Good Friday morning. This is Emilio Casalicchio.
LEAK STING: Downing Street last night sacked Conservative MP Andrew Lewer from his role as a Home Office PPS after whips accused him of leaking a letter that warned MPs not to leak. The note from Chief Whip Mark Spencer went out to all ministerial bag carriers and found its way into the hands of Guido Fawkes on Wednesday. What the recipients didn’t know was that each letter contained slightly different wording so government spooks would be able to work out who leaked it if it appeared in public. Lewer, who was serving as PPS to Policing Minister Kit Malthouse, suggested the leak could have come from his staff when confronted by whips. He told Playbook last night: “In nearly 20 years of elected office I have never leaked to the press.”
DRIVING THE DAY
SERIOUSLY BREXIT: EU chief Brexit negotiator Michel Barnier is expected to address the European Parliament this morning with less than two weeks to go before the transition period ends. A stocktake call between Prime Minister Boris Johnson and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen last night kept the holding line running that hope springs eternal but significant gaps remain. A Downing Street statement said negotiations were “now in a serious situation,” which sounds a little late to the party. A U.K. official insisted a no deal was still the most likely outcome, telling Playbook talks had “made a bit of progress but it’s very hard to see how we’re going to get there.”
Source quotas: The separate statements the two sides published after the call pointed to fishing as the top sticking point. The EU is said to be offering an eight-year transition to a new arrangement on fisheries (down from its original pitch of 10 years) and only a little more of its current quotas than the 18 percent briefed out some weeks ago. Downing Street said the EU position on fish was “simply not reasonable.”
Quick digression: The U.K. and EU are not the only ones arguing about fish. FT journo Chris Giles issued a seething but methodical Twitter takedown of Guido boss Paul Staines last night in a row about whether Harrods or the U.K. fishing industry is the larger economy. Brexit Twitter can be a truly wild ride.
Back to Brexit: There are still gaps on state aid too — with the U.K. complaining about a lack of level playing field, in a surprise twist. Britain is pushing the issue of supranational subsidies, which allow the EU (rather than individual member countries) to support industries outside the remit of national state aid rules. It means the U.K. could face penalties from Brussels for subsidizing a sector but would be unable to retaliate if the bloc did the same at a supranational level. “What they’re asking us to sign is bordering on offensive,” one source told the Sun.
Look out for: The PM is on a business visit to the north west this morning and is expected to appear in a clip. Whether EU demands are “offensive” could be a good one to ask.
What happens now: Barnier will update MEPs during the morning debate on Brexit, while Sabine Weyand, director general for trade at the European Commission, is expected to brief ambassadors, according to reports. Negotiators will continue talks but — although nothing is certain in Brexit — don’t expect a deal to be announced today. MEPs set a deadline of midnight on Sunday for a deal, though the U.K. is not fussed. “It’s not our deadline, we’re willing to keep going,” the official quoted above said. Expect Johnson and von der Leyen to speak again in the next 48 hours.
HOSTAGE TO FORTUNE: Friday Playbook subscribes to the David Davis school of thought that a deal will be agreed as late as possible in the process. Conservative Brexiteers have been telling Newsnight’s Nick Watt the same: “Some of them don’t think it’s going to come next week, they think it will come just after Christmas and then a vote in the House of Commons on December 30,” he told the show last night.
Indeed: Playbook hears there have been discussions about rushing a deal bill through both houses and getting it onto the statute book all in one day. “It’s a binary question for MPs: do they back the deal or not,” one senior government figure explained last night. HuffPost’s Arj Singh has more on the bill and its timetabling options.
Don’t forget: MPs begin their first day of Christmas recess this morning — but are resigned to being shaken awake when the Brexit deal comes. The good news for parliamentarians is that the business need not distract them too much from the festivities, or prevent them isolating before seeing loved ones. For starters, just 50 are allowed in the Commons at any one time due to the pandemic, and if the legislation is so rushed there will be little time for much musical chairs to get more in. Perfect excuse not to return to the coronavirus hotbox of Westminster.
And there’s more: A quorum of 40 MPs, including the speaker and four tellers, is needed for votes to take place in the Commons. But proxy votes can count toward the quorum, the Hansard Society confirmed to Playbook last night, meaning one MP could vote and submit 34 proxies. So all in all, six MPs would be needed in the chamber to pass the Brexit bill, allowing the rest to take a load off at home. That won’t happen, of course, but the mind wanders during these lonely Playbook nights.
Plus: MPs are not allowed to participate in debates on legislation remotely. So those who want video clips of themselves praising/bashing the PM’s deal (delete as appropriate) will have to hotfoot it back to Westminster.
Meanwhile, in the Lords: Just 30 peers are needed for a quorum on divisions. But Lords can vote and debate on legislation online — giving the upper chamber more scope for viral Brexit Bill content.
ALSO IN BREXIT LAND: My POLITICO colleagues Charlie Cooper and Anna Isaac have seen a document the Confederation of British Industry is sending to negotiators on both sides of the Brexit divide outlining 48 recommendations to minimize disruption for businesses at the end of the transition period. Among the asks are grace periods ranging from six months to a year on elements including customs paperwork and rules of origin requirements. The CBI said it was now “impossible for many businesses to be ready.” Full story here for POLITICO Brexit Transition, Trade and Financial Services Pros.
Border this: The BBC’s Faisal Islam was tweeting last night about the queues piling up around Dover due to stockpiling ahead of Brexit.
Simon says: Fears about business disruption were voiced in Ireland last night too. My colleague Shawn Pogatchnik emailed over quotes from the Irish parliament debate on Brexit readiness, in which Foreign Minister Simon Coveney warned firms that “if they don’t prepare now, their trade will be disrupted and customers will be lost.”
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THIRD WAVE, HELLO: Fears about a third national coronavirus lockdown in England continue to grow amid rising cases and increasing pressure on hospitals as the nation heads toward the Christmas relaxation period. The Guardian, the Times and the Independent have good write-ups about trusts feeling the squeeze, with the former reporting that hospitals had to tell ambulance crews to divert patients elsewhere 44 times last week — the highest number for four years. This tweet from Alastair McLellan, editor of the Health Service Journal, was not encouraging.
YESTERDAY’S UK STATS: 35,383 new cases, ⬆️ 10,222 on Wednesday and ⬆️ 14,419 on the previous Thursday … 532 deaths, ⬇️ 81 on Wednesday and ⬆️ 16 on the previous Thursday. The new cases figures include around 11,000 previously unreported cases for Wales.
Tier 4: In the Times, Francis Elliott and Chris Smyth report hotspots around London could end up under additional curbs, such as the closure of non-essential shops and orders to remain at home. “There is a case for going further than Tier 3 and it is getting stronger,” a Whitehall official told the pair.
Divided nation: The big question is whether England follows Wales and Northern Ireland with a full lockdown. One senior government source told the Telegraph‘s Gordon Rayner and Amy Jones “there won’t be a third national lockdown.” Officials were keeping tight-lipped when Playbook asked if that was true last night. In his Times column, Spectator Political Editor James Forsyth said many in government are resigned to a third lockdown, with ministers aware that “with the usual winter pressures on the NHS they’ll end up with the most difficult period yet in terms of dealing with the virus.”
Eek: Forsyth quotes one government source who admits the vaccine rollout will be “massively set back” if the Oxford jab doesn’t come onstream. No pressure, then.
Look out for: The ONS infection survey, which will appear here at midday, as well as R numbers and growth rates here.
Good plan: Doctors are being advised to offer patients in hospital with the coronavirus a follow-up six weeks later to check for long COVID symptoms, the BBC reports.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
CLASSROOM MANAGEMENT: Schools Minister Nick Gibb is touring broadcast studios this morning to defend the announcement that thousands of students in England will not return to the classroom for a full week after the Christmas break. The move, to assist the rollout of testing in schools, has infuriated teachers — not least because it came a day before the end of term. This thread from Newsnight Policy Editor Lewis Goodall is a must-read. The Daily Mail takes aim at Education Secretary Gavin Williamson in a leader column: “Like iron filings to a magnet, Gavin Williamson seems drawn ineluctably to fiasco.”
WHEN HARI MET STARMER: Labour leader Keir Starmer will hold a public Zoom call this afternoon with Hari Shukla, who was the first person in the north east to be vaccinated against the coronavirus. Register here for the 2 p.m. event.
COMING ATTRACTIONS: Chancellor Rishi Sunak confirmed he would hold his next budget on March 3, as he announced (24 hours before businesses had to issue redundancy notices) that the furlough scheme will be extended for another month to the end of April. “Once again the chancellor has waited until the last possible minute to act,” said Shadow Chancellor Anneliese Dodds.
TAKE OUT THE TRASH: In the Mirror, Mikey Smith, Dan Bloom and Lizzy Buchan have the usual handy round-up of all the things the government slipped out on the last day of term.
WAR ON WOKE: Cabinet Minister Liz Truss successfully managed to rile the left with her attacks on so-called woke culture as she promised to revamp the government approach to equalities. Truss makes the front pages of the Guardian and the digital Independent, and prompted a furious response from Labour grandee Harriet Harman on PoliticsHome. Spectator Editor Fraser Nelson loved it (of course) while New Statesman Political Editor Stephen Bush was left wondering where the substance was.
Also sparking anger: A government official last night said Jacob Rees-Mogg stands by his accusation that UNICEF is “playing politics” by donating £25,000 to a community group providing breakfasts for poor children in Southwark. The row makes the Times front page.
ICYMI: Dominic Cummings surfaced in the Spectator to warn about “issues of existential importance” that get ignored while “politicians to focus more on Twitter and gossip-column stories about their dogs.” Who on earth could he mean?
PLAYBOOK INTERVIEW — FORMER CHANGE UK MP CHRIS LESLIE
A YEAR DEAD: It’s a year on Saturday since Change UK dissolved after failing to make a dent in British politics at the 2019 general election. Despite hopes of shaking up the Westminster regime, all the original members of the group (some of whom ended up standing as Lib Dems or independents) lost their seats. It seems a long time ago since that frenzied February when Labour and Conservative MPs quit their parties over Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit. But where are they now? Playbook caught up with ex-Labour Minister Chris Leslie, who came fourth in his Nottingham East seat in 2019.
New gig: Leslie has since dusted himself off and become chief executive of the Credit Services Association — a group for debt collectors. He insists he does not miss parliament: “I had 18 years in the Commons — it’s being in government that I miss!” He keeps in contact with some of his former Change UK colleagues, whom he describes as “amazing and brave friends, who showed such strength of character.”
It was Change UK wot won it: In the end, Labour ditched Corbyn after the 2019 election and did not pick a hard left replacement. Few thought that would be possible when the split happened. But Leslie insists Corbyn would never have been dumped without Change UK. “It’s risible to think that Labour would have moved away from Corbynism but for two things: the individual MPs who stood up against anti-Semitism and extremism to say ‘enough is enough,’ and then the British public rejecting the hard left so forcefully last December,” he said.
Blame the quangos: He puts the failure of Change UK down to the Electoral Commission refusing to allow the nascent movement to stand in the 2019 local elections. He said the results in that vote “gave the Lib Dems the claim that only they could marshal pro-European voters.”
No regrets: “My own aim was to shine a spotlight on why Labour under Corbyn couldn’t be trusted in government, and we achieved that by leaving and — for a brief moment at least — we gave millions of people reason to question what was going on,” he said. Leslie has not rejoined Labour yet, as he thinks Keir Starmer is still pandering too much to the left. “I’ve always been in the center ground politically and I’ll wait to see if things change.”
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BEYOND THE M25
NI LOCKDOWN: Northern Ireland will enter a six-week lockdown from Boxing Day, closing everything but schools and essential shops, the Stormont executive announced last night. Cases have been mounting in the nation with infection levels four times as high as those south of the border, while queues of ambulances outside hospitals have been an increasingly common sight this week. POLITICO’s Shawn Pogatchnik has the full story.
So as things stand … Northern Ireland and Wales will enter their third national lockdowns just after Christmas, while England and Scotland are set to continue with regional tiered restrictions. Things could change in Scotland though; the Cabinet will meet next Tuesday to decide whether to tweak the tiers or go for the nuclear option.
Mark Drakeford, forecaster: The Welsh first minister predicted Scotland and England will have little choice but to implement nationwide measures after Christmas, telling the BBC’s Newscast podcast “they too will find themselves with numbers escalating and more action needing to be taken.” Drakeford warned Boris Johnson to remember “what happened in March.” There are plenty of other interesting nuggets in the podcast as the embattled leader tried to justify his decisions during the pandemic. Listen here.
EUROPEAN CHRISTMAS: POLITICO’s Paola Tamma, Laurenz Gehrke and Shawn Pogatchnik have updated their helpful country-by-country guide to Christmas rules across the Continent — read here.
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Schools Minister Nick Gibb broadcast round: Times radio (6.35 a.m.) … talkRADIO (6.45 a.m.) … Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m) … LBC (8.05 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast show (Sky News): SAGE member John Edmunds (7.30 a.m.) … Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething (7.40 a.m.) … NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson (8.05 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Labour MP Neil Coyle … Spiked Editor Brendan O’Neill (both 7.05 a.m.) … NEU joint General Secretary Kevin Courtney (8.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Chief Executive of the Royal Statistical Society Stian Westlake (7.20 a.m.) … General Secretary of the NASUWT teachers’ union Patrick Roach (8.15 a.m.) … Gail Allsopp, clinical lead for policy at the Royal College of GPs (8.35 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Buckinghamshire Council leader Martin Tett (7.05 a.m.) … Former WHO cancer program chief Karol Sikora (7.20 a.m.) … Brexit Party Chairman Richard Tice (7.25 a.m.) … Labour MP Graham Stringer (8.06 a.m.) … Commons education committee Chairman Robert Halfon (8.20 a.m.) … Portsmouth City Council leader Gerald Vernon-Jackson (9.12 a.m.).
Good Morning Scotland (BBC Radio Scotland): Scottish government Constitution Secretary Mike Russell (7.50 a.m.) … Business Minister Paul Scully (8.06 a.m.).
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News (10.40 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Fleet Street Fox Susie Boniface and the Daily Express’ Michael Booker … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): PR consultant Alex Deane and Demos Chief Executive Polly Mackenzie.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Poles apart … Boris won’t buckle.
Daily Mail: The bleakest midwinter.
Daily Mirror: Tiers before bedlam — 38 million under toughest rules … until Xmas free-for-all 4 days later.
Daily Star: Return of the mullet — Barber chief warns of hair crime apocalypse.
Financial Times: Brexit trade talks bogged down in fresh dispute over state aid.
HuffPost UK: Last minute dot Boz.
i: Millions more trapped in toughest tier.
Metro: Just scraps for carers — 39 percent of nurses say they have missed meals because they are so poorly paid.
POLITICO UK: Europe’s coronavirus Christmas — what you can (and can’t) do.
The Daily Telegraph: Johnson urges EU to take final steps towards Brexit trade deal.
The Guardian: Revealed — more hospitals short of beds amid coronavirus surge.
The Independent: Minister condemned for belittling racial injustice — Truss claims focus on inequality issues is ‘fashionable.’
The Sun: Get vacc — Macca says he’ll have jab.
The Times: Southern hotspots in danger of lockdown.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
The Economist: Christmas double issue.
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
(Click on the links to listen.)
Chopper’s Politics: The Telegraph’s Chris Hope talks to former DExEU adviser Raoul Ruparel, former UKIP deputy leader David Campbell-Bannerman and Thatcher biographer Charles Moore.
Commons People: The HuffPost team talks to Tory MP Lee Rowley.
Encompass: Paul Adamson is interviewed by Matthew Kirk of Squire Patton Boggs.
EU Confidential: The POLITICO team reflects on the wild ride that was 2020 in a bumper end-of-year special.
Iain Dale All Talk: Dale talks to former Labour MP Caroline Flint.
Newscast: The BBC team is joined by Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford.
Pod’s Own Country: Geri Scott talks to Labour peer and former Home Secretary David Blunkett.
Reasons to be Cheerful: Geoff Lloyd and Shadow Business Secretary Ed Miliband are joined by IPPR North’s Sarah Longlands and the Centre for Local Economic Strategies’ Neil McInroy.
The Edition: The Spectator team is joined by behavioral psychologist Stuart Ritchie and writer Elif Shafak.
The Political Party: Comedian Matt Forde is joined by New Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson.
What Next? with Lionel Barber: The former FT editor talks to former GCHQ Director David Omand.
YOUR WEEKEND IN POLITICS
Your weekend in Brexit: The Commons Brexit committee will publish its report looking at the government’s preparations for the end of the transition period, coming Saturday morning … Followed by Sunday’s Brexit deal deadline, according to MEPs.
SUNDAY SHOWS: Andrew Marr will be joined by Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (BBC One, Sunday 9 a.m.). Sophy Ridge will be joined by Scottish government COVID adviser Devi Sridhar (Sky News, Sunday 8.30 a.m.).
G&T: Daniel Finkelstein is filling in for Tom Newton Dunn and Gloria De Piero. (Times Radio, Sunday 11 a.m.).
Westminster Hour: Carolyn Quinn will be joined by Labour Lords leader Angela Smith … Tory MP Tim Loughton … Demos Chief Executive Polly Mackenzie … and the Spectator’s Katy Balls (BBC Radio 4, Sunday 10 p.m.).
Westminster weather: ☁️☁️☁️ Breezy and cloudy — but at least dry. Highs of 12C.
Expanded gig: Shadow Sport Minister Alison McGovern is also taking on the culture brief, as the incumbent Tracy Brabin prepares to run for West Yorkshire Mayor. Here’s her tweet.
Birthdays: Tory peer and Lord High Steward of Ireland Charles Chetwynd-Talbot … Howard League Chief Executive Frances Crook … Jewish Chronicle Editor Stephen Pollard.
And celebrating over the weekend: Shadow Chief Secretary to the Treasury Bridget Phillipson … St Austell and Newquay MP Steve Double … Shadow Flooding Minister Stephanie Peacock … West Tyrone MP Órfhlaith Begley … Daily Mail Political Correspondent Claire Ellicott … Crossbench peer David Rowe-Beddoe … Former Tory MP Tim Eggar … Welsh Labour AM John Griffiths … Shadow Police and Fire Service Minister Sarah Jones … North East Fife MP Wendy Chamberlain … Deputy Leader of the SNP Keith Brown … Lib Dem peer Lynne Featherstone … Tory peer Ivon Moore-Brabazon … Crossbench peer Nuala O’Loan … Former RSA President Christopher Le Brun … Former Observer and Indy Editor Roger Alton … ITV head of politics Amber de Botton … and philosopher Alain de Botton.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Miriam Webber.