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By ALEX WICKHAM
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MEDIA SCOOP: Playbook has an early look at the prime-time lineup for News U.K.’s coming Talk TV channel. Tom Newton Dunn has a new gig hosting an hour-long nightly news program with interviews, panel discussions and live reports from Sun, Times, Sunday Times and Wireless radio journalists. TND’s show will be broadcast every Monday to Friday evening live from the News Building — the idea is it will be a straight and balanced news program with guests from across Westminster, which will be immediately followed in the schedule by megabucks Piers Morgan’s more opinion-based show. Newton Dunn is stepping down from his role as Times Radio’s chief political correspondent today, though he will continue presenting his Sunday radio program until Talk TV launches early this year. Playbook hears more Lobby moves are afoot at Talk TV and Times Radio shortly.
DRIVING THE DAY
CLAD IT’S OVER: Boris Johnson’s government begins its much-anticipated 2022 reset today with a major announcement from Housing Secretary Michael Gove that senior Tories hope will finally address their years-long failure to tackle the cladding scandal. As news on the Omicron front continues to head in the right direction — with cases falling and the NHS so far managing to stay afloat — there is little respite for Downing Street as proper politics returns to the top of the agenda. Ministers get a pasting in the Tory-friendly papers on the looming cost-of-living crisis, ahead of crunch talks between the prime minister and Chancellor Rishi Sunak on what action they can take to deal with rising energy bills. It isn’t just the press and Tory backbenchers piling on the pressure — Labour has a renewed focus on energy this week armed with both punchy rhetoric and actual policies, as a series of polls drop this morning laying out the dangers ahead. As we, hopefully, eventually move past the Omicron peak, today is something of a prelude to this year’s more political battles.
Let’s start with the cladding story: Gove will announce in a statement to parliament at around 3.30 p.m. that he is tearing up his predecessor Robert Jenrick’s meagre proposals to deal with what became a national scandal on the Tories’ watch. Since the Grenfell disaster, thousands of leaseholders have been locked into uninsurable, unsellable death-trap flats clad with combustible materials, facing astronomical bills to make their buildings safe. There was disbelief in Whitehall and the Tory Party last night that this ticking time bomb has been allowed to go unresolved for so long. When the PM appointed Gove housing secretary at September’s reshuffle, he famously ordered him to fix the mess. Today brings Gove’s answer to that challenge in his first intervention in his new job.
Another U-turn: In a late-night press release, Gove confirmed he is scrapping Jenrick’s previous plan to make people who own flats between 11 and 18 meters high run up debts in the tens of thousands of pounds to pay for unsafe cladding to be removed. Gove is expected to say he is getting rid of Jenrick’s loan scheme that would have seen flat owners ultimately have to stump up the cash: “No leaseholder living in a building above 11 meters will ever face any costs for fixing dangerous cladding.”
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Instead … the rogue developers who put dangerous material on the sides of people’s homes will pay. Gove says the firms have until “early March” to agree a £4 billion payment plan to remediate unsafe cladding on buildings between 11 and 18 meters high. Gove warned developers “we are coming for you” in the Sunday Times’ scoop by Martina Lees and Caroline Wheeler, and today he makes good on that threat, vowing to restrict their access to government funding and future procurements, and pursue firms through the courts if they don’t agree to pay up. He adds that if industry fails to take responsibility, the government will use the law to force them to pay up.
A Whitehall official told Playbook: “We don’t claim to have all the answers to this crisis yet but this is an important step. We will be guided by three principles — the polluter must pay, leaseholders must be protected and common sense and proportionality must be restored. Developers now have the chance to come forward and do the right thing, if not, we will impose a solution in law.”
Why didn’t Jenrick do this? That’s the question many in and outside government were asking this weekend. Theories range from Jenrick’s much-reported links to Tory property developer donors, to his closeness to Sunak — with the Treasury nervous about the costs involved for the taxpayer. There was almost universal criticism of the government’s original policy, which is now seen as a worst-of-all-worlds outcome that would have saddled leaseholders with long-term debts and still cost the Treasury hundreds of millions to administer.
Will Gove’s plan be enough? The good news for the government this morning is that the Tory rebels who have raged about this issue for the past year or so might be won round. Tory backbencher Stephen McPartland, who has led internal dissent on cladding, last night told Playbook: “I am delighted the government has listened and this is a huge victory for leaseholders, but we need to listen carefully to the announcement in parliament. It is imperative that leaseholders are protected in law and I expect to see government amendments to the Building Safety Bill making it clear that leaseholders are protected from these costs. Cladding is an external fire safety defect, so I also need clarification that internal defects which developers are responsible for, such as missing firebreaks, will also be remediated at no cost to leaseholders. These firebreaks stop fires spreading from flat to flat and give emergency services the time to respond to save lives. Overall, it is an amazing step forward for leaseholders and we must welcome this as we work together to make our buildings safe.”
MG vs. HMT: BBC Newsnight’s Lewis Goodall got the scoop on what was coming on Friday, reporting there had been “a LOT of back and forth between Treasury and DLUHC,” with the Treasury “putting their foot down that there would be no new public money.” Goodall notes several potential issues coming down the track: It isn’t immediately clear how the money will be raised … or when it will be made available to leaseholders facing imminent ruin … today’s policy does not appear to cover non-cladding related fire safety issues — which McPartland is also asking for above.
And what could become the key fight: Chief Secretary to the Treasury Simon Clarke wrote to Gove last week to put in writing: “You have confirmed separately that DLUHC budgets are a backstop for funding these proposals should sufficient funds not be raised from industry.” As Goodall says, that suggests the Treasury wasn’t convinced Gove can get the developers to pay up, and demanded a commitment that he will use his own budget to pay the difference rather than go back to HMT asking for money. A reminder that the cladding story is not likely to go away after today.
COST OF LIVING CRISIS
NO OMICRON DIVIDEND: Boris Johnson is on a visit this morning so we can expect a broadcast clip where he will likely be asked about the so-called cost of living crisis that is starting to dominate the papers. Downing Street had hoped they would earn a dividend from the press and public over their decision to hold off on further coronavirus restrictions — that they now believe has been vindicated. Instead, the news vacuum has been filled by stories about energy bills due to rise in April, and increasing Tory disquiet over tax rises hitting at the same time.
The Tory papers are scathing on this subject this morning: The Mail splash demands: “Save us from this cost of living crisis, Boris,” as Jason Groves and Claire Ellicott quote three Tory select committee chairs warning a failure to act would see Tory support collapse. A senior Conservative tells the paper: “People are p***** off about parties in No. 10 now but it will pass. What won’t pass is the anger people will feel when, far from being levelled up, they find their standard of living has been levelled down.” The Express front page by Macer Hall and Harvey Jones says similar.
The weekend’s papers weren’t much better: The Mail on Sunday’s Glen Owen had a blockbuster interview with former Brexit Minister David Frost in which he lambasted No. 10 and told the PM he had to cut taxes and back free-market policies or face defeat at the next election. Possibly just as concerning for Downing Street, Saturday’s Sun had a furious leader telling Johnson he must scrap the national insurance rise, scrap VAT on energy bills, take a tougher line on immigration and start building houses. Today’s Sun runs Piers Morgan’s first column since he signed his deal with Rupert Murdoch. The first line is “Dear Boris, you’re a shambles” and it goes downhill from there.
And there’s more: Tees Valley mayor and red wall poster boy Ben Houchen has a piece in Times Red Box which argues that being right on Omicron isn’t enough, and that No. 10 need to focus on leveling up, and fast: “It’s time for the prime minister to focus, remember what got him elected two years ago and what the British people need to see to return him as prime minister at the next election. Boris has got booster jabs in British arms — now he needs to make sure Britain gets the Brexit boost it needs: jobs, investment, growth, levelling up and a better future for every part of our country.”
Wake-up call: If Johnson protégé Houchen, the Mail and the usually pretty pro-Johnson Mail on Sunday and Sun are kicking off saying near enough the same thing, that should provoke some reaction from No. 10.
If it doesn’t … there are three new polls out that might. YouGov polling of red wall seats finds 79 percent of key marginal seat voters say the PM doesn’t understand their pain, while 83 percent want him to get rid of VAT on energy bills. The Sun’s Harry Cole and Natasha Clark have that one. The Times’ Chris Smyth also has YouGov polling that worryingly finds 33 percent think their energy bills will rise by more they can afford this year. Sky’s Sam Coates completes the YouGov hat-trick with a poll of Conservative members finding nearly half believe Sunak would be a better leader than Johnson. However, 59 percent of Tory members think Johnson should stay as Tory leader, while 34 percent think he should quit.
Labour momentum: The Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler reported that Johnson and Sunak will hold talks this week about how to prevent energy prices from inflicting “a year of pain” on Britain. That conversation is all the more urgent as the Tories become increasingly worried that Labour leader Keir Starmer and his team have found their rhythm with a series of well-timed interventions on energy off the back of Starmer’s patriotism speech last week. Shadow Chancellor Rachel Reeves got a decent showing in the Sunday papers for her plan for a windfall tax on North Sea oil and gas producers to pay for targeted support for vulnerable people. (Oil and Gas U.K warned the tax would deal a blow to investor confidence in the North Sea.) Reeves also tried out a new attack line in Tim Shipman’s long read: “The Tories are becoming a high-tax party because they have become a low-growth party.”
Here’s Johnny: Labour has another new policy today, announcing it’d use its windfall tax to fund a £600 million contingency fund to support struggling firms such as those in energy intensive industries. Shadow Business Secretary Johnny Reynolds is on the morning broadcast round selling the idea. A Labour source tells Playbook: “Labour has put forward a proper plan to deal with this. The chancellor might want to get out of ‘listening mode’ and actually do something to fix his mess.”
Uh oh: A senior Tory tells the Mail’s Jason Groves and Claire Ellicott: “What’s worrying is that Labour have got it — they have been raising this issue week in, week out for months, while we are nowhere.”
WAVE GOODBYE: Playbook detected increasing optimism in government over the weekend that the NHS would survive the Omicron wave without being disastrously overwhelmed. Health leaders had feared a surge in hospitalizations at the end of last week to the beginning of this week, expecting a huge influx of people who became infected with COVID over the Christmas and New Year periods. So far, that does not appear to have materialized in the devastating numbers some feared. Government sources stressed last night that Omicron is not over and that hospitals will still come under severe pressure over the next few weeks, though agreed things were looking up based on the current data. U.K. cases fell again on Sunday.
NH-YES! NHS Providers boss Chris Hopson is quoted on the front page of today’s Times with his new assessment that the “front line will hold.” A government source tells the paper things could still get “pretty bad at some places for short periods,” but insisted that “at present it’s not tracking to the worst-case scenario. The vaccines and testing are working. That is enabling this country to crack on with a lot more freedom than most of Europe.”
Greased piglet latest: This leads the Times’ Chris Smyth to report: “Experts suggested on Sunday that Boris Johnson’s gamble in not imposing restrictions had paid off and that England would make it through the winter without a huge surge of serious illness and deaths that would leave the NHS unable to manage.” Stats boff David Spiegelhalter agrees with that view: “It was a gamble … the best we can say is he may have got away with it.”
Living without LFTs: The i’s Richard Vaughan has a good front page reporting No. 10 is drawing up plans for Johnson to set out a strategy on how the country is going to “live with COVID” once Omicron has passed. Vaughan says one such change could be the end of free lateral flow tests, as the Sunday Times’ Caroline Wheeler splashed yesterday, although Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi insisted “that is absolutely not where we’re at.” The Mirror’s Dan Bloom spotted that the government had previously said it would get rid of free LFTs at some point in the future. Playbook is told that’s still the plan but we’re some months off it happening.
Gimme 5: The next Cabinet row is whether the isolation period for people with COVID should be cut to five days. Zahawi raised eyebrows among government public health officials when he told the BBC’s Sophie Raworth that slashing the isolation period from seven days “would certainly help” — contradicting the government’s previous opposition to the policy. On the front of today’s Telegraph, Charles Hymas and Harry Yorke report that Rishi Sunak backs the five-day idea, along with 60 percent of the Cabinet. One Whitehall insider complained to Playbook last night that ambitious Cabinet ministers were once again using COVID as a proxy for Tory leadership positioning.
What next for the booster campaign? The department of health is launching a new campaign this morning urging pregnant women to get booster jabs: “Getting a COVID-19 vaccine is one of the most important things a pregnant woman can do this year to keep herself and her baby as safe from this virus as possible.” But there are long-term questions over what comes next for Britain’s booster campaign, as it appears set to diverge from Israel’s fourth booster policy. Clive Dix, former head of the vaccine task force, told Sky it was “pointless giving more and more vaccine to people who are not going to get very ill” and the the government needs a more “targeted” approach for the vulnerable.
YESTERDAY’S UK COVID STATS: 141,472 positive cases. In the last week there have been 1,217,097 positive cases, ⬆️ 75,793 on the previous week … 97 deaths within 28 days of a positive test. In the last week 1,295 deaths have been reported, ⬆️ 306 on the previous week. As of the latest data 18,454 COVID patients are in hospital.
TODAY IN WESTMINSTER
HOUSE OF COMMONS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with Defense questions, followed by any post-weekend UQs or statements … The main business will be scrutiny of the Nuclear Energy (Financing) Bill and debates on the fall budget’s Charter for Budget Responsibility and Welfare Cap.
DIFFERENT SORT OF INVITE: Whitehall party-pooper Sue Gray is expected to haul Boris Johnson in for questioning over claims in the Sunday Times that the PM and his wife attended a garden party hosted in No. 10 on May 20, 2020, the Telegraph’s Harry Yorke and Charles Hymas report.
In the firing line: The Times’ Chris Smyth reports Martin Reynolds, Johnson’s principal private secretary, is expected to lose his job after reports emerged that he allegedly invited aides to the bash in writing and told them to bring their own booze. The Sunday Times reckoned Jess Glover, a senior Cabinet Office civil servant who worked on Brexit, is in line to replace him.
Suit you, sir: The Sunday Times also had a brutal briefing against No. 10 Chief of Staff Dan Rosenfield, with a source telling Tim Shipman, Caroline Wheeler and Gabriel Pogrund: “He insisted on having a wardrobe put in his office so he had somewhere to hang his suits, because he cycles in. When a wardrobe was found, he didn’t like it, so he insisted something was custom-built overnight. Facilities moved heaven and earth to sort it out; the next morning he was angry because his office smelt of wood stain.”
Stone cold: Chris Smyth has another line that will be chased today on wallpaper-gate: “No. 10 is understood to have been told that Kathryn Stone will not open an inquiry after previous investigations by the Electoral Commission and Lord Geidt, the adviser on ministers’ interests.” Playbook hears similar.
BROKEN BRITAIN: Striking Page 1 story from the Mirror’s Lucy Thornton, who has visited a school in Wales with more than 50 leaks in the roof that is in desperate need of investment, as the paper launches a new ‘Leveling Up Watch’ feature. Here’s a stand-out quote: “[Headmaster] Pepe Di’Iasio dreads the rain. Dreads it because the school roof leaks and staff will be running around classrooms to place buckets to catch the water.”
Meanwhile, in the Cabinet: Yet another row has erupted, this one over elements of the Animal Welfare Bill that could criminalize fur and foie gras imports, according to the Sun’s Harry Cole and Natasha Clark. One minister told the Sun: “I don’t know why we are wasting valuable time trying to be woke.” The bill is currently at report stage in the House of Commons.
INTRODUCING … PAJPP: Former Labour leader turned whip-less backbencher Jeremy Corbyn is considering a move to upgrade his Peace and Justice Project charity into a formal political party, the Telegraph’s Tony Diver and Harry Yorke report. The pair say Corbyn has privately accepted he will never be reinstated as a Labour MP and that some in his inner circle, including wife Laura Alvarez, are urging him to step up left-wing opposition to Keir Starmer by leading a new party. However, others in his inner circle have the rather obvious concern that any new party could play a role in — and potentially be blamed for — denting Starmer’s chances of winning the next election. File this one under a maybe.
ICYMI: Brussels and EU Ambassador João Vale de Almeida were none too impressed with Foreign Secretary Liz Truss’ first and probably not last threat to trigger Article 16, made in the Sunday Telegraph. Vale de Almeida told Sky News “it’s not very helpful’ for the U.K. to keep threatening to trigger Article 16 — POLITICO’s Annabelle Dickson has more.
NOW READ THIS: Here’s how Brexit and the pandemic have changed U.K. trade, in four charts, by POLITICO’s Sebastian Whale and George Arnett.
HOW MUCH DOES A DOLLAR COST? The government often has “little information” about how money it spends will make a difference, the National Audit Office boss Gareth Davies has claimed. In an article for the Times, the auditor blasts the government — mildly — for failing to robustly evaluate its interventions either beforehand or as they are being implemented, pointing to the £2 billion Kickstart scheme as an example of an area where it will be tough to estimate its long-term impact. The Times’ Oliver Wright has a write-up.
COMMITTEE CORRIDOR: Scottish airport bosses — including Edinburgh Airport chief Gordon Dewar — will give evidence to the Scottish affairs committee’s airports in Scotland inquiry (3 p.m.) … The leveling up committee will question the Local Government and Social Care Ombudsman Michael King (4 p.m.) … and the public accounts committee hosts senior BEIS, Treasury and FCA officials for a session on the COVID Bounce Back Loan Scheme. The officials will be quizzed on their best estimates for how much public money has been spent on the scheme (4 p.m.).
HOUSE OF LORDS: Sits from 2.30 p.m. with questions on introducing a professional register for care workers, the Post Office Horizon IT scandal and support for authors, booksellers and libraries … Peers will then move through the third reading of the Charities Bill and the Advanced Research and Invention Agency Bill … Followed by Day 4 of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill’s report stage.
BEYOND THE M25
NEWS FROM THE BORDER: Talks between the Welsh government and Chester FC will resume today with the pair locked in a dispute around an alleged breach of Wales’ COVID rules by the football club, which happens to straddle the border between England and Wales. Since the Welsh government effectively banned fans from attending matches as of Boxing Day, Chester have played two home games in front of 2,000-plus supporters — something the club was warned against doing again by Welsh police as their stadium largely falls on the Welsh side of the border. The club continue to argue their case as a club from an English city playing in an English league. Welsh Secretary Simon Hart waded in to the row last night from Chester’s side, asking for a “common sense” decision that would allow the club to continue to abide by English, rather than Welsh, COVID rules. The BBC has more.
Also happening today: Scottish Labour leader Anas Sarwar is giving a New Year’s speech this morning — it will be streamed on social media from 11 a.m.
UKRAINE LATEST: NATO has warned Moscow that if necessary it is prepared for “a new armed conflict in Europe,” as a big week of negotiations aimed at dissuading Russia from invading Ukraine begins. NATO chief Jens Stoltenberg told the FT if Russian President Vladimir Putin wanted to avoid a conflict with the West, he has to “work with NATO.” Russian and U.S. officials will hold formal talks in Geneva today, followed by a meeting between the NATO alliance and a Russian delegation Wednesday. My POLITICO colleague David Herszenhorn has a curtain-raiser.
Leveling Up Secretary Michael Gove broadcast round: Sky News (7.05 a.m.) … BBC Breakfast (7.30 a.m.) … LBC (7.50 a.m.) … Today program (8.10 a.m.).
Also on the Today program: Clive Watson, chairman of The City Pub Company, and professor of infectious disease modeling Graham Medley (7.30 a.m.) … Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby (8.30 a.m.).
Also on BBC Breakfast: Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds (6.50 a.m.).
Also on Sky News breakfast: Former Labour adviser John McTernan (7.30 a.m.) … WHO COVID special envoy David Nabarro (7.45 a.m.) … Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds (8.05 a.m.) … Ukrainian Ambassador Vadym Prystaiko (8.30 a.m.) … Former U.S. Ambassador to Ukraine John Herbst (9.40 a.m.).
Also on Nick Ferrari at Breakfast (LBC): Former Johnson adviser Alex Crowley (7.05 a.m.) … Tory peer Robert Hayward (7.10 a.m.) … Higher Education Policy Institute Director Nick Hillman (9.20 a.m.).
Times Radio breakfast: Professor of Public Health at the University of Edinburgh Linda Bauld (7.45 a.m.) … Former Australian Foreign Minister and High Commissioner to the U.K. Alexander Downer (8.05 a.m.) … Tory MP Bob Blackman, member of the housing select committee (8.15 a.m.) … Theresa Villiers, former Northern Ireland secretary (8.20 a.m.) … Shadow Secretary for Business and Industrial Strategy Jonathan Reynolds (8.35 a.m.).
Julia Hartley-Brewer breakfast show (talkRADIO): JCVI member Jeremy Brown (7.05 a.m.) … Shadow Business Secretary Jonathan Reynolds (7.50 a.m.) … Tory MP Miriam Cates (8.05 a.m.) … Defense committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood (8.50 a.m.) … Tory peer Daniel Moylan (9.05 a.m.) … DHSC Chief Nutritionist Alison Tedstone (9.40 a.m.).
The Briefing with Gloria de Piero (GB News): Tory MP Stephen McPartland (12.05 p.m.) … Shadow Prisons Minister Ellie Reeves (12.15 p.m.) … Tory MP Matt Vickers (12.20 p.m.) … Labour MP Diana Johnson (12.35 p.m.) … Tory MP Luke Evans (12.50 p.m.).
Politics Live (BBC Two 12.15 p.m.): Tory MP Tom Hunt … Labour MP Kim Johnson … Commentator Tim Montgomerie … The New Economics Foundation’s Miatta Fahnbulleh.
Cross Question with Iain Dale (LBC 8 p.m.): Labour MP Emma Hardy … Former UKIP Deputy Chair Suzanne Evans … The Spectator’s Martin Vander Weyer … OpenDemocracy columnist Laurie Macfarlane.
Reviewing the papers tonight: Sky News (10.30 p.m. and 11.30 p.m.): The Sun’s Harry Cole and Mirror’s Pippa Crerar.
TODAY’S FRONT PAGES
(Click on the publication’s name to see its front page.)
Daily Express: PM urged — Act now on cost of living squeeze.
Daily Mail: Save us from cost of living crisis, Boris.
Daily Mirror: Failing on every level — Falling down classrooms and a generation of kids betrayed.
Daily Star: You’re so vain.
Financial Times: NATO stands ready for conflict in Europe, alliance chief warns Russia.
HuffPost UK: What you need to know about ‘Flurona.’
i: PM expected to announce ‘living with COVID’ plan by March.
Metro: Going going cron! At last some good news as COVID cases start to fall.
PoliticsHome: Nadhim Zahawi says there are no plans to scrap free lateral flow tests.
POLITICO UK: How Brexit and the pandemic changed U.K. trade in 4 charts.
The Daily Telegraph: Sunak backs call for 5 day isolation.
The Guardian: Gove’s £4bn cladding plan ‘far too little to end fire safety crisis.’
The Independent: ‘Harder than ever’ to stop terror attacks in Britain.
The Times: We’ll avoid COVID crisis, say upbeat NHS chiefs.
WESTMINSTER WEATHER: ☁️☁️☁️ Thick cloud and light winds, with highs of 9C. Good chance of rain in the early afternoon.
BIRTHDAYS: Government anti-Semitism czar John Mann … Elmet and Rothwell MP Alec Shelbrooke … Bosworth MP Luke Evans … Sedgefield MP Paul Howell … Lib Dem peer Matthew Oakeshott … The Spectator’s Deputy Editor Freddy Gray … Director of Public Prosecutions Max Hill … Northern Ireland’s Deputy First Minister Michelle O’Neill … Former Taoiseach Brian Cowen.
PLAYBOOK COULDN’T HAPPEN WITHOUT: My editor Zoya Sheftalovich, reporter Andrew McDonald producer Grace Stranger.
**A message from Lloyds Banking Group: 45% of scams rely on the internet in some way. At Lloyds we deploy some of the most sophisticated technology in the world to protect our customers online, from advanced payment verification to fraud detection systems. But financial services firms can’t fight fraud alone. Social media companies and phone providers have a role to play too. The Online Safety Bill creates a new legal framework for removing illegal and harmful content from the internet. But it doesn’t include scam adverts placed by fraudsters online. We agree with the cross-party parliamentary Joint Committee that the Government should amend the Bill to include ‘paid for advertising’ to stop scam content. This will help tackle fraud by requiring tech companies to target fraudulent accounts and remove harmful content from their platforms.**
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