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George Osborne hunts for a director

Mandrake hears the British Museum is struggling to find a suitable candidate for the role

Photo: PA

With George Osborne proving to be a profoundly irritating backseat driver as chair of the British Museum – the former chancellor was all for them trousering a controversial £50m donation from the oil giant BP – the headhunters are inevitably struggling to find a suitable candidate to take over as its director.

Mandrake hears that the former Labour MP Tristram Hunt, currently presiding over the Victoria and Albert Museum, was sounded out, but made it clear he had no incentive to jump ship if it meant having to work with Osborne. The British Museum has been in dire need of a serious figure to take over – as well as a period of stability – since Hartwig Fischer, its last director, left six months ago, followed by his deputy Jonathan Wilson, after the revelation that 2,000 items had been nicked by a curator and then sold.

As an interim measure, Osborne brought out of retirement the uncharismatic Sir Mark Jones, once of the coins department of the British Museum and recent Master of St Cross College, Oxford, as a stop-gap director. Saxton Bampfylde, the headhunters Osborne charged with finding a new director, are saying there is £220,000 for the right man or woman, but Osborne is only one of the headaches that come with the job. The new director will also have to handle the aftermath of the thefts and the refurbishment of its shabby galleries.

Some at the British Museum wonder if Saxton Bampfylde are up to the task. Their last big search for a new chair was for the BBC and they came up with Samir Shah. Just before Christmas, Shah underwhelmed his interrogators on the Commons Media Select Committee, who wondered about his “strength of character” for the post. Not yet ratified as BBC chair, the committee has summoned Shah back again for more questioning.

Osborne, incidentally, is currently advising the Abu Dhabi-backed RedBird IMI bid for the Daily Telegraph media group, which has done little to endear him to Lord Rothermere, the Daily Mail owner, who has a rival bid on the table.

With Baroness Michelle Mone and her husband Doug Barrowman reported to be about to sail off into the sunset on a new £50m “mega-yacht”, the indefatigable Dan Neidle of the nonprofit Tax Policy Associates claims to have traced at least 50 more companies set up by Barrowman where, he maintains, they have unlawfully concealed ownership. These include Chester Ventures, the outfit which paid for their £9.25m Belgravia townhouse and Soldaldo PTC Ltd.

“Why do Barrowman’s companies ignore the rules?” Neidle asks. “Because they think they won’t be enforced and there’s no consequence for breaking them. Up until now, they’ve been right.”

The National Crime Agency is still investigating allegations of fraud and bribery surrounding their involvement with PPE Medpro and the dodgy protective gear it provided at vast expense to the taxpayer during the pandemic. Neidle certainly needled Mone, who retorted on social media: “Neidle peddles theories of nonsense to raise his public profile.”

A High Court judge may have concluded Andrew Bridgen lied under oath, behaved in an abusive, arrogant and aggressive manner and made a string of flagrantly dishonest claims during a long-running family legal dispute, but the Brexit-backing tycoon Jeremy Hosking still feels the former Tory MP is good for a £4,470,576 loan.

That’s the astonishing total that Hosking has stumped up to pay for the “legal services” Bridgen needed to take his family to court in his vain attempt to prove they had unfairly ousted him from their £27m potato and vegetable business. Hosking’s donation has just been declared by Bridgen – sacked from the Tory party for his Covid conspiracy theories – in the register of members’ interests.

Hosking has given Bridgen the money on the basis he will pay it back on an interest-free basis and he may well hold him to it after the former Tory MP quit as the sole MP of Laurence Fox’s Reclaim Party, which Hosking bankrolls.

Hosking has also been providing Bridgen with accommodation, while Reclaim the Media, a publishing, video and mail order outfit part-run by Hosking, has been paying him £1,500 per month for “political/consultancy advice,” as well as paying for lunches, court costs, diners and “counselling.”

As discredited as she may be as a journalist – betraying sources, breaking NDAs, retailing lurid unsubstantiated gossip as fact and scarcely independent since her other half is Reform UK’s Richard Tice – Isabel Oakeshott has become a permanent fixture on BBC sofas since Brexit. Her latest gig was on Laura Kuenssberg’s Sunday morning show when her modus operandi was as usual all too obvious: with nothing constructive to say, Oakeshott merely interrupted her fellow guests Geordie Greig, the editor of the Independent, and the actor Alan Cumming. The ever gentlemanly Greig chose not to complain – “I hope I survived,” he told me afterwards.

If Oakeshott met her fellow guest Lord Cameron in the BBC green room, history sadly does not relate what they said to each other. She once accused him of inserting his penis into the mouth of a dead pig.

It’s a measure of the siege mentality in Downing Street that Rishi Sunak chose to allow only one print journalist from one newspaper – I use the terms loosely – to accompany him on his recent trip to Ukraine. That dubious honour fell to Glen Owen of the Mail on Sunday. A photograph of the two loved-up men talking on their train journey duly appeared in the paper but without a credit, which makes me think it was probably taken by Sunak’s own taxpayer-funded vanity snapper, Simon Walker.

Owen, as ever, did what was expected of him. “Don’t let Sir Keir take us back to square one” was Sunak’s line of the day, which Owen duly communicated. He is the Domestos of journalism, always shifting the kind of hard right messaging ordinary journalists leave behind.

Probably his greatest claim to notoriety up until now was his “Merkel wants Britain ‘to crawl across broken glass’” headline – attributed to an unidentified “source,” which dismayed the former German chancellor in 2020 and came as the UK-EU Brexit talks were reaching a critical juncture.

One Nation Conservatives have long been an endangered species – if not actually extinct – but Damian Green, Theresa May’s former sidekick, seems determined to reintroduce them into the wild.

The chair of the One Nation Conservatives caucus – set up following the formation of Boris Johnson’s government in July 2019 – has now registered the One Nation Group as a private company with fellow MP Stephen Hammond. Old Westminster hands say this entity could come in handy if – as seems a distinct possibility – the party splits after the next election.

Rishi Sunak’s body may just about still be warm, but post-election planning is now well under way within the Tory party. A number of actors I know have been busy recording voiceovers for leadership campaign videos for senior Conservatives – including members of the cabinet – who want to be ready for their party’s next leadership contest.

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