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Sunak’s blindspot

Sunak’s blindspot

What just happened

Long stories short

  • More than 80 people were killed in a stampede for financial aid in Yemen.
  • Public confidence in the importance of childhood vaccines fell worldwide during the Covid pandemic, says Unicef. 
  • The first American-made Patriot missile defence systems arrived in Ukraine. 

Sunak’s blindspot

Rishi Sunak is in trouble again over his billionaire wife’s business interests. He is under investigation by the parliamentary standards commissioner for having failed to declare an interest. 

So what? Sunak is the UK’s prime minister; maker of its laws, leader by example. By virtue of his marriage to Akshata Murty he’s also the richest ever occupant of Number Ten. But he seems wilfully blind to the many ways this affects his view of the world and voters’ view of him. It’s turned into something of a pattern.

He did not foresee

  • the outrage his wife’s non-dom status prompted, when it emerged during his time as chancellor – as he was raising UK taxes that she was able to avoid;
  • the row that blew up later when it emerged that Infosys – the company his father-in-law owns and the source of his wife’s wealth – was still operating in Russia; or
  • that his wife’s shareholding in a company set to benefit from changes to childcare policy announced in last month’s Budget would also be politically dangerous. 

The conflict. Murty owns 20,000 shares in Koru Kids, a childcare provider positioned to profit from the Budget’s promise of 30 hours of free state-funded childcare a week for one and two year-olds. But you wouldn’t know it from official records, until yesterday:

  • The holding was acquired in 2019 but there is no mention of it in the first six updates of the register of ministerial interests since then.
  • It is mentioned in yesterday’s update – as a brief footnote. And only after it was revealed by journalists. 
  • At a parliamentary committee hearing on childcare policy last month, Sunak didn’t mention Murty’s links to Koru Kids even though it was one of six companies involved in a pilot scheme under discussion and even when asked directly if he had any interest to declare. “No,” Sunak said. “All my disclosures are declared in the normal way.”

The ministers’ register is not required to be exhaustive in terms of family members’ interests, according to the current independent advisor on ministers’ interests. But interests’ relevant to ministerial responsibilities do have to be included, including those of close family; and the code of conduct, which applies to all MPs including Sunak, requires them to be “open and frank” about their interests. 

Last time. This time last year, when Sunak was chancellor, it was Murty’s undeclared non-dom tax status that tripped up her husband. When the non-dom story broke, it revealed a rare side to Sunak: angry, defensive and unwilling to budge.

This time he’s attempted a more relaxed response, but the substance is the same. In a letter to the standards committee published yesterday, Sunak said he was responding “in my capacity as prime minister” – code for journalists to back off from probing into his family’s affairs even though that is an integral part of their jobs. 

It was exactly the kind of response his Conservative critics feared and Labour hoped for. 

Disintegrating integrity. Sunak’s reputation, like that of Labour’s Keir Starmer, is largely staked on his claim to integrity. Number Ten hoped this would stand in useful contrast to Boris Johnson’s reputation for mendacity as local elections approached. Instead Sunak looks at best politically tone-deaf.

Standard fair. As Sunak is being investigated by the standards commissioner, Johnson is being investigated by the privileges committee. A string of other Conservative MPs including Matt Hancock, Christopher Pincher, Scott Benton and Steve Brine are also being probed. 

As the Westminster Accounts show, even MPs’ fortnightly register of interests is no guarantee of transparency. Without a better grasp of the political risks of sleaze and wealth, Sunak’s blindspot could prove a fatal flaw.


BP revolt 
In February BP abandoned a commitment to cut oil and gas output by 40 per cent by 2030, instead saying it would reduce its output by a quarter. The decision sent BP’s shares to multi-year highs but has not gone down well with some investors. Nest, a pension provider that claims to represent one in three workers in the UK, says it will vote against the reappointment of BP chair Helge Lund in protest, joined by four more of Britain’s biggest pension schemes, which together manage some £244 billion in assets. “We have serious concerns about BP reaching its 2050 net zero goal and the long-term success of the company if it continues on this path,” Diandra Soobiah, head of responsible investment at Nest, told the FT. Pension funds have to think long-term. BP needs to look beyond the sugar high of last year’s war-induced energy price spike and pay attention.


North Sea “fishermen”
Russia has a fleet of around 50 vessels disguised as fishing trawlers and research vessels that seem to be preparing to sabotage coastal wind farms and communication cables around the UK, North Sea and the Baltic. When Scandinavian journalists tried to approach one of the boats, the Admiral Vladimirsky, a man with a balaclava and military-grade rifle came out to see them off. An investigation found the boats were regularly turning their international trackers off near key marine infrastructure points. One Danish intelligence officer said Russia was preparing sabotage efforts to give Moscow options for a divide-and-conquer strategy in the event of full-scale war with the West.

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

University challenge 
The number of students complaining about their university experiences in England and Wales rose last year for the fourth year in a row even though the proportion of complaints related to Covid fell. Unmet mental health needs feature in many of the case studies published today in the annual report of the Office of the Independent Adjudicator, the universities watchdog. The report also describes “challenging” mediation between a group of 400 humanities students awarded £640,000 in compensation for disruption to their courses during Covid at their (unnamed) university. The BBC reports separately on a Manchester Metropolitan fashion student who quit after being left to design clothes using wine bottles as “mini-dummies”. Few students complained about staff strikes even though there were plenty. All are customers in a sector that’s central to the UK’s self-image as an export-led knowledge economy – a sector that outside Oxbridge and London is on its knees.

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Refugees’ rights
Athens has announced that from 2024, time spent in Greece as an asylum seeker will not count towards a person’s residency application. Previously, refugees could apply for a residency permit after seven years in the country, even if their asylum applications had been rejected. But this door is closing. There are nearly 14,000 asylum seekers currently in the country, with people being transferred from the islands to mainland camps such as Katsikas in northern Greece. Without this alternative route to citizenship, the 1,000 men, women and children in Katsikas alone could be left with no choice but to turn to informal employment, such as in rural meat factories.

culture society identity and belonging

Trafficking rent
Irish landlords are making up to five times normal rents from leasing apartments to Romanian and Albanian pimps. A police investigation found that landlords were making more than €1,000 a week off the sex-trafficked migrant women, who were only allowed to keep a fraction of their earnings. Ireland has an unfortunate track record when it comes to bringing sex traffickers to justice: in fact, no conviction was recorded for at least seven years before 2021. Last year, experts from the Council of Europe urged Ireland to take action after a report revealed that the number of prosecutions and convictions relating to the issue was “very low”.

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Catherine Neilan

Additional reporting by Giles Whittell, Jess Winch, Will Brown, Anna Scott and Carla Conti

Photographs Getty Images, DR/NRK/SVT/Yle

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