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Sensemaker: Disunited Kingdom

Sensemaker: Disunited Kingdom

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Putin apologised to Israel for his foreign secretary’s claim that Hitler was part-Jewish.
  • Iran threatened to execute Ahmadreza Djalali, a Swedish scientist held hostage in Tehran, in an apparent effort to derail the war crimes trial of an Iranian official in Sweden. 
  • Karine Jean-Pierre became the first Black woman and the first out LGBTQ+ person to hold the post of White House Press Secretary.

Disunited Kingdom

Do British voters mind enough about the Conservatives’ record on Covid, public services, the cost of living, Brexit and the rule of law to give a verdict in local elections? It seems they do. Polls closed last night. Votes are still being counted and we’ll return to their significance on Monday but certain findings are already clear.

Blue borough backlash. Partygate cut through, at least in London where most of the English councils being contested this year were located. The question for Labour was whether it could dislodge Conservatives from strongholds where they’ve boasted about a low-tax, high-value offer to voters since the age of Thatcher. The answer was yes. 

  • Wandsworth. Thatcher’s favourite borough always had the unfair advantage of rich households paying large amounts of local taxes in absolute terms even at low rates. Results included well-kept parks, some of the country’s best state schools and the country’s lowest council tax. That was enough to keep Conservatives in control of the council for 40 years, but it isn’t anymore. As of 8.30 this morning Labour was in with a gain of nine seats. The Conservatives had lost 11 and their leader said “other events” and “national issues” were to blame. Translation: Partygate, Boris Johnson and the cost of living.
  • Westminster. Labour has overturned a 22-seat Conservative majority to take control for the first time since the borough’s creation in 1964. The outgoing Tory leader said “the issue of Boris Johnson” had cost votes.
  • Barnet. A big swing to Labour gives it control of a North London borough with a significant Jewish population, and evidence that Sir Keir Starmer’s efforts to remove the stain of antisemitism that spread under Jeremy Corbyn have been working.

Labour also won in Southampton and Cumbria, and Tory leaders there followed the London pattern of blaming Johnson. But as of 8 am the Liberal Democrats were making more gains nationally than Labour (up 57 and 38 seats respectively), including in Hull, where Starmer badly needed a win. And the kind of sweep he needed across the North to claim momentum on the national stage did not materialise. This was partly because not much of the Red Wall was up for grabs this year. Even so, it’s reasonable to speak of a…

Red redoubt. Johnson’s leadership is not (yet) a liability for his party in parts of the North and midlands where his promise to get Brexit done won him a swath of Westminster seats from Labour three years ago. Labour clung on in Sunderland and Wolverhampton but its chances of taking Bolton, the only Tory-run council in Greater Manchester, look slim, and the Conservatives held councils in Dudley and Nuneaton. 

Will Conservative backbenchers in Westminster be demanding Johnson’s removal as a result of last night? Highly unlikely.

Is Starmer headed for Number Ten? So far only in his dreams, although that doesn’t mean they won’t come true eventually.

The arc of NIstory. Vote-counting didn’t start  in Northern Ireland until this morning, but three factors are likely to give nationalists a dominant position in Stormont for the first time:

  • Sinn Fein’s careful avoidance of controversy under Michelle O’Neill, and her focus on living costs rather than unification, puts the party on course to become the biggest in the province and her to take the office of first minister.
  • The unionist vote has splintered since 2017 as the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) has tried and failed to cut through with voters on a platform of opposition to the Northern Ireland Protocol and lost voters to other unionist parties in the process.
  • The old sectarian divide is fading and the vote for “neither” (unionist or republican) grows. There’s evidence, says the Irish Times in an editorial, of “a growing rejection of a binary choice between the poles of orange and green”.

Michelle O’Neill has not talked up the idea of a border poll that a nationalist majority would allow and for which the Good Friday Agreement provides. But a poll and a united Ireland may only be a matter of time. This is the kind of thing that happens when a devolved region is taken out of a mutually beneficial arrangement like EU membership against its wishes. 

In 2016 Northern Ireland voted 56-44 to remain.


Shell’s billions
Shell reported record first-quarter profits of $9.1 billion yesterday on the back of surging oil prices because of the war in Ukraine and intense demand for liquified natural gas (LNG), also because of the war in Ukraine. Its share price rose by more than 3 per cent on the news. In the UK, Labour demanded a windfall tax on all the oil majors to help householders with their energy bills. Boris Johnson rejected the idea on the ground that it would discourage investment in the transition to cleaner energy. It’s true that Shell has pledged to spend £20-25 billion on new – and mainly low-carbon – energy projects in the UK over the next decade. But low carbon isn’t zero carbon and it’s also spending a great deal on thanking shareholders for sticking with it through this torrid but immensely profitable time: $5.4 billion on dividends and share buybacks this quarter alone.


Putin holds back
The NYT has an interesting piece on a hitherto unreported aspect of the war: Russian restraint. It may seem an implausible topic given the Groznification of Mariupol and evidence of war crimes to shake the soul of a Nuremberg judge, but there is an intriguing question at the heart of it: why has Putin not attacked Ukraine’s road and rail infrastructure more methodically, and why has he not unleashed more cyber attacks on Ukraine and its allies? The answer to the former may be that his precision weapons aren’t precise enough, or that he wants to keep transport networks intact for his own use post-conquest. The answer to the latter may be that he’s keeping his cyber powder dry. 


New DMU powers 
The UK says its new tech regulator will have powers to fine the big tech platforms up to 10 per cent of their global turnover if they break British rules intended to protect consumers. So if Meta pushes its own apps via Facebook at the expense of others, for example, the new Digital Markets Unit could fine it £10 billion. Or if Apple makes it hard for iPhone users to switch to Android, the DMU, which is part of the older Competition and Markets Authority, could hit it up for up to $36 billion. Hmm. Good luck with that.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

15 million dead
The World Health Organization puts the true death toll of Covid so far at almost 15 million – roughly the population of Kolkata, India. The WHO also says India suffered a third of all Covid deaths globally (4.7 million), 10 times the country’s own reported figures. India is disputing the WHO analysis, but other studies have seen errors in the country’s mortality reporting. Other data points to think about: i) 68 per cent of excess deaths are concentrated in 10 countries; ii) the UK’s WHO excess mortality rate is lower than France and Germany’s; iii) China, which is still pursuing a zero Covid strategy, has seen two fewer deaths than normal per 100,000 people; and iiii) Sweden’s mortality rate is at the lower end of the scale despite a lack of Covid restrictions. Edinburgh University’s Professor Devi Sridhar tells the Telegraph the lesson from Sweden is “to invest in your population’s health and have less inequality”. Could there be some lessons from China, too?

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Forest loss
Broken record warning: cropland expansion and livestock grazing are continuing to drive deforestation at beyond unsustainable rates, and wildfires aren’t helping. If these findings from two new surveys covered by Carbon Brief aren’t dismaying enough, they both add that the worst of the forest loss is still happening in the tropics – where hardwood growth is by far the best land-based natural method of carbon sequestration. Global Forest Watch says an area of pristine tropical forest the size of Belgium was cut down last year. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization says rainforest equivalent to the size of Western Europe was felled between 2000 and 2018. Oh, and Russian boreal forests, which in some more optimistic models are shown to have grown since the fall of the Soviet Union “experienced unprecedented tree cover loss in 2021”. That would be those fires. 

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.

Giles Whittell

With additional reporting by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Alamy

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