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BY ANNABELLE DICKSON
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Good Bank Holiday Monday morning, and happy New Year. This is Annabelle Dickson bringing you the first London Playbook of the year fueled by the remnants of a Cadbury’s Christmas selection box. I’ll be in your inbox Tuesday morning too.
End of holiday listening: If you are just tuning back into politics after a glorious festive break, Playbook suggests you dig out Jack Blanchard’s POLITICO Westminster Insider episode looking ahead to the big political stories coming down the track in 2023. Needless to say, it’s going to be another big year. We’ve got more 2023 predictions from the Economist’s mystic Tom Standage further down today’s email too.
DRIVING THE DAY
IN POOR HEALTH: Rishi Sunak begins the year with pressure mounting on his government to spell out exactly how it is going to get a grip on the National Health Service crisis. A claim from a senior emergency doctor that as many a 500 patients a week could be dying because of long delays in casualty departments across the country makes the front of many of today’s papers, and is just one of the huge challenges the PM must grapple with this year as he tries to win over voters.
‘500 a week’: The stark warning from Adrian Boyle, president of the Royal College of Emergency Medicine, came in a hard-hitting Times Radio interview on Sunday in which he also warned of the need to “get a grip” of a situation that is both “unsafe” and “undignified.” You can watch him make the comments here.
Emergency footing: Some health leaders want a major incident, similar to the one at the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic, to be declared. Tim Cooksley, president of the Society for Acute Medicine, was leading the calls last night. He says there needs to be “emergency action, clear and regular communication” and “urgent workforce plans.” He told Sky News the situation was “much worse” than it had been even at the peak of the pandemic.
From the frontline: Shaun Lintern described in the Sunday Times how one patient had to wait 99 hours for a bed last week, and a seriously ill child was left sleeping on plastic chairs in A&E. The Liverpool Echo’s Liam Thorp is among an army of regional journalists who have also been reporting on the experiences of staff and patients in A&E departments across the country over the new year. Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell said her emergency medicine doctor husband reported a similar picture to Boyle on his A&E shift last night.
Not going to help: And there is another wave of strikes coming. There are few signs the walkouts planned this month will be averted. Ambulance staff are due to strike again on January 11 and 23, with nurses following suit on January 18 and 19. Junior doctors will be balloted from January 9 over their own industrial action. It’s no wonder Sunak warned in his New Year message over the weekend that Britain’s problems will not “go away” in 2023.
What’s your plan? Conservative MPs told Playbook last night the crisis would be significant, and a former minister said the government had to start showing it had a plan.
Media round latest: There were no ministers out on the airwaves on Sunday, and no plans last night for a minister to do media today, although it is likely there will be a government media round Tuesday. Parliament isn’t sitting again until Monday. In a statement last night, a Department of Health and Social Care spokesperson insisted they recognized the pressure the NHS is facing, and that they were “working tirelessly to ensure people get the care they need.” DHSC cited the £14.1 billion of extra funding for health and social care over the next two years, the extra £500 million allocated to speed up hospital discharges, and the creation of 7,000 more beds to help reduce A&E waits.
Incoming: Sunak may say more soon. A Downing Street source told the Sunday Times the NHS was a “huge personal priority” for the prime minister and that “we will hear more from him in the new year about tackling backlogs and ensuring the quality of care for patients is the No. 1 priority.” Downing Street points to the promise of an urgent emergency and primary care recovery plan in the new year, made in the Autumn Statement in November. No Downing Street grid slot for a keynote Sunak speech yet though.
Work to do: The i paper has some timely Opinium polling from Compassion In Politics suggesting that even Conservative voters overwhelmingly believe their party has failed in its management of the NHS during its time in government, with 73 percent of those surveyed indicating they thought NHS management had been a failure in the last decade, compared to just 16 percent who said it had been a success.
Political risk: Someone who has spotted the danger for Sunak in the NHS crisis is his new political secretary, the former Speccie political editor James Forsyth. Back when he was a hack he wrote in the Times about how it carried a greater political risk for the new PM than the energy crisis. “Voters know the Tories have been in power for the past dozen years and are therefore answerable for its problems,” he said. (H/t to the tenacious Times duo Steve Swinford and Chris Smyth for going back through the Forsyth archives.)
Not going to help II: A report in the Guardian that the U.K. government wants to raise NHS salaries by only 2 percent next year is not going to help ease those hostilities between the unions and the government either. Various unions and think tanks reckon the fact that NHS England’s budget for 2023-24 has already been set suggests that is the figure ministers are keen to see be awarded. DHSC insists to the paper it has not decided yet what it can afford.
New hospitals latest: Work has only started on seven of the 40 new hospitals promised by Boris Johnson at the last election, a Lib Dem parliamentary question has revealed. The Telegraph points out the flagship policy announced by the ex-PM might not be completed on time. Meanwhile, Labour has uncovered figures suggesting private mental health providers made £1.37 million a day from the NHS in 2020-21. The Mirror has the details on those figures.
Justin time: Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby is planning to set out proposals for how social care could be fixed this month after using his New Year message to make a rallying call for reform. The BBC has more.
You’re kidding: It is not just the NHS crisis which is going to occupy Sunak’s time this year. The PM could put himself on another collision course with his backbenchers amid reports in the Telegraph that he has “postponed indefinitely” Liz Truss’ “big bang” plan to provide more free hours of childcare and an end to mandated staff-to-child ratios.
The numbers are in: Then there is the small boat crisis. With 2022 at an end we now know a total of 45,756 migrants crossed the Channel to the U.K. last year, with the final crossing on Christmas Day, when 90 people came from France in two boats. Bookmark that number, as it may prove to be significant if it does not fall substantially in 2023. Sunak has made it a personal mission to tackle the issue. The Telegraph reports Border Force officers have joined French beach patrols for the first time.
This week in strikes: And the rolling strikes look set to continue with little sign of any resolution. RMT members at Network Rail are out Tuesday, along with Rural Payments Agency staff and National Highways traffic officers. They will all also be out on Wednesday and will be joined by DVSA driving examiners in various regions, and Abellio London bus workers. On Thursday, a 24-hour walkout of Aslef train workers begins with RPA, DVSA and bus workers continuing their strikes. RMT workers will be back out on strike for 48 hours on Friday along with National Highways workers in the East Midlands and eastern England, and those will continue into the weekend.
In for the long haul: Mark Serwotka, the leader of the PCS union that represents border force officials, driving test examiners and civil servants, told Times Radio last night the union isn’t running out of money, and can “sustain strike action well into the summer.”
Thwarted: Sunak appears to be planning some sort of anti-strike laws soon, although exactly how strong the new rules will be is yet to be seen. The Sunday Telegraph reports that while new rules for minimum staffing levels might come this month, more contentious measures like an outright ban on strikes by firefighters and ambulance drivers could come a cropper in the courts and the the House of Lords.
More new laws: ICYMI over the weekend, the Mirror’s Sophie Huskisson has a handy run-through of some of the other law changes coming this year.
A rare glimmer of hope: Some cheering news for Sunak, who the Sunday Times says could yet be saved if he can win back some “timid Tories.”
Coming attraction: Which might be why Labour leader Keir Starmer is planning to make a speech on Thursday setting out his stall, according to HuffPost’s Kevin Schofield. Schofield has some interesting tidbits about the importance being placed on May’s local election results in Labour HQ, and orders to the shadow Cabinet to come up with cost-free policy ideas.
Shuffling the pack: The shad cab might want to think of them quickly. The Times hears Starmer is mulling a reshuffle amid concerns among senior Labour figures that some shadow ministers have failed to make inroads in their briefs. There are hopes Hilary Benn might return to the front bench, but promotions are more likely for Sarah Jones, the shadow policing minister, Darren Jones, the chairman of the business select committee, and Stephen Morgan, the shadow schools minister, the Times reckons.
Challenges ahead: The Mirror’s Ash Cowburn has a really nice piece looking at some of the hurdles ahead for Starmer — from penning a manifesto to the future of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. The Sun on Sunday reports Starmer is going to “channel Tony Blair and unveil his very own 1997-style pledge card.”
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
PARLIAMENT: Nope. Not until January 9.
HAVING A BLAST: There’s a potentially big row brewing over whether there should be a taxpayer rescue of British Steel’s two blast furnaces. Sky News says Cabinet colleagues Michael Gove and Grant Shapps have warned Chancellor Jeremy Hunt that British Steel “does not have a viable business without government support.” The FT hears Hunt is considering their request for taxpayer help, but a government official briefed on the talks tells the paper: “Hunt doesn’t want to bail out a Chinese company with deep pockets.”
LET’S DO IT ALL AGAIN: Duck for cover. The Indy has Savanta polling showing nearly two-thirds of Britons now support a referendum on rejoining the EU, and that opposition to another vote has fallen.
MOTHER SUPPORT: Labour’s Liz Kendall has spoken to the Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler about her decision to find a surrogate after numerous miscarriages and failed IVF cycles. She wants to help develop new policies to support older mothers, as well as the new “sandwich generation.” Watch this space.
EXTINCTION EX-REBELLION: The green agitators from Extinction Rebellion’s U.K. branch have a New Year’s resolution: stop causing trouble, my POLITICO colleague Karl Mathiesen emails to report. The climate change protesters have run a four-year campaign of non-violent public disruption — often blocking roads and bridges and causing major headaches for commuters and police. Those actions have been mimicked and radicalized further by groups like Just Stop Oil. But the government has responded by introducing laws that target these kinds of protests and would potentially land offenders in jail.
Who’s radical now? “In a time when speaking out and taking action are criminalised, building collective power, strengthening in number and thriving through bridge-building is a radical act,” said an XR press release entitled “We Quit.” The group instead wants to mobilize 100,000 people for an April march. It’s hard to see how this is anything other than a retreat for an organization that originally aimed to overwhelm the state’s prison system with willing objectors. “This year, we prioritise attendance over arrest and relationships over roadblocks, as we stand together and become impossible to ignore,” the release said. Will this be the last we hear of them?
WATCH LIST: Labour MP Charlotte Nichols has stood by her decision to share a list of 20 MPs alleged to have a sex pest reputation. The Mail on Sunday reports she has “sparked fury” after sending the list to a group of Labour MPs elected in 2019. Nichols pointed out she did not have the ability to make a third-party report. “Am I not meant to warn others about conduct I’ve seen, experienced or been told about that many times by different people that it’s a clear pattern of behaviour? I’m many things but a bystander isn’t one, and while Westminster is as grim as it is I won’t pretend otherwise,” she added.
More bad behavior: “Sexually explicit graffiti” was found in the gents near the House of Commons Strangers bar, according to parliament’s vandalism log obtained by the Press Association. The Mirror has written up the story.
RESHUFFLE: James Younger, an elected hereditary peer, has been made a junior minister at the Department for Work and Pensions and Tory peer Graham Evans has been made a Lords whip. It follows the departure from government of Deborah Stedman-Scott.
NUCLEAR FUEL EXPANSION: The government is to expand U.K. nuclear fuel production with up to £75 million in funding to provide an alternative to Russian sources of energy. Energy and Climate Minister Graham Stuart says the investment will back the government’s ambition to secure up to 24GW of nuclear power by 2050.
WALK THE WALK: £32.9 million will also be spent by the government on accelerating walking and cycling schemes to encourage people to get fit and save money. The government says the investment will help local authorities in England design, develop and consult on high-quality active travel schemes.
MIRROR ON MONE: A company linked to Tory peer Michelle Mone’s husband pumped tens of thousands of pounds into the Conservative Party’s war chest, the Mirror’s Ben Glaze reports.
LABOUR PROMISES MORE ONLINE SAFETY: Tough laws protecting children from being bombarded with harmful online material would be introduced as a top priority if Labour wins power, the party says. The opposition is planning to amend the Online Safety Bill to something closer to its original form, before the government abandoned plans to ban material judged to be “legal but harmful.” Toby Helm has the details in the Observer.
BEYOND THE M25
LONG GAME: Western countries must be prepared to provide long-term support to Ukraine as Russia shows no signs of relenting, NATO’s Secretary-General Jens Stoltenberg has told the BBC. He said the military support would ensure Ukraine’s survival as a sovereign country and force Russia to negotiate an end to the war.
Putin’s address: In an aggressive New Year’s speech, Russian President Vladimir Putin said Russia was fighting in Ukraine to protect its “motherland” and called 2022 “a year of hard, necessary decisions” and “fateful events” that would lay the foundations for Russia’s future and independence. The nine-minute message was the longest New Year’s address since Putin took power over two decades ago. Putin claimed “the West lied about peace but was preparing for aggression” and is “cynically using Ukraine and its people to weaken and divide Russia.” David L. Stern and Francesca Ebel have more in the Washington Post.
Zelenskyy’s comeback: Speaking after Putin, Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy told Russians their president was destroying their country and hiding behind his troops, not leading them. The BBC’s Hugo Bachega and Robert Greenall have more on that.
Prosecution call: Putin should go on trial this year for war crimes in Ukraine, the lawyer who led the prosecution of former Serbian leader Slobodan Milošević has argued. Geoffrey Nice told the BBC Putin was guilty for attacks on civilian targets during the war and expressed surprised that politicians and prosecutors were not “spelling this out much more freely and openly.”
Missiles launched: This comes as Russia launched a wave of missile strikes against Ukraine on New Year’s Eve, leaving at least one person dead. POLITICO’s Veronika Melkozerova has more.
Passport control: POLITICO’s Lily Hyde has a must-read piece on the plight facing Ukrainians who only possess a Russian passport and are being drafted into a war against their own country. As many nations closed their borders to Russian citizens, Ukrainians living in territory occupied by Russia, which has been issuing its own passports for nearly a decade, found themselves coerced into becoming Russian citizens. Ukrainian Deputy Prime Minister Iryna Vereshchuk said this constitutes a war crime.
Oligarch index: Russia’s war has played havoc with Ukrainian oligarchs’ fortunes, and the political influence of the super-rich has also taken a tumble, reports POLITICO’s Sergei Kuznetsov in this analysis of who is up and who is down.
SNP IN-FIGHTING: Sky News’ Joe Pike has the inside story on the splits inside the SNP which culminated in Stephen Flynn taking over from Ian Blackford as the party’s leader in the Commons last year. Pike details how vitriolic SNP MPs can be in private, with Flynn’s election representing a generational shift inside the party. Blackford, Pike says, was deposed through fellow SNP MP David Linden meeting his chief whip and revealing the long list of names that would suggest Flynn would win a leadership challenge. Flynn denies knowledge of a coup or any such list. As the entire SNP pushes for independence, the question of whether its MPs or MSPs are leading the fight is a complex one, leading to “mixed messages for fragile egos,” Pike writes.
LULA’S COMEBACK: Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva — known as Lula — has been sworn in as the new president of Brazil, the third time he has held that office. Lula defeated the incumbent, Jair Bolsonaro, in October last year, with Bolsonaro not attending Lula’s inauguration, having left Brazil for Florida last week. In a change from Bolsonaro’s policies, Marina Silva, who is one of Brazil’s best known climate activists, was reappointed as head of the environment and climate ministry, with Lula pledging to reach “zero deforestation” in the Amazon by 2030. POLITICO’s Karl Mathiesen has the details.
DRAKEFORD ELECTION-READY: Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has warned the Labour Party in Wales to be prepared for a general election this year. Drakeford told the Guardian he believes the U.K. government could be mere months away from collapsing.
FOOTBALL REGULATOR KICKS OFF: Over the weekend, the Sunday Times reported English football was to have its biggest shake-up since the Premier League with a new regulator created. Caroline Wheeler says ministers will publish plans to create a new watchdog to ensure clubs are managed responsibly, and to prevent financial collapse. The regulator would also ensure clubs could not compete in breakaway competitions like the aborted European Super League.
HAPPY (?) NEW YEAR: With war continuing in Ukraine, tensions rising in the South China Sea and a grim economic outlook for everyone else, 2023 isn’t looking like it will be a particularly fun year for the world. As editor of the annual The World Ahead magazine, the Economist’s Tom Standage has had to spend much of this year thinking about the next one. Playbook’s Andrew McDonald caught up with Standage at the Economist’s swanky offices off the Strand in December for a chat about what’s in store for us all this year — sorry to anyone still catching their breath after the whirlwind that was 2022. “Unpredictability is the new normal, and we just have to get used to it,” Standage says.
First things first: In his interview with Playbook last year, Standage got the big geopolitical calls pretty much bang on. He said he was “more worried” about the ominous build-up of Russian troops on the borders of Ukraine than he was a Chinese invasion of Taiwan. One year on, he reckons that despite the status quo between China and Taiwan “breaking down,” it will survive for another year: “We don’t see something big happening next year.” The main lesson from Ukraine, for China, he argues, is that “if you are going to invade the country next door, you better be ready … a big power invading a small power may not go according to plan.”
Back to Ukraine: Standage doesn’t see a decisive end to the conflict coming this year and instead reckons it will look “more and more like World War One trench warfare.” He foresees more incremental advances from Kyiv’s troops and says Putin “can’t win” — but that this doesn’t make him any less dangerous as he tries to string out the war and “hope that something in the external environment changes.” He points out that Putin likes frozen conflicts: “The uncertainty gives him control, gives him power and gives him influence.”
Meanwhile, for the rest of the world: Standage says the high energy and high food prices that have hit the West as a result of the war will continue. Inflation should start to come down in most economies — but recession looms. “We think a deep one in Europe, a long one in Britain that probably goes into 2024, and then a mild one in the U.S.,” he predicts.
One to watch: Away from Ukraine and Taiwan, Standage and his team of predictors have identified some of the other potential flashpoints for conflict this year. He points to the possibility of clashes between Greece and Turkey — both NATO members — as the most provocative possible flashpoint. Facing reelection this year, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdoğan has threatened to take various Greek islands close to Turkey which the country lays claim to, and may fancy going for them this year as he seeks to boost his chances of staying in power (more on that by POLITICO’s Paul Taylor this morning). “The worrying thing is that the Greeks might be up for a fight, because the Greek PM also faces reelection and is not doing terribly well in the polls,” Standage says.
Countries to keep an eye on: Standage names Taiwan — “obviously” — Turkey, and Italy as his countries to watch next year. “If cracks appear in European support for Ukraine, then a crack is likely to appear in Italy first,” he says, pointing to the country’s new right-wing leader Giorgia Meloni. He got back in touch after the interview to add Iran into the mix as a country to watch, with protests likely to continue there.
Reasons to be cheerful: Mercifully, Standage does foresee opportunities for some good news this year. One of those is actually climate-related. While Standage agrees climate change will continue to bite, he says Russia’s war on Ukraine and resulting energy pressures will see a massive drive toward renewables. He adds that NATO’s renewed sense of purpose and China’s slowing growth/declining population are two more silver linings for supporters of the West.
Today program: Guest edited by Sharon White, chairman of the John Lewis partnership.
Times Radio Breakfast: FDA union chief Dave Penman (7.05 a.m.) … Ukrainian MP Oleksiy Honcharenko (7.20 a.m.) … Kevin Saunders, former chief immigration officer for U.K. Border Force at Calais (7.35 a.m.) … Etienne Stott, Extinction Rebellion spokesperson (8.20 a.m.) … Former Health Secretary Stephen Dorrell (8.35 a.m.) … Dr David Nicholl, neurologist and committee member of Doctors’ Association U.K. (8.40 a.m.).
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m.): The Telegraph’s Christopher Hope and journalist Rachel Shabi.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page):
Daily Express: 500 patients dying a week due to delays.
Daily Mail: Rishi’s triple new year headache.
Daily Mirror: 500 deaths a week due to NHS crisis.
Daily Star: Barking Mad!
Financial Times (online): Recession will hit a third of the world this year, IMF chief warns
i: Tory voters blame the Government for NHS crisis, poll shows.
PoliticsHome: Andrea Leadsom Says Supporting Parents Is A “Major Battleground Issue” For 2023.
POLITICO UK: Ukraine’s oligarch index: Who’s up and who’s down.
The Daily Telegraph: PM shelves ‘big bang’ childcare reforms.
The Guardian: Fury at ministers’ plans for new real-terms pay cut for NHS staff.
The Independent: ‘Overwhelmed’ courts failing victims of crime.
The Sun: Harry v Wills: Gloves are orf.
The Times: A&E delays ‘killing up to 500 patients every week.’
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: Light rain showers and winds, reaching a high of 9C.
SW1 NEW YEAR: The New Year saw more than 100,000 people attend the London fireworks display, which was the first time since 2019 that people could watch it in-person. But how did MPs see in 2023? Defra Secretary Thérèse Coffey attended mass in Dom Bosco Church in Brasilia, Brazil … SNP MP David Linden went for a walk by the banks of the Clyde with Labour MP Cat Smith … Tory MP Jacob Young walked up Roseberry Topping, a hill in North Yorkshire … Tory MP Paul Bristow attended a church supporting rough sleepers and those who need a hot meal … Sinn Féin’s Chris Hazzard ate some Christmas couscous on the Brandy Pad in Northern Ireland … Tory MP Sheryll Murray attended the Cawsand Bay New Year dip … Independent MP Neil Coyle welcomed in the New Year in Bucharest, Romania … Labour MP Jess Phillips played arcade games … Lib Dem MP Tim Farron went for a run, something he aims to do every day in January for charity … and Labour MP Luke Pollard took down his Christmas tree for another year.
SPOTTED: A Welsh farmer who bears an uncanny resemblance to one former occupant of 10 Downing Street. David Phillips, 60, said he was constantly stopped because of his similar appearance to Boris Johnson. Jonathon Hill in Wales Online has the full story.
WEDDING BELLS: Congratulations to former SpAd power couple Lucy Harris and Hugh Bennett, who got engaged over the festive period. Harris tweeted the happy news.
NEW GIG: LBC’s Roxanna Wright, who has become the assistant producer on the flagship show Nick Ferrari at Breakfast. Wright tweeted the news.
IN MEMORIAM: Pope Benedict XVI passed away aged 95 on New Year’s Eve. Benedict served as the pontiff from 2005 to 2013, becoming the first pope to step down in nearly 600 years. POLITICO’s Louise Guillot reports on how European leaders paid tribute to him.
BIRTHDAYS: Former Labour MP Helen Goodman … Cabinet Office Permanent Secretary Alex Chisholm … Former Welsh Tories Leader Paul Davies … Cabinet Office Minister Lucy Neville-Rolfe turns 70 … Former U.K. Ambassador to Russia Andrew Wood … Businesswoman Penelope Lyttelton … Education journalist Fiona Millar.
MEA CULPA: In Friday’s email we incorrectly named the author of the Mail splash. It was co-written by Kumail Jaffer.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Noah Keate and producer Giulia Poloni.
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