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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Tuesday morning.
LOBBY RESHUFFLE: Times Radio has hired Lucy Fisher as its new chief political commentator, replacing Tom Newton Dunn, who is off to Rupert Murdoch’s new television channel Talk TV. Fisher leaves her current job as deputy political editor at the Telegraph to return to the News U.K. stable, where she previously spent seven years at the Times as defense editor and in the Lobby. She’ll be providing comment and analysis across the Times Radio schedule from Monday to Thursday, assisted by the station’s political correspondent, Charlotte Ivers.
Now hiring: The shake-up at News U.K. has sparked a wider Lobby merry-go-round — the Telegraph is now looking for a new deputy.
DRIVING THE DAY
MARTY ANIMALS: The Metropolitan Police last night confirmed it is probing revelations that Boris Johnson’s staff organized a “bring your own booze” drinks gathering in the Downing Street garden during lockdown in May 2020 — an event the prime minister himself is also alleged to have attended. The bombshell email from Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, leaked to ITV’s Paul Brand on Monday, presents the most serious escalation of Partygate to date. It also dashes any hopes No. 10 had of moving on from the story in 2022, and puts the issue that battered the Tory poll rating at the back end of last year right to the forefront of voters’ minds once again.
Get this party started: There had been speculation in the papers for days that Reynolds had sent a smoking-gun email about a rule-breaking party. On Saturday, the Telegraph’s Harry Yorke quoted three sources saying Reynolds had invited colleagues to the May 20, 2020 bash in writing and that officials were encouraged to “BYOB.” The Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman, Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund also had three sources saying the same thing, reporting on accusations that Johnson and his wife Carrie had attended. Then Paul Brand got the receipts.
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Reynolds’ email in full … sent to more than 100 Downing Street employees: “Hi all, After what has been an incredibly busy period we thought it would be nice to make the most of the lovely weather and have some socially distanced drinks in the No10 garden this evening. Please join us from 6pm and bring your own booze!”
The rules at the time … were that people were banned from meeting more than one person socially outdoors. Brand reports that “around 40 staff gathered in the garden that evening, eating picnic food and drinking.” The Met said in a statement: “The Metropolitan Police service is aware of widespread reporting relating to alleged breaches of the Health Protection Regulations at Downing Street on 20 May 2020 and is in contact with the Cabinet Office.” It remains to be seen whether this will eventually turn into a formal police investigation.
Get in the lift and press emergency stop: No. 10’s position last night was that they could not comment on this story while super sleuth Sue Gray’s own investigation is ongoing. It falls upon lionhearted Health Minister Ed Argar to try to get through the morning broadcast round with that line. Pray for him.
Shades of Gray: Unofficially, allies of the PM suggested to Playbook what No. 10’s defense to Gray on the raft of Partygate stories might look like. Their key argument will likely be based on the unique nature of the Downing Street complex, which is both an office to hundreds of advisers and civil servants, and a home to the PM, chancellor and their families. They will argue that those who live in No. 10 or No. 11 had a right to use their own garden during lockdown. The second plank of the defense is likely to be on the nature of work in Downing Street, where meetings often took place in the garden throughout the day and well into the evening, when bottles of beer or wine were occasionally drunk. This is where the blanket denial of any “parties” comes from — the argument is that even though booze was sometimes consumed, these were still work meetings in a garden operating as an office and therefore did not constitute rule-breaking social events. Playbook will leave it to others to judge whether all this holds water.
Reynolds’ email tests this defense to the extreme: The use of the words “make the most of the lovely weather,” “socially distanced drinks,” and “bring your own booze” will obviously have Gray’s eyebrows on the ceiling, as will the organized nature of the “drinks,” which is harder to defend than the more organic rolling work meetings that took place daily across the garden.
Martin, I’m not sure this is a good idea: Then there’s another leak to the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg, who has contemporaneous messages between No. 10 aides discussing Reynolds’ invitation. “Is this for real?” one asks. Another adds: “Um. Why is Martin encouraging a mass gathering in the garden?”
A hard Reyn falls: Expect plenty of questions today about whether Johnson did indeed attend — something the PM didn’t deny when asked yesterday — and whether he knew about Reynolds’ written invitation. The Guardian’s Rowena Mason notes Reynolds’ use of the word “we” in “we thought it would be a nice idea” — Playbook is steered toward it meaning Reynolds and his team of officials, but Gray will certainly have questions on that too. That raises the next question of whether Reynolds himself will survive the scandal. Monday’s Times speculated he could lose his job over the furor, though Downing Street stood by him yesterday.
More Tory jitters: A government frontbencher told the Guardian’s Jess Elgot last night: “I think this is the worst exposed the prime minister has ever been by these leaks. There’s no explanation, there’s no way to distance himself. His only saviour is if the public has given up caring.” Anecdotally, it does not appear the public has stopped caring. Opinium’s Chris Curtis has a damning thread concluding people clearly think the rules were broken in Downing Street and don’t believe the PM has told the truth about what happened. Partygate appears to have accelerated the Tory poll decline and whacked Johnson’s personal ratings.
Going mega-viral: Another concern for the Tories is that the public will quickly remember how ministers were ordering them to live their lives as the Reynolds bash took place. The Mirror’s Dan Bloom notes Cabinet Minister Oliver Dowden’s No. 10 press conference on May 20, 2020, just 55 minutes before the alleged party took place, in which he explicitly told the public to “limit contact with other people” and said: “You can meet one person outside of your household in an outdoor, public place — provided that you stay two meters apart.” He added: “Staying alert for the vast majority of people still means staying at home as much as possible.”
The day after … on May 21, 2020, then Health Secretary Matt Hancock was asked at another press conference about the upcoming Muslim celebration of Eid by a member of the public who was “concerned that some people may be finding ways to flout the rules like having garden parties or gatherings.” Hancock responded that everyone had to follow the rules: “The clear answer for all faiths is people will have to adapt the celebrations around the current social distancing rules, and everybody knows what those rules are and they remain the same for every community.”
And then there’s this: Five days after the garden gathering, Johnson was asked at a presser what could be done to stop people meeting in groups in parks. He replied: “Feel free to speak to people yourself if you feel that they are not obeying the rules. But the police will step in if necessary and encourage people to obey the law.”
There’s always a tweet: On the day of the No. 10 garden events, the Met Police tweeted: “Have you been enjoying the hottest day of the year so far? It is important that we all continue to #StayAlert. You can relax, have a picnic, exercise or play sport, as long as you are: On your own, With people you live with, Just you and one other person.”
Labour scents blood: The opposition has ramped up its attacks on the government to the max, with a press release dropping in the last few minutes titled: “The truth is out: Boris Johnson’s repeated lies about Downing Street parties.” It claims the PM has repeatedly “misled the House and the public over Downing Street’s lockdown-breaking parties,” quoting Johnson on December 1 last year: “all guidance was followed completely in No. 10” … on December 7: “I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken” … December 8: “I repeat that I have been repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no COVID rules were broken” … on December 13: “I can tell you once again that I certainly broke no rules.”
The L word: Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry gave her response to BBC Newsnight last night: “Complete disbelief. But this falls into a pattern of their hiding the truth and then when things come out starting to lie about it and then spin about it and then hiding behind Sue Gray.” Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner is calling on Johnson to come to the Commons today to “come clean.”
WHAT A HARRIE ON: Boris Johnson will discuss with senior ministers this week whether to cut the COVID isolation time from seven to five days. The PM signaled the shift in tone away from the government’s previous opposition to the move yesterday. It comes as the U.K. Health Security Agency — run by the controversial Jenny Harries — admitted it had misunderstood the U.S. health authorities’ position on their five day isolation recommendation. The UKHSA had claimed the U.S. isolation period started after a positive test, so some time after infection. In fact, the U.S. advice was that its five-day isolation began when symptoms started. The Times’ Chris Smyth splashes the story and says Health Secretary Sajid Javid is “frustrated” by the error.
End of WFH: Happier news from the FT’s Seb Payne, Oliver Barnes and Jim Pickard, who say ministers are increasingly confident Plan B restrictions will end at their next review point on January 26, with data suggesting the NHS is unlikely to be overwhelmed by the Omicron wave. The Sun’s Harry Cole and Kate Ferguson agree that’s the plan, though warn that low booster uptake could derail it. A Cabinet minister tells the Times’ Steve Swinford and Chris Smyth: “The scientific voices seem to be becoming less doom-laden. If we have to keep wearing facemasks for a bit, then I’m fine with that — ending work-from-home guidance is the important one. It will help get the economy firing.”
Not over yet: COVID numbers in Yorkshire have risen above the rates reached during the peak of the Omicron wave in London, according to analysis by the Yorkshire Post. Yorkshire and the Humber’s seven-day case rate reached a high as of January 4 with 2,167 cases per 100,000 of the population, significantly higher than the capital’s highest total on December 23 of 2,042.4 per 100,000. The Yorkshire Post splashes on the story.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 142,224 positive cases. In the last week there have been 1,201,563 positive cases, ⬆️ 11,578 on the previous week … 77 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,330 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 442 on the previous week. As of the latest data 18,665 COVID patients are in hospital.
COST OF LIVING CRISIS
VAT’S THE WAY: Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak are in talks to cut VAT on energy bills, the Sun’s Harry Cole reports, following a crunch meeting on Sunday night. The proposal, which has been pushed by Conservative backbenchers and Labour’s Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves, is “high up on a list of possible fixes to lessen the blow of soaring bills this spring,” Cole reports. Sunak has previously been said to oppose a VAT cut on fuel bills.
Timing: As luck would have it, Labour is using an opposition day debate this afternoon to force a binding vote on a VAT cut to home energy bills over the next year. If passed, the motion would guarantee parliamentary time for a bill on an energy VAT cut. Expect Labour MPs to hammer Johnson on his Brexit pledge to cut VAT from energy bills once the U.K. was out of the EU. Shadow Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband is on the morning round and blasts: “The government — and all the Tory MPs who have previously backed a VAT cut on home energy bills — should follow through with their promises and vote with Labour today to scrap the tax for a year, as hard working people face a growing cost of living crisis.” Worth watching for how the likes of Tory cost-of-living critic Esther McVey vote today.
Taking the heat out: Sunak met with Conservative MPs to discuss the cost of living crisis last night. One Tory MP tells Playbook the chancellor was in full listening mode and agreed with bits of every point made, though stressed he wanted to wait a bit to come up with a fully thought through package. The Telegraph’s Harry Yorke hears similar, reporting that Sunak assured MPs the package would arrive in time for the energy price cap rise in April, but that he needed time to work through the proposals and wanted to target support at those most in need.
Who’s most in need? The Telegraph’s Tony Diver, Harry Yorke and Ben Riley-Smith have some analysis from the Lib Dems showing the 20 areas hardest hit by the looming energy price rise are rural constituencies represented by Tory MPs. The paper also notes Johnson opposes giving MPs a £2,000 pay rise at the same time as the energy bill hike.
Story of the day … from the FT’s Nathalie Thomas and Jim Pickard, who report that Britain’s third-largest energy supplier Ovo Energy has advised households to have “a cuddle with your pets and loved ones to help stay cosy” and keep bills down. Expect ministers and No. 10 to be asked if they agree today.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with BEIS questions, followed by a ten minute rule motion on co-operatives from Labour’s Christina Rees … The main business will be Labour debates calling on the government to cut VAT on household energy bills and calling on reform of business rates to help businesses that have struggled during the pandemic.
LABOUR WHIP ❤️ WILLIAMSON: A row is brewing over Keir Starmer’s decision to appoint Navendu Mishra, Labour MP for Stockport, to the whips office, Playbook’s Eleni Courea reveals. An outspoken Jeremy Corbyn backer, before he became an MP Mishra posted tweets that appeared supportive of the disgraced Chris Williamson in 2017 and 2018, even tweeting about how he had attended Williamson’s “democracy roadshow.” In 2020, Mishra also signed a Socialist Campaign Group letter protesting the decision to suspend Corbyn from the Labour whip.
Duffed up: Labour MP Rosie Duffield pointedly asked Starmer at the Parliamentary Labour Party meeting last night whether all frontbenchers had to accept the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism. Starmer confirmed all Labour MPs did. A Labour spokesperson said: “All Labour frontbenchers support the IHRA definition of anti-Semitism and any suggestion otherwise is untrue.” Internal critics point out that as a whip Mishra may struggle to win over skeptical Labour colleagues.
Inside PLP: Starmer told his MPs that they “cannot afford to waste a single day on pointless rows or tweets or distractions” if Labour is to win the next election and urged them to be “disciplined and focus on the voters,” Eleni reports. He began playing down expectations about Labour’s performance in the local elections in May, warning it was “a serious and complicated electoral test” where the Tories “had appalling results last time” and “are starting from a low baseline.”
Senior sauces: Environment Secretary George Eustice is planning to ban plastic sauce sachets used in takeaways, the Sun’s Natasha Clark reports.
MG vs. HMT Day 2: Fresh from his bumpy back and forth with the Treasury over Monday’s cladding announcement, Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove was told by HMT last month to drop plans to announce a manufacturing overhaul for fear it would raise expectations of new investment. The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith has the story.
UNIONS UNITE: The TUC and three trade unions representing steelworkers have told POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio that jobs and livelihoods are at risk if Britain can’t end a long-running steel dispute with Washington. Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan had a go in Washington talks last month without any breakthrough, and Emilio reports Trevelyan is yet to receive a response to an invitation for more talks in London she sent to her U.S. counterpart. Full story here.
RETURN OF THE CARS: London car usage returned almost to pre-pandemic levels in 2021 while public transport levels remained low, new figures released by City Hall overnight show. London Mayor Sadiq Khan warned the capital is facing a potential “filthy air and gridlocked roads” crisis in the year ahead — the Standard’s Joe Talora has a write-up.
BRITS ON BUSINESS: Most Brits (56 percent) think businesses are out of touch with their priorities and should focus more on customer service than on social issues, according to new research by Stack Data Strategy and Hanbury. When asked what issues they believe CEOs should prioritize, 69 percent said they should focus on how they can treat their employees better and improve services for customers. Just 31 percent said they wanted CEOs to focus on “raising the profile of social issues like climate change or diversity” — though that is of course still a large chunk of those asked.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: Small Business Minister Paul Scully faces questions on compensation for those involved with the Post Office Horizon scandal at the BEIS committee (9.45 a.m.) … The DCMS committee will question senior government officials on the appointment of new Charity Commission Chair Martin Thomas (10 a.m.) … Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza is up at the education committee (10 a.m.) … Standards in public life committee Chair Jonathan Evans will appear before a well-timed PACAC session on Greensill and conflicts of interest in government (10 a.m.) … The Lords common frameworks committee will quiz Leveling Up Minister Neil O’Brien (10.30 a.m.) … The foreign affairs committee will question representatives from Meta, Twitter and the Red Cross on tech and foreign policy (3.30 p.m.) … and there’s a biggie over at the Lords communications and digital committee, which hosts BBC boss Tim Davie and other senior Beeb officials for questions on impartiality (4 p.m.).
HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on DWP support for larger families, risks posed by respiratory viruses to children and the elderly and on the current situation in Kazakhstan … Followed by the first day of the Health and Care Bill’s committee stage.
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BEYOND THE M25
EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT PRESIDENT DIES: European Parliament President David Sassoli died overnight at a hospital in Italy, his spokesperson Roberto Cuillo announced. The 65-year-old had been in hospital since December 26, according to a press statement issued by his office on Monday. POLITICO has the details here.
FIRST STURGEON OF THE YEAR: Nicola Sturgeon gave her first interview of the year to STV’s Scotland Tonight last night, ahead of her weekly coronavirus statement to Holyrood this afternoon. Playbook’s Andrew McDonald will quickly run you through the top lines.
Living with COVID: Sturgeon spoke of a need to learn how to “live with COVID,” signaling for the first time that Scotland could look to move away from legal restrictions and bringing the Scottish government’s rhetoric almost in line with the language coming from Westminster. She tempered the call by suggesting it did not mean “one morning we’ll wake up and not have to worry about [COVID] anymore,” but that instead it was time to look at what adaptations to pre-pandemic life will be required long term.
Right on cue: The Times’ Kieran Andrews suggests that as the Scottish government’s language shifts, Sturgeon is likely to signal today that crowds can return to football matches and other outdoor events within weeks. Current restrictions set to last until January 17 allow just 500 fans at all sporting events. Sturgeon defended the curb, pointing to the risks that would have been involved in thousands of fans traveling to and from games over the busy festive period. The first minister may have more detail for Holyrood from 2 p.m. today.
The Indy line: For the first time in 2022, Sturgeon reaffirmed the SNP’s aim to hold an independence referendum by 2023 — which is now literally next year. Pressed on how in that short space of time her government would manage to pass the required legislation at Holyrood … Then either convince Boris Johnson to allow a referendum or successfully deal with a likely, and lengthy, court challenge … Lay the practical groundwork for a referendum … And squeeze in a short campaign all before the end of next year, Sturgeon said she intended “to do everything that is within my power to enable that referendum to happen before the end of 2023.” The Spectator’s Alex Massie points out this is a subtle comedown from previous assertions that there will be a referendum in 2023.
UKRAINE LATEST: A day of talks between the U.S. and Russia delayed for at least this week a new invasion of Ukraine. That’s the good news, reports POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn from Geneva — the bad news is both sides are so far apart that an “ominous specter of future conflict” has been left hanging over Europe. Read his full report here.
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Health Minister Ed Argar 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.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.).
Shadow Climate Change Secretary Ed Miliband broadcast round: Today program (7.10 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.10 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … LBC (8.20 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Food and Agriculture Organization representative for Afghanistan Richard Trenchard (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast: Former Tory adviser Claire Pearsall (7.30 a.m.) … Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye (8.30 a.m).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye (7.40 a.m.) … Former GCHQ Director David Omand (8.50 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: Dr Raghib Ali, senior clinical research associate at the Medical Research Council’s Epidemiology Unit in Cambridge (8.05 a.m.) … Tory peer Ed Vaizey and Kezia Dugdale, former leader of Scottish Labour (9.10 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Labour MP Graham Stringer (8.05 a.m.) … CBI President Karan Bilimoria (9.40 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News 12 p.m.): Lib Dem MP Wendy Chamberlain … Tory MPs Philip Davies, Siobhan Baillie and Esther McVey.
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry … Lib Dem MP Wendy Chamberlain … Tory MP Laura Farris … The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar … The Sun’s Harry Cole.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Former Children’s Commissioner Anne Longfield … SDP leader William Clouston … Labour peer Charlie Falconer … Sunday Telegraph columnist Janet Daly.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The New Statesman’s Rachel Cunliffe and Mail’s John Stevens.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Enough Boris! You must end ‘partygate’ farce now.
Daily Mail: Boris rocked by new party revelations.
Daily Mirror: Invite to do what you like.
Daily Star: Bless you.
Financial Times: Moscow threatens to walk out as Ukraine talks remain deadlocked.
HuffPost UK: 100 invited to No. 10 lockdown drinks
i: ‘Bring your own booze.’
Metro: Downing It Street.
POLITICO UK: Russia talks buy time for Ukraine but stark disagreements signal dead-end ahead.
The Daily Telegraph: Cabinet anger over misleading isolation guidance.
The Guardian: Fury as email reveals No 10 ‘bring your own booze’ lockdown party.’
The Independent: PM ‘among 40 guests’ at No 10 lockdown party.
The Sun: Don’t be a Novak … get boosted.
The Times: Pressure mounts for five days of isolation.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌧🌧🌧 Light rain all day and breezy. Highs of 11C.
NEW GIG: Jasper Jackson, formerly of the New Statesman and the Guardian, has joined the Bureau of Investigative Journalism as technology editor. Here’s his tweet.
BIRTHDAYS: Standards committee Chairman Chris Bryant … Luton North MP Sarah Owen … Richmond Park MP Sarah Olney … Former Italian Prime Minister Matteo Renzi … Former Canadian PM Jean Chrétien … and former NUM President Arthur Scargill.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
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