‘Residents will be unimpressed with MPs over Boris’

Chair of the East Devon Alliance, Martin Shaw, on politics in the district and beyond…


As it became clear that Boris Johnson was potentially lying about the lockdown-busting parties he attended, it was good to see a local Conservative MP organising the campaign to remove him, while another lost the whip to support removing VAT from our soaring energy bills (she must have read my last column).

Unfortunately, the MPs in question were the members for West Dorset and Newton Abbott respectively, not those for our district. 

Instead the members for East Devon, Simon Jupp, and Tiverton and Honiton, Neil Parish, have avoided criticising Johnson. They also voted down the move to help people with their energy bills. 

I suspect that many residents will be very unimpressed that Messrs Jupp and Parish have not spoken out and expressed what local residents feel about the hypocrisy coming from Number 10.

Their only possible excuse might be, I suppose, that they fear that funding for their constituencies might be withdrawn if they spoke out, since the Tory chair of the Commons Constitutional Affairs MP, William Wragg, has alleged that the Tory whips are using this threat to ‘blackmail’ MPs into supporting Johnson. 

If either Mr Jupp or Mr Parish has been targeted in this way, they have a duty to let us know. Even if they have not personally experienced this, this allegation must surely make them realise that Johnson does not merit their continued support.

This represents an appalling level of corruption, but it follows numerous other instances. 

The Levelling Up Fund was used to support marginal Conservative constituencies and even those of two ministers in the department running it – Axminster lost out, presumably because Tiverton and Honiton was thought too safe. 

The government ran a VIP ‘fast lane’ to enable Tory cronies to obtain pandemic contracts, and this has been ruled unlawful by the High Court, in a case brought by the excellent Good Law Project.

In a memorable recent video take-down, Line of Duty’s AC-12 team told Boris Johnson that ‘your corruption was mistaken for incompetence’. 

However the charge applies to the whole government, not just the charlatan-in-chief, and to the Conservative Party, since not one minister or backbencher has challenged it.

It is also shocking that in his desperation to cling to power, Boris Johnson has prematurely ditched the remaining Covid protections and slashed the isolation period for those who have the disease to five days – against scientific advice that one-third of people are still infectious. 

The timing of the loosening is bizarre from a public health point of view, with 1,000 deaths a week, hospitals still struggling with nearly 20,000 Covid patients, and cases going up again in primary schools. 

It has all been rushed out to buy the support of the anti-health faction in the Tory party, which Mr Jupp supported in December’s votes.


It’s great news for Seaton that East Devon District Council have found the money to implement the Beach Management Plan, which community representatives helped them draw up. 

This will renew the protection which is keeping coastal erosion at bay, and the work will begin in late 2023. 

But we also need movement on the Seaton Seafront Enhancement scheme, which will smarten up the area around Fisherman’s Gap, the sea wall and the Moridunum. 

EDDC and our MP are willing to promote the scheme and it is now time for Seaton Town Council to resubmit the application for planning permission, which was unfortunately allowed to lapse.

It’s less good news, moreover, that the Environment Agency is now so underfunded that it can no longer monitor smaller waterways. 

I recall how the EA worked with a local farm to eliminate slurry spills into the stream which flows to Seaton Hole, which showed how valuable their work is. 

On top of the revelations about sewage outflows polluting local rivers and beaches, we need a radical shift in policy and resources to keep them safe.

UK faces £1B cut to regional development projects post Brexit, MPs warn

Levelling up is down – Owl

Cristina Gallardo www.politico.eu 

A post-Brexit British fund for regional development will fall £1 billion short of what the U.K. received from the EU, MPs warned.

The House of Commons Treasury committee said Thursday that the UK Shared Prosperity Fund (UKSPF) is worth just 60 percent of the EU structural funds it aims to replace.

The U.K. government has touted the long-awaited British scheme, due to launch in April, as a “centerpiece” of its so-called “Leveling Up” policy agenda, a looming regional development strategy.

The UKSPF is due to be worth £1.5 billion a year by 2024-25, but the committee said this falls short of the £2.5 billion a year the U.K. received in EU structural cash before Brexit.

“If the new fund is intended to be one of ‘the centerpieces’ of the government’s ambition, it is surprising that the size of the fund is being reduced to such an extent,” the committee wrote in a report. “The government will need to demonstrate how these reduced funds will achieve their defined metrics for leveling up.”

Elsewhere, the committee noted that “leveling up” was mentioned 91 times in the U.K. budget and spending review documents, but said the government should clarify how this policy goal will be measured and attained.

“Rebadging existing programs may not have the impact the government is seeking,” the report warned.

A spokesperson for the Treasury said the government has “an ambitious domestic agenda to boost investment to improve people’s everyday lives,” which includes the UKSPF.

“The upcoming Leveling Up White Paper will set out the next steps in how the huge investment set out in the Spending Review will deliver on this central mission,” the spokesperson said.

Nuclear power: Taxpayers deserve to know that the odd billion or three isn’t being diverted unnecessarily to intermediaries.

What’s plan B if the government can’t attract investors willing to fund Sizewell C? 

Nils Pratley www.theguardian.com 

A sum of £100m is peanuts in the expensive world of nuclear power stations, so regard the business secretary Kwasi Kwarteng’s funding for a round of development work on Sizewell C as a form of advertising. The cash is intended to send a message that the government is serious about getting the plant built in Suffolk. And it is an appeal for outside investors to volunteer to sit alongside developer EDF, the French state-backed group.

There was also a definition of a desirable investor: “British pension funds, insurers and other institutional investors from like-minded countries”. Note the nationality test. It is the closest we have come to official confirmation that China General Nuclear (CGN), originally slated for a 20% stake in Sizewell, will be kicked off the project. It remains to be seen how, legally, the government will rip up the 2015 deal with CGN signed by David Cameron’s government, but the intention is clear.

So, too, is the intended funding mechanism. It will be a regulated asset base (RAB) model, a version of the formula used at Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Thames Tideway giant sewer. The key point for investors is that they will see some income before Sizewell is built, unlike at Hinkley Point C where EDF and CGN earn their princely cashflows only when the electricity starts to flow.

The switch will lower Sizewell’s lifetime costs by “more than £30bn” versus Hinkley’s contracts-for-difference model, says the government, being economical with the economics. What it doesn’t mention is that any cost overrun (a real risk given nuclear’s reliable record of never hitting its construction budgets) will be shoved on to consumers, who will in any case see £10 a year added to household energy bills during the build phase. But, yes, Kwarteng is correct that the RAB model is the only one with a chance of attracting new investors.

What, though, if those British and like-minded institutions still refuse to play? Nuclear represents unknown territory for most of them. What if competition to invest, which is meant to be the other way in which RAB lowers financing costs, doesn’t materialise? What’s the government’s plan B?

The only possible solution is for the state to invest directly. If that is so, wouldn’t it be better to run an upfront benchmarking exercise at the outset to compare the numbers? Sizewell, unfortunately, is probably inevitable given the current panic over high gas prices and long-term energy security. But taxpayers, on the hook anyway via household bills, deserve to know that the odd billion or three isn’t being diverted unnecessarily to intermediaries.

By the time Sizewell’s sums become enormous, transparency will be essential. The government has just thrown £1.7bn at Bulb, the failed energy supplier, to keep it on life support and it will be a miracle if all the cash comes back in full. In that context, using public money to invest in a productive energy asset doesn’t seem such an awful prospect.

Fibbing is part of Boris Johnson’s toolkit but could be his undoing

“Those who have worked closely with Johnson over the years say fibbing is an entrenched part of his psychological makeup – and his political toolkit. His first instinct, when backed into a political corner, is to tell a wilful untruth, they say. Indeed, they suggest that, over time, Johnson comes to believe the version of reality he weaves for himself as he fibs his way out of trouble.”

Heather Stewart www.theguardian.com 

If Boris Johnson’s premiership is brought to a humiliating close in the coming days, it will not only be because he allowed Downing Street’s boozy lockdown parties to happen on his watch – but because he lied about them.

When allegations of parties first emerged, Johnson told MPs in the House of Commons that Covid guidance “was followed completely in No 10”, and on another occasion – vehemently – that he had been “repeatedly assured” there were no parties.

Both of those assertions now seem increasingly hard to believe, as has been evident in Johnson supporters’ tortuous efforts to defend him. Slavish loyalist Conor Burns plumbed new depths of absurdity this week by saying the prime minister was “ambushed by a cake”.

On Wednesday Labour claimed there was further evidence of lies when newly released Foreign Office emails appeared to contradict Downing Street’s insistence that Johnson did not personally authorise the controversial rescue of cats and dogs from a British animal charity in Afghanistan.

Even those cabinet ministers who have backed him in recent days have stressed the sanctity of the ministerial code, which says bluntly that “ministers who knowingly mislead parliament will be expected to offer their resignation”.

Citing that rule on Wednesday, Labour leader Keir Starmer called on Johnson to resign immediately. But judging by the prime minister’s half-apology for attending the “bring your own booze” party in May 2020, which he insisted he believed was a “work event”, he appears likely to argue that if he did mislead parliament, he did so unwittingly.

Amber Rudd resigned as home secretary in 2018 when she discovered she had “inadvertently misled” the home affairs select committee but Johnson appears unlikely to take the same approach. His allies have insisted he will fight any vote of no confidence.

Those who have worked closely with Johnson over the years say fibbing is an entrenched part of his psychological makeup – and his political toolkit. His first instinct, when backed into a political corner, is to tell a wilful untruth, they say. Indeed, they suggest that, over time, Johnson comes to believe the version of reality he weaves for himself as he fibs his way out of trouble.

“It’s almost a superpower in a way,” one former colleague said with something approaching awe.

He has twice been sacked in the past for lying. In 1988, the Times got rid of him after he made up quotes in a news story. He later conceded that he had “mildly sandpapered something somebody said”.

As an MP in 2004, he was dispatched from the Tory frontbench, not for having an affair but for failing to come clean about it. He had described the claims of a long-running relationship with Spectator colleague Petronella Wyatt as “complete balderdash”.

During the 2019 Tory leadership contest, Conservative MPs who compared notes afterwards found he had made completely contradictory promises to them about what stance he would take on particular policies.

None of that appeared to matter too much when the odd fib was part of the devil-may-care persona his own MPs believed made Johnson the “Heineken politician”, reaching groups of voters the Tories had previously struggled to win over.

And it was of a piece with the ruthless approach he and his band of Vote Leave veterans took to bulldozing Brexit through – even when that meant proroguing parliament, or taking the whip away from senior and long-serving MPs.

Little more than two years after Johnson secured a thumping parliamentary majority and did indeed “get Brexit done”, he may be felled by the very maverick qualities that helped him into Downing Street – not least his seeming inability to stick to the truth.

Fears new Stealth Omicron strain is surging among children

The new Covid variant labelled ‘Stealth Omicron’ could be 1.5 times more infectious than the original strain, latest studies have revealed.

Brett Gibbons www.devonlive.com 

The new strain BA.2 has been deemed a variant under investigation (VUI) by the UK Health Security Agency (UKHSA) because of its similar properties to original cases, the Express reports.

The BA.2 has been nicknamed “Stealth Omicron” because of the challenge for scientists to track, unlike the original strain that stood out on PCR tests without the need for extra genome sequencing.

Experts now fear it may lengthen the current wave, with a growth in Omicron infections among children – with boffins from Imperial College London warning this could lead to another surge in adults.

Results from the government-backed REACT-1 study, based on more than 100,000 random tests across England, show the infection rate in primary school-age children was 7.8 percent — and rising — from January 5 to 20.

In adults, by contrast, infection rates were significantly lower — and falling — with over 75s, at 2.4 percent, least likely to have Covid.

Professor Paul Elliott, director of the REACT programme from Imperial’s School of Public Health, said: “There is good news in our data in that infections had been rapidly dropping during January, but they are still extremely high and may have recently stalled at a very high prevalence.

“Of particular concern is that there is rapidly increasing prevalence among children now they are mixing more following the start of the school term and, compared with December, prevalence in older people aged 65 and over has increased 7- to 12-fold, which may lead to increased hospitalisations.

“It’s therefore vital that we continue to monitor the situation closely to understand the impact of the Omicron variant, which now makes up almost all infections in the country.”

The new sub-lineage of the Omicron strain is “increasing in many countries”, as confirmed by the World Health Organisation. It said BA.2, “differs from BA.1 in some of the mutations, including in the spike protein”.

Early data suggests that BA.2 may be both more transmissible and better able to evade vaccines than the more common BA.1 sub-lineage. While it has not yet caused as much concern as Delta and the original Omicron variant, officials are monitoring the outbreak.

Professor Oliver Johnson, director of the Institute for Statistical Science at Bristol University, said: “Probably one to keep an eye on rather than panic about at the moment, but still potentially annoying.”

He added on social media: “It may mean things being a slog in the ‘1,000 to 2,000 [hospital] admissions’ range for longer than we’d like, so we can’t start to make inroads into waiting lists as a result.”

Dr Meera Chand, Covid incident director at UKHSA, claimed: “It is the nature of viruses to evolve and mutate, so it’s to be expected that we will continue to see new variants emerge as the pandemic goes on.

“Our continued genomic surveillance allows us to detect them and assess whether they are significant. So far, there is insufficient evidence to determine whether BA.2 causes more severe illness than Omicron BA.1, but data is limited and UKHSA continues to investigate.”

Sue Gray’s report: Who’s behind the partygate leaks – and why?

Marie Le Conte www.opendemocracy.net 

It seems fair to say that the Number 10 parties scandal has brought several issues into the spotlight. There is the harshness of the UK’s lockdown rules; the seemingly endless capacity for those in power to regard themselves as above the law; the inscrutable internal mechanics of the parliamentary Conservative Party and so on.

What do they all have in common? Well, none of them would be making headlines now – or getting investigated by Sue Gray – if it weren’t for leaks. After all, the boozy work events took place last year and the year before that; had insiders not decided to start spilling their secrets to journalists last month, we would collectively be none the wiser.

It isn’t possible to know who decided to tattle and why they decided to do so now, but it seems worth taking a broader look at the leaking culture in Westminster, how it works, and what it tells us about how our Britain is being run.

Jigsaw puzzle

“I see it as a jigsaw with some of the pieces missing,” says one senior political journalist. “If you’re lucky, you’ll get a big bit – something identifiable – and from that you can extrapolate and build outwards. But mostly what happens is you get the outside bits and have to build inwards.”

Far from brown envelopes and shady meetings where everything is revealed in one fell swoop, leaks to journalists usually start with a morsel, given purposely or by mistake, which sets reporters on a certain trail.

In over a decade in political journalism, “I’ve only ever been given one proper big leak, which ended up making a splash in the paper I worked for,” the journalist added, “and the person who gave it to me did it for money. That was unusual.”

It’s a rare occurrence because no one person will have access to every possible bit of information on one story; they can share only what they know then rely on the hack to reach out to people who can help build a fuller picture.

It is also usually the case that political insiders do not want to be wholly responsible for one seismic leak. There is safety in numbers, and being one of several blabbers will always be better than potentially being singled out as the one chatty rat.

A natural follow-up question should be: why do people even leak information when it could cost them their reputation, or even their job? Well, it depends.

As a former government special adviser explained, “there are several ways in which people leak. Sometimes it’s by accident, and they give up information that they don’t realise is important in the course of conversations.”

What is obvious to some will not be obvious to others; it can be hard to know what is an open secret, what is known by all, and what really should stay hidden.

“Sometimes it’s because Westminster is based on the currency of information,” they continued, “and people quite often want to pretend that they’re more important than they are – and their stock-in-trade is information.”

What you know can be just as important as what you do in British politics; marking yourself as someone who is in the thick of it can elevate you in the minds of your peers. Of course, it is a fine line; staffers can further their career by hinting to journalists that they are terribly well-informed, but too much gossipping will make them look needy and unreliable.

Being known as a sieve is not something you can usually come back from; the streets of SW1 are littered with the ghosts of advisers who realised this only once it was too late.

Still, it feels worth reiterating that most of what makes it to the papers does so purely because British politics is built on casual conversations. MPs and staffers talk to each other; those staffers talk to journalists, who talk to special advisers, who talk to ministers and to each other, ad nauseam.

Information is constantly floating around and, sometimes, some of it will happen to be in the public interest and make it into print. Once that starts happening, things can get sharper very quickly.

As ‘partygate’ has shown, tattling calls to tattling everywhere; few people want to throw the first stone but once it has happened, heads suddenly start appearing above the parapet.

Thanks to modern technology, it has also become easier than ever to leak information confidentially. When sources once had to meet journalists in person to hand in hastily photocopied documents, anything and everything can now be discreetly pictured and sent on WhatsApp.

This is one of the reasons why it feels like leaking is currently out of control; give people the means, and they will deliver the goods. That is, however, only one part of the equation. If people are happy and secure in their jobs, they are unlikely to try and drown their own government, even if doing so would require minimum effort.

That every day now feels like it comes with its own serving of dramatic leaks means that – at risk of stating the obvious – Number 10 isn’t currently a happy ship. There are few ways in which people can fight back in politics if they feel they have been treated wrongly; handing journalists helpful information is one of the only weapons at their disposal.

In short: if the hull keeps filling up with water, it is probably a sign that whoever is at the helm isn’t doing a very good job.