‘The bar is open’: details emerge of new Downing Street lockdown event

Details have emerged of what appears to be another alcohol-fuelled social event inside Downing Street during lockdown, one that was seemingly not investigated by police or the official civil service investigation.

Peter Walker www.theguardian.com

According to the Mirror, between 30 and 40 staff drank alcohol and ate takeaway snacks to mark the final press briefing conducted by Boris Johnson’s then-spokesperson James Slack, on 17 November 2020.

A photograph obtained by the paper appears to show an official setting out bottles of wine and Champagne-type drinks. The picture was reportedly sent to No 10 staff on a WhatsApp group, in response to a message saying: “Time to open the Covid secure bar.”

The photo was then posted as a reply with the message: “The bar is open.” Other messages reported by the Mirror seemingly demonstrate premeditation in socialising, with one referring to “Wine Time Tuesday”, and others discussing going to buy “reinforcement booze”. One official says: “If someone can help me carry it I’m happy to go.”

The alleged event was four days after the leaving drinks for Lee Cain, Johnson’s head of communications. On Monday, ITV News obtained images showing the prime minister at the event, raising a glass and seeming to toast Cain and make a speech.

Those images have placed pressure on the Metropolitan police to explain why Johnson was not fined for attending the 13 November gathering, when others there were.

The 17 November event was not among gatherings investigated by the Met, and was not listed among those examined in the interim report into lockdown-breaching parties by the senior Cabinet Office civil servant Sue Gray. Her full report is expected to emerge on Wednesday.

Slack, who was a civil servant rather than a political appointee like Cain, was chosen to replace Cain as head of communications. The 17 November drinks were held to mark the last time that, as Johnson’s official spokesperson, he spoke to the media at the daily lobby briefings, according to reports.

At that time, because of the lockdown, the briefings were being held virtually rather than in person. Slack left No 10 in April 2021. That leaving party, held the day before Prince Philip’s funeral while indoor social mixing was still barred, was reported and investigated. He is now deputy editor of the Sun.

Evidence of what appears to be yet another social event, and one planned in advance, puts further pressure on Johnson ahead of Gray’s findings, amid reports more Conservative MPs could be submitting letters of no confidence in the prime minister.

If Gray’s full report is released on Wednesday, it would most likely be submitted to Downing Street in the morning and published shortly afterwards, with Johnson promising to give a statement to parliament and answer questions from MPs later that day. No 10 have said Johnson would then aim to hold a press conference.

A No 10 spokesperson said: “As part of their investigation the Cabinet Office team were able to speak to No 10 staff to establish the facts on what happened during this period. Both they and the Met Police have had access to all information relevant to their investigations, including photographs.

“The Met have concluded their investigation and Sue Gray will publish her report shortly, at which point the prime minister will address parliament in full.”

Slack was contacted for comment.

“Old Muck Spreader” will now toe the line

When the “Porngate” scandal broke a few weeks ago the Tory party dragged its feet for a few days before bouncing Neil Parish into resignation. 

Obviously feeling bruised by the experience, Neil boldly talked to the Telegraph suggesting he might stand as an independent but wouldn’t declare his final intentions until just before the deadline for applications.

I’ve got some sort of quite powerful backers within the farming community… If I stood, it wouldn’t be a problem in raising the money. The farming community realised how I fought their corner.”

Ten days is a long time in politics.

Now our Neil has suddenly had cold feet about “independence” and will be duly supporting the Tory candidate selected in his place. 

His reasoning seems to be that as both he and Boris Johnson are flawed characters they fit comfortably within the Tory ethos. He is quoted as saying: “I think he’s an imperfect character, but then so am I”…. “His one great problem in a way is that he overpromises and I think then finds that he can’t deliver on everything.

The candidate may be relieved to hear that he is also reported as saying that he will only get actively involved in her campaign if asked.

What an endorsement, the sleaze surrounding the Tory party remains! – Owl

Source of quotes: www.radioexe.co.uk

The photographs of Boris Johnson raising a glass tell their own story

At the usual conversion rate, four pictures are worth 4,000 words, and many more words than that will be expended before the furore over lockdown law-breaking in Downing Street dies down. The photographs of Boris Johnson raising a toast to mark the departure of Lee Cain, his deputy director of communications, are damning.

Editorial www.independent.co.uk 

It does not look like the sort of gathering that is reasonably necessary for work, even though there must be some scope to argue that it was, because the Metropolitan Police have not issued Mr Johnson with a penalty notice for it.

The pictures tell their own story, however, which is that the prime minister and his staff had a party at a time when households were not allowed to mix indoors (except in specific circumstances) and when many people made great sacrifices to obey the laws passed by Mr Johnson and his government, supposedly for the benefit of all.

The photographs are proof that the prime minister doesn’t have a shred of honour, which would require him to apologise and resign; but that should have been his course of action when he received a penalty notice – for a different gathering – and admitted that he had broken the law.

Presumably Mr Johnson knew that these photographs and others like them were likely to be published, and has already calculated that if he adopts his hangdog expression and says that he understands people’s pain, and that he paused for only a few seconds to say a few words to rally the troops – who had been working very, very hard – he will get away with it again.

And he may well do. In the end, his survival as prime minister is in the hands of Conservative MPs, who are likely to conclude that now is not the right time to take a bold step into the unknown. The pictures are embarrassing, but among the thousands of words that they will generate will be enough legalistic cavilling and pedantry to keep an army of amateur lawyers busy for months.

There will be much textual analysis of Mr Johnson’s words in the House of Commons on 8 December last year, when he was asked by Catherine West, the Labour MP: “Can the prime minister tell the house whether there was a party in Downing Street on 13 November?”

He replied: “No, but I am sure that whatever happened, the guidance was followed and the rules were followed at all times.” Was that “No, there was no party”, or no, he could not tell the house? What does the “but” mean? At best, it can be said that the prime minister appeared to be choosing his words carefully, as if he knew perfectly well that some reasonable people might take the view that some of the after-work drinking in Downing Street, in which he had taken part, had broken the law.

The prime minister will no doubt say that the question of whether he knowingly misled parliament is for another day, and for the Commons committee of privileges to consider.

But there are two questions that need to be addressed immediately. One is that the Metropolitan Police must explain its decisions. Perhaps the imminent report by Sue Gray, the senior civil servant, will provide a fuller account of what actually happened in Downing Street during the coronavirus restrictions, but it will not explain why Mr Johnson avoided a penalty notice for the gathering at which the photos were taken while other people who attended were fined.

Nor is it clear, for example, why Rishi Sunak, the chancellor, received a penalty notice for turning up early for a meeting, when he appears to have been literally “ambushed with a cake”. The police must, in the interests of open justice, give a better account of why some people were penalised and others were not.

The other immediate question is for the parliamentary Conservative Party. When Ms Gray’s report is published – within the next few days, unless there are further legal problems – Conservative MPs will have another chance to ask themselves if Mr Johnson can change, or if they must make the change themselves.

Police Commissioner photographed with new Tory candidate – raises questions

Tim comments:

“A Tory councillor in Neil Parish’s old patch has published via Facebook, a set of pictures celebrating the appointment of the Tory candidate for the by-election. In two of the three pictures she is with the Police Commissioner at a police station. The Commissioner is giving her usual smile at the photographer, who is the councillor who then went on to publish the pictures with congratulatory comments.

Whilst Hernandez is not quoted it seems entirely reasonable to interpret the images as a formal approval of the candidate. Is it wise for a Police Commissioner, herself a well-known Tory, to link herself with the congratulations surrounding the selection, especially using a police station in the shot? What explanations could there be for this apparent party political behaviour?

To be fair, I have asked a few questions via an FOI so as to ascertain the fuller facts. I will not use the photos as I would neither wish to condone such use, nor aid the Commissioner in her passion for selfies”.

The relevant facebook link can be found here.

And the FOI here

Two women candidates join battle for Porn MP seat

Labour and Tories announce their candidates.

Helen Hurford for the Tories and Liz Pole for Labour join the battle to seize the seat vacated by shamed MP Neil Parish – who watched pornography in the House of Commons.

Lewis Clarke www.devonlive.com

The Labour Party and Conservatives have announced their candidates for the Tiverton & Honiton By Election. Helen Hurford has been selected as the Conservative candidate, while Liz Pole, who fought the 2019 election and came second, is in for Labour. The election takes place on June 23 and was called after Neil Parish quit after being caught watching pornography in the House of Commons.

Helen, a former head teacher who is currently deputy mayor in Honiton, was selected by Conservative members in the constituency on Sunday, May 22. She was selected from a shortlist of three other female candidates.

She says her campaign will focus on delivering on people’s priorities for the area including improving transport links, supporting farmers and businesses. “As someone who was born and bred here, I am thrilled to be selected as the Conservative candidate for Tiverton and Honiton,” Helen said. “I understand what it is like to live and work here and the issues people want addressing across the constituency.

“But most of all, people here want an MP to get on with the job and deliver on their priorities. And like them, I want this constituency to thrive and take all the opportunities we have here. I believe I have unrivalled experience and knowledge of the local communities, education, hospital and health services, transport, and tourism industry – this is my patch. Leading up to Thursday, June 23, I want to show I am the best candidate to represent Tiverton and Honiton and how I will improve lives for families here,” she added.

Liz is a business leader and was Labour’s parliamentary candidate for the constituency in 2019. Liz is a campaigner on rural affairs and has been a Labour Party member since she was 15.

Liz Pole will deliver for all areas of the constituency of Tiverton and Honiton and be a champion for the local community. She said: “It is an honour to be the Labour candidate for Tiverton and Honiton. Times are much tougher than they should be for hardworking people across our constituency.

“We are in a cost-of-living crisis, and in Tiverton and Honiton, real wages will fall by £1,100 this year on average because of spiralling inflation. It’s time we sent a clear message to Boris Johnson that enough is enough, because Tiverton and Honiton, and the country deserve so much better.”

The other candidates who have announced are Richard Foord for the Liberal Democrats and Andy Foan for Reform UK.

PM told by Commons committee to issue 11 corrections to false claims

Boris Johnson has been urged by a Commons committee to issue 11 corrections relating to occasions when he falsely claimed employment is higher now than it was before the pandemic.

The chair of the Commons liaison committee, Sir Bernard Jenkin, issued the effective rebuke to the prime minister after a session in March when Johnson wrongly claimed that he had already corrected the record.

The number of people in payroll employment – working for a company – is higher now than it was before the pandemic. But total employment is lower, because there has been a large fall in the number of people are who self-employed. But this has not stopped Johnson repeatedly telling MPs that overall employment is higher – despite this error being pointed out to him more than once by statistic experts.

In evidence to the committee in March, when asked about this, Johnson said that he thought No 10 had already corrected the record.

In a letter released today, responding to a letter from Johnson following up on points raised during the hearing, Jenkin says Johnson has still not said what he has done to correct the record on this point. He identifies 11 references in Hansard to Johnson telling MPs employment is higher now than before the pandemic. Jenkin goes on:

I would be grateful if you could send the committee a copy of these corrections, once they have been made.

The liaison committee is often seen as the most senior of the Commons committee because its membership comprises the chairs of all select committees. (Guardian Live).

Loss of BPS will cost South West economy £883m, report finds

The rural economy in the South West of England is set to lose hundreds of millions of pounds over the next five years due to the withdrawal of direct support payments for farmers, a new study has concluded.

Latest example of “levelling up” – Owl

Philip Case , Farmers Weekly www.fwi.co.uk 

Research published by the Countryside and Community Research Institute (CCRI) predicts that £883m will be lost from the rural economy up to 2027 across Cornwall, Devon, Dorset, the Isles of Scilly and Somerset.

The introduction of the post-Brexit Environmental Land Management (ELM) schemes will coincide with the phased removal of the Basic Payment Scheme (BPS), which provided millions of pounds in direct support to farmers and landowners while the UK was a member of the EU.

Defra is introducing the first component of ELM this year, the Sustainable Farming Incentive (SFI), but the support package is expected to be much smaller overall. With other ELM schemes’ funding still in development, the wider impact on the rural economy remains uncertain.

Family farms

The South West’s rural economy, which is dependent on small, family-run farms, is particularly vulnerable to the financial impact of the transition.

With farming being a significant driver for the region’s economy, the predicted impact on the sector’s supply chains, producers, suppliers, business owners and workers is widespread.

The report, Assessing the Impact of Agricultural Transition (PDF), was funded by the Cornwall & Isles of Scilly Local Enterprise Partnership (LEP), Dorset LEP, the NFU and the Heart of the South West LEP, to shed light on the impact new payment schemes will have on farming and rural communities across the South West.

Currently, between a quarter and half of BPS money is spent on businesses supporting the farming sector, the report states.

But it warns of a significant knock-on effect for jobs in the local economy over the next five years due to a reduction of between £220m and £440m for feed merchants, machinery retailers, contractors, vets, solicitors and many others. In turn, this will reduce their own spending power in the rural economy.

Melanie Squires, NFU South West regional director, said: “The scale of reductions in available funds to businesses laid bare by this report is considerable and can’t be ignored,”

Defra’s response

Commenting on the report, Defra farm minister Victoria Prentis said: “Our new schemes are supporting the choices that individuals take for their own farms, and helping to boost their productivity and profitability. We have recently almost trebled our new Farming Equipment and Technology Fund to over £48m to support more farmers with their investment plans.

“In 2017, £1.775bn of payments were made across 85,000 farms and 10% of claimants received half of this total – 33% of farms received less than £5,000 each.

“This isn’t right and we are repurposing this money to pay farmers for the work that they do, rather than the amount of land they own. In the South West, more than 5,000 farmers are already in our Environmental Land Management schemes.”

Planning applications validated by EDDC for week beginning 9 May

Sizewell C ‘may cost double government estimates and take five years longer to build’

The proposed Sizewell C nuclear power station could cost UK taxpayers more than double government estimates and take an extra five years to build, according to research.

Alex Lawson www.theguardian.com 

Ministers will decide in July whether to approve the development of the Suffolk power station proposed by the French developer EDF. The business department has estimated that the government-backed scheme will add an extra £1 a month to household bills to aid construction costs.

But research by the University of Greenwich Business School seen by the Guardian shows the average monthly cost could reach £2.12, or £25.40 a year. At its costliest point, the build could cost taxpayers nearly £4 a month. That represents the study’s gloomiest forecast, which predicts construction would take 17 years and cost £43.8bn.

The project had been expected to cost £20bn and take 10-12 years to build. Stephen Thomas, a professor at Greenwich Business School, said the average forecast put the cost at £35bn over 15 years, or £2.3bn a year.

The figures could further inflame the debate over the cost and time of building power stations after Boris Johnson last month set a target of building a new nuclear station every year.

EDF admitted last week that Hinkley Point C, the power station it is developing in Somerset, would cost an extra £3bn, taking it to up to £26bn. The already delayed project will take an extra year, and is expected to begin generating electricity in June 2027. EDF had originally planned for it be operational by Christmas 2017.

The French firm said consumers would not be hit by the extra costs at Hinkley Point C, which will be taken on by EDF and China’s CGN, its junior partner in the project.

However, at Sizewell C the government has already committed £100m to the project and plans to use a regulated asset base (RAB) funding model.

RAB funding gives investors a set return during the construction phase of a project, reducing their risk and making an asset more attractive to outside investors. However, it shifts the risk of delays and extra costs on to taxpayers.

The government argues that the RAB model could reduce the project cost of a nuclear power station by more than £30bn over its 60-year lifespan. The model was used in the construction of Heathrow Terminal 5 and the Thames Tideway super-sewer.

A final decision on plans for Sizewell C was recently pushed back from 25 May to 8 July. The site is located north of EDF’s existing Sizewell B plant.

Campaigners argue that the development would be costly and threatens the local environment.

The prospect of extra costs comes as consumers face soaring bills amid the energy crisis. The government has been urged to intervene with annual bills forecast to balloon to nearly £3,000 from October.

Johnson has thrown his weight behind nuclear power as a green option to boost Britain’s energy security in the wake of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and as he targets net zero emissions by 2050.

Thomas said: “It may not seem a huge amount extra on bills but several of these projects will overlap, meaning consumers paying even more for a long time. If costs are even higher than expected, it could become a real burden.”

A spokesperson for Sizewell C said: “The RAB model is a tried and tested financing arrangement, which has already been used to raise funds for more than £160bn of UK infrastructure. Applied to Sizewell C, it will bring the cost of finance down and deliver significant savings to consumers.”

A government spokesperson said: “We firmly stand by our assessment that a large-scale project funded under our Nuclear Act would add at most a few pounds a year to typical household energy bills during the early stages of construction, and on average about £1 a month during the full construction phase of the project.”