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Sensemaker: Pants on fire

Sensemaker: Pants on fire

What just happened

Long stories short

  • MPs said the UK’s top foreign office civil servant, Sir Philip Barton, should resign for not cancelling his holiday amid “catastrophic” failures of leadership during the withdrawal from Kabul. 
  • Vadim Shishimarin became the first convicted Russian war criminal since the invasion of Ukraine, handed a life sentence for murdering a civilian.
  • Workers in New York removed the city’s last standing public payphone, from Times Square.

Pants on fire

There are times when a story has to be updated as if for Martians to remind Earthlings why they should be paying attention. This is one of those times. 

Just when Boris Johnson believed the worst of Partygate was baked into his MPs’ assessments of his leadership – and that they would let him carry on in Downing Street  – three new awkwardnesses reopened the saga and left its outcome in doubt.

  • The pictures. ITV News published photographs of Johnson toasting and possibly roasting his outgoing communications chief, Lee Cain, at a gathering at Number 10 in mid-lockdown when official guidelines ruled out indoor gatherings of more than two people from different households. Johnson has previously told the House of Commons all guidelines were followed. Senior Tories including Dame Ruth Davidson and Sir Roger Gale say the pictures show he lied and according to the ministerial code should therefore go. The Guardian says Johnson instigated the gathering himself. 
  • The meeting. After two denials, Number 10 finally admitted a meeting between Johnson and Sue Gray, the civil servant investigating the lockdown parties, was called by Downing Street staff and not by Gray. The distinction matters because the credibility of Gray’s investigation rests on her reputation as a straight shooter. She was appointed by Johnson and has interviewed him as part of the investigation but would not have been expected to call a meeting to discuss the imminent release of her report, which was apparently…
  • The agenda. The Times reports today that Johnson used the meeting to suggest Gray drop the idea of publishing her report altogether because the police had concluded their separate investigation and, as one of two Whitehall sources put it, “it’s all out there”.

It’s not all out there. 

The background. Gray has investigated 16 gatherings that she says fall within her remit as having taken place against guidelines during lockdown. These included a “bring your own booze” event in the Number 10 garden and two parties on the eve of the Duke of Edinburgh’s funeral. Only 12 of these events were investigated by police, who’ve issued 126 fines to 83 people including one each to Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak. Johnson’s was not for the 13 November gathering, which raises the question why he was not fined for that one too, given that others present were.

Police haven’t named any of those fined. Nor did Gray’s interim report in January, but the full report, due as soon as today, could name names. It’s expected to be especially critical of the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case. 

Just passing through. Downing Street has deployed a three-pronged response to the ITV pictures. Prong one has been to brief that it’s “irritated” by their release because they depict an event at which, aides say, Johnson lingered less than 10 minutes. Prong two has been to note that police saw the pictures and cleared him of breaking the rules. Prong three has been to send out loyal backbenchers to claim voters outside the Westminster bubble are tired of the story and want the government to get on with arming Ukraine and helping with the cost of living. 

“It was a work do. It’s what people do at work – you have leaving dos.” Desmond Swayne MP.

“There’s no doubt now. He lied.” Angela Rayner, Labour deputy leader.

“He lied to parliament. I don’t think his job is tenable.” Dame Ruth Davidson, former Scottish Conservative leader.

Whatever Gray’s report says, Johnson’s fate is now in the hands of his MPs and their constituents. The smart money says he survives, but voters think the darndest things.


Exit Starbucks
The world’s biggest coffee chain is pulling out of Russia. Howard Schulz, Starbucks’ founder and CEO, has taken his bitter-sweet time making up his mind but now tells the WSJ he’s permanently winding down his Russian operation. It consisted of 130 cafes employing 2,000 people who will continue to be paid for the next six months. McDonald’s announced last it was selling up in Russia – and seems to have found a buyer in Alexander Govor, a licensee who already owned 25 McDonald’s in Siberia. It’ll be interesting to see how he rebrands them. Meanwhile Burger King, Pizza Hut and KFC are still doing business in Russia. Burger King’s Russian partner is refusing to shut down, and Yum Brands, which runs the other two, is wriggling of ownership of its Russian Pizza Huts but not of its KFCs. There’s a pattern here: non-household names are quietly sticking around in Russia, hoping the war fades and they can go back to business.  


A modest hero
At first Twitter thought it was fake news, but it was confirmed yesterday that Boris Bondarev, a career Russian diplomat based in Switzerland, really had resigned in disgust, saying he’d never been so ashamed of his country as on the day it invaded Ukraine. He is the first Russian diplomat to resign since then. Bondarev was not an ambassador – he worked at the Russian mission to the UN in Geneva – but in a coruscating resignation note he called the war a crime against the Ukrainian people (and the people of Russia) and said its sole purpose was to keep in power a clique whose yachts were “comparable in tonnage and cost to the entire Russian navy”. He told the BBC he didn’t think his resignation would change much; nor that many other Russian diplomats would follow his lead. 


Liz Line at last
It took 17 minutes and £3.20 to get from Paddington to Canary Wharf this morning on London’s brand new Elizabeth Line, which opened at 6.30 am 48 years after it was first conceived. Construction took 13 years and cost £18.9 billion (£3 billion over-budget). Crowds swarmed at the upgraded Paddington and Abbey Wood stations as they celebrated the opening of the central section. By 7.30 they had thinned out with only a handful of commuters taking advantage of the new East-West connection. Sensemaker found it a delightfully smooth, quiet and cool ride compared with older Tube lines. Even opening three years late, there are still teething problems. Paddington was evacuated briefly during rush hour after a false fire alarm, and the Bond Street connection is unlikely to open until later this year. Estimated usage has been adjusted down too, as WFH persists (see below). Most travellers this morning were train and public transport enthusiasts riding for fun, many wearing purple clothes to blend in with the line’s signature colour. One enthusiast who got a taxi from his home in north London to Abbey Wood (in the far south-east) just to ride the line said: “Bring on Cross Rail 2”. He admitted the line would be mostly useful for travelling into the West End after work, and not for his commute. Calls for Cross Rail 2 were echoed at the line’s opening by Boris Johnson last week. The proposed line would run from Hertfordshire to Surrey. If built it’s expected to cost £33 billion, twice as much as its predecessor. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

British workers seem to like to work from home if they can, but not all the time. New official figures show hybrid working on the rise while the share of workers working entirely from home takes a dip. Jacob Rees-Mogg, the presentist Brexit opportunities minister, will be pleased to see that as Covid restrictions have been lifted daily commuters have regained their status as the biggest single workforce group (whether they like it or not). But he will worry that hybrid is hip. The numbers from the Office for National Statistics show a rise from 30 to 42 per cent in the last ten months in the share of workers who say they plan to work mostly from home and only sometimes from their “usual place of work”. An overwhelming 8 in 10 of those who worked from home during lockdown plan to keep on doing so at least part of the time. It’s the experience that counts. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

China buys Russian
China hasn’t been shipping arms to Russia since the invasion of Ukraine, but it’s been doing the next best thing from Moscow’s point of view – buying vast amounts of Russian energy. Imports of Russian oil, gas and coal rose by 75 per cent in April, Bloomberg says, and Reuters reports Chinese seaborne oil imports from Russia running at 1.1 million barrels a day compared with 800,000 last year, at discounts of about $30 a barrel to assuage guilty consciences and compensate for the risk of falling foul of US sanctions. Chinese coal imports from Russia doubled between March and April. Xie Zhenhua’s promises at Cop26 of peak Chinese carbon emissions by 2030 will be hard to keep.

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, Simon Dawson/No 10 Downing Street, ITV

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