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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Wednesday morning.
BREAKING OVERNIGHT: U.S. President Joe Biden delivered an emotional address to the American people in which he vowed to defeat the gun lobby following a horrific mass shooting at a school in Texas that killed 19 children and at least two adults. The children were aged between seven and 10.
Biden words: “How many scores of little children who witnessed what happened — seen their friends die as if they’re in a battlefield, for god’s sake. To lose a child is like having a piece of your soul ripped away. There’s a hollowness in your chest. When in God’s name are we going to stand up to the gun lobby? … I am sick and tired of it. We have to act. And don’t tell me we can’t have an impact on this carnage.”
The shooting came … 10 days after a racist mass killing in Buffalo, New York, which saw 10 people murdered in a predominantly Black community. It is nearly 10 years since the Sandy Hook elementary school shooting that killed 26 people. “Since then, there have been over 900 incidents of gunfires reported on school grounds,” Biden said in his address — an almost incomprehensible statistic.
Former President Barack Obama tweeted: “Our country is paralyzed, not by fear, but by a gun lobby and a political party that have shown no willingness to act in any way that might help prevent these tragedies.”
Full story: My POLITICO U.S. colleagues have the full details.
**A message from MSD: We know that the NHS is still grappling with COVID-19, and working flat out to recover waiting lists and maintain vital services. It is therefore crucial that the UK reduces demand on the NHS from vaccine-preventable diseases like chickenpox as much as possible. Find out more here.**
DRIVING THE DAY
GRAY DAY: It’s finally here. Nearly six months after the first Partygate revelations landed in the Mirror in November last year — followed by a tumultuous period of leaks, denials and apologies, a drip-drip of hugely damaging revelations, and a chaotic police investigation that saw Boris Johnson and Chancellor Rishi Sunak fined for breaking COVID laws — civil service arbiter Sue Gray is expected to at last publish her report into lockdown parties at Downing Street. The BBC confirmed last night that Gray would hand the final copy of her findings to No. 10 today. Here’s how the prime minister’s judgment day will play out …
Expected timeline: Gray’s report should go to No. 10 this morning … It will then be published on the Cabinet Office website for the world to see … Johnson faces Labour leader Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions at noon … The PM will then make a statement to the Commons responding to the report, where he is likely to offer another groveling apology … Johnson has a meeting with the 1922 committee of Conservative backbenchers scheduled for 5 p.m. … And he will also hold a press conference to address the public — timing of that TBC.
TGIF: Tuesday night’s BBC Panorama with Laura Kuenssberg gave an indication of the sort of scenes we might see described in today’s report. Insiders who were present at the regular “wine time Fridays” told of “bottles lying around parts of the building, bins overflowing with rubbish and empties left on the table,” and “dozens of staff crowded together, and parties going so late that, on occasion, some ended up staying in Downing Street all night.”
Perhaps the most troubling new line … in the program for the government is the suggestion that a Downing Street security guard was mocked for attempting to break up the gatherings. “I remember when a custodian tried to stop it all and he was just shaking his head in this party, being like, ‘This shouldn’t be happening.’ People made fun of him because he was so worked up that this party was happening and it shouldn’t be happening.”
Not another one: The Mirror’s Pippa Crerar matches much of the reporting and also reveals a new photo of another alleged party that was apparently not investigated by Gray or the police. The pic shows wine bottles and donuts on a table to mark the departure of another senior aide, and is accompanied by a WhatsApp message sent by one official on the day saying: “Time to open the Covid secure bar.” Separately, Crerar hears No. 10 aides sent emails to Gray and her team in the last 24 hours ahead of the report’s publication.
Look away now: ITV’s Anushka Asthana reports that three people will be identified in new photos in Gray’s report: Johnson, Sunak and Cabinet Secretary Simon Case.
What will Johnson say? The Mail’s Jason Groves says the PM will adopt a “masochism strategy” with a triple apology to parliament, the public and his own MPs.
So what happens next? Wavering ministers and officials will be on resignation watch after the report is out. The Indy’s Anna Isaac has got hold of a Downing Street “planning document” that appears to be preparation for the resignation of Case, the government’s top civil servant. Isaac writes: “The drafted letter notes Mr Case’s contributions during the Covid-19 pandemic and the war in Ukraine. It also notes he took on the role from Sir Mark Sedwill in September 2020, when the country was in the midst of facing Covid, its greatest challenge since World War Two.” Case has been tipped to resign in the papers since the weekend so this is obviously a major flashpoint today.
Coates vs. Cabinet: If there are going to be any ministerial resignations in protest at Partygate, today might be the day. Enjoy Sky’s Sam Coates heckling Cabinet ministers on their way into Downing Street yesterday with Grade-A-troll-level questions including: “Did you lie at the despatch box, prime minister? Would you defend anything at all, Grant Shapps? Is Partygate embarrassing on the world stage, foreign secretary? Are you being loyal to save your job? Do you think a future prime minister would make you foreign secretary? Did Boris Johnson lie at the despatch box, Nadhim Zahawi, or would you prefer to succeed him as prime minister? Has Boris Johnson got a better grip on the government than you had on the foreign office last year? [to Dominic Raab.]” It’s easily the best minute of TV you’ll watch all week.
Letter watch: The key question as ever comes down to whether Tory MPs will use this moment to send letters of no confidence to 1922 committee Chair Graham Brady. The Telegraph’s Chris Hope reckons three more letters have been submitted since the local elections earlier this month. One rebel Tory speculates the letters are now in the high 40s. Remember, 54 letters are needed to trigger a confidence vote. Politics Home’s Adam Payne reports numerous Tory MPs have their “pens poised” for when the Gray report drops, and that several have consulted their colleagues about submitting letters of no confidence to Brady once it lands.
Don’t forget the Met: You would have thought the Met would be unlikely to reopen their investigation, having hardly covered themselves in glory first time round, though anything is possible. The Guardian’s Vikram Dodd and Aubrey Allegretti hear from sources inside the Met expressing bewilderment that officers decided not to fine Johnson over the toast photo event. One police source tells the paper: “There’s a lot of questions to answer. I’m baffled … I think it is blindingly obviously evidence of a breach. The least you would do is question the individual. If I had been responsible for the investigation I’d have to be convinced why the photo did not show a breach.” London Mayor Sadiq Khan has written to the Met seeking a “detailed explanation” of how they came to their Partygate conclusions.
Then there’s the privileges committee … which the Times‘ Henry Zeffman, Oli Wright and Steve Swinford say want to take evidence from both Johnson and Gray, including over their mystery meeting two weeks ago to discuss the handling of the report.
Court of public opinion: If Tory MPs decide not to move against Johnson, it is voters who will make the ultimate judgment. A Savanta poll for the Indy today finds 66 percent of the country want Johnson to resign if he is heavily criticized in today’s report. Andrew Woodcock has the story.
COST OF LIVING CRISIS
THROW A WINDFALL TAX ON THE TABLE: It appears Downing Street will attempt to swiftly move the narrative on from Partygate, with the much-anticipated and hotly contested cost of living package now due as soon as Thursday. The BBC’s Chris Mason says Johnson invited “a bunch of economists into see him” in recent days to debate what to do. Sky’s Sam Coates says Johnson and Sunak will meet today to thrash out the details of the package. Several senior Lobby journalists are reporting that the announcement could be tomorrow. As Coates notes, this will inevitably provoke accusations of a “dead cat,” but the government will say it has to act now. On Tuesday, Ofgem said the energy price cap was likely to rise by another £800 to £2,800 in October.
Deal done, here we go: In their epic Telegraph splash, Ben Riley-Smith, Tony Diver and Martin Evans say Sunak “has concluded that a one-off windfall tax on oil and gas companies is justified.” The Treasury is finalizing the plans, the paper says, and the tax could be directly linked to the amount of investment each company delivers. The policy has been subject to widespread opposition within government, not least from the PM, and the Telegraph also reports that Policing Minister Kit Malthouse pointedly called for lower taxes at Tuesday’s Cabinet.
Will electricity generators be whacked? No, says ITV’s Robert Peston, after the FT revealed HMT was considering dragging them in. The Treasury said no decision had been made.
What will it be spent on? A Sunak ally told Playbook last night that his “singular focus was on helping the most vulnerable.” Peston says the package will provide £10 billion of support, speculating that this could come in the form of an effective one-off £1,000 payment to the 10 million poorest households.
Mix and match: The Times‘ Steve Swinford and Oli Wright also have the £10 billion figure and at “70-80 percent” of the funding will be targeted at the poorest, via increases in the warm homes discount and winter fuel allowance. They also suggest council tax could be cut. Interestingly, they say there are also some “universal” measures under consideration, including a VAT cut on energy and fuel. No. 10 and No. 11 remain at odds on this policy, the Times reports, with the former in favor and the latter opposed.
Split approach: The Sun’s Jonathan Reilly reckons the proceeds of the windfall tax will “likely to be split between a relief for billpayers through council tax cuts and changes to Universal Credit, as well as investment in domestic nuclear and wind energy production.” Harry Cole says Johnson scolded his Cabinet and said they were too young to remember the economic pain of the 1970s.
Expect a PMQs quip … somewhere about Pippa Crerar’s story in the Mirror that Sunak paid £10,000 out of his own pocket to fly by helicopter to a Tory dinner in Wales at the weekend.
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TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with Wales questions, followed by PMQs at noon … After any UQs or statements, MPs will run through the remaining stages of the Product Security and Telecommunications Bill.
NEW RULES: The Commons Standards Committee unveils its proposed new code of conduct for MPs and rules on lobbying this morning in the wake of the Owen Paterson scandal. The recommendations are that MPs should not face a ban on second jobs but there should be “an outright ban on MPs providing paid parliamentary advice, consultancy or strategy service.” The BBC has more details. Read the report here.
STRESSMINSTER: My colleague Esther Webber has the scoop on a new report on working life at Westminster which sheds a light on the stress and abuse faced by many staffers. More than a third of parliamentary workers interviewed by the Chartered Institute of Personnel and Development (CIPD) said working in Westminster has a negative impact on their mental health … 33 percent had experienced conflict at work in the last 12 months … and of those, 22 percent said they had been undermined or humiliated, 10 percent said they had been verbally abused or insulted, while others reported instances of sexual harassment and one case of sexual assault.
Speaker’s corner: The CIPD survey was commissioned by the All-Party Group for Compassionate Politics with the support of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle, who stressed: “I want parliament to be a good place to work — where we feel respected, supported, have a good work-life balance and the right training, and is free of discrimination, bullying and harassment.” He underlined his commitment to holding a speaker’s conference to look at parliament’s working practices “as soon as possible.” Multiple parliamentary officials suggested to Esther its terms should be set before summer recess — so MPs will have to make a call on whether to include controversial proposals for an external HR service. Full write-up here.
RAIL STRIKES: Members of the RMT union have voted in favor of rail strikes this summer. Of the 16 train operating companies balloted, 13 voted to strike — although there is some positive news for the government in that GTR — the largest operator by employees, which runs the Thameslink, Great Northern, Southern and Gatwick Express services — did not vote to strike. RMT boss Mick Lynch tells the Mirror’s Dan Bloom that blackouts, fuel shortages and empty shelves are a “realistic possibility if the dispute continues and we have to escalate the action.” Labour’s Shadow Rail Minister Tan Dhesi would not be drawn on whether the opposition would back the strike action, speaking to Talk TV’s Tom Newton Dunn last night.
RUSSIAN CONTRACTS CLAMPDOWN: Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove is laying a statutory instrument today so councils in England can terminate their contracts with businesses linked to Russia and Belarus. A government source tells Playbook: “Businesses with links to Putin’s barbaric regime should not benefit from taxpayers’ money. These measures will be another tool in our arsenal to strangle Putin’s war machine.” It is believed around 100 such contracts exist.
TIMING: Tory Chair Oliver Dowden is meeting MPs in Leicestershire today to unveil his plan to win the next election: holding the Tories’ 80 most marginal seats, and gaining another 20 from opposition parties. Sure there won’t be anything else on the agenda. The Telegraph’s Chris Hope has the story.
COST OF LIVING SCOOP: Government proponents of a cut to U.K. tariffs to help with the cost of living crisis are now suggesting a temporary cut for just six or 12 months, POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio reports. The Cabinet has split on the proposal, with proponents including Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg coming up against the Department for International Trade, which insists a cut would reduce British negotiating leverage in trade talks. Introducing the measure on a temporary basis is seen as a compromise that might be palatable to both sides.
GOVT OF ALL THE OUTSOURCING: The U.K. is effectively outsourcing post-Brexit border checks to the EU until its future border plans are in place, Emilio writes.
GREEN LIGHT FOR GENE-EDITED CROPS: The government will later today introduce its much-anticipated bill which would allow gene-edited food to be sold in England, marking the biggest break with EU rules since Brexit. Gene-edited technologies entail more precise and targeted changes to DNA than traditional genetic modification techniques, but are currently regulated in the EU under the same strict law. As POLITICO’s Cristina Gallardo reports, the government argues that gene editing will allow for the development of crops more resistant to pests and diseases, therefore reducing the need for pesticides and herbicides, including controversial chemicals such as neonicotinoids.
Here comes the union bust-up: The SNP — historically opposed to any genetic modification technology — Scottish government has warned it remains “wholly opposed to the imposition” of this legislation and “will not accept any constraint on the exercise of devolved powers,” a spokesperson said. The Welsh government has also indicated it will stick to its precautionary approach toward genetic modification. Northern Ireland is obliged to align with EU single market rules on food and feed, which includes matters related to gene editing and GMOs, under the terms of Britain’s exit from the EU.
TRUSS VISIT: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss is in Belfast today meeting businesses and business groups to discuss the U.K. government’s red and green lane proposals on customs between Northern Ireland and Great Britain.
HEALEY SPEECH: Shadow Defense Secretary John Healey is giving a speech to Chatham House where he will argue that the government has left Britain’s Armed Forces with “weakened foundations” after a decade of decline and must reboot defense plans to respond to new threats to our security following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Register for the event here.
Committee corridor: The home affairs committee will look at the government’s 10-year drugs strategy with Carol Black, the government’s independent adviser for drugs (10 a.m.) … The government trade deal with New Zealand is under the microscope at the international trade committee (10 a.m.) … Prisons Minister Victoria Atkins will be scrutinized on efforts to improve British prisons at the justice committee (1.30 p.m.) … The Treasury committee will question the leadership of the Payment Systems Regulator on card charge increases from Mastercard and Visa (2.15 p.m.) … Top senior journos Katy Searle, Caroline Wheeler and Cristina Nicolotti Squires will discuss reporting of women in parliament at the women and equalities committee (2.30 p.m.) … COP26 President Alok Sharma is up at the environmental audit committee (3 p.m.) … and the joint committee on human rights will host Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi for a session on historic adoption practices (3 p.m.).
Lords: Sits from 3 p.m. with questions on rising energy bills, new IT systems for border checks on goods and evacuation plans for disabled residents in high-rise buildings … Followed by the second reading of the Procurement Bill.
DIGEST: Fighting continues to rage in Ukraine’s east, where Moscow is attempting to encircle the cities of Severodonetsk and Lysychansk … The BBC’s Jeremy Bowen has a report from the front line in Luhansk in the Donbas region, where the Ukrainian General Staff says the Russians appear to be concentrating their forces for another push … Hungary’s Viktor Orbán has declared a state of emergency due to the war in Ukraine, allowing his government to assume emergency powers … and the EU’s Russian oil ban is hanging by a thread because Hungary is blocking it.
STATE OF THE UNION
NI IS CHANGING: The proportion of people in Northern Ireland claiming an “exclusively Irish not British” identity has been growing since the Brexit referendum, and there’s a strengthening of nationalist identity among respondents, even compared with 2020, according to the results of a survey shared exclusively with POLITICO’s The Ex Files newsletter. The findings from the NI Life and Times Survey also show that an equal proportion of respondents (38 percent) believe that the U.K. will exist in 20 years time as believe that there will be a united Ireland by then. More than six in 10 people now say that they believe Brexit makes a united Ireland more likely.
This means … Following the election to the Northern Ireland Assembly on May 5 “nationalists feel the wind in their sails and unionists are increasingly doubtful about the surety of the union,” said Katy Hayward, a sociologist at Queen’s University Belfast and one of the researchers involved in the study. “What is different now is that future stability between the two depends fundamentally on the U.K.-EU relationship.” The survey will be discussed at an U.K. in a Changing Europe event tomorrow.
MILESTONE: Nicola Sturgeon is now Scotland’s longest serving first minister, having today overtaken her predecessor Alex Salmond with a total of seven years, six months and five days.
**A message from MSD: Although chickenpox is a mild disease for most, infections still have a material impact on the NHS. The UK sees over 650,000 cases of chickenpox each year, leading to around 125,000 GP appointments and 5,600 hospitalisations. Chickenpox is a vaccine-preventable disease, meaning that these impacts could be avoided – but the UK is yet to leverage this opportunity. With COVID-19 set to continue putting the NHS under pressure in the months and years ahead, we must make use of every available tool to mitigate the wider impact of vaccine-preventable disease. It is time now to Stop the Spots and reduce the avoidable strain that this common childhood disease places on the NHS. To find out more, visit https://stopthespots.co.uk/home/ (The Stop the Spots campaign has been initiated and funded by MSD. The content of the campaign has been provided by MSD. Job number GB-NON-05951).**
Environment Secretary George Eustice broadcast round: Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … Sky News (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkTV (8.45 a.m.) … GB News (tbc).
Also on Good Morning Britain: RMT General Secretary Mick Lynch (7.25 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley (Sky News): Former No. 10 spinner Alastair Campbell (7.05 a.m.) … Shadow Treasury Minister James Murray (8.05 a.m.) … Former head of the Civil Service Bob Kerslake (8.20 a.m.) … Crossbench peer Simon Woolley (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Pulse Clean Energy boss Paul Massara (7.10 a.m.) … Former Russian PM Mikhail Kasyanov (7.40 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: President of the Country, Land & Business Association Mark Tufnell (7.15 a.m.) … Standards committee Chairman Chris Bryant (7.35 a.m.) … Former head of the Civil Service Bob Kerslake (8.05 a.m.) … Angela Knight, former chief executive of Energy UK and former economic secretary to the Treasury (8.15 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkTV): Former Lib Dem leader Vince Cable (8.05 a.m.) … RMT Assistant General Secretary Eddie Dempsey (8.30 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria De Piero (GB News 11.50 a.m.): Tory MP Kevin Hollinrake and Labour MP Margaret Hodge.
Tonight with Andrew Marr (LBC 6 p.m.): Labour MP Margaret Beckett (6.30 p.m.).
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP John Penrose … Labour MP Rachael Maskell … The Telegraph’s Olivia Utley.
Peston (ITV and Twitter 10.45 p.m.): Shadow Domestic Violence Minister Jess Phillips.
Reviewing the paper’s tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 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.)
Bloomberg: Glencore pleads guilty to decade of bribery and manipulation.
Daily Express: It’s ready! Rishi’s rescue plan for millions.
Daily Mail: Rescue deal for cost of living ‘in days.’
Daily Mirror: Why did PM deny it? We knew parties broke rules.
Daily Star: Party animals — Insiders reveal all the juicy details.
Financial Times: Energy groups tumble as Sunak races to finalise windfall tax plan.
HuffPost UK: A dead cat for big dog?
i: Fuel bills to climb by £800 as price cap rises again.
Metro: All-nighter parties at No 10.
POLITICO UK: U.K. outsources post-Brexit border checks to EU.
PoliticsHome: MPs have ‘pens poised’ on no confidence letters as Boris Johnson braces for Sue Gray report.
The Daily Telegraph: Windfall tax within days as PM seeks to throw off partygate.
The Guardian: Sunak’s cost-of-living scramble as energy bills forecast to hit £2,800.
The Independent: No 10 staff reveal culture of drinking and parties.
The Times: Windfall tax will fund help for poor families.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Dry and cloudy. Highs of 18C.
BIRTHDAYS: Former Paymaster General Geoffrey Robinson … Former Foreign Office Minister Alistair Burt … Tory peer Gloria Hooper … Lib Dem peer Mike Storey … and former Labour spin doctor Alastair Campbell.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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