- It is up to France to stop refugees crossing the Channel in small boats, Priti Patel has said after 27 people, mostly Kurds from Iraq or Iran, drowned trying to reach the UK in an inflatable boat. My colleague Sarah Marsh has all the latest developments on this story on a separate live blog, here.
- Asylum claims made in the UK have risen to their highest level for nearly 20 years, according to new figures from the Home Office, as the head of the Refugee Council calls for less “nationalist posturing” over people fleeing war zones.
- Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, has announced a radical reorganisation of the British army, with an additional £8.6bn to be spent on equipment and a new ranger regiment created to help counter extremist organisations and hostile state threats. Labour has said that this will leave the army “too small” and “too thinly stretched” and that it confirms Boris Johnson has broken a pre-election promise not to cut the size of the armed forces. (See 1.43pm.)
- HM Revenue and Customs has struck a deal to relocate tax officials into a new office complex in Newcastle owned by major Conservative party donors through an offshore company based in a tax haven, the Guardian can reveal.
- Downing Street has insisted no decision has yet been taken on a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics. Earlier Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons, prompted speculation that the government might stay away when he told MPs that “no tickets have been booked” for ministers for the event. But No 10 said:
We have said that the prime minister’s long-standing view is that boycotts don’t work. Our position is the same: no decision has been made on government representation at the games.
- Labour is calling for an investigation into the conduct and honesty of the Conservative peer Michelle Mone after she repeatedly denied any association with a PPE (personal protective equipment) company it has since emerged she recommended to the government.
Tory MP suggests having women play roles like Dr Who helps push young men into crime
MPs held a debate on international men’s day (last Friday) in Westminster Hall today. The Conservative MP Nick Fletcher, who won Don Valley from Labour in 2019, opened the debate, and he argued that many problems facing men and boys were not receiving enough attention. He focused in particular on the importance of positive role models, and he said masculinity was something that should be celebrated. At this point in his speech speech he suggested that the trend towards having characters like Dr Who played by women was pushing young men into crime. He said:
I would also like to reiterate something that seems to be very topical at the moment, although much more for women than men, and that is the need for men to have their own identity and for masculinity to be something that can be celebrated at times, rather than continually vilified.
Everywhere, not least within the cultural sphere, there seems to be a call from a tiny, and very vocal, minority that every male character, or good role model, must have a female replacement. One only needs to look at the discussion surrounding who will play the next James Bond. And it’s not just James Bond. In recent years we have seen Dr Who, Ghostbusters, Luke Skywalker, the Equalizer all replaced by women. And men are left with the Krays and Tommy Shelby. Is there any wonder that we are seeing so many young men committing crime? These programmes make crime look cool. Trust me, a lifetime in prison is not cool, and neither is living with the memory of a stabbed son or daughter.
Boris Johnson's former Spectator colleague launches website to catalogue all his lies
The journalist Peter Oborne has launched a new project to catalogue the lies told by Boris Johnson. The website is here.
Oborne launched a version of the website soon after Johnson became prime minister, but he abandoned work on it after the 2019 general election. After using crowdfunding to raise money, Oborne was able to hire staff and the new version is more impressive. It is still unfinished – it only covers untrue or misleading statements made by Johnson and his ministers up to February 2020 – but the entries are well researched, with extensive links explaining why comments have been labelled as false.
Oborne says the project will be “like painting the Forth Bridge”. He explains: “The task can never be completed because he and his ministers are constantly producing more examples.”
In a mission statement, Oborne explains why he feels so strongly about politicians who lie (he has written two books on the subject, focusing on Tony Blair and Johnson). He also explains why he uses a particularly wide definition of lying, covering statements which are “reckless as to the truth”.
The Washington Post conducted a similar exercise with Donald Trump, and by the time he left the White House it concluded he had made 30,573 false or misleading claims as president.
If you did not know otherwise, you might assume from the website that Oborne is vehemently leftwing. But what makes him particularly interesting – and authoritative – as a critic of Johnson is that, like Johnson, he has spent most of his career as a columnist on rightwing newspapers. He worked for the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail, and for several years he was political editor of the Spectator, while Johnson was editor.
Often it is people who have worked with Johnson closely who turn out to be his strongest critics. Sonia Purnell, who was Johnson’s deputy in the Daily Telegraph’s Brussels office, went on to write a damning biography of him. Oborne has written his own book about Johnson in which he said: “I have never encountered a senior British politician who lies and fabricates so regularly, so shamelessly and so systematically as Boris Johnson.” Alan Duncan was Johnson’s deputy when Johnson was foreign secretary, and later published diaries describing Johnson as an “embarrassing buffoon”. And when Johnson became PM, at the start his closest adviser was Dominic Cummings. Cummings is now one of his most dangerous enemies. Like Oborne, Cummings believes that Johnson is a liar, although Cummings has also said that this label is sometimes hard to justify because Johnson does not particularly care what the truth is anyway. (Under a strict definition, to lie you have to say something that you know to be untrue.) This is how Cummings put it in a blog earlier this year.
[Johnson] rewrites reality in his mind afresh according to the moment’s demands. He lies – so blatantly, so naturally, so regularly – that there is no real distinction possible with him, as there is with normal people, between truth and lies. He always tells people what they want to hear and he never means it.
This is from General Sir Mark Carleton-Smith, who as chief of the general staff is head of the army, on the army restructuring announced today.
The army says it is the most radical transformation it has undergone for 20 years.
Here is more from Sky’s Deborah Haynes on the army restructuring.
Wallace says restructured army will offer more exciting career for recruits than he had as soldier in 1990s
During his Commons statement Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, was asked by the Lib Dem MP Jamie Stone if the army restructuring announced today would discourage people from seeking a career in the military. Quite the opposite, argued Wallace, who served as an officer in the Scots Guards in the 1990s. In an response that revealed quite a lot about the motivations of people joining the army, Wallace said:
I would have stayed in the army if it had looked like this. But I was in an army that I think was hollowed out. Equipment didn’t quite work. The greatest adventure you had was probably every two years going to Northern Ireland, but that was about as far as it went. Hong Kong had closed. And there was a lack of sense of purpose, in my view, and a lack of clearly identified adversary that we were setting ourselves against. That was really important.
So I think this army is going to be more exciting, more rewarding, and more enabling for young people to grow their skills. It is going to be more fluid with the integration of the reserves, and allow reserves and regulars to be much more able to move between each other, depending on their personal circumstances ....
The determination to be out and about around the world - the one thing soldiers don’t want to be is stuck in a barracks, in the UK, sometimes doing not very much. They want to be out. I was in Oman only the other week seeing them exercising with the Omanis. They couldn’t stop talking about how exciting and fun it was. I was in Poland last week, watching the United Kingdom forces live-firing alongside Polish, United States, Croatian forces, doing a live-firing exercise in Poland. That’s what I want our army to do.
Labour says army reorganisation confirms Johnson breaking pre-election promise not to cut size of armed forces
This is what John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, told MPs earlier when he said the army restructuring announced today (see 1.21pm) showed Boris Johnson had broken his election promise not to cut the size of the armed forces. Healey said:
[Ben Wallace, the defence secretary] cannot say he’s reduced the role of the army. He cannot say the army already has the high-tech kit it needs to replace boots on the ground. He cannot say the threats to the UK have diminished in a day to day – indeed, today he says they’re proliferating.
Yet he’s still cutting the army established strength by 9,000 over the next three years, and that’s on top of 16,000 soldiers cut since 2010.
The prime minister promised in his election manifesto launch in 2019, on behalf of all Conservative members: “We will not be cutting our armed forces in any form ... We will be maintaining the size of our armed forces.”
The prime minister may take the pledges he makes to our armed forces and the public lightly, but we do not. By the time of the next election Britain will have the smallest army in 300 years. Size matters. The defence secretary’s deeper cuts now could limit our forces’ ability simultaneously to deploy overseas and support allies, maintain strong national defences and support our domestic resilience, just as they have been helping the country through the Covid crisis.
The Conservative manifesto did not include a promise to maintain the size of the armed forces, but Johnson did make this promise at an event during the election campaign.
Healey also said the plan would leave the army too small. He said:
I fear that this plan leaves the British army too small, too thinly stretched, too poorly equipped to deal with the threats that the UK and our allies now face, which are growing and diversifying.
The Ministry of Defence has now published a summary of its “Future Soldier” plan to restructure the army.
And this is what Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, said about it in his opening statement to MPs.
The army will now be reorganised to operate on a continuous basis, fielding all the relevant capabilities for this era of constant competition and persistently engaged around the globe supporting our partners and deterring our adversaries.
Crucially it will also be an army designed for genuine warfighting credibility as an expeditionary fighting force that will be both deployable and lethal when called upon to fight and win.
In the Commons Priti Patel, the home secretary, has just started making a statement about the deaths of 27 people who drowned trying to cross the Channel in a small boat yesterday. My colleague Damien Gayle is covering what she says in our live blog on the tragedy.
HMRC to relocate to Newcastle office owned by Tory donors via tax haven
HM Revenue and Customs has struck a deal to relocate tax officials into a new office complex in Newcastle owned by major Conservative party donors through an offshore company based in a tax haven, my colleague Harry Davies and Rowena Mason report.
According to Sky’s Sam Coates, members of the executive committee of the Conservative 1922 Committee gave the impression they liked what they heard after they left their meeting with Boris Johnson at No 10. (See 12.40pm.)
Sports minister indicates independent regulator for football could be set up quickly after Crouch review
Nigel Huddleston, the sports minister, told MPs earlier that the government would “work at pace” on setting up an independent regulator for football. He was responding to an urgent question about the fan-led review of football governance led by the former sports minister, Tracey Crouch.
The report shows that fundamental change is needed in our national game and fans deserve that. We are at a turning point for football in this country.
The review is a detailed and worthy piece of work that will require a substantive response and plan of action from across government, but the primary recommendation of the review, that football requires a strong independent regulator, is a recommendation that I and the government endorse in principle today.
The government will now work at pace to determine the most effective way to deliver the independent regulator and any powers that might be needed.
But Huddleston also said the government could not “commit 100%” to implementing all the report’s recommendations.
The report is here (pdf), and here is my colleague Paul MacInnes’s overnight preview story about it.
According to Bloomberg’s Kitty Donaldson, Boris Johnson has had a meeting this morning with the executive of the Conservative backbench 1922 Committee, the shop stewards of the Conservative parliamentary party. It must have been a fascinating meeting, although the 1922 executive are a relatively discreet bunch and so we may learn little about what was actually said.
Deborah Haynes, Sky’s defence editor, has more on the Wallace statement.
And here is her preview story on the announcement.
Labour claims restructuring will leave army 'too small'
Responding for Labour, John Healey, the shadow defence secretary, says today’s announcement contradicts a promise made by Boris Johnson during the 2019 election campaign not to cut the size of the armed forces.
Johnson may take his promises lightly, but Labour does not, says Healey.
He says, despite Ben Wallace’s claims, this restructuring is driven by the need to save money.
He says this plan will leave the British army “too small, too thinly-stretched and too poorly-equipped” to deal with the threats the UK faces.
Wallace makes statement to MPs announcing army restructuring
Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, is making a statement to MPs about restructuring the army.
The army will have to adapt to face the threats of the future, he says.
It will have to be forward-looking and adaptable. It must have not just the best force structure, but it must also restructure on schedule and within budget.
He says the army of the future must be leaner and more productive. And he identifies priorities for the restructuring.
It must be globally engaged, with regional hubs in places like Kenya. It must be a key contributor to Nato, and capable of fielding a division. It will be equipped with state-of-the-art equipment. It will have integration at its heart, with regulars, reservists and civil servants working together. And the army will benefit the whole of the union.
He says there will be a new Ranger Regiment, an elite combat unit.
He says there will be a major restructuring of the administrative divisions of the infantry. Numbers will reduce, he says.
He also says there will be radical restructuring at the top, with the size of HQ reduced by 40%.
The Home Office has said that today’s figures showing asylum claims in the UK at their highest level for almost 20 years (see 11.42am) show the need for the nationality and borders bill. A Home Office spokesperson said:
A significant proportion of asylum claims in the last year should have been made in a first safe country, rather than people risking their lives making dangerous crossings, facilitated by people smugglers. Yesterday’s tragedy serves as the starkest possible reminder of the dangers of this.
Only our nationality and borders bill will ensure we are fair to those in genuine need and break the business model of criminal trafficking networks.
The statistics also show our global points-based system is delivering on the people’s priorities, by welcoming those who have the skills the country need while encouraging businesses to invest in British people.
The bill will cut the rights of people who come to the UK to seek asylum, and could lead to them being jailed for up to four years. Lawyers have argued that it would breach national and international law in multiple ways. But the government argues that the measures will make Channel crossings a less attractive option for migrants.
Asylum claims made in the UK have risen to their highest level for nearly 20 years, according to new figures from the Home Office. PA Media reports:
A total of 37,562 applications were made in the year to September - more than in any 12-month period since the year to June 2004 (39,746) and higher than the numbers seen at peak of the European migration crisis in 2015 and 2016 (36,546).
The latest figure is up 18% on the year to September 2020 (31,966), although this will have been affected by the coronavirus pandemic amid restrictions on movement. There were 35,737 applications for the same period in 2019.
A total of 67,547 asylum applications were awaiting a decision at the end of September - up 41% year-on-year and the highest since current records began in June 2010.
Separate Home Office figures show the overall number of cases in the asylum system - including cases awaiting the outcome of appeals and failed asylum seekers due to be removed from the UK - stood at 125,316 at the end of June 2021, up 14% year-on-year and more than three times the number a decade earlier (37,903 in June 2011).
Two columns around this morning are particularly worth reading for what they say about the problems the Conservative party is facing. They both make the argument that Tories are not sure what their government stands for anymore.
This is from James Forsyth in the Spectator.
One senior Tory MP reports that when he was the guest speaker at a constituency dinner this month, one party member opined that ‘this is not a conservative government’. The MP was taken aback by how many of those present agreed with the sentiment. In part, this is a risk of governing from the centre — the party’s own voter base can feel neglected. But it is worth remembering that after a year and a bit in office, Tony Blair had a list of achievements to reassure the left of his party: the minimum wage, union recognition in workplaces where a majority of workers wanted it, and a 25 per cent increase in aid spending. Johnson has one big achievement to please his base — Brexit — but he needs other things to add to this list. As this senior Tory MP complains, hiring more police officers and nurses isn’t a ‘fundamentally differentiating’ issue between the Tories and Labour.
It isn’t just Tory party members who are grumbling, MPs are too. There are obviously plenty of backbenchers who have never liked Johnson and feel that recent events have given them licence to cause trouble. But discontent has spread beyond this group. One veteran MP warns that ‘colleagues are starting to feel that there’s no theme to this government’.
And this is from Robert Shrimsley in the FT.
Until now [Boris Johnson] has had at least one major project that defined, drove and largely unified his party. The first was Brexit; the second was tackling Covid. There were missteps and rebellions on the way but both issues offered a clarity of purpose. MPs largely stuck with him because they were a team with a shared objective.
Suddenly there is no common project. One MP observes: “Conservatives used to be for low taxes and good management of the economy. Then we were for Brexit. Now we are not really sure what we are for.”
A Cabinet Office minister has denied that a recent comment by Boris Johnson came close to an admission that the Conservative party has been selling peerages.
During questions in the Commons, the SNP’s Brendan O’Hara highlighted the Johnson comment, which involved the PM telling MPs: “Until you get rid of this system by which trade union barons fund other parties we need to continue with this system by which public-spirited people give donations.”
O’Hara went on:
I believe that the prime minister’s answer comes dangerously close to an admission of selling peerages in direct contravention to the 1925 Honours (Prevention of Abuses) Act and is worthy of further investigation.
O’Hara said the government should either launch an investigation itself, or refer the matter to the Metropolitan police.
But Nigel Adams, a Cabinet Office minister, said there was no need for an investigation. In a comment that provoked laughter from the opposition, he said:
The idea that successful people and philanthropists who contribute to political causes should be disqualified from sitting in the legislature is nonsense. There is no link between party donations and nomination to sit in the house of Lords.
The Met has already ruled out an investigation into this, saying there was “insufficient information” to justify one.
Yesterday we reported on growing frustration in the Treasury at Boris Johnson’s botched handling of important government announcements.
Rishi Sunak’s allies could have chosen to deny the rift, but instead a briefing to the Times has, if anything, gone a bit further. In a story (paywall) on the front page of the Times this morning, Steven Swinford quotes a Sunak “ally” as describing the situation at No 10 as “chaotic”. Swinford writes:
Rishi Sunak is increasingly frustrated with Boris Johnson’s “chaotic” No 10 operation, his allies said last night.
The chancellor believes that there needs to be greater professionalism after a succession of damaging Tory rebellions and government reversals ...
One ally of Sunak said: “Rishi is not confrontational but he takes things seriously. He goes through them logically and thinks things through. He’s frustrated with the operation in No 10. Things are chaotic in No 10.”
The UK government remains firmly committed to the equality and human rights safeguards within the Northern Ireland protocol, Lord Frost has insisted. As PA Media reports, the Brexit minister made this point in a letter to Amnesty International. PA reports:
Article 2 of the protocol commits the UK to ensuring that Brexit will see “no diminution” of the extensive rights provisions that were enshrined in Northern Ireland as a result of the Good Friday peace agreement.
EU law underpinned many of the equality and anti-discrimination laws that flowed from the 1998 accord.
Amnesty International wrote to Frost expressing concern that article 2 could be jeopardised if the UK government follows through with its threat to suspend elements of the protocol amid its dispute with the EU over post-Brexit Irish Sea trade disruption.
Frost has now replied to the human rights organisation to provide assurances. In the letter, seen by PA, Frost said: “The government has always strongly supported article 2 of the protocol, which became operational when the protocol was signed.
“Since that point, the government has worked closely with the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission and the Equality Commission for Northern Ireland to set up the dedicated mechanism, funding and supporting both commissions and creating a system in which rights are safeguarded. We have absolutely guaranteed that there will be no diminution of these rights as a result of the UK leaving the EU.”
London Underground drivers are to launch strike action tomorrow, which will hit the planned resumption of night tube services, PA Media reports.
Members of the Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) union will walk out in a dispute over rosters.
The union said new shifts are being imposed on staff which will affect their work-life balance.
A 24-hour strike on night tube lines - Central, Jubilee, Northern, Piccadilly and Victoria - will start at 4.30am on Friday, with further walkouts planned in the coming weeks.
Transport for London warned of disruption to services and advised people to check before travelling.
The RMT general secretary, Mick Lynch, said:
This strike is about the ripping apart of popular and family-friendly agreements that helped make the original night tube such a success. Instead the company want to cut costs and lump all drivers into a pool where they can be kicked from pillar to post at the behest of the management.
This strike action, and its serious consequences in the run-up to Christmas, was avoidable if the tube management hadn’t axed dedicated Night Tube staff and perfectly workable arrangements in order to cut staffing numbers and costs.
And Nick Dent, director of London Underground customer operations, said:
The RMT’s planned strike action is needless and it will threaten London’s recovery from the pandemic, despite no job losses and more flexibility and job certainty for drivers.
“While every other union has agreed to these changes and our staff have been enjoying the benefits of the changes since August, we’re willing to work with the RMT and review the changes after night tube services have returned.
Patel to make Commons statement on death of at least 27 people trying to cross Channel
We have just had the updated list of statements and UQs in the Commons today.
10.30am: Jo Stevens, the shadow culture secretary, asks an urgent question on the Tracey Crouch review of English football.
Around 11am: Jacob Rees-Mogg, the Commons leader, takes questions on next week’s business.
Around 12pm: Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, makes a Commons statement on the restructuring of the army.
Around 1pm: Priti Patel, the home secretary, makes a statement to MPs on what is described in the official listing as the “small boats incident in the Channel”.
Starmer says Boris Johnson’s social care plans are a ‘complete betrayal’ of north of England
Good morning. The main political focus this morning is the response, in the UK and France, to the death of at least 27 people trying to cross the Channel yesterday on a small boat. But my colleague Damien Gayle is covering all the developments around that story on a separate live blog, and so largely I will be leaving that to him. You can read the blog here.
In other developments, Keir Starmer has instensified his attack on the government’s social care plans. At PMQs yesterday he condemned them as a “working class dementia tax”, but today he has given an interview to the Northern Echo focusing on the idea that they particularly isadvantage people in the north of England. He told the paper:
How does someone in Redcar, where the average house price is £133,000, or Bishop Auckland, where it is £125,000, realistically raise the £86,000 without selling their house? I think most people would say ‘of course I’m going to have to sell my house to pay that sort of money’.
You will have to defer the payment to have it taken away from your estate at the end of the exercise. If your house is worth £133,000 and you take £86,000 away, you are effectively depriving people of a significant amount of their inheritance.
It is a complete betrayal of people in the north-east who took the government at its word, only to learn that when they gave their word on taxes not going up, they didn’t keep it, when they gave their word on building new hospitals, they haven’t kept it, and now we know that when they gave their word on social care, they haven’t kept it. It is a string of broken promises across the north-east.
Labour has also produced this graphic to illustrate how the plans disproportionately help the wealthy.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9.30am: Stephen Barclay, the Cabinet Office minister, takes questions in the Commons.
9.30am: NHS England publishes figures on GP appointments, and mental health statistics.
9.30am: The Home Office publishes quarterly asylum figures.
9.30am: The ONS publishes long-term migration figures.
After 10.30am: Jacob Rees-Mogg, the leader of the Commons makes a statement on next week’s Commons business.
11.30am: Downing Street holds its lobby briefing.
Afternoon: Peers hold a debate on Channel crossings.
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