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“Look, you can fake it everywhere else, maybe try it in Los Angeles, but they’ll eat you alive in New York.” That’s a piece of advice Jennifer Arcuri says she once gave Boris Johnson. It doesn’t seem like he took it because, on Monday, he was in New York meeting Jeff Bezos and it didn’t seem to go very well.
We know about this Arcuri tip because on Tuesday she was talking about Johnson via video link to the London Assembly’s oversight committee. By an oversight, the committee seems to have been confusingly named. Is it a committee concerned with overseeing what the mayor of London does or with oversights that he has committed? Or does that amount to the same thing?
In this case the committee is overseeing whether the fact that Arcuri went on several mayoral trade missions with Johnson was an oversight if, as she claims/boasts/admits, they were also having sex. He has neither confirmed nor denied the sex, which obviously strongly suggests they were having it. She says that officials at City Hall knew about it because: “Everyone could see the dramatic difference in this man when I entered the room.” Or maybe he just had a gun in his pocket.
Other than causing further distress to Johnson’s ex-wife and family, it’s hard to imagine this investigation making any difference. It feels too long ago to affect the prime minister now. He’s like a dog running down the street doing shit after shit after shit – our attention is inevitably drawn to his more recent messes.
Far from anxiously watching Arcuri’s testimony, the prime minister had reached Washington by Tuesday and, having bounced back from his Amazon encounter, he was sitting mask to mask with Joe Biden in the Oval Office failing to get a trade deal. Maybe Johnson will take Arcuri’s advice and try LA next? He could pitch an animation about an artfully scruffy dog whom everyone somehow tolerates despite its chronic incontinence.
'Amazon is coming to the rescue of the Amazon!' said the prime minister. Nice one, Winston
The New York meeting with Bezos was extensively trailed in advance as an occasion when the prime minister would confront the world’s richest man on the issue of taxation. “Boris Johnson to address Amazon’s tax record with Jeff Bezos,” promised the Guardian; “Johnson’s taxing questions for Amazon,” warned the Times. Brace yourselves, Manhattan, the straight-talking Etonian is on his way!
It didn’t quite work out like that. For a start, Jeff Bezos and his partner, Lauren Sánchez, were late. Was it gamesmanship or traffic? Traffic was blamed and there will have been traffic, but there’s always traffic. And the lateness played well in two ways: first Johnson was left waiting so seemed junior, and second Bezos showed himself vulnerable to traffic so seemed human. Despite his stratospheric wealth, he hadn’t arrived punctually, borne by chopper or drone or sewer crocodile. For the man whose stylist appears to have last worked with Donald Pleasence on You Only Live Twice, this was a refreshingly normal look.
They arrived in good humour. “I am very much hoping the hardest thing I do today is get here,” quipped Bezos. It was certainly tougher than Johnson’s questioning. He praised Bezos’s commitment to the environment. “Amazon is coming to the rescue of the Amazon!” said the prime minister. Nice one, Winston.
But what about the crucial subject of taxation? Did Johnson raise it? Well he said he did. “What I did say to him was that we in the UK feel very strongly that the internet giants need to be making their fair share of contribution in tax,” the prime minister told 5 News afterwards. And what was Bezos’s response? “He made the very important point,” explained Johnson, “that this is a job for governments. And tax isn’t something that he’s going to pay as an ex-gratia act of kindness. It’s up to governments to come up with the right framework.”
That’s that then. It’s a hard no, Boris. Does it count as being eaten alive if you get spat out again afterwards?
Bezos is quite right. Corporations will only pay the tax the law requires, so politicians have to make the required laws. The problem is that the much-touted G7 agreement to make large international companies pay a minimum of 15% corporation tax may not apply to Amazon. Can you believe it? This agreement was basically designed for Amazon. How come it doesn’t qualify? How does the biggest fish of all slip through the net?
Apparently it’s because the new rules only cover companies with profit margins higher than 10% and Amazon’s is lower than 10%, albeit on a terrifyingly growing percentage of global trade. Officials are trying to find a way to make the agreement apply at least to parts of Amazon, but the fact that they’re in this position seems absurd. They’ve got to bend the rules to make them affect Amazon, a company that will have the finest rule-bending accountants and lawyers untaxed money can buy already primed to bend those rules back again.
That’s why Johnson took the standard line British politicians always take when failing to rein in the private sector: calling a meeting with the offending capitalists, announcing the intention of talking tough and getting some photos taken. What’s then supposed to happen is that the private sector people come out tugging their forelocks and resolving that their particular area of industry will immediately start self-regulating without the need for any nasty legislation. “We must give them the chance to put their house in order,” says the sagely paternalistic politician, moving the issue firmly into the out-tray until after the next election and taking plaudits for having done something without really having done anything.
Sadly for the prime minister, Bezos couldn’t be arsed to play that game. Perhaps he’s too rich to care about his image. Perhaps he was tired from the traffic. He just explained to Johnson that taxation is the responsibility of governments and that the minimum amount of tax he’s legally required to pay will remain the maximum he will ever pay. And then he sent little Johnson out to the waiting media to explain that to everyone.