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Sensemaker: Talking about Kevin

Sensemaker: Talking about Kevin

What just happened

Long stories short

  • French officials said a former archbishop of Paris, Michel Aupetit, was under investigation for sexual assault.
  • Downing Street released plans to require all students in England to study maths until they are 18. 
  • Denmark’s banks said 2022 was the first year in which they did not record a single robbery.

Talking about Kevin

On Monday things looked bad for Kevin McCarthy, the Republican who wants to be Speaker of the US House of Representatives. Yesterday they went from bad to worse. Three times he failed to win the majority he needs from members of his own party to replace Nancy Pelosi as ringmaster of Congress and third in line for the presidency. 

So what? Nothing like this has happened for 100 years. The last time a nominee failed to float up to the Speaker’s chair at first attempt on a wave of acclamation from the incoming majority was in 1923. The previous time, in 1856, it took 133 rounds of voting to break the deadlock. 

Procedurally, the McCarthy mess leaves America without a functioning legislature at least until he can wrestle his critics into line. Politically, it squanders the meagre momentum Republicans earned in the midterms. It shows their moderates are at the mercy of an ideological fringe that makes the Tea Party look like a tea party, and it makes a mockery of Maga.

McCarthy should be able to trace the roots of his predicament to two people and a movement:

Trump. The 45th president’s delusional claims about 2020 election fraud were a principal factor in his party’s failure to sweep both houses of Congress last November. It won control of the lower House by only 10 seats, meaning five rebels could derail a would-be Speaker’s rise to power. Yesterday’s voting showed there are in fact at least 20. Trump also

  • helped to radicalise this fringe, on which more below; and
  • laid bare McCarthy’s careerism, which is his Achilles heel, by pulling him into Trump’s orbit early in his presidency, repelling him after the January 6 insurrection and pulling him back in a few days later with an invitation to Mar-a-Lago.

McCarthy. Looking in the mirror, McCarthy sees a suave parliamentarian who hails from California but has come to represent DC beltway politics and is despised for it by the hard right and plenty of moderates. He’s been called a member of the “swamp cartel” by one rebel, “a shill of the establishment” by another, and “a pathetic and ludicrous figure” by the former Republican strategist Steve Schmidt. (Schmidt also points to McCarthy’s ruthless enforcer, Jeff Miller, as a prime source of anti-McCarthy resentment on the Hill.)

The crash and the caucus. One political upshot of the 2008 financial crash was the Republican Tea Party faction, which rejected the younger Bush’s bailouts and campaigned remorselessly through the Obama years to cut taxes, shrink the state and starve government of funds. Not remotely as cuddly as Parks and Recreation’s Ron Swanson, its members nonetheless cleaved to his caricature of ideological purity. Their 2023 successors form the Freedom Caucus, whose conditions for supporting McCarthy include

  • the right to a snap vote at any time on his leadership;
  • the right to reject any budget bill that isn’t balanced; and
  • term limits for House representatives.

On Sunday, McCarthy agreed to the first of these. He hasn’t agreed to the others – yet. However he navigates the next few days he’s already the weakest first-time candidate for Speaker since 1931. This means that even if he lands the job the outlook for the next two years is one of extreme uncertainty over the US debt ceiling and Biden’s spending bills, including appropriations for aid for Ukraine, and gridlock on other legislative fronts.

Democrats in the Senate will be reduced to nominating judges; Republicans in the House to mounting revenge investigations of Hunter Biden and illegal immigration.

Does any of this help Republicans running for president next year? It’s a “shootout in a lifeboat” that won’t inspire confidence in their fitness to govern, but count on Trump to amp up his calls to drain the swamp even so. 


Sovereign megawealth

The FT has a number for extra oil and gas revenues heading to the Gulf over the next four years as a result of high prices and the war in Ukraine. It’s $1.3 trillion, most of which will be held and grown by sovereign wealth funds looking for promising investments in a world otherwise saddled with recession. Abu Dhabi’s Mubadala sovereign fund has already grown from $15 billion to $284 billion since 2008; Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund (PIF) from $150 billion in 2016 to $600 billion now. What will they buy? They claim to be vehicles for diversification, and not just into football clubs. The PIF has invested in a new Saudi electric vehicle brand, which is great. Could it also stop the Saudi state incarcerating women’s rights activists and beheading dissidents? 


Womb cancer diagnosis

It can take two to three weeks for post-menopausal women who’ve been tested for cancer after vaginal bleeding to find out if they have it or not. A device called an iKnife that’s been in use for years to detect other cancers can cut that period of anxious waiting to a few seconds. The Guardian calls the iKnife “revolutionary”, which may have been accurate when it was first used on solid tumours in 2013, but the technology is hardly new now. What is new is a study in the journal Cancers showing the knife accurately detected cancer in 89 per cent of womb biopsy samples containing cancerous cells. The knife vaporises tissue, creating smoke that can be analysed by a mass spectrometer. Around 90,000 women are diagnosed with womb cancer in the UK every year, but that is only 10 per cent of those tested. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Please leave Tokyo

Tokyo is the largest city in the world – something the Japanese government would like to change. It’s offering ¥1 million (about £6300) per child for families to relocate out of the metropolis. The conditions: families must stay for five years in their chosen municipality or pay back the cash. They can also pick up ¥5 million in financial support if they start a business where they settle. What the state hopes to get in return is a rebalancing of people and economic activity away from Tokyo while also encouraging families to have more children. Will the carrot work? Only 0.006 per cent of Tokyo’s 38 million-strong population have taken up a previous offer of ¥300,000 per child since 2019, and Japan’s birth rate remains stubbornly below replacement level. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Winter heat

The temperature in Bilbao on Sunday reached 25 degrees C, 10 degrees above average for this time of year and warm enough for beach volleyball. As a reminder, this time of year is January; midwinter in the northern hemisphere. January temperature records have been broken in eight countries including Poland, the Netherlands and Belarus. The ski season in the northern Alps has so far been a washout. For the UK, Ireland, France and Spain, 2022 was their hottest year ever. This is weather, but every longer-term indicator says it’s also climate. Maybe, at last, it’s time to panic.


Goodbye Pelé

A funeral is an inappropriate moment for a selfie, as David Cameron and Barack Obama learned in 2013 at a memorial service for Nelson Mandela. Fifa president Gianni Infantino made the same mistake on Monday, posing for a photograph next to Pelé’s open casket ahead of the football icon’s funeral in the Brazilian city of Santos (Infantino said he was “dismayed” by the criticism and was asked to pose by Pelé’s teammates). Pelé, who died last week aged 82, was laid to rest yesterday after an estimated 230,000 mourners, including the country’s president, Luiz Inácio Lula da Silva, filed past his coffin during a 24-hour public wake at the Vila Belmiro stadium where he made his name in the 1950s.

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

Giles Whittell

Additional reporting by Jessica Winch and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images

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