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Sensemaker: Boris Johnson’s money

Sensemaker: Boris Johnson’s money

What just happened

Long stories short

  • European Union leaders agreed to block more than two-thirds of Russian oil imports, cutting off a major source of financing for the Kremlin’s invasion of Ukraine. 
  • The British government announced a year-long pause in the civil service fast-track recruitment scheme for graduates to help meet a pledge to cut one in five jobs in the service.
  • The world’s largest-ever Jaffa Cake, made of 160 eggs, eight kilos of dark chocolate and 15 kilos of orange jelly, was unveiled in High Wycombe.

Boris Johnson’s money

A growing band of Tory MPs seem to want Boris Johnson to move on – is it possible that the prime minister himself has a very personal reason to wish his time in Downing Street were over?

 “He was broke,” Johnson’s former advisor Dominic Cummings said of the prime minister in an interview with journalist Suzanne Moore, adding: “That was an important part of the whole disaster on Covid”. 

In the interview, Cummings made fresh allegations of Johnson’s financial difficulty and impropriety:

  • Divorce: Johnson and his estranged wife Marina Wheeler agreed on a financial settlement late in February 2020, just as the country was about to head into its first lockdown. Cummings said Johnson told him: “I’m fucked with my divorce. I can’t pay for it”.
  • Renovation: at the same time, his then fiancée Carrie Symonds was having their official residence, the flat above 11 Downing Street, renovated. The prime minister receives an annual public grant of £30,000 for such work, but the renovation cost more. Cummings said Johnson told him: “You’ve got to help me get money to pay for this stuff. She’s upstairs, she has spent £100,000. All this gold wallpaper and stuff.” 
  • Donations: Cummings said he advised Johnson to get one of his “rich friends to take out a loan”. But that the prime minister then said: “No fuck that. I want to get donations in to do it. But obviously it’s bad PR so I have to keep it quiet.”

We know by now that Cummings is not a dispassionate witness. He fell out with the prime ministerial couple quite dramatically – he reportedly called Carrie Johnson “Princess Nut Nut” – and has been on a warpath against them ever since Johnson sacked him in November 2020. But he has often been proven correct and, in this case, there is evidence to support his allegations:

  • The size of Johnson’s divorce settlement with Wheeler is unknown. But we do know that Johnson spent 12 days out of public view after it was agreed, reportedly writing his long-delayed book on Shakespeare after his publisher threatened to claim back the £98,000 in advances it had paid him.
  • In the end, the Downing Street renovation cost £112,549. Johnson said he settled the bill with the supplier himself in March 2021. A few weeks later, he put his cottage in Thame, Oxfordshire on the rental market where it is estimated to net roughly £4,250 a month. Another few weeks later, the Johnsons took out a buy-to-let mortgage on the flat they bought in Camberwell, south London a couple of years earlier, with rental value estimates ranging from £3,300 to £4,000 a month.
  • But before he did all that, he did try to secure a donation. In May 2020, Tory donor Lord Brownlow was approached to set up a trust to fund the renovations. Johnson offered him the chairmanship of the trust. It was never set up. But, in June, the Conservative Party’s accounts revealed that its central office made a “bridging loan” of £52,802 to cover the Downing Street renovations after being invoiced by the Cabinet Office – and that it was then “reimbursed in full” for this sum by… Brownlow.

And there are other expenses to think about. In the year before he became prime minister, he earned around £830,000 from his MP’s salary, columns for the Telegraph, and his speaking engagements. But that meant a tax bill of around £350,000 by January 2020 – right before the divorce settlement. And then, there are his children: seven confirmed, one of whom is still 14 years old and could require Johnson to pay child support. On his official salary of £164,000 this could be around £19,000 – or the standard 12 per cent of gross annual salary.

Does any of this matter? Yes. If Johnson couldn’t afford to fund the renovation, then it’s legitimate to ask where he got the money for it from. If Johnson can’t afford his divorce, then it’s important to ask how he’s going to pay for it.

An official investigation into the Downing Street renovation uncovered text messages in which Johnson asked Brownlow to fund the costs, and told him that he would take action on Brownlow’s pet project – his “great exhibition plan”. Brownlow then had a meeting with a government minister about this plan for a cultural festival at London’s Royal Albert Hall, where Brownlow is a trustee. The exhibition never happened, but the episode left Johnson open to accusations of cash-for-access.

Above all, there is evidence that the financial mess around Johnson has affected his ability to govern. Remember those 12 days that he was out of public view, writing his Shakespeare book in the hope of keeping his advance? Well, he reportedly missed five crucial emergency Cabinet meetings about Covid during that period.

further listening

Andrew Neil – The Backstory

Former cabinet minister and veteran Conservative MP David Davis tells Andrew Neil in this week’s episode of The Backstory that his fear in January that Johnson’s government would die “by a thousand cuts” is coming true – and predicts that he will no longer be prime minister by autumn. Davis is one of 27 Tory MP’s, and counting, who have publicly confirmed that they have submitted a letter of no-confidence in Johnson.


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Russian economy 
“I’m sitting at home, cooking borscht like a fool” Natalia Klyeuva, a 46-year old Muscovite tells the FT as she struggles to find a job despite decades of experience in sales. She is among a growing group of Russians feeling the pinch of sanctions from the West – notably rising prices of everyday goods and a stretched labour market. It’s still far from a crisis for most Russians. State workers have seen pension and minimum wage hikes that have kept belt-tightening at bay. Unemployment is currently at 4 per cent and although high at 17.8 per cent, the rate of inflation is not skyrocketing. It’s helped that the private sector has taken a leaf from the UK pandemic playbook and furloughed staff over redundancies using oil and gas profits to foot the bill. For now, the biggest impact is on consumer spending and economy minister Maxim Reshetnikov stated Friday that there was a “demand crisis”. One particularly interesting detail: Samsung and Apple’s departure has led imports of “brick” phones to increase by 43 per cent. 


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Big Lie on the big screen
If you’re in the US and fancy a trip to the movies this weekend, you may catch 2000 Mules, a new film by right-wing filmmaker and polemicist Dinesh D’Souza which, after an hour and a half, concludes that the 2020 US election was stolen. The film asserts that Joe Biden’s win in several swing states was down to 2,000 people, known as “mules”, who were paid to stuff ballot boxes with fake votes in favour of Donald Trump’s opponent. Needless to say, the “documentary” has been debunked by fact-checkers, but it’s just the latest product of the fake news ecosystem that’s helped to sustain Donald Trump’s Big Lie. Whether the former president’s base can sustain such an effort and carry the movement’s supporters to congress in the midterms remains to be seen. Recent primaries in Georgia suggest Trump’s grip on his party isn’t as strong as many believed.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THINGS

Ameca androids
A British firm called Engineered Arts developed a line of robots for rent called Ameca. While the android can’t walk, it “can automatically maintain eye contact with passersby and react to those around them in unbelievably convincing ways”. It can also be programmed with five minutes of renters’ content, for example, to tell their own jokes. The Verge called Ameca “heralds of the future”.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Sleep time
Of the three variables that determine 80 per cent of our longevity – diet, exercise, sleep – the latter is the easiest to get right. But the data shows we are getting it wrong. One in three American adults don’t get enough sleep: less than seven hours a night. The average American adult gets 6.8 hours a night, down from 7.9 hours in the 1940s. This raises the risk of heart diseases, strokes, and cancer. Sleep allows our bodies to repair tissue, organise thoughts, and consolidate memory. Axios has some sleep tips.


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Brazil floods
At least ninety-one people have died in floods in Brazil’s northeastern state of Pernambuco, with 26 people still missing according to local authorities. The location of Pernambuco’s capital, ​​Recife – at the delta of three rivers – makes it one of Brazil’s most vulnerable cities when it comes to extreme weather. “Unfortunately, these catastrophes happen in a continent-sized country,” said the Brazilian president, Jair Bolsonaro, when he visited the area yesterday. While experts are firmly of the view that the likelihood of these disasters is exacerbated by climate change, Bolsonaro has made a name for himself as one of the world’s most notorious climate sceptics, earning the nickname “Captain Chainsaw” as a result of his enthusiasm for deforestation. We’ll have to wait until October to see whether Brazil punishes him at the ballot box for embracing policies which help sweep away their homes.

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.

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Additional reporting by Lara Spirit, Phoebe Davis and James Wilson.

Photographs Getty Images


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