As the week pass, it seems they become ever more action packed and this last one has certainly been a corker. It started with various assessments of the G7 summit, some commentators thinking it had been groundbreaking, others seeing it as the equivalent of a weekend spa break. Labour leader Keir Starmer said Johnson ‘was a host not a leader, a tour guide not a statesman’. Time will tell, as work on climate change and global tax arrangements continue, with many steps before their goals are realised. At the summit Boris Johnson worked hard to play down the rift with EU and to play up ‘global Britain’, prompting a sceptic to tweet: ‘Global Britain? Little England, more like’. This tweet does rather sum up the government’s approach to negotiations with the EU: ‘EU: please implement the deal we agreed. UK: hang on, hang on… We need to be pragmatic, flexible, and imaginative. EU: what does all of that even mean? UK: you know the text we negotiated, agreed and ratified? Let’s bin it and do something different. Here’s our list of demands’.
It was also noticed that, despite having just got married in a Catholic church, he didn’t attend mass – no surprise there.
Having been widely trailed, it was no surprise to hear the official announcement on Monday that the fourth step of lockdown exit wouldn’t now be until 19 July at the earliest, prompting predictably angry reactions from the usual suspects. Speaking VERY EMPHATICALLY (a sure sign he’s on uncertain ground) our PM kept saying ‘I’m confident’ that this or that, but many of us have no confidence in his confidence. It was noticeable that a worryingly snuffly Michael Gove, interviewed on Tuesday’s Today programme, had already downgraded this to ‘pretty confident’.
And ‘irreversible’? ‘The prime minister sees this as the final stretch and wants people to be patient. We are nearly there, it’s one last haul’. The doubt now creeping into this bullishly declared ‘irreversible’ exit schtick is now palpable. It’s telling that polls indicate widespread public support for delaying the exit and for continuing certain measures like mask wearing, despite regular anti-lockdown protests, which this week in Central London had BBC journalist Nick Watt being chased and abused.
The Times discussed how Conservative MPs were privately accusing the PM of ‘having lost his nerve, especially after Edward Argar, a health minister, conceded this morning that it was “possible” restrictions could be extended again beyond July 19’. This has naturally prompted cries of protest from the hospitality, travel and entertainment industries.
During Monday’s BBC World at One programme, irascible lockdown sceptic Sir Charles Walker opined: ‘If you can’t lift restrictions at the height of summer, and we are in the height of summer, then you almost certainly are looking at these restrictions persisting and tightening into the autumn and winter. We were told we were going to live with Covid-19 and it now looks like most of the remaining of this year, and certainly the first half of next year, will probably end up with some form of lockdown’. Walker was annoyed at the question as to whether he didn’t trust Boris Johnson, saying he had a ‘great affection’ for the Prime Minister, then, astonishingly, that the PM had nearly ‘given his life to Covid’. A listener tweeted: ‘Surely this comment of Charles Walker’s will go down in history as one of the most deluded about Boris Johnson. He put himself in the position of ‘nearly giving his life’ by ignoring scientific advice, not distancing and shaking hands willy nilly’.
Another dimension of 14 June announcement was Commons Speaker Lindsay Hoyle’s fury that Johnson had made the announcement at a press conference rather than first to MPs, as per the proper procedure. He said he had been “misled” about the prime minister’s announcement over the delay to the roadmap, telling MPs he had been told no decision had been finalised. ‘I was told no decisions will be taken until the Cabinet meets. I am being misled, this House is being misled. I find it totally unacceptable that once again, once again, that we see Downing Street running roughshod over members of parliament. We’re not accepting it and I’m at the stage where I’m beginning to look for other avenues if they’re not going to treat this house seriously’. Yet again, though, it’s water off the duck’s back: Boris Johnson managed to pacify the Speaker for now but it won’t be the last time he treats the Commons without respect.
Besides general concern about the rapid rise of Delta variant cases, some scientists and clinicians are convinced a Third Wave is on the way, one saying he’s ‘resigned to it’. The criterion as to how bad things are seems to be not the number of cases but numbers of hospitalisations, but as ever, it seems the lingering and disabling effects of Long Covid are overlooked.
Ministers keep talking up the vaccination programme but other supporting measures have never worked properly and now statistics show that councils refuse about 6 in 10 of applications for self-isolation support. Whereas Track and Trace should have been allocated to local authorities in the first place, this self-isolation support could perhaps have been removed from busy and cash-strapped councils and operated centrally and consistently, ensuring those who need it get it. It’s the government’s criteria for receiving the payments which are too tight, say some local authorities, ‘sparking warnings from trade unions that a key policy to limit Covid-19 is “failing” in the face of rising infections’. It’s known that some who’ve tested positive are continuing to go to work and the Office for National Statistics reckons that between March and May, ‘between 13% and 17% of people who tested positive did not stick to self-isolation requirements’.
The latest Dominic Cummings silo (how many more are waiting in the wings?) took centre stage last week, texts showing that last March Boris Johnson had called Health Secretary Matt Hancock ‘totally f…ing hopeless’, evidence that can’t easily be undone by Downing Street statements that the PM has ‘every confidence’ in his Health Secretary. The media played clips of journalists calling out ‘Are you hopeless, Mr Hancock?’ This morning’s Radio 4 Broadcasting House featured an amusing piece on this phenomenon by veteran broadcaster Michael Crick, who said it had developed in the wake of Parliament being televised: ‘if in doubt, shout it out’.
A journalist tweeted: ‘No 10 failing to deny Johnson planned to sack Hancock and replace him with Gove will confirm for most reasonable people that he did, leaving the Health Secretary a dead man walking in a Covid crisis’ and Green Party MP Caroline Lucas said: ‘So, Boris Johnson – if you keep a Health Secretary you consider to be “totally f***ing hopeless” in post during a global pandemic, what does that make you…?’
Thanks to Emma for the heads up on this…. Astonishingly, in the Commons on Thursday, Jacob Rees-Mogg defended his colleague, calling Hancock ‘the brilliant, the one and only successful genius who has been running health over the last 15 months…he has done so much to make not only the country but the world safer’. You couldn’t make it up.
The Guardian’s sketch writer John Crace returned once more to his regular targets – ‘Door Matt’ and the Prime Minister. ‘But on a day of ironies the biggest one was left to last. For who should the government send out to lead the debate on extending the lockdown restrictions for a further four weeks than Hancock. The minister whom even Boris thought was completely f……. hopeless. Still, not even Door Matt could screw this one up as Labour was supporting the government, though he did seem to think the appearance of the Delta variant had been a total mystery that couldn’t have been expected by anyone. Just give us four more weeks, Hancock said, and we’ll be back to normal. Data not dates no longer appears to be government policy’.
On Prime Minister’s Questions: ‘Johnson did what he always does when put under pressure. He blustered and lied…… And Boris doesn’t care that people know he’s lying, because even his own MPs seem happy for him to do so. A liar’s gotta do what a liar’s gotta do. The Tories knew what they were buying when they chose him as leader and, as the Cummings blog shows, he’s not about to have a personality change. The irony is that the same MPs are outraged at perceived breaches of faith from other parties and countries, yet are blind to the more obvious failings of their own man’. With all these goings on, it’s hardly surprising that so many are experiencing insecurity and anxiety, since the government is not only doing nothing to psychologically contain the causes, their role, but actually creating more with a never-ending stream of disreputable acts.
Guardian columnist Marina Hyde explores why it’s useful for Boris Johnson to surround himself with the ‘hopeless’: ‘from Matt Hancock to Gavin Williamson, these proven failures have become the prime minister’s human shields’. I can’t believe these ministers don’t know this, that they’re being used in the most cynical way, but their egos and desire for spurious advancement must be enabling them to overcome any misgivings or pricks of conscience.
‘….the role of Health Secretary in a pandemic is a profoundly critical one. Likewise that of Education Secretary in a period of disrupted learning and life chances. So to stick with known and proven failures says vastly more about Boris Johnson than anyone else. Despite his matey posturing, the prime minister appears so completely indifferent to the death and myriad forms of suffering his own hopelessness has wrought that he would rather retain Hancock and Williamson as human shields than upgrade his personnel. This is the weak leadership of a man who judges – perhaps rightly – that if he permits the bell to toll for one of his cabinet ministers, it hastens the moment it tolls for him.
Former Speaker John Bercow’s defection to Labour will be a further blow: although Bercow insisted that this wasn’t ‘personal’ towards the Prime Minister, he did go on to say in interviews that the PM’s contempt for Parliament and his ‘lamentable’ management of the pandemic had been factors. Describing today’s Conservative party as ‘reactionary, populist, nationalistic and sometimes even xenophobic’, he said of the PM: ‘he is a successful campaigner but a lousy governor. I don’t think he has any vision of a more equitable society, any thirst for social mobility or any passion to better the lot of people less fortunate than he is. I think increasingly people are sick of lies, sick of empty slogans, sick of a failure to deliver’. Let’s hope the government doesn’t try to dismiss this as resentment for not being given a peerage – I can just see this happening in tomorrow’s Today programme ministerial interview.
Other concerning news during the week was that Track and Trace ‘supremo’ Dido Harding had shown interest in the top NHS job, prompting a petition to prevent this happening and palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke to tweet: ‘Dido Harding just threw her hat in the ring. Can we be clear? If Boris Johnson chooses to reward the woman who’s presided over the multi billion pound debacle of Test & Trace with the role of next NHS England CEO, then he has nothing but contempt for the NHS & NHS patients’. As if this didn’t display sufficient hubris, the Baroness, writing in today’s Sunday Times, has vowed to end England’s reliance on foreign doctors and nurses if she becomes the next head of the NHS. This prompted numerous tweets from critics, one calling her ‘a repugnant individual’ and another ‘a serial failure and menace’. One commentator tweeted: ‘Tough words but if Dido Harding is capable of feeding xenophobia to the press to win the NHS top job, she should be utterly ashamed of herself. “Foreign” medics/nurses saved the PM’s life, they are our pride and joy’.
Whoever does get this top job will have their work cut out, assuming they take their role seriously, given the revelation that fixing NHS waiting lists could cost £40bn. Alarmingly, the government seems to think there’s no urgency about this, according to a No 10 ‘source’, because the public are not thought to be ‘distressed’ about long delays. How out of touch is this? I suspect most of us know at least one person waiting for an operation or other treatment and they are certainly perturbed by the wait. The number of patients waiting now exceeds 5 million.
Professor Anita Charlesworth, an NHS finances expert at the Health Foundation think tank said: ‘The health service now has a mountain to climb. Reducing the backlog of long waits and getting the NHS into a position where waiting time standards are consistently met will need a major increase in funding. But that would also need 5,000 extra beds, 4,100 more consultants and 17,100 additional nurses, as the NHS was too under-resourced to ramp up the number of patients treated’. So much for Dido Harding’s plan to do without foreign staff.
There were also mixed reactions, particularly from British farmers, about the much-trumpeted trade deal with Australia, promoted as an example of global Britain throwing off EU shackles, its proponents seemingly unable to see that the so-called benefits were not at all comparable with what had gone before. This was brought out on Radio 4’s Any Questions, ‘Dame’ Andrea Leadsom fulfilling the role of government cheerleader, saying what a fantastic opportunity it was that young people could live and work in Australia for 3 years. This was instantly deconstructed by commentator Ellie Mae O’Hagan, who pointed out how much weaker these ‘opportunities’ were than the ones afforded by EU membership.
Despite Boris Johnson’s attempt to brush off their devastating result in the Chesham and Amersham by-election as ‘due to local circumstances’, it’s clear and some Conservatives admitted that they do need to seriously think about the dramatic overturning of their 16k majority, the Lib Dems winning by almost 8k. While commentators speculate as to whether this is the first breach in the ‘blue wall’, the PM declared that they would ‘continue to unite and level up the country’. ‘Continue?’ questioned one tweeter: ‘He’s done a good job of dividing it’. Commentators suggest this result could mean the end of the ‘safe seat’ and that the local electorate was voting with its feet regarding planning policy and HS2. At least one caller to Radio 4’s Any Answers said the Conservatives had been ‘complacent’ and this did seem evident from the manner of candidate Peter Fleet, who appeared to attribute the Lib Dem victory to them ‘having thrown everything at it’.
It’s striking how many Conservatives are saying ‘this is a very disappointing result’, as if this is a fact rather than their opinion. As for Labour’s failure, a New Statesman article (summarised in The Week), suggests this is partly due to the party’s attitude towards English identity, thought to be more important than Labour recognises. Rather than being a set of regions, traditional supporters ‘have a strong sense of English identity and they worry that regional devolution would put them at a huge disadvantage to Scotland in the matter of funding’. They’re thought to be concerned that Gordon Brown is urging the party to go further down the regional devolution path. ‘Unless it shows more deference for English identity, Labour will remain marooned’.
Former Conservative MP for South West Hertfordshire David Gauke, who was rejected by Johnson over Brexit, thought that the ‘realignment’ in British politics had favoured the Conservatives but now there is vulnerability in areas not naturally aligned with Boris Johnson’s brand of politics. ‘… there are a group of seats – up to 30 or 40 – where the Conservative vote is not Johnsonian, considers the government to be pretty populist, not focused on the interests of taxpayers, not sufficiently pro-business, and that vote is soft. And it’s vulnerable’. Not for the first time, I’m finding that the views of those cast into outer darkness on account of Brexit have just as or more interesting and intelligent views than opposition politicians.
Although it’s a different setting and set of circumstances (the Labour candidate being the sister of former MP Jo Cox, Kim Leadbetter), all eyes will now be on the upcoming Batley and Spen by-election on 1 July.
Some good news for the environment, nature, wildlife and indirectly mental wellbeing comes in the form of plans for a £16m fund to pay landowners for creating new woodlands in England. These would ‘boost wildlife, increase public access and reduce flooding’…. The new scheme will cover all the costs of saplings and planting and pay bonuses of up to £2,800 a hectare for woodland that helps wildlife recover, £1,600/ha for riverside trees, £2,200/ha for woodland with long-term public access and £500/ha for cutting flood risk by slowing water flow. Landowners can claim multiple benefits if their project ticks multiple boxes’.
We have to wonder, though, at the government’s claim that this is part of ‘the biggest shake-up of farming policy for 50 years in November, enabled by Brexit’. While the intention sounds good, ‘redirecting subsidies from simply rewarding land ownership or rental to measures that help tackle the climate and wildlife crises’, it didn’t set out the level of payments or how this would be implemented, given the amount of administration such an exercise will involve. The scheme seems to have been cautiously welcomed by representatives of farming and conservation organisations, but, as one said, ‘the devil is in the detail’, so these experts will no doubt be carefully monitoring these developments over the next few years.
The Week describes some of this year’s finalists, including Father Len Black, a Catholic priest who streamed mass from a shed in his Inverness garden to an online congregation including people from all over the world. Another is a shed turned into a Peaky Blinders themed bar. Category winners will be announced in August – who’d have thought, years ago, that the humble garden shed could reach such heights of sophistication?!
Finally, many will be aware of the men’s sheds movement, which has grown up over recent years to promote a sense of sharing, community and mental wellbeing amongst men who might be less keen to join mainstream clubs and societies. The Men’s Sheds Association describes them as ‘kitted out community spaces where men can enjoy practical hobbies. They’re about making friends, learning and sharing skills. Many guys come just for the tea and banter, everyone’s welcome’. Many had an online presence during lockdown and we can well imagine that these places became even more popular during the pandemic.
I wonder how many in this movement entered this year’s Shed of the Year contest, run by DIY firm Cuprinol, now in its 15th year. Categories included cabin/summerhouse, unexpected/unique, nature’s haven, budget and lockdown. Cuprinol’s Creative Director, Marianne Shillingford, said: ‘Our garden sheds are more than just a place to put our tools – they are a wonderful creative outlet for an individual’s unique artistic vision’.