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Boris Johnson’s Real Brexit Betrayal Was to Abandon the Single Market

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 9:40pm in

The Conservatives promised to keep the UK wedded to its biggest international market after Brexit, but have instead left us in ruinous isolation, reports Adam Bienkov

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Almost all of Britain’s most-pressing political crises can be traced back to a single act by former Conservative Prime Minister David Cameron.

Cameron’s decision to hold a referendum on Brexit back in 2016 triggered a series of rolling political crises that continue to this day.

The current political paralysis in Northern Ireland, as well as the growing cost of living crisis across the UK, are just two examples of problems that were either directly caused, or significantly worsened, by Brexit.

Yet as the Bank of England governor warns of “apocalyptic” food price rises, the Government has attempted to claim that our current problems are all somehow inevitable results of long-term global political trends.

However, while Brexit did not directly cause all of our current problems, it has certainly made most of them measurably worse.

A report by the UK in a Changing Europe think tank last month found that Britain's exit from the EU has directly led to a 6% increase in food prices.

This problem will only grow. If Johnson follows through on his threat to rip up the Northern Ireland protocol, then the inevitable new trade barriers imposed by the EU will make the current increase in our food bills look like small change.

Yet whenever such arguments are raised, supporters of Brexit inevitably fall back on accusing their critics of being undemocratic.

But while it is true to say that a narrow majority did support leaving the EU back in 2016, that vote did not state what form our exit should take, nor the terms on which our relationship with Europe should remain.

And while Johnson now appears determined to keep the UK permanently in conflict with the rest of Europe, it is vital to remember that this is very much not what either he or his predecessors, told us to expect.

A Timeline of Broken Promises

'We say yes to the Single Market'

"We are clear about what we want from Europe”, the Conservative Party stated in its 2015 manifesto.

“We say: yes to the Single Market”.

Conservative Party manifesto 2015.

The history of the Conservative Party’s abandonment of the idea of the European Single Market tells us a lot about the current mess we are in.

Championed by former Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, the Single Market was for decades a matter of straightforward political orthodoxy for Conservative politicians.

Asked in 2013 about the possibility of Britain leaving the European Union, Johnson told Sky News that whatever happened, he would support Britain's continued membership of the market.

"I would vote to stay in the single market", Johnson said.

"I'm in favour of the single market. I want us to be able to trade freely with our European friends and partners."

Asked again later that year about the possibility of Brexit, he replied that: "personally, I would like to stay in the Single Market".

"We need to stay in the council of ministers of the internal market. In my view, the British have done good things for Europe."

Staying in the Single Market is 'essential and deliverable'

Even as the possibility of an EU referendum grew, Johnson remained committed to Britain's Single Market membership.

At one point he called for the Brexit referendum to be held on the question of whether to remain in a "boiled down" version of the EU, inside the Single Market.

"We could construct a relationship with the EU that more closely resembled that of Norway or Switzerland" he explained, referring to those countries' semi-detached relationship with the rest of Europe.

He added that such an arrangement would be "essential and deliverable".

'If we did not have [the EU] we would have to invent it'

Boris Johnson at a Vote Leave rally in 2016. Photo: Stuart Boulton / Alamy

There have long been doubts about the honesty of Johnson's supposed anti-European politics

Indeed, long term friends and former colleagues of the Prime Minister suggest that far from being a committed Europhobe, he was actually always broadly in favour of the EU.

The truth of this can be found right back at the start of his political career.

"I am not by any means an ultra-Eurosceptic", he told the House of Commons in 2003.

"In some ways, I am a bit of a fan of the European Union.

He added that: "If we did not have one, we would invent something like it".

Not only did Johnson back the continued existence of the EU, but he actively supported enlarging it.

While his Brexit campaign would later stoke fears about Turkey joining the EU, he told MPs in 2003 that the UK would be "foolish" to prevent the country's entry to the bloc.

The most 'pro-immigration' politician in Britain

Vote Leave badges. Photo: Stuart Boulton / Alamy

Johnson's Government now poses as fiercely anti-immigration and is imposing what even ministers believe could be illegal plans to deport refugees to Rwanda.

These draconian new restrictions on our borders are sold to the public as a "benefit" of Brexit and Britain's exit from the Single Market.

However, it's worth remembering that Johnson's rise to power came off the back of his claim to be an actively pro-immigration politician.

Indeed when he was Mayor of London, Johnson claimed to be the most pro-immigration politician in the country.

"I'm probably about the only politician I know of who is actually willing to stand up and say that he's pro-immigration", Johnson said in 2013.

And far from arguing for an immigration clampdown, he would regularly boast of the benefits of EU immigration to the capital.

And despite his recent stance on Rwanda, as Mayor he repeatedly called for an amnesty for illegal immigrants.

"Ultimately you have got to reflect reality", he told LBC back in 2013.

"Otherwise they are not engaged in the economy, they are not being honest with the system, they are not paying their taxes properly and it is completely crazy."

Remaining in the EU would be a 'boon for the world'

Johnson now portrays anyone who campaigned for Britain to Remain in the EU as being part of an out of touch metropolitan elite.

However, what is sometimes forgotten is that the Prime Minister came incredibly close to being among them himself.

In fact, when Johnson sat down to write his endorsement for the Brexit campaign, we now know that he also secretly wrote another article arguing the complete opposite.

In the drafted article he suggested that remaining in the European Union would be a "boon for the world and for Europe".

"This is a market on our doorstep, ready for further exploitation by British firms", he wrote.

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"The membership fee seems rather small for all that access. Why are we so determined to turn our back on it?"

Johnson later claimed the article was merely a "thought experiment".

However, some of his own friends and allies believe this is untrue.

One close colleague of the Prime Minister says that in reality he never really wanted to leave the EU and certainly never believed it would actually happen.

They say that Johnson's last-minute decision to back Brexit was in reality "all about the leadership" and merely a cynical gamble designed to secure his place in Downing Street.

Johnson's Real Brexit Betrayal Boris Johnson. Photo: Horst Friedrichs / Alamy

In some respects, Johnson's gamble paid off. His role in leading the Brexit campaign convinced Conservative MPs to make him their leader and he went on to win the last general election on the promise to "Get Brexit Done".

Yet some six years after the referendum, Brexit remains very much not done.

The political crisis triggered by Cameron's referendum has so far led to the deposal of two prime ministers, the calling of two general elections and a growing constitutional paralysis which could ultimately result in the break up of the United Kingdom.

And while some of these shorter-term crises may ultimately resolve themselves, Britain's longer-term outlook is as a nation made permanently poorer by the decision to cut our ties to the EU.

A forecast by the International Monetary Fund last month suggested that the UK will next year have the lowest growth of any major developed economy, with only sanctioned Russia experiencing lower growth.

By leaving the European Single Market and then threatening a trade war with the EU, Johnson is driving the UK to the most economically and politically ruinous form of Brexit.

Not only is this a disaster in its own terms, but it is also a direct betrayal of the Brexit we were told to expect.

When Johnson campaigned for Brexit, we were told that it would lead to lower prices, liberalised free trade, and a new 'global Britain' set free of its chains to the EU.

In reality, we now have surging prices, a looming trade war and a nation permanently paralysed by never-ending negotiations with our European neighbours.

None of this was inevitable, but was in fact the result of a deliberate political choice to choose one particular version of Brexit over many others.

After six years of political paralysis, it is time that we thought again about that choice.

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Conservative and Vote Leave Links to Remote Learning Firm Set to Become a Government Body

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 8:47pm in

Sascha Lavin investigates the political ties of an online education provider that has won millions in state contracts

A company responsible for remote learning during the pandemic has ties to the Conservative Party and the Vote Leave campaign, Byline Times can reveal. 

Virtual school Oak National Academy (ONA) received £7 million from the Department for Education (DfE) for providing remote education to teachers and pupils, according to data obtained by a Freedom of Information (FOI) request. 

The firm is set to move into public hands, with Education Secretary Nadhim Zahawi announcing in March that ONA – one of his department’s “great achievements” – would become an independent government body. 

However, new analysis by Byline Intelligence Team raises questions about the independence of Oak Hill’s leadership team and board.

ONA co-founder, David Thomas, has links to Conservative peer and donor Lord Theodore Agnew. Before starting ONA, Thomas was a strategy director at Inspiration Trust (IT) and a principal at Jane Austen College, one of the multi-academy trust’s schools. 

IT was founded by Lord Agnew in 2012 where he is still a trustee, despite a brief stint away from the organisation – resigning almost a year after he was appointed as an Education Minister. 

Agnew, who also served as a non-executive director at the DfE during David Cameron’s time in Downing Street, has donated £162,250 to the Conservatives since 2007. Agnew is also a shareholder at Faculty – the artificial intelligence firm that was hired to work for Vote Leave, the official Brexit campaign.

ONA’s founders, Thomas and current principal Matt Hood, have further connections to the Government: both are Department for Education advisors. This comes as the British Educational Suppliers Association is poised to take legal action over allegedly “unlawful” Government subsidies provided to the online school and a lack of transparency over nationalisation plans.

Meanwhile, ONA project board member John Blake also sits on the advisory council at Parents and Teachers for Excellence (PTE), an influential education campaign group pushing for stricter discipline in schools. ONA’s project board is not responsible for the school’s governance, according to an ONA spokesperson. 

PTE was founded by Rachel Wolf, a long-term associate of Dominic Cummings and former Education Secretary Michael Gove who went on to co-author the Conservative Party’s 2019 General Election Manifesto.  

After landing her first job with Boris Johnson when he was Shadow Higher Education Minister, Wolf became advisor to then Shadow Education Secretary Gove, working alongside Cummings. 

Wolf’s husband, lobbyist James Frayne, worked with Cummings on the anti-Euro campaign 20 years ago and the pair founded the New Frontiers Foundation think-tank together.

Wolf and Frayne came under fire last year after a High Court judge found that a £550,000 government contract handed to the couple’s polling company Public First at the height of the pandemic was unlawful. The ruling was overturned in January, but the Good Law Project, which brought the case, plans to appeal to the Supreme Court. 

PTE’s sole director, Jon Moynihan, as listed on Companies House, also gave more than £120,000 to Vote Leave, where Cummings was a director. Venture capitalist Moynihan also held key positions in the campaign, including acting as its Finance Committee chairperson and its Campaign Committee chairperson.   

ONA also has ties to Vote Leave and the Conservative Party through the firm’s connections to Ark Venture’s. The chair of ONA’s advisory council, John Blake, led Ark’s public affairs team until 2021, and ONA’s education director Tom Rose was a partner at Ark for four years before joining the online school. Additionally, Ark shares two board members with the Ambition Institute, where ONA’s principal Matt Hood was CEO. 

Ark is chaired by Sir Paul Marshall, a prominent Brexiter who donated £100,000 to the Vote Leave campaign. Marshall has also handed half a million pounds to the Conservative Party since Johnson took over as party leader in July 2019, and is a major investor in the right-wing broadcaster GB News.

Another member of Ark’s board is former Conservative Treasurer Lord Stanley Fink, who has given £3.9 million to the Conservative Party since 2003. 

There is no tangible evidence to suggest that Oak Academy has benefited directly or unduly from any of its connections to the Conservative Party or the Government, or has in any way acted improperly. 

A spokesperson for ONA said: “Oak was started as a grassroots organisation, created by teachers, for teachers, in response to the pandemic. It has received cross-party support and the backing of every major teaching union and education professional body. It has no connection to Vote Leave whatsoever.”

A DfE spokesperson said: “Oak was established with unprecedented pace and innovation in the first weeks of the pandemic by 40 teachers from some of the leading schools across England, backed by Government grant funding to deliver on an urgent need to support schools and families with remote learning. It will become an arm’s length body to the Department for Education – focused on supporting teachers to deliver excellent lessons and building on its success to date.”

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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British Politics is Now Awash with Money and Social Media – Do We Care?

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Tue, 17/05/2022 - 8:08pm in

Former Labour MP Ian Lucas explores how digital campaigning and Big Tech has driven a coach and horses through the UK’s historically robust electoral rules

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This month’s local elections revealed mixed results. Despite losing almost 500 seats, with a backdrop of repeated scandals in Downing Street, the Conservatives maintained residual support sufficient to keep Boris Johnson as Prime Minister. Though opposition parties made progress, it was by no means sufficient to ensure that the Conservatives will lose the next general election. What explains the Tory resilience?

To me, a spectre is haunting British politics – the spectre of money. 

Unseen and undiscussed, money has, in the past decade, driven our politics down a new path – undiscovered even by most who work in politics. I was one of them. 

For 18 years, I was a Labour MP, a minister, an opposition spokesman and, from 2015, a member of Parliament’s Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) Committee which a landmark report on disinformation and fake news – uncovering the new, dark world of social media, its political uses and the money involved. It was only in that final role that the transformation of our politics in the last decade was, piece by piece, revealed to me.

Of course, money has always played a role. The Conservatives have always had more money than other parties but, to some extent, the impact of political spending was mitigated by rules. Our politics has, historically, been governed by strict rules – some of the most important of them related to money.

During meetings with US politicians over the years, I learned that they were astonished by how little UK politicians spent on elections. I explained to them that we had spending limits within our constituencies and that, in the half a dozen elections in which I had been a parliamentary candidate, I spent, usually, about £6,000. The most I ever spent was £12,000 in the hotly contested 2017 General Election.

Those US politicians were astounded. They said they usually spent a full day a week on the telephone, asking people for political donations, and needed hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for TV advertising – an essential weapon in the US political campaign race. In the UK, I told them, TV political advertising was banned and this was a big reason why I, someone with working-class parents brought up in a council house without political patronage, could be a UK Member of Parliament.

I fear that those days are gone.

The rules governing elections in the UK now, effectively, no longer apply. The limits on spending that were an intrinsic part of our system are gone. Elections are now being fought in a new way. The traditional methods of canvassing – door-knocking, telephoning, leafletting – have been superseded. The most influential campaigning now takes place online. And, for the most part, online is an ungoverned space.

Campaigning on social media has huge advantages for politicians. Information on voters, their personal preferences, what motivates them and what does not, is now available from online platforms that survey voters’ internet use and use that information to target them with individualised, targeted political messaging.

While targeted political messages have always been delivered, it usually depended on information collected by political parties themselves, explicitly for that purpose or perhaps based on demographic or economic information. It was limited in the numbers of voters reached and the parties’ capacity to individualise its content.

Many social media companies now use surveillance information for targeted messaging, reaching thousands, even millions, of voters daily. They make no distinction between political and any other sort of advertising. This is entirely alien to the political tradition in the UK. We have always treated political advertising differently – that is why we made the decision decades ago to ban TV political advertising. 

Online, however, electoral law has not applied in elections since 2015.

Our historic prohibition on political advertising on TV has been bypassed by political advertising online, with filmed political adverts now used daily on social media platforms; ads that must be paid for. Basic requirements such as imprints to identify the source of messages, for instance, have also not been legally required and are only now being introduced.

Extraordinarily, there are also only very limited restrictions on elections spending, with limits only applying for what the Electoral Commission calls “the regulated period” – the specified few weeks before an election takes place. Outside of this, political spending is unlimited by law. Even within that period, there is confusion about to whom spending limits apply. Does a generic, paid for social media advert from a political party count as a local election expense?

Political campaigning online is now constant. It is delivered inside and outside of electoral periods and Boris Johnson is never happier than when he is campaigning; projecting images of a Prime Minister in a hi-viz jacket, out and about among the voters. Those are the images delivered in films and photos daily on social media platforms; individually targeted at voters chosen as receptive to them, based on their past internet use. The result of bought social media use of this kind has been an explosion of political campaign spending. And it is very clear that enormous amounts of money are now being spent on social media advertising by political candidates. 

In the period since August 2018, for example, the Conservatives have nationally donated more than £700,000 for advertising to the West Midland Midlands Conservative Mayor Andy Street, according to the Electoral Commission. Since November 2018, Street has spent more than £104,000 on Facebook advertising alone. Though not a national politician, Street is a strategically important political figure for the Conservatives, one of only two regional mayors and his 2021 re-election was hotly contested. The other Conservative regional Mayor is Teesside’s Ben Houchen who, according to Facebook, bought more than £69,000 of advertising from it in the period from November 2018.

We have limited knowledge of where the donations to individual candidates to pay for these adverts are sourced.

At the Electoral Commission, the source of donations to Andy Street is, unhelpfully, recorded as “the Conservative Party”. This is problematic when considering transparency of those in senior political roles. If we do not know the ultimate source of donations, how do we consider questions such as undue influence? In this way, it is very difficult to get to the bottom of where big donations come from and why they are made.

Spending on social media advertising is a new, significant expense which requires a new income stream for political parties.

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Recent press reports, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, have highlighted Russian-linked donations to the Conservative Party.

Jane Bradley of The New York Times reported this month on a donation of $630,225 by former Conservative Party Treasurer, Ehud Sheleg. Her article states that the donation “originated in a Russian account of Mr Sheleg’s father-in-law, Sergei Kopytov, who was once a senior politician in the previous pro-Kremlin Government of Ukraine. He now owns real estate and hotel businesses in Crimea and Russia”. According to a suspicious activity alert by Barclays Bank to the UK National Crime Agency, $2.5 million was transferred from Kopytov’s bank account in Russia in January 2018. The alert reads: “Kopytov can be said with considerable certainty to have been the true source of the donation.” Sheleg’s lawyers say that the $2.5 million was a gift.

Another Conservative Party donor, Alexander Temerko – described by Catherine Belton in her book Putin’s People as “the ultimate lobbyist” – has, individually and through companies, given more than £1 million to the Conservative Party since 2012. Temerko has been very active in making donations to north-east England Tory MPs but is not recorded as having made donations to Houchen’s campaign. 

Both Labour and the Liberal Democrats are now spending more on social media advertising – they have little option if they want to effectively compete at the next general election. Meanwhile, the Conservatives have signalled their intention to largely maintain the status quo by, incredibly, passing an Elections Act which largely fails to address the issues relating to online campaigning and its financing. 

The electoral spending race is working for the Conservatives. The question for opposition parties is whether this is the type of politics we want. And, if not, what will they do about it if they have the opportunity?

Ian Lucas’ book, ‘Digital Gangsters: The Inside Story of How Greed, Lies and Technology Broke Democracy’, is published by Byline Books

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The Conservative Mood in Parliament

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Mon, 16/05/2022 - 7:29pm in

A Tory insider describes the tense scenes in Westminster as the party awaits a leadership challenger to emerge

A week down after recess, the Conservative mood in Parliament is now one of trepidation. The anger and frustration of local councillors and members has reached MPs. Challengers to Boris Johnson’s throne have been sounding out support.

Locally, in London, knocking on hundreds of doors, soft Conservative voters all complained about Johnson and the lockdown parties. The night of the count, it became clear early on that we were going to do badly. Labour was ahead two-to-one in what should have been our best polling district, even with a strong Green showing. Dejected party members left early. Of those who did stay through the wearing hours of the early morning, candidates would not even stand up and be counted for the declaration.

The result was pretty much exactly what we were told on the doorstep: people chose to punish us over Johnson.

In the other nations, things were just as bad. We lost our second place in Scotland, with 63 fewer seats. Leader Douglas Ross’s reverse ferret, condemning and then backing the Prime Minister over the parties, had cost him. A post-election briefing came through with our lines: “[Given] the anger at the Conservative Party UK-wide, at the unacceptable behaviour of the Prime Minister and his staff, it would be astonishing if Labour did not come second and make significant gains in this election.”

Members of Scottish Parliament who all followed Ross in calling for the Prime Minister’s resignation and were not best pleased when he changed tack, are now questioning his leadership.

In Wales, the test was whether we could hold the modest but historic gains from 2019. The results were not promising. The Welsh Conservative Leader, Andrew RT Davies, echoing the comments of many elected Welsh Conservatives, admitted the problems faced because of Number 10. Welsh Tory MPs are very nervous across the WhatsApp groups, the corridors and in the tearoom.

Even in places where our performance was not disastrous, some MPs see this opportunity as voters giving us a chance to get rid of Johnson. Yet, even where Johnson loyalists did badly, having thrown in their lot with the Prime Minister, they fear they would not get far without him.

There is now however clearly an insidious split that will worsen in the next couple of years, as spooked Tories who have seats to lose, mostly the southern and Celtic Tories to whom low taxes and political integrity matter more, vie with the loyalists over the future of the Conservative Party.

Conservative leaders who lost councils across the country all very quickly turned to publicly blame Johnson. Privately, those local associations are pressing their MP to act. Letters are being considered, drafted and kept close at hand.

Last Week in Westminster

In Parliament last Monday, given that the Government has little to show for a full legislative year – and that there had been no noticeable advantage to our ‘Brexit freedoms’, only problems – the promise of great change in the Queen’s speech was realised.

Mid-morning, Number 10 invited MPs to a spring reception the next day. A few declined to go. Instead, of consternation and consultation, those who did fell upon a celebratory mood, the puckish charm of a midsummer’s night dream, laughter over drinks and canapés. There seemed to be no real sense that Johnson’s inner circle were taking the election results seriously.

The Government has not seriously been working to win or even retain seats in London, Scotland, Wales or the shires. The mood seems to be: we lose London; so what?

Overall, the view was that the results were poor but not disastrous. The gains in Thurrock and Nuneaton have been interpreted as the continued support of working-class Tory voters, the people we are looking to hold.

Tuesday morning, following a Panorama investigation ahead of the Government’s expected flagship Levelling Up Bill, Michael Gove tempered expectations, saying that inflation will hamper the project. Despite 38 bills being presented in the Queen’s Speech, support flagged almost as soon as the sermon had been delivered.

A day later, and already another rebellion was mounting. Senior backbencher Simon Hoare and former Prime Minister Theresa May warned over the Government’s plans to revoke the Northern Ireland Protocol. They were joined by the usual suspects, the same who rebelled at foreign aid cuts.

By the end of the week, most MPs had taken stock of their colleagues, waiting for the right person to lead the charge to replace Johnson. Everyone expects a reshuffle before the next recess, some thinking June, giving new ministers a month to settle in. The threat of it helps to keep ministers in line and no Cabinet challenge has been made.

There had been reports from friends of Jeremy Hunt, the contender who had lost out to Johnson in 2019, that he would to challenge again and was already sounding out MPs. In a classic no-names back and forth, a minister mocked Hunt for making pre-election noises. The friends of Hunt hit back, claiming the briefing had not come from him but someone trying to discredit him.

On Thursday, Hunt gave an exclusive to The Times, warning that the Conservative Party’s majority is at risk, and not ruling out a future challenge.

There are two testing by-elections ahead, Tiverton (in the south west), and the Red Wall seat of Wakefield. For now, however, Johnson rolls on, as MPs wait and see.

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Food Bank Britain

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Fri, 13/05/2022 - 9:04pm in

Rachel Morris considers the malaise of modern Britain as the Conservatives initiate Austerity 2.0

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“The rule is, jam tomorrow and jam yesterday but never jam today”, said the Mad Hatter. Perhaps he wrote this year’s Queen’s Speech, as delivered by golden calf Prince Charles, and subsequent tweets by Her Majesty’s Government.

Chancellor Rishi Sunak suggested that the Government could help you with the cost of living crisis, if you start a small enterprise first. A jam stall, perhaps.

Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng shared his passion for nuclear power plants – not exactly a short-term fix – in the week when it was revealed that we’re set to receive glowing veg from Fukushima.

Most ministers repeated the bit from their propaganda manual about being laser-focused on “the people’s priorities”. Nothing like a bit of alliteration to drown out those noises emanating from your stomach.

While French people got a state-delivered energy price cap limiting increases to 4%, our 54% rises can surely only be deliberate.

There’s no question that we’ve embarked upon Austerity 2.0. But the ‘A’ word can’t be said out loud, because according to the Institute for Public Policy Research, Austerity 1.0 caused 130,000 preventable deaths.

That’s one in every 517 people. COVID has now killed one in 347, if you divide the 2020 Census population by deaths with COVID on the certificate (193,713 at 11 May).

Austerity has therefore been rebranded. The Conservatives have driven the more comfortable classes into needing food banks, so has started calling them ‘pantries’. This was exactly the approach of Trade Minister Penny Mordaunt who on 22 April declared a partnership with Hive Portsmouth, setting up ‘food pantries’ in her constituency to save households an “average £800 a year in food bills”.

The accompanying video makes the food bank look like Waitrose, with more gorgeous veg and eggs than I’ve seen anywhere in France. Mordaunt appeals for generous individuals to run them, off the Government pay-roll.

In an article for the Daily Express earlier this week, Mordaunt said that anti-Brexit “doomsters want Britain to fail”. If she doesn’t understand that Britain is already failing, perhaps the minister should spend an afternoon in the food ‘pantry’, when it’s open for business.

According to Mordaunt, Remainers must instead become Tinkerbells: they must close their eyes tight and believe in Brexit hard enough, so food banks – sorry, ‘pantries’ – will vanish. For most people, however, closing their eyes just makes the hunger more apparent.

Asset-Stripping

Closing his eyes is something well-known to Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, who spends his days lounging on the green benches of the House of Commons.

Ultimately, the people in charge see widespread hunger and poverty as a game: an exercise imagined in public relations school – or perhaps a question on the Eton entrance exam – designed to prove how they can wriggle out of a tight spot.

And the latest frontier of this PR campaign has focused on Labour Leader Keir Starmer having a beer and a curry during a work event. The nation’s attention has been diverted away from yet more Downing Street party fines, a catastrophic Conservative local election performance, and the High Court ruling that the Government consigned elderly people to death during the early stages of the pandemic.

It is also deeply ironic that this ‘scandal’ focuses on food, when 4.7 million adults are currently suffering from food insecurity.

Indeed, there are fewer McDonald’s (1,358) in the UK than food ‘pantries’ (more than 2,200). But, according to Conservative MP for Ashfield, Lee Anderson, it’s poor people who are to blame for their growling bellies.

Meanwhile, Prince Charles can still utter the phrase “levelling up” in Parliament while sitting in front of a gold-encrusted wall on a gold-encrusted throne wearing gold-and-medal-encrusted clothing – saying that regional rebalancing will be achieved by “ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”.

There’s a reason why the Government has run out of ideas about how to fix the country. Primarily, because fixing the problems would involve a recognition that they created the problems in the first place and – secondly – because the Conservative Party takes its instructions from its paymasters in the private sector.

Everywhere you look, the Government is privatising – or threatening to privatise – whatever hasn’t already been sold-off. Passports, driving licenses, Channel 4, alongside our crap-filled waterways. But this asset-stripping goes much further. The state’s role itself has been privatised.

If you want to challenge the lawfulness of a Government action, you must crowdfund it yourself. If you want veterans to have something to sleep on, you must support a charity like Forgotten Veterans UK, whose ambassador is – Penny Mordaunt.

There will come a time when too few can afford to support privately-funded efforts by the third sector, with time or money, and some of these needs simply won’t be met at all. What happens when there are more GoFundMe pages than people who can donate to them? When there are more charities than the charitable?

Up to 14.5 million people lived in poverty before the pandemic – one in every four or five – which is projected to rise to 16 million by 2023. And the Government’s response is indifference.

Last October, the Prime Minister told businesses that it wasn’t his job to fix their every problem. The Chancellor said he “can’t do everything” after criticism of his Spring Statement. Other ministers are saying similar.

We’re on our own now, shivering in a corner with the Trussell Trust. Only £3 million crowns get a lift in a Rolls Royce. The Government makes no bones about it: you’ll have to figure it out on your own. Perhaps you could use those bones to make a tasty broth? If you can afford to put the cooker on. But don’t think there’ll be jam with it. Not today.

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‘Levelling-Up’ Is Dying in Johnson’s Desert of Ideas

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 9:48pm in

As the nation nears the three year mark of Johnson’s Government, it’s time to be honest about the collapse of his flagship project, says Sam Bright

We live in an era when the absolutist statements of populist politicians are rarely matched by equally forthright criticism by the media.

Boris Johnson could promise to ‘Get Brexit Done’, for example – pledging to see through the biggest change to the UK’s constitutional, economic and regional makeup for generations – and yet Brexit has sidled off the mainstream news agenda. Northern Ireland is in a state of political paralysis, our international trade has been depressed, but Johnson’s Brexit fallacies still reign supreme.

This is similarly the case with ‘levelling up’ – the Government’s flagship plan to rebalance the fortunes of our nations and regions. Once again, Johnson’s rhetoric has been bold. In a flagship speech on the subject in July 2021, he presciently suggested that the UK was only “firing on one cylinder” – referring to the disproportionate economic power of London and the south east.

The Government’s levelling up white paper released in February – designed to sketch-out Johnson’s agenda in more detail – continued this rhetorical zeal, using analogies from Renaissance Italy to inform its 12 levelling up ‘missions’.

However, these words collapse under intellectual pressure. Only four of these missions will have a measurable impact on regional inequality, according to the Institute for Government, while Johnson actually plans to spend less on English regional development than either of his immediate predecessors – Theresa May and David Cameron – according to the Northern Powerhouse Partnership.

Henri Murison, who runs the think tank, says that much of the Government’s levelling up agenda will be fundamentally “undermined through a lack of funding”.

This intellectual sinkhole opened up further in the Queen’s Speech on Tuesday, during which the Government announced its short-term plans for levelling up. This included announcing a Levelling Up and Regeneration Bill, focused on local planning and the devolution of powers.

The Government’s proposals are thin on the ground. In fact, wafer thin. The bill includes five ‘main elements’, one of which is to give “residents more of a say over changing street names and ensuring everyone can continue to benefit from al fresco dining”. Instead of providing lifeboats, the Government is encouraging Brits to dine on the decks of a rapidly submerging ship.

As in the case of the white paper, the Government’s only bold, progressive proposal is to devolve more power to local and regional authorities – under the promise that “every part of England that wants one will have a devolution deal with powers at or approaching the highest level of devolution and a simplified long-term funding settlement.” In the short-term, the Government plans to negotiate 10 new devolution deals in England, and has promised extra powers to Andy Burnham in Greater Manchester and to Andy Street in the West Midlands.

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Levelling Down

The problem is: these facts are confined to think tank reports and the columns of broadsheet newspapers. When Boris Johnson said that he was going to level up the country, this slogan was splashed by every tabloid newspaper and news channel. The unravelling of his plan, however, is only carried in whispers.

Yet, the reality is stark: levelling up is failing. It took the Government more than two years to produce its white paper, despite the prominence of levelling up in the 2019 Conservative Manifesto.

During this time, the circumstances of the poorest in Britain have deteriorated. The most deprived and diverse communities were disproportionately saddled with the health and economic impacts of the pandemic. Among 20 peer countries, the UK suffered the second largest fall in life expectancy from 2019 to 2021, concentrated in poorer areas.

Researchers at the University of Manchester calculated that, between March and December 2020, 1,645 years of life were lost per 100,000 people in the most deprived areas of England and Wales, compared to 916 years of life per 100,000 in the most affluent. In other words, almost twice as many years of life were lost in the poorest areas of the country compared with the wealthiest.

The UK’s structural inequalities encompass every aspect of public policy. So, while the Conservatives may now be attempting to frame ‘levelling up’ purely in the realms of planning reform and devolution – hoping the media will buy this narrative – attention is diverted away from the burgeoning inequalities suffered by the most disadvantaged.

This process is only set to intensify through the cost of living crisis, that will torpedo the Government’s regional rebalancing rallying cry, in the absence of administrative action.

A further 250,000 households will be in extreme poverty next year, taking the overall figure to 1.2 million, according to the National Institute of Economic and Social Research.

The Trussell Trust delivered 2.1 million food parcels (including more than 830,000 parcels provided for children) to people facing financial hardship across the country, from April 2021 to March 2022. This represented an increase of 14% compared to 2019/2020 and double the number provided in 2014/15.

Just today, Bloomberg has released an analysis showing that, in nine out of 12 metrics, the performance of most constituencies relative to London and the south-east of England is now worse or unchanged compared to 2019.

Meanwhile, as the economy overheats – causing an inflationary spike – London has turned into a furness. Already the most expensive place to live in the country – since 2010, average private rental prices in London have grown at five times the rate of average earnings – the capital has placed even more financial pressure on its inhabitants in recent months. According to Rightmove, average rents in London reached £2,193 a month in March, a 14.3% rise from £1,919 last year and the largest annual increase in any region since records began.

Some 30% of people are in the private rental market in London – a higher proportion than any other nation or region – whereas only 10% of Londoners were private renters in the 1980s.

House prices propel poverty rates in the capital. While London has comfortably the highest wages in the country, it also has the highest rates of poverty, by virtue of its obscene property costs. If all the people in poverty in London formed a new city, it would be the second largest conurbation in the UK – and twice the size of Birmingham.

Yet, while the Housing Minister Stuart Andrew yesterday said that London needs 100,000 new homes a year to keep up with demand, Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove simultaneously seemed to drop the Government’s target to build 300,000 homes across the country every year.

In this desert of ideas, the poorest parts of the country – in the north, the south, and in the devolved nations – continue to become sicker and poorer.

Johnson’s Government has run out of ideas, instead ruling through the division of its contrived culture war conflicts – hoping that journalists continue to play along, failing to expose the empty slogans that encase his betrayed promises.

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Boris Johnson Blocks Publishing Secret Lebedev Advice Due to ‘National Security’ Concerns

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 9:34pm in

The Prime Minister has failed to release the advice he received from the security services about his friend Evgeny Lebedev, despite MPs voting for its release, reports Adam Bienkov

Boris Johnson has been accused of a "cover up" after blocking the publication of the full advice he received from UK security services about handing a peerage to Evgeny Lebedev, with ministers only publishing heavily redacted details about his appointment.

The House of Commons voted at the end of April to compel the Government to publish the advice he received about the son of a former KGB agent and Russian oligarch, before April 28.

However, the documents, which were finally released to MPs by the government on Thursday afternoon, are heavily redacted and contain no information whatsoever on the security advice received by Downing Street.

In an accompanying statement, the Paymaster General, Michael Ellis, described Lebedev as a "man of good standing" but insisted that further details must remain confidential in order to "protect national security".

Labour accused the Government of a "cover up" and being in "contempt of Parliament."

“This looks like a cover up and smells like a cover up because it is a cover up", Labour's Deputy Leader Angela Rayner said.

"The Government has not provided a single piece of information in these heavily redacted documents, failing to comply with a direct instruction from Parliament. The Government is once again seeking to hide in the shadows from the sunlight of scrutiny. We will take steps to rectify this contempt of Parliament.

"The public have a right to know the truth about Boris Johnson’s interference in the appointment of his friend Lord Lebedev, the son and business partner of an ex-KGB agent, to a seat in the heart of our Parliament. It is time to get to the bottom of this whole murky business."

Asked by Labour's Thangham Debbonaire on Thursday why the information, which the Government had been compelled to publish before the local elections, had remained unpublished until that point, the Leader of the House of Commons said there were "security challenges" that had delayed its publication.

"I think I can share with the House that there are a number of security challenges in that information which have been gone through in great detail," Mark Spencer told MPs.

Evgeny Lebedev – whose full title is 'Baron Lebedev of Hampton in the London Borough of Richmond upon Thames and of Siberia in the Russian Federation' – owns the Evening Standard and Independent newspapers.

Correspondence revealed by Byline Times earlier this year showed how Lebedev built a relationship with Johnson over the course of a decade.

The letters show that Lebedev lobbied Johnson to support a new Russian arts festival while he was Mayor of London, which he said had "substantial support from the Russian Government”.

Johnson, who attended dozens of dinners, parties, drinks and meetings with Lebedev during that period also told the newspaper proprietor that he would "thrilled" to secure his support.

Johnson was later flown on multiple occasions for parties at Lebedev's Italian villa, with the then Foreign Secretary ditching his security detail on at least one occasion in order to attend.

As Byline Times first revealed, Johnson was initially advised by UK security services not to hand a peerage to Lebedev.

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However, the advice was later changed following a meeting between the two men. No minutes were recorded of their meeting and Downing Street has declined to reveal what they discussed.

The Home Secretary Priti Patel this week announced new legislation to clamp down on what she described as "covert spies" which seek to influence those in power in the UK.

Asked by Labour on Wednesday whether the new law would have criminalised Johnson's meetings with Lebedev's father Alexander, who was a former Russian agent, Patel replied that “I'm not going to comment on specific examples...”.

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‘Bungs’ to Billionaires: Cummings Exposes Johnson’s Cash for Content Scandal

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Thu, 12/05/2022 - 5:58am in

New testimony from the Prime Minister’s former chief aide shows how the free press has been bought by the Government

Asked by the human rights lawyer Adam Wagner if he came across any examples of private lobbying leading to lockdown rule changes during the pandemic, Boris Johnson’s now-former chief aide Dominic Cummings said that: “Newspapers negotiated direct bungs to themselves with him [Boris Johnson]”.

There were “no officials on [the calls]”, he added, and Johnson “told officials to send the [money] dressed up as ‘COVID relief’”. 

This was clearly a reference to a special subsidy arrangement for the mainstream press that began in April 2020 and was called ‘All In, All Together’. Budgeted at £35 million for the first three months it still appears to be operating two years later – the Guardian published a story under its banner in March 2022 – but the Government and the industry have repeatedly rebuffed Byline Times’ questions on how much has been spent in total. 

We do know, however, that it was conceived after intense lobbying in the first weeks of the pandemic by the club of newspapers known as the News Media Association (NMA) and there is little doubt that the chief beneficiaries were the big, wealthy news providers: the Mail group, the Murdoch group, the Telegraph group and the Mirror group. 

Though it was explicitly a subsidy – Chancellor Rishi Sunak said that this public money was being spent “in support of the print newspaper industry” – it was combined with an advertising campaign, with wrap-arounds, normal ads and paid-for editorial content labelled as ‘government-sponsored’ (though not always very prominently). 

Content for these articles was seemingly spoon-fed to the papers by the Government, with the same interviews and the same quotes appearing across several titles, though some of the linking text varied. The stories often involved praise for measures taken by the Government and some of it was barely relevant to COVID. 

The only fragment of information offered by the Cabinet Office was to refer us to its monthly spending data, which showed that the money was delivered to the papers through OmniGov, the branch of global media company Manning Gottlieb that manages Government advertising.

How much it has added up to, we can only guess. If it had continued at its initial rate for 24 months that would take the total well over £200 million, but this is unlikely as activity appears to have tailed off slowly after hitting an early peak. Spending in that early period was clearly high, however, and possibly above budget, so the total to date could well exceed £100 million. 

Barring tiny sums, this money has all gone to the big newspaper groups, including the big regionals and the Guardian. Small, independent news publishers which also lobbied the Government and which were far more vulnerable in the early pandemic period, received next to nothing. 

The chief recipients of this public largesse could hardly have deserved it less. The Mail is owned through trusts based in Jersey and the Bahamas and its proprietor is the billionaire Lord Rothermere, widely reported to enjoy non-dom tax status. The Telegraph is owned by Sir Frederick Barclay, who lives on Brecqhou, a private island in the Channel Islands. Rupert Murdoch is of course an Australian-American media tycoon worth some $19 billion. 

The question is therefore this: how can the media validly claim to be holding power to account – to be exposing the avalanche of corruption and wrongdoing perpetuated by Johnson’s regime – when it is receiving substantial funds from that same administration?

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A Systemic Problem

Moreover, this story confirms a pattern of behaviour – the co-dependence of the Prime Minister and his allies in the media. 

Byline Times has previously revealed that some 25% of the Prime Minister’s recorded meetings with external organisations from July to September last year were held with right-wing publications. According to Cummings, the Prime Minister has referred to the Telegraph as his “real boss” – and has been keen to follow the newspaper’s laissez–faire approach to lockdown restrictions. 

Johnson flew back from the COP26 summit in Glasgow in November – a crucial event in deciding the world’s climate change priorities – in order to attend a reunion party of Telegraph journalists at London’s prestigious Garrick Club.

The Prime Minister has also been criticised for his close relationship with Evgeny Lebedev, the proprietor of the Evening Standard and the Independent. Johnson nominated Lebedev – whose father is a former KGB spy – to the House of Lords under the title ‘Baron Lebedev of Hampton and Siberia’ and overruled security service concerns about his appointment. 

Cummings’ comments come amid renewed support for Johnson’s administration, and attacks on the leader of the opposition, from some right-wing newspapers.

The Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, and The Sun spent weeks in the run up to the local elections pushing for a police investigation into Labour Leader Keir Starmer for an alleged breach of lockdown laws in April 2021.

These newspaper groups have deep connections with Downing Street. The Sun’s deputy editor, James Slack, is Johnson’s former director of communications. A leaving party held in Slack’s honour inside Downing Street is among those events investigated by the Metropolitan Police following the ‘Partygate’ revelations. The Sun’s current political editor, Harry Cole, is also the former partner of Johnson’s current wife, Carrie. 

Downing Street’s connections with the Mail group are also strong. James Slack was the former political editor at the Daily Mail. His successor As Downing Street Director of Communications was Jack Doyle – another former political reporter at the Mail

Asked by Byline Times about Cummings’ claim that the Prime Minister personally negotiated “bungs” to newspapers, without any officials present, a Government spokesman said: “We recognise the valued role of national, local and regional newspapers, and actively supported the whole industry during the COVID pandemic. 

“This included investing more in advertising our public information campaign through national and local media and radio, which saw vital public health messaging advertised across approximately 600 titles including UK nationals, regional dailies, weeklies, and independent media.

“No title received preferred treatment, and all outlets were selected by the Government’s external media planning and buying agency purely on their ability to engage with audiences at a national, regional and local level.”

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‘They’re all the Same’: How Political Cynicism Breeds Extremism

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 10:45pm in

A lack of faith in politics is dangerous for democracy, argues Sian Norris, as it paves the way for 'strongmen' to take authoritarian control

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“They’re all the same”, is the most common moan about politicians. “They all lie. They’re all in it for themselves. They don’t care about people like me”.

Such a complaint has become particularly potent in the twin fallout of 'partygate' and 'beergate'. There is clear distance between the 12 events in and around Downing Street being investigated that are linked to the Prime Minister, and the allegations against Keir Starmer and Angela Rayner. But the fact that both main parties are facing questions from the police has added fuel to the fire that all politicians are as bad as each other. 

The narrative that politicians are all the same – and by ‘same’ we mean equally bad, not equally good – breeds a cynicism in politics that is bad for democracy. It turns voters away from the ballot box, as they refuse to choose between a ruling and opposition party that they believe are as bad as each other. It breeds distrust in politicians so that when positive policies are announced, voters don’t truly believe politics can make a difference to their lives. 

Worse, it allows for extremist and divisive actors to thrive – after all, if the mainstream can’t be trusted, why not lend your support to those who promise to do things differently? 

Extremism flourishes where faith in democracy is broken. 

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Britain’s Divides

According to a report published earlier this year by the Carnegie UK Trust, less than half the English public (45%) feel that democracy works well in the UK and an overwhelming majority (77%) do not trust MPs. Just under three-quarters (74%) of the public do not trust that the UK Government will make decisions that will improve their lives. 

The poll was taken in the early weeks of partygate. Now, with beergate fuelling the belief that they’re “all the same”, it’s possible trust is even lower. 

Such lack of trust creates confusion. This in turn creates division and divide, which can be manipulated into a culture war. This is the breeding ground for extremism. 

As democracy has eroded in the UK, culture war issues have increasingly taken hold and the electorate has become divided along values lines – with progressives pitched against ‘small-c’ conservatives, with pro-Europeans pitched against little-Englanders, with social justice and human rights advocates pitched against those who long for a return to the natural order.  

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law”

This is evidenced in new research from the Policy Institute at Kings College London and Ipsos UK, which found that more than half (54%) of the UK public aware of the “culture wars”. That is an increase from 46% at the end of 2020. At the same time, 36% of the UK public see the word “woke” as an insult, rising to 42% of over-55s. 

The study also found that half of the UK public feel the term “white privilege” is unhelpful when talking about race relations – double the number of people in 2020. 

This is hardly surprising. The Conservative Government has been determined to wage a culture war that can distract attention from the disastrous handling of the pandemic, and the growing stress on families caused by the rising cost of living. From reports that blamed the phrase “white privilege” on the lack of academic attainment of white working class boys, to Party Chairman Oliver Dowden telling the radical-right think tank that the term would be banned in UK schools, a Government in trouble clings to culture issues in order to create scapegoats for its failings and to stoke divisions. 

When faith in democracy crumbles, people seek refuge in the old certainties – in race, in nation, in war (even a culture one). That the UK is increasingly aware of and embroiled in a culture war over values is a consequence of both cynicism in political leaders – and the cynicism of political leaders who fill the lacuna where policies of transformation should be, with the politics of hate and division.

This, in turn, moves us towards extremism.

Strongmen Leaders

Whenever democracy is in danger, there’s often a strongman waiting in the wings. These are the authoritarian leaders who rush in on promises of simple answers, conservative solutions, and a return to the natural order. 

Crucially, the strongman leader comes to power with a promise to end corruption – to “drain the swamp” in Trump parlance – while accusing their predecessors in mainstream politics of being corrupt. For an electorate that has lost trust in its politicians, a campaign against corruption is beguiling. Voters that believe all parties are the same, that all politician are in it for themselves and not in it to support the public, have every reason to support a strongman who promises to do things differently and end corruption. 

But there’s a problem. From Putin to Orban, Trump to Bolsanara, even Sebastian Kurz in Austria and Salvini in Italy, strongmen come to power or popularity promising a new dawn... only to be corrupt themselves. 

This has two consequences. The first is to create even more disillusionment in politics – a sense that if even the man promising to end corruption is corrupt, there’s no point trusting anyone. The second is to create apathy or even forgiveness – that he probably deserves that wealth/kickback/favour (this, for a while, worked for Boris Johnson and the endless stories about backers being asked to pay for wallpaper/takeaways/nannying services). Either way, it feeds the degradation of politics and paves the way for extremism.

To understand why this happens, it’s important to understand the far-right framing of corruption. Far from being about money and Wall Street, the strongman leader sees corruption as being about who takes up space and who holds power. 

When the far-right talk about corruption, they are instead talking about the “corruption of purity rather than of law” or a “usurpation of the natural order”, according to writer Jason Stanley. He explains in his book How Fascism Works how “when women attain positions of political power usually reserved for men – or when Muslims, blacks, Jews, homosexuals, or ‘cosmopolitans’ profit or even share the public goods of a democracy, such as healthcare – that is perceived as corruption”.

Little wonder then, that where there are authoritarian, strongmen leaders, there is often a flourishing anti-gender movement, along with anti-women, anti-LGBTIQ policies. According to research by Women’s Link Worldwide, anti-abortion and anti-LGBTIQ organisations and policies find success in countries with weak democracies and strongmen leadership. As such, natalist efforts, anti-abortion bills, anti-LGBTIQ and anti-RSE policies are the canary in the coalmine for a democracy that is sliding into extremism. 

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Hancock Meeting with Tech Giants That Won £1.3 Billion in COVID Contracts Declared 21 Months Late

Published by Anonymous (not verified) on Wed, 11/05/2022 - 9:13pm in

Sascha Lavin reports on a very belated update to the Department of Health and Social Care’s record of meetings held during the pandemic

The Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) failed to declare a meeting between technology firms and the then Health and Social Care Secretary Matt Hancock at the outset of the Coronavirus pandemic, Byline Intelligence Team can reveal. 

The tech giants at the roundtable – which included representatives from controversial firms Babylon and Palantir – went on to acquire public sector contracts worth £1.3 billion during the pandemic.

This comes as the Government continues to face criticism for dodging scrutiny. Boris Johnson and his Cabinet were slammed for failing to tackle a worrying “slide away from transparency” in a recent parliamentary report. The report criticised the so-called ‘Clearing House’ – the secretive Cabinet Office unit which blocks the release of politically sensitive information to certain journalists – and urged officials to stop using private WhatsApp messages to circumvent information laws. 

Now, Byline Intelligence Team can reveal that a crucial meeting held 12 days before the first lockdown was only declared last week when the DHSC updated its records for the ministerial meetings held with external individuals and organisations during the period January to March 2020.  

The original publication was released on 30 July 2020 – meaning that this previously undeclared meeting was published 21 months late, and 25 months after it took place. 

The almost two year delay in declaring the meeting  was due to “an administrative error”, Byline Times understands.

The Big Tech Network

This is not the first time that the DHSC has failed to declare meetings with firms that went on to acquire lucrative public sector contracts during the pandemic. 

Byline Times previously revealed that 27 meetings held in April 2020 with companies that went on to win £1.14 billion in Government contracts were omitted from DHSC’s original records.

According to reports at the time, the purpose of the March 2020 meeting was to identify how each firm could help the Government to grapple with the COVID-19 crisis – and this assistance ultimately proved to be quite lucrative.

Almost half of the firms at the meeting went on to win contracts, with 10 of the 22 companies delivering COVID-related products and services.

The biggest winner – the data collection firm IQVIA – has secured more than £1 billion in pandemic-related public sector contracts since the meeting.

Palantir, a US-based artificial intelligence (AI) firm founded by Donald Trump-donor Peter Thiel, has also acquired £25 million-worth of public sector contracts since the March 2020 meeting. As Byline Times has previously reported, Palantir came under fire for its lack of transparency over its COVID-19 datastore and restrictions on NHS staff access to the datasets. It has also been scrutinised heavily for its work in the US, in assisting with the identification and deportation of immigrants.

Two of the companies at the DHSC roundtable also have links to Johnson’s inner circle.

Artificial intelligence firm Faculty worked on the Vote Leave campaign, while its former commercial principal, Ben Warner, joined Johnson’s Number 10 operation, working closely with Johnson’s now former chief advisor Dominic Cummings, in December 2019.

Representatives from Babylon, an AI firm working within the NHS, also attended the DHSC meeting. 

Although Babylon has secured public sector contracts with Birmingham and Royal Berkshire NHS Trusts since the March 2020 meeting, how much taxpayer money has been awarded to the firm is unknown because the deals have not been registered on the UK contracting website. 

The host of the March 2020 meeting, then Health Secretary Matt Hancock, is linked to Babylon. In 2018, Hancock was accused of breaking the Ministerial Code by promoting the private healthcare firm in a paid-for newspaper supplement in the Evening Standard

Cummings, has also been linked to the company: he was an advisor to Babylon until September 2018, advising on its communications strategy and its senior recruitment. Following his departure from Downing Street, Cummings has also seemingly tried to resume his work for Babylon.

There is no tangible evidence to suggest that attendees used this meeting with the Government to secure public sector contracts, or that certain firms used their political links to gain access to the meeting.

Moreover, despite the DHSC now declaring the meeting after two years, there is still confusion over its attendees. 

According to the DHSC’s recent declaration, the roundtable was hosted by Hancock and the only attendees listed were representatives from tech firms. However, at the time, Wired and BuzzFeed reported details of an 11 March 2020 meeting chaired by Dominic Cummings with “40 technology leaders”. The Cabinet Office has not declared any such meeting held by Boris Johnson’s then chief advisor. 

A Downing Street press release also contradicts the DHSC’s version: published on the day of the meeting, it states that major technology companies met with NHS Chief Executive Simon Stevens and Number 10 officials – which could have included Cummings – yet there is no mention of Hancock.  

This article was produced by the Byline Intelligence Team – a collaborative investigative project formed by Byline Times with The Citizens. If you would like to find out more about the Intelligence Team and how to fund its work, click on the button below.

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