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Has Boris Johnson pulled the wool over Murdoch’s eyes?

This week's gossip and scandals in Westminster and the media brought to you by MANDRAKE

Rupert Murdoch. Photo: Getty.

Rupert Murdoch would appear to have fallen for the same tearful hard luck stories that Boris Johnson used to give Sir David Barclay when he wanted the late Daily Telegraph proprietor to pay him more for the feeble columns he wrote for his newspaper. “I’d have Boris going on about all the child maintenance payments he had to pay and it was difficult to say no,” Barclay once confided. “Sometimes he’d start to cry when he came to see me and I’m a soft touch and couldn’t say no.”

My scoop last week that Murdoch had agreed a £6m deal for Johnson to write his autobiography for his HarperCollins imprint resulted in the former prime minister declaring he had already banked £510,000 as an advance for the book that he’s so far worked on for only 10 hours. It brought his earnings over just six months, with payments for a couple of speeches, to a cool £1m.

There will be further payments from Murdoch to make up the difference upon completion of the manuscript, and on publication. The final windfall will come in a serialisation deal that will involve Murdoch’s Times, Sunday Times, Times Radio and various outlets in his international media portfolio, particularly in North America.

Murdoch knows very well he’s over-paying for the book – he gave David Cameron just £1m for his memoirs, knowing full well even then that he would be unlikely to make it all back – but Johnson must still be contractually obliged to come up with some devastating revelations.

This will have spooked Rishi Sunak, who has gone to some lengths over the years to ingratiate himself with Murdoch. Sunak knows it will up to Murdoch how the revelations in Johnson’s book are presented, and he knows the nonagenarian has to all intents and purposes a gun to his head. In his final years at the Telegraph, Johnson had got Barclay to pay him £275,000 a year for 10 hours’ work a month writing his columns, remuneration he once described as “chicken feed”.

When Stevie Spring was appointed chair of the British Council in 2019, Dominic Raab, the then foreign secretary, was thrilled. “I’m delighted that Stevie will bring her impressive leadership skills and business acumen to the British Council at a crucial time for our country,” Raab said then.

Two years on, as American and British forces withdrew chaotically from Afghanistan, Raab was to be found lying on a sun lounger in Crete, declining to take calls. He was not available to listen to the cries of help from Afghans that the allies had inveigled into championing western values and who had been left to the tender mercies of the Taliban.

Spring, it would appear, is equally insouciant. Under her leadership, the British Council employed scores of teachers across Afghanistan to teach its youngsters subjects such as equality, diversity and inclusion. It does not take a huge amount of imagination to understand why such individuals are now on the Taliban’s death list. Already, a great many of them have gone “missing”.

One British Council employee tells me: “The moral obligation we have to these teachers is obvious, but we are told to reply the same way to all the emails, calls and letters that come into Stevie’s office every day from these teachers. We tell them there is nothing at all we can do and refer them to apply under the government’s Afghan citizens’ resettlement scheme.

“This is, as we all know, Catch-22 since in order to be considered for the scheme, the teachers have to make it to a third country. In order to get to a third country – usually Pakistan – they first need a visa, which, on the black market, costs around £1,000 a go. Guess what, the teachers, unemployable and in hiding, don’t have that kind of money, and, even though we have a turnover of more than £1bn a year, our policy is to render no assistance.”

A British Council spokesperson said: “Whilst we are relieved that a number of our former contractors and their families have been informed by the UK government that they are eligible for relocation to the UK, urgent action must now be taken to ensure they are granted safe passage to countries neighbouring Afghanistan. With the Taliban firmly in control, some may not be able to get the right travel documents or will risk their lives trying to get them. Agreement must be reached with neighbouring countries to ensure they can enter.

“A significant number of our colleagues have not yet heard any outcome of their relocation applications. We are deeply concerned by the length of time it is taking for their applications to be processed. They have told us that they are living in increasingly desperate circumstances as the situation in the country continues to deteriorate. We are incredibly concerned for them and for their families’ welfare and well-being. We are pushing for progress with senior contacts within the UK government to ensure the earliest possible consideration of their applications.”

Nick Timothy – the man who encouraged Theresa May to whittle away her majority with her disastrous 2017 general election campaign – has been asked by Suella Braverman to conduct a “nuts and bolts” review of the Home Office that’s failing so badly on her watch.

Understandably, given his reverse Midas touch, Timothy hasn’t had a lot to do since he left May’s employ – the occasional speech and the column in the Daily Telegraph and that’s about it – but it’s still tragic that he should find a chalice as poisoned as this one appealing. I am told Timothy had up until now been pinning his hopes on being adopted as Matt Hancock’s successor in West Suffolk, but the feeling in the constituency seems to be that he comes with too much baggage.

The Sunday Times appeared to have a huge scoop at the weekend about a medical “trial” that “could save us and the NHS”. So confident was it in the story that it appeared online, but not in the print edition I picked up.

The article focused on one Dr Raghib Ali, who was appointed as chief medical officer of Our Future Health in 2022. He has been best known up until now for periodic appearances on GB News, for a talk he once gave to the Tufton Street thinktank Policy Exchange and for an OBE put his way during the pandemic.

Ali announced in the piece that he intends to do nothing less than “change the whole paradigm of healthcare” and “save the NHS” by making it his mission to do what he appears to believe no other health professional has ever thought of before: keep people living healthier for longer. He intends to do this at Our Future Health by performing genetic tests on five million people in the UK.

Says one NHS professional who is reluctantly involved in the project: “It’s unclear how these genetic tests will achieve such a feat, particularly in the absence of any data supporting Ali’s big and bold assertions. The whole Brexit project has been about disrupting existing institutions such as the NHS and coming up with fantasy replacements. The hard reality is that it’s gobbled up £79m from UK Research and Innovation – a UK government-funded body – and so far we’ve nothing at all to show for it.”

Our Future Health is another of the brainwaves of Prof John Bell, who was behind Genomics England. That outfit, established 14 years and at least £1bn of taxpayers’ money ago, talked, too, of exciting medical breakthroughs, but none have so far materialised.

Ali should perhaps be reminded of a key point he made in his Policy Exchange talk in March 2022, when he said socioeconomic factors and health behaviour were greater determinants of health than the care provided.

Boris Johnson’s taxpayer-funded trip to Ukraine was supposed to be the start of his unofficial bid to retake No 10, but it ended up being overshadowed by the travails of his old muckers Nadhim Zahawi and Richard Sharp, the BBC chair who also doubles up as his financial adviser.

Despite the impending Partgate hearings, phase two of the campaign is now under way with Camilla Tominey telling Daily Telegraph readers that “the Tories desperately need a Boris comeback.” Expect more articles in the same vein in the Daily Mail, which unctuously gave over its front page to Johnson to write about his trip to Ukraine, and the Daily Express when it cottons on to the opinion polls. The former Tory cabinet minister Steve Norris had the best riposte to all the talk about a Johnson comeback when he said it was “delusional”.

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