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By EMILIO CASALICCHIO
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Good Thursday morning. This is Emilio Casalicchio. I’ll be back tomorrow too.
DRIVING THE DAY
VIRAL HUSTINGS: It’s the penultimate hustings of the Conservative leadership race tonight — and this one might just be interesting (don’t subtweet us). Interesting because former chancellor and bazooka-toting campaign underdog Rishi Sunak has given an astonishing interview to the Spectator, lifting the lid on the government failure to consider the wider impacts of lockdowns during the pandemic. Wider impacts like excess deaths due to patients not attending hospital for non-COVID issues; spiraling cancer waiting lists; and Gavin Williamson fumbling about with school contact hours and exams. The hustings chair tonight is lockdown-skeptic TalkTV host Julia Hartley-Brewer — which couldn’t be more perfect. No doubt she’ll have a few questions to ask.
The scoop he long wanted: Fraser Nelson bagged the exclusive interview in what must be a wet dream come true for the Speccie editor and fellow lockdown-skeptic. In it, Sunak argues it was “wrong to scare people” about the threat of COVID and admits the scientists on SAGE ended up with too much power. “This is the problem. If you empower all these independent people, you’re screwed,” Sunak said. The interview went live on the Spectator website about an hour ago and makes the front page of the magazine.
Damning line: Nelson concludes from the discussion that the Downing Street plan was “to create the impression that lockdown was a scientifically created policy which only crackpots dared question.”
Never admit: Sunak reveals officials were unable to explain how the blood-curdling COVID death toll predictions were reached, and that no one did a cost-benefit calculation about the trade-offs of lockdown. “The script was not to ever acknowledge them,” he said. “The script was: oh, there’s no trade-off, because doing this for our health is good for the economy.” He insists he was alone in fighting to raise issues like growing cancer waiting lists and elective surgery backlogs, as well as the hit to children not getting to school. And he complains that too often Cabinet members were kept in the dark about policy plans until minutes before they were expected to sign them off.
Sounds about right: One ex-No. 10 official told Playbook last night: “This is a pretty fair account of what Rishi said and thought at the time. Sometimes he’d very forcefully argue his case. Other times he’d know the machine had already decided the outcome, so he would say less, while Matt [Hancock] and Michael [Gove] pushed against an open door for a very hardcore approach. The PM and Rishi both hated lockdowns. Rishi always understood, though, that the blame would rest with Boris if we got it wrong. He was as forceful as he could be given the circumstances.”
But but but: A No. 10 spokesperson insisted that “throughout the pandemic, public health, education, and the economy were central to the difficult decisions made on COVID restrictions to protect the British public from an unprecedented novel virus. At every point, ministers made collective decisions which considered a wide range of expert advice available at the time in order to protect public health.”
Just over a week to go: Sunak makes clear his rationale for being straight up about all this now. He argues better government comes from the PM making good decisions and not blaming someone else when things go wrong: “The leader matters. It matters who the person at the top is.” A campaign aide noted to Playbook however that the revelations were not a long-planned intervention; the Spectator was just on the interview list and asked those questions.
More Team Sunak thinking: The same aide argued the candid interview is part of the Sunak pitch for a different approach to government, where people have all the facts in front of them and make decisions based on full disclosure and discussion. “This was lives and livelihoods and ministers didn’t even get the time to read papers,” the person said about the lockdown decisions. “Rishi’s would be proper Cabinet government where ministers are empowered and accountable.”
Fingers holstered: Sunak insists he isn’t pointing fingers of blame for how the lockdown debate happened in government. But the implication is clear: Liz Truss was not asking the questions about the trade-offs of lockdown — although to be fair, she wasn’t in a domestic-facing brief like Sunak was. Her campaign refused to comment to Playbook last night.
Back to the hustings: If we’re lucky, JHB will focus a few questions on the lockdown revelations tonight instead of drawing out the long-litigated lines about tax cuts and how “wokeism” is plunging Britain down the tubes. (OK that last one might be a bit hopeful.) The event kicks off at 7 p.m. and will be watchable on the TalkTV Twitter feeds etc — although there’s little point in tuning in until 8 p.m., which is when the actual questions start. Conservative volunteers Chair Peter Booth will open the event, then both candidates will get the usual introduction speeches from a pal before making their well-worn stump pitches. Just one to go after tonight — hang in there.
Before the hustings: As well as member events online and on the ground in Norfolk and Suffolk, Sunak is doing a Facebook Q&A at noon. Tune in here. He’ll also be interviewed on the Radio 4 World at One program. Truss is doing a clip during a visit to a food manufacturing plant. Expect that to appear on TV some time after 4 p.m. Will she get asked whether Sunak is “thrashing around all over the place like a wounded stoat” at risk of destroying the Tories, as her allies have been briefing?
What Truss is talking about: The foreign sec is using the visit to announce a plan to deliver for the East Anglican economy … although it’s just a rehash of her existing pledges with a geographical indicator tacked on. Tax cuts, supply side reform, better regulation, investment zones, cracking down on strikes, cutting red tape and scrapping central housing targets are all in there. She’s even been peddling the pledge to dual the A47 for a decade or so.
Truss bingo: The Truss quote alongside the announcement is buzzword-tastic: “If elected prime minister, I will turbocharge the economies of places like Norwich, Great Yarmouth and across East Anglia by unleashing the private sector with tax cuts and better regulation, cracking down on strike action slowing our economy, and repealing the EU regulations that do not work for our rural communities.” Expect the Conservative faithful in Norfolk to lose their shit for it.
It just so happens … that bosses from the “Eastern Powerhouse” (the north doesn’t have a monopoly on powerhouses, it turns out) have penned a letter to Truss and Sunak setting out their demands on how to “level up” the area. The 14 businesses, including bosses from Adnams, Lotus and Hill Group, call for improved transport links, diversification of fuel supplies and support for the local life sciences sector, among other things.
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POLLING SCOOP: A majority of voters want more generous targeted financial support for households struggling with their finances amid the cost of living crisis, new polling shared with Playbook suggests. The survey for Citizens Advice, the Social Market Foundation and Public First found 62 percent of voters believe struggling households should receive help with their fuel bills, while 59 percent called for help with water bills and 58 percent said the same for food bills.
Among Tories: Even 54 percent of 2019 Conservative voters backed targeted support for struggling households with fuel bills, with 25 percent opposed. Just fewer than half backed helping households with food and fuel bills.
Feeling will grow: Daisy Powell-Chandler from Public First said the numbers showed “support will swing further behind a more broad-based support for households struggling to cope with multiple higher costs” and urged prime ministerial hopefuls to take a good look at the results. Don’t forget — we’ll find out about the new fuel bills price cap tomorrow.
The problem for Truss … is that something of a credibility gap over her crowd-pleasing offer to Tory members is emerging as she gets closer to taking charge. POLITICO’s Esther Webber reports there are some who expect her to go hell for leather on taking office to combat the crisis. “I think we could be heading for a 1980s-style culture shock,” one supportive MP said. “She’ll have people around her telling her to do some radical things and that she has two years as PM to make a difference before she fights an election.”
But, but, but: The scale of financial pressures awaiting households as the colder seasons approach means she’ll need to find a support package which will probably entail spending cuts or higher borrowing. A Conservative councilor for a large local authority tells Esther: “My personal issue is that she’s not been saying what she’s going to take away. If you’re in an area like ours, which has suffered really badly from cuts to local government, you’re very acutely aware that there isn’t much else to cut.”
Pick a side: Contributors who spoke to Esther honed in on infrastructure spending as something that may be sacrificed to guarantee tax cuts, casting doubt on the big Truss promise to the north of better rail provision. That could mean choosing a side in the broad electoral coalition between traditional southern Conservative voters and Brexit-supporting voters in northern towns which Johnson stitched together in 2019. Esther’s full piece is well worth a read.
Running theme: The wall of coverage about the cost of living crisis continues with numerous angles this morning. The Resolution Foundation think tank argues in a new report that the next PM must “think the unthinkable” and go big on fuel help or risk a “catastrophe.” It notes that promises from the leadership candidates are not enough. Crisis, meanwhile, has new research showing just 12 percent of rental properties are affordable to low-income renters, with rent now 12 percent higher than before the pandemic, despite housing benefit remaining frozen since March 2020.
It goes on: The British Chambers of Commerce has a five-point plan to offer businesses immediate support as prices rise, including an energy grant for SMEs, more powers for energy regulators and a short-term reverse in National Insurance Contributions. Consumer champion Which? is meanwhile urging the government to raise its fuel bill discount by at least 150 percent or risk pushing millions of households into financial distress.
You know things are bad when … the Reform Party (formerly the Brexit Party) holds a press conference — albeit online. Leader Richard Tice will urge ministers to take control of production pricing, as happens in wartime, and energy planning. Tune in here from 11 a.m.
Speaking of the Reform Party: Former leader Nigel Farage has given an interview to, err, his employer GB News, in which he says he still gets constant abuse and death threats. He said he was given a hard time on a plane last week from someone who looked like a student, but shot back: “It looks like you’ve had your say, sit down, shut up, or I’ll make sure the transport police delay your journey home.” Elsewhere in the interview, Nige backed Truss for the Conservative leadership as the “least worst candidate.”
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
PARLIAMENT: Still in recess.
RESULTS DAY: Ministers will be ducking for cover when GCSE results are released at 8.30 a.m. this morning, possibly revealing further horrors of lockdown. More fuel for the JHB fire at the hustings tonight, at least. The Department for Education will be publishing a stats update on the results around 9.30 a.m. Minister Will Quince is on the broadcast round for the government, while Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan is chasing him around.
SLEAZE LATEST: Treasury Minister Alan Mak has been receiving payments to a community account from firms like Lockheed Martin and Aquind but not declaring them, Insider’s Cat Neilan reveals in this top scoop. Mak has also been singing the praises of the firms in the Commons — although he insists he hasn’t broken rules. If it’s within the rules, the rules sound a bit crap.
LABOUR LAND: The i newspaper splashes a Ben Gartside scoop claiming Labour is centralizing its fundraising “in a bid to seize control” of its financial woes. It means shadow Cabinet members should no longer seek direct donations for office staff or campaign funds. There was surprise in LOTO last night, as the centralization plan is said to be about being on guard for a snap election.
The forever war: Labour MP Sam Tarry is facing a reselection battle that kicks off tomorrow, after being fired from his shadow transport role, Rowena Mason reports in the Guardian. The Ilford South MP is guaranteed a place on the shortlist but is expected to face at least one rival for a contest that could last weeks.
HANCOCK CROSSES OVER: Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock’s mission to rehabilitate his reputation continues this morning — albeit in digital form. An avatar of the ex-Cabinet minister has been interviewed in the Metaverse during an event about the virtual 3D world we’ll all be suffering in the future. Check it out here. Sadly the important questions went unasked: Is it possible to cry in the shower in the Metaverse? Can one scream into one’s pillow in the Metaverse?
KICKING OFF ON TWITTER LAST NIGHT: Lots of reaction to former BBC journo Emily Maitlis complaining that an “active agent of the Conservative Party” has infiltrated the board of the national broadcaster and is now an “arbiter of BBC impartiality.” She was talking, of course, about former Downing Street spin chief and GB News co-founder Robbie Gibb. Sky has a write-up.
Twitter bants: “Finally someone has had the balls to call out the pro-Brexit, pro-Boris propaganda of the BBC,” wrote pro-Brexit Spiked Online Editor Tom Slater, with a mouthful of sarcasm. Anti-Brexit LBC Presenter James O’Brien chimed in, with none: “Speaking the truth in a time of universal deceit is a revolutionary act.” Will the Metaverse be this forever?
GLOBAL TRANSPORT NETWORK: Transport Secretary Grant Shapps is meeting his Ukrainian counterpart Oleksandr Kubrakov online this morning to hear about the impact of the war on Ukrainian infrastructure and sign an agreement to share engineering expertise. Expect an announcement after the mid-morning summit.
Travel ban call: Ukraine’s Foreign Minister Dmytro Kuleba calls for Western countries to ban Russian tourists in an opinion piece for POLITICO, writing that ordinary Russians should be targeted because “an overwhelming majority of them support this war, cheer the murder of Ukrainian civilians, laud missile strikes on Ukrainian cities and deny Russian war crimes.” It comes after Defense Secretary Ben Wallace suggested on Wednesday that the U.K. may tighten visa conditions for Russians, but expressed doubts about a total tourist ban.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: Home Secretary Priti Patel has agreed a deal with Albania to fast-track the return of illegal Albanian migrants. The announcement makes the front page of the Mail.
Right on cue: The Home Office will publish the latest immigration and removal figures at 9.30 a.m., including the number of small boat crossings up to June 2022.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT DOESN’T WANT TO TALK ABOUT: Britain’s steel industry says it is “beyond farcical” that construction-grade steel moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland now faces steep 25 percent post-Brexit tariffs, my POLITICO colleague Graham Lanktree reports for Trade UK Pros.
BEYOND THE M25: For those who are missing PMQs, SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford is speaking at an “in conversation” event at the New Town Theatre for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. It kicks off at noon.
Schools Minister Will Quince broadcast round: talkTV (6.45 a.m.) … Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … GB News (9.05 a.m.).
Shadow Schools Minister Stephen Morgan: GB News (7.30 a.m.) … talkTV (7.45 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley at Breakfast: Kantar CEO Craig Watkins (9.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Sunak supporter Mark Harper (7.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio: Dr Katherine Henderson, outgoing president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine (7.15 a.m.) … NHS Providers interim chief Saffron Cordery (9.05 a.m.).
Also on GB News: Sunak supporter Mark Harper (7.15 a.m.).
Also on TalkTV breakfast: ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton (7.05 a.m.) … Sunak supporter Mark Harper (7.32 a.m.) … Former Border Force head Tony Smith (9.32 a.m.).
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and the Courier’s David Clegg.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Boris — We must ‘endure’ fuel bill pain to defeat Putin.
Daily Mail: Fast track to deport Albanian boat migrants.
Daily Mirror: Freeze our bills now.
Daily Star: Hard rain’s gonna fall.
Financial Times: ‘Cost of doing business crisis’ looms as company fuel bills rise fourfold.
i: Labour’s money troubles deepen.
Metro: We will get justice for our Liv.
POLITICO UK: Liz Truss’ big choice.
PoliticsHome: Lord Frost says tax cuts are ‘right way’ to tackle energy bills crisis.
The Daily Telegraph: Johnson — We’re paying higher bills, Ukraine is paying in blood.
The Guardian: Warning of catastrophe at Ukraine nuclear plant.
The Independent: U.K. faces mental health crisis, NHS leaders warn.
The Sun: For the sake of little Olivia … talk.
The Times: Alarm over Truss raid on NHS.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: 🌧🌧🌧 Wet and windy. Highs of 24C.
GOOD CAUSE: Labour MP Fabian Hamilton begins a 100km bike ride today to raise money for the Holocaust Survivors Friendship Association — Ben Bloch has the details and donation link in the Jewish Chronicle.
BIRTHDAYS: Surrey Heath MP Michael Gove … Government Whip James Duddridge … Waveney MP Peter Aldous … Labour peer David Watts … GB News’ Tom Harwood … Best for Britain head of comms Grace Pritchard … and BBC documentary-maker Michael Cockerell turns 82.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: Editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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