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THURSDAY CHEAT SHEET
— Deal! NHS unions strike a bargain with the government after months of walkouts. We’ve got the details as Jeremy Hunt wraps up his Budget tour.
— Westminster braces for another big Brexit vote next Wednesday — although there’s quibbling about the finer points.
— Ministers ban official TikTok use (with caveats) but Grant Shapps isn’t going anywhere.
— The big SNP leadership battle over membership numbers continues as the party reveals its figures.
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TOP OF THE NEWSLIST
FISCAL FINISHING LINE: The marathon sales pitch Chancellor Jeremy Hunt has been running since delivering his Budget is about to end — and it goes out with a bang after the government announced a possible deal to end NHS strikes.
First lines: Hunt is right now sitting down for an interview with Andrew Marr on LBC, to be broadcast from 6 p.m. tonight, during which he’ll offer his first broadcast interview take on the extra £2.5 billion offered to staff, which the unions will now consult their members on.
Details, details: The agreement means all NHS staff (excluding doctors and dentists) will get a 5 percent wage hike in 2023/24, while the lowest paid will get just over 10 percent. There’s also a 4 percent increase for 2022/23 (which had been on the table before) plus a new one-off bonus worth somewhere between 3.5 percent and 8.2 percent of annual salaries, or £1,600 and £3,800 according to the Royal College of Nurses.
The official take: A joint statement from the government and the NHS staff council said it was “a fair and reasonable settlement that acknowledges the dedication of NHS staff, while acknowledging the wider economic pressures currently facing the U.K.”
The unions are loving it: GMB National Secretary Rachel Harrison said members “should rightly be proud of themselves. It’s been a tough road but they have faced down the Department of Health and won an offer that we feel is the best that can be achieved at this stage through negotiation.”
Hospital pass: PM Rishi Sunak visited a hospital to herald the announcement, which is expected to put an end to months of strikes. A clip with his reaction is rolling on broadcast now, as is one from Health Secretary Steve Barclay. Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting is also due on the Andrew Marr show to give his response. And Unison’s Sara Gorton, chair of the 14-strong NHS group of unions, is on Radio 4 PM in the next hour.
The good news for Hunt … is he gets to point to more cash for lower-paid health workers in response to accusations of a massive tax cut for the rich in the Budget, which the government insists is about keeping well-paid NHS consultants with big pensions in work.
But but but: He’ll still face questions about whether the tax cut plan will work, after top wonks cast doubt on it, my POLITICO colleague Andrew McDonald reports. Abolishing the pension lifetime allowance “could go either way” when it comes to bolstering the NHS workforce and could even see docs retiring earlier, Isaac Delestre from the Institute for Fiscal Studies explained, because their pensions can be built up quicker.
Not a good sign: The (Tory) Chair of the Treasury committee Harriet Baldwin told the Resolution Foundation event this morning she was “very surprised” the pension reforms weren’t targeted to doctors. Expect this row to rumble on, seeing as a targeted approach is the Labour proposal.
Indeed: Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves (who was spotted fueling herself in the Debate cafe this morning with an egg bap) said Labour would force a vote on the issue next Tuesday. For his part, Hunt told Times Radio it was “bizarre” to suggest the Budget was a handout for the rich, seeing as so much cash was going on helping people with energy bills and childcare.
Here’s an idea: The Conservatives should “take on these ridiculous arguments about punishing the rich and say the more we encourage people to work and make money and make a success the better,” one Conservative MP fumed to Playbook PM. “We’re buying into the Labour mantra of smash the rich. Is that really what a Conservative government should be doing? I’m fed up of us not having the balls to see it down.”
The other gripe among Conservative MPs … Is expanding the welfare state to take in childcare, rather than offering vouchers to parents or something similar to give them options. Otherwise, MPs seem to think the Budget was the best it could be in the circumstances, although are eager for economic results before the next election.
That could be tough: Seeing as the IFS noted the terrible state of living standards and the U.K. becoming a “high tax economy.”
Also not best pleased: Are small businesses, who reckon there is nothing for them in the Budget. Labour will be doing its best to soak up their support too.
The funny thing is: In a piece for the New Statesman, George Eaton argues Westminster has entered “a new era of consensus” between the two main parties, with the Tories committed to big spending and nicking Labour ideas, and both parties singing similar tunes on Brexit, defense and crime. “A new era of permanent crisis demands permanent intervention (and there are few votes in libertarianism),” Eaton notes.
On a similar note: “By restoring competence and normalizing relations with the EU, Mr Hunt and Mr Sunak are steadily closing the policy gap with Labour,” the Economist notes in its take on the Budget. “That will have the salutary effect of forcing the opposition party to be bolder in its own thinking ahead of the next election.”
How to wind down: After two days of non-stop action (not to mention the long hours in the weeks leading up to the Budget) Hunt is having a quiet night mulling what sounds like an existential question for SW1. He told Playbook PM he’ll be “chatting to my daughter about why she described her first visit to a parliamentary debate yesterday as a pantomime.”
Gulp: She’ll be taking over the writing of this newsletter in no time.
MEANWHILE, AT THE BREXIT RANCH
SOMETHING TO LOOK FORWARD TO: The big Commons vote on the Windsor-Framework-Northern-Ireland-Protocol-Brexit-deal thing has been scheduled. Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt told the House during the business statement it would take place next Wednesday.
But but but: The vote will be on the specific legislative tweak to implement the Stormont Brake bit of the framework — which the government argues gives Belfast the power to stop new EU rules being applied in Northern Ireland. Government officials insist this is nevertheless the big vote the PM promised MPs, despite there being no plans to hold a vote on the entire deal. Downing Street even said there would be further votes on the statutory instruments needed to implement other aspects of the deal into law, but that next week’s division is the defining verdict. The PM’s spokesman said the thinking is that the brake is “the most significant part of the agreement.”
Nevertheless: There is the distinct whiff of rat in Westminster about the government claiming the vote is specific but will count for the whole deal. Some speculate that it’s designed to give critics a free pass on voting against the elements that are disliked, while saving some face for the government if it passes what it considers the defining vote.
And then … there’s the fact the vote is on a statutory instrument. A former government adviser tells my POLITICO colleague Esther Webber that could be a canny move on the government’s part. First because it isn’t amendable, and second because if rejected, MPs couldn’t be asked to consider the same proposition again until after the King’s Speech. “Whips will be able to explain this to MPs who are wavering and – based on previous fights – it can help to dampen rebellion,” the former aide said.
DUP time: Of course, the focus is all about what the DUP ends up doing, even if the government plans to implement the deal regardless. “It will be for the DUP to decide what approach they take,” the PM’s spokesman said, when Playbook PM asked if Sunak would urge the DUP to back his agreement.
Don’t forget: The DUP still hasn’t come back with its legal verdict on the deal — although its recent noises off haven’t sounded too positive. The Conservative Brexit die-hards in the European Research Group still haven’t passed judgment either — with the Express reporting (perhaps not quite in these words) that its members are still keeping the threat of a rebellion lingering around like a fart in a sauna.
This won’t help: ERG members aren’t expected to be swayed by Labour former PM Tony Blair, who told the Northern Ireland Affairs committee this morning that the Windsor deal was “the best I think you can do with this,” considering the number of Brexit circles that need to be squared. We have a writeup here.
More rat scent: It hasn’t gone unnoticed that the vote is scheduled for the same news cycle as Boris Johnson appearing at the privileges committee over whether he lied to parliament.
IN LABOUR LAND: Labour Leader Keir Starmer did a round of interviews in Edinburgh this afternoon (his second visit to Scotland in a week) covering things like the Budget implications for Scotland and the ongoing SNP leadership race. Expect lines to start dropping this evening.
Forde focus: Martin Forde, the KC Keir Starmer tasked with writing a report on Labour culture has given an interview to Al Jazeera in which he suggests other forms of racism could be taken more seriously in Labour as well as anti-semitism. Former Jeremy Corbyn speechwriter Alex Nunns has a thread about it.
SPEAKING OF THE SNP: The party has lost more than a third of its members since 2019, figures released this afternoon by SNP top brass after days of pressure show. The numbers reveal the SNP are missing 72,186 members compared with the last published count of 103,884 in 2021 and 125,691 at the end of 2019. No wonder they were so reluctant to release the figures.
Battle of the press officers: The Forbes camp were straight out the blocks claiming the figures show continuity “won’t cut it,” which is, of course, their entire campaign message. But release of the day unquestionably goes to the Ash Regan camp, who — after their candidate pushed harder than anyone for the stats to be released — simply issued the words: “I get things done.”
Now hear this: Regan has also done an interview with Marr, in which she, er, refused to reject the notion that the contest is being rigged.
Ow ow ow ow ow: This clip of SNP leadership candidate Humza Yousaf is also ouch ouch ouch.
PROXY VOTES LATEST: The procedure committee this morning recommended extending the pilot scheme allowing seriously ill MPs to vote by proxy, finding that parliament should promote “an inclusive environment.” But thorny questions still abound, my colleague Esther Webber writes in, raised by recent reports in Playbook and the Sunday Times that MPs are using proxy votes while suspended for allegations of misconduct.
Too difficult? The committee report is emphatic that MPs should not be given proxy votes unless they are new parents or seriously ill. At the same time, it suggests no changes to the current system under which it’s taken on good faith that an MP has a genuine reason to ask for a proxy — which some fear leaves it open to abuse.
Kicker: MPs on the procedure committee also sounded wary about proposals to exclude MPs facing accusations of serious crimes from the parliamentary estate, on which the House of Commons Commission is due to report soon. Read the full report here.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: The Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency is trialing a new robot that works on stem cell therapies … Energy Security Minister Graham Stuart announced £205 million as a part of a contracts scheme for clean fuels.
**Join us next week, March 21, for a discussion about who should fund telecommunications infrastructures at POLITICO Live’s event “Telecoms drumbeat for the future of connectivity”, moderated by Mathieu Pollet, tech reporter at POLITICO. Register here.**
TIME UP FOR TIKTOK: Cabinet Office minister Oliver Dowden this afternoon announced the long-expected (but oft denied) ban of Chinese app TikTok on government phones, after spooks decided there could be a risk of British data ending up in the hands of the government in Beijing. In a statement to the Commons, Dowden said the ban was “proportionate” and “prudent” and followed similar moves by allies such as the EU, Belgium, the U.S. and Canada. TikTok is, surprise surprise, not too impressed. Our writeup is here.
The details: Government officials and ministers will still be able to use the app on their personal phones, but Dowden urged them to be cautious. No-one is being asked to delete their account. Indeed, the Downing Street TikTok feed is expected to continue so Rishi Sunak can make dance videos explaining his Brexit deal to the public (or whatever.) His spokesman explained that there would be exemptions for having the app on government devices for external communications purposes.
Personal use: Playbook PM is assured no ministers had the app on government devices, but there are a few personal users. Those include social media sensation Grant Shapps (14.4k followers and counting) who has colorfully vowed to continue on the platform … Playhouse-burning Veterans Minister Johnny Mercer … Doorstep-master and Welsh Secretary David T.C. Davies … Aberdeen F.C. fan and Exports minister Andrew Bowie (dormant since last year, to be fair) … Tech Secretary Michelle Donelan who last posted in February to talk up her new department … Cat-fan and Leveling-Up Minister Dehenna Davison who has been pretty quiet on the platform since January … Business Minister and snow-describer Nigel Huddlestone (also quiet since Christmas.)
Less convinced: In an interview with the News Agents podcast, Jeremy Hunt said he had deleted TikTok from his own phone, adding: “I have to say my kids are quite addicted to TikTok, so, you know, it’s quite a remarkable app, but I stopped using it myself.”
Still hankering for that government role: Former Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries announced on Twitter she would be deleting TikTok from her personal phone, which one Whitehall insider pointed out was a bit rich seeing as she used to film her own social media content in her office.
Two final thoughts: There are a LOT of fake Cabinet accounts out there. And Playbook PM is pleased to have a normal job doing normal things like searching for “Viscount Camrose” on TikTok.
His two cents: He wasn’t referring specifically to TikTok, but Labour former PM Tony Blair this morning noted that social media was “a plague on politics” that “makes life really difficult.” Playbook PM can’t help but agree.
AROUND THE WORLD
IN FRANCE: French President Emmanuel Macron authorized the use of a controversial constitutional manoeuvre to bypass parliament and impose his deeply unpopular pensions reforms. The government invoked section 49.3 of the constitution, allowing the government to push through legislation without a parliamentary vote. My POLITICO colleague Clea Caulcutt has more.
IN AMERICA: Former Secretary-General of the European Commission Martin Selmayr has been shortlisted as the EU’s ambassador to either the U.S. or the U.N. — Selmayr currently heads the European Commission’s office in Austria. My POLITICO colleagues Gregorio Sorgi and Jacopo Barigazzi have the details.
IN THE NETHERLANDS: A farmers’ party set up in 2019 stunned Dutch politics as it looks set to become the biggest in the upper house of Parliament after provincial elections. The BBC’s Anna Holligan and Paul Kirby report they are due to win 15 of the Senate’s seats with almost 20 percent of the vote.
IN RUSSIA: The BBC reports at least one person has been killed and two injured in a fire at a building used by Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) in the southern city of Rostov-on-Don.
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TONIGHT’S MEDIA ROUND
LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: Channel 5 News (5 p.m.) leads on the NHS strikes and budget reaction … BBC News at Six focuses on the NHS strike and resolution … Channel 4 News (7 p.m.) leads on the health workers’ pay offer.
Tom Swarbrick at Drive (LBC, until 6 p.m.): Former Bank of England Monetary Policy Committee member Danny Blanchflower (4.05 p.m.) … Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride (5.05 p.m.).
BBC PM (Radio 4, 5 p.m.): Unison’s Sara Gorton.
News Hour (Sky News, 5 p.m.): GMB regional organizer Lib Whitfield (5.30 p.m.) … International Rescue Committee President David Miliband (5.35 p.m.) … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (5.50 p.m.).
Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): Onay Kasab from Unite (5.05 p.m.) Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting (5.20 p.m.) … West Midlands Mayor Andy Street (5.45 p.m.) … The Social Market Foundation’s James Kirkup (6.45 p.m.) … Times Columnist Rachel Sylvester and the Spectator’s Isabel Hardman (both after 7 p.m.).
The News Agents (Podcast, drops at 5 p.m.): Chancellor Jeremy Hunt.
Tonight With Andrew Marr (LBC, 6 p.m.): Chancellor Jeremy Hunt … SNP leadership candidate Ash Regan … Shadow Health Secretary Wes Streeting.
Jeremy Kyle Live (TalkTV, 7 p.m.): Former Tory MP Nick De Bois.
Farage (GB News, 7 p.m.): Former Labour MP Simon Danczuk; Ex-Arizona Attorney General Mark Brnovich.
Iain Dale (LBC, 7 p.m.): Anti-dirty cash campaigner Bill Browder (8 p.m.).
Jacob Rees-Mogg’s State of the Nation (GB News, 8 p.m.): Former Lib Dem Leader Vince Cable.
Beth Rigby Interviews (Sky News, 9pm): Actor and former Jedi Liam Neeson.
The World Tonight (Radio 4, 10 p.m.): Tory MP Henry Smith.
Question Time (BBC One, 10.40 p.m.): Tory MP Bim Afolami … Labour’s Shadow Culture Secretary Lucy Powell … SNP Westminster Leader Stephen Flynn … POLITICO’s Anne McElvoy … Chair of Tesco John Allan.
REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: TalkTV (10 p.m.): The Spectator’s Isabel Hardman and Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Political commentator Salma Shah and broadcaster Steve Richards.
LABOUR LAND: Deadline for submitting ideas to Labour’s national policy forum as it begins putting together its election manifesto.
EUROVISION VISION: The culture department is planning to announce funding for a set of big screens for the public to watch Eurovision.
MORE ECONOMICS: The OECD will publish its interim economic outlook, with a press conference at 11 a.m. U.K. time. Details here.
LIB DEM LIFE: The Liberal Democrat spring conference kicks off in York.
THE PAGGER PERSISTS: SNP leadership candidates battle it out in an evening debate for the Inverness Courier. Details here.
**On March 21, Luca de Meo, CEO of Renault and chairman of ACEA will join our senior policy reporter Josh Posaner for an exclusive one-to-one interview. The interview takes place during POLITICO Live’s event “Made-in-Europe: How to keep up the fight in the electric car race?”. Interested in receiving the recording of the interview? Sign up today!**
ANY OTHER BUSINESS
PACKED LUNCH OR PARL LUNCH: Subject to change, here are the lunch menus on the estate tomorrow: Bellamy’s: Roasted squash, lentil and walnut tart; fish and chips; minted lamb and vegetable kebab with trimmings … The Debate: Paneer, spinach and pea curry; smoked paprika bream with cannellini beans, tomatoes and cracked wheat; spicy pork belly baguette with apple stuffing … Terrace Cafeteria: Minute steak burger; Thai green vegetable curry; fish and chips … River Restaurant: Tomato, broccoli, halloumi and mushroom stack with potatoes; mixed grill of rump steak, chicken thigh, and sausage with beans, sweetcorn and potatoes; fish and chips.
IN MEMORIAM: Public relations supremo Francis Ingham, director general of the industry group PRCA, has died after a short illness, it announced this morning.
WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: On his blog, pollster Peter Kellner makes the case that bringing back Boris Johnson could be electoral poison for the Conservatives. Looking at Deltapoll numbers, he argues that “the notion of bringing Johnson back lacks clear evidence of electoral benefit. Indeed, it is more likely to make things worse.” The opening line of his piece couldn’t be clearer: “Here is some free advice to Conservatives who want to bring back Boris Johnson: don’t.”
THANKS TO: My editor Matt Honeycombe-Foster, Playbook reporter Noah Keate and the POLITICO production team for making it look nice.
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