Good Wednesday morning.
HE’S BACK: POLITICO’S U.K. Political Editor Jack Blanchard today unveils the new project he has been working on since he handed over the Playbook reins in the summer. He will be fronting a new podcast called Westminster Insider, which will take a weekly deep dive into the issues and the people who matter in SW1. Three years ago Jack revolutionized how everyone with an interest in British politics starts their day, and Playbook suspects he will do for political podcasts what he did for the morning email scene. Westminster Insider launches in January. Here’s the important bit: SUBSCRIBE and listen to a teaser HERE (and sign up for email alerts when a new episode is out here).
DRIVING THE DAY
CHRISTMAS NOT CANCELED: Boris Johnson has rejected calls to enforce stricter coronavirus restrictions over the Christmas period in the face of rising case numbers, with the government instead set to toughen its advice on how people should stay safe, rather than the rules themselves. The prime minister has refused to bow to pressure from several of his own scientific advisers and some Tory MPs, who had argued failing to implement harsher measures would lead to a devastating third wave in the New Year. News of the PM’s decision came following a meeting yesterday evening between Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove and the leaders of the devolved nations — although no four-nations approach has yet been agreed. Here is the latest from two government officials who spoke to Playbook late last night …
TOP LINE: After a few jitters over the past 24 hours, Downing Street is now much more strongly ruling out the prospect of any change to the Christmas regulations in England, in terms of the number of households allowed to meet and the number of days they can meet for. The current plan permitting bubbles of up to three households to meet indoors between December 23 and 27 is expected to stay in place, the two officials said. “The prime minister’s allies said that he was determined to maintain the relaxations,” the Times‘ Chris Smyth writes. So your Christmas plans are still on.
WHY: The reason given to Playbook by an official last night was that it wouldn’t have been right for the government to have changed the rules for Christmas so soon after setting them out, and with so little time until they were due to come into effect. The Telegraph’s Harry Yorke hears similar from a government source who says “it would be wrong to change them this close to Christmas when people have made plans.” The paper also quotes sources close to Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon saying there would be no changes to the arrangements in Scotland for the same reason.
NOT TO MENTION: Yorke reports No. 10 became concerned that if it dropped the plan to ease restrictions for five days over Christmas, after promising it for months, then compliance with the rules would take a battering in January. He says there were also serious mental health concerns if people were prevented from seeing their families. ITV’s Robert Peston has another theory from a minister: Johnson did “not want to be seen to be punishing the North, where infection rates are significantly below recent peaks, because of virus surge in London and South East.” That said, not sure train-loads of visitors from southern corona hotspots is exactly much of a reward for the region.
NEW GUIDANCE 1: The rules in England might be staying the same, but the guidance is changing — possibly as soon as today. One source with knowledge tells Playbook the advice will be much tougher. Johnson is expected to urge people planning to meet their families in seven days’ time to effectively isolate beforehand, or at the very least reduce social contact as much as possible. With such a short period until the Christmas bubbles are formed, the government is going to need to get that message out as quickly and loudly as possible.
NEW GUIDANCE 2: The government is also likely to advise people to think very carefully before bubbling with elderly relatives, Playbook is told. The Mail’s Jason Groves and Claire Ellicott dub the new policy: “Think twice about seeing granny.” Chris Smyth in the Times says this could go further and amount to urging people not to see their families at all without good reason. He says the government is “producing an advertising campaign aimed at discouraging people from seeing relatives unless necessary.”
NEW GUIDANCE 3: The next bit of advice that is expected to change is on travel, one official told Playbook, with people likely to be asked to stay close to home if they can. The Times also hears: “The guidance is expected to recommend that people celebrate locally where possible rather than travel across the country.” The Sun’s Jonny Reilly says: “Government transport chiefs are expected to start new ‘cautionary messaging’ in the next few days around Christmas. Tone will change to: ‘Don’t travel unless you absolutely have to.’” Playbook is also told the three-households-over-five-days rule is an “absolute limit not a target” and ministers will tell the public to behave sensibly and reduce contact with relatives as much as possible.
NOT DRIVING HOME FOR CHRISTMAS: One family in Worcester isn’t waiting to hear what the government decides and came up with its own alternative plan instead. Amanda Shepherd tells Sky News: “My parents are 72, my husband’s mum is 75, and although they are generally fit, well, and happy to go out and see us all, it’s always in the back of your mind that you may have taken the virus to them. So we just decided to meet up with them half way on a motorway service station and exchange presents there.” Joy to the world.
WHAT ABOUT THE REST OF THE UK? The Gove call with the devolved nations broke up without coming to an agreed conclusion. One official familiar with the call tells Playbook it was constructive, although another accepts there were “different views” between the nations. “A government source said it was possible the four nations may diverge,” the Guardian’s Jess Elgot reports. There will be another call at around 10 a.m. today, with Westminster nonetheless still hopeful of a U.K.-wide approach.
SO KEIR IT IS, MERRY CHRISTMAS: Labour leader Keir Starmer tentatively came out in favor of a more cautious approach to Christmas yesterday, first telling Johnson to call a COBRA meeting and then telling Sky News: “The only responsible thing to do is look again at the Christmas restrictions.” But Starmer still seems reluctant to come out with a strong position on exactly what he’d do. It’s possible he may go harder at Prime Minister’s Questions today.
ALSO TODAY: There will be a meeting of the “COVID O” committee late in the day to review the tier allocations across the country, as London and parts of the south east enter Tier 3 this morning. Announcements on new tier allocations will come tomorrow, though they will likely leak out tonight. A government official tells Playbook they would be very surprised if anywhere goes down a tier, with most of the movement expected to be places going from Tier 2 to Tier 3.
VAX STATS LATEST: Yesterday Playbook had a whinge about the lack of vaccination stats available from the government, with the department of health unable to say definitively how many Brits have had jabs so far. A government official got in touch afterward to admit, somewhat worryingly, that “no one has a f***ing clue” how many people have had the vaccine since the rollout began. A GP practice manager kindly took Playbook through what the department of health has been unable to explain: “The COVID vaccine is using the same system as flu vaccines (Pharm Outcomes). That dumps data into the medical record (using the Mesh system). So GP records will be updated overnight, and national flu data is collated each week (collected Sunday, published Tues).” Which should mean we get some actual vaccination data from the government next week, but possibly only on a weekly basis.
YESTERDAY’S UK STATS: 18,450 new cases, ⬇️ 1,813 on Monday and ⬆️ 6,168 on the previous Tuesday … 506 deaths, ⬆️ 274 on Monday and ⬇️ 110 on the previous Tuesday.
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TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
BREXIT BUZZ: BBC Newsnight’s Nick Watt set the hare running last night when he reported a “big buzz” among Tory MPs that “the U.K. is heading towards a Brexit deal with the EU. Eurosceptics being reassured they will be happy.” Watt reports the signal of whether or not there is going to be a deal “will come if and when Jacob Rees-Mogg announces that the Commons will sit on Monday and Tuesday next week.” The Telegraph’s Harry Yorke has a WhatsApp message from the PM to Brexiteer MPs telling them: “Never fear folks we will vindicate the people in full or else as I have said many times we will start the new year wto terms!” Government sources insist to Playbook that there has been no more progress to report in the negotiations, but accepted it was sensible for the government to plan days for parliament to sit in case a deal is struck. Though they say we shouldn’t read anything more into it than that.
DON’T TELL BARNIER: A well-timed leak to the FT’s Peter Foster and Jim Pickard reveals “the UK is drawing up plans to rival Singapore with post-Brexit shipping regime when freed of EU state aid rules.”
PLANNING U-TURN: Major news in Tory circles this morning as the government U-turns once again, this time on a controversial planning algorithm that would have massively increased housebuilding in Conservative seats. Johnson faced a large-scale revolt from his backbenchers in leafy areas in the south who had faced twice as many new houses being built in their seats. Instead, cities will now take a larger share of the new homes. Planning reform had been one of, if not the great cause of Tory anger with No. 10 over recent months. The volte-face is being framed by the government as “new measures to level up England’s cities, recover from the pandemic and help provide much-needed new homes.” Housing Secretary Robert Jenrick is doing the morning broadcast round for the government to explain. The announcement is another nail in the coffin of Dominic Cummings’ legacy — the hated algorithm was reportedly his brainchild.
ONCE MORE FOR OLD TIMES’ SAKE: Talking of the former assistant to the PM, the papers are full of source quote gold after reports emerged that Cummings somehow landed at least a £40,000 pay rise before his unceremonious departure from No. 10. “Dom lectured us pretty much weekly that in ‘the people’s government’ pay was not the object,” an adviser tells the FT’s Seb Payne. The Mail’s Jason Groves tells of SpAd rage: “People are furious. He personally turned down so many SpAd pay requests, and he’d always tell them: ‘We don’t do this job for pay.’”
THE FINAL CLASSIC DOM: Payne reports that during the Brexit referendum, Cummings “made his position on pay clear” by stating on the organization’s website that “no one will be paid over £100k” as the campaign sought to “look in touch with the common man.” And HuffPo’s Arj Singh quotes a Tory source: “Remember his whole not in it for the money thing? £140,000 a year, a million pound house and a £50,000 car (a Land Rover Discovery Sport) is hardly sack cloth. Is it?”
AT LEAST HE CAN AFFORD SOME NEW SHOES: Pretty amazing that one problematic former SpAd is still able to basically write the opposition’s attack lines for them despite no longer working in No. 10. Deputy Labour leader Angela Rayner says: “Boris Johnson defended Dominic Cummings when he broke lockdown rules — then awarded him a £50,000 pay rise. Yet he’s freezing pay for key workers and refusing to give our care workers a pay rise to the living wage. Cummings’ bumper bonus is an insult to key workers denied the pay rise they deserve. It’s another example of how under this government it is one rule for the Tory Party and their friends and another for the rest of us.” To be honest you’d be hard pressed to find a Tory MP who disagrees with that — Playbook would expect more of the same at PMQs.
STAT OF THE DAY: The government spent £2.7 million sacking advisers last year, the Mirror’s Mikey Smith reports.
WALLACE ❤️ TRUMP: The Sun’s Harry Cole is in Estonia with Defense Secretary Ben Wallace, who tells him: “I’ll miss Donald Trump, because he was quite a good friend to Britain.” Follow Harry for vids of our boys crushing Renault Clios with tanks on the Eastern Front.
Blowing hot air: Labour is accusing the government of rowing back on its green promises, after an announced wind power investment contains less than half the amount originally pledged — enough to fund just one new manufacturing site. The PM’s 10-point green plan included a promise to spend £160 million on wind turbine manufacturing and infrastructure, but BEIS published details of a new scheme costing just £70 million. The i’s Hugo Gye reports the government has insisted the full fund will be used, though has been unable to set out any kind of timeline or details.
HOUSE OF COMMONS: The House sits from 11.30 p.m. with Wales questions, followed by PMQs at noon … Urgent questions will then be used to ask about changes to asylum seeker rules and for a government response to the BBC report about the Chinese government’s use of Uighur slave labor in Xinjiang … and then it’s on to the second reading and remaining stages of the Trade Bill.
Commons committee corridor: Today’s newsiest action is likely to come from the transport committee, which will question Network Rail Chairman and Christmas travel czar Peter Hendy on the preparations being made for the festive rush (10 a.m.) … Top TikTok, Snap and Facebook officials are attending the women and equalities committee’s session on body image, with the trio of social media giants to be questioned on their impact on young people (2.30 p.m.) … The European scrutiny committee considers the functioning of the Channel Tunnel after Brexit with Transport Minister Rachel Maclean (2.30 p.m.) … and the environmental audit committee will look at fast fashion — the third panel features Boohoo Chairman Mahmud Kamani (4 p.m.)
IN THE LORDS: Peers sit from noon with questions on buses, COVID in prisons and engagement with the incoming Joe Biden administration and more … Then from 1.30 p.m. peers will deal with all stages of the Taxation Bill in one go … There will then be questions in the early evening responding to ministerial statements made in the Commons earlier in the week, on the Energy White Paper and Online Harms consultation.
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BEYOND THE M25
GRIM NEWS: Scotland’s Public Health Minister Joe FitzPatrick is facing calls to resign, after new figures show Scotland remains the drug-death capital of Europe with more than 1,200 deaths due to drug misuse last year — the worst rate in Europe by a long way. It’s the sixth year in a row deaths have increased, while the proportional rate of deaths is about three and a half times that of England and Wales. The Times’ Mike Wade has more on the figures and reaction.
AND IN NORTHERN IRELAND: Hospitals are seeing queues of ambulances outside, as emergency departments struggle to deal with mounting COVID cases. Nigel Ruddell, the medical director of the Northern Ireland Ambulance Service, said last night that the problem was affecting all hospitals in the country with “pressures right across Northern Ireland.” A meeting of the Stormont executive on Thursday will see new restrictions proposed by Health Minister Robin Swann to bring down the R rate, currently sitting at or slightly above 1. Full story from the BBC here. Elsewhere, Agriculture Minister Edwin Poots has tested positive for the coronavirus — more from the Belfast Telegraph.
OVER THE BORDER: Former Irish PM Bertie Ahern believes a Brexit deal remains possible, as long as “Boris doesn’t have any more dinners and makes a mess of it again.” Ahern — no stranger to complicated negotiations, having been involved in brokering the Good Friday Agreement — made the comments in an interview with POLITICO’s Shawn Pogatchnik. There’s plenty of interesting stuff in there, including a piece of advice for both sides: Third-party arbitration for future trade would avoid the Court of Justice of the European Union, in the same way GFA talks were overseen by neutral chairmen from the U.S., Canada and Finland.
MAYOR PETE ❤️ TRAINS: President-elect Joe Biden has picked Democratic primary rival Pete Buttigieg to be his transportation secretary. South Bend Mayor Buttigieg will be the first openly gay U.S. Cabinet secretary, if he is confirmed. POLITICO’s U.S. team with all you need to know.
Meanwhile … U.S. Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell finally recognized Biden as the president-elect yesterday, in a sign top Republicans are no longer backing President Donald Trump in his ill-fated attempt to contest the election. McConnell did stop short of advising Trump to end his challenge however, and POLITICO’s Burgess Everett has all the details on how he even made sure to let his president down gently.
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Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.50 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Commons foreign affairs committee Chairman Tom Tugendhat (6.50 a.m.) … Linda Bauld, professor of public health at the University of Edinburgh (7.10 a.m.) … Graham Medley of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine (7.15 a.m.) … Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (7.50 a.m.) … Commons education committee Chairman Robert Halfon (8.35 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed (7.10 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull (6.20 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast show (Sky News): Lancaster City Council leader Erica Lewis (7.30 a.m.) … Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed (7.35 a.m.) … Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (8.05 a.m.) … The Lancet’s Editor Richard Horton (8.20 a.m.) … Public Health Wales Incident Director for COVID Giri Shankar (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Gina Radford (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast show: Epidemiologist Mark Woolhouse, an adviser to the Scottish government (8.05 a.m.) … Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed (8.50 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Commons defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (7.05 a.m.) … Former Brexit Party MEP Ben Habib (7.25 a.m.) … Former Supreme Court Justice Jonathan Sumption (8.06 a.m.) … Shadow Communities Secretary Steve Reed (8.20 a.m.) … UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls (9.33 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 11.15 a.m.): Education Minister Gillian Keegan … Shadow Health Minister Liz Kendall … Labour MP Liam Byrne … Tory MP Laura Farris … The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman … and the Guardian’s Jessica Elgot.
Peston: Off air until January 6.
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News (10.40 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): LabourList’s Sienna Rodgers and Mail on Sunday’s Anna Mikhailova … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Daily Mirror’s Kevin Maguire and Daily Mail’s Andrew Pierce … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Tory MP Saqib Bhatti and Labour MP Fleur Anderson.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: PM will defy pressure to cancel Christmas.
Daily Mail: Carry on Christmas!
Daily Mirror: All we want for Xmas is … a decision.
Daily Star: Dr, no!
Financial Times: U.K. floated as Singapore’s rival in post-Brexit shipping tax revamp.
HuffPost UK: ‘No plans’ to scrap Christmas window.
i: Vaccine at GPs hit by NHS IT chaos.
Metro: Christmas bubbles trouble.
POLITICO UK: Bertie Ahern — Brexit deal possible as long as Boris doesn’t have more dinners.
The Daily Telegraph: ‘Too late to cancel Christmas.’
The Guardian: Christmas plans in the balance as ministers hold crisis meeting.
The Sun: The fight before Christmas.
The Times: Johnson refuses to revoke Christmas COVID freedom.
Westminster weather:☁️🌧🌧 Dry morning, rainy afternoon. Highs of 10C.
New gig: BBC Scotland’s Glenn Campbell will become the new political editor from January, filling the boots and colorful braces of the retired Brian Taylor. Here’s the tweet.
Coffee club: The FT is looking for a head of newsletters to run its U.K. morning email game. Apply here and good luck.
Birthdays: Blackpool North MP Paul Maynard … Plaid Cymru leader in Westminster Liz Saville Roberts … Mid Ulster MP Francie Molloy … Burnley MP Antony Higginbotham … Times Radio’s Tom Newton Dunn … The Sun’s Deputy Political Editor Matt Dathan … Crossbench peer Heather Hallett … Crossbench peer and STV Chairwoman Margaret Ford … and Daily Mail Editor Geordie Greig, who turns 60.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, research assistant Andrew McDonald and producer Miriam Webber.