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Sensemaker: Dysfunction and chaos?

Sensemaker: Dysfunction and chaos?

What just happened

Long stories short

  • France closed nightclubs for a month and ordered stricter mask use and social distancing in schools to combat its latest Covid surge. 
  • China said it would take “resolute countermeasures” if the US goes ahead with its diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing.
  • Vishal Garg, chief executive of mortgage firm Better.com, fired around 900 of his staff on a single Zoom call that was later uploaded to social media.

Dysfunction and chaos?

Two very pointed accusations are spoiling the UK government’s run-in to Christmas. The first concerns Afghanistan. 

  • The charge: Raphael Marshall, a 25-year-old whistleblower, told MPs the Foreign Office’s Afghan evacuation operation after the Taliban took Kabul was, contrary to government claims, “dysfunctional” and “chaotic”.
  • The response: Dominic Raab, the deputy PM who was foreign secretary at the time, told the BBC this morning he didn’t recognise Marshall’s “characterisation of the pressures”.
  • And yet: Tom Tugendhat MP, chair of the foreign affairs select committee, backs Marshall: “Where was everybody?” he asks. Tugendhat describes Marshall as an individual who was “completely on his own… in a Foreign Office that was effectively a Marie Celeste at a time of national emergency. If that’s true, that’s really concerning.”

There is plenty of evidence that it is true, not least in Matt d’Ancona’s Retreat from Kabul, which made clear last month that

  • Raab, Johnson and three key permanent secretaries – Sir Philip Barton at the Foreign Office, Matthew Rycroft at the Home Office and David Williams at the Ministry of Defence – were all on holiday at once as the crisis unfolded;
  • In their absence, management of a flood of Afghan requests for assistance was handled by an ad-hoc grouping of diplomats and officers on the ground in Kabul and junior officials and military veterans-turned MPs in London;
  • A whistleblower, now named as Marshall, was already lined up to speak to the committee.

Party time. The second accusation relates more to dishonesty than incompetence. Team Johnson at Number Ten may find it hard to believe a party they deny took place last Christmas is dominating British politics this Christmas, but that is what is happening. The alleged event is spoiling everything because a) it’s not just alleged and b) it has consequently trapped Johnson and several of his ministers in a stink hole of hypocrisy when they hoped to be spreading a message of good sense as well as good cheer. 

To recap: on 18 December last year there was a Christmas party at 10 Downing Street that several dozen people attended. There was food and drink and, according to one source, “party games were played”. By most accounts, it was a fun time. It also appears to have been illegal:

  • Covid rules at the time stated: “No person may participate in a gathering in the Tier 3 area” – like London – “which consists of 2 or more people and takes place in a private dwelling or any indoor space.”
  • There was specific government guidance for that Christmas period: “You must not have a work Christmas lunch or party where that is a primarily social activity.”

Since news of the government party broke last week, ministers have both denied there was a party and said that, if there was one, it didn’t break any rules. 

  • A spokesperson for the prime minister simply said: “There was not a party.” 
  • Vaccines minister Maggie Throup said she’s been “reassured all guidance was carefully followed”. 
  • Raab, now justice minister, said if there was a “formal party” then that would have been a problem, but there wasn’t one, so no problem. (The rules made no such distinction between formal and informal parties.)
  • Yesterday, Johnson, dressed in a police uniform to launch his new drugs policy, was asked about the party and said: “No rules were broken and there you go.”

Johnson’s former aide and current nemesis Dominic Cummings said it would be “very unwise for No 10 to lie” about the party.

What now? Nothing. The Metropolitan Police, which at the time was shutting down house parties and weddings, issued a statement indicating that it will do nothing about the Downing Street party because it doesn’t routinely investigate “retrospective breaches” of Covid rules. Yet it’s currently prosecuting attendees of a house party held on the same day in Ilford, east London.

The government’s scientific advisors say Omicron infections are doubling every three days. Epidemiologists say the variant will likely become Britain’s dominant strain in “weeks”. Sajid Javid, the health secretary, has warned it could “knock us off our road to recovery.” Officials suggest taking Covid tests before attending any Christmas parties, but they shouldn’t be surprised if people find it hard to take them seriously. 

belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Daunte Wright
Tomorrow a court in Minneapolis will hear opening statements in the trial of Kim Potter, a white former police officer charged with killing Daunte Wright, a 20-year-old Black man. It will be in the same courtroom where former officer Derek Chauvin was convicted of killing George Floyd, a Black man, and sentenced to 22 years. Potter, according to video footage his jury will see, shouted “Taser, Taser, Taser” as she aimed her Glock 9 mm semi-automatic pistol at Wright as he tried to drive away from a traffic stop, then shot him in the chest. “I grabbed the wrong fucking gun,” she exclaimed. Her defence is that the incident was an innocent mistake. Will it convince jurors? Only one black person made it onto the jury. She said any potential blowback in the event Potter is acquitted was “not a concern”.

New things technology, science, engineering

Rohingya sue Facebook
Dozens of Rohingya refugees in the UK and US have sued Facebook for allegedly promoting violence against their Muslim minority group in Buddhist-majority Myanmar. In 2017 an estimated 10,000 Rohingya Muslims were killed during a military crackdown. The refugees say Facebook allowed hate speech against them to spread, citing one post that said: “We must fight them the way Hitler did the Jews.” The refugees want more than £113 billion in compensation. Will they get it? Mark Zuckerberg has already admitted to mistakes before the 2017 violence, but legal culpability will be harder to establish. Meta, Facebook’s parent company, may want to settle with the refugees even so.

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

Balliol abuse 
An Oxford University student has accused her college leadership of treating her with hostility and disregarding her welfare after she reported an alleged sexual assault. The PhD student also accuses the Balliol College master, Helen Ghosh, of sharing information about the assault in a public meeting without her consent. When it comes to inadequate complaints procedures, we have been here before. The student accuses the college chaplain, Bruce Kinsey, of asking her if she was aware of the effect she had on men and telling her that “you don’t want to piss people off who you might meet again downstream”. Although hundreds of students have signed an open letter accusing the college of “compounding the trauma of sexual abuse with an inadequate and harmful response”, one of the letter organisers said some students didn’t feel able to join the campaign because Kinsey has control over financial hardship funds. The college is appointing a QC to look into the handling of the complaint.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Bury gas
A consortium of universities and energy companies wants to use exhausted UK oil and gas wells to bury carbon dioxide. The trials would see CO2 being pumped underground and monitored to ensure it doesn’t escape. Carbon capture and storage (CCS) is a big part of many corporate and national strategies for tackling global warming, and the consortium has identified 20 candidate wells across England. But environmental campaigners are worried that the energy companies involved will use this plan to rationalise continued extraction and sale of fossil fuels. IGas, for example, has 100 oil and gas wells in England. It sees the plan as a “key plank” in its transition away from carbon-intensive energy, but hasn’t set a date for ending oil and gas production.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

New narcos
Syria is well on its way to being the newest narco-state, according to a New York Times investigation. Its drug of choice: captagon, an illegal amphetamine a pill popular in Saudi Arabia and used by soldiers needing a boost before battle. More importantly, the investigation found the multi-billion dollar drug operation is heavily linked to the 4th Armoured Division of the Syrian army, which is run by President Bashar al-Assad’s youngest brother. Now ten years into the civil war, Syria’s economy is in tatters. So is it much of a surprise that the regime has resorted to drug-running to fund its military operations? It’s big business: more than 250 million captagon pills have been seized globally this year – an 18-fold increase on four years ago. Their street value of $2.9 billion is more than three times the value of Syria’s legal exports. Look out, Colombia. 

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Paul Caruana Galizia

Phoebe Davis

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell.

Edited by Xavier Greenwood and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images