London politics latest news: Boris Johnson eased restrictions to avoid party headlines, Welsh minister claims

·22 min read

Boris Johnson was hit with a furious row on Friday over ditching Plan B as a Cabinet minister slammed the Welsh First Minister for claiming restrictions are being eased in England to avoid headlines about No10 parties.

Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford on Friday morning accused the UK Government of hastening the end of Covid-19 restrictions in England to escape negative headlines around parties at No 10 during lockdown.

He said the contrast between his country’s approach to lifting the measures and that of England “has been pretty stark this week”.

“I’d have to say, anybody watching what has gone on in Westminster will know that those announcements are not driven by the science,” Mr Drakeford told Sky News.

“They’re not part of a carefully thought-out plan, they’re just an effort by UK ministers to find a different headline from the one that has dominated the news.”

In response Wales Secretary Simon Hart said in a tweet that Mr Drakeford’s comments were “uncalled for and opportunistic”.

He said they were also an “insult towards medical advisers and the public”.

“It’s thanks to the decisions of UK (& Welsh) Gov, scientists, families & businesses that the UK is ahead of the world in its response to Covid,” Mr Hart said.

Ireland drops almost all Covid restrictions

18:14 , Matt Watts

Ireland’s premier Micheal Martin has confirmed that almost all Covid-19 restrictions will be lifted from 6am on Saturday. The only rules which will remain in place will be face masks, self isolating after testing positive for the virus and Covid passes for international travel.

Northern Ireland health minister ‘cautiously optimistic’ on Covid

16:19 , Daniel Keane

Northern Ireland’s Health Minister Robin Swann has said he is cautiously optimistic about Covid.

Earlier this week the Stormont Executive announced a swathe of relaxations of the restrictions.

From Friday rules on table service in pubs and restaurants were relaxed and the requirement to prove exemptions on wearing face masks was removed.

“I have always taken the decision at the time in regards to the advice that was put forward via my chief medical officer and chief scientific adviser, so February 10, while it will be a key date, let’s make sure we get there safely and as collectively as we can,” Mr Swann told reporters at Dunsilly, Co Antrim.

“I would still encourage people to follow the guidance, follow the regulations that are still in place and take the opportunities to come forward and get their vaccines and their boosters.

“There are three weeks to go and I want to keep the trajectory of this virus going in the same direction as it has been, and that’s downwards.”

PM: Let London’s recovery begin now

15:54 , Daniel Keane

Boris Johnson and Mayor Sadiq Khan on Friday hailed the start of a “Great Return” into London as Tube figures showed more commuters already heading back to the city centre, writes Jonathan Prynn, Nicholas Cecil and David Bond.

Mr Johnson told the Evening Standard: “As we begin to put Plan B restrictions behind us, it’s brilliant to see London getting back on its feet.

“This Government’s booster plan, aided by one of the biggest testing programmes in the world, has allowed us to be one of the most open economies in recent months and thanks to the millions who stepped up to get their third dose we can now go even further.”

He talked of “bustling high streets” and the “West End alive again”, adding: “We now have real cause to hope that brighter days lie ahead for our great city.”

Mr Khan was also upbeat about the recovery but was keeping mask wearing as a condition of travel on Transport for London services.

He said: “As Covid restrictions ease, I’m encouraged to see the ‘Great Return’ beginning — with people getting back into central London to experience everything the capital has to offer, from catching up with colleagues in the office to enjoying our world-class culture and hospitality industries.

“The lifting of working from home guidance in particular is welcome news to businesses who have experienced a devastating decline in footfall after already being hit so hard by this pandemic.”

Read our full story here.

‘Half a million’ daily Covid cases each day over Christmas

15:33 , Daniel Keane

New cases of Covid in the UK averaged nearly half a million a day during the week after Christmas, almost three times the official figures, new analysis suggests.

An average of 173,400 new cases of coronavirus per day were recorded from December 26 to January 1, according to the Government’s Covid-19 dashboard.

But the true number of cases was likely to be nearer 479,100 a day, according to estimates by the Office for National Statistics (ONS).

The ONS figures are based on analysis of nose and throat swabs taken from a representative sample of more than 150,000 people in private households.

Isolation and masks to remain in Wales

15:16 , Daniel Keane

Masks and self-isolation rules will remain in Wales despite being lifted in England, first minister Mark Drakeford confirmed today.

“The next review of the coronavirus regulations, including all the protective measures we have in place, will be in three weeks’ time,” he said.

“The arrival of the Omicron wave at Christmas was another unpleasant twist in this long-running pandemic.”

He would not give a date for when restrictions would be lifted, saying: “I’m the First Minister of Wales not a horoscope writer for a daily newspaper.

“It’s simply impossible for anybody to peer into the future with coronavirus with the sort of definiteness.”

Dimbleby: Council tax hike could help fund BBC

14:57 , Daniel Keane

David Dimbleby has suggested the BBC licence fee should be linked to council tax to make it fairer.

His comments come days after the Government announced the licence fee funding model could be scrapped by 2027.

A number of alternatives to funding for the licence fee have been floated, including an opt-in subscription service similar to that used by streaming giants such as Netflix, the introduction of advertising, or a broadband levy.

Former Question Time host Mr Dimbleby told BBC Radio 4’s World At One programme: “The licence fee is something that I absolutely believe in; I don’t think you can have public service broadcasting without paying for it through the public purse in that way.

“But what I do think is the BBC should acknowledge that £159 paid by the poorest as well the richest is just unfair, it’s inequitable.

“And there’s a simple way in which the BBC can get on the front foot, which is by suggesting the licence fee figure, the gross figure of £159, should not be paid flat rate by everybody but the richest should pay more and the poorest less.

“And the simple way of doing it would be to attach an element of the licence fee to the council tax band.”

France introducing Covid pass from Monday

14:38 , Elly Blake

France will introduce a Covid vaccination pass from Monday after the government’s plans were approved.

Everyone over the age of 16 will need a vaccine certificate to enter public places like restaurants and cinemas.

One condition was that the pass would not be required to attend political meetings.

It was ruled that it should end as soon as it is no longer necessary. Up until now, unvaccinated people could enter public venues with the results of a recent negative Covid test.

Wales passed Omicron peak, says first minister

14:18 , Elly Blake

Wales has passed the peak of the Omicron wave, first minister Mark Drakeford has said.

Measures to slow the spread of Omicron are being eased in Wales on Friday, with thousands of fans set to return to sporting stadiums.

England’s R number has fallen

14:00 , Elly Blake

England’s R rate has fallen from last week and is currently estimated to be between 0.8 and 1.1.

It is down from last week when it was thought to be between 1.1 and 1.5.

Major incident stood down in London

13:32 , Daniel Keane

The major incident declared in London last month as Omicron spread across the capital has been stood down.

Mayor of London Sadiq Khan took the decision on December 18 to declare a major incident due to the spread of the variant, a rise in patients in London hospitals and the impact of staff absences in frontline services.

Mr Khan said he is standing down the major incident status but warned the city will remain on high alert.

The mayor’s office said the decision comes following the gradual improvement in the number of cases in the capital, the pressures on critical services delivery reducing to manageable levels and a significant improvement in staff absences.

Mr Khan said: “Our NHS and emergency services have gone above and beyond during an extremely testing period for our city.

“Everyone who wore a mask, took a lateral flow test or followed the advice to work from home where possible, has played their part in reducing the pressure they faced and enabled us to stand down the ‘major incident’ in London today.

“But the virus and the Omicron variant is still with us and daily infection rates are still too high.

“That’s why we must all remain vigilant and continue to do the things that have allowed our city to reopen safely.”

PM demands that teachers scrap masks in classrooms

13:00 , Daniel Keane

Boris Johnson has urged teachers who insist masks should still worn in lessons to follow the rules which state that they are no long required for use in classrooms.

A spokesman for the Prime Minister said “children have been one of the hardest hit as a result of the disruption throughout the pandemic”, adding that Mr Johnson “believes it is vital that children are receiving face-to-face education and can enjoy a normal experience in the classroom”.

He added: “The Prime Minister also thinks that the schools should follow the latest guidance.

“We’ve been clear that we removed the requirement for face masks to be worn in classrooms and we will remove advice for face masks to be worn in communal areas from January 27.”

Tory MP defends whips

12:33 , Daniel Keane

Tory MP Claire Coutinho has come out in defence of the Government whips following allegations of blackmail directed at her parliamentary colleagues.

She tweeted: “Government whips work extremely long hours to deliver the Government’s legislative agenda. They also don’t have a voice to defend themselves…

“So it might be worth pointing out that - despite being one of our most rebellious MPs - as a Conservative, @Christian4BuryS got more money for Bury South than Labour had delivered in decades, including £20 million to level up in October.

“If he doesn’t have the nous or the integrity to talk to his constituents about that, then Labour can have him.”

Former attorney general says alleged blackmail ‘completely improper'

12:15 , Daniel Keane

Former attorney general Dominic Grieve has said that any alleged blackmail from the whips is “completely improper”.

He told Sky News that ministers “should not be handing out money for projects in constituencies because they happen to be held by a Conservative member of parliament”.

“The remarkable thing is that this allegation is the whips then tried to say we are going to withdraw from funding and I think, William Wragg is absolutely right, this is a form of blackmail and is completely improper if it took place,” he added.

“Of course, the whips are going to arm-twist. They are going to say to people, if you aren’t loyal you won’t be promoted within the party, your chances of ministerial office won’t be good, they will appeal to people’s sense of loyalty as well.

“But to stray into the path of saying they are going to regulate government funds... so if you don’t conform to the government’s view and you don’t support the prime minister you won’t get funds for projects in your constituencies is an outrageous act.”

Whips ‘threatened to cut funding for a link road’, claims former Tory MP

11:59 , Daniel Keane

Some more detail on allegations of whips threatening to cut finding from former Tory MP Ben Howlett, as we reported earlier.

Speaking to BBC News on the allegations he tweeted earlier today, he said: “I was campaigning for a range of different things for my constituents, particularly my constituents will remember my campaign on link road.

“There were some very dicey votes for the Government and I was campaigning to receive Government funding, and of course one of the tactics used to make sure I fell into line on some of the Brexit rebellions was to threaten the withholding of money to pay for an investigation into whether or not this link road would have been built.”

11:48 , Daniel Keane

Union bosses are pressing ahead with the longest Tube strike in history in the face of widespread opposition from Londoners, a new poll reveals.

Fifty per cent of adults in London are against the industrial action, according to the survey by YouGov. Of that number, 30 per cent said they strongly oppose the strikes, writes David Bond.

The poll also found that 28 per cent of Londoners supported the move but that only nine per cent strongly supported the action.

Unless a deal can be agreed between the union and Transport for London, RMT Tube drivers on the Victoria and Central lines will walk out from 8.30pm each Friday and Saturday night, until 4.29am the following morning for the next six months.

The next round of industrial action is due to start on Friday and end on Sunday morning.

Read our full story here.

Watch: There is no leadership election - Liz Truss voices support for Johnson

11:34 , Daniel Keane

One in five adults faced difficulty getting LFTs in January

11:18 , Daniel Keane

More than a fifth of adults in Britain had difficulties getting lateral flow tests earlier in January, figures suggest.

Some 22 per cent told the Office for National Statistics (ONS) they had struggled to order or pick up a rapid-result test in the past seven days.

The most common places difficulties were experienced were when ordering on the Government website for home delivery (68 per cent) and collecting from pharmacies (60 per cent).

The majority (85 per cent) said the difficulties did not stop them from doing anything they had planned.

No further support likely for hospitality, says minister

11:02 , Daniel Keane

Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng has suggested that the hospitality industry will not be getting further financial support.

He told Sky News: “I think we’ve provided very liberally for the sector over the last two years. The chancellor’s been extremely generous with furlough schemes.

“We’ve had a business rates holiday, they’ve also had a VAT holiday as well - there’s been huge support.

“I speak to hospitality leaders all the time and I’m suggesting that what has been a great success has been the vaccine rollout - that’s managed to keep the economy going and all the hospitality leaders, the CEOs have said the one thing that will destroy the hospitality sector will be a return to lockdown.”

Londoners won’t return to work if Tube and TfL services not at full capacity, Khan warns

10:50 , Daniel Keane

Londoners will be discouraged from returning to work if the Government fails to keep the Tube and bus network running at full capacity, Sadiq Khan has warned, writes Ross Lydall.

The mayor said this week’s decision to axe the “work from home if you can” advice added to pressure on ministers to secure a long-term funding deal for Transport for London.

It came as reductions in commuter trains run by South Western Railway into Waterloo left key workers “stranded” and unable to balance childcare with their return to work, according to London MP Sarah Olney.

TfL’s current deal runs out on February 4, with it preparing to enter a “managed decline” scenario that could include cuts of up to 18 per cent in bus services and nine per cent on the Tube.

Read our full story here.

Ellwood: I have never been blackmailed by the whips

10:38 , Daniel Keane

A senior Tory today insisted he had never been blackmailed by the whips following allegations that MPs had been threatened with funding cuts if they defied the Government.

The Tory MP said: “There are all sorts of methods that they use to encourage people to act the right way.

“I’m sorry to read what’s been happening here. I understand that the cabinet secretary recommended that these are looked into.”

Mr Ellwood also denied submitting a letter of no confidence to 1922 Committee Chairman Sir Graham Brady.

Former Tory MP claims funding was threatened over Brexit votes

10:23 , Daniel Keane

A former Tory MP has claimed that whips threatened to withdraw funding for his constituency during votes on Brexit.

Ben Howlett, former Conservative MP for Bath, tweeted: “On tactics used by Whips - As a new MP I had threats during the Brexit votes around money being withheld from my constituency.

“My response to one that phoned me was, “no you can’t and stop being such a tit.””

Partygate ‘has hurt the union’, finds poll

10:11 , Daniel Keane

Results from a new poll suggest that the partygate scandal may have hurt the Union.

The survey, carried out by The Scotsman, found that more than half of people in Scotland feel the crisis has damaged relations between the four nations.

More than 1,004 Scots were asked to what extent they believed the partygate scandal had damaged the case for the union.

More than half (54 per cent) felt it had done damage, while over a third (35 per cent) said it had not hurt it.

Households will need to wait until March for help with energy bills, says minister

09:48 , Daniel Keane

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng has suggested that Britons may have to wait until March for help with their energy bills.

It has been reported that the Chancellor Rishi Sunak is considering making direct payments of up to £500 to struggling families as the cost of energy bills are set to soar.

But Kwasi Kwarteng said the Government was “trying to work out the best way to deal with what is a really, really serious problem”.

He told ITV’s Good Morning Britain: “Lots and lots of things have been discussed, and I’m sure that’s one of the things that we’ve been talking about.

“My officials in the department speak to Treasury officials, and ministers speak to each other all the time.”

But he added: “I think we’ve got to wait and see what the actual announcement is.”

Watch: Liz Truss calls on ‘free world’ to reduce economic dependence on Russia

09:30 , Daniel Keane

Johnson ‘will never escape damage to his reputation’ caused by partygate, claims Drakeford

09:16 , Daniel Keane

Mark Drakeford has claimed that Boris Johnson will “never escape the damage to his reputation” that partygate has caused.

Wales’ first minister told Sky News: “Conservative MPs have been fighting each other like ferrets in a sack this week, and it’s very hard to see how the Prime Minister survives.

“Even if he were to survive, he will just limp on because he’s never going to escape the damage that this week has done to his reputation.”

Mr Drakeford added: “From my point of view, the thing that worries me the most is the fact that the UK Government is frozen by the impact of what has happened to them.”

Putin ‘wants to recreate Soviet Union’, says former ambassador

08:56 , Daniel Keane

Former British ambassador to the US Lord Kim Darroch said Russian President Vladimir Putin wants to “recreate the Soviet Union”.

It comes amid claims that tens of thousands of Russian troops have amassed near the Ukraine border, fuelling fears of an invasion.

Lord Darroch said Mr Putin does not like the direction of the Ukrainian government.

“And he is trying to bully them and intimidate them,” he told BBC Radio 4’s Today programme.

Lord Darroch said he would not plan further military support for Ukraine, adding: “I would stick close to the American position, continue to send messages of solidarity, keep talking to the French and Germans, and stick with that for the moment.”

Mark Drakeford accuses govt of rushing easing of restrictions

08:45 , Daniel Keane

Wales’ first minister Mark Drakeford has accused the government of rushing a return to normality in England after almost all Covid restrictions were scrapped earlier this week.

He said the contrast between his country’s approach to lifting the measures and that of England “has been pretty stark this week”. Measures such as Covid passes and a limit on outdoor events remain in Wales until January 28.

“I’d have to say, anybody watching what has gone on in Westminster will know that those announcements are not driven by the science,” Mr Drakeford told Sky News.

“They’re not part of a carefully thought-out plan, they’re just an effort by UK ministers to find a different headline from the one that has dominated the news.”

He continued: “Here in Wales, we are in a better position than that - our Government is able to go on making sensible, cautious planning decisions rooted in the science and in keeping people in Wales safe.

“I think the contrast between our two positions has been pretty stark this week.”

Kwarteng tells Britons to ‘get back to work'

08:30 , Daniel Keane

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng took on union bosses on Friday as he called for people to “get back to work” as Plan B ends, writes Nicholas Cecil.

The Cabinet minister said the country had to try to return to “some degree of normality” after Covid cases have fallen significantly from the peak of the Omicron wave.

Speaking on LBC Radio: “I speak to union leaders frequently and I think we should get back to work.

“I have said that to the department that I run.

“We have got to get back to some degree of normality.”

He admitted that there were still only around half of the staff in the Business Department back in the office but said this would increase.

Our full story here.

‘Irresponsible to suggest Sue Gray could be influenced’, says minister

08:20 , Daniel Keane

Mr Kwarteng claimed it would be “irresponsible” to suggest Sue Gray could be influenced.

The senior official is due to publish her investigation into the Downing Street parties held in lockdown next week.

Mr Kwarteng told Times Radio: “I think it’s really irresponsible to suggest that there’ll be undue pressure on Sue Gray.

“She’s extremely well-regarded across Whitehall. She’s an impressive official, dedicated public servant and she’ll do a great job.

“I think it’s really unhelpful to suggest that there be undue pressure or undue influence exerted on her.”

Kwarteng says Labour defector is attempting to discredit Tories

08:05 , Daniel Keane

Business minister Kwasi Kwarteng suggested new Labour MP Christian Wakeford may be trying to discredit the Government with allegations about the whips.

He told Sky News: “You’d have to ask Christian why he defected, or why he essentially turned coat and changed his political allegiance, that’s a matter for him.

“I don’t know what his motivations were, and as you’ll appreciate he’s a Labour MP now and, of course, part of his job is to try and discredit the Government.”

Mr Wakeford yesterday claimed that whips threatened to cut funding for a new high school in his constituency if he did not vote “in a particular way”.

Truss: ‘Boris should continue for as long as possible'

07:53 , Daniel Keane

Cabinet minister Liz Truss said on Friday she wants Boris Johnson to stay Prime Minister for ”as long as possible”, writes Nicholas Cecil.

The Foreign Secretary, who is seen as a frontrunner to succeed Mr Johnson if he is forced to quit, stressed that there was currently “no leadership election”.

On a trip to Sydney, Australia, she was asked by reporters if Mr Johnson’s leaderhip was “tenable” given the Partygate scandal.

She replied: “The Prime Minister has my 100 per cent support. He is doing an excellent job. Britain was one of the first countries to roll out the Covid vaccine.

“We’ve had a very successful booster programme. We’re now able to open up our economy again in Britain and we’ve got one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7.

“And the reason that we are here in Australia is working with our very close partners, to advance freedom and democracy around the world, and to protect our country.”

Our full story here.

‘Unacceptable if whips have blackmailed MPs’, says minister

07:42 , Daniel Keane

Good morning and welcome to the Standard’s live political coverage.

Business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng is doing this morning’s media round and answering questions about allegations that Tory whips blackmailed MPs and threatened to withdraw constituency funding if they defied the Government vote.

Asked about the issue, he told Times Radio: “Frankly, I don’t know what the nature of the allegations are and how truthful they are.

“But all I can say is that they don’t have any authority to do that and I think it’s unacceptable for them to behave in the way that’s been suggested.”

He said Government chief whip Mark Spencer was “an excellent chief whip”.

He said: “He’s also a good friend and, I think, again, he’s very experienced and capable and I’d be very surprised if these allegations are true.

“I can’t rule them out. I don’t know what William Wragg experienced, but I haven’t heard of any allegations of that kind.”

Our goal is to create a safe and engaging place for users to connect over interests and passions. In order to improve our community experience, we are temporarily suspending article commenting