Friday briefing: The many scandals rocking Westminster, explained

<span>Mark Menzies alongside Rishi Sunak.</span><span>Photograph: Mark Menzies / Facebook</span>
Mark Menzies alongside Rishi Sunak.Photograph: Mark Menzies / Facebook

Good morning. First up, some breaking news: Israel has launched an attack on Iran, US officials confirmed this morning, after explosions were reported in the skies over the cities of Isfahan and Tabriz.

The details are still very hazy, and the Iranian government has sought to play down the scale of the attack. Iranian state media said drones had been shot down over Isfahan province and it broadcast live shots of morning traffic in Isfahan city to show the situation was calm.

The Israeli strike is in retaliation for a Iranian aerial attack involving more than 300 missiles and drones on Sunday morning, which in turn was a reprisal for the bombing of an Iranian consular building in Damascus on 1 April. According to CNN, the Israelis assured the Americans that Iran’s nuclear facilities would not be targeted.

My colleagues Julian Borger and Peter Beaumont have the full story here. And you can follow the latest developments on our live blog.

Now on to our deep-dive into the fresh scandal facing the Conservatives in Westminster. The police will be contacting Mark Menzies the Tory MP suspended over claims he allegedly misused campaign funds, including £5,000 he initially demanded from an elderly aide to pay off “bad people” who had locked him in a flat.

Having looked at the Daily Mail’s concern about Angela Rayner’s tax affairs yesterday, this is the latest in a string of more serious allegations surrounding our MPs from Neil Parrish’s “tractor porn” to William Wragg’s “Grindr honey trap” – and takes the current number of MPs who have lost their party’s whip to 18.

The “whip-less” bloc has three more MPs in Westminster than the Liberal Democrats. A further 20 MPs have either resigned their party’s whip or had the whip withdrawn since the 2019 election, before leaving parliament, switching allegiance to another party or having the whip restored.

What has caused this new epidemic of sleaze, and what impact might it have on the public’s trust in politicians? For today’s newsletter I spoke to Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, who says “the number of MPs chucked out of their parties is unprecedented”. That’s after the headlines.

Five big stories

  1. Middle East | US officials have confirmed that Israel has carried out airstrikes against Iran as explosions were reported in the sky over the cities of Isfahan and Tabriz, while Iran has sought to play down the scale of the attack.

  2. Thames Water | The water supplier to 16 million people could be renationalised, with the bulk of its £15.6bn debt added to the public purse, under radical plans being considered by the government and seen by the Guardian.

  3. Scotland | Peter Murrell, the former Scottish National party chief executive and husband of the former first minister Nicola Sturgeon, has been rearrested in connection with Police Scotland’s investigation into the party’s finances. The 59-year-old, who was previously arrested in April last year in the same investigation, was taken into custody on Thursday morning.

  4. Bird flu | The World Health Organization has raised concerns about the spread of H5N1 bird flu, which has an “extraordinarily high” mortality rate in humans. An outbreak that began in 2020 has led to the deaths or killing of tens of millions of poultry.

  5. Brexit | The European Commission has proposed opening negotiations with the UK to allow free movement enjoyed before Brexit to millions of 18- to 30-year-olds in a major concession.

In depth: ‘Public trust dropped off a cliff after the expenses scandal and hasn’t recovered’

Menzies, the MP for Fylde in Lancashire since 2010, called his former campaign manager at 3.15am last December saying he was locked in a flat and needed £5,000 as a matter of “life and death”, reported the Times. According to an account given to the paper by a source close to Menzies, the eventual sum needed to secure his release rose to £6,500 and was paid by his constituency office manger cashing in her Isa. She was paid back the money, not by him but via party funds.

According to the Times, another £14,000 in funds given by Conservative party donors for campaign activities was transferred to Menzies’ personal bank accounts and used for private medical expenses over the years. He denies the allegations, saying: “I strongly dispute the allegations put to me. I have fully complied with all the rules for declarations. As there is an investigation ongoing I will not be commenting further.”


When did the party know about the allegations, and when did it act?

The former campaign manager reported Menzies’s alleged misuse of donations and alleged “abuse of privilege” in pressurising staff to hand over their money in January 2024. An investigation was opened, and the case was transferred from the whip’s office to Conservative campaign headquarters (CCHQ), but Menzies was only suspended after the Times report of the allegations on Wednesday.

Kier Starmer, the Labour leader, said there were “a lot of unanswered questions” about the allegations. “Not least why it seems the Conservative party took so long to act and whether they’ve reported this to the police, who it seems to me should be involved in this,” he said.

Anneliese Dodds, the Labour party chair, wrote to the Conservative party chair, Richard Holden, asking whether the party had reported the allegations to the police. “The Conservative party has reportedly been aware of these serious accusations for over three months. What action was taken, by whom, and when?”

Lancashire police said: “We are aware of reports in the media relating to a serving member of parliament. No complaint has been made to the police at this stage. We will make contact with those impacted in due course to see whether they wish to make a complaint.” It is understood that this will involve contacting Menzies.


Which other MPs have lost the whip?

In total, 10 male Conservative MPs have lost the whip over allegations related to sexual misconduct since the 2019 election.

“I don’t think we’ve ever seen anything like this in terms of the number of MPs losing the whip,” says Tim Bale. “You have to go back to Tory sleaze scandals of the 1990s, it is unprecedented.”

Menzies suspension comes just nine days after William Wragg, the MP for Hazel Grove, Greater Manchester, resigned the party whip after admitting to giving out colleagues’ personal phone numbers to someone he met on gay dating app Grindr. He gave out the contacts because he feared that if he didn’t comply, the man would otherwise release intimate pictures of him.

Crispin Blunt, a former justice minister and the MP for Reigate, was stripped of the whip in October 2023 after being arrested on suspicion of rape and possession of drugs. He remains on police bail and has said he is “confident” the investigation will not result in a charge.

Chris Pincher, Boris Johnson’s deputy chief whip, stepped down as an MP after an eight-week suspension from parliament after an investigation found he had groped two men at a private members’ club in 2022.

David Warburton lost the whip in 2022 after allegations from three women. He resigned as an MP in 2023 after admitting drug-taking, but denied sexual misconduct. The allegations were later withdrawn.

Neil Parrish, the former MP for the safe West Country seat of Tiverton and Honiton, resigned in 2022 after admitting he had watched “tractor porn” in the Commons chamber.

The others Tories to lose the whip over sexual misconduct allegations include Peter Bone, Julian Knight, Rob Roberts, and Imran Ahmad Khan.


The wider implications on public trust

Bale says the number of scandals is a reflection of the times, rather than this batch of MPs being necessarily worse than what came before. It’s due to “the risk of getting caught being much higher,” he says, with “a far less compliant media making it harder MPs and parties to hush it up in the way that it had been in the past”.

The scandals, Bale says, won’t help the Tories in the polls or the public’s faith in politics in generally. Rishi Sunak’s approval rating is at a record low for a prime minister in modern times, according to Ipsos polling. Its latest Political Monitor report says net satisfaction with Sunak (% satisfied with how he is doing his job minus % dissatisfied) is now at -59. This matches John Major’s -59 score in August 1994, the record low for a prime minister in the Ipsos data going back to the 1980s.

“The problem for Tories is scandals like these reinforce the feeling of a leader whose authority is absolutely shot,” Bale says. “It raises questions about what the party regards as acceptable standards of behaviour.

“Public trust in politicians dropped off a cliff after the expenses scandal and hasn’t recovered. The danger of sustained scandals like this is it tars MPs across the house with the same brush. Voters tend not to identify one party with it, but see it as a wider problem with the ‘political class’, even though this is a particular problem with the Tories who have once again failed to be as transparent or act as quickly as they should have.”

Bale says it could increase a “plague on all your houses” feeling that discourages people from voting at all, or encourages voters to turn to “insurgent outsiders” promising radical change. “Labour needs to make the pitch that it can clean up politics,” he says.


Could there be another byelection before the general election?

If the parliamentary Commissioner for Standards considers there is sufficient evidence to open an investigation and found Menzies had broken the rules of conduct, MPs on the Standards Committee could recommend that he be suspended from the Commons. If the suspension were for more than 10 sitting days it would trigger the recall process and a potential byelection. Menzies’s Flyde seat has a majority of 16,000, smaller than other majorities overturned so far by Labour recently.

But it could take weeks to decide to start an investigation, and then months to investigate. That means, a byelection is unlikely before the expected autumn general election. Unless Menzies quits.

What else we’ve been reading

  • For the Long Read, Francisco Garcia follows the story of a former primary school peer who was convicted of trafficking. He couldn’t understand how the “painfully shy” boy from his childhood and gotten caught up in such a dark world – so he went and asked him. Nimo

  • There are more than 300 species in the UK’s coastal waters, but British people don’t want to eat most of them. The “big five” – cod, pollack, salmon, tuna and prawns – make up 62% of seafood consumed in Britain. Most of that catch is imported, while most of what’s caught in UK waters is exported. Emma Bryce reports on attempts to convince us to eat more local sprats, herring and whelks. Rupert

  • For Vulture (£), Craig Jenkins’ analysis of Sean “Diddy” Combs’ career and the structures that upheld alleged abuses of power to go on for years is incredibly insightful and well worth your time. Nimo

  • India begins going to the polls today for the country’s mammoth parliamentary elections that last nearly six weeks and involve voting machines carried on the backs of elephants. Hannah Ellis-Peterson has an essential guide to everything you need to know from the size of the electorate (969 million people) to the elevation of the world’s highest polling booth (15,256ft, 4,650 metres). Rupert

  • Every now and then I open my fridge and I know something has gone horribly wrong: a half-eaten vegetable, an open tin or some other food item that has expired and left an unholy stink behind. Leah Harper spoke with every kind of expert to help us cut down on waste and make left overs last longer. Nimo


Football | Liverpool were unable to overturn a 3-0 first leg deficit in the Europa League quarter-final despite dominating the first half and Salah scoring an early penalty. A 1-0 win signalled the last European game of Jürgen Klopp’s Liverpool reign. Elsewhere, Michail Antonio hit out at the refereeing and said that it was like “playing against 14” after West Ham lost their Europa League quarter-final to Bayer Leverkusen 3-1 on aggregate.

Paris 2024 | Blue is the colour for British athletes competing at this summer’s Paris Olympics and Paralympics with the official kit featuring a stripped back design – and a traditional union jack. While the Tokyo 2020 design was a mixture of red, white and blue, the 2024 edition is largely a dark navy blue kit, with red and white trim.

Football | The FA has agreed to overhaul the format of the FA Cup in an attempt to secure the future of the competition, with replays to be dropped and the final moved from its position as the traditional end of season showpiece.

The front pages

The Guardian leads with “State could be left with £15bn debt by Thames Water nationalisation”. The Times has “Sunak vows crackdown on ‘culture of sick note’”, while the Telegraph follows the same story with “PM vows to end ‘sicknote culture’”.

The i reports “Brexit travel hope for UK students – as EU offers olive branch to Labour”. The Financial Times says “Post-Brexit checks will not be ‘turned on’ when safety rules change”.

The Mail covers the rearrest of Peter Murrell with “Sturgeon husband charged over SNP cash probe”. Finally, the Mirror has an “Exclusive” from the former-aide to Conservative MP Mark Menzies, under the headline “I warned the Tories about him 3 months ago”.

Something for the weekend

Our critics’ roundup of the best things to watch, read and listen to right now

BBC iPlayer
Dinosaur feels like a natural progression from the run of recent dramas, dramedies and documentaries that have given autistic people a long overdue voice and prominence on television, while on occasion not giving them room to be anything beyond people with autism. As this series goes on, building a narrative arc where Nina (played by Ashley Storrie, pictured above, left), at the centre of a family preparing for a potentially ill-conceived wedding, has to confront a plethora of difficult social situations while possibly finding love herself, its portrait of autism is robust and realistic. Jack Seale

Leyla McCalla: Sun Without the Heat
While the heavier, distorted guitars of Tower and Love We Had feel somewhat jarring in the ebullient context of the album, Sun Without the Heat is a freewheeling and joyous listen, with McCalla employing her knowledge of musical traditions to produce fresh combinations. Ammar Kalia

Swede Caroline
UK cinemas from 19 April
Chaos reigns in this strange, funny and amiably anarchic mockumentary about dirty tricks in the cutthroat world of competitive marrow-growing, written and co-directed by film-maker Brook Driver. Maybe the script could have gone through another couple of drafts, but that might have removed some of the flavour. As it is, it feels like Thomas Pynchon had emailed Ricky Gervais an idea he’d had for a British comedy, and the result certainly has some laughs. Peter Bradshaw

The Price of Paradise
Widely available, episodes weekly
The tale of Jayne Gaskin, who bought a private island off Nicaragua for a bargain price, is irresistible. In 2002, the ex-Playboy Bunny was the unexpected star of Channel 4 reality TV show No Going Back, but Alice Levine brings the saga to a new audience in all its disastrous glory. It’s a tale of a family who left their comfortable English life behind, but soon became embroiled in controversy, corruption and kidnap. Hannah Verdier

Today in Focus

The chilling policy to cut Greenland’s high birthrate

In the 1960s the birthrate in Greenland was one of the highest in the world. Then it plunged. Decades later, women have finally begun speaking out about what happened.

Cartoon of the day | Ben Jennings

The Upside

A bit of good news to remind you that the world’s not all bad

In many corners of the world, the sounds of nature have drastically quietened. But in Wellington, New Zealand’s capital, decades of conservation efforts has meant that residents are hearing birdsong from native birds who are transforming the city’s morning chorus. A 2023 Wellington regional council report shows that since 2011, the average number of native bird species in the city’s parks and reserves had risen by 41%. “We’re in the middle of a big city and there are these amazing birds,” Sue Hope, a volunteer, says. “It makes you appreciate you are not the only thing here.”

Sign up here for a weekly roundup of The Upside, sent to you every Sunday

Bored at work?

And finally, the Guardian’s puzzles are here to keep you entertained throughout the day. Until Monday.