Playbook PM: A lot of hot air — Execution cold feet — Valentine’s Aikens and pains
Presented by Intuit.
By EMILIO CASALICCHIO
Send tips here | Subscribe for free | Listen to Playbook and view in your browser
TUESDAY CHEAT SHEET
— Chinese balloons are still creating a buzz in Westminster, but one expert warns there’s a “lot of hot air” about.
— The U.K.’s jobs stats are unchanged. Labour and the Tories trade blows anyway.
— Scoop: Minister Kevin Hollinrake backs off his former support for capital punishment.
— Which Westminster power couple once had a Valentine’s car crash?
**A message from Intuit: Investing in small businesses and the accountants that serve them has the potential to spur job creation, spark innovation, and support the UK economy. Intuit asked accountants to share what they think about small business finances in a changing economy. Here’s what they said.**
TOP OF THE NEWSLIST
A LOT OF HOT AIR: Westminster is still chattering about the Chinese balloon thing, despite defense experts arguing it’s a lot of “hot air.”
Kim, OK: The latest news line came from former British Ambassador to the U.S. Kim Darroch, who told Times Radio he wasn’t all that confident the U.K. really has the tools it needs to intercept surveillance aircraft having “underinvested in defense for the last couple of decades.” He reckons the public shouldn’t get too worried, but says British anti-balloon prowess isn’t quite “watertight.”
Of course … that cuts against what PM Rishi Sunak said this week, when he insisted the government has “all the capabilities in place” to keep the nation safe.
The thing is: This whole saga is no big deal, according to Juliana Seuss, a research analyst with defense experts RUSI. “Aerial surveillance is not without precedent, so it’s not a huge surprise to see this kind of thing,” she told Playbook PM. “The noise around it from the media and commentators is a lot of hot air.”
Indeed: “The fact there are eyes on the U.S. is not surprising or unusual,” Seuss went on, adding that balloons have been around since the French revolutionary wars and so are not a new tactic.
Nevertheless: She did note that using the hot air method of snooping isn’t so common in the modern age. The benefit is being able to hover over one point for a sustained period of time. That’s unlike satellites, which move fast and at such high altitude that their images are of lower resolution. “You have more sustained surveillance over a certain specific area than you would with a satellite,” Seuss said.
How did Washington miss this? The U.S. has admitted these things were floating around for a while before being detected, although there are questions over quite why a global superpower with the latest in defense tech didn’t spot a UFO in its airspace much sooner. Seuss said it’s quite plausible that an item could move under (or over, in this case) the radar. It’s also hard to track objects moving at unusual heights and on unusual trajectories, which is the case here.
Rest assured, this is a recess thing: Seuss doesn’t expect significant retaliation from the West, assuming the balloons contained the usual imaging and surveillance equipment: “I would be surprised to see it get blown up into a huge diplomatic spat.” More thoughts here.
Bad timing, though: The expectation in Whitehall appears to be that the controversial visit of the governor of Xinjiang to London will no longer take place, after my POLITICO colleague Stuart Lau revealed he has cancelled trips to Paris and Brussels. Could relations be on course for a new low?
Oh, and: People in the U.K. should stop using TikTok over Chinese data-gathering concerns, former Governor of Hong Kong Chris Patten told Times Radio. Good luck telling that to dance clip-crazed Gen-Z-ers who talk in permanent hyperbole. They might end up “literally crying.”
JOBS, JOBS, JOBS: The jobless rate was unchanged at 3.7 percent in the three months to December, according to the latest ONS figures. That’s the same as for the three months to November, while regular earnings growth was the highest seen since the pandemic at 6.7 percent.
The reaction: Chancellor Jeremy Hunt said “unemployment remaining close to record lows is an encouraging sign of resilience in our labor market,” while his Labour counterpart Rachel Reeves accused the government of “sitting back and following this path of managed decline.”
Worth a read: This Chris Giles thread pointing out that all concerned seem to look at the job stats and see their own thoughts reflected back.
Oh, and: PolHome’s Adam Payne reports that a planned government review of workforce shortages intended to help manage immigration has been postponed.
GPC FILES LATEST: Guido has been going all CCHQ turning the Labour narrative on expenses right back on the opposition.
DRAIN THE SWAMPS: Campaigners at the Good Law Project and other groups secured a High Court hearing over claims the government is not being ambitious enough in its sewage dumping reduction plan. The government argues reduction requires serious new infrastructure and is expensive, so cannot be rushed.
LABOUR UNITY LATEST: Four London Labour MPs have come out against Sadiq Khan’s expansion of the controversial Ultra Low Emissions Zone, Henry Riley reported for LBC Radio.
WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: Rishi Sunak and his trade chief Kemi Badenoch launched a deal for British firms to provide new planes for Air India.
HAPPENING NEXT WEEK: Sunak also announced a national one minute’s silence on February 24 to mark one year since the invasion of Ukraine.
SCOOP: A minister in the Department for Business and Trade who once backed reintroducing capital punishment no longer supports the death penalty. Prior to becoming a Conservative MP in 2015, Kevin Hollinrake was asked by Total Politics whether he supported bringing back the death penalty. He said: “I probably would actually for very serious offenses. I would. For crimes against children, that kind of thing, yes, I would.”
But but but: Asked by my POLITICO colleague Seb Whale if this was still his view, Hollinrake responded: “In a perfect legal system I would support the death penalty, but recognize the limitations of the legal system. That being the case, I do not favor reintroduction.”
WHO’S UP, WHO’S DOWN: An SW1 mole who likes to stir the pot points out to Playbook PM that the new listing of ministers on the government website puts Communities Secretary Michael Gove below Energy Secretary Grant Shapps and Innovation Secretary Michelle Donelan. Here’s the previous version for reference.
COMING ATTRACTIONS: Center-right think tank Onward is publishing a pamphlet toward the end of this week on how the U.K. could compensate for the potential loss of its membership of the EU’s Horizon Europe R&D program, with contributions from Science Minister George Freeman and former Downing Street science adviser James Phillips.
POWER COUPLES SCOOP: Alex and Nickie Aiken, one of the couples on Annabelle Dickson’s incredible Power Couples list, have a tradition of quiet nights in on Valentine’s evening in the wake of one rather hazardous February 14. On a convoy back from Wales when the pair were dating, Alex crashed into Nickie’s car on the A470 roundabout by Castell Coch and gave her whiplash. The bus driver who stopped to check she was OK couldn’t understand why the man who had just hit the back of her car was embracing her. The pair were married in Cardiff Castle three years later.
Reminder: Annabelle’s piece is well worth a read. And for the skeptics out there, pointing out the connections at the top of political life (in a fun way people actually want to read) is in the public interest.
Better luck next time: Felicity Cornelius-Mercer says she was “robbed” after ranking 25th on the list with hard-man hubby Johnny Mercer.
More Valentine’s fun: The new Unherd bistro, aka the Old Queen Street Café, has been giving away free champers this lunchtime in honor of the Roman saint. “It was hilarious to see half of SW1 cheers-ing each other over business meetings,” one eyewitness told Playbook’s Rosa Prince.
**Kemi Badenoch, United Kingdom secretary of state for business and trade and Jane Hartley, United States ambassador to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Irelandwill speak at POLITICO U.K. 2023 event on February 21. Register today to follow the discussion online.**
BEST VALENTINE’S SOCKS AWARD GOES TO … Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride, who showed off these puppies on Twitter.
AROUND THE WORLD
NOT A GOOD LOOK: Indian tax authorities searched the BBC offices in New Delhi and Mumbai, a few weeks after the broadcaster released a two-part film investigating Prime Minister Narendra Modi’s role in the 2002 religious riots that killed hundreds in the western state of Gujarat. More here from POLITICO.
OVER IN WASHINGTON: Former Ambassador to the United Nations Nikki Haley announced she is running for president in 2024.
**A message from Intuit: We asked Mrs. Rachel Harris, Founder of @accountant_she in Stokenchurch: What have policymakers done in the past to improve success for your clients? What should they strive to continue to do or expand? ‘The COVID support did a lot to help my clients. Something similar but expanded during a recession would be good news for small businesses.’ Learn more here.**
TONIGHT’S MEDIA ROUND
BBC PM (Radio 4, 5 p.m.): Unite national officer Des Quinn … Welsh Deputy Climate Minister Lee Waters … Former Pensions Minister Steve Webb.
Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): Sun on Sunday Political Editor Kate Ferguson and New Statesman columnist Rachel Cunliffe.
Farage (GB News, 7 p.m.): Bromley Council Leader Colin Smith … the Taxpayers’ Alliance’s John O’Connell.
Piers Morgan Uncensored (TalkTV, 8 p.m.): Presented by Richard Tice and Isabel Oakeshott with former deputy Prime Minister Michael Heseltine.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Conservative peer and elections expert Robert Hayward … Human rights campaigner Peter Tatchell … Former Labour MP Stephen Pound … Columnist Janet Daly.
The World Tonight (Radio 4, 10 p.m.): U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: Talk TV (10 p.m.): Times columnist Matthew Parris and chief leader writer at the Observer Sonia Sodha … Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): FT Political Editor George Parker and Politics.co.uk Political Correspondent Alicia Fitzgerald … Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): i newspaper columnist Ian Dunt and Telegraph Chief Political Correspondent Camilla Turner.
LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: Channel 5 News (5 p.m.) focuses on Nicola Bulley’s disappearance including an interview with her next door neighbor Charlotte Drake and former Dorset Police and Crime Commissioner Martyn Underhill.
PRICING UP: The latest Inflation figures will be out at 7 a.m.
BROKEN BRITAIN: Uni staff are still on strike, while teaching unions are expected to meet with Education Secretary Gillian Keegan over their dispute.
WINDOWS OF OPPORTUNITY: PM Rishi Sunak meets Bill Gates to talk life sciences and green tech.
BATTLES IN BRUSSELS: Defense Secretary Ben Wallace is in the EU capital meeting fellow Nato ministers.
**POLITICO Pro is launching Pro Tech UK, providing our readers with exclusive coverage of U.K. tech policy. Starting February 27, its newsletter, Morning Tech UK, will zoom in on Britain’s regulatory approach to a fast-changing sector. Want this in your inbox for four weeks, free of charge? Sign up here.**
ANY OTHER BUSINESS
PACKED LUNCH OR PARL LUNCH: Subject to change, here are the lunch menus on the estate tomorrow: The Debate: Tofu and vegetable katsu curry on garlic naan and cous cous; cajun grilled haddock with courgette; aubergine and sweet potato; lamb bobotie … Terrace cafeteria: Vegetarian burger; haddock kedgeree; turkey and bacon carbonara.
SPOTTED: Labour leader Keir Starmer on a family break at Ashdown Park Hotel (described as “the finest luxury country hotel in Sussex”) last weekend.
NEW GIG: Former transport department comms chief George Kotschy has joined Portland Communications.
NEW GIG II: Dods Head of Political Intelligence Laura Hutchinson is off to head up public affairs for Citizens’ Advice.
NEW GIG III: Cabinet Minister Michelle Donellan managed to nab Abigail Morris, the director of comms at what was the business department, to head up comms at the new Department for Science Innovation and Tech.
WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: The BBC has a nice profile of Lord Pannick, the crossbench peer who argued against Boris Johnson over his prorogation of parliament, but is now batting for the ex-PM in his battle over parties in Downing Street.
SUBSCRIBE to the POLITICO newsletter family: Brussels Playbook | London Playbook | London Playbook PM | Playbook Paris | POLITICO Confidential | Sunday Crunch | EU Influence | London Influence | Digital Bridge | China Direct | Berlin Bulletin | D.C. Playbook | D.C. Influence | Global Insider | All our POLITICO Pro policy morning newsletters