India’s COVID crisis and a snowballing ‘sex scandal’ endanger Boris Johnson’s visit to New Delhi

Why is India not on the UK’s “red list” of 40 odd countries that include Pakistan and Bangladesh, where visits are only permitted for emergencies and a mandatory quarantine required after return?

British PM Boris Johnson
British PM Boris Johnson
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Ashis Ray

The fearful second wave of the coronavirus epidemic in India triggered questions at a “lobby” or non-attributable briefing to journalists by the British prime minister’s office as to whether Boris Johnson will have to again postpone his visit to India – scheduled to begin on 26 April.

Unsurprisingly, media wondered how India, with by far the highest number of new cases and deaths per day in the world, was not on the United Kingdom’s “red list” of 40 odd countries, where visits are only permitted for emergencies. Travel to such territories means a compulsory 10-day quarantine in a hotel (@ a non-negotiable £1,750 per head) upon a person’s return.

In effect, if India was added to the banned category, Johnson and his delegation would by law have to isolate in a room. It is not the cost that would bother Her Majesty’s Government, but the fact that activities of its apex functionary and senior officials would be severely restricted for the period.

Last week, Bangladesh and Pakistan were added to the list, but not India, thus raising eyebrows. For instance, in the 24 hour period that India clocked 126,000 new cases, Pakistan recorded 4,000 and Bangladesh 7,600. Deaths in Pakistan were 102, in Bangladesh 63; whereas 684 succumbed in India.

Mortality per one million of population stands at 67 in Pakistan, 57 in Bangladesh and 120 in India. In other words, whichever way a comparison is applied, the Indian situation emerges as the worst. No wonder the suspicion in London’s newsgathering circles is rampant that the guillotine hasn’t descended on India only to keep alive Johnson’s trip.

A source as 10 Downing Street said “there’s currently no change to the plan” regarding what would be Johnson’s maiden journey to India as the UK’s prime minister. He knows India intimately, since he had a half-Indian wife for 25 years and embarked on many a tour of the country. He also experienced it as London’s mayor and British foreign secretary.

A spokesperson at Whitehall’s department for transport explained: “Absolute case rates in a country are only one element of the assessment (for red listing).” She added: “Other elements such as numbers of cases detected in travellers arriving in the UK and the presence of variants of concern are also factored in.”

A business executive knowledgeable about the “Enhanced Trade Partnership” being negotiated between the two nations for announcement when Johnson is in Delhi stated: “As of now, the visit is on. Although the nature of the programme may be different to the normal PM visit due to social distancing.”

Meanwhile, Johnson's friendship with an American businesswoman Jennifer Arcuri when he was mayor of London has caused a stir. It’s not so much the salacious claims about sex that she made in an interview to the British tabloid The Mirror that's at issue; but whether Arcuri, whose companies benefitted from over £100,000 of public funds, did so because of her closeness to Johnson.

In 2019, he became the first British head of government to enter office with a girlfriend rather than wife in toe. While there have over the centuries been four bachelor prime ministers in Britain, before the turn of the millennium no divorcee would likely have been elected party leader, let alone be pitchforked to power. Certainly not in Johnson's quite conventional Conservative party. Partners rather than spouses are more in vogue in the less rigid opposition Labour party.

The John Profumo affair in the 1960s rather shook Britain. Here was a middle-aged Secretary of State for War in a liaison dangereuses with a fetching 19-year-old model Christine Keeler, who was contemporaneously involved with a naval attache and suspected spy in the Soviet embassy in London. The minister denied the connection in the House of Commons. But after Keeler confessed the dalliance to police, Profumo was compelled to step down.

Within four months, his prime minister, Harold Macmillan, also vacated office. Though not responsible for his cabinet colleague’s indiscretion, his departure - ostensibly because he developed a prostrate problem (which doctors diagnosed as benign) - was partially a fallout of the Profumo bombshell.

John Major, who succeeded Margaret Thatcher as premier in 1990, and his wife Norma were considered to be a traditional couple. After his defeat in the 1997 elections, though, Conservative MP Edwina Currie revealed he’d had a four-year fling with her before he became prime minister.

In 2019, the UK’s Independent Office for Police Conduct concluded no criminal case was made out as far as Johnson’s ties with Arcuri were concerned, but it remarked he ought to have declared an interest in her. The No 10 spokesperson Allegra Stratton was adamant her boss has “no case to answer”, despite the London Assembly, since Arcuri’s latest disclosures, widening an ongoing investigation into Johnson’s conduct.

Seven principles of public life set out by Lord Michael Nolan in 1995 as ethical standards public servants should abide by, are selflessness, integrity, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Johnson is morally bound to adhere to these. However, given the comfortable majority he enjoys in the Commons and in the absence of any challenge to him within his party, he is likely to brazen through any charges of transgression.

Johnson and his staff at the mayor’s office – which he occupied between 2008 and 2016 – were briefed on the importance of admitting personal friendships after he failed to divulge his alleged extramarital ties with Helen Macintyre, an unpaid adviser who is said to have given birth to his daughter in 2008.

In 2013, the mayor’s promotional agency London & Partners sponsored an event organised by Arcuri to the tune of £10,000. The following year it underwrote another of her events for £1,500. She was in her 20s, just out of business school, with a limited record as an entrepreneur. She also went on the mayor’s trade missions to Singapore, Malaysia, Israel and the United States. For at least two of those trips she reportedly failed to meet the criteria for inclusion.

In January 2019, after Johnson had resigned as foreign secretary in Prime Minister Theresa May’s government, Arcuri’s company Hacker House was awarded a £100,000 cyber-skills grant. Margot James, digital minister at the time, said she was “totally appalled” by this money being given to a firm despite concerns about its tenuous links with the UK. While Arcuri is believed to have bagged the allotment because of her connections, so far there appears to be no proof Johnson having swung it on her behalf.

Indeed, Johnson’s future depends not on his infringement of the Nolan Principles – which is likely to boil down to a matter of opinion anyway - but whether he broke the law. In other words, did he corruptly favour Arcuri? Clearly, what she has so far dismissed is that she was disbursed funds undeservingly.

No British prime minister has ever resigned because of a sex scandal. The present incumbent doesn’t as yet look threatened.

( The writer is an author, journalist and commentator based in London. Views are personal)

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