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Sun 5 December 2021

Exclusive to print for a month, Peter Oborne shares his observations of the political scene, at home and abroad. For the latest diary subscribe to the June Digital Edition

Of Public Interest

WITH KEIR STARMER STRUGGLING, the task of holding Boris Johnson to account has fallen to the Daily Mail political journalist Simon Walters, who is carrying out an exemplary investigation into the irregular relationship between Johnson and Conservative Party donors. 

Walters has disclosed that, after the Prime Minister was unable to pay for a lavish refurbishment of his Downing Street flat, the Cabinet Office stepped in to sort the bill. Since this was personal expenditure, the Cabinet Office demanded to be paid back. The Conservative Party wrote the check on Johnson’s behalf. But this was in breach of the rules: the Conservative Party is a campaigning organisation and not a charitable enterprise. As openDemocracy has noted, “this would be the first time party funds have been used to subsidise a leading politician’s lifestyle since Jeremy Thorpe kept a Liberal Party fund in the 1970s for paying tailors’ bills, handmade shoe-makers, ‘rent boys’ and a hit man”.

So the Prime Minister looked for donors. Walters says that Johnson’s first port of call was Lord Anthony Bamford, boss of the JCB construction giant who has given £10 million to the Conservatives. Johnson then produced another wheeze: a ‘blind trust’ modelled on the White House Trust used to maintain the US President’s Office. In fact, says Walters, the real aim of the trust was to recoup the money he’d spent on the flat. There are many questions – and Johnson refuses to answer them. The Electoral Commission, the elections watchdog, has said that there are “reasonable grounds to suspect that an offence or offences may have occurred”.

Few newspapers today have the resources or the expertise to carry out this kind of investigation. Credit goes not just to Walters but to the new(ish) Daily Mail Editor Geordie Greig for supporting him. Many Editors wouldn’t. This is, however, exactly how former Guardian Editor Alan Rusbridger allowed his star reporter Nick Davies to vanish for months on end and pursue stories that might in the end lead nowhere.

In light of Johnson’s triumph in this month’s elections, Greig is facing pressure to drop the investigation on the grounds that Johnson’s popularity shows voters don’t care. This is false logic. For a long time Silvio Berlusconi had most of the Italian media and many voters eating out of his hand. All the more reason to hold Johnson to account.


Post Office Justice

AN EVEN BIGGER HERO IS FREELANCE JOURNALIST NICK WALLIS. For a decade, he’s plugged away at uncovering what has now emerged as one of the great miscarriages of justice of all time: the great Post Office scandal. 

Last month, 39 sub-postmasters were at last acquitted of stealing money after the Post Office installed a new computer system. Many lives were ruined. One sub-master, Martin Griffiths, committed suicide. Actually, the computer system was faulty. Ministers had paid no attention to warnings. 

In the words of media commentator Ray Snoddy, Wallis “stands as a tribute to what one apparently powerless journalist can achieve with enough determination”. In an age when most journalistic investigation starts and finishes with hand-outs from corporate PRs and Downing Street spin doctors, Wallis is a model we should aspire to follow.


An Ethical Return

IN THE WAKE OF THE DAILY MAIL REVELATIONS, Lord Christopher Geidt has been appointed as the independent advisor on ministerial interests, bringing to an end an extraordinary six-month period with no Downing Street ethics chief. 

Lord Geidt’s predecessor, Alex Allan, resigned last year following Boris Johnson’s refusal to sack Home Secretary Priti Patel over alleged bullying of civil servants. Allan’s duties included ensuring that ministers should obey the rules and reveal their interests. Nothing has been published on that front since last July.

Lord Geidt’s most urgent task, however, will be to investigate the many unanswered questions which surround the refurbishment of the Downing Street flat. Some commentators have dismissed Lord Geidt, formerly private secretary to the Queen, as a courtier and easy pushover. I wonder. He’s a former soldier and diplomat who has knocked around the world. By contrast, Johnson and his sordid associates know nothing of life beyond the shallow, sleazy world of journalism and Conservative politics. 


The Warrior President

NO BRITISH HEAD OF STATE SINCE RICHARD III has been killed on the battlefield. Respect therefore to President Idriss Deby of Chad, 68, who has died of wounds incurred while defending his country against an invasion from Libya. When reporting the Darfur Genocide 15 years ago, I accompanied the President after he’d successfully beaten-off an earlier rebel incursion and wanted to visit a town he’d retaken “to show the people that it is now secure”. 

I was herded into a transport plane with Deby’s armoured car, 50 crack troops with heavy equipment, 20 corpulent ministers and their wives. Our overladen plane couldn’t gain height after take-off and for a hair-raising two minutes we looked likely to plunge back to earth. The President wisely travelled in his private jet. 

Emerging from his plane, a large revolver bulged in the back pocket of Deby’s tidy blue business suit. After he spoke, there was a riot and every man for himself. I scrambled over a fence and, by a miracle, made it back to the airfield, where the press secretary at once directed me to the private jet. 

It was infinitely more comfortable, but I was puzzled why the President wasn’t in it himself. The pilot told me that he was in the transport plane, having swapped at the last moment because he’d learnt of a plot to shoot him down. I was in Chad to report his efforts to stop the Sudanese Janjaweed massacre black African villagers. Idris Deby, warrior President, did his best in dreadful circumstances.


Not Correcting the Record

READERS MAY RECALL THAT JACOB REES-MOGG last month told me that ministers  are “under a duty to correct any inadvertent error at the earliest opportunity”. I have since written back to the Leader of the Commons asking him when he plans to correct the record and apologise to Arj Singh, the Huffington Post journalist he falsely (and disgracefully) accused on the floor of the Commons of doctoring quotes.

As Byline Times went to press Mr Rees-Mogg called with a defiant: “No surrender”.  I will return to this subject.

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