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Johnson ‘threatens Europe over Ulster trade restrictions’

“Boris Johnson has told EU leaders he is prepared to suspend parts of the Brexit deal unless Brussels eases demands for checks on goods crossing into Northern Ireland. The prime minister said he was willing to override elements of the Northern Ireland Protocol that have resulted in some produce being barred from the province. His comments came before a meeting between Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, and Maros Sefcovic, a European Commission vice-president, yesterday. Gove had set out a series of demands, including that the EU remove the need for some checks and extend exemptions for large exporters such as supermarkets. In particular he called on the EU to remove restrictions on pet travel between Britain and Northern Ireland and waive rules that have in effect banned some goods, such as plants, from being sent to the province.” – The Times

  • Prime Minister ‘threatens to use emergency powers to avoid barrier in Irish Sea’ – FT
  • Gove will meet European commission vice-president again next week – The Guardian
  • UK and EU set for crunch meeting as London threatens to ‘rip up deal’ – Daily Express
  • Foster wants ‘significant exemptions’ for goods for sale in Northern Ireland – Daily Telegraph
  • Masked men take to the streets and port staff are threatened – Daily Mail

>Today: Stephen Booth’s column: Now our own Government says it may trigger Article 16 in Northern Ireland. Is the move a bluff? Or is it for real?

Adviser on the union departs following Downing Street clash

“A furious dispute inside Downing Street over the UK government’s strategy to counter growing calls for Scottish independence has resulted in the departure of Boris Johnson’s chief adviser on the union. Government officials confirmed Luke Graham, the former MP for Ochil and South Perthshire from 2017 to 2019, was quitting the post and that Oliver Lewis, a key Tory figure in last year’s Brexit trade negotiations, would be leading what one of the officials said would be a “beefed-up union unit”. The Number 10 row which resulted in Mr Graham’s exit erupted last Friday — a day after Mr Johnson visited Scotland to bolster support for the three centuries old union. “It was fairly brutal,” admitted one government insider. Mr Lewis, known in Downing Street as “Sonic”, is said by colleagues to have wanted “a clean slate” and to build a new team.” – FT

>Yesterday:

Allister Heath: The Trumpian EU has demolished its final reasons for existing

“Even more shocking has been the careless inflaming of tensions in Northern Ireland: after spending years claiming that they didn’t want a hard border, the EU almost imposed one by diktat last week. Its ongoing attempt to undermine the UK’s unity through its intransigent interpretation of the Withdrawal Agreement is a disgusting overreach which increasingly risks a crisis in the province. As Boris Johnson has now formally warned, the UK may have to act unilaterally, invoking Article 16 of the protocol to suspend the Agreement, unless the EU drastically reviews its absurd interpretation of the texts. Extending the so-called grace period on traders moving goods from Great Britain to Northern Ireland until 2023 won’t be enough. But the possibility of the Agreement being swept aside begs the question of what will happen to the UK-EU trade deal, which has yet to be ratified by the European side, and more broadly of relations between Britain and Brussels.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Tories must choose between Boris Johnson and the Union – Philip Stephens, FT

Editorial:

  • The EU and Britain must show cool heads and compromise over Northern Ireland – The Times

>Yesterday: Video: WATCH: PMQs – ‘It was most regrettable that the EU should seem to cast doubt on the Good Friday Agreement’

Prime Minister remains cautious on easing England’s lockdown

“Boris Johnson on Wednesday cautioned against an early lifting of England’s lockdown restrictions, as the UK reached the milestone of vaccinating more than 10m people against coronavirus. The government reported that a further 374,756 people had been given their first dose of the vaccine in the latest 24-hour period, taking the total to 10,021,471. With the UK vaccine programme showing early momentum, the government looks on track to hit its target of 15m vulnerable Britons having jabs by February 15. But speaking at a Downing Street press conference, Mr Johnson declined to commit the government to reopening schools in England before March 8, which he has previously said is the earliest possible date… Mr Johnson also said the level of Covid-19 infection in the population remained “alarmingly high”.” – FT

  • Britain now ‘past peak of second Covid wave’ – The Times
  • Don’t get your hopes up about lockdown being eased in March – Daily Mail
  • Johnson says ‘unrealistic to completely shut borders’ – The Sun

Vaccines:

  • First trial to test mix-and-match Covid vaccines amid fears of shortages – The Times
  • 24/7 Covid vaccination service unlikely in near future, says Hancock – The Guardian
  • Oxford aims to have second-generation Covid vaccine ready by autumn – The Times

Comment:

  • Johnson is on the crest of a vaccine wave, Labour will just have to ride it out – Martin Kettle, The Guardian

>Yesterday: Ryan Bourne’s column: How many lives will we save by choosing our own vaccination programme, not the EU’s? Let’s start at nine thousand.

Lockdown-sceptic MPs ‘desperate for focus to shift to learning to live with the disease’

“When Sir Graham Brady and fellow Tory MPs appeared on a video conferencing call with a select group of scientists last week, a key theme, naturally, was how quickly Britain can safely move out of lockdown. Sir Graham, the chairman of the 1922 Tory backbench committee, was keen to find out whether the pandemic would become endemic, like the four other human coronaviruses. “Should we expect the current quite rapid decline of positivity to continue and to coincide with the protection starting to kick in from the vaccines?” he asked. Although the answer to that depends on how the epidemiology of SARS-CoV-2 might change as it continues to mutate, what is crystal clear is that lockdown-sceptic MPs are desperate for the scientific focus to shift from pursuing a Covid-free policy to learning to live with the virus.” – Daily Telegraph

  • MPs urge test and trace chief to prove system curbs spread of Covid – The Guardian
  • Sunak concerned scientists are ‘moving goalposts’ on Covid lockdown – Daily Telegraph

Tax:

  • Brits ‘set to be hit by huge tax rises to pay for Covid spending’ – The Sun
  • New carbon taxes: meat, cheese and gas heating prices to rise – The Times

Travel:

  • Ministers consider extending hotel quarantine as variants emerge in 27 more countries – Daily Telegraph
  • Denmark reveals concrete plans for a digital ‘Covid passport’ in world first – The Times

Coffey airs doubts over Sunak’s plan to end uplift to universal credit

“A cabinet split broke into the open on Wednesday over Rishi Sunak’s plan to end the “temporary” £20 a week uplift in universal credit, which has helped nearly 6m people through the Covid-19 pandemic. Thérèse Coffey, work and pensions secretary, criticised the chancellor’s plan to offer an upfront payment of at least £500 rather than allowing the uplift to continue beyond April. Mr Sunak is worried that the £1,000 annual benefits boost, which costs the exchequer about £6bn a year, could become permanent and has warned Tory MPs that tough choices on public spending lie ahead. But Ms Coffey caused irritation in the Treasury when she made her reservations over Mr Sunak’s plan clear, telling MPs: “Previous experience is that a steady sum of money would probably be more beneficial to claimants and customers.”” – FT

  • DWP boss slaps down £1000 one-off gift for claimants – The Sun
  • Extend furlough or risk mass unemployment, industry and unions warn Sunak – The Guardian

Comment:

  • Sunak is paying Covid bills off the backs of the poor – Gordon Brown, The Guardian

Shapps ridicules smart motorways

“The transport secretary said that smart motorways were a misnomer yesterday as he promised to speed up the installation of vital new safety equipment. Grant Shapps said that the system, in which the hard shoulder is turned into a traffic lane, had been “anything but” smart in the past because of a shortage of emergency lay-bys and the failure to quickly detect broken-down vehicles. He told MPs that mistakes were made over the initial expansion of motorways without a hard shoulder, acknowledging that he “wouldn’t have gone about it like this”. Shapps told the Commons transport committee that there would be more regular lay-bys and fines for drivers who ignored lane-closure signs. Radar technology capable of detecting a broken down car in 20 seconds will also be installed on all smart motorways without a hard shoulder next year.” – The Times

>Today: ToryDiary: Our Cabinet League Table. Truss is still top, Johnson is up again – and Kwarteng comes straight in at fourth.

Starmer ‘admits mistake’ after heated PMQs exchange…

“Sir Keir Starmer has apologised after “mishearing” Boris Johnson and accusing him of speaking “complete nonsense” during a heated exchange in the Commons on Wednesday. During Prime Minister’s Questions, Mr Johnson said Sir Keir had previously supported remaining in the European Medicines Agency (EMA) after Brexit. The Labour leader furiously denied ever making the comment and accused the Prime Minister of speaking “complete nonsense” for a “pre-prepared gag”. But Hansard, the official parliamentary record, shows that in January 2017 he did question why the UK would want to leave the body. According to MPs, Sir Keir approached Mr Johnson after the session to remonstrate with him. One eyewitness MP said he appeared “rattled” and “annoyed”, waving his finger at Mr Johnson as members filtered out of the chamber… A spokesman later admitted Sir Keir had “misheard” Mr Johnson and believed he had said that Labour supported joining the EU’s vaccination programme – a different organisation.” – Daily Telegraph

  • Momentum stalls despite Tory pandemic errors – FT

…and says patriotic rebrand ‘is not policy’

“Labour denied that it was shifting to a more patriotic tone yesterday after an internal strategy presentation advising the party to make more use of the Union Jack was leaked. Sir Keir Starmer’s spokesman said Labour was right to use the flag but insisted that the presentation was not party policy. The strategy, shown to officials and leaked to The Guardian this week, said Labour should rebrand itself through use of “the flag, veterans [and] dressing smartly” if it is to regain northern seats it lost to the Tories in 2019. The memo also looked at how Labour could retain other areas that it fears could turn blue. Asked whether Labour would use the flag, Starmer’s spokesman said: “The Union flag represents the country that Labour wants to govern and that Keir wants to be the prime minister of. It’s a symbol of the country we want to lead. You can call that patriotism, you can call it whatever you want, but that’s what we stand for.”” – The Times

  • Opposition wants to rebrand itself as the party of patriotism, leaked plans reveal – The Sun

Comment:

  • Labour’s left is alone in sneering at the flag – David Aaronovitch, The Times
  • He wanted to ditch the Queen. So who is the new flag-waving Starmer kidding? – Stephen Glover, Daily Mail
  • Phoney flag-waving is not the way for Labour to win back the red wall – Clive Lewis MP, The Guardian

Salmond brands Sturgeon’s government ‘a disgrace’ over claims it hid evidence

“Alex Salmond has branded Nicola Sturgeon’s government “a disgrace” and accused her officials of systematic dishonesty and obstruction during a probe into sexual misconduct claims against him. In written evidence to the Holyrood committee investigating the botched Scottish Government investigation into two complaints of sexual harassment, he also repeated his claim that Ms Sturgeon had offered to interfere in the probe on his behalf. If proven, the allegation would contradict Ms Sturgeon’s statements to Holyrood, in which she has repeatedly denied offering to meddle in the investigation to help her former mentor. Written evidence provided by Mr Salmond, in advance of his highly anticipated return to Holyrood as a witness next week, was published on Wednesday. Mr Salmond claims that compromising evidence was repeatedly withheld from his legal team as he sought to challenge the fairness and legality of the Scottish Government process in court.” – Daily Telegraph

  • First Minister under pressure over vaccine rollout and allegations – FT
  • Sturgeon struggles to defend EU against claims Brexit helped UK jab efforts – Daily Express

News in Brief:

  • The Conservatives are not a hotbed of ‘English nationalism’, but a bastion against it – Henry Hill, CapX
  • Why accusations of vaccine nationalism miss the mark – Wessie du Toit, The Critic
  • Inside the Zero Covid campaign – Freddie Sayers, UnHerd
  • What’s holding up Scotland’s vaccine rollout? – Joanna Rossiter, The Spectator
  • Why is the SNP at war with itself? – Joseph Rachman, Reaction