Wednesday, February 28, 2024

London Playbook PM: Sunak faces the GB News gauntlet

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Good afternoon. This is Andrew McDonald holding the Playbook PM pen.


— Rishi Sunak is getting ready to face questions from GB News viewers tonight.

— Labour recriminations over the party’s Rochdale by-election candidate are continuing.

— David Cameron urged Israel to “stop and think seriously” before going further in its assault on Rafah.

— Police dropped an investigation into Tory MP Andrew Rosindell.


READY FOR RISHI? After a day where Westminster focused on Labour’s Rochdale row and David Cameron’s punchy comments on Israel (plenty more on all this in a bit) … attention turns back to Rishi Sunak this evening, as he faces the intimidating prospect of questions from GB News viewers.

Actually beyond the M25: The PM has been in Yorkshire all day on a political visit, and will head up to Darlington shortly for the GB News’ People’s Forum, which kicks off at 8 p.m.

How it will go down: Playbook PM caught up with GB News editorial director Mick Booker, who walks us through the event. Presenter Stephen Dixon is the evening’s host — and, after getting the opportunity to make some brief opening remarks, Sunak will then face an hour of questions from audience members, who were selected by Survation. GB News gave the polling company the independence to pick a representative audience for the event — but given GB News were advertising for audience members on their site, it’s a safe bet to conclude there’ll be fans of the right-wing channel in the room.

Stepping into the unknown: “We have nothing to do with choosing the questions, the prime minister doesn’t know the questions, and we don’t know the questions,” Booker tells Playbook PM.

Nicer than the hacks: “I think they’ll give him a fair hearing,” he says of the audience. “People just want to put their points to the prime minister in a fairly normal way, really, I think it’s sometimes the journalists who do the more combative stuff, rather than the people — a lot of the general public are a little bit tired of the combative nature of these things.” Guilty as charged. 

Laying down the gauntlet: Booker confirms GB News have invited Keir Starmer to take part in a “people’s forum” of his own — and tells Playbook PM it’s a “good chance to talk directly to the voters and people who actually matter, rather than journalists and MPs.” They haven’t heard back from the Labour leader yet.

Why GB News is doing this: The channel hopes to make a serious splash in the election campaign and play a key role in the media ecosystem, as Aggie Chambre explored in Westminster Insider last week. Booker doesn’t bite when Playbook asks if the channel is auditioning for the right to hold a leaders’ debate in a few months. 

Why the PM is doing this: He’s losing — big. Redfield and Wilton polling released at 5 p.m. shows the Tories are at just 21 percent voting intention, which is their worst figure since Sunak became PM.

As for the questions: Sunak suggested viewers ask him about “the economy, immigration, the NHS, or anything else” in a promo — and Booker reckons he’s bound to be asked about his flagship pledge to stop the small boats in the Channel. 

ON THAT VERY NOTE: The Lords has just begun its committee stage consideration of the Rwanda bill, amid warnings from Sunak in the past and David Cameron today that the unelected second chamber shouldn’t “frustrate” the plan. Don’t expect any big votes at this stage — committee action is more about rebels putting down a marker, getting their views out there, and trying to see what amendments could command significant support at report stage, which will be further down the line.

But do prep for a late one, folks: The order paper says the House expects to rise at 11 p.m. tonight — but one peer said they reckon it will run until at least midnight tonight and on Wednesday. This peer — opposed to the bill — says it’s worth watching for any interventions from the Tory grandee Ken Clarke who has already attacked the bill in previous speeches … but say they won’t be surprised if big-hitting Tory rebels hold fire until the votes at report stage.


NO MOVEMENT ON ALI: Labour is still under pressure to disown its candidate for the Rochdale by-election amid an antisemitism storm. But the party is sticking by its man — sort of.

Reminder: Azhar Ali, who beat the lobby’s own Paul Waugh for the Rochdale candidacy, told a meeting of fellow Labour councillors that Israel had “allowed” the Hamas October 7 attacks — spouting the conspiracy theory that Israel deliberately let the attacks happen so it could invade Gaza. Ali issued an apology when the Mail on Sunday reported on his comments.

And the problem for Labour is … It’s too late for the party to replace him as a candidate. But Labour’s facing questions over the decision not to take the hit and effectively drop and stop campaigning for him anyway, given the whole zero tolerance for antisemitism thing.

Another problem: The Tories are making hay — see posts like this one from their official account.

Good luck: Given the hospital pass of justifying the party’s position on this morning’s media round, Shadow Minister Without Portfolio Nick Thomas-Symonds admitted Ali’s comments were “completely and utterly unacceptable” — but confirmed Labour will continue to campaign for him in Rochdale.

But but but: Thomas-Symonds argued Ali has apologized unreservedly — and told the BBC this apology should be taken at face value as Ali fell for a conspiracy theory. He argued Ali isn’t antisemitic and pointed to former Labour MP Louise Ellman’s backing for the candidate (Ellman was a fierce critic of antisemitism under Jeremy Corbyn.)

Not going down well: A long-serving Labour activist in the North West told POLITICO’s Esther Webber they were “amazed” to see Labour standing by Ali, pointing out the Green Party has withdrawn support from its own candidate amid a separate Gaza-related row. The same person predicted the rabble-rousing George Galloway would take the seat, claiming “it’s really bad on the doorstep. We’re not knocking every door at the moment, only knocking Labour doors.” Labour didn’t respond to a request for comment.

On the other hand: A well-connected Labour figure tells my colleague Dan Bloom that Ali is being treated more sympathetically than other previously suspended Labour figures as he was genuinely seen as an ally to Jewish figures in the party over antisemitism. They said they don’t expect LOTO to cave and suspend Ali’s membership before polling day — but did speculate that the party could work to ensure Ali doesn’t stand at the general election if he does win in a few weeks time.

Stop the Galloway: The figure quoted above added that Labour’s difficulty is that if they do suspend him now, it would allow Galloway to argue they wouldn’t be getting a Labour MP anyway — so why not vote for him. “There’s absolutely no doubt that having George Galloway as an MP will be worse than having Azhar Ali as an MP,” they said.

Worth remembering that: Backbench MP Kate Osamor was suspended after referencing a “genocide” in Gaza in comments written on Holocaust Memorial Day … Playbook PM’s namesake Andy McDonald was suspended after he said the following at a pro-Palestine rally: “Until all people, Israelis and Palestinians, between the river and the sea can live in peaceful liberty” … and, of course, former leader Jeremy Corbyn lost the whip for saying that the scale of antisemitism within Labour was “overstated for political reasons.”

In other not so good news for Labour: Snap polling by the ECIU think tank finds that the public ain’t that keen on the party’s £28 billion climate U-turn. Check the nuance in the figures here.


ANOTHER CAMERON INTERVENTION: Israel should “stop and think seriously” before taking any further action in the southern Gaza city of Rafah, Foreign Secretary David Cameron told broadcasters in a newsy pool clip in Scotland.

Latest in Rafah: The situation in Rafah has become increasingly volatile over the last 24 hours after Israel carried out strikes overnight in the city that killed at least 44 Palestinians. Unicef’s Hamish Young, a senior emergency coordinator based in Rafah, told the BBC that things on the ground are “already catastrophic,” and there is “barely enough food for everyone to eat.” Israel says there are Hamas strongholds in the city.

The Cameron line: Highlighting the plight of civilians in the densely populated city, which is now the home for people who have followed previous Israeli evacuation orders, Cameron said it was “impossible to see how you can fight a war amongst these people … there’s nowhere for them to go.” A No. 10 spokesperson, and Rishi Sunak in a later pool clip, echoed his comments.

Cameron also … announced the imposition of fresh sanctions on four “extremist” Israeli settlers who have attacked Palestinian civilians in the West Bank. The government press release had some pretty strong language — here’s a write-up by POLITICO’s Bethany Dawson.

More from the news machine: Cameron even found time to rebuke Donald Trump, who’s been angering Europe after he decided to say Russia should invade “delinquent” NATO allies. Read the full comments here

Even more diplomatic news: Rishi Sunak won’t be attending the Munich Security Conference this weekend, his spokesperson confirmed this morning. Cameron will be there, however.


INVESTIGATION DROPPED: The Metropolitan Police dropped their investigation into Tory MP Andrew Rosindell, who was arrested on suspicion of offenses including rape, indecent assault and abuse of trust. He has always denied wrongdoing and was never charged. POLITICO’s Esther Webber has more.

STEPPING DOWN: Tory MP and former Sports Minister Tracey Crouch announced she’s stepping down at the next election. In a letter to her constituency association, she wrote that going through a cancer diagnosis and coming out the other side of treatment was a “life affirming experience” that has given her the opportunity to reflect on her priorities. Check the replies and quote tweets to get a sense of how respected she is across the political spectrum.

Helpful person of the day: The IfG’s Philip Nye has been keeping track of the MPs who are offski at the next election — 90 so far, 57 of whom are Tories.

LOADSA INVOICES: A fun scoop from LBC’s Henry Riley, who reports that Infosys — Akshata Murty’s firm — received a near-50 percent boost in public sector invoices last year. Labour say the government has questions to answer.

WINNING HERE: The Lib Dems are claiming victory after ministers announced they will block bonuses for bosses of polluting water firms. “We started our campaign on this over two years ago and were frankly laughed at and dismissed by Westminster bubble,” a Lib Dem official said. “Now it’s a key blue wall battleground issue … most Tory leaflets in our marginals have Tory MPs desperately posing by a river.” The party has been trying to make hay with the mounting sewage problem in England’s rivers.

MEANWHILE, IN SCOTLAND: Edinburgh Castle will “review” the name of its Redcoat cafe after an online backlash from Scottish nationalists (here’s the history of that term.) More than a thousand actual human beings bothered to sign a petition calling for the cafe — which has had the same name for more than 30 years — to be renamed. Here’s the National’s victory lap write-up.


STOP TRYING TO MAKE ‘STARMERGEDDON’ HAPPEN: Reform U.K. got their best graphic designer on the case again with the Rochdale Labour candidate row.

Fair point? Guido points out that media colleagues have reacted to the peerage nomination of 27-year-old former Plaid staffer Carmen Smith rather differently from the way they reacted when former Boris Johnson aide Charlotte Owen was nominated.

Criminalizing PSPSPSPS: An eagle-eyed barrister noticed that the government is attempting to criminalize “inducing” a cat to leave the lawful control of its owner.

A week in the life of Frost: Friend of the newsletter David Frost has written a diary of his week in the Lords for the House Magazine. He makes an argument that the Lords could learn something from the Commons.


UKRAINE UPDATE: Russia imposed sanctions on 18 British citizens including Defense Minister James Cartlidge for what Moscow said was demonizing Russia and escalating the war in Ukraine. Ukraine’s air defense systems meanwhile destroyed 14 out of 17 drones Russia launched — the Guardian has more.

IN HUNGARY: Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán said Serbia should join the EU before Ukraine, arguing the bloc “will lose” Serbia to China otherwise — my colleague Seb Starcevic has further information.

IN SPAIN: At least seven Russian spies traveled to Catalonia in recent years including at key moments in the region’s bid for independence, raising scrutiny about Moscow’s links with separatists — the Times has a writeup.

IN VENEZUELA: Venezuelan human rights activist Rocío San Miguel was detained by officials after being accused of involvement in an alleged plot to kill President Nicolás Maduro — via the BBC.


LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: Channel 5 News (5 p.m.), BBC News at Six and Channel 4 News (7 p.m.) all lead on the Middle East conflict as Israeli strikes in the Gazan city of Rafah kill dozens.

Tom Swarbrick at Drive (LBC, until 6 p.m.): Jewish Representative Council of Greater Manchester & Region Chief Executive Marc Levy (5.05 p.m.) … former United States Army Europe Commanding General Ben Hodges (5.35 p.m.).

BBC PM (Radio 4, 5 p.m.): U.N. Agency for Palestine Refugees Director of Communications Juliette Touma (5.05 p.m.) … former Defense Secretary Ben Wallace (5.30 p.m.).

News Hour (Sky News, 5 p.m.): Israel Defense Forces Spokesperson Peter Lerner (5.30 p.m.) … Unaffiliated peer John Mann (6.30 p.m.).

Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): Former Chief of the General Staff Richard Dannatt (5.15 p.m.) … Labour peer Helena Kennedy (6.35 p.m.) … the FT’s Lucy Fisher and the Spectator’s James Heale (both after 7 p.m.).

Sky News Daily (Podcast, drops at 5 p.m.): Former Royal United Services Institute Director General Michael Clarke.

Politics Hub with Sophy Ridge (Sky News, 7 p.m.): Unaffiliated peer Ian Austin … Royal Society of Arts Chief Executive Andy Haldane … former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell … Onward Director Sebastian Payne.

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC, 8 p.m.): Labour Together Director Josh Simons … London Mayoral independent candidate Rayhan Haque … former UKIP Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans … broadcaster Liz Kershaw.

People’s Forum (GB News, 8 p.m.): Prime Minister Rishi Sunak.


REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): PoliticsHome’s Nadine Batchelor-Hunt and the Telegraph’s Poppy CoburnSky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The New Statesman’s Rachel Cunliffe and the Sun’s Jack Elsom.


GET THAT COOKER ON: It’s pancake day. Mix eggs with flour and milk then chuck the mixture in an already hot frying pan.

But hold off on pancake gorging until … Foreign Secretary David Cameron has faced his monthly questions session in the House of Lords, sometime just after 3 p.m.

COMMONS: Still in recess.


PACKED LUNCH OR PALACE LUNCH: Subject to change, here are the lunch menus on the estate tomorrow: … The Debate: Plant based burger with friend onion rings and cashew nut mayo; Malaysian lemongrass and ginger salmon with peanut satay, vegetables and rice noodles; Southern fried chicken on buttermilk pancakes with grilled corn salsa and ranch sauce … Terrace Cafeteria: Smoked mackerel with celeriac remoulade, roast beetroot and edamame bean salad; Chicken katsu curry with rice; Mushroom and tarragon sausage with roast courgettes and wholemeal pasta puttanesca sauce … River Restaurant: Baked jacket potato with trimmings; Red pepper and halloumi burger served with chips and salad; Piri-piri tuna steak served with garlic and herb new potatoes; Beef bourguignon served with garlic mash and Savoy cabbage (contains alcohol, BTW) … Bellamy’s is closed.

Spotted: Tory uber-centrist Tobias Ellwood and Growth Plan conjurer Kwasi Kwarteng gathered round a laptop screen in Portcullis House.

For your viewing: The first trailer for Scoop — Netflix’s dramatization of the Prince Andrew Newsnight interview — has dropped.

WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: A barnstorming long-read from POLITICO’s own Nick Vinocur on the transformation of Marine Le Pen.

ON THIS DAY IN POLITICS: The lawyer Pat Finucane — and son of current Sinn Féin MP John — was killed on February 12, 1989 by loyalist paramilitaries acting in collusion with the British security services. Then-PM David Cameron apologized to Finucane’s family in 2011, but the family are still campaigning for a full public inquiry.


THANKS TO: My editor Matt Honeycombe-Foster, reporters Noah Keate and Bethany Dawson, plus the POLITICO production team for making it look nice.

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