Hello. It looks like you’re using an ad blocker that may prevent our website from working properly. To receive the best Tortoise experience possible, please make sure any blockers are switched off and refresh the page.

If you have any questions or need help, let us know at memberhelp@tortoisemedia.com

Sensemaker: Mute mandarins

Sensemaker: Mute mandarins

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Dina Boluarte was sworn in as Peru’s first female president after her predecessor was impeached for a failed coup.
  • Michael Gove approved the UK’s first new coal mine in 30 years.
  • Iran carried out the first execution over recent anti-government protests.

Mute mandarins

Why is the UK parliament’s privileges committee taking so long to decide whether Boris Johnson misled the House of Commons during the post-Covid panic known as partygate? Here’s what MPs are saying: senior civil servants won’t talk for fear of being named.

Nearly six months after the committee’s inquiry began, the process is dragging on. Sources suggested that a report could be published before the year ended. Now, no one seems to know when it’ll come.

So what? Partygate might feel like history but the committee could determine

  • whether Johnson mounts yet another bid for power or retires to the book and speaker circuit once and for all;
  • whether, consequently, Rishi Sunak goes into next year’s local election season with a rebellion at his back; and
  • whether there is still such a thing as accountability in Westminster.

The inquiry into whether the former prime minister misled parliament could result in his suspension from the Commons: if MPs recommend the maximum 10-day sanction, Johnson could face a by-election. 

Typically MPs are handed a lesser punishment of a few days – but there’s nothing typical about this inquiry.

On-ramp. Harriet Harman, the former Labour deputy leader, was picked as chair in June.

Westminster had expected the committee to start summoning witnesses by the end of October, although this has been played down by a spokesman. Either way, it’s clear that delays in making up the committee’s numbers and receiving documents have slowed things down. Sources say Number 10 and the Cabinet Office dragged their feet on document requests.

The spokesman says the committee finally received the evidence it had initially sought from the government on 18 November, although it may make more requests. 

But it’s one thing to receive documents; another to have people talk about what they saw. Having been slow to submit written evidence, witnesses in two key departments may be unwilling to speak out.

Gray zone. Sue Gray, the senior civil servant who carried out the first partygate investigation this year, granted most officials anonymity. But there is no up-front guarantee of anonymity from the parliamentary inquiry. In fact the committee is making much of its “commitment to transparency”, one source said. Its preference is to take oral evidence in public.

“Requests to hear evidence anonymously or in private will be considered on a case-by-case basis if necessary,” the committee spokesman said. 

But that inability to guarantee witnesses won’t end up with career-ruining egg on their faces is stalling the process. Some officials are said to be taking legal advice on how best to remain anonymous.

As one Tory MP put it: “When civil servants gave evidence to Sue Gray, they were told they wouldn’t be in the publication. When did parliament say this report would be redacted? It won’t be. It’ll be given to 650 MPs and then debated in the Commons… That’s why no one is coming forward.”

Come again? By coming forward with proof that Johnson misled Parliament – that he knew rule-breaking parties were taking place in Downing Street – witnesses would effectively admit they knew about these events. So it’s “convenient for both” not to engage, another Tory MP said. 

May-day. There is no clarity on when the inquiry will conclude, or whether it will be completed ahead of May’s local elections. That’s when Johnson supporters still hope to edge Sunak out after an expected drubbing at the polls. 

Will Johnson face the scrutiny he’s so far evaded before any of that happens? Committee MPs are said to be being “v private” with what they’ve heard so far. But they are also being “v thorough”. 


CAPITAL ECONOMY, BUSINESS AND FINANCE

Xi heads to Saudi

Chinese president Xi Jinping arrived in Saudi Arabia yesterday to aerobatics, cannon fire and the rolling out of a purple carpet. With Gulf and Arab summits planned and 34 deals already signed between Saudi and Chinese firms, the visit has been hailed as an “epoch-making milestone in the history of China-Arab relations” by the Chinese foreign ministry. Saudi Arabia and the US have been close allies for decades, but Xi’s visit comes amid tensions over oil production cuts. China is the kingdom’s largest trading partner, and receives much of its oil from Saudi. The welcome Xi received was a world away from Biden’s fist bump in July, and should be taken as a sign of Saudi’s desired position in the growing competition between China and the US – ideally, not having to take sides.


TECHNOLOGY AI, SCIENCE AND NEW THING

ChatGPT 

There is tremendous excitement in tech circles, and presumably anxiety wherever plagiarism is a problem, over the ChatGPT chatbot, which brings AI-powered conversation and creativity direct to your cerebellum via air pods, phone screen, brain implant or however you mainline your data. The bot can write essays, academic papers and movie scripts. The WSJ got it to write one about a taco fighting a hot dog on a beach. Tortoise’s Alexi Mostrous got it to write a Christmas carol about big tech. (He was impressed but Sensemaker was reassured. It couldn’t scan). ChatGPT has been downloaded as a free app more than a million times since being released for web browsers on 30 November. Its creators say its knowledge comes from machine learning, not the web, but some of its chat is very reminiscent of Siri, and a lot of its answers read like Wikipedia. AI is incremental computational progress masquerading as a great leap forward. Discuss.


The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Mass abortions 

Rape has long been the hidden and brutal weapon of war and is seen in conflicts across the world – including the war in Ukraine. Which makes Reuters extensive reporting on the Nigerian military aborting an estimated 10,000 pregnancies of women and girls, many of whom had been kidnapped and raped by Islamist militants, all the more chilling. Since 2013, the Nigerian Army has run a clandestine operation to forcibly abort pregnancies using medication or surgery by misleading women into taking injections for their “health” or forcing them at gunpoint. One woman interviewed said how “grateful” she was to have been freed from the insurgents, only to end up lying bleeding on the floor as her four-month pregnancy was forcibly terminated. Some women died as a result of unsafe abortions. Soldiers and healthcare workers said the programme was “needed” to stop insurgent fighters before they were born. Abortion is illegal in Nigeria except to save the life of the mother. 


Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Steel pact plan

The US has sent the EU an idea that could actually change the world. It’s a proposal for a metals alliance by which tariffs are imposed on steel and aluminium imported from places like China when manufactured with high carbon emissions – but not when not. The idea is to encourage smelters and rolling mills in developing economies to go green, and protect those in developed countries until they do. It’s loosely based on the carbon club concept advanced by William Nordhaus, the Nobel prize-winning Yale economist. Not incidentally, it would have the effect of exaggerating the backlash against globalisation that has been the main story in macroeconomics since Covid, because initially at least China shows no sign of decarbonising its giant steel sector and every sign of looking for new steel markets outside the West. The NYT has the scoop. It will only come to anything if the EU wants it to.


CULTURE soCIETY, IDENTITY AND BELONGING

Putsch! 

As dawn broke yesterday, 3,000 police and special forces officers arrested 25 people in raids across 11 of Germany’s 16 states, in one of the country’s biggest raids against suspected extremists (more arrests are expected). Some elements are fantastical: those arrested include a German prince, a judge, a Russian and at least one former member of German special forces. They stand accused of plotting to overthrow the German government; allegedly subscribing to QAnon theories and the German far-Right Reichsbürger movement, which rejects the modern German state. But it would be wrong to dismiss them as cranks. German politicians point to the January 6 insurrection as a reminder of how anti-democratic speech can lead to terrifying action. 


Thanks for reading. Please tell your friends to sign up, send us ideas and tell us what you think. Email sensemaker@tortoisemedia.com.

Catherine Neilan
@CatNeilan

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch, Giles Whittell, James Wilson and Phoebe Davis.

Updates were made to this article on 12 December.

Photographs Getty Images


in the tortoise app today