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Deal or no-deal, Brexit’s puppet master has more strings to pull



LONDON (Reuters) – Boxed in by parliament, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s next move on the Brexit chessboard will most likely be played with the ruthless bravura that his senior adviser, Dominic Cummings, built his reputation on.

Since Johnson won the top job in July, Britain’s Brexit crisis has spun more furiously, leaving investors and allies bewildered by an array of decisions that diplomats compare to the disorientating style of U.S. President Donald Trump.

Johnson said on Tuesday he would not request an extension to Brexit, hours after a law came into force demanding that he delay until 2020 unless he can strike a divorce deal. Before its suspension, parliament refused his demand for a snap election.

Cummings, the puppet master of Brexit who is cast by enemies variously as an anarchist, Britain’s Rasputin or a political vandal, was serene on Tuesday at the center of the Brexit maelstrom.

When asked what his next move would be on Brexit, Cummings told Reuters: “You guys should get outside London and go to talk to people who are not rich ‘remainers’.”

Asked if the United Kingdom would leave on Oct. 31, the 47-year-old Oxford graduate said: “Sure.”

If there is a grand strategy, Johnson’s next move will shape the future of the world’s fifth-largest economy for generations; at stake is the fate of the Brexit endeavor, which both sides cast as the United Kingdom’s most significant decision since World War Two.

But the chessboard has several dimensions: Johnson must factor the absence of any majority in parliament and the electoral threat from the Brexit Party of Nigel Farage, which increases if Brexit is delayed beyond Oct. 31.

Ultimately, Johnson has five choices: strike and ratify a deal with the EU in 50 days; renege on his promises to leave the EU on Oct. 31; somehow get around the law; resign to let another leader request a delay; or an election is triggered.


As sterling markets see-saw on the different Brexit outcomes, Johnson says he can get a deal on the last day of the Oct. 17-18 EU summit.

“There is a way of getting a deal but it will take a lot of hard work. We must be prepared to come out without one,” he said on Tuesday.

Given there is so little time left, any deal would in effect be a modified version of the Withdrawal Agreement that his predecessor Theresa May struck in November.

“Boris will try to ram through a modified Withdrawal Agreement,” said one Brexit-supporting source. “He’ll pivot to trying to get a deal.”

Cummings, though cast as a Brexit extremist by enemies, was a supporter of a smooth exit from the EU as was his political patron, Michael Gove.

Goldman Sachs said its base case was a deal, giving it 55% probability, but cut its no-deal probability from 25% to 20% and lowered its probability of no Brexit from 30% to 25%.

“We think the prime minister will re-engage in Brexit negotiations with the EU, aiming to confront MPs in late October with a binary choice between a Brexit deal and a pre-Brexit general election,” Goldman Sachs said.

But the lack of any majority in parliament has reduced the inclination of the EU to negotiate and even if Johnson did get a deal means he would have trouble ratifying it.

Dominic Cummings, special advisor for Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson, leaves his home in London, Britain September 6, 2019 REUTERS/Toby Melville

“There is no majority in the House of Commons for anything that Johnson wants,” said one EU official.

“We have no other choice but to see if we can get a deal with them. But so far the UK side has not put anything on the table that would make us think this is really what they are aiming at,” the official said.

There are, though, much more radical options.


Cummings, who alongside fellow campaigner Matthew Elliott, drove Vote Leave to victory in the 2016 referendum is cast by allies as a ruthless strategist who cares little for the conventions of traditional British politics.

He provoked a row inside Westminster when he sacked a 27-year-old adviser to finance minister Sajid Javid. The adviser, Sonia Khan, was escorted by armed police from Downing Street without Javid’s knowledge.

Former Prime Minister John Major cast Cummings as an overmighty “political anarchist” who should be sacked as Johnson’s de-facto chief of staff before he poisoned British politics beyond repair.

Cummings’s response? “Trust the people” – a slogan used by government advisers to cast Johnson’s Brexit-supporting team as the true servants of the people fighting a London political and financial elite that wants to thwart their will.

Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab said on Monday that the United Kingdom was in dangerous territory as voters were concluding that parliament was hindering Brexit. He said the government would respect the law but that interpretations of the law can sometimes be complex.

“At this point, our view is that resignation is the most likely,” U.S. investment bank JPMorgan said. “In our view, neither seeking to defy the law, nor encouraging the EU not to grant an extension, are likely to succeed.”

Slideshow (2 Images)

The Cabinet Manual, which sets out the laws, rules and conventions on the operation of government, says if the prime minister resigns on behalf of the government then Queen Elizabeth will invite the person who appears most likely to be able to command the confidence of lawmakers to serve as prime minister and form a government.

A Conservative Party lawmaker said he thought Johnson would resign soon after the EU summit, ensuring that he is not blamed for any delay to Brexit.

“The question is: what has Cummings got up his sleeve?” said a former Conservative adviser.

“He is one of the smartest people I have ever worked with. He thinks several steps ahead, thrives on chaos and has sat in a bunker for three years thinking about this: so what is he going to do?”

Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Brussels and Elizabeth Piper in London; Writing by Guy Faulconbridge; Editing by Angus MacSwan

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Sainsbury’s named cheapest supermarket of 2019 by Which?




People walk into Sainsbury's storeImage copyright
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Sainsbury’s has beaten rivals Morrisons and Asda to be named the cheapest supermarket of 2019, according to a survey by Which?.

Throughout the year, the consumer group tracked the prices of 53 branded items on a typical shopping list.

The list included goods like Andrex toilet roll and Weetabix cereal.

Each month Which? went to supermarket websites to compare the cost of the basket, which carried an average price tag of £107.01 at Sainsbury’s.

That stood in contrast to the average monthly cost of buying the goods at Waitrose – the most expensive supermarket according to the survey – where the price came to £117.81, 10% more.

Sainsbury’s, which was only the third-cheapest supermarket in 2018, stole the title from Morrisons, where the basket would have cost £109.13 last year.

This year, Morrisons was relegated to third place, behind Asda, where the basket of branded goods carried an average price tag of £107.65.

At Tesco, Which? recorded a £112.40 average bill when it reached the checkout. Meanwhile, the receipt was for £116.40 at Ocado.

Because the consumer group only tracked supermarkets that sell their full range online, discounters Lidl and Aldi were not included in the study.

“Your weekly supermarket shop can have a significant impact on your wallet, and the start of a new year is a good time to look at your household spending to see if there are areas where you can save money,” said Natalie Hitchins, head of home products and services at Which?.

“Our analysis shows how important it can be to shop around to ensure you get the best price for your groceries.”

Other items in the basket included Ben & Jerry’s cookie dough ice cream and Mr Kipling’s cherry bakewells.

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‘Avenue 5’ review: Hugh Laurie and Josh Gad star in this satirical flight aboard a space-faring cruise ship




The starry cast includes Hugh Laurie as Ryan Clark, the glad-handing captain of the most ill-fated TV ship since a three-hour tour became “Gilligan’s Island.” (As it turns out, Clark’s accent is as put on as his impeccably pressed uniform, and watching Laurie slide back and forth between British and American English when agitated is one of the show’s simplest pleasures.)

Clark is anticipating easy sailing when the spacefaring luxury ship — in the midst of an eight-week vacation voyage — experiences an unfortunate hiccup, potentially extending its stay in outer space. The powers that be aren’t particularly eager to share that news with the passengers or public, so hysteria reigns not only in the ship’s private quarters but back on Earth, where the team at mission control desperately tries to find a solution.

Temporarily stranded, meanwhile, are a particularly odd assortment of personalities, including Avenue 5 owner Herman Judd (Josh Gad, sporting a Richard Branson hairdo), as eccentric as billionaires get. The harried staff, meanwhile, includes Judd’s mostly unflappable right hand (Suzy Nakamura), the ship’s level-headed engineer (Lenora Crichlow) and its officious customer-relations specialist (“Silicon Valley’s” Zach Woods).

The passengers, too, share center stage, among them a couple (Jessica St. Clair, Kyle Bornheimer) whose terrible marriage isn’t helped by the prospect of staying together in a small cabin much longer than either had intended; and a woman (Rebecca Front) whose loud complaints impede Clark’s efforts to keep everyone calm.

Iannucci has a knack for milking laughs out of absurd, utterly uncomfortable situations — as he did in “Veep” and “The Death of Stalin” — and the complications associated with the Avenue 5’s plight (one hesitates to call it “lost in space”) provide a vast canvas upon which to splatter them.

That said, the show’s manic satirical tone yields uneven returns, and the premise takes somewhat fitful advantage of its futuristic setting. The serialized screw-ups do manage to sustain interest, but with so many over-the-top moments and characters, the show occasionally feels like it’s working a little too hard at being outrageous.

Overall “Avenue 5” isn’t bad, based on the four episodes previewed, but nor is it good enough to merit an open-ended commitment. The bottom line is if the series keeps cruising along at this creative level and madcap pace, unlike characters in the show, there won’t be any difficulty finding a way to jump ship.

“Avenue 5” premieres Jan. 19 at 10 p.m. on HBO, which, like CNN, is a unit of WarnerMedia.

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Fulham 1-0 Middlesbrough: Anthony Knockaert sends Whites third with winner




Anthony Knockaert scored his first Championship goal since September to give Fulham victory

Fulham moved up to third in the Championship as Anthony Knockaert’s early goal gave them victory over in-form Middlesbrough at Craven Cottage.

Knockaert capped a blistering opening half an hour from the hosts with what proved to be the winner, meeting Joe Bryan’s low fizzing cross to tap home at the far post.

It was the least Fulham deserved for their relentless first-half pressure, with the absence of injured top goalscorer Aleksandar Mitrovic perhaps telling as Scott Parker’s side squandered at least three guilt-edged opportunities.

Ivan Cavaleiro and Josh Onomah were most guilty, both failing to hit the target when well placed, while Denis Odoi deflected Hayden Coulson’s cross on to his own crossbar on a rare foray forward from Boro.

The contest was much tighter after half-time, although Odoi thought he had made the game safe when his glancing header found the corner of the net – only to be flagged offside by the barest of margins.

But Fulham were able to see out the game relatively comfortably to leapfrog Brentford; the win leaves them four points outside an automatic promotion place.

The result also checks Middlesbrough’s recent resurgence, with defeat in west London their first in six league matches, after they had clawed themselves clear of relegation trouble.

That run included eye-catching wins at West Bromwich Albion and Preston North End, but they never came close to repeating that level of performance against Fulham.

Knockaert had already curled one effort wide even before opening the scoring in the sixth minute, while captain Tom Cairney and Bryan also had efforts saved.

Paddy McNair came closest to an equaliser in the closing stages, inadvertently guiding a free-kick from out wide towards the far corner and forcing goalkeeper Marek Rodak into a smart save.

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Man dies after four swimmers experience difficulties at Tinley Manor Beach in KZN




One person died after four swimmers got into difficulties in the surf on the KwaZulu-Natal North Coast on Friday, Netcare 911 has confirmed.

Spokesperson Shawn Herbst said paramedics had responded to reports of a mass drowning at Tinley Manor Beach, where reports from the scene indicated four bathers, all adult men, had got into difficulties while swimming.

“Three of the four men were rescued by lifeguards while a fourth had disappeared under the water. The patient was rescued by lifeguards who pulled the man onto the shore.

“After noticing the patient was unresponsive and not breathing, lifeguards began CPR,” Herbst added.

When the medics arrived, an “extensive attempt to revive” the swimmer was made.

He was, however, declared dead at the scene.

– Compiled by Tammy Petersen

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Lesotho PM confirms resignation after alleged link to wife’s murder




Lesotho’s prime minister confirmed on Friday that he would resign after police linked him to the murder of his estranged wife nearly three years ago.

Thomas Thabane had faced calls from senior members of his All Basotho Convention (ABC) party to step down after police said there was evidence connecting him to the 2017 killing.

However, Thabane did not address the allegations against him when he announced his resignation plans at a press briefing in the capital Maseru.

Thabane gave no timeframe for his departure, but said he would nevertheless continue in his role as leader of the ABC.

“Truth be told, I have become of age and my strength has lessened, hence I announce before you today that I have an intention to step down and when such time comes I will let you know,” the 80-year-old said.

He said he had worked as long as he could for the well-being of the Basotho, an ethnic group native to Lesotho and South Africa.

“I am convinced that there is still much to do.”

Thabane’s 58-year-old wife Lipolelo was gunned down by unknown assailants on the outskirts of the capital in June 2017 – two days before he took office – in a killing that shocked the tiny country.

The couple were in the process of getting a divorce.

In his inaugural speech, Thabane described his wife’s murder as a “senseless killing”.

Police commissioner Holomo Molibeli, who is challenging Thabane’s attempts to sack him, has filed court documents — seen by AFP last week — alleging there was evidence linking Thabane to the murder.

Thabane was previously premier after 2012 elections but was forced to flee to South Africa — which entirely surrounds Lesotho — following an attempted coup two years later.

His coalition had been largely expected to usher in a new era of stability to the mountain kingdom following the collapse of both the previous joint administrations but three years on, Lesotho remains poverty-stricken.

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Ukraine audiotape row: President rejects PM’s offer to quit




Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky (left) meets Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk in Kyiv. Photo: 17 January 2020Image copyright
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President Zelensky (left) said Mr Honcharuk must tackle a number of key issues to keep his job

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has rejected a resignation offer by Prime Minister Oleksiy Honcharuk over a leaked audiotape scandal.

“I decided to give you a chance,” Mr Zelensky told the prime minister during a “clear the air” meeting.

But he said this was dependant on Mr Honcharuk’s ability to tackle a number of pressing issues.

In the tape, a voice sounding like Mr Honcharuk’s says Mr Zelensky only has a “primitive” grasp of economics.

Mr Honcharuk, a 35-year-old trained lawyer, also appears to admit that he himself is not good at economics.

The authenticity of the recording has not been officially confirmed.

Mr Zelensky, a 41-year-old TV comedian and businessman, was elected last April, trouncing President Petro Poroshenko.

The audiotape affair comes at a difficult time for Mr Zelensky, as his relations with President Donald Trump are under intense scrutiny. The US president is being impeached for allegedly trying to pressure Mr Zelensky into investigating political rival Joe Biden.

What did Mr Zelensky say?

At Friday’s meeting in Kyiv, the president described the situation around the leaked recording as “very unpleasant”.

But he said he decided to keep the prime-minister and his cabinet, taking into account that the public had “great trust” in them when the government was formed last August.

“You have not yet repaid this loan to our society,” Mr Zelensky said.

At the same time, Mr Zelensky warned that Mr Honcharuk must tackle the issue of high salaries among government ministers and other issues to keep his job.

The president also gave the Ukrainian authorities two weeks to track down the source of the leak.

What was in the leaked tape?

The controversial audiotape was uploaded to an anonymous YouTube channel on Wednesday evening.

Mr Honcharuk was apparently discussing the national budget during a December meeting with the finance minister and National Bank of Ukraine.

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Media captionVolodymyr Zelensky at his inauguration – with high fives and selfies

Writing on social media, Mr Honcharuk said the recordings had been edited from several fragments of government meetings to create the false impression that he did not respect the president.

He said Mr Zelensky was “a model of honesty for me”, but “to remove any doubts about our respect and trust in the president, I wrote a resignation offer”.

Before joining the Zelensky team Mr Honcharuk worked as a commercial lawyer. He is the youngest prime minister in Ukraine’s history.

Some Ukrainian commentators have speculated that the leak may be a deliberate attempt to destabilise Mr Zelensky’s government, and there are questions about its authenticity.

In an excerpt from the recording, broadcast by private news channel 112 Ukraina, the voice attributed to Mr Honcharuk scorns the “Sorosite” reformers around President Zelensky – a reference to reformers backed by billionaire US financier George Soros, a major philanthropist in ex-communist eastern Europe.

“There used to be good business managers, under whom the [economic growth] was 4.6%. Then Sorosites came, and the economic growth is 2% and less. And you cannot prove anything to anyone,” the speaker said.

“And all of this, together, induces in the president a feeling that the situation is uncontrollable. We do not understand. We have no plans.”

That bleak assessment is, however, contradicted by some recent reports on the Ukrainian economy.

Ukraine’s state statistics service last month estimated output in 2019 at just over 3%, the highest rate for the past eight years.

Anders Aslund, a Ukraine expert at the Atlantic Council think-tank, says the budget deficit was reduced to 2% of GDP (total output) in 2019, inflation fell to 5% and the currency, the hryvnia, strengthened 19% against the US dollar.

Mr Honcharuk’s government secured a $5.5bn (£4.2bn; €4.9bn) IMF loan programme in December, but the payments depend on Ukraine’s progress in reforming the economy, especially in tackling the power of oligarchs.

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