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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
NEWS FROM PLAYBOOK TOWERS: A quick note from me on some job news. It’s been an absolute privilege bringing you the news in this email each morning over the past couple of (totally crazy) years, but I’m very excited to be taking on a new role at Bloomberg in the summer — with any luck breaking stories while the sun is up. I’ll be sad to leave my brilliant POLITICO colleagues, especially top boss Kate Day and the ace Playbook team, Zoya Sheftalovich, Eleni Courea and Andrew McDonald, who make this email readable in the early hours. And I’ll miss the readers this newsletter has built over the last five years — even the grumpy early morning SpAd texts. You’ve still got me for a few more weeks for what will no doubt be a very busy time in Westminster. And if you think you’re the next Playbook author, one of the biggest and best jobs in SW1 driving the day each day, apply here.
DRIVING THE DAY
FESTIVAL OF IDEAS: Boris Johnson faces the final Prime Minister’s Questions of the parliamentary session today with the cost of living crisis once again at the top of the domestic political agenda. Tuesday’s Cabinet meeting had something of a “yes and ho” vibe as ministers bounced around their best (non-fiscal) ideas to alleviate the struggles of Brits facing rising prices and energy bills. The plan is the government will be able to put together a package of cheap proposals to be announced next month, ahead of more serious new support before bills rise again later this year. But both No. 10 and No. 11 can expect to face criticism from Labour Leader Keir Starmer today — as well as internal dissent from their own ministers — as calls for a more significant intervention in the form of tax cuts become louder. Here’s what happened as the Cabinet chucked the equivalent of Stuart Pearson’s pink ball around the table.
Childcare: Johnson expressed an interest in reducing the cost of childcare by reviewing rules on ratios of nursery staff to children. A Cabinet source tells the Guardian’s Rowena Mason that Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi is looking at a Scottish style approach for England, with “looser ratios” for 2-year-olds. This was looked at during the Coalition years but never happened. Johnson ordered a review of childcare costs to be sped up, Mason reports. Labour opposed the plan, arguing it would “drive down quality whilst making no difference to availability.”
MOTs: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps had potential good news for motorists, suggesting annual MOTs (aka Ministry of Transport tests) could be scrapped and replaced with a two-year requirement. The Telegraph’s Tony Diver and Ben Riley-Smith say this would save drivers £55 a year. But Sky’s Sam Coates says there were objections that this was counterintuitive as inefficient cars burn more fuel. The AA is against the idea citing road safety and higher repair bills, the BBC’s Ione Wells reports.
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Eligibility check: Possibly the idea No. 10 is keenest on is making sure people are accessing support that is already available to them, but that they might not be aware of. In his excellent round up of the session, the i’s Hugo Gye says the government will look at urging people to check which benefits they are eligible for, and that Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has written to telecoms bosses urging them to improve take up of cheaper “social tariffs” for people on Universal Credit.
Mogg vs. Kwarteng: There was another divide on the government’s green agenda, with Efficiencies Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg having a moan about net zero commitments, the Times‘ Chris Smyth reports. Pro-green Energy Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng tweeted pointedly after the meeting that “Nuclear and renewables are cheaper than burning gas.”
Saj vs. Gove: Smyth also hears that Health Secretary Sajid Javid demanded more be done to boost housebuilding, apparently winning agreement from Rees-Mogg and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. Housing Secretary Michael Gove, killer-off-er of the old housing reforms, was criticized, Smyth writes. He says Javid also called for a “supply-side revolution” with more investment in energy, transport and infrastructure.
Tariff slashers: Monday’s well-sourced Kate Ferguson Sun story about possible cuts to food tariffs was on the money. The Telegraph suggests Rees-Mogg fancies unilateral tariff reductions, although the department for international trade isn’t keen. The i also says Environment Secretary George Eustice has brought in changes to help farmers deal with a global shortage of fertilizer.
Backlog busters: In a lightning quick leak, the Standard’s David Bond revealed a frustrated Johnson told the room he would “privatize the ar*e off” the Passport Office, DVLA and other bodies that made Britons’ lives more difficult by failing to get on top of their backlogs.
Uncompromising Malthouse: The main battle of the day though was on tax. Policing Minister Kit Malthouse led the charge, telling colleagues that tax cuts were the way to help families. The Times says Rees-Mogg, who sounds like he had a very chatty meeting, approved. The Telegraph says Malthouse’s words received backing from around the table.
Sunak response: Nothing doing from the chancellor on tax until the budget later in the year, the Telegraph says. And a source close to Rishi Sunak tells the i: “The Treasury can’t always be the solution to these things. We are in a difficult spot, you just have to look at the public finances.”
Getting harder to argue … The Telegraph’s Harry Brennan notes the Treasury brought in more tax than ever before in the last year, with income tax, national insurance, capital gains and inheritance tax revenues all hitting record highs. The FT’s Chris Giles writes that government borrowing halved in the last year, “giving the chancellor more scope to address the cost of living crisis.”
What happens next? The ideas will go to the cost of living Cabinet subcommittee for Johnson to consider which are worthy of announcing in the weeks ahead.
Talking head: Johnson gave a wide-ranging interview to Talk TV’s Tom Newton Dunn last night which contained news on Tuesday’s meeting and more. Here are your top lines: Johnson confirmed he criticized the “post-COVID work from home mañana culture” of some civil servants … he criticized the Passport Office: “If you to want to get a new passport, if you want to go on holiday with your family, it can cost hundreds of pounds to get new passports. You deserve to have a cheaper, faster service” … and he didn’t rule out privatization: “I don’t care whether an institution is in the private or the public sector, I just want it to deliver value. I want it to deliver value and a good service.”
And on Russia: Johnson revealed the government told Facebook to take down a Russian video of a British hostage: “Nadine Dorries rang Facebook earlier on today, rang Nick Clegg. Well, and as I understand the matter, Nick has agreed to take that down” … he said he was not worried Putin might use nuclear weapons … he denied Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov’s claim that the West is at war with Russia … and he said the Russian people’s continued support for Putin means he has the “political margin” to end the war and back down.
And Partygate: Johnson confirmed he hadn’t had a fine for the BYOB bash … and denied claims he had called rebel Tory MP Tobias Ellwood a “c***.”
DIGEST: Russia’s Gazprom will halt gas deliveries to Poland as of today over its refusal to settle payments in rubles, Polish gas utility PGNiG said … Russia is also stopping gas supplies to Bulgaria … The German government said it will deliver anti-aircraft tanks to Ukraine after facing strong pressure at home and abroad to abandon its reluctance to supply heavy weapons to Kyiv … Berlin could handle an embargo on Russian oil imports, Germany’s Climate and Economy Minister Robert Habeck said, suggesting the country could end its dependence on Moscow within “days” … EU ambassadors will discuss tougher action against Russia today — but if they were hoping for details of the emerging plan to sanction Russian oil, they are set to be disappointed … Roughly 40 countries were convened by U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin at Ramstein Air Force base in Germany to improve the coordination of states that have been rushing huge quantities of military assistance to Ukraine.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 10.30 a.m. with Northern Ireland questions, followed by PMQs at noon … The main business will be more ping pong, on the Elections Bill and, if necessary, Nationality and Borders Bill.
HOYLE’S WAR: Mail on Sunday Editor David Dillon has doubled down on this weekend’s Angela Rayner story by writing to Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle rejecting his demand for a meeting over the sexism row. The original story claimed Rayner “admitted” to the alleged “Basic Instinct ploy” in a conversation with a Tory MP — Dillon writes today that three more MPs have come forward to make the same claim. The MoS’s Dan Hodges has the splash of today’s Mail. Inside on pages six and seven, the paper says Rayner joked about the “mortifying” comparisons on a podcast with comedian Matt Forde in January. It is fair to say Labour do not think much of this response and we’ll likely hear more from them on it today.
Speakers’ corner: The Mail group response would appear to confirm fears that Hoyle’s handling of the row had been an own goal and turned a conversation about sexism in Westminster into a press freedom issue. Hoyle put out a jumpy statement last night: “I am a staunch believer and protector of Press freedom, which is why when an MP asked me to remove the pass of a sketch writer last week for something he had written, I said ‘no.’ I firmly believe in the duty of reporters to cover Parliament, but I would also make a plea — nothing more — for the feelings of all MPs and their families to be considered, and the impact on their safety, when articles are written. I would just ask that we are all a little kinder.”
Hmm … Playbook hears, however, that the MoS incident is not the first time Hoyle has summoned journalists for a dressing down over stories to which he objects.
Truss speech: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss gives her Mansion House speech this evening outlining her vision for British foreign policy. She’ll say the Ukraine war must be a catalyst for “rebooting, remodelling and recasting” the free world’s approach to deterring aggressors, will praise the unity of the world’s response to Putin’s invasion but argue it needs to “follow through” to ensure aggressors “fail” and are “contained” in the future. Katy Balls has a well-briefed preview in the i.
Frost speech: Former Brexit Minister David Frost is also giving a speech this evening, where the Sun’s Harry Cole says he will argue Britain was forced to sign up the Northern Ireland protocol if it wanted to guarantee Brexit, and insists the protocol “has to be renegotiated or removed.”
8 DAYS TO GO: A counterintuitive piece from election boffins Colin Rallings and Michael Thrasher suggests the locals may not go quite as the perceived wisdom suggests. They reckon Labour could actually “struggle to make gains” because “May’s contests were last fought in 2018 — the high water mark of Labour’s recent performance, potentially sparing the Tories major losses this year.” Rallings and Thrasher calculate that the last time this batch of seats were contested, the national equivalent vote put Labour just 1 point behind the Tories on 36 percent. That means 2018 remains Labour’s best showing at the local elections since 2012, and “the party will do well to avoid making standing still rather than picking up gains seem rather underwhelming when the post-mortem takes place.” Not long to find out.
AMT AND KT UNITE: The U.K. and U.S. last night vowed to work together on preventing global food shortages as a result of the war in Ukraine. Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan and her U.S. counterpart Katherine Tai said in a joint statement after trade talks in London that the two nations would work together to “support open, predictable, rules-based agricultural trade to mitigate supply chain disruptions and restore global food security imperiled by Russian aggression in Ukraine.” POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio has more for POLITICO Trade Pros here.
**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.**
LOOK AWAY NOW, LORD AGNEW: Today’s Times splash has astonishing revelations of the ways people misused and abused the COVID loan scheme that was set up to support businesses during the pandemic, up to the extreme of Border Force officials stopping people carrying suitcases filled with COVID loan cash at airports. In another example, a builder obtained the maximum COVID bounce-back loan of £50,000 by claiming his firm had turned over at least £200,000 the previous year — when prior to receipt of the loan his firm’s account balance stood at £2.72 in credit. The builder then admitted he spent the loan playing poker. Well worth reading the full investigation by George Greenwood and James Hurley here.
YVETTE VS. PRITI: Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper has slammed Priti Patel as the “weakest home secretary” she has ever seen, in a punchy interview with the House Magazine’s Sienna Rodgers. Cooper contrasts herself as someone who would “focus on the detail and delivery” as opposed to her opposite number’s “focus on headlines,” which she blames for the delays on granting visas to Ukrainians. Away from testing out attack lines, Cooper also diplomatically skates over her time on the backbenches during the Corbyn years, discusses her return to the frontbench and defends Labour plans that have been criticized from the left for “police hubs” in communities.
PESTMINSTER FAILS AGAIN: Disgraced MP Imran Ahmad Khan was advising the government on grooming gangs while under police investigation for assaulting a minor, the Guardian’s Rajeev Syal reports. The then-Tory MP contributed to a policy paper on child sexual exploitation and attended online meetings as part of an “expert” panel in July, September and November 2020. Khan first gave a written statement under caution months earlier in May 2020 according to Staffordshire Police, on the claim that he had assaulted a 15-year-old boy. The victim also said he contacted the Conservative Party press office in 2019, but “wasn’t taken very seriously” — a full year before Khan would conclude his work advising the government on child sexual exploitation. A Home Office spokesperson told the Guardian that neither Priti Patel nor the Home Office were aware of the claims against Khan before they were made public in 2021.
NO END IN GEIDT: The annual report from Christopher Geidt, the PM’s independent adviser on ministers’ interests, has been delayed until later in May, Insider’s Henry Dyer reports. The report was originally expected this month, and is expected to include detail on new responsibilities for Geidt.
NEWS FROM THE BLUE WALL: The rural economy is 18 percent less productive than the national average, a new report from the Rural Powerhouse APPG finds. The report argues no recent government has managed to unlock the countryside’s economic potential — a potential problem for the current government with recent polling that shows Labour and the Tories are virtually neck and neck in rural areas.
Committee corridor: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is up at the transport committee (9.30 a.m.) … International Trade Secretary Anne-Marie Trevelyan will face the international trade committee after the session was postponed last week (10 a.m.) … The Treasury committee will hear from Treasury Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar on combating COVID loan scheme fraud (2.15 p.m.) … and the Northern Ireland affairs committee will quiz Leveling Up Minister Neil O’Brien on how the white paper could benefit NI (3.30 p.m.).
Wonk watch: Social Market Foundation Director James Kirkup will be discussing all things public services and reform — from hospital spending, to social care and the Lords — with the veteran former civil servant and Health Minister Norman Warner, online this morning from 10.30 a.m. Register here.
Lords: Sits from 3 p.m. with questions on Avanti Trains, Amnesty International’s latest annual report and COVID vaccine inequity … The Pension Schemes (Conversion of Guaranteed Minimum Pensions) Bill and British Sign Language will receive third reading rubber stampings … and then peers will consider Commons amendments to the Judicial Review and Courts Bill.
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Deputy PM and Justice Secretary Dominic Raab broadcast round: Times Radio (7 a.m.) … Sky News (7.15 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … talkTV (8.50 a.m.).
Shadow Justice Secretary Steve Reed broadcast round: talkTV (7.45 a.m.) … GB News (7.30 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley (Sky News): Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (7.45 a.m.) … Former Foreign Secretary Malcolm Rifkind (8.30 a.m.) … Minister for Disabled People Chloe Smith (8.35 am.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Gordon Brown SpAd Michael Jacobs (7.05 a.m.) … Former German Ambassador to the U.K. Thomas Matussek (7.20 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Muslim Council of Britain’s Miqdaad Versi (8.15 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkTV): Reform U.K. Leader Richard Tice (8.05 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 11.15 a.m.): Tory MP Brendan Clarke-Smith … Welsh Economy Minister Vaughan Gething … Times Radio presenter Ayesha Hazarika … ConservativeHome columnist Emily Carver … Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns … Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Pat McFadden … SNP MP Kirsty Blackman.
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 11.50 a.m.): Tory MP Pauline Latham and Shadow Justice Minister Anna McMorrin.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Independent government adviser for tackling violence against women and girls Nimco Ali … TUC General Secretary Frances O’Grady … Mirror Political Editor Pippa Crerar … Political commentator Simon Heffer.
Peston (Twitter 9 p.m. and ITV 11 p.m.): Labour Leader Keir Starmer … European Commission First Vice President Frans Timmermans … Chef Tom Kerridge … Tory MP Harriet Baldwin … Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): The Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and Mail’s Andrew Pierce.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: You’re paying record £718 billion in tax … but for what?
Daily Mail: No, mister speaker!
Daily Mirror: Addicted to giving — Gran who has given away half her fortune hands out another £11m.
Daily Star: Well he’s a barrel of laughs, ain’t he?
Financial Times: Tesla dented as investors count on Musk share sale to pay for Twitter.
HuffPost UK: Johnson’s threat to ‘manana culture.’
i: Annual MOTs facing axe in new cost of living plan.
Metro: Crunch time U.K. — 59 percent are now cutting back on the essentials.
POLITICO UK: U.S. allies global allies to help Ukraine repel Russia.
PoliticsHome: Yvette Cooper says Priti Patel is the ‘weakest home secretary I’ve ever seen.’
The Daily Telegraph: Sunak faces Cabinet pressure to cut tax.
The Guardian: DJ Westwood accused of sexual misconduct by multiple women.
The Independent: Cabinet clash over plans to ease cost of living.
The Sun: We have no alibi for Maddie suspect.
The Times: Russia threatens strikes against western targets.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ More sun, particularly in the morning. Highs of 14C.
LOBBY NEWS: Playbook hears Lobby rising star Noa Hoffman will be joining the Sun’s growing Westminster team this summer as its new political reporter.
NEW GIG: Former Energy Minister Chris Skidmore has been elected as the new chair of the Environment APPG, taking over from Anthony Browne.
BIRTHDAYS: South West Bedfordshire MP Andrew Selous … Opposition Whip Marie Rimmer … Argyll and Bute MP Brendan O’Hara … Department of Work and Pensions Permanent Secretary Peter Schofield … The Sun’s Political Editor Harry Cole … King Willem-Alexander of the Netherlands … The Economist’s Jon Fasman … Welsh Conservative MS Russell George … USDAW General Secretary Paddy Lillis … Former Stormont Deputy Speaker Jim Wells.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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