It’s been a (relatively speaking) quiet week in Westminster with MPs soaking up the end of recess freedom before all hell breaks loose again on Monday in the long lead up to the summer. Briefings and counter-briefings on Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland, the junior doctors’ strike and continued coverage pressure on Labour after their most controversial attack ad in years, gives us a taste of things to come over the next few weeks and months…
Welcome to the weekly roundup from Navigate Politics, bringing you all the top news, publications and movements from UK politics over the past seven days, ensuring you’re fully briefed on the top stories ahead of the weekend. If you know somebody who would find this briefing useful, please do forward it on so they can subscribe and get it direct to their inbox each Friday.
Driving the Week
US President Joe Biden’s visit to Ireland this week has dominated the headlines in an otherwise quite quiet week, as MPs enjoy their final few days of recess before returning to the coalface on Monday. The President, dubbed the ‘most Irish President since JFK’, used the visit to mark the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. After much fanfare over the past few months, the visit took on a far more subdued tone in Northern Ireland, with hopes the Executive would have reformed in time for his visit, going unmet. With no Executive to meet and open criticism by the DUP of some of his past perceived ‘anti-British’ comments, the 46th US President spent a night and half a day in Northern Ireland before sitting down for a brief coffee with Rishi Sunak in Belfast – dubbed a ‘bi-latte’ by the press. Following a speech at Ulster University, he headed to the Republic for a few days for a series of visits, including a speech to the Irish Parliament, a banquet in Dublin Castle and time spent with his sister and son retracing their ancestral roots.
A four day strike by junior doctors is the latest walkout to hit the NHS this week. The strike action, called by the doctors’ union the BMA, stems from claims pay freezes over the past 15 years have seen their pay decrease by 26% in real-terms since 2008. The BMA is demanding a 35% pay rise for all junior doctors, to bring their pay back in line with inflation; something Health Secretary Steve Barclay has called “unreasonable”. The Prime Minister has called for a “reasonable compromise” to be found with the BMA and it appears likely talks between the Department of Health and the BMA, mediated by conciliation service Acas, will begin in the next few weeks; however with neither side currently showing any willingness to move from their position, it is likely further strikes will be down the road.
A controversial Labour attack ad published on Twitter last Thursday afternoon, implying that Rishi Sunak doesn’t think paedophiles should go to prison has been the talk of Westminster all week. The Tweet, which has been viewed a whopping 22 million times so far, has received criticism from politicians of all parties, including Labour MPs and councillors, and the left-leaning press, who have called for it to be deleted. Labour’s leadership team has however doubled down in support of the advert, with critics arguing the party will no longer have a leg to stand on when criticising the Tories of similar tactics. If it’s a sign of things to come, we’re in for a long slog in the lead up to the next general election, which under current thinking is expected in Autumn 2024.
The Week in Stats 📉
15 – The number of hours Joe Biden spent in Northern Ireland during his trip this week, half of which were spent sleeping.
27,000 – Bricks Joe Biden’s great-great-great grandfather sold for the building of St Muredach’s Cathedral in Ballina, Republic of Ireland.
26% – Real-terms cut the BMA is claiming junior doctors’ pay has faced since 2008.
35% – The BMA’s demand for junior doctors’ pay increase.
22 million – Views of Labour’s attack ad arguing Rishi Sunak won’t lock up paedophiles
50 – UK Special Forces serving in Ukraine, according to a leaked Pentagon document
80% – Cut in Twitter’s staff since Elon Musk took over 6 months ago, from 8,000 down to 1,500
£656m – Funding announced this week for the UK’s next generation fighter jet
25 – The number of Tory MPs who have already announced they will stand down at the next election
0% – UK growth in February 2023, following growth of 0.4% in January.
Other Political News
The Labour Party have launched a Five Point Plan to ‘revitalise local high streets’ as campaigning for the local elections was ramped up this week. On a visit to Great Yarmouth ahead of the May 4th election (don’t forget your ID), Labour leader Keir Starmer committed Labour to “working in partnership with businesses and local communities to get our high streets thriving again”. The Plan involves: cutting business rates, funded by taxing ‘online giants’; providing vouchers for energy efficiency measures; tackling late payments; giving Councils more powers to bring empty shops back into use; and tackling anti-social behaviour. The policy announcements come after the Centre for Retail Research found that 17,145 shops on high streets and other locations closed for good in 2022.
Housing Secretary Michael Gove’s proactive approach to governing continued, as he announced new proposals to require people to get planning permission before converting properties into short-term holiday lets in tourist destinations. The measures, which are subject to a consultation, are aimed at supporting people in areas with high numbers of holiday lets to access affordable housing. Locations that are likely to be impacted include Scarborough, North Devon and Norfolk, with research from the BBC last year finding that the number of holiday lets had risen by 40% in just three years. The plans weren’t welcomed by all, with Gove’s predecessor Simon Clarke labelling it as ‘anti-business’, with his tweet even (albeit temporarily) retweeted by current Government Minister Robert Jenrick…
New measures to support people to swap to vaping, and to stop the sale of illegal vapes, have been announced by the Department of Health and Social Care this week, as part of a package to cut smoking rates and youth vaping rates. 1 million smokers will be offered support to quit, with the provision of a vape starter kit and behavioural support, as well as the proposed introduction of mandatory positive messages on cigarette pack inserts. £3m will be invested in a new ‘Illicit Vapes Enforcement Squad’ to enforce the rules on vaping and to share knowledge and intelligence across regional networks and local authorities. A Call for Evidence has also been launched to explore issues such as the marketing and promotion of vapes and the environmental impact of disposable products.
Humza Yousaf’s tenure as Scottish First Minister remains troubled, after it emerged that the auditors of the SNP’s finances had resigned, amid a police investigation into the Party’s finances. With a luxury motorhome becoming a focus of the investigation when it was seized by police, Yousaf said he was unaware one had been purchased as a ‘campaign battle bus’ until he became First Minister. In a bid to perhaps get on the front foot, Yousaf’s Government confirmed it would be launching a legal challenge into the decision of the UK Government to block the Gender Recognition Reform (Scotland) Bill, with Social Justice Secretary Shirley-Anne Somerville arguing the block was an “unprecedented challenge to the Scottish Parliament's ability to legislate on clearly devolved matters”.
50-Day Prime Minister Liz Truss attempted to return to the political foray this week, with a speech to the Heritage Foundation in the USA. Showcasing all her former hits, the MP for South West Norfolk once again defended her tenure, blaming “coordinated resistance” from the “British corporate establishment…the IMF and President Biden”. French President (and friend/foe) Emmanuel Macron was criticised for his recent trip to Beijing, as Truss also advocated for the provision of fighter jets to Ukraine and called on NATO to “fast-track” Ukraine’s membership, a decision which would likely lead to a ‘major war in Europe’. In a move to delight her most-loyal fans, the MP who has spoken once in the House of Commons since her resignation said that despite the “major setback” she suffered last Autumn, she simply “cares too much to give up”, and announced she would be setting out ideas over the coming months about how to “take [her] battle forward”. The London Economic have clipped the best bits from her speech, along with amusing background music for your enjoyment.
Around the World
A huge trove of US intelligence data was leaked, possibly constituting the worst leak in over a decade. The revelations included: that a number of Western special forces are operating inside Ukraine; that the USA was not confident regarding Ukraine’s forthcoming counteroffensive; Egypt had planned to supply missiles to Russia; China has recently conducted tests on an experimental hypersonic missile; and that the USA may have spied on the UN secretary-general and South Korea’s national security advisors, among a number of other stories. The USA warned the leak could compromise its national security, and the UK government alleged it contained large amounts of misinformation. The individual responsible for the leak has since been arrested.
China has concluded a week of military drills against Taiwan after the Taiwanese president visited the USA. The Chinese military undertook exercises in the sea around Taiwan, flew fighter jets over the island and staged live-shooting and missile drills. China also planned to declare a ‘no-fly zone’ over the north of Taiwan, before backing down. The manoeuvres coincided with a visit by French President Macron to Beijing, during which he warned Europe against getting caught in a confrontation between China and the USA.
The Greek parliament has voted to ban the far-right ‘National Party – Greeks’ due to its links to the neo-Nazi ‘Golden Dawn’ criminal organisation. The party was formed two years ago by a former leader of Golden Dawn, who is now serving 13 years in prison for his role in the organisation. The ban was supported by both the ruling centre-right party and the opposition. However, the move has been criticised for its perceived meddling in judicial affairs, with the vice president of the Supreme Court resigning in response.
Egypt and Turkey have held direct talks in an effort to re-establish diplomatic relations after they were cut a decade ago. The Egyptian foreign minster travelled to Turkey for the second time this year to hold talks with his Turkish counterpart, with a joint statement declaring they were taking “concrete steps to raise diplomatic relations to the highest level”. Ties between the two countries were all but severed following the 2013 coup that brought Egyptian President Abdel-Fattah el-Sisi to power.
The health assessment system for benefit support is continuing to let people down, so argues the Work and Pensions Committee in the sole committee report out this week. The committee has criticised the Government for failing to enact changes it recommended in 2018, which it argues have led to the high rate of health benefit decisions reversed on appeal – standing at 69% for the Personal Independence Payment.
Dax Harkins has been appointed the new Chief Executive of National Savings and Investments.
Gareth Keith Hoar has been appointed British High Commissioner to Samoa.
This Week’s Polls
Labour’s lead has narrowed to only 2% in Blue Wall seats, according to the latest polling data from Redfield and Wilton. Since the beginning of their Blue Wall Tracker in October, the most recent results show the joint-narrowest Labour lead and the highest score for the Tories, who gained 4 points in the last two weeks.
Over half of Britons ‘wouldn’t be bothered if Northern Ireland left the UK’, seeing it as decision for the people of Northern Ireland, says YouGov’s latest poll. The poll also found 22% of Britons want Northern Ireland in the UK and 13% believe it should rejoin the rest of Ireland.
Support for striking nurses and ambulance workers remains higher than support for striking junior doctors finds a recent poll from Ipsos published just before the strikes began this week. Whilst the doctors did see a 3 point increase in support (up to 54%), nurses and ambulance workers remain the most supported profession, with 60% of the population supporting their industrial action.
The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report on why the younger generation no longer have substantially more wealth than their recent predecessors did at the same age.
The Resolution Foundation and LSE Economy 2023 Inquiry published a series of essays examining how policy from a range of advanced economies, including the UK, have managed periods of disruptive economic change.
Demos published a paper on using Net Zero for levelling up, focusing on securing a just transition for the Black Country to increase opportunity and growth.
Reform released a report on the power of data to transform population health.
You’ve Got to Laugh
The Prime Minister gave his support to the UK and Ireland’s bid to host the Euros in 2028 this week, with a cringeworthy lovely little video of a football bouncing through 10 Downing Street, topped off with a decent first touch by the main man himself (his beloved Southampton could do with some of that right now….) The 10 stadiums to host matches should the bid be successful have been announced, with 6 in England, and 1 in each of Edinburgh, Cardiff, Dublin and Belfast. The PM has his own challenge coming, potentially in the Autumn of 2024 (h/t Steven Swinford), when he’ll be hoping he and his Party can perform on a ‘wet, windy night in Stoke’, with the Conservatives likely needing to hold onto the three marginal constituencies in the city to win the election.
Joe Biden’s trip to Ireland was briefly overshadowed by a rather unfortunate gaffe on Wednesday, when the US President, referred to the time former Ireland international Rob Kearney (who also happens to be the President’s fifth cousin once removed) “beat the hell out of the Black and Tans” in a 2016 rugby match, mistakenly misnaming the All Blacks. Not ideal given the historic connotations of the Black and Tans in Ireland and the ongoing political situation…
The ‘Awkward Post-Cabinet TV Career’ Moment of the Week Award, goes this week to former Business Secretary Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, in the section of his GB News show named ‘Mail Mogg’… read out an email from his own son who in effect slated some of the show’s content. Gripping stuff.
And we conclude… with this lovely little cameo by Chief Whip and former Secretary of State for Wales Simon Hart, in Wrexham AFC co-owner and Hollywood royalty Ryan Reynolds’ latest skit on Twitter, in which he attempts to help people correctly pronounce his friend and Wrexham co-owner Rob McElhenney’s name, flagging Hart’s mispronunciation in Parliament in 2020 as one example of how not to do it.