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Sensemaker: Here we go again

Sensemaker: Here we go again

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The US said Iranian military experts were in occupied Crimea helping Russians target Ukraine with drones.
  • The UN said Colombia’s production of coca, the main ingredient in cocaine, increased by a record 43 per cent last year.
  • US chess player Hans Niemann sued world champion Magnus Carlsen over allegations of cheating. 

Here we go again

Boris Johnson is in the running to become Britain’s next prime minister. He could be back in charge by the end of next week, after Liz Truss’s leadership imploded in just 44 days.

What’s changed? Johnson resigned in disgrace on 7 July. Since then, interest rates have soared, the pound has tanked and the Bank of England has had to pump billions more into the economy.

By the numbers:

  • £11 billion: The amount the Treasury says it will give the Bank of England to cover emergency QE costs, sparked by the Truss-Kwarteng mini-Budget;
  • 2.25 per cent: Current Bank of England base rate; it was 1.25 per cent when Johnson resigned;
  • $1.20: Sterling’s value against the US dollar on 7 July; it fell to a record low of $1.03 but rallied to $1.13 as Truss left office;
  • £115,000: The amount Truss is now entitled to claim every year if she remains “active in public life”.

The Conservative party is trying to draw a line under Truss’s brief stint in Number 10. Over the summer, the public had to endure a six-week leadership contest as warnings about the cost-of-living crisis grew louder. This time things will be wrapped up within a week.

How? The 1922 executive committee has set a high threshold for candidates. They need the votes of 100 MPs by Monday (up from 20 last time). With 357 Conservative MPs, a maximum of three candidates will make it onto the ballot. If only one candidate wins the necessary support, a new prime minister could be announced on Monday. Otherwise, MPs will reduce the vote to two, followed by an “indicative” vote to show their final preference. Party members then vote online to choose a winner by 28 October.

Why? With the grace of hindsight, MPs acknowledge that a six-week power vacuum, during which ministers largely downed tools and Johnson went on jollies, should not have been allowed, particularly at a time of brewing economic crisis. There was also horror at the way MPs aired the party’s dirty linen in public. The reason Truss lasted as long as she did was the recognition this couldn’t happen again.

The 0.2% Some MPs have questioned whether some 160,000 members, around 0.2% of the country’s population, should have a say in the process. Former leader William Hague told Times Radio this month it would “be better” for elected MPs to have the full say. 

Election analyst Peter Ryan, a professor of applied security at the University of Luxembourg, said that unless the Conservative party demonstrates the security processes for the online ballot system, “we must assume that it is insecure”. 

Britain’s Got Talent The three names in the frame are Johnson, who at the time of writing was the frontrunner with 52 backers, according to Guido Fawkes; former chancellor Rishi Sunak with 40 and Commons Leader Penny Mordaunt with 17. Sunak is the bookies’ favourite.

The timeline:

  • Monday 2pm: nominations close. Private hustings for MPs.
  • Monday 6pm: results of first MP ballot.
  • Monday 9pm: results of second MP ballot.
  • Tuesday: Online membership ballot opens.
  • Friday 11am: Online ballot closes. Results announced later that day.

Can Johnson pull this off? Johnson is still unpopular with a lot of Conservative MPs because of lockdown-breaking parties and he might not make the 100-MP threshold. One member of the 1922 committee told Tortoise that he thinks Johnson won’t make the cut.

And yet, if Johnson makes it onto the ballot paper, he will walk it thanks to his popularity among grassroots members and the desire of MPs to hold onto their seats. Many Tories – even those who dislike him intently – seem certain he will return to Downing Street. One Johnson critic said Johnson “could easily get to around 140” votes in the first round. For context, Sunak reached 137 in the final round of the summer, while Truss scraped 113.  

“Maybe it won’t be the totally mad Boris this time,” one MP said. He added: “It’s a disaster.”

A supportive backbencher said: “It is simply a race to 100 MPs publicly backing him. Once that happens he is PM, as the others will not take him on with the members.”

After the laughter Aside from the significant list of problems facing the country, there are many unresolved problems from Johnson’s previous tenure, not least of which is the privileges committee investigating whether he misled parliament. The divisions within the party may erupt into resignations and defections.

The easy part will be winning, suggests the supportive backbencher. “They will then come for him again.”

A final note: During the last leadership contest, the Conservative Party refused to disclose any information about its voters’ demographics or the steps it was taking to ensure the election’s security. In response to this refusal, Tortoise submitted an application for judicial review. This morning, we asked the Conservative Party again to provide information on how it will run next week’s online ballot of members and the steps taken to ensure the process is secure. Listen: Editor James Harding on BBC Radio 4’s Today programme explaining how this story started.


Hunt’s budget

A big question is whether the election of a new prime minister will delay Chancellor Jeremy Hunt’s announcement of plans to fill a £40 billion hole in the UK public finances. Hunt is due to unveil his proposals on 31 October – but as a new prime minister may not be in place until October 28 (and may appoint a new chancellor) – the Times reports his decision will “inevitably” be delayed. The announcement was intended to reassure financial markets ahead of the next interest rate decision from the Bank of England on 3 November. Hunt promised to do “whatever is necessary” to reduce government debt as the latest figures showed borrowing rose to £20 billion in September, the second-highest September on record.


Twitter cuts
Elon Musk is reportedly planning to cut up to 75 per cent of Twitter’s workforce. According to the Washington Post, Musk told prospective investors in his deal to buy the social media platform that he planned to trim the 7,500-strong workforce to just over 2,000 people. But according to the report, major cuts were planned at Twitter anyway: the current board planned to reduce the workforce by around a quarter and cut infrastructure such as the data centres that keep the site functioning – which might explain why Twitter officials wanted to sell to Musk in the first place. Sean Edgett, Twitter’s lawyer, sent an email to employees saying the company had no confirmation on Musk’s plans; Twitter’s own smaller-scale “cost savings discussions” were put on hold until the merger was signed. Twitter employees apparently reacted with “anger and resignation”, making jokes about the long period of turbulence. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Black Death genes
A new study has found that many Europeans still carry a genetic mutation that protected their ancestors from the Black Death, which swept through Europe, the Middle East and north Africa in the mid-1300s, killing up to half of the population. The study, published in Nature, analysed ancient DNA from skeletons in London and Denmark and identified particular mutations in a gene called ERAP2 that made people 40 per cent more likely to survive Black Death. ERAP2 makes a protein that helps the immune system target invading bacteria; the researchers found those with two identical copies of ERAP2 were more likely to fight off the plague. But this protection came at a price: people who inherit the plague-resistant mutation are now more likely to develop immune disorders such as Crohn’s disease. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Russia’s malfunctioning missile
As Britain’s government imploded, the defence secretary revealed in parliament that a Russian fighter jet recently “released” a missile near an unarmed British spy plane patrolling international air space over the Black Sea. Ben Wallace said the RAF RC-135 Rivet Joint surveillance plane was shadowed by two Russian armed SU-27 fighter aircraft on September 29, which is “not unusual”, but this time one of the jets released a missile. Russia blamed a “technical malfunction”. Wallace said the incident demonstrated that the Russian military is “not beyond making the wrong calculation or indeed deciding that the rules don’t apply to them”. Wallace also said he travelled to Washington earlier this week to discuss how western allies would respond to “a whole range of things”, alluding to fears of possible Russian use of nuclear weapons.


What do we want? Stability
“Stability” was the word of the day for foreign allies commenting on Liz Truss’s departure from her brief premiership. “We want, above all else, stability,” said France’s Emmanuel Macron. “I think stability is very important,” added Ireland’s Taoiseach Micheál Martin. Some allies had criticised Truss’ economic plans earlier this month – an uncommon move in international diplomacy. But it seems Truss’ tenure wasn’t all bad – Biden called her a “great partner” on the war in Ukraine; Dutch PM Mark Rutte said he had enjoyed “good contact” with Truss and agreed with her on “a whole range of views”. Russia’s foreign ministry, meanwhile, was gleeful in its disdain, saying she was a disgrace of a leader who would be remembered for her “catastrophic illiteracy”.

Thanks for reading. Please share this round, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Catherine Neilan

Additional reporting by Ella Hill, Jess Winch and Sebastian Hervas-Jones,

Graphic by Katie Riley. 

Photographs Getty Images

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