Breaking: Government amendment on PM probe dropped

The government has dropped its amendment to the vote this afternoon and is offering Conservative MPs a free vote on the Labour motion to refer Boris Johnson to the Committee on Privileges.
The government last night proposed an amendment which would have delayed the decision to refer the prime minister to the committee after the Metropolitan Police had finished its investigation and a report by senior civil servant Sue Gray had been published.
But, this morning, they have indicated they have abandoned that amendment.
MPs will now vote on the Labour motion and, if passed, the Committee will definitely be able to investigate the PM as soon as the Met concludes its investigation

Why pictures of Downing Street parties could be smoking gun

Even before the final Sue Gray inquiry is published, the public may feel it already knows the inside story of the Downing Street parties in granular details – from suitcases of wine, to broken swings and DJ sets in the basement.

Jessica Elgot 

But given the sheer number of photographs that the Met police have been handed to examine – more than 300 – it is perhaps surprising that more have not found their way into the media.

The Guardian published a photograph taken of the Downing Street garden in May 2020, with Boris and Carrie Johnson sitting in the sunshine with glasses of wine along with aides including Dominic Cummings and Martin Reynolds. Other screengrabs of the No 10 Christmas quiz have been published.

But none has emerged from the most egregious breaches that have been reported, including the summer party where staffers were asked to “bring your own booze” or the leaving parties for staff, including one on the eve of Prince Philip’s funeral.

Some ex-officials who have attended the parties are convinced that the lack of pictures is the key reason why Johnson has been able to successfully spin a version that allows him to convince MPs that he believed that those he attended were work events.

Many of the pictures are understood to have been snapped by Andrew Parsons, Johnson’s official photographer on the No 10 payroll. Some allies of Johnson have used this as a way to explain why the PM remained so convinced he was doing nothing wrong – he was content to allow himself to be photographed.

Those pictures have never been published but are believed to form part of Gray’s inquiry and the evidence she handed to the Met police.

One Tory source said the photographs of Johnson’s birthday gathering in the cabinet room – the only event for which he has been fined – would raise serious doubts about Johnson’s version of events there and would demonstrate it had been a significant celebratory gathering in breach of the rules.

But there are also believed to be a significant number of other photographs taken by aides on their mobile phones at more than a dozen gatherings. The Met police have said they will not release the photographs and it is doubtful whether the final report from Gray’s inquiry will include them.

The existence of the images is one of the key reasons why Johnson will be so keen to block a parliamentary inquiry into his conduct. Separate from the Whitehall and police inquiries, this would look specifically at whether the prime minister purposely misled parliament.

Such an inquiry is highly unlikely because Tory MPs will block it. But in theory the committee could call for papers – including the photographs – and summon witnesses.

It is only the images that could ultimately prove whether Johnson has misled the House of Commons with his version of the events he attended – and his assertions that the guidance was followed at all times.

Post-Brexit funds for West “Derisory”

Today’s Western Morning News:

The amount of ‘levelling up’ money the South West is being given to make up for the loss of European Union funding has been described as “derisory” by a business leader.

Tim Jones, chairman of the South West Business Council, said the sums do not match the amount councils could have expected had Brexit not happened. But he added that it also means the region now has to look to a future where it won’t be able to rely on Government handouts to prop up the economy.

The Shared Prosperity Fund is an allocation for the years 2022/23 to 2024/25 and comes with cash for adult numeracy programme Multiply. Cornwall and the Isles of Scilly will get £129,549,117 from the SPF and £2,452,414 from Multiply, while Mr Jones said Devon’s total is about £15m – far less than the old EU funding the counties could have expected.

Mr Jones said: “It’s disappointing. The amount of money is derisory in terms of what we can do with it.”

However, he added: “But it’s long overdue that we got to this stage, where we are no longer looking to Whitehall to bail us out. We have said on numerous occasions that we need to be weaned off European money.

“The Shared Prosperity Fund has come around the corner and there’s nothing there, so we will have to do things ourselves, we will have to stand on our own feet. It’s a real wake-up call.”

In total, areas across England will receive £1.5bn from the fund.

The Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities said: “Bureaucracy will be slashed, and there will be far more discretion over what money is spent on.”

“Operation Red Meat”: who is “In bed with the reds”?

Is it the Archbishop of Canterbury?

Or the BBC?

Or could it be the Conservative Party?

[“Reds under the Bed” was the phrase commonly used by the right wing to question, during the cold war, the allegiance of those on the left or even the centre. It became a knee jerk reaction to alternative views which Boris would have learned to deploy at Oxford].

As Boris Johnson launches one of his classic “special diversionary operations” attacking the Archbishop’s and the BBC’s allegiance, Owl lists some of the articles published on East Devon Watch questioning the wisdom of the relationship the Tories have enjoyed with wealthy Russians.

Boris Johnson ignores Labour call to apologise to Archbishop

BBC News

Boris Johnson has ignored a Labour call to apologise to the Archbishop of Canterbury over comments the PM made to a private meeting of Tory MPs.

Mr Johnson reportedly told his MPs that senior clergy had been “less vociferous” in their condemnation of Vladimir Putin than of plans to send asylum seekers to Rwanda.

Sir Keir Starmer demanded an apology at Prime Minister’s Questions.

The PM said the Rwanda policy was an attempt to save lives in the Channel.

In his Easter Sunday sermon, Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby said the policy of sending some asylum seekers who arrive in the UK illegally to Rwanda cannot “stand the judgment of God”.

Mr Johnson accused “senior members of the clergy” and the BBC of misconstruing the policy in a speech to Tory MPs on Tuesday evening.

The PM was attempting to rally support from his MPs after his Commons apology over being fined by the police for breaking Covid laws.

He suggested, in an aside, that the clergy had been less vociferous in condemning Vladimir Putin, according to No 10 sources.

Mr Welby and the Archbishop of York Stephen Cottrell said in a statement issued by Lambeth Palace that they would continue to to oppose the policy on “moral and ethical grounds”.

The two senior clergymen had denounced the invasion of Ukraine as “an act of great evil” and had called for Russian troops to withdraw, the statement added.

At Prime Minister’s Questions, Sir Keir Starmer accused Mr Johnson of not being sincere in his apology for breaking Covid rules.

As soon as he was off camera, the PM had gone back to “blaming everyone else” he said, adding: “Would the prime minister like to take this opportunity to apologise for slandering the Archbishop and the Church of England?”

Mr Johnson said he was surprised to be attacked over a policy that had been devised to “end the deaths at sea in the Channel as a result of cruel criminal gangs” and had, he claimed, been first devised in 2004 by [then Labour home secretary] David Blunkett.

The pair then clashed over reports that Mr Johnson had criticised the BBC’s coverage of the war in Ukraine in his speech to MPs.

Sir Keir accused the PM of opting to “slander decent people” in private but lacking the “backbone to repeat it in public”.

“Would the prime minister have the guts to say that to the face of (BBC reporters) Clive Myrie, Lyse Doucet and Steve Rosenberg, who have all risked their lives day in, day out on the frontline in Russia and Ukraine uncovering Putin’s barbarism?”

Mr Johnson replied: “I said nothing of the kind and I have the highest admiration as a former journalist for what journalists do. I think they do an outstanding job. I think he should withdraw what he just said – it has absolutely no basis or foundation in truth.”

It must be confusing being a Conservative MP at times

From Guardian PMQs Live: It must be confusing being a Conservative MP at times. Are you supposed to hate the BBC or not? Earlier this year, on day one of what was dubbed “Operation Red Meat”, the No 10 operation to shore up Boris Johnson’s position with a rightwing policy offer for Tory MPs, Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, said the BBC licence fee was definitely going. A day later she had to soften her position somewhat, after the Treasury insisted the future of the licence fee was just being reviewed. This morning Tory MPs will have read in the Daily Telegraph that Johnson believes the BBC has been soft on Vladimir Putin. At PMQs Johnson insisted that was wrong, and at the end of the session a loyalist backbencher used a point of order to insist that Conservative MPs are in fact great fans of the corporation. 

Here are just a selection of interesting EDW posts on Tories and their Russian connections

“Who now is in bed with the Reds?”

“Swelling the Tory coffers, Russian connections and cosy dinner access”

“ 200 Russian millionaires bought way into UK in seven years since clampdown”

“Boris Johnson’s Conservative Party has received cash from 9 Russian donors named in a suppressed intelligence report”

“Swire his other jobs the controversial Lord and the Russian Oligarch”

Government fraud investigators probe PPE contracts, MPs told

Government fraud investigators are looking into contracts to supply the NHS with PPE during the pandemic, officials at the Department of Health and Social Care (DHSC) have said.

Gavin Cordon 

Giving evidence to the Commons Public Accounts Committee, Jonathan Marron, the director general of the office for health improvement and disparities, said they had “concerns” over 176 contracts worth a total of £3.9 billion.

He said that the actual amount of equipment at issue was worth £2.7 billion – with concerns ranging from the quality of the kit provided to performance of the contractor.

While some may be possible to resolve through mediation and commercial agreement, he said others may require a “more legal process”.

It would be astonishing if this was the only large set of government contracts in which there was no fraud at all

“We are working really, really closely with our internal fraud teams and the broader fraud authorities,” he said.

“That is part of what we are looking at, as to how we might bring resolution to these disputes. All options are on the table.”

The DHSC permanent secretary Sir Chris Wormald said the level of suspected fraud was no higher than with other government contracts.

“It is not unusual to be in dispute on some contracts. Some of them will be resolved entirely amicably, some of them will get to the other end of the spectrum where we believe there has been wrongdoing,” he told the committee.

“Fraud in contracting is a fact of life, regardless of the circumstances. It would be astonishing if this was the only large set of government contracts in which there was no fraud at all.

“What we haven’t seen is this set of contracts being more susceptible to fraud than the average.”

Mr Marron acknowledged that 1.1 billion items of PPE, worth £461 million, supplied during the pandemic had been identified as being unfit for any use.

However he said it represented “quite a small proportion” of the 19.8 billion items used in health and social care to the end of last month.

Tory MPs warned not to allow ‘Owen Paterson-style cover-up’ by blocking Partygate inquiry

Conservative MPs are being warned not to join an “Owen Paterson-style cover-up” by blocking an inquiry into how Boris Johnson misled parliament about the No 10 parties.

Rob Merrick 

A vote on Thursday will seek to send the controversy to the Commons privileges committee, with the power to force the release of reports, documents and photos – and recommend any punishment.

Crucially, the probe would not start until after the police investigation has concluded, to prevent the government arguing it would clash with the Met’s ongoing work.

And it does not accuse Mr Johnson of “deliberately” misleading the Commons – which, under the ministerial code, would require his resignation – again, to make it harder to oppose.

Mr Johnson is expected to order his MPs to defeat the motion, tabled by almost all Opposition parties – and threaten to remove the party whip from any who defy him.

But Labour says it will plaster the names of Tory MPs who block the inquiry across local elections’ leaflets and adverts, warning they will pay the price of standing by the beleaguered prime minister.

It is pointing back to the public anger after last autumn’s “cover-up”, when Mr Johnson attempted to fix anti-sleaze rules to clear his ally Mr Paterson, a former cabinet minister.

“Conservative MPs should reflect on the last time that the government tried to interfere on a privileges investigation, with the Owen Paterson case, and what happened there,” Keir Starmer’s spokesman said.

The motion points to four specific statements by the prime minister whichappear to amount to misleading the House”, which are:

* 1 December 2021 – that “all guidance was followed” in No 10.

* 8 December 2021 – that Mr Johnson had been “repeatedly assured since these allegations emerged that there was no party and that no Covid rules were broken”.

* 8 December 2021 – that he was “sickened” by the video of his former spokeswoman Allegra Stratton joking about a party, but “I have been repeatedly assured that the rules were not broken”.

* 8 December 2021 – that “the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times”.

The Opposition parties’ argument is that the privileges committee probe is needed to establish whether the Commons was misled – which is not the role of either the Met police, or Sue Gray’s stalled investigation.

Mr Johnson has effectively conceded that it was, by accepting he broke his own Covid rules, having previously denied that any rules were breached.

Sir Keir said urged Tory MPs to vote in favour of “restoring decency, honesty and integrity into our politics”.

“The British public know that the rules were broken in Downing Street,” he said.

Voting to say otherwise won’t persuade the public that everything was fine but will further damage the reputation of any Conservative MP who is happy to say it was one rule for the public and another for this government.”

Seaton seeks solutions to flooding problems

Severe flooding problems in Seaton will be discussed at a public meeting next week, when residents will talk to representatives of South West Water, the Environment Agency and the county council. 

Philippa Davies

The Seaton Flood Working Group comprises a group of residents and business owners whose properties flooded last October. They are holding a meeting on Tuesday, April 26 at 6.30pm at Seaton Methodist Church, to hear what action is being taken to reduce the flood risk.

On the night of October 20 2021, torrential rain continued for about five hours, and watercourses and drainage systems were unable to cope with the volume of water.  At least 31 homes and businesses were flooded; others escaped the worst of it, but still had flooding to their garages, outbuildings and gardens. 

Flooding in Scalwell Lane, Seaton, October 2021 – Credit: Seaton Flood Working Group

The county council’s report on the flooding showed that Seaton was the second worst affected area in Devon, second only to Axminster. The report said the amount of rainfall ‘led to multiple watercourses overtopping at the allotments on Barnards Hill Lane, adjacent to the cricket club on Valley View and at the junction between Harepath Road and Valley View. The combination of these overtopping watercourses along with surface water runoff from neighbouring roads caused substantial amounts of water to reach lower lying areas of Seaton during peak flows particularly affecting Mead Way, Valley View and Summersby Close where at least five properties, a hospital and a primary school internally flooded by up to 100mm’.

Flooding at a house in Colyford Road, Seaton, October 2021 – Credit: Seaton Flood Working Group

Residents learned the importance of reporting these incidents when they met a customer service team from South West Water who came to Seaton in February. They were told that people who had not reported their flooding problems were ‘effectively invisible’ to both the water company and the county council, and that the Environment Agency also encourages reporting to help improve its flood mapping and modelling. Following this information, many more reports and photos of flooding at homes and businesses were sent to the three organisations. 

Doorway of flooded house in Seaton, October 2021 – Credit: Seaton Flood Working Group

During the meeting on April 26 the working group will hear from representatives of Devon County Council on highways, planning and land drainage issues; from South West Water on surface water and sewerage, and from the Environment Agency on its management of the rivers Axe and Lim’s catchment areas, including natural watercourses, soil erosion and farming-related issues.  

The meeting is open to the public, and people can also email questions relating directly to flooding in Seaton to, or post them on the group’s Facebook page, to be raised with the three organisations being represented. Seaton Methodist Church has disabled access and audio loop facilities.