Moscow’s meddling Did it swing the Brexit vote?
Patel in peril
Priti Patel was clinging to her job this week, following revelations that she had undisclosed meetings with Israeli officials while on holiday in Israel. The International Development Secretary held 12 meetings during her 13-day holiday in August, without officially notifying Downing Street or the Foreign Office. One of the meetings was with the Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu. She apologised this week, and was expected to hold onto her job, but her position started to look less tenable when it emerged that she had held other meetings with Israeli officials in September, and that she had visited the Golan Heights – occupied Syrian territory which, according to protocol, British officials do not visit.
Labour has called for the immediate release of a series of government papers outlining the economic impact of Brexit. For months, ministers refused to release the studies, saying to do so could undermine Britain in its negotiations with the EU. But a Labour motion to publish the reports, which the Government chose not to oppose, was passed unanimously last week. The Government has said it will release the papers within three weeks.
Comeback kid: Italy’s former PM Silvio Berlusconi could be poised for an astonishing comeback, following his centre-right bloc’s sweeping victory in regional elections in Sicily. In a poll seen as a litmus test for national elections next year, the bloc Berlusconi (pictured) leads – a coalition between Forza Italia, the Northern League, and Brothers of Italy – won nearly 40% in the vote. It is also ahead in the national polls. Berlusconi, 81, is currently banned from office as a result of a 2013 tax fraud conviction, but hopes soon to have this overturned by the European Court of Human Rights. He is also being investigated over his alleged links to Mafia terrorists in the early 1990s.
Married priests: In a controversial move likely to outrage traditionalists, Pope Francis has floated the idea of allowing married men in the Amazon region of Brazil to become priests – overturning centuries of Roman Catholic doctrine. According to Italian media, citing Vatican sources, the pontiff has requested that a debate on the issue be put onto the agenda of a synod in Rome in 2019, opening up the issue for a global synod due to be held in Australia in 2020. A partial lifting of the requirement for priestly celibacy has been suggested by a Brazilian cardinal, Cláudio Hummes, who has warned that a desperate shortage of priests in the Amazon has resulted in Catholicism being displaced by evangelical and pagan groups. Francis said earlier this year that the Church should consider allowing married priests in specific circumstances.
Catalan politicians jailed: Nine members of the suspended regional government of Catalonia, including the vice-president, were remanded in custody by a Madrid judge last Thursday, on charges of rebellion, sedition, and misuse of funds in connection with Catalonia’s disputed referendum and declaration of an independent republic. The deposed Catalan president, Carles Puigdemont, fled to Belgium last week, along with four ex-ministers. Puigdemont (pictured) has said he will not receive a fair trial in Spain. However, he and his colleagues handed themselves in to Belgian police after Spain issued European arrest warrants for them. They were released on bail after a ten-hour court hearing; the judge must now decide whether to execute the warrants and begin extradition proceedings.
Despite the charges, Puigdemont has been nominated by his pro-independence party to lead a proposed coalition of Catalan separatist parties in the snap elections in Catalonia, which Spain’s national government has scheduled for 21 December. An opinion poll in La Vanguardia, a Catalan newspaper, shows the pro-independence bloc close to retaining power in the new parliament, taking 66 to 69 seats in the 135-seat chamber. In the now-dissolved parliament, they had 72 seats, giving them the slim overall majority that they said gave them a mandate to call the referendum.
Planning ahead: A government dossier leaked to Der Spiegel has revealed that Berlin is actively planning for a variety of possible developments in Europe, including – in the most pessimistic scenario – the collapse of the EU by 2040, and German involvement in multiple armed conflicts on its borders. According to Der Spiegel, Strategic Perspective 2040 is the first report of its kind, and was commissioned partly in response to the West’s failure to anticipate Russia’s undeclared war in eastern Ukraine. It suggests six possible scenarios, based on analysis of social, political, economic and military trends – and its conclusions are supposed to assist Germany’s armed forces in their planning. Among the other scenarios it envisages are “multipolar competition” – in which nationalist politics drives EU fragmentation – and “West versus East”, in which eastern EU states break away to form a new bloc.
Nationalist “revolutionaries”: Hundreds of protesters were detained in Moscow and other Russian cities on Sunday while taking part in a “day of revolution” called by an extreme nationalist group. Vyacheslav Maltsev, a former member of the parliament of the Saratov region, has long vowed that an uprising against Vladimir Putin would begin on 5 November 2017, to mark the 100th anniversary of Lenin’s October Revolution ( see page 13). Two days before the protests, Russia’s security service claimed to have detained members of a “conspiratorial cell” linked to Maltsev’s Artpodgotovka (“Artillery Bombardment”) movement, who were planning to set government buildings on fire and attack police.
Teenage girls found dead: Police in the Italian port city of Salerno launched a murder inquiry this week after the bodies of 26 teenage girls – aged between 14 and 18 – were brought ashore by a Spanish rescue vessel on Sunday. Twenty-three of them had been found floating in waters close to a rubber dinghy from which 64 other people were rescued last Friday. Italian officials suspect that the teenagers, who were from Nigeria, were deliberately killed and will be investigating whether they were sexually assaulted or tortured before their death. Two men have since been arrested. The rescue vessel that brought the dead girls to Salerno was also carrying around 300 migrants rescued from other boats. Most of them were from Nigeria, Senegal, Ghana and Sudan. A total of 2,560 people were rescued from the Mediterranean over the course of just four days late last week.
Sutherland Springs, Texas
Massacre at church: A gunman shot dead 26 people on Sunday, around half of them children, at a Baptist church in Sutherland Springs, a small town in Texas with just a few hundred residents. The youngest victim was reported to be just 18 months old, and the oldest 77. The killer, Devin Kelley (pictured), 26, was shot and injured by an armed citizen as he fled in his car; he then shot himself in the head. While his motives were not clear, police said he had been in a “domestic situation” with his estranged wife, and that, just before the shooting, he had sent threatening texts to his mother-in-law, who attended the church (but was not present at the time of the attack). Kelley was dishonourably discharged from the US Air Force in 2014 for assaulting his former wife and stepson. A record of violent crime is meant to disqualify Americans from buying guns, but the Air Force had not entered Kelley’s crime onto a federal database.
The massacre is one of the five worst mass shootings in modern US history – three of which have taken place in the last 17 months. Responding to the atrocity while on a tour of Asia, President Trump was quick to downplay the issue of gun control: “We have a lot of mental health problems in our country, as do other countries, but this isn’t a guns situation,” he said.
Los Angeles, California
Spacey axed: Netflix severed its ties with Kevin Spacey, the star of its hit show House of Cards, last week, after several more people came forward to allege that he had either sexually harassed or assaulted them. The actor’s agent and publicist have both also cut ties with him. In London, where Spacey lived for many years while working as artistic director at the Old Vic, police are investigating a claim of sexual assault. Meanwhile, in New York, police say they are investigating “credible” allegations of “recent” rape against the film mogul Harvey Weinstein: the actress Paz de la Huerta says Weinstein raped her on two occasions in 2010. The New Yorker this week reported that Weinstein employed private investigators, including former Mossad agents, to collect information about his accusers, and stop them going public. They also reportedly approached journalists looking into the story.
Shot during surgery: A Mexican gang leader was shot dead last week while he was on the operating table having surgery to change his appearance and erase his fingerprints. Gunmen, believed to be members of a rival faction within the same gang, burst into the clinic where Jesus Martin was being treated and killed him, along with three others. A further eight people – five suspected gang members and three bystanders – were killed in a related attack on a nearby farm being used by the criminals as a base. Police say that Martin was a big player in a gang suspected of siphoning fuel from pipelines – a highly risky, but lucrative, business that has become Mexico’s second biggest organised crime problem after drug-trafficking.
Embassy refuge: One of Venezuela’s most prominent opposition politicians – Freddy Guevara, vice-president of the National Assembly – has taken refuge in the Chilean embassy in Caracas, after Venezuela’s supreme court stripped him of immunity from prosecution. The Maduro government accuses Guevara (pictured) of inciting antigovernment violence, charges the opposition insists are politically motivated. Last week, the authorities released two activists from Guevara’s Popular Will party after more than a year, but some 400 “political prisoners” are still thought to remain behind bars.
Tax cuts for business: US Republicans have set out ambitious plans for radical tax reforms – including slashing the rate of corporation tax from 35% to 20% – which they hope will become the first major piece of legislation of Donald Trump’s turbulent presidency. The reforms, likely to cost $1.5trn over ten years, would benefit the richest Americans by phasing out estate (inheritance) tax. Some middle-income taxpayers would also benefit from higher income tax thresholds. A notable omission from the plan, however, is Trump’s long-held pledge to close the loophole that allows the vast sums earned by hedge fund managers and private equity executives to be taxed as capital gains, rather than income. “The Republicans might as well ask hard-working New Yorkers to withdraw $1,000 from the bank machine and find a hedge fund manager to give it to,” said the New York mayor, Bill de Blasio.
Kirchner’s vice-president arrested: Argentina’s former vice-president, Amado Boudou, has been arrested on corruption charges relating to his time in office under President Cristina Fernández de Kirchner. Boudou, who denies the charges, was arrested and taken into custody last week on suspicion of three counts of “illicit enrichment” between 2009 and 2015. He is the second member of Kirchner’s government to have been detained recently: the former planning minister, Julio de Vido, was arrested on 25 October on similar charges. Kirchner herself faces multiple charges, but in last month’s midterm legislative election she was elected as a senator, which gives her immunity from prosecution. Kirchner claims the charges are politically motivated.
Deir Ezzor, Syria
Regime takes last Isis city: The Sunni extremists of Islamic State have been driven out of the last major city they held in Syria. Syrian government forces, backed by Russian air strikes, declared last week that they had “liberated” Deir Ezzor, the largest city in the relatively sparsely populated east of Syria, after weeks of fighting. Isis had captured the city, on the west bank of the Euphrates, in 2014. In a second significant setback for Isis, the Iraqi army, supported by Iranian-backed militias, seized control of a key border crossing on the road from Deir Ezzor to Baghdad, and drove Isis from the Iraqi town of Al Qaim. In October, Raqqa – the de facto capital of Isis’s self-styled caliphate – fell to Arab and Kurdish forces. The capture of Deir Ezzor is a further boost for the Assad regime ( see page 19).
ousted: Robert Mugabe abruptly sacked the Zimbabwean vice-president on Monday, for showing persistent “traits of disloyalty, disrespect, deceitfulness and unreliability”. Emmerson Mnangagwa – known as “The Crocodile” for his political cunning – had been seen as a favourite to succeed Mugabe: his removal clears the path for the other likely candidate for the presidency – Mugabe’s 52-year-old wife, Grace. She is now expected to be made vice-president at a special congress of the ruling Zanu-pf party later this month. On Saturday, Grace Mugabe had denounced Mnangagwa as a “snake” who “must be hit on the head”. The next day, her 93-year-old husband publicly rebuked the vice-president for the first time.
Johnson blunder: A British-iranian woman serving a five-year term in an Iranian jail on undisclosed spying charges was summoned to an unscheduled hearing last weekend, at which remarks made by UK Foreign Secretary Boris Johnson were cited as proof that she was guilty of anti-regime “propaganda”. Last week, Johnson told a Commons committee that Nazanin Zaghari-ratcliffe (pictured) had been “simply teaching people journalism” in Iran when she was arrested in 2016; her family insists she was there on holiday, visiting her parents.
PM quits: Lebanon’s PM Saad Hariri has dramatically quit while on a trip to Saudi Arabia. Hariri (pictured) led a coalition that included Hezbollah, the militant movement backed by the Saudis’ arch foe, Iran, and his resignation was assumed to have been orchestrated by his patrons in Riyadh. In his resignation speech, he accused Iran of fomenting “destruction” in Lebanon. The Saudis said that Hezbollah’s aggression amounted to a declaration of war by Lebanon, and also accused Iran of an “act of war” – referring to a missile fired from Yemen towards Riyadh.
Trump open to talks: In a marked shift from his recent fierce rhetoric, US President Donald Trump has declared that he remains open to diplomatic efforts to resolve the ongoing stand-off with North Korea over its missile programme. Speaking in the South Korean capital Seoul on his 11-day tour of Asia, he urged Pyongyang to “come to the table” for discussions, adding that he “hoped to God” he would not have to order the use of US military force against the North. Previously, he had threatened to unleash “fire and fury” on the country. Trump’s five-nation tour is the longest trip to Asia by a US president since George H.W. Bush’s in 1991. Having visited Japan and South Korea, Trump was due to move on to Beijing and Vietnam, before concluding his trip in the Philippines.
Nha Trang, Vietnam
Killer typhoon: At least 106 people were killed last weekend in the most destructive storm to hit Vietnam’s southern coastal region for decades. Typhoon Damrey tore off roofs, felled trees, ripped up electricity poles and caused flooding across the region; the worst affected area was Khánh Hòa Province, near the city of Nha Trang. In all, nearly 2,000 homes were destroyed and 80,000 more were damaged. With many people missing, the death toll was expected
Alice Springs, Australia
No climbing: Visitors are to be banned from climbing Uluru, the massive sandstone monolith in central Australia also known as Ayers Rock. The ban, due to come into effect in October 2019, has been imposed by the Uluru-kata Tjuta National Park board, which is made up of eight Aboriginal owners of the site and four delegates from the national parks agency. Uluru is considered sacred by Anangu, the indigenous people of central Australia. “It is an extremely important place, not a playground or theme park,” said Sammy Wilson, an Anangu spokesman.
Royalty is a “virus”
Peter Morgan’s career is a conundrum, says Stephen Armstrong in The Sunday Times. Despite his staunch republicanism, the screenwriter has a kind of genius for humanising the monarchy. It started with his 2006 film The Queen, followed by a play, The Audience, and now his hugely successful Netflix series The Crown. (Morgan is currently writing series four, of a planned six.) “If you had told me I would be doing this, I would have told you it was mad, hallucinogenic conjecture,” he says, scratching his head in puzzlement. “I wouldn’t have guessed there would be anything more to say about this countryside woman of limited intelligence who would have much preferred looking after her dogs and breeding horses to being Queen.” Yet the sheer breadth of Elizabeth II’S reign – the politicians she has seen come and go, the wars and recessions and constitutional crises she has silently observed – makes her a fascinating subject. “Look at how many prime ministers are wheeled out in coffins, on stretchers, having made fools of themselves: Downing Street is full of sick people. And yet she survives.”
Reluctantly, Morgan has come to admire the resilience of the monarchy. “They’re survival organisms, like a mutating virus,” he says. “It is a completely insane system, but perhaps it’s the insanity that makes it work. Belief in God is so deranged that it makes absolutely no sense, but it holds people together somehow.” Whatever his views on her job, Morgan has no wish to upset or offend the Queen by dramatising her life. He is rather hoping she doesn’t have Netflix. “I mean, she’s ninety-something years old and barely knows what the internet is, so I live in hope that she hasn’t seen it, never watches it and doesn’t give it the slightest thought.”
Pesto gets passionate
Robert Peston is trying not to emote in public, says Celia Walden in The Daily Telegraph. ITV News’s political editor has 881,000 Twitter followers, and they love it best when he dispenses with journalistic balance and shows some passion. After the Grenfell Tower fire, for example, he posted a series of furious tweets about how the tragedy “shames us all”. Afterwards, strangers kept stopping to congratulate him on what he had said. Peston was flattered – and that, he says, is precisely the problem. “Because all the pieces that get people going now are about emotion rather than facts or argument. So the things on social media that have got me gazillions of hits are always the ones where I’m basically crying in public. Thankfully, I’m a very boring journalist and my instincts are always to take myself back to the facts, but when you see that many people ‘liking’ you on the basis of something that’s emotional, it’s seductive and it’s corrupting.” Max Tegmark is doing his best to save the human race, says Oliver Moody in The Times. The Swedish scientist has set up the Future of Life Institute, funded in part by tech billionaire Elon Musk, which aims to prevent artificial intelligence (AI) destroying civilisation. Companies including Google, Facebook and IBM are already developing a form of silicon mind that is as creative as the human brain, but faster, less easily distracted and entirely alien in its thought processes. This AI revolution could end poverty and cure cancer – or it could cause mass unemployment, destroy democracy and enslave the human race. “Most people are in denial that anything will change,” he says. “[But] you can’t have this kind of technology without changing what it means to be human.” For example, “we’re already in sight of computers being able to make a video of Theresa May speaking which would be indistinguishable from a real video of her,” says Tegmark. Destroying a person’s character in public – by releasing, say, a fake sex tape or false confession – will soon be the easiest trick in the book. “We talk a lot about how easy it is to hack computers, but it’s also easy to hack humans with cheap psychological manipulation, as any magician or salesperson knows. You should never underestimate how easy it will be for intelligent machines to trick us.”