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Sunak’s battery deal a positive for Tory donor

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Rishi Sunak and Chairman of the Board at Tata, Natarajan Chandrasekaran, visit Land Rover. Photo: CHRISTOPHER FURLONG/POOL/AFP via Getty Images

Even if it took a £500m sweetener from the British taxpayer, Rishi Sunak was trumpeting the fact that Jaguar Land Rover – owned by the Indian conglomerate Tata Group – had decided to build an electric car battery gigafactory in Somerset.

What has so far gone unmentioned is that the business park at Bridgwater that is set to accommodate the £4bn factory has a long-established party donor on its share register. The construction company Bowmer and Kirkland own 20% of This Is Gravity Holdings, the ultimate owners of the site.

Bowmer and Kirkland and its life president, Robert M Kirkland, are listed on the Electoral Commissions database of Tory donors, with Kirkland himself giving £177,293 to the party and the company adding an extra £17,152.

The business park was already proving highly lucrative even before the Tata deal with This Is Gravity, reporting a £43.5m increase in the value of its property assets so they are now worth around £100m. There is no suggestion of wrongdoing. 

Meanwhile, the wisdom of the venture has been called into question. Tata’s inexperience in battery-making was flagged up in the Financial Times, which felt Tata’s project looked expensive and hard to pull off.

Little has been heard of Seumas Milne since he managed to secure – as Jeremy Corbyn’s communications chief – such an enormous victory for Boris Johnson at the last general election.

Still, he looked cheerful enough when I spotted him in Rachel Johnson’s company at the Hermanos coffee shop in Notting Hill, west London, the other day. 

The former prime minister’s sister once used to make jokes about Milne being “Voldermort to Corbyn’s Worzel Gummidge” but happily the unlikely pair seemed to have put all of that behind them.

The Tory benches in the House of Lords were unusually full after Rishi Sunak’s office phoned around the stately homes of England to ensure that even the most elderly, dilatory and infirm members showed up.

What was it that Sunak and his party managers were so fixated about in the run up to last week’s byelections? Not some innovative measure to ease the cost of living crisis but the Illegal Migration Bill, which took a wrecking ball to the refugee protection system that the UK helped to forge after the Holocaust.

Among those who rallied to Sunak’s call was the screenwriter Lord Fellowes of Downton Abbey, voting for the first time since March.

“I’d never seen Julian in the Lords before,” one Labour peeress tell me, “and yet he hobbled in on his stick to help vote through one of the most inhumane pieces of legislation I’ve ever seen come before the Lords.”

The much-criticised flagship legislation will prevent people from claiming asylum in the UK if they arrive through unauthorised means.

Baroness Grender, the Lib Dems’ communications chief, may never have held down a job in journalism, but she reckons she knows what will get journalists excited. Ahead of the byelections, she convened a meeting of party grandees to unveil her latest idea for a picture opportunity. They found her standing proudly beside a gigantic clock.

“She said how funny it would be if Ed Davey were to stand beside it and say ‘the time’s up for Rishi Sunak,” whispers my mole. “Ed reckons she is a genius but I don’t think that’s the unanimous verdict. We were only relieved that a cuckoo didn’t spring out of it.”

Grender has so far had Davey standing not just beside an enormous clock, but also an outsized pale blue cartoon cannon, a large door bearing the words “It’s time to show Boris the door,” and hitting a wall of purple plastic bricks with an orange plastic hammer. In serious times, it’s hard not to see all this as trivialising politics. 

With a recent poll of Daily Express readers showing 74% believing it was a mistake to leave the EU, it seems legitimate to ask if its editor Gary Jones – still championing the dubious merits of Brexit in headline after headline despite describing himself as a lifelong Labour supporter who voted Remain in 2016 – is sufficiently close to them. 

Mandrake hears the distance between them is not just ideological but also physical, with Jones spending increasing amounts of time at his retreat in Spain.

Jones may well feel the need to get away from it all after the embarrassment of being accused in the High Court case brought by Prince Harry and others of involvement in phone-hacking during his days working at the Daily Mirror and the now-defunct News of the World.

Quite possibly because Paul Dacre – the Daily Mail’s editor-in-chief – hasn’t been seen in the office for a while, the Brextremist bible now seems willing to think the unthinkable: what will happen if Brexit fails?

This has been a common theme running through its comment pages over the past week. “Rightly seen as the architects of Brexit, the Tories should be straining every sinew to make it work,” its leader writer wrote. “If it flops, they will be blamed.” An accompanying article was headlined: “If Brexit’s deemed to be a failure, it’ll hurt the Tories. So why isn’t Rishi shouting about its success?”

Without ever mentioning how the Mail had itself pushed Brexit down

the throats of the British public from the get-go, a leader the following day once again made selling Brexit as a success story Rishi Sunak’s problem – “it’s time to trumpet the benefits of Brexit.”

The Mail has never been greatly enamoured by Sunak – one can’t imagine why – and it would appear they are preparing their readers for the worst when it comes to Brexit and getting a fall guy ready in the incumbent prime minister, whom the paper can describe as only “nominally a Brexiteer.”

With the Charity Commission saying its investigations into Damian Aspinall’s charities are still ongoing, it’s interesting to see that Carrie Johnson’s boss has just stepped down from the gambling firm Aspers UK Holdings and a raft of associated ventures.

Trading figures for 2022 are overdue and the preceding year’s made grim reading with a pre-tax loss at £16.1m on income at £13.4m, which pushed ongoing trading losses to £48.8m.

He is still involved with The Howletts Wild Animal Trust – where the former prime minister’s wife works – and the investigations began in 2019, long before she joined as head of PR.

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