Good Tuesday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
CHRISTMAS WOBBLE: Downing Street faces difficult questions this morning over its plan to relax coronavirus restrictions for a five-day period over Christmas, as a surge in cases in London and the south east and a new strain of the virus raise the specter of a third wave. Playbook really doesn’t want to be a Grinch and talk down everyone’s chances of seeing their families, but this is where the conversation is heading as the capital goes into Tier 3 tonight, just eight days before the festival of nationwide inter-generational household mixing is supposed to get underway. Boris Johnson has been absolutely determined to allow families some brief semblance of normality — but that position is going to come under intense scrutiny in the coming days.
HARK THE HERALD ANGELA SING: Playbook reported yesterday that some ministers and scientific advisers have privately been urging No. 10 to follow the example of Angela Merkel in Germany and rethink its measures for Christmas. But a Downing Street official last night insisted there were “no plans” to change the rules, which will allow “Christmas bubbles” of up to three households to meet indoors between December 23 and 27. A department of health official used similar language: “There are no plans to make changes to the Christmas rules. We all need to use common sense and behave responsibly over the Christmas period.”
READING BETWEEN THE LINES: It is worth saying “no plans” is definitely not a categorical denial that No. 10 won’t change its mind about Christmas. Playbook invited government officials to go further and issue a stronger denial last night, but no one wanted to do so. Health Secretary Matt Hancock said at yesterday’s press conference that he won’t rule out “further action” — though his team wouldn’t be drawn on what and when that action might be. The Mail’s Dan Martin and Jason Groves have the strongest line in today’s papers about any potential movement. They say ministers are discussing tightening the holiday restrictions and quote “a source” simply saying: “The Christmas rules might change.” Gulp.
ON THE THIRD DAY… HuffPo’s Paul Waugh speculates what those changes could be: “It’s possible that ‘further action’ could be localised in the hardest hit areas, with a ‘Tier 4’ set of restrictions on households. Would the government risk a three-day rather than five-day period of mixed households? Would it risk reducing the number of bubbles from three to two?” Playbook would note that both Hancock at the presser yesterday and the health official above stressed “personal responsibility” rather than new rules as their preferred course of action, with Hancock suggesting it would be sensible to consider isolating before meeting elderly relatives.
WHAT DOES STARMER THINK? In the Commons yesterday, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth asked Hancock to explain his “plan to keep people safe through Christmas,” but stopped short of opposing the current government policy. Labour leader Keir Starmer does not appear to yet have a position on the Christmas restrictions — Playbook asked the leader of the opposition’s office for clarity last night but no answer was forthcoming. Starmer may not want to be the guy calling for Christmas to be canceled, but you wonder if he might repeat his circuit-breaker intervention of October and come out with a punchy line in the next few days.
TWO MUST-READ GRAPHS … From FT stats man John Burn-Murdoch, the first of which shows case rates rising fast in not only London, the south east and east, but also going up in the Midlands, north west and south west, while the recent decline in the north east has halted. The second shows that, in the U.S., infections surged after Thanksgiving with growth rates hitting their highest levels since March.
HAWKS VS. DOVES LATEST: The prospect of the Christmas plan going disastrously wrong is being openly discussed by Tory MPs. One tells Playbook: “I am kept awake at night imagining the nightmare of every other European country locking down much more severely over Christmas, while we don’t and end up with thousands more deaths.” But other Tory MPs say the government is right to stress personal responsibility, with one arguing: “The cancel Christmas brigade are another example of sneering media elitists thinking normal people are stupid and can’t look after themselves. Every family across the country will be doing everything they can to protect their relatives.”
EUROPE LOCKS DOWN: Non-essential shops in Germany will close from tomorrow until mid-January, in a reinforcement of the country’s partial lockdown. Between December 24-26 each household can have up to four adult guests … In Italy, where deaths have risen to the highest levels since the end of March, Christmas markets and long-distance travel have been banned as PM Giuseppe Conte tells Italians to expect a “more sober Christmas.” Midnight mass has also been brought forward to 10 p.m. to comply with a new curfew … Some restrictions will be lifted in France today but not as many as were originally hoped, after cases failed to fall below a government target. Bars, restaurants and venues like cinemas will remain closed, while an 8 p.m. curfew will be introduced. The curfew will be lifted on Christmas Eve … And the Netherlands is entering a new strict five-week lockdown from today, which will see everything except for essential shops close and the Dutch urged to stay home. Between December 24-26 the limit on household guests will be raised from two to three people a day.
WHIPPLE EFFECT: Hancock’s warning that a new strain of COVID could be driving the rise in cases in the south east is also going to warrant more questions today. As far as Playbook can see, so far not much in the way of any evidence has been offered to justify the claim, as scientists at Porton Down continue to investigate. The Metro‘s splash “Mutant COVID” perhaps could have benefitted from the analysis of the Times‘ Tom Whipple, who explains: “It should be stressed that mutations are normal, and most make no difference … If this does change transmission rates, it is unlikely to do so greatly. If it does change the shape of the coronavirus spike, it is more unlikely still it will do so to an extent that vaccines don’t work.”
GAV IN COURT? The concerns over Christmas, surging cases and the new strain come as Education Secretary Gavin Williamson finds himself embroiled in an extraordinary row with London councils seeking to close their schools. After the London Borough of Greenwich asked its schools to move teaching online from this morning, Williamson last night issued a rarely used “temporary continuity direction” ordering the council to keep schools open. The department for education says if the council does not do so, then Williamson can enforce the direction by applying to the High Court for an order requiring it to comply. But Greenwich council says it got the direction too late in the day yesterday to be able to change its plans, and is seeking legal advice before it responds to Williamson this morning. Islington and Waltham Forest have also told schools to close from the end of today. Expect London Mayor Sadiq Khan to respond on his morning broadcast round. The Sun’s Kate Ferguson says schools will get a New Year testing blitz to try to prevent a third wave.
RISHI ASKED FOR MORE: Chancellor Rishi Sunak is also under pressure to announce more financial support for London after tonight, with restaurants and pubs complaining they spent thousands getting ready to reopen when lockdown ended earlier this month, only to be forced to shut again two weeks later. Richard Burge from the London Chamber of Commerce and Industry says: “This must include — as a minimum — instant cash support to enterprises in hospitality and leisure, and extension of the business rates holiday into the next financial year, which will help the whole of the high street to plan their outgoings and mitigate the impact of loss of trade due to restrictions deterring those outside London from traveling in.”
WHERE ARE THE VAX STATS? Matt Hancock is under pressure from other government ministers to publish more detailed data on how many Britons have received the coronavirus vaccine. Playbook last night asked the department of health if it had the number — the best it could do was give a “ballpark” figure of “tens of thousands so far,” which is the same as what Hancock said last Thursday. A minister tells Playbook: “We should be publishing daily numbers for vaccinations like we did for tests.” But there are whispers in Whitehall that department of health officials are struggling to keep track of how many people have been vaccinated, where they are and what age or vulnerability group they are in, raising questions as to how they can effectively roll the vaccine out to the right people at the right time. The current situation is that the department cannot give anything approaching a definitive answer as to how many people have had the jab. You suspect this is going to become a major theme in the next few weeks.
YESTERDAY’S UK STATS: 20,263 new cases, ⬆️ 1,816 on Sunday and ⬆️ 5,545 on the previous Monday … 232 deaths, ⬆️ 88 on Sunday and ⬆️ 43 on the previous Monday.
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BREXPECTATIONS MANAGEMENT: Downing Street officials last night sought to dampen the optimistic mood building around a potential Brexit deal following Sunday’s decision to continue talks. A government source tells the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg there has been no significant progress in the negotiations in recent days, “talks remain difficult” and “we will not sign up to dynamic alignment through the back door.” A No. 10 official tells Playbook it is the EU side that’s been pushing the idea there has been meaningful movement, which they do not recognize. And indeed in the Times, Bruno Waterfield says the EU is hinting at tentative progress in the talks.
So what’s really going on? The Times‘ Olly Wright reckons the gloomy rhetoric from No. 10 is about getting businesses ready for either a deal or no deal outcome. “The greatest fear [of] the prime minister — and Michael Gove, his Brexit planning minister — is that many businesses who deal with the EU have simply not appreciated the scale of the things they need to do even if an agreement is reached with Brussels,” he writes. “Therefore by playing up the threat of no deal — which businesses know will lead to disruption — Mr Johnson is hoping to spur them into last-minute action which will be beneficial even if there is a deal. His gloomy public prognosis is less aimed at the EU and more for domestic consumption.”
All going well: Wright also reports: “European fishermen have warned that they are prepared to blockade Calais and other ports in the event that a no-deal Brexit excludes them from operating in U.K. waters.”
Erasmus casualty: British students are likely to lose access to the EU’s Erasmus+ scheme that makes it easier to study abroad at university, my colleagues Cristina Gallardo and Maïa de La Baume report for POLITICO Brexit Transition and EU Budget Pros. The EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier told MEPs during a trade negotiation briefing on Monday that the two sides have failed to reach a deal for the U.K.’s participation post-Brexit — something education and business leaders have previously pointed out would “blow a hole” in the U.K.’s economy.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
CABINET: Boris Johnson chairs Cabinet this morning.
DUMP DAY: Keep your eye out for an avalanche of transparency releases from government ministers and special advisers at some point today.
ONLINE HARMS BILL: Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden and Home Secretary Priti Patel today unveil details of the government’s new Online Harms Bill. It includes measures to force social media companies to remove harmful content or face fines of up to £18 million or up to 10 percent of their turnover, a new code of conduct to protect children on the internet, and online misinformation will now come under Ofcom’s remit. POLITICO’s Leonie Cater and Mark Scott have more.
CULTURE WARS LATEST: “Ministers have ordered Government departments to scrap controversial ‘unconscious bias’ training after an official study found no evidence it works,” the Mail’s Jason Groves reports.
CRONYVIRUS NEWS: The Cabinet Office today announces plans to overhaul government procurement in order to “put value for money and transparency at the heart of the new approach.” That’s certainly interestingly timed, given the slew of stories about friends of senior Tories getting big government contract paydays. They should call it Pogrund’s Law.
HOUSE OF COMMONS: In Westminster Hall from 9.30 a.m., MPs will debate the provision of health care support services between conception and age two — a motion raised by Tory MP Andrea Leadsom that has cross-party support … MPs sit in the main chamber from 11.30 a.m. with BEIS questions … Followed by a ministerial statement responding to the online harms consultation … Then MPs will consider the latest amendments put down to the Internal Market Bill by peers from around 1.45 p.m. … and then it’s onto the report stage and third reading of the Taxation Bill.
Commons committee corridor: Jeremy Hunt’s health and social care committee questions Donna Ockenden on the report she is leading into maternity services at the Shrewsbury and Telford hospitals — a review Hunt commissioned while in government (9.05 a.m.) … Media Minister John Whittingdale and Ofcom CEO Melanie Dawes will talk about the future of public service broadcasting at the DCMS committee (10 a.m.) … The education committee will scrutinize Rachel de Souza, the government’s preferred candidate to become England’s next children’s commissioner (10 a.m.) … and the foreign affairs committee will begin its inquiry into the detention of Uighurs in Xinjiang, China. An interesting one in the light of this new BBC report last night, that shows China is forcing hundreds of thousands of Uighurs into manual labor in cotton fields (2.30 p.m.).
IN THE LORDS: Peers sit from noon with questions on support for freelance artists, the steps being taken to address the findings of last week’s Joseph Rowntree Foundation report on destitution and more … Then its on to Day 2 of the Trade Bill’s report stage after 1.30 p.m. … Peers will then question Health Minister James Bethell from 5.30 p.m. on Matt Hancock’s COVID statement in the Commons Monday … and then time has been set aside after 6 p.m. for peers to go over the Internal Market Bill, if it is once again ping-ponged back to them with their amendments removed.
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BEYOND THE M25
Latest Scottish Indy poll: Survation — Yes 52 percent, No 48 percent.
Scottish nationalists would point out … This is the 16th poll in a row to show that a Yes lead and the SNP retain a commanding lead.
Unionists would point out … That the lead for independence has halved when compared to a November poll conducted by the same pollster, and that Survation’s tables show a sizeable 14 percent of voters remain undecided.
So long: Scottish Labour stalwart Michael Sharpe has resigned as the party’s general secretary, just five months before the crucial Holyrood election. An ally of embattled leader Richard Leonard, Sharpe tweeted he had realized he couldn’t give Labour and his family “the commitment that they each deserve.” The Daily Record’s Paul Hutcheon has more.
Chancer of the week: A man who used a jet ski to cross the Irish Sea from Scotland to the Isle of Man — to visit his girlfriend — has been jailed for breaching COVID laws. Dale McLaughlan, of North Ayrshire, successfully made the four-and-a half-hour crossing despite having never used a jet ski before. Under the island’s current laws, non-residents must be given special permission to enter — more from the BBC.
MEANWHILE: Joe Biden’s U.S. presidential victory has been constitutionally normalized by the Electoral College, after U.S. states voted in line with election vote totals in incident-free ceremonies yesterday. Biden hailed the decision as the moment “democracy prevailed,” while over in Camp Trump the outgoing president announced the resignation of his Attorney General Bill Barr and continued to tweet baseless allegations of election fraud. Full write-up from POLITICO’s U.S. team.
And what’s in Biden’s in-tray? A trade deal with the U.K. But while some chapters of the deal were close to being agreed by both sides under the Trump administration, significant differences remain in some key areas — and negotiations have been complicated by the changeover in Washington, POLITICO’s Anna Isaac reports.
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Chief Secretary to the Treasury Steve Barclay broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program, along with former Chief Scientific Adviser Mark Walport (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.45 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman (7.20 a.m.) … London Mayor Sadiq Khan (7.30 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Actor Matthew McConaughey (6.45 a.m.) … Scottish government COVID adviser Devi Sridhar (7.15 a.m.) … London Mayor Sadiq Khan (7.45 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast show (Sky News): Royal College of GPs Chairman Martin Marshall (7.30 a.m.) … Scottish government COVID adviser Devi Sridhar (7.35 a.m.) … Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething (7.45 a.m.) … Former Deputy Chief Medical Officer Gina Radford (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Roger Gale (8.20 a.m.) … London Mayor Sadiq Khan (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Independent SAGE member Martin McKee (8.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast show: Ofsted Chief Inspector Amanda Spielman (8.35 a.m.) … Former Australian PM Malcolm Turnbull (9.05 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): London Councils Deputy Chairman Darren Rodwell (7.05 a.m.) … Tory London mayoral candidate Shaun Bailey (8.06 a.m.) … Commons education committee Chairman Robert Halfon (8.20 a.m.) … Havering Council leader Damian White (9.06 a.m.) … UKHospitality CEO Kate Nicholls (9.15 a.m.).
Matt Chorley (Times Radio): Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross (11 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Crispin Blunt … Shadow Health Minister Alex Norris … Times Radio’s Ayesha Hazarika … The Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher.
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News (10.40 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Former FA boss David Davies and the Spectator’s Katy Balls … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The FT’s Seb Payne and the Sun’s Olivia Utley … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Former Tory SpAd Mo Hussein and former Labour MP Stephen Pound.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Fears over new fast-spreading COVID strain.
Daily Mail: Christmas in jeopardy?
Daily Mirror: New strain & more pain.
Daily Star: We must not tell fibs.
Financial Times: Strict tier 3 curbs on London and south-east put business in despair.
HuffPost UK: ‘Self-isolate to prevent Xmas surge.’
i: PM is urged to rethink Christmas bubbles.
Metro: Mutant COVID.
POLITICO UK: The U.S.-U.K. trade talks Joe Biden inherits.
The Daily Telegraph: London plunged into toughest tier as ministers warn of new virus strain.
The Guardian: Millions more face tier 3 as new strain of virus emerges.
The Independent: Rapid COVID spread puts family Christmas at risk.
The Times: New strain feared to be driving up virus cases.
Westminster weather: ☁️☁️☁️ Dry and cloudy. Highs of 11C.
Deck the Hoyles: Join Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle and his Lords counterpart Norman Fowler for some COVID-secure Christmas carols this evening. The pair will be joined by other parliamentarians — the SNP’s Ian Blackford is well up for it — and gospel choir singers for a virtual celebration featuring carols, readings and a “short talk on the Christmas message.” Register here and then boot up Zoom from 5 p.m. tonight.
Wonk watch: Think tank Onward has appointed former BEIS and DFID SpAd Will Holloway as its new deputy director, starting in the new year.
John le Carré must-reads: The Atlantic’s Tom McTague argues his work revealed the secrets of England’s ruling class … Former MI6 chief Richard Dearlove writes about how the service really viewed him for the Telegraph … A star-studded cast of friends including Margaret Atwood and Ralph Fiennes remember him in the Guardian … New Statesman boss Jason Cowley revives an essay on how “le Carré remains an enigma even to himself” … and if you’re looking to get into his work but don’t know where to start, the New York Times’ Joumana Khatib runs through his seven essential novels.
Birthdays: North East Hertfordshire MP Oliver Heald … Shadow Transport Minister Matt Rodda … Lewisham East MP Janet Daby, who turns 50 … Crossbench peer Valerian Freyberg … Times Radio presenter and former Labour adviser Ayesha Hazarika … Welsh Government Chief Whip Jane Hutt.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, research assistant Andrew McDonald and producer Miriam Webber.