25 April 2019
Lens on the Week
CLIMATE CHANGE: Greta Thunberg, the 16 year old Swedish climate change activist, visited Parliament on Tuesday and met party leaders Jeremy Corbyn, Vince Cable and Caroline Lucas. Mrs May was in a cabinet meeting so the Government was represented by Secretary of State for the Environment and potential leadership contender, Michael Gove.
It is reported that the Government is considering increasing the commitment to reduce emissions by 2050 under the Climate Change Act so that the target becomes no net omissions rather than 20% of the 1990 emission level. Extinction Rebellion are calling for this target to be set for 2025.
HUAWEI: A decision is believed to have been made to allow Chinese communications giant Huawei to participate in non core elements of Britain’s roll out of 5G. Huawei already has a huge presence in the UK’s mobile telecommunications market with some 2.2 million of its phones in the hands of British consumers. Its participation in 5G is seen by some however as a threat to national security and a failure to respond to the illicit use of intellectual property. Tom Tugendhat, chairman of the foreign affairs committee, claims that China is experimenting with “adventurous ways of expanding an intelligence state into a domestic infrastructure” and the US has warned that the rollout could prejudice economic and military cooperation with them. It is understood that a number of ministers expressed their concern in cabinet.
STATE VISIT: President Trump is to visit the UK on a state visit from 3-5 June this year, a trip which will allow him to participate in a commemoration marking the 75th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Portsmouth. Lord Fowler, the speaker of the House of Lords, has suggested that the President be invited to address both Houses of Parliament in Westminster Hall. However when a visit was proposed for 2017, Commons Speaker John Bercow was strongly against the idea.
BREXIT: Talks between the two main parties have resumed with the Conservatives anxious to avoid participation in the EU elections by agreeing the terms of withdrawal by 23 May. Activists are known to think that participation in the elections would be a political disaster so there is little pressure on Labour to help the government avoid them. At some stage the government will become boxed in so tightly that it will have to agree to a further referendum. The question is: why not now?
Meanwhile Nicola Sturgeon has called for a further independence referendum for Scotland in 2021 if the UK leaves the EU. The holding of such a referendum would have to be approved by Westminster.
McKEE FUNERAL: The funeral of Northern Irish journalist Lyra McKee was attended by Arlene Foster of the DUP as well as Sinn Féin leaders Michelle O’Neill and Mary Lou McDonald. Prime Minister Theresa May and Taoiseach Leo Varadkar were also there. A group called New IRA claimed that its members were responsible for the murder. No one has yet been charged.
PUBLIC FINANCES: Through the stygian gloom of austerity public finance, a ray of light. Government borrowing for the year 2018/19 was at the lowest level seen since 2002/03 both in cash terms and as a proportion of GDP. The total of £22.8 billion is below previous forecasts and reduced estimates for the next five years should give the Chancellor headroom either to end austerity or, in the event of a hard Brexit, to soften the impact. It should be borne in mind of course that we are talking of the rate of increase in government debt and that the total is still gradually rising, albeit more slowly than was expected.
EGYPT: A referendum took place this week, proposing constitutional changes which would allow the president two terms of six years each (a maximum of two terms of four years each was agreed five years ago, following the removal of President Morsi of the Muslim Brotherhood), increase his powers, change parliament and enhance the army’s role. Official reports say that turnout was 44.33 per cent and that nearly 90 per cent of voters backed the changes. President Sisi’s current term (his second) would be extended by two years, and he would be allowed to stand for a second six year term, though he has been in power since 2014. A protester holding a banner declaring “No to the constitutional amendments” was arrested, according to The Times.
UKRAINE: The comedian and actor Volodymyr Zelensky has been elected president, beating the current President Poroshenko in a landslide by taking over 70% of the votes in the second-round face-off. Mr Zelensky has no political experience but he’s famous in Ukraine as the actor who plays Vasyl Holoborodko, the main character in Servant of the People, a popular tv comedy series about a history teacher who becomes president after ranting and raving against corrupt politicians on social media. He has promised to crack-down on corruption in politics and business, to reform taxes, to talk with Moscow to improve the toxic relationship between Ukraine and Russia, and to hold referenda about Nato membership and other issues. He appeared as an anti-establishment outsider ready to overturn the ineffectual old order represented by the other candidates (the current president Petro Poroshenko and the former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko).
INDIA: General elections – the biggest elections in history, with up to 900 million voters – are taking place across India over six weeks, with five more rounds of voting before May 23. One voter reportedly cut his finger off when he discovered that he had voted for prime minister Modi’s BJP by mistake rather than the pro-Dalit BSP.
GUATEMALA: Presidential elections will take place in June, but it’s now unlikely that candidate Mario Amilcar Estrada Orellana will take part in them. He has been arrested in New York and charged with conspiring to kill his rivals and to smuggle cocaine into the US to fund his campaign.
INDONESIA: President Joko has declared himself re-elected in the country’s biggest-ever elections (190 million voters) in the world’s third biggest democracy. His rival Prabowo Subianto has also declared victory. Allegations of violations include the claim that tens of thousands of ballet papers were marked for Joko and stored in a warehouse in neighbouring Malaysia in advance of the election.
NANNY KNOWS BEST – AGAIN: Among the many and heavy responsibilities of being Mayor of London it is good to know that Sadiq Khan is continuing to care about the welfare of those who cater for visitors to London by offering accommodation in London homes. Much of that – what used to be simple old fashioned bed and breakfast – is via the mediation programme Airbnb, another great success of the digital age which provides a platform for those wishing to rent a room or flat or house to incoming visitors who wish to find one. Like Uber, Airbnb has greatly simplified the market place, and has at the same time improved the quality to both sides by careful monitoring and feedback. And like Uber, Airbnb has become the target of government, and in London, the Mayor and the Councils, who would like the whole thing much more regulated and monitored. They have called upon the government to introduce a compulsory register of accommodation providers, and to limit the number of days letting for freestanding lets to 90 days per year. The government is likely to go along with that, not least because of pressure from both the hotel trade and the taxman. Airbnb, sensing it best to make the best of the inevitable, have said they welcome the introduction of a simple and free register. We know you are American, guys, but simple and free bureaucracy – in Britain?
UPWARDS ONCE MORE: The oil price is moving back up once more, passing upwards through US$70 a barrel this week as President Trump announced that US sanctions would now be extended to any nation buying oil from Iran. That may not bother China too much, already facing direct US sanctions on other fronts, but Japan is also a major buyer of Iranian oil, as are South Korea, India, and Italy. All of those latter will not want to upset American trade partners, but will have to procure alternative sources – which could just mean buying from the USA. In the meantime the price of oil moves up to reflect the shrinking sanctions free sources. Saudi Arabia have promised to increase supply to make available shortfalls, but they too will not want to upset over much a major defence supplier – the USA.
GOOD FOR SOME: We have heard of Brexit being blamed for all sorts of bad news, but here it is credited with some good tidings – Coca-Cola says its sales were up 6% (excluding the acquisition of Costa Coffee from Whitbread) in the first quarter of 2019 because of retailers stockpiling the magic elixir in case Brexit blockades cut Britain off from vital sources. That would indeed be a mixed blessing.
MORE FROM MUSK: Elon Musk, boss of Tesla cars, says that the company is very close to rolling out self drive cars – “months away” he claimed on Monday. And he means proper self drive – cars where, he says, you could go to sleep at the wheel and the vehicle would get you there safely. Experts have their doubts on this one – road tests on self drive cars have not been terribly successful so far except in strictly controlled conditions, and Mr Musk’s forecasts have not become famous for their accuracy. Indeed, Tesla stockholders would be more interested in Tesla starting to meet its vehicle production targets than letting Elon go to sleep at the controls.