BYOBriefing — Keir’s for beers — Red meat or dead meat? – POLITICO

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BYOBriefing: Boris Johnson enters a decisive week for his premiership hoping that a rapidly prepared populist policy agenda will shore up support from the right wing of the Conservative Party — as Downing Street anxiously waits for civil service investigator Sue Gray to conclude her report into Partygate. The prime minister survived the weekend without a fresh revelation dealing a killer blow to his position. No. 10 will be nervously consulting Tory MPs who spent the past few days in their constituencies talking to voters and their local party associations, and seeking to win them back round with a series of briefings on abolishing the BBC licence fee and calling in the military to deal with the small boats migrant crisis. The next phase of the scandal is difficult to predict and events could unfold quickly. Playbook will try to lay out where we are as of Monday morning.

Waves and lulls: Allies of the PM were relieved to get through the Sunday papers without an especially devastating new party story, fearing that another bombshell might have triggered Cabinet resignations or a flood of letters in to Graham Brady, the chair of the 1922 committee of backbench MPs. Instead, Johnson found some space to work on his fightback. A government insider told Playbook that, as a news event, Partygate was developing in “waves and lulls.” Damaging revelations of new parties whip up a furor among Twitter, Fleet Street and Tory MPs … then there’s a period of relative calm … then a new story breaks … and so on until the Gray report is out. The source argued that we are now in a slight lull, though said it was inevitable a development would occur in the coming hours or days that wreaks havoc once again.

Gray matters: The nature of this scandal, with the drip-drip of leaks, means the longer it takes Gray to complete her work, the more dangerous it arguably is for Johnson. If her probe continues into next week, that leaves a long time for new allegations to emerge. If it wraps up in days, the sooner Johnson can get on with his much-vaunted reset by issuing a detailed apology and making changes, a government source said. A source close to the Gray inquiry told Playbook it was possible her report could be ready by the end of this week, though stressed there is no estimated publication time. They warned that if further stories come out, there is a chance the report could slip into next week. The Telegraph’s Ben-Riley Smith and Tony Diver hear Johnson has now been questioned by Gray.

Case for the defense: In public, the PM, ministers and Downing Street officials have not rebutted the specific party allegations. In their interviews with Gray, many members of the government have been much more vocal in their defenses, Playbook is told. A narrative is starting to emerge in Whitehall that the truth of what went on in No. 10 during lockdown is more nuanced than Twitter and newspaper front pages allow: That some of the reported events did cross the line and went well beyond what was acceptable, but most remained within the boundaries of work (even if wine was taken) — or so Gray is being told, anyway.

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The argument is that there is a sliding scale of seriousness: At the unacceptable end is the smoking gun email from Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds, that government insiders admit deserves censure. But officials are pleading for clemency from Gray on the infamous suitcase of booze and “wine Fridays,” which they insist were more about staff working 16-hour days having a glass or two in the office while they worked on a Friday afternoon, something they argue was not against the rules. A Tory MP and Johnson loyalist complained to Playbook that a “feeding frenzy” on Twitter has stripped nuance from the debate, and said they believed Gray would be able to cut through the noise, whack the government on the more serious charges, and show some understanding on others.

What will Johnson say? A government insider argued the PM should show contrition for the errors of some of his staff and apologize again for the May 20, 2020 BYOB drinks gathering in the garden which he attended. (The Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported party-loving PPS Reynolds, his deputy Stuart Glassborow, and Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield could all lose their jobs.) Another MP dubbed Johnson’s post-Gray statement: “Groveling Up.” But a Tory MP also said the PM should “come out swinging” on some of the less nailed on allegations, and convince colleagues that the picture of No. 10 as a bunch of daily boozed-up, swing-breaking shirkers is a political attack being pushed by their opponents.

Keir’s for beers: Downing Street is having some joy with its own MPs on the video of Labour Leader Keir Starmer sipping a beer at a local party meeting on April 30, 2021. The clip was taken during “Step 2” restrictions that said pretty clearly: “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble.” Starmer told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth there was “no comparison” between that and the claims against the PM. Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, who has written a letter of no confidence in the PM, called Starmer a “hypocrite” yesterday, and the Mail’s Daniel Martin splashes the story, leading on Tory calls for Starmer to come to the Commons to apologize. You can expect Johnson to use that counter-attack at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. Starmer yesterday accused Johnson of breaking the law.

Why it matters: Starmer’s beer might not seem the most egregious offense, but that’s exactly the point for No. 10. Johnson’s team are arguing that the video adds credence to the idea that drinks can be consumed at a work event without the rules being broken, and therefore nullifies a large number of the “wine Fridays”-style allegations against them. The alternative is that drinking at work is against the rules. “If Starmer can stand in a room drinking beer with work colleagues, what is the difference with No. 10 staff doing the same at their desks on a Friday afternoon?” one Tory source argued.

Will this be enough? Of course, all these delicate arguments to Sue Gray about the ins and outs of what went on could easily be blown up if something else emerges that causes her to throw the book at Johnson. Dominic Lawson’s Sunday Times column contained a potential landmine: “Last week I spoke to a former Downing Street official who said at least two people had told the PM, after seeing the emailed invitation from his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, that this was ‘a party’ and should be immediately cancelled. I was told that Johnson’s dismissive response was to say they were ‘overreacting’ and to praise Reynolds as ‘my loyal Labrador.’” In response to that claim, a No. 10 spokesperson said: “It is untrue that the prime minister was warned about the event in advance. As he said earlier this week he believed implicitly that this was a work event.” Gray will want to get to the bottom of this before she decides how harshly to word her report.

Another one: The Mirror’s Ben Glaze reports Johnson attended a leaving do for defense adviser Captain Steve Higham in Downing Street in the run-up to Christmas 2020. Johnson reportedly was “there for a few minutes to thank him for his service” as a “small number of No. 10 staff briefly said goodbye.”

Hit for 6: The number of Tory MPs who’ve publicly called for Johnson to quit now stands at six. Former Minister Tim Loughton says: “Frankly the issue for me is not how many sausage rolls or glasses of prosecco the Prime Minister actually consumed. The reason for my conclusion in calling for him to stand down is the way that he has handled the mounting revelations in the last few weeks. Obfuscation, prevarication and evasion have been the order of the day when clarity, honesty and contrition was what was needed and what the British people deserve.” Full list via the Mirror. Veteran Robert Syms tells the Telegraph he is also considering putting in a letter. POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson reports that Whitehall experts are warning the PM that pinning the blame on his officials is unlikely to defuse the anger at him.

Where’s Rishi? As Playbook wrote last week, Partygate and Johnson’s future will ultimately boil down to three things: the Gray report, the response of Chancellor Rishi Sunak and the rest of the Cabinet, and whether Tory MPs hit the threshold of letters. Not much has really changed since then. The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith and Maighna Nanu count that 15 Cabinet ministers have made public appearances backing the PM since last Wednesday. Sunak is among those who haven’t.

Focus group massacre: Pollster James Johnson tweeted out the focus group from hell for Johnson yesterday after speaking to first-time Conservative voters in the red wall seat of Bolton North East. The upshot is they said they aren’t voting for him again and think he should resign.

Good luck … it falls to Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi to brave the morning broadcast round.

Where Britain leads, the world follows: Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Simon Coveney has ordered an investigation into a Champagne party that was held in his department during lockdown in June 2020. The Irish government has struggled to answer questions about the party, which first came to light at the end of December when the Irish Times got hold of a now-deleted Twitter photo of at least 20 officials drinking bubbly, while indoor gatherings of more than seven people were banned for everyone else. The Department for Foreign Affairs have since apologized, but that has done little cool the scandal. The Irish Independent’s Philip Ryan has more.


BEEB BASHING: “Operation Save Big Dog” is, Playbook is assured by every prominent No. 10 person he spoke to over the weekend, not a phrase anyone senior has ever used. “Operation Red Meat” is however very much a thing. Boris Johnson is hoping that a series of sops to the right of his party will help stem the flow of letters into Graham Brady — and they’re not subtle. The Mail on Sunday’s Glen Owen got the scoop on Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’ plan to freeze the annual BBC licence fee at £159 for the next two years, meaning the Corporation will have to find £2 billion in savings. Owen reported that in 2027 the licence fee would then be replaced with a new funding model.

Subscribe now: Playbook is told by a government official that the MoS report is in the right place, although discussions over the licence fee are ongoing. Dorries tweeted yesterday: “This licence fee announcement will be the last. The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors, are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.” She later added that there is a “huge debate and much to discuss” about how the BBC should be funded.” The Guardian’s Andrew Sparrow, Josh Halliday and Heather Stewart splash on the PM targeting the Beeb to save his premiership.

More BBC News: The race to replace Laura Kuenssberg has been blown wide open after the hot favorite Vicki Young pulled out yesterday. She tweeted: “Been getting lots of nice messages about BBC Political Editor job so wanted to let you all know that for personal reasons I won’t be applying. But look forward to supporting whoever gets this incredible role.” Here are Playbook’s runners and riders for the job.

Our boys shoot cat: The next rushed-out policy announcement comes on the front of the Times, where Steve Swinford and Matt Dathan report the military will be put in charge of preventing small boats from crossing the Channel. They also say Ghana and Rwanda are being considered as offshore locations for asylum processing. The Sun’s Kate Ferguson also has the story.

A Whitehall source tells Playbook: “Priti [Patel] first called for military involvement back in August 2020 and after months of cross-government wrangling the PM has agreed with her that it’s the right thing to do.”

Is the reset going to appease Tory MPs? The i’s Chloe Chaplain and Francis Elliott quote Defense Committee Chair Tobias Ellwood that a “flurry of initiatives” and “sacking No. 10” staff won’t cut it: “His entire senior team requires overhauling, enabling responsible command, strategy and standards to significantly improve.” The paper splashes on “Operation dead meat.” Cracker of a quote from a senior Tory MP too: “The whole operation is sh*t, talk about ‘Night of the Long Knives’ it should be ‘A Week of Machetes’ because it’s a shambles. I stayed home and voted for these rules, to be loyal, and these little b*stards were partying in Downing Street in lockdown. They’ve got to be cleared out.” A similar quote appears in the Sun via Kate Ferguson, so it sounds like at least one Tory MP is enjoying themselves.


HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with Home Office questions, followed by any post-weekend UQs or statements … The main business will see MPs move through the remaining stages of the Elections Bill, which contains the government’s controversial plan to introduce compulsory voter ID … and then Tory MP Siobhan Baillie has an adjournment debate on the experiences of midwives in the NHS.

FROM TODAY: In England, if you test positive for COVID, you can now leave your self-isolation if you test negative on days five and six.

What might have been: With case numbers well down again, and deaths remaining much lower than feared by government scientists, in an alternate universe Boris Johnson might have been enjoying a poll surge after claiming he called Omicron right. So much for that. Saturday’s Telegraph reported that the current Plan B measures would be scrapped on January 26. The i’s Hugo Gye reports: “There are 608 covid patients in ventilated beds in England, which is the lowest number since 21st July last year (peak last January was 3,736).”

Less impressive: The Treasury is expected to write off an astonishing £4.3 billion in COVID fraud, according to the Times’ David Byers. Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove is in the Mail promising to block second home owners from abusing COVID cash schemes.

YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 70,924 positive cases. In the last week there have been 754,054 positive cases, ⬇️ 463,043 on the previous week … 88 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,834 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 539 on the previous week. As of the latest data 19,539 COVID patients are in hospital.

COST OF LIVING SQUEEZE: Nearly one in three households will struggle to afford their energy bills when the new energy price cap comes into effect in April, according to new research from the Resolution Foundation. The think tank’s study predicts that from April, 27 percent of households will experience fuel stress — an indicator of finding energy bills unaffordable — treble the 9 percent who currently experience it now. The rise is expected to hit areas in the north-east and Midlands the most, along with pensioner households. The BBC’s Michael Buchanan and Eleanor Lawrie carry striking interviews with some people who are currently struggling with their rising bills, including 54-year-old Thelma Spalding, whose monthly gas and electricity bill has more than doubled from £44 to £99 in the year since she had to leave her job in the NHS. She asks: “I live in this one room. There’s only me and the dogs, so why am I being charged this much for electricity and gas?”

At least he says ‘order’ funny and hates Brexit though: Disgraced former Commons Speaker John Bercow will soon be found guilty of 21 counts of bullying by Standards Commissioner Kathryn Stone, the Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported.

COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The Scottish affairs committee will look at problems with access to cash for Scottish communities, with trade unions and ATM network operators among the witnesses (3 p.m.) … The Treasury committee will examine financial regulation post-Brexit (3.15 p.m.) … The leveling up committee begins an inquiry into regulation of social housing in England, with witnesses representing tenant groups and private providers of social housing (4 p.m.) … and the public accounts committee will question senior HMRC officials on tax debt, which has doubled during the pandemic (4 p.m.).

FACTCHECK UK: Defense Secretary Ben Wallace has a genuinely quite readable op-ed in today’s Times on Ukraine/Russia, where he seeks to counter some of the Russian president’s recent explanations for his actions on Ukraine. Wallace argues the Kremlin has used an idea of an offensive NATO as a straw man to advance its own objectives and writes that you can better discern Russia’s objectives from a 7,000 word essay Vladimir Putin published himself last year that “puts ethno-nationalism at the heart of his ambitions.”

A BRIDGE TOO FAR: Tory MP Andrew Bridgen took cash from a timber firm then lobbied the government to help it with its tax affairs, the Times’ George Greenwood reveals. Another for Kathryn Stone.

HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on support for people with eating disorders, the National Living Wage and vaccines for school pupils … Followed by Day 6 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’s report stage.

Late Lords action: Late tonight the government will introduce a series of amendments to the PCSC Bill which would bring in new powers for police to control protests, including a new criminal offense for “locking on” — the technique utilized by Insulate Britain protestors to great chaotic effect last year. Labour indicated Friday it would join Lib Dem and Green peers in opposing the measures, which are likely to be voted on in a series of divisions potentially going into the early hours.

Slightly earlier on: Peers will also vote around 8 p.m. on a Best for Britain-organized amendment concerning the right to protest outside parliament, which the campaign group says would be effectively banned if the bill passes. (Clause 59 in the bill would deem illegal any large-scale demo in the area which makes the passage of a vehicle more difficult.) As it tries to convince peers to back its amendment, Best for Britain is showing off new polling from Opinium indicating that 79 percent of the public believe peaceful protests should be allowed outside the Houses of Parliament.

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Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.).

Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell broadcast round: talkRADIO (7.05 a.m.) … GB News (7.45 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.20 a.m.) … Today program (8.40 a.m.).

Also on the Today program: Crossbench peer and former No. 10 Policy Unit head Camilla Cavendish (6.50 a.m.) … Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti and former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland (7.30 a.m.) … Former BBC Chairman Michael Grade (7.50 a.m.).

Also on Sky News breakfast: Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.30 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former David Cameron adviser Philip Blond (7.05 a.m.) … Guardian columnist Simon Jenkins (7.10 a.m.) … Former ITN Editor Richard Tait (8.35 a.m.) … Phone-in with Labour leader Keir Starmer (9 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio breakfast: Polling guru John Curtice (8.05 a.m.) … Actor George MacKay (8.50 a.m.).

Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former No. 10 Director of Communications Jonathan Haslam (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Richard Graham (8.50 a.m.) … Tory MP John Redwood (9.05 a.m.) … Unaffiliated peer Kate Hoey (9.33 a.m.).

The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News 12 p.m.): Tory MPs Peter Gibson and Richard Fuller … Labour MP Tonia Antoniazzi … DUP MP Jim Shannon.

Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns … Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire 

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Craig Mackinlay … Bright Blue founder Ryan Shorthouse … Former Channel 4 Editor at Large Dorothy Byrne … Columnist for the i Yasmin Alibhai-Brown.

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Sun’s Harry Cole and the Mirror’s Pippa Crerar.


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

Daily Express: PM — Fightback plan to level up Britain.

Daily Mail: Starmer must say sorry for drinks in lockdown.

Daily Mirror: Johnson’s scapegoats.

Daily Star: Totally ordinary bloke who does totally ordinary things says he’s, er … extraordinary.

i: Operation dead meat — Boris Johnson’s plan to save himself does not go far enough, warn senior Tories.

Metro: Go pack Djokovic.

POLITICO UK: Boris Johnson’s blame game over lockdown parties could backfire.

PoliticsHome: Oliver Dowden says Boris Johnson ‘committed to addressing culture’ of drinking in No 10 after party allegations.

The Daily Telegraph: Johnson questioned by Gray over ‘partygate.’

The Guardian: PM accused of attacking BBC to save his own skin.

The Independent: Fears for child refugees wrongly deemed adults.

The Sun: On yer own Harry — Queen won’t help in row.

The Times: PM calls in military to stem flow of migrants.


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☀️☀️☀️ Sunny but with light winds. Highs of 7C.

NOW HIRING: The Cabinet Office are recruiting for a head of news to run the department’s media team and act as a press secretary to CDL Steve Barclay. Best of luck with that — details here.

IN MEMORIAM: Former City Minister Paul Myners has died at the age of 73. Myners, a veteran of the financial services industry, was brought into government by Gordon Brown in 2008 to help tackle the financial crisis — Brown last night described him as a “tower of strength” during the crisis. The Guardian’s Richard Partington has a write-up.

BIRTHDAYS: Ashford MP Damian Green … Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan … Lords Opposition Deputy Chief Whip Denis Tunnicliffe … Stormont Deputy Speaker Christopher Stalford … U.K. Ambassador to Vietnam Gareth Ward … Former BBC tech correspondent Rory Cellan-Jones … and former U.S. First Lady Michelle Obama.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.

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Alex Wickham

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