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Monday, November 11, 2019

Suppressed Intelligence report identifies nine Russian donors to Tories

The Sunday Times reports that Boris Johnson's Conservative Party has received a surge in cash from nine Russian donors, who have been named in a suppressed investigation into Russia's attempts to undermine democracy in the UK.

The paper says that oligarchs and other wealthy Tory donors were included in the report on illicit Russian activities in Britain by the cross-party intelligence and security select committee (ISC), whose publication was blocked by No 10:

Some Russian donors are personally close to the prime minister. Alexander Temerko, who has worked for the Kremlin’s defence ministry and has spoken warmly about his “friend” Boris Johnson, has gifted more than £1.2m to the Conservatives over the past seven years.

MPs on the ISC, which conducted an 18-month inquiry, were also briefed on Alexander Lebedev, the former KGB spy in London whom the last Labour government allowed to buy the London Evening Standard newspaper.

Lebedev’s son Evgeny invited Johnson when he was foreign secretary to parties at the family’s converted castle near Perugia, Italy. The future prime minister apparently travelled without the close-protection police officers that normally accompany senior ministers of state during the trip in April 2018.

The largest Russian Tory donor is Lubov Chernukhin, the wife of Vladimir Chernukhin, a former ally of the Russian president, Vladimir Putin. She paid £160,000 in return for a tennis match with Johnson and has donated more than £450,000 in the last year alone.

Britain’s intelligence agencies are understood to be “furious” at the delay in releasing the report because measures to protect sensitive information have already been taken.

It is not known whether the Tory donors are named in the public section of the report, or whether they have been included in its confidential annex, which will remain classified indefinitely.

If this is accurate, then it is little wonder that government ministers have suppressed the report until after the election.

Sunday, November 10, 2019

Another day, another investigation into a Tory shelved

And this time it is an inquiry into the Prime Minister himself. The Guardian reports that the scandal over Boris Johnson’s friendship with technology entrepreneur Jennifer Arcuri has reignited when it emerged that the independent police watchdog has delayed its announcement on whether the PM should face an investigation into possible criminal misconduct until after the election.

The paper adds that the decision prompted fury from Westminster politicians and London assembly members who said it appeared that a ruling had been “suppressed” in order to protect Johnson from potentially damaging headlines at a crucial stage of the election campaign:

In a private meeting held before parliament was dissolved last week, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) officials agreed not to announce whether they were going to investigate “possible criminality” over allegations about a conflict of interest in Johnson’s dealings while mayor of London with US businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri until after the election.

Sources close to the IOPC investigation said the watchdog was on the verge of announcing its decision on whether it was proceeding with a criminal investigation.

The IOPC was tasked by the Greater London Authority with assessing whether criminal charges should be brought because of the then-mayor’s responsibility for London’s policing.

It is alleged Arcuri received favourable treatment due to her friendship with Johnson, including receiving large sums of public money for her technology firms.

The offence of misconduct in public office carries a maximum term of life imprisonment. Johnson has denied any impropriety.

We have already seen in the last few weeks, the scandal of the now-resigned Secretary of State for Wales backing a friend who collapsed a rape trial, being passed to a cabinet inquiry, enabling him to dodge answering questions on the matter prior to the election, the Office for Budget Responsibility being blocked from publishing damaging figures on the state deficit and debt, and Nunber 10 refusing to clear the publication of a potentially incendiary report examining Russian infiltration in British politics, including the Conservative party.

Can anybody see a pattern here?

Saturday, November 09, 2019

Are the Tories just another misogynistic boys club?

Yesterday's Wales on Line reports that journalists finally tracked down former Secretary of State for Wales, Alun Cairns while canvassing in his constituency. Now, those doorstep encounters are a series of conversations I would like to listen in on.

Are constituents challenging their Tory candidate on what he knew and when he knew it, regarding the role of his friend and employee in the collapse of a rape trial? Are they asking him if he lied when he said he didn't know anything about the circumstances of this collapse until last week, despite an e-mail suggesting otherwise? To what extent has this controversy impacted on the Conservative vote in the Vale of Glamorgan?

To date it seems that the Conservative Party, and Boris Johnson in particular, are going to brazen it out and back Cairns to remain a candidate in the General Election. They still have time to change their mind. The real question however, is what this issue says about the nature of the Conservative Party.

As far as I can see neither Cairns, any senior figure in the Welsh Conservative Party nor the Prime Minister appear to have apologised to the victim. Their main consideration is damage limitation. When challenged yesterday, Cairns gave a list of non-answers, did not apologise to the victim for what had happened and refused to account for his own actions.

I doubt if many voters will consider it an adequate answer to their queries if they are referred to a cabinet inquiry into whether Cairns has broken the ministerial code. Instead we have a series of white middle aged men focussing on their own careers and that of their party, apparently with no regard for the victim, her ordeal and whether their actions in backing Ross England were right or wrong.

It is little wonder that many people consider the Conservative Party in Wales to be nothing more than a misogynistic boys club. Isn't it time these senior figures grew some cojones and apologised to all concerned?

Friday, November 08, 2019

Tory fiscal mismanagement hidden by purdah rules

The Independent reports that Boris Johnson has been spared a potentially embarrassing spotlight on the state of the public finances after the official fiscal watchdog was blocked from releasing new figures on the state deficit and debt.

The paper says that Cabinet secretary Sir Mark Sedwill barred the Office for Budget Responsibility from publishing its revised public finance forecast on Thursday, ruling it would breach civil service “purdah” rules in the election period.

Chancellor Sajid Javid has come under attack for refusing to release the normal autumn forecasts for the economy after cancelling the Budget announced for 6 November.

One think-tank has predicted the deficit target will be overshot by £16 billion this year, because of the slowdown and big spending pledges made by Mr Javid.

All the political parties are proposing massive public borrowing to invest in much-needed infrastructure improvements. However, if the deficit is greater than anticipated that could well stymie the next government's room for manoeuvre.

In the circumstances, it seems that the figure should be published so we can make our own judgement on what is and what is not affordable.

Thursday, November 07, 2019

Former Labour MP urges vote for Boris Johnson

The extent of disillusionment amongst many Labour MPs at Jeremy Corbyn's leadership crystallised itself last night with the resignation of the party's deputy leader and an astonishing volte-face by retiring MP, Ian Austin, who is now urging voters to back the Tories.

The Times reports that Austin, who worked as a special adviser for Gordon Brown and in Downing Street, said that Jeremy Corbyn was “completely unfit” to be prime minister that he would be voting for the Conservative Party on election day.

“Voting for anybody other than Boris Johnson risks Corbyn getting into No 10 and I think that would be a disaster for Britain,” he said.

Mr Austin, 54, who resigned from the Labour Party to sit as an independent in February, has told The Times that he decided not to stand again in his Dudley North constituency because he did not want to “muddy the waters” and risk the Labour candidate getting elected. Instead he will encourage voters in this key marginal seat to back the Conservatives, who came second in his constituency at the last general election.

“Jeremy Corbyn is an extremist,” he said. “He’s allowed the Labour Party to be poisoned by extremism and racism, he supported terrorism, he can’t be trusted with our defence and he always picks the wrong side. To lead our country you’ve got to be able to say you love Britain and I do not think he is a patriot. He has sided with our country’s enemies, whether that’s supporting the IRA or saying Hamas and Hezbollah are his friends.”

By contrast, he said that Boris Johnson was “a patriot”. Although he insisted that “I’m not a Tory, of course I disagree with things that Tory governments have done”, he added: “I wouldn’t say Boris Johnson is unfit to run the country. I don’t think he is.”

Having voted Labour all his life from the age of 18 and been a Labour councillor in his twenties, Mr Austin said: “I am proper, decent, traditional Labour.” He explained: “Until Jeremy Corbyn became the leader I would never have imagined voting for anybody else. It’s been a difficult decision but in politics you’ve got to tell the truth and you’ve got to do what’s right.”

Mt Austin continued: Britain would, he warned, be poorer and less safe if Labour got into power. “It’s not just Jeremy Corbyn, I think John McDonnell is an extremist as well who spent the 1980s supporting the IRA. It’s not true that they were campaigning for peace, they were backing one side in a brutal civil war which saw people murdered in shopping centres, pubs and hotels,” he said.

Having worked at the Treasury under Mr Brown he does not trust the shadow chancellor or the Labour leader with the nation’s finances. “I think they regard wealth as a problem and people who create it as the enemy,” he said.

National security would also be at risk, he said. “What would Jeremy Corbyn do if Putin sent people to murder people on the streets of Britain? When that happened before he questioned the evidence provided by the intelligence and security services and he parroted the Kremlin line. I don’t think Jeremy Corbyn can be trusted to stand up to terrorists and he’s never supported any form of military action in his life proposed by the British government.”

The Labour leader’s long-standing opposition to Britain’s nuclear deterrent also worried him. “Would he sign letters authorising military action? I don’t think he would.” He warned that Mr Corbyn was instinctively anti-America and said: “He has consistently, throughout his entire time in politics backed the wrong side. I don’t think he can be trusted. I think the decent patriotic Labour voters should vote for Boris Johnson.”

Mr Austin’s greatest concern is the rise of antisemitism in the Labour Party. “Most shamefully of all they have allowed a party with the proudest record of fighting racism and standing up for equality to be poisoned with racism against Jewish people and it is a complete and utter disgrace,” he said.

These criticisms go to the heart of why Labour are struggling in the polls this time around. We will have to wait and see how they play out at the ballot box.

Wednesday, November 06, 2019

Another Government advertising campaign bites the dust

The UK Government is not having a good time with its propaganda. As the Guardian reports a series of government ads extolling the virtues of universal credit and purporting to bust negative myths about the flagship Conservative welfare policy has been banned because it is “misleading”:

In an embarrassing indictment of the policy before next month’s general election, the Advertising Standards Authority (ASA) found that a claim that people moved into work faster on universal credit (UC) than under the old system could not be substantiated.

Two other claims – that jobcentres will pay an advance to people who need it and that rent can be paid directly to landlords under UC – were also found to be unsubstantiated.

The adverts, part of a £225,000 Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) campaign to detoxify UC, appeared in print in the Metro newspaper and on its website, as well as on the MailOnline, in May and June.

They attracted 44 complaints, including from the Motor Neurone Disease Association, the Disability Benefits Consortium (DBC) and the anti-poverty charity Zacchaeus 2000 Trust (Z2K), who have called for the DWP to apologise in light of the ASA ruling.

The Z2K chief executive, Raji Hunjan, also demanded an investigation into working practices at the department.

“If it has misled the public on UC, its flagship policy, what else is it misleading us on?” Hunjan said. “The next government must engage with the compelling evidence that points to the harm UC is causing, leaving many people reliant on food banks and others destitute. Enough is enough.”

The advertorial purported to bust negative ‘myths’ about universal credit.

Time to go back to the drawing board.

Tuesday, November 05, 2019

What are the Tories hiding over Russion infiltration?

The Guardian reports that Boris Johnson has been accused of presiding over a cover-up after it emerged that No 10 refused to clear the publication of a potentially incendiary report examining Russian infiltration in British politics, including the Conservative party.

The paper says that Downing Street has indicated that it will not allow a 50-page dossier from the intelligence and security committee to be published before the election, prompting a string of complaints over its suppression:

The committee’s chairman, Dominic Grieve, called the decision “jaw dropping”, saying no reason for the refusal had been given, while Labour and Scottish National party politicians accused No 10 of refusing to recognise the scale of Russian meddling.

Fresh evidence has also emerged of attempts by the Kremlin to infiltrate the Conservatives by a senior Russian diplomat suspected of espionage, who spent five years in London cultivating leading Tories including Johnson himself.

It can now be revealed that Sergey Nalobin – who once described the future prime minister as “our good friend” – lives in a Moscow apartment block known as the “FSB house” because it houses so many employees from the Kremlin’s main spy agency.

The committee’s report is based on analysis from Britain’s intelligence agencies, as well as third-party experts such as the former MI6 officer Christopher Steele, and is subject to a final clearance from Downing Street. That has to come before parliament is dissolved on Tuesday if it is to be released ahead of the election.

Downing Street sources stated that was not now expected to happen in time, claiming the sign-off process typically takes six weeks. A No 10 spokesman added: “There are processes reports such as this have to go through before publication, and the committee is well-informed of these.”

However, it is understood the dossier has already been approved by the intelligence agencies themselves as part of a long clearance process that began in late March. Downing Street was sent a final draft on 17 October and had been expected to sign off the report by the end of last week.

The failure of the Prime Minister to give a good reason to the committee why the report cannot be published inevitably leads to claims of a cover-up. The dossier specifically examines Russian attempts to interfere in the 2016 EU referendum. While the committee also heard allegations that Moscow money has flowed into the Conservative party via emigres living in the UK making high-profile donations.

With a General Election imminent, surely it is in the public interest that this report is published, if only to ensure full transparency and to enable proper scrutiny of the process over the next month. The fact that the Government is refusing to do so begs the question: what have they got to hide?

Monday, November 04, 2019

The wasted taxpayers' cash in pursuit of elusive fracking dream

The UK Government's moratorium on fracking, announced on Friday, must rank as one of their biggest u-turns. The moratorium leaves the government with an option to restart fracking in future years. However, many critics believe the technology is not suitable for the UK:

“Fracking is utterly incompatible with our aims of ending the burning of fossil fuels in this country in a couple of decades,” said geologist Professor Stuart Haszeldine, of Edinburgh University. “Pursuing the technology of fracking while embracing the concept of having a carbon-free society is an example of national schizophrenia. It has wasted millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money. It has also wasted a decade when we should have been pursuing other goals.”

One such aim should have been the development of the technology of carbon capture and storage which would involve carbon dioxide being captured, liquefied and stored underground in old mines or depleted oil reservoirs, added Haszeldine. “We have lost significant leads in developing this technology over the past decade when we should have been pursuing them energetically. Instead we have wasted our time on fracking projects.”

This point was backed by Professor Jon Gluyas, director of the Durham Energy Institute at Durham University. “The government ban on fracking is a neat way of ignoring the now inescapable truth that the projected shale gas potential for the UK is tiny at best. We have, though, as a nation wasted a decade hoping for more gas to heat our homes rather than installing ultra-low carbon geothermal heating like that used in much of Europe.”

The Guardian reports that Ministers have been condemned for wasting millions of pounds of taxpayers’ money in their failed attempt to introduce fracking to the UK. Scientists also say that the pursuit of fracking has cost the nation a decade of effort that should have been expended on other, more environmentally friendly energy projects.

Whether anybody will be held accountable for all this wasted money, effort and time is doubtful. I wouldn't be surprised if, once the election is over the Government does another U-turn and start licensing drilling again. The vested interests in this industry are well-entrenched.

Sunday, November 03, 2019

What did Boris Johnson know?

A Labour MP has claimed that Boris Johnson knew of Vote Leave’s overspend during the 2016 EU referendum, but appears to have failed to tell the authorities even though the payment was subsequently ruled to be illegal.

The Guardian reports says that Ian Lucas has revealed that he has seen correspondence obtained during the parliamentary inquiry into disinformation and democracy which showed that Johnson’s most senior aide, Dominic Cummings, told the Electoral Commission that the prime minister, and his cabinet colleague Michael Gove, knew of the overspend by the pro-Brexit organisation.

The Electoral Commission last year judged that Vote Leave had broken electoral law by overspending during the EU referendum, after the campaign funnelled £675,000 through another pro-Brexit group, BeLeave, to avoid spending limits:

Veteran Labour MP Lucas, who sat on the Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee inquiry into fake news, said the correspondence showing that the prime minister had apparently failed to report an offence raised serious questions over Johnson’s judgement.

Lucas told the Observer: “Johnson and Gove both knew about the illegal payments to BeLeave. I’ve seen it in writing. We finally forced the Electoral Commission to hand over its correspondence with Dominic Cummings; it’s there in black and white. It’s Cummings himself saying this.”

The Wrexham MP also revealed that the disclosure by Cummings was part of a strategy to protect the prime minister and Gove, with Johnson’s chief adviser insisting that both politicians only discovered the overspend after the EU referendum vote, though it’s unknown when exactly it is believed to be.

“The astonishing thing is, he actually said this in the context of defending them. He said they didn’t know at the time, they only knew after the referendum. That means he’s been sitting on this information the entire time,” said Lucas.

He added: “It is totally unacceptable that the prime minister had knowledge that this overspend had occurred and he hasn’t come forward with this evidence,” said Lucas, who recently announced he would stand down at the next general election.

“What’s quite clear is Cummings, Johnson and Gove are absolutely in this up to their necks. They must now come clean about everything they knew about these offences. Boris Johnson is simply not fit to be prime minister. He clearly has no respect for the law,” Lucas said.

Gavin Millar QC of Matrix Chambers is absolutely right when he says that: “You’ve got two very senior politicians in positions of great responsibility and they have never been required to give an account of what they knew." Surely it is time Johnson and Gove are scrutinised in detail as to what they knew and when.

Saturday, November 02, 2019

Is this the correct use of taxpayers' money?

Having seen £100 million of our money poured down the drain in an advertising campaign designed to reinforce the government's message that we were leaving on 31st October, it is a bit galling to read this article in the Guardian.

The paper reports that Boris Johnson’s government has been accused of going on a spending spree using taxpayers’ money to woo voters in swing seats in the run up to the general election. They say that Ministers released details on Wednesday of plans to improve dilapidated town centres of key marginal seats mainly across the north of England and the Midlands. Public money is being spent to publicise the scheme using targeted Facebook advertisements sent to local people:

In an announcement on a government website, the department of housing, communities and local government claimed that part of a £3.6bn fund would be spent boosting rundown high streets across dozens of towns. 

Adverts inform the public that “the government is investing up to £25m” in their local area, featuring the name and image of the local town. In reality, the sum going to each settlement is likely to be much smaller.

The seats being targeted include Wakefield, Bolton, Northampton, Milton Keynes, Mansfield, Lincoln, and Newcastle-under-Lyme as well as some coastal towns such as Lowestoft.

It also appears that public funding may have been used to buy adverts promoting government investment in Workington – the home of “Workington Man”, which some Tory-backing groups have suggested is the stereotypical individual who needs to be won over to win the election.

According to the Huffington Post, ministers authorised the adverts to go live on Tuesday – the same day Johnson received parliamentary support for a snap general election. However, on Friday night, it was reported that Facebook had pulled some of the government adverts. A spokesperson told Huffington Post:

“The adverts run by the MyTown page were not correctly labelled as being about social issues. Ads about social issues, elections or politics that appear on our platforms should include a disclaimer provided by advertisers.

On the face of it this appears to be an abuse of public funds. The Government is able to skirt rules that restrict public advertising spending during elections however, as parliament has yet to be dissolved and the campaign has not formally begun. Parliament has not yet dissolved and the civil service has not officially entered the pre-election period when it must remain neutral.

Whatever the justification, it hardly seems to be a correct use of our cash.

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