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Chief whip denies claims he told MP she was sacked as a minister due to her Muslim faith

23 January

The chief whip has said an MP's claims that she was sacked as a minister because of her Muslim faith are "completely false".

Nusrat Ghani, the 49-year-old MP for Wealden in East Sussex, was sacked as transport minister in a February 2020 re-shuffle.
Ms Ghani said she was told by a whip, who she did not identify, that her "Muslimness was raised as an issue" at a meeting in Downing Street.
She said she was also told that her "Muslim woman minister status was making colleagues feel uncomfortable" and that there were concerns "that I wasn't loyal to the party as I didn't do enough to defend the party against Islamophobia allegations".
Chief Whip Mark Spencer said in a statement: "To ensure other whips are not drawn into this matter, I am identifying myself as the person Nusrat Ghani MP has made claims about this evening.
"These accusations are completely false and I consider them to be defamatory. I have never used those words attributed to me.
"It is disappointing that when this issue was raised before Ms Ghani declined to refer the matter to the Conservative Party for a formal investigation.
"I provided evidence to the Singh Investigation into Islamophobia which concluded that there was no credible basis for the claims to be included in the report."
Ms Ghani declined an invitation for a formal complaint
It is understood that Ms Ghani's claims relate to a meeting in March 2020 and that when she raised the issue, she was invited to use the formal party complaints procedure, which she declined to do.
Earlier, Ms Ghani had told The Sunday Times that her experience was "like being punched in the stomach. I felt humiliated and powerless".
Analysis: Is the game up? Boris Johnson looks defeated as mood turns sour in Tory party
She said she was later warned that continuing to raise the issue would leave her "ostracised by colleagues" with her career and reputation "destroyed".
"When I challenged whether this was in any way acceptable and made clear there was little I could do about my identity, I had to listen to a monologue on how hard it was to define when people are being racist and that the party doesn't have a problem and I needed to do more to defend it," she said.
"It was very clear to me that the whips and No 10 were holding me to a higher threshold of loyalty than others because of my background and faith."
Read more: 'Not moral or immoral but amoral': Party whips have always revelled in their notoriety
A spokesperson on behalf of the Whips Office had earlier told Sky News: "These claims are categorically untrue.
"Ministerial roles are appointed on merit and rewards for hard work. The Conservative Party does not tolerate any form of racism or discrimination."
Nusrat Ghani's claims latest in series of allegations against whips
Ms Ghani said that the experience made her consider quitting as an MP, adding: "I will not pretend that this hasn't shaken my faith in the party."
Her claims are the latest regarding the behaviour of government whips towards their party colleagues.
Chris Bryant, Labour chairman of the Commons Standards Committee, said he has spoken to "about a dozen" Tories who claimed to have been bribed or threatened by government whips.
He said that alleged threats to pull public funding from members' constituencies amounted to "misconduct in public office" and should be reported to the police.
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MPs support Ms Ghani
William Wragg, MP for Hazel Grove in Greater Manchester, will meet police this coming week to discuss his allegations that No 10 tried to blackmail MPs.
He was one of seven Tory MPs to call for Boris Johnson to resign as prime minister.
Writing on Twitter in response to Ms Ghani's claims, he said: "Nus is very brave to speak out. I was truly appalled to learn of her experience.
"She shows such strength and integrity supporting others. I am proud to have her as my friend and colleague. We must change things for the better."
Responding to the initial claims, leader of the Labour Party, Keir Starmer, wrote: "This is shocking to read, the Conservatives must investigate immediately. Solidarity with Nus Ghani for your bravery in speaking out.
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"There's report after report of appalling behaviour and lack of respect at the centre of this government. Culture is set at the top."
And the Education Secretary wrote on Twitter that "there is no place for racism in our Conservative Party. Nus Ghani is a friend, a colleague and a brilliant parliamentarian.
"This has to be investigated properly and racism routed out."

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Russia accused by Foreign Office of plotting to install pro-Kremlin leader to head Ukraine's governm

23 January

Britain has accused Russia of a shadowy plot to install a pro-Kremlin government in Kyiv as Moscow weighs up a further invasion of Ukraine.

In a highly unusual move that appeared to be based on specially declassified intelligence, the Foreign Office alleged that a former Ukrainian MP was "being considered as a potential candidate" as a new leader in what would be a significant escalation of the crisis.
President Volodymyr Zelenskiy is the current leader of Ukraine. He would like his country to join the European Union and the NATO defence alliance.
What's going on at the Russia-Ukraine border?
"We have information that indicates the Russian government is looking to install a pro-Russian leader in Kyiv as it considers whether to invade and occupy Ukraine," the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office said in a brief statement. It did not elaborate further on how this plan would be achieved.
The claims came as Boris Johnson cautioned against being "naive" when dealing with President Vladimir Putin following weeks of dialogue between Russia and Western allies to try to resolve the crisis over Ukraine and wider European security.
"The Prime Minister's view is that the situation in Ukraine is the biggest test to the unity and resolve of the West and the NATO alliance in decades," a Downing Street source said.
Read more:
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"It would be frankly naive to assume that Russia could be mollified by changes to the European security architecture - the Kremlin's behaviour has made that consistently clear."
The source said Mr Johnson regards the stand-off as "gravely dangerous" and is being briefed on the situation daily.
He is expected to tell Ben Wallace, the defence secretary, to accept an invitation to meet with the Russian defence minister in Moscow in the coming days.
Russian activity "subverts" Ukraine
As well as warning of a de facto coup plot, the Foreign Office claimed to have information that Russia's intelligence services maintain links with "numerous" former Ukrainian politicians, including ex-prime ministers and chief of staff to former president Viktor Yanukovych.
"Some of these have contact with Russian intelligence officers currently involved in the planning for an attack on Ukraine," it said.
The Foreign Office did not provide evidence to support the allegations given the secretive nature of its sources.
Liz Truss, the foreign secretary, said: "The information being released today shines a light on the extent of Russian activity designed to subvert Ukraine, and is an insight into Kremlin thinking."
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Sky News understands that Britain's spy agencies are being encouraged to do more with what they know at a time when information can be a powerful tool to expose the schemes of an opponent.
Ms Truss added in the statement: "Russia must de-escalate, end its campaigns of aggression and disinformation, and pursue a path of diplomacy. As the UK and our partners have said repeatedly, any Russian military incursion into Ukraine would be a massive strategic mistake with severe costs."
Conflict playing out in the 'grey zone' of warfare
Information is being used as a tactic by both sides to undermine the other or gain an advantage as tensions between Russia and Western allies mount over Ukraine.
It is a form of virtual conflict that takes place in a grey zone under the threshold of war.
The Foreign Office statement named the former Ukrainian MP who it alleged was being considered by Russia as a potential future Ukrainian leader as Yevhen Murayev.
It was not immediately possible to get a response from Mr Murayev to the claim.
The former politician lost his seat in the Ukrainian parliament when his party failed to secure 5% of the vote in elections in 2019.
He has reportedly spoken out in the past in support of Russia's annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
PM expected to increase pressure on Kremlin
The Foreign Office also named former Ukrainian politicians that Russian spies allegedly maintained contact with as Serhiy Arbuzov, an acting prime minister in 2014, Mykola Azarov, a former prime minister, Andriy Kluyev, chief of staff to Mr Yanukovich and Vladimir Sivkovich, a former deputy head of the Ukrainian National Security and Defence Council.
Mr Sivkovich was called out earlier in the week by the US government, which also accused the Russian government of influence operations to destabilise Ukraine.
The US Treasury Department imposed sanctions on a total of four Ukrainian officials, with Antony Blinken, the secretary of state, accusing them of being at the heart of an effort that began in 2020 "to degrade the ability of the Ukrainian state to independently function".
The UK allegations emerged as Mr Johnson was expected to increase pressure on Russia this week, with Whitehall departments preparing to stand-up specialist counter-disinformation cells.
This kind of activity also happened in the wake of the Novichok nerve agent attack against a former Russian double agent, Sergei Skripal, and his daughter in Salisbury in 2018.
The UK blamed Russia for the attempted double murder - an allegation that Moscow denied. Russian media then amplified the denials as well as baseless, counter-allegations that the UK was to blame.
The UK government's disinformation effort was focused on calling out the false Russian narratives and amplifying official British messages.

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Thailand attack: British tourist hacked to death and friend seriously hurt

22 January

A British tourist was killed and his friend badly injured in an alleged sickle attack by a man in Thailand.

The deadly assault happened in the early hours of Saturday in Kanchanaburi, central Thailand, according to media reports.
Police called to the rented house in the Muang district at around 3.55am local time found the victim outside lying face down in a pool of blood with knife wounds to his neck.
His friend was taken to hospital with serious injuries and was said to be in a critical condition.
The suspected murder weapon was recovered at the scene.
Police said the alleged attacker was a local resident and had been found hiding later in the nearby property of a relative.
The 23-year-old was reportedly taken into custody and has been charged with murder and attempted murder.
According to reports, investigators believe the suspect, who has a history of mental health problems, may have been upset at the pair playing music as they sat outside drinking beer into the early hours.
A spokesman for the UK Foreign Office said: "We are in contact with the Royal Thai Police following the death of one British man and the hospitalisation of another in Thailand and are ready to provide consular support."

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Coronavirus: Inside a long COVID clinic as patient who was 'fit and healthy' can now 'barely do anyt

22 January

"Look at me - I'm shaking," Laura Swarbrick says as she waits for her appointment.

Even getting to today's long COVID clinic has been an unbelievable struggle for the 28-year-old.
Last summer, Ms Swarbrick was in the Royal Preston Hospital's intensive care ward being treated for COVID-19.
She was there for nine weeks and the experience left her with crippling anxiety and depression.
"Coming back to the same place that I saw so many awful things happen, where I saw people literally dying on the ward around me, I find it terrifying," she said.
"And I'm so scared of being put back in here, I try not to leave the house."
Ms Swarbrick admits she needs help.
'I didn't even believe in COVID'
Aside from the mental health impact, she said she is breathless after walking short distances and she has a persistent, wracking cough.
"I didn't believe in long COVID," she said.
"I didn't even believe in COVID - I thought it was all a hoax.
"But I wouldn't wish it on my worst enemy.
"I was fit and healthy and now I can barely do anything."
Around 30 patients are being seen at today's special long COVID clinic, run by Royal Preston Hospital's consultant chest physician, Dr Sharada Gudur.
Although the clinic is mainly looking for respiratory issues, it also points patients towards specialists in long COVID's other symptoms, like muscular wastage.
'COVID just destroyed me'
In the waiting room, awaiting his turn, was Michael Pilling.
"My family call me a gentle giant," he told me, laughing.
At over six feet tall, and with a big, muscular build, Mr Pilling said he used to find his work as a facilities manager "easy".
"I used to lift up and move around tables like they were nothing," he said. "But now COVID just destroyed me."
Mr Pilling, 63, caught COVID-19 in January last year, just weeks before he was due to get his first vaccination.
He was in an intensive care unit for nearly two months and lost four and a half stone.
"Up until now, I'm still fighting to get back to full strength with my legs and that," he said.
"The rest of my body seems to be healing but not my legs.
"It has just knocked me for six basically, broke me down, and that has affected me mentally too."
Scientists are still studying why some people are affected by long COVID and others are not.
Dr Gudur said: "Long COVID is a very long process.
"People have expressed that it is a never-ending saga."
What the situation needs, Dr Gudur said, is more funding and more research.
One of the main challenges is finding the staff to run the clinics.
Long COVID has a wide range of symptoms, so sufferers need a multi-disciplinary team, from respiratory specialists to physiotherapists and radiographers.
Dr Gudur said: "Maybe one day there will be COVID specialists, because this is going to be a chronic disease and it's important that everyone recognises that it is an entity on its own, and give the patients the care that they deserve."

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France: Business owners share relief as British skiers allowed to return to French slopes after trav

23 January

There is no winter sport resort quite like Chamonix. Nestled in the shadow of Mont Blanc, it has a glittering history and a reputation for challenging even the best skiers.

People travel from all around the world to try their luck on these slopes. And now, the British can join them once again.
For nearly a month, holidaymakers were banned from crossing the Channel as a result of COVID restrictions. They were brought in when the Omicron variant was dominant in the UK, but not much seen in France.
Now, that has changed; Omicron is omnipresent in both countries and, after hesitating for a short while, the French have reopened their border to British tourists. Many of those now crossing are heading towards the Alps.
The only country that sends more tourists to the French Alps than Britain is France itself. In Chamonix, it's reckoned that around one in four people on the slopes is British; in other resorts, the ratio is even higher.
What that means is that there are plenty of businesses in these mountains who depend on the Brits. And when they stopped coming, those businesses started to worry.
Shona Tate was among the nervous. She helped to found a ski school in Chamonix 18 years ago, but says that the past two years have been the hardest time they've faced. She told me that her business depended on British tourists being allowed to return.
"If the restrictions hadn't been lifted then we wouldn't have been able to survive," she said. "You need cash flow to keep going. At the moment, we're not even paying ourselves.
"The whole industry has taken a hit, and it hasn't been pleasant. But as soon as the announcement came out that people could return, well we got some lovely messages from clients. They were delighted for us, and they wanted to know if they could come.
"I'm looking forward to Easter - I think it will be so much easier. Who knows what's ahead but we will keep positive at the moment."
Not everything has been answered. Visitors still need to take a COVID test before arriving, and unvaccinated tourists are not welcomed. The question of whether children need to have a vaccine passport has still not been resolved - but it looks very likely that they won't.
Above us, the sky is blue and cloudless. It is the perfect day to be on the slopes; you couldn't wish for a better advert.
Giles Bickford leans on the balcony of his chalet and points up to Mont Blanc, looming beyond us. The chalet is rented out to groups of tourists, mostly British, for fully-catered holidays. It's booked up for most of the rest of the year, but those bookings were all likely to be cancelled if tourists were barred from entering France.
"It's completely saved our season," he told me. "We can survive and save our season. Without the change this week, without British tourists, it would have been hard to pay the bills this year.
"As it's happened, by getting this change in the middle of January, we can survive. Any later and it would have been touch and go."
There is a shared feeling here - that disaster has been averted, and that the opportunity now exists to move away from the economic impact of the pandemic and its ongoing travel restrictions. That having survived the storm, it is time to reap the benefits.
Up on the mountain, the sun is beating down, creating that curious blend of refreshing cold and pleasant warmth that you sometimes get on a ski slope. The runs are not packed, but they are about to get busier. The British are coming...

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