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Covid WhatsApps | Build not Block | Pestminster Returns

It’s June 2023, and despite Labour’s attempts to own the recess news cycle, this week’s political news has once again been dominated by talk of Boris Johnson, WhatsApps and Covid. With Parliament in recess this, we have a slightly shorter roundup for you but with both MPs and Love Island contestants back on Monday, get ready for the long haul to summer…

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 🚨

Boris Johnson and Covid WhatsApps once again dominated the news this week. The deadline to hand over unredacted messages and notebooks to the Covid inquiry came and went on Thursday. Whilst former PM Boris Johnson has agreed to hand over the unredacted WhatsApp messages dating back to May 2021 directly to the Covid inquiry and asked that his notebooks are passed on, the Cabinet Office has launched a legal challenge to the inquiry's demand. The Cabinet Office which earlier told the inquiry it didn't have all the WhatsApp’s or notebooks is now questioning the relevance of some of what has been requested. The inquiry’s chair Baroness Hallett is adamant that it is up to her to decide what material is relevant to avoid setting a questionable precedent for future inquires, something even members of the Government appear to agree with, as highlighted by Science Minister George Freeman, who told the BBC Question Time audience on Thursday night that he had "very little doubt" a court would find the Cabinet Office should hand over the documents.

A new housing policy, questions over donations and a suspended MP… it was a week of ups and downs for the Labour Party this Whitsun recess. Labour began the week by promising to "back the builders, not the blockers" by giving councils in England the ability to buy land at lower prices through compulsory purchase orders that don’t factor in the value of potential planning permissions, known as the ‘hope’ price. The Government have previous announced plans that would involve giving similar powers to the Secretary of State, but have stopped short of overhauling the entire system. After a good start to the week, the official opposition were then forced onto the backfoot, having to defend the acceptance of £1.5m in donations over the past decade from green energy entrepreneur Dale Vince, who has also donated to the disruptive climate change protest group Just Stop Oil. To add to their woes, Labour has faced further criticism of its internal complaints procedures, after it was forced to suspend Swansea West MP Geraint Davies following multiple allegations, first reported by Politico of sexual harassment towards younger female parliamentary staff and MPs dating back years.

Other Political News 📰

15 – The number of independent MPs in the Commons after Geraint Davies lost the whip over allegations of sexual assault

£7.2 billion – The amount of money the Treasury receives from Inheritance Tax every year, despite calls from Tory backbenchers for its reform.

53% and 59% – The amount that trade with Australia and New Zealand will respectively increase by following the implementation of the trade deals according to the Department for Business and Trade

£528.80 – The average weekly household expenditure for the financial year ending 2022, from ONS data

90% – The percentage of students who graduated in the 2020/21 academic year and went on to further study or work 15 months after graduation

29 – The number of rail strikes as of today since the current round of disputes began

2 – The number of major sporting fixtures disrupted by Just Stop Oil in the last week after their appearances at Twickenham and in front of the England Cricket bus.

10,500 – The number of fish and chip shops in the UK you could visit today, to mark National Fish and Chip Day

£10 million – The cost of upgrades needed for newly promoted Luton Town FC’s current stadium (infamously squeezed between terraced housing) at Kenilworth Road to meet Premier League requirements

7 weeks – Left until the Commons adjourns for summer recess. (Not that we’re counting!)

Other Political News 📰

The Prime Minister continued his jet-set lifestyle with a trip to Moldova for the second meeting of the European Political Community, where he told the gathering of leaders that stopping illegal migration and securing borders should be at the “top of the agenda”. Leading by example, the PM announced that the UK and Georgia had signed a returns agreement deal, while also starting negotiations for a similar deal with Moldova. A new partnership with Bulgaria was also confirmed, aimed at supporting them ‘destroy the business model of organised criminal gangs who are deeply involved in illegal migration.’ Sunak will also be travelling to the USA next week for talks with President Biden, with the agenda expected to include trade, Ukraine, and Northern Ireland.

Boris, Brexit and Bizarre trade negotiations have been in the news, as the UK’s first post trade deals ‘negotiated from scratch’ since leaving the European Union came into effect at midnight on Wednesday. The deals with Australia and New Zealand, which are estimated to increase bilateral trade by 53% and 59% respectively, are expected to reduce prices for UK consumers on goods such as wine, Tim Tams and kiwis. But… it has now been reported by Politico that Boris Johnson, while Prime Minister, had given ‘way on tariffs and product weights’ relating to beef during negotiations at a dinner, with his pledges written down on a piece of paper that was then handed to an aide by Australian High Commissioner to the UK George Brandis on his way to the toilet, with this paper then digitally scanned, turned into a formal trade document, and remarkably signed by Johnson that night. No wonder former Environment Secretary George Eustice said that the UK “gave away far too much for far too little in return.”

It might have been Recess in Westminster this week, but that hasn’t stopped the Government taking steps to end the use of vapes at playtime (sorry…). The Government announced that they would be working to close a ‘loophole’ that allowed free samples of vapes to be given to children in England. There will also be reviews carried out into the sale of nicotine-free vapes, and into the rules on issuing fines to shops selling vapes to under 18s illegally. England’s Chief Medical Officer Professor Sir Chris Whitty (next slide please) wrote a piece for the Times in which he said that ‘marketing vapes to children is utterly unacceptable’, warning that the proportion of 11-15-year-olds using vapes was on the rise from the 2021 figure of 9%.

Artificial Intelligence has remAIned on the Government’s agenda this week, as Interim Science Secretary Chloe Smith MP held a roundtable with senior AI leaders at Downing Street to discuss the opportunities and risks in the UK's AI industry. The discussion focused on the need for safe and responsible AI practices, the UK's role in AI governance and regulation, and non-regulatory measures to support AI companies. Earlier in the week, Smith had delivered the opening speech at the Robotics and Automation Conference, noting that she had also met with CEOs from “three of the world’s foremost AI businesses” and discussed “how we can capitalise on Britain’s unique position of influence”. Reassuringly, the Prime Minister tweeted on Wednesday that the Government was ‘looking very carefully’ at the risk of extinction from AI. Well, there is already a SKYNET programme in the MOD…

Another week in Pestminster and another MP under the spotlight, with the MP for Swansea West Geraint Davies suspended from the Labour Party after he was accused of ‘subjecting younger colleagues to unwanted sexual attention.’ The allegations, which have been denied by Davies, date back at least five years and include ‘excessive drinking, as well as sexual comments and unwanted touching of younger women’, including a 19 year-old. As always seems to be the case, Davies’ alleged behaviour seems to have been an open secret in Westminster, with three female MPs saying they were warned about him in their first weeks in Westminster. A Labour MP and a Labour Peer have also told Sky News that it was ‘well known’ that Davies would bring sex workers into Parliament for drinks. MPs are expected to vote on proposals put forward by the House of Commons Commission to ban MPs and Peers accused of violent or sexual offences from Parliament ‘if they are deemed to pose a risk’, even if they are not charged with an offence by police.

Around the World 🌍

President Erdogan won re-election in Turkey after a runoff against challenger Kemal Kilicdaroglu saw him win 52.2% of the vote. He will now enjoy another five years in power. International observers noted that while the election was ‘well run and gave voters the opportunity to choose between real political alternatives’, media bias and restrictions to freedom of expression created a bias in favour of the incumbent Erdogan. In his victory speech he lashed out against his opponent and “LGBT forces” in Turkey.

A deal has been agreed to raise the USA’s debt ceiling, averting the risk of the country defaulting on its debt when it hit its borrowing limit on 5 June. Following months of wrangling between President Biden and the Republican-controlled House of Representatives, an agreement was formulated which a majority of both parties voted for (although there were grumblings from both liberal Democrats and hard-line Republicans over some aspects of the agreement). The Bill subsequently passed through the Senate, with the debt ceiling now suspended until 1 January 2025 (when the process will undoubtably be repeated all over again).

Spain’s prime minister has called an early general election after his party experienced a drubbing in local elections. The conservative People’s Party exceeded expectations in regional and municipal elections but is likely to have to join coalitions with the far-right Vox, which also increased its standing. In response, socialist Prime Minister Pedro Sanchez announced his intention to dissolve Parliament and hold a general election on 23 July, five months ahead of schedule. It is being regarded a high-stakes gamble which may not pay off.

Kosovo has been rocked by instability after protests by Serbs against the election of ethnically Albanian mayors in Serbian-majority areas led to 30 NATO peacekeepers and more than 50 Serbian protestors injured. Serbian voters had boycotted the mayoral elections, leading to a turnout of just 3.5% and the subsequent installation of the mayors by central Kosovan authorities that many both locally and internationally regard as having no mandate. NATO has since increased its peacekeeping force by 700, and Serbian tennis star Novak Djokovic also waded into the dispute.

Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has continued to come back to bite it with further incidents of fighting taking place inside Russia’s borders. A week after the first significant cross-border raid into Russia, further shelling of the Belgorod region took place, reportedly injuring eight people. This week also saw an alleged drone attack on Moscow by Ukraine, which Russia called “terrorist activity”.

Key Movements 🔁

Theo Clarke MP has been re-appointed the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to Kenya

Conor Burns MP has been appointed the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy to the US for Regional Trade and Investment

Professor Arif Ahmed has been appointed Director overseeing free speech at the Office for Students

Dr James Richardson has been appointed the new Chief Economist to the Climate Change Committee, having served as Chief Economist at the National Infrastructure Commission for the past seven years

Dame Elan Closs Stephens has been appointed Acting Chair of the BBC Board from 27 June for 12 months, or until a new permanent Chair has been appointed

This Week’s Polls 📊

Two thirds of Britons believe that transgender people experience discrimination, though support for gender-affirming measures is mixed, according to the findings of Ipsos’ Pride 2023 survey. The UK’s opinions of gender-affirming measures such as having more than ‘male’ and ‘female’ as options on passports and teenager access to counselling and hormone-therapy with parental consent, were found to be below average, in the bottom 6 of the 30 countries surveyed.

Redfield and Wilton’s latest monthly polling of Starmer vs Sunak saw a 2 point drop in Starmer’s popularity in May when compared with the April results. The most recent findings do still however predict a Labour lead, at 15%, which would still put Labour on track for an outright majority. R&W also found a 6 point drop in Labour support in their most recent polling of Red Wall seats, in comparison to polling undertaken on 14 May.

Only one third of Britons remember the infamous 52/48 Brexit referendum voting spilt, just shy of its 7 year anniversary, according to YouGov. Somewhat unsurprisingly, Remain voters are more likely to correctly remember the exact figures than Brexiteers.

Over half of Britons find Home Secretary Suella Braverman dishonest, whilst 28% remain inconclusive, so found Savanta’s latest polling. The same question was asked about Rishi Sunak, Boris Johnson, Keir Starmer and Jeremy Hunt, with Starmer voted as most honest in the public’s view and predictably Johnson finishing the most dishonest.

Think-Tanking 💭

The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report looking at how public service spending is distributed across the UK population, noting that changes in the composition of spending and rising education participation mean public service spending is more progressive than in the 1980s and 90s.

Onward published a report on the millennial generation exploring their concerns, values and politics, finding only 21% of millennials would vote Conservative in a general election tomorrow.

Policy Exchange published a report on the future of the UK auto industry and the role of Government, warning that the industry is facing a set of problems which could lead to a serious decline in production and employment.

The Social Market Foundation published a report on the state and future of farmed animal welfare in the UK which seeks to identify a ‘working definition and practical measure of animal welfare to understand where we are as a society.’

The IPPR published a report on the social and economic harm of poverty in Scotland, quantifying some of the negative impacts this has in areas such as health and participation in the labour market.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

Who says Twitter diplomacy isn’t just for the likes of Donald Trump… Transport Secretary Mark Harper, that’s who! In what may be one of the most robotic quizzes of all time, the Forest of Dean MP went up against his US opposite number and part-time doppelganger Pete Buttigieg to see who knew the most about their respective nations’ investments in transport. What it lacked in pizazz it made up for in cold, hard facts, revealing, for example that London has 50% more black cabs in London than there are yellow taxis in New York City.

Speaking of Transport Secretaries… your Navigate Weekly Roundup editor has to issue a mea culpa this week for wrongly labelling Energy Security and Net Zero Secretary Grant Shapps as Transport Secretary in last week’s You’ve Got to Laugh section. In our defence, he has served as Secretary of State in four departments in as many years… so it’s been a little hard to keep up.

And finally, love is in the air… the water bottles have been printed, the villa is about to open and an unquestionable number of poolside violations are about to take place. Following popular demand (translation: a number of clients who threatened to withdraw their subscriptions should we refuse…), we can confirm that the Navigate Politics Weekly Roundup Love Island Catch Up will return from next week. Whether you’re a fan of the show or simply want a 60 second rundown of the nonsense that’s taken place from the previous seven days to understand what your teenagers/colleagues/researchers in Portcullis House (delete as appropriate) are talking about, we’re here for you.

We hope you have a better weekend than the Irish Cricket Team are likely to have...


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