Those worried about the health of British politics have diagnosed a new disease at Westminster.
Chris Patten, a grandee from the Conservative establishment, spotted what he called “Long Boris” last summer.
Weeks after Boris Johnson announced his resignation as prime minister, Lord Patten, a former party chairman and former BBC chairman, lamented the persistent “corrupting and debilitating impact of Johnson’s premiership on British politics and government.”
As with ‘SARS-Covid-19’ there was some debate as to how the condition should be named in general conversation.
Eventually, “Long Johnson” was settled on rather than the more familiar “Long Boris”.
The commentator Paul Waugh listed some of the symptoms of Long Johnson he saw in the bloodstream of the Conservative party: “A debilitating condition that led it to lose its sense of taste, decency and direction.”
Long Johnson hit fever pitch with the Conservative party’s short-lived collective decision to select Johnson’s preferred candidate, Liz Truss, as the next prime minister. That quickly burnt itself out.
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On taking office Rishi Sunak tried to shake off Long Johnson by promising that his government would be one of “integrity, professionalism and accountability” at all times. It is not proving so easy for the new prime minister to escape unwanted legacies from his predecessor-but-one.
Questions of probity over two men who were promoted by Johnson, Nadhim Zahawi and Richard Sharp, have combined to create the biggest political crisis of Sunak’s short premiership.
According to Raphael Behr, political columnist on The Guardian, the “Zahawi episode is a symptom of Long Johnson, the chronic, recurrent, debilitation of government by a pathogen that still circulates in the ruling party long after the original infection has been treated”.
The embarrassments Sunak is grappling with are debilitating hangovers from the Johnson era, so is the fumbling way the prime minister is dealing with them.
Nadhim Zahawi had the reputation at Westminster of a comparatively competent and personable minister, one of those credited with the successful roll-out of the vaccine programme. But as often with politicians who become conspicuously wealthy there was much gossip about his finances.
His wealth was generated as a co-founder of the polling company YouGov before he became an MP.
Scrutiny of Zahawi’s finances sharpened when he became Chancellor of the Exchequer, the politician responsible for the nation’s finances and tax system. In seeking the truth, journalists received what they considered to be aggressive threats of libel from lawyers acting for Zahawi, designed to suppress allegations, some of which have been confirmed as accurate.
It is now known that while he was Chancellor, Zahawi quietly negotiated a tax settlement totalling some £5m, including a penalty of more than £1m, with Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs (HMRC) for which he was the minister responsible.
Zahawi says his mistake was “careless but not deliberate”. Jim Harra, the head of HMRC, told MPs this week: “There are no penalties for innocent errors in your tax affairs.”
There is no pressing reason why Boris Johnson should have made Zahawi chancellor. Nor does the haste with which the appointment was made suggest that the prime minister or his officials, led by the Cabinet Secretary, had sufficient time for due diligence looking into his suitability for this most sensitive financial post. Yet their green light then effectively gave him a free pass to prominent ministerial ranks under both Truss and Sunak.
By late last year scrutiny by an honours committee elsewhere in Whitehall reportedly held up a proposed knighthood for Zahawi.
In the past, when serving prime ministers have announced their intention to resign, other ministers have stayed in post until the successor is chosen. He or she then assembles their own cabinet team. This has been so even when threatened ministerial resignations force out a prime minister, as happened to both Tony Blair and Boris Johnson.
Once he announced he was going, Johnson could have said that he was not accepting resignations and that all minsters would stay on in the interim. That is not the way Boris Johnson behaved. He used his dying powers of patronage to settle scores and to try to influence the outcome of the leadership election.
He fired Michael Gove and then he troubled the ailing Queen to appoint an entirely new temporary cabinet for the few weeks of the leadership contest. Johnson promoted Zahawi to the Treasury, thus crucially depriving Rishi Sunak of the status of high office during the leadership battle, while Truss luxuriated in the great office of state of foreign secretary.
Earlier, after Sunak emerged as the person most likely to replace Johnson, he became the subject of damaging leaks about his US Green Card and his wife’s non-dom status. The Metropolitan Police coincidentally tarnished the teetotal Sunak’s reputation, and blunted the impact on Johnson, by issuing them both with fixed penalty notices for breaking COVID regulations at the “ambushed with a cake” Johnson birthday party in the cabinet room.
Sunak experienced the hard way the phenomenon, now hitting Zahawi and Sharp, that friendship with Johnson often has adverse consequences.
Richard Sharp insists that he was appointed the chairman of the BBC on merit after a rigorous selection process. There is no reason to doubt his perspective. When I knew him at university, more than 40 years ago, he was an exceptionally decent and considerate person. He went on to build a highly successful career in finance alongside generous voluntary contributions to public service and charity.
Men with known political affiliations such as Michael Grade, Gavyn Davies and Marmaduke Hussey have been appointed to the BBC chair by other prime ministers. But Boris Johnson made the final decision over Sharp, after he and his allies had previously broken with precedent by conjuring up culture wars and pre-endorsing friends and allies such as Paul Dacre and Charles Moore for top posts in the media, normally viewed as apolitical – unsuccessfully it turned out.
Johnson used his patronage to appoint Peter Cruddas to the House of Lords, someone who had helped him out with his personal finances. Richard Sharp says he “simply connected” people, who then facilitated an undeclared personal £800,000 overdraft guarantee for the prime minister.
Richard Sharp and cabinet secretary Simon Case may genuinely have decided this was immaterial to Sharp’s BBC application but is that the way Boris Johnson sees things? Several enquiries into Sharp’s appointment are now under way. Johnson’s benefactor Sam Blyth is an old friend of Sharp.
The inquiries will doubtless ascertain whether Boris Johnson knew of this obliging distant cousin’s existence before Sharp introduced him to the cabinet secretary.
Long Johnson is also evident in the way the government is handling these potential scandals.
Quick resignations and moving on are things of the past. Following a pattern which became familiar during the Johnson era, Sunak has presided over, and sometimes joined in, denials that have turned out to be inaccurate, playing for time by calling for further inquiries after awkward facts are established.
Sir Keir Starmer had a two-pronged attack at PMQs: “We all know why the prime minister was reluctant to ask his party chair questions about family finances and tax avoidance, but his failure to sack him, when the whole country can see what is going on, shows how hopelessly weak he is.”
Sizeable minorities in parliament and perhaps even more in the Tory membership are not loyal to Sunak and hanker for a return of Johnson. This limits Sunak’s ability to lead firmly.
With his oblique reference to the great wealth of Sunak’s family, the leader of the opposition went further, implying that the prime minister is really just one of them – sharing similar values, or the absence of them, to Johnson and Zahawi and the same acquisitiveness.
Only urgent decisive action by Sunak can demonstrate that he has beaten the plague of Long Johnson.
At least 35 people killed after falling into well during celebration at Indian temple
At least 35 people have died after the roof of a stepwell collapsed, plunging scores of people tens of feet down into the well.
The army was called in last night to help with rescue operations that have gone on for over 18 hours.
The incident took place at the Baleshwar Mahadev temple in Indore, Madhya Pradesh.
Devotees had thronged the temple on Ram Navami, one of the most auspicious days in the Hindu calendar which celebrates the birth of Lord Rama.
Dr Ilayaraja, the District Collector of Indore, said “a total of 35 people died, one missing and 14 people have been rescued. Two people returned home safely after getting treatment. The search operation to trace persons reported missing is underway.”
A fire ritual (Havan) was being conducted on the concrete slab covering the stepwell where the devotees had gathered. The platform could not take the weight of the many on it and gave way.
Mahesh Chandra Jain, of the state Disaster Emergency and Response Force, said the army joined the rescue operation late on Thursday.
“Seventy army soldiers started the rescue and recovered at least 16 bodies buried under the debris of the roof in the stepwell.”
The National Disaster Relief Force (NDRF), police and locals have been engaged in rescue operations. Unable to reach some areas of the well, the authorities requested for military help.
Mr Jain said: “We were facing difficulty in rescue operation because water is continuously coming out of the stepwell.”
In a tweet Prime Minister Narendra Modi said: “Extremely pained by the mishap in Indore.
“Spoke to Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chouhan and took an update on the situation. The State Government is spearheading rescue and relief work at a quick pace. My prayers are with all those affected and their families.”
Chief Minister Shivraj Singh Chauhan has ordered a magisterial inquiry into the incident. “I have given instructions to investigate the incident. In this unfortunate incident, the government stands with all those families with full sensitivity, whom we could not save.”
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The temple head priest Laxminarayan Sharma, who was rescued, said that due to construction in the temple the fire ritual was conducted on the stepwell platform.
“The roof was constructed without any concrete and was supported by putting stone slabs and concrete by fitting iron rods”, he added.
Images from the site showed many people including women and children trapped in a mesh of iron rods and concrete debris.
There are reports that residents of the area had made prior complaints to the municipal corporation regarding the safety of the temple.
The families of those killed have demanded action against the temple trust.
UK to join Indo-Pacific trade bloc in biggest trade deal since Brexit
The UK is set to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership – known as CPTPP – in what the government says is its biggest trade deal since Brexit.
The CPTPP is a free trade agreement between 11 countries across the Indo-Pacific – namely Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore and Vietnam.
The partnership sees the countries open up their markets to one another, reducing trade barriers and tariffs, with the hope of bolstering the economies of its members.
When it joins, the UK will become the first European country to enter the agreement, and the government claims it will lead to a £1.8bn boost to the economy “in the long run”.
The deal has been praised by a number of business groups, including the CBI, Standard Chartered and Pernod Ricard.
But other trade experts have warned it will not make up for the economic hit caused by leaving the trade bloc of the European Union.
Zero tariffs for cheese, cars, chocolate and gin
The UK began negotiations to join the bloc in September 2021 when Boris Johnson was in Downing Street.
The signatory countries of the CPTPP are home to 500 million people and the government claims after the UK joins, it will be worth 15% of global GDP.
Number 10 said as a result of becoming a member, more than 99% of goods exported from the UK to the list of countries would be eligible for zero tariffs, including cheese, cars, chocolate, machinery, gin and whisky.
And it said the services industry would benefit too, with “reduced red tape and greater access to growing Pacific markets”.
Commenting on the announcement, Prime Minister Rishi Sunak said the agreement “puts the UK at the centre of a dynamic and growing group of Pacific economies”.
He added: “We are at our heart an open and free-trading nation, and this deal demonstrates the real economic benefits of our post-Brexit freedoms.
“As part of CPTPP, the UK is now in a prime position in the global economy to seize opportunities for new jobs, growth and innovation.”
The final administrative and legal steps will now take place, before the UK formally signs up in 2023.
‘EU should be priority’
The announcement was welcomed by the interim director general of business group the CBI, Matthew Fell, who called it “a real milestone for the UK and for British industry”.
He added: “Not only does the agreement provide greater access to a group of fast growth economies representing 14% of global GDP and over 500 million consumers, but membership reinforces the UK’s commitment to building partnerships in an increasingly fragmented world.
“CPTPP countries and business need to work together to future-proof the rules-based trading system and stimulate growth with a focus on digital, services and resilient supply chains.”
However, while the Institute of Directors it was “vital the UK signs trade deals to restore our international reputation since Brexit”, it said “complete reorientation” to the Indo-Pacific would not solve “the very real problem that businesses currently face – namely that they have many more trade related challenges than they did six years ago”.
They added: “From our surveys, directors have told us that the EU-UK relationship is a priority issue the government needs to address in order to support business.
“UK companies still rely on the long established links they have with EU markets, which are directly on our doorstep and with whom they have closer historical ties.
“The Indo-Pacific strategy will open up important opportunities for UK businesses, but the government must not forfeit the significance of our relationship with the EU in order to do so.”
Donald Trump faces criminal charges over alleged hush money payment to adult film actress Stormy Daniels
Donald Trump has been indicted on criminal charges arising from an alleged hush money payment to an adult film actress.
A grand jury in New York voted to indict Trump over possible offences related to a $130,000 (£105,000) payment to Stormy Daniels during the 2016 presidential election campaign.
It was allegedly made in exchange for Daniels’ silence about an alleged sexual encounter she said she had with Trump a decade earlier.
He is the first former US president to face criminal charges in court, even as he makes a bid to retake the White House in 2024.
Trump, a Republican, said he was “completely innocent” and called the indictment “political persecution”, with his lawyers saying they will “vigorously fight” it.
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The Manhattan district attorney’s investigation centred on accusations of money paid to Daniels and former Playboy model Karen McDougal, whom Trump allegedly feared would go public with claims they had extramarital sexual encounters with him.
Trump, 76, has denied having affairs with either woman.
His former personal lawyer Michael Cohen said he co-ordinated with Trump on the payments to Daniels, real name Stephanie Clifford, and also to McDougal.
Cohen pleaded guilty to campaign finance violations in 2018 related to the payments and served more than a year in prison.
Federal prosecutors said Cohen acted at Trump’s direction.
Trump said: “The Democrats have lied, cheated and stolen in their obsession with trying to ‘Get Trump,’ but now they’ve done the unthinkable – indicting a completely innocent person in an act of blatant election interference.”
“Never before in our nation’s history has this been done.”
He added: “I believe this witch-hunt will backfire massively on Joe Biden.”
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Trump was expected to surrender to authorities next week.
He has denied any wrongdoing and has repeatedly attacked the investigation by district attorney Alvin Bragg.
His office has spent nearly five years investigating Trump and the grand jury has been hearing its evidence since January.
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On Twitter, one of Trump’s sons, Eric, wrote: “This is third world prosecutorial misconduct. It is the opportunistic targeting of a political opponent in a campaign year.”
Amid speculation in recent weeks that the former American leader was due to be indicted, Trump urged his supporters to protest against the authorities if he was detained.
He published a long statement describing the investigation as a “political witch-hunt trying to take down the leading candidate, by far, in the Republican Party”.
“I did absolutely nothing wrong,” he said, before criticising a “corrupt, depraved and weaponised justice system”.
Other ongoing cases Trump faces include a Georgia election interference probe and two federal investigations into his role in the 6 January 2001 insurrection at the US Capitol.
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