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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Thursday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
RWANDA DEAL: Boris Johnson will attempt to at least temporarily move on from the fallout of his Partygate fine when he gives a speech in Kent at 10.25 a.m. unveiling a hardline new immigration policy to tackle the small boats crisis. The prime minister will announce a deal signed with the Rwandan government that is expected to see some people arriving in Britain from across the Channel flown 4,000 miles away to have their asylum claims processed. Home Secretary Priti Patel is in Rwanda where she will hold a press conference with the country’s foreign minister this afternoon. Government sources insist today’s announcement was scheduled weeks ago and has not been brought forward to distract from Partygate. Regardless, it is a highly controversial policy that is already attracting fierce criticism from Labour and refugee organizations.
What the PM will say: Johnson will justify his “New Plan for Immigration” by arguing the scale of the Channel crossings is unsustainable: “Before Christmas 27 people drowned, and in the weeks ahead there may be many more losing their lives at sea, and whose bodies may never be recovered. Around 600 came across the Channel yesterday. In just a few weeks this could again reach a thousand a day.” There were few details in the trail of the speech released by Downing Street. No. 10 says Johnson will be announcing a “world-first migration and economic development partnership” with Rwanda, as well as “plans to break the business model of people smuggling gangs, step-up our operations in the Channel, bring more criminals to justice and end this barbaric trade in human misery.” Last year 28,526 people crossed the Channel. The total this year could be higher.
How will it work? Patel has taken a small group of journalists with her to the Rwandan capital Kigali, and they have the inside track on what is coming. The Times‘ Matt Dathan says only male asylum seekers will be sent to Rwanda as they are most likely to be economic migrants. The scheme will cost the British taxpayer thousands of pounds per person and the U.K. will give the Rwandan government an initial £120 million to run a trial, Dathan writes. Those asylum seekers who have their claims processed in Britain will be put in “stricter, Greek-style reception centres.” The Sun’s Natasha Clark says the military will patrol the Channel. The Mail’s David Barrett says there will also be legal reforms to prevent repeat appeals. He reports ministers believe the package will deter “thousands” of migrants from crossing the Channel. Dan Martin presents a striking juxtaposition on page two, reporting that the U.K. is now processing 3,000 Ukrainian refugees a day.
Punchy briefing: A source tells the Telegraph: “You are going to be met by the Army. They will drive you to the airport and send you straight to Rwanda. That is where you are going to end up in the hope that would be enough to deter migrants. That is why the military comes in, so you don’t have battles on the quayside.” However, this is not the sort of rhetoric ministers will be pushing, and the Home Office last night insisted it was not an accurate characterization of their plans. A Whitehall source said this line was “clearly from someone who has no idea what will be happening.”
The Brexit angle: Johnson will make clear in this morning’s speech that he sees a tough new immigration policy as fundamental to delivering on the Brexit vote. He will say the government is “taking back control of our borders” and fulfilling the outcome of the EU referendum by dealing with a problem that has “bedevilled our country for too long.” The Brexit reference will be explicit: “We cannot sustain a parallel illegal system. Our compassion may be infinite, but our capacity to help people is not. The British people voted several times to control our borders, not to close them, but to control them. So just as Brexit allowed us to take back control of legal immigration by replacing free movement with our points-based system, we are also taking back control of illegal immigration, with a long-term plan for asylum in this country.”
It’s a trap: Whatever the merits of this argument, government sources believe it poses a major challenge for Labour. There is a belief in Downing Street that Labour leader Keir Starmer simply will not be able to compete with Johnson electorally on Brexit or immigration. This means we are likely to see uncompromising policies on both those issues from the Tories ahead of the local elections and the next general, starting with the Rwanda plan today and potentially building up to the triggering of Article 16, tearing up the Northern Ireland protocol. One source argued to Playbook that Starmer would be unable to support these two policies and that the government would seek to make them a key dividing line at the next election.
Labour is unequivocal: The opposition condemned the Rwanda deal as “unworkable, unethical and extortionate” and said it was an effort to “distract” from Partygate. Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper tweeted last night: “Desperate & truly shameful announcement from Govt tonight as an attempt to distract from Boris Johnson’s lawbreaking. Unworkable, unethical & extortionate.” Lib Dem Home Affairs spokesperson Alistair Carmichael added: “It takes some effort to be both inhumane and incompetent and yet that has become Boris Johnson and Priti Patel’s calling card. A plan that will do nothing to tackle the real issues, while treating vulnerable people cruelly and costing taxpayers through the nose.”
Following the Danes: Government sources pleaded with Playbook to wait for Johnson’s speech before rushing to judgment. They stressed that Britain is not the only country to do this, and noted that last year Denmark passed a law allowing it to relocate asylum seekers to countries outside the EU to have their applications processed. “If you apply for asylum in Denmark, you know that you will be sent back to a country outside Europe, and therefore we hope that people will stop seeking asylum in Denmark,” a Danish government spokesperson said at the time. A Whitehall source added: “It’s amazing how many people have dismissed this agreement before a single detail of it has been announced. People don’t have any idea what has been agreed, but everyone has an opinion.”
There are plenty of opinions too … inside the Home Office, where the Mirror’s Dan Bloom and Pippa Crerar report senior officials have “grave concerns” over the policy. The paper reports there are doubts among mandarins over whether it will provide value for money or even succeed at deterring Channel crossings. “Ms Patel is said to have spent the last four months making the policy ‘just about viable’ enough for the PM to be able to announce it,” the write. Playbook hears similar. A Whitehall source despairs: “This isn’t going to stop people smugglers putting them on scraps of wood and piling people into lorries with no oxygen. It is like putting a plaster on someone with internal bleeding.” Enver Solomon, chief executive of the Refugee Council, agrees. He tells the BBC the Rwanda plan will not “address the reasons why people take perilous journeys to find safety in the U.K.” and would “only lead to more human suffering, chaos and at huge expense of an estimated £1.4 billion a year.”
There are also human rights concerns: According to Human Rights Watch’s latest assessment of the conduct of the Rwandan government: “Arbitrary detention, ill-treatment, and torture in official and unofficial detention facilities is commonplace, and fair trial standards are routinely flouted in many sensitive political cases, in which security-related charges are often used to prosecute prominent government critics. Arbitrary detention and mistreatment of street children, sex workers and petty vendors occurs widely.” Human Rights Watch also found the Rwandan police used “excessive force” when they opened fire on a group of protesting refugees in 2018, killing 12 people. Mlex’s Jakub Krupa notes that just last year the British government criticized Rwanda for rejecting its recommendation to “conduct transparent, credible and independent investigations into allegations of human rights violations including deaths in custody and torture.” That was last July. Nine months on, Britain is signing a deal to send asylum seekers into Rwanda’s custody.
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HOLD A WOLF BY THE EARS: Boris Johnson suffered the resignation of a government minister and two more Conservative MPs called for him to resign on Wednesday — in what remains a so-far relatively muted Tory response to the prime minister’s COVID fine. David Wolfson, who was a justice minister in the Lords, quit, saying “it would be inconsistent with the rule of law for that conduct to pass with constitutional impunity.” Tory backbencher Nigel Mills said he would be submitting a letter of no confidence in Johnson to the 1922 committee of backbench MPs. And Craig Whittaker said Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak should resign, per the Halifax Courier’s Sarah Fitton.
Officers of the law: Sky’s Sam Coates has an interesting thread explaining why Cabinet ministers involved with the law and police — Home Secretary Priti Patel, Attorney General Suella Braverman and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse — have so far decided they cannot publicly defend the PM. That will be tested to the limit at Patel’s presser in Rwanda later today.
This is fine: There is plenty of briefing in today’s papers claiming Johnson could face further fines. The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar quotes sources who reckon the PM will also get three more fixed penalty notices, for the “BYOB” garden party, the alleged gathering in the Downing Street flat, and an aide’s leaving do. The Guardian’s Jess Elgot, Aubrey Allegretti and Vikram Dodd hear the same. The Telegraph’s Martin Evans and Chris Hope also have a source saying Johnson will be fined for attending his ex-spinner Lee Cain’s leaving drinks. The Times‘ Chris Smyth, Henry Zeffman and Oli Wright say Johnson’s team have concluded it is “inevitable” the PM will be fined for up to six events. The Telegraph’s Martin Evans reports former COVID Taskforce chief Kate Josephs has been fined over her own boozy leaving bash.
HART PALPITATIONS: Welsh Secretary Simon Hart gave Times Radio’s Lucy Fisher an indication of how the government might respond if Johnson is fined again. Hart claimed boldly: “I don’t necessarily see the difference between one or two [fines], for example, the principle is the same.”
Where’s Rishi? Chancellor Rishi Sunak is off to America — where else? — next week, HuffPost’s Ned Simons and Kevin Schofield report. He is “due to visit Washington DC from April 19 until April 21 to take part in the Spring Meetings of the IMF.”
Non-dom news: One of the most senior directors of the Cabinet Office, former Goldman Sachs Managing Director Anand Aithal, is a non-dom, the Guardian’s Jess Elgot reports. And the FT’s Emma Agyemang and Jim Pickard have spoken to tax experts who think Health Secretary Sajid Javid can’t have had a very good case for being a non-dom given he was born in England.
The Sun won it: There will be no attempt to charge the source of the Sun’s story on Matt Hancock’s office snog after the Information Commissioner’s Office closed its case. Sun Editor Victoria Newton said: “We welcome the closure of this investigation. It should never have been opened, it was an outrageous abuse of state power which risked having a chilling impact on a free press.” The paper splashes the story hailing a victory for press freedom.
BREAKING OVERNIGHT: There were remarkable scenes in the Black Sea in the early hours as Russia’s Interfax news agency confirmed the flagship of its Black Sea Fleet, the Moskva, had been hit. All crew abandoned ship after it was set on fire when ammunition on board blew up, Russia’s defense ministry admitted. Ukraine says it hit the vessel with two anti-ship missiles. Readers will remember the Moskva as it is the same ship that was memorably told to “go f*** yourself” by a Ukrainian soldier during its attack on Snake Island at the beginning of the war.
Day 50 of the war: U.S. President Joe Biden announced an additional $800 million of military aid to Ukraine last night following a call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy. The package will include artillery systems, armored vehicles and helicopters, the White House said. The Guardian has the details. The Biden administration is also planning to send a Cabinet-level official to meet Zelenskyy in Kyiv, my POLITICO U.S. colleagues report.
War crimes report: The Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE) released a report yesterday finding “clear patterns” of international law violations by Russia in Ukraine, as well as possible war crimes including murder and gang rape. CNN has the story. The Telegraph’s Dani Sheridan has another harrowing report from the ground of a woman killed by Russian soldiers.
Putin’s masterplan: Finland looks set to join NATO and Sweden could follow suit, my POLITICO colleagues Lili Bayer and Charlie Duxbury report. POLITICO’s Alex Ward and Quint Forgey conclude: “Maybe Putin isn’t a strategic genius after all.”
Roman numerals: Jersey seized £5 billion of assets belonging to Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and France grabbed another £20 billion of his assets including a villa on the French Riviera. The BBC has more.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
PARLIAMENT: In recess until April 19.
TWO-YEAR KEIR: Labour leader Keir Starmer has done a lengthy interview with the House Magazine’s Adam Payne, to mark his two-year anniversary of winning the leadership. Starmer came armed with a fresh attack on Boris Johnson — contrasting himself as a “serious” person who doesn’t treat politics “as a branch of the entertainment business,” unlike the prime minister. He added that he has “absolutely nothing in common” with Johnson, yet another sign of the animosity between the pair.
On the culture wars: Starmer blamed his party’s emergence as an electoral threat for the government’s ramping up of culture war issues, accusing the government of “deliberately choosing campaigns that divide the country” and “weaponising” trans people. On the latter issue he endorsed the recent remarks of Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry, who told LBC that while some women do have penises, “I’m not looking up their skirts, I don’t care.”
Sorry not sorry, Corbynites: Payne says Starmer is “unapologetic” about the anger he has provoked from the Labour left, who have felt marginalized by his leadership. Starmer said that after the 2019 election result the party needed to change and that is what he has “been determined to do.” Part of that change appears to concern Twitter: He has instructed his shadow Cabinet to quit doomscrolling and stop debating angry activists on the social media site.
ANOTHER HAMMERING FOR GRADUATES: English and Welsh recent graduates “are in for a rollercoaster ride” with their student loan interest rates expected to soar, the Institute for Fiscal Studies said yesterday. Due to inflation, new graduates since 2012 earning more than £49,130 will see their interest rate rise from 4.5 to 12 percent for half a year — which the IFS points out would see them paying around £3,000 in interest over that time. Lower earners will see their interest rate rise sixfold from 1.5 to 9 percent. After six months the rates will fall slightly … rise a little again … fluctuate … fall to 0 percent … and then rise again in 2025. Check out the crazy graph.
Cladding deal: Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove announced yesterday that he had secured an agreement with major developers that will see them contribute £5 billion to help pay for the building safety scandal. Some £3 billion will come from Gove’s levy and the developers have agreed to pay another £2 billion themselves. Developers will be stopped from buying new homes if they breach the agreement.
Payslip propaganda: Don’t forget your pay packet this month will be lighter than it was in March. The 1.25 percentage point National Insurance tax hike will head straight for HM Treasury’s coffers, and your lighter pay packet in April, as it’s a partial month from April 6, will likely be even lighter in May and June — before recovering a little in July when the NICs thresholds rise as the chancellor announced last month. To add insult to injury, HMRC is optimistically advising employers to put in a line on your payslip to delineate the cash removed to proclaim: “NICs increase funds NHS, health and social care.” Craig Beaumont of the Federation of Small Businesses told Playbook this was “payslip propaganda” and “can and should be studiously ignored. It’s not employers’ job to change their systems and write the government’s PR on payslips.” He also said that to help your budgeting, one way to predict a rough maximum amount for future months is to increase your last month’s payslip NICs line by 10 percent. Surprisingly, there’s no squiggly Rishi branding in sight on this one.
SAFETY LAST: The last two weeks have seen two incredibly grim stories about Conservative MPs’ conduct: first David Warburton, suspended from the party over sexual harassment claims, and then Imran Ahmad Khan, convicted of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old in 2008. It prompted POLITICO’s Esther Webber to take a look at parliament’s safeguarding obligations toward children and young people: the policy consists of barely five pages with scant detail on who to notify of an identified risk or how to go about it. Neither the Commons authorities nor sources in the whips office were able to say whether any steps to follow the safeguarding policy were taken after Khan’s arrest.
No surprises: Even if safeguarding measures had been activated, would they have been enforceable? Khan agreed to stay away from the estate after he was charged, but as Esther has previously reported, he did not always stick to it, showing up in October. Repeated calls by trade unions to find a way to ban MPs accused of serious misconduct from the estate are currently under examination by the procedure committee, but members of the committee sound downbeat about the prospect of anything being done. They stress the right of MPs to attend parliament and the complexity of deciding how that would be curbed. In the end, it is once again down to MPs’ appetite for change.
TRADE SCOOP: The chair of the British Ukrainian Chamber of Commerce has written to U.K. trade chiefs imploring them to deliver Johnson’s promise of cutting import tariffs on all Ukrainian goods, my POLITICO colleague Emilio Casalicchio reveals in our Morning Trade U.K. newsletter. Bate Toms wrote to Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan, asking the pair to eliminate duties “at least for the period when Ukraine is burdened by or recovering from the war, and hopefully for the foreseeable future thereafter.”
Announce first, think later: Emilio reported for trade subscribers earlier this week about wrangling between departments over the promise made last weekend to liberalize all import tariffs from Ukraine. Hiccups have arisen on some select items, and there are concerns about the possible impact on the agricultural sector.
Stepping stone: Toms and the government in Kyiv hope that if the U.K. lifts all its tariffs on imports from the war-torn nation, the EU might be pressured to do the same, which would have a far bigger economic impact on how Ukraine copes with the conflict.
Terror program disaster: The U.K. government knew a counterterrorism intelligence-sharing system it had spent years developing was dangerously defective — but rolled it out anyway, causing chaos and confusion among officers scrambling to contain an unprecedented wave of fatal terror attacks, reveals an eye-catching scoop by BuzzFeed’s Richard Holmes based on hundreds of pages of police emails and intelligence files.
BEYOND THE M25: The government has been accused of cutting support for disadvantaged areas across the U.K. by failing to match EU structural funding, after DLUHC released details of its Shared Prosperity Fund yesterday. Under the scheme — announced after Brexit as a way of replacing EU funding — the government will dish out £2.6 billion over three years, but will not reach the £1.5 billion annual total provided by Brussels until 2024-5. The Conservatives manifesto in 2019 pledged to at least match EU funding.
Union fight: In response the Welsh and Scottish governments have claimed they stand to lose out on £1 billion in total and £151 million this year respectively, with Welsh FM Mark Drakeford arguing the scheme amounts to “leveling down.” Number-crunching from the George Osborne-chaired Northern Powerhouse Partnership also found Greater Manchester, Liverpool City Region and Tees Valley will all see cuts of more than a third compared to EU funding. The U.K. government argues the fund starts at a lower level because some regions will still be receiving money from Brussels until 2024. The Indy’s Andrew Woodcock has a good write-up.
Labour’s line: Boris Johnson “cannot claim to be levelling up while he’s cutting money from the communities that need it most,” Shadow Leveling Up Secretary Lisa Nandy writes in today’s Times Red Box.
Welsh Secretary Simon Hart broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … GB News (7.35 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkRADIO (9.05 a.m.).
Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell broadcast round: ITV GMB (6.45 a.m.) … Today program (7.15 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … GB News (8.20 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford (6.50 a.m.) … Refugee Council CEO Enver Solomon (8.10 a.m.) … Deputy Head of the Office of the President of Ukraine Ihor Zhovkva (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast (Sky News): Tory peer Robert Hayward (9.05 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former director general of the migration and borders group at the Home Office, Glyn Williams (7.05 a.m.) … Former NATO spokesperson Mark Laity (7.25 a.m.) … Work and pensions committee Chairman Stephen Timms (7.40 a.m.) … Zelenskyy adviser Alexander Rodnyansky (8.05 a.m.) … Labour peer Charlie Falconer (8.10 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Work and pensions committee Chairman Stephen Timms (6.20 a.m.) … UNHCR Senior Legal Officer Larry Bottinick (7.07 a.m.) … Deputy Director of the Pilecki Institute Wojciech Kozłowski (7.35 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show: Former head of U.K. Border Force Tony Smith (7.50 a.m.) … IFS Director Paul Johnson (9.40 a.m.).
Standing in for James O’Brien on LBC (10 a.m.): Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): The Telegraph’s Olivia Utley and WalesOnline Political Editor Ruth Mosalski.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: PM — Bold plan to send boat migrants to Rwanda.
Daily Mail: Rwanda plan to smash the Channel gangs.
Daily Mirror: Worst is to come, PM.
Daily Star: Great Scott!
Financial Times: Russian menace edges Finland and Sweden closer to NATO entry.
HuffPost UK: First minister quits over partygate.
i: Patel in Rwanda signing deal to export Britain’s asylum seekers.
Metro: Tory law chief quits.
POLITICO UK: Italy’s looming fault line — Conte warns against Europe’s ‘race to rearm.’
PoliticsHome: Justice minister resigns over Boris Johnson’s ‘conduct’ following partygate fines.
The Daily Telegraph: Channel migrants to be sent to Rwanda.
The Guardian: Johnson may face three more fines in party scandal.
The Independent: ‘Cruel’ deal to send U.K. asylum seekers to Africa.
The Sun: Take Matt — Watchdog drops Hancock scoop witch-hunt in win for press freedom.
The Times: Channel boat migrants will be sent to Rwanda.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO: Germany Inc. played Russian roulette … And lost.
The Spectator: Easter special.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Cloudy and breezy. Highs of 19C.
IN MEMORIAM: Tory peer and former MP Jill Knight has died aged 98. The oldest woman to have sat in the Commons, Knight was largely responsible for introducing Section 28, the legislation that forbid councils and schools from “promoting” homosexuality. The Telegraph has an obituary.
BIRTHDAYS: Labour peer Elizabeth Symons … Crossbench peer Susan Cunliffe-Lister … Sadiq Khan adviser Njoki Mahiani … England’s Chief Scientific Officer Sue Hill … Former BBC Chief Political Correspondent John Sergeant.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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