Truce over — Heavy pressure — Three jabs or you’re out – POLITICO

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What’s driving the day in Westminster. Politics and policymaking in the UK capital.


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Good Thursday morning. This is Annabelle Dickson bringing you London Playbook. Alex Wickham will be back tomorrow.


TRUCE OVER: Boris Johnson’s fragile new year truce with his party is looking short-lived today after it emerged one of his top team pushed for the recently agreed national insurance hike to be abandoned amid concerns over the looming cost of living crisis. The prime minister’s Christmas gamble, swerving tough restrictions to tackle the Omicron wave, won praise from his increasingly rebellious and restriction-skeptic party in the Commons yesterday, but the respite from political pressure is likely to be brief. Johnson is being urged by some MPs to cut taxes to help households battling high inflation and an expected massive hike in energy bills. This is all as the news continues to be dominated by grim accounts from an NHS frontline hit by chronic and unsustainable staffing shortages.

Mogg’s moment: It took a matter of hours for Jacob Rees-Mogg’s call for the upcoming national insurance rise to be abandoned to make its way into the public domain. The FT and the Telegraph both reported last night that Rees-Mogg, who is the leader of the House of Commons, told yesterday’s Cabinet meeting that the so-called health and social care levy, which was only agreed in September, could not be justified at a time of rising inflation and soaring energy bills.

Challenge Mogg: Chancellor Rishi Sunak is said to have launched a staunch rebuttal of Rees-Mogg’s suggestion. One Treasury official told Playbook: “No one wants taxes to go up. But the £12.5 billion for the NHS backlogs it pays for this year and long-term social care reform years after will have to be found elsewhere.” The Times hears Rees-Mogg suggested significant savings could be made by reducing the number of officials, questioning “the productivity of civil servants who are working from home.”

Frosty legacy: While Rees-Mogg appears to have been a lone voice in Cabinet openly making the case to scrap the hated national insurance hike, there are plenty of fellow travelers on the Tory backbenches calling for tax cuts now. Remember that 20 Tory MPs wrote to the PM over the weekend urging him to cut VAT on energy bills and remove the environmental levy. Rees-Mogg’s challenge to a key policy, on which Johnson expended a lot of political capital just a few months ago, does not bode well, particularly after the departure of David Frost, another key ally of the PM, last month. Frost resigned citing concern about the high level of taxes.

Loyalty owed: An ally of Rees-Mogg insisted to Playbook the leader of the House of Commons was loyal to the PM and his agenda, but it is fair to say the optics of the leak are not great as the PM attempts to put talk of divisions behind him in 2022.

Power play: In today’s Spectator, James Forsyth argues the PM’s more muscular Cabinet is here to stay — and that could be a good thing. “Cabinet ministers certainly feel that their opposition to more lockdown measures has been vindicated,” he writes, although he questions if the PM has the patience to govern “in a more consultative manner.”

Bailout plea: While the national insurance question appears to be reasonably settled, for now, the question of what to do about spiraling energy costs is not. The Sun hears energy bosses asked the government for a £20 billion government bailout to keep household bills down at a meeting with Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng yesterday. “While the Government has not rejected the plea yet, it is understood officials are urgently looking at help they can give providers to seek bank loans instead of a direct bailout,” Harry Cole and Kate Ferguson write.

Warm home discount: Calls for VAT to be cut on energy bills are likely to go unanswered, the Guardian reckons, with ministers instead looking at extending the warm homes discount. Sky’s Sam Coates says the government will make an announcement within the next month having concluded “something needs to be done” on energy bills.

Ed ‘Robin Hood’ Davey: The Lib Dems want to impose a one-off “Robin Hood” tax on the profits of oil and gas companies, which they say would raise £5 billion to help support struggling families. The Mirror has a write-up.

HEAVY PRESSURE: While energy bills are high on the agenda, the more immediate concern for the PM is what is going on in the U.K.’s healthcare system with more than 20 NHS trusts having now declared critical incidents.

Student call-up: The NHS Confederation, the body which represents the healthcare system, told the Guardian last night that it wants tens of thousands of medical students to be deployed on to wards and to other healthcare settings. NHS and social care staff should be given priority access to lateral flow and PCR tests, and the self-isolation period reviewed and potentially cut from 10 days to five in line with similar moves in the U.S. and France. Without action, millions of patients will suffer worsening quality of care, it says.

Quick recap: My colleague Helen Collis wrote an excellent explainer on the big quarantine questions the other day.

Word of warning: NHS Providers Chief Executive Chris Hopson, writer of lengthy Twitter threads and a usually measured analyst of the picture on the ground, was pretty downbeat last night. He warned politicians and NHS leaders to “openly and clearly” acknowledge the scale of current pressures, and the impact on patients and staff. Despite “extraordinary effort from NHS frontline” he said thousands of patients are having to wait longer than NHS would want for urgent care, for 999 calls to be answered, for ambulance handovers, and to be seen promptly in A&E departments. Trusts are now having to delay planned care again, he said.

Outside London: Hopson had more bad news on the picture beyond London after chatting to more than a dozen NHS trust CEOs. Encouraging signs that London, the first place to be hit with the Omicron wave, is coping may not be replicated in the rest of the country. Trust leaders warn him that demographics, patterns of infection, hospitalization and sickness absence would be different outside the capital.

Mixed picture: One health official told Playbook he expected hospitalizations to keep rising and there was no doubt some trusts would struggle more than others with the increased pressures. But there is still a lot of confidence in the government that the U.K. is in the strongest possible position to get through this wave through its booster campaign, antivirals and its testing program.

Nowhere to go: As ever, social care is an important part of the jigsaw with delayed discharges out of hospitals causing huge problems. The Telegraph says of the homes operated by MHA, one of the largest not-for-profit care providers in the U.K., 70 percent have now closed their doors to new residents.

Now listen to this: One A&E nurse, who spoke to LBC’s Eddie Mair, gave a pretty bleak account of her workdays at the moment.

More grim news: Even if the health service can get through the Omicron wave, there will be more pressures ahead. The Commons health and social care committee has bad news for those who have been patiently waiting for non-urgent care. MPs reckon waiting lists could double by 2025 without urgent action to get more doctors and nurses on wards. The Mail has a write-up of the report. 

The never-ending war: Paul Waugh has a good bigger picture piece looking at the longer-term problems facing the NHS. “One problem for some clinicians right now is that the PM’s language fails to grasp the exhaustion felt by many in the NHS. If you’ve been in the trenches for nearly two years, being told you’re moving to ‘a war footing’ sounds misleading at best and cynical at worst,” he writes.

We’re all going on a winter holiday: The Mail and the Times focus on the positives, and there are some. Both highlight yesterday’s good news for the travel sector. Ministers yesterday announced pre-departure tests will no longer be required for people arriving in the country and the requirement to self-isolate on arrival until receipt of a negative PCR test will also be lifted. It also picks up on the PM’s claim yesterday that the country has a good chance of getting back to something much closer to normality by the end of the month. The government is sticking with Plan B for another three weeks, with a further review before the regulations expire on January 26, Johnson told MPs.

Point of order: Everyone was pretty cross at PMQs yesterday and the Mirror has a useful rundown of all the things the PM has been accused of getting wrong at the despatch box. Even some of his own MPs weren’t particularly happy to be there, telling Cat Neilan, who has just started at Insider, they think they were “dragged” into parliament in a ruse to make it look like the PM is in full command of his party. They claim to have been told there was a three-line whip last night, and then strongly encouraged to go to PMQs.

Three jabs or you are out: One to watch for the detail, and a potentially explosive reaction: The Times’ Steve Swinford says ministers on the COVID-O committee discussed plans to deny people who have not had a booster jab entry to large venues, and the right to quarantine-free international travel.

Still a long way from this: Italy will make vaccines mandatory for over 50-year-olds, the country’s Cabinet agreed yesterday. Those in the workforce who are over 50 will have to show a health pass proving they have either been vaccinated or recently recovered from COVID-19, or face suspension from work from mid-February. More from POLITICO here.

YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 194,747 positive cases. In the last week, there have been 1,281,588 positive cases, ⬆️ 366,865 on the previous week … 334 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,195 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 679 on the previous week. As of the latest data, 17,276 COVID patients are in hospital.


HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with DCMS questions, followed by attorney general questions at 10.10 a.m. … Commons leader Rees-Mogg has the weekly business statement next … and then the main business will be a backbench-led debate on Russia’s “grand strategy” and the U.K. and allied response to it. Tory MP Christian Wakeford has an adjournment debate on anti-Semitism at Bristol University.

COLSTON FOUR CLEARED: Four young activists involved in pulling down the Bristol Edward Colston statue last year were cleared of criminal damage yesterday. Brace yourself for the culture wars — the story makes the splash of a handful of today’s papers and will likely dominate the morning show discourse. Catch-up via the BBC’s report here.

PLAYBOOK GOSSIP PAGES: Michael Gove’s ex-wife Sarah Vine has denied anyone else was involved in the couple’s split, telling Tatler the leveling up secretary’s “only mistress was politics.” In an interview with the magazine, Vine also revealed her “ulterior motive” throughout the marriage — stopping her husband from becoming the prime minister. More in the latest edition of Tatler.

BORDER PROBLEMS: Border Force officers are threatening to strike in response to Home Secretary Priti Patel’s Channel “pushback” tactics, the Times’s Matt Dathan reports. The Public and Commercial Services Union (PCS) said it was “totally opposed” to Patel’s tactics, which would see Border Force jet skis block and redirect migrant boats in the Channel back toward France. Both PCS and the Care4Calais charity have announced they’ll take the Home Office to court over the policy, while PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka said his members could go further by striking and refusing to implement it.

Border problems II: Teething problems with a new post-Brexit IT system has left some trucks unable to get in the U.K, PolHome’s Adam Payne reports. Under the system, which was launched in the new year as part of new controls on EU imports being phased in this year, truck drivers are asked to submit info about their goods in exchange for a barcode allowing them to cross the border, but firms have reported issues with their drivers successfully uploading the info. Logistics boss Jon Swallow told PolHome it wasn’t the delay that was frustrating, but that “nobody can tell us what the problem is.”

JUNIORS SPARED: Bosses, not junior civil servants, are likely to be blamed by inquiry lead Sue Gray for any No. 10 Downing Street parties, the Times reports.

CARING FOR THE CARERS: Politics Home’s John Johnston has written a powerful account of the plight of just one of the millions of unpaid carers across the country during the pandemic — his dad. Diagnosed with dementia four years ago, his mum has become increasingly reliant on his dad to provide care for her. He describes how access to support and advice became non-existent as COVID-19 took hold. Very sobering reading.

HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 11 a.m. with questions to ministers on hospital beds occupied because of issues in care homes, vaccine distribution and the effects of increased night-time working on public health. Playbook will be watching the latter with interest … Home Affairs Minister Susan Williams is up next with a COVID update for peers … Followed by debates on refugees and the increasing numbers of skeleton bills, which set out the principles of a policy but leave the detail for later.

EX-PEER CONVICTED: Former peer Nazir Ahmed was found guilty yesterday of serious sexual assault against a young boy and the attempted rape of a girl — both offenses taking place in the 1970s. Ahmed will face sentencing in February. The Guardian’s Maya Wolfe-Robinson has more.

THROWBACK THURSDAY: One Margaret Ferrier is up at Glasgow Sheriff Court at 10 a.m. this morning, according to a quick scan of the court rolls. Ferrier — who currently sits as an independent MP — stands accused of breaching COVID regulations on multiple occasions in fall 2020.

More court news: The European Court of Human Rights is due to issue a ruling this morning in the Lee v. the United Kingdom case, concerning a bakery in Northern Ireland that refused to sell a cake with the words “Support Gay Marriage” on it. All the way back in 2014, Gareth Lee took the evangelical Christian-owned bakery to court for refusing to bake the cake, a case Lee initially won before the Supreme Court overturned the decision on appeal in 2018. Lee took his case to the Strasbourg Court — stay tuned for the result today.

PAID TO PROTECT: Environment Secretary George Eustice will announce at the Oxford Farming Conference that applications will shortly open for the first wave of landscape recovery projects. More from the Shropshire Star here.


Transport Secretary Grant Shapps broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio breakfast (7.20 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … Today program (7.50 a.m.) … GB News (8.05 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … LBC (8.50 a.m.).

Also on the Today program: Lib Dem leader Ed Davey (6.50 a.m.) … Chair of the Commons’ health select committee Jeremy Hunt (6.50 a.m.) … Public Health England’s Regional Director for London Kevin Fenton (7.12 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio breakfast: CEO Energy UK Emma Pinchbeck (7.35 a.m.) … Professor Jason Leitch, Scotland’s national clinical director (8.05 a.m.) … Raj Chada, defense lawyer for the “Colston four” (8.15 a.m.) … Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (8.35 a.m.) … Chair of the Commons’ health select committee Jeremy Hunt (8.45 a.m.) … Actor Ralf Little from “Death in Paradise” (9.45 a.m.).

Also on BBC Breakfast: Royal College of Surgeons VP Tim Mitchell (8.30 a.m.).

Also on Sky News breakfast: Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (7.30 a.m.) … Lib Dems leader Ed Davey (7.45 a.m.) … Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (8.05 a.m.) … Royal College of GPs Chair Martin Marshall (8.30 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former BEIS adviser Josh Buckland (7.40 a.m.) … Former U.K. Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch (8.05 a.m.) … Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (8.20 a.m.).

Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Halo co-founder Ian Henderson (7.05 a.m.) … IFS director Paul Johnson (7.20 a.m.).

GB News breakfast: Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (7.20 a.m.).

The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News): Work and pensions committee Chairman Stephen Timms (12.05 p.m.) … Tory MP David Johnston (12.15 p.m.) … Tory MP Richard Holden (12.20 p.m.) … Tory MP Bob Stewart (12.35 p.m.).

Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Matt Warman … SNP MP Stewart Hosie … Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee … Telegraph columnist Tim Stanley.

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Commentator Tim Montgomerie and Sheffield Star editor Nancy Fielder.


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

Daily Express: Statue ‘vandals’ cleared … but where will it all end.

Daily Mail: We have lift-off Britain.

Daily Mirror: Perfect storm.

Daily Star: The Blair ditch project.

Financial Times: Investors discard techs and pile into recovery driven companies

HuffPost UK: COVID testing rules relaxed.

Metro: Just go with your flow.

PoliticsHome: Teachers feeling the strain of COVID staff absences are sceptical about volunteer scheme.

POLITICO UK: After Omicron, can we learn to live with the coronavirus.

The Daily Telegraph: ‘Colston four’ walk free as jury says no crime was committed.

The Guardian: Four cleared over toppling of Edward Colston statue.

The Sun: Baroness Bra in cop quiz.

The Times: Boosts for holidays as travel tests scrapped.


The New European: Endgame — Putin plots to divide and conquer Europe.

The Spectator: Rip it up! The vaccine passport experiment needs to end, says Kate Andrews.


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌧🌧🌧 Light rain all day. Highs of 7C.

For Playbook readers further north: Watch out for “thundersnow,” which the Met Office says could hit parts of Scotland, Wales and Northern England slightly later today.

NEW GIG: Lucy Bishop has joined Sky’s Ridge on Sunday — currently presented by Trevor Phillips — as a producer. Here’s the tweet.

BIRTHDAYS: Wansbeck MP Ian Lavery … Ashfield MP Lee Anderson … Tory peer Ian McColl … SpAd to the Scottish First Minister Callum McCaig … BBC political correspondent Iain Watson … Former “Have I Got News For You” host Angus Deayton … Former Leader of the London Assembly Brexit Alliance Peter Whittle … BBC foreign affairs journo Fergal Keane … Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby.

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

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Annabelle Dickson

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