Boris Johnson under growing pressure over claims he turned blind eye to Chris Pincher allegations

Business as usual – Owl

Sam Blewett www.independent.co.uk 

Boris Johnson is under growing pressure over his decision to give Chris Pincher a ministerial role amid claims he knew about allegations against the Conservative MP years before appointing to a government job.

The prime minister is said to have referred to the MP as “handsy” and joked about him being “Pincher by name, pincher by nature” as early as 2020.

Mr Pincher quit as Conservative deputy chief whip after he was accused of drunkenly groping two men at a private members’ club in London this week.

One of the MP for Tamworth’s latest accusers has said he was “shell-shocked” by prime minister delaying kicking him out of the parliamentary party.

Mr Johnson only bowed to pressure to remove the whip from his ally, meaning he is now sitting in the Commons as an independent, after an official investigation was launched.

Mr Johnson was also facing questions over how much he knew about Mr Pincher’s behaviour when he made him deputy chief whip in February.

Former adviser Dominic Cummings said the prime minister had referred to the MP “laughingly in No 10 as ‘Pincher by name, pincher by nature’ long before appointing him”.

A string of fresh allegations emerged as Mr Pincher said he is seeking “professional medical support” and hopes to return to represent his constituents in Staffordshire “as soon as possible”.

A Conservative MP told The Independent he had been groped on two occasions by Mr Pincher, first in December 2021 and again last month.

The Mail on Sunday reported that the former deputy chief aide he threatened to report a parliamentary researcher to her boss after she tried to stop his “lecherous” advances to a young man at a Tory party conference.

And The Sunday Times alleged he made unwanted passes at two Conservative MPs in 2017 and 2018, after his first resignation as a whip over claims he made unwanted advances to Olympic rower and Conservative candidate Alex Story.

According to the Sunday Telegraph, the PM’s decision in February to appoint Mr Pincher to help oversee party discipline led to protestations in the whips’ office and prompted resignation of another senior whip, Craig Whittaker.

One of the latest alleged victims shared his anger at Mr Johnson over his handling of the incident at the exclusive Carlton Club on Wednesday.

The man told The Sunday Times that he initially did not want to report the incident, thinking “this is something that happens in Westminster”.

“But I am angered by the fact that I should feel like that, and even more angry by the way No 10 have dealt with it . . . I am furious. I know it sounds really silly but I felt shell-shocked when I found out they were initially going to let him keep the whip,” he added.

Mr Pincher did not respond to requests for comment on the latest allegations, but the newspapers behind them said he denied the claims.

Downing Street did not deny that there had been concerns about Mr Pincher before his appointment, but insisted Mr Johnson “was not aware of any specific allegations”.

Mr Johnson initially resisted calls to remove the whip until Parliament’s Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme launched an investigation on Friday.

The latest allegations came after the Conservative Party was hit by a series of scandals relating to sexual misconduct.

In May, Neil Parish quit as MP for Tiverton and Honiton after admitting viewing pornography in the Commons chamber.

A month earlier then-Wakefield MP Imran Ahmad Khan was jailed for 18 months for sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy.

In both cases, the Conservatives lost the ensuing by-elections.

A third unnamed Tory MP has been told by whips to stay away from Parliament after being arrested on suspicion of rape and other offences.

In a statement, Mr Pincher said he would “co-operate fully” with the investigation.

“As I told the prime minister, I drank far too much on Wednesday night, embarrassing myself and others, and I am truly sorry for the upset I caused,” he continued.

“The stresses of the last few days, coming on top of those over the last several months, have made me accept that I will benefit from professional medical support.

“I am in the process of seeking that now, and I hope to be able to return to my constituency duties as soon as possible.”

Tory donors behind Betfred pay themselves and family £50m dividend

The billionaire Conservative party donors behind the gambling firm Betfred paid themselves and their family a £50m dividend, as an increase in online gambling in the coronavirus pandemic offset the temporary closure of its 1,470 high street bookmakers.

Rob Davies www.theguardian.com 

Betfred’s customers wagered £6.9bn in the year to the end of September 2021, up from £6.4bn, providing winnings of £526m for the Manchester-based company, a marginal increase on the previous year.

The company paid a dividend of £50.7m in November 2021 to its shareholders, the Done family headed by the brothers Fred and Peter, who worked in their father’s bookmaking business before opening their first shop in 1967.

The payout came on the back of a resilient pandemic performance, as the company shrugged off the impact of Covid-19, which forced the closure of its network of high street bookmakers for long periods.

While the parent company did not provide a breakdown of its income from online versus high street sources, it said an increase in stakes, revenues and profits from its internet business had made up for the impact of shop closures.

Its online operation is based in Gibraltar but Companies House filings for the subsidiary that houses its online operations indicate the extent of the slack that its internet business picked up.

Revenues in the high street business slumped from £301m to £244m, yet group turnover was flat on the year before because of the increase in online play.

Overall profit at group level was distorted by one-off factors. Pre-tax profit was £6m for the year to the end of September 2021, down from £205m the year before.

However, the 2020 result was boosted by a £98m rebate from HM Revenue and Customs – after a court found that the tax authority had overcharged the company VAT between 2005 and 2013 on its fixed-odds betting terminals, the controversial digital roulette machines.

It also benefited from a £94m increase in the value of investments that it held that year, compared with a near £22m loss this year.

The 2021 figures were published with the government on the verge of publishing a white paper proposing a reform of gambling laws that could crimp online gaming companies with measures such as stake limits of between £2 and £5 on slot machine games.

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Betfred did not directly refer to the white paper but warned that it could be adversely affected by legislation.

Companies House filings show that the company made no political donations this year.

However, the Done brothers have donated £375,000 to the Tory party since 2017, via their Rainy City Investments vehicle.

The group made charitable donations of £157,000 during the year, down from £289,000 in 2020, and its highest-paid director earned £456,000.

Boris Johnson faces investigation into claims over 40 ‘new’ hospitals

The government’s official spending watchdog is to launch an inquiry into Boris Johnson’s claim that 40 new hospitals will be built by 2030, as concerns grow in Whitehall that the pledge is unaffordable and has been greatly oversold to the public.

Toby Helm www.theguardian.com 

In a move that could prove hugely embarrassing for the prime minister, the independent National Audit Office (NAO) has decided to conduct a “value for money review” into the entire scheme, which was a cornerstone of the Conservative party’s 2019 general election manifesto.

The NAO has also made clear that it is concerned at how the government still maintains that it will build 40 entirely new hospitals, when in reality many will merely be extensions or refurbishments of existing ones.

In a letter to the shadow health secretary, Wes Streeting, who had raised questions about delays and the resulting rising costs of the scheme with the NAO, its top official – Gareth Davies, the comptroller and auditor general – said he was already preparing a full value for money review.

Davies also said that he had taken “particular” note of the “implications of delay for increasing costs at this time of high inflation and the matter of whether all projects truly meet the classification of ‘new hospitals’”. Davies said he would be reporting back in 2023.

The NAO’s intervention will raise further questions about honesty and standards inside the Johnson government following the long-drawn-out Partygate controversy and a series of recent sex scandals involving male Conservative MPs.

On Friday, Johnson’s former deputy chief whip Chris Pincher was suspended from the party after he was accused of sexually assaulting two men at the Carlton Club in London. This was a week after their party had lost two byelections, both triggered by sex scandals involving Conservative MPs who had to step down.

Many Tories fear their party is now becoming more widely distrusted on policy, having broken pledges not to raise national insurance, abandoned the “triple lock” on pension increases last year, and scaled back high-speed rail projects in the north of England.

The Conservatives promised to deliver “40 new hospitals” in their 2019 manifesto, but it has since been revealed that many of these projects are just improvement to existing sites.

Last year, it emerged that ministers had been instructing trusts to give an exaggerated impression to the public of the scale of the projects by referring to refurbishments as “new hospitals”.

A guidance document, distributed to trusts and entitled New Hospital Programme Communications Playbook, said a “new hospital” could be “a major new clinical building on an existing site or a new wing of an existing hospital, provided it contains a whole clinical service, such as maternity or children’s services; or a major refurbishment and alteration of all but building frame or main structure, delivering a significant extension to useful life which includes major or visible changes to the external structure”. Staff were told that all the schemes “must always be referred to as a new hospital”.

Last month, the BBC’s Reality Check programme emailed every NHS trust involved in the scheme, asking which of three categories their project fitted into. Of the 34 trusts which replied, only five said they were building a whole new hospital, 12 said they were building new wings and nine said they were rebuilding existing hospital buildings.

With inflation now running at over 9%, there are also growing fears within government that even some of these extensions could prove to be unaffordable. Several hospitals earmarked for building work, including centres in Leeds, Leicester and Manchester, are among those still waiting to hear what scale of work can go ahead and when.

Already, delays to building projects have resulted in additional costs to the taxpayer. Leeds General Infirmary estimates the cost of development for two new buildings will be £75m more than first planned due to delays to starting construction and the rising costs of building works.

Reacting to the NAO’s decision to launch a review and report back in 2023 – in the runup to the next general election – Streeting said: “The only place these 40 new hospitals’ currently exist is in Boris Johnson’s imagination. The election manifesto promise now looks to be another example of the Conservatives overpromising and underdelivering.

“Labour will get value for taxpayers’ money and ensure that every penny going to the NHS is spent wisely, providing better care for patients.”

The Liberal Democrats’ deputy leader and spokesperson on health, Daisy Cooper, said: “Before MPs break up for summer, the government must publish a clear timetable for its new hospitals programme and explain why they are failing to deliver their number one health pledge.

“If they don’t deliver on their number one health promise, it will be an ultimate betrayal.”

On its own website the government says: “Hospitals come in different shapes and sizes and each new hospital will be designed to meet the needs of the local area, staff and patients, now and in the future.”

Matthew Taylor, the chief executive of the NHS Confederation, recently cast doubt on whether many schemes would get off the ground. “The government launched these flagship new-builds with much fanfare, but NHS leaders are becoming increasingly frustrated that the money isn’t following through,” he said. “The fear now is that some of these schemes may never see the light of day.”

Councillors formally support bid for levelling up fund

Plans for a long-awaited extension to a road on the outskirts of Exmouth and changes to an area the railway station have been given a boost after councillors formally supported a bid for government ‘Levelling Up’ cash. 

Phillip Churn, LDRS and Adam Manning. www.exmouthjournal.co.uk

Dinan Way currently forms a partial ring road around Exmouth  but it lacks a final connection to the A376. 

As a result, drivers from Dinan Way often use residential roads to access the A376 main road to Exeter and the M5. 

Completing Dinan Way has been talked about for more than 40 years.

In an extraordinary consultative meeting of East Devon District Council’s cabinet on Wednesday (29 June), members agreed that the council should write a formal letter of support for the Round 2 Levelling Up bid.

The letter is needed as part of the application process, which is also backed by East Devon MP Simon Jupp. 

Councillors also debated ‘Exmouth Gateway’ – an area most people in the town will never have heard of, but most will have used.  The district council says it is a key transport hub, comprising Exmouth’s railway station, the Exe Estuary Multi-Use Trail and the end of the main road, the A376. It also provides access to the town centre, estuary and seafront. 

The project focuses on the area around the existing Marks and Spencer food hall and would involve filling in the subway – which used to be the key way to access the railway station from the town but has been superceded by a zebra crossing – and separating the cycle path from pedestrians. 

Improvements would be made to crossing points and better signage to both the town and the seafront. 

A raised crossing would be installed to improve pedestrian access and slow traffic. Pavements would be widened and bus stops improved.  An electric bike dock would be fitted and cycle parking improved.

Project manager for place and prosperity (Exmouth) Gerry Mills told councillors a key component of the bid for funds is a supporting letter from the East Devon Council to Devon County Council, which is putting £1 million towards match funding. 

“Exmouth Town Council have confirmed their £400,000 of match funds and our planning committee have approved the £400k of match fund,” said Mr Mills. 

The total combination of funds would be £1.8 million.

Councillors were in favour of the development, with Councillor Joe Whibley (Independent, Exmouth Town) saying it is overdue. 

“I just hope the cabinet see their way to moving forward with this, especially in the summer months,” said Cllr Whibley.

“The town is a mess in terms of conflicts of people around the railway station not knowing where to go. 

“As part of the other work with the former Queen’s Drive delivery group, it’s a vital part of that.”

The extension has had planning permission since 2017 and some critics have suggested it is wrong to build new roads at this time.

However EDDC’s cabinet agreed to formally support the project.