Eastbourne hustings — Pencil in September 21 — WFH wrangling – POLITICO
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By ELENI COUREA
Good Friday morning. This is Eleni Courea. Annabelle Dickson will be with you on Monday and Tuesday next week.
DRIVING THE DAY
VOTING WEEKEND: Liz Truss and Rishi Sunak are hitting the campaign trail today and over the critical weekend ahead as voting by Conservative Party members finally begins, and the looming economic crisis takes center stage in the leadership contest.
Tick, tock: The pair will meet in Eastbourne tonight for hustings with party members in the southeast. Ballots have belatedly started to drop after CCHQ tightened the security of the voting process, and the clock is ticking for Sunak, who’s grappling with the mammoth challenge of needing to convert enough switchers to his side.
Friday stocktake: All in all it’s been a bruising week for Sunak — things had just started to look up for him after a policy misstep from Truss, before two members’ polls in quick succession (one, two) gave her a whopping lead of more than 30 points.
Nevertheless: Sunak is defiant. “I passionately believe what I’m saying is right, I want to convince as many people as possible,” he said during the Sky News debate, vowing not to concede despite admitting he’s “behind in this race.” An ally of his told Playbook: “The feeling on the ground is that the contest is much closer than the polls suggest, lots of people are undecided, and Rishi is winning over new supporters every day. He’s only just getting started.”
Sky debate: Both Truss and Sunak were forthright and combative during last night’s Q&A on Sky — the most in-depth and illuminating grilling they’ve been subjected to so far — with a few dozen Tory members (only one of whom said they’d received their ballot paper) and broadcaster Kay Burley.
World of pain: The tone of the contest has sharpened in the past day as the scale of the economic challenge facing the U.K. has become clear. The Bank of England hiked interest rates on Wednesday by half a percentage point to 1.75 percent — the biggest rise in 27 years — and estimated that inflation would reach a staggering 13 percent. The bank believes it’s now inevitable the British economy will enter recession and forecasts it will last five quarters — as long (but not as deep) as the 2008 financial crisis, causing the biggest squeeze in living standards for 60 years. This splashes every newspaper.
And if all that weren’t enough: Ofgem confirmed a move to quarterly price cap updates yesterday — meaning bills are now going to rise every three months rather than six, with hikes coming first in October and then in January. The FT runs through criticism of the move.
Worth noting now: The bank’s announcement has set the fiscal backdrop for the run-up to the next general election. Here’s a handy graph by Bloomberg annotated by Opinium’s Chris Curtis.
SCOOP — EMERGENCY BUDGET DATE: Truss has pledged that if she wins, she’ll hold an emergency budget to cut taxes and help with the cost of living. Playbook hears the working date being discussed by her team for that budget is September 21 — just long enough after she enters Downing Street, and before parliament breaks for its three-week conference recess.
Astonishingly: Current Prime Minister Boris Johnson and his Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi are both away from their desks (as first reported by the Spectator’s Mr Steerpike), so aren’t around to steady the ship at this critical time. According to the Times diary, Johnson is on a delayed honeymoon in Slovenia until next week and, according to the Telegraph, Zahawi is working from his family holiday abroad. Simon Clarke, the chief secretary to the Treasury, was also apparently not in Whitehall yesterday.
HMT response: Zahawi told the Speccie that “the privilege and responsibility of public service means that you never get to switch off, that’s why I have had calls and briefings every day and continue to do so.” A Treasury source said the chancellor was in calls with the governor of the Bank of England and the Treasury’s chief economist yesterday.
Meanwhile: It was left to definitely-not-junior Energy Minister Greg Hands to do media on the interest rate rise. Hands insisted on Twitter that, since inflation is being driven by soaring energy prices, this issue is in his brief. Given how Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is the main factor driving that, maybe it’ll be the turn of a Foreign Office minister to speak to broadcasters about the cost of living today.
What the potential next occupants of No. 10 are saying: Sunak has seized on the bank’s announcement as evidence that his determination to drive down inflation, and his claim that immediate tax cuts would be reckless, are justified. That attack is defanged somewhat by the slightly panicky, albeit longer-term, pledges to slash taxes he has made during his campaign. Truss, meanwhile, was adamant during last night’s debate that warnings of a recession were “extremely worrying but not inevitable — we can change the outcome and we can make it more likely that the economy grows.” She argued that “trying to balance the books prematurely is actually counterproductive.”
In fact: Truss made some pretty bold statements last night, with the suggestion that she can avert a recession with her economic policy as PM being the biggest — the FT’s George Parker writes it up. She also declared “there are no skeletons in my closet” and was adamant that Boris Johnson had not misled parliament with his statements on Partygate (a matter currently being investigated by the Commons privileges committee).
Campaign moves: Truss is meeting Tory members on the Isle of Wight and in Portsmouth tomorrow, while Sunak will visit the Isle of Wight on Saturday.
THE SKY DEBATE
LOWDOWN FROM THE SHOWDOWN: For what it’s worth, Playbook thought last night’s Sky debate was the most illuminating of the contest so far (and certainly much more exciting than the cozy fireside chat-style hustings organized by CCHQ).
How they fared: Truss was fluent and defiant, making some apparently open-ended commitments including on more cash to alleviate the cost of living crisis and only faltering under questioning from Burley over her U-turn on public sector pay. In turn Sunak was sparky and combative, presenting himself once again as the responsible candidate and attacking Truss over her suggestion that the high tax burden was causing the recession. Sky’s Sam Coates put it this way: “We now know without any doubt at all the character of this contest. What we saw was Mr Sensible Rishi Sunak versus the disruptor Liz Truss. Predictable versus unpredictable.” His post-debate analysis is worth listening to in full.
THE KEY COMMITMENTS: Truss said she no longer wants to build a million homes on the green belt … Made a detailed, impassioned argument against imposing another windfall tax on energy firms … Ruled out a visit to Taiwan and backtracked on past comments that the U.K. should arm it … Declared “there are no skeletons in my closet” and that everything there is to know about her is already public … and gave a strident defense of Boris Johnson’s record as prime minister.
And from Sunak: Sunak said he would commit more money to the armed forces and denied being overruled by the PM to increase defense spending as chancellor … Attacked Truss directly for saying that the tax burden was causing the recession and for wanting to scrap the National Insurance rise … Gave a spirited defense of his decision to resign at the time of the Chris Pincher scandal … Backed the existing government policy on abortion … Indicated he would shake hands with Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman because he believed in engagement … and didn’t quite reveal whether he has any working-class friends nowadays.
Feeling green? Not so much: In a quick-fire round on climate policies, Sunak suggested he’d back opening new coal mines, saying he didn’t think we should be importing coal when we have it in the U.K. … Repeated that he was in favor of fracking where there is local support … Ruled out imposing higher taxes on flights … and clarified that he didn’t want to relax the ban on onshore wind turbines.
Audience questioned: Team Rishi were pretty sprightly at the end of the debate, particularly after a show of hands revealed that the overwhelming majority of the studio audience was most convinced by his pitch. But there were swirling questions in Tory circles last night over how the Sky audience of 60-odd undecided party members was selected, given their verdict didn’t tally with the polls this week. Some claimed it was disproportionately Sunak-friendly — one member was a Conservative Party campaign manager who’s very publicly backing the former chancellor and another appeared to have been in a recent BBC Question Time audience where he said he only remained a party member to try and oust Boris Johnson. CCHQ told Playbook it hadn’t verified the membership status of those present and may be asking further questions today.
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FLEXIBLE PLEDGING: Truss has thrown her weight behind the drive to get civil servants behind their desks as figures from July suggested the proportion of those working from home had increased and that the FCDO had the second-highest percentage of officials working remotely. “I support the work Jacob Rees-Mogg has been doing … and I will be looking at that very carefully,” Truss told the Mail’s Kumail Jaffer. “We need more people to work in the office, I think that’s very important.”
Hmm: If that quote makes it sound a bit like she’s got a gun to her head, it’s probably because Truss has been an impassioned champion of flexible working since the pandemic. In March 2021, she called for workplaces to normalize it and help “open up employment opportunities to people regardless of their sex or location.” Truss told MPs in May 2021: “I’m a passionate supporter of results over presenteeism in every possible area … I think there’s more we can do across the country to make sure we’re valuing people for the contribution they make rather than the hours that they sit in the office.” Playbook looks forward to her being questioned over this apparent fresh U-turn.
Meanwhile in the civil service: Officials are already looking at proposals to deal with inflation and a recession and are working out how to implement the Truss and Sunak pledges, the i’s Arj Singh reports.
TOUTING TRUSS: A group of 21 current and former Cabinet ministers including Nadhim Zahawi, Ben Wallace and Penny Mordaunt have written to the Telegraph backing Truss as the only candidate who can combat “Whitehall groupthink” and end the “tired economic managerialism of the past.”
The specter of the ERG: And while we’re on the subject of Cabinet hopefuls, in his column this week the FT’s Seb Payne argues that one of the biggest challenges for Truss if she wins will be managing Tory MPs, a majority of whom did not back her. The most dangerous caucus among them is the European Research Group, according to Payne, who suggests she has two options: either stick the key figures in Cabinet with Iain Duncan Smith as chief whip and Suella Braverman in Home or Culture, or “stamp her authority with a cabinet that represents the full spectrum of Tory opinion.” He notes that close allies of Truss say she’ll do the latter.
Maintaining momentum: The Guardian’s Aubrey Allegretti reports that Truss’ campaign is hard at work trying to convince MPs who have backed Sunak to switch to her side. He says there are some frustration from Truss allies at former leadership candidate Kemi Badenoch for keeping her powder dry.
Poll position: Team Truss have been eagerly pointing to this poll from Redfield & Wilton suggesting that — contrary to the Sunak campaign’s claims — she would beat Keir Starmer at an election while the former chancellor wouldn’t.
Labouring the point: This weekend Labour is pushing an attack line about the impact of cuts to public services under Truss outside London and the southeast with op-eds from Angela Rayner and Rachel Reeves lined up in regional publications including the Northern Echo, Yorkshire Post and Northern Agenda.
Out on the road: The FT’s Jasmine Cameron-Chileshe has a good color read from Buckingham, where she speaks to local Tory members and senses a broadly pro-Truss feeling that mirrors recent polls. Meanwhile Bloomberg’s Kitty Donaldson reports on Team Sunak’s efforts to win over undecided members.
LAND-BANKING CRACKDOWN: Sunak has vowed to tackle land banking — whereby developers buy up land and delay building on it to drive up property prices — with “use it or lose it” taxes. The Times’ George Grylls and the Sun’s Natasha Clark both have write-ups.
INDIA DEAL WORRIES: More business figures and environmental campaigners are hoping Boris Johnson’s successor rethinks the looming deadline for a U.K.-India free trade deal, reports POLITICO’s Graham Lanktree, who goes through the issues.
BEYOND THE LEADERSHIP RACE
IN OTHER NEWS: While everyone is occupied with the tanking of the British economy and the battle to succeed Johnson … Keir Starmer (who is also currently on holiday) has been found guilty of breaching the MPs’ code of conduct by failing to make timely registrations of eight interests, including football tickets, an advance for a book and the sale of a plot of land. The standards commissioner said the breaches were “minor and/or inadvertent” and a Labour spokesperson said Starmer had apologized to her. Here’s the Guardian’s write-up.
CLASSIC CO: The Cabinet Office is refusing to release its response to a letter last year from ACOBA Chair Eric Pickles concerning apparent breaches of the government’s revolving door rules by Dominic Cummings, the former No. 10 aide. Pickles wrote to Cabinet Office Minister Michael Gove in July 2021 to inform him that Cummings had broken business appointment rules by failing to seek ACOBA’s advice before offering consultancy services on Substack. The Cabinet Office is now refusing to release records relating to this apparent breach, pointing to a need for a “safe space” for ministers and civil servants to discuss these issues. Insider’s Henry Dyer got the story.
UKRAINE UPDATE: PoliticsHome’s John Johnston has a good read on U.K. support for Ukrainian refugees, and reveals that three Tory council leaders have issued an urgent call for extra government support for refugees who arrived early. Under the Homes for Ukraine scheme, U.K. hosts are required to commit to providing accommodation for a minimum of six months and receive a payment from the government to help with bills. Refugees who arrived early are now coming to the end of this initial six months, and while most hosts will continue to offer accommodation some are now warning they cannot afford to without the continuation of the government payment. Lots of other issues, all in John’s piece here.
UP IN EDINBURGH
YOUR GUIDE TO POLITICS AT THE EDINBURGH FRINGE: The annual Edinburgh Festival Fringe properly returns for the first time in full since the pandemic today, with a month of amazing and also downright weird comedy to come, Playbook’s Andrew McDonald writes. We’re here to point you in the general direction of where to get your political fix this month.
The biggest political names … Can be found across the city, with lots of senior Labour politicians, a former PM and Nicola Sturgeon turning up for long-form interviews in front of an audience. The latter will be interviewed by fringe veteran Iain Dale, who also has sit downs with Keir Starmer, Angela Rayner and Jeremy Corbyn. The former Labour leader has a busy fringe and will also be interviewed over at the iconic venue of the Stand Comedy Club, as part of its In Conversation series, which has also lined up interviews with Sturgeon, Andy Burnham and other politicos past and present. The live recording of comedian Matt Forde’s Political Party podcast has the draw of former PM Gordon Brown this Sunday.
If satirical stand up is more your groove: Former Cameron aide Sarah Southern makes her fringe debut and joins Labour favorites Forde and Ayesha Hazarika on the stand-up circuit this year. If you prefer parody politicos, both Rosie Holt — of the fake Tory MP sketches — and Michael Spicer — the room next door — will also have sets throughout the month. There is a small sprinkling of right-wing comedy out there too, with panel show regular Geoff Norcott returning to the festival along with GB News regulars Simon Evans and Dominic Frisby. Though not stand-up, Steve Richards’ one-man politics show is back for the first time since 2019.
Political theater: Anyone missing the Brexit wars will enjoy New European columnist Tim Walker’s comedy play Bloody Difficult Woman, about Gina Miller’s court case against Theresa May’s government. Shakespeare fans will likewise either love or hate Boris the Third, a reimagining of the outgoing PM’s own-performance as the lead in a school production of Richard III back when he was 18. Elsewhere, someone seemingly called Charlotte Johnson has an intriguing/batsh*t sounding play at the Pleasance Dome where she plays the PM’s daughter.
For something a bit different: Every year NewsRevue collects great reviews for its musical sketch comedy parodying current affairs, if that’s your sort of thing. Despite his impending departure, there are more Boris impressions out there too. Improv show Boris Live at Five offers an audience the chance to ask Boris Johnson — or at least some bloke wearing a wig — anything they wish, while Boorish Trumpson promises “an interactive, music and clowning-filled interrogation of power.” Readers will be gutted to discover that an event promising “politics and poetry” with former Unite boss Len McCluskey and Corbyn has sold out.
Shameless promo: We can also heartily recommend the completely-not-politics-related-but-still-very-funny comedy play Fire Signs, written by someone who might happen to be Playbook reporter Andrew McDonald’s talented better half. You can catch it at Pleasance Above for a tenner — details here.
Kay Burley: Tory peer Robert Hayward (7.05 a.m.) … Business Secretary and Truss supporter Kwasi Kwarteng (7.30 a.m.) … Sunak supporter Liam Fox (8.05 a.m.) … Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (8.20 a.m.).
Times Radio breakfast: Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (7.20 a.m.) … Business Secretary and Truss supporter Kwasi Kwarteng (8.45 a.m.).
talkTV breakfast: Sunak supporter Liam Fox (7.32 a.m.) … Business Secretary and Truss supporter Kwasi Kwarteng (8.05 a.m.) … Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Jonathan Ashworth (8.32 a.m.).
Reviewing the paper’s tonight: Sky News (10.30 and 11.30 p.m.): Mirror columnist Susie Boniface and former Tory SpAd Anita Boateng.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: Recession on way … Time to batten down the hatches.
Daily Mail: Banker who’s running out of credit.
Daily Mirror: Missing in action.
Daily Star: The bad news — We’re going into recession … The good news — The Prem is back tonight!
Financial Times: BoE warns of long recession as interest rates rise by half-point.
i: The big squeeze.
Metro: The big squeeze.
POLITICO UK: U.K. business fears quick-win trade deal with India.
PoliticsHome: Ukrainian refugees in the U.K. could face homelessness when six months with hosts ends.
The Daily Telegraph: Recession to cause record drop in income.
The Guardian: Bank raises rates and warns of 13 percent inflation.
The Independent: Britain to enter year-long recession by Christmas.
The Times: Britain slides into crisis.
THANK POD IT’S FRIDAY
EU Confidential: The POLITICO team and its health care journalists look into the monkeypox outbreak, plus the lobbying battle between Big Tech platforms and telecom operators in Brussels.
How Westminster Works: PolHome’s Alain Tolhurst talks to historians and MPs about Hansard.
Newscast: The BBC’s Colletta Smith, Torsten Bell of the Resolution Foundation and Jane Tully from The Money Advice Trust discuss the BoE’s statement.
Politics Weekly UK: The Guardian’s John Harris and Jessica Elgot are joined by former No. 10 chief of staff Gavin Barwell to discuss whether Britain’s political leaders lack talent.
The Bunker: Historian Alex von Tunzelmann discusses the Lionesses’ victory in the Euros with Ros Taylor, Marie Le Conte and Ahir Shah.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ⛅️⛅️⛅️ Sunny in spells and warm. Highs of 24C.
CONGRATS TO: The Atlantic staff writer — and POLITICO alum — Tom McTague on the birth of Annabel Summer Leighton-McTague. Both baby and mum are doing great. Here’s the tweet.
BIRTHDAYS: Warley MP John Spellar … Thurrock MP Jackie Doyle-Price … Former Lead Defense Counsel for the Alex Salmond trial Gordon Jackson … Labour peer and former TUC General Secretary John Monks … Tory peer John Randall … Insider’s Henry Dyer … Bloomberg Economics head Stephanie Flanders.
Celebrating over the weekend: Health Minister Maria Caulfield … Carshalton and Wallington MP Elliot Colburn … Tory peer Guy Black … Crossbench peer Andrew Green … DUP peer William McCrea … The Times Scotland Editor Magnus Llewellin … Columnist Mary Ann Sieghart … The Evening Standard’s David Bond … Good Morning Britain head of politics Anne Alexander … The Times’ Henry Zeffman … Shadow Business Minister Seema Malhotra … Times columnist and former Tory MP Matthew Parris … Commons Library clerk David Torrance … Lords Journal Office clerk Michael Torrance.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald and producer Grace Stranger.
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