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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Monday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
BREAKING THIS MORNING: In the last few minutes, Playbook is told Boris Johnson has ordered a Cabinet Office inquiry into allegations by Conservative MP Nus Ghani that she was fired from her job as a minister because she is Muslim. Johnson moved after two Cabinet ministers — Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi — both called for a “proper” investigation into the disturbing Islamophobia claims against beleaguered Chief Whip Mark Spencer, who denies making the alleged remarks about Ghani’s “Muslimness” at a reshuffle meeting two years ago. Playbook is told Johnson also spoke to Ghani about the probe last night. The story dominates the news agenda as Westminster awaits civil service investigator Sue Gray’s own inquiry into the Partygate scandal that could determine Johnson’s fate as PM this week. Here we go.
How the Ghani story unfolded: Tory infighting ratcheted up on Saturday night when the story dropped from the Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler, Rosamund Irwin and Gabriel Pogrund. They reported Ghani’s account of a meeting with government whips following her sacking as a transport minister in the February 2020 mini-reshuffle, where she alleged she was told that her “Muslimness” had been raised as an “issue” and that her status as a “Muslim woman minister” was making Conservative colleagues uncomfortable. Ghani did not name Spencer as the person who made these comments, but he (somewhat chaotically) identified himself, insisting: “These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.”
How the No. 10 line developed: On the Sunday morning broadcast round, Deputy Prime Minister Dominic Raab argued that because Ghani “hasn’t made a formal complaint” despite being “asked to do so,” there would “be no specific investigation into this.” Downing Street confirmed that position, issuing a statement revealing Johnson had met with Ghani in July 2020 to discuss her allegations and written to her urging her to make a formal complaint to the Conservative Party. Ghani then hit back with a statement of her own explaining that she had asked Johnson for a government probe rather than internal party inquiry because it “happened on government business.” Parties marking their own homework on these sorts of things is not ideal in any case. Ghani said: “Not a day has gone by without thinking about what I was told and wondering why I was in politics, while hoping for the government to take this seriously.”
Reverse ferret: The Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher reports that Johnson came under pressure from Javid and Zahawi to drop Downing Street’s resistance to a government-led inquiry, and on Sunday evening he relented. Playbook is told the Cabinet Office will run the investigation, though it remains to be seen exactly who will be in charge. Christopher Geidt is the “independent adviser on ministers’ interests,” whose job it is to advise the PM on matters relating to the ministerial code (not just relating to wallpaper). Alternatively, Sue Gray will be looking for something to do after this week. Or it could be someone else entirely.
**A message from the UK Spirits Alliance: The UK Spirits Alliance is committed to working with the Government to reform the Alcohol Duty System. It is vital that these reforms support distillers who have invested to support jobs, the levelling-up agenda, and communities across the United Kingdom.**
Who’s telling the truth? The immediate issue for the Cabinet Office probe is that Ghani and Spencer appear to be offering two completely irreconcilable versions of events, and it may well end up being one person’s word against another. Ghani won support from several senior Tory colleagues yesterday and was praised as a person of integrity. Spencer has had some private backing from others, as well as Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant taking it upon himself to tour the studios in his defense yesterday (not very helpfully). Playbook is told Johnson and Downing Street have been perplexed by the case, as it’s not likely Ghani would make something like that up, but they also consider it out of character and career suicide for Spencer to have said those words.
What happens next: Johnson is on a visit this morning and will endure a broadcast clip around lunchtime. Playbook supposes the new inquiry means the PM will answer that he can’t comment further while an investigation is ongoing. Over to the Cabinet Office, where scandals definitely don’t go to die.
GOING GRAY WAITING
INQUIRY, INQUIRY, THEY’VE ALL GOT AN INQUIRY: Even Vladimir Putin starting a European war is unlikely to turn Westminster’s attention from the main domestic news event of the week: the publication of Sue Gray’s report on Partygate. Playbook is sorry to say we may be waiting a little while further before her findings are revealed. The Sunday Times’ Tim Shipman reported that Gray is due to interview Johnson’s former chief aide Dominic Cummings today. Since he is at the center of many of the allegations, Gray may need some time to consider his testimony. There had been some hopes she might report back “early” this week, either Monday or Tuesday. Playbook is assured it won’t be today, and there is speculation it could now come later in the week. The annoying reality is at the moment no one really knows.
Which means … that for all the talk of this week being decisive for Johnson’s premiership, with the Gray findings potentially triggering a confidence vote that could theoretically see the PM ousted by the weekend, it may take a little while to get going — and we’re going to have to put up with a load more noise until the report eventually drops.
How it will happen: Gray is expected to give Johnson and No. 10 a first look, then publish either a few hours later or the following day. Johnson’s team has asked Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle if he can go to the despatch box “almost immediately” to make a statement, the Times’ Henry Zeffman reports.
How much detail will we get? There has been speculation that the for-public-consumption publication will not include the names of mid-ranking and junior officials involved, and not include the full transcripts of email chains and interviews — a controversy not helped by the PM having some say over the publication process. Labour’s Angela Rayner tells Gray to get on with it and blasts: “Boris Johnson cannot be allowed to cover-up or obscure any of the truth when he has insisted on a hugely protracted internal probe to tell him which parties he attended and what happened in his own home. The Sue Gray report must be published in its entirety with all accompanying evidence.”
Uh oh: The i’s Arj Singh reckons Gray will go beyond merely setting out the facts she’s uncovered, and will “make some kind of judgment on the events in turn, where it is possible with the evidence, but without calling for sackings.”
In the meantime … expect No. 10 to be asked about Tim Shipman’s report that alleged lockdown-breaking gatherings in the Downing Street flat are being looked at … that email-loving Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds has flipped and is now helping Gray extensively … plus speculation that Gray has access to the check-in and check-out logs of Downing Street aides’ passes … the Telegraph’s Dani Sheridan’s story that Johnson’s official diary will be examined … and the Indy’s Anna Isaac’s eye-catching story suggesting No. 10 officials are holding back information and photos from the inquiry. Good luck getting any answers.
‘Ello ‘ello ‘ello, what’s all this then? Today’s Telegraph splash by Martin Evans and Lucy Fisher reveals Gray has interviewed Downing Street police officers about what they saw on the nights in question. A source tells the paper the cops have been able to provide Gray with “a lot of information” and that some of it is “extremely damning.” Which raises the question for the Met: If what the police were seeing was so damning, why didn’t they do anything about it, either then or since?
The Tel turns: Asked how significant the material disclosed by the police was, the source in the story tells the paper: “Put it this way, if Boris Johnson is still Prime Minister by the end of the week, I’d be very surprised.”
Trying to keep Johnson in No. 10 … is the PM’s new shadow whipping operation, as revealed by Steve Swinford, Henry Zeffman and Oli Wright in Saturday’s Times. Johnson’s allies had come to a realization, even before the Nus Ghani scandal, that official Chief Whip Mark Spencer had lost authority with the parliamentary party following the Owen Paterson debacle, and that the PM needed to call up much of his former leadership campaign team to have a proper operation in place ahead of any confidence vote. Front-and-center is Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, who is praised as one of the most effective political operators in the Tory Party and comes armed with a remarkably reliable spreadsheet keeping track of MPs’ loyalties. The Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth reports Shapps was due in Manchester today on a planned HS2 visit but pulled out on Friday, just as his spreadsheet was loading up. Former whips Chris Pincher, Chris Heaton Harris and Nigel Adams, as well as long-time ally Conor Burns, make up the rest of the “avengers” team. (© Shippers.)
The case to keep him: Johnson’s allies believe Tory MPs have turned on him in alarming numbers for four reasons: They feel ignored by his Downing Street operation and the whips; they think he has been too cautious on COVID; they disagree with his proposed tax rises and the direction of the government; and they are furious about the Partygate scandal and the effect on the polls. One supporter of the PM argued that the parties were the boiling point rather than the root cause of MPs’ disquiet, and that it’s the other three factors that have caused unhappiness to bubble away for some time. They argued that Johnson will try to convince backbenchers that his No. 10 team and the whips office can be fixed to make them listen more to their concerns; that Britain will lead the world out of the pandemic with no more restrictions ever again; and that he deserves a chance to govern in “peace time” and is the only politician who can lead on the “leveling up” agenda that saw the Tories crack the red wall — before cutting taxes at the next election. On Partygate, the source said the failure of last week’s “pork pie plot” shows MPs have not yet resolved to remove Johnson, and that he can convince them to avoid the “travesty” of ousting him before he can deliver for 2019 Tory voters. Expect these sorts of arguments to be made to Tory MPs all week.
No. 10 vs. the ’22: One of the chief concerns of Team Johnson is that several members of the executive of the 1922 committee — a small group of MPs that governs the leadership process for the Conservative Party — appears to be actively working against Johnson. You might have thought the organization in charge of leadership rules and announcing confidence votes would be impartial. Not in the Tory Party, where the current ’22 Chair Graham Brady almost ran for leader last time, and its two vice chairs, William Wragg and Nus Ghani, are involved in very public disputes with No. 10. The 1922’s Executive Secretary Gary Sambrook was also named as one of the pork pie plotters. Worryingly for Johnson, the ’22 executive is expected to vote this week on reducing the time limit between confidence votes from a year to six months, meaning that if MPs fail to scalp Johnson this week, they could try again in the summer. The dynamic with the ’22 is fascinating, has been a key factor behind the scenes in recent days and will be vitally important in the week ahead.
Lost his Wragg: Public administration committee Chair William Wragg is due to meet the police this week to complain that Tory MPs have been blackmailed by whips into supporting the government. The Times’ Henry Zeffman and Steve Swinford report Wragg and co. are looking at sending Mark Spencer subject access requests forcing him to hand over emails and messages containing their personal data. Subject access requests are viewed in Westminster as a nuclear weapon that is never to be used, with everyone in mainstream politics relying on mutually assured destruction preventing total chaos. That they are being discussed goes some way to demonstrating how bad things are in the Tory Party right now.
THE ANTI-FABRICANTS: Of all the Tory MPs and ministers still emphasizing their continued support for Johnson and the government in the past few weeks, not all have expressed it in terms that make it sound like they’re completely into it. Playbook’s Andrew McDonald has a list of those Tory MPs who are still with the PM — but only sort of.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with leveling up questions to Michael Gove and his junior ministers, followed by any post-weekend UQs or statements … The SNP has a scheduled opposition day debate next, which it will use as an opportunity to try and hammer the government on the cost of living crisis … After that, MPs will move through the report stage of the Leasehold Reform (Ground Rent) Bill aimed at banning freeholders from rapidly increasing service charges to people in their properties … and then Labour’s Darren Jones has an adjournment debate on access to NHS dentistry services in Bristol and the South West.
Also today: The bill extending the High Speed 2 rail network to Manchester is laid in parliament. The BBC has the story.
BREAKING OVERNIGHT: The U.S. government has ordered relatives of its embassy staff to leave Ukraine amid fears that Russia is preparing to launch an imminent invasion. Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli and Nick Wadhams got there first on Friday. “We’re prepared either way,” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken said on CNN’s “State of the Union.” “Basically, at this point, the choice is Vladimir Putin’s,” he said of the Russian president, who previously invaded Ukraine in 2014. My POLITICO U.S. colleagues have the story.
One question today … will be whether the U.K. follows suit and orders its own diplomats’ families home.
Essential reading: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss announced on Saturday that Britain had uncovered a Kremlin plot to install a pro-Russian leadership in Kyiv, with former Ukrainian MP Yevhen Murayev being considered as a potential candidate. Here’s Truss’ scoop. Today’s Times splash by Oli Wright, Emily Gosden and Henry Zeffman reports that Britain could see record gas and petrol prices in the event of a Russian invasion. “Senior government officials expect Russia to ‘weaponise’ its natural resources by restricting supplies of gas to Europe if the West carries out its threat to impose sanctions,” they write.
TODAY IN BREXIT: Truss is away from the Westminster fray and in Brussels for a second round of Northern Ireland protocol talks with the EU’s Brexit point-man Maroš Šefčovič. Both sides have started to publicly push the fact they don’t want talks to drag on, with bigger geopolitical fish to fry for both in Ukraine and crucial upcoming Stormont elections in May. An ally of the foreign secretary said Truss would use today’s talks to call on the EU to be more pragmatic for the sake of preserving peace in Northern Ireland.
NOW THAT WOULD BE RED MEAT: Back on the domestic front, today’s Mail splash by Harriet Line and Calum Muirhead reports the whole Cabinet would back a delay to the rise in National Insurance contributions due in April. The paper quotes a Cabinet minister saying there would be “no objection” from the PM or the rest of his senior ministers if Chancellor Rishi Sunak pushed the tax hike back, adding: “This is very much a Treasury policy.” The briefing comes following a strong story by Glen Owen in the Mail on Sunday, who revealed Sunak had referred to the NI rise as “the prime minister’s tax.”
Also on the cards: Several papers report Johnson is considering U-turning on a VAT cut on energy bills.
What Labour is talking about: The opposition is calling on the government to urgently use parliamentary time next week to bring forward a vote on its proposed windfall tax and cost of living legislation. Labour says: “Since Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves laid out plans to bring down energy bills [for] families across the country, Parliament rose very early on Wednesday 12th, and early on Tuesday 18th January too. This is time in which legislation could be debated or voted on in the Commons. There is no urgent parliamentary business listed this week and space in the calendar.” Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Pat McFadden adds: “The Tories are hopelessly distracted by chaos of their own making. They are focused on fighting each other when they should be tackling the cost of living crisis affecting the whole country.”
COVID UPDATE: Senior ministers will attend a COVID Operations meeting this morning to discuss a relaxation of foreign travel rules. The Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher says that will include the NHS COVID pass app being rolled out to children in time for half term, and tests for arrivals in the U.K. scrapped. Schools will get £8 million of NHS funding to boost their vaccination drive and install air ventilation systems. The Times’ Kat Lay has that one.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 74,799 positive cases. In the last week there have been 641,687 positive cases, ⬇️ 116,484 on the previous week … 75 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,872 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 35 on the previous week. As of the latest data 17,976 COVID patients are in hospital.
**NEW PRODUCT LAUNCH. Sign up (in one click) to receive POLITICO’s France Election Playbook, starting March 7. A pop up election Playbook building on our must-read Playbook Paris and bringing readers up to speed on the news that matters about the French election in English in an essential midday read.**
MILES PER ALUN: Insider’s revolving door correspondent Henry Dyer has another good scoop — the former Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns while in office gave support and advice on a business deal to a Singaporean private equity firm that he would later join as a consultant, having seemingly not disclosed the earlier support in detail to the ACOBA committee that covers second jobs for MPs. Cairns took up the £30,000 a year role with the firm Elite in June last year. Doesn’t look great, to say the least.
ONE FOR THE DIARY: Politics Home’s Adam Payne hears the Northern Research Group of red wall Tory MPs will be holding its own conference in the spring. Will the PM be invited?
LEVEL UP: More in Common has new research out today suggesting the next election will be the “leveling up election” — more than half of Britons say it will be a top issue in deciding who they vote for next time round.
COP26 COLLECTION PLATE: In his first big public speech since tearfully closing COP26, Alok Sharma will tell a Chatham House audience in London that it’s time to turn warm words on climate into deeds, POLITICO’s Karl Mathiesen texts in. Since the conference finished in November, Sharma and his staff have been building a plan to hold countries to their Glasgow promises. A snippet of today’s speech shared with reporters has Sharma saying the commitments at COP are: “Just words on a page. And unless we honor the promises made, to turn the commitments in the Glasgow Climate Pact into action, they will wither on the vine. We will have mitigated no risks. Seized no opportunities. We will have fractured the trust built between nations. And 1.5 degrees will slip from our grasp.” For more where that came from, register here for the 1 p.m. speech.
COVID CITIES: Some of the U.K.’s biggest city centers have lost close to a year’s worth in sales because of the pandemic, according to a new report from the Centre for Cities think tank. Its data shows that COVID has cost businesses in city and large town centers 35 percent of their potential takings since March 2020, with Central London, Birmingham, Edinburgh and Cardiff the worst affected. Smaller town and cities on the other hand recorded a small drop in their retail and hospitality. The Guardian’s Richard Partington has a write-up.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The Scottish affairs committee hosts Peter Hendy, the chair of the Union Connectivity Review. Expect questions on why the government spent £900,000 deciding not to build a bridge between Scotland and Northern Ireland (3 p.m.) … The public accounts committee will question senior officials from the department for education on financial transparency and accountability in the academies sector (4 p.m.).
HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on reducing sugar intake in England, the party balance of the House of Lords and if the government would support a vaccine patents waiver at the WTO … and then the main business will be day five of the Health and Care Bill’s committee stage.
**A message from the UK Spirits Alliance: At the Queen’s Speech in 2019, the Government committed to supporting “Scotch Whisky and gin producers”. However, UK spirits such as gin and Scotch Whisky are the highest taxed category of alcohol in the UK, with 70 percent of the cost of an average bottle going to the Exchequer. This means that an individual who prefers a British gin will pay 11 percent more in tax compared to someone who drinks wine, per unit of alcohol; 51 percent more tax than for beer; and 227 percent more than for cider. We need the Prime Minister and Chancellor to deliver on their commitments to support spirits, which back economic growth and jobs, while providing fairness for consumers who choose premium and home-grown products.**
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi broadcast round: talkRADIO (6.50 a.m.) … Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … GB News (8.50 a.m.).
Labour Chair Anneliese Dodds broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (6.30 a.m.) … GB News (7.20 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Former Brexit Minister David Davis (7.10 a.m.) … Tory peer Sayeeda Warsi (7.20 a.m.) … Mark Lyall Grant, former U.K. ambassador to the U.N. (7.30 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Standards committee Chairman Chris Bryant (7.15 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast: Shadow Legal Aid Minister Afzal Khan (7.30 a.m.) … Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve (7.40 a.m.) … WHO COVID special envoy David Nabarro (7.45 a.m.) … Standards committee Chairman Chris Bryant (8.30 a.m.) … Islington Tory councillor Rakhia Ismail (9.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former chair of the Conservative Muslim Forum Mohammed Amin (7.05 a.m.) … Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges (7.10 a.m.) … Former Royal College of Nursing General Secretary Peter Carter (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: Former Polish Foreign Minister Radek Sikorski (7.45 a.m.) … Qari Asim, the government’s adviser on defining Islamophobia (8.05 a.m.) … Epidemiologist Martin Landray (8.15 a.m.) … Jane Rosenberg, courtroom artist who covered Ghislaine Maxwell’s trial (8.50 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former government SpAd Mo Hussein (7.33 a.m.) … Writer Jack Monroe (7.50 a.m.) … Tory MP Bernard Jenkin (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Henry Smith (8.20 a.m.) … FDA General Secretary Dave Penman (8.50 a.m.) … Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (9.05 a.m.).
Good Morning Scotland: Scottish Event Campus CEO Peter Duthie (7.05 a.m.) … Scotland’s Deputy First Minister John Swinney (8.05 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News noon): Tory MP Henry Smith … Labour MP Rupa Huq … Tory MP Aaron Bell.
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith … Labour MP Rosie Duffield … Guardian columnist Jonathan Freedland … Former Tory SpAd Anita Boateng.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Dan Poulter … Former CDL David Lidington … CLASS think tank Director Ellie Mae O’Hagan … The IfG’s Alex Thomas.
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 … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Anita Boateng, former Cabinet Office SpAd, and John McTernan, former political secretary to Tony Blair.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Boris accepts ‘need for change’ at No 10.
Daily Mail: Entire cabinet would back a tax hike delay.
Daily Mirror: Freezing — Scandal of cold Britain.
Daily Star: Hey Dave … I jusht shaw a shpace ship, hic.
Financial Times: Unilever faces pressure on new front as U.S. activist builds stake.
Huffpost UK: Men are making all the decisions around COVID. Is any woman surprised?
Metro: A fight to the death.
POLITICO UK: The Tories still backing Boris Johnson (kind of).
PoliticsHome: Exasperated Tories warn “BYOB” Downing Street party could spell “ruin” for Boris Johnson.
The Daily Telegraph: No 10 police questioned by Gray over ‘parties.’
The Guardian: PM pulled into row over Tory party Islamophobia.
The Independent: No 10 officials ‘hold back information’ from inquiry.
The Sun: Katie’s facing 5 yrs.
The Times: Fears mount Russia will weaponize gas supplies.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌥🌥🌥 Windy with light spells. Highs of 7C.
STARTING TODAY: New HuffPost Political Editor Kevin Schofield‘s first day is today. You can get him on email here.
SPAD MOVE: Deputy Director of the Conservative Research Department James Harries is joining the department for transport as Grant Shapps’ new SpAd, focusing on parliamentary engagement.
CONGRATS TO: Labour’s Liz Kendall, whose first child Henry was born Friday. Here’s the tweet and baby pic. Kendall is the first serving MP to have a child through surrogacy.
BIRTHDAYS: Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski … Former OBR Chairman Robert Chote … Civitas boss David Green … Editor-at-large of the Wall Street Journal Gerard Baker.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
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