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Downing Street disarray

Tuesday 27 April 2021

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Troops controlled by an ethnic rebel group captured a government military base in eastern Myanmar.
  • Macron telephoned Putin to insist that he respect Alexei Navalny’s “fundamental rights”.
  • Emer McKee, who is 12 and from Belfast, set a 5,000m world record for her age group of 16 minutes 40 seconds after first competing in the event at her local parkrun.

Downing Street disarray

Boris Johnson has a serious problem: his former chief adviser, Dominic Cummings, is happily revealing the contents of their time together – seemingly believing that it will exonerate him and implicate the prime minister over the English handling of the pandemic. Cummings is appearing before MPs in a month’s time and has been calling for an inquiry into the government’s Covid response.

More than that, though: reporters are starting to find corroboration for some elements of Cummings’ claims – made publicly in a blog last week and via a string of briefings. 

The top slot in the BBC website (the most important slot on the UK internet) has been occupied by its reporting on some of these allegations. The Daily Mail is leading the charge, too, with big front pages. To date, the corroborated allegations are, broadly:

  • Callousness. Johnson is said to have resisted a lockdown in September, saying they should “let it rip”. He did agree to a second lockdown in October, but said it would be the last. In making that point, he roared: “No more fucking lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands.” These claims are strongly denied by Downing Street but have been corroborated by reporters at several outlets. 
  • Crookedness. The £58,000 renovation of the flat above 11 Downing Street was paid for by the Conservative party. A donor, Lord Brownlow, is said to have expected to make a donation to cover it. But none of these transactions have been logged – and it is difficult to see how the Tory party can justify this use of its resources. Johnson has recouped the party’s costs. Lots about this is toxic: the lavish refurbishment is bad. Taking party money is bad. Having that kind of money on hand and not paying for your garish flat makeover is bad. Using the Tory party as a kitty is bad. 

There are other claims that reporters have not been able to stack up: 

  • Spinelessness. Last week, Cummings claimed that officials had identified a long-sought leaker, who revealed the forthcoming lockdown ahead of the prime minister in October. He named one of the PM’s advisers, and then claimed the PM wanted to call off the leak-hunt because it would upset his fiancée if this adviser, Henry Newman, were to be fired. This is all firmly denied.

The UK government is being saved by the success of its vaccine roll-out from the full weight of these scandals and the consequences of the PM’s slowness to act earlier in the pandemic. The halo effect from the jabs is sweeping a lot before it. But this Downing Street is deeply dysfunctional.

It was so reliant on this one adviser that, last year, it allowed him to give a press conference to defend himself against charges that he broke lockdown. And now? The PM is ringing newspaper editors to accuse Cummings of being the source of leaks. 

Combined with revelations about David Cameron’s spivvy conduct out of office, this government feels very old and sleazy. 

New things technology, science, engineering

Sensemaker readers will have learned yesterday about the Oscar win for Nomadland. The winner, Chloé Zhao, is Beijing-born – and the first woman of colour to take home the best director Oscar. But congratulations to her have been cut out of Chinese coverage and censored on Chinese social media. Why? Because a decade ago, she described China as a place where “there are lies everywhere”. She has fallen foul of the increasingly authoritarian Chinese government. One curiosity: Chinese media regard her as the second winner from China. Ang Lee, who has two Oscars, is Taiwanese.

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

Trump’s legal problems
The former president is facing three imminent legal threats, the FT (£) reports: from attempts to corrupt the voting process in Georgia, from the aftermath of the 6 January insurrection and from a wide-ranging fraud investigation in New York. A big question, the paper proposes, is whether Allen Weisselberg, the Trumps’ long-standing fixer, will be a weakness. Not least since Weisselberg’s son works for the Trumps, and said son’s divorce proceedings appear to be revealing a lot of sharp practise in the Trump Organisation, including, allegedly, payment in perks rather than cash to avoid taxes.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Iran’s hostage
Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has been sentenced to a further year in prison and an additional year of being forced to stay in Iran. According to her lawyer, the British-Iranian woman was accused in Sunday’s hearing of participating in a demonstration outside the Iranian embassy in London 12 years ago and giving an interview to the BBC Persian service. She has already served five years – and the British government has declined to press the issue of her torture and mental condition for fear of offending the Iranians.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Serious incompetence
A double whammy for London, the capital of respectable crime. First, a trial in Calabria where 900 witnesses will plead against 350 defendants accused of membership of the ’Ndrangheta. And where do you think these killers launder their money? Second, the UK’s Serious Fraud Office has botched yet another case: this time out, they made mistakes in the disclosure process in a case about the profitability of electronic prisoner tagging. At least one of the defendants was arguing that the company that employed him, Serco, was defrauding the government – but that it was a policy devised higher up. The company has paid a fine and acknowledged its errors but no individuals will be held accountable. The UK is a place where prison is for the little people. 

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

The shakeout starts?
The debacle of the football Super League appears to have shaken loose one attempt, at least, to buy one of the clubs in question. Daniel Ek, the founder of Spotify, is an Arsenal fan. He is putting together a bid for Arsenal, backed by icons from the club’s past – Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Dennis Bergkamp. It may not come to anything. The current owner, Stan Kroenke, has overseen a marked decline into mediocrity for the club. But it is striking to see fans respond so warmly to the news of Ek’s recruitment of these old legends, because it shows an understanding of the ethos of the club. Football clubs are weird organisations. 

Stay safe, wash your hands, open windows when you can.

Chris Cook

Photographs by Getty Images

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