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London Playbook PM: Humza oot … and a postcard from Teesside

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Good afternoon from Teesside, where I’ve been talking to people about Ben Houchen and the Teesworks freeport project. More on that below.

MONDAY CHEAT SHEET

The SNP is on the hunt for a fresh leader after Humza Yousaf threw in the towel.

Alex Salmond is urging his former colleagues not to allow a coronation.

The Playbook PM local elections tour continues with a postcard from Teesside, where Ben Houchen is hoping a row over cronyism allegations won’t block his re-election.

Rishi Sunak defended his controversial plan to cut mental health benefits.

The government is doubling down in its diplomatic spat about asylum seekers fleeing to Ireland.

**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: Thousands of people across Britain are living in temporary accommodation, but research shows that these arrangements are often far from temporary and can last for years. That’s why we’re calling for one million more homes to be made available for social rent over the next decade. Find out more.**

TOP OF THE NEWSLIST

HUMZA PARTING TUNE: The future of the SNP has been thrown into chaos after Scottish First Minister Humza Yousaf announced his resignation a mere 13 months after taking on the job.

Total limbo: The timetable for a leadership election is still to be determined, and it’s possible there will be a coronation if all the suspected contenders but Finance Minister John Swinney rule themselves out. The SNP national executive is expected to meet later this week to work out the process, and Alex Salmond is (of course) attempting to make life difficult.

How it started: Rumors Yousaf was about to quit gathered pace this morning before it was announced he would hold a noon press conference at Bute House — all-but confirming his time in the hot seat was over. He said his decision to rip up his coalition agreement with the Greens last week “underestimated the level of hurt and upset I caused Green colleagues.”

And and and: He said he was not willing to “trade my values and principles, or do deals with whoever simply for retaining power” — a reference to demands from Alba’s Salmond and former SNP leadership rival Ash Regan in exchange for propping the first minister up in the face of two no-confidence motions.

How it’s going: Yousaf will remain in post until a replacement leader is found, and the leadership speculation mill didn’t take long to get going. POLITICO’s Andrew McDonald and Noah Keate run through the possible contestants here. As Playbook PM went to pixel, only well-rated cabinet sec for education Jenny Gilruth has publicly ruled herself out, although potential Neil Gray is reportedly on Team John Swinney.

Speaking of Swinney: He said he’s “very actively considering” a go after multiple colleagues urged him to stand. That’s a bit of a change from … the Swinney of the previous leadership election, who suggested he was too old and not fresh enough.

Colleagues support him, including … SNP Westminster leader Stephen Flynn, who told the News Agents podcast: “There is only one person with experience to do the job, there is only one person to unite the party, only person can unite the country and have that vision to go on and deliver, I would like to think that person is John Swinney.”

But but but: Others aren’t so sure. SNP big name Joanna Cherry came out against Swinney, arguing another continuity candidate isn’t the right choice.

The other big name in the frame: Former leadership contender Kate Forbes. Reports in the last hour suggest she’s warming to the idea.

If she sits it out … there’s a chance Swinney swans into the role without a contest — something the ever-lurking Salmond will kick up a fuss about. “The idea of ushering in another continuity, coronated candidate, given that that person hasn’t either faced the electorate or the party, would be impossible,” he told the BBC’s World at One about the party he’s no longer a member of.

HUMZA OUT, REACTION IN: One well-connected SNP observer said the chain of events leading to Yousaf walking out was “probably one of the biggest acts of self harm the independence movement has ever done itself.”

Wait, there’s more: “It was galactic-level delusion that the ending of the Bute House Agreement hadn’t been war-gamed,” they added. “The problem is that from day one, Humza surrounded himself with incompetent SpAds who put vibes over strategy and substance — and they led him down the path of self-destruction.” But apart from that!

Down in Westminster: PM Rishi Sunak told ITV’s Robert Peston during a visit to Essex people in Scotland deserve “a government that is focused on what they care about and not constitutional wrangling and obsessing about independence” or gender recognition. Labour leader Keir Starmer said in a pooled broadcast clip during a visit in London the Scottish people “are being fundamentally let down … We’ve got to turn the page on this now — we need that general election and a fresh start.”

Indeed: Labour is arguing a snap Holyrood election should be called in Scotland. Although Swinney already said he doesn’t think that would be such a hot idea. (Just look at the polls, innit.) And Scottish Green leader Patrick Harvie said his team will work “with any first minister who shares our progressive values and who can secure our confidence.” Which suggests a new SNP leader might manage to hold the crumbling fort together.

REASONS TO BE CHEERFUL: Yousaf was close to being the shortest ever serving first minister of Scotland, at 398 days today compared with Henry McLeish, who lasted 392 before being booted out in 2001 (h/t Connor Matchett.) And Yousaf can forever comfort himself at having racked up a whopping 8.1 Liz Trusses (h/t Playbook’s Dan Bloom.)

IN UNRELATED NEWS … Spanish PM Pedro Sánchez vowed to fight on after mulling his future this weekend amid a corruption probe.

POSTCARD FROM TEESSIDE

THE PRICE OF CHANGE: Ask a Teesside resident how they feel about voting, and chances are they’ll say there’s little point. “It doesn’t matter who gets in,” said Sandra Michaels, 56, as she stops for a chat on the tired Bolckow Road in Grangetown, east Middlesbrough. “Nothing gets done around here. Nothing changes.”

But but but: Just behind the same road on the bank of the River Tees, something is changing. An enormous steel frame is being erected on one of the biggest brownfield sites in Europe. The maze of green beams — set to become a plant built by the South Korean firm SeAH to forge bits of wind turbines — is the current centerpiece of the Teesworks regeneration scheme, which promises to transform what was once a 10 mile radius of frenzied steel manufacturing. The steel mills dwindled over decades, the last closing in 2015.

Steel dreaming: Grangetown was built to house workers during the manufacturing boom following the industrial revolution. Like similar steel towns in what Westminster calls the “Red Wall” of northern areas, which once voted Labour but returned Conservative MPs at the 2019 general election, it was a thriving hub with a sense of purpose. Since the decline of the steel industry it has become a husk of its former self. Pubs, churches and shops were demolished or abandoned to arsonists.

Race to the finish: The aim of the Teesworks project is to show apathetic voters in places like Grangetown things can, in fact, change. Make Teesside Great Again, for want of a better phrase, and bring manufacturing jobs back. But the rush to make it happen has seen the man at the heart of the project, Conservative Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen, accused of cutting corners. And this week he’s up for re-election. 

The details: An independent report from the central U.K. government in January painted a damning picture of the business and governance arrangements around the Teesworks project. It supported media investigations by Private Eye and the Financial Times showing a number of complex, rushed and secretive deals led to two local businessmen, Chris Musgrave and Martin Corney, being handed 90 percent of the venture and the freedom to purchase the most profitable chunks of land for £1 an acre.

Not corrupt … but: Although the report found no evidence of illegality, it criticized several aspects of the process and suggested the central deal should be renegotiated to get better value for the public purse — a move Houchen has rejected, despite agreeing to a range of other governance reforms. So far the two businessmen have made tens of millions of pounds in profit, with no evidence of the pair investing their own cash in the scheme, while the taxpayer has plowed in more than £560 million and remains on the hook for huge liabilities.

Bigger picture: Some Teesside residents desperate for that long-awaited change are willing to take the compromise. “It’s not fair, the rich getting richer, as usual. But if it’s going to bring jobs to the area it might be a good thing,” said freelance photographer Michelle Maddison, 53, outside the Morrisons in the seaside town of Redcar. 

No word on the ground: Dan Robinson, 36, is on a gas engineer training course he hopes will land him a job at Teesworks. He reckoned Houchen will win re-election this week off the back of the promises about new jobs. “Not many people have talked about it,” he said about the allegations around the business deals. Another woman who works in recruitment and didn’t want to be named said critics “don’t seem to realize what kind of opportunities [Teesworks] will bring.”

Desperate for change: “A lot of people will tell you they don’t care as long as they get a job at the end of it,” said Alec Brown, Labour leader of Redcar and Cleveland Council, the section of Houchen’s patch hosting almost the entire Teesworks site. He said lots of voters are jaded about political business deals regardless of who’s in charge — and “that’s why Labour would be as transparent as we can be over it.”

Indeed: Labour Tees Valley mayoral candidate Chris McEwan is promising to renegotiate the deal with the businessmen if he wins the election, and to open up project finances to further scrutiny. The election appears to be close, with McEwan matching Houchen at 47 percent of support, according to a poll from Redfield and Wilton. And the Labour campaign got a boost from a local celeb last week … 

Helping hand: Two former founders of the Teesworks project, including Middlesbrough football club owner Steve Gibson, went public to attack Houchen over the deal. The pair said the 90 percent deal for the Teesworks businessmen would see the taxpayer lose hundreds of millions of pounds over the next decade, and should have been kept at an earlier 50:50 arrangement between the private firms and the public sector.

Case for the defense: In an election debate last week, Houchen said Gibson had “ulterior motives” for his attack, and insisted the Teesworks arrangement was a “great deal” which would make £1.3 billion in returns to the public purse and create thousands of jobs. Teesworks told the Financial Times the two businessmen had taken on massive liabilities for the site, while the Tees Valley Combined Authority has argued the deals were required to unlock land regeneration, and were done in private to protect commercial confidentiality.

We’ll all be rich: Stephen Martin, a Conservative councilor for the Eston ward in Redcar and Cleveland, just south of Grangetown, said he had no doubt the deal was value for money, because the project will “make the area more affluent” via jobs and people flocking in to spend cash. He didn’t want to comment on whether the deal with the business developers should be renegotiated “because that’s not my forte.”

Such a Tees: Just west of Redcar town is the gleaming new road entrance to the Teesworks site. There’s a modern new guard office, landscaped grassland and an arch over the top screaming about its net zero credentials in flashing LED lights. It promises hope for an area that needs it. But the compromises involved are on the ballot paper this week.

**We’re back with the Copenhagen Democracy Summit on 14-15th May!  Uniting leaders and activists for freedom around the world – to ensure Ukraine’s victory and fight back against the autocrats. Check out our agenda and join us virtually as we #DefendDemocracy. Dictators need not apply. Copenhagen Democracy Summit 2024**

DRIVETIME DEBRIEF

BIT OF BEDTIME READING: The green paper proposing changes to benefits for disabled people should be dropping around now to coincide with a statement in the Commons from Work and Pensions Secretary Mel Stride. The proposals (for consultation) include swapping cash benefits for one-off payments or vouchers; tightening personal independence payments eligibility criteria; and allowing some people to get a basic diagnosis for benefits without a detailed assessment if their condition is obvious or severe.

At the moment … one of the chief criticisms has been of the plan to limit benefits for mental health conditions. But Sunak defended the move in his Peston interview — in words just released. He said it was wrong for people who could work to make benefits claims “based on unverifiable assertions. There needs to be some objective evidence, perhaps medical, so that we can say you are genuinely someone who’s in need of support.”

Of course … he said those who are suffering “should get the treatment and support they need” and claimed the government had “massively increased the resources and the treatments available for people” — despite waiting lists for mental health being depression-inducing in themselves. But he said being out of work doesn’t help people with mental health issues.

And … he said PIP payments are forecast to increase 50 percent in four years, so it was right to make the regime fairer and sustainable. Stride made similar points during his broadcast round this morning.

The Labour line: In his own TV clip, Keir Starmer criticized the government for again changing a scheme of their own making. But he didn’t rule out following the Conservative proposals. “They designed it and put it in place and now 14 years later they say it’s not working, so there’s an element of farce to it,” he said. “But obviously we’ll look at the details when they come.”

Now read this: Westminster journo Isabel Hardman has a thoughtful take on all this drawing on her own experience of mental health.

EILIFINT IN THE ROOM: Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris and Irish Foreign Affairs Minister Micheál Martin continued the row about asylum seekers when the pair met this morning, even if the official readout of the “British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference” neglected to mention it. Rishi Sunak is still refusing to accept returns of people fleeing across the Irish land border to avoid being deported to Rwanda.

Indeed: “I’m not interested in that,” Sunak told Peston in their interview this morning. “We’re not going to accept returns from the EU via Ireland when the EU doesn’t accept returns back to France, where illegal migrants are coming from.” Heaton-Harris said similar in a press conference after the summit. The government wants to know what the mooted emergency Irish law to tackle the surge in border crossings will involve. This could become a full-blown diplomatic fist fight.

FAR RIGHT, MOI? Sunak rejected claims from Labour defector Dan Poulter the Tories had become a “nationalist party of the right,” when Peston asked him about the comments. “I think he’s made a mistake,” Sunak said, arguing the Rwanda scheme, cutting benefits for people with mental health issues and the like are “mainstream” positions.

HESITANT ELECT: Sunak refused to tell Peston whether July amounted to the “second half of this year,” in terms of his “working assumption” for the election date.

FINANCIAL FUMING: The government is going to war with the City watchdog over its controversial plans to “name and shame” financial companies suspected of wrongdoing, my POLITICO Financial Services Pro colleague James Fitzgerald reports.

OF TO WORKERS WE GO: Pro-Gaza firebrand George Galloway announced 150 general election candidates for his Workers Party, and pledged to stand candidates in every British seat. Whether the candidates who fail to win 5 percent support will have to stump up for their lost £500 deposits themselves will depend on the seat, a Galloway spokesperson said.

SPEAKING OF CANDIDATES … just 34 percent of local election candidates this week are women, according to research from the Fawcett Society and Democracy Club — up just one percentage point since the last set of council votes. Some 41 percent of Labour candidates are female candidates, while the Tories have an even lower share at 29 percent.

STILL TO COME: Shadow Transport Secretary Lou Haigh will be addressing the Parliamentary Labour Party about her rail nationalization plans in a private meeting from 6 p.m. Then she’ll be chatting to Iain Dale for his LBC show from 7 p.m.

SOCIAL (MEDIA) AFFAIRS

WHERE’S THE USB MUG? Nice trick from Rishi Sunak to plug the next phase of the National Insurance tax cut. Helpful “community note” on X too…

DOING THE ROUNDS: The Lib Dems getting a taste of their own medicine on the bar chart front.

LOVING IT: The Labourite Twitter feed had an amusing take on Keir Starmer hearing about Humza Yousaf quitting, and on Yousaf quitting overall.

AROUND THE WORLD

MIDDLE EAST LATEST: U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken urged Hamas to accept Israel’s latest and “extraordinarily generous” proposal for a truce in Gaza to secure the release of hostages — via Reuters.

UKRAINE UPDATE: NATO Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg said it’s “not too late for Ukraine to prevail” in its war against Russia despite delays in western military and financial aid during a joint press conference in Kyiv with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy — Bloomberg has further information.

IN GERMANY: Nine people have gone on trial in the southern German city of  Stuttgart in one of three cases linked to an alleged far-right plot to overthrow the state, with the men charged with high treason, attempted murder and membership of a terrorist organization — the Guardian has more details.

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TONIGHT’S MEDIA ROUND

LEADING THE NEWS BULLETINS: Channel 5 News (5 p.m.), BBC News at Six and Channel 4 News (7 p.m.) all lead on Humza Yousaf’s resignation.

Tom Swarbrick at Drive (LBC, until 6 p.m.): Scottish Tory Leader Douglas Ross (5.05 p.m.) … former Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond (5.50 p.m.).

BBC PM (Radio 4, 5 p.m.): Former SNP Westminster Leader Ian Blackford … Scottish Greens Co-Leader Patrick Harvie.

Drive with John Pienaar (Times Radio, 5 p.m.): Former Scottish Labour Leader Kezia Dugdale (5.10 p.m.) … SNP MSP Fergus Ewing (5.15 p.m.) … SNP MP Alison Thewliss (5.35 p.m.) … Scottish Green MSP Gillian Mackay (5.40 p.m.).

The News Agents (Podcast, drops at 5 p.m.): SNP Westminster Leader Stephen Flynn … Nicola Sturgeon’s former Chief of Staff Liz Lloyd.

Tonight With Andrew Marr (LBC, 6 p.m.): Stephen Flynn … Scottish Labour Leader Anas Sarwar … Green Co-Leader Carla Denyer.

Iain Dale (LBC, 7 p.m.): Shadow Transport Secretary Louise Haigh phone-in (7 p.m. to 7.45 p.m.).

Farage (GB News, 7 p.m.): Tory MP Mark Francois … Alba MP Neale Hanvey.

Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC, 8 p.m.): Tory MP Paul Scully … Plaid Cymru Leader Rhun ap Iorwerth … political commentator Jo-Anne Nadler … writer Matthew Todd.

TWEETING TOMORROW’S PAPERS TONIGHT: George Mann.

REVIEWING THE PAPERS TONIGHT: Times Radio (10.30 p.m.): Journalist Alicia Fitzgerald and PoliticsHome’s Nadine Batchelor-HuntSky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Guardian’s Pippa Crerar and the Sun’s Harry Cole.

WHERE TO FIND BOOZE IN WESTMINSTER TONIGHT

NOT IN WESTMINSTER BUT … EU JARGON DRINKING BINGO! European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen will debate seven other EU election lead candidates for the first time on stage this evening, in a debate co-hosted by POLITICO and Studio Europa Maastricht. The debate will focus on climate change, security and European democracy, says POLITICO’s Barbara Moens, who will be co-moderating. You can watch and follow along via POLITICO’s live blog from 6 p.m.

**Power Play will be at the 27th Annual Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles, from May 5-8. POLITICO’s highly influential podcast, hosted by Anne McElvoy, will bring conversations with power players in politics, finance, tech philanthropy and beyond to your ears, as they grapple with the world’s most pressing and complex challenges. Listen and follow Power Play here.**

TOMORROW’S WORLD

BREXIT DIVIDEND LATEST: New post-Brexit border checks and charges are introduced. Essential POLITICO primer on how it’s all going swimming here.

WHAT THE GOVERNMENT WANTS TO TALK ABOUT: The NHS constitution and taking down hate preachers.

GETTING THE GANG TOGETHER: Rishi Sunak will chair his Cabinet at 9.30 a.m.

IN THE RED CORNER: U.K. government debt and deficit figures for December 2023 are released at 9.30 a.m.

LABOUR LAND: The Reform think tank hosts a roundtable with former Keir Starmer Policy Director Claire Ainsley from 9.30 a.m.

PANDEMIC DIARIES: The Covid-19 inquiry begins hearing evidence in Northern Ireland, starting at 10 a.m.

GET YOUR NOTEPADS OUT: Numerous names in political journalism (including POLITICO’s own Jack Blanchard) appear at a Society of Editors conference to discuss reaching out to audiences as the election looms, from 10.40 a.m.

IN THE COMMONS: MPs sit from 11.30 a.m. for Foreign Office questions, then consideration of Lords amendments to the Digital Markets, Competition and Consumers Bill.

NEVER GETS OLD: MI6 boss Alex Younger is due before the foreign affairs committee from 2 p.m.

CAMING HOME: Foreign Secretary David Cameron is set to be questioned by the Lords international relations and defense committee from 3 p.m.

MAY BE NEWSWORTHY: Former Prime Minister Theresa May appears at a Chatham House event from 6 p.m.

PROBABLY WON’T BE NEWSWORTHY: Shadow Foreign Secretary David Lammy appears at an IPPR event about foreign affairs from 6.30 p.m.

ANY OTHER BUSINESS

PACKED LUNCH OR PALACE LUNCH: Subject to change, here are the lunch menus on the estate tomorrow: Bellamy’s: Jerk pork with rice and peas; chickpea and tarragon tofu with tabbouleh salad and caramelized endive; hoisin and sesame beef stir fry with pak choi and rice noodles … The Debate: Jerk pork with rice and peas; lime and lemon baked tuna with yakisoba noodles; roast oregano tofu, butternut squash and pepper tagine with cracked wheat … Terrace Cafeteria: Shepherds pie; jerk pork with rice and peas; sweet and sour tempeh stir fry with sweetcorn rice … River Restaurant: Baked eggplant, red onion and feta parmigiana with tomato sauce and garlic bread; Tuscan chicken with yellow rice and roast vegetable salad; lime, chili and soy roasted salmon with noodles, lime leaf and coriander broth.

SO LONG, FAREWELL: Labour frontbencher David Lammy has decided it’s time to pack in his second job as an LBC Radio host. Here’s some outgoing love with broadcast colleague Nick Ferrari. News Agents co-host Lewis Goodall is taking the Lammy slot.

NEW GIG: Investigative journo Natalie Bloomer is off to work for Labour MP Gen Kitchen. Her tweet here.

NOW HIRING: The ConservativeHome website seeks a new editor after Paul Goodman was elevated to the Lords. More details here.

WELCOME BACK: Sky Westminster reporter Alix Culbertson returned after having a baby.

SIMPLE QUESTIONS PLAYBOOK PM CAN’T GET ANSWERS TO: When will Rishi Sunak fill his vacant anti-corruption adviser role? … Did Steve Tuckwell tell constituents, filmed signing a petition about fish and chips, that their data would be used for other campaign spam? … When will Boris Johnson start producing his own GB News content?

WHAT I’VE BEEN READING: Conservative MP, former soldier and ex-chair of the defense committee Tobias Ellwood has written for POLITICO about how the planned defense budget boost should be spent.

ON THIS DAY IN POLITICS: On 29 April 1707 the English and Scottish parliaments accepted the Act of Union, creating the United Kingdom of Great Britain. On the same date in 2018, then-Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson was spotted in Perugia airport looking somewhat worse for wear after hanging out at media baron Evgeny Lebedev’s villa in Umbria without a police escort or government officials. And on the same date in 2022, Conservative MP Neil Parish had the whip withdrawn after being caught watching tractor porn in the House of Commons.

WRITING PLAYBOOK TOMORROW MORNING: Stefan Boscia.

THANKS TO: My editor Matt Honeycombe-Foster, reporters Noah Keate, Bethany Dawson and Andrew McDonald, and the POLITICO production team for making it look nice.

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