Issue 222: 2019 11 07: Lens on the Week

07 November 2019

Lens on the Week

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UK

ELECTION: All prospect of an electoral pact between the Conservatives and the Brexit party disappeared as Nigel Farage criticised the draft Withdrawal Agreement and made its rejection by the Government a precondition of the withdrawal of candidates by his party.  Mr Trump also criticised the agreement and said that it would be a block to a trade deal between the US and the UK.

Fact checking charity Full Fact has described as irresponsible a Conservative video which distorts an interview with Kier Starmer to give the misleading impression that he had difficulty in answering a question.  You have to wonder who was the bright boy (or girl) in their campaign headquarters who thought that this was a good idea or that there was any prospect of getting away with it.

SPEAKER RACE: And so to the second of the two election campaigns running at the moment, that for a new speaker to replace John Bercow who retires at the start of the month.  This has been won by Sir Lindsay Hoyle, the Labour MP for Chorley.  Convention demands that the new speaker is dragged to his seat against his wishes – these days after making a presentation as to why he is right for the role.

TERROR THREAT: The Home Secretary has announced that the terror threat for the UK (apart from Northern Ireland) has been reduced from “severe” to “substantial”.  There are five levels of threat:, conditional, severe, substantial, moderate and low, but Assistant Commissioner Neil Basu says that attacks are still likely.

MINISTER RESIGNS: Alun Cairns has resigned as Secretary of State for Wales because of allegations that he recommended and failed to take action against a colleague Ross England despite being aware that Mr England had sabotaged a rape trial by stating in evidence that he had had a sexual relationship with the defendant.  Such evidence was inadmissible which meant that the trial had to be reheld.  Mr Cairns was MP for, and is currently the Conservative candidate for, the Vale of Glamorgan.

GRENFELL COMMENTS: Jacob Rees-Mogg has apologised for replying on talkback radio to a question concerning the Moore-Bick report: “”And I think if either of us were in a fire, whatever the fire brigade said, we would leave the burning building.  It just seems the common sense thing to do,” and Conservative MP Andrew Bridgen has apologised for trying to explain the comment which is regarded as “beyond disrespectful” by survivors’ group Grenfell United.  Needless to say, Labour’s national campaign co-ordinator Andrew Gwynne has called for Mr Bridgen to be withdrawn as a parliamentary candidate.

EXTINCTION REBELLION: The London wide ban on demonstrations by Extinction Rebellion imposed by the police on 14th October has been held to be ultra vires by the High Court from which it follows that arrests of demonstrators for defying the ban were illegal and charges relating to that will have to be dropped.  It will be interesting to see whether those arrested pursue claims for false imprisonment.  If not, the dropping of a large number of charges should effect a considerable saving in Court time.

International

Man v planet: who’s winning?

INDIA: The annual ‘polution season’ (the cooler air of autumn traps smoke from Diwali fireworks and from the burning of crop stubble, as well as the all-year round dust and fumes from cars, factories, etc) in Northern India is even worse than usual this year.  The air in Delhi is dangerous at the best of times, but at the moment the city is engulfed in a cloud of toxic smog; the air quality index registered 1200 this week, 24 times the safe limit of 50.  Lung cancer, heart attacks and strokes are on the increase.  India’s Supreme Court banned the burning of crop stubble in the states surrounding Delhi a few days ago, schools have closed, millions of anti-pollution masks have been issued to pupils, flights have been diverted and the number of cars driving in the city has been restricted.

USA: Conservationists have criticised recommendations made by a White House advisory committee to increase income from the National Parks.  They say that the plans – which include allowing electric bicycles on trails and Amazon deliveries to campers, the privatisation of campsites and the dropping of environmental impact reviews – will ruin the parks.

Secretary of state Mike Pompeo submitted a formal notice to the UN for the USA to leave the 2015 Paris climate agreement, thus starting the withdrawal procedure.  The withdrawal will be completed next year.

Wildfires have devastated large parts of California in recent weeks.  Unusually high temperatures and high winds have produced the worst fires in decades.

AUSTRALIA: This October has been the hottest in the past century.  The spring bushfires have been the worst on record – more than seventy are burning in New South Wales.

BRAZIL: Oil slicks have polluted more than 200 beaches and 1250 miles of the coast in recent weeks. The source of the oil leaks remains unknown.

An indigenous leader has been shot dead, and another wounded, for reporting illegal logging and land grabs in the Amazon.  They were ambushed in the protected Araboia reserve.  The two tribesmen belonged to the Guardians of the Forest, a group of volunteers who patrol and protect the rainforest.

ITALY: This week the education minister announced that classes on climate change will be compulsory in schools, a world first.  He supported children playing truant last month to take part in Greta Thundberg-inspired climate protests.  “I want to make the Italian education system the first that puts the environment and society at the core of everything we learn in school” he said.  The government is also proposing a tax on single-use plastic, a tax on airline tickets, and subsidies for shops to go package-free.

AFRICA: The worst drought in decades has hit southern Africa.  Animals in Zimbabwe’s wildlife parks are dying of hunger and thirst.  Millions of people across the region are suffering shortages of food and face the possibility of a huge famine.

The government of Zambia plans to permit copper mining in the Lower Zambesi National Park.  Critics say that the open-cast mines would be a disaster for the country’s wildlife.

ANTARCTIC: Plans by the Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to set up the world’s largest wildlife sanctuary – one million square kilometres of the Antarctic – have been thwarted for the eighth year running.  The plans were blocked by Russia and China.

Financial

MOTHERCARE(LESS):  News that Mothercare has appointed administrators for its British business is yet another sign of the long lingering death of the UK high street.  The move means the closing of their last 70 shops, with potentially 2,800 jobs lost.  The company was founded in 1961, floated on the Stock Exchange in 1972, and at one stage had over 400 shops.  It is easy to cite competition from supermarkets and, more significantly, the rise of the internet as reasons for the failure.  However, a loss of £36.3mn across UK operations compares with a profit in its international business, and so expensive store leases, rising costs overall and consumer uncertainty in this country also played a part.  From March to September this year, 44 UK retailers entered administration, including the likes of LK Bennett, Jack Wills and Karen Millen (although some have since been bought), while Marks and Spencer, Tesco and Boots have been cutting either stores or jobs.

FRACKED OFF:  The government signalled a freeze on fracking given “very considerable anxieties about the process”, with concerns over a link between fracking and earthquakes.  The process involves pumping water, sand and chemicals into shale; that creates fractures, allowing gas to escape to the surface.  The government had hoped that 20 wells would have been sunk by next year – but so far there are only 3 (in Lancashire).  A 2.9 magnitude earth tremor shook Blackpool in August and the Oil and Gas Authority says that it is “not currently possible to predict the probability or magnitude” of such events linked to fracking.  The timing of the government’s change of tack on something that is unpopular with voters may be coincidental.  It is also interesting that the move came just days ahead of an OPEC statement on the impact of fracking on the profits of the oil industry.  The government might just be keen to keep on the right side of oil producers ahead of the proposed listing of Aramco…

ARAMCO WOE:  The much-anticipated flotation of Saudi Arabia’s state-backed oil company is now not expected to hit its hoped for $2trn valuation.  Aramco is only looking to sell a stake of between 1 and 3%, to raise a mere $15-60bn, but it would make it the world’s largest listed company if the overall valuation comes out, as now expected, at $1.6trn.  This compares with a company like Apple, valued currently at around $1.2trn.  Even the small percentage stake on offer is likely to constitute the largest ever initial public offering (IPO), generating considerable fees for the 27 investment banks involved in the process. Given that the company generates vast profits ($111bn last year) it is reasonable to ask quite why Saudi Arabia is looking to sell part of it.  There is always a need to invest in renewing infrastructure and the cash will be helpful in this sense, but the flotation may also be indicative of a view that the oil price is close to its peak.

 

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