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Sensemaker: Porking up

Sensemaker: Porking up

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Up to five Russian missiles hit Kyiv as the UN’s secretary general was visiting, in the first attack on the Ukrainian capital in two weeks.
  • China said reports it planned to build a military base on the Solomon Islands were “fake news”.
  • The premier of the British Virgin Islands was arrested in the US on charges of drug smuggling and money-laundering. 

Porking up

The UK’s defence secretary – a potential future prime minister – is accused of meddling with planning rules to get a top-secret £5 billion cyber warfare centre sited on the border of his constituency. 

Senior officials say Ben Wallace personally intervened to replace a “traffic light” selection system (green, amber, red) with one consisting only of green lights, to make sure the new National Cyberforce headquarters (NFC) was located near the tiny village of Samlesbury, east of Preston.

Wallace’s allies say he was only doing his job as an MP; others that his intervention fits a pattern of increasingly brazen Conservative pork barrel politics. They accuse MPs of misusing money meant for “levelling up” and the country’s poorest towns to shore up majorities in target and marginal seats – or just their own.

Towns Fund 

  • In 2020 Robert Jenrick, the then communities secretary, secured a £25 million grant for his Newark constituency from the £3.6 billion Towns Fund administered by his department. The fund was meant for the UK’s 101 most “left behind” towns but Newark featured on no list of deprived places and the Times’ Matthew Parris described it as “about as left behind as Harrogate”.
  • Sixty of 61 grants not signed off by ministers – i.e. those not subject to special scrutiny – went to towns in constituencies won by Conservatives in the 2019 election. Forty of 45 grants from the Towns Fund announced in the 2021 budget went to towns in Conservative constituencies. 

Levelling-up Fund

  • The Richmondshire local authority in Chancellor Rishi Sunak’s north Yorkshire seat was prioritised above its worse-off neighbour, Barnsley, for money from the £4.8 billion Levelling-up fund last year. So were four other authorities in Conservative constituencies held by cabinet members, while Labour complained that poorer boroughs such as Coventry, Plymouth, Salford and the Wirral were relegated to a second tier. 

Community Renewal Fund

  • Despite its name, only a quarter of the fund’s £220 million has been given to the UK’s most deprived communities, the Local Government Chronicle reported last year. Seven of 100 areas so far targeted were at the time represented by cabinet ministers.

Sources close to the Samlesbury selection process say senior defence ministry officials were angered by Wallace’s intervention and that more appropriate locations had been rejected without clear justification. They said Samlesbury – where thousands of high-paying jobs will now be created, including for Wallace’s constituents – had never been on any list of candidate sites. 

So what?

  • Secrecy. The NCF, to be run jointly by GCHQ and the Ministry of Defence, has the operational posture of “special forces”, meaning those involved can’t talk about its personnel or operations and are not even allowed to discuss alternative locations. Multiple sources say Manchester was in the running, but a Freedom of Information request returned no information about alternative sites considered.
  • Security. If Wallace’s comments are any guide this site will be a critical component of UK national security, underlining the argument for transparency in how it was selected. “The best part of defence is offence,” he told MPs in February, when he said the UK was ready to launch retaliatory cyberattacks on Russia. 
  • Recusal. Were the Samlesbury site to be just a mile further west it would have been in Wallace’s Wyre and Preston North constituency and the ministerial code would have required him to recuse himself from the decision to locate the NCF there. 

A source close to the defence secretary defended his intervention, stating that “the process he inherited was skewed towards a select few big cities without any reason and ran counter to the Government’s objective of levelling up”.

A government spokesperson didn’t deny Wallace had intervened but said: “the decision to locate the NCF in this region resulted from an extensive selection process, including a business case which took into account the economic and social impacts.” 

Labour takes a different view. “These decisions should be made on the benefit to national security, not the benefit to the defence secretary,” says John Healey, shadow defence secretary. “To clear up concerns about probity in the process and possible breaches of the Ministerial Code, the MoD should disclose in full to Parliament the assessments and advice on which this decision was taken, including the list of other locations which were rejected.”

Note to the ministry: this isn’t going away.


Ruble rumble
It turns out that people wondering when Europe could muster the courage to cut itself off from Russian energy have been asking the wrong question. A better one is when Russia will cut Europe off. This week the answer emerged: very soon, starting now. Two days after Russia cut off gas supplies to Poland and Bulgaria for failing to pay in rubles, Germany’s Chancellor, Olaf Scholz, said his country had to be prepared for a similar pre-emptive move by Moscow. Putin’s logic is remorseless: if his European customers agree to pay in rubles in line with a decree he signed last month, that shores up his currency. If some (like Hungary) do and some don’t, that divides Europe when it most needs to be united. And while cutting off gas supplies to good customers would seem to deprive Russia of funds it badly needs, it raises world prices as those customers look elsewhere, and those prices keep Russia afloat. So far Germany and Italy have refused to go along with Putin’s demand for ruble payments. Warmer weather may spare them an agonising decision now, but if they haven’t weaned themselves off Russian gas by next winter it will have to be taken then. 


Sino-Solomon soap
Last week China and the Solomon Islands quietly signed a security pact aimed, they said, at promoting peace and stability in the South Pacific archipelago, where there were riots last year over the prime minister’s decision to recognise China over Taiwan. This week Australia and the US have said China would be crossing a red line if it built a military base in the islands; Beijing has said it has no such plans; and the question of how China was left to muscle into such a strategic part of the western Pacific virtually unchallenged has become a live issue in next month’s Australian elections. Even if Beijing doesn’t intend to park its aircraft carriers in the Solomons, it is worrying enough that the deal signed by the islands’ avowedly pro-Beijing PM, Manasseh Sogavare, against the wishes of most islanders, allows him to call in Chinese soldiers and police to maintain order.


Paper-thin speakers 
Engineers at MIT have invented a speaker as thin as a piece of paper that could be plastered around the entire interior of a car and used for noise cancellation as well as noise production. They boast of minimal distortion, minimal power consumption and maximum flexibility. The latter is a result of binning the rigidity required of a speaker in which the whole thing vibrates as one, and assigning that task to thousands of tiny domes that vibrate individually. Techcrunch has the story, which includes the bold line from its male author that he feels “a cochlear hard-on coming on”.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

HRT tsar
The head of the UK’s Covid vaccine taskforce, Madelaine McTernan, has been given a new role as HRT tsar to manage supply shortages of hormone replacement therapy medication. This is potentially good news for the estimated one million who rely on HRT to manage perimenopause and menopausal symptoms. But – unlike the vaccine rollout – this was a predictable crisis that’s being dealt with far too late. HRT prescriptions in the UK have more than doubled in the last five years and shortages were common before the pandemic. Besins Healthcare, whose Oestrogel product is at the heart of the current shortage, says increased media coverage and “women demanding better and more equal treatment” is part of the reason for the shortages. Another factor was updated guidance for GPs in 2015 that many were “overestimating the risks” of HRT and “underestimating the impact of menopausal symptoms” on quality of life. Those symptoms can include sleep problems, migraines, joint and muscle pain, low mood, night sweats, vaginal dryness and urinary tract infections. HRT has also been found to lower the risk of cardiovascular disease, osteoporosis and dementia in the long term. To note: a survey last year of 3,800 women found 99 per cent felt these symptoms had a negative impact on their careers, with 59 per cent taking time off work because of them. See also: this eye-opening episode on the perimenopause from the BBC’s podcast on menstrual cycles.  

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Ocean mining
Where will the world get the rare earths and critical minerals needed for the batteries and motors in the EVs that are supposed to replace internal combustion engines within the next ten years? The ocean floor has long been one answer, and the Guardian reports that mining companies have been meeting this week in London to talk up the case for deep-ocean mining of rare earth nodules strewn across the ocean floor between Hawaii and Mexico. Scientists have known for decades about these potato-sized lumps in the Clarion-Clipperton Zone, mostly under about 4,000 metres of water. Technical obstacles and a moratorium on deep-sea mining has left them undisturbed, but some experts say the trade-off between risk of damage to ocean ecosystems and actual damage to the atmosphere is now finely balanced. And new rules are due from the International Seabed Authority by next summer. 

Thanks for reading. Please share this around and tell us what we’ve missed. News tips and story ideas are welcome. Email them to sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Lara Spirit

With additional reporting by Giles Whittell and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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