Good Thursday morning.
DRIVING THE DAY
TOP TIERS UNTIL FEBRUARY: Health Secretary Matt Hancock will announce new coronavirus tier allocations for areas across England this morning, with several places currently in Tier 2 expected to move into Tier 3. Hancock will make a statement in the Commons at around 11.30 a.m. to set out the results of last night’s “COVID O” meeting, in which ministers reviewed the current regional restrictions. A department of health official tells Playbook people in England need to be ready to stay in the top two tiers potentially until February: “We are seeing a worrying surge in cases across some parts of the country. There is consensus within government on the need for caution as we head into January and February, which bring with them the usual winter pressure on the NHS. I wouldn’t expect drastic changes from the tiers review.”
ROSE-TINTED VIEW: The tier news comes after Boris Johnson last night unveiled his advice for the Christmas break, urging people to keep their family celebrations “small” and “short” but declining to change the actual rules. Johnson addressed the 1922 committee of backbench Conservative MPs last night alongside his new No. 10 chief of staff Dan Rosenfield, with government insiders telling Playbook they are pleased with how the backbenchers took the news. Given the number of Tory MPs who were threatening to rebel on Tier 3 last time round, you can see why Downing Street is relieved with how things are going in terms of party management now. First potential hiccup: Let’s see if the unlikely outbreak of peace holds past lunchtime …
LEADING BY EXAMPLE: Playbook spoke to several ministers and government special advisers last night who are choosing to isolate at home from Friday in order to be able to see their families over Christmas.
IT’S COLD OUTSIDE: No. 10 will be a little jittery after reading the front page of the Sun, which criticizes “madcap advice” to eat Christmas dinner outside or with a window open if grandparents are joining. The paper accompanies the story with a helpful picture of a frozen raw turkey and says Johnson’s plan is “crackers.”
BLAME GAME: Playbook detects that, while most Tory MPs are quite happy with the actual Christmas rules not being toughened, there are grave concerns among some ministers over whether No. 10 has taken the right approach. The health official above said there was “consensus” in government “on the need for caution” — but some senior ministers and scientific advisers are being pretty open about their concerns. To be honest, it doesn’t take a body language expert to work out Hancock and Chief Medical Officer Chris Whitty would probably rather err on the side of greater caution. One worried insider warns: “The government is going to be held accountable for everyone who catches COVID and dies over the Christmas period.”
COST OF CHRISTMAS: Sure enough, Dr Chaand Nagpaul from the British Medical Association is already out of the blocks (h/t Pippa Crerar): “Relaxing the rules will, without doubt, cost lives and the impact on the NHS in the New Year will be grave. For those reasons, as the voice of thousands of doctors, we urge people to think long and hard about how many people they share their Christmas with. The BMA believes the prime minister should have used today as an opportunity to restrict the relaxations in order to protect people in England.”
RULE OF 27: Classic of a story from the Mail’s John Stevens, who has caught Tory MP Tobias Ellwood at a Christmas dinner with 27 guests at a private members’ club in Mayfair on Tuesday. Ellwood insists it was a COVID-compliant business event, but the Iraq Britain Business Council described the bash on its website as its “Christmas party.” Stevens has also dug out this video of Ellwood a day before the dinner warning that allowing families to meet over Christmas “could be very dangerous indeed” and risks a “third wave.”
TRAINING DAY: There are mounting fears within the department for transport that rail services will not be able to cope with demand during the five-day Christmas break. Several major rail services are not available on some days during the period of relaxed restrictions, concentrating demand even more. The government is now urging people to stay local if possible, but they know millions of Britons will already have made plans to cross the country. Playbook hears the DfT held contingency planning exercises this week to try to game potential problems with the train network, amid fears of images of overcrowded carriages and a potential super-spreader event on Britain’s trains. What could possibly go wrong?
HAPPIER NEWS: Pregnant women will be allowed to have a partner accompany them “at all times,” including all scans and in the labor ward, in a huge win for Anna Mikhailova’s Mail on Sunday campaign. Remarkable that it took this long.
AT LAST: Some 137,000 people received their first dose of the Pfizer vaccine in Britain in the first week of its rollout, the department of health announced yesterday (after some arm-twisting this week). Playbook hears these are very much back-of-a-fag-packet numbers, hence the press release stressing they are “provisional and subject to change.” It’s hard to say whether 137,000 is a good result or not. On the one hand, it’s 137,000 more people vaccinated than anywhere else in Europe. On the other, as the Times‘ Chris Smyth notes, “At this rate, vaccination of those at highest risk would take four years. So the big question for January is what maximum capacity will be.”
WHO COULD HAVE PREDICTED THAT: Sky’s Rowland Manthorpe reports the vaccine rollout may be delayed because the health department’s IT system is “failing constantly.” His story quotes an official saying the technical issues may explain why the government struggled to publish vaccination figures until yesterday. Meanwhile Hugo Gye in the i has uncovered another problem: The government and NHS have no idea how many people aren’t signed up to a GP.
DESPITE BREXIT: Expect ministers and Brexiteers to be banging on for weeks about this Bloomberg line from Alberto Nardelli on the EU’s struggles to quickly approve the Pfizer vaccine. “Debate over the timing of the approval was long and at times heated during an EU summit last week, with several leaders demanding to know why the approval process was taking so much time compared to the U.K., according to three EU officials familiar with the discussion. One of the explanations given was that several national experts had been slow in getting back to the EMA, the officials said.”
KERCHING: The Mail’s Dan Martin has news of how much we’re forking out for our top boffins. Whitty is paid between £205,000 and £210,000 a year, while Chief Scientific Adviser Patrick Vallance is on up to £185,000. Some 30 officials at Public Health England earn more than £150,000, Martin reports.
YESTERDAY’S UK STATS: 25,161 new cases, ⬆️ 6,711 on Tuesday and ⬆️ 8,583 on the previous Wednesday … 612 deaths, ⬆️ 106 on Tuesday and ⬆️ 79 on the previous Wednesday.
**A message from Goldman Sachs: The updated Carbonomics cost curve, analyzed by Goldman Sachs Research, reflects innovation across 100 different technologies to decarbonize power, mobility, buildings, agriculture and industry, and draws three key conclusions on the trends of zero net carbon.**
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
DEAL CHAT RISES: As the House rises for recess tonight, there are ever-louder whispers in Whitehall that the government increasingly expects it will be able to do a deal with the EU in the next week. Officially, No. 10 insists the two sides remain far apart on many issues, in particular fish. A spokesperson said: “Time is now in short supply to reach an agreement with the EU and we expect discussions will continue over the coming days.”
MEANWHILE, ON THE EU SIDE: The path to a deal “may be very narrow,” with stumbling blocks over the level playing field and fisheries remaining, European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen told MEPs Wednesday, but “there is a path to an agreement now.” Von der Leyen added that negotiators have found “a way forward on most issues.” More from my Brussels Playbook colleague Florian Eder here.
PM DIARY CLEARED: The Sun’s Harry Cole reports the PM has canceled a “top secret” foreign visit pencilled in for Friday, which he says “some ministers read as a sign a Brexit trade deal breakthrough could be imminent in coming days.” Government officials note they’re sending MPs back to their constituencies today so are unlikely to be in a position to debate a deal in the Commons on Friday. But No. 10 says: “We will recall MPs and peers to legislate for a deal if one is secured. That recall could be as early as next week.”
AUSTRALIA TERMS? The U.K. government is planning to house asylum seekers in several “camps” without access to electricity and water, according to Caroline Nokes, a former Tory immigration minister. Nokes told MPs Wednesday that the Home Office’s proposed changes to the U.K.’s asylum system, coming into force after the end of the Brexit transition period, “have far reaching implications.” My POLITICO colleague Cristina Gallardo has more.
COP CASH: Police funding will total up to £15.8 billion — up to £636 million more than last year — the government announces today. Home Secretary Priti Patel is on the morning broadcast round to discuss the cash. Sadly it’s Ben Shepherd on Good Morning Britain rather than Piers Morgan.
WAR ON WOKE LATEST: Equalities Minister Liz Truss will give a newsy speech to the Centre for Policy Studies today where, according to the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher, she will say the government has focused too heavily on “fashionable” race, sexuality and gender issues at the expense of poverty and geographical disparities. You’ll be able to watch here from 2 p.m.
CUT THROUGH: Labour leader Keir Starmer is moving to shut down the creeping narrative that he has been sitting on the fence on key issues facing the country, following his abstention on corona rules. This isn’t just being pushed by the Tories, but appears to have cut through to younger audiences too — yesterday, gal-dem‘s Moya Lothian Mclean wrote this excoriating article attacking Starmer from the left as a “wet wipe” who has “defined his leadership by bottling it on high-stakes issues.” The piece goes on: “Try and name a single Keir Starmer policy. Go on, think of it now. Anything? Nope. Now name a Keir Starmer abstention.” Ouch.
SPLINTERS: A Leader of the Opposition’s Office source sends Playbook this long defense of Starmer’s record in response to the article: “Since becoming leader, Keir has shown that the Labour Party is under new leadership. He secured a U-turn on the NHS surcharge, has taken a zero-tolerance stance on anti-Semitism, exposed the government’s incompetence, helped force a U-turn on exams, committed the next Labour government to a new Race Equality Act to tackle structural racism, forced two votes to extend free school meals, led calls for a national circuit break, closed the gap on the Conservatives and begun to climb the mountain to win the next general election.”
What Labour wants to talk about: The opposition is calling for the government to use the cash handed back by supermarkets — around £2 billion — to help struggling pubs and businesses. They are also pointing out that four-fifths of closed businesses in Tiers 2 or 3 are now receiving less support than they did in March. Shadow Business Minister Lucy Powell will be making the case in her morning broadcast round.
GOVING IT ALONE: Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove will not be joined by chief negotiator David Frost — who is understandably busy — at the Commons Brexit committee this afternoon. Appearing at 2 p.m. instead will be transition task force officials Jess Glover and Brendan Threlfall, for a session examining where the talks are at. He’ll then go through more or less the same in front of the Lords Brexit committee from 4.45 p.m., this time by himself.
Also on committee corridor: Commons public accounts looks at the government’s progress in providing free school meals since that U-turn last month, with DfE officials (10 a.m.) … The joint fixed-term parliaments act committee takes evidence from two former Commons clerks (11 .10 a.m.) … and Facebook, YouTube and TikTok officials — including former New Labour man Theo Bertram — will talk about preventing the spread of anti-vax content at the Commons DCMS disinformation sub committee (2.30 p.m.).
HOUSE OF COMMONS: MPs sit from 9.30 a.m. with questions to Gove, followed by the weekly Commons business statement from leader Jacob Rees-Mogg — he’s expected to tell MPs to be ready to return to parliament next week if a deal is agreed in Brussels … Health Secretary Matt Hancock will then make a COVID statement, expected around 11.30 a.m. … Followed by one on local government finance by Communities Secretary Robert Jenrick … MPs will then debate matters to be raised before adjournment … And then sometime after 5.30 p.m. the Commons will rise for its Christmas break, in full expectation said break could be cut short as soon as Monday.
ICYMI: Here’s the footage of SNP MP Drew Hendry’s mace/attention-grabbing outburst during yesterday’s Internal Market Bill debate in the Commons, courtesy of the BBC. Hendry had warned the compromise made on the bill between the Lords and Commons doesn’t “protect devolution,” and picked up the mace — which must sit at the dispatch box for the Commons to meet or pass laws — in protest. He didn’t get very far with it, but did show that the IMB controversy isn’t going away anytime soon. Hendry was following in the footsteps of many mace-stealing parliament sinners of the past, including Labour MP Lloyd Russell-Moyle during the Brexit parliamentary wars in 2018 … A young Michael Heseltine, who waved the mace in protest at Labour backbenchers singing the Red Flag in 1976 … and another fan of the Red Flag in John McDonnell, back in 2009. Furious at his own government’s refusal to grant a Commons vote on Heathrow expansion, the former shadow chancellor raced down from his seat on the backbenches to snatch the mace and then, realizing what he’d done, rather sheepishly placed it down on the nearest bench. Classic McDon.
IN THE LORDS: The house sits from noon, opening with the introduction of Evening Standard owner and pal of the PM Evgeny Lebedev. He’ll sit as a Crossbench peer with the title of “Baron Lebedev, of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation” … Peers will then ask questions about the ONS stats on life expectancy, delays at ports, vaccinations plus more … and then Labour peer David Blunkett has a private notice question on the judgment by the Supreme Court relating to Heathrow Airport, just after 1 p.m.
Leveling up pressure: The Northern Research Group of Tory MPs are likely to serve up at least a few news lines, at an event this evening with ConservativeHome Editor Paul Goodman. Group leader Jake Berry and MPs Dehenna Davison and John Stevenson are all in attendance from 6 p.m. — register to watch here.
Meanwhile in the ‘radical center’: Former Lib Dem leader Vince Cable, Times columnist Daniel Finkelstein and former New Labour Cabinet Minister Peter Mandelson are all speaking at a RADIX event on the return of industrial strategy. This one’s also at 6 p.m. — get the split-screen ready.
BEYOND THE M25
BLUE BUBBLES: Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon told Scots to limit their interactions as much as possible over Christmas and that the legally unchanged Christmas guidelines should be seen as the maximum — rather than the target. Though up to three households can legally form a Christmas bubble with up to eight people, guidance has been updated to recommend a max of two households and that the “smaller the bubble, the better and safer it will be.” The new guidance also indicates the five-day relaxation period is a “window of opportunity,” rather than a recommended time. Full guidance here.
RED BUBBLES: Welsh First Minister Mark Drakeford has opted to formally change the law: Only two households will be able to legally meet in Wales over Christmas. Those two households can be joined by one single person who lives alone. New guidance here. Drakeford blamed Wales’ mounting coronavirus cases — that will see Wales re-enter lockdown on December 28 — on a “relatively small number of people” engaging in “small acts of selfishness” on Newsnight.
GREEN AND WHITE BUBBLES: The Northern Irish executive will meet today to discuss further COVID restrictions and the relaxation over Christmas. The rules on bubbling look as if they will stay the same, though more cautious rhetoric could emerge alongside news of fresh restrictions after Christmas.
DOVER AND OUT: The U.K. government has turned down £250-million worth of funding applications from ports and airports to prepare for the end of the Brexit transition, including a request from the Port of Dover aimed at beefing up capacity for immigration checks. My colleague Cristina Gallardo has the story for POLITICO Brexit Transition, Mobility and Trade Pros.
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Home Secretary Priti Patel broadcast round: talkRADIO (6.50 a.m.) … Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.20 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.50 a.m.).
Shadow Business Minister Lucy Powell broadcast round: Today program (7.15 a.m.) … Sky News (7.45 a.m.) … talkRADIO (8.05 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.20 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Archbishop of Wales John Davies (8.30 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast show (Sky News): Faculty of Public Health President Maggie Rae (8.05 a.m.) … Bishop of Dover Rose Hudson-Wilkin (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Transport and Environment U.K. Director Greg Archer (8.05 a.m.) … Daily Mail columnist Sarah Vine (9.05 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio breakfast show: Rosamund Adoo-Kissi-Debrah, the mother of Ella, the first person in the U.K. to have air pollution listed as their cause of death (7.30 a.m.) … Welsh Health Minister Vaughan Gething (7.45 a.m.).
Also on Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Greater Manchester Mayor Andy Burnham (7.20 a.m.) … NHS Providers CEO Chris Hopson (9.20 a.m.) … Tory MP Alicia Kearns (9.33 a.m.).
Good Morning Scotland (BBC Radio Scotland): Deputy Scottish First Minister John Swinney (8 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Former Home Secretary Amber Rudd … Unaffiliated peer Claire Fox … Lib Dem leader Ed Davey … The Telegraph’s Christopher Hope.
Spectator TV (YouTube 6 p.m.): Andrew Neil will be joined by economist and former SNP MP Andrew Wilson, genetics professor Tim Spector and columnist Rod Liddle.
Question Time: Off air until January.
Reviewing the papers tonight: BBC News (10.40 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): POLITICO’s Anna Isaac and former newspaper editor Eve Pollard … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Article’s Ali Miraj and Irish independent columnist Colette Brown … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Former Labour MP Mary Creagh and former No. 10 speechwriter Chris Wilkins.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Have yourself a merry little Christmas.
Daily Mail: The fright before Xmas.
Daily Mirror: Coward — Yet more COVID chaos.
Daily Star: Dear Spotify, when can the rest of us have £30m for talking crap as well, please?
Financial Times: Johnson puts MPs on standby to approve last-minute trade deal.
HuffPost UK: Yuletide fog — Mixed messages from Boris.
i: Don’t stay over for Christmas, urges Johnson.
Metro: Have yourself a merry little Xmas.
POLITICO UK: Boris Johnson urges a (confusing) little Christmas.
The Daily Telegraph: ‘Have a merry little Christmas.’
The Guardian: PM in stark warning — rein in Christmas celebrations.
The Independent: Keep Christmas contact to a minimum, PM urges.
The Sun: Cold turkey — Madcap advice encourages us to eat Xmas dinner outside with gran.
The Times: Elderly told to keep away from family at Christmas.
TODAY’S NEWS MAGS
POLITICO Europe: Angela Merkel’s rule of law legacy — a divided Europe.
The New European: The bleak, mad winter.
The Spectator: Christmas special.
Westminster weather: 🌥🌥🌥 Glorious sunny winter’s morning. Highs of 11C.
Now Hiring: Fancy being the next prime minister’s official spokesperson and spend your days answering questions on conference calls with Her Majesty’s press corps? Apply here.
Coming attractions: Tortoise media’s Matthew d’Ancona has a book coming next March, which will look at how to change politics and propose new ways of understanding society. More details here.
Birthdays: Treasury Permanent Secretary Tom Scholar … Sky News presenter Kay Burley, who turns 60 … Sunday Times columnist Dominic Lawson … U.K. Ambassador to Croatia Andrew Dalgleish … Unaffiliated peer Michael Cashman … BEIS energy and security Director General Joanna Whittington … and Pope Francis.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, research assistant Andrew McDonald and producer Miriam Webber.