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By ALEX WICKHAM

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Good Wednesday morning.

SCOOP: Serial backbench rebel Anne Marie Morris has had the Conservative whip removed after she voted for Labour’s opposition day motion proposing a VAT cut on energy bills on Tuesday. Playbook is told Downing Street and the whips office acted after deciding they could not allow a Tory MP to vote for a motion that would have allowed Labour control of the Commons order paper. A government insider said: “This motion was clearly put forward to seize control of parliament business, which we cannot accept.” This is the second time Morris has lost the whip, after previously being (briefly) sanctioned for saying the N-word. She will once again sit as an independent, bringing the total number of MPs taking the Tory whip down to 360.

DRIVING THE DAY

HIGH NOON: Boris Johnson today faces his most important Prime Minister’s Questions yet on what is politically the hardest day of his premiership to date. For the past 36 hours, Johnson has been unable to respond to allegations he attended a COVID rule-breaking drinks gathering at Downing Street during lockdown in May 2020. That surely has to change this afternoon at his showdown with the prosecution in the form of Labour leader Keir Starmer. Today’s newspapers are the worst Johnson has woken up to as PM, as Cabinet ministers call on him to apologize and issue a statement explaining exactly what took place, and Tory MPs talk darkly about whether the crisis has become existential. It goes without saying that it’s another huge day in Westminster.

Enter the man with the most antibodies in Britain: POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson texts in with the news that Starmer, who has been isolating with COVID, returned a negative test on Tuesday morning. Assuming that doesn’t change when he tests himself this morning, he will be out of isolation and fit to lead the questions at PMQs. Well, he wouldn’t want to miss this one.

You won’t be surprised to hear … there is no minister on the morning broadcast round this morning, as the government remains unable to defend its position. Deputy Labour Leader Angela Rayner and Lib Dem Leader Ed Davey have a free hit in the studios.

**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: Criminals are using the pandemic to target the vulnerable with online fraud. There’s a lot being done by banks to stop them, but we need other industries to help, including social media companies and phone providers. We need a stronger Online Safety Bill.**

How will Johnson play it? Ministers and Tory MPs who spoke to Playbook last night concluded that Johnson only really has two options today. The first is that he maintains the current line of claiming he cannot comment while civil service investigator Sue Gray continues her probe. One issue with this is it is not exactly clear what procedural reason would stop him from commenting while the investigation is ongoing. Another is how it would look to the public and mutinous Conservative backbenchers. A Tory MP last night told Playbook it would be ill-advised for Johnson to “no comment” six questions from the former director of public prosecutions.

Is it too late now to say sorry? The second approach Johnson could take is a mea culpa. This is the clear preference of the Tory MPs who spoke to Playbook. A Cabinet minister tells the Times’ Steve Swinford, Henry Zeffman and George Grylls: “It’s not terminal yet — there’s still room for humility and a heartfelt apology. We’re f***ed unless we resolve it. Everyone knows this thing happened; nobody is disputing that. The row has moved on from whether the party took place to questions around denial and prevarication. PMQs will be agonising. We f***ed up. It doesn’t have to be terminal if he’s prepared to take his medicine. But it’s unquestionably done harm.”

Could Johnson move ahead of PMQs? The Telegraph’s Chris Hope has picked up speculation from two government sources that the PM could make some sort of statement before he faces Starmer, to at least slightly take the punch out of his questions. As this email goes out, Playbook is told not to expect a separate statement to what he will say at PMQs. Though it’s fair to say No. 10’s plan is very much up in the air.

What will Starmer ask? Rayner gives us a clue this morning, telling journalists that Johnson must give “a yes or no answer” to whether he attended the drinks event.

Might he bring a prop? There was fevered speculation in SW1 last night that a photo of the May 20 party might exist and be leaked to the media just in time for PMQs, as the drip-drip of stories continues. The mental image of Starmer waving a print out around at the despatch box was enough to give Tory MPs nightmares.

Hendopolis now: Today’s front pages are as devastating as they get for No. 10. The Telegraph, the paper for which the PM used to write, ominously goes with “Johnson losing Tory support.” The Mail asks “Is the party over for PM?” The Sun accuses Johnson of going “into hiding” with the headline: “It’s my party and I’ll lie low if I want to.” Even the Express warns: “Don’t blow it now PM!” And those are just the Tory-leaning papers. (H/t the BBC’s Neil Henderson.)

Victims’ voices: My POLITICO colleague Jack Blanchard notes it’s not just the nationals going all in. The Press and Journal, Yorkshire Post and Daily Record all focus on the families of COVID victims who tell tragic stories of not being able to see relatives before they died at the same time as the No. 10 garden gathering.

There are also fresh angles on Partygate today: The Times’ Steve Swinford and Henry Zeffman take us inside the May 20 party, revealing advisers turned up at around 6 p.m. after picking up booze from the Tesco Express by Westminster station. Two sources recalled Johnson “wandering round gladhanding people.” The paper says one official joked about the risk of a drone spotting them, which was “viewed as a tacit admission that the rules were being breached.” A member of the government walking round the back of Downing Street that evening remembered the loud noise coming from the garden.

Party Marty: The Mail’s Simon Walters reports that the civil servant at the heart of the Partygate claims, Johnson’s Principal Private Secretary Martin Reynolds — or “Party Marty” as the paper dubs him — is accused of attending another party on December 18, 2020. Walters quotes a source saying the PM knows he must get rid of Reynolds.

Clean-up operation: The BBC’s Iain Watson reports that senior No. 10 political staff had to intervene in the first half of 2021 to prevent other events including leaving parties from going ahead. But in a bombshell revelation, the Indy’s Anna Isaac has two sources claiming a senior member of staff told them to “clean up” their phones by removing any messages that referred to anything that could “look like a party.” The suggestion was made early last month, the sources allege.

Tory peer Ros Altmann told BBC Newsnight last night: “If there was a party, anyone who attended it was breaking the law. And if those who were attending, and breaking the law, include the prime minister, then obviously the position becomes untenable. That needs to be established, I am very perplexed as to why there hasn’t been a clarification so far. I understand there will be a statement tomorrow, I hope that will clarify.”

On the record: Scottish Tory leader Douglas Ross was the most senior Conservative to put Johnson on notice Tuesday, saying the PM should resign if he broke COVID rules or misled parliament. The Times’ Lobby abacus George Grylls has a useful thread of the 16 Tory MPs who have so far gone on the record to criticize Johnson and No. 10: Philip DaviesRobbie MooreLaura FarrisPhilip DunneChristopher ChopeBob BlackmanJohnny MercerCaroline Nokes … Natalie ElphickeDerek ThomasNigel MillsMark HarperNeil HudsonJerome MayhewDuncan BakerRobert Syms.

Many more are scathing off the record: You can take your pick of spicy anonymous quotes doing the rounds this morning. A Tory MP tells the BBC’s Laura Kuenssberg: “We should get rid of him … We should own the situation. We are the Tory Party. We are not delivering good governance.” A senior Conservative Brexiteer MP told BBC Newsnight’s Nick Watt: “It’s ‘Goodnight Vienna.’ We can’t go on like this. It’s a joke. It’s a shambles. We are reaching a tipping point.” That MP said letters of no confidence are being sent to Graham Brady, chair of the 1922 committee of Tory backbenchers.

What happens next? Sue Gray, described as “the famed tough-nut” by the Sun’s Harry Cole in a glorious second mention, is not going to deliver her make-or-break verdict today. Sky’s Sam Coates reckons she’s almost certain not to report this week, that she might be ready next week, but that the whole thing could be delayed by months if the police launch a formal investigation. A Whitehall insider confirms to Playbook that this timeline is correct.

Right on cue: Campaigning lawyer Jolyon Maugham and his Good Law Project are suing the Metropolitan Police over their failure to launch an investigation.

What will Gray say? The Institute for Government’s Hannah White tells the FT’s Seb Payne she will probably be cautious about blaming individuals for the parties: “As far as possible, she will stick to fact. The consequences of her report may be very serious, but they won’t come in Sue Gray’s voice. But she is going to have to give some indication who went and the numbers. If there are allegations of politicians being present, she will have to take a view on that.” Gray might be enjoying a love-in from officialdom, but Open Democracy’s Jenna Corderoy notes she’s not exactly an unproblematic figure, reporting on how she is “infamous in the world of information transparency” for stonewalling Freedom of Information requests.

Gray area: The U.K.’s most senior civil servant, Simon Case, may have stepped down from the investigation into Partygate, but he still stands to oversee any disciplinary action arising from that same investigation. Whitehall staff who spoke to POLITICO’s Esther Webber and the Indy’s Anna Isaac have raised concerns over Case’s role in enforcing any disciplinary measures or institutional reforms after Gray publishes her report. One official who attended the 70 Whitehall party pointed out that Gray was technically answerable to Case and said it was “ridiculous” he would oversee any ensuing steps. Another said the civil service ought to be able to avoid “these conflicts of interest.” They added that there needed to be a “clear route” to avoiding anyone “working directly with the prime minister and his office” or who had knowledge or took part in any parties from making decisions about the investigation.

THE 12 DAYS OF COVID PARTIES: Playbook’s Andrew McDonald has compiled the definitive list of alleged Tory lockdown parties in 2020 and runs through the detail of the accusations and defenses of all 12 here, from May 15’s wine and cheese in the garden through to the December 18 Christmas bash.

TODAY IN WESTMINSTER

HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 11.30 a.m. with women and equalities questions, followed by a blockbuster PMQs at noon … After any UQs or statements, Tory MP Luke Evans has a ten minute rule bill which would see advertisers required to display a logo in cases where an image of a human body has been digitally altered … and then the main business will be the report and third reading stages of the Commercial Rents (Coronavirus) Bill aimed at helping landlords and tenants resolve pandemic rent debt. The Lib Dems’ Wendy Chamberlain has an adjournment debate calling for recognition of long COVID.

OMI-GONE? Even more depressing for No. 10 is what might be leading the news if they weren’t mired in Partygate. The Times’ Chris Smyth goes big on an assessment from a leading public health expert that Britain is leading the northern hemisphere in outpacing the coronavirus pandemic. Prof. David Heymann of the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine told Chatham House that the U.K. is the closest to any country of being out of the pandemic — if it isn’t already out of the pandemic — and having the disease as endemic as the other four coronaviruses. Britain’s high level of immunity though infection and vaccination seems “to be keeping the virus at bay,” Heymann said.

High 5: Smyth also reports ministers have decided to cut the COVID isolation time to five days after accepting the greater risk of infection, with Health Secretary Sajid Javid backing the plan. The decision will be signed off at a COIVD Operations meeting on Thursday, he says.

REMEMBER THE LAT FLOW SHORTAGE? Tens of millions of British-made lateral flow tests were trapped in a warehouse for three months in the run-up to Christmas as bosses waited for government approval, the Mirror’s Dan Bloom reports. The tests are only now being distributed.

YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 120,821 positive cases. In the last week there have been 1,103,660 positive cases, ⬇️ 166,218 on the previous week … 379 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,660 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 742 on the previous week. As of the latest data 19,828 COVID patients are in hospital.

COST OF LIVING LATEST: Tory MP and Northern Research Group founder Jake Berry has a piece in the Sun laying out a three-point plan for how red wall Tories want Johnson to ease the current squeeze. The plan: Take the poorest households out of the national insurance tax rise … freeze council tax … and scrap green levies on energy bills. “I worry that unless there is urgent action on the cost of living, millions of voters who switched to the Tories are going to lose trust in us after just one term,” Berry writes.

TRUSS VS. VOLODYA: Foreign Secretary Liz Truss wants to go to Moscow for talks with the Russian government over the Ukraine crisis, the Times’ Steve Swinford reports. One source says she wants to make the visit early next month and would tell Russia to “stop its unprovoked aggression.” That’ll do it.

NOT SO SMART: The rollout of 11 so-called “smart motorways” has been scrapped by Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, following a campaign by the Daily Mail.

LOBBY GENERAL ELECTION: Fun piece from the New Statesman’s Harry Lambert, who’s been asking leading political journalists for their pick to be the next BBC political editor. His findings — which include several Lobby hacks going on the record with their tips — suggest that if U.K. journalists were in charge of the interview process there would be two frontrunners: the current Deputy Political Editor Vicki Young and Sky’s Sam Coates. Other names that kept coming up include the BBC’s Chief Political Correspondent Chris Mason and former North America Editor Jon Sopel … The always-busy Media Editor Amol Rajan … Sky’s Political Editor Beth Rigby … and highly rated Beeb journos Lewis Goodall and Faisal Islam. Despite the large number of nominations and kind words for Coates and Rigby, Lambert also reports the BBC is unlikely to interview any external candidates for the role.

COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: School Standards Minister Robin Walker will face questions on COVID mitigation in schools at the education committee (9.30 a.m.) … The science and tech committee hosts Josef Aschbacher, director of the European Space Agency, plus other big names in the space industry (9.30 a.m.) … The home affairs committee begins an inquiry into spiking, hearing directly from victims (10 a.m.) … The public accounts committee will quiz DHSC and Cabinet Office officials on lessons learned on pandemic preparedness (2 p.m.) … and Policing Minister Kit Malthouse will be questioned by the Lords justice and home affairs committee on use of technologies in policing (3.45 p.m.).

TODAY IN COURT: A judgment will be delivered on a legal challenge brought by the Good Law Project on PPE this morning, around 10.30 a.m. This one concerns a challenge brought over the multimillion-pound contracts awarded to PestFix, Ayanda Capital and Clandeboye Agencies using the government’s VIP lane. Catch up via the Guardian’s David Conn here.

TROUBLES LEGACY DELAY: The government’s Troubles legacy cases bill is unlikely to make it into parliament until late spring or early summer, according to PolHome’s Adam Payne. A government source told Payne they needed more time to “get it right” and didn’t want to rush the bill. Meanwhile, ex-minister and outspoken critic of the government’s troubles legacy policy Johnny Mercer will raise the issue in an adjournment debate Thursday.

WONK WATCH: Policy Exchange has a new report out defending Attorney General Suella Braverman for her public remarks on judicial review back in October and looking at the tensions between the political and legal aspects of her role. Former Justice Secretary Robert Buckland contributed to the report with a foreword wading into the row over the acquittal of the Colston Four, specifically defending Braverman and attacking a “lack of balance” in some of the fierce criticism of her intervention on the case.

HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 3 p.m. with questions on the U.K.’s diplomatic influence since Brexit, potential breaches of the Commonwealth Charter by Eswatini’s government and the impact of rising energy prices … and then it’s another day of Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill report stage action.

WELSH FIRST: Landmark day for the Welsh language in the Commons last week, which saw the word cwtch used for the first ever time in parliament. Tory MP Fay Jones used the word which commonly means a hug or cuddle in a debate on January 5 — ironically while criticizing the Welsh government — and tweeted yesterday that she had learned it was the first ever use. The BBC has more.

**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: In 2021 we saw a 10% increase in the number of purchase scams reported – when someone is tricked into using a bank transfer to buy goods or services that don’t exist. Most of these scams start with items promoted on social media, where it’s easier for fraudsters to use fake profiles and advertise non-existent items. Consumers can do more to protect themselves against purchase scams, such as only buying from trusted retailers and always paying by card, but more needs to be done to protect them by targeting the source of these scams. The new Online Safety Bill will create a legal framework for removing illegal content from the internet. But it needs to include paid-for advertising to make sure social media companies prevent scammers from using their services.**

MEDIA ROUND

Labour Deputy Leader Angela Rayner broadcast round: BBC Breakfast (7.10 a.m.) … ITV GMB (7.30 a.m.) … Sky News (7.45 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.) … Times Radio (8.35 a.m.).

Also on the Today program: Transport committee Chairman Huw Merriman (6.50 a.m.) … Labour MP John Spellar and anti-smart-motorways campaigner Claire Mercer (7.30 a.m.).

Also on BBC Breakfast: Lib Dems leader Ed Davey (6.35 a.m.) … The FT’s Seb Payne and Times Radio presenter Ayesha Hazarika (7.30 a.m.).

Also on Good Morning Britain (ITV): Legal expert Adam Wagner, Johnson biographer Sonia Purnell and author Michael Rosen (8.30 a.m.).

Also on Sky News breakfast: Former No. 10 spinner Alastair Campbell (7.40 a.m.) … Scotland’s National Clinical Director Jason Leitch (8.20 a.m.) … Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.40 a.m.) … Transport committee Chairman Huw Merriman (9.15 a.m.) … Shadow Legal Aid Minister Afzal Khan (9.30 a.m.) … Former Attorney General Dominic Grieve (9.30 a.m.) … SNP Westminster leader Ian Blackford (9.30 a.m.).

Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Tory donor John Caudwell (7 a.m.) … Former City Hall spinner Patrick Hennessy (7 a.m.).

Also on Times Radio breakfast: Former senior civil servant Jill Rutter (7.05 a.m.) … Transport committee Chairman Huw Merriman (7.35 a.m.) … National Clinical Director of the Scottish government Jason Leitch (8.05 a.m.).

Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): Former Johnson spokesperson Guto Harri (7.05 a.m.) … ASCL General Secretary Geoff Barton (7.33 a.m.) … Shadow Leveling Up Minister Alex Norris (8.05 a.m.) … Tory peer Robert Hayward (9.05 a.m.).

The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News noon): Tory MP Brendan Clarke Smith and Labour MP Mike Amesbury.

Politics Live (BBC Two 11.15 a.m.): Tory MP Craig Mackinlay … Labour MP Barry Gardiner … Former Tory SpAd Salma Shah … Demos Chief Executive Polly Mackenzie … Shadow Employment Minister Alison McGovern.

Peston (Twitter 9 p.m. and ITV 10.45 p.m.): Women and equalities committee Chairwoman Caroline Nokes … Former Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell … International Energy Agency Director Fatih Birol … Satirist Armando Iannucci.

Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): Columnist Carole Malone and Liverpool Echo pol ed Liam Thorp.

TODAY’S FRONT PAGES

(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)

Daily Express: Winning war on COVID, fixed Brexit … Don’t blow it now PM.

Daily Mail: Is the party over for PM?

Daily Mirror: The party’s over, Boris.

Daily Star: Were you at the party … Yes or no, prime minister?

Financial Times: Johnson faces ‘potentially terminal’ showdown over Downing St parties.

HuffPost UK: Angry Tories turn on Boris Johnson.

i: PM’s future in jeopardy as Tories rage at lockdown drinks party.

Metro: ‘Contempt for the victims’ — Partygate backlash.

POLITICO UK: 12 parties held by Boris Johnson’s Tories during lockdown.

PoliticsHome: Exasperated Tories warn ‘BYOB’ Downing Street party could spell ‘ruin’ for Boris Johnson.

The Daily Telegraph: Johnson losing Tory support.

The Guardian: Angry Tory MPs urge PM to come clean over party.

The Independent: No 10 staff ‘told to clean up phones’ before probe.

The Times: Say sorry or doom us all, ministers tell Johnson.

LONDON CALLING

WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☀️☀️☀️ Stunning sunshine and light winds. Still very cold — highs of 7C.

GET WELL SOON: Former Health Secretary Matt Hancock has tested positive for COVID for the second time. “Thankfully I feel fine. Much better than last time and that’s thanks to the vaccine. Get your booster now if you haven’t already,” he says.

NEW GIG: Former Labour Deputy Leader Tom Watson has been appointed as the new chair of the Laboratory and Testing Industry Organization, the standards body for COVID testing companies.

NEW GIG II: Sky’s Beth Rigby will host a new weekly interview show where she will question “decision-takers from all walks of life” for the broadcaster. The show will air Thursdays at 9 p.m. beginning from March — here’s the release.

BIRTHDAYS: Amazon Chief Executive and founder Jeff Bezos … Eastbourne MP Caroline Ansell … Scottish Tory MSP Maurice Golden … Lib Dem peer Sally Hamwee … Labour peer Jennifer Hilton.

PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.

**Bruno Le Maire, France’s minister for the economy, finance, and recovery, will join POLITICO Live on February 11 for an exclusive Playbook Paris interview (in French, with a simultaneous interpretation to English), to discuss France’s vision for Europe’s economy as it takes the reins of the EU presidency. Don’t miss it – register today.**

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