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Sensemaker: Join the dots

Sensemaker: Join the dots

What just happened

Long stories short

  • A second set of classified papers from Biden’s time as vice president was found unsecured in Washington.
  • Nasa revealed the first planet discovered by the James Webb Space Telescope, named LHS 475 b.
  • Michelle Donelan, the UK culture secretary, said she thought the “Elgin Marbles” should stay in Britain.

Join the dots

Rishi Sunak was asked this week if there was enough transparency around donations to British MPs, and whether it was right that untraceable companies could give six-figure sums. He replied: “Transparency is really important for the healthy functioning of democracy.”

He repeated himself a couple of times with carefully prepared language and a tight smile. 

So what? Sunak could not answer the questions properly because the answers are no and no. There’s not enough transparency and six-figure gifts with little context or explanation are not right. The Westminster Accounts project has struck a chord this week because it shows how money’s role in British politics is so insidious that current rules can’t keep the system honest. The data tool built by Tortoise and Sky News shows among many other things how

  • Qatar funnelled nearly £250,000 to MPs in the build-up to the World Cup and won supporters in the process;
  • Labour and Conservative MPs have accepted large sums from companies with no known addresses of their own;
  • all-party parliamentary groups (APPGs) have received over £20 million this parliament alone from businesses and special interest groups.

Coverage by Tortoise and Sky has prompted more in at least 38 other national and regional outlets, and outrage in the House of Commons. At  Prime Minister’s Questions yesterday the Scottish National Party’s Westminster leader called it “utterly perverse” that senior Tories were “feathering their nests” while seeking to deny workers the right to strike.  

The SNP’s Stephen Flynn called afterwards for a complete overhaul of a system that still allows donors to disguise the source of their funds and any quid pro quos: “Money isn’t just given freely. Let’s not be daft here.”

It’s true, as transport secretary Mark Harper notes, that the current system already requires disclosure and gives people a veto over MPs’ dealings that don’t smell right: “If voters don’t like it, they can boot them out.”

It’s not quite true, as Lord Pickles, chair of parliament’s ethics watchdog, says, that the Westminster Accounts project does not “attempt to suggest there’s something sleazy about this”. Oh yes it does. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing by MPs under current rules, but there is a pervasive sense that the rules are inadequate and that sleaze or something very like it thrives in Westminster as a result.

The context is worth remembering. The same party has been in power for 12 years. In that time its members, leaders (and rivals to the right) have

  • normalised a ruthless kind of shading of the truth that in other arenas is called lying;
  • rewritten history so that, for example, there is little prospect of ministerial accountability for the catastrophic handling of the onset of Covid; and
  • tested Britain’s unwritten constitution almost to destruction by lying to the Queen and twisting convention on the prorogation of parliament.

This is the parliament on whose premises, as we report today, a former MEP can invite paying subscribers – and only paying subscribers – to an anti-vaxx meeting hosted by an APPG, even though all meetings on the parliamentary estate are meant to be free. 

Across the channel. The president of the European Parliament unveils a set of reform plans today to prevent a repeat of last month’s scandal in which MEPs were caught accepting bribes from Morocco and suitcases of Qatari cash. Roberta Metsola’s proposals include whistleblower training and bans on lobbying and unofficial “friendship groups”. They sound familiar. It’s time for Westminster to stop preaching transparency and set its house in order.


Succession planning

Last year, luxury powerhouse LVMH raised the maximum age of its chief executive, allowing Bernard Arnault, now 73, to stay in post until he is 80. Still, it never hurts to plan ahead. This week Arnault named his daughter Delphine as head of the group’s second biggest brand Dior, as part of a wider reshuffle at Europe’s most valuable company. Delphine, the eldest of Arnault’s five children, starts the new role in February having been second in command at Louis Vuitton since 2013. Last month Antoine Arnault, the eldest son, was named chief executive of family holding company Christian Dior SE, while Arnault’s other three sons are also involved in the firm. Prada and Zara-owner Inditex have announced similar succession plans in recent years.  


Opals on Mars 

Nasa’s Curiosity rover has found opals on Mars. This is interesting for two reasons. First, opal is formed from silica and water and could in principle be harvested for water by visiting humans. Second, Curiosity is exploring the Gale Crater near the Martian equator, a long way from the poles, the only place where water is thought to be abundant on the planet’s surface, albeit as ice. Equatorial Martian opals may bolster the theory that Mars was once much more watery than now. They’ve been found in networks of fissures in the Mars crust known as fracture halos. A halo a metre across could yield a gallon and a half of water, which… isn’t much. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Ebola over

Uganda’s worst Ebola outbreak has ended four months after it began. It is a moment of “great hope”, in the words of Dr Matshidiso Moeti, the WHO’s regional director for the continent. The spread of the virus was contained despite the lack of effective vaccines or therapeutics. A month into the spread (in October), President Yoweri Museveni implemented overnight curfews and stopped movement out of the two regions at the epidemic’s epicentre. But it was still one of the deadliest Ebola outbreaks in Uganda’s history: there were 55 confirmed deaths, including seven health workers. It also does not mean Ebola is gone for good. The country’s health minister made sure to remind communities to “remain vigilant”. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Oil boss chairs Cop

2022 was the fifth warmest year on record, the EU’s climate agency said this week, with the world now 1.2C hotter than in pre-industrial times. The Paris agreement committed countries to trying to limit this global warming to 1.5C – a pledge due to be reviewed in a “global stocktake” at this year’s Cop28 summit in Dubai in November. So the news that Sultan al-Jaber, head of Abu Dhabi’s state-owned oil company Adnoc, has been appointed president of the climate summit by the UAE may raise concern. Jaber has some green credentials: he launched Masdar, a renewable energy company, and has served as the Gulf state’s climate envoy. But there may be optics problems in store in the appointment of an oil chief to lead climate talks. His presidency of Cop28 was described by climate activists as “tantamount to a full-scale capture of the UN climate talks by a petrostate national oil company”.


Sinking Surovikin 

Putin has demoted the general he appointed only three months ago to salvage his war effort in Ukraine. General Sergei Surovikin arrived in post preceded by a reputation for total ruthlessness acquired on Russia’s bombing campaigns in Syria. But his first significant move in Ukraine was to retreat across the Dnipro River from Kherson. The Kremlin praised the decision at the time but Putin seems to have rethought. He has sent his top military chief, Valery Gerasimov, into the cauldron to try to turn things around for a spring offensive. They go way back, to Chechnya. Putin is learning the hard way that Ukraine is not so easily crushed. 

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

Catherine Neilan

Giles Whittell

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

Photographs Getty Images, Jessica Taylor/UK Parliament, NASA/JPL-Caltech/MSSS

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