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[Insert marbles joke here] | COP out | Ceasefire ends

Downing Street didn’t intend on ending the year in a diplomatic war with Greece (unless the dead cat theorists are to be believed…) but this week’s news has been rather laboriously taken over by arguments over the Elgin Marbles, which even the King seems now to have waded in on. More importantly, as COP28 was beginning, the Gaza ceasefire was ending, with heads of government meeting on the sidelines this weekend to discuss the ever worsening situation…


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 🚨


Is Rishi losing his marbles – a diplomatic row has erupted over the Elgin Marbles (as the Brits call them) or Parthenon Sculptures (as known to the Greeks), over 30 ancient stone sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens, which are held in the British Museum after they were transported to the UK in the early 1800s by Lord Elgin. Sunak cancelled his scheduled meeting with the Greek Prime Minister Kyriakos Mitsotakis at the last minute, instead offering an alternative meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister, following Mitsotakis’ comments calling for the return of the Marbles/Sculptures to Greece and saying that having some of the artefacts in the British Museum and the rest in Athens is “like cutting the Mona Lisa in half.” The Greek PM had met with the opposition leader Keir Starmer earlier in the day, where Starmer expressed Labour’s view that they would not stand in the way of a loan arrangement between the British Museum and Athens. Mitsotakis expressed his disappointment over Sunak’s cancellation, and decided to cut his trip short; meanwhile Cabinet Minister Adonis Georgiadis said “I felt offended and every Greek felt offended” and Greek Government spokesperson Pavlos Marinakis added “Britain’s attitude shows no respect for the Prime Minister and our country.” During PMQs, Sunak took a jab at his Greek counterpart, stating that “it was clear that the purpose of the meeting was not to discuss substantive issues for the future but to grandstand” and claimed that this was “not appropriate.” Starmer responded by cracking a joke, accusing the PM of having the “reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to – perhaps the Home Secretary can help me out…”


The highly anticipated COP28 summit began in Dubai, with political leaders from across the globe gathering to discuss tackling climate change. At the beginning of the week, leaked briefing documents revealed that the UAE planned to use its role as host to strike oil and gas deals with other nations; however, COP28 President Sultan al-Jaber, who is also CEO of the UAE’s giant state oil company Adnoc, denied this. In an unexpected move, the much discussed Loss and Damage fund was brought to the floor yesterday, with countries agreeing to a fund of over $400 million – £60m from the UK – to help ‘poor countries reeling from the impacts of climate change.’ Such an agreement would normally happen at the end of the summit after much debate and discussion, but the motion was passed on day one without a fight, with Mr Jaber stating “we have delivered history.” King Charles III opened today’s proceedings, saying that humans are taking the natural world “outside balanced norms and limits,” and that “harmony with nature must be maintained – the Earth does not belong to us.” The British Prime was also in attendance, announcing a further £1.6 billion “for renewable energy, green innovation and forests, delivering on the historic Glasgow deal to end deforestation” in his press conference, and later addressing the COP28 summit where he cited a “gap between pledges and deliverability” and emphasised the importance of a “just transition” to renewable energy. The leaders of 134 countries, including the UK, US and China, today agreed a major declaration on the future of food and farming, called the Emirates Declaration on Sustainable Agriculture, Resilient Food Systems, and Climate Action; and the UAE has announced a $30bn commitment to the newly launched catalytic climate vehicle ALTERRA, which aims to create a fairer climate finance system and improve access to funding for the Global South. And much more to come we’re sure, as COP28 continues until 12 December.


And of course we have to mention the Israel-Hamas hostage deal, which came to an end this morning. A deal was first reached between Hamas and Israel last week, mediated by Qatar, agreeing to a four-day pause in fighting where 50 hostages would be released in exchange for 150 Palestinians held in Israeli jails, and aid trucks allowed into Gaza. The truce was extended twice, meaning that a total of 110 hostages have now been released. In return, 240 Palestinians – all women and children – were freed from Israeli jails, and hundreds of lorries of humanitarian aid, medical supplies and fuel were let into Gaza. As Palestinian prisoners returned home, they told stories of abuse and collective punishment carried out by guards in the weeks after Hamas’ 7 October attacks. Prisoners described beatings by Israeli prison guards, muzzled dogs being set on them, and having their clothes, food and blankets taken away; and one woman said that female prisoners, herself included, had been threatened with rape. This morning, the seven-day ceasefire collapsed and fighting resumed, as Israel’s Prime Minister Bejamin Netanyahu alleged that Hamas violated the terms of the agreement by refusing to release all the kidnapped women and by firing rockets at Israel. Hamas claimed, however, that it was Israel who had broken the deal by not allowing fuel to be delivered to northern Gaza. The UN has said that the resumption of fighting is “the nightmare that everyone utterly feared,” with the Hamas-run health ministry in Gaza reporting that more than 100 people have already been killed following the resumption of fighting, adding to the nearly 15,000 Palestinians killed since 7 October.


Coming Up Next Week 📆


COP28 has only just begin, with the UK’s headline acts – King Charles and the Prime Minister – delivering speeches today; however the conference continues for another week and a half, with all eyes on the final two days (11th and 12th December) for any big agreements.


ASLEF Union train drivers have begun a week of industrial action across the rail network today, including an overtime ban until Saturday 9th December. Check before you travel.


In the Commons – the Victims and Prisoners Bill has its remaining stages, the Sentencing Bill has its second reading, and there are debates on business and asset ownership transparency and tackling Islamophobia, as well as Labour opposition day debates on Tuesday.


In the Lords – The Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill (carried over from the last session) gets its second reading and there are debates on safeguarding in schools, the UK’s relationship with Latin America, and the Archbishops’ Commission on Families and Households.


On Committee Corridor – Levelling Up Sec Michael Gove, Education Sec Gillian Keegan, and Work and Pensions Sec Mel Stride are in front of their respective select committees; and, amongst other men in grey suits, Home Office Perm Sec Matthew Rycroft is back, this time in front of the Public Accounts Committee after his drubbing by the Home Affairs Committee earlier this week.


The Week in Stats 📉


Almost $429 million – agreed for a Loss and Damage Fund in the beginning days of COP28, funding raised to help the most vulnerable countries pay for the irreversible impacts of climate change. The UK committed £60m to the fund.


£60m – announced by the UK and Ireland to create two new science research centres assessing climate change.


0.2% – rise in house prices over the last month, taking the average house price to £258,557.


6 – days of train strike planned over the next week, beginning with East Midlands Railway and LNER striking tomorrow.


900 – jobs being cut by Barclays as it finds ways to cut costs.


30 mins – length of the new BBC Newsnight, announced as part of the BBC’s plans to save money. The new show will drop its investigative films to focus on studio debates.


2 – grueling days of the Covid Inquiry that former Health Minister Matt Hancock gave evidence at this week.


Other Political News 📰


The Covid inquiry was in full swing this week as UK Health Security Agency Chief Executive Jenny Harries, ex-Health Secretaries Sajid Javid and Matt Hancock, ex-Deputy PM Dominic Raab and Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who was a Cabinet Office Minister at the time, gave evidence on the UK’s response. Hancock told the inquiry that with the benefit of hindsight the UK should have locked down much sooner, stating that entering lockdown three weeks earlier would have cut deaths in the first Covid wave by 90%. He also said a “toxic culture” driven by Dominic Cummings existed in Government and denied accusations that he lied to colleagues during the pandemic. Let’s see what Boris Johnson has to say as he faces a two-day grilling on Wednesday and Thursday next week…


Minimum service levels in education are expected to be in place by the next academic year following the launch of a new consultation that would introduce new protections for children and young people’s education during any future strike action. Proposals include priority attendance for vulnerable children and young people, exams groups, children of critical workers and primary school pupils, as well as the use of rotas for strikes lasting five days or more. Education Secretary Gillian Keegan said that keeping children in school is her “number one priority” as “last year’s school strikes were some of the most disruptive on record for children and parents with 25 million cumulative days lost”.


And on the topic of strikes, members of ASLEF train drivers’ union have voted to continue taking strike action for the next six months in a long-running dispute over pay, with General Secretary Mick Wheelan stating that “we are in this for the long haul.” The announcement comes as drivers at 16 train operating companies begin a week of industrial action. In brighter news, members of the RMT union have agreed to an offer from 14 train companies, which included a backdated pay rise of 5% for 2022-23, meaning members will no longer be involved in industrial action until at least the Spring of next year.


Steve Barclay delivered his first speech as Environment Secretary, as he addressed the Country Land and Business Association’s Rural Business Conference. He said he was “delighted to champion the countryside” as a rural MP and stressed the importance of protecting British farmers, announcing a further £45m for farming innovation. He noted that includes £30m to help farmers invest in robotics and automation to make processes like harvesting more efficient, and roof-top solar equipment to improve the sustainability and resilience of their energy supply.


The Labour Party launched its Plan for Small Business, committing to a range of measures such as legislating to tackle late payments, scrapping business rates, revitalising high streets, and boosting small business exports. Speaking to the Essex Chamber of Commerce earlier this week, Shadow Business and Trade Secretary Jonathan Reynolds argued that “low investment, poor productivity and low growth can only be fixed with a better relationship between Government and the private sector” and stated that Labour’s Industrial Policy will deliver “stability and certainty” for businesses.


Around the World 🌍


The divisive titan of US foreign policy, Henry Kissinger, died at the age of 100. Kissinger served as Secretary of State and National Security Advisor to presidents Nixon and Ford, overseeing the expansion of the US’s involvement in Vietnam into neighbouring Laos and Cambodia; the opening of relations with China; and America’s support for Israel in the 1973 Yom Kippur war. While some see him as a man willing to make hard choices in America’s rivalry with the Soviet Union, others argue he was complicit in war crimes.


New Zealand’s incoming Government has junked its smoking ban, making the UK the only country in the world with plans to limit the sale of cigarettes by age. Introduced last year by new Zealand’s Labour government, the newly-elected National-led government announced it was ditching the plan to fund tax cuts.


Finland closed its entire border with Russia after it accused Russia of channelling asylum seekers towards its border in a “hybrid operation”. 900 migrants crossed the border in November, a massive increase from barely one a day in August. Tensions are high between the two countries since Finland joined NATO last year.


War has resumed in Gaza following a week of peace as both sides traded prisoners. Over the past week Hamas released over 100 of the hostages kidnapped on 7 October, in return for Israel freeing 240 Palestinian prisoners. However, on Friday morning Israeli airstrikes and Hamas rockets were both launched, even though negotiations to resume the ceasefire are apparently still ongoing.


North Korea held local ‘elections’, which were just about as free and fair as you can imagine. For the first time since 1956 votes were recorded against the regime, with 0.09% of the ‘electorate’ voting against the hand-picked candidates. However, it is believed the regime only publicised such opposing votes in an attempt to make the elections appear legitimate, and it is almost impossible to verify what the real results were.


Highlights from Parliament 🏛


The Criminal Justice Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Commons, during which Home Secretary James Cleverly indicated that the Government would be introducing amendments to the Bill at a later stage related to spiking offences and to “restrict the ability of registered sex offenders to change their names in certain circumstances”.


The Data Protection and Digital Information Bill completed its passage through the House of Commons, despite efforts from Shadow Minister Chris Bryant to have the Bill recommitted to a Public Bill Committee after the Government introduced 240(!) amendments to the Bill.


The debate on the Autumn Statement was finally concluded on Monday, with MPs on Thursday then approving the National Insurance Contributions (Reduction in Rates) Bill, which will cut the main rate of National Insurance paid by employees from 12% to 10% from 6 January 2024. The Bill, which will also mean no self-employed person will pay Class 2 National Insurance, is expected to go to the Lords ‘in the middle of December’.


The Automated Vehicles Bill passed its Second Reading in the House of Lords, with the Government Minister Lord Davies of Gower arguing that self-driving vehicles “offer an unprecedented opportunity to improve the safety and connectivity of our road network. Unencumbered by fatigue, distraction, frustration or intoxication”.


MPs got to ask Ministers about COP28, Ukraine, Net Migration, and Israel and Gaza, with Urgent Questions granted on these topics.


The NHS, prescriptions for people on benefits, and early years education provision were all debated in the House of Lords on Thursday.


Committee Corridor 📜


“Proceed with caution", warns the AI in Weapon Systems Committee in its new report on AI in autonomous weapons systems (AWS). While the world of AI brings unknown “risks and opportunities,” the Committee urged that the Government’s “ambitious, safe and responsible” aim to apply AWS be translated into practical implementation. It recommended that the Government adopt a working definition of AWS and require human control at all stages of an AWS’s lifecycle, to ensure human moral agency and legal compliance.


The UK Government needs to increase military assets to support increased defence commitments to the Arctic region, says a report from the Lords International Relations and Defence Committee. The report warns that as the Artic becomes less insulated from geopolitical developments, the Government needs to remain alert to emerging changes. Chair of the Committee Lord Ashton of Hyde emphasised that “it is vital that we maintain sufficient equipment and regular cold-weather training so that those skills are maintained and consolidated.” It called for close international cooperation with Artic states and welcomed the Government’s commitments to advocate for the establishment of marine protected areas.


The Government’s plans to reform the service for disability claimants could result in higher costs and delays, contends the Public Accounts Committee in its new report. The report criticised the Government’s approach to reform, arguing that it relied very little on a claimant’s experiences with the system as it aims to digitalise the services, and that it has not promoted the Programme widely to the public. Deputy Chair of the Committee Geoffrey Clifton-Brown highlighted that the Government’s track record for introducing large IT programmes has not been good and that it should produce reports evaluating the progress of the service against targets and assess whether it would be on track to achieve the benefits it set out to.


Councils should stop “aggressively chasing council tax debt”, says the Levelling Up, Housing and Communities Committee in a new report. The report called for the Government to ensure that councils are not pressuring constituents who are struggling with the cost-of-living crisis. Committee Chair Clive Betts advised that “Councils should not rush to escalate collection activity but consider the ability of the individual to pay, avoid causing distress, and signpost suitable debt advice.” Recommendations included improving data sharing so councils can better identify households in financial need and for the Government to clarify the council tax regulations that provide the framework for governing collection.


The UK Government’s mixed messages could stall the financial sector’s progress on net zero commitments, argues the Environmental Audit Committee in its recent report. It voiced concern for the Government’s ‘comply or explain’ approach as it may lead companies to not have a plan, and urged the Government to make transition plans mandatory for companies. Chair of the Committee Philip Dunne stated that “The Government should implement swiftly its initiatives on mandatory transition plans, a UK green taxonomy, and carbon leakage mitigation measures. Any delay is likely to send mixed messages to the financial sector that the UK is wavering on its ambitions.”


Insufficient recycling facilities may lead to more plastic in landfills, says the Public Accounts Committee in its report. It argues that the lack of clarity that councils have received regarding Defra’s reforms have led local councils unable to invest in recycling services. The report called for clarification about the requirements of the programme and a clear plan in order to meet the target of net zero emissions by 2050.


Key Movements 🔁


The Ministerial portfolios for Defra Ministers were updated following the recent reshuffle. Rebecca Pow MP becomes Minister for Nature, Robbie Moore MP has been appointed Minister for Water and Rural Growth; whilst Lord Benyon was confirmed as Minister for Climate, Environment and Energy. Mark Spencer MP remains Minister for Food, Farming and Fisheries.


Keir Starmer carried out a small reshuffle of his junior ranks to replace those who resigned over the vote on Gaza, with the following Shadow Ministerial appointments made: Steve McCabe MP (Shadow Veterans); Alex Davies-Jones MP (Shadow Domestic Violence); Feryal Clark MP (Shadow Crime Reduction); Ashley Dalton MP (Shadow Women and Equalities); Michael Shanks MP (Shadow Scotland); Jim McMahon MP (Shadow Local Government); Liz Twist MP (Shadow Communities); Karl Turner MP (Shadow Solicitor General); Tan Dhesi MP (Shadow Exports); Chris Evans MP (Shadow Tech and Digital Economy).


Professor Tom Crick has been appointed the new Chief Scientific Adviser at the Department for Culture, Media and Sport.


Philip Hall has been appointed HM Ambassador to Jordan.


Joel Bamford has been appointed Executive Director, Mergers, at the Competition and Markets Authority.


This Week’s Polls 📊


Only 11% of Britons think COP28 will result in significant action on climate change, according to the most recent YouGov poll, with three quarters thinking the conference won’t result in serious change. Compared to last year, there has been a 5% growth in pessimism surrounding the conference, as 70% believed no real action would come from COP27 in Egypt.


52% of Britons think Brexit was the wrong decision for the UK, as we approach its fourth anniversary. A further poll from YouGov examining Brexit opinions also found that 57% of Brits would support rejoining the single market, even if it included free movement of people, while only 22% were opposed to the idea. Maybe one day will see the back of the infamous 52% statistic….


Voting intention in Scotland proves hard to track, as separate polls from Redfield and Wilton and Ipsos put support for the SNP at odds. The former’s most recent Scotland voting intention suggests that Labour lead the polls, at 36%, with the SNP just behind at 34%, the first time Labour has taken the lead. In comparison, the Ipsos poll suggests that the SNP have a 10 point lead over Labour, with the SNP standing at 40%. Both polls put the Conservatives at around 16%.


Think-Tanking 💭


The Centre for Policy Studies published a briefing on ‘the historic rise in net migration and the failure of successive governments in tackling the housing crisis’.


The Institute for Fiscal Studies published a report on the role of privately held firms in income inequality in Finland.


RUSI published a briefing paper on how key partners in the Indo-Pacific have perceived and responded to recent North American and European efforts in the region, and a paper on the UK’s energy security strategy and the challenges posed by oil and gas dependence.


The Institute for Government published its response to Lord Maude’s review on civil service reform, giving it a warm welcome and arguing it will be an important reference document for whoever lives in No.10.


Reform published a report on how to achieve a ‘purpose-led’ economy, a report calling for the urgent improvement of communications within the NHS, and a report on the launch of the Future Public Services Taskforce.


The Institute of Economics published a briefing critiquing the Government’s proposed generational tobacco ban.


The Adam Smith Institute published a report arguing for a better way of building nuclear power facilities in the UK, and new polling on the housing crisis and support for building new homes.


You’ve Got to Laugh 😂


Labour Leader Keir Starmer was in no short supply of jokes for this week’s PMQs, where he brought up the Prime Minister and Greek Prime Minister’s disagreement over the Elgin Marbles that occurred earlier this week. When delivering his final question he stated that it was ironic he took a sudden interest in Greek culture as he has “the reverse Midas touch: everything he touches turns to…”. This followed with a playful dig to Home Secretary James Cleverly who recently delivered an apology to the Commons for his unparliamentary language where he may or may not have called Stockton North a s***hole. Cleverly definitely took the joke better than a Greek newspaper took Sunak…


Jim Shannon is a champion for all causes, well for red squirrels at least. Earlier this week in a Westminster Hall debate on Grey Squirrels, he highlighted the plight that red squirrels have faced since the introduction of American grey squirrels, who are apparently a very aggressive species. To drive home the DUP MP’s point that red squirrels need our help, he stated that “grey squirrels are the Hamas of the squirrel world”. Here’s the video.

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