Playbook Awards 2022 — Labouring away — China COVID alarm – POLITICO

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Good Thursday morning. This is Eleni Courea. Esther Webber is writing Friday’s Playbook.   


LONDON PLAYBOOK AWARDS 2022: As the end of the year approaches, it’s time to sit back with a cup of tea (or large glass of wine) and try to process what we’ve all been through. London Playbook has seen some things since launching in 2017, not long after Theresa May’s snap election had obliterated her majority and set British politics careening onto the crazy obstacle course it has been on since. There have been unprecedented parliamentary scenes, a redrawing of the electoral map and wild lockdown-breaking parties at the heart of government, but the drama reached a crescendo in 2022 when Britain chewed up and spat out two prime ministers and endured a self-imposed economic crisis. Fully in the knowledge that this is an invitation to fate, Playbook will say now: There won’t be another year like this for a long, long time.

A note of thanks: It’s also been a big one for Playbook, now nearing 90,000 subscribers. Thank you for all your tip-offs, spotteds and angry complaints — which no doubt this awards list will generate more of.

(PRIME) MINISTER OF THE YEAR: Rishi Sunak. A special honor, given the unusually high number of people who have had a go in 2022. Since the sprightly new chancellor stood next to Boris Johnson in the early days of the pandemic and made a suspiciously leader-like speech, many believed he was destined for the top. Less than three years later, having survived a scandal about his wife’s tax affairs, brought down Johnson and lost the ensuing contest to Liz Truss, Sunak finds himself installed in No. 10 (even if he can’t quite believe it himself). What does he want to do there? 2023 is the year we find out.

BACKBENCHER OF THE YEAR: Charles Walker. Ordinarily for MPs who exercise influence from the back benches, but in a year where the only campaigns that mattered were leadership ones, Playbook is going a different way. Charles Walker’s evisceration of his Conservative colleagues live on the BBC was one for the ages. “All those people who put Liz Truss in No. 10: I hope it was worth it,” he said. “I hope it was worth it for the ministerial red box, I hope it was worth it to sit round the Cabinet table, because the damage they have done to our party is extraordinary.” It’s the kind of raw emotional honesty for which he has come to be known and loved in SW1.

LEADERSHIP CAMPAIGN OF THE YEAR: Boris Johnson. Having watched (and helped) Liz Truss win the contest to succeed him and then blow up her premiership within weeks, Boris Johnson realized he quite fancied another go as top dog. He leapt off his sun lounger, began ringing round allies and caught the next flight back from the Caribbean, all of which caused a weekend of uncontrolled panic in SW1. Johnson didn’t stand in the end, but that’s not to say his political career is over. Plenty of people have lost money betting against the former PM and his chameleon-like ability to reinvent himself.

SACKING OF THE YEAR: Liz Truss vs. Kwasi Kwarteng. Liz Truss’ decision to dispense with her chancellor was the moment the spool began to unravel at alarming speed. Revealed (like so many things) in Steve Swinford’s Twitter feed, Kwarteng’s departure (and speedy replacement with arch-establishment figure Jeremy Hunt) made it clear that Trussonomics was dead and that Trussocracy couldn’t be far behind. One of the most dramatic political moments of 2023.

RESIGNATION OF THE YEAR: Sajid Javid. Javid’s exit — incidentally the second time he quit a Boris Johnson Cabinet — set off the domino effect that ousted the PM. Javid’s move forced Sunak’s hand, and as a pair they led dozens of ministers, PPSes and other government appointees in a historic mass resignation that made it impossible for Johnson to stay in post.

SPEECH OF THE YEAR: Boris Johnson’s tribute to the queen. One of the great ironies this year was Boris Johnson making what was his probably best-ever speech from the back benches: his tribute to Queen Elizabeth II, who died days after he left office. “Perhaps it is partly that she has always been there,” he said. “A changeless human reference point in British life; the person who — all the surveys say — appears most often in our dreams; so unvarying in her pole-star radiance that we have perhaps been lulled into thinking that she might be in some way eternal.” Undoubtedly one he would have liked to deliver from the despatch box, but such is life.

SPAD OF THE YEAR: Jason Stein. Having served briefly as an adviser to Prince Andrew before that fateful Newsnight interview, Stein is no stranger to sticky situations. This year he was rewarded for helping run his old boss Liz Truss’ leadership campaign with a job in No. 10, where his stint was again short but certainly eventful. In early October, Stein was blamed for anonymous newspaper briefings describing Michael Gove as a “sadist” and Sajid Javid as “sh*t.” Javid threatened to use his PMQs slot to expose the government over the row, and Stein was suspended. Less than 24 hours later, Truss resigned (and Stein was reinstated the next day).

FRONT PAGE OF THE YEAR: Which wet lettuce will last longer? Playbook was tempted to hand this gong to the Mail’s “At last! A true Tory budget,” but that would have been an injustice. The Daily Star’s front page, inspired by a cutting line from an Economist leader (name a more iconic collab) was the most ingenious tabloid splash of 2022 and started an international sensation. The Star combined its series of Lettuce Liz splashes with a YouTube livestream of a slowly decaying vegetable. “Bring back the lettuce!” as someone shouted recently in PMQs.

SCOOP OF THE YEAR: The Independent/the Sun. It’s a toss-up between Anna Isaac’s incredible scoop that Rishi Sunak’s wife Akshata Murty had non-dom status allowing her to avoid U.K. tax, and Noa Hoffman revealing that Chris Pincher had to resign as deputy chief whip after colleagues reported him for inappropriate behavior toward men at the Carlton Club. A cracking year for Lobby women.

BROADCAST ROUND OF THE YEAR: Simon Hart. It was unfortunate for Boris Johnson that Simon Hart was the man dispatched to breakfast studios on the morning after Chris Pincher’s resignation. Playbook had just revealed Johnson knew of sexual misconduct allegations against Pincher before he made him deputy chief whip, and Hart saw which way the wind was blowing, telling Sky he knew “what he would like to see happen” and that “we might be having a very different conversation as the day goes on.” It was the first hint of the mass ministerial revolt that had begun to brew and would defenestrate Johnson days later.

INTERVIEW OF THE YEAR: Golwg360 with Guto Harri. No. 10 directors of communications never give interviews — and no wonder. Welsh-language news site Golwg.360’s Q&A with Guto Harri on his first day in the job was quite the coup, and saw Harri utter the famous words that Boris Johnson is “not a complete clown.” A sign of what was to come.

EXCUSE OF THE YEAR: Neil Parish’s Dominator tractor search. With his claim that Boris Johnson was “ambushed by a cake” at his illegal surprise birthday party, Conor Burns nearly swept up this award in the first month of the year. But his ex-colleague Neil Parish’s explanation for why he was caught watching porn in the Commons blows that out of the water. Parish said his search for “Dominator” combine harvesters brought up “another website that had a very similar name.” Easily done.

GAFFE OF THE YEAR: King Charles III. Caught on camera saying “Back again? Dear, oh dear,” as he welcomed Liz Truss to Buckingham Palace, the new king captured the mood of the nation.

CAREER CHANGE OF THE YEAR: Matt Hancock. The former health secretary turned animal-genitalia-guzzler started life in Rishi Sunak’s premiership with the hope he would return to the Cabinet. A few disappointing months and three surprisingly successful weeks in the Australian jungle later, he is now mulling a very different future. Amid whispers that his fledgling career in showbiz (which he denies pursuing) has hit the rocks, it looks like Hancock is open to offers. Playbook looks forward to seeing what comes next.

ICONIC OUTFIT OF THE YEAR: Theresa May’s revenge dress. Theresa May’s decision to shimmy up committee corridor in a glittering midnight blue ball gown to cast her vote in the Boris Johnson confidence motion inspired artist’s impressions and generated international headlines. She had a function to go to afterwards (at least that was what she said.)

TWEET OF THE YEAR: 1922 exec stays cool. Liz Truss’ promise to “hit the ground from day one” as she became PM would have been the obvious choice, but for Playbook this top trolling from the 1922 committee exec — which organized not one but two leadership contests in the year it celebrated its centenary — takes the biscuit.

And a few more end of year reviews … The BBC’s Chris Mason has a lovely piece looking through behind-the-scenes photographs of politicians taken this year … Sky’s Sophy Ridge sets out her predictions for 2023 in the i and argues that strikes, migration and trans issues will decide who wins the next election … Rishi Sunak (best status dresser) and Kemi Badenoch (best Westminster wardrobe) represent SW1 in the Telegraph’s best-dressed list … and ICYMI, Boris Johnson pipped Rishi Sunak in a ConHome poll on the minister of the year (which Ben Wallace won comfortably).



LABOURING AWAY: A couple of major wins today for Labour spin-doctors and number-crunchers, who’ve clearly been busy preparing the dream Christmas grid. The Times splashes on a Labour vow to make combating antisocial behavior a central part of its offer, pitching itself as the “party of law and order” (on which the paper runs a supportive leader). Shadow justice sec Steve Reed says he would increase the use of community sentences and launch a review into putting prevention at the heart of the justice system. Separately, a Labour story about civil servants getting £30 million worth of high street vouchers from the government, effectively as a form of consolation while pay is frozen, makes the Sun splash (and is also in the FT).

And note … That’s the second Labour story to splash the Sun in a row, after Wednesday‘s crime stats on the 1 million burglaries that went unsolved last year (which also got a good showing in the Mail among other places). They’ll be popping open the Champagne at the new Labour HQ.

TAX ATTACK: It’s not much better news for the government on the front of the Mail today, which demands to know whether the Tories have “given up on cutting tax.” Jason Groves reports that ministers have quietly ditched the plan to review the U.K.’s tax system announced by Kwasi Kwarteng during his short stint as chancellor.

PREVENT DISSENT: Lots of chatter has followed Wednesday’s story by the Times’ Matt Dathan about a Cabinet row delaying publication of a review of Prevent. The Telegraph’s Charles Hymas and Edward Malnick have nabbed the prize today with a leaked draft of said review. The report will warn that taxpayers’ money has been handed to groups promoting Islamist extremism, they write, warning that “these findings raise serious questions about whether Prevent is knowingly taking this approach.” Their story splashes the Tel.

STRIKES GALORE: New TUC General Secretary Paul Nowak has given interviews to several papers including the Guardian, Indy and Mirror, warning ministers that strikes could last until the summer unless they negotiate over public sector pay. The Mirror’s Dan Bloom and the Guardian’s Pippa Crerar both have his comments, which also make the Indy splash. Meanwhile, PCS General Secretary Mark Serwotka warned on Wednesday it was a matter of time before unions joined forces for a “coordinated, synchronized and escalating” wave of industrial action. The Times’ Chris Smyth has a write-up.

BORDER FARCE: A Border Force official in Dover has been arrested on suspicion of immigration offences, according to the Sun. The individual is accused of having lied about his country of origin to stay in the U.K.

APPG UPDATE: Rishi Sunak thinks allegations of drunken and sexual misbehavior by MPs on overseas visits uncovered by POLITICO are “very concerning,” his official spokesman told reporters Wednesday. Read the investigation so far here.

HANCOCK WATCH: Matt Hancock has denied ever wanting to hire an agent to pursue a showbiz career and says he instead wants to make documentaries about serious issues such as dyslexia and assisted dying. The Times has a write-up.

BITING BACK: Edwina Currie’s neighbor has denied that his dog caused her to trip over and break her hip — insisting instead that she tripped over her own dogs — and is refusing to pay her any compensation. MailOnline has that story with all its twists and turns.


CHINA COVID ALARM: The U.S. and Italy are introducing mandatory coronavirus testing for travelers arriving from China, which has just lifted its longstanding travel quarantine rules and where cases of the virus are surging, sparking concern about potential new variants. Japan, India, Malaysia and Taiwan have also introduced travel restrictions, while the EU’s Health Security Committee will meet today in an urgent bid to get all member countries on the same page, this morning’s Brussels Playbook reports. The Telegraph’s Charles Hymas says officials from the Department for Transport, Home Office and Department for Health and Social Care are expected to assess today what the U.K. should do.

TICK TOCK ON TIKTOK: Members of the U.S. Congress have been ordered to delete TikTok from mobile phones issued to them by the House of Representatives due to security concerns. The House’s cybersecurity unit said TikTok poses a “high risk to users due to a number of security risks” with fears the app, owned by Chinese tech company ByteDance, is used as a surveillance tool by Beijing. This month, the Senate passed a bill banning TikTok from government-owned devices, which President Joe Biden will soon sign into law. The Times’ Hugh Tomlinson has the story.

AFGHAN WOMEN’S RIGHTS: There is faint hope the Taliban may relax its ban on women working for the non-government aid agencies in Afghanistan following the 15-member U.N. Security Council condemning the ban in a rare show of unanimity. Patrick Wintour has more in the Guardian.

EXXON TAX ROW: U.S. oil giant ExxonMobil is suing the EU over its bid to impose a windfall tax on oil and gas firm profits. The lawsuit argues the proposal is a tax, a right reserved for national governments, and challenges the use of an emergency procedure, which excludes the European Parliament, to enact the legislation. POLITICO’s America Hernandez has the details. The story splashes the FT.

SCOTTISH NHS PRESSURE: The NHS in Scotland cannot survive in its current form with staff “exhausted, burnt-out and broken,” the Scottish chairman of the BMA, Iain Kennedy, told the BBC Wednesday. He said the number of vacancies was the worst he had seen in his 30 years as a doctor. Here’s the write-up.

BORIS ARCHIVES: Boris Johnson favored a “hard egg” approach to the Northern Ireland peace process in 1996 while he was deputy editor of Daily Telegraph, according to declassified documents. In a confidential note from an Irish diplomat to the Irish government, Johnson was quoted as saying “let them use the bomb and the bullet, we shouldn’t give in and we will beat them eventually.” The Guardian’s Rory Carroll has more details.


Today program: Guest edited by Jeremy Fleming, the director of GCHQ.

LBC: Shadow Attorney General Emily Thornberry takes charge between 10 a.m. and 1 p.m., sitting in for James O’Brien.

Times Radio Breakfast: Catholic Archbishop of Westminster Cardinal Vincent Nichols (7.05 a.m.) … TUC General Secretary-designate Paul Nowak (8.05 a.m.) … Former top diplomat Peter Ricketts (8.15 a.m.).

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): Author and broadcaster Jenny Kleeman and former policy adviser to the queen and royal household and former Tory MP Mary Macleod.


(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page):

Daily Express: Rishi’s pledge to make Britain’s streets safer.

Daily Mail: Have Tories given up on cutting tax?

Daily Mirror: 1,000 new heart kits to save lives.

Daily Star: Puss in boot.

Financial Times: Exxon sues Brussels in effort to block €25 billion windfall tax on oil companies.

i: Unions poised to boycott pay talks as strike row deepens.

PoliticsHome: The Asylum Claim Backlog Explained In Six Charts

POLITICO UK: How Musk’s Twitter takeover is playing out worldwide.

The Daily Telegraph: Extremist groups funded by taxpayer.

The Guardian: Dementia patients’ families warn of ‘horrific’ crisis in care homes.

The Independent: Union chief — UK could face year of strike chaos.

The Sun: Sneaky Nando’s.

The Times: Labour vow to combat antisocial behaviour.


SW1 FESTIVITIES PART 2: Curious about what Westminster types are getting up during their downtime this week? Playbook has you covered. Labour MP Jess Phillips has been deploying her impressive collection of board games … Tory MP Andrea Leadsom has enjoyed a Christmas cake made by her mother-in-law … Former education sec Kit Malthouse has been admiring his neighbors’ magnificent Christmas decorations … Labour MP Stella Creasy has been sporting a moustache in the style of Mr Potato Head … LBC’s Iain Dale has been relaxing at home in tartan pyjamas with his dog Bubba … TalkTV’s Tom Newton Dunn has been wandering round Richmond Park … the SNP’s Stewart McDonald has been listening to an audiobook about the geopolitics of chips (not the food) … and Science Minister George Freeman has been exploring the Norfolk woods.

SPOTTED: Michael Gove and ex-Newsnight producer Sam McAlister at a celebrity drinks party, according to the Sun.

WESTMINSTER WEATHER: Dry throughout the day, reaching highs of 10C.

BIRTHDAYS: Rossendale and Darwen MP and former Tory Chairman Jake Berry … Former Belgian Ambassador to the U.K. Rudolf Huygelen … Former Northern Irish First Minister Peter Robinson … Prospect Editor Alan Rusbridger … Former BBC News Director of Current Affairs Fran Unsworth … POLITICO’s Clothilde Goujard … Freelance political journalist Marie Le Conte.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Noah Keate and producer Grace Stranger.

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Eleni Courea

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