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Sensemaker: Six million pound man

Sensemaker: Six million pound man

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Credit Suisse shares rebounded after it arranged to borrow up to $54 billion from the Swiss central bank.
  • Jeremy Hunt’s first UK budget prioritised employment, investment, cheap fuel and draft beer (more below).
  • Nasa unveiled its new spacesuit for the 2025 Artemis moon landing – designed to fit both women and men. 

Six million pound man

Jeremy Hunt said yesterday the UK’s cap on tax-free retirement savings is to be scrapped. One person who’ll be pleased is Boris Johnson, who couldn’t afford life as prime minister but is now earning more than any ex-PM in British history.

Unleashed from Downing Street, Johnson has earned 85 per cent of all the outside pay generated by MPs this year, according to data compiled for our Westminster Accounts project. Including donations, he has declared £6.1 million and counting. 

So what? Ex-prime ministers are entitled to earn what they can, but this is different.

  • Johnson is on manoeuvres. He has made no secret of hoping to return to power.
  • As a past and potential future leader he owes it to the public to be fully transparent about the sources of his money so voters can assess his independence for themselves.
  • He has been less than fully transparent so far: as we found making the podcast series Boris Johnson: The six million pound man, large sums that have flowed to him this parliament have never been declared or come from sources that remain opaque.

His biggest sources of declared money this parliament are: 

  • £2.4 million from the Harry Walker speakers’ agency in New York;
  • £1 million from Christopher Harborne, an investor and Conservative donor based in Thailand;
  • and more than £515,000 from HarperCollins, his publisher. 

But his register of interests makes no mention of Sam Blyth, the distant cousin who – thanks to an introduction made by Richard Sharp via the Cabinet Secretary, Simon Case – gave Johnson a loan guarantee of £800,000. 

Neither does the register

  • specify where the loan ultimately came from; or
  • make any mention of a holiday the Johnsons took last year in the Dominican Republic at a luxury villa owned by the same Sam Blyth. 

Johnson’s spokesman says his earnings are all properly declared. Yet they leave unanswered questions and the potential, at the very least, for the perception of a conflict of interest: 

Harborne. The £1 million from Christopher Harborne is the biggest donation to an individual MP in British history, but little is known about the person who gave it or what for. Harborne has previously given millions to the Brexit Party, before swinging back to the Conservatives last year. He is big in crypto and owns businesses that lease private jets and provide aviation fuel. 

He lives in Thailand under the name Chakrit Sakunkrit, which according to the Wall Street Journal was recently added to a list of names that the now-defunct Signature Bank “felt were trying to evade anti-money-laundering controls”.

Harborne hasn’t responded to our messages but we know from the Electoral Commission as well as Johnson’s team that he is a permitted donor. 

All that really means is that he is on the UK’s electoral register. 

Lord Bamford. Since leaving office Johnson has received gifts in kind worth tens of thousands of pounds from Lord Bamford, a Conservative donor. Bamford also paid for Johnson’s second wedding, whose true cost we estimate to have been roughly double that declared. 

Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row, another party donor, paid £60,000 towards the refurbishment of the Johnsons’ Downing Street flat, but estimates of the full cost were up to £200,000 and Johnson “lost” key WhatsApp messages that clarified Brownlow’s role in the affair. 

Lord everyone else. One of his supporters says the former prime minister would “never go bankrupt because he has got extremely wealthy friends who would help him”. This is true, but not the whole story. Many of the helpers have been burned by their time in his orbit.  

A former adviser who worked in Number 10 at the height of the pandemic put it bluntly: “He is a corruptor and degrader who leaves everyone who works with him diminished morally in some way.”

The Conservatives are hoping to reestablish themselves as responsible custodians of taxpayers’ money. They need to take an unblinking look at Boris Johnson’s first.


Budget Britain
Jeremy Hunt’s first task in his first budget as the UK’s finance minister was to be dull, and he succeeded. Lower-than-expected energy prices gave him the headroom for modest levelling-up handouts, a big boost for childcare (see also 100-year life below) and a tax cut for wealthy retirees that Labour says it will reverse. This was a vital return to politics as usual after the disaster of Hunt’s predecessor’s unfunded tax cuts last September. But his second job was to lay the groundwork for a pre-election comeback, and that will prove much tougher. The idea is for the childcare and pension reforms to boost employment and productivity at both ends of the pay scale; for full business expensing to boost investment despite a six-point rise in corporation tax; and for a £20 billion bung for CCUS and clean energy (a big number by British standards) to create jobs along the Red Wall. But all that would have to kick in fast to make a serious dent in Labour’s 22-point poll lead, and the signs are that it won’t. The cautious Hunt has delayed implementation of his more expensive policies until next year. He’ll have to hope his eccentric cut to draft beer duty works miracles before closing time.


Fighters for Ukraine
Eight senators from both the Democrat and Republican parties have written to the US defence secretary Lloyd Austin, asking him “to take a hard look” at providing F-16 fighter jets to Ukraine. They can be a game-changer on the battlefield and the US has to support Ukraine and ensure Putin loses this war, the senators say. While Austin is thinking (a reply is requested by 17 March), the Polish and Slovak governments have said they can provide Ukraine with MiG-29 fighters, urging other Nato allies to join their coalition. “People in Ukraine are dying. We can really help them. This is inhumane and irresponsible,” says the Slovak Defense Minister, Jaroslav Nad. No doubt about that. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Baby steps
Yesterday’s UK budget included plans for what Jeremy Hunt called the biggest expansion of government-funded childcare in his lifetime. The plans include phased-in free childcare for children over nine months old, so by 2025 all parents of under-5s have will have 30 hours a week of free care as long as they work over 16 hours a week; and more up-front cash for childcare for parents on universal credit. Hunt says the cost of these policies would be £4 billion and was fully-funded, but campaigners have cited CBI estimates that expanding free childcare to cover one and two year-olds would cost closer to £9 billion. Phasing in won’t necessarily resolve questions of childcare supply either. Currently, nurseries subsidise the cost of care for three and four year-olds by charging one and two year-olds more – and that would no longer be an option. An optional relaxation of child-to-carer ratio from 1:4 to 1:5 for two year-olds would impact quality of care too. The good news for Hunt is that a large chunk of the cost is likely to be paid by the next government. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Regrowth is not enough
Parts of the world’s three biggest rainforests are regrowing after illegal logging and burning, but they are sequestering barely a quarter of the carbon emitted where deforestation rages on. A Bristol University study published yesterday in Nature used satellite data to estimate that regrowth in Amazonia, Central Africa and Borneo locks up 107 million tonnes of carbon a year, equivalent to 26 per cent of global deforestation emissions. The study’s most depressing finding is that a third of deforested land doesn’t recover at all. Consumers wanting to help could stop consuming products made with palm oil, and protest against UK government efforts to scrap palm oil tariffs as part of a mooted trade deal with Malaysia. 


Sumo prime time
Sumo season is starting in Japan with full arenas for the first time in three years. Wrestling continued during Covid, but in “church-like silence,” the Japan Times reports, wherein “every rikishi’s breath or the creak of a mawashi belt could be heard on TV broadcasts”. The pandemic delivered a sharp uptick in overseas interest in sumo wrestling, especially in the US and Europe, where many televised sports schedules had to be suspended. Now the Japan Sumo Association has to decide whether to continue to allow global live-streaming of professional bouts even at the risk of declining domestic broadcast revenues. So far it has opposed the idea, meaning posterity may see Covid as a window on sumo that closed as the pandemic receded. But you can still get highlights and insights on Sumo Prime Time, via YouTube.

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

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Nina Kuryata and Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images, Sgt. Alexandre Montes/US Air Force

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