No 10 legal threat to The New European

Insights into events of the first few days of November when Boris Johnson flew back from COP 26 to attend a Garrick Club dinner and subsequently decided to  order his MPs to tear up the parliamentary standards rulebook. – Owl

George Grylls, Political Reporter

Boris Johnson has denied he will take legal action over a “completely untrue” story that he joked about his marriage at a Garrick Club dinner.

The New European published a story alleging that he made a “callous jibe” at the gathering of former Daily Telegraph journalists after flying back in a private jet from the Cop26 summit.

The weekly newspaper, set up by pro-EU journalists after the 2016 EU referendum, said Johnson joked that he had “buyer’s remorse” about marrying Carrie Symonds, who is pregnant with their second child. One guest quoted by the paper said: “It was a remarkable thing to say and there were a number of raised eyebrows around the table.” No 10 called the claims completely untrue.

Matt Kelly, the editor-in-chief, said he had received two calls from No 10 threatening to sue him for libel if he ran the piece.

Kelly said in a statement he had a call at 10.30pm on Thursday from — he later found out — Jack Doyle, Johnson’s director of communications. “His opening gambit was ‘Boris Johnson is going to sue The New European for defamation,” Kelly said. “I made it clear that this was not a threat that troubled me greatly and we stood by our story. After a few minutes, the caller eventually told me, ‘You just crack on then, mate’ and put the phone down.

“I texted him, asking him to repeat his threat of legal action and to send across the Downing Street denial. I also asked him, twice, to identify himself, which he refused to do.”

He established the next day that the caller was Doyle. No 10 had to reply to questions about the reports after Kelly’s account. No 10 denied Johnson had joked about his marriage at the dinner. “The prime minister has been clear that he didn’t make those remarks and they are completely untrue,” No 10 said.

Johnson left the Garrick with Lord Moore of Etchingham, the former editor of The Daily Telegraph. Moore was a vocal defender of Owen Paterson, the former MP for North Shropshire, and raised the issue of the disgraced backbencher’s ban for paid lobbying at the dinner, according to some reports.

The next day Johnson ordered his MPs to tear up the parliamentary standards rulebook in a failed attempt to save the former minister. Paterson resigned amid the outcry.

Boris Johnson told: dump plan for social care charges or face Tory rebellion

Senior Conservatives on Saturday urged Boris Johnson to ditch plans that would see many of England’s poorest pensioners paying more for their social care – or risk being forced by his own MPs into a humiliating U-turn.

Toby Helm 

The prime minister, still reeling from sleaze allegations and fury among “red wall” MPs over scaled-back rail investment in the north, is facing another potentially damaging Commons rebellion at the hands of an increasingly mutinous party.

The Observer has learned that several northern Tory MPs took part in an emergency call set up by care minister Gillian Keegan on Friday afternoon, during which she was said to have been “monstered” by backbenchers complaining that the plans were unfair and had not been fully explained or thought through.

According to MPs in on the call, former Tory chief whip Mark Harper challenged Keegan to produce more detailed analysis of the plans – which neither she nor two civil servants present was able to do. Harper then said it would not be good enough for her to produce details on the day of the vote, which is expected to be Monday or Tuesday.

Tory whips are understood to have been told by several senior Tory MPs that they are considering voting against the plans, or abstaining, unless they are amended to make sure pensioners would not be forced to sell their homes to pay for their care, as Johnson previously promised.

Jeremy Hunt, former health secretary and current chair of the health select committee, said it was “deeply disappointing” that the new plans were “not as progressive” as those put forward by Andrew Dilnot, the economist who drew up the original plans for a cap on individual contributions. He said it would now be up to government to improve entitlements once the cap had been introduced.

Damian Green, the former Tory cabinet minister, who was also on the call, told the Observer that the government should drop the plans and adopt a system that would guarantee that people could retain a percentage of their housing wealth.

“I would urge them to adopt a different approach,” Green said. “I think it would be infinitely preferable to guarantee that people can keep a percentage of their housing wealth rather than having a flat rate applying to the whole country.”

Tory WhatsApp groups were said to be full of comments from MPs – including many in red wall seats – talking about a potential rebellion unless the government backed down.

Last week, when MPs’ minds were focused more on troubles over sleaze and the decision to axe the eastern section of the high-speed rail line to Leeds, ministers announced changes to social care plans which would mean poorer pensioners would not, after all, be able to count means-tested payments by the state for their care towards a total cap of £86,000 for any individual. It is believed the change was made under pressure from the Treasury.

Critics said this meant that while someone who owned a £1m house would be able to protect more than 90% of their asset, someone with a home valued at £70,000, in a less wealthy part of the country, would lose almost everything.

Dr Dan Poulter MP, who works part time as a psychiatrist in the NHS, said that the unwelcome change to the plans was the result of government not having set aside enough money for social care when its main announcements on extra NHS funding and care reform was made in September.

“The initial set of proposals for a £86,000 lifetime cap of social care costs were strong and addressed the injustice of people having to sell their homes to pay for their care, but there were always questions about whether the government’s sums added up,” Poulter said.

“So, while this this policy change is surprising, I suspect it may well have been driven by the realisation that an extra £5.6bn, while welcome, was never going to be enough to meet both the care and workforce challenges in the social care system as well as to properly finance the introduction of an £86,000 cap on care costs. Unfortunately, it will be poorer pensioners who have relatively modest assets that will be most affected by these changes.”

When she announced the plans last Thursday, Keegan said they would “reduce complexity” and ensure that people “are not unfairly reaching the cap at an artificially faster rate than what they contribute”.

Analysis by the Observer shows that almost three-quarters of the seats the Tories won from Labour at the last election will be among those hit hardest by these changes.

Of the 54 seats the Conservatives won from Labour in 2019, 41 have average house prices below that level. In the Burnley constituency, for example, the average house is worth £99,950. In Darlington, it is £135,000 and in Durham North West it is £120,000, according to recent figures from the House of Commons library.

Appearing before a committee of MPs last week, Dilnot said that about 60% of older people who end up needing social care would lose out under the government’s plans.

“The people most harshly affected by this change are those with assets of exactly £106,000,” he said. “But everybody with assets of less than £186,000 would do less well under what the government is proposing than under the proposals we made and that were legislated for. That was a big change announced yesterday. It finds savings exclusively from the less well-off group.”

Shadow health secretary Jonathan Ashworth said: “Boris Johnson’s care plans are descending into chaos, with Tory MPs squabbling while ministers admit they haven’t even studied how the proposals disproportionately hammer those with modest assets.

“As civil servants confirm that these changes will clobber some of the poorest pensioners, many in the north and Midlands, Tory MPs must join with Labour in voting down this unfair care con and demand ministers come back with a fair alternative.”

Charles Tallack of the Health Foundation said the average house price in red wall seats of £160,000 meant they were “most likely to be affected by the proposed changes”. The type of people currently using care are also more likely to be worse off under the plans. The majority of people in care are women over 80, who have a median wealth of £156,000.

Devon booster uptake going well

Devon has seen a “really good uptake” of the covid booster jab, according to a health boss.

Ollie Heptinstall, local democracy reporter

Nearly a quarter of a million doses (240,000)  have been given out so far to around 58 per cent of eligible people, Dr Paul Johnson, clinical chair of the NHS Devon Clinical Commissioning Group, told a monthly Team Devon meeting of local authority leaders.

He said many of the remaining 42 per cent will also have an appointment booked, “so the real figure of people coming forward for their vaccine at the booster stage is likely to increase.”

It marks a significant shift in tone from last month’s meeting, when Dr Johnson said he was “concerned” about the uptake of booster jabs, with just over 40 per cent of those eligible having received it at the time.

Since then, the criteria for booking appointments has changed. Whilst people still cannot receive a booster until at least six months after their second vaccine, they can now book their appointments after five months.

The eligibility age has been reduced too, with third jabs now being offered to people aged 41 and over. Those who are also more clinically vulnerable and the people they live with, as well as NHS workers, social care staff and care home residents, can also receive their booster.

Dr Johnson says the increase in the number of people turning up at large vaccination sites in Devon for third doses means extra resources having to be put in place, with the number “currently, in some circumstances, exceeding the capacity that we’ve got.”

But he added: “It’s a good problem to have, and it’s one that’s relatively easy to fix by just increasing the resourcing there.”

Locations offering boosters include the Riviera International Centre in Torquay, Home Park football stadium in Plymouth, Exeter’s Greendale on the Sidmouth Road, Newton Abbot Racecourse and Barnstaple Leisure Centre.

The meeting was also told that around 90 per cent of adults over 40 have now had the first two doses of the vaccine, above the national average. Dr Johnson called it “a really good result”.

However, he said there was “still work to be done” in younger age groups, with uptake in ages between 18 to those in their thirties “around about the 75 to 85 per cent of uptake, which is lower than we would like.”

From the Covid dashboard – the latest picture of confirmed infections:

Exclusive: Boris Johnson in fresh inquiry after Jennifer Arcuri agrees to assist ethics watchdog

“Arcuri’s decision to cooperate with the GLA monitoring officer reopens the prospect of Johnson facing an investigation for a potential criminal offence of misconduct in public office.”

Mark Townsend

A fresh inquiry has opened into Boris Johnson’s relationship with Jennifer Arcuri after the US businesswoman dramatically agreed to assist officials, paving the way for the prime minister to face possible criminal investigation.

Arcuri has formally offered to help the Greater London Authority (GLA) ethics watchdog by allowing it to inspect extracts of her diary entries chronicling her affair with Johnson and agreeing to be questioned for the first time by investigators over the relationship.

The contemporaneous diary excerpts, disclosed in the Observer last week by the journalist John Ware, reveal how Johnson allegedly overruled the advice of staff to promote the business interests of Arcuri and win her affections.

Arcuri’s decision to cooperate with the GLA monitoring officer reopens the prospect of Johnson facing an investigation for a potential criminal offence of misconduct in public office.

In a previous investigation into Johnson’s business relationship with the then 27-year-old Arcuri, the Independent Office for Police Conduct (IOPC) did not have access to Arcuri’s handwritten diary entries in which she made “verbatim” notes of the highlights of his telephone calls and their conversations.

The police watchdog eventually concluded it would not be launching a criminal inquiry into whether Johnson abused his position as London mayor to “benefit and reward” Arcuri. Investigators also never interviewed Arcuri or received testimony from the tech entrepreneur.

Her evidence is potentially even more critical because the original IOPC inquiry was also hampered by the deletion of key email and phone records at City Hall that prevented the watchdog from “reviewing relevant evidence”.

The latest developments into allegations that Johnson offered to help Arcuri launch her tech business while simultaneously pursuing her for sex will pile more pressure on the prime minister, raising fresh questions over his integrity and lax approach to probity in public life after weeks of sleaze allegations have engulfed his party.

After the Observer last week revealed some of the explosive entries in Arcuri’s diaries, Labour’s deputy leader, Angela Rayner, wrote to the GLA’s monitoring officer, Emma Strain, asking that she urgently refer the new evidence to the IOPC to “look again” at its decision to rule out a criminal investigation.

Strain, in turn, contacted the Observer for assistance in obtaining Arcuri’s diaries so she could assess whether the issue was a “serious complaint” that appeared to constitute or involve a criminal offence being committed.

If Strain judges that the issue is serious, she will formally refer the matter back to the IOPC to decide if it will investigate Johnson over the criminal offence of misconduct in public office.

After several days of weighing up whether she wanted to assist the GLA, Arcuri finally agreed and at 7pm on Friday sent an email to Strain, head of its ethics watchdog.

“I am prepared to show you or your investigators copies of the relevant pages,” Arcuri wrote. “However, I currently reside in the United States, so it would mean you or they [the IOPC] travelling here for that purpose. In that event, I would also be prepared to be interviewed, if that assists.”

If that is not possible, Arcuri has authorised veteran journalist Ware, with whom she has “entrusted” her diaries, to show investigators relevant pages detailing her business dealings with Johnson.

Arcuri handed the first tranche of her diaries to Ware after the 2019 general election and following his ITV documentary in which he accused the prime minister of having a “tenuous relationship to the truth” after Johnson’s repeated insistence that “absolutely everything was done with full propriety” regarding his relationship with Arcuri. Ware was sent a second tranche of material from Arcuri in May 2020.Ware approached Arcuri after recent comments by Johnson about public probity and she consented to allow publication of some of her diary extracts. One Arcuri diary entry reveals how Johnson offered to be her “throttle” in an attempt to accelerate her business career, claims that may reopen the possibility of Johnson facing a potential criminal investigation into misconduct allegations.

It recalled how Johnson told her: “How can I be the thrust – the throttle – your mere footstep as you make your career? Tell me: how I can help you?”

The diary entries also suggest that Johnson broke the rules governing ethical conduct in public office in his dealings with Arcuri.

Responding to the Arcuri revelations last week, a government spokesperson said: “As mayor, Boris Johnson followed all the legal requirements in the Greater London Assembly’s [sic] code of conduct at the time.”

The chart that shows why the NHS is in crisis

Interesting to re-read this report from 2017 and what Jeremy Hunt (Health Secretary 2012 to 2018) had to say. 

Chart highlights NHS hospital bed shortage crisis in comparison to other European countries

The UK has 273 free hospital beds per 100,000 people, the 24th lowest of 27 European countries

The UK has just 273 hospital beds available per 100,000 inhabitants

The UK has just 273 hospital beds available per 100,000 inhabitants

Jeremy Hunt has rejected claims the NHS is facing a “humanitarian crisis” and argued that the UK spends more than average for a rich country on the health service – despite having one of the worst hospital bed shortages in Europe.

The UK has 273 free hospital beds per 100,000 people, the 24th lowest of 27 European countries, according to Eurostat.

More than a dozen hospitals have reported that 100 per cent of their beds are in use, with one hospital in Essex remaining without a single free bed in any general or intensive care ward for 27 days in December.

Two patients died on trolleys in A and E and 42 emergency departments were forced to divert ambulances to other hospitals last week, twice the frequency of the same period last year.

The Health Secretary told Radio 4’s Today programme pressures in the NHS was less about overall funding than about consistency of provision.

Jeremy Hunt says only ‘one or two hospitals’ are in trouble despite claims of a humanitarian crisis

He argued that the NHS now had more doctors, nurses and funding than ever, but explained what he called “very serious problems at some hospitals” by suggesting pressures were increasing in part because people are going to A and Es when they should not.

Germany has three times as many free beds as the UK, with 823 available beds per 100,000 people, while France has 621 free beds for the same population.

Only Denmark, Ireland and Sweden have fewer available hospital beds than the UK, which lags behind the EU average of 521 free beds per 100,000 people.

More than 70 per cent of hospital beds are occupied by emergency admissions, according to the King’s Fund, while 80 per cent of patients who stay in hospital for over two weeks are over 65.

Theresa May said an ageing population “brings pressures, particularly in the interface between the health service and social care”.

“Funding is now at record levels for the NHS, more money has been going in,” said the Prime Minister, sparking claims she was “in denial” over how the health service is struggling in real terms.