Last week Pecksniff pointed out that: “One of the reasons why Johnson’s position appears safer is that, with Sunak’s demise in popularity, there is no obvious successor. One does not have to be overly cynical to wonder whether it was chance that brought Sunak so low so quickly. Were those brutal and often irrelevant measures announced in his statement all his own ideas, or is it possible someone at No.10 had a hand in them? After all, Sunak’s fall is Johnson’s salvation… We can but wonder.
Was No.10 really behind Mr Sunak’s fall from grace? His wife’s claim of non-dom status for tax purposes occupies many of the front pages and news reports, and polls show Mr Sunak’s popularity among the public has plummeted catastrophically. “He and his allies are all over the papers this morning, denouncing the news as a hit job,” declares Sam Coates on Sky.
A hit job isn’t a chance happening, of course, it’s somebody out to get him.
But who could it possibly be? The prime minister claims he has no idea. He has denied absolutely having had anything to do with it. Hmmm… Pecksniff strains his memory for some occasion when the prime minister may not have stuck strictly to the truth. There was of course that occasion in 1988 when he was sacked byThe Times for lying. Or, if we’re being picky, that time in 2004 when he was sacked by his party leader Michael Howard for lying about his affair with fellow journalist Petronella Wyatt. And there has been a lot of talk about his statements since being prime minister. Somebody actually counted up what were considered his lies, do you remember? Pecksniff cannot clearly recall, but wasn’t the total rather more than 400? There is even a website dedicated to it.
So how can this embarrassing information have leaked? My colleague Martin Waller suggests a clue. He points out that this story first emerged in the Independent, and muses: “Am I the only one to wonder why the damaging Rishi Sunak’s wife tax story first appeared in/was leaked to the Independent, which I believe is still owned by Johnson’s pal Lebedev?”
So, the story which seems to have brought down Mr Sunak was leaked not to one of the usual Tory house rags, whose present allegiance to the prime minister may be questionable, but to the newspaper owned by his close friend Evgeny Lebedev. The same Lebedev whose father was and may still be a KGB officer. The same Lebedev who was so controversially handed a peerage by Boris Johnson against the strong advice of the regulator which governs appointments to the House of Lords, and whose glittering parties in Perugia the prime minister has attended so assiduously for several years.
Many serious people wonder whether Mr Johnson is a Russian asset, and Mr Lebedev his handler. ‘Asset’ in this case of course means what we used in less nuanced days to call a ‘traitor’, or ‘spy’. The question of whether Russia has interfered in British politics has been with us for several years now, always of course denied. But if Boris Johnson did tip off Mr Lebedev and his newspaper on Mrs Sunak’s tax affairs, this looks like a clear example of it. Or of course, perhaps it was the other way round. (We speculate, naturally.) Perhaps Mr Lebedev, through whatever sources of his own (or perhaps his father’s), was the one to have the skinny on Mr Sunak at his fingertips, and did the dobbing in.
A later development (also from Mr Lebedev’s Independent) claims that, whilst chancellor, Mr Sunak was or is still a beneficiary of a trust registered in the tax havens of the Cayman and British Virgin Islands.
We begin to see what the police might call an embarrassing chain of events, though where does it lead us? Possibly to somebody whose job it is to find these things out, like say, a foreign power. After all, if Russia holds kompromat on Johnson, why would it not hold kompromat on the second most important man in the government, the chancellor? And why not use it to keep their man safe?
In the week that the government refused to levy a one-off tax on oil companies, Priti Patel, home secretary and MP for Witham, accepted a £100,000 donation from an oil trader and hedge fund manager, Pierre Andurand. He has been a strong critic of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and demanded more stringent sanctions from the EU on Russian oil imports. It is not clear where Mr Andurand’s oil interests lie, though he plans to continue investing in oil in the coming years and sees great opportunities.
A spokesperson for Ms Patel said: “All donations are declared in the usual and proper way.”
James Cleverly, MP for Braintree, is fast becoming our resident buffoon. One can only watch in awe, given the competition he faces. But this week, in an embarrassing endeavour to fly to the defence of his embattled chancellor, Rishi Sunak, he attempted sarcasm. Never wise when one is not very bright.
He tweeted: “I really thought that we had moved on from the notion that wives are merely an extension of their husbands. Seems that Labour didn’t get the memo.”
Sadly for Mr Cleverly (and Mr Sunak), over 1500 people immediately pointed out what he didn’t seem to know, that his wife’s affairs are very relevant to his tax obligations. They are also highly relevant to the ministerial code and the declaration of MPs’ financial interests. So what are we to draw from this? That Mr Cleverly, a Foreign Office minister, is so dim he doesn’t know what the average man in the street knows? Or that he knows perfectly well but is deliberately trying to mislead us all?
But as has become usual with Mr Cleverly’s desperate defences of the kids on the top table, within hours his attempt was swept away in anger and ridicule.
Apparently the Liberal Democrats are to put sewage at the heart of their local election campaign next month. There has been wide revulsion across East Anglia at the government’s policy of allowing water companies to continue to dump raw sewage in our rivers, with demonstrations in Suffolk and Norfolk and elsewhere. But of course it is a national issue, with not a single river across England unaffected.
Over the last five years, the total number of monitored raw sewage spill events has increased at a staggering rate, completely out of control, according to figures released by DEFRA this week. So there is a planned national day of action against sewage on 23 April.
It is therefore no surprise that the LibDems have seen the issue as an open goal. Tory MPs have nowhere to hide on this. They can find no excuse to allow continued dumping with no recourse likely for years, and since their notorious Commons vote it has been revealed that even the levels of pollution accepted so haplessly by the government were not a true picture. Illegal discharges are far worse and far more common than even critics believed.
EAB has reported frequently on the issue, and will do so again shortly.
Pecksniff is told by somebody who is in a position to know that Tom Hunt, the MP for Ipswich, has become decidedly unpopular with the town’s businesses. This is partly down to his abrasive style, partly to his slavish support for the prime minister who famously declared “F*ck business!” when that same business declared its concerns about Brexit.
But Mr Hunt has chosen to be a divisive figure, believing that his success in keeping his seat can be almost guaranteed by securing the backing of the Ipswich answer to the Red Wall: working-class formerly traditional Labour voters. Like most towns, Ipswich is more than one community, and it is likely that much of business does not necessarily think like, nor hold the same ambitions as, voters in the areas of Ipswich with higher levels of deprivation.
The disagreement last year over a possible application by Ipswich to be given city status is an example. Mr Hunt apparently ran a poll among voters. (There is no evidence either way as to whether this was a data trawling exercise backed by Tory HQ, and it would be quite wrong to suggest it was…) So did the Ipswich Star. Both showed a clear majority against trying to become a city. This was possibly the view of the Ipswich ‘Red Wall’, but for business it smacked of lack of ambition.
For the Star, Paul Geater asked his readers to “ignore the moaners”, a position attacked by Mr Hunt, who saw his chance. (It is possible that Mr Hunt and Mr Geater are not blood brothers.)
Mr Hunt writes: “He (Geater) claims that there is an argument that “Ipswich is a dump” which doesn’t “deserve” to be a city and that “there are far too many people who like to put Ipswich down at any opportunity”.
(Pecksniff would be happy to contribute his own views on Ipswich at this point, but has no wish to endanger perfectly good relations with his editor.)
Mr Hunt likes to appear a man of the people, and accordingly sided with where he believes his votes lie. Mr Geater is certainly a man who has often gone out on a limb over the years to speak well of his town, and might be construed as holding the same views on ambition as its business. In any case, with the arrival of the borough council elections next month, we shall have the opportunity to judge for ourselves whether Mr Hunt’s gamble about holding the Ipswich Red Wall is paying off.
Incidentally, in his attack on Ipswich Borough Council and the Ipswich Star over the question of city status, Tom Hunt declares: “Bearing in mind that this is a significant change from the status quo, I think the burden is on those who want to change the status quo to provide evidence of significant support from across the community at every level.”
Readers will note that this is not exactly the view he took on Brexit and the decision to leave the status quo of the EU.
There was a furore over the decision by Norfolk County Council not to issue free school meal vouchers for the county’s most vulnerable children over Easter. The council tried to defend itself by suggesting those children could attend the Big Norfolk Holiday Fun Scheme and so get free lunches there. But on Twitter, Lucy Shires was not convinced:
“Let’s do the maths! For each of the 4000 children to eat every day of the holidays, they need to have provided 48,000 activity days. So 4000 children will only be eating for 5.25 days. They’re feeding 1750 children for the holidays – that’s 6% of Norfolk’s children in poverty.”
It is extraordinary that in the same week they decided they couldn’t afford to provide free lunches for Norfolk’s most vulnerable children over Easter, Norfolk County Council sent out to its councillors an invitation to a lavish civic reception. Readers of Edgar Allen Poe will be reminded of the Masque of the Red Death, in which the elite held a banquet behind the walls of their castle while the poor outside died of the plague. In that parable, the party-goers met a grisly end. “And death and decay held dominion over all.” It certainly sounds rather like our own dear country.
It has been a disastrous week all round for Norfolk County Council. Not only have they been hammered on every side for their decision to withhold money from Norfolk’s poorest children. The Eastern Daily Press reports that the council is now under police investigation over four cases of suspected fraud.
The allegations arise from an audit report into the council’s financial affairs. The newspaper suggests that at least one of the investigations may relate to alleged fraud involving the council’s ‘county farms’ estate – the land owned by the authority and farmed by tenants.
And there again there is this:
South of the border, Suffolk County Council fares little better. They bid for a £77 million government grant to improve its bus services. They were awarded nothing. The bid failed completely. According to the government: “Areas not showing sufficient ambition, including for improvements to bus priority, would not be funded”.
Still in Suffolk, we learn that apparently if you live in a listed building in East Suffolk and fancy welcoming this summer’s returning swifts, you will need to apply for planning permission. But to do so will cost you £400. We are told that one resident of Orford went through this process, paid the 400 quid, and was turned down…
Costly, bureaucratic and clearly designed to make sure those foreign arrivals have life made as difficult for them as possible. It is tempting to wonder whether the council’s planners have been taken over by the Home Office.