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Dark Arts

Dark Arts

What just happened

Long stories short

  • Sudan’s warring generals agreed in principle to a seven-day truce.
  • Police arrested a man accused of throwing shotgun cartridges into Buckingham Palace gardens.
  • The remains of a missing 65 year-old Australian were found inside a crocodile.

Dark Arts

Rishi Sunak has invited a backbench MP to frequent meetings in Number 10 without giving him a formal role, allowing him to bypass rules on second jobs and potentially inviting conflicts of interest.  

So what? If rules matter, this matters. Julian Smith is a former chief whip and Northern Ireland Secretary variously described by colleagues as “a snake”, a puller of strings in the style of Cardinal Richelieu and “a nasty piece of work”. Several sources say he’s been attending regular meetings in Downing Street, giving him access to privileged information that even those on the PM’s staff don’t have. 

On becoming prime minister, Sunak claimed he would lead a government of “integrity, professionalism and accountability at every level”. The promise was central to his strategy for restoring faith in the Conservatives after the moral carnage of the Johnson years. Critics say Smith’s unacknowledged status is more evidence Sunak is failing.

In particular, they note that

  • Sunak may be in breach of the ministerial code if he is passing information outside of government;
  • Smith is able to circumvent rules on business appointments for ex-politicians; and
  • whatever Smith is doing, there aren’t enough women in Sunak’s inner circle.

The first of these concerns is especially potent. Two former ministers said if Smith is privy to information intended only for members of the government, then Sunak could be guilty of the sin that led to Suella Braverman being forced out of Liz Truss’s government last year. 

“[Smith] is a privy councillor. But it’s still inappropriate,” one said. Another noted the meetings were unminuted, meaning there is no record of what is discussed.

Those concerns in detail:

  • As a backbench MP, Smith is allowed to hold second jobs, but the fact he has no formal role in Number 10 means the public cannot establish who he is meeting or what information he has access to.
  • Former ministers are meant to seek approval from the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments before taking any appointments or employment for two years after leaving office. By not having a formal role, Smith will not have to seek approval. 
  • Suella Braverman was forced to resign as Home Secretary for passing government documents to her backbench colleague John Hayes. Sunak’s interactions with Smith could fall into the same category. 

According to Tortoise’s Westminster Accounts database, Smith has declared earnings, donations and gifts worth more than £160,000 since the December 2019 election. His top earnings sources are Hygen Energy (£87,900), MJM Marine (£39,350) and Simply Blue Management (£20,580). According to the register of interests, Smith doesn’t currently have a second job. 

And there’s more…

  • Smith is said to have been “schooled” by another former chief whip, Gavin Williamson, who was forced to resign last year after Tortoise revealed last year was the subject of a formal complaint about his behaviour. The two are practitioners of Westminster’s “dark arts”, including hostile briefings against political enemies. 
  • Smith’s behaviour has upset MPs and officials. One Tory source said he was “very Gavin/aggressive in nature”. Others called him “the other half of the gruesome twosome” and Sunak’s “fixer”.

Case closed. According to two sources, Smith attends the Number 10 morning meeting with the rest of Sunak’s “quad”, which includes his parliamentary private secretary, Craig Williams, his chief of staff, Liam Booth-Smith, and his deputy, Rupert Yorke. Simon Case, the Cabinet Secretary, has been frozen out, as reported by the Sunday Times this week.

Smith declined to comment when asked when he was last in Number 10 but said he had no role and had not been offered a job there. Downing Street said: “Julian Smith has no role at Number 10.”

Bottom line. Despite making headway in the polls, Sunak has suffered the loss of three ministers in six months and acquired a reputation for blind spots on subjects he thinks don’t matter but others do. If he has breached the ministerial code, his claim to be leading the government to higher standards than Johnson’s will take another pounding. 


One activist investor to another, Nathan Anderson has handed Carl Icahn a crushing $10 billion debt by writing him up as the architect of a “ponzi-like” structure overly dependent on the assessments of one friendly banker. Anderson is the founder of Hindenburg Research, the shorting specialist that has wiped about $125 billion of the market cap of India’s Adani Group since January. Icahn is the corporate raider who made his name asset-stripping TWA in the 1990s. His main asset now is a holding company called Icahn Enterprises (IEP) which Anderson accuses of using deposits from new investors to pay dividends to old ones. Icahn denies it, but IEP’s stock lost 20 per cent of its value yesterday. The FT’s Alphaville has the scoop on the over-friendly bank, Jefferies, which has only ever made one recommendation in relation to IEP shares: buy. 


Content farms
Journalists worried that AI will destroy their jobs aren’t paying attention but could still get lucky. AI-powered chatbots are already churning out journalism-like content and earning ad revenues for phoney news websites in the process. But the content is so bad it’s easily detected. A report by an anti-misinformation watchdog called NewsGuard found 49 sites in seven languages publishing content all or mainly produced by AI language models. The good news is that the models often give themselves away, even in headlines, with formulations like “as an AI language model” and “my cutoff date is September 2021”. The bad news is they can learn and self-edit much faster than most humans.  

The 100-year life health, education AND GOVERNMENT

NHS deal-ish
After months of disputes that have wreaked havoc on an already creaking NHS, 14 health unions in England have backed a new pay deal. The offer is a 5 per cent pay rise and a one-off payment of £1,655 for all NHS staff apart from doctors, dentists and senior managers. That’s over a million workers (roughly two-thirds of the total workforce). It’s a significant step forward but the Royal College of Nurses and Unite voted against the offer and have their members behind them. Expect a re-ballot from the RCN for strike action imminently. How the raise would be funded is unclear. The Department for Health and Social Care has so far only been given a budget for a 3.5 per cent increase. Funding on top of that, it says, will have to come from “re-prioritisation” and “additional funding”. 

Our planet CLIMATE AND geopolitics

Dog diplomacy
Dogs often inspire strong emotions, but they rarely earn full military processions. A rescue dog which died of exhaustion looking for survivors in the aftermath of Turkey’s earthquake – which killed more than 50,000 people – was given full honours by the Mexican army and navy, with burly men crying out the deceased’s name: “Proteo”. Turkey sent a replacement puppy to “carry on the legacy” of the nine-year-old German Shepherd this week. The Mexican Ministry of Defence ran with it, posting a picture of the puppy in Istanbul airport and a flight tracker link. The fluffy thing was greeted with a banner of its face silhouetted on an image of Proteo. The words read: “Welcome home”.  

culture society identity and belonging

An “unthinkable” error
The list of people who say 59 year-old Richard Glossip is probably innocent of the crime for which he was sentenced to death in 2007 includes: Glossip himself, his attorneys, multiple Republican state senators, every judge on the state criminal appeals court which overturned his first conviction in 2001, the man whose testimony put Glossip on death row (in exchange for avoiding a capital sentence himself), and now the current Oklahoma Attorney General, Genter Drummond. At the US Supreme Court on Monday, Drummond made a rare joint filing with Glossip’s lawyers, asking the justices to step in and spare Glossip’s life, which the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals and Governor Kevin Stitt both still refuse to do, in defiance of Drummond’s own recommendation. “Absent this Court’s intervention,” Drummond wrote, “an execution will move forward under circumstances where the Attorney General has already confessed error—a result that would be unthinkable.” Glossip’s execution remains scheduled for 18 May.

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Catherine Neilan

Additional reporting by Will Brown, Phoebe Davis, Giles Whittell and Katie Riley.

Photographs Getty Images

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