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Sensemaker: Expensive friend

Sensemaker: Expensive friend

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The Fed raised rates by a quarter of a point but hinted ongoing increases would now take a pause.
  • Zelensky visited Bakhmut as UK officials reported a Ukrainian counter-attack southwest of the city. 
  • A rocket with the first functioning 3D-printed engines failed shortly after take-off from Cape Canaveral.

Expensive friend

If there was ever any doubt that those who enter Boris Johnson’s orbit end up getting burned, the former prime minister’s grilling over whether he misled parliament about parties in Downing Street during the Covid-19 pandemic made it clear. 

Johnson, who was speaking under oath: 

  • accused former aide Dominic Cummings of having a “motive to lie”;
  • repeatedly passed the buck to two of his advisers, Jack Doyle and James Slack;
  • suggested the committee should question MPs such as Sarah Dines, whose supportive testimony had been contradicted by other accounts; and
  • named two officials who had been kept anonymous.

So what? These are merely the latest in a long line of people whose names have been blackened by their interaction with Johnson. 

As we have shown in our podcast series The six million pound man, there are some who have paid the price for his friendship financially, and others with their reputations. For one unlucky subset, it’s both. And yet, people come back for more. 

As yesterday’s three-hour session wore on, parliament’s register of interests was updated, and we learned how Johnson’s personal fortune has grown over the last fortnight. He declared:

  • £266,031.60 for a speech to the law firm Kessler Topaz Meltzer & Check (of which £186,359.03 was deducted from the £2.48 million advance he registered in January). Total hours: seven.
  • £261,596 for a speech to a conference in London hosted by Brand Finance this month (of which £183,246 was deducted). Total hours: seven and a half.
  • £42,500 for an advance on a(nother) book, from Hodder and Stoughton. Total hours: none.

Reminder: taxpayers are expected to foot the bill for Johnson’s legal defence for the privileges committee, which is estimated at around £222,000.

Rebuke: the other sideshow to Johnson’s testimony was a vote on the current prime minister’s Windsor Framework to reconcile Brexit and the governance of Northern Ireland. It passed overwhelmingly. Johnson was among only 22 voting against – a clear sign of his fading power. 

The cross-party committee is meanwhile trying to establish

  • whether Johnson misled Parliament;
  • whether that was a contempt of parliament;
  • and if so, how serious it was.

On the basis of that judgement, MPs will vote on whether to suspend him from the Commons. Any longer than 10 days could trigger a by-election.  

Reckless? They will be looking to determine whether it was intentional or reckless. Johnson’s defence has, in particular, been that it was not intentional. But the committee yesterday opened up multiple paths down which it might find his statements reckless, including…

  • The talking point – Conservative backbenchers Sir Bernard Jenkin and Alberto Costa cut through with the argument that Johnson had relied on assurances from his communications team rather than a lawyer or civil servant. The statement Johnson had given to the Commons was, in fact, a “line to take”, they said – designed to stop journalists probing further, not something that had been thoroughly or independently verified. 
  • The passed buck – Labour’s Harriet Harman was scathing of Johnson’s attempts to throw his former colleagues under the bus in relation to events he attended himself, noting: “If I was going at 100mph and I saw the speedometer saying 100mph it would be a bit odd, wouldn’t it, if I said ‘somebody assured me that I wasn’t?’”

Johnson lost his cool at times, telling Jenkin his questions were “complete nonsense” and arguing without evidence that the gatherings were necessary to maintain staff morale during the pandemic. 

Hollow man. Many who followed the Covid rules throughout the pandemic, missing final farewells and weddings, will find Johnson’s defence hollow. For now, his fate rests in the hands of colleagues. 

There is reluctance, even among Conservative MPs, to rush the vote. Some fear taking sides against someone so popular with members could result in their deselection. Others fear all these headlines will cause yet more damage to the Tory brand. 

This is Johnson’s scorched-earth third act. His goal is to save himself at any cost. It continues to cost everyone else dear.


A bit rich
Rishi Sunak’s investment income has dwarfed his ministerial salary over the past three years, and Boris Johnson can only gnash his teeth. Johnson’s desperate hoovering of money has been a leit (or dark) motif of his political career (see above). Sunak makes being rich look easy by comparison. His tax return shows he earned £4.7 million between 2019 and 2021. Most of it was income from one US-based investment fund on which he paid capital gains tax at 20 per cent. His overall tax rate was 22 per cent, compared with the UK’s top income tax rate of 45 per cent. The return was released on a busy news day, which drew attention to it, but less than it would have without the distractions of Johnson’s testimony on “partygate”. Brazen but effective.


Canada, oh Canada
How to grab market share in EV and battery production: offer billions in incentives, boast virtually unlimited space and raw materials including rare earths and exotic metals, generate a lot of cheap, clean hydropower and be a law-abiding democracy. Canada ticks all five boxes and attracted $11 billion in EV-related investments last year. VW is the latest electric car maker to commit to building in Canada (a battery plant in Ontario province) in order to align with US efforts to reduce dependence on China, the WSJ reports. Canada has the only battery-grade cobalt refinery in the northern hemisphere outside China, in the town of Cobalt. Note to Britishvolt: you only ticked one box. 

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

Never seen a toothbrush
Glimpses of the current state of NHS dentistry for children in the UK: a foster parent driving from Somerset to Bristol because she couldn’t find a local practice taking children; a Ukrainian refugee taking her seven year-old daughter back to Ukraine for want of an appointment in Aberdeenshire; and six year-olds in Norfolk who’d never seen a dentist – or in some cases a toothbrush. Last year, a BBC investigation found eight in ten NHS dental practices across the UK were not taking children. The result is extra strain on emergency services, putting children’s long-term health at risk and in extreme instances leading to attempts at “DIY dentistry”. It’s dire – but fixable. As the chair of the British Dental Association wrote yesterday to MPs: “it is not rocket science”. The BDA says if the government improves its terms and conditions and provides sustainable funding, NHS dentistry can return. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Jail for Gandhi
India’s opposition leader Rahul Gandhi has been sentenced to two years in prison for calling Prime Minister Narendra Modi a thief in an offhand remark at a rally in 2019. His great-grandfather, grandmother and father were all titanic leaders. But Gandhi has come up short against the might of the Hindu nationalist BJP, and the religious fervour Modi inspires. His old secular India National Congress Party is a shadow of its former self. Two weeks ago, Gandhi toured the UK, warning that Hindu extremists had infiltrated or subdued every facet of the state, media, judiciary and civil society. Now he has been sentenced on what look like politically motivated charges. He has 30 days to appeal, but it is unclear how long the world’s largest democracy has left.  


Warrior king
A court in Chad has sentenced 465 rebels to life in prison over the killing of President Idriss Déby. For decades, he was the West’s go-to strongman in Africa. Want to beat jihadists out of Mali or rein in Colonel Gaddafi’s regional ambitions without putting boots on the ground? The wiry general and his fierce desert army (drawn from his own tribe) was the answer. But in 2021 the 68 year-old leader was mysteriously killed. The official account casts it as a glorious end: the warrior king was shot in the chest while he was leading a convoy into battle against rebels near Libya. But the details are sketchy. Could it have been an assassination or a palace coup? The rebels had links to the Wagner group and had fought on both sides of Libya’s civil war. Western intelligence memos may need to be declassified before anything becomes clear. 

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, Phoebe Davis and Will Brown.

Photographs Getty Images

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