Week in politics: Downing Street dramas, North East ambulance concerns & more

29.05.22 boris birthday picture
Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak pictured at a birthday celebration for the Prime Minister in the cabinet room in June 2020. Credit: Sue Gray Report

It's been a heck of a week for the residents of Downing Street.

On Wednesday, the full report from senior civil servant Sue Gray was finally published, with some extraordinary details about parties in government during the pandemic - like 4am finishes, a staff member being sick and red wine being spilled on a wall.

She concluded: "the senior leadership at the centre, both political and official, must bear responsibility for this culture."

On Wednesday evening, Julian Sturdy became the first Conservative MP from our region to publicly call for Boris Johnson to resign.

The York Outer MP wrote: "Talking to constituents, it is clear discussions about parties in Downing Street remain a damaging distraction."

"This is clearly a time when we cannot have any doubt about the honesty, integrity, and personal character of the Prime Minister."

Among the photographs published by Sue Gray was one (above), showing the Chancellor and Richmond MP Rishi Sunak at the birthday celebration for the PM.

She said he had been at that event in June 2020 "briefly", having arrived early for a meeting, and "had no advance knowledge about what had been planned."

Otherwise her report barely mentioned Mr Sunak - but the North Yorkshire MP was fined by the police over that event (as well as Mr Johnson), and that seems to have killed off his chances of getting into No10.

He has of course got plenty on his plate in No11 right now.

No doubt timed, at least in part, in an attempt to move on from partygate, the Chancellor announced a new cost of living support package on Thursday - including a £400 grant for every household and more for the most vulnerable.

It was more generous than many were expecting and pretty warmly received at Westminster, where Labour claimed they had won the battle of ideas, having pushed for a windfall tax for many months.

On Friday, the Prime Minister visited a training centre in Stockton, where he described the intervention as "a big bazooka."

We put to him the story of Mark Lambert from County Durham, who was having to sell some of his possessions at a car boot sale, and felt "let down by the government."

The Prime Minister responded: "I can't pretend, Mark, that we're going to fix everything, but we can certainly help" - pointing as well to an extra £500m given to councils under a discretionary fund for people struggling.

As for Boris Johnson's prospects, a steady stream of Conservative critics continue to come forward, but we just don't know how close they are to the 54 no-confidence letters needed to trigger a vote.

I wonder whether Friday was his last visit to the North East as Prime Minister - though writing him off before has not been wise.

Last weekend, the Sunday Times revealed allegations that the North East Ambulance Service had covered up evidence about deaths linked to mistakes made by paramedics.

On Monday, Labour submitted an urgent question in the Commons, where Health Minister Maria Caulfield agreed the government would investigate.

Eight North East MPs then spoke, raising wider concerns about the region's ambulance service, with examples of long delays and other poor experiences. 

Sunderland Central Labour MP Julie Elliott said: "NEAS has been making mistakes for decades and nothing seems to be done about it."

Stockton North Labour MP Alex Cunningham declared: "the service is far from fit for purpose."

The North East Ambulance Service's full response to the cover up allegations can be read here.

Thirsk & Malton Conservative MP Kevin Hollinrake led the adjournment debate in the Commons on Tuesday evening, making his case against the government's plan for a new asylum reception centre at Linton-on-Ouse in his constituency.

He said local residents were "sacrificial lambs to a national policy" and accused the Home Office of "pretty much an abuse of power" for how they've handled it.

Home Office Minister Kevin Foster responded, saying there had been "substantive work" to identify Linton as a "viable location", it has "established accommodation units and amenities that have been kept in reasonable condition", and there would be a "comprehensive security model" for the site.

We'll find out this coming week if the 31 May target for the first asylum seekers arriving has been met.

South Shields MP Emma Lewell-Buck had the end-of-day debate in the Commons on Wednesday, and spoke about local teenage sweethearts Liam Curry and Chloe Rutherford, who were killed in the Manchester Arena bombing in 2017.

She called for a change in the law, after their parents were told they couldn't register their children's deaths.

The Labour MP said they "cannot grieve if they cannot do this final official act for their children."

Justice Minister Tom Pursglove said the law as it stands means the details of deaths must be established by an inquest, where one is required.

He gave real encouragement though, saying he would consider the issue "with the utmost priority" and there may be a "possibility" of families having the choice to be involved.

We spoke to Chloe and Liam's mothers about this situation recently - watch our report here.

Grahame Morris led a Westminster Hall debate on Thursday, highlighting that "off-road bikes are being driven illegally and recklessly on our roads in my constituency of Easington."

The Labour MP called for a national strategy to deal with the problem, arguing the tools currently available to the police are "not sufficient."

Responding, Home Office Minister Rachael Maclean said the government wanted to keep taking a "local approach", and the police have "a range of flexible tools and powers" under the Anti-Social Behaviour, Crime and Policing Act 2014.

On Monday, the Independent Office for Police Conduct announced that the investigation into Cleveland's Police and Crime Commissioner Steve Turner for an alleged historical sexual offence had been dropped.

The Conservative PCC said he felt "vindicated", and called for Labour to investigate the behaviour of "members who, at best, have acted with malicious intent, but, at its worst, have conspired to overturn a democratic election and to use the media in an attempt to mentally destroy a political opponent and his family."

We asked the Labour party for a response on Monday but have still not received one.

And finally, Scarborough & Whitby Conservative MP Sir Robert Goodwill won Wednesday's vote to become chair of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs Committee, which has a key role in scrutinising trade deals and more.

The position became vacant following the resignation of Neil Parish, who admitted watching pornography in parliament.