Ukraine on the brink — B-day — Feeling the Pinch – POLITICO

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Good Tuesday morning.


PENTAGON MOBILIZES: The United States government announced overnight that it is placing 8,500 combat-ready military personnel on heightened alert to potentially deploy to Eastern Europe, as concerns grow that Russian President Vladimir Putin is preparing to launch an invasion of Ukraine. The Pentagon said it has “placed a range of units in the U.S. on a heightened preparedness to deploy, which increases our readiness to provide forces if NATO should activate the [NATO Response Force] or if other situations develop.” In the event of NATO activating its response force — which the alliance says it can mobilize at speed wherever needed — the U.S. military “would be in a position to rapidly deploy additional brigade combat teams, logistics, medical, aviation, intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, transportation, and additional capabilities into Europe.”

Putin undeterred: Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby added: “It’s clear Russia has no intention of de-escalating. We would like to deter Vladimir Putin from an incursion. We want to bolster the solidarity of the [NATO] alliance.” POLITICO’s Quint Forgey has the latest from the States.

More to come? The Pentagon’s announcement comes after the New York Times reported on Sunday that President Joe Biden was considering deploying thousands of U.S. troops, as well as warships and aircraft, to NATO allies in the Baltics and Eastern Europe.

War council: Boris Johnson last night held a videocall with Biden, along with the leaders of Italy, Poland, France, Germany, the European Council, the European Commission and NATO. Downing Street’s readout said the leaders “agreed on the importance of international unity in the face of growing Russian hostility,” while stressing that “diplomatic discussions with Russia remain the first priority.” Johnson “emphasised the need to support Ukraine’s defences against the full spectrum of malign Russian activity.” The leaders agreed that should a further Russian incursion into Ukraine take place, “allies must enact swift retributive responses including an unprecedented package of sanctions. They resolved to continue coordinating closely on any such response.”

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Johnson warned yesterday: “The intelligence is very clear that there are 60 Russian battle groups on the borders of Ukraine. The plan for a lightning war that could take out Kyiv is one that everybody can see. We need to make it very clear to the Kremlin, to Russia, that that would be a disastrous step.” POLITICO write-up of Johnson’s comments here.

From the Situation Room: The White House readout said the leaders “discussed their joint efforts to deter further Russian aggression against Ukraine, including preparations to impose massive consequences and severe economic costs on Russia for such actions as well as to reinforce security on NATO’s eastern flank.”

EU divided: POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn and Lili Bayer report that EU foreign ministers are struggling to portray a united front against Russia, as tensions simmered behind the scenes over supplying weapons to Ukraine and over a proposed military training mission. Privately, diplomats do not dispute behind-the-scenes disagreements on penalties that might target the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from Russia to Germany, or cut Russia off from SWIFT, the global financial payments system. The one hope, they said, would be that the urgency of responding to an attack would convince individual countries to put aside their own interests. A senior Central European official said that “there is a unity that sanctions are necessary” but that “what sanctions specifically — remains to be seen.”

NATO action so far: The Western military alliance announced on Monday that European allies were deploying more ships and fighter jets to Eastern Europe and putting new forces on standby in response to Russia’s continued military mobilization along the Ukrainian border. POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn has that one.

What happens next? The story is on the front page of most newspapers in London this morning. The Telegraph’s Rob Mendick, Dani Sheridan and Jamie Johnson quote senior U.K. government sources saying Britain will send more troops to Eastern Europe if Russia invades, although has ruled out deploying combat troops to Ukraine. A source close to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss tells the paper she is “taking a muscular stance on Russia,” adding: “She is determined not to repeat the mistakes of Crimea in 2014, where the UK was too absent.”

3 scenarios: The Times’ Larisa Brown has an assessment from Ukrainian defense sources on the three scenarios they are expecting: A full-scale invasion all the way to Kyiv, with a pro-Putin puppet installed as leader; an incursion into southern Ukraine; and the targeting of Ukrainian forces with long-range weapons from inside Russia in an attempt to avoid the heaviest sanctions. Brown says this is the scenario that is “most troubling the Americans.”

What will Britain do? U.K. Armed Forces Minister James Heappey confirms in an op-ed in today’s Sun that there are already Russian-military linked figures across the border in Ukraine: “We are becoming aware of a significant number of individuals that are assessed to be associated with Russian military advance force operations and currently located in Ukraine.” Heappey writes in strong terms: “To be British is to go to the aid of others and defend those who cannot defend themselves. That’s why we went to the aid of Poland in 1939. That’s why we were one of the founding allies of NATO after the Second World War. NATO has become the world’s most successful defensive alliance and guaranteed peace in Europe for over 70 years. We are being tested again. But this time all those years of post-Cold War complacency are catching up on us. We should remember those words on that memorial in Washington because, wherever you live, freedom is not free.”


B-DAY: On the home front, Boris Johnson faces yet another day of lurid headlines alleging he and his No. 10 staff broke COVID lockdown rules. By Playbook’s count there are now 19 separate partying claims that have been made in the past month or so, of varying severity. ITV’s Paul Brand once again got the scoop, as his sources accused the prime minister of having a birthday party with around 30 guests in the Cabinet room on June 19, 2020, and also claimed Johnson hosted family members in his Downing Street flat that evening. At the time the rules were clear that indoor social gatherings were not permitted. It is worth saying that No. 10 is strongly denying any wrongdoing on either of these two developments and was trying to downplay the story last night as less significant than some of the other events that have emerged. But whatever civil service investigator Sue Gray’s view turns out to be, it’s the court of Conservative MPs’ opinion that matters — and the continued campaign of leaks is clearly a major problem as backbenchers weigh up whether to write letters of no confidence after the Gray report is published later this week.

Will Gray be today? Unlikely, a source on the inquiry tells Playbook, so we’re probably looking at Wednesday or Thursday. At least six full time officials are working on the probe, according to the Sun’s Harry Cole. (My POLITICO colleague Ryan Heath, a former Cabinet Office official, has this brilliant piece on what it’s like to work with — and be fired by — Sue Gray.)

Claim 1: The first allegation in Brand’s latest story is that Johnson had an indoor party in the Cabinet room in June 2020, where he was presented with a birthday cake by his wife Carrie, and staff ate picnic food from M&S for around half an hour. In a season finale crossover between Partygate and Wallpapergate, interior designer Lulu Lytle also attended. The PM’s scandal-hit Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds and No. 10 special advisers and officials are said to have been there. ITV says this was against COVID laws as at the time social gatherings were only allowed to take place outside in groups of six. The Times’ Oli Wright and Henry Zeffman say Chancellor Rishi Sunak also briefly attended as he was arriving for a COVID strategy meeting taking place afterward.

No. 10 response: Team Johnson confirmed the event took place, though disputed the characterization of it as a party and insisted it did not break any rules. A government source told Playbook the cake-eating and happy birthday-singing lasted a few minutes while work was going on, and therefore it was not a social event and was not beyond the legal get-out of “work purposes.” There was heavy pushback from other Johnson allies in a sign of what we can expect from loyal ministers today. One called the allegation “ridiculous” and said essential office workers eating cake while working was not an illegal party. Environment Secretary George Eustice told ITV the slew of stories had “got out of hand.” Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries tweeted: “So, when people in an office buy a cake in the middle of the afternoon for someone else they are working in the office with and stop for ten minutes to sing happy birthday and then go back to their desks, this is now called a party?” A government official said the get-together was in fact arranged by Johnson’s team and not Carrie Johnson, as the ITV report stated.

The official line: “A group of staff working in No. 10 that day gathered briefly in the Cabinet Room after a meeting to wish the Prime Minister a happy birthday. He was there for less than ten minutes.”

2 issues: The office defense is obviously made trickier by the presence of Lulu Lytle. Her spokesperson suggested she was “not invited to any birthday celebrations for the prime minister as a guest” and merely entered the Cabinet room “while waiting to speak with the prime minister.” The Guardian’s Jess Elgot has this observation: “I can imagine a situation where in an office during lockdown someone can bring in a cake and people who are working there have a slice to wish them happy birthday. I can’t imagine 20-30 staff convening in a separate room with picnic food and singing. That’s the difference.” COVID regs expert and QC Adam Wagner argues: “It’s an indoor social gathering — it lasted 30 mins and the PM apparently stayed for 10. Pre-arranged in a particular room and food was bought. It’s obviously not within the rules and nobody from the govt at the time would have said for a moment it was.”

Claim 2: The second part of Brand’s story claims that the same evening, “family friends were hosted upstairs in the prime minister’s residence in an apparent further breach of the rules.”

No. 10 response: Team Johnson flat-out denies this allegation of rule-breaking. The Downing Street line: “This is totally untrue. In line with the rules at the time the Prime Minister hosted a small number of family members outside that evening.” The PM’s sister Rachel Johnson has previously spoken about how the event consisted of six people outside, the Times notes.

What does Sue Gray think? The inquiry team briefed the FT’s Seb Payne last night that Gray was already aware of the June 19 event and therefore the ITV story will not delay the publication of her report any further. Rejoice. Johnson allies said they had no idea what Gray will conclude but that they hoped she would agree with their position that the Cabinet room event was merely a slice of cake in the office rather than a more raucous social event, and in any case that it was on the less egregious end of the scale of revelations she is investigating.

What do Tory MPs think? The conventional wisdom among gossipy Tory MP types is that, whatever Gray concludes, the threshold of 54 no-confidence letters will be reached in the hours after her report is out, triggering a vote on Johnson’s future. That means a potentially massive couple of days in Westminster at the end of this week or the beginning of next, unless that conventional wisdom is wrong and the letters don’t go in. Johnson’s main issue right now is that he is battling enemies on a seemingly endless list of fronts. Chief among them is his former aide Dominic Cummings, who is leading the campaign to oust him. But there are also MPs on the right of the Tory Party who hate his COVID and tax policies, Tories on the pro-Remain wing who hate him because of Brexit, backbenchers who think they’ve been overlooked for ministerial jobs, former rivals who feel they were wronged by him in the past — not to mention the Labour Party and even previously friendly newspapers going for the kill. The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey, Chris Hope and Claudia Rowan look at the “1922 coup,” while Quentin Letts gives them the traditional going-over.

In the Johnson-optimist corner: The PM received some words of encouragement from veteran Tory backbencher James Gray (no relation to Sue), who is quoted by the FT’s George Parker, Seb Payne, Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and Laura Hughes arguing that last week’s Labour defection and Russian’s feared invasion of Ukraine could come to his rescue: “What do Christian Wakeford and Vladimir Putin have in common? They may both be the very saviour which Boris Johnson needs.”

In the Johnson-pessimist corner: A Cabinet minister tells the Sun’s Harry Cole: “For the first time I am ­worried. There are just too many people trying to kill him now.” One of his closest ministerial allies admits to the paper the “game might be up … There’s a drumbeat to it now and that is very worrying. Everyone who has ever been upset with him can smell blood now and they are not going to stop. There is growing momentum to bad news and no clear sign of a plan to turn it around.”

Feeling the Pinch: Johnson ally Chris Pincher, who is acting as an unofficial whip in the PM’s shadow leadership operation, held a call with around 70 pro-Johnson MPs on Monday, the Times’ Steve Swinford, Oli Wright, George Grylls and Henry Zeffman report. Their story is an essential look at the efforts to save Johnson, with loyal Cabinet ministers including Nadine Dorries, Priti Patel and Nadhim Zahawi signed up, and troublemakers Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss kept away. Pincher told the group that if Johnson is removed then it will become inevitable that his successor has to call a general election.

One man who wants an election ASAP … is Labour leader Keir Starmer. He said last night: “This is yet more evidence that we have got a Prime Minister who believes that the rules that he made don’t apply to him. And so we have got a Prime Minister and a government who spend their whole time mopping up sleaze and deceit. Meanwhile, millions of people are struggling to pay their bills. We cannot afford to go on with this chaotic, rudderless government. The Prime Minister is a national distraction and he’s got to go.” The Guardian’s Jess Elgot and Aubrey Allegretti hear Labour will attempt to force the publication of the full Gray report next week, if key interview transcripts and emails are not included in her findings. Did someone say humble address motion?

While we wait for Gray … stay tuned for some bumper select committee action today as the standards committee holds an epic and hopefully newsy evidence session.

First up: Lord Jonathan Evans, the highly quotable chair of the committee on standards in public life, kicks things off at 10 a.m.

Over to the wonks: Then at 11 a.m. it’s the think tankers: Dr Hannah White from the Institute for Government, prof. Paul Heywood of the University of Nottingham, and Dr Jonathan Rose from De Montfort University.

Surely the main event: Few journalists have done more to expose serious wrongdoing by politicians over the last few years than POLITICO’s own star Senior U.K. Correspondent Esther Webber. She’s giving evidence at 2 p.m. alongside Insider’s Henry Dyer and National World’s Ethan Stone.

Eye on … then it’s the Private Eye panel at 2.45 p.m., with their journalists Ian Hislop, Richard Brooks and Solomon Hughes.

Finally … at 3.30 p.m. the MPs get a go, with Tory Dessy Swayne and Labour’s Kate Green giving evidence.

Also today: Permanently embattled Met Police Chief Cressida Dick will be quizzed by the London Assembly on Partygate at 10 a.m., the Mirror’s Aletha Adu reports. Expect her to be asked why, if Downing Street police officers have given damning testimony, as per the Monday Telegraph splash, they decided not to investigate.



HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with FCDO questions, followed by any UQs or statements … Tory MP Huw Merriman has a ten minute rule bill on protecting consumers who are double charged … The main business will be report stage consideration of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill, which aims to prevent certain forms of judicial review. Legal Twitter will be watching closely … and Labour’s Liam Byrne has an adjournment debate on the Bromford Estate in his constituency.

CABINET: Will be chaired by the PM this morning.

FROST INTERVENTION: Former Brexit Secretary David Frost tells the Mail’s Archie Mitchell, Callum Muirhead and Harriet Line that Boris Johnson must scrap his planned national insurance tax rise in April. Frost says: “The tax rises this April were never necessary or justified.” He adds: “Given the new pressures on energy prices and inflation, it’s even more important now to scrap these tax increases and focus on getting the economy growing again. Allowing people to keep more of their own money is always the best way.” On his broadcast clip yesterday, Johnson refused eight times to say the tax hike would be going ahead.

START AGNEW: The FT’s Seb Payne got the scoop on the resignation of Theo Agnew, the minister for Whitehall efficiency, before his entertaining walkout from the House of Lords despatch box on Monday. Agnew writes in the FT today explaining his decision to quit: “Fraud in government is rampant. Public estimates sit at just under £30bn a year. There is a complete lack of focus on the cost to society, or indeed the taxpayer.”

GHANI INQUIRY LATEST: The Cabinet Office is likely to quiz Health Secretary Sajid Javid on Nus Ghani’s claim the Chief Whip Mark Spencer told she was fired in part due to her “Muslimness,” the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher reports. Ghani is said to have privately confided in the health secretary, who acknowledged the seriousness of the claims and urged her to escalate it.

I’m helping: An ally of the PM hit back by telling the Telegraph that Ghani “just wasn’t up to the job” of being a junior transport minister and “wouldn’t have gone if she was vaguely competent.”

KEIRPOST: Labour’s Keir Starmer has an op-ed out for HuffPost U.K., as the opposition looks to capitalize on the cost of living crisis juxtaposed with Partygate. In his piece the Labour leader argues those in government are “hopelessly distracted by scandal of their own making and Westminster parlour games” as energy bills skyrocket, which he says Labour would mitigate by scrapping VAT on energy bills and targeted extra support paid for through a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. Interestingly, Starmer turns his fire pretty equally on the prime minister and the chancellor, writing of the latter and the National Insurance rise that he “argued for it, he voted for it, he signed it off. But now his backbenchers have told him they won’t let him be leader if he persists with it, he wants to wash his hands of it.”

Amid everything else … Labour’s ruling National Executive Committee will meet today and discuss changes to the party’s procedure for selecting parliamentary candidates, Playbook’s Eleni Courea texts in to say. Under the proposals being put forward, the timetable for selecting candidates would be cut from nine weeks to five and there would be a spending limit of up to £3,500. The changes would also dilute unions’ power by removing their right to guarantee places for their preferred candidates on shortlists — and they could be met with some resistance at today’s meeting as a result.

NICKED CLEGG: Social media bosses could be prosecuted or even jailed if they do not comply with the measures in the upcoming Online Safety Bill, the Sun’s Kate Ferguson reports. The earlier version of the bill only went as far as saying tech firms could be fined huge amounts if they didn’t cooperate with regulators, but Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is set to make bosses at the Silicon Valley firms personally responsible and criminally liable for any evasion of new U.K. rules.

YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 88,447 positive cases. In the last week there have been 652,679 positive cases, ⬇️ 47,697 on the previous week … 56 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,843 deaths have been reported, ⬇️ 2 on the previous week. As of the latest data 17,523 COVID patients are in hospital.

HEALTH CHECK-UP: Jeremy Hunt’s Commons health committee will scrutinize Sajid Javid on the multitude of crises hitting the NHS and health sector. Expect Qs for the Saj on the current phase of the pandemic … Worker burnout … Looming mandatory jabs deadline … NHS staffing crisis … Social care reform … Staff pay … and much more — he’s up from 4 p.m.

ALSO ON COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The DCMS committee will press the England and Wales Cricket Board on racism in cricket (10 a.m.) … The defense committee have a hearing on Russia/Ukraine with experts (2.30 p.m.) … Attorney General Suella Braverman is up at the justice committee (2.30 p.m.) … and the Defense Secretary Ben Wallace will give evidence to the foreign affairs committee’s shortly concluding Afghanistan inquiry (2.30 p.m.).

COMMONS DEBUT: New Lib Dem MP Helen Morgan will be giving her maiden speech during the debate on the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.

HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on the U.K.’s water industry, the disposal of wet wipes and support for Ukraine … Followed by the third reading of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and the committee stage of the Dissolution and Calling of Parliament Bill.

TODAY IN HOLYROOD: Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon will give her weekly update on coronavirus to the Scottish parliament at 2 p.m., after restrictions on nightclubs and other indoor hospitality were formally lifted yesterday. Ahead of the statement, the Scottish Tories are calling on Sturgeon to join England in lifting the requirement for face masks in secondary schools. Full story here from the Daily Record’s Paul Hutcheon.

DOUG HOUSE: Ulster Unionist Party leader Doug Beattie is facing a storm formed of old unearthed offensive tweets which could claim his political career. The rising political star found himself in hot water after tweeting an off-color joke about former DUP leader Edwin Poots’ wife on Saturday, but worse was to follow after opponents started to look back down his timeline — finding tweets featuring the n-word and rampant misogyny. BBC Northern Ireland has the full story.

**A message from the UK Spirits Alliance: Batch Distillery have been investing over the last decade to create unique spirits that meet the tastes of consumers for high-quality, innovative products. This investment has been matched across the industry, with a 17 percent growth in distilleries over the last year. The once-in-a-generation reform of Alcohol Duty offers the chance for us to really champion distilleries that support jobs, growth and consumer choice. Despite the continued growth of distilleries, the current proposals for a reformed Duty system do not currently support our smaller producers; nor will they meet the manifesto and Queen’s Speech commitment to support the UK spirits industry, which has grown through investment and innovation and employs more people than ever before. We need the Chancellor to work with the industry to ensure that distillers like Batch receive fair treatment so they can support our economy, jobs and the levelling-up agenda across the UK.**


Transport Secretary Grant Shapps broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.).

Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy broadcast round: ITV GMB (6.40 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.30 a.m.) … LBC (8.50 a.m.).

Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): ITV’s Paul Brand (7.15 a.m.) … Former PM Gordon Brown (7.35 a.m.).

Also on Sky News breakfast: Former commander of Joint Forces Command Richard Barrons (7.30 a.m.) … Heathrow Airport CEO John Holland-Kaye (7.45 a.m.) … Former Deputy PM Michael Heseltine (8.30 a.m.) … Tory peer Robert Hayward (9.20 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Johnson aide Guto Harri (7.05 a.m.) … Former Cameron speechwriter Ian Birrell (7.20 a.m.) … EasyJet CEO Johan Lundgren (8.05 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio breakfast: Crossbench peer and former Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt (8.05 a.m.) … POLITICO’s Ryan Heath (8.20 a.m.) … Former Tory leader William Hague and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale (9.10 a.m.).

Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.05 a.m.) … Labour MP Graham Stringer (9.05 a.m.).

The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News noon): Labour MP Peter Dowd … Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith … Labour MP Conor McGinn … Tory MP Richard Graham … Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle.

Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Stephen Crabb … Labour MP Kim Leadbeater … The New Statesman’s Stephen Bush … TalkRADIO presenter Julia Hartley-Brewer.

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Shadow Employment Minister Alison McGovern … Former No. 10 spinner Craig Oliver … PinkNews’ Benjamin Cohen … Former Lib Dem spinner Jo Phillips.

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Telegraph’s Olivia Utley and the FT’s Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe.


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

Daily Express: Boris warns Putin of ‘painful and bloody’ invasion.

Daily Mail: PM’s Mr Brexit — Kill off tax hike.

Daily Mirror: PM’s No 10 birthday bash in lockdown.

Daily Star: Bozo had big ‘birthday bash’ with 30 chums while the rest of us were all in lockdown. Oh what a surprise.

Financial Times: NATO sends arms to allies for fear of Russian ‘lightning war’ on Kyiv.

HuffPost UK: Fury over lockdown birthday party.

i: Johnson’s problems grow with birthday party leak.

Metro: NATO jets ready to scramble.

POLITICO UK: Evidence from civilian bombing in Ethiopia points to Turkish drone.

PoliticsHome: Boris Johnson hosted birthday party during lockdown, reports claim.

The Daily Telegraph: Biden prepares troops to face Putin threat.

The Guardian: Johnson faces fresh outrage over birthday party in No 10.

The Independent: Islamophobia review is ignored by ministers.

The Sun: You can’t have your birthday cake … and eat it, Boris.

The Times: Johnson held lockdown birthday party at No 10.


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌥🌥🌥 Light cloud and light winds. Cold with highs of 6C.

BEST WISHES TO: The Scottish Transport Minister Graeme Dey, who has resigned from the government for “health-related reasons.” The move sparked a mini-reshuffle at Holyrood, with Jenny Gilruth taking his transport brief and the former Airdrie MP Neil Gray taking Gilruth’s role as culture minister.

NOW HIRING: Insider’s U.K. politics desk is looking for a new political reporter — details here.

BIRTHDAYS: Human rights activist Peter Tatchell … Former UKIP MEP Roger Helmer … Former Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport … Amnesty International U.K. Director Kate Allen … and Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, who turns 44.

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

**Mairead McGuinness, EU commissioner for financial services, and Gabriele Galateri di Genola, chairman of the board, Generali, will take part in a joint interview at POLITICO Live’s Finance Summit on February 11. Don’t miss this discussion among many others. Register today!**


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Alex Wickham

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