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By ANNABELLE DICKSON
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3 THINGS TO KNOW
1. SAVING BIG DOG: A furious Boris Johnson has made it known he’s going to war on the drinking culture in Downing Street as he tries to calm Tory anger following the worst week of his premiership. But the bad news keeps coming for the PM this weekend with more Tory MPs calling for his resignation, collapsing poll numbers, and a lawyerly opposition leader insisting he broke the law.
In the PM’s corner: Oliver Dowden drew the short straw and was sent out to defend the PM as party-gate continues to inflict huge damage on the Conservatives. The Tory chairman immediately faced accusations the PM had made a mug of him by attending a No.10 party which started just nine minutes after Dowden had finished a press conference reiterating the importance of rule-keeping to the nation.
Up our game: Dowden told Sky’s Trevor Phillips the PM is committed to “upping our game.” And he vowed: “We must improve the culture. We must do better. I hear people’s anger, I know it and we have got to respond to that.”
But but but: All this talk of culture change does little to rebut various briefings the PM is planning to ask a load of his staff to fall on their swords to save his skin.
**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: We were the first bank to provide greater protection when making online payments by bringing in a name-checking service known as Confirmation of Payee. Before this, it was hard to know if you were paying the right person – something fraudsters were able to exploit.**
Not another one: Dowden, who backed the PM to stay in post, told Phillips it’s the wrong time for a “divisive” leadership contest. He later told Times Radio’s T&G show: “I do not think, in principle, the prime minister should resign.”
Actual real politics: The Indy’s Anna Isaac got a good first whiff of the PM’s plan to draw up a list of officials to offer resignations over the parties — and that it is being dubbed “Operation Save Big Dog” by the prime minister himself. This is not a parody.
She hears the PM is also starting a drive to highlight his achievements in government. Tory MPs might also mull that his record includes squandering a massive poll lead.
Speaking of which: An Opinium poll for the Observer makes horrible reading for the Conservatives. Johnson’s personal approval rating has fallen below even the worst figures recorded for his predecessor Theresa May. The Tories are on their worst vote share since the general election — 10 points behind Labour.
Taking responsibility: The BBC’s Sophie Raworth hit a nail on the head when she asked Dowden if the prime minister was not ultimately responsible for what goes on in Downing Street. “I know from many conversations I’ve had with the prime minister he’s in absolutely no doubt that he should and will take responsibility, and I think you’ll see that in the statement that he makes to the House of Commons when this report is produced,” Dowden said, referring to that all-important investigation by top official Sue Gray.
Strong Starmer: Opposition Labour Party Leader Keir Starmer — a former director of public prosecutions — went in all guns blazing this morning. He told Raworth: “I think [the PM] broke the law. I think he’s as good as admitted that he broke the law.” Starmer cited Johnson’s apology to parliament for attending one such event. “I think he then lied about what had happened.”
Starmer’s own picture: It wasn’t all plain sailing for Starmer though. He’s faced questions of his own after a picture of him drinking beer during the first wave of restrictions emerged and splashed Saturday’s Daily Mail. How is that any different to the cheese and wine pictures from Downing Street, Raworth asked? Starmer insisted he had simply stopped to eat a takeaway while working in the office in the run-up to last May’s elections. “That is not a breach of the rules, it is not a party and it is no comparison to the prime minister,” he said.
Time to go: Still, accusations against the Labour leader are a sideshow to the growing Tory mutiny after MPs faced the wrath of constituents this weekend. Former Tory minister Tim Loughton became the sixth Conservative MP to call publicly for Boris Johnson to resign. “I have regretfully come to the conclusion that Boris Johnson’s position is now untenable, that his resignation is the only way to bring this whole unfortunate episode to an end and I am working with colleagues to impress that view on Number 10,” he tweeted last night.
‘Loyal Labrador’: Probably the most damning revelation this weekend was buried in Dominic Lawsons’s Sunday Times column. He claims to have spoken to a former Downing Street official who said at least two people had told the PM, after seeing an emailed invitation from his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, that this was “a party” and should be immediately canceled. Johnson is said to have replied that were “overreacting” and praised Reynolds as “my loyal Labrador.” Will the same source be letting Sue Gray know about all this?
Pushback: A No10 source told Sky’s Sam Coates this afternoon that the official line from the prime minister’s spokesman last week — that Johnson didn’t see the email from Reynolds or know about it and believed 20 May was a work event — still stands.
Latest Carrie on: The Sunday Telegraph goes for the PM’s wife Carrie this morning. It splashes a pic of her hugging a friend in September 2020 when guidance included remaining two meters apart from those in other households where possible.
Team Carrie response: A spokesman for Mrs Johnson told the Tele: “Mrs Johnson was one of a group of six seated outside celebrating a friend’s engagement. Mrs Johnson regrets the momentary lapse in judgment in briefly hugging her friend for a photograph.”
Now read this: It is most definitely time for a Tim Shipman long read. Today’s is brutal.
Cabinet colleagues helpfully tell the Sunday Times’ chief political commentator that Johnson is “hangdog,” but determined to show that he is up to the job. A senior minister tells Shipman: “He is in total survival mode. He is so worried that he has started to read his [government] papers.” Ouch.
Tory red meat: Shipman, and others, also say the PM will announce a blizzard of crowd-pleasing policies including putting the military in charge of stopping migrant boats, money for NHS backlog, and a two-year freeze on the BBC license fee (more on that in a bit.) “Boris is most obsessed with boats and the backlog,” a senior source tells Shipman.
Fairly lone voice: Tory backbencher Michael Fabricant told LBC Johnson should stay in office “probably for good.”
Raw emotion: In another demonstration of the human anger about the Downing Street parties, Sky’s Trever Phillips gave this extraordinary and heartbreaking account of the weekend his own daughter died while Downing Street partied.
West Lothian question: Asked about the schism between Scottish and other Tories over the future of the PM, Dowden slapped down House of Commons Leader Jacob Rees-Mogg who last week said the Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was lightweight. Dowden told Raworth he wouldn’t have chosen those words.
2. END OF PLAN B: Partygate has overshadowed the state of play on COVID-19 — and the potentially good news on restrictions in the coming days. Dowden told Sky he was “very hopeful and optimistic” curbs could be lifted later this month, although he stressed the government will wait for the data ahead of a final decision.
Good news: Saturday’s Telegraph already splashed the news Plan B is set to be scrapped on January 26, and a government source tells today’s Sunday Express says a senior government source has confirmed “all covid restrictions in England will end in 10 days.”
What would Labour do? On Sky, Labour’s Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting said the opposition would “follow the data closely” but that it doesn’t want any more measures than are “absolutely necessary.” He warned London might be over the peak of the omicron wave but that “the rest of England is still bearing the brunt of it.” Labour has set out its 10-point plan to live with COVID-19 in the Observer.
Test-free half term: The Sunday Times reckons test-free travel for the fully vaccinated, at least on the U.K. side, could come in time for the half-term holidays.
Speaking of jabs: Novak Djokovic lost his fight against Australia deportation this morning. POLITICO has the story.
Call me Tony: The newly-knighted Tony Blair insisted he was “perfectly happy with Tony as a matter of fact” when asked about his new Sir title. And he did not hold back on his disdain for anti-vaxxers. “If you look at the evidence, and you’re not getting vaccinated, come on. If you’re an intelligent person, just study it. All you need to do is study it. And if you go even a short way into the details it’s just 100 percent clear.”
3. BRITISH BROADCASTING CUTS: Boris Johnson’s critics on the right of the party may be calmed by news Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries is going to hit the BBC with a two-year license fee freeze. The Mail on Sunday, which got the story, says the corporation will have to find savings of more than £2 billion over the next six years.
War footing: An “ally” tells the Mail on Sunday “the days of state-run television are over.” Dorries followed up with a tweet this morning warning the license fee announcement would be the last. “The days of the elderly being threatened with prison sentences and bailiffs knocking on doors, are over. Time now to discuss and debate new ways of funding, supporting and selling great British content.”
ALSO WORTH KNOWING
PRE-EMPTIVE STRIKE: Kathryn Stone, parliamentary commissioner for standards, could well be back in the headlines again this week. A parliamentary inquiry into the conduct of John Bercow has found the former House of Commons speaker guilty of bullying three staff members, he tells the Sunday Times, branding it a “kangaroo court.” Trying to get ahead of the game, Bercow denounces what he calls an “unjust” and “amateurish process.” Former Commons clerk Lord Lisvane, one of Bercow’s accusers, hits back, saying: “Everyone involved in this exacting two-year inquiry has had to undertake to preserve strict confidentiality. This is an undertaking that Mr Bercow has now casually broken.”
SPIES IN WESTMINSTER: Iain Duncan Smith, the former Tory leader, told Sky the revelation last week that MPs had been targeted by a suspected Chinese agent is “just the tip of the iceberg.” He said “successive governments have been completely asleep at the wheel” over Beijing’s reach into Westminster.
WATCH OUT FOR THIS WEEK
ANTI-PROTEST PROTEST: Peers will vote tomorrow on new laws which opponents say are an attack on the right to protest. The Guardian reports on Kill the Bill protests which took place across the country yesterday.
TORY REVOLT TEST: The second reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill will take place on Tuesday. It’ll be worth watching to see if a Tory revolt materializes. Opposition to the bill has been pretty vocal in recent months amid fears it could affect farming, fishing, hunting, angling and horse racing.
GRAB A COFFEE AND READ
POWER CORRUPTS: Brian Klaas asks why we end up with so many people in power who aren’t fit to manage a tea van. He’s interviewed hundreds of powerful people: despots, corrupt kingpins, crooked chief executives, power-hungry generals, cult leaders, abusive managers, bloodthirsty rebel leaders and, yes, those in the highest echelons of British politics. Well worth a read in the Sunday Times.
CONSERVATIVE FUTURE: Saturday’s Telegraph has a nice sit-down with Tees Valley Mayor Ben Houchen — “the poster boy for Johnson’s ‘levelling up’ agenda.” “He is arguably not a new kind of Tory but a much older breed – one that predates even Thatcherism: the pure pragmatist,” the paper writes.
ONE FOR THE SCIENCE GEEKS: POLITICO’s Karl Mathiesen and Joshua Posaner look at how one of Earth’s most important satellites for observing disasters, climate change and environmental destruction went dark in the days before Christmas — and is not waking up.
SIREN EMOJI: Marie Le Conte has a fascinating piece for Vice about the origins of the controversial Politics For All Twitter account which has been permanently banned from Twitter.
REST OF SUNDAY MEDIA ROUND
Ayesha Hazarika on Times Radio, 4 p.m. to 7 p.m.: Labour MP Charlotte Nichols, former Tory minister Edwina Currie, Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee, journalist Adam Boulton, SNP leader in Westminster Ian Blackford.
Westminster Hour, BBC Radio 4, 10 p.m.: Tory MP Andrew Bowie, Labour MP Lucy Powell, Former Permanent Secretary at DExEU Philip Rycroft, the Telegraph’s Lucy Fisher.
COMMONS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with Home Office questions followed by the remaining stages of the Elections Bill.
LORDS: Report stage of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill and committee stage of the Health and Care Bill.
COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with health and social care questions followed by the second reading of the Animal Welfare (Sentience) Bill.
PRICE HIKES: Communities minister Christopher Pincher MP and Energy minister Greg Hands to give evidence to the the business committee on energy policy, from 11.15 a.m.
LORDS: Committee stage of the Health and Care Bill
COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with COP26 questions followed by PMQs and the remaining stages of the Building Safety Bill.
HEALTH: Incoming Chair of NHS England Richard Meddings quizzed by the health and social care committee, 10 a.m.
ECONOMY: Bank of England governor Andrew Bailey gives evidence to the treasury committee on financial stability, 2.15 p.m.
LORDS: Report stage of the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections, and Petitions of Concern) Bill and second reading of the Subsidy Control Bill.
COMMONS: Sits from 9.30 a.m. with international trade questions followed by the business statement and backbench debates on Uyghur tribunals and lawfare and the U.K. court system.
HEALTH: Health Minister Maria Caulfield to give evidence on cancer services to the health and social care committee, 11 a.m.
CABINET OFFICE: Cabinet Office minister Steve Barclay and top official Alex Chisholm grilled by the public administration committee, 10 a.m.
Thanks: To my editor Matt Honeycombe-Foster for catching the typos and making Sunday Crunch sing. This article was updated to include No. 10’s position on the latest party claims.
**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: In 2021 we saw a 10% increase in the number of purchase scams reported – when someone is tricked into using a bank transfer to buy goods or services that don’t exist. Most of these scams start with items promoted on social media, where it’s easier for fraudsters to use fake profiles and advertise non-existent items. Consumers can do more to protect themselves against purchase scams, such as only buying from trusted retailers and always paying by card, but more needs to be done to protect them by targeting the source of these scams. The new Online Safety Bill will create a legal framework for removing illegal content from the internet. But it needs to include paid-for advertising to make sure social media companies prevent scammers from using their services.**
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