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The Tories receive a timely donation

The latest scandals and gossip from Westminster and Fleet Street

Image: The New European

With IT set to be at the heart of Rishi Sunak’s plans to modernise the NHS, tech tycoon Frank Hester has made a timely £5m donation to the Tory Party.

“In Rishi Sunak, I see someone who shares my passion for using technology to enable frontline workers to spend more time treating patients and ultimately revolutionise the way healthcare is delivered in Britain,” Hester wrote in a gushing piece in the Daily Telegraph. “I believe he understands and values the NHS and wants to tackle some of its more pressing challenges.”

What went unmentioned was that his healthcare business, The Phoenix Partnership (Leeds) – or TPP, has so far joined with other contractors in a combined £41.2m of public sector deals. The biggest, at £34.8m, was for the “provision and delivery of GP clinical IT systems,” a role TPP undertook for five years up until 2019. The most recent contract was awarded in February and amounted to £124,224 – to provide Barnsley Metropolitan Council with a “community-wide licence”.

In all, TPP lists 19 government contracts on Contracts Finder, the government database of public contracts. Clients include teaching hospitals and Public Health England – with whom it has been engaged in nearly £1m worth of business.

TPP, which describes itself as a business involved with “the provision of computer software and support to health sector”, is wholly owned by Hester via two intermediate firms. It netted a £47.8m pre-tax profit on £75.8m worth of business in the year to March 2022, and is sitting on £156.4m in accumulated earnings. It comes after records showed that TPP donated £11,300 to the Tories in February and £145,000 in March. Last week, the company said the donations should have been made in Hester’s name and he had since paid the money back to his firm. Hester has a personal fortune estimated at £415m.

Carrie Johnson may profess to be a conservationist, but whether this extends to the great crested newts on the £3.8m estate she and her husband bought in the Oxfordshire countryside earlier this year remains to be seen.

The local council had been concerned that they could be harmed by an 11×4-metre outdoor swimming pool the Johnsons want to build close to their Grade II-listed manor house. Carrie responded by commissioning a 25-page report from NatureSpace to assure the local worthies that their concerns for the amphibians are misguided.

“Local conservationists won’t take kindly to Carrie trying to show they don’t know what they’re talking about,” one local tells me. “The council is expected to make its decision by the end of the month, but there’s already a sense that these flashy Londoners need to be taken down a peg or two.”

The revelation in Laura Kuenssberg’s BBC documentary State of Chaos that senior government officials had thought about asking the late Queen to raise with Boris Johnson his appalling conduct in office is scarcely surprising, but it’s scarcely surprising, either, that they decided to let it be.

HM’s relationship with Boris Johnson was to all intents over long before he came into office. She had not been amused by the way his then sidekick Michael Gove dragged her into the EU referendum debate in 2016 by telling the Sun that she backed Brexit. Gove has always disputed the fact, but Gove’s relationship with Rupert Murdoch appears to leave little doubt about what happened.

It was by way of setting the record straight that the following year the Queen chose to open parliament wearing a hat that closely resembled the EU flag. Johnson’s disclosure over the weekend that his dog, Dilyn, savaged to death one of her baby geese in Buckingham Palace Gardens and then Johnson failed to own up to it would have come as no surprise to her. 

Rishi Sunak hasn’t proved especially keen to do in-depth TV interviews, but I hear his aides have been putting out feelers to get him on to BBC’s The One Show and ITV’s Good Morning Britain.

“These are scarcely forums for serious political discussion, but the idea is to try to endear the PM a bit more to the under-40s, who the polling is showing deserting the Tory Party in droves,” whispers my man in Whitehall. “Maybe easier said than done, but the idea is to try to show that Sunak is the kind of guy young people could have a laugh with.”

Party leaders have long found connecting with youth challenging – one thinks of Gordon Brown professing to be a fan of the Arctic Monkeys – and, still more regrettably, Margaret Thatcher and later Ed Miliband doing broadcasts with, respectively, Jimmy Savile and Russell Brand.

With Liz Truss and her mates desperate for her to get a foothold in the American public speaking market – the former Tory deputy chairman Lord Ashcroft alone stumping up £12,210 for her to attend the International Democracy Union conference in Washington – it’s imperative that the Americans take her more seriously than her fellow countrymen and women.

It will therefore dismay Team Truss that the swanky Lincoln Lodge bar in Chicago is selling Liz Truss Fall cocktails – containing gin, Earl Grey, lemon, sugar and soda – at $12 a time, and apparently they are selling briskly.

Ashcroft certainly looked like he was downwind of quite a few of them himself when the Daily Mail published an extract from a book he has written that is weirdly calling for Rishi Sunak to “release Britain from the chokehold of the left”. Ashcroft is best mates with Daily Mail grandee Paul Dacre, so he can have any old rubbish he has written published in the paper. As for his book, it’s little surprise that Biteback was willing to publish it. He owns the publishing house.

John Bercow, the former Commons Speaker, has been puzzled just lately not so much by a whodunnit as a who-wrote-it. A 247-page book entitled Silencing the Speaker: The Defaming of John Bercow has gone on sale on Amazon with one Emily Zola credited as the author. “It’s clearly a play on Émile Zola’s name and books written under noms de plume are generally hatchet jobs, but this one isn’t,” says Bercow. “I have leafed through it and I wouldn’t say it is an insider’s account, but as its title suggests, it takes my side in the allegations that were levelled against me last year. I’ve asked some members of my team in my days as Speaker if they knew anything about it and all were as mystified as I am.”

It’s scarcely a runaway bestseller – it takes 16,853rd place in Amazon’s politics and current affairs sales figures – but it has taken a lot of work and time, and mounts a robust defence of Bercow on the allegations that he was a “serial bully and serial liar”.

I ask Bercow if by any chance he might have written it himself, and he laughs and says he wished he’d had the time. Although there is little doubt he would now be ennobled, sitting on various boards and vast amounts of cash if he had only been a little more enthusiastic about Brexit, he is making a good living out of public speaking.

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