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Sunak’s personal battle over Ukraine

Ultimately, the prime minister knows which side his bread is buttered

Photo: James Manning/WPA Pool/Getty

Rishi Sunak may have been quick to condemn Vladimir Putin for ramping up his attacks on Ukraine, but the war is beginning to pose an increasingly awkward personal dilemma for the prime minister.

He understandably prizes his relationship with his Indian father-in-law, NR Narayana Murthy – the billionaire founder of the Infosys IT conglomerate – but the tycoon, in turn, prizes his relationship with the Indian prime minister, Narendra Modi, who, in turn, prizes his relationship with Putin.

“Rishi is keen to be seen to be doing the right thing by Ukraine, but of course he ultimately knows what side his bread is buttered, and he knows Narayana Murthy will figure in his life long after he has left Downing Street,” one Whitehall toiler whispers. “He is also well aware that securing a post-Brexit trade deal with India is imperative now that America has made it clear it’s not playing ball.”

Narayana Murthy has been unstinting in his praise of Modi, saying he has ushered in a period of hope and optimism in India. Although Modi professes to be “neutral” on Ukraine, he has become sufficiently chummy with Putin for the Russian president to have invited him to visit his country this year, and Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, India’s foreign minister, has just held talks with Putin himself where he emphasised how the relationship was progressing during turbulent times.

Trade between India and Russia is running at an all-time high, as the western sanctions mean it’s one of the latter’s few remaining marketplaces. Sunak was accused of financially benefiting from Infosys’s operations in Russia through his wife’s stake until the conglomerate, somewhat late in the day, pulled out of Russia.

I hear meanwhile that British spooks are growing increasingly nervous about the UK’s continued co-operation with India, not least in terms of intelligence and intellectual property, which, as they are well aware, could now well end up in Russian hands.

Indebted to Paul Dacre for energetically championing her as prime minister, Liz Truss made yet another attempt to have the Daily Mail grandee installed as a member of the House of Lords.

Rishi Sunak – no fan of Dacre after he backed Truss over him the first time he ran for the Tory leadership, and conscious, too, of the political stink it would kick up – told Truss he’d sneak her resignation honours in with the New Year’s Honours only if Dacre’s name were dropped.

Possibly oblivious to these machinations, Dacre is currently on an extended Christmas break at his British Virgin Islands property. In his absence, rumours are circulating that Ted Verity, his placeman as editor of the Daily Mail, could be about to be replaced by Chris Evans, his opposite number on the Daily Telegraph. Gerard Greaves, the editor-in-chief, is also said to be about to be brought back from New York as part of a wider reshuffle.

The Mail did finally get around to holding a rather dreary Christmas party at the Connaught Rooms in London which one of its own writers, Bel Mooney, described on social media as “pissy” before being prevailed upon to take the comment down.

Many Lib Dems were relieved when Sir Ed Davey finally called for a ceasefire in the Israel-Palestine conflict, but their leader has since been noticeably silent on the issue, leaving it to Layla Moran, his foreign affairs spokesperson, to periodically do the talking.

With feelings among Lib Dems running high – a YouGov poll conducted in October showed even then 62% of them were unequivocally in favour of an end to the bloodshed in Gaza – I now hear prospective parliamentary candidates have been instructed not to talk about the issue at all.

In the New Year honours, Davey fixed it for Gavin Stollar, the chair of Lib Dem Friends of Israel, to receive an OBE. A controversial figure within the party, he produces regular newsletters for the Lib Dem high command that faithfully recount the Israeli military’s position without so far acknowledging the full extent of the Palestinian civilian casualties.

Stollar also set up with the former Tory strategist Sir Lyndon Crosby a number of property companies including one – Municipal Partners Limited – where his fellow directors also include the former Tory chancellor Lord Philip Hammond.

One disgruntled Lib Dem prospective parliamentary candidate tells me: “Previous leaders such as Charles Kennedy allowed us to follow our consciences on the big issues of the day – he used to say that was the whole point of being a Lib Dem – and now Gaza has joined Brexit as a word we are not allowed to utter.”

Talking of Lord Philip Hammond, the former Tory chancellor seems determined to give Rishi Sunak a run for his money as the richest Tory of all time. His overall yearly earnings are now nudging the £1m mark and the value of his portfolio of companies is rising dramatically, with his advisory services firm, Matrix Partners, alone sitting on assets worth £1.7m and holding £900,000 in profits in the year to March 2023, a £400,000 upturn on 2022.

Hammond left parliament in 2019 and was appointed to the Lords by Boris Johnson the following year. Matrix is one of a number of outside interests reported by him in the Register of Lords Interests. His riches include stakes in 10 companies. Hammond states that he has personally provided services to government offices in Saudi Arabia, as well as to OakNorth Bank, Arora Holdings Ltd (hotels and property) and Laser Digital Services, among others. He has also worked for the Kingdom of Bahrain and for the advisory committee of the Kuwait Investment Office, making him £274,525 and £6,250, respectively. Hammond’s property operations are centred on his personal holding company, Chiswell (Moorgate), which is worth £1.8m.

One businessman who will no doubt be relieved that all eyes are focused on Michelle Mone and the allegations of fraud levelled against her is Andrew Mills. It’s too often forgotten that the former adviser to the Board of Trade was at the centre of another cronyism scandal that involved a botched £250m PPE contract secured after brokering a deal between the government and an investment outfit called Ayanda Capital.

The masks were found to be largely unusable, Mills never disclosed how much money he made out of the transaction, and the story went away.

He had initially approached the government representing an outfit called Prospermill, which he had set up with his wife before Ayanda Capital signed the PPE contract. Showing himself to be more canny than Mone and her husband, Doug Barrowman, Mills converted his own business into an “unlimited company”, which spared it having to publicly file its accounts.

Mills has since invested those ill-earned gains/profits into two trading partnerships, presumably hoping they will qualify for business relief, a tax incentive designed to help family businesses pass money to younger generations without incurring inheritance tax. Heaven forbid long-suffering taxpayers manage to claw back any of their money from him.

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