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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Thursday morning.
THE HANCOCK DIARIES: Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock will be publishing his diaries with Biteback later this year, Playbook hears. The book (title TBC) will be based on “contemporaneous accounts” of the pandemic, and reveal “for the first time” the critical moments in the battle against COVID. We’re promised it will offer an “honest assessment” of Hancock’s time in office. He will be donating the royalties to NHS charities.
DRIVING THE DAY
DELHI WELLY: Boris Johnson landed in Gujarat in the early hours, vowing to journalists on the plane to India that he would remain as prime minister and lead the Tories into the next election. Back in Westminster, Conservative MPs will today vote for a wrecking amendment put forward by Downing Street that will delay a decision on whether Johnson should face a parliamentary investigation into his Partygate conduct. Today’s Commons action was never going to be the moment that decided Johnson’s fate, and the PM gave a bullish performance to traveling hacks telling his critics they should focus on things that “matter.” Playbook will take you through how today’s vote will play out …
How we got here: Labour had put forward a motion to be voted on today that would have triggered an investigation by the privileges committee on whether Johnson misled parliament when he claimed he wasn’t aware of any No. 10 parties. Privileges committee Chair Chris Bryant said he would recuse himself from the inquiry, in an attempt to remove a reason for Tory MPs to vote against it. Government whips faced two options: ordering Tory MPs to vote down Labour’s motion and block the probe, or coming up with some sort of wrecking amendment to try to neuter its political impact.
Last night’s developments: No. 10 produced an amendment at 8 p.m. on Wednesday evening that would delay any decision on whether the privileges committee should investigate until after Sue Gray’s report is back. (Labour’s motion would have made the decision now, with the probe launching after the police conclude their inquiries.)
What this means: This is a (small) concession from Downing Street in that we are a (small) step closer to there being a privileges committee investigation into Johnson, which could seek to obtain photos and documents concerning Downing Street parties. However, it kicks the decision about whether to even have an investigation into the long grass, after the Gray report, meaning any probe would be months from concluding — well after the local elections and possibly arriving in a different political climate entirely.
Why No. 10 took this approach: There are two ways of looking at the wrecking amendment. One: If No. 10 could have killed Labour’s motion outright and did not face a significant rebellion from Tory MPs, why would they have needed to put down an amendment showing some leg on a privileges committee probe? There was speculation yesterday that the whips’ numbers were not solid and that they faced mass abstentions. Today’s Times goes with this take. Alternatively: Seeking to vote down Labour’s motion outright would have handed the opposition exactly what they really wanted — the chance to tell voters “the Tory MP in your constituency voted to cover up Johnson’s law-breaking.” The government amendment nominally keeps the prospect of an investigation open, but without actually committing to it, and means No. 10 don’t have to worry about it for weeks or months.
So what’s the truth? Probably some combination of the two. It’s certainly the case that some Tory MPs were grumbling loudly about having to put their names down on the division list blocking a Partygate investigation, allowing Labour to target them in their constituencies, especially given Johnson is not even in the country to defend himself. But there is an argument that Labour’s motion this week was never about bringing Johnson to a crunch point or even really holding him to account — it was a political move to maximize pain for Tory MPs, foment unhappiness on the Tory benches and dip every Tory’s hands in the blood ahead of the locals. From that point of view, the government being able to look like they aren’t dodging an inquiry when they sort of still are might have some party management merit.
Or as a Labour source argues: “Tory whips obviously knew that they couldn’t vote this down. They clearly haven’t learnt a thing from the mess they got into over Owen Paterson. Boris Johnson is trying to rig the rules to deflect from his own law breaking. Any Tory MP who votes for this is voting for a cover-up.”
In the Commons: Barring any ministerial statements the debate will start at 11.30 a.m. and could go on as long as 5 p.m. Paymaster general and Johnson defense lawyer Michael Ellis will open. There is some talk that the speaker will allow MPs to say the PM “lied,” although he will still ask them to moderate their language. The Tories will be on a three-line whip, meaning it should be a comfortable victory for No. 10.
The outcome: Labour and the Lib Dems have still prepared targeted adverts and leaflets accusing Tory MPs of being part of a cover-up, so expect them to drop after the vote. Tory MPs will not be delighted about the situation, but voting for the government amendment is probably less bad for them politically than simply voting down Labour’s motion. As for Johnson, none of this really changes his fate — that will still be determined by any future fines, Sue Gray’s report, and Tory MPs’ views on him as and when those developments happen. The Institute for Government’s Alice Lilly has another good thread explaining the procedure and concluding that after today: “We are likely to be in the same place. Waiting for Gray and Met inquiries to finish, and waiting to see if the Commons will decide to refer to the Privileges Committee. We don’t know how long any of that will take.”
ON THE PLANE TO INDIA
LEGAL MATTER: Boris Johnson changed tack from his contrite Commons statements of the previous 48 hours to launch into a defense of his record and lambast his critics during his flight to India. The traveling Lobby report that the PM told them: “I think politics has taught me one thing, which is that you’re better off talking and focussing on the things that matter and the things that make a real difference to the electorate, and not about politicians themselves.” H/t Beth Rigby, Harry Cole and Ben Riley-Smith.
Asked if there were any circumstances in which he’d considering resigning … Johnson replied: “Not a lot springs to mind at the moment.”
Does Partygate matter? “You’re better off talking about things other than politicians themselves.”
Will he fight the next election? “Of course, yes.”
What about Ukraine? Johnson warned the prospects of successful peace talks were bleak: “How can you negotiate with a crocodile when it’s got your leg in its jaw?”
Johnson’s day: Arriving in Gujarat, Johnson announced £1 billion worth of new investments and exports deals that he said would create 11,000 new jobs in Britain. The controversial satellite firm OneWeb has also signed a deal with India’s space agency. The PM will visit a new factory, university and cultural sites in Gujarat today, before heading to New Delhi tomorrow for talks with India’s PM Narendra Modi on energy, security and defense collaboration. Just don’t mention Russia.
Trade talks: “The Prime Minister will also use this week’s visit to drive progress in negotiations on the landmark UK-India free trade agreement,” No. 10 said overnight. Johnson told reporters on the plane over that he was open to more Indians migrating to the U.K. as Britain is short of hundreds of thousands of skilled workers. Ben Riley-Smith has more.
Is Johnson safe? There are a couple of pieces out today that entertain Johnson’s suggestion that he will make it to the next election. In the Spectator, Katy Balls quotes a former minister: “I think Boris has got away with it. The most likely scenario now is that he leads us into the next election. But what happens then, no one knows.” Part of the reason is that Chancellor Rishi Sunak is now considered to be out of the running and the rest of the pack look less attractive, in part due to their own financial situations. “Sajid can’t run after admitting to being a non-dom in the past,” says one senior Tory. Balls says that Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is also seen as too rich to run but, enjoyably, that Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is one of “the poorest members of cabinet.” Bloomberg’s Kitty Donaldson has a piece along similar lines reporting that: “Both the Tories and Labour are now working on the assumption that Boris Johnson will lead the Conservatives into the next election despite Partygate.”
There are issues in Johnson’s new operation, however: Much of the No. 10 delivery unit, once the PM’s great hope to force through policy reforms across Whitehall, is this week being moved out of Downing Street to 70 Whitehall, Playbook is told. Last month the Times’ Oli Wright and Steve Swinford ran a story about how Johnson’s aides feared they would be alienated from the boss as new No. 10 Permanent Secretary Samantha Jones plotted to shunt their desks into the Cabinet Office. At the time no decision had been made on who would have to pack up and move, but an insider told the paper: “It is going to be a massive fight because anyone who moves into 70 Whitehall will consider their job not worth having.” After much internal wrangling, Playbook hears that officials in the delivery unit have drawn the short straw. Unhappy desk movers, please feel free to get in touch …
Morale problem: The delivery unit move is indicative of a major morale problem developing behind the scenes in the government. Playbook is told it was driven by two factors: a genuine lack of space for senior aides in Downing Street, and the contentious plan for a more joined up Cabinet Office and No. 10, termed the “department for the prime minister.” Over the past few weeks, at least a dozen government sources expressed their opposition to the reforms to Playbook, calling it among other things “mad,” a “nightmare,” “stupid” and “responsible for putting a lot of people’s noses out of joint.” Catch a Whitehall official walking down the street and chances are they will talk your ear off about how the PM department reforms are ridiculous and unworkable, or so they say.
Sent to Siberia: One issue with booting people out of No. 10 is that it feels like a lot of staff are being threatened with a demotion. It might sound sad but many who work in government live for seeing the PM walk past them through the office, and if they’re in a different building that is much less likely to happen. “Proximity matters,” one official says. “So if you move people out they get f***ed off.” There is a more serious element to being moved: “If you’re not in the building, you miss a lot.” Those in the delivery unit are experiencing this feeling right now, but as the Times reported last month, policy unit and data staff also feared being “sent to Siberia,” as another official put it to Playbook. The climate of fear has led to Jones and No. 10 Chief of Staff Steve Barclay coming under heavy private criticism from colleagues.
Not fine, actually: Another factor sapping morale is the large number of unnamed civil servants who have received COVID fines. Multiple sources told Playbook that these officials have taken the fines worse than political aides. Many of these officials believed they had done nothing wrong and had answered police questionnaires honestly and in good faith, admitting for example to sitting for what they thought were work meetings in the Downing Street garden, never expecting they would be found to be law-breakers. While political aides are perhaps thicker-skinned and more seasoned at the rough and tumble of politics, some civil servants have taken the fines as a stain on their characters that they feel they don’t deserve and can’t respond to — after all they were told their gatherings were acceptable by senior bosses.
As one put it: “Imagine being a non-political civil servant who spent two years working 24/7 trying to save lives in the pandemic. Your boss told you to go into the garden with your colleagues for a work event. Now the police have decided you’re a criminal in a completely arbitrary process with no explanation and no way of defending yourself.” This upset has destroyed morale in what one source says is a highly underplayed factor in the current operation of the government.
HR woes: Then there’s the age-old story of SpAds and officials feeling they are treated like dirt by Whitehall’s next-to-non-existent human resources department. The latest frustration is over SpAd pay which, during the cost-of-living crisis, is funnily enough not rising anything like in line with inflation. Instead, ministerial aides have been offered an “extra privilege day” on top of their annual leave. “I don’t know a SpAd who’s used more than about 10 days a year of annual leave so thanks but no thanks,” one tells Playbook.
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FRENCH DEBATE RECAP
MANU ET MARINE: Emmanuel Macron and Marine Le Pen faced off in a tense TV debate last night that spanned well over two and a half hours, but appeared to leave no clear winner. Courtesy of the ace reporting from POLITICO’s team in France — read back through the key moments in last night’s live blog here or a wrap from the team here — here are some quick top lines …
Putin’s payroll: The standout moment came early in the debate, when the French president accused Le Pen of having to “depend” on Russia and on Vladimir Putin, in reference to a loan her party obtained with a Czech-Russian bank “close to the Russian leadership.” In his punchiest line of the night Macron said of Le Pen: “When you speak to Russia, you are not speaking to any foreign leader, you are talking to your banker.” The far-right leader made a point of stressing her solidarity with Ukraine throughout the debate and argued that she was forced to seek the loan as no French bank would lend to her. Macron’s attack set the tone for a fiery encounter between the two candidates.
Pensions pitch: Le Pen was on stronger ground as she traded barbs with Macron over his largely unpopular pensions plan, as she made a pitch for the left-wing voters of eliminated candidate Jean-Luc Mélenchon. She said his proposal to push back the age of retirement to 64 or 65 is “an absolutely unbearable injustice.” Macron hit back that Le Pen “never explains” how she would fund her plan to keep the retirement age between 60 and 62 years old.
Climate skeptic vs. climate hypocrite: The pair’s differing policies on climate change took center stage around the halfway mark, with Macron accusing his opponent of being a “climate skeptic” while Le Pen claimed the president is a “climate hypocrite.” Where Macron has spent time pitching green ideas since the first round as part of efforts to win over left-wing voters, Le Pen has stuck to her less-green guns — arguing last night that while she isn’t against a green transition, it “needs to be way less rapid.”
Advantage Macron: A snap poll by Elabe for the French TV channel BFM TV found that 59 percent of viewers found Macron more convincing, compared to 39 percent who preferred Le Pen. With Macron’s continued small polling lead, ahead of Sunday’s vote it still looks like the president’s to lose.
ONE-MINUTE UPDATE: Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy expressed “cautious optimism” that Western leaders had “started to understand our needs better” and would provide heavy weapons “not in weeks, not in a month, but immediately” … Russia tested its “Satan 2” nuclear missile in an apparent warning to the West. The Telegraph splashes on the development and calls it the “deadliest weapon ever” … The World Bank told the BBC that a “human catastrophe” caused by rising food prices is looming in the wake of Russia’s invasion … Britain is preparing more sanctions on Russia, Bloomberg reports … as is the EU, POLITICO reports … British and other Western officials walked out of a G20 finance meeting in Washington on Wednesday when the Russian delegate started speaking. Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey and Treasury Director General Lindsey Whyte walked out in protest alongside U.S., EU and Canadian representatives, POLITICO reports … And a town in the Odesa region is getting a “Boris Johnson Street,” according to a Ukrainian MP.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with international trade questions, followed by any UQs or parliamentary business questions to Commons Leader Mark Spencer … If there are no other ministerial statements, it will be privilege motion time.
PMQs fallout: The Tories will be demanding a response from Labour today to Tory Chairman Oliver Dowden’s letter to Keir Starmer demanding he withdraw his claim at PMQs that Boris Johnson “accused the BBC of not being critical enough of Vladimir Putin.” A Downing Street source tells Politics Home’s Adam Payne that Starmer’s language in the Commons on Tuesday amounted to “reckless visceral hatred” that “could lead to compromising the safety of MPs, particularly in the run up to local elections.” A Labour source hit back to Payne that this allegation was “contemptible.”
Smacking ban: Children’s Commissioner Rachel de Souza has called for a ban on smacking in England. Times Radio’s Lucy Fisher got the scoop, which splashes today’s paper. A government source told Fisher there were no plans to change the law as it was a “polarizing issue” and “most people would say a light smack on the arm from a parent to a child isn’t child abuse.”
Brexit crunch coming: Another sign that the Northern Ireland Brexit row will be high up in the news soon via the FT’s Peter Foster, who reports ministers are looking at how they can disapply key parts of the NI protocol.
One out, all out: Morale at the Home Office doesn’t seem great either, judging by these messages seen by Guido which reveal officials proposed going on strike and questioned how to deal with their mental health in light of the government’s Rwanda refugees policy. The story makes the Mail.
Concerning news: A lack of exposure to a virus over two years of lockdowns could be a factor in a small serious outbreak of acute liver disease in young children, the i’s Jane Merrick reports. Scientists are probing the lockdown link after 74 U.K. children, mostly under the age of five, have contracted a version of acute hepatitis which is not linked to normal strains of the disease. Scientists are also probing other possible causes, including a link to the coronavirus itself.
Lords: In recess until April 25.
STURGXIT: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon would resign if she fought and lost an independence referendum, she indicated in an interview on Loose Women. She told the chat show that she would likely “make way for somebody else” if Scotland voted no for a second time. The SNP leader also faced a pretty tough grilling over her recent breach of Scotland’s mask laws from panelist Carol McGiffin, who asked Sturgeon if she would be offering her resignation — having called for Boris Johnson to do just that. Sturgeon said people would make up their own minds about whether the breaches were equivalent. Full episode here, which also includes the first minister talking about her experiences with menopause.
More Sturgeon grilling: The FM will face opposition leaders for the first time since Maskgate in first minister’s questions at Holyrood today, kicking off just after noon.
Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi broadcast round: talkRADIO (6.50 a.m.) … Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … GB News (8.50 a.m.).
Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting broadcast round: GB News (7.30 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.) … LBC (8.50 a.m.) … talkRADIO (9.05 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Lib Dems Leader Ed Davey (6.40 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley (Sky News): Former Justice Secretary David Gauke (7.45 a.m.) … Lib Dems Leader Ed Davey (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Personal Protection Officer to the queen Simon Morgan (8.10 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Former spokesperson for President Zelenskyy Iuliia Mendel (7.35 a.m.) … Liberal Democrats Leader Ed Davey (7.45 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show: Tory peer Daniel Moylan (8.05 a.m.) … Magnitsky Global Justice Campaign chief Bill Browder (8.50 a.m.) … JCVI member Robert Read (9.33 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Peter Bone … Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell … SNP MP Stewart Hosie … The Telegraph’s Madeline Grant.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Graham Stuart … Former Labour MP Mary Creagh … Policy Exchange director Dean Godson … The New Statesman’s George Eaton.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): The Mail’s John Stevens and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): The Mail on Sunday’s Anna Mikhailova and journalism professor Ivor Gaber.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Prince Harry’s ultimate royal snub.
Daily Mail: Palace shock at Harry, duke of delusion.
Daily Mirror: Are you coming or not then? With just 6 weeks to go, Harry won’t commit to Queen’s party.
Daily Star: The ego has landed.
HuffPost UK: Tories in partygate panic.
i: Tory rebels fear being ‘burned’ by Johnson.
Metro: Diana helps me to cope.
POLITICO UK: Marine Le Pen and the end of the EU as we know it.
PoliticsHome: Tory MPs say there’s not much chance of a mass rebellion over partygate vote.
The Daily Telegraph: Putin tests ‘world’s deadliest weapon.’
The Guardian: Johnson fails to block partygate inquiry as backbenchers mutiny.
The Independent: Afghans who helped U.K. still stranded in danger.
The Sun: Grumpy Trumpy.
The Times: Children’s czar calls for ban on smacking.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO Europe: The end of Europe — What if Marine Le Pen gets what she wants?
The New Statesman: Law and disorder — Boris Johnson’s own MPs won’t act. The people must.
The Spectator: The survivor — How much longer can Boris Johnson keep going, asks Katy Balls.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny — particularly in the morning — and breezy. Highs of 18C.
BIRTHDAYS: Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II turns 96 … Incoming BBC Political Editor Chris Mason … Gateshead MP Ian Mearns … … Clwyd South MP Simon Baynes … Labour peer David Lipsey … Retired Tory peer Robin Dixon.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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