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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
LOBBY MOVE: Playbook hears Sienna Rodgers is leaving LabourList after breathing new life into the party bible as its editor for the past four years. Rodgers has been snapped up as senior writer at the House magazine …
… SPAD MOVE: Home Office stalwart and former CCHQ aide Charlotte Miller will shortly be leaving government for some time off — she’ll then be making a return to the private sector later this year. Miller led work to tackle violence against women and girls and has been one of Home Secretary Priti Patel’s closest advisers during an eventful three years in the job.
DRIVING THE DAY
SPOTTED AT THE PARK PLAZA: Boris Johnson faces Prime Minister’s Questions at midday and a session in front of the liaison committee at 3 p.m., providing Westminster with a well-timed day of scrutiny after the Metropolitan Police issued 20 fines to unnamed Downing Street aides and officials for breaking COVID rules. The police’s first wave of fixed penalty notices also came at a potentially tricky time for Johnson as he attended a pre-planned dinner at the Park Plaza Hotel on Tuesday night with the large majority of Conservative MPs, in a year that has seen Partygate strain that relationship to the limit. The event was organized by Cabinet Office minister and long-standing Johnson ally Nigel Adams, the whips’ office, No. 10 and CCHQ, who served up a smoked haddock tart, chicken ballotine and “textures of hazelnut praline.” Playbook has the gossip from inside what one attendee said was “the rubber chicken dinner to end all rubber chicken dinners.”
Johnson began his speech with this opener: “Good evening ladies and gentleman, or as Keir Starmer would put it, people who are assigned female or male at birth.” Expect plenty more of that as we gear up for the next election.
**A message from Lowell: The latest update to our Financial Vulnerability Index provides valuable insight into the growing disparity in pandemic recovery seen in Manchester. Many areas of the city are at risk of being left behind as they remain trapped in high levels of financial vulnerability. For more information, please click here.**
There were a lot of jokes about his own position: Letters to the 1922 committee of backbenchers were a repeat punchline, as Johnson told the room: “One of reasons that Putin is deluded and isolated is because he has no cabinet of equals, no 1922 committee and nobody to write 54 letters to Sir Graham Brady.”
There was another gag … about the letters as Johnson praised his Tory detractors as “some of the greatest epistolatory letter writers since St. Paul.” The PM described the missives to 1922 Chair Graham Brady as “elastic — they go in and you can pull them out.”
Johnson’s promise: The PM admitted he is currently “more popular in parts of Kyiv than in parts of Kensington,” but he said “not to worry” and vowed he would “turn it around.”
There was more Labour bashing: Johnson tried out this election attack line: “It is impossible to imagine a Labour defense minister arming Ukraine in the way this Conservative government has.” Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove was named by colleagues as the PM’s cheerleader-in-chief, whooping from his table.
Well-behaved troublemakers: Rebel MPs from across the party were present, including the likes of Jeremy Hunt, Mark Harper and Johnny Mercer, although there was no sign of much dissent.
Tory MPs are a fickle bunch: Backbenchers Aaron Bell and Anthony Mangnall were both there despite having letters in, and Mangnall even joined in a standing ovation after Johnson spoke, his colleagues report. Not even two months ago he was publicly calling the PM a liar. As one person who was present put it to Playbook on the way home: “A month ago that dinner was unthinkable.”
The moment of greatest danger … came when former Tory MP-turned-broadcaster Gyles Brandreth gave the after dinner speech, which was “a little close to the bone” and resulted in something of an omertà from Playbook’s sources. Brandreth apparently delivered “a fitting tribute to the Duke of Edinburgh,” which Playbook supposes can be read one of two ways.
What Tory MPs are thinking: POLITICO’s Esther Webber has an excellent stocktake of Tory MP opinion, asking “Has Putin saved Boris Johnson?” as Partygate takes a backseat to Russia’s war on Ukraine. Esther writes that several Tory MPs have recalculated in the face of Russian aggression and concluded now is not the time for a leadership change. Most Conservative MPs agree they are in a holding pattern until there’s any word on whether Johnson himself receives a fine, something that could take months. Some predict, however, that the PM will ride the scandal out.
Different perspective: One Tory MP who has been critical of Johnson said there is “a sense we are moving through a seismic historical event and the PM is showing the right kind of leadership at such a time. I am afraid rule-breaking drinks parties have faded in their significance.” He added this was also the feeling among party members and local officers — significant because MPs would generally consult them before calling for Johnson to be replaced. Another said it was difficult to see how the PM could be “dislodged” now.
Johnson’s luck … is maybe best summed up by Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross’ full 180 on the issue. In January, before the Sue Gray report’s first update, Ross said the PM should go. Now, he says Johnson should stay even if he ends up getting fined.
It could still change: James Johnson, founder of the pollster JL Partners, told Esther the idea of a “Ukraine bounce” for the prime minister was not reflected in public sentiment. “Focus groups have said the same thing consistently since January — the PM’s brand has been significantly tarnished and the effects of Partygate on his brand are still playing a major role,” he said. “It’s been mentioned prominently every time I ask about the government and PM — more so than Ukraine.” Confirmation that officials in Downing Street and Whitehall did break the law also raises the allegation that the prime minister misled the Commons when he previously asserted no rules had been broken. Johnson’s spokesman maintained Tuesday that he does not accept he had misled the House.
As Esther writes: “While he still has to endure another uncomfortable installment of Prime Minister’s Questions, parliament will adjourn soon afterward for a two-week Easter break. This will serve to defuse the tension at Westminster at a convenient point for Johnson, with no guidance as to when the ongoing police investigation might conclude or produce further fines.”
Fines latest: True to form for the Met, we have no idea when the Criminal Records Office will get round to issuing the fines, or to whom they will be going. The Times’ Steve Swinford reckons “it is likely to be several days before they are actually issued.” Downing Street said yesterday that it would only confirm if two people receive fixed penalty notices — the PM and civil service chief Simon Case — so the rest will remain private barring any leaks. Labour’s Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said: “Boris Johnson’s Downing Street has been found guilty of breaking the law. The buck stops with the prime minister, who spent months lying to the British public, which is why he’s got to go.” Insider’s Henry Dyer has the epic and exhaustive list of the 39 times the government insisted no rules were broken in the first two weeks after the Partygate scandal broke.
LIAISON DAY: Johnson will get the opportunity to further practice his question-dodging maneuvers when he faces the liaison committee later. The session is ostensibly divided only into questions on Ukraine and the still-dangerous for the PM topic of the cost-of-living crisis, but at least one of the six Labour or SNP members taking part will surely be tempted to bring it back to Partygate.
Asking the questions: The PM will first face questions on Ukraine from Labour’s Clive Betts (leveling up committee chairman), Sarah Champion (international development) and Diana Johnson (home affairs), followed by the DCMS committee Chairman Julian Knight and Tory leadership candidate/foreign affairs committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat.
After that focus will turn to cost of living, with Betts getting a second go followed by Tory MPs Philip Dunne (environmental audit), Neil Parish (EFRA) and Mel Stride (Treasury). Stride is among the senior Tories calling on Johnson to drop the National Insurance hike. Labour’s Stephen Timms (work and pensions) and the SNP’s PM-grilling veteran Pete Wishart (Scottish affairs) will close questions on the cost of living crisis, while Labour MP Catherine McKinnell (petitions) and Tory MP Bill Wiggin (selection) will participate with follow-up questions throughout.
Not asking the questions: Seasoned liaison committee watchers will notice a glaring absence in the above. Liaison committee Chairman Bernard Jenkin has COVID, per POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio, and will not participate today. The committee will decide today on an acting chair to run proceedings.
NOT BUYING IT: The U.K., U.S. and Ukraine expressed extreme skepticism last night over Russia’s claim that it would pull back from Kyiv. Russian Deputy Defense Minister Alexander Fomin had suggested Moscow would “fundamentally cut back military activity in the direction of Kyiv” in order to “increase mutual trust for future negotiations to agree and sign a peace deal with Ukraine.” But following a call between the so-called Quint leaders of the U.K., U.S., France, Germany and Italy, Boris Johnson and Joe Biden both warned against taking the Putin regime at its word.
Per the Downing Street readout: “The Prime Minister underscored that we must judge Putin’s regime by their actions not their words. Putin is twisting the knife in the open wound of Ukraine in an attempt to force the country and its allies to capitulate. The Prime Minister stressed to his fellow leaders that we should be unrelenting in our response.”
Biden told reporters: “I don’t read anything into it until I see what their actions are.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken echoed those remarks: “There is what Russia says, and there is what Russia does. We’re focused on the latter.” My POLITICO U.S. colleagues have a good story on how the White House is not buying Russia’s de-escsalation talk.
Sure enough: The headlines and tweets based on Fomin’s words are not yet based in reality for people living in Kyiv. Journalists in Ukraine reported heavy shelling all around the city overnight.
Zelenskyy doubts: Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said in his nightly address that while there had been some “positive” signs from this week’s peace talks, they do not “drown out” Russian shells. Zelenskyy also cautioned against reading too much into Fomin’s statement, warning “the situation has not become easier” and adding: “Ukrainians have already learned during these 34 days of invasion, and over the past eight years of the war in Donbas, that the only thing they can trust is a concrete result.”
Kirb your enthusiasm: Pentagon spokesperson John Kirby said last night that while “small numbers” of Russian troops appeared to be moving away from Kyiv, the U.S. believes this is a “repositioning” rather than a withdrawal. “We are not — and nobody should be — fooling ourselves by the Kremlin’s recent claim that it will suddenly just reduce attacks near Kyiv. It does not mean that the threat to Kyiv is over. [Russia is] still inflicting massive brutality on the country, including on Kyiv even today, and continued airstrikes,” Kirby said. H/t the BBC.
Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Putin? U.K. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace said on a visit to Norway yesterday that Putin “must think we were born yesterday” if he thinks Britain believes him about withdrawing from Kyiv, the Sun’s Jonathan Reilly reports.
What about Germany and France? A U.K. government source tells the Times’ Oliver Moody and Larisa Brown they were worried that Paris and Berlin “could call for sanctions to be eased if Putin agreed to take no more territory.” Foreign Policy’s Jack Detsch and Robbie Gramer reported overnight that some Eastern European nations are worried Russia’s move to turn away from Kyiv could help to sell EU capitals on a “bad peace deal.”
Spy expulsions: More than 40 Russian diplomats have been expelled from Ireland, the Netherlands, Belgium and the Czech Republic in a coordinated move. Sky’s Deborah Haynes says the expulsions are linked to the role played by Russia’s spy agencies in the war in Ukraine.
A Dutch official told Playbook … the country had expelled 17 Russians who were pretending to be diplomats but whose activities were in fact focussed on espionage. Dutch Foreign Minister Wopke Hoekstra summoned the Russian ambassador to inform him and the Netherlands expects Russia might expel some Dutch diplomats in response. The Dutch official said its government took the decision because the 17 posed a threat to Dutch security, rather than it being a punishment to Russia over Ukraine. It was a “measure taken in the context of national security,” the official said.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with women and equalities questions, followed by PMQs at noon … After any UQs or statements, the main business will be consideration of Lords amendments to the Health and Care Bill.
GET A MOVE ON: Labour’s Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Shadow Leveling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy have written to Michael Gove this morning telling him to speed up the process of getting Ukrainian refugees to the U.K. They’re arguing bureaucracy is slowing everything down and wasting the generosity of people who’ve signed up to sponsor.
As luck would have it … Gove and Priti Patel are apparently already on the case. The Mail’s David Barrett reports they have ordered officials to ramp up the Homes for Ukraine visa processing, and are now chairing XO-style daily meetings with lead operational and policy officials, alongside a separate cross government Ministerial Response Group meeting several times a week.
A Whitehall source says: “The Home Office is working flat out to streamline processes while maintaining vital security checks to make it easier for Ukrainians to come to the U.K. The number of visas being granted under Homes for Ukraine should start to ramp up at the end of this week. Across the two uncapped schemes, this one of the fastest and biggest visa programs in British history with over 25,000 Ukrainians offered sanctuary in the U.K. in the last three weeks alone, and thousands more expected in the coming days.”
Stay tuned: Playbook is told we will be getting the latest Ukrainian refugee visa figures at 9.30 a.m.
Domestic abuse strategy: Patel is also launching her Domestic Abuse Plan today, which includes a register of domestic abuse offenders, increasing electronic tagging, and an expansion of the Ask for Ani scheme piloted in Jobcentre offices. There will be some £230 million invested, including £140 million for supporting victims and over £81 million for tackling perpetrators over the next three years. Safeguarding Minister Rachel Maclean has a piece in Red Box outlining the strategy.
Oh dear: Expect questions for ministers today on why the free parking for NHS staff that was introduced during the pandemic will end on Friday, as Health Secretary Sajid Javid announced yesterday.
Another one: Downing Street is exploring yet a fourth delay to post-Brexit border checks on goods entering Britain from the EU to prevent a supply chain disaster, the FT’s Jim Pickard, George Parker and Peter Foster report. The Indy’s Rob Merrick also hears the same.
A story with everything: Nigel Farage, €18 million, a carbon credit company and a Putin-supporting Scientologist anti-vaxxer. This wild FT/Greenpeace story has it all.
FCDO announcement: The U.K. is pledging an additional £286 million of emergency aid for vital lifesaving assistance in Afghanistan.
Red Nev: Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville “is set to ramp up his work with the Labour party and make a series of appearances beside Sir Keir Starmer in a move that will fuel further speculation the former Manchester United captain wants to run for parliament,” City AM’s Stefan Boscia reports. Apparently Starmer thinks Neville “has the necessary communication abilities to become an MP if he wanted to stand.”
Also on committee corridor: Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance is up at the science and tech committee (9 a.m.) … The transport committee has a session with Transport Minister Wendy Morton on the plan to establish a new public railways body (9.30 a.m.) … The leveling up committee will quiz Refugees Minister Richard Harrington on support for Ukrainian refugees (10 a.m.) … Former senior FCO mandarin Simon McDonald will give evidence on the foreign office and DFID merger at the Lords international relations committee (10.30 a.m.) … The public accounts committee will look at the ill-fated Ajax tank program with MoD officials (1.30 p.m.) … and the Treasury committee will hear from the IFS, IfG and Resolution Foundation on the spring statement (2.15 p.m.).
Lords: Sits from 3 p.m. with questions on self-inflicted deaths in prison custody, the 300,000 yearly home building target and the return of sacred altar tablets, currently held in the British Museum, to Ethiopia … The main business will be the third reading of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill and the second reading of the National Insurance Contributions (Increase of Thresholds) Bill. If there are any amendments to the latter, it will return to the Commons tonight.
Not in the Lords today: Lord Speaker John McFall, who is off to the Senedd in a bid to build better relations between parliaments. The visit from McFall — who named increasing engagement between Westminster and the other U.K. legislatures as one of his priorities when he was elected to the role — is the first to the Senedd by a speaker of the Lords.
TODAY IN HOLYROOD: Nicola Sturgeon will confirm this afternoon whether Scotland will join the rest of the U.K. in lifting its remaining COVID regulations. The mask mandate remains as Scotland’s last surviving COVID regulation, after the first minister earlier this month decided to keep the rules on face coverings in place until at least April 4 while relaxing all other restrictions. Sturgeon consulted her Cabinet yesterday and the Times reports the measure is expected to stay in place for at least another fortnight — find out either way when the FM stands up in parliament just after 2 p.m.
**A message from Lowell: At Lowell we support the biannual publication of the financial vulnerability index which provides unique insight into the evolving picture of financial health in the UK. The Spring 2022 update to the index, based on data from over 9.5m customer accounts, reveals that Manchester is falling victim to a widening inequality of recovery. Some areas of the city have seen only as a very limited improvement in their financial vulnerability since the very peak of the pandemic. These left behind areas will hinder the economic recovery and hamper the Government as it looks to level up across the UK. They will also be the areas that suffer the most as the cost-of-living continues to rise. Urgent action is needed to support Manchester and other cities as they look to help communities recover from the pandemic. For more information, please click here.**
Deputy PM Dominic Raab broadcast round: Times Radio (7 a.m.) … Sky News (7.15 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.25 a.m.) … Today program (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Today program (Lyse Doucet co-presents the program from Kyiv): Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (7.10 a.m.) … Mayor of Chernihiv Vladyslav Atroshenko and former NATO chief Richard Shirreff (7.20 a.m.) … Rhiannon Davies, one of the mothers whose baby’s death features in the Ockenden Review (7.50 a.m.) … Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Ihor Zhovkva (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Former PM Gordon Brown (7.50 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (7.30 a.m.) … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (8.05 a.m.) … Former PM Gordon Brown (8.30 a.m.) … Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko (9.45 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Independent Russian journalist Tania Felgengauer (7.35 a.m.) … Conservative MP and Chair of the women and equalities committee Caroline Nokes (7.50 a.m.) … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (8.35 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Lib Dem MP Alistair Carmichael (7.33 a.m.) … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (8.20 a.m.) … Scottish Tory MSP Graham Simpson (8.33 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 11.15 a.m.): Labour MP Barry Gardiner … Tory MP Andrea Leadsom … SNP MP John Nicolson … IEA spinner Annabel Denham … Farming Minister Victoria Prentis … Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed.
The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News 11.50 a.m.): Shadow Prisons Minister Ellie Reeves and Tory MP Tom Hunt.
Peston (Twitter 9 p.m. and ITV 10.45 p.m.): Former U.S. National Security Council official Fiona Hill … Former Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick … Labour MP Rosie Duffield … Former Ukrainian footballer Andriy Shevchhenko.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and Editor of the Courier David Clegg.
**MEP Delara Burkhardt (S&D, Germany) will join POLITICO Live’s event “Making greener products the norm in the EU?” on April 4 for a frank discussion on the Commission’s Sustainable Products Initiative. Will you? Register now!**
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Royal fallout over queen’s ultimate act of love.
Daily Mail: Royals’ ‘dismay’ at Andrew role in Philip service.
Daily Mirror: The pain … & the stain.
Daily Star: Step away from the hobnobs, Roman!
Financial Times: Russia and EU in stand-off as Putin digs in on rouble payments for gas.
HuffPost UK: Partygate returns to Johnson’s door.
i: PM in denial over No 10 party fines.
Metro: It’s Russian roulette.
POLITICO UK: Has Putin saved Boris Johnson?
PoliticsHome: Senior Tories urge Johnson to sack officials given partygate fixed penalty notices by Met.
The Daily Telegraph: Russians give up on conquest of Kyiv.
The Guardian: Law-breaking in No 10 — police issue first 20 partygate fines.
The Independent: Russia pledges to reduce attacks around Kyiv.
The Sun: The queen of broken hearts.
The Times: Russians promise to ease Kyiv onslaught.
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WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Cloudy and breezy. Highs of 12C.
BIRTHDAYS: Crossbench peer and former Bank of England Governor Mervyn King … Luton South MP Rachel Hopkins … Former Labour MP Liz McInnes … Labour peer Beverley Hughes … Lib Dem peer Nigel Jones … Retired Tory peer Ian MacLaurin … Scottish Tory MSP Miles Briggs … Broadcaster Piers Morgan … Times columnist Hugo Rifkind … Reed in Partnership’s Lee Wright … Guardian columnist Rachel Shabi.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Giulia Poloni.
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