Bleak Friday — Conversion reversion — China takeover scoop – POLITICO

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Good Friday morning.

SCOOP: Ministers have quietly approved the takeover of the U.K.’s largest microchip factory, Newport Wafer Fab, by a Chinese-owned company. A review by the government’s national security adviser concluded there were not enough security concerns to block it — but critics say the U.K. is failing to protect crucial British industries from being sold off to a hostile state. Full story here and in Playbook below.


BLEAK FRIDAY: Millions of Brits face a double-whammy of higher energy costs and a host of bill rises from today. Gas and electricity prices, National Insurance contributions, council tax statements and phone and water bills will all rise for U.K. households in what the Guardian dubs “Bleak Friday.”

Sunak under pressure: Ministers are being urged to do more to cushion families from the blow, with the average household projected to face a £1,000 rise this year. Rishi Sunak is resisting calls to intervene before his next budget in the autumn, despite senior Tories believing that position is untenable. A Cabinet minister told the Times: “It’s not enough. It doesn’t even touch the sides for a lot of families. It feels unsustainable.”

At a glance: As of today, the energy price cap will rise by 54 percent to £1,971 … National Insurance payments will increase by 1.25 percentage points … and council tax bills will rise by 3.5 percent on average. The websites of major energy providers crashed yesterday as consumers attempted to submit meter readings before the hike.

**A message from Lowell: The latest update to our Financial Vulnerability Index demonstrates that many areas of Liverpool are still struggling with financial vulnerability. Many areas of the city have become ‘scar tissue’ immune to the wider economic recovery seen elsewhere. For more information, please click here.**

All eyes now on … the government’s energy strategy, which is due next week and promises to address the snowballing energy crisis. In his Times column, James Forsyth writes that neither of the two widely discussed “quick fixes” — onshore wind farms and fracking — are goers because of the scale of Tory opposition to them.

Going nuclear: The centerpiece of the strategy will be an aim for nuclear power to supply a quarter of the U.K.’s electricity by 2050, according to Forsyth. He says that in order to build enough reactors in time, ministers are discussing establishing a British development vehicle to buy a ready-made design “off the shelf” and then oversee its construction. Expect more on the contents of the strategy in the Sunday papers and shows.

PLAYBOOK POLL: The public are far more comfortable with the prospect of wind farms in their area than nuclear power stations, even when coupled with a guarantee of cheaper or free energy in their homes, according to polling conducted for Playbook by Redfield and Wilton Strategies. An overwhelming 72 percent said they would support new wind farms in their local area in those circumstances … 52 percent said they would support more permits for oil and gas exploration in the North Sea … and just 38 percent would back nuclear power stations locally. Forsyth reports that Boris Johnson has taken to joking that he wants a small modular nuclear reactor “for every Labour constituency in the land.”

Net-zero challenge: Some 48 percent of those polled said higher energy bills were not a price worth paying to achieve net zero by 2030, compared with just 20 percent who said they were. The proportion of those unhappy to pay more to achieve net zero has risen from 40 percent when Redfield and Wilton Strategies last asked that question in October.

Some good news: Russian President Vladimir Putin, who had threatened to cut gas supplies to “unfriendly” European countries unless they started paying in rubles, has effectively backed down when it comes to Europe — here’s my POLITICO colleague Paola Tamma’s analysis.

Political fallout: Some senior Tory figures fear the cost-of-living crisis will not only damage their performance in the local elections in May but lose them the next general election, Playbook hears. Shadow Cabinet ministers were shown polling on Tuesday suggesting that Labour is now level-pegging with the Conservatives on being trusted with the economy and taxation. LabourList’s Sienna Rodgers has similar polling from Savanta Comres, which finds that Labour is now more likely than the Tories to be seen as the party of low taxation.

Not only that: Labour is also leading on law and order, according to internal Tory polling shown to Tory MPs. Τhe Sun’s Kate Ferguson has the scoop.

Of course: None of this will help Labour’s attempts to manage expectations about its performance in the locals. Keir Starmer is on the airwaves this morning after launching his party’s campaign in Bury yesterday.


BREAKING OVERNIGHT: The White House said last night it had seen “incontrovertible evidence” that its war on Ukraine “has been a strategic disaster for Russia.” Kate Bedingfield, U.S. President Joe Biden’s communications director, told a press briefing that the Russians were now “working to redefine the initial aims of their invasion.”

Kyiv convoy: Russia’s convoy of military vehicles near Kyiv, which once stretched to 40 miles, may no longer exist after failing to accomplish its mission, the Pentagon said. The Telegraph’s Washington Editor Rozina Sabur has more. The MoD’s intelligence update last night said Russia was redeploying some of its forces from Georgia as a result of the “unexpected losses it has sustained.”

Western split: Should Moscow be looking for a way out, the U.K. is urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy not to “settle” and make too many concessions on matters including territory and sanctions, the Times reports. A senior government source quoted in the paper’s splash by Steve Swinford, Larisa Brown and Bruno Waterfield suggests the British government is concerned that the U.S., France and Germany may be “too keen” for Zelenskyy to agree a deal.

That said: Hopes that the peace talks will reach agreement remain low. NATO Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg said yesterday that Russia was “trying to regroup, resupply and reinforce,” and that claims it would reduce its assault on Kyiv and northern Ukraine were “lies.”

Mariupol evacuation: A convoy of 45 buses was on its way to the besieged port city of Mariupol yesterday to evacuate civilians. Ukrainian authorities are trying to rescue the 100,000 people who are still there. In his video message last night, Zelenskyy said the situation in the south of Ukraine remained “extremely difficult,” with more Russian forces building up near Mariupol. Zelenskyy also revealed — in a first for the president — that he had fired two senior members of the national security service because they were “traitors.” He added: “I don’t have time to deal with all the traitors, but they will gradually all be punished.” More on the BBC live blog.

Metsola message: European Parliament President Roberta Metsola is en route to Kyiv to “pass a message of support and hope on behalf of the European Parliament.” Metsola is the first president of an EU institution to visit the Ukrainian capital since the war began.

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CONVERSION REVERSION: The government is in chaos over its pledge to legislate against LGBT conversion therapy after performing two U-turns within the space of a few hours yesterday.

First U-turn: Ministers backtracked over a decision to break their pledge to outlaw conversion therapy four hours after it was leaked to ITV’s Paul Brand. Brand published a government briefing document yesterday afternoon which stated that “the PM has agreed we should not move forward with legislation to ban LGBT conversion therapy.”

You don’t say: While blaming “major pressures on cost of living and the crisis in Ukraine” for the decision, the document admitted that there would be “noisy backlash from LGBT groups and some parliamentarians” as well as a feeling in the LGBT community that ministers are “uninterested in LGBT issues.”

Case in point: The strength of feeling from Conservative MPs quickly became apparent as the complaints started pouring in both publicly and privately. Dehenna Davison tweeted that the U-turn was “fundamentally wrong”… Johnny Mercer said it was “completely nuts”… Alicia Kearns said ministers must “ban this barbarity or fail” LGBT people … and Caroline Nokes pointed out that the PM himself said conversion therapy was “abhorrent.”

Second U-turn: At 9.42 p.m. Brand reported that the government was already backtracking and that the legislation would now be included the Queen’s Speech — but only to ban gay conversion therapy, not trans. The concern is that banning trans conversion therapy could have “unintended consequences” for the treatment of children with gender dysphoria. But MPs including Kearns have already countered, arguing this partial U-turn is not good enough.

Fighting talk: One rebel MP told Playbook: “Let’s just say the party is now very clear that a ban must happen, and it will happen. MPs made sure the PM and whips knew we wouldn’t accept it being dropped.” No doubt ministers come under more pressure on this today.

Remarkably: Equalities Secretary Liz Truss was kept in the dark about the decision to break the pledge, according to the leaked briefing note published by ITV, which added that Equalities Minister Mike Freer and LGBT rights envoy Nick Herbert could both be expected to resign over it.

Timing is everything: All this unfolded on the International Transgender Day of Visibility and in the same week that the Conservatives’ Jamie Wallis came out as the U.K.’s first trans MP. Worth reading Brand’s snap analysis on Twitter late last night, where he pointed out that while the No. 10 operation is speedier at averting disasters, it may have misjudged the party’s mood on “woke” issues.

GOVERNMENT OF ALL THE U-TURNS: In case you needed a reminder, Playbook’s ace reporter Andrew McDonald has updated his rolling list of every U-turn under the Johnson administration. Since winning an 80-seat majority in December 2019, the government has reverse ferreted on: The NHS staff visa charge … Jacob Rees-Mogg’s conga voting system … Reopening all primary schools last summer … Free school meals over summer (thanks to Marcus Rashford) … Centralized COVID app … Huawei … “Air bridges” … Exam results algorithm (“no U-turn, no change“) … Extending the eviction ban … Face masks in schools … Badger culls … “Go back to work or risk losing your job” … Pints in parliament after 10 p.m. … October lockdown … Furlough extension … Free school meals over holidays (thanks to Rashford, again) … Christmas canceled … Closing schools a day after they reopened, after weeks of mind-melting rhetoric … Free school meals vouchers (thanks to Rashford, again) … Review of workers’ rights post-Brexit … Cumbria coal mine … Prosecutions of troops overseas … Dyson texts probe … Local lockdowns travel mess … Allowing MPs a vote on the foreign aid cut — which, as a 2019 manifesto commitment, also counts …

… 48 U-turns in 27 months: Hancock resigning a day after the matter was “closed” … Johnson and Sunak’s short-lived isolation pilot scheme … “Amber watchlist” … Vaccine passports for nightclubs … National Insurance and triple lock manifesto commitments on the same day … Planning reforms … Emergency extended visas to ease labor shortages … Dumping raw sewage … Standards reform and the fate of Owen Paterson … HS2’s eastern leg … Reintroducing pre-departure COVID tests four days after saying they wouldn’t … Who pays for cladding removal? … Mandatory jabs for the NHS … Gavin Williamson’s blanket ban on phones in school … Parliamentary scrutiny of trade deals, per POLITICO’s own Graham Lanktree … Fur and foie gras imports unbanned … Streamlined Ukrainian visa process … Post-Paterson plan for time limits on MPs’ second jobs … Allowing Tory MPs to abstain on Lebedev security advice vote … Fracking — sort-of … and then last night’s speedy conversion therapy reversal.

TORY SELECTIONS: The Tories are advertising openings for “parliamentary spokespeople” in Lib Dem-held constituencies affected by the boundary changes, emails seen by Playbook reveal. Adverts have gone out for would-be parliamentary candidates in Chesham and Amersham and Oxford West. The positions are seen as a precursor to becoming a prospective Tory MP, although those selected will have to step aside if a sitting MP claims incumbency rights on a redrawn seat.

POLITICAL SPOUSES I: Rishi Sunak likened himself to Will Smith over criticism of his wife Akshata Murthy and her father’s business links to Russia yesterday. He told the BBC’s Newscast that while it was fair for the media to scrutinize him, “it’s very upsetting and wrong for people to try and come at my wife.” He then joked: “At least I didn’t get up and slap anybody, which is good.” Here’s the Times’ write-up.

POLITICAL SPOUSES II: If Carrie Johnson is fined over breaking COVID laws then the public should be told, Keir Starmer insisted yesterday. She has been accused of taking part in lockdown-breaking gatherings in Downing Street last year. The Mirror has that one.

MP TRIAL: A man who alleges he was groped aged 15 by Imran Ahmad Khan, now the MP for Wakefield, told a court yesterday that the Conservative Party did not take him seriously when he contacted them about it ahead of the 2019 election. Khan denies one charge of sexual assault and the trial is ongoing. Here’s the BBC’s write-up.

ROYAL MESS: The Telegraph and the Mail both splash on revelations that Prince Andrew was given more than a million pounds by an alleged Turkish fraudster and is now embroiled in a High Court battle over missing cash.

MORE POLICE FAILINGS: U.K. police forces failed to send officers to more than half of the 3.6 million reports of anti-social behavior between 2019 and 2021, according to data obtained by a Lib Dems FOI request. In some forces, as many as three-quarters of offenses were not attended by officers. The Telegraph’s Charles Hymas has more.

NOT A CHARITY CASE: The DCMS committee rejected the government’s “unimaginative” choice for the next chair of the Charity Commission, over frustrations with the “slapdash” selection process. Orlando Fraser, a former Tory parliamentary candidate, was selected for the role which has been open for more than a year. He now awaits the judgment of Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries, who could always go ahead and appoint him anyway. The Guardian’s Patrick Butler has a write-up.

HORMONE BEEF INCOMING: Canada will make the case for Britain to accept imports of hormone-treated beef with “vigor and conviction” as the sides continue trade talks, top Canadian official Ralph Goodale told POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio. The Canadian High Commissioner to the U.K. said improved market access for the controversial treated meat was “legitimate and appropriate and should be forthcoming.” POLITICO Pro Trade U.K., EU-U.K. and Agri and Food subscribers can read all about it.

HOUSE OF COMMONS: In recess until April 19.

LORDS: Sits from 10 a.m. with a ministerial statement on the use of rape as a weapon of war in Ukraine from FCDO Minister Tariq Ahmad … After that peers will move through private members’ bills, including the Local Government (Disqualification) Bill aimed at disqualifying people convicted of child sexual offenses from standing for local government and Liam Fox’s Down Syndrome Bill aimed at improving the lives of people with the condition.


WAFER FAB DECISION: The government has quietly given the green light to the sale of Newport Wafer Fab to a subsidiary of the Chinese tech company Nexperia.

Context: Nexperia engineered a takeover of Newport Wafer Fab last spring despite calls for the government to intervene. The deal was thrown into the spotlight in July when Johnson asked his national security adviser, Stephen Lovegrove, to look again at its security implications. More than six months later Lovegrove’s review concluded there are insufficient concerns to block it and so Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, has decided not to intervene.

Tory reax: Tom Tugendhat questioned why ministers were not carrying out a fuller review under the National Security and Investment Act and said: “This is an area where China is sinking billions to compete. The government has no clear strategy to protect what’s left of our semiconductor industry.” IDS said the decision was “ridiculous” and that China was posing “a direct and deliberate threat to the West’s access to microchips and other key components for electronic equipment.”

Key concern: Tory China hawks and some security experts fear the government is employing too narrow a definition of national security, which is focused on espionage rather than the consequences of China buying up critical infrastructure and building its future capability at the expense of the West.

Out of orbit: One former security official pointed to the Made in China 2025 strategy, through which Beijing wants to achieve global dominance in high-tech manufacturing, and said: “What Newport Wafer Fab do at the moment is not that exceptional … but it is part of an existing industrial base which is capable of developing further at a lower cost, and if you sell it to the Chinese, then it’s gone from your strategic orbit of control and long-term capability.”

NSIA update: Playbook is told that 10 deals involving various countries are currently being reviewed under the act, which was introduced to bolster ministers’ powers to block hostile foreign investment.

April Fool’s Day summit: POLITICO’s Stuart Lau has an excellent cover piece previewing the EU-China summit, which is taking place for the first time in two years today. “For years, the EU led by Germany has hoped to achieve Wandel durch Handel — ‘change through trade’ — in countries like Russia and China, hoping that economic liberalization would put the countries on the road to democracy,” he writes. “With Putin’s fully fledged war and China’s authoritarian turn, the EU has now given up that fantasy.”

**A message from Lowell: The Spring 2022 update to our financial vulnerability index makes clear the growing task for the Government as it seeks to level-up across the UK. Liverpool is one of a number of UK cities, struggling to recover from the pandemic. Many areas of the city have seen only a very limited improvement in their financial vulnerability since the peak of the pandemic and they will be hit hardest by the rising cost of living. The Financial Vulnerability Index provides unique insight into the evolving picture of financial health across the UK. The latest update reveals a worrying build-up of ‘scar tissue’ areas in cities outside of London. Lowell produces the FVI as part of its mission to make credit work better for all in the hope that it will prove valuable to policymakers and journalists as they look to understand the evolving picture in financial health in the UK. For more information, please click here.**


Policing Minister Kit Malthouse broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.05 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … GB News (8.45 a.m.).

Labour leader Keir Starmer broadcast round: Sky News (7.20 a.m.) … ITV GMB (7.50 a.m.).

Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Ukraine’s Deputy Health Minister Oleksii Iaremenko (7.30 a.m.).

Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: Former Sainsbury’s CEO Justin King (7.05 a.m.) … RUSI’s Malcolm Chalmers (7.20 a.m.) … Former No. 10 official Nikki da Costa (8.20 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Epidemiologist Tim Spector (8.15 a.m.) … Former No. 10 official Nikki da Costa (9.05 a.m.).

Also on Mike Graham breakfast show (talkRADIO): Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (9.05 a.m.).

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Fleet Street Fox Susie Boniface and commentator Tim Montgomerie … Times Radio (10.35 a.m.): Broadcaster Afua Hagan and freelance journalist Martha Gill.

**Ivan Bartoš, deputy prime minister for digitization and minister of regional development, Czech Republic, will close POLITICO Live’s AI & Tech Summit on April 21 with an interview to set the scene for tech policy in the rest of 2022. Don’t miss itconfirm your registration today.**


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

Daily Express: House prices surge £33,000 in a year.

Daily Mail: Andrew in £750,000 ‘scam case’ mystery.

Daily Mirror: April cruel day.

Daily Star: Eggpocalypse now — Egg shortage threatens our biscuits and cakes.

Financial Times: Biden orders record oil stockpile release in effort to quell fuel costs.

HuffPost UK: Conversion therapy ban shambles.

i: Anger at Sunak as the cost of living crisis hits home.

Metro: Energy firms meter fiasco.

POLITICO UK: U.K. ministers quietly approve Chinese microchip factory takeover.

PoliticsHome: Emily Thornberry challenges government lawyer to publish partygate legal advice to Boris Johnson.

The Daily Telegraph: Duke took £1m from Turkish ‘fraudster.’

The Guardian: Millions rush to minimise energy bills on eve of Bleak Friday.

The Independent: Five million households face budget squeeze.

The Sun: Pain in the gas.

The Times: Don’t back down, Ukraine urged.


The Economist: Why Ukraine must win.


Chopper’s Politics: Christopher Hope interviews Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi.

Encompass: Paul Adamson talks to Digital Europe Director General Cecilia Bonefeld-Dahl.

EU Confidential: The POLITICO team is joined by executive director of the World Food Program, David Beasley.

Full Disclosure: James O’Brien talks to Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford.

Inside Briefing: The IfG team is joined by former DfE adviser Sam Freedman.

Newscast: The BBC Westminster team interviews Chancellor Rishi Sunak.

Oh God, What Now: Dorian Lynskey is joined by Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry.

Rachel Johnson’s Difficult Women: Johnson interviews Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry.

The Economist Asks: Zanny Minton Beddoes interviews Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy.

The Northern Agenda: Rob Parsons and Daniel O’Donoghue talk to South Yorkshire Mayor Dan Jarvis and polling guru John Curtice.

The Rundown: The PolHome team talks to Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry.


SUNDAY SHOWS: No guest news yet for Sophie Raworth (BBC One, Sunday 9 a.m.).

Sophy Ridge will be talking to former Archbishop of York John Sentamu, Ukrainian MP Yelyzaveta Yasko and Andriy Klepikov, executive director for the Alliance for Public Health (Sky News, Sunday 8.30 a.m.).

Tom Newton Dunn and his T&G co-host Kate McCann will be talking to Ofcom chief Melanie Dawes and Tory MP Felicity Buchan, with Playbook Editor Alex Wickham and the Mail’s Harriet Line reviewing the papers (Times Radio 10 a.m.).

Westminster Hour host Carolyn Quinn will be joined by Tory MP Steve Brine … Labour MP Siobhain McDonagh … Lib Dem MP Sarah Olney … The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith (Radio 4, Sunday 10 p.m.).

**POLITICO Pro is the must-have subscription service for organizations seeking exclusive and reliable news and intelligence on politics and policy in Europe – all accessible within the ultimate customizable platform. Request a free demo.**


WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny in spells and breezy. Highs of 10C.

THEATERLAND: The 47th, a political drama/dark comedy which imagines Donald Trump’s bid to regain the U.S. presidency in 2024, opened this week at the Old Vic.

WONKS WANTED: Top Westminster think tank U.K. in a Changing Europe is hiring for a number of positions, after announcing yesterday that it has secured three more years of funding. See details here for a press officer role … here for a research and comms role … here for a research assistant role … and here for a senior communications officer job.

BIRTHDAYS: Epsom and Ewell MP Chris Grayling … Treasury Minister John Glen … Keir Starmer’s PPS Sharon Hodgson … Lib Dem peer Sal Brinton … SNP MSP Joe FitzPatrick … Former International Development Minister Stephen O’Brien … New Economics Foundation’s Anna Coote … Plaid Cymru peer and former leader Dafydd Wigley.

Celebrating over the weekend: Ealing Central and Acton MP Rupa Huq … Tory peer Philippa Stroud … Crossbench peer and former Chief of Defense Staff Michael Boyce … Former Tory MP Graham Bright … Traditional Unionist Voice MLA and Leader Jim Allister … Welsh Labour AM Ken Skates … BBC Chief Political Correspondent Adam Fleming … Former British Ambassador to Kazakhstan Michael Gifford … Attorney General Suella Braverman … Former Energy Minister Claire Perry … FCDO Minister Tariq Ahmad … Tory peer Howard Leigh … Sunday Times Economics Editor David Smith … GB News presenter Nigel Farage.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Arnau Busquets Guàrdia.

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