Cabinet food chain. It will remove tariffs on almost all goods from the get go, a couple of sensitive areas like meats phased in over time. POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio has the full run-down, but he’s also got some helpful headlines for Playbook and Morning Trade UK readers. The deal does not include a commitment to keep rising global temperatures to 1.5 degrees — although it references the Paris climate agreement, which the trade department argues is as good as including the numbers. The Brits made another last-minute concession on agriculture, agreeing that cuts of meat should be counted into the quotas before tariffs have to be paid during the transition to zero tariffs.
Start your engines: The biggest winner for the U.K. in the deal is for the services sector, in particular manufacturing for cars and machines. It allows U.K. firms to bid for an extra £10 billion-worth of Australian public sector contracts each year and lets services suppliers like architects and lawyers work Down Under without being subject to its changing skilled visas list. The government believes the deal will boost bilateral trade by £10.4 billion a year over the next decade and a half, and it’s also a major stepping stone for Britain on the path to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership.
STEELING A MARCH: Three former Northern Ireland secretaries are warning Johnson to sort out the wrangling over the Northern Irish protocol or continue to be snubbed by Joe Biden in the London-Washington steel tariffs spat, Emilio reports in another top trade scoop. Labour’s Peter Mandelson and Peter Murphy joined Conservative Julian Smith to argue BoJo won’t convince his U.S. counterpart to ease the tariffs until the threats to the protocol are put to bed. “The sooner we can resolve the issue with the protocol, the sooner we can resolve the issue on trade,” Murphy said.
But but but: One minister told Emilio the government needs to accept Biden isn’t interested in helping the U.K. on steel or other issues and just needs to wait for that to pass or for a more willing U.S. president. “There’s no point banging our heads against a wall in the meantime.”
NO BREXIT DEAL FOR CHRISTMAS: The EU and the U.K. will not achieve common ground on any of the outstanding issues regarding post-Brexit trading rules in Northern Ireland before the end of the year, according to a British government official, who expressed disappointment with the lack of progress in the talks. Britain’s Brexit Minister David Frost and European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič spoke Wednesday afternoon and will talk again today for the last time this year, but the official told POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo that the gap “is just too big” to be bridged this week. “We really need to pick things up vigorously in the new year and generate momentum,” they added.
Medicines move: The EU is now expected to move unilaterally to change its rules to ensure supply of medicines to Northern Ireland, and will make an announcement at a press conference this afternoon. The U.K. official told Cristina it’s been difficult for the Brits to study the EU’s proposals on medicines in detail, but they hope this will become easier once the Commission’s concludes its legal procedures. “While there have been positive moves from their side, we haven’t been able to say for sure whether they actually deliver what they say they do.”
The next Brexit fight: The U.K. has embarked on a mission to get rid of laws inherited from the EU — but senior lawyers, academics and lawmakers are concerned ministers might attempt a power grab. Here’s Cristina’s full story for POLITICO EU-U.K., Trade and Trade U.K. Pros. Meanwhile, there’s mixed messaging on the role of the European Court of Justice. Officials rowed back on a briefing last week that suggested that the U.K. has dropped its demand for the removal of CJEU oversight from the Northern Ireland protocol. Instead, the U.K. is now insisting only that the EU’s top court should not be the final arbiter in a dispute — rather than demanding its full removal, Brussels Playbook reports.
UKRAINE WATCH: Bloomberg’s Jennifer Jacobs, Alberto Nardelli and John Follain have got word the U.S. is pushing the EU to ready sanctions to be imposed if Russia further invades Ukraine. But, as my colleagues in Brussels report, EU countries are far from united on how to proceed. A senior German official told POLITICO’s Hans von der Burchard it was “a tactical question of how wise it would be to spell [the sanctions] all out in detail.” A FCDO official simply pointed back to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ statement as G7 chair warning Russia of “massive consequences and a severe cost” in event of further aggression.
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Leader of the Liberal Democrats Ed Davey broadcast round: Today program (7.09 a.m.) … LBC (7.10 a.m.) … Sky (7.20 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.05 a.m.).
Chairman of the Conservative Party Oliver Dowden broadcast round: Sky (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.).
Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds broadcast round: Sky (8.05 a.m.) … LBC (8.35 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.) … Times Radio (9 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford (7.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Political columnist at the Sun Trevor Kavanagh (7.05 a.m.) … General Secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders Geoff Barton (7.20 a.m.) … Chairman of the Spectator magazine group Andrew Neil (9.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: Treasurer of the 1922 committee Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (8.10 a.m.) … Night Time Economy Adviser for Greater Manchester Sacha Lord (8.15 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast: CEO of Maison Sport Nick Robinson (6.45am) … Conservative MP Roger Gale (7.30 a.m.) … Boris Johnson’s former director of communications and Edelman senior counsel, Will Walden … Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford (7.45 a.m.) … Consultant in intensive care professor Rupert Pearse (8.20 a.m.) … Former SpAd Mo Hussein, former Labour adviser Andrew Fisher and former Lib Dem MP Heidi Allen (8.30 a.m.).
talkRADIO with Mike Graham: Chief Executive of the Night Time Industries Association Michael Kill (7.05am) … Chairman of British Dentist Association Eddie Crouch (7.33 a.m.) … Conservative MP Mark Francois (8.05 a.m.).
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): PR consultant Alex Deane and Demos Director Polly Mackenzie.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Mail: Tories turn on Whitty.
Daily Mirror: Cops quiz party pair.
Financial Times: BoE bows to inflation and wage pressure by lifting interest rates.
HuffPost UK: Lib Dem win, Tory humiliation.
i: UK shuts down in bid to save Christmas.
Metro: Queen cancels Xmas lunch.
POLITICO UK: EU leaders threaten Russia with sanctions over Ukraine.
PoliticsHome: Rishi Sunak is returning from US early to face fuming hospitality bosses over lack of Covid support.
The Daily Telegraph: Archbishop appeals for honesty in public life.
The Sun: It’s beginning to look a lock like Christmas.
The Times: Rishi Sunak in talks on bailouts for pubs and restaurants.
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
Brexit and Beyond: Nearly a year on from the end of the Brexit transition period, Jill Rutter, James Kane, Jess Sargeant and Joe Marshall from the IfG’s Brexit team and UK in a Changing Europe’s professor Anand Menon, look at how the U.K. is adjusting to life outside the EU.
Chopper’s Politics: Christopher Hope talks to two legendary political journalists who are quitting their day jobs — ITN’s Libby Wiener and Sky News’ Adam Boulton — as well as Conservative MP for Bishop Auckland Dehenna Davison.
Encompass: Paul Adamson talks to the former senior adviser on innovation to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.
EU Confidential: Key European political moments of 2021 and the politics of Jesus are the main topics for the POLITICO team’s final episode of the year.
Women With Balls: Katy Balls speaks to Israeli Ambassador Tzipi Hotovely.
Iain Dale All Talk: Dale talks to James Naughtie about his career in the lobby and on radio, including his 21 years presenting the Today program.
Newscast: Laura Kuenssberg talks to the archbishop of Canterbury about parties and public trust.
Rachel Johnson’s Difficult Women: Johnson delves inside the trial of Ghislaine Maxwell.
The Bunker: Justin Quirk takes a closer look at the cultural influence of reality TV.
The New Statesman: Data journalist Ben Walker joins Anoosh Chakelian, Ailbhe Rea and Stephen Bush for their monthly polling update.
The Political Party: Matt Forde talks to former Lords leader Tina Stowell.
Westminster Insider: As Hong Kong goes to the polls for a highly controversial election, Jack Blanchard is joined by Chris Patten, professor Rana Mitter, professor Steve Tsang, Peter Ricketts and Tom Tugendhat.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Light cloud and a gentle breeze. Highs of 10C.
BIRTHDAYS: Treasury Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar … Sky News presenter Kay Burley … Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson … U.K. Ambassador to Croatia Andrew Dalgleish … Unaffiliated peer Michael Cashman … BEIS Energy and Security Director General Joanna Whittington … and Pope Francis.
Celebrating over the weekend: Tory peer and Lord High Steward of Ireland Charles Chetwynd-Talbot … Howard League Chief Executive Frances Crook … Jewish Chronicle Editor Stephen Pollard … Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson … St Austell and Newquay MP Steve Double … Shadow Defense Minister Stephanie Peacock … West Tyrone MP Órfhlaith Begley … Daily Mail Political Correspondent Claire Ellicott … Crossbench peer David Rowe-Beddoe … Former Tory MP Tim Eggar … Welsh Labour AM John Griffiths.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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