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By EMILIO CASALICCHIO
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Good Tuesday morning. This is Emilio Casalicchio. Eleni Courea will be with you for the rest of the week.
On a personal note: This is my final morning Playbook, at least for the foreseeable future. Three and a half years after Jack Blanchard first roped me into helping with it, and numerous sleep-deprived shifts and one mental health crisis later, I’ve been granted a full return to civilian life.
Apologies: To those I’ve offended, misled or grossed out on occasion, but I hope at least some readers have had as much fun reading these newsletters as I have writing them. It’s not very cool, but I literally huddle in the glow of my laptop in the small hours, eating instant noodles or spoonfuls of Nutella and chuckling at my own gags.
Special thanks to: Big Canapé. The cash came through in the end.
**A message from Coca-Cola: Coca-Cola Great Britain has been on a journey to reduce sugar in our drinks, while also increasing choice. Since 2010 we have reformulated 43 products and launched over 100 low- and no-sugar drinks. Today, two thirds of the drinks we sell are low or no-calorie products. Find out more.**
Onward, Freer, Progress: For those who missed the news, I’ll still be offending etc but having fun writing a brand new afternoon Playbook that starts in the next couple of weeks. Get in touch with tips, coffee invites and (once it launches) complaints.
No need to alter your subscriptions: Morning Playbook readers will get the new edition into their inboxes automatically. But in the meantime …
TORY CHAIR AUDITION: Junior Minister Chris Philp gets the pleasure of stonewalling questions about Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs this morning, with the Cabinet minister under sustained pressure to stand down while the probe into his finances takes place. Rishi Sunak will be hoping the investigation he ordered into the scandal will take the heat out of the uproar and the news juggernaut will begin to trundle in a different direction. But with Zahawi still plastered across numerous newspaper front pages this morning, and Conservatives still briefing against him, the chances of some respite are looking slim.
Turning over a new leaf: Speaking of the front pages, the Star reckons it’s over for Zahawi, noting on its splash there was little point spending 60p on a lettuce when his resignation is inevitable. If that’s true it’s a good job for Zahawi there’s no Cabinet meeting this morning, although whether he makes the Chequers away day on Thursday is another matter.
The thing is: A few headlines this morning after the big probe announcement isn’t too great a surprise. The real problem for the prime minister is the continued predictions from his backbenchers that it’s curtains for the Conservative chair. One even went on the record last night.
Indeed: Former minister and now equalities committee Chair Caroline Noakes told TalkTV Zahawi “should stand aside” before the probe into his tax affairs begins.
And the rest: One serving minister told Playbook that despite the investigation, Zahawi’s position remained “untenable,” seeing as “his job is to represent the government in the media, and he won’t be able to do that as all the questions will be about him.” An ex-Cabinet minister said the issue of swerving millions in tax was so far removed from the problems most Brits face that “it makes us look completely out of touch” to voters. “This is fatal for Nadhim, he’s toast,” another former Cabinet minister told the Financial Times.
But but but: A pro-Zahawi Conservative MP told Playbook the minister “is a top guy. I like him a lot and would like him to stay.” The same person argued HMRC is a non-ministerial department so Zahawi’s position as chancellor while working out his tax bill with them is irrelevant. “Tax stuff is private and should remain so, but if there is controversy, he should be given a fair, but private hearing,” the person added.
HOW THE NADHIM LINE EVOLVED: Playbook reporter Andrew McDonald presents a whistle stop tour of how this scandal came to a head. Deep breath …
July 6, 2022 — The Independent reports on an NCA investigation into Zahawi’s finances the day after he becomes chancellor. He sends legal threats to the newspaper … July 9 — The same paper reveals HMRC is probing his tax affairs … July 11 — “I’ve always declared my taxes, and paid my taxes in the U.K.,” Zahawi insists to Kay Burley during the first leadership contest of 2022 … Through July — Zahawi’s lawyers send threats to tax blogger Dan Neidle following his reporting of the details … September 6 — Zahawi’s brief time as chancellor comes to an end. He soon becomes Cabinet Office minister under Liz truss, then Sunak appoints him Conservative chair in October …
January 15, 2023 — The Sun on Sunday scoops that Zahawi has agreed to stump up a seven-figure sum to settle a dispute with HMRC. His spokesperson insists “his taxes are properly declared and paid in the U.K.” … January 18 — Sunak claims at PMQs that Zahawi has addressed the issue “in full” … January 19 — “People paying their taxes is not a story,” Michael Gove insists … January 20 — The Guardian reports a fine was added to Zahawi’s tax bill, amounting to a total of £4.8 million … January 21 — Zahawi claims an error in his tax affairs was accepted by HMRC as having been “careless and not deliberate” … January 23 — Sunak asks his ethics adviser to look into the scandal and admits there are “questions that need answering.”
What’s clear … is that Zahawi could have saved lots of people lots of headaches if he’d come clean at the start instead of ducking about and threatening reporters asking legitimate questions with legal action. The person he could have saved the most headaches for (other than himself) is the PM, who now faces questions about what he knew and when.
On that note: Downing Street was last night insisting the PM was aware of past press reports about Zahawi’s tax affairs when he appointed him Conservative chair, but wasn’t across the details and didn’t know which bits were true and which bits not. The Cabinet Office advised Sunak there were no outstanding issues (as Zahawi had paid his tax bill and fine a few months before) so he was free to be appointed. Officials wouldn’t get into whether the PM asked for more details from the Cabinet Office ethics team or asked Zahawi himself about the past press allegations before handing him the chairman role.
Other alarm bells: A former colleague of Zahawi suggested to Playbook last night that the signs were long there that the MP might have been sporting some unusual financial arrangements. The person said the businessman and his family treated all their cash as somewhat shared. Everyone paid into the family, and the family paid out when required. That might work when the sums are small and confined to one country, but when millions of pounds are crossing borders it gets a bit more complicated.
But but but: The same person argued that although Zahawi was a hard-nosed businessman, he never appeared to cross the line into wrongdoing. The assumption is that he might have been enthusiastic about avoiding tax, but evading it wouldn’t have been his bag. And if it was a genuine mistake, as Zahawi claims, it could help explain his insistence against losing his job.
Shameless plug: There’s lots more on Zahawi’s business background in this POLITICO profile from when he became vaccines minister.
THE THING IS: If the PM didn’t ask further questions when he appointed Zahawi, it doesn’t reflect too well on him, seeing as he came into No. 10 promising to “lead the world” on standards. Indeed, as my POLITICO colleague Esther Webber writes, Sunak fast discovered that keeping house as prime minister is easier said than done.
Lest we forget: He reappointed Home Secretary Suella Braverman just days after she was sacked for leaking restricted information, and he soon after saw bullying allegations against Gavin Williamson … separate bullying claims against Dominic Raab which are still being investigated … his own fixed-penalty notice for failing to wear a seatbelt … an investigation into Zahawi’s tax affairs … and Boris Johnson getting referred to the parliamentary standards watchdog about his secret loan arrangements.
Curse of BoJo: Sunak’s allies maintain he’s committed to upholding his promise to raise standards, while others argue a good chunk of the issues are a hangover from his predecessor’s reign. But as pollster James Johnson told Esther, Sunak has a small window to draw a line between himself and the former PM: “If he puts a lid on it very quickly and takes action, he may look stronger, but the longer this goes on the more that opportunity fades.”
WITH IMPECCABLE TIMING: The committee on standards in public life has a new report out this morning arguing there should be “zero tolerance” for substandard conduct in the public sector. The panel, chaired by former MI5 boss Lord Jonathan Evans, said “leaders must be clear that there is a line which, when crossed, results in consequences.”
All too real: “Focusing on how to ensure that ethical values are woven into every aspect of how an organization operates is critical to good leadership,” the report said. “Yet, disappointingly, it often takes a crisis for senior leaders to prioritize action in this area.” Labour said that in contrast to the recommendations in the report, the Conservatives had shown “contempt for standards in public life.” One for Philp to address on his broadcast round this morning.
ON AN UNRELATED NOTE: Former independent Public Appointments Commissioner Peter Riddell told Newsnight last night that the role Richard Sharp played in helping Boris Johnson arrange a massive secret loan to fund his living costs should have been disclosed when Sharp was in the running to become BBC chair. Oh, and the privileges committee hearings into whether Johnson misled the Commons over Downing Street parties are set to begin in March, John Stevens reports in the Mirror.
Speaking of BoJo: The ex-PM has penned an article in the Mail that splashes the paper this morning, urging Western nations to arm Ukraine and help the nation join NATO. “The Ukrainians need hundreds of tanks, and they should be getting them from the Americans, the Germans, the Poles, and many others,” Johnson writes. “Where does the Western world need to station those tanks at the moment? Guarding North Rhine-Westphalia? Protecting Tennessee? Prowling the villages of Wiltshire?”
Now read this: POLITICO’s Gabriel Rinaldi and Hans von der Burchard have the latest on the German government ructions over Chancellor Olaf Scholz’s reluctance to send Ukraine tanks.
**The parliamentary committee for Industry, Research and Energy holds its closing meeting on the Chips Act today. Get the inside-outs of the committee’s work and what’s next on the agenda with regards to regulating the semiconductor’s market using POLITICO Pro, request a demo today.**
GLOBAL BRITAIN, LABOUR STYLE: Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy makes a big speech at Chatham House this lunchtime, promising that a Labour government would “reset” the U.K. approach to the rest of the world after the Conservatives’ “poor leadership” and “bad choices.” The most interesting elements of his five-point plan are pledges to spearhead work with other nations on anti-corruption and agree a new international crime of “ecocide.”
In the speech, which kicks off at noon: Lammy will argue “ideological leadership and reckless choices have left Britain increasingly disconnected from its closest allies, an economy in crisis and a tarnished international reputation.” He said Labour would instead “reset our foreign policy to create a Britain Reconnected [his capitalization], for security and prosperity at home.”
Preview: In an interview with the FT in advance of his speech, the Tottenham MP said the “debacle of Boris Johnson, Liz Truss and Kwasi Kwarteng has hugely undermined our reputation and, in some circles, made us a laughing stock.” Not sure that quite stands when it comes to Ukraine.
BUT OF COURSE: The Labour news Westminster is much more interested in is the row between top Keir Starmer aide Matt Doyle and author J.K. Rowling, based on a surreptitious recording of comments that, to be fair, were then somewhat misquoted, attributing the most cutting line to the official when he was quoting the opinions of others. Nevertheless, Rowling took to Twitter last night to go on the attack. It could make for some uncomfortable scenes at the shadow Cabinet meeting this morning.
SCOOP — LABOUR MP LEADS GAY MARRIAGE PUSH: A cross-party group of MPs led by Labour’s Ben Bradshaw is pushing for a UQ in the Commons today over the Church of England’s refusal to marry same-sex couples, Playbook’s Eleni Courea hears. Unusually it wouldn’t be a government minister who has to respond if the request is granted, but the second estates church commissioner — Tory MP Andrew Selous.
The last time this happened … was over a decade ago, after the Church of England synod declined to vote in favor of allowing female bishops. “This is an even bigger issue of parliamentary concern with potentially far-reaching consequences for the church’s established status,” one MP told Eleni.
What it’s all about: Last week the Church of England declined to allow priests to marry same-sex couples despite pressure from MPs including Commons leader Penny Mordaunt. The church said it would allow blessings instead as a kind consolation prize. Bear in mind that same-sex marriage has been legal in England and Wales since 2013. Incidentally, today marks 10 years since the same sex marriage bill was presented to parliament, but the church has still not changed its stance. Read the room, lads.
STATS DROP: Public sector borrowing stats for December just dropped here from the ONS.
Speaking of economics: In a piece for the Times, former Conservative leader William Hague urges Rishi Sunak to ignore the siren calls from MPs to rush into tax cuts. Oh, and the Sun’s Natasha Clark hears a raise in the retirement age could be announced at the March budget.
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with health and social care questions, followed by any UQs or statements. Tory MP Bob Seely has a ten-minute rule bill aimed at reducing the use of mini lawsuits aimed at silencing media, campaign groups and individuals. The main business will be the first of two days of report stage scrutiny of the Economic Crime and Corporate Transparency Bill, which is aimed at cracking down on corruption and money laundering. An amendment from Labour grandee Margaret Hodge on beefing up Companies House — which has some Tory backing — is set to be debated.
On the theme of the economic crime bill: This bonkers-sounding investigation from OpenDemocracy claims the government helped the Russian boss of the Wagner group circumvent sanctions to launch a legal attack on the British founder of Bellingcat, Eliot Higgins. Labour MP Chris Bryant last night said it was “the most shocking revelation of the year so far” if true.
More health content: Aside from health questions, the health committee is speaking to top health figures, including NHS England bigwig Chris Hopson and Royal College of Emergency Medicine President Adrian Boyle, about emergency service waiting times and excess deaths in a 10 a.m. hearing. It starts 30 minutes after the ONS publishes the latest figures on deaths in England and Wales, which should indicate how excess deaths are looking. Meanwhile, ambulance workers in the west midlands are still on strike this morning.
ON COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: The standards committee will take evidence both this morning and afternoon on proposals for banning MPs accused of serious offenses from the parliamentary estate. For a long time, this has been filed in the “too difficult” box because of the presumption MPs should not be restricted in their ability to represent their constituents. But as Esther Webber revealed last year, Commons authorities are now considering how they might formally bar MPs accused of sexual or violent crimes, with a debate ongoing as to whether the threshold should be when an MP is charged with a crime or when there is “an established allegation of committing a violent or sexual offense.” Among those giving evidence later are the Conservative and Labour backbench chairs, Graham Brady and John Cryer.
Elsewhere on committee corridor: ITV journo Robert Peston will be wearing his Speakers for Schools hat at an education committee session on careers advice in school (10 a.m.) … and Food Minister Mark Spencer is up at the environment committee’s inquiry on food security (2.30 p.m.). Full list here.
LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on the numbers of asylum seekers using safe routes, the hospitality industry and the process for leveling up funding bids. The main business will see the Northern Ireland Troubles Bill back under scrutiny, this time at committee stage.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: Home Secretary Suella Braverman is this morning announcing the national rollout of a new approach to tackling serious organized crime, after pilot schemes suggested the move reduced burglaries, drug offenses and antisocial behavior. The plan involves police clearing gang areas then ensuring other gangs don’t fill the vacuum. Braverman will also consult on possible new offenses, such as possessing digital templates for 3D-printing gun components or bespoke phones with added encryption services. It’s what Home Office Minister Chris Philp is hoping to talk about on the broadcast round this morning.
Speaking of the Home Office: Defense committee Chair Tobias Ellwood is demanding a probe into how an Afghan double killer who lied to authorities about his age was accepted into Britain despite having an asylum application rejected in Norway weeks before. The Telegraph splashes the tale.
WHAT ELSE THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: Business Minister Kevin Hollinrake will today launch a consultation on punishing firms that fire staff then offer to rehire them on worse terms. The move comes in the wake of the P&O seafarers scandal, and could see courts allowed to increase unfair dismissal compensation by a quarter.
WHAT THE LIB DEMS WANT TO TALK ABOUT: The Lib Dems are launching a recruitment drive to find council candidates in so-called blue wall seats that the party hasn’t fielded candidates in before.
BREXIT DIVIDEND LATEST: The U.K. is now pleading with the EU not to escalate a trade war with the U.S. that could leave British firms squeezed in the middle, the Bloomberg team reports. My POLITICO colleague Graham Lanktree had a great primer in November about how this row would explode.
Speaking of Brexit: To mark three years since the U.K. formally left the EU and 50 years since its accession to what became the Single Market, the U.K. in a Changing Europe think tank has a new report out mulling the future of the U.K.-EU relationship. Spoiler: Progress will be slow and incremental. There’s a series of panels running this afternoon to coincide with the report.
DO AS I SAY, MUCH? Conservative candidates for parliament are given lessons from CCHQ on “white resentment,” “unconscious bias” and “microaggressions” like asking Black colleagues about their hair being different or mispronouncing names. That’s despite government attempts to ban such training among civil servants. Steven Edginton got the scoop in the Telegraph.
LEVELING UP LATEST: Conservative MP Mary Robinson, who co-chairs the Child of the North APPG, said the group’s new report showing poverty among children is higher in the north than the rest of England was a “stark reminder of the devastating reality” of the situation — which isn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of her party’s 13 years in government. The Indy has a write-up.
MENOPAUSE FOR THOUGHT: Caroline Nokes has criticized the government this morning after it rejected five of her committee’s recommendations to support women with the menopause.
LAST NIGHT IN WESTMINSTER: Trade chief Kemi Badenoch pledged to become the “problem-solver-in-chief” for British firms as she addressed more than 100 business leaders at a plush Lancaster House reception. She invited firms to approach her team “with real, fixable problems,” and promised to focus on five priorities: removing export barriers … hitting the now controversial £1 trillion exports target before 2030 … making the U.K. the top investment destination in Europe … sealing the India and CPTPP trade pacts … and standing up to protectionism.
Spotted at the event: U.K. Export Finance boss Tim Reid … British Chambers of Commerce boss Shevaun Haviland … FSB National Chair Martin McTague … Samsung’s Inha Cho … Santander Chair William Vereker … top government trade adviser Crawford Falconer … Ministers Greg Hands, Nigel Huddleston and Lord Johnson … and the top diplomats for Switzerland, Vietnam, Israel and Australia.
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Home Office Minister Chris Philp broadcast round: GB News (6.45 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.05 a.m.) … Sky News (7.20 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (8.30 a.m.).
Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy: ITV GMB (6.50 a.m.) … Times Radio (7.45 a.m.) … Sky News (8.05 a.m.) … Today program (8.35 a.m.) … LBC (8.50 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Former Civil Service boss Bob Kerslake (7.10 a.m.) … Economist Diane Coyle and former Culture Minister Ed Vaizey (7.50 a.m.).
Also on Good Morning Britain: Iceland Chairman Richard Walker (8.10 a.m.).
Also on Kay Burley: Bob Kerslake (7.40 a.m.) … SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast: Former spokesperson for Ukraine’s President Volodymyr Zelenskyy Iuliia Mendel (8.20 a.m.).
Also on Times Radio Breakfast: Chief Inspector of Probation Justin Russell (8.25 a.m.) … Former Conservative leader William Hague and former Scottish Labour leader Kezia Dugdale discuss the day’s news (9.10 a.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Tom Hunt … Labour peer Shami Chakrabarti … The New Statesman’s Anoosh Chakelian … The Times’ Lara Spirit.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 7 p.m.): Social Mobility Minister Mims Davies … Labour MP Barry Gardiner … Bloomberg’s Stephanie Flanders … Environmental campaigner Feargal Sharkey.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): The FT’s Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe and former No. 10 spinner Mo Hussein … (talkTV 10.20 p.m.): Labour’s Jess Phillips and Tory MP Bim Afolami.
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page):
Daily Express: Asylum cheat sneaked into U.K. to kill for third time.
Daily Mail: What the hell is the West waiting for?
Daily Mirror: The only way is ethics.
Daily Star: You don’t need a Star lettuce to see how this one ends.
Financial Times: Zahawi fights for political life over tax scandal as Sunak orders ethics review.
i: Zahawi faces sack as PM demands answers on Tory chair’s unpaid tax.
Metro: Rish — Dish the dirt.
POLITICO UK: Sunak can’t escape Tory ethics scandals.
PoliticsHome: Why are Nadhim Zahawi’s tax affairs being investigated?
The Daily Telegraph: Killer posed as a child to claim asylum and murder again in U.K.
The Guardian: PM admits ‘questions need answering’ on Zahawi tax.
The Independent: How can he keep his job?
The Sun: Noel’s ex hires Harry lawyer.
The Times: Met ‘risks hiring rogue officers’ in online tests.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: Sunny in spells and a touch warmer. Highs of 7C.
WELCOME TO THE WORLD: Lucy and David Dargahi, respectively House of Lords comms supremo and podcast producer, welcomed their little girl Annie Irene to the world last Friday.
BIRTHDAYS: Shrewsbury and Atcham MP Daniel Kawczynski … U.K. Statistics Authority Chairman Robert Chote … Civitas boss David Green … Editor-at-large of the Wall Street Journal Gerard Baker.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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