Crimbo limbo — Frosty polls — Cabinet at Christmas – POLITICO

Press play to listen to this article

Presented by Facebook.




Send tips here | Subscribe for free | Listen to Playbook and view in your browser

Good Monday morning. Hope you had a very merry Christmas.


CRIMBO LIMBO: Having (just about) made it to Christmas, people in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland find themselves emerging into new coronavirus restrictions, while England must once again wait and see. Those of us awaking from the festive food-and-telly coma are inevitably starting to wonder: What’s next? Is another lockdown around the corner? Can we plan for New Year’s Eve, seeing more of our loved ones, traveling abroad, or getting back to the office?

For now, the government, like everyone else, is in a holding pattern. Boris Johnson will be briefed on the latest COVID data today, but no imminent recall of parliament or the Cabinet is expected. This in turn lowers the probability that a raft of tough new measures are on the way, even as scientists continue to call for swifter action.

Boxed-in day: Let’s start by recapping the main changes that came in yesterday for much of the country … SCOTLAND: Indoor events limited to 100 people standing or 200 people sitting in Scotland and one-meter distancing required at public events. From today, pubs, restaurants, theaters, cinemas and gyms will have to ensure a one-meter distance between groups of people, groups of people meeting will be limited to three households, and table service in venues serving alcohol … WALES: No more than six people can meet at pubs, cinemas and restaurants, while outdoor events are limited to 50 people and indoor gatherings to 30. Two-meter social distancing is required in offices and public places, and nightclubs have been ordered to close … NORTHERN IRELAND: Nightclubs are closed and indoor standing events banned. From today, pubs, cafes and restaurants will have to provide table service only, while no more than six people from different households will be allowed to sit together.

Date with the data: The PM will today get an all-important update on the COVID picture in England and how it’s affecting hospital capacity, with Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty (soon to be Sir Chris, per the Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler) and Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance expected to be in attendance. With reporting paused over the weekend, today could give the first indication of the effects of Christmas mingling. MailOnline’s Stephen Wynn-Davies and Katie Feehan note that infections could go above 100,000 while Paul Donaldson, the general secretary of the Hospital Consultants and Specialists Association (HCSA), tells the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot and Denis Campbell: “We will soon start to see the impact of Christmas.”

**A message from Facebook: At Facebook, we’re working together with partners in the UK to reduce COVID-19 misinformation. We’re collaborating with the UK government and organisations to connect people with authoritative COVID-19 information. By partnering with health organisations and third-party fact-checkers, we are combatting misinformation on our platforms to keep communities safe and informed.**

Your move, PM: There is much rune-reading in today’s papers about which route Johnson is likely to go down, with most agreeing that the chances of new rules in England comparable to those in the rest of the U.K. coming in before the New Year have diminished. There are several reasons why this makes sense, including the time it would take to recall parliament, the intensity of opposition within the Conservative Party to fresh restrictions, and the evidence that emerged last week to suggest Omicron is less likely to cause serious illness.

Optimism-o-meter: In line with this, the FT’s Sebastian Payne and Alice Hancock have heard Johnson is “more likely to tighten guidance” if he is told hospitals are at risk of being overwhelmed. Similarly, the Mail’s Dan Martin says Downing Street is “understood to be leaning towards new guidance” rather than legally binding restrictions. The Times’ Henry Zeffman, who has a good fresh line on exemptions for weddings and funerals from any new clampdown, brings word that the government mood is “increasingly but very cautiously optimistic.” It’s left to the Express to throw caution to the wind, reach for the party poppers and declare: “Parties are on!”

What kind of guidance? Guidance, as opposed to legal requirements, of course has the advantage of being easier to introduce without MPs’ approval. Just in case the government were in danger of forgetting the current level of antipathy toward the idea of new COVID laws, Graham Brady, chairman of the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers, popped up in the Mail on Sunday to rail against “the panic-driven groupthink gripping the nation” and suggest even non-binding guidance would be poorly received. Brady’s wrath notwithstanding, Playbook hears that officials were summoned back to work today to prepare possible options — characterized in the Mail as “urging people in England to be careful and limit contacts.”

Steady the buffs: A government official stressed to Playbook last night that “no decisions have been made” and “we will have to just keep monitoring the data.” While they confirmed there were currently no plans for a recall or for an emergency Cabinet meeting, they cautioned against reading too much into this. As highlighted in the Times, the data on hospitalizations will be key to whatever happens next.

Hospital pass: For more on the situation facing hospitals, there’s some grim detail from the Times’ Ben Clatworthy, calling attention to the dire state of affairs in London. At Barts, the biggest trust, absences have risen from 597 to 864 in the past seven days. Returning to the Guardian, the HCSA’s Donaldson warns: “We are holding out hope that hospitalizations are at the lower end of projections. But given the uncertainty we face it would be ludicrous not to take additional precautions.”

An Ipsos MORI poll for the same paper finds one in four Britons do not believe that the NHS can care for them properly, with 41 percent saying it is not coping well with providing non-COVID services. Meanwhile, the Independent’s Rebecca Thomas has got hold of analysis by London South Bank University showing that even after the current spike in infections, the health service could be hampered by an absence rate of up to 17 percent because of burnout and long COVID.

Written warning: It’s obviously not just the health service feeling the strain, as the Telegraph splash illustrates. Camilla Turner, Ben Riley-Smith and Danielle Sheridan report that headteachers have warned No. 10 that whole year groups may be sent home due to the high number of teachers forced into self-isolation. The Telegraph team hears “at least hundreds” have answered the Department for Education’s call to arms for retired teachers, but it may not be enough to cope. Geoff Barton, the general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders, said headteachers were “hoping for the best but planning for the worst.”

Don’t call it crunch week: While government officials were keen to paint the PM’s briefing today as business as usual, it’s clear that over the next couple of days, he will navigate an incredibly fine balancing act between holding his breath to see how hospital numbers are being affected — thereby keeping his party more or less happy — and hesitating too long, letting the situation slip out of control, for which the public will be unlikely to forgive him.

Here we go again: Frustrating as it is to hear “wait and see” once again, did we really expect anything else? After Commons was summoned last January to approve COVID legislation and in December 2020 over the Brexit deal, nothing says Christmas like waiting around for an emergency debate to be called on or off.

UK COVID STATS: No update since Friday.


Parliament is in recess until January 5.

FROSTY NORTH POLL: A Sunday Times mega-poll did not make for comfortable Boxing Day reading for the Conservatives, showing an 8 percentage-point lead for Labour and suggesting Johnson could lose his seat. A separate large-sample poll out today — undertaken by the campaign group 38 Degrees, Survation and Royal Holloway’s Professor Christopher Hanretty — will not provide much festive cheer at CCHQ either. The research, carried out in November and December, suggests the Conservatives could lose their majority, with older voters and rural constituencies most likely to be concerned by the recent slew of allegations about sleaze and COVID rule-breaking.

Key findings: Their projections put Labour on 41 percent, the Conservatives on 35 percent and 9 percent for the Lib Dems. This works out at a net loss of 111 Tory seats, with Labour returning 309 seats — crucially 11 short of a majority. The Survation poll predicts the Conservatives would lose all their seats in Scotland as the Scottish National Party thrives. Again in line with the Sunday Times’ survey, it identifies five Cabinet ministers — the prime minister, Environment Secretary George Eustice, Wales Secretary Simon Hart, Scotland Secretary Alister Jack and COP26 President Alok Sharma — as likely to lose their seats, as is arch-rebel Steve Baker.

Word to the wise: Older voters were the most likely to say that the government isn’t living up to the so-called Nolan Principles of public life, according to this research. As Hanretty sums it up: “Given that older voters are (ordinarily) much more likely to vote Conservative, this shows the potential for accusations of sleaze to shift votes by depriving the Conservatives of this important electoral bulwark.”

But, but, but: Polling guru John Curtice speaks to the i’s Hugo Gye on the same theme, saying: “We are talking about a collapse in the Tory vote not a revival of the Labour party … The point is that Labour still have to make any kind of significant advance in their own popularity. This is all about the Tories going down the tubes.”

Out for blood: Not everybody is happy after the Observer’s Léonie Chao-Fong reported on calls for the government to ban trail hunting, which mimics traditional hunting with an animal scent for dogs to follow. The Countryside Alliance told the i’s Ryan Dinsdale Labour was promoting “class warfare” and “anti-rural policies.” In a Telegraph op-ed destined for viral fame, president of the Countryside Alliance and Labour peer Ann Mallalieu writes: “If nothing changes, this continuing obsession will keep Labour out of office.”

Swingeing Sunak: There’s a brace of attention-grabbing Whitehall stories in the FT, with Jim Pickard and Sebastian Payne reporting that the Treasury will spell out more detail early in the new year about its plans to cut tens of thousands of civil service jobs. They predict losses could come in policymaking roles connected to Brexit and the pandemic, both of which are famously resolved.

In Truss we trust? Cue Laura Hughes turning a spotlight on the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office, which she writes has been “stripped of influence, prestige and self-confidence” in recent years. While ministers seem confused about the scale of cuts facing the department, officials describe the department to Laura as “demoralized” after years of poorly performing foreign secretaries. Leadership hopeful Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has her work cut out to turn things around, just as her main rival the chancellor will be determined not to budge on headcount reductions.

TUTU TRIBUTES: Politicians around the world including the PM, Keir Starmer and Barack Obama paid tribute to South Africa’s anti-apartheid campaigner Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who has died at the age of 90. Leading nonviolent opposition to the racist regime in South Africa and heading up the truth and reconciliation commission afterward, he has been described by many as the “moral compass” of his country. Among all the incredible stories about his life in the papers today, you won’t regret starting with the opening paragraph of the Times’ obituary.

HINDS’ SIGHT: In an interview with the Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith, Security Minister Damian Hinds argues the terror threat facing the U.K. may have been exacerbated by the lockdowns aimed at tackling COVID. Acknowledging that many involved in planning terrorist activities do not act alone, he says: “Clearly, logically, when you have more people who are spending more time in their bedrooms at their computer … you are going to get a growth in that tiny proportion of people for whom that is a dark journey.”

Intruder sectioned: A 19-year-old man who was found on the grounds of Windsor Castle with a crossbow has been sectioned, according to police. The Metropolitan Police said he was stopped “within moments” of entering the grounds and he did not enter any buildings. The BBC has more.

The year ahead in 53 minutes: Perfect end-of-year listening from POLITICO’s Jack Blanchard on the latest Westminster Insider podcast. He’s asked 10 of the smartest people around how the biggest stories of 2022 will pan out: Conservative Home’s Editor Paul Goodman on Boris Johnson … New Statesman’s Political Editor Stephen Bush on Labour … FT columnist and author Anjana Ahuja on COVID … Resolution Foundation boss Torsten Bell on the economy … POLITICO’s Rym Momtaz on the upcoming French election … POLITICO’s Ryan Lizza on the U.S. mid-terms … Professor Rana Mitter on the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th party congress … polling expert Robert Hayward on the local elections in Great Britain … Irish Times columnist Newton Emerson on the race for Stormont … and the Guardian’s David Conn on the Qatar World Cup.


Bored of Boggle? Fed up of your family? Over the leftovers? Playbook asked the Cabinet what they’re reading and watching over the festive period, in case you need some ideas.

Rishi Sunak: The chancellor is staying firmly on brand, revealing that he’s already started the second season of “Emily in Paris.” He’s also watching the Arsène Wenger documentary “Invincible.” Inspiration for the year to come?

Ben Wallace: The defense secretary is reading “Eastern Approaches” by Sir Fitzroy Maclean, who happens to be one of his predecessors as a Lancashire MP. Wallace says it’s “a lesson on fighting an insurgency, exposing Stalin’s Russia of the 30s.” What could be more festive?

Alok Sharma: The COP26 president’s staff feared he would be glued to COP papers over Christmas, but apparently he’s got a clutch of Le Carres to get through. The Sharma family will gather round for some classic Hollywood fare with Irving Berlin’s “White Christmas.”

Thérèse Coffey: The work and pensions secretary is glued to Robert Peston’s thriller “The Whistleblower,” and is watching Channel 5’s period drama series “All Creatures Great and Small.”

Nadhim Zahawi: The education secretary acknowledges he’s a nerd and a half for being “very excited” to read the draft of the schools white paper over Christmas. He reports that his favorite Christmas film is “Nativity,” adding: “But after my daughter’s gone to bed, it has to be Die Hard, which definitely IS a Christmas movie!”

Grant Shapps: The transport secretary is reading “Behave” by Robert Sapolsky — a deep dive into human psychology, perhaps in the hope of understanding what goes through his colleagues’ minds. His film pick is pure escapism in the form of World War II-inspired epic “Where Eagles Dare.”

Brandon Lewis: The Northern Ireland secretary will be keeping himself entertained with the latest Sharpe series novel by Bernard Cornwell, his favorite author.

Natalie Evans: The leader of the House of Lords recommends spy thriller “Judas 62” by Charles Cumming, and has recently discovered “The Christmas Chronicles” on Netflix. No word on whether she’ll be donning a fur-trimmed robe for the occasion.

Jacob Rees-Mogg: The leader of the House of Commons is keeping it light with volume two of Cardinal Pell’s prison diary, and Andrew Roberts’ re-examination of the life of King George III. Take that, Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Dominic Raab: The deputy PM and justice secretary is watching the new James Bond film, and reading “For Whom the Bell Tolls” by Ernest Hemingway.

Mark Spencer: While the chief whip wants to give an honorable mention to the 1980s masterpiece “Trading Places,” Playbook can exclusively reveal his favorite Christmas film is “Elf.” Entirely fitting that he should want to pay close attention to who has been naughty and who has been nice.

**A message from Facebook: The pandemic has reinforced the importance of collaboration. That’s why Facebook is continuing our work with the government, charities, and researchers in the UK to support the pandemic response and reduce the spread of COVID-19 misinformation. We’ve teamed up with fact-checking organisations, like Full Fact in the UK, to develop multilingual media literacy campaigns that have helped provide millions with tips for spotting false news. We are removing false vaccine claims and displaying warning screens to prevent the spread of incorrect COVID-19 content. We’ve collaborated with governments worldwide to share critical COVID-19 information and provided over £85M in free ad coupons and extensive training on how to leverage our platforms. Governments around the world are using free Facebook and Instagram ads to share authoritative, multilingual COVID-19 information. Learn more about our UK partnerships at**


Andrew Castle at Breakfast (LBC): Professor of virology at University College London Deenan Pillay (7.05 a.m.) … Conservative MP Geoffrey Clifton-Brown (7.10 a.m.) … Former head of the National Counter Terrorism Security Office and former Detective Chief Inspector of the Metropolitan Police Chris Phillips (7.20 a.m.) … Deputy director of think tank British Influence Jonathan Lis (8.05 a.m.) … Political editor of the Sunday Telegraph Edward Malnick (8.20 a.m.).

Today program, guest-edited with Michael Dobbs, Conservative peer and author of “House of Cards”: Geoff Barton, general secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders (7.09 a.m.) … Professional Lead for Health Protection at Public Health Wales Giri Shankar (7.20 a.m.) … National Clinical Director for Cancer at NHS England Peter Johnson (8.10 a.m.) … National Clinical Director for the Scottish government Jason Leitch (8.30 a.m.) … Camilla, the Duchess of Cornwall (8.40 a.m.)


(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)

Daily Express: Parties are on!

Daily Mail: Windsor crossbow raid: the chilling web video.

Daily Mirror: NYE on a knife edge.

Daily Star: You silly suds!

i: Leave voters abandon PM in protest at No10 chaos.

POLITICO UK: POLITICO’s 2021 Backhanded Awards.

The Daily Telegraph: Schools plan to send home whole year groups.

The Guardian: Poll reveals widespread concern over state of NHS.

The Independent: NHS absences ‘to treble’ as staff hit by burnout.

The Times: Weddings and funerals spared from COVID curbs.


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌧🌧🌧 Light rain and a gentle breeze. Highs of 10 Celsius.

White Christmas watch: The Met Office has issued yellow weather warnings for snow in parts of northern England, as well as southern and central Scotland. And it was a white Christmas in Shetland, Aboyne, Strathallan and parts of the Pennines.

BIRTHDAYS: Cabinet Secretary Simon Case … Minister for Children Will Quince … Tory peer William Astor … Mayor of Leicester Peter Soulsby … Tory peer Brian Griffiths … Labour peer Irene Adams … Tory peer Jeffrey Sterling … Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee … Channel 4 political correspondent Liz Bates … Sky News political reporter Alan McGuinness … Public First director Vinous Ali … POLITICO’s Tim Ball and Nicholas Vinocur … Former POLITICO Europe CEO Shéhérazade Semsar-de Boisséson.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Emma Anderson, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Max Fahler.

SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: Brussels Playbook | London Playbook | Playbook Paris | EU Confidential | Sunday Crunch | EU Influence | London Influence | AI: Decoded | Digital Bridge | China Direct | D.C. Playbook | All our POLITICO Pro policy morning newsletters

More from …

Esther Webber

Recommended For You