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Treasury minister dramatically QUITS over Covid anti-fraud measures

Boris Johnson suffered another body blow today as a Treasury minister dramatically quit branding the government’s Covid anti-fraud measures ‘indolent, arrogant and ignorant’.

Lord Agnew announced he was resigning at the despatch box in the Upper House – drawing gasps from peers as he took aim at ‘schoolboy errors’ in tackling abuse of support schemes.

The bombshell came as he was updating peers about the £4.3billion of Covid loans written off by the Treasury – which Labour said has gone to ‘fraudsters’. 

Lord Agnew said he had been ‘arguing’ with Treasury and BEIS officials for nearly two years to ‘get them to lift their game’ over issues such as duplicate loans and monitoring the performance of lenders, adding: ‘I have been mostly unsuccessful.’

‘Given that I am the minister for counter fraud, it would be somewhat dishonest to stay on in that role if I am incapable of doing it properly,’ he said.

‘It is for this reason that I have sadly decided to tender my resignation as a minister across the Treasury and Cabinet Office with immediate affect.’

After finishing his speech raging at a ‘combination of arrogance, indolence, and ignorance’ that is costing the equivalent of a penny on income tax, the Treasury minister said ‘thank you and goodbye’ and strode out of the Lords chamber to applause from his fellow peers. 

Although Lord Agnew insisted there was no connection to Mr Johnson’s other woes, the move will intensify pressure on the already-embattled premier. 

Mr Johnson is facing another week from hell as the top civil servant finalises her inquiry into alleged lockdown breaches in Whitehall, while furious Tories prepare for another coup bid. 

Dominic Cummings today revealed he is only giving written evidence to the Partygate inquiry to avoid Mr Johnson ‘inventing nonsense’ about what he said.  

Lord Agnew announced he was resigning at the despatch box in the Upper House - drawing gasps from peers

Lord Agnew announced he was resigning at the despatch box in the Upper House – drawing gasps from peers

Boris Johnson visited Milton Keynes Hospital today as he awaits the results of the Sue Gray inquiry into Partygate

Boris Johnson visited Milton Keynes Hospital today as he awaits the results of the Sue Gray inquiry into Partygate

Downing Street is fighting multiple battles – but will Boris survive? 

The Prime Minister is currently fighting wars on several fronts as he attempts to maintain his premiership. 

Though Sue Gray’s inquiry into ‘partygate’ is believed to have dug up some extremely damning evidence, here are some of the other challenges facing Downing Street which could prove deadly to Boris’ leadership.

Allegations of Islamophobia 

Nusrat Ghani, the first Muslim woman to be elected as a Tory MP in 2015, said she was told by a party whip she was being axed in Feb 2020 because her status as a Muslim woman was ‘making colleagues feel uncomfortable’. 

She also claimed she was told by the whip that she had been fired for saying to Boris Johnson that they had a ‘women problem’, in attracting female voters.

Ms Ghani claimed she raised the issue through official party channels but said she was warned that if she continued to do so, she would be ‘ostracised’ by her colleagues and her ‘career and reputation would be destroyed’.

William Wragg’s allegations of MP blackmail

William Wragg, a backbencher who accused Downing Street of trying to blackmail rebel MPs, said yesterday he would meet police to discuss his allegations. 

Downing Street said it had not seen any proof of the behaviour he alleges, but Chris Bryant, chairman of the Commons Committee on Standards, said about a dozen Tory MPs alleged whips threatened to withdraw funding for their constituencies should they not show support for Johnson.

Whips have also been accused of heavy-handed attempts to intimidate the rebels with the threat of revealing allegations about their sex lives.

1922 Committee

William Wragg and Nusrat Ghani are joint vice-chairmen of the 1922 Committee of Conservative backbenchers. 

The committee’s executive secretary Gary Sambrook has also expressed his desire for a new Tory leader, while treasurer Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown voiced frustration with the PM last year. 

If Johnson were to win a party confidence vote, he would be immune to another leadership challenge for a year – but the committee is considering cutting this immunity period to six months.  

Defectors 

Former Tory MP Christian Wakeford crossed the floor and joined the Labour party last week.

Though defections are rare in Parliament, there are rumours that more Tory MPs may soon follow suit. 

Lord Agnew told the House: ‘The oversight by both BEIS and the British Business Bank of the panel lenders of BBLs has been nothing less than woeful.

‘They have been assisted by the Treasury, who appear to have no knowledge or little interest in the consequences of fraud to our economy or our society.’

He told the Lords that BEIS had ‘two counter-fraud staff’ at the start of the pandemic who would not ‘engage constructively’ with his counter-fraud team in the Cabinet Office.

He added: ‘Schoolboy errors were made, for example allowing over a thousand companies to receive bounceback loans that were not even trading when Covid struck.’

Lord Agnew tried to distance himself from the growing calls to oust the PM.

‘It is worth saying that none of this related to far more dramatic political events being played out across Westminster. This is not an attack on the Prime Minister and I am sorry for the inconvenience it will cause,’ he said.

‘I hope that as a virtually unknown minister beyond this place, it might prompt others more important beyond me to get behind this and sort it out.

‘It matters for all the obvious reasons but there is a penny of income tax waiting to be claimed here if we just woke up. 

‘Total fraud loss across Government is estimated at £29billion a year, of course not all can be stopped but a combination of arrogance indolence and ignorance freezes the Government machine.’ 

Lord Agnew told peers that early estimates of fraudulent Covid loan claims was likely to be 26 per cent of the total paid out so far.

He said: ‘We have already paid out nearly £1 billion to banks claiming the state guarantee. The percentage of these losses estimated to be from fraud rather than credit failures is 26%. I accept this is only an early approximate but a very worrying one.’

As he resigned, Lord Agnew said he had ‘four differences of opinion with Treasury officials’ and proceeded to read out what he would do differently.

These were: ‘1. An urgent improvement in lender performance data, including a common definition of fraud.

‘2. Far greater challenge of lender banks when we uncover inconsistency.

‘3. Educating Treasury officials on why reliance on audit is far too reactive.

‘4. A failure by Treasury or BEIS to understand the disjunction between the level of criminality – probably hundreds of thousands – and enforcement capability.

Lord Agnew’s resignation as a Treasury minister came after a question from his Labour shadow, Lord Tunnicliffe.

Lord Tunnicliffe asked: ‘Last week the Government objected to the £4.3billion figure quoted in various news reports.

‘In many senses we would be delighted if the extent of fraud arising from the Government’s coronavirus support scheme was smaller than first thought. Is the noble lord the minister able to provide a more accurate figure today?’

He also asked ‘why the Government expects working people to cancel out these losses’, adding: ‘That would be bad enough in normal times but is surely worse when families face an unprecedented cost-of-living crisis.’

After the resignation Labour leader in the Lords Baroness Smith of Basildon said: ‘I think we have just witnessed one of the most dramatic moments we have ever seen in the House from a minister who felt his integrity could no longer ensure he remained a member of the Government.’

No10 insisted the Government had been clear fraud was ‘unacceptable’.

The Prime Minister’s official spokesman said: ‘We are grateful to Lord Agnew for the significant contribution he has made to Government.

‘On the wider issues that he’s raised, we introduced our unprecedented Covid support schemes at speed to protect jobs and livelihoods, helping millions of people across the UK, including nearly 12million on the furlough scheme alone.

‘We’ve always been clear fraud is unacceptable and are taking action against those abusing the system, with 150,000 ineligible claims blocked, £500 million recovered last year and the HMRC tax protection taskforce is expected to recover an additional £1 billion of taxpayers’ money.’

It is not the first time a minister has resigned at the despatch box in the House of Lords.

Another minister quit at the despatch box in 2018… but was talked around by Theresa May  

It is not the first time a minister has resigned at the despatch box in the House of Lords.

Back in 2018, Lord Bates stunned peers when he announced he would quit as he was ‘ashamed’ for failing to turn up on time in the upper chamber.

However, the international development minister’s offer of resignation was rejected by the then prime minister Theresa May.

He subsequently left the Government the following year to walk from Belfast to Brussels in search of ‘common ground’, amid the fractious Brexit debate.

 

Back in 2018, Lord Bates stunned peers when he announced he would quit as he was ‘ashamed’ for failing to turn up on time in the upper chamber.

However, the international development minister’s offer of resignation was rejected by the then prime minister Theresa May.

He subsequently left the Government the following year to walk from Belfast to Brussels in search of ‘common ground’, amid the fractious Brexit debate.

Meanwhile, former No10 chief Mr Cummings said he is not speaking to Sue Gray directly as he claimed staff are not handing crucial material to the top civil servant due to fears Boris Johnson will see it. 

The comments came amid rumours Downing Street police have supplied ‘extremely damning’ testimony to Ms Gray, with storm clouds seemingly gathering around Mr Johnson.

But the PM’s spokesman pointedly refused to say that Ms Gray’s whole report will be published – saying it will be down to the premier how much is released.  

Mr Cummings has already revealed he is ready to swear on oath that Mr Johnson was warned that a ‘BYOB’ bash in May 2020 would break the rules.

In a blog post this afternoon, the ex-aide wrote: ‘When SG asked to speak to me I emailed to the effect: if we speak the PM will invent nonsense and spin it to the media and you and I will both have problems, let’s keep everything in writing, therefore he cannot invent things I’ve supposedly said to you, there is only a written record, this makes both our lives easier. 

‘She agreed. So I have answered questions in writing and will answer further questions in writing if she wants. But I will not speak and therefore provide the PM with more chances to lie and confuse everybody.

‘I know others are very worried about handing things to the Cabinet Office because they know the PM will see everything SG collects. This inevitably means that evidence, including photos, is not given to her and instead will keep leaking after her report.’

He stressed that his caution was a ‘consequence of beliefs about the PM’s integrity, not SG’s’. 

Officers from the Scotland Yard’s Parliamentary and Diplomatic Protection Command who were guardian No10 are said to have been ‘only too willing’ to provide accounts to the investigation.    

However, the premier has signalled defiance, and has reportedly reunited a team of allies who helped secure him the leadership to shore up support among MPs. Wags have nicknamed the group – including ministers Conor Burns, Nigel Adams, and Chris Pincher the ‘Avengers’.

He is expected to push Speaker Lindsay Hoyle to let him respond to Ms Gray’s findings within hours of them being released, so he can take charge of the ‘narrative’.   

Mr Cummings, pictured outside his London home today, has levelled a series of allegations at the PM over Partygate

Mr Cummings, pictured outside his London home today, has levelled a series of allegations at the PM over Partygate  

Boris Johnson insists he is taking ex-minister Nusrat Ghani’s claim she was sacked in reshuffle over ‘Muslimness’ ‘extremely seriously’ as he launches a civil service probe following calls from Cabinet members for a ‘proper investigation’ 

Boris Johnson today insisted he is taking allegations an ex-minister was sacked over ‘Muslimness’ ‘extremely seriously’ as he ordered a formal Cabinet Office investigation into the claims. 

The Prime Minister has instructed the civil service to carry out a probe after the extraordinary claims from Tory MP Nusrat Ghani. 

The move came after Cabinet ministers Nadhim Zahawi and Sajid Javid joined calls for a ‘proper’ inquiry – with others suggesting it should be fully independent. 

Mr Johnson told reporters on a visit to Milton Keynes University Hospital this morning: ‘We take these allegations extremely seriously. I took them very seriously when they were raised with me 18 months ago.

‘Very glad there’s an investigation taking place now, can’t say more really about it.’ 

Downing Street announced the probe this morning, with a Number 10 spokeswoman saying: ‘The Prime Minister has asked the Cabinet Office to conduct an inquiry into the allegations made by Nusrat Ghani MP. 

‘At the time these allegations were first made, the Prime Minister recommended to her that she make a formal complain to CCHQ. She did not take up this offer.

‘The Prime Minister has now asked officials to establish the facts about what happened.

‘As he said at the time, the Prime Minister takes these claims very seriously.’

Nusrat Ghani (pictured), the Tory MP for Wealden in East Sussex, has alleged her ‘Muslimness’ was raised when she was sacked as transport minister in February 2020 

Ms Ghani alleged that chief whip Mark Spencer said her faith was partly responsible for her getting the boot in 2020 – something he flatly denies. 

Mr Johnson was asked this morning if Mr Spencer will remain in his role while the investigation is carried out and he replied: ‘Just to get back to the key point, this is something I take personally extremely seriously. I took it very seriously 18 months ago. We must wait and see what the investigation produces.’

Ms Ghani has contradicted No10’s version of events, saying the PM refused to get involved and tried to fob her off.

After the announcement, Ms Ghani insisted the terms of reference for the probe must including ‘all that was said in Downing Street and by the Whip’.

Ms Ghani said: ‘As I said to the Prime Minister last night all I want is for this to be taken seriously and for him to investigate.

‘I welcome his decision to do that now.

‘The terms of reference of the inquiry must include all that was said in Downing Street and by the Whip.

‘I look forward to seeing the terms of reference.’ 

In a round of interviews this morning, Mr Zahawi welcomed the news, but stressed he did not think the allegations had been taken lightly before.

He said he personally had never ‘experienced any form of racism’ in the Conservative Party.

The Education Secretary told Sky News: ‘She has made a very serious allegation, the Prime Minister spoke to her last night and said the Cabinet Office will investigate this and look at the detail of this.

‘She put out a statement last night saying actually, to be fair to her, this could be people who weren’t even members of the Conservative Party, which is why we need to get to the bottom of this very quickly.

‘And of course the Chief Whip (Mark Spencer) has come out and named himself as the individual and I work with both colleagues, and I think it is important that someone like a Cabinet Office senior civil servant should look at this properly, because the Chief Whip has also categorically denied this.’

A thinktank has called on the Government to bring in the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) to investigate the claims.

The Runnymede Trust, a race equality thinktank, says the issue is too important to be left to a civil servant-led inquiry.   

Chief executive Dr Halima Begum told the Guardian: ‘This is an incredibly serious situation. At a bare minimum, the allegation that a minister of the crown was fired for her so-called ‘Muslimness’ would represent a flagrant challenge to our equalities and labour laws.

‘The facts and questions about the legality of what has happened here must be urgently investigated by the very highest authority. This cannot simply be left for another civil service inquiry. If the allegations are proven to be true, Nusrat would have been subjected to grossly discriminatory behaviour.

‘[Her] distress will be felt by every one of the 3 million Muslims in the country, as well as every member of our religious minority communities. All of the political parties need to do more to demonstrate zero tolerance for discrimination, and to prove that religious minorities in this country are respected regardless of their faith.’

Caroline Nokes, chair of the Commons women and equalities committee, described the treatment of Ms Ghani as ‘appalling’.

She also backed calls for the EHRC to launch an investigation and told the Telegraph: ‘Her faith has never made me (or any other colleague) ‘uncomfortable’.

‘At the very least EHRC should have a look at this.’

An EHRC spokesman stated the Commission is still examining the Conservative Party’s handling of the Singh inquiry into Islamophobia complaints last year and suggested a full investigation may take place.

The spokesman added: ‘If we are not satisfied with progress we will review our decision [not to begin an immediate review] and do not rule out the use of our legal powers.’

In a round of interviews this morning, Nadhim Zahawi welcomed news that a Cabinet Office investigation will be held

In a round of interviews this morning, Nadhim Zahawi welcomed news that a Cabinet Office investigation will be held

Boris Johnson

Mark Spencer outed himself as the whip concerned, and branded Ms Ghani's comments 'false' and 'defamatory'

The PM (pictured left running this morning) has instructed the civil service to carry out a probe after the extraordinary claims from Ms Ghani. Mark Spencer (right) has outed himself as the whip concerned, and branded Ms Ghani’s comments ‘false’ and ‘defamatory’

After the announcement, Ms Ghani insisted the terms of reference for the probe must including 'all that was said in Downing Street and by the Whip'

After the announcement, Ms Ghani insisted the terms of reference for the probe must including ‘all that was said in Downing Street and by the Whip’

Who is Nusrat Ghani? Kashmir born trailblazer was a surprise sacking in PM’s 2020 reshuffle 

Nusrat Ghani – known as Nus – was long seen as a rising star in Tory circles.

And it came as a surprise to many when she was axed as a minister in 2020. 

The 49-year-old was born in Kashmir to Pakistani parents and grew up in Birmingham.

She worked in an investment bank, charities and the BBC World Service before entering politics. 

Ms Ghani is married to Sky executive David Wheeldon, with whom she has one child.

She stood in the 2010 general election for the seat of Birmingham Ladywood and lost, but was elected as MP for Wealden in East Sussex in 2015. She was the first female to win the seat and the first Muslim woman elected as a Tory MP.

After her victory, Ms Ghani said: ‘As the nation wakes up the Conservatives look to be on the brink of returning to government.’

‘We have helped put our country back on track. Our party has taken bold steps and you have put your trust in us to finish the job.’

In 2015, Ms Ghani was appointed a member of the Home Affairs Select Committee. A Brexiteer, Ms Ghani in 2016 told the BBC: ‘Britain has a chance to vote for a bold, positive future as an independent country in control of its own destiny.

‘We have the chance to liberate our economy from a declining corner of the world and spread our wings to the whole globe.’

Ms Ghani was appointed assistant whip and transport minister in 2018 under Theresa May. She was the first female Muslim to speak from the Commons dispatch box. At the time, then-Transport Secretary Chris Grayling told the BBC her promotion showed the Conservatives ‘were a party of opportunity’.

‘We’re the party to provide… the first Muslim woman minister to speak from the government dispatch box – the member for Wealden,’ he said.’

Ms Ghani wrote on her website: ‘A century after women got the vote for the first time, I hope that today young people can see that regardless of their background, faith, race, gender or sexuality, there will be a warm welcome on the green benches, and no matter where you are from you can achieve your dreams and ambitions.’

In 2020, when Ms Ghani was removed from the role, she was replaced by Kelly Tolhurst. Ms Ghani has said that she was surprised at the demotion, and the shuffle was reported in that light given she had been tipped to oversee HS2 progress.

Ms Ghani is a steering committee member of the backbench Covid Recovery Group which opposed the December 2020 lockdown and has voted against other Covid restrictions.

Elsewhere, a Tory MP sparked anger after he said Ms Ghani was ‘hardly someone who is obviously a Muslim’. 

Michael Fabricant said the timing of the former transport minister‘s claim was ‘very suspicious’, and suggested it was linked to moves to get rid of Boris Johnson over the Downing Street lockdown parties scandal. 

Yesterday, Labour described Mr Fabricant’s comments as ‘shameful’ and called for the Conservative whip to be withdrawn.

Speaking on LBC, Mr Fabricant said: ‘The timing is interesting. I think all this is because it’s open season on Boris Johnson, putting pressure on him from the party trying to get him to resign.

‘I think the whole thing actually stinks, the accusation being made by Nus Ghani.

‘She’s hardly someone who is obviously a Muslim. I had no idea what religion she is. It does seem rather a lame excuse to me that she was sacked because of that.’

In response, shadow foreign secretary David Lammy tweeted: ‘What an appalling, disgraceful thing to say.

‘If the Tories wanted to show they were serious about tackling Islamophobia, they could start by removing the whip from Michael Fabricant.’

Labour Party chair Anneliese Dodds said the response of the the Tories to Ms Ghani’s claims had been shameful.

‘For a Conservative MP, Michael Fabricant, to go on the radio and make comments that reflect exactly the sort of unacceptable behaviour Nusrat has raised shows just how deep the problem in the Conservative Party goes,’ she said.

Ms Ghani has received the backing of Health Secretary Sajid Javid and Education Nadhim Zahawi, the two most senior Muslims in the Cabinet.

Both took to Twitter to support her and demand a full investigation into her claims against Mr Spencer.                

He has outed himself as the whip concerned, and branded Ms Ghani’s comments ‘false’ and ‘defamatory’. 

Justice secretary Dominic Raab also lined up to defend the party, claiming she had decided not to call for an investigation at the time.

But Mr Javid said Ms Ghani was ‘a credit to the Conservative Party’, adding: ‘This is a very serious matter which needs a proper investigation. I would strongly support her in making a formal complaint – she must be heard.’

His intervention claim after Mr Zahawi tweeted: ‘There is no place for islamophobia or any form of racism in our Conservative party. Nusrat Ghani is a friend, a colleague & a brilliant parliamentarian. This has to be investigated properly & racism routed out. #standwithNus’ . 

Ms Ghani, who was the first Muslim woman to be elected as a Tory MP in 2015, told the Sunday Times she was told by a party whip she was being axed in February 2020 because her status as a Muslim woman and a minister was ‘making colleagues feel uncomfortable’.

She also claimed she was warned that if she continued to raise the issue then her ‘career and reputation would be destroyed’.   

But yesterday morning Downing Street revealed that Ms Ghani had complained directly to the PM in 2020. A spokeswoman said: ‘After being made aware of these extremely serious claims, the Prime Minister met with Nusrat Ghani to discuss them. 

‘He then wrote to her expressing his serious concern and inviting her to begin a formal complaint process. She did not subsequently do so.’

After that statement was released, Ms Ghani said: ‘When I told the Prime Minister in June 2020 what had been said to me in the Government Whips’ Office I urged him to take it seriously as a Government matter and instigate an inquiry.

‘He wrote to me that he could not get involved and suggested I use the internal Conservative Party complaint process.

‘This, as I had already pointed out, was very clearly not appropriate for something that happened on Government business – I do not even know if the words that were conveyed to me about what was said in reshuffle meetings at Downing Street were by members of the Conservative Party.’


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