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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Thursday morning.
SPOTTED: At Sun Political Editor Harry Cole‘s birthday bash at the Fitzdares Club last night: Cabinet Ministers Ben Wallace and Simon Hart … Minister James Cleverly … Northern Powerhouse Jake Berry … former Minister James Bethell … hacks Olivia Cole, Rachel Johnson, Henry Zeffman, Katy Balls, Pippa Crerar, Tom Newton Dunn, Kate McCann, James Slack, Kate Ferguson, Natasha Clark, Jack Elsom, Alex Goss, Alex West, Brandon Malinsky, Harry Lambert, James Heale, Glen Owen and Dan Hodges … SpAds Rosie Bate-Williams, Sheridan Westlake, Sophia True, Declan Lyons, Cameron Brown, Jack Sellers, Charlie Rowley, Peter Quentin, Daisy Peck and Damon Poole … former Labour MP Michael Dugher … and former SpAds and officials Carrie Johnson, Jack Doyle, Richard Jackson, Richard N. Jackson, Simon McGee, James Starkie and Jason Stein.
DRIVING THE DAY
PESTMINSTER 5 YEARS ON: Parliament will prorogue this afternoon until the Queen’s Speech on May 10, but MPs return to their constituencies with Westminster in disrepute once again amid yet another grim Commons sex scandal. An unnamed Conservative MP was on Wednesday accused by their colleagues of watching porn on their phone in the workplace on multiple occasions. The Tory Party has referred the matter for independent investigation and the MP faces the potential end of his political career if the allegations are found to be true. Since the original Pestminster story blew up in 2017 — five years ago now — it seems that every few months we go through the same charade of shock at the revelations about wrong ‘un MPs, empty promises of zero tolerance and reforms to protect staff, only for nothing to change and the cycle to begin again a few months later.
Heat on Harris: The Mirror and the Sun got there first with the porn story yesterday. Pippa Crerar reports that at a meeting of Tory MPs with Chief Whip Chris Heaton Harris on Tuesday night, a female minister accused a male colleague of watching porn on his phone while sitting next to her in the Commons recently. An MP told Crerar: “It was like a blood-letting. Everybody was sharing awful stories of what had happened to them in the Commons at the hands of male MPs. [The chief whip] clearly hadn’t been expecting it and looked knocked for six. But the big question is what happens next.” Kate Ferguson and Jack Elsom say the culprit has been identified but won’t be named by the Tory Party. “Around 14 MPs got up one after the other to describe their experiences — it was shocking,” an insider tells them.
Dishonorable member: The Telegraph’s Ben Riley-Smith, Chris Hope and Camilla Turner reckon the conversation went something like … One female MP said: “You won’t believe it but I actually caught an MP in the Chamber watching porn. I’m sure he knew I could see it.” To which a second female MP claimed: “I have also caught a colleague watching porn in the Commons.”
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Inside the room: One MP present at the meeting tells POLITICO’s Esther Webber the room was “packed” with dozens of MPs, male and female, who are “appalled, exhausted and angry” at the persistence of misogyny and sexual misconduct at Westminster. The chief whip was shocked by the revelations, the MP said, but stressed that it’s not just down to him to root it out. The MP claimed the situation had got worse under the current leadership because “nothing happens” to dodgy MPs under “a culture of rule-breaking,” while other MPs know that the best way to get ahead is to stay silent. Here’s Esther’s story on the day’s developments.
Don’t forget … this problem has existed for years and there is arguably no more egregious case of a senior politician turning a blind eye to sexual misconduct than Theresa May restoring the whip to then Tory MP Andrew Griffiths so he could vote to save her career. Last year Griffiths was found to have raped and physically abused his wife.
Who is it? Unsurprisingly, Westminster was awash with speculation throughout the day yesterday over who the porn watching MP could be. Playbook heard several names bandied about — which logically suggests several have been wrongly identified — before the speculation started to settle on one MP. There was some initial confusion over whether it was a minister, whip or backbencher, or if it was one or multiple MPs. The Times‘ Steve Swinford cleared it up, reporting: “It is in fact one Tory MP accused of watching pornography on phone Commons — but on more than one occasion. Two female MPs described different occasions during meeting last night. When they compared notes & spoke to chief whip after they realised it was same individual. I’m told categorically that the Tory MP who allegedly watched pornography is *not* a frontbencher.”
Will they be named? You would be surprised if the MP makes it through the Sunday newspapers without their name appearing on a front page. There is an issue with that though …
Probe anonymity: Heaton Harris last night referred the case to parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme. His spokesperson said: “Following allegations of inappropriate behaviour in the House of Commons the Chief Whip has asked that this matter be referred to the ICGS. Upon the conclusion of any ICGS investigation the Chief Whip will take appropriate action.” But the opaque nature of the scheme means that MPs are not normally named while they are under investigation.
Plus … there is an issue with who calls in the ICGS. As ITV’s Anushka Asthana points out: “The chief whip wants the allegations at last night’s 2020 meeting (about MP watching porn in chamber) referred to Independent Complaints and Grievances scheme before he takes action. But only witnesses can make complaint — so if they don’t want to — no investigation?”
Sackable offence: Tory MP Pauline Latham told the BBC: “Many people came out totally shell shocked. They couldn’t believe something like that could happen in what’s really a professional place. We are supposed to set an example in this place and that is absolutely appalling. I am totally shocked.” Latham said it was a “sackable offence” and the perpetrator should be kicked out of the Tory Party.
Meanwhile: The Tories have been condemned by a survivor of the Rotherham child abuse scandal, after the Guardian reported that disgraced MP Imran Ahmad Khan was appointed as an adviser to the Tories on child exploitation while he was being investigated for assault. Sammy Woodhouse, who attended meetings with Khan while he was on the panel, told the Guardian’s Rajeev Syal that she is “disgusted to have been put in a position where I was working with a man later convicted for child sexual assault. Knowing now that the Conservatives had already received complaints from a victim about this man, it is gut-wrenching for me as a survivor that they could possibly have allowed him to be considered for this role.”
Timely reminder … that Caroline Wheeler revealed in the Sunday Times last weekend that 56 MPs are currently facing sexual misconduct investigations from the ICGS, including three Cabinet ministers and two Shadow Cabinet ministers. That is nearly 9 percent of MPs.
ONLY KEIR FOR THE BEER: Today it is Labour leader Keir Starmer’s turn to appear on the front pages over Partygate, with both the Mail and the Sun going big on those pictures of him drinking beer at a local party meeting in Durham last year. Starmer had an awkward encounter with the BBC’s Sophie Raworth on the subject a few weeks back and new life was breathed into the story on Wednesday when Durham Police wrote to Tory MP Richard Holden to say they would make further “enquiries.” The Mail’s Dan Martin splashes the story and has a double-page spread inside, plus a new 40-second video of the moment Starmer was seen swigging from a bottle.
The allegation: Did Starmer’s beer with colleagues during the Hartlepool by-election break the rules? At the time Durham was in (trigger warning) Tier 2 restrictions, which stated: “You must not socialise indoors except with your household or support bubble.” Labour insists it was a work meeting and that Starmer and the others stopped briefly for a takeaway and beer before carrying on. Durham police previously said they did not believe this was a rule breach.
Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is accusing the cops of inconsistency: “Keir Starmer has used every trick in the book to attack the PM over his handling of events in No. 10, yet he doesn’t want to be held to the same standard the PM has subjected himself to. He’s a hypocrite who should fess up to what really happened in Durham and explain why he thinks it’s any different to the hyperbole he leveled at the PM. A lack of consistency in interpretation of the regulations needs examining — urgently.”
New claim: In a new letter to Durham police, Tory MP Richard Holden says he has been made aware of “an invitation posted online at the time by the City of Durham Labour Party,” which “shows that a ‘Quiz and Social’ in person event was hosted on the evening of the 30 April 2021 at the location where Keir Starmer was filmed socialising and drinking beer. At the time of writing, the City of Durham Labour Party are still advertising this ‘CLP Quiz and Social’ on their Facebook page. The advert clearly shows the gathering was arranged to take place at 7 p.m. on the 30 April 2021. I am also concerned that on one of the invitations to the event posted on the CLP’s Facebook, [Labour MP] Mary Kelly Foy encouraged attendees to have a ‘greasy night’ — which Urban Dictionary defines as ‘drinking too much.’”
What Labour says: It was a virtual quiz and Starmer didn’t take part.
What Durham police say: Deputy Chief Constable Ciaron Irvine tells Holden he will “make enquiries with the investigation team and will update you at the point at which I have been able to conclude those enquiries.”
Where this goes next: Durham police are at pains to stress that they are not reopening the Starmer case at the moment, though they didn’t rule it out when asked by the Mail. But expect the Tories to continue to ask why Starmer’s break from work to have a beer does not warrant a fine, when the PM’s birthday break from work did. A senior government source told the Mail: “By his own admission, Keir Starmer was not working while he was boozing inside with his friends. He says this was between meetings so assuming this is true, there is absolutely no difference between this and what happened in Downing Street on the PM’s birthday. The rules applied to the whole country so Durham police must take the same approach as the Met and open a criminal investigation into this event.”
Original Partygate news: Boris Johnson says he was interviewing a government adviser about a possible job in No. 10 at a work meeting in his flat on the night of the alleged ABBA party, the Times‘ Matt Dathan reports.
DIGEST: Russian President Vladimir Putin has warned any country thinking of intervening in Ukraine that they will face a “lightning fast” response, the BBC reports … Putin also warned that any country refusing to bow to his demands to pay for natural gas in rubles will face the same fate as Poland and Bulgaria and have their gas shut off … Russia has sanctioned 287 British MPs in a retaliatory move against U.K. curbs imposed over the Ukraine invasion … though Guido counts that 18 are non-MPs and two are duplicates … Russia’s war in Ukraine is at risk of morphing into something even more dangerous, warns POLITICO’s Jamie Dettmer this morning.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with Defra questions, followed by any UQs or statements … and then parliament will be prorogued.
Queen’s Speech latest: The FT’s Jim Pickard, George Parker and Nathalie Thomas have the essential preview of what to expect in the Queen’s Speech in two weeks. They say it will have around 20 bills, including new legislation to support the transition to a low carbon economy that will propose a “future system operator that would sit at the centre of the UK’s electricity and gas infrastructure and co-ordinate strategic planning.” There will also he “levelling-up” measures, as well as bills on financial services and economic crime. But there will be no reforms of audit regulation and corporate governance, the FT reports.
Elsewhere: ITV’s Simon Harries says the government is planning new laws to crack down on unlicensed rickshaws in London … and the Times‘ Oli Wright says the U.K. will scrap checks food entering the country from the EU.
Rishi business: Chancellor Rishi Sunak is threatening energy companies with a windfall tax on their profits, the Telegraph’s Chris Hope and Adam Hart report … Sunak told Cabinet on Tuesday that interest rates would rise 2.5 percent over the next year, causing misery for mortgage-payers, the Times‘ Steve Swinford and Chris Smyth report … the chancellor attracted criticism for saying it would be “silly” to provide more support on energy bills now before knowing the situation later in the year … but in better news for Sunak he was cleared by Christopher Geidt of breaching the ministerial code over his non-dom row.
Talking of non-dom rows … Health Secretary Sajid Javid used an offshore trust back when he was a PPS to George Osborne in the Treasury, and didn’t declare it to the parliamentary authorities, the Indy’s Anna Isaac reports.
One for the COVID inquiry: The High Court ruled yesterday that the government’s policy of discharging untested COVID patients into care homes was unlawful. The BBC has a write-up. Boris Johnson and former Health Secretary Matt Hancock attempted to blame the disbanded Public Health England yesterday.
Truss speech: NATO should seek to boost security in the Indo-Pacific region, Britain’s foreign secretary said, as she singled out Taiwan’s need for protection against China, my POLITICO colleague Cristina Gallardo writes. In a speech on the U.K.’s foreign policy Wednesday night, Liz Truss said Britain rejects “the false choice between Euro-Atlantic security and Indo-Pacific security” in favor of “a global NATO.” “I mean that NATO must have a global outlook, ready to tackle global threats,” Truss said. “We need to pre-empt threats in the Indo-Pacific, working with allies like Japan and Australia to ensure that the Pacific is protected. We must ensure that democracies like Taiwan are able to defend themselves.”
Later today: Truss will be in the Netherlands to meet Minister for Foreign Affairs Wopke Hoekstra tonight to discuss the situation in Ukraine.
Committee corridor: The European scrutiny committee will quiz Europe Minister James Cleverly on the U.K.’s new relationship with the EU (10.45 a.m.).
Lords: Sits from 11 a.m. with questions on displaced people and refugees, relations with Caribbean countries and greater diversity on school governing bodies … After some assorted regulations and motions, the Lords will be prorogued.
CLIMATE, CHANGED: POLITICO’s ace climate and environment team has a great new project that is well worth your time, combining character-driven reporting from the field and interviews with innovators to show how the climate crisis is already changing Europe. Follow all the coverage at the hub here — it kicks off with this piece by Karl Mathiesen on the movement of young activists started by Greta Thunberg, and how she has been shaped by a childhood spent in activism.
**As the West is ramping up sanctions towards Russia, POLITICO Pro keeps you informed on any news regarding European trade policy. Contact us from your business email address to request a free trial.**
STATE OF THE UNION
COMING ATTRACTION: The Scottish government will be forced to reveal the legal advice it has received on holding a second independence referendum by June 10, after a ruling by Scotland’s information commissioner. The ruling came after an FOI from the Scotsman more than a year ago concerning the advice, which wasn’t made public due to government concerns around breaching legal privilege. Full story from the Scotsman’s Conor Matchett.
Why this matters: The disclosure, when and if it comes, will represent the first time any aspect of the Scottish government’s position on holding a referendum has been made public. Nicola Sturgeon’s government is still planning to publish a bill at Holyrood after the council elections which would prepare the ground for a referendum next year, a move that could lead to an almighty court battle with a U.K. government which is opposed and believes Holyrood doesn’t have the power to hold a binding vote.
MAKES NO CENSUS: Ministers in the Scottish government are preparing to extend the deadline to complete Scotland’s census, the Telegraph’s Daniel Sanderson reports, with just 74 percent of forms returned ahead of Sunday’s original deadline. The Scottish government moved the Scottish census timetable out of sync with the rest of the U.K. by delaying it for 12 months last year, to “ensure the highest possible response rate.” The U.K. census went ahead as normal last year — with a 97 percent response rate.
ANOTHER PESTMINSTER STORY: A female Welsh MP has accused a member of the shadow Cabinet of making lewd comments to her, including describing her as a “secret weapon” because “women want to be her friend and men want to **** her.” BBC Wales got the story.
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Defense Secretary Ben Wallace broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … talkTV (9.05 a.m.).
Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jon Ashworth broadcast round: GB News (7.15 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Andrew Davies, the chief executive of Kier (6.50 a.m.) … Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford (7.20 a.m.) … Director of Operations at the International Committee of the Red Cross Dominik Stillhart (7.30 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley (Sky News): Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (7.30 a.m.) … Former Australian PM Kevin Rudd (8.45 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Former Minister for Women and Equalities Nicky Morgan (8 a.m.) … Former Moldovan Ambassador to the U.N. Vlad Lupan (8.15 a.m.) … Health committee Chairman Jeremy Hunt (8.45 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkTV): Former Lib Dem MP Norman Lamb (7.05 a.m.) … Labour MP Kate Green (7.45 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Damian Collins … Labour MP Barry Gardiner … Plaid Westminster leader Liz Saville Roberts … City AM Editor Andy Silvester … Head teacher Katharine Birbalsingh … The Spectator’s Cindy Yu.
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 12 p.m.): Labour MP Bambos Charalambous … Labour peer George Howarth … Labour MP Marsha de Cordova.
Question Time (From Romford, BBC One 10.40 p.m.): Employment Minister Mims Davies … Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jon Ashworth … Entrepreneur Bejay Mulenga … Lib Dems leader Ed Davey … The Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and Political Editor of the Liverpool Echo Liam Thorp.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Tory MP ‘caught watching porn in the Commons.’
Daily Mail: Police review over Starmer’s lockdown drinks.
Daily Mirror: Tory’s porn shame in Commons.
Daily Star: Wipe out — Every Brit uses 127 toilet rolls a year.
Financial Times: Gas price soars as Russia turns off taps to Poland and Bulgaria.
HuffPost UK: Probe into claims MP watched porn in Commons.
i: 20 warnings missed to stop COVID slaughter in care homes.
Metro: Porn MP exposed.
POLITICO UK: You’re next — Kremlin warns anyone not paying in rubles also faces gas shutoff.
PoliticsHome: Tories are caught in a tug-of-war between national scandal and local issues at the May elections.
The Daily Telegraph: Energy firms face threat of windfall tax.
The Guardian: Fear of energy price crisis as Russia cuts gas supply.
The Independent: Javid used offshore trust while working at Treasury.
The Sun: Gospel truth — I’m done.
The Times: Truss fears Ukraine war could carry on for years.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO Europe: Greta Thunberg doesn’t want you to talk about her anymore.
The New European: Dear Mr Klopp, you’re wasted in football.
The New Statesman: Sturgeon’s nuclear dilemma — Why Putin’s war in Ukraine may sink the plan for Scottish independence.
The Spectator: Fractured — Can the West fix itself, asks Douglas Murray.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny in spells throughout the day. Highs of 16C.
BEST WISHES: To Scottish Tory MSP Edward Mountain, who revealed he has been fighting bowel cancer in a brave video urging people to look out for the symptoms. Watch here.
BIRTHDAYS: East Lothian MP Kenny MacAskill … Crossbench peer Ajay Kakkar … Former Tory MP Chris White … British Consul-General to Hong Kong Brian Davidson.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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