Sunday Crunch: How to spend it — At the Sharp end — Secret summit
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By ANNABELLE DICKSON
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Good Sunday afternoon and welcome to a new political week.
THINGS TO KNOW
HOW TO SPEND IT: It’s just over a month until Chancellor Jeremy Hunt delivers his March 15 budget. With earthquake-hit Turkey and Syria dominating the news agenda, and the first anniversary of the outbreak of war in Ukraine fast approaching, exactly how much of Britain’s hard hit finances should be spent on aid and defense is in sharp focus this weekend.
Mitchell the aid web: Andrew Mitchell, now the foreign office minister overseeing development, spent much of his government media round today being confronted by his punchy past statements about decisions to cut Britain’s aid budget. “Collective responsibility fortunately is not retrospective,” he quipped in his BBC interview when asked. He insisted his job now is to “try and make the system work as well as possible.” Asked about whether the Tories would commit to the previous 0.7 percent of Gross National Income aid figure at the next election, Mitchell said its promised return “cannot come soon enough.”
What would Labour do? Shadow Leveling-Up Secretary Lisa Nandy to Sky’s Sophy Ridge while Labour can’t make commitments to immediately start funding its priorities in government, it will return to the 0.7 per cent commitment “as soon as it’s practically possible.”
About those cuts: Asked on Sky about the impact of the U.K.’s Syrian aid package being cut in half, Mitchell admitted the budget was “under very considerable stress,” but insisted “a great deal of money” is still being spent in the region. “We’re doing what we can, and we are having a big effect on the ground,” he insisted.
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Big budget Brits: Mitchell also highlighted that Britain was one of the first to contact the Turkish government to ask how it could help after the earthquake. The U.K. has been sending money for the White Helmets, the volunteer organization which operates in parts of opposition-controlled Syria, to put fuel in their cars, cover rent and hire equipment.
Sanctions under review: Beyond the size of the aid budget, the big news line of Mitchell’s morning media round was his assurances that the U.K. could follow the United States’ lead in reviewing its sanctions policy if it needs to. The U.S. temporarily eased its restriction on Syria this weekend to speed up aid deliveries to the country’s north-west. Mitchell insisted that “where sanctions would hold us back in any way, we would seek to have them lifted,” although he stressed that, at present, the U.K. is able to get what it needs into the country.
No aid to China: One other news line of the morning was Mitchell’s declaration on Sky’s Sophy Ridge show that “we shouldn’t be giving aid to China,” amid reports assistance cash is still being sent to the superpower.
Wars cost money: It’s not just Mitchell trying to squeeze cash out of the Treasury as the budget looms. The papers are full of pitches for more defense spending. An aptly-timed briefing which suggests the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is vying for up to £10 billion in extra cash makes it into the Sunday Times long read today. The Mail on Sunday has a splash pushing that case too. The paper cites MoD “sources” standing up reports in the German press that Nato has asked Berlin to remain in charge of its rapid-reaction force because Britain cannot spare the 5,000 personnel required. The MoD hit back at the “completely untrue” claim in a punchy tweet.
Line to take: On defense spending, Mitchell told Sky’s Sophy Ridge that Hunt “made significant announcements” back in the autumn statement and that the government had “stepped up” with extra money. A long-trailed refresh of the government’s integrated review, it’s foreign and defense policy blueprint, is “likely to be announced in March,” he said.
Now read this: Defense Secretary Ben Wallace sat down with the Sun on Sunday and says Britain will stand by Kyiv until “they push the last Russian out” claiming Britain knows what it is like to have stood alone against a tyrant’s gunfire during the Second World War.
Made in Ukraine: The Telegraph meanwhile says British weapons and military vehicles could be manufactured in Ukraine under license, a sign of plans for a long-term strengthening of ties between the two countries.
Coming attractions: Expect plenty more Ukraine debate this week. NATO defense ministers are due to meet in Brussels this week, with NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg taking questions from journalists at a press conference tomorrow. The Sunday Times says Labour leader Keir Starmer and House of Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle are due to visit Kyiv in the coming weeks, and U.S. President Joe Biden is expected to visit Poland on the eve of the anniversary of the war between February 20 and 22.
Big decisions: Poland’s President Andrzej Duda told the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg that sending F-16 aircraft to Ukraine would be a “very serious decision” because they comprise Poland’s “only stock of jets.” It is “not easy to take” the decision to provide Ukraine with the fighters it says it needs, Duda told the BBC.
AT THE SHARP END: BBC Chairman Richard Sharp is having another torrid weekend after MPs on the digital, culture, media and sport committee went for the jugular. They’ve accused him of a “significant error of judgment” in failing to reveal his role in facilitating a loan of up to £800,000 for Boris Johnson at the time he was grilled by the committee for the BBC job.
In quotes: Stand-in DCMS committee chair Damian Green, said the public appointments process “can only work effectively if everyone is open and transparent, yet Richard Sharp chose not to tell either the appointment panel or our committee about his involvement in the facilitation of a loan to Boris Johnson.”
And he added: “Such a significant error of judgment meant we were not in the full possession of the facts when we were required to rule on his suitability for the role of BBC chair.”
Over to you BBC: Mitchell did not exactly ride to Sharp’s rescue, bigging up the committee in his interview this morning. He insisted on Sky it was a “matter for the judgment of the BBC” and the commissioner for public appointments (something the BBC’s Laura K later pointed out isn’t quite the case.)
Untenable: Labour smells blood. Lisa Nandy told Sky the report was a “really serious development” and made Sharp’s position “increasingly untenable.” It is, she said, “becoming more and more difficult to see how Richard Sharp can continue in that role.”
BBC unhappiness: DCMS committee member and SNP MP John Nicholson said he had been deluged with messages from unhappy BBC staff saying they didn’t see how Sharp could stay in post.
Sharp words: A spokesman for Sharp told the Sunday Times, among others, that “he believed he had dealt with the issue by proactively briefing the cabinet secretary that he was applying for the role of BBC chair, and therefore beyond connecting Mr Blyth with Mr Case, he recused himself from the matter.” He said “it was explicitly agreed that by not being party to the matter going forward he would be excluded from any conflict.” But he “appreciates that there was information that the committee felt that it should have been made aware of in his pre-appointment hearing. He regrets this and apologizes.”
Never change, BBC: The BBC obviously asked BBC Chairman Richard Sharp if he would like to be interviewed by the BBC and he declined the kind offer from the BBC.
PROTEST FALLOUT: The U.K.’s treatment of asylum seekers is back in the spotlight after riot police were called to protests outside a hotel in Knowsley, Liverpool, where asylum seekers are being held.
What went down: The Liverpool Echo has more details of what happened on Friday night. It reports that 15 people were arrested after protestors lit fireworks which were thrown at police officers, while a van was also set out fire.
Speak with one voice: In a tweet on Saturday, Home Secretary Suella Braverman said the “alleged behaviour of some asylum seekers is never an excuse for violence.” Mitchell told Laura K the violence on Friday night was “completely unacceptable” and the government condemned it “absolutely.”
But but but: On the BBC, Nandy said a “small number of far-right activists” had been whipping up hate and hostility — and urged politicians to “speak with one voice” in condemning them.
She claimed asylum seekers are being given “no support whatsoever” and that communities are also not being consulted about housing asylum seekers in their local area, something she called a “recipe for disaster.” The Labour frontbencher also pinned some of the blame on ministers, saying a government “that talks about things like ‘an invasion’” created “a perfect storm” and “a really toxic mix.” She stopped short of calling for a local veto on housing asylum seekers, simply saying: “I think they should have far greater powers over what happens in their communities.”
Scaling back: Mitchell told Laura K the government “is trying very hard to stop the excessive use of hotels.”
MAKE BREXIT WORK: A scoop to raise the blood pressure of diehard Brexiteers from the Observer’s Toby Helm this morning. He reports that MPs including Brexit campaign supremo Michael Gove and senior members of Keir Starmer’s shadow cabinet attended a two-day gathering “in high secrecy” to address the failings of Brexit and discuss how to remedy them. As well as senior Labour and Tory politicians from both sides of the Brexit debate, there were diplomats, defense experts and the heads of some of the biggest businesses and banks at the Ditchley Park retreat in Oxfordshire on Thursday and Friday.
Closer ties: It comes after Bloomberg’s Alex Wickham on Saturday looked at how senior civil servants have been drafting proposals for ways Britain can work more closely with EU nations in areas including defense, migration, and “so-called economic statecraft which includes issues such as trade, energy and international standards.”
Right on cue: The so-called secret summit is manna from heaven for one Nigel Farage. “The full sell-out of Brexit is underway. This Tory party never believed in it,” he harrumphed last night.
But what about this? In public, at least, Sunak’s top team are talking tough. Science, Innovation and Technology Secretary Michelle Donelan uses a piece in the Telegraph this morning to reiterate the threat that the U.K. is “more than ready to go it alone” working with “science powerhouses such as the US, Switzerland and Japan” if it can’t associate with the EU’s Horizon research project. The piece also serves as an interesting pitch for why she is the woman for the newly-created job, citing her role in the creation of the Wiltshire Festival of Engineering and Manufacturing.
Loan allegations: The Mail on Sunday hears that Tory MPs have been approached with a £400,000-plus “bribe” to defect to the Reform party. A Reform spokesperson said the claim was “desperate nonsense” and “shows how worried the Tories are about the impact of Reform.”
WARBURTON LATEST: David Warburton, the MP suspended from the Conservative Party over claims of drug-taking and misconduct, is facing fresh financial allegations in the Sunday Times.
TAX DOESN’T HAVE TO BE TAXING: Trussonomics fan John Redwood popped up on Sky’s Sophy Ridge show this morning to say that the low-tax Conservative Growth Group is “gathering strength” with dozens of Tory MPs now on board. On the same show, Mitchell argued that tax cuts that are not properly funded are merely borrowing — and spoke of his concern about intergenerational unfairness in Britain.
KEEP OUT OF IT: The main media round objective for Lisa Nandy was hammering home Labour’s demand for Whitehall to stay out of local issues like fixing up bus shelters and the location of public benches. The Sunday Mirror has a write-up and says “the government’s nosy parkers even insist councils get their go-ahead to scrape chewing gum off the streets.”
But would they give local government more funding? “We’ll end this absurd Hunger Games-style competitive bidding process where we bid for small pots of money back and will line up national government budgets behind local growth plans to get every part of our economy growing,” Nandy said.
Another line of attack: Labour also wants to go big on the sums government ministers and officials have been spending on luxury travel and hotels, and is planning a social media blitz to hammer home the point, according to the Observer. We can expect Labour to drop its dossier tomorrow. The Conservatives say the information is already in the public domain and that’s only thanks to more Whitehall transparency from the Tories.
DOWNED AGAIN: U.S. President Joe Biden and Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau jointly made a decision to shoot down an unidentified object violating Canadian airspace on Saturday. POLITICO has more on the latest shoot-down.
BRITCOIN QUESTIONS: POLITICO’s Hannah Brenton looks at the U.K.s entry into the digital currency market, but writes that there are big questions over the use case for these digital banknotes, and how they would work in practice.
CORRUPTION DANGER: In an opinion piece on POLITICO this weekend, the Atlantic Council’s Adrian Karatnycky argues that corruption scandals of the kind that have hit Ukraine’s defense ministry are likely unavoidable given the sheer scale of the war-time budget it’s dealing with.
Ayesha Hazarika on Times Radio (4 p.m. to 7 p.m.): Former diplomat Valerie Amos; Tory MP Alec Shelbrooke; Labour MP Graham Stringer; Lib Dem MP Munira Wilson and the Mail on Sunday’s Claire Ellicott.
Gloria Meets on GB News (6 p.m.): Tory MP Danny Kruger; Social Mobility Minister Mims Davies; Education select committee chairman Robin Walker.
Westminster Hour (BBC Radio 4, 10 p.m.): Tory MP Chloe Smith; House of Lords Labour leader Angela Smith; More in Common’s Luke Tryl; the FT’s George Parker.
PARLIAMENT: In recess all week.
NATO: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg to hold a press conference, 12 noon.
STRIKES: British Museum staff begin a week of strike action.
UKRAINE: U.S.-led Ukraine Defense Contact Group to meet in Brussels to discuss allied military support followed by a meeting of NATO defense ministers.
ECONOMY: U.K. unemployment stats released, 7 a.m.
STRIKES: University staff begin three-day walkout.
INQUIRY: Preliminary COVID-19 inquiry hearing on pandemic preparedness, 10.30 a.m.
ECONOMY: U.K. inflation figures released, 7 a.m.
NATO: NATO defense ministers continue meeting in Brussels.
ENERGY: Centrica releases latest financial results.
HOME AFFAIRS: Labour’s Yvette Cooper gives a speech on law and order at the Institute for Government, 10 a.m.
STRIKES: Northern Ireland health and ambulance staff begin two days of strike action.
EX-PM: Liz Truss speech to the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China in Tokyo.
DEFENSE: Munich Security Conference kicks off.
STRIKES: Border Force staff begin three-day strike, and West Midlands ambulance service staff strike.
LABOUR: Scottish Labour Party annual conference begins.
Thanks: To Matt Honeycombe-Foster for his editing brilliance.
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