Assailed, as we are on a daily basis, by news of deepening crises in the water and energy industries, in the NHS and cost of living, which put further downward pressure on our mental wellbeing, it surely beggars belief that we are expected to tolerate for weeks on end a ‘zombie government’ (in the words of finance expert Martin Lewis), with an AWOL prime minister. Surprise was expressed that he was away in Slovenia for a week, though we don’t know yet which Tory donor has funded it, but it’s outrageous that, on return, he has ducked the necessity of taking immediate action on this situation. Having already reported that he had no intention of acting, Sky News and others confirmed that there’s been no change even after he, the Chancellor and Energy Minister (Nadhim Zahawi and Kwasi Kwarteng) met the energy companies on Thursday. Said Sky: ‘Boris Johnson has doubled down on his insistence that it is for his successor to “make significant fiscal decisions” after crisis talks with energy bosses ended with no new measures to ease the cost of living crisis. Speaking after the meeting, the prime minister said he would continue to urge the energy sector to ease the cost of living pressures on people facing rising bills’. But he’s not the only one to have made a feeble gesture: we heard that Zahawi will ‘continue to monitor the profits made by energy companies’. I’m sure we’re very comforted by that. But there’s also a strange disconnect: how is it that Defence Minister Ben Wallace can announce that further weapons have been promised to Ukraine, yet nothing can be done about fuel poverty?
A pathetic Johnson tweet, accompanied by a photo of the three of them in a serious pose, said: ‘I know people are worried about the difficult winter ahead, which is why we are providing support – including a £400 energy bill discount for all households. This morning I urged electricity companies to continue working on ways to help with the cost of living’. The much-vaunted support won’t (in the words of at least one commentator) ‘touch the sides’. Yet again it’s been proved that our feeble unwritten Constitution and parliamentary arrangements are not up to the job of compelling this prime minister to actually do his job, which it still is, besides continuing to enjoy the trappings of the role such as access to Chequers. An exasperated sceptic tweeted: ‘Disgraced caretaker PM urges energy companies to act in the national interest … will that’s hardly news is it? Would he urge them not to act in the national interest? What a complete waste of space he is’.
But also quite a cunning ‘waste of space’, in that besides enjoying the benefits of the PM role for a few more weeks, he’s continuing to put his oar in, undermining the leadership candidates but also planning a future of continuing political influence without accountability: a dangerous situation. Besides discussing the requirements of his narcissistic personality in the context of losing power, this writer stresses his need for revenge. ‘It is as much a question of temperament as strategy. Temperamentally, Johnson seeks not only the spotlight but also revenge. He is naturally vindictive and disloyal, as his axing of a whole generation of one nation Tory talent before the 2019 election showed. Unlike, say, Margaret Thatcher, who talked the talk about getting her own back for her 1990 ousting but then failed to walk the walk, the incontinent part of Johnson that wants revenge will not be easily quieted…… He could become a new kind of disrupter on the British scene, a rightwing media shock-maker, a role that Nigel Farage has dallied with but does not take seriously. Johnson would do so. He could become the British version of American populist broadcasters such as Rush Limbaugh and Tucker Carlson, setting the agenda from outside the political system’.
And yet another government cut has come to light, given the focus on firefighters during the heatwave – some fire and rescue services have seen their government funding cut by more than 40%, with individual brigades losing as much as £22m. Did they think we wouldn’t notice? This is also reinforcing impressions that the current regulatory architecture is broken (doubtful it was fit for purpose in the first place) – Ofwat, the water industry regulator, even refusing to be interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme.
An ‘impassioned’ Martin Lewis, during a Radio 4 Today programme interview, made crystal clear that we cannot afford this continuing limbo and vacuum at the heart of government and we cannot delay action until the next energy price cap is announced on 26 August. It’s been estimated the average household will pay be paying £4266- £5000 a year for energy bills in January and this will mean an increase in deaths. It’s shocking to learn that in 2019 8,500 people died in England and Wales due to being unable to heat their homes, according to the Office for National Statistics – and this is supposed to be one of the most advanced economies in the world. The numbers of people in ‘fuel poverty’ (defined as spending 10% and more of the household income on energy) will rocket and this is not sustainable.
Along with many others, Lewis pointed out that neither of the leadership candidates have realistic ideas as to how they would resolve this crisis. Yet we are stuck with one or the other for the next two years. Moreover, the fact that most of the public don’t actually want tax cuts demonstrates again how out of touch they are. At least a good number of people realise that income from tax pays for the public services we rely on and which are currently struggling so much. Liz Truss’s latest mantra from the hustings is ‘profit isn’t a dirty word’ (relating to the energy companies) – many will disagree with her on that but presumably not the party faithful comprising the audience. Apparently Cummings gave Liz Truss the nickname ‘hand grenade’ when at the Department for Education as she generally ’caused chaos’ but she’s taken this is a backhanded compliment: ‘It means I do get stuff done’. Thick skinned hubris.
Meanwhile, as the Conservative leadership pantomime continues its run at different venues around the country at the expense of much more pressing issues, it’s become ‘breaking news’ in the media when a minister switches allegiance: Welsh Minister Robert Buckland has now switched from Sunak to Truss. ‘Changing your mind on an issue like this is not an easy thing to do, but I have decided that Liz Truss is the right person to take the country forward’. Where Buckland cites Truss’s preparedness to address his concerns about the Bill of Rights (set to replace the Human Rights Act) some see this as an act of cynicism about which one would offer the best job prospects. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Snivelling little creep Robert Buckland is the latest Tory to try to ensure he doesn’t lose his Ministerial salary when Truss struts gormlessly into No 10. Has there ever been such a gang of unprincipled mercenaries in our politics?’
It’s simply frightening to think how much further this country could sink when it’s already in a bad state. It’s good that the CBI, Britain’s biggest business group, called on the prime minister to take immediate action, bringing together the leadership candidates to agree a way forward and especially that former PM Gordon Brown has proposed a number of serious interventions, which would embarrass this government if its PM and ministers weren’t too insensitive to experience humiliation. Trending on Twitter and interviewed by various media, Brown suggests if energy companies can’t help people with these bills they should be temporarily renationalised (prompting some to question why only ‘temporarily’?). In addition energy prices should be frozen and profits taxed.
Brown captures the vanity and ineptitude of this government, focusing on the narrow aims of the Conservative Party rather than addressing the urgent needs of the whole country. ‘Time and tide wait for no one. Neither do crises. They don’t take holidays, and don’t politely hang fire – certainly not to suit the convenience of a departing PM and the whims of two potential successors and the Conservative party membership. But with the country already in the eye of a cost of living storm, decisions cannot be put on hold until a changeover on 5 September, leaving impoverished families twisting in the wind’.
Stressing the urgency of immediate action, Brown writes about lessons he learned but which the present incumbents still haven’t learned via other crises: ‘There were two great lessons I learned right at the start of the last great economic crisis in 2008: never to be behind the curve but be ahead of events; and to get to the root of the problem. And it is not tax cuts or, as yet, a wage-price inflation spiral that are the most urgent priorities for action, but dealing with the soaring costs of fuel and food: the cause of half of our current inflation’. But, as we have seen with the pandemic, travel chaos, supply chain pressures and NHS crisis, the government has been notoriously slow and laissez-faire, resorting to reactive and kneejerk responses lacking planning and nuanced thinking. Brown again: ‘What’s more, British ministers – and no one has yet grasped this – should also be leading the way, as we did in 2009, in demanding coordinated international action with an emergency G20 early in September to address the fuel, food, inflation and debt emergencies. These are global problems that can only be fully addressed by globally coordinated solutions’.
Brown also captures the frequently overlooked mental health side effects of no one being in charge. ‘No one can be secure when millions feel insecure and no one can be content when there is so much discontent. Churchill once said that those who build the present in the image of the past will utterly fail to meet the challenges of the future. Only bold and decisive action starting this week will rescue people from hardship and reunite our fractured country’. Quite, except our government does not have the empathy, energy, intelligence or courage to do what’s necessary.
The current impasse is also well captured by George Monbiot (‘Britain faces crisis upon crisis, and our leaders are absent. This is how a country falls apart’) who points out the insidious role of ideology in government failure to act. ‘Has Boris Johnson ended his holiday? It’s hard to tell. He was never committed to government, even during national emergencies, as his serial absence from Cobra meetings at the beginning of the pandemic revealed. Now, while several national crises converge, he seems to have given up altogether. But his detachment is not just a pathology. It is also a doctrine. Absence is what the party donors paid for. Whether physically present or not, recent prime ministers and their governments have prepared us for none of the great predicaments we face….. So determined is the government to absent itself from decision-making that it cannot even institute a hosepipe ban: it must feebly ask the water companies to do so’. This is truly shocking when the reason governments exist is to make the difficult decisions needed and to follow them through, not abdicate responsibility in this way. Where does the buck stop? Lib Dems leader Ed Davey tweeted: ‘We don’t need a cosy meeting with energy bosses in Downing Street – we need to cancel the energy price rise to stop a social catastrophe in our country, it is as simple as that’. Another tweeter expresses it quite graphically: ‘An overseas friend asked what it was like living in the UK at the moment. I said it was like being on the Titanic and seeing the iceberg but realising no one was making any great effort to avoid colliding with it’.
‘Energy bills, coupled with punitive rents, rising inflation and stagnant wages and benefits could mean actual destitution for millions, without effective action. But neither the government nor the two leadership contenders offer meaningful help. Nor have they anything to say about the meltdown that awaits the NHS this winter if, as seems likely, another Covid-19 surge coincides with the underfunding crisis. The only public services not facing a major shortfall are defence (whose budget Truss intends greatly to raise) and roads. There’s a reason why the government spends so much on roads while strangling the rest of the public sector: they are among the few public services used by the very rich’.
Monbiot explains how this Conservative ideology (‘the doctrine of absence’ which enables crony profiteering) and its inevitable failure will lead to further blame-avoiding culture wars. ‘Unchastened by experience, both Truss and Sunak intend only to absent themselves further from effective governance. Everything that goes wrong in a nation first goes wrong in the heads of those who dominate it. When governments are contractually incapable of solving their people’s problems, only one option remains: turning us against each other. This process is well under way: the purpose of culture wars is to distract us from inequality. But it will go much further….’ This is positively frightening as many won’t even realise it’s happening, even less the social unrest which could follow. ‘The more corrupt and less representative government becomes, the longer must be its list of enemies, and the more extreme the rhetoric with which it denounces them. As our crises escalate, as the government absents itself from public service, violence bubbles ever closer to the surface. This is how a country falls apart’. A recent poll carried out by the Independent showed that 56% of voters want the next PM to call a general election. Fat chance of that.
Meanwhile, a Commons Business Select Committee recently released a report on the UK’s energy sector which was highly critical of the performance of regulator Ofgem, ‘whose incompetent management of a complex market resulted in a cost exposure to taxpayers…only comparable to the financial crash of 2008’. Despite such a damning report, though, it seems that politicians still haven’t questioned the underlying ‘regulatory architecture’ and there are no plans to reform the energy price cap system. Again, it’s lazy laissez-faire but one we can now more clearly see as the ‘doctrine of absence’ in action.
A similarly drastic situation has taken hold in the water industry, especially now that a drought has been officially declared. Privatisation has allowed the water companies to harvest massive profits at the expense of consumers while failing to prepare for water shortages through the building of new reservoirs, for example. Yes, some are planned and some are under construction, but it will be some time before they’re operational. To what extent can the government rely on the feeble tactic of ‘prompting people to be more careful with water’?
For such a relatively supine nation, it’s very interesting that a pressure group has garnered considerable support over the last few weeks, its aim being to challenge the government and energy companies by getting people to pledge not to pay their energy bills. ‘Launched six weeks ago by an anonymous group in response to rocketing energy prices, Don’t Pay UK is supposed to be a grassroots campaign, building support both from online networks and in-person campaigning, in an attempt to sign up 1 million pledges to refuse payment of their energy bills. Their message is clear: it is unacceptable that companies are making dizzying profits, as customers struggle to heat their homes. Don’t Pay UK founder, Diyora Shadijanova describes the anger people are feeling: ‘The majority of the people I have spoken to are fuming with the energy prices and government inaction…The Tories really don’t know what they’ve got coming, and the fact that they are still refusing to bring any immediate measures of relief shows how out of touch they are on this issue’.
According to pollster Savanta, more than half of Britons (55%) believe an organised campaign of non-payment of energy bills is justified if prices rocket upwards as forecast this winter and almost half (44%) fear that there will be riots if consumers are given no further help with bills. Interventionist policies may be the bête noire of Tory donors but, as the Chancellor was forced to do at the start of the pandemic, the new PM will have to act to prevent even deeper cuts to public services, according to economists. This results from (the Independent’s number of the day on Wednesday) £26bn being the size of the hole in the UK’s public services funding due to inflation, according to the Institute for Fiscal Studies. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson continues in his Job’s comforter role, saying (as if his confidence is anything to have confidence in) ‘I just want you to know that I’m absolutely confident that we will have the fiscal firepower and the headroom to continue to look after people as we’ve done throughout’. As he’s done throughout?
Meanwhile, the NHS continues to experience its own crisis – it must be so depressing for the staff, not to mention frequent burnout, when day after day they hear negative news about it and however hard they work they can’t meet the demand. On Friday the Independent’s number of the day was 7m – that is, patients waiting for NHS treatment. People are having to wait 12 hours for ambulances in some cases, followed by more waiting time outside A&E, there are chronic staff shortages and, shockingly, armed police have even been called out to patients suffering heart attacks because of a shortage of available paramedics. Andy Cooke, HM chief inspector of constabulary, told The Independent that this was the result of an NHS crisis and cuts to mental health provision and social services. A patient speaking on Radio 4 got it in one when she said the staff were marvellous ‘but the system’s up the creek’. As we well know, the problems are largely due to underfunding, lack of workforce planning over years and lack of social care in the community impacting on the numbers of hospital beds available for new patients.
As if this wasn’t enough, we hear that confidential NHS patient data could have been stolen because of a ransomware attack on its software supplier. ‘Areas of the health service affected include the 111 telephone advice service, GP surgeries and some specialist mental health trusts…Advanced (interesting name in the circumstances!), which provides services for NHS 111 and patient records, confirmed late on Wednesday it had been hit by ransomware during last week’s attack….The National Cyber Security Centre (NCSC) and other government agencies are trying to discover the scale of the damage caused by the incursion, amid fears that sensitive medical information may have been taken during the process’. This cyber attack has seriously compromised some NHS services and we’re told that it will take 10-12 days for the issues to be rectified. ‘NHS Digital will also need to approve Advanced’s plan as safe’. Not half, but this again raises question about outsourcing within services like the NHS and whether enough risk assessment has been done.
We know the Conservatives have long had NHS privatisation on their agenda and privatisation by stealth (now more in plain sight) has been increasing markedly during recent years. Light was shone on this ill-advised strategy with the recent controversy over the pledge to charge patients £10 for missed appointments. The PM’s sister, Rachel Johnson, unhelpfully stuck her oar in during her LBC show, suggesting that the cost should be much higher. As many clinicians pointed out, such a plan is not only impracticable but unfair, as there are many reasons why patients could end up missing appointments despite their best efforts. Not to mention the fact that at least some appointment letters never reach the intended recipients.
During this ‘debate’ news emerged of the 1828 Group, managed by right wing think tank IEA, which believes in small government and laissez-faire capitalism including an intention for the NHS to be insurance based. Even its verbal gymnastics ‘mission statement’ are cynical juxtapositions of the desirable (eg freedom) and the questionable (eg ‘free markets and limited government’). The ‘Board of parliamentary supporters’ includes Liz Truss and Rachel Maclean. What a surprise: within a few paragraphs of an article on health, written by someone who looks about 14, we get to the 1828 privatisation agenda: blame the NHS, declare it not fit for purpose, opening the door to what this government wants, privatisation.
Having described the NHS crisis (and this article was written over a year ago) the author continues: ‘It is easy to blame supposedly lazy doctors for this problem, but that is not necessarily fair, and misses the bigger culprit – the NHS. The state-run healthcare system that we gave up our freedoms to protect is inefficient and unable to keep up with the demands of modern Britain’. One the reasons, too, that most people don’t know much about these opaque think tanks and pressure groups is that the media are notoriously bad at giving their political affiliations and source of funding when introducing their representatives before interviews.
One of the many responsibilities being sidestepped or marginalised by this government at present is science and it’s perhaps no surprise that Sir Patrick Vallance announced that he will not be seeking to extend his role of Chief Scientific Officer when his contract expires next April. In addition to what he’s has to put with since the start of the pandemic and this administration’s mismanagement of it, it must be depressing to simultaneously hear macho talk about the UK aiming towards science superpower status and to see how such a claim is undermined from the start. We hear that the UK is currently being blocked from joining the £82bn research programme because of the row over post-Brexit trade in Northern Ireland and just as significantly, the UK currently has no science minister following the resignation of George Freeman back in early July. We have to wonder if work is underway to seek a replacement for Sir Patrick as such a role will take time to fill and whether these leadership candidates are considering who they would appoint as science minister.
At this time of year, given the increase in ‘staycations’, it’s not surprising that the knotty issue of second homes and increase in tenant evictions in favour of short-term holiday lets is once more under the microscope. This situation has led to locals in some locations in Devon, Cornwall, Wales and elsewhere being unable to find a home, some suddenly being turfed out with little notice because the landlord can get £x more via Airbnb. The little key boxes on front doors in specific resorts are a giveaway and it’s not only that locals can’t get a home, but the domination of streets by Airbnb changes the character of an area, possibly to its detriment. The combination of second homes left empty much of the year and short-term lets has led to anger in some quarters, yet some landlords going down this route are unapologetic and others say they need the income to boost their small pensions, etc. One local at least is especially irritated by the twee names given to these properties, eg Willow Cottage when there’s no willow tree around.
The same local gets to the heart of the problem: ‘Anyone who complains about Airbnbs and is a tourist themselves is a hypocrite. Airbnb is a really useful way for someone to rent out their house. But not in an unregulated system where we’re not building any houses’. Something clearly needs doing to limit the number of Airbnbs in a particular area but at least two phenomena militate against this working. One is that people are snapping up properties for cash the minute they’re advertised so it’s at the higher (planning) level that there needs to be intervention. The second is that even when local authorities impose a 100% council tax increase on such properties ‘most Airbnb owners simply designate their home a small business and pay small-business rates, which can work out lower than council tax’. It looks as if there needs to be a proper conversation about these issues and central government action to close loopholes, etc, except this is unlikely given the current laissez faire policy. As someone tweeted: ‘No landlord needs to raise their rent by a double digit percentage to keep up with increasing costs or to get a reasonable return on investment. They do it because they can. It is the government’s duty to ensure they can’t’.
On a lighter note, though it has a serious side, the Financial Times has analysed the decline of the sandwich, a particularly English phenomenon, or should that be British? Thought to have been invented around 1762 by the 4th Earl of Sandwich, described as ‘a British statesman and notorious profligate and gambler’, the motivation was that he would not have to leave his gaming table to ‘take supper’. The FT writers attribute the success of the sandwich since then to key social changes, such as the rise of the full-time female workforce and the white-collar ethos of time poor workers who had the money to buy their lunch, giving rise to thousands of cafes and shops whose main business became meeting this need, like Pret A Manger, which have suffered during the pandemic. Perhaps also the increasing popularity of afternoon tea could be a factor: this custom, originally the province of aristocratic homes and posh hotels, spread to many restaurants and cafes so it’s now unusual to find a place not offering it, often with a glass of bubbly thrown in for a price supplement. But now the main office worker business looks seriously under threat, not only from WFH trends but also the ‘temporary’ 80% hike in mayonnaise prices, depopulated city centres, supply chain problems and the rise of wraps and salads. The authors conclude: ‘the heyday of the traditional triangle could be over’. We will see!
Finally, avid readers, book sellers and arts journalists will be pleased to see the release recently of the 1922 Booker Prize longlist, consisting of 13 writers aged between 20 and 87. The Chair is cultural historian and writer Neil MacGregor and the panel members are academic and broadcaster Shahidha Bari, historian Helen Castor, author and critic M John Harrison, and novelist and poet Alain Mabanckou. The judges had to read 169 submissions (phew) and the chair’s comments on the longlist are promising: ‘the books are exceptionally well written and carefully crafted and seem to us to exploit and expand what the language can do’. We’re told that the longlist has 6 American authors, which ‘may well reignite the debate around the decision to open the Booker prize to US authors in 2014’. I was pleased to see Elizabeth Strout as one of them, being a fan since reading her Olive Kitteridge in a book group. Another entry pleasing to me is Claire Keegan (Small Things Like These), which our book group is currently reading and which recently won the Orwell Prize for Political Fiction. Let’s hope that the winner is something readable, unlike some of recent years. The shortlist of six books will be announced on 6 September and the winner will be announced on 17 October.