What a tumultuous fortnight it’s been, with pressure building prior to the publication of Sue Gray’s report, incriminating evidence emerging of even more illegal parties, rising concern over the cost of living crisis, the Prime Minister’s non-apology, the predictable ‘support package’ with windfall tax U-turn and Boris Johnson’s unilateral watering down of the Ministerial Code – perhaps his most alarming act yet. His statement this week in the House of Commons was nothing short of embarrassing, referencing non-existent humility, ‘deep sorrow’ and the like, yet despite some Tory MPs and ministers putting their heads over the parapet there are incredibly still quite a few (enablers, as journalist Jonathan Freedland calls them) who stick to the ‘he’s apologised, he’s paid the fine’ line, even when it’s crystal clear that the Met Police investigation and outcomes were seriously faulty. Sources have estimated letters to the 1922 Committee, 54 being needed to trigger a vote of no confidence, as between 18 and 40, some clearly submitting then withdrawing when they believed an intervention may yet save the PM.
I find myself wondering whether there’s an MP or minister whose letter would halt this hokey cokey by triggering an avalanche of letters. A ‘source’ has now suggested that 54 will indeed be reached. Yet again, it’s unacceptable that all this is the decision of Tory MPs: we need a new and written Constitution enabling the electorate in extremis (and if this isn’t it, I don’t know what is) to rid themselves of an amoral and dangerous government between elections. How on earth can we go on under this regime for the next two years?
On the important topic of Johnson ‘enablers’, Marina Hyde delivers another finely honed hatchet job on most of the Tory MPs, ‘a very weird bunch to stay loyal after the damning Sue Gray verdict on Partygate….. No drive, no spine, very little vision: even science can’t explain the creatures clinging on to Johnson. ….For the past six months, the prime minister and his cabinet explained that they couldn’t comment on the Partygate scandal because they were waiting for the Sue Gray report. Then, the very day that report was published, they explained it was in the past now and it was time to move on’. Did they seriously expect the electorate to buy that after what many have suffered over the last two years? ‘Think of them more as a huge barnacle community living on the underside of a whale. Unfortunately, the rest of us only get this clear a view of who’s on board when the whale has done something perhaps fatally unfortunate, like swim up the Thames, or explain why its lady petrol-fuelled leaving speech was more important than your mother’s lonely death’. A key reason, of course, for these ‘barnacles’ continuing to cling is their awareness (at least at some level) that many would struggle to find a decent job if they were turfed out of this one.
Many references have been made to the PM’s shamelessness and two rather alarming things have become clear – a) rather than feeling shame and embarrassment he and most of his government actually enjoy the brinkmanship, think they’re being clever, and testing what they can get away with (as per the words exchanged following one of the parties) and b) congregating casually and socially in the presence of food and alcohol passes for work for this individual, hence his ‘difficulty’ in distinguishing work from a party. As one commentator said: ‘The closest a narcissistic sociopath can get (to shame) is a feeling of self-pity – the solipsist’s apology for compassion’. The tragic irony he didn’t seem to see, though, was his assertion that it was a ‘duty’ of leadership to bid farewell (‘raise a glass’) to departing staff and also to ‘thank staff for their service’ when the general public had no opportunity to bid farewell to dying loved ones. But what about emerging news of parties not covered by the Met or Sue Gray? There’s news of another party organised by Carrie Johnson (about whose whereabouts there’s been some speculation) and more desperate attempts to distract us from all this, the latest being the wheeze to reintroduce imperial measures. How risible is that?
The Sue Gray report was already lacking 100% authority because of Johnson deciding the timing of its release and limiting its remit, but more damaging was the news that there was a meeting between these two around a month ago, one which both sides suggested the other had initiated. Unusually for this regime, no 10 did later admit to having requested this meeting. Even more concerning is news that No 10 Chief of Staff Steve Barclay asked to see this report and asked for amendments to be made. Yet MPs and the media still allude to Sue Gray’s ‘unimpeachable integrity’ and the report’s ‘independence’. Some commentators have suggested she should be questioned by the appropriate Select Committee but despite the often excellent work of some committee chairs and members, such hearings seem fairly toothless, unable to bring about real change. (A good example is Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s appallingly arrogant and ignorant performance at the Culture, Media & Sport Select Committee on the subject of the Channel 4 privatisation).
It was initially thought that Boris Johnson would make Sir Simon Case (Cabinet Secretary) carry the can for his own demeanours and fall on his sword but this no longer looks on the cards. Not surprisingly, civil servants and their unions are up in arms that Case has evaded censure. ‘Instead, Case and the entire No 10 top team appear to have avoided any sanction or even reprimand at all, and it is fair to say not everyone is happy – particularly more junior officials, dozens of whom were fined’.It’s now clearly too much to expect but where’s the fairness in this? Ok, so no one should have attended these parties but junior staff could have felt directed or encouraged to go if their bosses did and it’s worth remembering that the Civil Service (or it certainly had) has a command and control culture which leads to conformity. But we don’t have to look far for the answer.
A former top civil servant said that the lack of sanction against Case was unsurprising. ‘He’s joined at the hip with the prime minister. If Simon Case had gone, that would completely expose Johnson. He’s a shield. How could you take action against him, when he wasn’t fined, and not the prime minister, who was fined?’ But Case had blotted his copy book some time before, which would have reinforced the anger of those feeling dumped on. ‘Even before Gray’s report emerged, many in Whitehall said Case’s conduct throughout Partygate – even having to recuse himself from leading the inquiry because of a Christmas quiz organised by his office – was unforgivable’. Chris Bryant, the chair of the House of Commons Standards Committee, said the prime minister had turned Downing Street into ‘a cesspit full of arrogant, entitled narcissists’. At no point, though, do the perpetrators seem to grasp the extent to which they are brining this country into disrepute, a laughing stock on the world stage – hardly ‘world beating’ (except in the idiocy and corruption stakes). At least a Tory MP told the FT: ‘Most of us are resigned to the fact that he won’t be going but that we’ve lost the next general election’. You almost have to feel sorry for them only apparently recently seeing the light and preparing, amid a Conservative Party ‘identity crisis’ (according to senior Tories, on account of recent ‘unconservative’ interventions) facing inevitable decline, fresh revelations and the likelihood of slaughter at the forthcoming by-elections.
Miraculously, following the Sue Gray report uproar, the government performed its umpteenth U-turn (in the 20s now), shaking that magic money tree to produce a £15bn cost of living rescue package, including the windfall tax on energy companies, proposals they had so heartily rejected for weeks on end. Funny to think that just days before, Boris Johnson was hoping to dampen down demands for urgent action on the cost of living crisis by stressing that work was the best route out of poverty (as if he would know), just as an energy firm chief warned that 40% of households could soon be in fuel poverty and regulator Ofgem warned that the energy price cap was likely to escalate from £1,971 to £2,800 a year in October. Predictably, Rishi Sunak and colleagues said their policy was very different from what Labour had long proposed, as it mandated company investment. When is a windfall tax not a windfall tax? Answer – when it’s an ‘energy profits levy’. But so much for another Conservative mantra – ‘targeted support for families which need it’: every single household including well off ones will ‘benefit’ from the government’s largesse. So how can it be ‘redistributive’?
Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme on Friday, Sunak wheeled out several mantras including ‘The prime minister has apologised and lessons have been learned. I hope we can now move forward and continue delivering for the British people’ (how is this learning ever manifested?), yet the #NotMovingOn hashtag continued to trend on Twitter. Another part of the excuse-making script is the argument that all will be well because Boris Johnson has changed the structure at no 10 and brought new people in. Only the gullible will be taken in by such cosmetic tinkering when the culture of an organisation filters down from the very top. Bob Kerslake, a crossbench peer and former leader of the civil service, said Partygate was ‘about conduct and behaviours that can’t be dealt with by changing structures’.
From his alternative universe, Sunak also said: ‘I really want people to have confidence that this is what we’re going to do…’- given his government’s performance where does he think this confidence might come from? It was also unfortunate timing for him that he appeared in the latest Sunday Times Rich List, the first Chancellor to do so. This is bound to further demonstrate the gap between many in the government and the electorate. The Independent gives us another example – the Chancellor paid £10k for a private helicopter to take him to a Tory dinner in Wales.
What marked a new and alarming low in this government’s trajectory is Boris Johnson’s unilateral watering down of the Ministerial Code, crucially meaning that those found guilty of breaches won’t automatically have to resign. It’s absurd that this is the decision of the Prime Minister, although in former times this post holder’s probity could mostly be taken for granted. Not now. Chair of the Commons Standards Committee Chris Bryant said the Code needs putting on a statutory footing and that ‘The new ministerial code is a disgrace. It means that the tiny semblance of accountability disappears. If you break the rules just rewrite the rule book is the motto of this despicable government…. The Prime Minister always finds himself innocent in the court of his own opinion’. It’s not surprising to see #Fascism and #Dictatorship trending on Twitter. Johnson’s unilateral change of the Code is a clear signal that the downward spiral is accelerating.
We appear to be morphing into a fascist state – this latest example of the deletion of the principle underpinning democracy (separation of powers – executive, legislature and judiciary) should be halted immediately. This captures what’swrong: ‘However, the ministerial code is governed by the prime minister himself, and Johnson resisted pressure to give Geidt the power to launch his own inquiries without consent. Under his revised terms of reference, there will be an “enhanced process” to let Geidt initiate inquiries – but he will still require the prime minister’s consent before going ahead’. And this is chilling: Johnson also rewrote the foreword to the ministerial code, removing all references to honesty, integrity, transparency and accountability’. Surely the big question now is what happens to address the fact that both the Sue Gray and Met investigations (the Met one alone costing £460,000) are clearly incomplete, with further evidence of illegal parties continuing to emerge? Yet another investigation? At the very least the authority of both is now severely undermined.
Journalist Andrew Rawnsley demonstrates just ‘how much will have to be done to disinfect our government institutions when Mr Johnson is finally thrown out’ and this ‘disinfecting’ is no mean feat. He reckons three key changes will be needed for the country to recover from the Johnson motto of ‘see what you can get away with’ being turned into ‘the degenerate creed of Number 10: the ministerial and civil service codes need stiffening and the policing of them has to be placed in independent hands; related to undue influence and lobbying conflicts of interest, the invigilator of second jobs for politicians and civil servants needs to be armed with legal powers and meaningful sanctions against rule-breakers; ‘a change in the culture so that the lodestar of parliamentary and ministerial life is not seeing what you can get away with, but probity….. You can wipe wine stains off walls and mop vomit from the carpet. It is our institutions of government that will need a deep clean once the party animal at Number 10 is finally taken out with the trash’.
Hardly a week passes without some news about failing mental health services and this last week has been no exception. Although the headline suggests 420,000 children and young people are being treated this appears to be a fudge as the so-called ‘open referrals’ include those waiting to start treatment. A very different matter but this is not the total figure either because many more in need don’t even make it onto the waiting lists and statistics. ‘The total has risen by 147,853 since February 2020, a 54% increase, and by 80,096 over the last year alone, a jump of 24%. January’s tally of 411,132 cases was the first time the figure had topped 400,000. Mental health charities welcomed the fact that an all-time high number of young people are receiving psychological support. But they fear the figures are the tip of the iceberg of the true number of people who need care, and that many more under-18s in distress are being denied help by arbitrary eligibility criteria…. GPs, teachers and mental health charities believe the criteria are too strict, exclude many who are deemed not ill enough, and amount to rationing of care’.
It’s common to see this situation attributed to Covid-related demand but there was marked unmet need prior to this. Needless to say, there’s the usual defence from the NHS mental health director: ‘The toll of the pandemic has inevitably had an impact on the nation’s mental health, with more young people than ever before accessing NHS services. As these figures show, demand continues to skyrocket, with a third more children treated in February this year compared to February 2020’. Note the attribution to the pandemic. She also said ‘the NHS had responded by expanding mental health teams in 4,700 schools and colleges and setting up 24/7 mental health crisis telephone support services for all ages, which now receive 20,000 calls a month’ but what this doesn’t clarify is that in England counselling provision in schools still isn’t mandatory. This very worrying lack of mental health service capacity means more and more parents of these young people will have to seek private help if they can afford it or go without help.
On the other side of this coin, a CAMHS (Child and Adolescent Mental Health Service) psychiatrist explains why she felt compelled to quit her job. ‘..After 15 years working in the NHS alongside extremely dedicated and committed colleagues, I made the difficult decision to resign because I could no longer be part of a system which is clearly broken, and no longer able to provide the early intervention that is so vital in so many cases. While CAMHS has been stretched for many years, with lengthy waiting times and limited availability of therapeutic services, the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath has ground the service to a halt. Waiting times increased in some cases from one year to three years. Many children are now being told they do not meet the threshold for CAMHS, despite being suicidal or restricting their eating to dangerously low levels’.
Step forward, Conservative Party would-be leader Jeremy Hunt, former Health Secretary under whose tenure severe cuts were made to the NHS, not to mention abject failures in workforce planning. In a conflict of interest his colleagues seem unable to see, Hunt is the Chair of the Commons Health Select Committee, often having to preside over discussions of failures which directly or indirectly arise from the aftermath his own policies. He has now written a book, ironically called Zero – Eliminating Preventable Harm and Tragedy in the NHS, which purports to propose ‘how the NHS can reduce the number of avoidable deaths to zero and in the process save money, reduce backlogs and improve working conditions….Delivering the safest, highest quality care in the NHS post-pandemic could be our very own 1948 moment’. What hubris. As one reviewer, palliative care doctor Rachel Clarke asks, ‘given that he was the longest serving health secretary in NHS history, why didn’t he impose his vision while in office, rather than waiting for the tumbleweed of the backbenches to write about it’?
Dr Clarke commends the book for its thoughtfulness, seriousness and for the author clearly being moved by poor patient care, but at the same time says: ‘But this is also the work of a consummate politician. The prose, in a word, is emollient. Hunt glides seductively over his track record in health, using omission and elision to rewrite history…. What is most disappointing from a frontline perspective is Hunt’s failure to match his fine words on candour with action….. Political choices, in short, are causing avoidable deaths here, now, in every NHS hospital in the country. Hunt knows this yet chooses not to voice it. Presumably he still has one eye on Downing Street. And that’s the thing about candour. You can’t credibly advocate total transparency while dipping in and out of being candid when it suits you. A true patient safety champion would lead by example, speaking out about all kinds of patient harm, including those inflicted by their party in government’.
In more cheerful news, the opening of the new Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail) in London shows that the UK, despite its problems, can still pull out the stops when it comes to engineering. Over time and over budget (and still not fully open), the launch on 24th proved quite a party despite its debut at the unearthly hour of 6.31 am, many having waited since before midnight to be part of it. ‘By 10am, 130,000 journeys had been made on the new line, Transport for London said. The first were made by hundreds of people, from around the country and beyond, who had braved the rain to queue outside Paddington and Abbey Wood in the early hours’. This is the kind of party we can commend! One passenger had even made Elizabeth Line cupcakes to hand around. London Mayor Sadiq Khan said: ‘My peers abroad would envy it. No other city, as we embark on recovery, has this piece of national infrastructure to help get people back from home to the office, to entice and incentivise them, and to get tourists back…Walk these platforms and step on to the new air-conditioned trains, he added, and “I challenge anyone not to come off with a smile, a spring in their step and whistling to be in this great city.”
While most people will have heard of the Booker Prize the International Booker (which began in 2005) is less well-known but worth our attention as it broadens awareness of the vast amount of literature written languages other than English. This year ‘Geetanjali Shree’s extremely exuberant and incredibly playful Tomb of Sand, translated from Hindi by Daisy Rockwell, has won the International Booker prize, becoming the first novel translated from Hindi to do so. Shree and Rockwell winning the £50,000 prize – which is split between author and translator equally – not only marks the award’s first Hindi winner, but also the first time a book originally written in any Indian language has won. Tomb of Sand is about an 80-year-old woman, who slips into a deep depression when her husband dies, then resurfaces to gain a new lease on life. The woman travels to Pakistan to confront the unresolved trauma of her teenage experiences of Partition, and re-evaluates what it means to be a mother, a daughter, a woman and a feminist’. This prize also raises awareness of the importance of translation, which can differ so markedly between different translators. I wonder if bookshops and libraries will now stock and promote this book, in the same way they do for English language works.
Finally, with all the shortages and distribution problems we’ve been hearing about over the last year, the latest to hit the news is that of bunting. ‘Patriotic shoppers have been snapping up bunting, party hats and cake stands in huge volumes ahead of the bank holiday weekend. However, the huge spike in sales had caught some retailers off guard, leading to some products selling out completely…. It is estimated that 39 million adults will be doing something to celebrate the jubilee, with 4.1 million families due to attend a street party’. Hmm, that’s still quite a few not planning to celebrate, but I wonder how much these celebrations are related to the Jubilee or simply because people want to get together and it’s the right time of year for it. Also because the news has been so dark and depressing that this signals some welcome levity. It seems to me support for the monarchy has markedly declined recently and that the media are conflating the desire for parties with enthusiasm for the Jubilee when this might not be the case. Those unable to get supplies are urged to have a go at making their own – a bit simpler, perhaps, than growing your own veg!