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By ALEX WICKHAM
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Good Tuesday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
KEIR AND PRESENT DANGER: Boris Johnson is facing calls to apologize and retract his claim that Keir Starmer failed to prosecute child abuser Jimmy Savile, after the Labour leader was mobbed by a crowd of cranks repeating the prime minister’s unfounded allegation on Monday night. Starmer and his Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy were set upon by COVID conspiracy theorists outside parliament and had to be bundled into a police car to escape. Some of the “protesters” were filmed shouting at Starmer about Savile. Johnson sent a tweet condemning the “disgraceful” behavior but stopped short of saying sorry, leading a host of Conservative MPs to demand he retract his remarks while Labour accused him of “inciting” the mob. The row is overshadowing Downing Street’s much-vaunted reset. No further Tory MPs publicly announced they were writing letters of no confidence in the PM Monday, but the question this morning is whether the handling of the Savile incident will end up seeing more letters go in.
What happened: Amid ugly scenes outside parliament just after 5 p.m., Starmer and Lammy were swarmed by a group of aggressive protesters whose main gripe appeared to be about COVID vaccines and restrictions. The Sun’s Jack Elsom was an eyewitness and says he heard some of the group shouting about Savile, before Starmer and Lammy were put in a police car as protesters scrapped with the cops. Unsavory videos posted on Twitter showed unhinged members of the crowd ranting at an undeterred Starmer about “freemasons” and the “new world order,” calling him a “traitor” and a “pedophile protector.” The Mirror’s Rachel Wearmouth reports the group was carrying a noose. The Metropolitan Police said in a statement: “A man and a woman were arrested at the scene for assault of an emergency worker after a traffic cone was thrown at a police officer.” It is 115 days since Southend West MP David Amess was killed at his constituency surgery.
Starmer and Lammy are OK: The Labour leader wasn’t bothered and went to play five-a-side football with his friends Monday evening, a Labour source told Elsom. Lammy tweeted: “No surprise the conspiracy theorist thugs who harassed Keir Starmer & I repeated slurs we heard from Boris Johnson last week at the despatch box. Intimidation, harassment and lies have no place in our democracy. And they won’t ever stop me doing my job.” POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald has the full story, which led the BBC News bulletins last night and continues to do so this morning.
Can you tweet something like: The new Downing Street spin operation led by director of comms Guto Harri decided against issuing an apology or showing any contrition for the PM’s original comment. Johnson tweeted: “The behaviour directed at the Leader of the Opposition tonight is absolutely disgraceful. All forms of harassment of our elected representatives are completely unacceptable. I thank the police for responding swiftly.” Half the Cabinet came out on Twitter pushing the same line (h/t HuffPost’s Kevin Schofield), though Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s phone must have been off. Tech Minister Chris Philp is the lucky man on the morning broadcast round where he is going to be asked a million times why Johnson hasn’t said sorry.
**A message from Electronic Arts: On Safer Internet Day, read about the successful partnership between video games industry leader Electronic Arts (FIFA 22, The Sims) and Internet Matters to help parents take advantage of the tools available to help manage their children play safely and responsibly.**
Doubling down: A government source indicated to Playbook last night that they would not back down from this position: “This was a bunch of vile anti-vaxxers and anti-government loons. Their awful actions should be condemned. They were shouting a multitude of slurs and accusations at Starmer including things about Julian Assange. It is plainly wrong, and without evidence, to suggest that the PM’s comments in any way increased the likelihood that these loons would be on the street trying to cause trouble. The fact that some are trying to turn this into another day’s row about Savile feels like opportunism that is a distraction from where our condemnation should be directed.”
Mob rule: It’s fair to say this is not the prevailing public narrative among either Tory or Labour MPs. Labour’s Chris Bryant told Channel 4 News: “It is deliberate, it’s not accidental. It’s an attempt to incite a mob, either online or physically in person. We know how this plays out when politicians go down this deeply cynical route because we saw it in the U.S. It’s exactly the same as Donald Trump’s playbook.”
Rebel roll call: As this email goes out this morning, nine Tory MPs had criticized Johnson over the Starmer incident. They are: former Chief Whip Julian Smith, who said it’s “important for our democracy” that Johnson’s remarks are “withdrawn in full” … 2019er Aaron Bell (letter-writer) said: “Julian is right” … another 2019er Robert Largan tweeted “I agree with Julian” … former Johnson ally Stephen Hammond replied: “I agree with you Robert” … veteran Johnson critic David Davis told GB News Starmer “is not guilty of anything with respect to Jimmy Savile” and that the PM “should retract” his comments and “apologize” … Roger Gale (letter-writer) said last night was a “direct result of the deliberately careless use of language in the Chamber” … Tobias Ellwood (letter-writer) said “PM — Apologise please” … Anthony Mangnall (letter-writer) added: “We must do better, which means leading by example in Westminster” … and long-term critic Simon Hoare retweeted Smith’s tweet. The Guardian’s Jess Elgot has a tally of Tory critics.
He’s got a little list: Tory grandee Peter Lilley managed to upset everyone on BBC Newsnight with this bold argument: “Both sides are saying that the person at the top of the organization is responsible for what happens further down be it No. 10 or the Department for Prosecutions. That seems to me reasonable but capable of it being exaggerated on both sides. Both sides should probably apologize and stop making personal remarks. But they won’t because this is politics.”
What happens next? Much of today will be spent testing whether No. 10’s non-apology line can last. It seems pretty clear to Playbook that a bunch of COVID extremists siding with Johnson over Starmer at the top of the BBC News at Ten is not a good look for the PM. Some of the Tory MPs who spent the weekend mulling whether to send a no-confidence letter to 1922 committee Chair Graham Brady have been looking for an excuse to get their pens out, and this incident may provide just that. That said it’s not exactly an easy one for Labour. There is an argument that the more people hear Starmer’s name in the same sentence as Savile, eventually some will buy the attack line — which is presumably why Johnson said it in the first place and is now refusing to say sorry. All in all, not a very edifying 24 hours in Westminster.
Who’d be a spinner? No one in SW1 had a more interesting Monday than Johnson’s new spin chief Guto Harri. Playbook will take you through it: 8 a.m.: Turned up at Downing Street telling reporters he’d brought a Tesco bag full of mineral water to hand out to staff … 10 a.m.: Gave an interview to Welsh language website golwg360 on how the PM is “not all that clownish,” revealing the pair had joked about Harri taking the knee and sang Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” together when he was appointed … Midday: By lunchtime the BBC was running this headline: “Boris Johnson sang ‘I Will Survive’ to new communications chief Guto Harri” … while the Guardian went with: “Boris Johnson ‘not a complete clown’, says his new press chief” … and MailOnline’s splash asked: “Isn’t one No. 10 joker enough?” … 7.45 p.m.: Then No. 10’s non-apology over the Starmer incident caused Twitter and Tory MPs to melt down … 10 p.m.: Before Harri ended the day on the front page of the Sun, which revealed he had directly lobbied the former No. 10 chief of staff not to ban Chinese firm Huawei over spying fears.
Will we be getting more on-the-record interviews? Possibly not. The Times’ Chris Smyth says Harri told officials he had “learnt his lesson” from the interview.
Huawei Harri: The story that will be making No. 10 nervous this morning is Harry Cole’s sensational Sun scoop revealing leaked minutes from a meeting back in 2020 between Harri, then a lobbyist on behalf of Huawei, and then-senior No. 10 aide Eddie Lister. Lister told Harri that Johnson wanted telecommunications technology from Huawei but was “caught” by the concerns of the U.S. and Tory MPs. Harri directly asked Lister if there were “any ministers we should talk to? Perhaps give a nudge in DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] or Treasury?” The Times’ Steve Swinford also reports Harri organized a video call between Lister and Huawei Vice President Victor Zhang. No. 10 said last night: “In full compliance with appropriate guidance, government officials met with a number of interested parties, including Huawei, following the change in U.S. policy.”
Security questions: The story raises questions about Harri’s lobbying of government ministers and advisers on behalf of Huawei, and also about the vetting process for his job. Chinaskeptic Tory Iain Duncan Smith tells Cole: “Given the issue of the threat to national security that Huawei poses, that lay behind why Huawei have been banned from our 5G system, it is important that there is clarity in these matters. Will Guto Harri now be subject to full security oversight including past involvements with Huawei?” No. 10 told the Sun that full security checks have been completed on Harri, though former No. 10 aide Dominic Cummings tweeted last night that the vetting process takes weeks.
Having a relatively quieter first day … was new No. 10 Chief of Staff Steve Barclay. He started his day at 6.30 a.m., before inviting catering staff, cleaners and security to listen to him address staff about how he wants to create an environment in government that is “mutually supportive of each other” so they can “make people’s lives better.” Barclay said there would be a focus on data and told the room: “My door is always open.” New Head of Policy Andrew Griffith laid out a pro-business agenda on Conservative Home, also attacking what he called the “hegemony of left-wing orthodoxy” in the BBC. Griffith also said he wanted to “return rapidly to the point when we can cut taxes to let everyone keep more of their own money.”
Reshuffle incoming: The Times’ Steve Swinford and Henry Zeffman say Johnson will carry out his mini-reshuffle as soon as today, which might provide a handy distraction from the Savile row. They reckon Chief Whip Mark Spencer will be replaced by either Chris Pincher, Nigel Adams or Chris Heaton-Harris … Spencer will become Commons leader … meaning Jacob Rees-Mogg is minister without portfolio, perhaps rebadged as a “Brexit opportunities” minister … plus there’ll be a new powerful minister in the Cabinet Office to help out Barclay with his many jobs. The FT reports much the same. Swinford also hears Johnson will appoint a “senior woman from the world of business” as his No. 10 “gatekeeper” overseeing the administration of his Downing Street operation. Remember, Lynton Crosby ally David Canzini is also expected to be put in charge of the MP operation, and the NHS’ Emily Lawson should be made permanent secretary of the new Office of the Prime Minister.
BREAKING OVERNIGHT: The FT’s Max Seddon had some white smoke following hours of talks between Russian and French Presidents Vladimir Putin and Emmanuel Macron in Moscow. In news that broke in the middle of the night, Seddon reported that France is claiming Macron secured a promise from Putin to not undertake any new “military initiatives” and to withdraw Russian troops from Belarus. The FT’s Moscow bureau chief asks: “Could this be a major step towards de-escalation?”
Major caveat: That is the French readout of what happened. POLITICO’s David Herszenhorn and Giorgio Leali report Macron got “mauled” in his meeting with Putin. David notes: “Reviewing Putin statements tonight as Macron stood by: He declared Crimea is Russia and threatened to go to war with NATO over it. He said Ukraine should be forced to implement Minsk accords using a vulgar reference alluding to rape. He offered to grant former Ukrainian President Petro Poroshenko, who has been charged with treason, asylum. He insisted Kyiv is massing troops of its own and trying to ‘solve’ Donbass by military means. He scoffed at the idea of NATO as a ‘defensive’ alliance citing Afghanistan, Yugoslavia, Libya etc … Macron, by the way, made virtually no effort to answer any of this.” David and Giorgio write that Macron’s performance “was reminiscent of a disastrous visit to Moscow last year by the EU’s foreign policy chief, Josep Borrell, who stood by gamely as Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov slammed the EU as an ‘unreliable partner.’”
The Kremlin stress to the FT: “All these subjects require agreement from France’s EU and NATO allies, first and foremost the U.S. It’s too early to speak about anything else.” On this, they may have a point.
West split? The divide between the U.S. and EU positions on Russia/Ukraine couldn’t have been more evident in Joe Biden’s press conference with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz last night. In a strong intervention, Biden forcefully pledged to shut down the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany if Putin invades Ukraine. By contrast, Scholz refused to even say its name and kept his answer vague, my POLITICO U.S. colleague Myah Ward reports.
Coming up: Boris Johnson has an article in today’s Times insisting Britain “will not flinch” and that its support to NATO will remain “unconditional and immovable.” The language coming out of London and Paris is very different this morning. Defense Secretary Ben Wallace and Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will travel to Moscow in the coming days.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
9 a.m.: The PM will chair Cabinet. He will then have a bilat with the Prime Minister of Lithuania Ingrida Šimonytė.
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with justice questions, followed by any UQs or statements … and then it’s opposition day. Labour will lead debates on cost of living and food security, followed by one on children’s mental health.
PORN PROTECTION: Back in London, all websites that display pornography will have to comply with the government’s new content moderation legislation, as announced today by Tech Minister Chris Philp. POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson texts in that under the proposals it won’t just be user-generated content platforms like Twitter and Facebook that will have to comply with a new legal duty of care, commercial porn sites will also have to take action — such as using age verification technology — to stop children from accessing explicit material. The story makes the Mail splash, which hails the announcement as a “license to clean up the web.”
Boris ❤️ Rishi: Following days of negative coverage for the chancellor across the Tory papers — with the Mail and Telegraph going particularly hard accusing him of unsubtly plotting against the PM — Johnson came out and backed Sunak on Monday, insisting he was “absolutely not” worried about him being after his job. A Tory source tells the Telegraph’s Camilla Tominey: “Rishi has got Boris over a barrel right now. The Prime Minister has got himself into a panic that the Chancellor might walk so Downing Street no longer has the control — the Treasury does. That’s how they got him to publicly commit to the National Insurance rise — Rishi is trying to shift the blame for a deeply unpopular policy. Tominey also hears: “Some in Tory circles are now even talking of a Blair and Brown-style pact having been agreed by the Prime Minister and the Chancellor, not only to quell backbench unrest but also to ensure Mr Johnson’s survival, in the short term at least.”
Rishi 💔 Boris: The Telegraph’s Tony Diver and Ben Riley-Smith have some very strong gear on a No. 10 vs No. 11 fight on net zero. They report that Treasury fears over the economic impact of Boris Johnson’s green policies have seen Rishi Sunak ask Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng to give the green light to six North Sea oil and gas fields. The paper also reports “Sunak is also preparing to resist Boris Johnson’s high-spending instincts over public sector pay, measures to limit migrant Channel crossings and the scrapping of free Covid tests.”
Leveling up speech: Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove is addressing the Convention of the North today, and goes into it praising a Liverpool Echo front page highlighting that babies starting life in Gove’s Surrey Heath constituency are likely to grow up healthier, wealthier and better qualified than those born in Merseyside.
US bound: Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis is traveling to the U.S. today to meet members of the Biden administration and Congress to discuss the Northern Ireland protocol.
GHANI INQUIRY LATEST: The Cabinet Office will not publish the terms of reference for its inquiry into whether Nus Ghani was sacked due to her Muslim faith, Insider’s Henry Dyer reports. The inquiry is instead being held under the terms of an investigation into a potential breach of the ministerial code, meaning it may not examine comments alleged to have been made by non-ministers in Downing Street. When she initially went public with her claims last month, Ghani said she was looking forward to seeing the terms of reference.
TRADE SCOOP: Canadian officials pushed the U.K. government on its current ban of hormone-treated beef during talks about joining the CPTPP trade bloc, in a scoop from POLITICO’s Emilio Casalicchio that is likely to trigger some alarm bells this morning in Britain’s farming and food sector. A government memo from a meeting about joining the bloc noted that Canadian officials “asked some probing questions” about the issue and said it was “important.” Canada has the power to veto Britain’s accession to the bloc, which would strike a big blow to the U.K.’s post-Brexit ambitions.
Political response: Shadow Trade Secretary Nick Thomas-Symonds said the fact the issue was discussed at all showed the government was “considering dropping animal welfare and food standards and allowing hormone-treated beef into U.K. markets.” A government spokesperson insisted Britain wouldn’t need to lower its food standards in order to gain access to the CPTPP bloc.
Cost of living latest: Nurses will face a £275-a-year pay cut on average as a result of the looming National Insurance rise, Open Democracy’s Adam Bychawski reports.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: Northern Ireland Minister Conor Burns is up at the NI affairs committee (9.30 a.m.) … The DCMS committee will question cricket and football associations on racism and sexual assault in sport (10 a.m.) … PACAC starts an inquiry into scrutinizing international treaties (10 a.m.) … Ofgem boss Jonathan Brearley will face questions at the BEIS committee (10.30 a.m.) … The defense committee looks at Russia/Ukraine with experts (2.30 p.m.) … The justice committee continues to look at the government’s Human Rights Act reforms with former Supreme Court Justice Robert Carnwath (2.30 p.m.) … and Tech Minister Chris Philp will give evidence on tech regulation at the Lords digital markets unit committee (3.30 p.m.). Full list here.
WONK WATCH: Institute for Government boss Bronwen Maddox will give the think tank’s annual director’s lecture this evening, reflecting on the government’s handling of the pandemic, expectations of government and reforms that she thinks are needed. It might be a long one. After the speech, the departing New Statesman pol ed Stephen Bush will respond and then participate in a discussion chaired by David Lidington, the former de-facto deputy PM under Theresa May. It’s all online from 6 p.m. — register here.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 57,623 positive cases. In the last week there have been 555,729 positive cases, ⬇️ 64,380 on the previous week … 45 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,707 deaths have been reported, ⬇️ 131 on the previous week. As of the latest data 14,207 COVID patients are in hospital.
HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on mathematical sciences, e-scooters and the Parthenon marbles … Followed by the committee stage of the Elderly Social Care (Insurance) Bill … and then day four of the Nationality and Borders Bill’s committee stage.
STORMONT CRISIS LATEST: The DUP will not allow Northern Ireland’s power-sharing Executive to be revived unless the EU abandons a Northern Ireland protocol requirement for checks on British goods arriving there, the Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots threatened at Stormont on Monday. Poots vowed to fight a court judgment blocking his order to stop the checks last week, and said “there won’t an Executive to come back to while these checks exist.” POLITICO’s Shawn Pogatchnik has the story. Meanwhile in Westminster, MPs pushed through a bill aimed at helping to prevent future collapses of power at Stormont, as well as ensuring the Assembly can continue to sit even while the Executive cannot. The BBC’s Jayne McCormack has more.
**A message from Electronic Arts: In the UK, nearly 1 in 3 people have played an EA game. As a business, we respect the decisions parents make regarding the limits they set on in-game spend and time on the devices through which players access our games. We want to increase awareness and understanding of those tools and have partnered with the leading online safety organisation Internet Matters to make that happen. Our Play Together/Play Smart campaign has encouraged parents and carers to talk about gaming with their children, play games together, and gain a better understanding of the tools available to them to support safe and responsible play. Recent research found the campaign was highly impactful in the Christmas shopping season. Read more here.**
Tech Minister Chris Philp broadcast round: LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkRADIO (9.33 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain: Shadow Mental Health Minister Rosena Allin Khan (7.50 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Labour spinner Ben Nunn (7.05 a.m.) … The Guardian’s Defense and Security Editor Dan Sabbagh (7.20 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Education committee Chairman Robert Halfon (7.05 a.m.) … Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (7.33 a.m.) … Tory MP Roger Gale (8.05 a.m.) … POLITICO’s own Jack Blanchard (9.06 a.m.) … NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson (9.20 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast: Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (7.15 a.m.) … Chair of the women’s and equalities committee Caroline Nokes (7.40 a.m.) … Andriy Zagorodnyuk, the former defense minister of Ukraine and current chairman of the Centre for Defense Strategy in Kyiv (8.15 a.m.) … Shadow Mental Health Minister Rosena Allin Khan (8.35 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Robert Buckland … Labour National Campaign Coordinator Shabana Mahmood … SNP MP David Linden … Unaffiliated peer Claire Fox.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Tory MP Tracey Crouch … SLDP MP Claire Hanna … Sunday Mirror Political Editor Nigel Nelson … Entrepreneur Julia Hobsbawm.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Guardian’s Jessica Elgot and the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Boris — Rishi is loyal and we’re united on problems.
Daily Mail: A license to clean up the web.
Daily Mirror: Waiting shame.
Daily Star: Sleep more … weigh less.
Financial Times: ECB rate expectations force up Greek and Italian borrowing costs.
HuffPost UK: Tories blame Johnson for Starmer ambush.
i: Police rescue Starmer from mob — as PM faces crunch 48 hours.
Metro: Keir flees hate mob.
POLITICO UK: Putin welcomes Macron into his lair.
PoliticsHome: Tory insiders criticise ‘unfair’ attacks on chief whip after claims he’s set to be replaced.
The Daily Telegraph: North Sea oil fired up amid net zero row.
The Guardian: Angry MPs blame Johnson’s ‘poison’ after anti-vaxxers set upon Starmer.
The Independent: Abusive protesters target Starmer with Savile slur.
The Sun: Prem star’s vile attack on cat.
The Times: Britain will not flinch over Ukraine, says PM.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Breezy and relatively mild. Highs of 13C.
BEST WISHES: SNP MP Amy Callaghan returned to the Commons on Monday for the first time in almost two years, after she suffered a brain hemorrhage in June 2020. The East Dunbartonshire MP gave an interview to the Daily Record’s Chris McCall, where she said she had been forced to travel to Westminster “against doctor’s orders” as the rules no longer allow her to contribute to proceedings from home.
MAKING A MOVE: Ex-Mirror hack and former shadow DCMS adviser Nicola Bartlett is moving over to work for Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper.
NEW GIG: Times Radio producer Eloise Hardy is off to Sky News to work as an interviews producer. Here’s her tweet.
GOOD LUCK: To anyone applying for the now-open post of principal private secretary to the prime minister, deadline Friday (h/t Lewis Goodall).
BIRTHDAYS: Bath MP Wera Hobhouse … Shadow Exchequer Secretary to the Treasury Abena Oppong-Asare … Retired Crossbench peer Elspeth Howe … Catholic News Agency Europe Editor Luke Coppen … World at One Presenter Sarah Montague … Former LOTO aide Anneliese Midgley … Former Northern Ireland Office Permanent Secretary Jonathan Stephens.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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