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By ESTHER WEBBER
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Good Thursday morning. This is Esther Webber. Eleni Courea will be with you on Friday.
BIENVENUE: Elisa Bertholomey and Anthony Lattier are joining POLITICO in September as our new Playbook Paris writers. Pauline de Saint Remy is promoted to France political editor. You can sign up here.
WELCOME BACK: Kate McCann was back on air with TalkTV last night after fainting during Tuesday’s debate. She told viewers she was feeling “a little embarrassed, a little bit bruised, but glad to be back and totally fine.” All the best wishes to her, and we look forward to the rematch.
DRIVING THE DAY
LEEDS BY EXAMPLE: Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss head to Yorkshire today for the first of 12 hustings with the people who will decide which of them becomes the next prime minister. Truss is looking to steal a march on her rival once again by unveiling two big Leeds-friendly announcements: her backing for the full-fat version of Northern Powerhouse Rail, and her endorsement by Northern Research Group Chairman Jake Berry. Team Sunak is on the defensive on several fronts today, claiming he too would boost rail infrastructure while fighting off fresh criticism of his stance on China. And if the railways weren’t already the scene of enough strife, the Labour Party is having its own meltdown over train strikes.
Must-see: The two-hour hustings session starts at 7 p.m. and will be chaired by LBC’s Nick Ferrari. The whole thing will be available to stream live (unfortunately there’s no link available to share yet), and will be broadcast on LBC. Playbook hears it’s a sellout event, and 1,400 lucky members have bagged themselves a spot.
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Local heroes? The candidates, who can both claim links to the area, are expected to chat to voters in Leeds before the hustings. Truss famously spent part of her childhood in Leeds, but it’s not clear she’ll be welcome in Roundhay, where the Guardian’s Robyn Vinter found even Tory voters cheesed off with her characterization of the area. Sunak’s seat is about an hour’s drive up the A1, and although he’s got closer ties to Teesside he’ll be sure to buff up his leveling-up credentials for tonight.
FULL STEAM AHEAD: Truss has teed up her visit nicely with a big exclusive handed to the Northern Agenda’s Daniel O’Donoghue and Rob Parson, pledging to deliver Northern Powerhouse Rail in full if she becomes leader. This would revive the plan originally announced by Boris Johnson for new high-speed connections running from Liverpool to Leeds via Manchester and Bradford, but later downgraded by the PM. As detailed in Playbook last November, Johnson confirmed he would scrap the original plans for the HS2 eastern leg and a high-speed line from Birmingham to Leeds and another between Leeds and Manchester.
Reminder: At the time, Leeds and Bradford were widely considered the biggest losers from the downgrade. A government source said Leeds was the only place that would get significantly slower journey times to London compared with the original HS2 proposal.
Berry good news: One of the government’s most vocal critics over the changes to NPR was the Northern Research Group’s Jake Berry. Originally a Tom Tugendhat backer, he throws his weight behind Truss today — a big get for her — saying: “Liz is someone who gets things done, who has proved she can deliver, and can be trusted to keep her promises.” The Yorkshire Post got the scoop on that one (not online yet).
Big deal: At the danger of stating the obvious, Truss’ announcement is a major moment for the campaign, allowing her to hit back at the charge that neither she nor Sunak have backed up their warm words on leveling up with the promise of cold hard cash. The downgrade was being calculated last year to save £14 billion, and inflation costs must set that figure higher. It’s not yet clear, though, how she plans to pay for it.
Houchen not happy: Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen, an ally of Sunak and a poster boy for the leveling up project, hit back at the story late last night, tweeting that it came across as “bizarre.” He pointed out that both Truss and Sunak had signed up to his “five-point pledge” weeks ago, which included a commitment to the “full construction” of NPR. This struck close observers of the NPR debacle as a little odd, since the former chancellor was widely reported to have been involved in scaling back the project in the first place.
So what’s going on? Either Houchen massively buried the lede at the time Sunak signed the pledge, or Sunak has not in fact explicitly committed to reviving the original version of NPR. In a press release trumpeting his endorsement by Houchen earlier this month, Sunak promised only to “work with local leaders on the future of transport investments, including Northern Powerhouse Rail, which have the potential to deliver new capacity and faster journey times.” He’ll have to specify in pretty short order what he means by that.
In the waiting room: Staying with high speed rail, Andy Burnham and other northern mayors have upped the ante by calling on whoever wins the leadership race to meet with them to rethink the unpopular Integrated Rail Plan. Rob Parsons has written that one up for the Manchester Evening News.
Northern lights: The Northern Agenda also asked both candidates to spell out their vision more broadly for the region and asked them specific questions about how they’d deal with the north-south divide on issues including child poverty and productivity. Truss backed calls for a “leveling up formula,” similar to the Barnett Formula used to distribute cash in Scotland as a means to ensure “areas that have been left behind get the support they deserve.” Sunak emphasized the fact he is a northern MP and said he would “keep the north front and center of my mind in all that I do.”
What else to expect: Truss and Sunak will no doubt be asked about the wave of rail strikes over the summer, with the next one approaching on Saturday. Nine companies have just announced a new strike day on August 13, in addition to those planned for August 18 and 20. Both promised in Monday’s debate that they would ban strikes in essential public services, but Truss specified she would legislate for minimum service levels on critical national infrastructure within the first 30 days of government. She also wants to raise ballot thresholds, double the notice period for industrial action to four weeks, and stop members receiving tax-free payments from their unions on strike days.
How’s that going down? Predictably badly with the unions. On the front of the FT, the TUC’s Frances O’Grady accuses Truss — and Transport Secretary Grant Shapps — of an attack on a “fundamental” British liberty and “shoveling salt in the wounds” of workers confronting the cost of living crisis. Meanwhile, RMT boss Mick Lynch tells the i’s Joe Duggan he would support a general strike if Truss brings in anti-union legislation as prime minister. Of course, the would-be Tory leader probably doesn’t mind carrying these headlines into the hustings, with a majority of Conservatives opposing train strikes in recent polls.
Negative energy: The other big story dominating the front pages is the dire predictions for the cost of energy this winter, forecast by consultants BFY to hit £3,850 a year. In January alone electricity and gas is to cost £500 on average, more than three times last year’s level. Warnings from the National Grid that pressures on Europe’s gas supply pose risks to Britain’s feature prominently in the Times and the Telegraph. Aside from being downright grim news, it begs the question of what Truss and Sunak have got left in the tank to deal with the cost of living crisis. Will repeating promises to cut green levies and VAT cut it for much longer?
Fading hope: Whoever does win this leadership contest will be entering No. 10 against a pretty bleak backdrop, according to the latest Hope Index from the comms agency 5654 & Company, founded by former SpAd James Starkie. The survey found that hope among the public has dropped by 30 percent over the past two years, with the cost of living and war in Ukraine being the biggest culprits. “Making ends meet” has risen as a worry by 15 percent, while concern about climate change has narrowly declined. “Whoever prevails in the Conservative Party leadership contest will be leading a country much more pessimistic about the future than just a year ago,” Starkie said. “The new PM will need to show the public they’re on their side, which will be tougher than ever as only a third believe the government is taking the lead in addressing the cost of living.”
RED FLAG: Another topic in the leadership contest which shows no sign of going away is China, and uncomfortably for Sunak the Times’ Steven Swinford has an eye-catching scoop that the former chancellor was close to signing a new economic agreement with China which aimed to “deepen trade links.” A Treasury document leaked to Swinford suggests that earlier this year Sunak was in the advanced stages of preparing an “economic and financial dialogue” with China which would have strengthened ties between the two countries. A spokesman for Sunak said he canceled the event because he was concerned about the threat China posed to U.K. security.
Sino-shifting: Handily enough, my POLITICO colleagues Eleni Courea and Stuart Lau have been taking a fresh look at Truss’ and Sunak’s stances on China — and their evolution over time. The question of who wants to be toughest on Beijing has dominated the Tory leadership contest this week.
It all began when … Truss asked Sunak during one of the ITV debates last week a fairly niche question about whether he supported the resumption of a forum for economic dialogue with China. The answer is undeniably yes — and Steve Swinford has all the gory details on what it entailed and how close it was to going ahead. Team Sunak tried to preempt more China attacks over the weekend by announcing a policy to shut down all Confucius Institutes (interestingly a proposal drawn up by key Tom Tugendhat ally Alicia Kearns). In turn Truss used the BBC debate on Monday to accuse Sunak of pushing for closer ties as recently as last month.
Not impressed: Pretty much all the China watchers Eleni and Stuart spoke to yesterday viewed both Sunak’s and Truss’ stances with a healthy dose of cynicism. One described Truss as “headline first, policy later,” while another said Sunak, as chancellor, had been “weaker than the EU” on China. And while both are talking tough, the expectation is that Truss would take a significantly more aggressive approach to Beijing as PM than Sunak would.
Going against the grain: Truss has her own foreign policy headache to deal with, as a Ukrainian minister has directly contradicted her claim that the U.K. Foreign Office has struck a deal guaranteeing shipping insurance to get vital grain supplies out of Ukraine. The need for affordable insurance is key for getting much-needed grain out out of Black Sea ports, with the high risk for seafarers of operating in a war zone predictably putting many traders off. London’s position as a global hub for the industry means the U.K. government has a central role to play in underwriting guarantees. In Monday’s leadership debate, Truss said “an agreement has been reached” with Kyiv after weeks of speculation. But speaking to POLITICO, Ukraine’s Infrastructure Minister, Oleksandr Kubrakov, said this was not the case. “The idea is not only to subsidize, the idea is to provide additional guarantees,” he said.
What Team Sunak is pushing: Sunak’s supporters were sharing analysis by YouGov’s Patrick English last night, which suggests Sunak has a significant advantage over Truss with swing voters — and crucially, those who have abandoned the Tories since 2019. Still, it’s a mountain to climb, with Sunak on minus 25 net favorability, Truss on minus 45 and Starmer on plus 57 among 2019 Conservative voters currently leaning toward Labour.
Standard behavior: A new poll by J.L. Partners, commissioned by Spotlight on Corruption, suggests voters want the next Conservative leader to take decisive action on standards in public life. The poll finds that by huge margins all voters, including Conservative supporters, want to see wide-ranging reforms to standards in public life. And crucially, those defectors — Tory voters in 2019 who have moved away from the party — are by far the most likely group to agree with suggested reforms, including putting the code of conduct for ministers into law and greater transparency about who is meeting ministers.
Disgusted of Tonbridge: There’s a fun piece in the National on the views of Conservatives in true-blue Tonbridge, with one councillor telling reporter Thomas Harding: “We’re imploding, it’s pure blue on blue,” and another musing: “I wonder whether we’ve just lost the next election, no matter who wins the leadership.”
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TARRY ON FIGHTING: Not content to stand by and watch Conservatives tearing strips off each other, the Labour Party has descended into its own civil war — again. Shadow Transport Minister Sam Tarry was sacked from the front bench Wednesday after joining striking rail workers on the picket line at Euston. Labour leader Keir Starmer, speaking Tuesday, said shadow ministers should not join picket lines — but the party said in a statement that Tarry’s sacking had not been for appearing alongside strikers. Rather, they indicated he had been removed following unauthorized media appearances and breaking with the agreed shadow Cabinet line on pay negotiations. PoliticsHome’s Sienna Rodgers explains all here.
No show: At the time of writing, there’s no Labour frontbencher lined up for the morning broadcast round. London Mayor Sadiq Khan will, however, be doing a phone in with James O’Brien on LBC at 10 a.m., which could be interesting.
The fallout: Leading the furious reaction on the (soft) left of the party is Tarry himself, who told LBC’s Ben Kentish last night: “I think it’s wrong to state that any Labour politician — whether it be a councillor, whether it be an MP, whether it be a shadow minister — shouldn’t be showing solidarity … If it isn’t tackled properly, there’s going to be a real danger that it won’t just be me that’s sacked, I think you’ll see dozens and dozens of shadow ministers sacked across the whole country.” Speaking to Times Radio, he called Starmer’s decision to ban his team from joining the picket line a “catastrophic mistake.”
That’s not all: RMT boss Mick Lynch told Times Radio it was a “sad day for the Labour Party,” while Unite leader Sharon Graham called it “another insult to the trade union movement.” Tarry said he had received phone calls from seven trade union general secretaries — only one of which is not Labour affiliated — who were “absolutely fuming.” A senior trade union source who popped off to the Times’ Patrick Maguire compared Starmer unfavorably to Tony Blair: “This moment demonstrates the end of the Labour Party. Not only is it against our principles, but it also demonstrates Keir’s inadequacy as a leader. He is, in the words of one of his better predecessors — weak, weak, weak.”
Where does this go next? The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot moves the story on, reporting that senior shadow ministers have privately expressed doubt that Labour’s position on strikes is sustainable. “There are a lot of people saying, ‘I don’t know if I can stay on the frontbench,’” one senior party source tells Elgot. Starmer’s move has the potential to put him on a collision course (again) with his deputy, Angela Rayner, who is close to Tarry. A couple of other shadow frontbenchers contacted by Playbook last night were unusually quiet.
Starmer’s defense: “Sam Tarry did a full media round without his boss Lou Haigh [the shadow transport secretary] or the leader’s office knowing in advance,” another Labour source quoted in Elgot’s story said. “This represents a total breakdown of discipline and put the leadership in a position where it was impossible to do anything else.” Tarry has his detractors on the left of the party too, with one party insider complaining to Playbook his erstwhile support for Starmer had given the Labour leader “cover” to “weaken the parliamentary left.”
Trouble at home: On top of all that, Tarry is facing a deselection battle in Ilford South. Some party figures even suggested yesterday that he might be secretly pleased to have more time to focus on that.
Now read this: Kate Mossman profiles Shadow Leveling Up Secretary and “Wigan warrior” Lisa Nandy in the New Statesman, where she happens to touch on the question of strikes. Nandy first defends Starmer — “we are the government-in-waiting — I don’t think anyone would take kindly to me spending all week on a picket line” — but also expresses discomfort. “I found it a difficult debate because it became symbolic of whether you would stand up for people. It is depressing that we have enabled this to become a question — if you stand on the picket line, are you on people’s side?”
BEYOND THE LEADERSHIP RACE
UXBRIDGE NICETIES: Lobby legend Pippa Crerar has written her last story for the Mirror before she joins the Guardian as political editor, and it’s another corker. She reports Boris Johnson’s allies are drawing up a list of Tory MPs in safe seats who might be willing to stand down to create a vacancy for him, as his 7,210 majority in Uxbridge looks rather wobbly. Senior sources claimed Johnson was “testing the water” over moving to a constituency with a larger Conservative majority, with Nadine Dorries’ Mid-Bedfordshire seat mentioned. A No. 10 spokesman poured cold water on the idea, however, saying: “The prime minister has not had any such conversations. He is proud to represent the people of Uxbridge and South Ruislip.”
Conflict averse: The world is entering a “dangerous new age of proliferation,” with threats from genetic weapons, lasers and nuclear warheads, the U.K.’s national security adviser has said. Stephen Lovegrove raised the prospect of a “collapse into uncontrolled conflict” unless methods are devised to dampen hostilities and impose controls over the spread of deadly weapons that have become increasingly easy to acquire. Sky News’ Deborah Haynes has a write-up of his speech, made during a visit to the United States.
New around here: Times Radio’s Lucy Fisher has bagged the first interview with the new U.S. ambassador to London, which is predictably newsy. Jane Hartley denied that President Joe Biden feels antipathy toward Britain because of his Irish heritage, saying: “The personal relationship that the president has with the U.K. is incredibly strong.” She also declared the U.K.’s processes for picking a leader outstrip America’s, and said the Britons she’d most like to meet are the England women’s football team.
Ghosting scoop: POLITICO’s Mark Scott reported earlier this week that the European Commission has shut down all official cooperation with the British government on digital policy issues while both sides struggle to resolve the impasse of the Northern Ireland protocol. Brussels has now confirmed it on the record, telling him “the general situation regarding the withdrawal agreement and the protocol — and in particular the decision by the U.K. government to table the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill — undermines the trust that is necessary for bilateral EU-U.K. cooperation.”
Now watch this: ITV’s Paul Brand has a devastating report on the state of the health service, days after MPs issued a stark warning over its condition. Filming with the North West Ambulance Service and Warrington Hospital, he found wards so overwhelmed that patients are being forced to sleep on trolleys for days on end outside A&E departments. May Livesey, 92, was brought into hospital with severe back pain and then spent three days and two nights waiting on a trolley.
Today in Scotland: National Records of Scotland will this morning release the annual figures on the number of drug-related deaths in Scotland, covering 2021. Last year’s figures showed that 1,339 Scots died as a result of drugs in 2020, a record figure for the seventh year in a row that cemented Scotland’s unwanted status as the drug death capital of Europe. The figures are due out at 9.30 a.m. here.
Check your privilege: Labour MP Chris Bryant will have to make a formal court apology to a businessman he accused in parliament of money laundering, after being sued for repeating the claims in a tweeted letter. MPs are usually protected by parliamentary privilege for remarks they make in the Commons chamber. But Bryant was taken to court by Christopher Chandler, a New Zealand-born billionaire and co-founder of the Legatum Institute think tank, over comments initially made during a 2018 debate in which another MP accused Chandler of links to Russian intelligence. The Guardian’s Peter Walker has more.
Frills and spills: The Commons speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, is bringing back historic frills ditched by his predecessor John Bercow and consigned to a museum. Hoyle retrieved the Honiton lace jabot and cuffs from the 83-year-old woman who originally made them for then-Speaker Bernard Weatherill over six years in the 1980s, as the Telegraph’s Daniel Capurro reports. Really, we just wanted to get the phrase “jabot and cuffs” into Playbook.
Hear me roar: Keir Starmer has backed cross-party calls for the government to grant an extra bank holiday if the Lionesses roar to victory in the Euros final at Wembley on Sunday. Playbook is sure he doesn’t mind focusing on a different kind of solidarity for now. The Mirror’s Lizzy Buchan got the scoop.
PARLIAMENT: In recess.
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Culture Secretary — and Truss supporter — Nadine Dorries broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … GB News (9 a.m.).
Sunak supporter Victoria Atkins: talkTV (7.32 a.m.) … GB News (7.45 a.m.) … Sky News (8.20 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.40 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain: Women and equalities committee Chairwoman Caroline Nokes (6.40 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley: Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (8.05 a.m.) … Women and equalities committee Chairwoman Caroline Nokes (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Brown SpAd Michael Jacobs (7.05 a.m.) … Former Boris adviser Gerard Lyons (7.10 a.m.) … Former Corbyn adviser Andrew Fisher (8.05 a.m.) … Former Blair adviser John McTernan (8.10 a.m.) … Tory Chairman Andrew Stephenson (8.50 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Truss supporter Chris Philp (7.20 a.m.) … U.S. Ambassador to the U.K. Jane Hartley (8.05 a.m.) … Women and equalities committee Chairwoman Caroline Nokes (8.15 a.m.) … TalkTV’s Kate McCann (8.45 a.m.).
Also on TalkTV breakfast: Truss supporter Chris Philp (8.20 a.m.) … Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (9.20 a.m.).
Also on GB News breakfast: Truss supporter Chris Philp (9.40 a.m.).
James O’Brien (LBC 10 a.m.): Phone-in with Mayor of London Sadiq Khan.
The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News noon): Women and equalities committee Chairwoman Caroline Nokes and Labour MP John Cryer.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and editor of the Courier David Clegg.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Fears energy bills will hit shocking £3,850 a year.
Daily Mail: Victory for free speech … and women.
Daily Mirror: Shocking — Energy bills could hit £500 for one month this winter.
Daily Star: Grease is the word — Don’t wash your hair.
Financial Times: Fed lifts rates by 0.75 points for second month in row.
i: U.K. general strike threat if Truss takes on unions.
Metro: Driest July since 1911.
POLITICO UK: In the race to succeed Boris Johnson, only China hawks need apply.
PoliticsHome: Labour shadow minister sacked after joining rail strike picket line.
The Daily Telegraph: Accidental nuclear war with China a ‘growing risk.’
The Guardian: Unions issue general strike threat as rail crisis grows.
The Independent: Households face energy bills of £500 per month.
The Sun: Tuchel taps up a Brazilian.
The Times: ‘Talk to our enemies or run risk of nuclear war.’
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
The New Statesman: Summer special.
The Spectator: Rishi’s mad dash — Can he catch up, ask Katy Balls and Charles Moore.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny in spells and breezy. Highs of 23C.
JOBS: Inside Housing Magazine is looking for a new deputy news editor — details here … and Glasgow University’s John Smith Centre for politics and public service, led by former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale, is hiring for an administrator.
BIRTHDAYS: Labour peer Sue Hayman … Former London Minister Keith Hill … Tory peer Lorraine Fullbrook … Former Greek PM Alexis Tsipras … (Disputed) acting Venezuelan President Juan Guaidó.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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