Good morning. Today we process chancellor Rishi Sunak’s continuing slide in the ConservativeHome rankings and Elon Musk’s looming purchase of Twitter (I for one think that $44bn is a very reasonable price given the quality of my tweets). Thank you to everyone who has kindly left feedback on our newsletter — we always welcome suggestions by email.
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Donnez-moi . . . | Prime Minister Boris Johnson is hoping to repair his relationship with newly reelected French president Emmanuel Macron, but in Paris, there is no sign the froideur is about to end.
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“Pestminster” probe | Fifty-six MPs, including three cabinet ministers, are facing sexual misconduct allegations after being reported to the parliamentary watchdog set up in the wake of the #MeToo scandal, the Sunday Times has revealed. At least one complaint concerns an allegation that an MP bribed a staff member in return for sexual favours.
Sunak in hot water
An awful lot of things in UK politics are “meaningless, but meaningful”. Take, for example, the reader survey by rightwing blog ConservativeHome and its accompanying ranking of all Cabinet members.
On the one hand, it is a self-selecting, unweighted survey of the most engaged bit of the Tory party’s membership: ConservativeHome readers. Even when ConservativeHome was showing Liz Truss right at the top of the Cabinet pile, an Opinium poll of the party membership showed Rishi Sunak defeating her handily. So in a very real sense, this chart showing the chancellor’s plummeting approval ratings among ConservativeHome readers (via Opinium’s head of political polling Chris Curtis) means absolutely nothing:
But it matters because other people value the results. It makes it easier for Boris Johnson and for ministers in spending departments to assert themselves at Sunak’s expense: from the outside, it looks as though his tumbling political stock among party members reflects his standing among voters and MPs. It doesn’t really matter if the rating of Sunak among Conservative grassroots is genuine: the perception that the chancellor’s stock is low at every level of the Tory party is bad enough.
Big Tech energy
I don’t know if Tesla chief Elon Musk’s bid to buy Twitter is good business or not — thankfully, you can subscribe to the Financial Times’ newsletters Unhedged, Due Diligence and Moral Money for that — but I do know a looming conflict between a high-profile company, the UK government and its own MPs when I see one.
While Musk has been applauded for his dream of a free speech platform, the reality, as Twitter’s founders discovered, is much more difficult in practice, as my colleague John Thornhill writes in his smart column this week.
Say what you like about Musk’s maximal commitment to free speech, it runs contrary to the stated intention of the UK government’s Online Safety bill. These proposed internet laws are designed to tackle a range of online harms, from fraud to child abuse.
Brought before parliament last month, the bill envisages that big tech companies including Twitter take responsibility for the removal of content that is “legal but harmful”, such as racism or bullying. The legislation will also hand new powers to the media regulator Ofcom to enforce that responsibility, including imposing fines and jail sentences. But, as John puts it, “companies driven purely by profit have a massive interest in minimising moderation”.
Although the bill enjoys nominal cross-party support, it has provoked a great deal of private opposition among Conservative backbenchers and public criticism from Tory wonkworld.
One consequence of Johnson’s political weakness is that we don’t have a particularly joined-up government. The centre lacks the strength to impose its will on ministers, let alone on the parliamentary party.
The fact that Nadhim Zahawi, education secretary*, is reposting Musk’s tweet in support of free speech at the same time that the culture secretary Nadine Dorries is bringing through the Online Safety bill demonstrates how the government continues to be privately split on a lot of this stuff. Musk’s acquisition of Twitter, assuming it goes ahead, will bring those rows over the details of the online harms bill into the light.
Now try this
This morning I am mostly preoccupied by Johnson’s threat that if the MPs quoted in the Mail on Sunday’s Basic Instinct story are uncovered, they will face “the terrors of the earth”, a line from King Lear, William Shakespeare’s best play. Lear is — spoiler alert — the story of a decaying regime’s doomed and increasingly erratic leader. The terrors of the earth speech highlights his impotence and lack of direction.
Still, it’s not the worst attempt to quote Shakespeare in the democratic world.
Anyway, it’s as good an opportunity as any to encourage you to read our former chief film critic, Nigel Andrews, on going back to his stage roots to play the mad monarch.
* This article has been amended since original publication to correct Nadhim Zahawi’s title