The performance in the upper house of Lord Johnson of Lainston – a long-time Tory stooge who co-founded Somerset Capital Management with Jacob Rees-Mogg and contributed £250,000 to the party – caused despair even on his own benches last week.
The decline in car manufacturing since the vote to leave the EU – down to 775,000 vehicles from more than 1.5m in 2016 – is an especially depressing example of how Brexit is affecting industry in the UK. Alas, Johnson, who serves as minister of state in the department for business and trade, saw it as an opportunity to take a few puerile swipes at the EU.
After Labour’s Lord Woodley bemoaned the lack of “a proper government strategy for the automotive sector as part of a much wider industrial strategy” and the Tory peer Lord McLoughlin highlighted the “very disturbing” comments by the manufacturer James Dyson that the government was not on the side of industry, Johnson got to his feet, grinning inanely.
“If your Lordships took a hot-air balloon up over this great nation and looked down, you would see herds of unicorns thundering across our green and pleasant land, the sunlight glinting off their horns,” he told his unamused fellow peers. “But if your balloon drifted over the Channel to the continent, you would see single unicorns, their ribs showing, tethered to a stake and munching dry grass. Our brains are our best defence, and the facts speak for themselves.”
Wearily, Lord Fox, for the Lib Dems, responded that the car industry was at a “watershed”. If the government didn’t make real investment soon, car manufacturers would simply go to France and Germany, which are both investing heavily in infrastructure for the industries. He added: “I remind your Lordships’ House that unicorns are mythical beings. I will return to the point of discussion: there is a lack of urgency and of scale.”
One Tory peer tells me: “When I joined a couple of decades ago, there was a real intellectual rigour to the debates, but waves of political appointees have quite frankly made our benches a laughing stock. Norman [the former Tory minister Norman Fowler, when he was Lords Speaker, could see the way it was going during Boris Johnson’s period as prime minister and set up a committee to limit the number of political appointments. He at least wanted putative members of the Lords to be asked how they felt they could usefully contribute to debates, but look at the state of our benches now. His worst fears for the Lords have been realised and it’s a gift to the abolitionists.”
A Labour peeress adds: “Tory ministers used to recognise that they were accountable, and they would give courteous and properly researched responses. Too often these days, they bat my questions away, with varying degrees of contempt.”
Comically, in retrospect, Lord Bew was quoted in the report that Fowler commissioned saying he wanted nominees who brought “experience and expertise” to the Lords, and who, taken together, would be more representative of the country at large.
Boris Johnson fanzine the Daily Mail was all over their hero last weekend with a typically unctuous piece about how he was about to sire his “eighth child” – frankly, it’s anyone’s guess how many there have been – and an editorial savaging Rishi Sunak. “If Mr Sunak wants to regain the confidence of the electorate,” it harrumphed, in regard to his immigration policy, “he must finally deliver.”
The next day its sister title the Mail on Sunday revelled in Sunak’s discomfort over Suella Braverman’s attempt to evade the consequence of a speeding offence. Unstartlingly, all of this is a source of concern to the Mail’s owner Lord Rothermere. He is only too cognisant that Sir Keir Starmer has made clear he would take a dim view of anyone with the non-dom tax status Rothermere currently enjoys.
My man at Mail headquarters tells me: “Paul Dacre as editor-in-chief remains a Johnson man through and through, but there is a limit to how much Tory-bashing Rothermere can take. Geordie Greig’s departure as editor shows that. If this goes on much longer, my guess is Paul will make an expedient departure before the general election.”
Martin Amis, who has died aged 73, cultivated an austere public image. Occasionally, however, he let his guard slip. Christine Smith, when she was the Mirror’s showbiz interviewer, adopted a high-risk strategy when she met him in the 90s. “Morning, Martin. I should say I’ve never read a word you’ve written.” Amis replied drily: “Well, that’s a very postmodern way to conduct an interview.”
Still, it turned out to be the start of a beautiful friendship between the uber-intellectual novelist and Smith, a no-nonsense northern hack famous for her great interviewing but chaotic copy. When the interview was published, the headline read: “BRITAIN’S GREATEST LIVING WRITER MEETS… MARTIN AMIS.”
Mandrake may still be turning down GB News’s approaches to appear on the channel – on the basis that I still have some dignity – but its parent company All Perspectives is still pumping money into the venture with gay abandon despite its £33m losses.
Latest records show £30m came the station’s way last month. This takes the funds injected by investors to almost £120m. Shareholder records suggest the bulk of last year’s capital injection came from fund manager Paul Marshall and Legatum Ventures. Also backing GB News is Michael Farmer and Michael Spencer’s firm IPGL, and Discovery Communications, among others. Veteran newsman Andrew Neil is no longer involved. His shares were disposed of in August 2022, a year after his resignation from the board.
The cash coming in is great news for Jacob Rees-Mogg, who has recently updated the register of members’ interests with another 40 hours’ work for GB News – netting the multi-millionaire another £29,290.
Boris Johnson has always thrown his money around like an armless man – I say that having stood thirstily beside him in bars during his Telegraph days, waiting in vain for him to finally buy a round – so I concur with the approach of his American paymasters the Harry Walker Agency in recouping their advance to him as quickly possible.
They have just clawed back another £139,762 of £2.5m they advanced him in January to secure his services on the speakers’ circuit. They took their latest pound of flesh from a talk he gave in Santa Monica for Sportico Media. Speakers’ agencies are often happy to take monies owed on an annual basis, but the Harry Walker Agency clearly takes the view it should take the money while it can. The latest repayment takes Johnson’s debt down to £1.8m, having returned £700,000 in all over four speaking engagments. By Mandrake’s reckoning, he should be clear of debt in 10 engagments’ time, assuming he remains big box office.