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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
INDIAN RUNNER: Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Rishi Sunak both fly out of the country later today on trips to India and the U.S. respectively, leaving Conservative MPs behind to face Thursday’s vote on an investigation into whether the prime minister misled parliament on Partygate. Johnson endured a grueling two-hour grovel-fest in the Commons on Tuesday as he repeatedly offered a “whole-hearted apology” for breaking COVID rules. Today won’t be much more fun as he meets Keir Starmer again at Prime Minister’s Questions before jetting off to Gujarat. The Labour leader’s aggressive performance yesterday invoking the families of COVID victims won plaudits as one of his strongest Commons showings to date. But still, as things stand this morning, there remains little sign that Johnson is in any imminent danger of being removed from office, with the PM appearing to retain the confidence of his backbenchers at a party meeting last night.
Easy as ABC: If Johnson wore a hangdog expression and sought to show contrition for most of his Commons appearance, by all accounts he was much more upbeat in his private meeting with Tory MPs. The PM reeled off crowd-pleasers about how the public wants them to focus on the cost of living and Ukraine rather than bubble stories, leant heavily on his new Rwanda refugee policy, repeatedly attacked Labour and Starmer, and blasted the BBC and Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby for allegedly criticizing the Rwanda plan more loudly than they’ve condemned Putin’s war in Ukraine. Johnson also pointedly talked about the next election being on the horizon. The Mirror’s Mikey Smith, Rachel Wearmouth and Dan Bloom have more details, while POLITICO’s Esther Webber writes that Johnson played the Ukraine card to try to turn the page.
We’re all fine: Tory MPs coming out of the room were keen to tell waiting hacks — with whips watching — that the meeting was positive and that national polling wasn’t reflective of what they are seeing on the doorstep, my POLITICO colleague Annabelle Dickson writes. One MP said he went out to speak to constituents the day after Johnson’s fixed penalty notice and only two people mentioned it. Another MP said colleagues seemed more satisfied with the PM’s response than they had at previous meetings.
There were some tetchy moments: Playbook hears unhappy backbencher Craig Whittaker, who has previously called for Johnson to go, asked the PM to refer himself to the standards committee to save Tory MPs from having to vote on whether he should be investigated. Johnson made clear he did not think that was a good idea and said he would be in India. Aaron Bell, another Johnson critic, quizzed the PM on whether the alleged gathering at the Downing Street flat being investigated by the police was a work event. Johnson replied that it was.
Where are MPs really at? It is worth saying that the vast majority of Tory MPs who spoke both in the Commons and at the meeting afterward expressed support for Johnson. The main danger came from rebel leader and unashamed leadership pretender Mark Harper, who sent in a no-confidence letter and told the House he no longer thought the PM was “worthy” of holding that office. An ally of Harper told Playbook: “Boris hasn’t been straight with the Commons about all this. If he is fined for attending more gatherings, his tailored, lawyered excuses for the birthday gathering will be proved to be worthless. Ultimately, this is about what individual Conservative MPs think is acceptable in public office. People will reach their own conclusions in their own way and at different times. Do they want this man to lead them into the next general election and to continue having to justify and endorse his questionable behavior?”
Goodwill to all men: By contrast, Steve Baker, Harper’s deputy on the COVID Recovery Group of right-wing Tory MPs, told the House Johnson should be forgiven. Sky’s Tom Larkin is keeping a running total of the Tory MPs who have publicly said they don’t want Johnson to lead the Tories into the next election. It currently stands at 14. Times Radio’s Lucy Fisher got hold of an eye-catching email from Tory veteran Robert Goodwill seeking his constituents’ views on who should replace Johnson if the time comes, offering Sunak, Deputy PM Dominic Raab, Health Secretary Sajid Javid, and former Cabinet Ministers Andrea Leadsom, Liam Fox and Jeremy Hunt. The lack of a viable alternative is generally seen as the main reason Johnson has not been challenged. (No offense.)
So the saga rumbles on: With things seemingly relatively stable among Tory MPs, we are really waiting for any further Met fines and the conclusion of their investigation, and the publication of the Sue Gray report, to see if that changes. The Times‘ Chris Smyth judges that Johnson has “lived to fight another day” as “most” MPs want to delay any decision on his future. The FT’s Seb Payne suggests the “crunch point” is the early summer, after the local elections and the Gray report.
This week’s big vote: Labour will today put forward its motion seeking to refer Johnson for investigation by the privileges committee to determine whether he misled parliament. The Institute for Government’s Alice Lilly has an excellent thread on the procedure. The idea is the committee has wide-ranging powers to look into Partygate, and could ask for reports (such as Sue Gray’s) and documents (or photos). It also has powers to recommend sanctions.
This is a largely political move: As the Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith notes, it would be a “very tall order” to get enough Tory MPs to vote for an investigation for the motion to pass. The Times‘ Henry Zeffman, Oli Wright and Steve Swinford say Johnson will whip his MPs to block a probe, with slipped MPs being recalled to Westminster. BBC Newsnight’s Nick Watt heard similar. As Riley Smith puts it: “Thursday’s vote may be more about how many Tories abstain than vote for it.”
So why has Labour gone for it? So it can use the vote as a stick to beat Tory MPs with at the local elections and at the next general. A Labour source says: “Any Conservative MP considering voting to block this investigation would be voting for a cover-up. They should reflect on the mess they got themselves into over Owen Paterson before falling into line.” Playbook is told Labour are preparing targeted adverts aimed at Tory MPs who vote to prevent an investigation into Johnson’s conduct.
Not listening to the whips: Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross is planning to miss Thursday’s vote as he will be campaigning in central Scotland for the local elections and taking part in FMQs at Holyrood, according to the Times. Starmer branded Ross “pathetic” in the Commons yesterday for U-turning on his January call for Johnson to resign.
8,000 miles apart: Johnson is off to India this evening (POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo and Graham Lanktree report he’ll be trying to wean the country off Russian weapons) and Sunak is flying to Washington for the IMF spring meetings. He will meet G7 and G20 finance ministers to discuss inflation and further support for Ukraine. Sunak will also meet with the Ukrainian Finance Minister Serhiy Marchenko. The Met definitely wouldn’t announce any more fines while they’re away, right?
12 years of Tory government latest: As Downing Street and the rest of Westminster focuses on the political fallout from Partygate, Tory MPs have perhaps an even greater concern, especially if Johnson survives, on how the public feels his government is performing on policy. YouGov has an extraordinarily damning poll out slaughtering the government on almost every major issue. Their net ratings are as follows: Inflation: -60 … Immigration: -58 … Tax: -52 … Housing: -47 … NHS: -45 … Economy: -44 … Welfare: -38 … Crime: -32 … Transport: -27 … Environment: -25 … Brexit: -24 … Education: -21 … Defense: +3 … Terrorism: +18. Turning that around ahead of the next election is at least as important a challenge for the PM as navigating the parties row.
INCOMING: The U.S. is to deliver seven more flights of military aid to Ukraine today, a U.S. official briefed American media last night, as Russia’s renewed offensive in Donbas continues. Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby said Ukraine had now “received additional aircraft and the aircraft parts to help them get more more aircraft in the air,” in what could be a game-changing development. Kirby said the U.S. had helped with the “shipment of some additional spare parts that has helped with their aircraft needs, but we have not transported whole aircraft.”
Don’t mention the NLAW: An international coalition led by the U.S. and U.K. agreed to send heavy weapons to Ukraine, following a call between world leaders. The Biden administration pledged Howitzer artillery cannons and Johnson promised “more artillery.” POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn has a write-up of the call. The Telegraph splash says Germany is “isolated” after its Chancellor Olaf Scholz refused to join the other allies in sending heavy weapons. (POLITICO’s Hans von der Burchard, meanwhile, reports that a senior member of Scholz’s SPD party is facing accusations she worked with Kremlin-backed energy giant Gazprom to undermine U.S. sanctions and spread Russian propaganda.)
Latest fighting: In his nightly address, Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy said fighting had intensified in the direction of Kharkiv in Ukraine’s northeast, in Donbas and in the Dnipropetrovsk region, and that the situation in Mariupol remained “as severe as possible.” The BBC has a write-up. The Times‘ Anthony Loyd has a piece on how the sick and disabled are trapped in the violence in Donbas.
WHAT PUTIN WANTS: POLITICO’s Alex Ward and Quint Forgey have a great analysis of Russian President Vladimir Putin’s four objectives for the Donbas campaign: 1) Capture the entire region … 2) Build a land bridge from Donbas to Crimea via Mariupol … 3) Control Kherson, which is crucial for water supplies to Crimea … and 4) Seize additional territory to use as a buffer zone and/or bargaining chips in a future negotiation with Ukraine.
BRIT CAPTIVE: There are concerns for a British man, Aiden Aslin, who was taken prisoner by Russia while serving with Ukraine’s marines. Aslin was paraded on Russian state TV and appeared to be speaking under duress. Tory MP Robert Jenrick last night tweeted a statement from Aslin’s family: “Aiden decided to join the Ukrainian Marines and has served in his unit for nearly four years. He is not, contrary to the Kremlin’s propaganda, a volunteer, a mercenary, or a spy. Aiden was making plans for his future outside the military, but like all Ukrainians, his life was turned upside down by Putin’s barbarous invasion. He has played his part in defending Ukraine’s right to self-determination. The video of Aiden speaking under duress and having clearly suffered physical injuries is deeply distressing.” Read it in full here.
LEGAL WOES: A U.S. congressman has called for six British lawyers to be banned from the States amid allegations of “enabling” Russian oligarchs. The six include Nigel Tait of Carter-Ruck, John Kelly of Harbottle & Lewis, Hugh Tomlinson, and Geraldine Proudler of CMS. The Guardian has the story.
**Our POLITICO Pro reporters cover the latest news on Western sanctions aimed at Russia. Get a strong understanding of how the Ukraine Crisis impacts European trade policy. Contact us from your business email address to request a free trial.**
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with COP26 questions to Alok Sharma, followed by PMQs at noon … After any UQs or statements, it’s a ping-pong day: MPs will consider considerable changes made by the Lords to the Subsidy Control Bill, Building Safety Bill and Nationality and Borders Bill.
WORK-FROM-CAR REVOLUTION: Drivers of self-driving cars will be legally allowed to check their emails or watch TV on in-built screens, under new Highway Code rules the government announced overnight. Mobile phone use will still be prohibited. The Mail splashes on the story, reporting that ministers believe these vehicles could pass safety tests and be approved for use at some level “later this year.”
GOVT ANNOUNCEMENT: The government wants to make it illegal to write or host fake reviews on the internet, as part of new plans aimed at protecting online consumers. New rules will also be brought in against “traps” which make it difficult for people to leave their online subscriptions, with the government releasing data overnight that suggests the average household spends about £60 a year on unwanted contracts. Here’s the BBC’s write-up. Small Business Minister Paul Scully will be trying in vain to talk about this on the morning broadcast round.
IMF BOMBSHELL: More gloomy cost-of-living-crisis news comes from the IMF, which projects that the U.K. will be the worst-performing G7 economy next year. Britain is forecast to have both the highest inflation and slowest growth of the group according to the fund — somewhat undermining Boris Johnson’s claim at Tory conference last month that the U.K. is the “fastest growing economy in the G7” thanks to the speedy booster rollout. The FT’s Chris Giles has a write-up.
THE WAKEFIELD WALTZ: A senior Labour source tells Playbook’s Eleni Courea there is a “real buzz” in LOTO and Southside around the idea of Ed Balls standing as the party’s candidate in Wakefield. Party figures reckon Balls would bring a “big beast factor” to the by-election and, in the longer-term, return another “big brain” to the opposition benches. It would mean the return of one of an iconic Westminster double act — in 2008, Balls and his wife Yvette Cooper, currently the shadow home secretary, made history by becoming the first married couple to serve in Cabinet together. The suggestion was first mooted by the FT’s Seb Payne last week who reported Balls “misses Westminster and thinks he could, maybe, be persuaded to have another shot in the shadow Cabinet.” Senior Labour sources told The Times’ Patrick Maguire yesterday that Balls is on maneuvers and that his candidacy is being pushed by Gordon Brown. Some people certainly think Balls has the star power the Labour Party needs — but for what it’s worth a source in his orbit suggests none of this is coming from him or his team.
All that said: It’s still unclear when the Wakefield by-election will take place — and well-placed insiders now believe it might slip into June or July. The immediate obstacle is that Imran Ahmad Khan has yet to formally resign his position as MP, despite announcing he would last week — sparking concerns he is dragging his feet and prolonging the process. Thanks to a procedural quirk, Khan must write to the Treasury in order to resign and Playbook hears he has yet to do so.
FIFTH TIME LUCKY: The government is likely to announce another delay to implementing checks on goods imported from the EU, several officials told PoliticsHome’s Adam Payne. Payne reports “the growing feeling” within government is that it would be unwise to go ahead with beginning new checks — which could discourage smaller European suppliers from the U.K. market — during the cost-of-living crisis, with some government figures pushing for a longer postponement. If the delay does happen, it would be the fourth time ministers have postponed this particular wave of post-Brexit paperwork.
CAMPAIGN WIN: Health Secretary Sajid Javid has agreed to meet MPs backing the No Time to Wait campaign led by James Starkie, which is arguing for improved access to counseling for millions of people suffering from anxiety and depression. Tory MP Jonathan Gullis told the Commons yesterday it was “totally unacceptable” that waiting times for mental health treatment are subject to a postcode lottery.
BUMPER COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The international trade committee will quiz Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan on DfT’s work (9.15 a.m.) … Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is up at the education committee (9.30 a.m.) … Big one at the home affairs committee, which will be questioning the acting Met Police Commissioner Stephen House (9.45 a.m.) … In the wake of Evgeny Lebedev, PACAC will look at the vetting of nominees for peerages with Lords Appointments Commission Chair Paul Bew (10 a.m.) … The public accounts committee will be scrutinizing senior DHSC officials on the state of COVID contracts that left government with millions of pounds worth of sub-standard PPE (1.30 p.m.) … The European scrutiny committee will hear about Brexit opportunities from … the Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg (2.30 p.m.) … and the EHRC is up at the women and equalities committee, with reform of the Gender Recognition Act likely to be a key issue of discussion (2.30 p.m.). Full list here.
WONK WATCH: Liberal Tory think tank Bright Blue has a live event on this afternoon looking at tackling violence against women and girls, with contributions from the former women and equalities committee Chairwoman Maria Miller and Women’s Aid boss Farah Nazeer. Watch live on YouTube from 1.30 p.m. here.
LOBBYING WATCH: Business leaders including Mary Portas and innocent drinks’ Douglas Lamont will this afternoon use the first mass lobby of parliament since COVID rules were relaxed to call for a review of company law, in the wake of P&O Ferries execs firing 800 staff with no notice. Portas had a piece in the FT on the issue last week.
Lords: In recess until April 25.
BIG ONE IN FRANCE: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen face off this evening in the only presidential debate before Sunday’s second-round vote. The polls are tighter (Macron 54 to Le Pen 46 according to POLITICO’s Poll of Polls aggregator) than they were in 2017, when the debate was widely seen as having sealed the deal for Macron against the same opponent. The debate airs 8 p.m. U.K. time — get ready by reading Clea Caulcutt’s preview for POLITICO here.
Small Business Minister Paul Scully broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.20 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkRADIO (9.20 a.m.).
Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner broadcast round: Today program (7.30 a.m.) … ITV GMB (7.50 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Tory peer Edward Garnier (7.10 a.m.) … Energy UK CEO Emma Pinchbeck and Resolution Foundation’s Torsten Bell (7.50 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Labour peer Doreen Lawrence (7.20 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley (Sky News): Tory MP Roger Gale (8.20 a.m.) … Interim U.S. Ambassador Philip Reeker (8.30 a.m.) … SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford (9.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Civil Exchange Director Caroline Slocock (7.10 a.m.) … Ukrainian special envoy on sanctions Oleksii Makeiev (7.40 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Maria Avdeeva, research director at European Expert Association, who is currently in Kharkiv in Ukraine (7 a.m.) … Tory MP Bob Seely (7.35 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show: Former Treasury official Jeevun Sandher (7.33 a.m.) … Labour MP Khalid Mahmood (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Mark Harper (8.33 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Welsh Conservatives leader Andrew RT Davies … Labour MP Angela Eagle … Green MP Caroline Lucas … Academic Matthew Goodwin … Shadow Education Secretary Bridget Phillipson.
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 11.50 a.m.): Labour MP John Cryer and Tory MP Peter Bone.
Tonight with Andrew Marr (LBC 6 p.m.): Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock (6 p.m.).
Peston (Twitter 9 p.m. and ITV 10.45 p.m.): No guest news yet.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP John Penrose … Shadow Commons leader Thangam Debbonaire … The Spectator columnist Lionel Shriver … Writer Nick Hayes.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and the Mail’s Andrew Pierce.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: What a waste of time! So much more is at stake.
Daily Mail: Watch the TV in self drive cars up to 37mph.
Daily Mirror: You choose – A plea to Tory MPs.
Daily Star: Klingon PM — Soz not soz.
Financial Times: Britain poised for slowest growth among G7 nations, predicts IMF.
HuffPost UK: ‘A man without shame.’
i: Johnson ‘not worthy of great office.’
Metro: I’m truly sorry.
POLITICO UK: Boris Johnson tries to lure India toward the West.
PoliticsHome: Boris Johnson tells MPs people have ‘a right to expect better’ after partygate fine.
The Daily Telegraph: Germany isolated as West sends heavy arms.
The Guardian: ‘A man without shame’ — PM savaged over parties.
The Independent: Senior Tory leads calls for PM to quit over party fine.
The Sun: Liam — I need new hips.
The Times: Tory MPs told to block inquiry into Johnson.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny in spells and breezy. Highs of 17C.
NOW HIRING: City AM is hiring for a reporter — apply here.
BIRTHDAYS: Former Communities Secretary Eric Pickles … Former Chief Brexit Negotiator Olly Robbins … Tory peer and the party’s official historian Alistair Cooke, known as Lord Lexden … Former BBC Newsnight presenter Peter Snow … Lib Dem peer Alan Beith … Crossbench peer Robert Mair … Labour peer Christine Blower … Crossbench peer Merlin Hay.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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