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Sensemaker, 23 October 2020

Friday 23 October 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • In a newly-unsealed deposition, Ghislaine Maxwell said Prince Andrew couldn’t have had sex with a 17 year-old in her London home because her bathtub was “too small”.
  • An independent assessment by Bristol University said Oxford’s Covid vaccine delivers a “strong immune response”.
  • Boris Johnson said a quarter of London’s 92,000 civil servants – and their ministers – will move to northern cities by the end of the decade.

The last debate. This was in fact the first debate: the stars were NBC’s Kristen Welker and her mute button, which between them ensured that for the first time that Trump and Biden were heard on Covid, climate, energy, the economy and – because if you don’t have a real October surprise you need to manufacture one – the “laptop from hell”.

Who won? The two key electoral questions as the candidates flew in to Nashville were: 1) would a different Trump show up, with enough empathy and clarity to move the dial in a race in which the odds now seem stacked against him? And 2) would Biden blow it?

The answers were: 1) this was indeed a different Trump. He was willing to mute himself even when not muted electronically, and he had a game plan familiar from 2016 – to paint his opponent as a corrupt insider. But this was not a performance to upend the race. And 2) no.

So Biden had the better of the night.

This election remains a referendum on Trump and his handling of the pandemic. Trump said Americans have to learn to live with it while Biden reminded them they are dying from it. But there were other exchanges more revealing of the debate and of the race. For instance:

  • On Covid, Biden was for masks, rapid testing and money for resources for schools and restaurants – including plexiglass. Trump wasn’t: “New York, it’s a ghost town. And when you talk about plexiglass… putting up plexiglass is unbelievably expensive, and it’s not the answer.” Here, almost unbelievably, was an honest disagreement on a point of substance. The evidence supports Biden, but at least the voters can decide.
  • On that laptop, which Team Trump says Biden’s son left in a repair shop, inadvertently revealing multimillion-dollar backhanders to various Bidens including the then Vice President: Trump fluffed the central allegation, which admittedly is complex, not to mention uncorroborated. Biden changed the subject to tax returns, on which Trump had news: “I pre-paid tens of millions of dollars in taxes. Nobody told me that. Nobody told you that.”

The self-parody was almost perfect; a story no one could deny because the president himself had only just heard it. This may yet be a moment historians look back on as a tipping point in the erosion of swing voters’ willingness to suspend their disbelief. In the meantime a CNN snap poll handed the debate to Biden by 53 per cent to 39.

In the app today… Read Chris Cook on the UK government’s second chance, and the final installment of our Recession 2021 file, in which Matt d’Ancona writes about the reality of joblessness. Sign up for our Sensemaker Live ThinkIn at lunchtime on America and Covid (and that debate), when we’ll be joined by Gayle Smith and Dr Nicolette Louissaint; and for Monday night’s ThinkIn on the future of information with Carol Cadwalladr and others: what’s saved, what’s deleted and who decides?

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

UK-Japan trade deal
Liz Truss, the UK’s international trade secretary, has signed Britain’s first big post-Brexit trade deal. It’s with Japan and it looks very like the deal the UK already enjoyed as a member of the EU. In fact it has been achieved largely through the miracle of photocopying. There are a couple of add-ons – a new chapter on digital trade and a get-out clause for Japan on food imports that Truss hopes will enable the UK to do more in the way of food exports. But the value of this deal to Japan depends crucially on whether Britain can proceed to do the much bigger deal it urgently needs with… the EU.

New things technology, science, engineering

PayPal backs Bitcoin
Those of us who still see Bitcoin as a curious aside to the main money market may be in for a rude awakening. PayPal, which processed 12.4 billion transactions last year, says its customers will be able to use Bitcoin – and a few other major cryptocurrencies – to shop at the 26 million merchants that make up its network. The cryptocurrencies will be stored in users’ PayPal wallets and can be used much like pounds or dollars, except that they are vastly more volatile. Caveat emptor.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Cool white paint
Researchers at Purdue University have produced an outdoor paint that can lower indoor temperatures by up to 18 degrees Fahrenheit, simply by reflecting sunlight. They claim, too, that the reflected heat isn’t even trapped by greenhouse gases. “We’re not moving heat from the surface to the atmosphere,” one of them told the ScienceBlog. “We’re just dumping it all out into the universe, which is an infinite heat sink.” Amazing, if true.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Abortion outlawed
Abortion was effectively banned in Poland yesterday when the country’s Constitutional Court ruled termination on grounds of a foetal defect illegal. Poland already had some of the strictest abortion laws in Europe – alongside Malta – before MPs from the ruling nationalist Law and Justice Party challenged it further. Ninety-eight per cent of abortions last year fell into the now banned category, leaving rape, incest and threats to the woman’s life the only legal grounds for abortion. The Council of Europe’s Commissioner for Human Rights Dunja Mijatovic warned women will suffer as they are forced to seek underground abortions or to travel abroad. “A sad day for women’s rights,” she tweeted. And another challenge to the institutions that map the borders between national sovereignty and European values.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Troubled government
At the end of last October Lebanon was hopeful. A popular protest movement sparked by an escalating debt crisis had forced the resignation of prime minister Saad Hariri and seemed to promise an end to years of stasis and corruption. Instead the country sank into bankruptcy, and August’s devastating explosion at Beirut’s port was the final blow. The incumbent prime minister, Hassan Diab, resigned in the aftermath and a French-backed replacement promised a technocratic government that would reshape Lebanon’s political system. He failed and stepped down last month. Now, following a vote of Lebanon’s parliament, Hariri is back for his fourth term as prime minister. He’s promising change too: aid from France and the IMF is tied to major political and financial reforms. But can he deliver, or is Lebanon a failed state? The stakes are very high indeed.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Ella Hill, Ellen Halliday and Luke Gbedemah