Early evening summary
- Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, has signalled the government does not have an alternative funding model for the BBC in mind as it commits to a review of the licence fee. (See 4.59pm.) In a statement to MPs, she also hinted she may have gone further than intended when she said yesterday the licence fee was definitely being abandoned. Today she just said she could not see the review allowing it to continue. (See 5.23pm.) The BBC has described the parallel announcement that the licence fee will be frozen for two years as “disappointing”. (See 5.17pm.)
- Dominic Cummings, the PM’s former chief adviser, says he is prepared to give evidence on oath proving Boris Johnson has been lying about the party held in Downing Street on 20 May 2020. (See 6.08pm.)
- There is “massive anger” among grassroots Conservative party supporters over the Downing Street parties scandal, the head of a leading group has said as its survey found 40% thought Boris Johnson should resign.
- Downing Street has said Boris and Carrie Johnson followed Covid guidance when the prime minister was “commuting” from Chequers to No 10 during the first lockdown in 2020 – but declined to answer further questions, including whether the pair held social events.
Cummings says he is willing to give evidence 'under oath' PM has lied about 20 May drinks party
Dominic Cummings, Boris Johnson’s former chief adviser, was the first person to publicly reveal the fact that a drinks party took place at Downing Street on 20 May 2020. Boris Johnson attended and it was this that propelled partygate - already deeply damaging - into territory where it seems quite likely to be career-ending.
In an update this afternoon to a post on his Substack blog, Cummings says that he personally was one of the people who warned Johnson that the proposed party was a mistake. This is what he says, writing about 20 May 2020, which he says was a “pivotal day” at No 10 because big arguments were taking place about how it was run.
Amid discussion over the future of the cabinet secretary and PPS himself, which had been going on for days, I said to the PM something like: Martin’s [Martin Reynolds, Boris Johnson’s PPS] invited the building to a drinks party, this is what I’m talking about, you’ve got to grip this madhouse.
The PM waved it aside. I had told him repeatedly the PPS should be replaced, as had other competent officials who knew the whole structure needed a huge upgrade in personnel and management. ‘He’s MY guy, I don’t want you replacing him with YOUR person.’ (Yes, this says a lot.)
No 10 again denied this morning that Johnson did receive any warnings of this nature. (See 1.13pm.) Cummings says he and other witnesses would “swear under oath” Johnson is lying. He writes:
The events of 20 May alone, never mind the string of other events, mean the PM lied to parliament about parties.
Not only me but other eyewitnesses who discussed this at the time would swear under oath this is what happened.
Sonia Khan, who worked as an adviser in Downing Street when David Cameron and Theresa May were in office, told the World at One today that there was a drinking culture in the building. She said drinks were often used as a means of thanking people for working long hours. She said:
Usually these drinking sessions are sandwiched between pieces of work, so it feels like a very, very routine thing.
Drinks could start at lunch time, they could start a little bit later in the day - different teams do things very differently - but the idea of mini fridges or having drinks underneath your table wasn’t uncommon.
This prompted this tweet from Dominic Cummings, for whom no vendetta is too minor to keep pursuing.
Khan was sacked by Cummings, who had her escorted out of Downing Street by the police. She subsequently received a payoff after claiming unfair dismissal.
Chris Bryant (Lab) says £159 a year is a lot of money to his constituents. But he accuses Dorries of “crocodile tears” over this. If she was really worried about the cost of living, the government would not be putting up national insurance, which will cost his constituents almost exactly the same amount, he says. He accuses the government of dismantling one of the great British treasures.
Catherine McKinnell (Lab) asks for an assurance that Dorries is not seeking to undermine a great British institution just to save the PM’s skin. “I’m not,” Dorries replies.
Asked again about her tweet yesterday, Dorries says when she posted the message on Instagram she said this was “likely to be” the last licence fee annnouncement, not that it would definitely be the last one (as her tweet said). She says she cannot see how it will continue.
Dorries says she understands the importance of BBC World Service because she ran a school in Africa for a year, and used to listen to it then.
Kevan Jones (Lab) asks if the cabinet signed off on this, or if it was announced in a rush.
Dorries says the cabinet has signed off on this. She says she is legally obliged to make the announcement as early as possible, to give the BBC time to prepare.
BBC describes licence fee freeze as 'disappointing' and says it will affect programming
The BBC says the licence fee freeze is “disappointing” and will impact on programming. In a statement its chairman, Richard Sharp, and its director general, Tim Davie, said:
A freeze in the first two years of this settlement means the BBC will now have to absorb inflation.
That is disappointing - not just for licence fee payers, but also for the cultural industries who rely on the BBC for the important work they do across the UK.
The BBC’s income for UK services is already 30% lower in real terms than it was 10 years ago. We will set out the implications of the settlement later, before the end of the financial year, but it will necessitate tougher choices which will impact licence fee-payers.
Valerie Vaz (Lab) asks Dorries if she agrees that 43p per day is value for money for the BBC.
Dorries says, if working families cannot afford the licence fee, they would not agree. For some people it is difficult to pay, she says.
John Redwood (Con) says non-payment of the licence fee should be decriminalised.
Dorries says this is being kept under review. But she questions whether it is right for people to be made to pay the licence fee under threat of prosecution.
John Whittingdale (Con), the former culture secretary, says although more and more young people say they do not watch the BBC, we will still need public service broadcasting. He says the debate about a future funding model should be about, not undermining it, but ensuring it can survive.
Dorries agrees that the question is not whether or not to have a BBC; it is how to fund it.
Here is the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport’s news release about Dorries’s announcement.
Lloyd Russell-Moyle (Lab) says it was “reckless” of Dorries yesterday to say, in her tweet, the licence fee will definitely go when the government does not have an alternative model.
Dorries says the government has a lot of time to think about this.
In response to further questions on this, she says it is not for her to decide what the alternative model should be.
Dorries hints she no clear alternative to licence fee in mind yet
Damian Green (Con), the former first secretary of state, says the licence fee is something that “may not work in theory, but works really well in practice”. He asks if the government has a strong alternative model in mind. If it doesn’t, it should keep the licence fee for the next charter period (from 2028 to 2038).
Dorries says the government has six years to find one.
The Royal Navy is not expected to pursue a controversial Home Office policy of pushing back refugee dinghies towards France once the military is given responsibility for small boat Channel crossings, my colleagues Rajeev Syal and Dan Sabbagh report.
Julian Knight (Con), chair of the Commons culture committee, welcomes the announcement. He says the licence fee represents a significant cost for some people, and he says the funding model should be reviewed.
Dorries she she expects the select committee will provide an important contribution on alternative funding models.
John Nicolson, the SNP’s culture spokesman, says the licence fee cost 43p per day. If Nadine Dorries thinks that is expensive, then imagine how people will cope with the cost of a Netflix-style subscription.
He says the Tory right hate the BBC. They want it to cover Boris Johnson with “fawning adultation”, as the printed press does.
Dorries says licence fee is 'significant sum' for some people
Dorries is responding to Powell.
She says she does not accept Labour’s claim that £159 is a small amount of money. To say that is a “disgrace”, she claims. She says it is a “significant sum” for some people. And it is regressive (because the rich pay the same amount as the poor).
She challenges Powell to say if Labour backs freezing the licence fee. As Powell shakes her head, Dorries says she takes that as confirmation they don’t.
Labour says linking funding review to impartiality shows government acting like 'tinpot dictatorship'
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, is responding to Dorries.
She describes Dorries as the top “teacher’s pet” in the cabinet. She was first to tweet support for the PM last week, first to do a broadcast round on his behalf, and is now the first to throw up a distraction from the leadership crisis.
She mocks the idea that this is about addressing the cost of living crisis. If the government were worried about the cost of living, they would be doing something about energy bills, not about the £159 annual licence fee.
She says this is Operation Red Meat, designed to stop the PM being “dead meat”.
She says impartiality is important. But by linking the funding settlement to impartiality in her statement, the government sounds “more like a tinpot dictatorship than a health democracy”.
UPDATE: Powell said:
[Dorries] was the first cabinet minister to tweet support for the prime minister, she was the first to volunteer to do a broadcast round, and now she has been the first to throw up a distraction and finding someone else to blame for the prime minister’s disintegrating leadership: the BBC’s reporting, of course.
The government claims this is all about the cost-of-living crisis. I mean, pull the other one. What is it about the £13.57 a month that marks it out for such immediate and special attention to address the cost of living over the £1,200 increase in energy and household bills, or the £3,000-a-year tax increase that her government has imposed?
Is the licence fee really at the heart of the cost-of-living crisis? Or is this really about their long-standing vendetta against the BBC?
She won’t stop until her cultural vandalism has destroyed everything that is great about Britain. Vandalism is exactly what it is to tweet on Sunday, with no notice, no discussion or thought, the end of the unique funding of the BBC altogether without any clue as to what will replace it.
Dorries confirms licence fee funding model to be reviewed
Dorries says she also needs to look to the future.
She says 97% of homes have superfast broadband. A family can be watching five different movies in five different rooms.
Over 65% of British households have access to the fastest broadband on the planet.
So it is time to ask if the licence fee is still the right longterm funding model for the BBC.
A review will start shortly, she says.
She says she wants the BBC to continue to thrive. But this is 2022, not 1922 (the year of the BBC’s creation).
Dorries says she wants the BBC to do more “to address issues around impartiality and groupthink”.
In the last few months, I’ve made it clear that the BBC needs to address issues around impartiality and group think.
We will shortly begin the mid-term review of the BBC’s charter which will consider the overall governance and regulation of the BBC, and a key part of that review will look at whether the BBC’s action plan on impartiality has in fact materially contributed to improving the internal governance of the organisation.
Dorries confirms licence fee being frozen for two years, saying she could not justify families having to pay more
Dorries says she has to make a licence fee recommendation under legislation.
She and her predecessor have held meetings with the BBC on this, she says. She has to consider the level of funding it needs.
She says the PM has called the BBC a great institution.
S4C also plays a critical role, she says.
However, in deciding on a settlement, she had to be realistic about the economic situation facing households.
The global cost of living is rising, she says, and the government is committed to supporting families.
She says she had to think very carefully about increasing the licence fee. She says she did not want to expose people to the threat of bailiffs. In the end they decided they could not expose people to higher costs.
It is not reasonable to ask for “just a little more” every year.
- Dorries confirms BBC licence fee will be frozen for two years. After that it will rise in line with inflation for four years.
The BBC wanted the licence fee to rise to £180, she says. But she said under this plan it will remain at £159 until April 2024.
She also says S4C will get an extra £7.5m from 2022 for digital services.
Nadine Dorries's statement to MPs on BBC licence fee
Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Speaker, starts by rebuking Nadine Dorries for tweeting about this announcement yesterday, and for the fact that it was briefed to the papers. If it was a leak, and Dorries was only responding on Twitter because she felt she had too, there should be a leak inquiry, he says.
Dorries starts by apologising. She says she refused media bids yesterday and for today.
Cooper claims Patel's defence of PM over Covid rule-breaking undermines rule of law
Earlier, during Home Office questions, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, asked Priti Patel why she wanted the police to enforce Covid rules in 2020, but defended Boris Johnson last week after he confirmed he had broken them. Cooper identified the contrast on Twitter last week.
And today she said:
How on Earth can [Patel] defend the prime minister, who has publicly admitted breaking the rules? She isn’t even waiting for the Sue Gray report ...
Tens of thousands of fines were given out in the months when Downing Street was holding parties and she told the police to enforce those rules, but now she’s defending someone who has admitted breaking them.
The home secretary’s job is to uphold the rule of law. Does she realise how damaging it is to public trust and to trust in the police to be undermining the rule of law now?
In response Patel said the police and courts are independent of government before suggesting Labour was seeking to “pre-judge, pressure, smear, slander” rather than “let everyone get on and do the work that’s required”.
Although the Times splashed on its story about the government’s latest plan to deploy the military to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats, and to offshore the processing of asylum applicants (see 11.07am), Simon Nixon, the paper’s chief leader writer, reckons the proposals are nonsense.
In the Commons Barry Gardiner, the former Labour shadow cabinet minister who accepted funding for his office worth more than £500,000 from Christine Lee, asked if MPs would get more help so they could be warned if money offered to them was tainted.
Patel said the government would do all it could to protect the integrity of our democracy.
Responding for Labour, Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, said she condemned in the strongest terms China’s attempt to intefere in the British political process.
She asked when the government would fully implement the recommendations from the intelligence and security committee’s report into Russian interference in British politics.
And she asked when the government would respond to the Committee on Standards in Public Life’s report calling for loopholes allowing foreign money to fund politics in this country to be closed.
In response, Patel said the government had responded to the ISC report at the time.
In her Commons statement Patel said she was “utterly appalled” by the activities of Christine Lee. She said Lee was working to make the the UK political landscape “favourable to the Chinese authorities’ agenda”.
She said strong safeguards were already in place, but she said new legislation would make it harder for malign states to carry out such activities.
Priti Patel, the home secretary, is making her statement now.
It is about foreign interference in UK politics, she says.
(So it is not primarily about Channel crossings either. It was simply billed in advance as a security update.)
Her statement is primarily about the Christine Lee case, which has been embarrassing to Labour. Our report on it is here.
She has not finished yet, but she does not seem to talking about Russian interference with Brexit, which Boris Johnson’s government has shown no interest in investigating.
‘Massive anger’: 40% of grassroots Tories want Boris Johnson to quit
There is “massive anger” among grassroots Conservative party supporters over the Downing Street parties scandal, the head of a leading group has said as its survey found 40% thought Boris Johnson should resign, the Guardian reports. Our story is here.
Patel has just told MPs that she spoke to her US opposite number before Home Office questions started about the Texas synagogue seige, which led to Malik Faisal Akram, a 44-year-old Briton, being shot dead by the FBI as it ended. She said the UK authorities were working with the FBI and a great deal of intelligence sharing was taking place.
Two teenagers have been arrested in Manchester in connection with the case.
Earlier during Home Office questions in the Commons Stuart McDonald, the SNP’s spokesperson, said deploying the navy against refugees and asylum seekers would be “inhumane” and abuse of the military. He said:
The home secretary has quite a nerve to talk about political gimmicks given that she’s the first person to be sent out to the despatch box to further Operation Red Meat, because the proposals leaked out over the weekend have absolutely nothing to do with saving lives, everything to do with saving the prime minister’s career and her own political career.
The home secretary sending in the Royal Navy against small boats full of refugees and asylum seekers is pathetic, it’s inhumane and an abuse of the Royal Navy, and her grubby shopping around for places to offshore asylum seekers an outrageous and dangerous big white elephant.
So instead of ripping up the refugee convention and locking up refugees, why doesn’t the Home Office start working with UNHCR and others to live up to our humanitarian obligations under it?
In response, Priti Patel, the home secretary, said:
[McDonald] needs to understand local migration challenges, actually, the international exploitation of human lives and human beings that take place, because clearly he has no recommendations or answers.
His local authorities across Scotland refused to house people that have come to our country. Quite frankly I’ll take no lectures from him and he can carry on with his political gimmicks, but actually their lack of policy says a great deal.
The Labour shadow Home Office minister Holly Lynch also criticised the proposal. She said:
We have been here before. In 2019, the government brought in the Navy to patrol the Channel. Patrols ended after around six weeks and cost 780,000 without a single boat having been intercepted. Can the home secretary explain how today’s proposals will be any different to 2019 and prevent lives from being lost at sea?
Patel told her:
I think the British public will also support the government that we should do everything possible to protect our borders and that is why a blended approach is absolutely vital.
Patel confirms military to be asked to help tackle Channel small boat crossings
In the Commons Priti Patel, the home secretary, has just confirmed that the Home Office has commissioned the Ministry of Defence as a “crucial operational partner” to protect the Channel against illegal immigration.
She said she would be saying more in her statement later (and so it won’t be focused on the Texas synagogue seige, as I speculated earlier).
Sinn Féin has accused the UK government of changing the rules on “double jobbing” for Northern Irish parliamentarians (see 10.49am) to help the DUP. Michelle O’Neill, the Sinn Féin leader in Northern Ireland and deputy first minister, said:
They’re interfering to serve only the DUP. They are interfering to prop up the DUP in the election campaign. This is the very same DUP that are threatening the stability of politics ... The British government have rewarded them over the weekend by propping them up in terms of giving Jeffrey Donaldson an each-way bet.
Tories urge Sturgeon to drop most Covid restrictions in Scotland at end of month
The Scottish Conservatives have called on Nicola Sturgeon to remove most coronavirus restrictions, with the exception of face coverings, PA Media reports. PA says:
Ahead of the first minister’s Covid update tomorrow, where a decision is expected on current restrictions on hospitality and leisure venues, Tory leader Douglas Ross has asked her to go further.
As well as an end to restrictions currently on businesses, that put a cap of 100 on indoor standing events and 200 on seated events, enforce table service for alcohol-selling businesses and mandate social distancing between groups, the Tories are looking for the first minister to announce the scrapping of the vaccine passport scheme along with guidance on household mixing and social distancing.
The Tory plea, which would see changes come into effect from 31 January, also calls for mask wearing in schools to be dropped and work from home guidance to be dropped, while self-isolation would be “gradually phased out” over a period of months.
Yvette Cooper, the shadow home secretary, told Radio 4’s the World at One that Labour would support any “sensible” measures to save lives in the Channel. But she cast doubt on the sincerity and viability of government plans to put the military in charge. (See 11.07am.) She told the programme:
More action is needed to deal with the dangerous boat crossings that are putting lives at risk. In particular, I mean serious hard work with France on stopping the criminal gangs and preventing the crossings in the first place. So look, we would support any sensible measures that could save lives in the Channel.
But there’s two problems with this. First is the timing of it, where it is a briefing to the Times which government sources are themselves admitting is part of what they describe as Operation Save Big Dog and being about saving the prime minister’s skin rather than a serious approach to the problem.
The second is we don’t really know very much about this, but we do know they have used the navy before, three years ago. At that point, they had two navy vessels that didn’t intercept any boats, and that was stopped.
So we don’t know what would be different this time round and we do need to actually have some more proper, serious information about this, rather than the kind of briefings that we’ve got instead.
No 10 defends PM's decision to commute between Chequers and Downing Street in March 2020 when non-essential travel discouraged
And here is a summary of the main points from the Downing Street lobby briefing.
- No 10 firmly denied widespread reports that Boris Johnson was warned in advance by colleagues that holding a party on 20 May 2020 would be a mistake. (See 1.13pm.)
- The PM’s spokesman defended Boris Johnson’s decision to commute between Chequers and No 10 between 16 and 27 March 2020, when guidance said people should not travel for non-essential reasons. These trips were revealed by the website Tortoise on Friday, after Downing Street dodged questions on them for more than a year. The spokesman said:
At the time, as you know, Mrs Johnson was heavily pregnant and had been placed in a vulnerable category and advised to minimise social contacts, so in line with clinical guidance and to minimise the risk to her they were based at Chequers during that period, with the prime minister commuting to Downing Street to work.
On 16 March 2020 Johnson told the public to stop all unnecessary travel. The spokesman said the guidance on not travelling to second homes did not come in until March 22, “at which point the prime minister and his wife were already based in Chequers, acting in line with clinical guidance”. Asked why the PM’s wife could not stay in Downing Street during this period, the spokesman said:
The guidance [to] all pregnant women and anyone in a vulnerable category was to minimise social contact as much as possible.
It is argued that, because No 10 is a home and a workplace, Chequers was a better place to minimise social contacts. But it has been reported that the PM’s wife, Carrie, held a baby shower at Chequers on 14 March. Asked if Johnson and his wife had any non-work visitors while staying at Chequers, the spokesman replied:
Well, they were acting in accordance with the guidance and any subsequent legislation at all times. So beyond that, I don’t have any more to add.
- The spokesman said he “couldn’t put a timescale on” when Sue Gray will publish her report on partying at No 10. He also refused to deny reports that Johnson has been interviewed by Gray.
- The spokesman said the government was committed to reviewing the BBC’s funding model in 2027, when the current licence fee settlement ends. He would not confirm Nadine Dorries’s claim that the licence fee would definitely be replaced then. He said:
We have said that we will keep the licence fee until the end of the current charter period in 2027 but ahead of that point we will review how the BBC is funded.
Yesterday Dorries, the culture secretary, went further, saying the licence fee would go after 2027.
- The spokesman denied claims that the licence fee announcement was an attempt to distract attention from Johnson’s leadership difficulties. (See 10.26am.) Asked about these claims, the spokesman said: “The government’s commitment to BBC reform is long standing.”
- The spokesman would not deny reports that the military will be put in charge of trying to stop people crossing the Channel in small boats. (See 11.07am). Asked about this story, the spokesman said:
It’s right that we pursue all options to prevent illegal crossings, to protect life at sea. The UK armed forces already work closely with Border Force in these operations, given their expertise and experience in maritime operations. But beyond that I’m not going to get into speculation about further discussions we may or may not have on how we improve our response.
- And the spokesman did not deny that Ghana and Rwanda have been asked if they will host offshore processing centres for people coming to the UK who want to claim asylum. (See 11.07am). But he could not confirm the story either. “It’s obviously not helpful to talk about ongoing discussions we have with individual countries,” he said.
- The spokesman said there were “encouraging signs” in the data ahead of the forthcoming decision on whether Covid restrictions for England can be lifted on 26 January.
- The spokesman said Johnson, Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, and Kwasi Kwarteng, the business secretary, are continuing to discuss what can be done to ease the burden on householders facing rising fuel costs. But no announcement is expected this week.
- The spokesman said he had not heard Johnson refer to himself as “big dog”, and he said he had not heard staff use the term either. The No 10 effort to save Johnson has been nicknamed “Operation Save Big Dog”, but No 10 says the phrase does not come from them.
No 10 firmly denies widespread reports PM was warned in advance party on 20 May 2020 was mistake
At the Downing Street lobby briefing No 10 again denied that Boris Johnson was warned in advance of the party in the garden on 20 May 2020 that the event should not go ahead because it would break Covid rules. The invitation to around 100 staff was sent out by Johnson’s own principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds.
In his column in the Sunday Times yesterday (paywall)
Dominic Lawson said at least two people told Johnson in advance it was a bad idea. Lawson wrote:
Last week I spoke to a former Downing Street official who said at least two people had told the PM, after seeing the emailed invitation from his principal private secretary, Martin Reynolds, that this was “a party” and should be immediately cancelled. I was told that Johnson’s dismissive response was to say they were “overreacting” and to praise Reynolds as “my loyal labrador”.
I then asked someone who has known the PM for decades what could have made him take such an approach (other than natural hospitality and affability). His immediate answer was: “It’s because deep down he obviously thought the regulations were ridiculous – so why should he observe them?
Asked about the claim, the spokesperson said: “I think we made it clear yesterday that wasn’t accurate.”
When it was pointed out that other journalists, such as the Mail on Sunday’s Dan Hodges, had also heard the same story, the spokesperson again said it was not accurate. Asked if something not being accurate was the same as something not being true, the spokesperson said:
We made it clear over the weekend that it is untrue to say that the prime minister was told or warned ahead of that [that the event should not go ahead].
Here is the tweet from Hodges.
My colleague Heather Stewart has also spoken to a former Downing Street staffer who said they knew of at least one colleague who had warned Johnson personally about the “bring your own booze” event on 20 May. Asked whether the prime minister knew about the party before it took place, the former insider replied: “Yes.”
I will post more from the briefing shortly.
There will be two statements in the Commons today after 3.30pm, Labour says. Priti Patel, the home secretary, will make one on security (presumably the implications of the Texas synagogue seige), and then Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, will make a statement on the BBC.
MPs will consider the remaining stages of the elections bill this afternoon. Ahead of the debate, the Electoral Reform Society has produced a new briefing on the bill (pdf), which it says will damage democracy. This is from Jess Garland, the ERS’s director of policy and research.
Ministers have attempted to dodge scrutiny over key parts of this bill and the result is a dangerous mix of proposals that risk shutting voters out of our democracy and weaking the integrity of our elections.
From plans to shut voters out from the ballot box for lacking the right ID, to minsters’ power grab over our independent elections watchdog, this bill stands to damage democracy.
Opposition to the bill is widespread and growing, with MPs from all parties now calling on the government to stop and re-think their plans for changing election law. It’s time for the government to listen.
Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s first minister, has this morning announced the winners of the ScotWind offshore wind leasing auction. The Scottish government says the 17 projects selected represent “the world’s first commercial scale opportunity for floating offshore wind”. Floating offshore wind means wind turbines not fixed to the seabed, which can operate in deeper waters.
Chris Stark, chief executive of the UK’s Climate Change Commitee, has welcomed the announcement.
In interviews this morning Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, failed to deny reports that the government wants to put the military in charge of stopping people crossing the Channel on small boats. Asked about these reports, he replied:
It is a good idea that there is a single command and control, and that includes not just naval vessels but all other vessels including Border Force, so that you actually have a co-ordinated operation in terms of the small boats.
A really important idea is the legislation that Priti Patel [the home secretary] has put through parliament to allow us to have a much better way of dealing with illegal migration because there are legal routes for migration. You know, I’m the son of immigrants.
The Times says this morning that the military will be put in charge of the Channel under one of several policy initiatives being promoted by the government in the hope that they will appeal to Tory voters, and shore up support for the PM. In their story (paywall) Steven Swinford and Matt Dathan report:
Plans are also being drawn up to send migrants to countries such as Ghana and Rwanda for processing and resettlement in a move to tackle the small boats crisis.
The prime minister will give the Royal Navy “primacy” over all government vessels in the Channel this month in one of a series of populist announcements as he faces pressure to quit over Downing Street parties.
A rear admiral will have the power to direct Border Force, coastguard, fisheries protection and customs and excise to carry out surveillance or intercept those crossing the Channel.
Yesterday the Sunday Times said pushing out populist policies like this, and replacing the BBC licence fee, were part of what it dubbed an “Operation Red Meat” strategy intended to protect the prime minister. In his interviews this morning Zahawi said he did not accept this account. He said “government doesn’t operate like that” and that these policies were being implemented because they were in the Tory manifesto.
At the end of last week the government announced that it plans to relax the “double jobbing” ban for Northern Ireland parliamentarians, to allow someone elected as an MP to sit in the Northern Ireland assembly at the same time. The new system would only apply until 2024, and someone serving as an MP and an MLA (member of the legislative assembly) would not get two salaries.
This will allow Sir Jeffrey Donaldson, the DUP leader and MP, to stand for the assembly in the May elections without having to give up his Westminster seat.
This morning Donaldson told the BBC’s Good Morning Ulster programme that this would be good for unionism. He said that if the law is changed as the government proposed, he would consider whether to stand for election to the assembly. He told the programme:
I think there is a case to be made at this particular time in the current circumstances of Northern Ireland. It is important for unionism to have a strong voice in the parliament of the United Kingdom.
Donaldson also said it was wrong to claim that all eight DUP MPs would stand for election to the assembly.
The other four main Northern Ireland parties represented in the power-sharing Northern Ireland executive - Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance party - have all opposed the proposed change.
Ending licence fee 'effectively end of BBC as we know it', says Labour
Lucy Powell, the shadow culture secretary, said this morning that the government proposal to end the licence fee in 2027 would mean “the end of the BBC as we know it”.
She also said the announcement, that was briefed to the Mail on Sunday and then confirmed by Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, in a tweet, was an attempt by the government to distract attention from the Boris Johnson leadership crisis.
She told Times Radio:
Let’s not get away from the fact that this so-called announcement, which was on Twitter yesterday, which is effectively the end of the BBC as we know it, a huge policy announcement, is nothing more than a really obvious, pathetic distraction from a prime minister and a government who has run out of road and whose leadership is hanging by a thread.
And she told the Today programme:
Let’s not pretend that this is anything other than it is, which is a pretty obvious dead cat strategy from the government to distract from the totally disastrous leadership context that the prime minister is facing at the moment.
Powell also said that althought the licence fee was not perfect - “you would not necessarily start with it if we didn’t have it now” - it was a cheap way of funding quality broadcasting.
Starmer says he knows Sue Gray, the civil servant doing the partygate inquiry. He says he respects her. But he says he is sure that her report will only establish the facts. It is not for her to decide whether or not the law was broken, he says.
Q: So the Sue Gray report will not be the end of this?
No, says Starmer.
He says he thinks the public have already made their mind up.
There is anger at the PM, and ridicule too.
Once the public is now longer laughing with you, but at you, you are in a bad place as prime minister.
Starmer says he has not spoken to Barry Gardiner, the Labour former shadow cabinet minister, about the fact that he took £500,000 in funding for his office from a woman now exposed as a Chinese spy. He says Gardiner has done nothing wrong.
Q: Would you ever favour renationalsing the energy companies?
Starmer says he is not in favour of top-down nationalisation. But he says there other ways of looking at their ownership.
(This will be seen by many as a betrayal of a promise he made when he was running for the Labour leadership. He issued 10 pledges, one of which was his backing for “common ownership” of energy companies. Starmer argues that common ownership is not the same as nationalisation.)
Ferrari asks about the news that Gary Neville has joined the Labour party.
Starmer says he has spoken to Neville.
Gary thought I wasn’t being strong enough. He thought we should have voted against the government restrictions in the tier system. I didn’t. I didn’t agree with the tier system but it was all or nothing in those days.
If you didn’t vote for the restrictions, then there were no restrictions and I didn’t think that was the right thing.
He thought differently and we had an exchange.
He says he likes arguments. He is not one of those leaders who only wants to hear people who agree with him, he says.
Q: Would you like Neville to be a Labour candidate?
Starmer says he would like to see him go as far in the party as he wants.
Q: Do you feel threatened by reports that Jeremy Corbyn will start his own party?
Starmer says he does not know if that is true. But he does not feel threatened by it.
The vast majority of Labour supporters want to see a Labour government.
When he took over, he thought it was important to ensure the party did not blame the electorate for its defeat.
Now he has to show the party is fit for office.
Q: Would you rather fight Boris Johnson at the next election, wounded by this scandal, or an invigorated Tory party under Rishi Sunak or Liz Truss?
Starmer says he will fight whoever the Tory leader is, and he does not really care.
But he says he does not think Johnson remaining as PM is in the national interest.
Q: Why won’t you back decriminalising cannabis use?
Starmer says he looked at many drug cases when he was head of the CPS. He has seen the damage drugs do. He does not support changing the law.
Q: Do you support the London mayor’s plan to decriminalise minor cannabis offences?
Starmer says the police have always had discretion in how they apply drugs laws. He says he will look at the results of Sadiq Khan’s pilot scheme. But he is not in favour of changing the law.
Starmer refuses to apologise for drinking beer during work dinner with colleagues, dismissing it as Tory smear
Keir Starmer is holding his LBC phone-in now. Nick Ferrari is presenting.
There first question is about the Daily Mail splash. The caller says what Starmer did was “the same” as what Boris Johnson did.
Starmer says the picture shows him in a constituency office in the north before the May elections last year. He was working with Labour staff. They stopped for a meal and then carried on working.
There was no party, he says.
The picture of me was in a constituency office up in the north-east, it was I think, three or four days before the May elections, so we’re really busy. I was with my team going across the country from place to place.
We’re in the office, working in the office and we stopped for a takeaway, and then we carried on working and that is the long and the short of it.
There was no breach of the rules. There was no party. And there was absolutely no comparison with the prime minister.
Q: But you broke restrictions, which said you should not mix with other people?
Starmer says the restrictions allowed people to work.
He says restaurants were closed at the time. The hotel was not serving food. They needed to eat.
Starmer says he had about six people with him. He was in Durham.
Q: What is the difference between that and the No 10 event that was photographed?
Starmer says that photograph showed a group including the PM’s wife. And there was a trestle table set up, with a large number of people there.
Q: Why don’t you apologise?
Starmer says he was working. He did not break any rules. He was working in the office
We didn’t break any rules, we were working in the office and we stopped for a takeaway. We did nothing wrong ...
There comes a point where the Tories try to take everyone into the gutter with them.
The caller claims Starmer has misled the country. You don’t need beer at a work meeting, he claims.
Starmer says he disagrees. There has been “industrial-scale partying” at No 10, he says.
Zahawi says Johnson is safe in his job - but ducks question about whether PM can change how he operates
Good morning. Is Boris Johnson safe in his job? You would not have thought so reading the weekend papers (here is Toby Helm’s assessment of what is likely to happen next in the Observer) but this morning Nadhim Zahawi, the education secretary, claimed that he is. Zahawi implied that Johnson deserved credit for his apology, and for his judgment on “big decisions” in the past.
But, in an interview on the Today programme, it took the presenter, Nick Robinson, three goes to get Zahawi to say Johnson was safe. It wasn’t the strongest vote of confidence ever. Here is how the exchange went.
Here is how the exchange went.
NR: Do you believe that Boris Johnson is safe in his job?
NZ: I think Boris Johnson has done the right thing to apologise.
NR: Is he safe in his job?
NZ: I think the prime minister on the big, big decisions – if you look at what he did on Brexit, on vaccines, on Omicron pre-Christmas, on the economy being the most open economy in Europe – has called it right. But he’s human.
NR: Is he safe in his job?
NZ: Yes, he is because he’s human and we make mistakes and actually he came to the despatch box and apologised and said he will we absolutely submit himself to parliament when [the Sue Gray investigation] is concluded.
Robinson also tried three times to get Zahawi to say whether or not he thought Johnson was capable of changing the way he operated, but Zahawi dodged the question each time. This was probably wise; Johnson is 57, and his modus operandi has been rackety and chaotic all his adult life. Any significant change in how he operates that seems unlikely.
The interview was also notable for Zahawi saying that Keir Starmer should apologise for having a drink with Labour staff when they were working last year. The Tories, with help from the Daily Mail, are trying to suggest this amounts to equivalence with partygate, but, as my colleague Peter Walker reports, it sounded as if even Zahawi could tell this was not really a runner.
Here is the agenda for the day.
9am: Keir Starmer hosts his ‘Call Keir’ LBC phone-in.
11.30am: Downing Street holds a lobby briefing.
2.30pm: Priti Patel, the home secretary, takes questions in the Commons.
After 3.30pm: MPs debate the remaining stages of the elections bill.
There will be some UK Covid coverage here, but for further coronavirus coverage, do read out global live blog. It’s here.
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