Don’t make it a triple – POLITICO

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There are murmurs within government that the pensions triple lock could be set for the scrap heap in future.

And there are rumblings that the next state pension rise will follow a lower measure of wage increases.

Some in government are pushing for China to be added to a crucial foreign influence list.

Angela Rayner faced down union dissent over Labour’s workers’ rights plans.

An environment watchdog reckons the government broke the law on its regulation of sewage spills.

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TRIPLE UNLOCKED: The government is dropping hints that the long-cherished triple lock pensions promise could be under threat — but it’s keeping tight-lipped about future plans.

Indeed: Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride told BBC Radio 4’s World at One the guarantee that pensions will rise in line with the highest of either average earnings, inflation or 2.5 percent is “not sustainable” in the long term.

The context: The latest earnings figures from the ONS this morning are the crucial set defining the upcoming state pension rise in April — unless the next inflation stats are even higher. Wages rose 8.5 percent on average between May and July, matching inflation for the first time in two years, after the rise in prices began to slow. An 8.5 percent hike to the state pension would translate to an extra £13.30 a week, taking the total annual sum to £8,814 — quite an increase to one of the biggest government bills right when public cash is rather tight.

Don’t forget: Pensions rose 10.1 percent this spring.

A little more context: Neither Labour or the Tories have committed to the triple lock in their next manifestos so far. Like William Hague, we all know it’s ripe for a tweaking, but our political masters don’t like to wind up pensioners — a.k.a. people who love voting.

And so … enter Mel: “We’ve known for a long time, that in the very, very long term … it is not sustainable,” Stride told the Beeb. “But of course, what I’m dealing with is now, and where we stand at the moment is we remain committed to the triple lock. And that’s the path that we will be taking.”

The crucial caveat: “As to the future, and after future general elections, and so on and so forth, who knows,” he added. “But that’s the position we’re in at present.”

Also in the present: One option being widely reported is to use the wage rise figure excluding bonuses, which is 7.8 percent, to dictate the pension rise. Playbook PM can confirm the government is mulling the option, with some pointing to comments from the ONS suggesting the 8.5 figure is unrepresentative, since it was boosted to a record level after one-off lump sum settlements for civil servants and NHS staff to end industrial action. Some economists have suggested the lower sum would therefore be a more sensible guide for the triple lock, which would save the exchequer a bit of much-needed cash.

Nevertheless: Stride wouldn’t comment. He said he would have to take the decision with Chancellor Jeremy Hunt in the autumn via a statutory process. Downing Street echoed that line. It feels like some serious pitch-rolling is happening.

Good luck with that: Former Downing Street aide Dominic Cummings was scathing on Twitter about the suggestion the government could irritate pensioners next.

The Labour line: On BBC Breakfast this morning, Deputy Leader Angela Rayner refused to commit Labour to keeping the triple lock in its next manifesto, as it did in 2019. “Since 2019 the government have crashed the economy and we’re in a very different place,” she said. “What Labour have said is we’ll look at that in the run-up to a general election but we will not make unfunded spending commitments, because Liz Truss did that and she crashed the economy.”

Keep an ear on … former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, who wrote the 2019 Labour manifesto retaining the triple lock promise. He’s due on the Radio 4 PM programme at 5.30 p.m.

Also in latest stats news: Shadow Work and Pensions Sec Liz Kendall condemned the latest job stats showing the number of people out of work up to 4.3 percent between May and July, while the number of people taking long term sick leave hit a new record.

In her own words: “Employment is still not back to pre-pandemic levels, unemployment is rising and a record number of people are out of work as a result of long-term sickness,” Kendall said. “This isn’t good for them and it’s bad for the health of our economy too.” Junior frontbencher Alison McGovern chipped in on Twitter too.

But but but: Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said it was “heartening” to see the overall in-work figures “still close to record highs,” while trumpeting the wage growth figures.


LIVING IN A DEMOCRACY LATEST: Conservative China hawks could push for a Commons vote on adding China to the “enhanced” list of the upcoming Foreign Influence Registration Scheme amid accusations of espionage in parliament. Playbook PM hears backbenchers are mulling a debate with a non-binding vote in a bid to pile pressure on ministers, who insist on keeping quiet about the issue. 

Internal politics: Home Secretary Suella Braverman and Security Minister Tom Tugendhat are said to be pushing for China to be added to the list, which would lead to enhanced checks on those intending to conduct political influence campaigns in the U.K. for a foreign government. The hope is such a move would put more pressure on China and help to sniff out bad actors in future. 

Meanwhile: There are accusations about that the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office is resistant, but the process for designating nations on the list hasn’t begun, with the register not set to come into force until 2024. Ministers still haven’t been asked for their views.

Nevertheless: One Conservative MP said adding China to the “enhanced” list is a no-brainer. “What we all want is a more robust, sustainable and credible policy from the government,” the same person said. 

Of course … the government argues its approach *is* robust and credible. Tech Sec Michelle Donelan told Times Radio this morning that “we need to be robust and we have been robust,” arguing the U.K. has been “more forthright” than other Five Eyes nations.

The bigger problem is: Some in government reckon whether China is designated a “threat” or not, whether it’s on one list or another, or whether we play friends is irrelevant when the U.K. is struggling to compete on industrial strategy and upcoming areas like AI. China is set to become the world’s biggest car exporter this year, for example.

Therefore: The more important issues are protecting British intellectual property and working with other nations to have a chance of posing an economic counterweight, some argue. There’s a feeling the government has an approach to China but no plan. “We’re getting eaten alive because they have a proper industrial policy and we don’t,” one person who takes a keen interest in the issue told Playbook PM.

IN OTHER CHINA NEWS: The Lords last night passed an amendment aimed at stopping the U.K. becoming complicit in the Chinese organ harvesting trade. The tweak to the Procurement Bill will return to the Commons for a final debate after PMQs tomorrow.

Oh and … A drinks get-together planned for next week among China watchers in Westminster has been postponed so the security risks can be reassessed, my POLITICO colleague Stuart Lau (who writes a newsletter all about western relations with China) writes in to say. The organizers said the move was due to “recent developments.”

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RAYN ON HER PARADE: Angela Rayner faced down union-land rumblings about her workers’ rights plan in her big speech to the TUC Congress, writes my colleague Dan Bloom from Liverpool. Labour’s deputy promised to “bring forward” an Employment Rights Bill, and “ask parliament” to repeal the 2016 Trade Union Act and Strikes Act, “within the first 100 days.” Sky’s Jon Craig has a decent analysis of her “cast-iron commitment.”

But but but … Pledges have shifted. Labour originally said its “New Deal” would be “signed into law” in 100 days … now the promise is “bring forward” i.e. first steps. The deal still exists online in full but details of its implementation were set out by Labour’s National Policy Forum.

And that means … union leaders across the spectrum seem jittery about Labour following through — whether they are Unite’s Sharon Graham (all-out condemnation) or Starmer-friendly (positive, but on their guard.) A Starmer-friendly union chief tells Dan: “We’re really pushing hard to make sure they don’t weaken the workers’ rights stuff.”

SHARON THE BLAME: Graham’s stance has infuriated some of her fellow union leaders — who ask how Unite can give Labour £1.8 million last year but not settle disagreements in private. “Sharon who?” one tells Dan. “My worry is she’s writing her union and her members out of the story.” Another says unions want to project unity pre-election: “If you’re going to talk of betrayal, can you at least wait until the exit poll?”

And there’s more: Grumpy officials complain Graham is AWOL at big meetings — the NPF in July, liaison group TULO, and dinner with Keir Starmer last night. One tells Dan “multiple union leaders are fuming” about her attack on Labour’s “back door shenanigans” as “she wasn’t even at the NPF!”

Unite’s line: Graham said Britain “clearly would be better off with a Labour government” but “my job is to fight for workers,” “the devil will be in the detail” and “there can be no backtracking.”

Oh, to be a fly on the wall: Graham and Starmer met this morning in Liverpool.

Speaking of Unite: Consultancy EY was forced to ramp up protection around its Dublin and Belfast offices after Unite targeted the buildings on, erm, interesting grounds. The Unite argument is that EY trade guru Sally Jones co-chairs a business group … with a dude … whose firm is working on a road project … with another firm, Murphy & Sons … whose parent firm, Murphy International, Unite has beef with. And the beef has nothing to do with the road project. Got it?

And so … a small protest gathered outside the EY offices for several hours in Dublin yesterday, while another rocked up in Belfast this morning, despite Jones having nothing to do with the Unite dispute, which relates to the sacking of some of its members last year.

Nevertheless: Unite was unrepentant. Campaign spokesperson Tayra Lopes-Lister insisted Jones “has a clear connection to J Murphy & Sons, and thereby to Murphy International Ltd. We call on Ms Jones to use her influence and position to intervene to secure the reinstatement of the Murphy 4.” Good luck with that.

BACK TO THE TUC: Unions have just started debating a motion for “withdrawal of Russian forces from all Ukrainian territories,” including Crimea. The “Stalin fanboy tendency” will oppose it, says one official — but it’s ruffled even moderate feathers. Another grumbles: “Is this the best forum?”

Unions passed motions today on … consulting unions on AI … giving female footballers equal conditions … self-ID for trans people … and scrapping benefit sanctions. The latter two aren’t Labour policy.

Talk of the Hilton bar: A poet at last night’s dinner who read lines about *squints at notes* domestic violence, Section 28 and trans rights.

ELSEWHERE IN LIVERPOOL: While his deputy prepared for her big speech, Labour leader Keir Starmer visited the Liverpool Echo HQ for a grilling from sixth form students about topics ranging from devolution to apprenticeships.

Being schooled: According to one mole in the room, Starmer wouldn’t be clear about Labour plans for tuition fees, noting the current fiscal situation. He said the current model “is broken and needs fixing.” Starmer then asked for a show of hands on whether the students (some of which will be heading to uni in 2024) would prefer government cash to go towards the NHS or abolishing tuition fees. All but one plumped for the NHS, according to the mole.

Oh and one more thing: One student asked Starmer following the Q&A about Scandinavian measures of happiness. He told her to look at New Zealand, where the government has used measurements of wellbeing to drive government policies. Is that one leadership pledge set to be kept? More from the visit here.


SLUDGE UNIT: The government might have broken the law in its regulation of sewage releases, accoring to the Office for Environmental Protection. The OEP launched a probe in 2022 into whether water and environmental regulators, as well as the environment department itself, were enforcing laws on water firms about when sewage could be released. In findings published this morning, the watchdog said both the government and regulators might have failed. It will give the bodies two months to respond before issuing a full report. The BBC has a write-up.

The official line: The government said it disagreed with the findings but will assist the OEP in its investigations. Shadow Environment Sec Steve Reed said “this scandal is the Conservatives’ fault. They cut back enforcement and monitoring of the water companies releasing this filth, and are now failing to prosecute them when they are blatantly breaking the law.”

STILL TO COME: Tech Sec Michelle Donelan will address the CogX conference on AI around 5.30 p.m. “Those who lead on AI safety will lead on AI – and they will unlock the enormous benefits that come with it,” she is expected to say, while listing possibilities such as curing diseases, faster and greener travel methods, and freeing people from “thousands of hours of work lost to menial tasks” (Playbook PM’s editor is suddenly paying attention.) She will insist the U.K. is “seizing these opportunities with both hands.”

Big tech time: This afternoon, Donelan shared Krispy Kreme donuts with a roundtable of influencers in Downing Street from the worlds of TOWIE, Love island and the Lionesses. It was a discussion about the struggles on social media platforms, in particular for kids.

Trigger warnings: According to a government aide, one person in the group talked about facing consistent racist abuse online, including being told “they looked like a slave.” Others spoke about body confidence struggles as a result of abuse, and even death threats. Former Love Island contestant Georgia Harrison said the Online Safety Bill is “exactly what society needs,” while Donelan said it was “an amazing piece of legislation that will lead the world.” Others, of course, beg to differ.

WOMAN BITES DOG: Speaking of Donelan, in an interview with LBC this morning she suggested the government should ban XL bully dogs, which are facing some online hate of their own at the moment: “It’s deeply worrying. We need to take action,” she said.

MORE EU DEALS: The government is on the verge of announcing a deal on British access to EU border agency, Frontex, Bloomberg revealed.

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UK POLITICS IN 2023: Health Minister Neil O’Brien made a direct appeal to Elon Musk on Twitter to reinstate a dude banned for tweeting something about dangerous dogs. “I think there has been a misunderstanding that the language gavin used was talking about people rather than dangerous dogs,” O’Brien said. The trial continues.


IN RUSSIA: Russian President Vladimir Putin claimed Britain is trying to provoke Russia into launching an attack on a Ukrainian nuclear power station. It comes as North Korean leader Kim Jong Un left his armored train in the Primorsky region of Russia en route to a summit with Putin. The Telegraph has more.

IN LIBYA: Ten thousand people are missing after unprecedented flooding in Libya, the Red Cross said, with more than 3,000 people now confirmed dead — via the Guardian.

IN ISRAEL: All 15 Supreme Court justices are convening to hear petitions against a legal amendment that limits their own powers as thousands of Israelis gathered for a rally outside the court in Jerusalem supporting the judges — the BBC has more.

IN POLAND: Poland will not reopen its border to Ukrainian grain imports regardless of what the European Commission decides this week, Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said. Ukrainian grain imports are currently banned from the territory of five eastern EU countries including Poland, Hungary and Romania — my colleague Bartosz Brzeziński has the details.

IN THE CARIBBEAN: Caribbean nations will seek $33 trillion from European governments and an apology for their role in the transatlantic slave trade as part of a push for reparations — the Times has a write-up.

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LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: Channel 5 News (5 p.m.) leads on female surgeons being sexually assaulted while operating … BBC News at Six focuses on the widespread flooding in Libya … Channel 4 News (7 p.m.) also leads on the widespread flooding in Libya and has the first U.K. TV interview with Walter Isaacson, the biographer of Elon Musk.

Tom Swarbrick at Drive (LBC, until 6 p.m.): Solicitor Guy Linley-Adams (5.05 p.m.).

BBC PM (Radio 4, 5 p.m.): Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell (5.30 p.m.).

Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): Tory MP Caroline Johnson (5.50 p.m.) … HuffPost UK’s Kevin Schofield and the New Statesman’s Rachel Cunliffe (both after 7 p.m.).

The News Agents (Podcast, drops at 5 p.m.): Shadow Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Peter Kyle.

Tonight With Andrew Marr (LBC, 6 p.m.): Tory Chairman Greg Hands.

Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge (Sky News, 7 p.m.): Shadow Culture Secretary Thangam Debbonaire … Labour MP Ben Bradshaw.

Piers Morgan Uncensored (TalkTV, 8 p.m.): Former Royal Spanish Football Federation President Luis Rubiales.

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC, 8 p.m.): Tory MP Robert Buckland … North of Tyne Mayor Jamie Driscoll … Novara Media’s Ash Sarkar … broadcaster Grant Tucker.

First Edition (TalkTV, 10 p.m.): Jeremy Corbyn’s former Head of Strategic Communications James Schneider … IEA Director General Mark Littlewood.


REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: TalkTV (10 p.m.): Labour’s Jess Phillips and Tory MP Jonathan Gullis Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): ConHome’s Harry Phibbs and HuffPost UK’s Alicia FitzgeraldSky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Observer’s Sonia Sodha and the Times’ Matt Dathan.


WPI DO: Ex-Keir Starmer head of policy Claire Ainsley will be discussing the elusive “center ground” of British politics, alongside the Spectator’s Katy Balls and Conservative MP hopeful Nick Timothy on Carlton House Terrace from 6 p.m. It’s a WPI Strategy event to coincide with new YouGov polling for the firm.

BROADCAST BASH: Sky News is putting on a big knees-up at Somerset House tonight from 7 p.m. Invites needed.

BOOKS AND BOOZE: Shadow Education Minister Helen Hayes hosts a celebration of the forthcoming book “Women Who Won: 70 extraordinary women who reshaped politics,” by Ros Ball. That’s in the Jubilee Room of parliament from 7.30 p.m.


DATA DUMP: The Office for National Statistics will release the latest GDP stats at 7 a.m.

FIGHTING THE MOD: The National Audit Office has a report out on the management of British defense equipment.

A WARM WELCOME: Health Secretary Steve Barclay will invite health sector reps into Downing Street to discuss NHS winter preparedness.

EARLY BREAKFAST: Farming Secretary Thérèse Coffey and Minister Mark Spencer are set to attend an NFU reception to celebrate Back British Farming Day, from 8.30 a.m. on the Commons terrace. Look out for the usual huge wheatsheaf pin badges at PMQs.

BILLS BILLS BILLS: Ofgem boss Jonathan Brearley will be giving evidence to the energy security and net zero committee from 9.45 a.m. about preparing for winter.

LEAVING OF LIVERPOOL: Labour grandee Harriet Harman gives a “sororal address” around 10 a.m. on the last day of TUC Congress.

IN THE LORDS: Peers launch into the seventh report stage session on the Leveling Up Bill from 11 a.m. before questions at 3 p.m. then a return to the legislation afterwards.

A LAZER ON FRAZER: Culture Secretary Lucy Frazer faces a grilling from the Lords communications and digital committee from 11 a.m.

IN THE COMMONS: Scotland questions kicks the action off at 11.30 a.m. before PMQs at noon, then MPs mull Lords amendments to the procurement and economic crime bills.


PACKED LUNCH OR PARL LUNCH: Subject to change, here are the lunch menus on the estate tomorrow: Bellamy’s: Soup and sandwiches … The Debate: Posh-sounding burger; grilled Moroccan cod with jumbo couscous, olives, tomatoes, lemon, and dill; butternut squash, sweet potato and pea samosa with mixed leaves, cashew nuts and dressing … Terrace Cafeteria: Irish lamb stew with soda bread; mixed fish pie; crispy tempeh with teriyaki mushroom rice … River Restaurant: Roast pork loin with trimmings; sweet and sour crispy tofu with vegetable rice, steam pak choi and crispy kale; tuna steak with niçoise and garlic beans.

SPOTTED: Former Prime Minister Liz Truss lunching with former Conservative chair Jake Berry on a corner table at the Old Queen Street Café. Playbook PM isn’t sure if this is meant to illustrate the quality of the conversation, but our mole says Truss’ bodyguards looked pretty bored.

CONGRATS FOR MAKING THE RACE: The London Press Club awards shortlist is out, with the Sun’s Harry Cole, the Spectator’s Fraser Nelson and the Mirror’s John Stevens and the Times’s Steven Swinford all nominated for political journo of 2022/23. Cole has also been nominated for overall journalist award, alongside Ian Birrell from the Mail on Sunday, Anna Isaac from the Guardian and Stephen Wright from the Mail. Meanwhile, Red Box Editor Lara Spirit has been nominated for the young journo of 2022/23 award. Good luck to all involved!

Wait a minute … where’s the category for best rambling 5 p.m. political newsletter?

MORE MEDIA NEWS: GB News investor Paul Marshall is mulling a bid to buy the Daily and Sunday Telegraph newspapers, according to Sky’s Mark Kleinman.

PLAYBOOK BACK PAGES: The MPs’ football team beat a sponsor of the APPG on Football, Cadent, 2-0 in a game in Islington this morning. Labour staffer Matthew Torbitt scored the two goals either side of half time.

WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: In the House Mag, journalist Chaminda Jayanetti explores the think tanks shaping Labour policies.

ON THIS DAY IN POLITICS: On September 12 2015, Jeremy Corbyn was elected leader of the Labour Party, while on the same date a year later, former Prime Minister David Cameron resigned as the MP for Witney.


THANKS TO: My editor Matt Honeycombe-Foster, Playbook reporter Noah Keate and the POLITICO production team for making it look nice.

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