Midnight in Paris — Macron hits the phones — Presser klaxon – POLITICO

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MIDNIGHT IN PARIS: The United States warned on Sunday that Vladimir Putin is moving closer to launching an invasion of Ukraine, as Joe Biden’s administration said it had intelligence showing Russian commanders had received orders to proceed with an assault on the country. U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken put it plainly: “We are on the brink of an invasion.” Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin claimed it was “highly likely” Russian tanks would soon be seen on the streets of Kyiv. The latest dire American assessments come as French President Emmanuel Macron spoke to Putin twice by phone — a second call took place overnight — in a dramatic attempt to broker a last-ditch summit between the Russian and American presidents. In the early hours, Biden agreed to meet Putin on the condition that he doesn’t invade. As reports continue to come in that Russia is shelling cities in the Donbass region of eastern Ukraine, in more apparent false flag attacks intended to frame the Ukrainian government as a pretext for an invasion, the next hours are critical in determining whether a final diplomatic scramble can avert war.

Latest Stateside: The warnings from Washington throughout Sunday made clear the administration believes an invasion is now imminent. “Putin has made his decision. Period,” Vice President Kamala Harris told reporters. Biden had planned to travel to his home in Wilmington but canceled the trip at the last minute and stayed at the White House to monitor the situation. U.S. officials briefed CBS and CNN that the Kremlin had sent an order to its tactical commanders and intelligence operatives to proceed with an attack on Ukraine, in the latest coordinated release of declassified intelligence aimed at exposing Putin’s war plans. They also noted previous U.S. intelligence statements about false flag attacks and Putin failing to withdraw troops from the border had proven to be correct. This weekend Russia decided to indefinitely extend the stay of its troops in Belarus, where military exercises had been scheduled to end on Sunday, in yet another sign that Putin’s claims of de-escalation were false.

Kill lists: The U.S. is this morning claiming to have intelligence that Russia is planning human rights abuses in Ukraine. In a complaint to the U.N., U.S. Ambassador Bathsheba Nell Crocker writes: “We have credible information that indicates Russian forces are creating lists of identified Ukrainians to be killed or sent to camps following a military occupation. We also have credible information that Russian forces will likely use lethal measures to disperse peaceful protests or otherwise counter peaceful exercises of perceived resistance from civilian populations.” The Washington Post has the letter in full, while Foreign Policy broke the story of the “kill lists” last week. U.S. intel also showed a Russian invasion would potentially target multiple Ukrainian cities beyond Kyiv, Bloomberg’s Alberto Nardelli and Jennifer Jacobs report.

Blinken told CBS: “Everything we’re seeing tells us that the decision we believe President Putin has made to invade is moving forward. We’ve seen that with provocations created by the Russians or separatist forces over the weekend, false flag operations, now the news just this morning that the ‘exercises’ Russia was engaged in in Belarus with 30,000 Russian forces that was supposed to end this weekend will now continue because of tensions in eastern Ukraine, tensions created by Russia and the separatist forces it backs there … Everything we’re seeing suggests that this is dead serious, that we are on the brink of an invasion.” POLITICO’s Catherine Kim and Maeve Sheehey have his comments.

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Macron hits the phones: Emmanuel Macron spent Sunday on a series of phone calls with world leaders, in what France’s ambassador to the U.K. called an “intense diplomatic drive.” First, Macron had a near two-hour call with Putin which saw the Russian leader mainly issue a load of false statements about Ukraine and NATO’s actions. POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn, Giorgio Leali and Suzanne Lynch have a write-up of that call. Macron also spoke by phone with Biden, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and German Chancellor Olaf Scholz — before calling Putin a second time overnight.

Breaking overnight: The announcement of the second call came past 2 a.m. Moscow time, suggesting it was not planned very far in advance, that it took place very late, and its contents were of particular urgency. The Elysée’s readout, which dropped just after 1.30 a.m. Paris time, said Macron had “proposed a summit to be held between President Biden and President Putin and then with relevant stakeholders to discuss security and strategic stability in Europe. Presidents Biden and Putin have both accepted the principle of such a summit. It can only be held at the condition that Russia does not invade Ukraine.” The Elysée said the details of the summit would be agreed during a planned meeting between Blinken and Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov on Thursday. Here’s the full readout via Ben Judah. POLITICO’s Zoya Sheftalovich has the breaking story in full.

The key question: For this proposed summit to take place, Putin would have to hold off from an invasion until the Blinken-Lavrov meeting on Thursday, and then until the Biden-Putin summit is arranged. Judging by the statements coming from the U.S. in the last 24 hours, they are extremely skeptical that will happen.

Sure enough: White House Press Secretary Jen Psaki says this morning: “As the President has repeatedly made clear, we are committed to pursuing diplomacy until the moment an invasion begins. Secretary Blinken and Foreign Minister Lavrov are scheduled to meet later this week in Europe, provided Russia does not proceed with military action. President Biden accepted in principle a meeting with President Putin following that engagement, again, if an invasion hasn’t happened. We are always ready for diplomacy. We are also ready to impose swift and severe consequences should Russia instead choose war. And currently, Russia appears to be continuing preparations for a full-scale assault on Ukraine very soon.”

Britain also skeptical: Following Boris Johnson’s own call with Macron last night, Downing Street said the PM had “noted” Macron’s diplomatic efforts and expressed hope Putin “might” reconsider an invasion. Translation: We’ll believe it when we see it. Earlier, Johnson told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth that the evidence suggested Putin was planning “the biggest war in Europe since 1945.” He added: “All the signs are that the plan has already in some senses begun.” Johnson said the U.S. and U.K. would cut off Russian companies’ access to U.S. dollars and British pounds if Putin went ahead with an invasion. A senior government source told Playbook that they expected to see a continuation of false flag attacks in eastern Ukraine and an escalation of violence in the coming hours. Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is meeting NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg in Brussels today.

Fake news: Bellingcat’s Eliot Higgins has a remarkable exposé of one attempted false flag by Russian separatists, who published false allegations using a fake video of alleged “Polish saboteurs” creating a major chemical incident. The video was reported by the Russian media, but Higgins demonstrates in forensic detail how the metadata of the video shows it was faked, and even finds the original YouTube video the material was taken from: a firing range in Finland.

Johnson in Munich: It is worth reading Johnson’s speech to the Munich Security Conference on Saturday, which won praise from foreign policy analysts and was the latest evidence of a closer working relationship between the PM and Biden, as noted in Tim Shipman’s Sunday Times long read. Johnson forecast what could happen next: “We need to prepare ourselves for the Russian playbook of deception that governs every operation of this kind. There will be a cascade of false claims about Ukraine, intended to spread confusion almost for its own sake, and even now there are plans being laid for staged events, spinning a web of falsehoods designed to present any Russian attack as a response to provocation. We’ve already witnessed a fake military withdrawal, combined with staged incidents that could provide a pretext for military action. We knew this was coming, we’ve seen it before — and no-one should be fooled. And we have to steel ourselves for the possibility of a protracted crisis, with Russia maintaining the pressure and searching for weaknesses over an extended period, and we must together refuse to be worn down.”

Could Britain arm Ukrainian insurgents? Johnson openly speculated about a future Ukrainian insurgency against Russian forces, raising questions about whether the U.K. would provide material support for guerrilla warfare against Putin’s troops. He said: “I fear that a lightning war would be followed by a long and hideous period of reprisals and revenge and insurgency, and Russian parents would mourn the loss of young Russian soldiers, who in their way are every bit as innocent as the Ukrainians now bracing themselves for attack. And if Ukraine is overrun by brute force, I fail to see how a country encompassing nearly a quarter of a million square miles — the biggest nation in Europe apart from Russia itself could then be held down and subjugated forever.”

Not Blinken first: Zelenskiy used his moment in Munich to deliver a scathing speech that slammed Western allies for not doing enough to punish Moscow and move his nation toward the safety of Western integration. Without naming names, Zelenskiy criticized Germany for hesitating to send weapons and offering helmets instead, and went after the U.S. for refusing to impose immediate sanctions on the Kremlin for threatening Ukraine. Blinken rejected Zelenskiy’s request on Sunday, insisting the U.S. would not impose sanctions until “the tanks are actually moving, the planes are actually flying, the bombs are actually dropping.” POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn, Suzanne Lynch and Jamil Anderlini have an essential wrap of what went down in Munich.


PRESSER KLAXON: Queen Elizabeth II’s positive COVID test provides a somewhat unfortunate backdrop for Boris Johnson’s Tory MP-pleasing announcement on the end of coronavirus restrictions in England today. The details were still being thrashed out last night and Cabinet will meet this morning to sign off the “Living with COVID” plan. Johnson will make a statement to parliament at around 3.30 p.m, before addressing the nation in a press conference this evening. The details will be confirmed later, but Playbook has an early look at what we can expect (this is all TBC until Cabinet sign-off).

Self-isolation requirement: The law requiring people with COVID to isolate will be ditched a month earlier than previously planned, meaning people who test positive should be free to do as they wish from the end of this week, possibly as soon as Thursday.

What replaces it? There will be guidance on general behavior — including telling people that they should stay at home if they have COVID — but none of it will be legally binding. “We are moving from government diktats and legal restrictions to people being able to make personal judgments,” a government official said.

Free testing: The general public’s access to free COVID tests will come to an end in the coming weeks, though exactly when is still to be confirmed. Playbook is told people in high risk settings such as health care, as well as the most vulnerable and elderly people will still have access free testing indefinitely. The Telegraph’s Charles Hymas and Tony Diver hear over-80s will still get free tests.

Vaccines: We could get advice from the Joint Committee on Vaccination and Immunization as soon as this week on a fourth jab for the elderly and most vulnerable. Playbook is told not to expect a long-term vaccine strategy for wider population today (i.e. whether everyone will get an annual jab, or not). That’s coming at some point in the future.

They think it’s all over: Johnson is not declaring that it’s mission accomplished and the pandemic is over today, and instead will adopt some cautious language. The queen having COVID may not be an unrelated factor in that. Downing Street said last night: “The pandemic is not over, and as set out by SAGE, there is considerable uncertainty about the path the pandemic will now take in the U.K. That’s why we will continue to take a cautious approach as we learn to live with COVID, retaining some surveillance systems and plans for contingency measures which can be stood up if needed to respond to new variants.” In remarks pre-briefed by No. 10, Johnson said today will “mark a moment of pride after one of the most difficult periods in our country’s history as we begin to learn to live with COVID.” Expect to hear plenty from the ministers and Tory MPs about how Britain will be one of the first major countries to throw off all COVID restrictions.

Not so sure 1: Labour’s Wes Streeting said the opposition did not agree with ending all COVID restrictions now. He told the Sunday shows the move “seems very premature” and that “at this stage, it’s not the right thing to do,” comparing it to a football team defending a narrow lead and then subbing off their best defender. The Guardian’s Aubrey Allegretti has his comments.

Not so sure 2: Most Tory MPs will love today’s announcement — after all, that’s why Johnson is making it — but some are nervous about the testing element in particular. Backbencher Tim Loughton told BBC Westminster Hour: “It’s two years on now from when this wretched pandemic started, and we have got to learn to live with COVID and not lock everything down and retreat until it goes away because it’s going to be with us for some time to come. I’m pleased we’re trying to get back to as normal … as possible. I have slight apprehensions in that I think we still do need to have testing available widely because I think that is the reassurance people can have that they’ve taken all possible precautions and they don’t want to infect other people.”

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HOUSE OF COMMONS: The Commons returns at 2.30 p.m. with an hour of MoD questions, followed by any post-recess UQs or ministerial statements … and then MPs will move through the remaining stages of the Skills and Post-16 Education Bill on vocational training. Westminster Hall has a petition debate on reform of the Gender Recognition Act at 4.30 p.m.

NOT ANOTHER ONE: Severe flooding hit parts of Northern Ireland, Yorkshire and Manchester over the weekend, while the U.K. awaits the damage of Storm Franklin after the brunt of the storm hit overnight. The latest storm is set to bring more hurricane-force winds and flooding today — stay safe out there. Here’s the BBC’s write-up.

NO COMMENT: As we await the police findings on Partygate, the chat among ministers is turning to whether Boris Johnson can survive as PM if he is issued with a fixed penalty notice for any COVID rule breaches. Johnson refused to answer the questions 17 times when grilled by the BBC’s Sophie Raworth yesterday. Loyalist Europe Minister James Cleverly told the Sunday shows that Johnson shouldn’t quit if he gets a fine, though two anonymous Cabinet ministers will withdraw their support if it happens, the Times’ Matt Dathan reports.

Defying gravity: As the PM waits to hear from the boys in blue, POLITICO’s Esther Webber has new piece out this morning on “How Boris Johnson gets away with it,” looking at his track record of squeezing out of tight spots. She revisits his unlikely win as London mayor — including the time his campaign team tricked him into a trip to department store Selfridges in order to force him to buy some new suits — which helped create the myth of Johnson defying political gravity, but also embedded alleged patterns of behavior which aren’t so amusing now he’s in No. 10. Colleagues past and present speak of a lack of attention to detail, and his difficulty in building a strong team at Downing Street, which some suggest had a role to play in Partygate. As things stand this morning, it remains plausible he could wriggle free again. But as one former Cabinet minister puts it to Esther: “Things don’t matter — until the day they do.”

Smart Cookie: Senior Boris Johnson aide Henry Cook is leaving government after more than a decade in Westminster. Most recently, Cook advised the PM on COVID and was a key figure in drawing up today’s “Living with COVID” plan, so his departure is seen as it being the right time to move on now the pandemic is winding down. Cook was one of the longest serving SpAds in government, working for Michael Gove across five departments and under three prime ministers, as well as the Vote Leave campaign, before joining No. 10. He’s looking forward to a very well-deserved few months off after an epic career in SW1.

Busy Liz: Away from Ukraine, Foreign Secretary Liz Truss has another important meeting in Brussels today — with her European Commission opposite number Maroš Šefčovič. They’re holding Northern Ireland protocol talks at the U.K.-EU UK Joint Committee. Stocktake incoming.

TINKER, TAILOR, SOLDIER, CLEGG: Plenty of follows in today’s papers for Glen Owen’s Mail on Sunday top splash revealing ministers have ordered a Whitehall leak inquiry amid concerns someone is leaking Meta/Facebook boss Nick Clegg secret information about the Online Safety Bill. A security source told the MoS: “We don’t know if Clegg himself is getting this information, or the company has other sources, but they seem to know what we are up to almost before we do.” The Times is among those having a bite this morning.

Access all areas: Expect plenty of interest from opposition politicians today in Gabriel Pogrund and Henry Zeffman’s Sunday Times scoop revealing the membership of the shadowy “advisory board” of Tory donors that gets access to the PM in exchange for cash. Obviously Putin’s former finance minister’s wife is on the list.

Spike the hike: No. 10 and No. 11 will be concerned by Page 2 of the Mail, which carries no fewer than three stories slamming them for their looming national insurance tax rise. Lucy White reports the hike will cost firms more than all the new taxes they’ve faced in the past decade, while Martin Beckford says it will backfire on the social care residents it is supposed to help by costing care providers millions of pounds a year. The Mail also has new research saying the rise will hit more than 9 million workers. It’s all part of the paper’s “Spike the hike” campaign.

COP26 100 DAYS ON: It’s 100 days since the end of the COP26 climate conference and the world has a crises crisis, writes POLITICO’s Karl Mathiesen. Those who landed the deal are concerned that a pile up of war, plague and other pressing problems might distract from efforts to bed in the commitments made in Glasgow. The Munich Security Conference, which ended on Sunday, was a perfect picture of those colliding concerns. With feverish attention on the West’s effort to present a united front against Russia, the main climate question was voiced by Bangladeshi Foreign Minister Abdul Momen: will a war in Ukraine “derail” the climate effort? U.S. climate envoy John Kerry gave this downbeat assessment: “It’s going to distract rather enormously.”

Sharma’s view: In an interview with POLITICO, COP26 President Alok Sharma said the deal in Glasgow “continues to be fragile.” If there were to be an attack on Ukraine, “undoubtedly, that is going to take up a lot of bandwidth of leaders around the world.” But he said COP26, held as it was in the middle of a pandemic, was proof of “a clear recognition amongst governments that climate change is something that we have to continue to work on and attack.” Sharma also admitted there was an argument to win on the importance of net zero with the public and within his own party, though he argued that the “vast majority” of Tory MPs support the government’s climate plans. Read Karl’s full piece here.

TALKING OF CRISES: The former U.K. Ambassador to Afghanistan Laurie Bristow will have lots to say on the fall of Kabul and the humanitarian crisis in Afghanistan as he delivers a lecture and Q&A to the center-right Bright Blue think tank this afternoon. Watch from 3 p.m. here.

SUISSE SURPRISE: A massive data leak — initially to the German newspaper Süddeutsche Zeitung, which promptly shared the info with investigative outlets around the globe — has revealed that European banking giant Credit Suisse provided services to egregious human rights abusers, kleptocrats and criminals. The Guardian has some of the detail in a slick set of features leading its site this morning, setting out how the Swiss lender opened or maintained bank accounts for clients including a human trafficker in the Philippines, multiple convicted fraudsters and a billionaire who ordered the murder of his pop star girlfriend. The bank issued a statement rejecting most of the allegations.

COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The Scottish affairs committee hears from the defense sector on military spending in Scotland (3 p.m.) … The Treasury committee looks at the future of financial services with representatives from the FCA and Bank of England (3.15 p.m.) … The public accounts committee will question senior officials at HMRC on new tax rules for freelancers and self-employed workers (4 p.m.) … and Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove faces questions on the building safety crisis at the leveling up, housing and communities committee (4 p.m.).

LORDS: The other place returns at 2.30 p.m. with questions on touring British artists in the EU, cooperation with France and Germany on foreign policy and state pension underpayments and arrears for women … and then the main business will be the second reading of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill, followed by the committee stage of the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.

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Small Business Minister Paul Scully broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … talkRADIO (7.33 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.).

Also on Good Morning Britain: Tory MP Andrew Bridgen, the FT’s John Burn-Murdoch and NHS doctor Rachel Clarke (8.15 a.m.).

Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Former Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt (7.40 a.m.) … Shadow FCDO Minister Stephen Doughty (8.05 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Johnson adviser Gerard Lyons (7.10 a.m.).

Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.05 a.m.) … Shadow Social Care Minister Karin Smyth (8.20 a.m.).

Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Bim Afolami … Shadow Skills Minister Toby Perkins … The New Statesman’s Ailbhe Rea … Former Tory MP Ann Widdecombe.

The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News noon): Tory MP Scott Benton and Lib Dem MPs Wendy Chamberlain and Wera Hobhouse.

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Crispin Blunt … Mail on Sunday columnist Peter Hitchens … Broadcaster Jemma Forte … LBC’s Natasha Devon.

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar and the Sun’s Harry Cole … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): PolHome’s Noa Hoffman and the New Statesman’s Rachel Cunliffe.


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

Daily Express: Queen catches COVID in castle outbreak.

Daily Mail: Queen’s COVID example to us all.

Daily Mirror: Queen gets COVID but she carries on.

Daily Star: Not now Franklin, Gladys, Herman and Imani — Four more storms to batter Britain.

Financial Times: Belarus says Russian troops will stay as West seeks Ukraine talks.

HuffPost UK: What COVID infections might look like in the future.

i: Queen still at work with COVID.

Metro: One keeps calm and carries on.

POLITICO UK: How Boris Johnson gets away with it.

PoliticsHome: Boris Johnson insists he isn’t ‘throwing caution to the wind’ as government prepares to axe all COVID rules.

The Daily Telegraph: Queen vows to carry on working with COVID.

The Guardian: Last-ditch talks as fears of Ukraine war intensify.

The Independent: PM — Scrapping COVID rules is moment of pride.

The Sun: HRH to WFH.

The Times: PM’s ‘pride’ as all restrictions lifted.


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☀️☀️☀️ More strong winds — with a yellow weather warning in place up to 1 p.m. — along with some sunny intervals. Highs of 13C.

RIP: Music entrepreneur Jamal Edwards has died at the tragic age of 31, his company announced last night. His SBTV music platform helped launch the careers of the likes of Dave, Skepta and Ed Sheeran, and Edwards was active in politics too, launching campaigns to encourage young people to vote. Acton MP Rupa Huq tweeted: “Local hero and pioneer of British urban music via SBTV Jamal Edwards has been taken from us age 31. He was hugely proud of his Acton roots, bringing Ed Sheeran along to the mural erected to him there recently. Shocking & sad news.”

IN MEMORIAM: DUP leader Jeffrey Donaldson was among those who paid tribute yesterday following the sudden death of Christopher Stalford, a DUP MLA and Stormont’s deputy speaker, at the age of 39. The BBC has a round-up of the tributes.

BIRTHDAYS: Former Brexit Minister David Frost … Neath MP Christina Rees … Hyndburn MP Sara Britcliffe … Guardian Political Correspondent Peter Walker … Tory peer Janet Fookes … Master of Oxford’s Balliol College and former senior civil servant Helen Ghosh … Columnist and broadcaster Kate Maltby … Novara Media co-founder Aaron Bastani … Former Foreign Correspondent Trevor Fishlock … Times columnist and former Scottish Times editor Magnus Linklater.

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

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