MANDRAKE: Dominic Cummings banned from using 'B-Day' to mark Brexit

PUBLISHED: 11:19 07 February 2020 | UPDATED: 11:19 07 February 2020

Sarah Sands, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings all feature in this week's Mandrake. Photograph: TNE.

Sarah Sands, Boris Johnson and Dominic Cummings all feature in this week's Mandrake. Photograph: TNE.

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BBC whistleblower John Sweeney is in no mood to praise Sarah Sands, Boris Johnson's travel expenses and why Cummings never got his 'B-day.'

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The timing of Sarah Sands' decision to step down as editor of the Today show is intriguing in one respect at least. It comes as the broadcasting watchdog Ofcom prepares to rule on a complaint made against her by her former BBC colleague John Sweeney.

"Sarah is lucky that Dominic Cummings' decision to ban ministers from the show made it look like she was resigning on a matter of journalistic principle," Sweeney tells me. He adds that it's his opinion her three-year reign on the show has been abysmal. On her watch, he opines, the show failed to see Brexit for what it was, seldom if ever subjected it to proper scrutiny, and, worse, some presenters were allowed to be overtly partisan. "Unstartlingly, listening figures collapsed."

In his complaint to Ofcom, the former Panorama journalist makes a variety of serious claims about Sands.

He feels her background on right wing newspapers such as the Daily Telegraph meant she could never comprehend the BBC ethos. "She turned the show into a comfortable diplomatic sofa for the rich and powerful," he says. "She was not widely respected."

Sweeney, whose thriller The Useful Idiot has just been published, says Sands, a close friend of Boris Johnson, could end up working for him "officially" in his Downing Street press team. The director-generalship of the corporation, in succession to Lord Hall, is "not impossible."

HIGH LIFE

For Little Englanders, Boris Johnson and his chums seem to have an insatiable appetite for foreign travel. New transparency disclosures from the Cabinet Office reveal Johnson has run up a £462,223 bill for overseas trips during his first three months as PM. They were all undertaken on the Royal Squadron, the government's in-house private charter flight supplier. His spend ran across six destinations - including New York in September. The total cost for this trip to the United Nations for Johnson and 24 of his officials was £352,606. His travelling costs for the G7 meeting in Biarritz set the taxpayer back a further £97,271. More modest forays racked up £12,346 in RAF flight costs, taking in Dublin, Luxembourg, Berlin and Paris.

No word as yet, meanwhile, on Steve Barclay's seven overseas trips on the Royal Squadron during his period at the now defunct Department for Exiting the EU. The Cabinet Office says simply that they are "awaiting RAF costs" in relation to that.

BUM RAP

Although Dominic Cummings is not himself known to possess a sense of humour, it would appear some of the "weirdos and misfits" that he likes to employ do like to have a good laugh. I'm reliably informed that at a brainstorming session to think up ways of making "people feel good" about the UK's departure from the EU, Cummings suggested that January 31 should officially be known as "B-day." Spoken out loud Cummings' latest genius phrase was inevitably greeted by guffaws of laughter. It fell to Cummings' close friend Michael Gove to explain to him sotto voce precisely what a bidet was for.

COMRADES

Brexit hasn't merely made me a lot more friends than enemies, it's made a lot of my former enemies friends. In my Telegraph days, I used to write poisonously about the theatre critic Mark Shenton and the actress Frances Barber for reasons too trivial to now recall, but, as comrades-in-arms during the battle over Brexit, they both became genuine mates. When I met him the other day, John Bercow smilingly recalled an energetic campaign I once ran against him, too, but he was big and gracious enough to laugh about it. I'd advise all journalists to make a point of meeting the people they revile.

- Tim Walker interviews John Bercow in the latest edition of The New European. Read the full interview here.

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