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Brexit has been bad business for Lord Rothermere

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Jonathan Harmsworth, Viscount Rothermere, and wife Claudia Clemence arrive at the Alexander McQueen: Savage Beauty Fashion Gala at the V&A in 2015. Photo: David M. Benett/Getty Images for Victoria and Albert Museum

Seldom, if ever, have Lord Rothermere’s titles been willing to acknowledge the economic impact of Brexit, but Dominic Williams, his chief revenue officer, has gone public about the toll its taking on his own media business.

“In the UK, we had Brexit, and then we had the pandemic, and then we had Ukraine and cost-of-living,” Williams volunteered in an interview with The Media Leader. “There are four big things there and it has affected advertising budgets. Not just us, everyone.”

Asked if he could see the irony of a news business that has pushed Brexit so hard also being damaged by it, he conceded – “with a wry smile” – that he could.

From the man whose job is overseeing the commercial operation at the Daily Mail, Mail on Sunday, Metro and MailOnline, Williams’s words amount to an act of defiance against Paul Dacre, who, as their editor-in-chief, is responsible for their content and policy. Dacre’s adversaries were quick to seize on them, including Geordie Greig, the Daily Mail editor who lost his job in what amounted to an ideological power struggle with Dacre. Greig ensured they were given prominence on the Independent’s website, which he now presides over.

Insiders within the Mail business say that Williams – described by one as the “consummate office politician” – wouldn’t have dreamed of speaking out if he didn’t believe Rothermere had come round to his way of thinking. He joined the company around the time of the EU referendum and has been dismayed to have seen how the business has suffered since, and the number of staff he has had to let go through no fault of their own.

Any hopes that Williams’s comments might herald an imminent editorial sea change on Brexit are, however, misplaced. Rothermere and Dacre are to all intents and purposes joined at the hip until such time as Mr Justice Nicklin decides whether or not to proceed with the legal action brought against the Mail titles by Prince Harry and six other high-profile litigants.

Foreign secretary James Cleverly was pictured in the Daily Telegraph the other day with a broad smile on his face during a stopover in Jakarta, Indonesia.

Such snaps are just about all the staff at the FCO’s King Charles Street headquarters get to see of their boss since he’s clearly got it into his head to do as much globetrotting as possible in the Tories’ remaining months in office.

Prior to his current trip, during the first three months of the year alone he has declared trips to Belfast, Toronto, Washington, Rome, Malta, Brussels, Belgium, Munich, New York, New Delhi, Freetown, Paris, Moldova, Georgia, Kazakhstan, Berlin and Hamburg.

Cleverly’s travels – he has taken 91 officials with him in all – set the taxpayer back £700,500, largely because he was willing to slum it with the great unwashed on only one commercial flight.

He splashed out £178,761 alone on a three-day visit to Washington and Toronto via GBNI Ministerial Air Transport – the government’s £75m charter jet; part of a £622,753 outlay on trips via the aircraft – which also took him to India and Sierra Leone, among others. Even the trip to nearby Belfast cost £4,142 since he chose to use an RAF aircraft.

His sole scheduled flight was to New York and it cost £5,344, which suggests he travelled first class. Cleverly’s spending is now edging towards £1.5m for trips made since Rishi Sunak moved into Downing Street.

Still struggling to break convincingly into double digits in the general election voting intention polls, the Lib Dems return to Bournemouth for their conference this September with one issue still causing them heartache.

“We are pursuing the same policy of omertà on Brexit as Labour with it going unmentioned on the invites that go on about transforming the nation’s health, the nature crisis, housing, Ukraine, standards in public life and food and farming, oblivious to the fact Brexit has impacted on just about all of them,” one senior figure in the party tells me. “Our polling and our membership numbers were at their highest in recent years when we were at our most outspoken against Brexit, and I just don’t see, with Omnisis now saying 60% of the electorate want to rejoin, we aren’t shouting about it from the rooftops.”

Bournemouth brings back unhappy memories for some delegates – it was where Jo Swinson started to believe ahead of the last election that she could become prime minister – and her successor Sir Ed Davey may yet come to feel the same way about the seaside town if the rumblings of discontent about Brexit come to the surface.

Rishi Sunak sees abolishing or at least relaxing the inheritance tax rules as the Tories’ last best hope of reviving their fortunes ahead of the general election. Over the weekend the story took a new turn with senior party figures briefing that it would not figure in a budget ahead of the general election – as had been widely expected – but be an election manifesto pledge.

“Sunak and his chancellor, Jeremy Hunt, are laying a trap for Keir Starmer,” one informed Whitehall insider tells me. “They want to take him by surprise with an announcement about IHT coming as early as in the autumn statement. Starmer will then be placed in the difficult position of either committing to reinstate the tax or go along with the Tory decision.”

Red wall Tory MPs are inevitably no more enthusiastic about the move than Labour’s front bench, but Sunak – and Starmer – are well aware the tax is especially unpopular across the south of England, where a large proportion of families have most of their assets tied up in their homes and are therefore exposed to it.

Steve Brine, Tory chair of the health select committee, accused Sky News of “smearing” MPs when it disclosed that those with second jobs have an average wage of £233 per hour – 17 times the national average – and insisted he and his Tory colleagues are “focused” on their constituents.

Tory HQ should have thought twice about Brine putting the case for the defence since he worked 497 hours in second jobs during this parliament, which averages out at £200 an hour.

Still, they could have done even worse and put up Nadine Dorries. She holds down a job at GB News on a rumoured six-figure salary – even if she’s still to get around to declaring it – and lately banked a cheque from HarperCollins for £20,500 as a partial advance for her upcoming Boris Johnson hagiography. She is so “focused” on her Mid Bedfordshire constituents no one can remember when she last showed her face in the House.

Emphasising the cosy relationship between the Tories and house builders – a fifth of donations to the party are from businesses in this sector – Greg Hands checked in for two nights at the Isle of Wight’s luxurious Haven Hall.

The Tory chairman stayed as a personal guest of its own David Barratt, son of Sir Lawrie Barratt, the founder of Barratt Homes, when he was on the island to speak to the local Conservative association.

The value of his stay was reported at £1,040 – relatively modest for the hotel when rooms can cost up to £885 a night – and his name now appears in the guest book along with former footballer Peter Crouch and his wife Abbey Clancy and comedian Jimmy Carr.

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