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On the Horizon | Red Sea Retaliation | Sunak Backing Ukraine

In Westminster’s first week back of the new year, when the Government had hoped to be setting the news agenda, Ministers (and party leaders on all sides to be fair) have been firmly on the back foot, scrambling to deal with the sudden and dramatic fallout from the Post Office Horizon scandal. If this week tells us anything about the political year to come, it’s that very little of it is likely to go to plan…

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 🚨

Full justice and compensation for the postmasters may finally be on the Horizon. Years after 700 postmasters were wrongfully convicted of or charged with theft and fraud by the Post Office due to the faulty Horizon software, which led to prison time, bankruptcy and even suicide for some, public outrage pushed the Government into taking immediate action. The success of the ITV drama Mr Bates vs The Post Office, and the subsequent outcry, pushed more developments to take place this week than have occurred over the last decade. With the Prime Minister having declared he was keen to see the postmasters compensated “as quickly as possible”, the Justice Secretary set about examining ways to exonerate all of the victims. The explosion of charity and goodwill did nothing to stop the political accusations flying: it quickly became public that the Crown Prosecution Service, while under Keir Starmer’s leadership, had prosecuted several postmasters; while others demanded the Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey resign, after it was revealed he had turned down a meeting with a postmaster when he was Postal Affairs Minister from 2010-12 (he claims he was ‘misled’ by the Post Office). Amid it all, former Post Office CEO Paula Vennells was browbeaten in handing back her CBE, which she was awarded in 2019. At PMQs the Prime Minister unveiled the Government’s solution: new primary legislation which will ‘swiftly’ exonerate and compensate all the victims. Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake accepted that legislative intrusion in judicial matters was an “exceptional step”, but insisted “these are exceptional circumstances”.

The US and the UK conducted direct military action in Yemen following increasing missile and drone attacks on merchant shipping in the Red Sea from Iranian-backed Houthi rebels. Defence Secretary Grant Shapps declared in Parliament that there would be “consequences” and that the countries coordinating military action to protect against the attacks through ‘Operation Prosperity Guardian’ were “prepared to take action if required”. Tuesday night saw ‘the largest attack on a Royal Navy warship in decades’, with eighteen drones, two cruise missiles and one ballistic missile intercepted by US and UK warships stationed in the Gulf. The US and the UK subsequently undertook air strikes against Houthi targets in Yemen, with UK jets targeting a site in ‘north-western Yemen used to launch reconnaissance and attack drones’ and an airfield that ‘has been used to launch both cruise missiles and drones over the Red Sea’. The fact that Parliament was not consulted created consternation, with the Liberal Democrats demanding Parliament be recalled (of course) on Friday to hold a retrospective vote, while Keir Starmer said that Labour supported the operation but demanded the Prime Minister make a statement. With the Houthis having close ties to Iran and the region being so inflamed over the conflict in Gaza, the risk of escalation is serious.

The UK will provide Ukraine with £2.5bn in military aid in 2024-25, £200m more than in the previous two years. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak unveiled the package of support during a surprise visit to Kyiv today, where he met President Zelenskyy and Ukrainian emergency workers. The funding package will provide support such as ‘long-range missiles, air defence, artillery ammunition and maritime security’ and £200m will be ringfenced to ‘rapidly procure and produce thousands of military drones for Ukraine, including surveillance, long-range strike and sea drones’, which will comprise ‘the largest delivery of drones to Ukraine from any nation’. The Government had been under increasing pressure to declare the figure, with even former Defence Secretary Ben Wallace airing his frustration in Parliament this week that it had not been announced . Sunak and Zelenskyy also signed a ‘historic UK-Ukraine Agreement on Security Cooperation’, which delivers on the security commitments made by NATO countries to Ukraine last year and both: ‘formalises a range of support the UK has been and will continue to provide for Ukraine’s security’; and commits the UK to consult with Ukraine and provide it with ‘swift and sustained’ support ‘in the event it is ever attacked by Russia again’.

Coming Up Next Week 📆

In the Commons – The Government’s asylum plans take up much of the focus next week with the Rwanda Bill considered by a Committee of the Whole House on both Tuesday and Wednesday. The  Animal Welfare (Livestock Exports) Bill will also be considered by a Committee of the Whole House on Monday, and backbench business debates on the loan charge and HS2 compensation will take place on Thursday. Next week also includes a Private Members’ Bill Friday, one of only a handful of Fridays across the parliamentary session where the House of Commons sits to consider PMBs from the lucky few MPs who topped the ballot list.

In the Lords – The Automated Vehicles Bill will go through days 2 and 3 of its committee stage, the report stage of the Trade (Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership) Bill will take place, and the Post Office (Horizon System) Compensation Bill will pass its second reading and all remaining stages. On Tuesday, Foreign Secretary Lord Cameron will also appear to answer questions from Peers on topics including the implementation of the UN Sustainable Development Goals and securing a lasting ceasefire arrangement between Israel and Gaza.

On Committee Corridor – Post Office Minister Kevin Hollinrake will appear before the Business and Trade Committee to answer questions on what more can be done to deliver “full, fair and fast” compensation for victims of the Horizon scandal. Also appearing to provide oral evidence is Alan Bates, the former sub-postmaster whose story as part of a recent ITV drama has brought this scandal back into the limelight.

The Week in Stats 📉

34 –  Gabriel Attal, France’s youngest ever Prime Minister, appointed this week.

£12m – Difference between donations to the Conservative Party and Labour Party in Q3 of 2023, as flagged by the Labour Party in an email to supporters this week (NB – the difference is largely explained by a £10m donation left by Lord Sainsbury to the Conservative Party in his will last year).

15,120 – Number of centenarians in England and Wales in 2022, double the number 20 years ago.

6.8% –  Absence rate across all schools in England in 2023.

6.39 million – Patients on the NHS waiting list at the end of November, down from 6.44 million in October.

– Number of UK Typhoon fighter jets involved in military action in Yemen on Thursday night.

4% – Increase in the price of a barrel of Brent crude oil on Friday, following US and UK military action in Yemen.

£4.47m – Loans Andrew Bridgen MP declared this week from businessman and Reclaim Party major donor, Jeremy Hosking.

Other Political News 📰

Two by-elections have been confirmed for 15 February, with the constituency of Kingswood now up for grabs after Chris Skidmore’s resignation ahead of the Common’s vote on the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill. In his resignation letter, he argued that the UK should be setting an “example” and “not sending out the toxic message that opening new oil fields should be business as usual.” Kingswood’s candidates have already begun campaigning, with the Mayor of Lewisham Damien Egan having been selected as Labour’s candidate this past week. The seat has not been held by Labour since Skidmore won it in 2010, with the Conservatives having enjoyed an 11,000 majority in 2019. In response to Skidmore’s resignation, Reform announced it would not stand a candidate in the by-election, calling it a ‘waste’ of taxpayers’ money.

Peter Bone’s partner, Helen Harrison, has been selected as the Conservative candidate in the by-election following his suspension from the House of Commons. Bone had held the seat since 2005 but was suspended after an investigation found that he bullied and was sexually inappropriate with a staff member during an overseas trip. The seat is considered to be safe for the Conservatives, with Bone having won it with an 18,000-strong majority back in the 2019 general election, but since the Mid-Bedfordshire by-election – which saw the Conservatives lose the seat for the first time since its creation in 1918 – no election can be truly considered ‘safe’. Harrison will be up against Labour’s Gen Kitchen, who has already shown Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves around Wellingborough this past week.

Labour announced its ‘Child Health Action Plan’, which pledges to create the ‘healthiest generation of children ever’. The plan has 7 missions to help support the NHS, which includes an action plan on cutting waiting lists for children, improving young people’s mental health services, improving dentistry, combating smoking and vaping, limiting junk food advertisements, introducing breakfast clubs, and protecting children from infectious diseases. Unveiling the plan, Starmer stated that “Labour will end the scandal of children being held back by poor health and regional inequalities,” and criticised the Government’s ‘short-term ‘sticking plaster’ politics’ regarding the NHS. Meanwhile, the NHS announced that its waiting list fell by 95,000 in November, and it had treated more patients than ever, with over 1.63 million treatments being delivered. It is uncertain if this trend will remain enough to meet Sunak’s goals, as new data released this week showed that 113,779 appointments were rescheduled due to the junior doctors’ strike this month.

The biggest expansion of nuclear power has been announced by the Department for Energy Security and Net Zero. The Department’s new roadmap outlines its goals to become the first country in Europe to launch a high-tech nuclear fuel programme, with the hope of increasing the UK’s energy security. The Prime Minister called it the “right long-term decision”, adding “strengthening our energy security means that Britain will never again be held to ransom over energy by tyrants like Vladimir Putin.”

An additional £30m was found on the eve of the RMT’s week-long planned strike action as part of a revised pay offer, after London Mayor Sadiq Khan reportedly allowed pay talks to reopen over the weekend. 90% of the union’s London Underground workers who voted in December backed strike action in response to TfL’s offer of a 5% pay increase. Other transport unions like ASLEF have yet to comment officially on the settlement, after it had accepted a pay offer of 5% when 88% of the members voted in favour in December 2023.

Around the World 🌍

Ecuador declared war against drug gangs, after a group of armed men broke into the set of a television show and attempted to capture hostages. The country has seen increased outbreaks of violence in the last few months, most recently culminating on 7 January, when notorious gang leader ‘Fito’ escaped from prison, just before he was due to be transferred to a higher security unit, causing violent outbreaks protesting the Government’s plans to move gang leaders to the new high security spaces, due to the power gang leaders have in prisons. Several prison staff have also been held hostage, and 10 people have reportedly been killed in recent attacks. President Noboa has declared a 60 day state of emergency in the country, with a nighttime curfew, soldiers deployed into prisons in an attempt to restore order, and greater powers for stop searches. In a worrying response for the Ecuadorian Government and sign of the escalation due to come, gangs have released a video of a hostage reading out a statement promising ‘war’.

Gabriel Attal has been named as the new Prime Minister of France, following the resignation of his predecessor, Elisabeth Borne. Attal, who, at 34 is the country’s youngest ever, and first openly gay Prime Minister, was promoted to the role from Education Minister, in an attempt by President Macron to revitalise his second term in office.

Former Jersey Governor Chris Christie bowed out of the race to be the Republican Presidential Candidate, admitting “there isn’t a path to win the nomination”. He dedicated much of his speech announcing his drop out to urge voters not to back Trump as the new candidate, adding “I am going to make sure that in no way do I enable Donald Trump to ever be president of the United States again”, stating this was more important than his own personal ambition to run. He also criticised Nikki Haley and Ron DeSantis, the other Republican candidates, stating Haley is “not up to this” and DeSantis is “petrified”.

Bangladeshi Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina secured her fourth straight term in office, following an election which saw the main opposition party boycott the polls. Both the US and UK have condemned the results, suggesting the election was neither free nor fair, with only, at most, a 40% voter turnout and many activists in prison following an opposition rally in October.

German politician Sahra Wagenknect launched a political party, the BSW, for those who are culturally right but economically left. The former leader of The Left party has pledged to inspire disillusioned voters with policies such as reversing environmental projects, ending the delivery of weapons to Ukraine and limiting immigration alongside improving state services like education and pensions. The Party’s first test will be the July European elections.

Taiwan will hold its election tomorrow, which will see the three main parties: the ruling Democratic Progressive Party (DPP), the Kuomintang (KMT) and the Taiwan People's Party (TPP), compete for a majority. The election result will be a key moment for the island’s relationship with China, as the parties hold opposing stances on its independence. China has released a statement warning the elections are a chance for people to choose between war and peace.

Norway approved controversial deep-sea mining legislation, which will accelerate the search for precious metals in high demand for green technologies. However, the move has been repeatedly criticised by environmental groups, warning that the practice could have devasting effects for marine life. At present, the Bill only accounts for Norwegian waters, but an agreement on international waters could be reached later this year.

Highlights from Parliament 🏛

In an immediate demonstration of the political upheaval 2024 will almost certainly bring, Parliament returned on Monday with an immediate change of business, as the Government were forced to postpone the second reading of the Offshore Petroleum Licensing Bill due to a two hour statement on the Post Office Horizon computing scandal. This left just the Finance Bill as the main Government piece of planned business to take place in the Commons this week (which passed its first day in a Committee of the Whole House on Wednesday pretty uneventfully)

Opposition and backbench business debates on NHS dentistry, the Government’s Rwanda asylum system plan, special education needs funding, and the proposed British Jewish history month, filled the rest of the time on the green benches, whilst the Government scrambled outside the chamber to get ahead of the Horizon crisis.

The Lords returned from the Christmas break on Wednesday to begin the committee stage of the Automated Vehicles Bill – which puts in place a legal framework for the roll-out of self-driving vehicle in the UK. In a short week of business, debates were then held on Thursday on a long-term plan for housing, and on parliamentary democracy and standards in public life, with many on the red benches lamenting the prospect of a dirty election, made worse through the prospect of deepfakes… so that’s something fun to look forward to later this year.

Committee Corridor 📜

The Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill needs to be debated in the House of Commons, argued the Home Affairs Committee in a brief report published this week. They contend that the new UK-Rwanda Treaty ‘will be of significant legal and political importance’, emphasising the importance that the Commons gets a chance to debate it. In one of those lovely, strange quirks of UK politics, this report was published after the Government had announced the Bill would be given two days debate in the House of Commons, to take place next Tuesday and Wednesday…

Key Movements 🔁

Chris Stark (not the radio presenter) has stepped down as the Chief Executive of the Committee on Climate Change, the organisation that advises the UK Government and Devolved Administrations on emissions targets and progress made in reducing emissions. He is joining the Carbon Trust as Chief Executive.

Sir Ross Cranston has been appointed to lead the independent inquiry into the 2021 Channel crossing tragedy where ‘at least 27 people’ died while crossing the Channel.

Nick Baird has been named as the new Chair of the Trade Remedies Authority, initially for a term of three years.

Jane Hunt is the new Chair of the British Film Institute, having been appointed by the Culture, Media and Sport Secretary.

After nine years as Joint Head of the Government Economic Service, Sam Beckett has become the sole Head.

… and in The Traitors… we’re kidding, we won’t give away any spoilers, but if you’re not watching it, you’re missing out.

This Week’s Polls 📊

Labour begins the New Year with a 19 point lead over the Conservatives, according to Savanta’s first Westminster voting intention poll of 2024, marking the largest lead since October 2023.

And as we gear up for the upcoming by-elections next month, recent polling suggests that Chris Skidmore’s seat of Kingswood would switch to Labour at a General Election, winning 45% of the vote share compared to 38% for the Conservatives, 9% for the Lib Dems, and 8% voting other. Modelling in October also implied that Peter Bone’s seat of Wellingborough would also switch to Labour at a General Election, winning 47% of the votes compared to 35% for the Conservatives.

Think-Tanking 💭

The IFS published a report finding that higher interest rates increased the expected Government cost of financing the student loan system in England by more than £10bn per year.

Policy Exchange published a report warning that ‘proposals for a statutory role for the Independent Adviser on Ministers’ Interests and putting the Ministerial Code on a legal footing would give rise to serious constitutional questions and carry substantial risks of undermining effective political accountability.’

The Henry Jackson Society published a report outlining how strengthened UK-Taiwan ties can help maintain stable cross-strait relations.

RUSI released a paper analysing the key adaptations that Western amphibious forces will need to make to contribute to deterrence and warfighting in the future operating environment.

Onward released a summary report of an Onward and Fair Standards Alliance roundtable on Standard Essential Patents, exploring the challenges faced by UK companies who seek to innovate on top of base technologies like 5G.

You’ve Got to Laugh 😂

Jim Shannon “always offers a good time in Northern Ireland” apparently! That’s what Julia Lopez said during Culture, Media and Sport OPQs this week, much to her own embarrassment. Feel free to watch her cringing here.

Charles Walker confirmed that a total of 1,180 requests have been made for pest control on the parliamentary estate over the last three years, in response to a Written Parliamentary Question answered this week. The answer also confirms that a 'pest control expert is based on-site'... which begs the question: much like Batman and Bruce Wayne, has anyone seen the pest control expert and Parliamentary Commissioner for Standards in the same room at the same time?

And enjoy this video of Donald Trump making fun of US President Joe Biden. May as well laugh at him while you can before he becomes President again.


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