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    Rishi Sunak spends £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups ‘to repair his image’

    Rishi Sunak is spending a further £500,000 of taxpayers’ cash on focus groups and polling, new Treasury contracts reveal, sparking a claim that he is trying to “repair his image”.Researchers have been hired to carry out two focus groups and one national online poll each week until February 2023 – taking the total outlay over two years to more than £1.35m, Labour has said.Angela Rayner, the party’s deputy leader, said the chancellor had shifted from testing public opinion about the Covid pandemic to making such spending “a permanent fixture”.The new contracts were awarded after Mr Sunak “told the British people he has no money to ease the cost of living crisis and that cutting their energy bills would be ‘silly’,” she alleged.“The government apparently has half a million to spend on spin doctors while Jacob Rees-Mogg is threatening to axe thousands of civil service jobs in the name of cost saving,” Ms Rayner said.“At the start of the pandemic, the Treasury justified their spending on focus groups and polls as an emergency measure to test the impact of different policy options. But now this is little more than a taxpayer-funded vanity exercise for a chancellor desperate to repair his image.”There was controversy when the first contract, worth £81,600, was handed to a Tory-run PR firm called Hanbury Strategy, founded by David Cameron’s former director of strategy.The government said the purpose was “to inform immediate policy-making decisions and communications”, after Covid struck in 2020.Two further contracts worth £205,680 and £552,862 were given to Hanbury in August and December 2020, again to test public opinion on the Treasury’s response to the continuing crisis.But a new £500,000 contract with Deltapoll, described as being for the “provision of public opinion focus groups and online polling”, makes no mention of the pandemic, Labour pointed out.A Treasury spokesperson said: “The Treasury conducts regular polling to help develop and measure the impact and understanding of its policies. All polling is subject to the usual tender process, ensuring the best value for taxpayers’ money.”The row comes as Mr Sunak is locked in a battle with Boris Johnson over whether to impose a windfall tax on the excess profits of energy companies – a major U-turn the chancellor is said to favour.He is also under pressure from Tory right-wingers to bring forward income tax cuts planned for 2024 – an idea that former chancellor Ken Clarke dismissed as badly misguided.After a disastrous few months, marked by the failure of his spring statement to deal with the cost of living crisis as well as the revelation of his wife’s non-dom status, Mr Sunak’s fortunes have plummeted.He has gone from being Mr Johnson’s heir apparent to languishing in the polls of Tory grassroots members – increasing the prime minister’s chances of surviving the Partygate scandal. More

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    Boris Johnson and Sue Gray clash over ‘secret meeting’ about Partygate report

    Boris Johnson and Sue Gray have clashed over a controversial “secret meeting” between the pair, just days before the publication of Ms Gray’s final report into the Partygate scandal.The senior civil servant’s team are furious about a No 10 claim that she initiated the get-together and that it focused on whether some of 300 photos of the lockdown parties should be included in her report.A spokesperson for the Gray inquiry rejected both suggestions and denied that the meeting was for the report’s author “to clarify her intentions” prior to its publication once the police investigation was concluded.The extraordinary briefing war will increase pressure on Downing Street to explain why the meeting was held at all in relation to an inquiry it has described as “completely independent”.Labour has warned that what it calls a “secret meeting” will further damage confidence in the investigation of the scandal, while the Liberal Democrats raised fears of a “stitch-up”.The prime minister is among as many as 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray that the report is likely to name them and given a deadline of Sunday evening to lodge any objections.Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday next week, after the Metropolitan Police announced on Thursday that it had concluded its investigation with a total of 126 fines having been issued to 83 people.No 10 has suggested that the meeting – which took place around a month ago – discussed whether the photos handed over to the Metropolitan Police should be included in Ms Gray’s report.This suggestion was rejected by those working for Ms Gray, who were astonished that Downing Street had sought to give the impression that Ms Gray had initiated the discussion, The Independent understands.Mr Johnson has said he wants as much information to be disclosed as possible, but No 10 has said that “data protection” requirements might require some to be held back.The issue of releasing the photos is said to be a “live question”, but regardless of the outcome, access to the images is likely to be demanded by those working on the Commons inquiry into whether the prime minister lied to MPs.Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader, said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report, despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth. The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, said: “Any whiff of a stitch-up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.”A No 10 spokesperson said: “The PM did not request the meeting and hasn’t tried to influence the outcome in any way. It’s right for Sue to decide, and it’s all done independently.”However, the phrasing of the statement appeared to leave open the question of the meeting having been requested by a Downing Street official, if not by the prime minister himself. More

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    Parliament could burn down ‘any day’, says Andrea Leadsom

    A former cabinet minister has urged MPs to “get on” with renovating parliament as she warned the ageing estate could burn down “any day” in a blaze similar to that which destroyed France’s Notre Dame cathedral in 2017.Andrea Leadsom, the MP for South Northamptonshire and former business secretary, said her colleagues must make a decision soon on how to proceed with repairing the Houses of Parliament.Built between 1860 and 1860, parliament requires major repairs including restoration work, asbestos removal, fire safety improvements, renewal of wiring and conservation work.A report published earlier this year showed that restoring the Palace of Westminster without finding a new home for MPs could take up to 76 years, with the repairs bill reaching £22 billion.The project’s sponsor body and delivery authority said the cheapest option would involve a “full decant” of the palace for between 12 and 20 years, with the work costing in the region of £7 billion to £13 billion.But some politicians have pushed back against plans to move them off the estate – a Unesco World Heritage site. They vetoed proposals that would have seen them moved to Richmond House in central London. Speaking to BBC Radio 4’s Week in Westminster programme, Ms Leadsom, a former leader of the Commons, said MPs must get on with finalising plans to avoid a disaster such as the Notre-Dame Cathedral fire. “That is so ‘there but for the grace of God’,” she said. “It could burn down today, tomorrow, any day and we’ve got to make that decision and get on with it,” adding that a blaze was only avoided in 2017 because the estate has 24/7 fire patrols.Peers in the House of Lords, meanwhile, have voiced their opposition to a plan floated by Michael Gove recently to move them out of London while the renovation takes place.Mr Gove, the levelling up secretary, said he would “not support” a plan for peers to use the Queen Elizabeth II Centre as an alternative location.Peers said the House of Commons and House of Lords should not be separated while the work takes place.Mr Gove wrote to the lord speaker saying the House of Lords should relocate outside of London rather than moving to the nearby Queen Elizabeth II Centre.The Levelling Up Secretary is said to have written to Lord McFall of Alcluith suggesting locations including Stoke-on-Trent, Burnley and Sunderland.In the letter, reported in The Sunday Times, Mr Gove said he knows “cities and towns across the United Kingdom would be pleased to extend their hospitality to peers”.He is quoted as saying that having “carefully reviewed the proposed arrangements”, he “will not support the use of the QEII Centre as an alternative location”.The Queen Elizabeth II Centre space is just a few minutes’ walk from the Palace of Westminster in London.In the letter, which The Sunday Times said was also sent to prime minister Boris Johnson and cabinet secretary Simon Case, Mr Gove suggested a move elsewhere in England, Scotland or Wales.He is reported to have written: “As the minister responsible for levelling up, it is clear to me that the House of Lords moving elsewhere, even for a temporary period, would be widely welcomed.“I have carefully reviewed the proposed arrangements and…I will not support the use of the QEII Centre as an alternative location.“I propose to establish dedicated liaison points for you in my department to support you in identifying a suitable location for the House of Lords in the North, Midlands, South West, Scotland or Wales. I would, of course, be happy to meet you to discuss this.”A spokesperson for the Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities declined to comment at the time.Peers said separating parliament’s two houses geographically seemed “highly questionable”.In a letter to fellow peers, Lord McFall wrote the Lords’ law-making role was “indivisible” from that of the House of Commons.”Whilst I agree with the secretary of state that politics can be too London-centric, I don’t believe moving locations in and of itself would address these concerns,” he said. More

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    Conservative peer who helped to set up universal credit system calls for urgent benefits increase

    A Conservative peer who helped set up the universal credit system has called on the government to urgently increase benefits in line with inflation as the cost of living crisis bites.Baroness Stroud, a former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith, also told The Independent that she thought the £20-per-week uplift, which was removed last autumn, should be restored by the Treasury.“We’re sitting on a cost of living crisis; we have the opportunity to intervene; we have done so in the past under difficult situations when it affected everybody,” the Tory peer said. “But if governments have a responsibility to do anything, it is to act on behalf of vulnerable people. This is a moment to do that.”Lady Stroud’s comments come amid escalating pressure on Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak to introduce further support for families struggling with surging energy bills and food prices.On Wednesday it was revealed that inflation had soared to 9 per cent in the 12 months to April, hitting a 40-year high, as the chancellor admitted: “The next few months will be tough.”Last month, however, Mr Sunak came under intense fire for rejecting calls to raise benefits by more than 3.1 per cent – a figure based on inflation rates in September 2021 – as prices surged. Without ministerial intervention, benefits will not be increased again until April 2023.Speaking to The Independent, Lady Stroud, who is CEO of the Legatum Institute think tank, said: “I just genuinely think the benefits should be uprated in line with the current inflation – they should be brought forward.“That would be entirely possibly to do. The defence has been made that it can’t be done immediately. I have spoken with DWP officials, who’ve said [an increase in] universal credit can be done immediately.“I know the legacy benefits are much harder to do,” she added. “You could do a one-off payment for the equivalent value for those on legacy.”Without action, Lady Stroud said households in which people receive out-of-work benefits, have disabilities, or are single parents with young children “will have to start making choices”.“We’re going to start seeing very, very difficult choices being made. We’ve already started seeing very difficult choices being made,” she said.Last year, the Conservative peer was among a chorus of voices urging the government not to remove the £20-per-week uplift to universal credit – a measure introduced at the onset of the Covid pandemic. More

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    UK scientists stripped of leadership roles for Europe-wide projects in fresh Brexit clash

    UK scientists are being stripped of leadership roles for Europe-wide projects, in fresh evidence of how Brexit clashes are damaging vital research cooperation.The EU has told a Cambridge University astrophysicist studying the Milky Way that he cannot be in charge of a new project – because the UK is not part of the £80bn Horizon Europe programme.Boris Johnson’s Brexit deal was meant to rescue participation – to pool talent and ideas to achieve scientific breakthroughs – but his plans to tear up the Northern Ireland protocol continue to block that.It is “collateral damage” from what Brussels sees as a breach of an international agreement, the EU ambassador to the UK has warned.Now Nicholas Walton, a research fellow at Cambridge University’s Institute of Astronomy, has revealed he has lost his leadership role in a new €2.8m European Space Agency project.Carsten Welsch, a physicist at Liverpool University, who has won €2.6m in funding for long-term research on a novel plasma generator, said he faced the same threat of having to hand over leadership to an EU institution.“As the UK’s association to Horizon Europe isn’t completed, we are now at real risk of losing our leadership in this consortium and to be marginalised,” he told The Guardian.“This is really heartbreaking, given the long and extremely successful track record in scientific collaboration between the UK and EU,” he said.The setback has emerged as UK scientists warn the government must decide in the next few months whether to abandon hopes of remaining in the Horizon scheme altogether.Some £6bn has been set aside for a three-year go-it-alone science fund, which scientists see as inferior to Horizon – but which must start to be spent soon, if that is the reality.Adrian Smith, president of The Royal Society, said: “The window for association is closing fast, and we need to ensure that political issues do not get in the way of a sensible solution.“We have always been very clear that association is the preferred outcome for protecting decades of collaborative research, and the benefits this has brought to people’s lives across the continent and beyond.”Over the last six-year period of the Horizon scheme, finishing in 2020, the UK received £1.5bn – more than any other country and a fifth of the total handed out by Brussels.Among the programme’s successes are everything from leukaemia treatments to hydrogen cells that fuel zero-emission buses.The Brexit deal committed the UK to pay £15bn over the six years to 2027 – even as it pulled out of other EU agencies and EU-wide programmes – but that has yet to be triggered, as the stalemate drags on.Mr Welsch said domestic funding is allowing the UK to contribute as “associated partners” to the Horizon scheme, without receiving EU cash.But he warned: “UK institutions can no longer lead projects, can no longer be in charge of project milestones and, overall, it feels as if the UK is losing important leadership.” More

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    Boris Johnson ‘must urgently explain’ why he met Sue Gray to discuss her Partygate report

    Boris Johnson is under pressure to explain why he met with Sue Gray to discuss her report into the Partygate scandal, which is due within days.Labour warned the “secret meeting” could further damage confidence in the investigation of the scandal, while the Liberal Democrats raised fears of “a stitch up”.The prime minister is among around 30 people who have been told by Ms Gray, a senior civil servant, that her report is likely to name them – with a deadline of Sunday evening to lodge any objections.Publication is expected on Tuesday or Wednesday, after the Metropolitan Police announced the conclusion of its investigation with a total of 126 fines issued to 83 people.Angela Rayner, Labour’s deputy leader said: “Boris Johnson must urgently explain why he held a secret meeting with Sue Gray to discuss her report despite claiming her investigation was completely independent.“Public confidence in the process is already depleted, and people deserve to know the truth. The Sue Gray report must be published in full and with all accompanying evidence.”Christine Jardine, a Liberal Democrat Treasury spokesperson, said: “Any whiff of a stitch up would make an absolute mockery of the report. This meeting must be explained.”It has been suggested that the meeting – around one month ago – was to discuss whether up to 300 photos given to the Met probe should be included in Ms Gray’s report.A No 10 spokesperson said, on Friday: “The prime minister commissioned the investigation led by Sue Gray and has been clear throughout that it should be completely independent.“As he reiterated again today, the decision on what and when to publish rests entirely with the investigation team and he will respond in Parliament once it concludes.”Although Downing Street calls the inquiry “independent”, in reality it is an internal process, carried out by a person employed by the government.The pressure on Mr Johnson has eased, after he escaped further fines for the No 10 parties on top of the one handed down for his cabinet room birthday celebration, in June 2020.However, the full Gray report could still lift the lid further on what her interim report called the “failures of leadership and judgement”, by revealing the communications leading up to the lockdown-busting events.The prime minister then faces an inquiry by the Commons’ privileges committee to determine whether he lied to parliament when claimed that no laws had been broken in Downing Street.Under the ministerial code, any minister who knowingly misleads the House of Commons is expected to resign. More

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    Moldova should be armed ‘to Nato standard’ to guard against Russia, says Truss

    Ukraine’s neighbour Moldova should be “equipped to Nato standard” to guard it against possible Russian aggression, the foreign secretary has said.Liz Truss said she wants to ensure that Ukraine is “permanently able to defend itself”, and this also applies to other “vulnerable states” such as Moldova, which is not a Nato member.She told The Telegraph: “What we’re working on at the moment is a joint commission with Ukraine and Poland on upgrading Ukrainian defences to Nato standard.”“So we will scope out what that looks like, what the Ukrainians need. The question then is how do you maintain that over time?“How do we ensure that there is deterrence by denial, that Ukraine is permanently able to defend itself and how do we guarantee that happens? That’s what we are working on at the moment.“And that also applies to other vulnerable states such as Moldova. Because again, the threat is broader from Russia, we also need to make sure that they are equipped to Nato standards.”Pressed on whether she wants to see Western weaponry and intelligence provided to Moldova, Ms Truss said: “I would want to see Moldova equipped to Nato standard. This is a discussion we’re having with our allies.”Asked if this is because Russia poses a security threat to Moldova, she said: “Absolutely. I mean, Putin has been clear about his ambitions to create a greater Russia.“And just because his attempts to take Kyiv weren’t successful doesn’t mean he’s abandoned those ambitions.”The Telegraph cited an aide as saying “Nato standard” would involve members of the alliance supplying modern equipment to replace gear from the Soviet era, and providing training in how to use it.It comes as Boris Johnson spoke to Turkey’s president Recep Tayyip Erdogan about the global response to the conflict in Ukraine.The prime minister emphasised that Finland and Sweden would be valuable additions to the Nato alliance, No 10 said, after Mr Erdogan said he opposed their accession – accusing the pair of not taking a “clear stance” against groups his country perceives to be terrorists.A Downing Street spokesperson said Mr Johnson encouraged Turkey’s president to work with Swedish, Finnish and Nato counterparts to address any concerns ahead of the alliance’s summit in Madrid in June.The leaders shared their “deep concern” at ongoing Russian aggression against Ukraine and its “far-reaching consequences for the security and stability of the Euro-Atlantic region and wider world”, No 10 said.Additional reporting by PA More

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    Plan to prevent food shortages amid fears of ‘biggest rail strike in modern history’

    Contingency plans have been put in a bid to prevent food and petrol shortaged after RMT warned that “potentially the biggest rail strike in modern history” could hit the network next month.The trade union has balloted its 40,000 members for strike action and the vote closes on Tuesday next week.The Transport Salaried Staffs’ Association is also consulting staff on a strike and said it will co-ordinate with RMT.The looming potential strike action has caused rail bosses to start making contingency plans, such as prioritising freight trains over passenger services on the network to ensure petrol and food supplies do not run short.Transport minister Grant Shapps is understood to be meeting with Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak next week to discuss the situation, as reported by The Times.If the ballot is successful there has been no indication from RMT when strike action could begin, however it could not take place during the Queen’s jubilee long weekend as two weeks notice must be given before industrial action.RMT balloted members because it said that Network Rail is planning to cut at least 2,500 safety-critical maintenance jobs as part of a £2 billion reduction in spending, while workers at train operators have been subject to pay freezes and changes to their terms and conditions.In late April, RMT general secretary Mick Lynch said: “Railway workers have had to contend with pay freezes, the prospect of losing their jobs and repeated attacks on their terms and conditions.“Removing 2,500 safety critical jobs from Network Rail will spell disaster for the public, make accidents more likely and will increase the possibility of trains flying off the tracks.”He added: “The way for trade unions to effectively take on the cost-of-living crisis is to stand up for their members at work and take industrial action when employers are not moved by the force of reasoned argument.“A national rail strike will bring the country to a standstill, but our members livelihoods and passenger safety are our priorities.”The ballot covers RMT members on Network Rail and Chiltern Railways, Cross Country Trains, Greater Anglia, LNER, East Midlands Railway, c2c, Great Western Railway, Northern Trains, South Eastern Railway, South Western Railway, Island Line, GTR (including Gatwick Express), Transpennine Express, Avanti West Coast, and West Midlands Trains.Tim Shoveller, Network Rail’s regional director, said: “Our railway has been hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and even as passenger numbers start to recover, we know travel habits and passenger demand have changed and the industry has to change too.“We cannot keep relying on Government handouts, and so we must work together with train operators and our trades unions to save millions of pounds and deliver a more efficient railway.“Our modernisation programme aims to build a sustainable future that delivers for passengers and creates better and safer jobs for our people.“We would not consider any changes that would make the railway less safe.” More