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Green & Gone | Pop Con | Stormont Back On

Incredibly we’re already into our first recess of 2024… in what feels like just a few days since the year began. Labour will be hoping for a quiet year ahead after choosing this week to drop their plagued flagship £28bn green spending pledge. Meanwhile, the popcorn was out for the Pop Cons meeting to set their leadership stalls out ahead of the next Conservative Party leadership contest, and government finally returned to Northern Ireland as the Executive’s new ministers began the daunting process of sifting through two years of administrative backlog.

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 🚨

Going, going, gone… as the Labour Party officially confirmed the scrapping of their £28bn annual green investments pledge. Despite saying on checks notes Tuesday that the investment was “desperately needed”, Labour leader Keir Starmer confirmed on checks notes Thursday that they in fact wouldn’t be able to do this, blaming the Conservative Government for the “damage” caused to the economy in recent years. The pledge, labelled the Green Prosperity Plan, would have involved £28bn of Government spending each year under a Labour Government on green energy projects, including on hydrogen, offshore wind, home insulation, flood defences and tree planting. It had become used increasingly by the Conservatives as an attack line, saying that as it involved significant borrowing it would only lead to inflation, but the decision to scrap the pledge was met with criticism from environmental campaigners, trade unions, and many Labour MPs. Starmer did say that his party was still committed to many other green commitment, such as battery factories, more environmentally friendly steel production and the creation of GB Energy. While Labour are still committed to investing just under £15bn a year, only £4.7bn of this is to be new money, and part of the investment package will also be funded by taxes on energy firms’ profits.

The official launch of the Popular Conservativism movement took place this week, and who better to be the lead attraction than the 49-day very popular Prime Minister herself, Liz Truss. The event itself saw Truss accuse the Government of “pandering to the anti-capitalists”, say that they were failing to pursue policies popular with voters, and emphasise the need to challenge “wokery” and “restore faith in democracy”…bold for someone who only became Prime Minister after receiving 81,326 Conservative Party member votes. Before ‘Pop Con’ even began it was hit by a number of glitches, with former Housing Secretary Simon Clarke asked not to speak due to his call on the current Prime Minister to resign, while former Environment Secretary Ranil Jayawardena pulled out the night before, saying he would instead ‘keep making the positive case for growth from the common ground of British politics’. Other highlights include: Jacob Rees-Mogg, former City banker and hedge fund manager, saying voters had “had enough” of Davos man” and economic and political elites; former Conservative Party Deputy Chairman Lee Anderson joking that he and Rees-Mogg “have one thing in common: we both grew up on estates”; and former Neighbours star Holly Valance declaring that “lefties” only had “crap” ideas barely hours before her millionaire husband and long-time Conservative donor Nick Candy praised Labour, calling Keir Starmer “a decent man with good values and good morals”. Despite the laughs, the conference provides a window into what could await the Conservative Party following a potential Labour victory as groups on the ‘Trussite’ wing seek to seize the soul of the party.

Rishi Sunak marked a rare political victory at Stormont. The Northern Ireland Assembly convened last Saturday and elected a First Minister, deputy First Minister and Speaker, re-establishing the Executive precisely two years to the day after it was collapsed when the DUP abandoned power-sharing. Sinn Fein’s Michelle O’Neill made history by becoming the first nationalist First Minister, while the DUP nominated Emma Little-Pengelly to become deputy First Minister. The Executive will constitute Sinn Fein, the DUP, UUP and Alliance, while the SDLP will sit as official opposition. The occasion was marked with visits from Prime Minister Rishi Sunak MP and Irish Taoiseach Leo Varadkar, both of whom pledged support for the Executive and praised the structures of the Good Friday Agreement. Politics as usual returned when the question of funding was raised, with warnings from across the Assembly that the funding package agreed to re-establish Stormont ‘does not provide the basis for the Executive to deliver sustainable public services and public finances’, with O’Neill warning that, after a two year suspension, ministers had "in-trays as long as your arm" (the Prime Minister insisted it was a “generous and fair settlement”. However, this being Northern Ireland, tempers rose when it was revealed that newly-elected Speaker, the DUP’s Edwin Poots, had reportedly said he wanted to have Traditional Unionist Voice (TUV) leader Jim Allister’s “clock cleaned”, following continued TUV criticism of the DUP’s return to power-sharing. Poots insisted no physical violence had been insinuated and that Allister was “being a little sensitive”.

Coming Up Next Week 📆

The House of Commons will be in recess until 19th February.

The House of Lords will meet for 3 days next week, and during that time both the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill and the Victims and Prisoners Bill will go through committee.

On Committee Corridor – Chief Scientific Advisor Dame Angela McLean will give evidence to the Science and Technology Committee on Tuesday. Editors and members from news organisations the Spectator, the Economist, Deloitte, and Savanta will attend the Communication and Digital Committee to discuss the future of news on Tuesday, while Bank of England Governor Andrew Bailey will appear before the Lords Economic Affairs Committee on Wednesday.

The Week in Stats 📉

89 – MPs who have confirmed they’re standing down at the next election, so far.

56 – Conservative MPs who have confirmed they are standing down so far – the highest number since 1997.

800 – People who queued to register outside a new NHS dentistry in Bristol this week.

$47k – The price Bitcoin reached this week – the highest since December 2021.

10 years – within which time new Northern Ireland First Minister Michelle O’Neill has predicted there will be a referendum on Irish unification.

£1,000 – how much Rishi Sunak bet Piers Morgan illegal immigrant deportation flights to Rwanda will take off before the next General Election.

£933,000 – ministerial severance pay given to 97 former ministers in 2022/2023, as flagged in Labour’s opposition day debate this week.

£4m – how much Sadiq Khan said it will cost the Met each year to police the XL bully dog ban in London.

-0.1% – economic contraction economists are predicting took place in the last three months of 2023. If correct, the UK economy is in recession again. All eyes on the official ONS stats out on Thursday.

Other Political News 📰

Buckingham Palace revealed that King Charles has been diagnosed with cancer and commenced treatment at the start of the week. He will continue to undertake State business and official paperwork during this time, but will be taking a step back from public-facing duties. He has been inundated with well-wishes from political leaders, including Prime Minister Rishi Sunak and Labour leader Keir Starmer. And further afield, figures from around the world sent messages too, with French President Emmanuel Macron wishing him a “speedy recovery” and former US President Donald Trump calling him a “wonderful man”.

Artificial Intelligence is set to get a multi-million-pound boost, following the publication of the Government response to the AI Regulation White Paper consultation, which set out over £100 million of funding to support AI innovation and regulation. Nine new research hubs across the UK will deliver “revolutionary” AI technologies, whilst ten six-month scoping projects will define what responsible AI is across education, policing and the creative industries. Meanwhile, a partnership with the US on responsible AI will be launched, alongside a £10m package to boost regulator’s AI capabilities. Science, Technology and Innovation Secretary Michelle Donelan asserted, “the UK’s approach to AI is pro-innovation and pro-safety”… well I suppose you can’t mention one without the other!

The Government have finally set out a plan to tackle the NHS dentistry crisis, offering dentists who set up practice in areas of England with poor access to NHS care a £20,000 bonus. This £20k payment will be available to up to 240 dentists – about 1% of the workforce – with the aim of getting more people to work for three years in the so-called “dental deserts”. Alongside this, the Government have also promised higher payments for dentists who take on new patients, mobile dental services in rural areas with poor dental coverage, and dental teams will visit schools and nurseries to provide supported teeth-cleaning. To support this proposal, an extra £200m will be invested on top of the £3bn currently spent each year.

The new Disability Action Plan was launched, constituting 32 practical actions to “transform” the everyday lives of disabled people, including: new online resources to help councils create accessible playgrounds; a working group to educate businesses on the legal rights of assistance dog owners; and new research into emerging issues affecting disabled people in the UK over the next twenty years. The Cabinet Office’s Disability Unit will also work with other Government Departments to explore bidding to host and deliver the 2031 Special Olympics World Summer Games.

New protest laws on face coverings and pyrotechnics have been announced, giving police powers to arrest protestors who wear face coverings to threaten others and avoid prosecution, with perpetrators facing a month behind bars and a £1,000 fine. Flares and other pyrotechnics will also be banned from protests, and climbing on war memorials will be made a specific public order offence, carrying a three-month  sentence and a £1,000 fine. These measures will be introduced as part of the Criminal Justice Bill, which will also remove ‘the right to protest’ as a reasonable or lawful excuse to commit crimes or disruptive offences, such as blocking roads… not naming names.

And National Apprenticeship Week 2024 took place, this year celebrating the theme ‘Skills for Life’. If you missed this, all you need to know is that over 5.7 million people have started an apprenticeship since 2010 and that Education Secretary Gillian Keegan was once an apprentice herself.

Around the World 🌍

El Salvador’s President Bukele was re-elected for a second term, securing over 84% of the vote. The massive victory represents resounding approval of Bukele’s aggressive measures to tackle El Salvador’s high murder rate and deep-rooted issues with gang violence. However, despite this popularity, Bukele remains controversial, with a report by Amnesty International in December accusing the President of overseeing a "gradual replacement of gang violence with state violence".

Azerbaijan’s authoritarian President Aliyev was also re-elected. The poll was broadly considered a farce, with Aliyev winning 92% of the vote in what one opposition leader called an "imitation of democracy". The election was not due to be held until next year but was brought forward after Azerbaijan seized control of the ethnically-Armenian enclave of Nagorno-Karabakh, resulting in a surge in popularity for Aliyev.

Nikki Haley, Trump’s last remaining Republican opponent, was trounced in the Nevada primary. In an almost laughable result, she won 31% of the vote compared to 63% for the ‘none of these candidates’ option. Donald Trump was not on the ballot due to a dispute between the Nevada Republican Party and the state government and instead stood in an alternative Republican caucus, which Haley boycotted.

Coalition talks in the Netherlands collapsed after the centrist NSC party, which was seen as vital in forming a coalition government, unexpectedly walked away. Its leader cited state finances as the reason for the decision. The move makes the formation of a government led by far-right Geert Wilders, whose PVV party came first in last year’s election, unlikely, although polls suggest PVV would win even more seats if a second election were held.

Senegal’s President Sall suspended elections that were due to be held this month, citing a dispute over the list of approved candidates. Sall is not running and it has been theorised he delayed the election because of the lack of popularity of his party’s candidate. Protests in parliament by opposition members against the move, which led to teargas being fired, could further damage Senegal’s reputation as a stable democracy.

Former Chilean President Sebastian Pinera, 74, died in a helicopter crash in southern Chile. Pinera was Chile’s first elected conservative president since the country’s return to democracy in 1990, and served two terms from 2010 to 2014 and 2018 to 2022. His first term saw rapid economic growth in Chile, but his second was marred by social unrest and police brutality towards protesters.

Russia has barred President Putin’s only serious opponent in its upcoming election. The election authority ruled that a proportion of the signatures anti-war campaigner Boris Nadezhdin had submitted were invalid, resulting in him not meeting the required threshold. Nadezhdin has vowed to escalate the dispute to the Supreme Court, which is unlikely to overturn the Central Election Commission’s decree. Three candidates are now expected to stand against President Putin, with none regarded as genuine challengers.

Highlights from Parliament 🏛

The Finance Bill passed its third reading in the Commons and was sent to the Lords for first reading. The second reading and remaining stages are scheduled for 21 February.  

Opposition Day Debates on banning knives and swords from UK streets, and on reforming ministerial severance were held in the Commons, along with Backbench Business Debates on National HIV Testing Week, and on the management culture of the Post Office.

The Commons also approved the Police Grant Report (England and Wales) 2024-25 and the Local Government Finance Report (England) 2024–25, covering the central police funding allocation for each force, and the annual determination of funding to local government.

In the Lords, the Pedicabs (London) Bill passed its third reading; the Automated Vehicles Bill passed its report stage; the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill completed its committee stage; and the Victims and Prisoners Bill continued its committee stage scrutiny.

Committee Corridor 📜

The UK Armed Forces have key capability and stockpile shortages and are losing personnel faster than they can recruit, so argued the Defence Committee in a report out last Sunday. The report found that the Government will fail to achieve the desired level of high-intensity warfighting readiness without rapidly accelerating reforms to increase and sustain a thriving industrial base and to improve its “offer” to Service personnel.

The Government’s electric vehicle strategy is not progressing quickly enough with consumers facing considerable anxiety around whether and where they will be able to charge EVs reliably, affordably, and quickly, a Lords Environment and Climate Change Committee report concluded this week. Peers highlighted that EVs are still more expensive than their petrol and diesel counterparts, the availability of public chargepoints across the UK is highly variable, and there is a lack of urgency within the Government to deal with the scale of misinformation around electric vehicles

The Bank of England has taken a leap in the dark on quantitative tightening, according to a Treasury Committee report published on Wednesday. In its report, the Committee expressed concern about the uncertainty surrounding potential lifetime losses of £130 billion which could have huge implications for public spending, and concluded the Bank of England has not been able to fully consider the broader economic consequences.

HS2 is now “very poor value for money after Northern leg cancellation”, so concluded the Public Accounts Committee’s first report out this week, which argues the Government has left the Committee with little reassurance over its assertion that whilst Phase 1 will not be value for money, it would still be better to complete it to avoid £11bn of remediation costs from cancelling it altogether. The report also warns there are urgent decisions to be made on funding the development of HS2 Euston, which is dependent on attracting private finance to pay for it.

Urgent reform is needed to improve the independence, accountability and performance of UK regulators, the Lords Industry and Regulators Committee has concluded in its latest report. The Committee called for a fresh approach to overseeing UK regulation, including the creation of an ‘Office for Regulatory Performance’ to investigate and report on regulators’ performance and support Parliament in holding regulators to account.

The Government’s efforts to reduce the harm from illegal drugs are seeing mixed progress, so concludes the Public Accounts Committee’s second report of the week. Whilst welcoming a number of achievements including drug worker recruitment and disruption to supply, the report found less clear progress in reducing drug use and related harms, and noted particular concern that drug use is rising fastest in younger people as the number of under-18s in treatment has fallen sharply.

Key Movements 🔁

The Department of Business and Trade announced two new appointments to the Prime Minister’s Trade Envoy programme. Tom Hunt MP was appointed to Bangladesh and Stephen Metcalfe MP was appointed to Dominican Republic, Panama and Costa Rica.

First Minister Hamza Yousaf carried out a small reshuffle following the resignation of both Michael Matheson MSP as Scotland’s health secretary and Elena Whitham MSP as Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy. The following appointments were made: Neil Gray MSP (Health Secretary); Màiri McAllan MSP (Wellbeing Economy, Net Zero and Energy Secretary); Fiona Hyslop MSP (Transport Secretary); Christina McKelvie MSP (Minister for Drugs and Alcohol Policy); and Kaukab Stewart MSP (Culture, Europe and International Development Minister) – the first woman of colour to enter the Scottish cabinet.

The Northern Ireland Assembly has reconvened after a two-year hiatus. Edwin Poots MLA from the DUP was selected as Speaker, and Sinn Féin’s Michelle O’Neill MLA was made First Minister while the DUP’s Emma Little-Pengelly MLA became Deputy First Minister. The following ministerial positions have been appointed: Aisling Reilly MLA (Junior Executive Office Minister); Pam Cameron MLA (Junior Executive Office Minister); Naomi Long MLA (Justice Minister); Robin Swan MLA (Health Minister); Caoimhe Archibald MLA (Finance Minister); Paul Givan MLA (Education Minister); Andrew Muir MLA (Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs Minister); Conor Murphy MLA (Economy Minister); John O’Dowd MLA (Infrastructure Minister); and Gordon Lyons MLA (Communities Minister).

Former Chancellor Kwasi Kwarteng MP announced that he will be standing down at the next general election.

Deputy Conservative Party chairman Nickie Aiken MP also announced she would not be standing at the next general election, following the news that her husband, Alex Aiken, has taken a position as a communications advisor to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in the United Arab Emirates.

Lindsay William Tulloch was appointed as Lord-Lieutenant of Shetland. He will succeed Robert Walter Hunter following his retirement on 3 April 2024.

This Week’s Polls 📊

66% of Britons have a positive view of King Charles, up from a recent low of 47% in 2017, according to YouGov’s latest tracker, updated following the announcement the King is being treated for cancer. The Prince and Princess of Wales remain the highest scoring royals with 77% and 74% respectively, compared to the Duke and Duchess of Sussex who trail on 28% and 23%.

66% of people think Britain is in a worse place now than in 2010, a Savanta poll on behalf of Left Foot Forward concluded this week. This compares to 14% who think it is better (including a very optimistic 4% of think it’s “much better”).

45% of Scottish voters think the Scottish Government politicised the COVID-19 pandemic, according to a Redfield & Wilton poll. This includes 31% of 2019 SNP voters, which might be one reason why the SNP are down 2% to 33% of voting intention amongst Scottish Voters, compared to Labour’s 34%.

Think-Tanking 💭

The Pensions Policy Institute published a report on the Gender Pensions Gap which found that women would need to work for an extra 19 years to retire with the same pension savings as men.

The Adam Smith Institute published a paper presenting the UK’s first calculation of the cost of restrictions on densifying cities to the UK economy, demonstrating the ‘destructive effects’ of Britain’s planning regulations.

Policy Exchange published a report setting out how the deteriorating threat landscape, and persistent Irish security freeholding, require the UK to rediscover the strategic importance of Northern Ireland to its national security.

The IFS published a report on the Scottish Budget 2024-25; and published a report on the medium-term outlook for the Scottish Government’s funding, and the implications of the funding picture for the choices and trade-offs faced when allocating funding between areas of the Budget.

The IPPR published a report outlining the importance of investing in active travel infrastructure, calling on the Government to ramp up its spending and provide longer-term certainty to local authorities.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

A departmental reshuffle of portfolios wouldn’t usually be anything to chuckle about… but it emerged this week that Andrew Bowie MP, a minister in the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero had a quiet portfolio change in December from Minister for Nuclear and Networks, to Minister for Nuclear and Renewables, after it emerged he had campaigned against the erection of new electricity pylons in his West Aberdeen constituency… the minister for pylons campaigning against pylons (h/t Politico). To be fair to the Minister, it’s not quite in the same league as former PM Liz Truss recently lobbying ministers to expedite an export licence for a local company to sell defence equipment to China, despite describing China as a threat to UK national security…


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