Saturday 13 August

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.

Sunday 31 July

Our politics this last week has been even less of an edifying spectacle than usual, with (Boris Johnson is said to have connived at this weeks ago) the two Conservative Party leadership candidates fighting like ferrets in a sack, only equalled, it seems, by their supporters and some in Whitehall briefing madly against one or the other. Of course they don’t think what kind of impression this is giving to world leaders – an embarrassment on the world stage. Now we’re onto the party hustings – one down, 11 to go, which sound exhausting (for both participants and audience). As the Guardian’s John Crace described the formula, ‘….we don’t even get the pleasure of seeing them disagree with each other. Rather they do battle to feed the delusions of the 160,000 or so Tory members who are the only voters that count for this particular election with ever more far-fetched rightwing policies’.

I suspect that many are finding this obsessional contest distasteful, if not obscene, as further rail strikes hit ‘the travelling public’, more pay demands reinforce calls for a General Strike, the energy crisis bites even deeper and the mental health impact worsens (see below more on children’s mental health). All of this with an AWOL government and continuing limbo until 5 September, except it won’t get any better then. News of billion-pound profits being made by energy companies comes after UK households warned average annual bill could hit £3,850 by 2023, fuel poverty possibly giving rise to ‘heat banks’ besides food banks. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis again won’t have pleased ministers with his blunt exhortations to Truss, Sunak and Johnson to get round a table to come up with some solutions as a matter of urgency. Lewis faults the ‘zombie government’ as the Independent’s figure of the day on Friday was £1.34bn, representing a five-fold increase in British Gas owner Centrica’s profits. And another energy price cap rise is due for the autumn. Meanwhile ministers sit back, perhaps on a distant beach, and Transport Minister Grant Shapps still refuses to negotiate with the unions as RMT leader Mick Lynch continues his starring role in media interviews.

Thanks to The Week for covering an interesting piece from the Conservative Home website written by former minister Francis Maude. As a self-described ‘grizzled veteran’ of leadership contests, he stresses the need for the successful candidate to be able to ‘keep 27 plates spinning’ at a time (doubtful the short attention span Johnson could ever do that) but also several other essential qualities. These are: a flair for making quick decisions on the hoof; decent performance skills in the House of Commons; the gravitas and temperament to build strong relationships with our neighbours and partners; and to interact normally with normal people. The Week suggests that, given the growth of personality-driven and presidential politics, the last quality may count for most with voters. It’s surely striking, though, that Boris Johnson spectacularly fails on most of the qualities described.

As paralysis in government circles takes further hold amid crises in the economy, energy supply, NHS and travel sectors, the leadership contest hasn’t taken Boris Johnson’s eye off the ball of his endless machinations or prevented further damaging revelations coming to light. We can be sure that some of the negative briefing on the leadership candidates emanates from Downing Street (looking for work now the PM should, if not yet, be on the way out?) and he appears to be playing both sides regarding the plan by some (notably ‘Lord’ Cruddas) to get him on the ballot paper. Many wondered why Boris Johnson wasn’t fined for two Partygate events and now the Met has admitted (only after the intervention of the Good Law Project so what else is being hidden?)  it didn’t send him questionnaires for all the parties. Why not?

Said GLP: ‘The Met’s actions have raised grave concerns about the deferential way in which they are policing those in power.We don’t think the Met’s response is consistent with their legal duty of candour. And we certainly don’t think it’s consistent with what the Met has elsewhere conceded is their public duty to maintain public confidence in policing’. GLP is being assisted by Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat peer and former senior police officer. And while Downing Street ‘declined to comment’ (no surprise there) Scotland Yard’s response was feeble: ‘Questionnaires were a useful part of the investigation, but if answers were clear from other evidence, there was little to be gained from sending one to a particular person simply for them to confirm what was already known, and there was no duty to send one’. Many could disagree with that.

This government has long been at work politicising the House of Lords, attempting to pack it with their own supporters regardless of what honours are supposed to be all about. Besides the possibility of a resignation honours list going down the same predictable path, rendering these titles increasingly meaningless, former PM Gordon Brown writes that Johnson Boris Johnson ‘is planning to fill the Lords with his cronies and legitimise bribery. Brown describes the shocking content of a ‘confidential’ document he’s had sight of – how did that come about, we can wonder…..

‘A confidential document prepared by CT Group, the influential lobbying firm run by Lynton Crosby which advises Boris Johnson, and which I have seen, makes no bones about the defenestrated prime minister’s aim to pack the House of Lords. The document proposes that Johnson ride roughshod over every convention and standard of propriety in an effort to secure political nominees who will vote for the Tory government, especially its bill to disown the international treaty it has itself signed over Northern Ireland. This draft plan to add 39 to 50 new Tory peers includes an extraordinary requirement that each new peer sign away their right to make their own judgment on legislation that comes before them. They have to give, the paper says, a written undertaking to attend and vote with the government (my italics). The document, predictably and cynically, includes plans to counter media and public backlash with spurious justification (eg it’s ‘levelling up’ as the South-east has more peers than the north, etc). This is corruption not, unfortunately, in plain sight: Brown analyses the relationship between peerages and donations, citing a term used by one newly ennobled individual, ‘access capitalism’.

‘Money talks, and nowhere more so than in the Lords. Twenty-two of the party’s biggest donors – who together have donated £54m to the Conservatives – have been made lords since 2010. Not only do these 22 have peerages but, as one leading Tory donor, Mohamed Amersi, confirmed this week when talking of “access capitalism”, large cash donations give “a privileged few unrivalled access to decision-makers’….. Brown quotes one former Conservative Party chair as saying ‘Once you pay your £3m, you get your peerage’. All this when surveys show 71% of the public want Lords reform and only 12% back it in its current form. Perhaps people will boycott these ‘Boris gongs’, refusing to use these improperly conferred titles.

Another shocking development representing a clear attack on democracy is the Attorney General Suella Braverman’s decision to stop her government lawyers advising ministers when their proposals are illegal. Together with the hindering of judicial review, this effectively represents the end of the Rule of Law.

But if Johnson thinks he’s out of the woods on Partygate, that’s by no means the case regarding the ‘defining’ Lebedev scandal, which we have persistent investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr to thank for uncovering much more of. The story is now familiar: when Foreign Secretary in 2018, at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow because of inter alia the Salisbury poisonings, Johnson, who had been attending an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, shook off his security people in order to fly to Italy to attend a party at a villa owned by the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, father of Evgeny, owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent and ennobled by Johnson in 2020. Without first being revealed by the Observer and taken up by Ms Cadwalladr, none of this may have emerged but Johnson was forced to admit to MPs recently that the meeting took place ‘in breach of all protocols, without any foreign office officials present’. Despite the extraordinary behaviours exhibited by Johnson over the last few years, that he could do such a thing beggars belief.

‘This scandal isn’t about breaking his own laws or impropriety with Conservative party funds or Lulu Lytle wallpaper. It’s not even a scandal in the traditional sense. This is about what appears to be a fundamental breach of our national security. A breach that potentially endangered not just our country but the entire Nato alliance. And we still know almost nothing about it…. In Britain, we treated it as a botched assassination attempt, but Nato understood something far more sinister had taken place. It was a chemical warfare attack on the civilian population of a Nato country. Under Nato’s rules, an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. It’s worth reading the whole of this article, which tells an extraordinary story, one element of which is that the BBC has only recently started covering it. Whose backs were they covering and whose are they continuing to cover?

‘The news did not “emerge” last week. It was not even, as the BBC claimed, the first time it had been “confirmed”. We got confirmation from Lebedev’s press secretary three years ago and we – the Observer, the Guardian, and niche independent outlets Byline Times, Open Democracy and Tortoise Media – have been talking about this relationship to anyone who will listen for years. What happened last week was just the first time that anyone with access to Johnson had ever asked him a question about it (a Labour MP at the liaison committee, the parliamentary body tasked with overseeing the office of the prime minister). What’s profoundly worrying and undemocratic is how some powerful figures are protected from scrutiny by the mainstream media, the reason why many knew next to nothing about these revelations.

But more was to come….. Details subsequently emerged (only via a Freedom of Information request) of a weekend in Moscow Lebedev minor tried to arrange for Johnson during his time as Mayor, in 2014. Indicative of the relationship between the two, the proposed weekend could have gone ahead had it not been for the inconvenient invasion by Russia of the Ukrainian province of Crimea in spring 2014. ‘Len Duvall, a Labour member of the London Assembly, who helped uncover the correspondence (including the involvement of Johnson’s aide Lister), said the emails “raise questions about some of the international business and investment links that were forged under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty”. [Johnson’s aide at the time, Lister, had been involved in the planning of the visit and had shared a meal with Lebedev in a pricey London restaurant, paid for by Lebedev].

This is truly alarming stuff. One of the most striking aspects of the whole affair must be Johnson’s casual defence at the Liaison Committee regarding the 2018 villa party, that ‘as far I am aware, no government business was discussed’, suggesting a lack of ‘awareness’ in a highly compromising and potentially dangerous situation. One reason for this reduced awareness could be gleaned from the account of someone who contacted Carole Cadwalladr to say he had spotted Johnson at Perugia airport alone, with no luggage, ‘in a dishevelled, hungover state, looking like he’d slept in his clothes and struggling to walk in a straight line’. Dynamite mostly ignored by the mainstream media.

The revelations keep on coming, yet the two leadership contenders are increasingly being seen in some quarters as Johnson continuity candidates, despite having been keen to offload him and saying they would not have him in their Cabinets. As a Radio 4 Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘Tory politicians can’t bring themselves to admit they supported and brought to power a charlatan who would go on to severely damage the body politic and its institutions. Boris Johnson is now a Trojan Horse they can’t get rid of’. It’s highly likely his influence and manipulations will be felt for many months to come whichever candidate is successful.

But this weekend all of this shaming and reputation shredding stuff is unlikely to bother Johnson, having found an alternative venue for his delayed wedding party. As the Chequers plan was rumbled, it behoved him to go back to the drawing board and sure enough, Tory donor ‘Lord’ Bamford, chair of construction equipment manufacturer JCB, came up with the goods. His 18th century Gloucestershire mansion, Daylesford House, where a large marquee has been erected, will enable guests to ‘relax on hay bales placed outside the tent and eat and drink at casks and small tables as they enjoy views across meadows and orchards’. How very nice for them, as many across the country continue to suffer the damage inflicted by their narcissistic charlatan of a host. Downing Street ‘declined to comment on a private matter’ but it is arguably in the public interest, especially as it’s likely to have played a part in Johnson’s non-appearance at the opening of the Commonwealth Games.

But it could be worse….Writing in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel (summarised in The Week), Stephan-Andreas Casdorff criticises Finance Minister Christian Lindner for extravagance when so many are facing deprivation. Earlier this month Lindner held a three day ‘wedding bash’ on the North Sea island of Sylt, its ‘endless white beaches a dream setting for any wedding’. But the cost to German taxpayers was predicted to be ‘astronomical’, not least due to the security operations including snipers and armoured cars needed for the high profile guests like Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Casdorff contrasts this extravagance with the austerity imposed on the general population: ‘we’ve got ourselves a finance minister who clearly lacks any political sense’. This makes me wonder what ‘security’ has been planned for the Boris/Carrie party, what it’s costing and whether any paparazzi will be able to circumvent it. No doubt we will see any results of the latter over the course of this weekend.

The NHS continues to struggle amid its various crises, the latest focus being the financial compensation, after decades, to the victims of contaminated blood. ‘At least 2,400 people died after contracting HIV or hepatitis C through NHS treatments in the 1970s and 80s…..More than 4,000 surviving victims of the contaminated blood scandal should receive provisional compensation of £100,000 each, ajudge has said. The chairman of the infected blood public inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, said there was a compelling case to make the payments quickly’. It’s interesting that an independent study commissioned by the government said victims should eventually be compensated not solely for physical and social injury but also ‘the stigma of the disease, the impact on family and work life, and the cost of care’. It’s noticeable that at least three former health secretaries including Jeremy Hunt have prominently pressed for prompt payments to be made, almost as if this is a substitute for their own inaction in key areas. But when is payment likely to be organised given the current vacuum in UK politics? A government spokesperson recognised the importance of this judgement for those affected and promised to ‘consider’ the report and judge’s recommendations ‘with the utmost urgency’ but what we’ve seen for some time is zero understanding of urgency.

The NHS has also been in the news for its ongoing funding and recruitment crises (former Health Secretary Hunt ironically being wheeled out in the media when so much of this began on his watch), both of which have led to more pressure on patients to seek private treatment. We’ve long known (unfortunately often sidestepped by the mainstream media) about privatisation by stealth in the NHS but now a former health trust CEO has said that to ease pressures on funding the over 60s should be paying for prescriptions and paying for hospital stays and equipment they use such as walking aids. ‘Professor Stephen Smith, the former chair of the East Kent acute hospital trust, has set out his ideas in a new book published by the think tank RadixUK. Its trustees include the ex-Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock’. No surprise to see Lansley is a trustee but what about Kinnock? Radix gives several descriptors on its website: ‘system renewal’, ‘challenging established notions’ and ‘reimagining our societies’: these sound quite wholesome, don’t they, but are anything but if these are the sort of proposals they come up with. How about ‘promoting vested interests’? This is also a reminder that the BBC rarely states the affiliation and source of funding for the many think tank views shared on its platforms – this should be standard practice.

Smith also suggested raising money through ‘financial penalties for abusing the NHS by repeatedly missing appointments, a hypothecated tax to bring in extra income for the NHS and social care, and tax breaks for high earners who take out private medical insurance’. The first of these might not be a bad idea but how would the payment be collected and what about those unable to pay?

Dr John Puntis, the co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, hit back and ‘accused Smith of advancing harebrained ideas and zombie policies which would end the basis on which the service has operated since its creation in 1948, including that it is paid for by general taxation’. The key point he makes is that ‘Charging people to cover part of the cost of a hospital stay would be a fundamental departure from the founding principles of the NHS and show that the longstanding consensus on a tax-funded public service model of healthcare has been truly abandoned’. Unfortunately, this government, aided and abetted by lobbyists and others with an agenda, seems committed to going further down this path. To quote that ghastly expression, we can clearly discern ‘the direction of travel’. This is nothing short of frightening for many patients, especially those who urgently need treatment or surgery but can’t afford it.

As if this wasn’t enough, mental health has once more come to the fore as another NHS deficit. We’ve long been aware of this but now a review by former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has called for the UK’s prospective prime ministers to commit to £1 billion in funding for children and young people’s mental health services, such is the need. The government is always good at telling us in response to problems that they’ve committed or are spending X million on this or that but it’s usually never enough and often misdirected. ‘Suicidal children are being turned away and the most vulnerable put at risk as mental health services “buckle” under demand, a new report has warned’. ‘Buckle’ is an understatement: mental health services as a whole have been at breaking point for some considerable time, the bar ever being raised to prevent some patients being eligible for treatment and forcing those who can afford it to opt for private treatment. But why should people have to?

‘The report, co-authored with the leading think tank Centre for Mental Health, and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, reveals a profound crisis in children and young people’s mental health services in England and a system of support that is buckling under pressure, frequently over-medicalised and bureaucratic, unresponsive, outdated, and siloed. Speaking with professionals who work with children, and to children and families themselves, the Commission has heard about young people who have barely returned to school since Covid, the increase in the regularity and extreme nature of many young people’s mental health problems, and how self-harm and suicide attempts are a much more regular feature of school and college life’.

The report highlights a number of deficits, including the fact that (despite the entreaties of professional bodies like the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) only one third of schools in England have mental health support, meaning two thirds still do not. We also have to challenge what often passes for ‘support’: increasingly, services in institutions, especially higher education, have offloaded qualified and experienced therapists in favour of cheaper options such as online or ‘wellbeing’ interventions. BACP has long asked that all schools have a counselling service. ‘The Commission has also been shocked to hear from those working with young people about how often those suffering from serious mental health conditions are unable to receive treatment in some areas until they have had multiple suicide attempts ‘with serious intent’.  It has heard traumatic stories of teenagers who have attempted suicide but still not received an immediate referral for help, and from teaching staff in schools and colleges who are seeing a large increase in the number of their students attempting suicide’.

There are many good recommendations in this report, including guaranteed mental health assessments for children and young people at points of vulnerability (leading to a mental health package), an ambitious programme of drop in mental health hubs delivered in the community anda national ‘Programmes on Prescription’ scheme in every area. I find this latter one interesting because social prescribing has grown in recent years but is often aimed at older generations so this is a different target. It’s a great way to improve people’s mental health in a non-medicalised way. Commentators made very worthwhile points, including the threat to children’s future prosperity and success if these urgent issues aren’t dealt with. Another was the link to crime: ‘Until we tackle the drivers of youth crime, including underlying psychological and mental health issues, we will continue to fail children and young people at risk of being excluded, exploited and criminalised’. Mental health is inextricably linked to so many other issues that politicians’ frequent attempts to place it within a silo are far from helpful.

A London School of Economics blog post conveys interestingly how the ‘super-rich’ (including oligarchs?) live, in such a way as to avoid contact with the hoi-polloi. Although it’s been rumbled as an empty sound bite, the concept of ‘levelling up’ could apply just as much to cities as to regions of the country. There surely can be no real ‘levelling up’ if such people are effectively living in silos. Author Rowland Atkinson describes an example of an expensive Hampstead (North London) property, much of which was below ground level and therefore invisible to most. (This reminds me of battles raging in wealthy areas between property magnates and pop stars and the like having vast basements dug out to accommodate pools, cinemas, even ballrooms, and those trying to protect from subsidence and disturbance their own properties adjoining these building sites). Atkinson writes: ‘As a sociologist, one way of thinking through the implications of gated communities and fortress homes is to consider what these spaces say about and do to urban social practices and patterns of sociability – why are such homes created; what fears and aspirations do they respond to; how do such spaces reinforce and help to reproduce the existing inequalities of the city?’

The author discusses key aspects of what has been happening under our noses but which often goes unnoticed by most of us: ‘the changes we have seen in London and the appropriation of positional homes by international capital….. the moving frontier of gentrification and displacement that now takes in the destruction of good public housing in return for private and ‘affordable’ apartments….. changes in housing affordability, austerity and critical changes to the conditions under which welfare support is offered have also had massive impacts…..Of course this is now a world of pronounced inequality and one in which the public realm and social investment are increasingly at stake in a political vision of the world in which trickle-down economics and naked personal ambition are feted by politicians and think-tanks. The result of these inequalities and social conditions is the production of urban anxieties that translate into bunker style homes as well as the opulent display of defensive measures like remotely accessed gated developments, as affluent residents of the street in Lanchester’s novel Capital learn ‘we want what you’ve got’.

Depending on how much we move around, we can easily see more and more examples of this fortress living, and this piece links to those above, as ‘Londongrad’ has long been seen (still is despite the fuss about sanctioning oligarchs) as a home for Russian money and for money laundering, not that these are always linked. This government reinforces this structure by facilitating so much foreign property ownership (the properties themselves often remaining empty as they’re for investment), the fortress aspect manifesting in apartment blocks with ‘poor doors’, drive in car-parks and gated entry systems. Much of this has happened almost by stealth, with no one in power, it seems, questioning its effects on the city as a whole, let alone challenging it.

The Commonwealth Games now underway in the ‘second city’ have focused attention on Birmingham (once known as the city of a thousand trades), several journalists and presenters drawing our attention to claims to fame we may not have known about. It’s a place which has often been alluded to patronisingly, not least, perhaps, because of the very particular Brummie accent, but these people reckon it has a lot going for it. Its assets include the well known features like Peaky Blinders, the Balti triangle, famous pop stars/bands (eg Slade, ELO, UB40 and Black Sabbath) and comedians including Jasper Carrott, two football teams including Aston Villa, and perhaps more controversially, Spaghetti Junction. Less well known are its ‘outer circle’ number 11 bus (the longest route in the UK, apparently), the largest Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world at the art gallery, the Electric Cinema (the oldest in the country) and its development of the technology for the precursor of call centres and the electric kettle. No article or programme can hope to cover the lot and a few things have been missed (Steve Winwood and the Moody Blues went to my school) but they’ve still done a great job to possibly change some perceptions of Brum.

Finally, not content with opinion polls and surveys, it seems some have been consulting a fortune teller in order to predict the next Prime Minister. Mystic Veg (geddit?) has apparently been using asparagus in this quest, a technique which was apparently successful in foreseeing Prince Philip’s death and the Brexit referendum result. It failed this time, though, the tossing of the prestigious spears in the air and analysis of their landings suggesting that Ben Wallace or possibly Nadine Dorries would get the keys of Downing Street. In the end neither of them entered the contest. Maybe time to return to the opinion polls!

Saturday 23 July

So the would-be ‘king of the world’ has finally gone, deposed by those who supported him for so long for fear of losing their own seats…. but not so fast. It already appears that some commentators like Simon Jenkins could be right about this being too easy an assumption: during the deluded and unreal leadership contest there’s been evidence of skulduggery and briefing originating from Downing Street against candidates and that final ‘hasta la vista’ declaration could confirm Johnson’s intention to hang on or make a comeback. (And, unbelievably, Tory donor ‘Lord’ Cruddas, an honour Johnson gave him against official advice, is threatening to withdraw further funding until Johnson’s name is on the ballot and has a petition 7,000 have signed to refuse Johnson’s resignation in the first place). In the Daily Mail Cruddas said: ‘The ousting of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by a minority of MPs is deeply anti-democratic. It defies the will of the country and the Conservative Party members who elected him. It amounts to a coup. I am ashamed that this can happen in Britain, the birthplace of modern democracy. If that’s what politics has become, we’re living in a nation I can barely recognise any longer’. He clearly doesn’t grasp the irony of alluding to British democracy when the regime he supports has done its best for years to undermine it and its institutions.

Last week saw the initially polite but increasingly bitter Tory leadership contest knock out one candidate after another, but not before we witnessed the key moment when they were asked if they’d have Boris Johnson in their cabinet and not one said they would. Now that the fight is between Sunak and Truss, presaging ‘a brutal summer of vicious infighting’ as the Independent put it, there’s been much focus on what some see as Truss’s economic illiteracy. In her Radio 4 car crash interview on Thursday (during which she insisted she had the ‘grit and strength to stand up to Putin’, not to mention everything she’s ‘delivered’, actually very little) she insisted her £30bn tax cutting strategy (dependent upon borrowing) would be deflationary, not inflationary as key economists are claiming.

‘One economics professor told The Independent the claim was “ridiculous”, while the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies went further, also highlighting the danger for public services and spending rules’. In turn Truss faulted the dogged ‘orthodoxy’ of the Treasury.

The Independent tells us ‘there were appeals for the two contenders to succeed Boris Johnson to avoid “blue on blue” attacks on one another, amid Tory fears that a bloody battle will undermine efforts to restore public trust in the party’ – what a joke: do they seriously think it can be restored? Roll on constitutional reform – more and more are saying how unacceptable it is that the next UK prime minister will be chosen by 160,000 mostly elderly, white, male Conservative party members, few of whom seem to have any real grasp of politics or economics.

All this unfurled last week as much of the UK sweltered in unprecedentedly high temperatures described as ‘blowtorch Britain’ by one tabloid (astonishingly, media interviewers didn’t ask candidates how they’d address climate change though campaigners were dismayed by intentions to cancel the green levy and the net zero commitment) and the chaos at Dover worsened at the start of school holidays. On Friday around 8,500 cars were ‘processed’ leaving the UK, forecast to rise to 10,000 on Saturday, resulting in 6 hour delays for travellers largely due to Brexit-induced additional security checking. Not surprisingly, the right-wing press and some politicians are blaming the French for this. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Truss has appealed to her base by promising to delete all EU legislation from the UK statute book by 2023, but ironically, partly due to civil service cuts inflicted by her own government, she might find this more difficult than anticipated.

‘Her Brexit plan would mean each remaining EU law and regulation would be “evaluated on the basis of whether it supports UK growth or boosts investment”, with those deemed not to do so replaced. Any EU laws not replaced would simply disappear at the end of 2023, just 15 months after Truss potentially takes power in September. Truss said this would mean that as PM she could ‘unleash the full potential of Britain post-Brexit, and accelerate plans to get EU law off our statute books so we can boost growth and make the most of our newfound freedoms outside the EU’’. I can’t wait to see what this ‘unleashing’ of potential will look like.

Meanwhile, a panel of Guardian journalists assesses both leadership candidates, one making the obvious point that this can’t be ‘a clean start’ as both are indelibly connected to the 12 preceding years of Tory rule. (When this was raised by an interviewer last week, Truss fell back on ‘collective Cabinet responsibility’ as her rationale for going along with the damaging policies of recent years). ‘So two candidates who look to the non-Conservative voter like genuinely eccentric propositions – an ex-chancellor so personally rich he reads like a walking conspiracy theory, a foreign secretary who communicates in lists of her own achievements – will read to the members like the most boring of the lot. I reckon Truss takes it, and I can’t wait’. The whole thing sounds increasingly like Hobson’s choice, one panel member believing that neither is seen as having genuine economic solutions.

Coming out firmly for Sunak (‘he may also lack experience, but his performance at the Treasury during Johnson’s nightmare premiership suggests a man of sound judgment, caution and competence’) Simon Jenkins adds to those already faulting the way this decision will be made. ‘The decision of Truss versus Rishi Sunak now goes to a bizarre “selectorate” of the Tory party members. As of 2017, their average age was 57. More than half are over 60 and more than 70% are male. They live predominantly in the south of England. That the nation’s leadership should hang on this tiny unrepresentative group is a perversion of parliamentary democracy’.

The candidates and their supporters continue to take themselves absurdly seriously, despite significant reservations expressed by experts in key fields like climate change. The Guardian’s environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey, believes neither has a convincing track record. ‘Liz Truss was awful as environment secretary. She was foreign secretary for Cop26, but she did nothing in the run-up, hardly went, and never talked about it again..When she was asked about net zero at the Channel 4 debate on Friday, she quickly pivoted to “a new survey of nature”. “That was pathetic. Biodiversity is important, but we know the state we’re in. We don’t need to start counting voles’. Harvey is no more positive about Sunak. ‘…..he was dreadful at the Treasury. He blocked funding for insulation, investment, carbon pricing – he just kiboshed everything. The real worry is that you get someone who says they are committed to net zero, gives us all the platitudes, but does nothing about it. We’ve had something of that for the last three years under Johnson – a government that doesn’t actually grasp it wholeheartedly’. Note to media presenters: don’t be fobbed off, as you often are, by lip service.

Meanwhile, that tower of intellectual heft, Kit Malthouse (now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – which sounds initially just like a grand title but actually carries quite a bit of responsibility if the incumbent takes ‘oversight’ seriously) said of the heatwave: ‘The UK must learn to live with extreme weather’, as the government was accused of going missing ‘while Britain burns’. He said the impacts of climate change are with us now, which smacks of passivity.  While we’re sadly used to seeing news of horrendous fires in Spain, Italy and elsewhere, it was shocking to hear that 60 UK homes had been destroyed by fires last Tuesday. ‘Riccardo la Torre, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said firefighters worked in “ferocious and horrific conditions” on Tuesday in the wake of staff cuts. He said 11,500 firefighter jobs have gone since 2010’. No surprise there.

Malthouse also repeated an untrue statement to the effect that the government had been ‘at the forefront of international efforts to reach net zero’ when the 2021 report of the Climate Change Committee (an independent public body that advises the UK government and parliament) said that the UK’s climate emergency preparations were inadequate.

Richard Ratcliffe presents another view on Truss’s performance, which many may have been unaware of. For someone who repeatedly states what she reckons she’s ‘delivered’, he concedes that yes, she did get Nazanin out by paying the longstanding debt to Iran which had stood in the way, but she has failed to ‘deliver’ on another important undertaking. This was to sanction at least ten key Iranian officials who were responsible for her imprisonment and much else besides, such as torture of prisoners. ‘Despite having had that file (of evidence) for nine months, Truss has not sanctioned these individuals. The Foreign Office regularly tells us it is still studying the file. In those nine months, a number of these individuals known to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) played a key role in the continuing mistreatment of British citizens…. Government inaction always has a price. Bad things happen when governments look the other way – bad things with ripple effects. … Again, the UK is falling behind its key ally. Unlike the US, the UK has seemingly been pretty sanguine about the torture and hostage-taking of its citizens. Advice to families is still to keep quiet, while the government wrings its hands publicly about how little it can do. The UK still resists recognising Nazanin as a hostage. FCDO officials still went along with her being forced to confess. We still await answers on who authorised this and why’. Have any media interviewers challenged Truss on this yet?

Johnson’s swan song (alleged) in the Commons this week inevitably spawned many column inches, writers picking out the key points such as his deluded summing up of his own ‘achievements’ (‘dealing with’ Covid, ‘getting Brexit done’ etc except it’s only just beginning, ‘mission largely accomplished… for now’, ‘I am proud of the leadership I’ve given and will leave with my head held high’) and former PM Theresa May pointedly refusing to clap. ‘It was bonkers. The same Tory MPs who had spent months summoning up the self-worth to remove a prime minister who had done little, lied a lot and was totally unfit for office, now indulged themselves in a mawkish farewell. As if they were seeing off a three-term leader with a long record of achievement. Not a lazy poundshop Arnie who squandered an 80-seat majority in a midden of sleaze, corruption and lawbreaking’. This last PMQs before the recess came across as shamefully farcical, the very weak Speaker adding to this by reminding those present (however irrelevant!) that it was ‘customary’ for MPs to say something nice about a departing prime minister. ‘It was a bleak day for the people of the UK, who would find themselves with a prime minister just as incapable of running the country as The Convict. Only marginally less likely to lie about it’.

But whatever ‘comeback’ intentions Boris Johnson might be harbouring, he could yet be undone by Commons Privileges Committee’s investigation. ‘Despite having resigned as Conservative leader, Johnson still faces a parliamentary probe over whether he misled MPs when he told them repeatedly that “all guidance was followed” in Downing Street during the pandemic – something subsequently proved to be untrue. The committee, which will start taking oral evidence in the autumn, including from the prime minister, published a report on Thursday setting out how it will carry out its inquiry – including the fact that, as previously reported, witnesses will be questioned under oath’. Not only this: this inquiry could have real teeth because the concept of ‘unintentional’ misleading of Parliament has been removed – misleading pure and simple without any ‘deliberate’ or not sophistry – plus the Committee has obtained a Speaker ruling to the effect that if suspended from the House, this could trigger the Recall Act, with Johnson having to face a by-election. A good example of karma must be that Johnson could be hoist by his own petard, since it was his own efforts to avoid Owen Paterson being suspended which not only sparked ‘a furious backlash from colleagues’ but also catalysed the Partygate digging and revelations.

As if they didn’t already have enough on their plate, the successful candidate will also have a vengeful predecessor to reckon with, believes Rafael Behr: ‘A bitter, unrepentant Boris Johnson will be a curse on the next prime minister…. So we will get a leader appointed in the weird hybrid mode that is presidential in style, parliamentary in principle and plain weird in practice. The new prime minister will try simultaneously to repudiate and preserve Johnson’s legacy, relying on a hand-me-down mandate that the current jealous holder will not relinquish, because he thinks it is his personal property’. Citing three key reasons for the new Downing Street ‘tenant’ paying a heavy price for the arguably illegitimate way they’ve assumed the reins, Behr returns to the spectre of their detracting predecessor hanging around to undermine them. ‘Johnson’s final weeks in power will combine despotic indolence – milking the job for its perks – with self-pity and spite. He bunked a Cobra meeting on extreme weather, but found time for a jolly ride in a fighter jet. He has turned the cabinet into a kennel of nodding dogs. There is no hint of forgiveness for old enemies, only vengeance’.

Despite Johnson’s disgrace, which he’s widely sought to present as a list of amazing achievements, he’s set to go ahead with a resignation list unless those petitioning against it get their way. It does seem appalling that, not only has he created umpteen honours in order to cynically pack out the Lords for legislative support and/or reward Tory donors, he could also create more when there can scarcely be a public figure now who’s not a ‘dame’ or a ‘lord’ this or that. It’s gone a little quiet after this article was penned but at the time it was thought that, incredibly, there could be gongs for the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, whose ‘loyalty’ to ‘Boris’ has been widely lampooned, and for the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, among others. If such ‘honours’ ever come to pass I wonder if in some quarters these ‘Boris gongs’ could be disregarded and not used on account of the travesty they would be.

Meanwhile, we now face weeks of no-government limbo, with a vacuum at the top and MPs away on what many consider an inappropriately long break, especially given the war in Ukraine, cost of living crisis, climate emergency and travel chaos. Some have suggested that a symbol of this is the failure to appoint a science minister in the wake of George Freeman’s resignation, although that could be partly down to the barrel of lightweights finally being scraped dry. So much for the intention to make the UK a science superpower.

Chemistry World explains how problematic this is, at a time when uncertainty over involvement in European programmes continues.

‘Freeman had sought to secure the UK’s participation in the EU’s research programmes, including Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom. However, political wrangling over the Northern Ireland protocol appears to have scuppered the chances of an agreement being reached. Freeman had begun work on a ‘plan B’ to support UK science in the event of the country being formally ejected from the European funding programmes – although reports suggest that he still faced challenges to gain backing for the scheme within government. ‘George Freeman is a passionate advocate for science and his departure is a great loss to our community,’ said University of Oxford zoologist John Krebs’. It’s not a substitute but let’s hope the civil servants Freeman worked with have sufficient knowledge and impetus to keep the work going until a new minister is appointed.

As the ambulance waiting times crisis deepens, Covid cases rise rapidly (despite Dominic Raab trying to brainwash us that we’re in a ‘post-Covid transition) and treatment waiting lists pass the six million mark, there’s recently been more media focus on the NHS and its future, including an episode of Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussion last week. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the extent of privatization by stealth, always this government’s intention, which many patients don’t even realize is happening. Howard Beckett of the Unite union tweeted this week: ‘US health insurance giant, Centene, is now the largest single provider of NHS GP care in England. A company that even the Daily Mail has called “profit greedy”. They are starving the NHS of investment while selling the services to US corporates’. Raab resorts to management-speak such as the need for more ‘improvements and efficiencies’ within the NHS to obscure the severe underfunding which has taken place over the last 12 years of Tory administration. Another key question is whether the new Integrated Care Systems across England will perform any better than the former Clinical Commissioning Groups. The nation’s mental health, already having taken a massive hit, is likely to be further impacted by the continuing political shenanigans. It’s shocking that the Covid Inquiry, which finally began this week, only included mental health in its remit following pressure from organisations like the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.

This, when it’s increasingly clear that ambulance waiting times are a frontline manifestation of the failure to reform social care and the failure to recruit and train doctors and nurses and to pay them adequately goes back to Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Health Secretary. More and more patients are now paying for private treatment but what about those who can’t afford it? As one presenter rightly said, this is leading to a two tier system. On Stephen Nolan’s BBC5Live programme on Friday evening, one caller described his own situation, having decided to opt for private treatment when he was given an estimate of months ahead for an NHS biopsy on a potentially cancerous lump. Howard Beckett again: ‘Private hospitals provided less than 1% of Covid care overall. Yet just 8 firms (in 1 year only) received an eye watering £1.69bn from the NHS, for the use of private hospital beds. They are bleeding the NHS of funds’. This situation needs an honest cross-party discussion amid views that Labour is not making enough noise about it and has its own private health interests.

A number of GPs have written to the national press suggesting solutions for their own recruitment and retention crisis – almost 19,000 family doctors plan to leave the NHS during the next five years, owing to retirement, stress and burnout. Interestingly, a retired GP has written to the Telegraph to suggest another reason: that the work has become boring. Not the kind of thing you’d expect a GP to say. He said they’ve become ‘public health doctors, buried in vaccination programmes, time-consuming and remote consultations, overwhelming bureaucracy and failing management…. Look what’s been taken away from them: acute medicine and maternity care’. He opines that these areas were what formed a bond between doctors, families and communities and that GPs need to have them restored. ‘GPs need to be allowed to do what they were trained to do: practice medicine’. It would be interesting to know what other clinicians and NHS organizations think about this. It seems to me he’s underestimating the importance of public health work, which should be preventative, thereby reducing pressure on the service.

Retail has long been in a state of flux but could it be in for further turbulence now that more clothing companies are going to charge for returns on online purchases? We regularly hear of people whose online shopping involves numerous items in numerous sizes, the unwanted items being sent back on the ‘free returns’ policy, though it could be argued that this cost has always been built into the  overarching business model. ‘The days of the bedroom fitting room are numbered. Online retail giant Boohoo has become the latest in a string of retailers, including Next, Uniqlo, and Zara, to start charging shoppers for returns. Starting earlier this month, its customers face a £1.99 fee for each return, deducted from their refund. It’s all in the name of tackling the increased costs of shipping, the fast-fashion behemoth says’. The article points how the most extreme cavalier behaviour, posting photos online then returning the items, also has a significant environmental cost (not to mention all those vans driving around delivering them).

‘When clothes are returned, they’re likely to be thrown away rather than resold. In the US, 2.6m tonnes of returned goods end up in landfill every year, generating 15m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Processing returns is time-consuming and costly. Buttons need to be rebuttoned, cardboard inserts need to be put back in, labels need to be reattached, products need refolding and rebagging, and then they must be put back into stock on the system. It’s a complex process and sometimes the cheapest and easiest solution is simply cutting the loss and sending the whole lot to landfill. It’s a hideous waste of resources, not to mention an insult to the skilled people who put their time into making each product, but it’s the reality of modern fashion, and retail in general’. It will be interesting to see how this pans out – perhaps a partial return to bricks and mortar stores.

It’s long been the case thatworks of art and similar have had no overarching listing in the UK and I think it was only relatively recently that collections of paintings were identified and catalogued. It’s good news in The Week, then, that the UK’s thousands of public sculptures have been catalogued, thanks to the charity Art UK. 500 volunteers were sent across the country searching for these works, totalling a staggering 13,500 including 30 Barbara Hepworths and 70 Henry Moores. The charity now hopes to list all the UK’s public murals. This reminded me that, starting in lockdown, a museums studies academic at Birkbeck College, University of London, set about identifying and listing all the (often tiny) specialist museums (‘micromuseums) which could be run by just one individual from their living room. These are often endangered collections, in the sense that there’s usually no funding for them and no one to take over should anything happen to prevent the owner taking care of them. Fiona Candlin, professor of museology and director in the Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck has written a book about this important work, which should be published next year. Let’s hope it gets plenty of media coverage.

Finally, in a counterintuitive move, a French patissier turns vegan, prompting many others to follow suit. ‘France is experiencing a surprise boom in vegan artisan pâtisserie. The meat-heavy nation, whose centuries-old pastry tradition was built on eggs, butter and cream, has been shaken by a new generation of pastry chefs reinventing classics without animal products’. The most recent is one Rodolphe Landemaine, very brave considering ‘France is not an easy market to crack. According to an Ifop poll in 2020, fewer than 1% of the population is vegan, and the word ‘vegan’ itself had become laden with negative political associations amid rows over activism against butcher shops….He launched his vegan pâtisserie and bakery, Land and Monkeys (named for a return to the earth and our ancestors) just before the Covid pandemic, fearing it might fold after three months. But he now has six shops in Paris and another opening in the business district La Défense in September’. It seems he introduced his products partly through stealth, not immediately presenting them as vegan. It will be interesting to see if anything like this seriously takes off here!

Sunday 10 July

Previous references in this blog to tumultuous and febrile times had nothing on what’s unfolded during the last week but the cumulative pile-on of the last few months would have caused many of us to feel that this was a defenestration waiting to happen. How the mighty have fallen – Boris Johnson, the would-be ‘king of the world’ (his childhood ambition), brought down by his own serial lying and misdemeanours but whose narcissistic self-defence, witnessed in spades during his resignation statement, enables him to believe he’s been stabbed in the back by ingrates. Unfortunately he’s aided and abetted in this mindset by the right wing press, eg Saturday’s Daily Mail headline screeching ‘Red Wall backlash at Tory traitors’.

This week we learned (no surprise because it’s been on the rise for years) that 500,000 more people were taking antidepressants than last year, one in 7 patients, twice as many women as men. The uncertain world we’re living in and lack of NHS therapy will be contributing to the cause but the uncertainty of our world due to the chaotic and corrupt state of our government has no doubt played a major part in worsening mental health.

The catalyst of this dénouement and last straw appeared to be the catalogue of denials, evasions and half-truths, a Downing Street speciality, starting with insistence that Johnson had known nothing about the Chris Pincher allegations when he appointed him to the position of Deputy Chief Whip, moving onto no knowledge of ‘specific allegations’ before being forced to admit the PM had always known. The Guardian reminds us of the role of Dominic Cummings throughout, though he’s been fairly quiet recently, perhaps keeping his powder dry: ‘Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, long waiting for the opportunity to land the final blow, suggested Johnson had known all along and had referred to his colleague as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”’. Then there was the revelation by former senior Foreign Office civil servant, Simon McDonald, of a previous Pincher incident in 2019, about which Johnson had been briefed in person.  Not for the first time, this calls into question the skills of the much vaunted Guto Harri, the new Downing Street communications director parachuted in back in February as part of what Johnson presented as a clean sweep to quell complaints about his conduct. This article suggests some similarity to his boss rather than the wily but honest operator number 10 needs. It’s also likely that a further catalyst of Johnson’s downfall, rumbling below the surface and again not addressed by any communications strategy, was his arrogant statement following the by-election losses that he expected to be in office for a third term. This does seem to have caused more unease in government circles than even his other pronouncements. Yet further catalysts have been the various aspects of ‘Carriegate’ (one of them highly unsavoury) and the belated Lord Geidt resignation, Johnson now having seen off two ethics advisers.

Backtracking a few days, anything anyone was going to write about politics paled into insignificance because of the biggest of all stories – Javid and Sunak resignations prompting a tsunami of others, 59 altogether. There were accounts of Johnson trying to avoid the entreaties of Cabinet members urging him to go, ironically including the very same individual (Peter Principle Zawahi) the PM had ‘promoted’ to the role of Chancellor only hours before. There followed dozens of sickening resignation statements from those who’ve supported the PM for months, overseeing and facilitating all his corrupt and incompetent moves, only finally to decide their ‘integrity’ and ‘values’ would be compromised if they stayed a minute longer. One of the striking aspects of this psychodrama is the hypocrisy of those using such phraseology as ‘one lie too many’ (as if some were ok) andI can no longer pirouette around our fractured values’ (Victoria Atkins, a former Justice minister).

Why did they ever ‘dance’ at all when for months they’ve enabled Boris Johnson’s venality? Of course the answer’s obvious – blatant opportunism. Chris Bryant, Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Standards and Commons Select Committee of Privileges, tweeted:  ‘I’m struggling with the idea of “decent Tories” today. They all propped up the disgraced prime minister for far too long. They defended him. They held onto their jobs claiming they were personally indispensable to some project or other. They only moved when the wind changed’. But it got worse when it dawned that the ‘resignation’ speech (described by Bryant as ‘utterly disgraceful …selfish; self-centred, narcissistic, poor me the victim, no regrets, no fault, no mistakes, no apology, no resignation) didn’t actually constitute a resignation and that he’d be staying on until a successor was appointed.

Some have rightly seen this as yet another cynical strategy to delay the inevitable, perhaps hoping some other crisis would blow up which ‘demanded’ his continued presence. (This is quite likely since Johnson has managed to convince some that the defence of Ukraine depends on him remaining as PM). As one commentator tweeted ‘When is resignation statement not a resignation statement? When it’s given by a Big Liar…. In what way has Johnson resigned – he’s still there and still PM, appointing new ministers?’ Writer and broadcaster Gavin Esler tweeted: ‘Why do we believe the prime minister has resigned when he is still in the job? In what sense is staying in Downing Street and appointing ministers a resignation? Can anyone else do this kind of thing? Anyone?’ The waggish Parody Boris account tweeted:It’s surprising how little difference there is between life as Prime Minister and life after you have resigned’. Unfortunately, the BBC at least seems to be colluding with the resignation assumption, constantly referring to Johnson’s ‘post prime ministerial life’ and the like, which could lull us into a false sense of security when the ‘king’ has no intention of actually being deposed.

Commentator Simon Jenkins, writing about Johnson’s ‘terrible legacy’, ‘holding the country and his party hostage’ believesJohnson’s plan is ‘to appeal to a popular electoral mandate over the heads of his parliamentary colleagues: a grim parody of the lingering campaign of his opposite number and erstwhile admirer, Donald Trump in America. But it won’t and can’t work. In Britain, layers of political membrane separate the office of prime minister from the electorate’. But what Johnson doesn’t seem able to see is that a political leader needs both dignity and authority: the first he never had and whatever was possessed of the second has evaporated. ‘The issues that have brought Johnson down – Partygate, honours sleaze, the resignation of Lord Geidt, (his former ethics adviser), and of course the allegations levelled at his former deputy chief whip Christopher Pincher – may not be matters of life and war and death, but still they matter and their cumulative effect has drained him of authority among his colleagues and the public’. Not to mention, of course, the two dramatic by-election losses and stand-off with the rail unions.

All of this amounts to more evidence that the UK needs a written Constitution, new electoral process and regulatory systems to ensure that prime ministers and others follow the rules and protocols of democratic government. It’s crystal clear that we can no longer (if we ever could) rely on gentlemen’s agreements and the assumption of all those in power being fundamentally ‘good eggs’. And it should not be the sole decision of Conservative Party members to decide the new PM. Listening to some local association chairs interviewed in the media could lead to despair: as well as taking themselves absurdly seriously, they seem to believe that Johnson was shafted or that one or other of the former sycophants seeking to replace him have great qualities for which there is zero evidence.

Yet the scandal a day pattern did not abate, news emerging of the Johnsons’ plan to hold a big wedding party at Chequers within weeks, the leaked Downing Street flat refurbishment invoice totalling £200,000 and the Independent’s number of the day on Friday, that Johnson and ministers will get resignation severance pay totalling £420,000 – great news for the cost of living crisis. The key reason why the shameless charlatan ‘needs’ to stay on, though, might not only relate to the determination to continue using public property Chequers but also because out of office there will be serious legal questions to answer on security and corruption starting with that meeting with former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev: as Foreign Secretary he had met the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev (the father of his friend and then owner of the Evening Standard Evgeny Lebedev), without officials present in Italy at a time of considerable tensions with Moscow. (The outcry has apparently forced the Johnsons to find another venue for their party – because they were found out).

As someone who may actually know him best, Dominic Cummings made this prediction: ‘I’m telling you – he doesn’t think it’s over…If MPs leave him in situ there’ll be CARNAGE’. I’m grateful to a fellow Twitter user for alerting me to a couple of pieces focusing on whether Johnson has actually resigned, what the legal ramifications are etc, one by tax, politics and the economy commentator Richard Murphy.

He reckons Johnson ‘has a plan’ (different from the one Simon Jenkins proposes). ‘So, what Johnson will do is let the leadership race begin, and wait for it to become bitter, chaotic, and frankly nasty as the rats fight it out with each other, as they will. When that becomes more widely apparent he will make his move. As remaining prime minister he will tell Tory MPs that they do, of course, have another option, which is to continue with him. They need only end their silly party leadership election and they can have him back. Will they fall for that? I rather share Johnson’s view that they are stupid enough to fall for anything right now. They might, just. Then what? If Johnson comes back we get full throttle fascism. And you can be sure that the leading opponents – from Sunak and Javid onwards – will be culled from the party, which he had done before’.

The comments on this piece are also interesting, one saying: ‘….never underestimate the part that the British media will play in a Johnson revival. They always do the real heavy-lifting in Tory campaigns. When Johnson starts making noises about a comeback it will only be after the ground for such an idea has been comprehensively prepared, sown and watered into life by the newspapers you mention, the TV stations that slavishly follow their news agenda and all the other media outlets too terrified to tell the truth. Johnson will only lend his weight to the idea after enough of the deluded have started to believe that it is a good idea that they have just thought of’. [Unfortunately the link cannot be embedded here].

Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff wrote a typically powerful piece about Johnson’s downfall, which also captures a key problem for the Conservatives – how to get rid of the person they for so long saw as their saviour. ‘When the Downing Street limpet was finally chiselled off his rock, it was only to deliver a parting salvo lacking in all humility or self-awareness but instead verging on the accusatory. The prime minister thanked the millions of voters who trusted his party, without acknowledging that he had gleefully spaffed that trust up the wall for two-and-a-half long years. Instead he called his colleagues “eccentric” for wanting to ditch him now, just when everything was going so brilliantly, unless of course you count the lying and the unchecked sexual predators and the crumbling public services and the grinding poverty’. She rightly says ‘The party created a monster. It should not underestimate how hard it will be to stop him, even after he is prised from power’…. because he doesn’t respond like a normal politician. It’s as if they’ve created a ghastly Trojan horse that appeared to serve them well for a while but which now can’t be ejected. The piece is worth seeing for the Johnson photo alone – the truculent downturned mouth speaks volumes about his outrage and disbelief about finally being found out and rejected.

In a damning piece, Irish journalist and commentator Fintan O’Toole describes how Boris Johnson has ‘vandalised the political architecture of Britain, Ireland and Europe’, quite some charge. The damage he has inflicted during a relatively brief period has been considerable, yet some persist (aided by the media) in seeing him as some kind of harmless comic you could have a drink with. ‘Johnson’s dark genius was to shape Britain in his own image. His roguishness has made it a rogue state, openly defiant of international law. His triviality has diminished it in the eyes of the world. His relentless mendacity and blatantly self-seeking abuse of power have ruined its reputation for democratic decency. His bad jokes made the country he professes to love increasingly risible… As Europe faces two overlapping existential crises (the climate crisis and the invasion of Ukraine), Johnson’s Britain has made itself a source of further disruption and uncertainty…. Johnson turned one of the great historic democracies into a state in which his own cynicism, recklessness and lack of honour became official policy. In doing so, he has allowed every enemy of democracy to say that it is a hollow system whose rules and values are a sham’. Oof.

In yet another damning piece, Jonathan Freedland points up a key irony: ‘The one consistent principle of his career has been cakeism, his ardent belief that he alone should be able to have his cake and eat it. And so, true to that spirit even to the last, he has decided both to resign and to remain in office (my italics)…. The prime minister’s exit not only disgraces him and his party – it indicts the fast-unravelling project that brought him to No 10… The politicians might not want to say it, but this week is a milestone in the fate of Brexit. The prime author of Britain’s exit from the EU has fallen: the standing of his calamitous project is heading the same way’.

Despite the opprobrium rightly heaped on Boris Johnson he still has plenty of defenders besides some of the local party chairs mentioned above: Spalding in Lincolnshire recently emerged as a source of support, interviews with locals having us wondering where on earth these people get their news and their level of political innocence. One said ‘He’s the best prime minister we’ve had for a very long time. He did a very good job, faced up to the country’s problems, the common market. Nobody else is worth voting for’. Another said ‘He’s been stabbed in the back….All politicians are liars, but Boris is the one that’s been caught out. Look at Keir Starmer – he should be punished same as Boris’. Pure Daily Mail.

The succession contest itself would be laughable if it wasn’t so seriously deranged, all sorts of people ‘putting themselves in the shop window’, as Sir Charles Walker put it, when they can have little hope of garnering the necessary support. It’s extraordinary that, with little substance, their self-esteem seems inflated well beyond their abilities and this goes for most of them. The front runners are Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zawahi, Priti Patel and Tom Tugendhat, with Penny Mordaunt and Grant Shapps joining the list later. Shapps’s pitch during a Radio 4 interview (Sunday’s Broadcasting House) was predictably but staggeringly grandiose and deluded, this candidate saying he was ‘passionate about the country’, ‘I think I’d make a good prime minister’, stressing the importance of ‘competent government’ and how he wanted to focus on ‘the bread and butter of what matters to people’.

And we might have known, of course, that Johnson would be interfering with the leadership contest, Downing Street briefing against candidates, starting with Rishi Sunak. ‘Another senior figure in the government added that Johnson was so incensed at the way he had been ousted, having won such a huge mandate at the 2019 general election, that he was now intent on exacting revenge on those he saw as responsible, and on influencing events wherever possible from the outside. This is not an administration that is going to go quietly. The source said there is a lot of anger about how this all happened and it was clear that that much of it will now focus on Rishi’. The added suggested that this was ‘very Trumpian’ reinforces what we already know – that this vengeful narcissist will stop at nothing in his attempts to unseat anyone daring to oppose him.

Meanwhile, some of those ‘promoted’ to Cabinet and other posts following the tsunami of resignations were only in those posts very briefly before resigning or being replaced themselves, Michael Gove being dramatically sacked for ‘disloyalty’. One example was Michelle Donelan, who had been Education Secretary for less than 48 hours when she quit, having replaced Nadhim Zahawi, who was made Chancellor. What on earth must this ridiculous pantomime look like to the world leaders who any future PM will need to do business with? Any credibility hobbled from the outset. News of some appointments was greeted with derision in some quarters, Johnson seen to be scraping the bottom of the already depleted barrel to find people for these posts. Surprise was expressed at James Cleverly being appointed Education Secretary and surely the most laughable was extreme right-wing backbencher Peter Bone becoming Deputy Leader of the Commons, a post so unnecessary that it hadn’t been used since 2018. But Johnson felt the need to reward his ‘loyalty’. A striking irony is Johnson’s determination to reward ‘loyalty’ and punish ‘disloyalty’ while having no grasp of this quality himself.

During all this upheaval, an NHS staffer tweeted ‘In case anyone’s forgotten, the NHS waiting lists in England alone are 6.5 million; the longest ever on record’. This shines light on the prioritisation of politics and power over need – Steve Barclay as new Health Secretary will surely have an impossibly steep learning curve on this portfolio at a time when (thanks to Tory policy and underfunding) the NHS is in crisis. At least he’s been let off his Downing Street Chief of Staff duties, as Samantha ‘the Panther’ Cohen (a former royal aide) has been appointed to this role. It’s striking that two former health secretaries (Hunt and Javid) are running for the Conservative Party leadership when they did their best to underfund and wreck morale within the NHS in order to facilitate their long term goal – privatisation by stealth. Everyone has stories about their NHS experience, some good and that’s great but many appalling and frightening. We hear how ambulance waiting times have seriously worsened, attendance to urgent calls averaging 40 minutes instead of 18 and one 94 year old in Gloucester had to wait so long after a fall (five hours) that he suggested the responders send an undertaker. Very sadly, he died later that day.

A key reason, of course, is ambulances having to queue for long periods outside hospitals because of lack of beds, which in turn is partly due to being unable to discharge other patients into threadbare social care facilities. As we know, social care is the very thing that Boris Johnson trumpeted ‘from the steps of Downing Street’, after his election win in 2019, would be ‘fixed’ for good, but we still have no plan. So the NHS is a classic example of the knock on effect of failing to properly fund and deliver one basic service, affecting all the related ones.

A study carried out by The Lancet proved that NHS privatisation (outsourcing accelerated by Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act in 2012) has led to reduced quality of care and more deaths. ‘Our study suggests that increased for-profit outsourcing from clinical commissioning groups [CCGs] in England might have adversely affected the quality of care delivered to patients and resulted in increased mortality rates. Our findings suggest that further privatisation of the NHS might lead to worse population health outcomes’. No surprise here but the situation could become far worse as the government seeks to cut the 6.5 million waiting list by using private companies to clear the backlog. The researchers found that between 2013 and 2020, outsourcing by Clinical Commissioning Groups grew from 3.9% to more than 6.4%. In total, £11.5bn was handed to private companies over the period, although the amount varied considerably between CCGs. One of the worrying aspects of privatisation by stealth is that many patients don’t know it’s happening. In recent years an offshoot of a US conglomerate (Centene/Operose) has been facilitated by the CCGs to take over the running of numerous GP practices. The Keep Our NHS Public campaign has been doing excellent work to raise awareness and oppose these developments despite a worse Health and Social Care Act being passed recently. [You might have seen BBC’s Panorama on this subject on 13 June]. As a commentator said ‘This model of healthcare runs entirely counter to the founding principles of the NHS, which has sought to insulate healthcare in the UK from the profit motive.”

Still on the NHS, there have been many complaints from patients about the difficulty in getting GP appointments, many practices trying to force patients down the virtual consultation route when some GPs themselves have written to the national press to express their unease with this. If they can’t see the patient physically in front of them key aspects of a possible illness could be missed as much can be discerned from the patient’s demeanour and gait, for example. GP practices (I’ve had to complain about mine twice within a few months) also purposely or inadvertently put barriers in the way of communication, for example having unintuitive websites and forcing patients to quote data not immediately to hand. I had to point out to mine (was there no testing before releasing this website?) that the oft-demanded date of birth box kept defaulting to 2022, meaning one could not progress the message. It’s long been known there’s a shortage of GPs, many having left due to stress or are working part-time because their pension pots don’t facilitate more hours, and now it’s been shown (unfortunately but not surprisingly) that ‘criminal acts of violence’ at UK practices have almost doubled over the last five years. Even those without a condition of health anxiety can become very worried when their health is at stake and the frustration of not being able to see the very individual who could ease that anxiety is hard to bear.

‘British Medical Association chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said it was “no surprise” that patients were struggling to get appointments because of the national “lack of capacity” and “lack of historic investment in general practice”. In 2015, Jeremy Hunt, the then health secretary, pledged to hire 5,000 more GPs within five years – but the total went down instead of up. In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives promised to recruit 6,000 more GPs by 2024, but Sajid Javid, the then health secretary, admitted last November that they were unlikely to hit their target’. Great, isn’t it, that these two are now running for the Conservative Party leadership? Watch out for more of the same. A letter to The Times from a retired GP pointed out another overlooked phenomenon: that when he retired patients on average saw their GP five times a year (up from three when he started) and now it’s risen to eight times a year. He suggests the government has no plan for how to manage this demand apart from demanding that GPs work longer hours – the public’s expectations of GPs have changed and this itself is unlikely to change any time soon. There’s also, of course, a backlog of patients seeking treatment they felt unable to during the worst of the pandemic. Let’s hope the media, rather than colluding with their delusions, interrogate PM candidates as to how they plan to manage this crisis. Not to mention the significant increase in Covid cases as well.

As the cost of living crisis continues to challenge the government, the average shopping basket predicted to rise by £380 this year, we are likely to see more and more demands for pay increases and no doubt the rail unions are planning the next round of strikes. RMT leader Mick Lynch emerged as an unlikely media star during the last round, remaining admirably calm while demolishing during media interviews a tranche of Tory MPs and ministers, including the thuggish Jonathan Gullis, calling out their reliance on a pre-prepared script of sound bites. You can see some good clips of these interviews on YouTube, including the one where Lynch on Newsnight repeatedly tells MP Chris Philp ‘you’re a liar, you’re a liar’.

The cost of living crisis has brought to the fore a term first coined in the US – ‘skimpflation’, a phenomenon where service providers and retailers don’t very obviously raise their prices, maybe, but do it by stealth. One example is restaurants swapping their dishes and plates for smaller ones, enabling stingier portions to be charged at the same price. Do they think we won’t notice? And don’t even get me started on the ‘small plates’ rip-off. Other examples include cancelled flights, hanging on the phone for customer service and clothing made of inferior material. ‘Skimpflation is when consumers are getting less for their money,” says Alan Cole, a writer at Full Stack Economics and formerly a senior economist at the joint economic committee of the US Congress. “Unlike typical inflation, where they’re paying more for the same goods, skimpflation is when they’re paying the same for something that worsened in quality.”…. But even if it is not as easy to identify, when you start to look for skimpflation, you can see it everywhere. It is in the supermarket, when you bump into someone filling shelves because costlier night-shift work has been axed, or when your favourite brand is no longer there because the range has been reduced to cut warehouse costs’.

As we enter the main holiday season many travelling abroad continue to experience anxiety as to whether they will actually reach their destinations (and return on time) due to airline chaos, repeated cancellations and changes of flight times. I heard of one example where the traveller was actually not once but twice at the departure gate when their flight was cancelled. This does seem appalling because the airline must have known hours before that they weren’t able to assemble a crew or manage whatever problem was cited. Airline chiefs try to deflect blame, citing the surge in demand, lack of staff partly caused by Brexit and delays in security operations. At least one commentator, though, says the airlines only have themselves to blame, as they axed thousands of staff (10,000 by British Airways alone) while taking advantage of furlough arrangements and now clearly have trouble getting their staffing levels up to the necessary.

I saw an interesting example of this recently in the form of a newly created rail company staffed partly by former airline staff and very friendly and efficient they were, too. They may well have given up for good on airline jobs. But another commentator reckons the problem is much wider than airlines, who could be unfairly blamed: ‘The pandemic has caused chaos across the whole economy – this is more complex than a mere balls up on the part of the travel industry’. Even those playing safe by holidaying in the UK aren’t free of problems, though – with rocketing accommodation prices, busy roads and the potential for more rail strikes going anywhere could look risky. It’s usually great when we get there, though.

The Financial Times report on the return of an erstwhile private sector treat after a two year pandemic gap – the resurgence of ‘corporate jollies’. It gives examples of firms booking exotic venues and activities, ‘to the delight of the hospitality industry’, reporting that demand is so high that some venues are fully booked until the autumn. But besides enabling staff to feel appreciated, companies are also hoping that such events will tempt more staff back to the office and restore a sense of corporate identity which could have taken a hit in the interim. It would be interesting to know whether these goals are realised.

Finally, those old enough to remember the ubiquity of salad cream (some time ago displaced by the more sophisticated mayonnaise) might be interested to learn that it’s having a renaissance. First produced by Heinz in 1914, its predominant flavours of mustard and vinegar are thought to be appealing to palates once again. The writer describes a simple recipe (pretty sure I used to make this in the 1970s) of mashing the yolks removed from hard boiled eggs, mixing these with salad cream and a few other things like curry powder and Worcestershire sauce, then putting this mixture into the half whites. ‘Every time I’ve served this at a dinner party guests claw at the plate in unbridled greed’!!

Sunday 29 May

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!

Sunday 15 May

It’s been yet another action packed and febrile week in the news, not at all conducive to mental wellbeing, including Ukraine and Putin’s Victory Day Parade, the State Opening of Parliament and Queen’s Speech, the cost of living crisis, the Northern Ireland Protocol stand-off with the EU and stalemate at Stormont, not to mention the latest rash of Partygate fines (now over 100 for Downing Street so far and some way to go). It’s also been Mental Health Awareness Week, with the theme of loneliness, but the emphasis on ‘awareness’ has long been an irritant for some service users and campaigners because it’s less ‘awareness’ they need than properly resourced treatment. Every time this government feels in particular trouble (that is, over and above its usual sub-optimal performance) it reaches for a distraction or gimmick and this week is no exception. The latest ploy to appear to reduce public spending by cutting 90,000 Civil Service jobs is an example of reactive dog whistle tactics – commentators have pointed out that this could actually prove more expensive because of the legalities and redundancy payments involved. But, as Jacob Rees-Mogg’s car crash interview on Friday’s Today programme demonstrated, the Minister of State for Brexit Opportunities and Government Efficiency is an emperor wearing no clothes. Affected speech and use of long words just won’t cut it. Another inevitability is our Prime Minister going AWOL from scrutiny when things get tough, this week in the form of a visit to Finland and Sweden, with the transparent aim of associating himself with their applications for NATO membership.

Any of these events and problems alone would be unsettling but the sum total of them will certainly be undermining the nation’s mental wellbeing. Needing a diversion from the disturbing and uncertain world we are living in could be one reason for the obsession in some quarters including the media with the ‘Wagatha Christie’ court case, allowing us vicariously to peer into this celeb bust-up from a safe distance. These tweets perhaps sum up the polarized view of this trial: ‘People who cannot see the enjoyable side of this spectacle need to stop cluttering up the #wagathachristie hashtag; give us this tiny amount of trivial joy to help make up for all the general terribleness of everything, I beg you’. Another said: ‘In a time of food banks ,war and high fuel bills isn’t it galling that 2 girls are keeping this stupid case going. What a waste of court time, money and coverage. I wish they would shake hands agree to disagree and donate court costs to a charity’.

The cost of living crisis remains centre stage, even more so after the intervention of Ashfield (Notts) MP Lee Anderson, who talked up food banks, the possibility of making a meal for 30p and in suggesting the problem was ‘generations of people who can’t cook and can’t budget’. He does have a point to some extent about the capacity to ‘make a meal from scratch’ and highly commends his local food bank for teaching these skills, but he seems to miss the main issue and it was pointed out how much he claimed in expenses in addition to his salary. The government has been criticized for delaying any further action to ease the situation for the desperate until the next Budget in the autumn, when it’s doubtful people can hold out that long. The Tory script on this is that further help would spark further inflation – I wonder how many economists would agree with that.

 But ministers still reject the introduction of a windfall tax for energy companies. If and when they have to capitulate on this, would it be their biggest U-turn yet? The price of some foods has risen 9% during April, the Office for National Statistics tells us. And there are no words for the latest government wheeze to tackle the problem. A commentator tweeted: ‘So Johnson’s new initiative to tackle cost of living is to the delay the banning of junk food adverts. I’m sure that’s going to really help with putting money back in the pockets of those who need it. We need a serious government for serious times!’ We now hear that food writer and activist Jack Monroe has instructed libel lawyers following a much publicized interview in which Anderson alleged that the writer and food blogger was profiteering from the poor and much else besides. Anderson should worry because Monroe won a high-profile libel action against the former Daily Mail columnist Katie Hopkins in 2017.

What an embarrassment to the government this could prove – will they support Anderson or hang him out to dry?

Watching some of the State Opening of Parliament on Tuesday, I was struck, not for the first time, by what increasingly feels like the anachronistic pantomime associated with it, including all those costumes and robes and on this occasion the crown being driven to the ceremony in its own limo – surely a significant expense alone. ‘The Sword of State and the Imperial State Crown have been transported from Buckingham Palace to the Palace of Westminster, in order to allow the ceremony to begin’. Another thing that may not be commonly known is that four ‘counsellors of State’ are allowed to represent the Queen in her absence. ‘As opening parliament is a core constitutional responsibility of the monarch, the letters patent had to be issued to delegate that responsibility to two counsellors of state. There are currently four counsellors of state: Charles, William, Andrew and Harry’. Interesting and some would say unacceptable regarding Andrew.

But the most striking thing, perhaps, was the bored and resigned expression on the faces of the royals as they stood in for the Queen – I almost felt sorry for Prince Charles having to read out that cynical and distasteful stuff. No fewer than 38 bills have been planned but very little of it seemed to be about genuinely helping people and several bills are profoundly undemocratic such as the legislation to criminalise protest.  Human rights barrister Adam Wagner human rights barrister tweeted: ‘Bill of Rights: the first in history of democracies to decrease rather than increase rights protection, politically partisan “anti-work” nonsense which is frankly an embarrassment – Public Order Bill: to make it easier for police to suppress peaceful protest’. And would this ‘invasion’ of the Duke of Somerset’s land (which benefits from public funds but is closed to the public) by picnickers and musicians be criminalised?

The rising cost of living was naturally a key focus of the Queen’s Speech debate in the Commons, Boris Johnson having the nerve to say the UK ‘can’t spend its way out of trouble and will need to grow the economy’ when there had been plenty of money for the crony contracts and Track and Trace during the first stages of Covid. One of the sickest jokes of the debate must be the PM’s hyperbolic promise ‘to get the country back on track’, when the ‘track’ it’s been on for the last 12 years is due to Conservative administrations and successive swathes of cuts to public services. And we’ve learned how his promises work out – remember the 2019 social care declaration?   

Two other phenomena are very noticeable in recent weeks: the use of euphemistic language by politicians and the media to describe what to many is a desperate situation eg ‘feeling the pinch’ and ‘feeling stretched’; and ministers’ talking about ‘a package’ of support, ‘a range’ of measures, which often boil down to small and unrelated interventions which don’t add up to more than the sum of their parts. Meanwhile, surveys suggest that more than 2 million UK adults can’t afford to eat every day and that a further quarter million will face destitution by 2023 unless clear action is taken. Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey said: ‘This Queen’s Speech does nothing to help the millions of families and pensioners facing soaring bills and eye watering inflation. It shows a prime minister refusing to listen to the clear message sent by voters at last week’s local elections who are fed up of being taken for granted by this Conservative government’.

It’s commendable but shouldn’t be this vital that locals are taking up the cost of living cudgels in view of the vacuum left by government. The Guardian describes a Lancashire community-based project called Fur Clemt, meaning “very hungry” in Wigan dialect. It is ‘a much-loved community supermarket which sells unsold or overproduced food at a heavily discounted price to local people struggling with their household budgets. Since December, its owner, Shirley Southworth, has observed a shift: “We’ve seen membership soar and become more varied … It’s not just people on benefits, it’s those who are just about managing, people trying to keep their head above water.” Fur Clemt is one of a growing number of community-led organisations which, exasperated with a lack of government support to tackle the cost of living crisis, are taking matters into their own hands’. Not surprisingly, high percentages of locals surveyed believed that central government is out of touch with the real needs of communities and that much more power needs to be delegated to these areas to deal with the issues themselves. There needs to be some balance here – great that such supportive schemes are stepping up but there also needs to be intelligent intervention by government to address the problems and not just abdicate responsibility.

A related article describes the growth of ‘social supermarkets’ in the UK, one notably within the City of London scheduled for a September launch. Small social supermarkets have been springing up across the UK in recent years, some of them having started out as food banks. (At a social supermarket users pay for their groceries, but get a large discount.) They cater for low-income families – in the case of Christ Church these are referred by the local primary school – and pay a membership fee and/or a weekly fee for their shop’. One of the founders reckons these social supermarkets are the next evolution of the food bank.

Personal finance expert Martin Lewis was on fire on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House, seeing some benefit in teaching cookery skills but mostly lamenting the lack of personal finance training in schools and saying the government must use ‘the political levers to put more money in people’s pockets’ as it’s simply not enough. He was profiled in The Week recently, predicting civil unrest unless government intervenes to help consumers cope with energy bills which could reach £3000 annually. The Economist reckons that Lewis could be called the most influential man in British politics, his Money Saving Expert website having a ‘readership which rivals the collective reach of Britain’s newspapers’ and an ITV show watched weekly by 4 million people. ‘Ministers would do well to listen’ says The Economist.

It was difficult watching the Queen’s Speech debate because of Boris Johnson’s theatrical and deluded defence of the government’s programme and performance. ‘Johnson said the country had “risen to challenges with no precedent in recent history” including the Covid-19 pandemic and vaccine rollout, as well as Vladimir Putin’s brutal invasion of Ukraine, the UK’s supply of weapons to Kyiv and the sanctions regime that had been imposed.’ The 38 bills cited include plans ‘to tear up the Human Rights Act, make it harder for councils to rename streets and privatise Channel 4. The Labour leader, Keir Starmer, said the speech showed the government had no guiding principle, while Torsten Bell, the director of the Resolution Foundation think tank, was equally withering. ‘British politics is out of ideas. Further action has been promised on the cost of living, but there certainly wasn’t any in the Queen’s Speech. It rightly highlighted the need for growth – the essential precondition for ending our living standards stagnation – but did little to actually bring it about.”

 It’s an embarrassment for this government to receive criticism from its own side, including David Davis and John Redwood calling for tax cuts and Theresa May’s former chief of staff Lord Barwell saying that both morally and politically the government needed to do more. As so often, though, such comments will probably be water off a Johnson duck’s back. But if anyone thought this was appalling enough, they were in for another shock on Wednesday morning. Levelling Up Secretary Michael Gove, who hasn’t been seen much in public recently, did the media round, not only dissociating himself from the annual new housing target, citing shoddy structures in the wrong place not adding to ‘beautiful communities’ but in one tv interview putting on ‘funny voices’ and attempting American and Scouse accents. While some commentators suggested he was under the influence of substances and condemned the performance, the PM’s spokesman offered ‘Michael Gove is an effective cabinet communicator who has a variety of means of getting the message across’. You can say that again.

Hot on the heels of the HRT shortage, there’s news of a critical shortage of key drugs thousands are dependent upon, such as painkillers and blood pressure medication (65 million prescriptions).The shortage also threatens the 40 million anti-depressant prescriptions but I hope this might catalyse GPs and policymakers to rethink this damaging and longstanding practice. Many are effectively being prescribed anti-depressants because of a shortage of NHS talking therapies, which could help patients to get to the root of their difficulties instead of merely masking the symptoms. ‘The Pharmaceutical Services Negotiating Committee (PSNC), which represents more than 11,000 pharmacies nationwide, has warned that 67pc of its members are facing supply problems daily.  And in its survey of more than 1,000 pharmacy staff, it found that 75pc had faced “aggression from patients” due to the medicine supply issues.   

And we have to wonder whether this HRT strategy will work, since so many government-appointed tsars seem to have gone very quiet after the initial flurry of media coverage. ‘This follows the recent appointment of vaccine taskforce director general, Madelaine McTernan, to spearhead a new HRT Supply Taskforce. She said: “This is a step in the right direction of tackling the supply issues women are facing when it comes to accessing HRT and ensuring ongoing, reliable supply.”  Health Secretary Sajid Javid wasn’t altogether convincing, not least due to prior over-use of such clichés like ‘working around the clock’, ‘straining every sinew’ etc: ‘We will leave no stone unturned in our national mission to boost supply of HRT’.

A day doesn’t go by without the NHS being in the news, whether it’s for staff shortages, ambulance waiting times or long waiting lists for treatment, not to mention the interventions of people like former Health Secretary Jeremy Hunt, who was the very author of some of the faulty structures in place today. But diagnosis has to precede treatment and very striking is the finding from a Lancet Oncology study showing that more than a third of cancer patients only find out they have it following an unrelated admission to A&E. We’re told that patients diagnosed via this route have a substantially greater risk of dying within 12 months. I found myself wondering (have asked but no answer forthcoming) whether those A&E clinicians break the news or whether they delegate this to the patients’ GPs, which would result in more delay. An unpleasant task for any clinician but an added pressure for hard-pressed A&E staff.

Meanwhile, an article in the Financial Times reflects on the apparent assumption that our NHS is ‘free’ but actually how far down the American private route we’ve already gone. It’s called privatisation by stealth, for example the takeover (allowed by the Clinical Commissioning Groups) of GP practices by large conglomerates with dubious records in some cases) but we are now also required to pay for more procedures than a decade ago. We’re reminded that ‘going private’ isn’t just something middle class people do: ‘most of the rise in such spending has been amongst the lowest earning fifth of the population who don’t want to spend years on waiting lists’. The writer reckons the most telling signal that the NHS is at breaking point is the rise twentyfold in the last five years of people resorting to crowdfunding to pay private medical fees. No doubt ministers would explain this by suggesting it’s about ‘patient choice’.

Perhaps the most serious under-investment has always been in mental health services and, given the new legislation flagged up in the Queen’s Speech, although this is related to the outdated Mental Health Act, we need to ask if it will or could address the appalling treatment of the prison population. It’s long been known that a high proportion of prisoners experience mental health problems: prison just isn’t the right place for them. This week Radio 4’s File on 4 and a Guardian article have highlighted their plight again. The article takes the form of just one woman’s experience (difficult life experience, diagnosed with anxiety, depression, PTSD and borderline personality disorder, imprisoned and then twice recalled to prison after attempting to take her own life, lost custody of her child, etc) and the account of a prison officer who describes the deficits in treatment and says  ‘They are ill. It is inhumane [to put them in prison]’. Just when will this shocking situation be addressed and why has it been allowed to continue so long?

On a lighter note, it’s interesting to speculate on the likely winner of Museum of the Year – museums have long been shown to have the potential for taking us out of ourselves and enhancing mental wellbeing. Five contenders are competing for the £100,000 prize but the other four will still get £15,000: Derby Museums, Museum of Making; Horniman Museum and Gardens, London; People’s History Museum, Manchester; The Story Museum, Oxford  and Tŷ Pawb (Everyone’s House), Wrexham. Judge of the panel, Art Fund director Jenny Waldman, said: An abundance of applications to be Art Fund Museum of the Year 2022 shows the creativity and resilience of museums right around the country, despite the immense challenges of the last two years. The five superb finalists are all museums on a mission who are tackling the vital issues of today – from combating the climate emergency to improving literacy or exploring migration – and reaching diverse communities as they do so. Each is working hard to encourage the next generation to get involved, both to inspire them and to equip them with essential skills’.

Finally, The Week carries an interesting article about nutmeg, which, in my mind at least is the most preferred from the spice ‘family’ which includes cinnamon, cloves and allspice. The article describes how, a few hundred years ago this ‘ridged brown kernel’, native to Indonesia, was very expensive but compared with the 18th century it’s very low profile these days and nutmeg graters are no longer ‘standard kitchen kit’. This does seem the case, as we hear a lot about cinnamon buns and other spices in cakes and punches, etc, but not nutmeg, but I fondly recall what the top sprinkling did for the erstwhile egg custard. But apparently nutmeg is still working hard behind the scenes – it’s the under-recognised ingredient in ‘numerous packaged foods’ and an ingredient in Coke and Pepsi. The writer contends that ‘nutmeg isn’t unloved but we often don’t recognise our own desire for it’. For those without, time to acquire a nutmeg grater, perhaps!  

Sunday 8 May

As ever, a fortnight is a long time in politics and world events: much has happened to further bring the Conservative Party into disrepute, especially the Angela Rayner leg crossing saga, ‘Tractorgate’, which resulted in the resignation of porn viewing MP Neil Parish, and the High Court’s finding against the government on care home Covid deaths. Erstwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock wasted no time defending himself against the Court’s decision, following in the footsteps of his former boss in lying outrageously to suggest the Court had exonerated him, which was not the case. Did he not think anyone would check? Another lie was Johnson and Hancock telling the House and journalists that ‘of course’ Covid asymptomatic transmission was not known about in March 2020 when in fact this phenomenon was well known by the January.

But the epitome of hubris must be Matt Hancock writing a book about ‘the inside story of the pandemic’, royalties to be given to NHS charities. You really couldn’t make it up: no doubt Matt will once again attempt to exonerate himself and his government’s terrible performance. The publisher, Biteback, sounds equally deluded, saying  said it was ‘delighted’ to announce Hancock’s book, which it describes as a ‘unique and candid account of Britain’s battle to turn the tide against Covid-19….it will offer an honest assessment of the lessons we need to learn for next time – because there will be a next time’. Are they not aware that Matt and his colleagues could have been much better prepared this time, if they’d taken sufficient note of the 2016 pandemic preparedness Cygnus exercise?

Besides his generally poor performance during the Susanna Reid Good Morning Britain interview on Tuesday, the much-vaunted ‘Oxford Union debating skills’ sadly not in evidence, there was yet another lie, not to mention avoidance of the key issue: during the revealing exchange about pensioner Elsie travelling around London on buses as she couldn’t afford to heat her home, Johnson said he had introduced the Freedom Pass. This was untrue, as was another lie, that he had, as London Mayor, funded the Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail), which is due to open on 24 May. Personally, I find these desperate lies as bad as the Partygate ones, because their spontaneous opportunism is just so chilling and the gullible will be taken in yet again.  

Nevertheless, the Partygate ones have been a turning point in British politics, not only for demonstrating contempt for Parliament and democratic norms, but also for their routine rolling out and collusion of so many colleagues. As one tweeter said: ‘It isn’t just the gatherings, it’s the months of denial that anything happened until forced to admit it, and they’ll keep denying things until forced to admit them, and there are many more lies’. There have now been a number of calls, including that of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for Parliament to be reformed but who would initiate this? I’d go much further: the entire ‘democratic’ process in this country needs reforming, including local government, which routinely sees a low turnout rate at election time, and our lack of a written and effective Constitution.

There should be a way whereby, in extremis, the people can trigger a vote of no confidence or an election: this should not be the sole fiefdom of the party in office. Within the current arrangements, we are dependent on the Tories to offload Boris Johnson, or not – this is unacceptable, especially given the challenges the country is up against. Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, in the wake of Tractorgate, tried to suggest that no fundamental reform was necessary, it was just a ‘few bad apples’. Classic avoidance and defensiveness on the part of an individual benefiting from the status quo. But the weak Speaker is one of the problems and his plea for ‘kindness’ isn’t going to cut it.

Relevant to all this is a news item I suspect could easily be missed, that in an ‘election shock’ in Slovenia, a newly formed liberal/green party, led by a political novice (this could be a trend, given Zelensky and others) has won a massive victory, ending the regime of a right-wing populist who had been in line for a fourth term in office (though not consecutive). The Week tells us that Robert Golob, an energy expert, formed the Freedom Movement in January and billed this election ‘a referendum on democracy’. Something we could do with here. The defeated populist, Janez Jansa, was felt to be eroding democratic norms and clashed with the EU – remind you of anyone? It will be interesting to see how the new government fares.

 John Crace lampoons the PM’s tv interview: Boris Johnson’s compassion-free GMB interview went from car crash to pile-up as he mansplained away his dishonesty. Reid asked:“Are you honest, prime minister?” “Yes,” replied the Convict. The interview had run for less than 20 seconds and Johnson had already told his first lie. Reid gave him a second chance to rethink his answer. Neither she nor Boris seemed to think it at all unusual that the first thing she would want to ask a prime minister after five years was whether he was a liar. Both knew the presumption was that he was. That’s how low we’ve sunk. A country reduced to the level of a shallow narcissist….. “I do my best to represent faithfully and accurately what I believe,” he said. This was telling. Both for the admission that the truth does not come easily to him, that at times there is an unbridgeable gap between fantasy and reality in his consciousness, and the implicit acknowledgment that the only cause in which he truly believes is his own survival’.

There’s of course been much else in the news and in people’s minds but the local election results have pushed everything else into the background for the time being. Despite some efforts to dismiss these as being about ‘local squabbling’ and cynical attempts of ‘local Conservatives’ to distance themselves from their Westminster colleagues, they’re key indicators of how voters are feeling about the parties overall and this government in particular. It’s also a massive exercise, with 4,000 council seats in England being contested, 1,200 in both Scotland and Wales and all 90 seats of the Northern Ireland Assembly in contention. Commentators initially discerned a marked anti-Tory feeling but not one which translates to a very positive feeling for Labour.

The fact that the Lib Dems and Greens have done well has again prompted suggestions of an opposition alliance, but none of them have so far shown enthusiasm for this. But during Friday the Tory position worsened considerably, losing almost 500 seats. One minister declared it ‘shocking’ but said Johnson would not recognise that he had caused the problem. ‘He won’t care though. We’ll have to lose a general election first’. How depressing to have to recognize that in your leader but we can’t be too sympathetic as the Boris Johnson writing was always on the wall. A London Tory MP showed less of a grasp on reality: ‘We had thought that our people would stay at home and not vote. That is what we were told. But they didn’t. They came out in anger to kill us’.

Labour took Crawley, Worthing and Southampton; Lib Dems took Somerset and Woking; and the Tories lose control and/or biggest party status in W Oxfordshire, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Huntingdon, Wokingham, Castle Point and, notably, Monmouthshire, when this county had been the only one they controlled in Wales. It must have been a shock for the DUP that for the first time Sinn Fein got more seats in Northern Ireland. How typical that the DUP are now finding a reason not to allow Sinn Fein to take up the First Minister role, thus again depriving people of their government there.

A telling article drills down to the feelings of locals in two former flagship Tory councils, Westminster and Wandsworth. A Westminster resident, happy that Labour won, had been appalled by the council’s decision to spend £6m on a mound at Marble Arch, which was widely mocked and forced to close after failing to attract visitors. Some others, though, are still in thrall to the cult of Boris. A Daily Mail reader said Boris Johnson had had a ‘bad patch’ but added: “He’s started to regain his touch. I don’t think Boris has done anything wrong. What’s the matter with having a drink when you’re the prime minister? Starmer did it as well’. A Wandsworth resident gets it in one: ‘The council hasn’t behaved as outrageously as the prime minister, but it is time for a change. I work in a food bank, and poverty here is just disgraceful. People are just desperate’. What’s noticeable in these vox pops is their divergence from what many Conservatives say they are hearing: many of them would have us believe that the doorstep canvassing chats didn’t include anything about Partygate, a likely story.

There was predictable yet still disgraceful anti-Labour bias shown by presenters Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain on Friday’s Radio Today programme and by Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, trying to suggest opposition parties had not done well and totally minimizing the key Conservative losses of  six councils including the flagships of Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet. Unlike their Cabinet colleagues, Tory council leaders have clearly pointed the finger at Boris Johnson, saying he’s been the problem ‘on the doorsteps’, Johnson himself only conceding that it had been ‘a tough night’ for the Conservatives in London. Meanwhile, elections expert John Curtice said the Tories are finding out Boris Johnson is ‘electorally mortal’, regarded as ‘probably the most damning thing he’s ever said’. How long can this liability hold out for? Nevertheless, the so-called ‘cult of Boris’ continues, allegedly 30% of the electorate, one example being the deluded Tory councillor in Ipswich, who, on losing her seat, said ‘I would die on a hill for Boris’. It beggars belief.

Another worrying example of media censorship, especially in the lead up to these elections, is the failure of the BBC to report the raiding of a peer’s home as part of an investigation into corrupt Covid contracts. Conservative peer Michelle Mone is implicated in the National Crime Agency investigation into PPE Medpro, a company that secured more than £200m in government contracts near the start of the pandemic without public tender. ‘The Guardian has previously reported that Mone approached Gove, Lord Agnew and Lord Bethell on behalf of PPE Medpro. All were at the time ministers involved in pandemic procurement… Mone appears to have been instrumental in PPE Medpro being entered into the “high priority” VIP lane by Agnew in May 2020’. This kind of thing makes you wonder how much more is yet to come out about the PPE contracting corruption saga.

It’s not only censorship by omission, though: it’s been noticeable these last few days how many BBC presenters have seized on the confected ‘Beergate’ story and how many others have tried to suggest that there’s some parallel between what Keir Starmer could have done and what Boris Johnson has repeatedly done.

Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, was Friday’s candidate for the media round, getting into quite a satisfying tussle with Nick Robinson on Today, who, despite his own Tory credentials didn’t give Dowden an easy ride. Such people have taken dishonest reframing to a new level, Dowden suggesting how well they’d done outside London and citing Nuneaton Council in the same breath as the lost Westminster flagship. Dowden tried to brush away ‘difficult headlines’ such as Partygate, Tractorgate and non-dom status as if they didn’t actually happen and his recipe for the future was to ‘focus on delivery’. This assumes they had something to ‘deliver’ in the first place and falls into the cynical Tory narrative camp, of which DWP minister Therese Coffey showed herself to be a paid up member on Friday’s World at One programme. A key phrase in this script is ‘continue to work on the things that matter to the British people…., getting on with the job’, etc, as if they’ve been working on ‘the things that matter’ in the first place. Asked to comment on the role the cost of living crisis has played in the results, out of touch Dowden said ‘I don’t accept this is an economic horror story: we need a sense of proportion.’ As one tweeter asked: ‘Does ‘proportion’ provide food or heating?’

On the contrary, the government has, as with so many issues, sidestepped the cost of living crisis, claiming credit for its ‘range of measures’ (noticed how it’s never just one intervention cited, always bigged up to ‘a range’?) which don’t do the business or for which many of those in need are ineligible. The existing contributory factors like escalating energy and food prices have now been added to by the Bank of England raising interest rates – inflation is now set to rise to 10%. (The Tory script here is to attribute the cost of living crisis to ‘global’ factors, suggesting that the entire world is experiencing something similar – not entirely true – and Brexit is barely mentioned). A Times/YouGov poll showed that four in five adults think Boris Johnson doesn’t understand the impact of cost of living increases on ordinary people.

 Rivalling Dowden’s out of touch record was Environment Minister George Eustice, interviewed on the Today programme on Wednesday because his boss, Boris Johnson, had failed to step up to the party leaders pre-election interviews. Oh dear. Pedestrian at the best of times, Eustice excelled himself by denying Johnson had euphemistically alluded to people ‘feeling the pinch’ when they’re actually dependent on food banks, suggesting that doing more to help families would fuel inflation and suggesting that people could better manage their household budgets by substituting supermarkets’ own products for branded items. It’s shocking that 13 million people are using food banks and that it’s said the UK has more food banks than branches of McDonald’s.

The BBC reported the response of Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said that ‘Hard-pressed Brits need support’, urging the government to hold an emergency budget and reduce energy bills through a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. ‘The response by the Conservatives to the cost-of-living crisis has been nothing short of insulting. They are out of touch and out of ideas’.

If party faithful Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden gave poor post-election performances, they were topped by a car crash interview on Saturday’s Today programme featuring a deluded-sounding Nadhim Zahawi, still peddling the ‘he (Boris Johnson) got the big calls right’ script and harking back to the vaccination programme, not resisting inserting himself in there. It could reasonably be thought that the biggest ‘call’ is honesty in Parliament, certainly not ‘delivering’ Brexit, which hasn’t been ‘delivered’ anyway, as the Northern Ireland Protocol continues to demonstrate. As Lord Blunkett, appearing shortly afterwards said, the Conservatives talked a lot over the last 12 years about the areas needing serious reform but they manifestly haven’t tackled them, eg social care. The Guardian’s John Crace uses the ‘useful idiots’, those prepared to go on the airwaves to defend the indefensible, attributing this preparedness to their neediness. ‘On LBC, Nick Ferrari asked Dowden what had gone wrong and what had come up on the doorstep for Tory canvassers. Dumber ummed and aahed. No one had mentioned parties. Not one. Amazing, that. Though if they had done, it would have been to ask why they hadn’t been invited. No, what had come up most was the sheer abundance of new Brexit opportunities’.

Although the government and media would like us to believe otherwise, Covid hasn’t gone away and the ONS statistics are effectively incomplete because of the numbers of people no longer testing now tests have to be paid for. It’s quite extraordinary that this isn’t being understood. Death figures (the only meaningful statistic now) are around 1000 per week and surely this is what politicians and policymakers should be focusing on. Instead, we’re being expected to believe that ‘numbers are going down’, when even evidence ‘on the ground’ (eg many more friends, family and acquaintances falling prey to Covid) tells us the opposite.

Shocking but no longer surprising, given the long term deficits of the UK’s mental health services, is the news that the NHS is paying £2bn a year to private hospitals to care for mental health patients because it does not have enough of its own beds. What a false economy the bed reduction exercise was throughout Conservative administrations. We’re told that the ‘independent sector receives about 13.5% of the £14.8bn the NHS in England spends on mental health, a dramatic rise since 2005 when it was paid £951m. Nine out of every 10 of the 10,123 mental health beds run by private operators are occupied by NHS patients’. Healthcare market analysts LaingBuisson research showed that independent mental health care providers now make 91% of their income from the NHS.Yet Care Quality Commission inspections have revealed multiple failures of a large number of these services, graded as ‘inadequate’. This official comment from NHS England speaks volumes, demonstrating an unacceptable arms-length policy, in my view. ‘The NHS has been clear that we expect all services to provide safe and high-quality care and to deliver on our commitments in their contracts, irrespective of whether they are NHS or independent sector-led.”

Still on mental health, it’s striking that more than 4 years after a major review of mental health legislation, some of which was long regarded as antiquated and inadequate, the government is finally acting. Clearly, democracy undermining legislation like the policing and borders bills have been regarded as far more important. ‘The reforms – which will be part of the Queen’s speech next week and are the first big changes to the Mental Health Act in four decades – are designed to reduce the number of people being detained under current laws in England and Wales. The number of detentions rose by 40% between 2005-06 and 2015-16 and have continued to rise year on year’. (Referring to the above item, let’s hope this is a genuine commitment and not just a cynical exercise to reduce pressure on mental health beds). Key measures include ending the potential detentions of those with autism or learning disabilities and allowing those detained against their will to express a preference or refuse a specific treatment where a suitable alternative is available. This must be carefully monitored as we can well imagine situations where detention would take place because insufficient effort was made or funding available for ‘alternative treatment’.

None of this addresses systemic underinvestment, though. ‘The pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems, with 1.6 million waiting for specialised treatment and another 8 million who would benefit from support unable to get on the waiting list’.

So, with the media trying to whip up interest in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (paper plates, cake stands and cups piled high in Wilko if anyone’s interested), we hear that neither Prince Andrew nor Harry and Meghan will appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony – only those carrying out royal duties. Seems fair enough but makes a nonsense of Harry recently claiming the role of protector of his grandmother, making ‘sure she has the right people around her’, who talks to him about things she doesn’t to others, special relationship etc etc. Andrew suffered another humiliation recently in the form of York councillors removing his Freedom of the city but possibly more is to come. ‘The removal of this honorary title sends the right message that we as a city stand with victims of abuse. The next logical step is now for Prince Andrew to do the right thing and relinquish his Duke of York title. If he fails to do so, the government and Buckingham Palace must step in to remove his title to finally end Prince Andrew’s connection to York’.

It will be interesting to see how this Jubilee goes, as it seems support for the monarchy has markedly declined in recent years, leading to far less public celebration than for earlier jubilees. This won’t stop people enjoying an extended Bank Holiday, though!

Finally, a poll by Walkers Crisps (so there may be questions hanging over its findings) reckons that ‘the average UK adult eats 35 crisp sandwiches a year’. A writer in the Spectator has ‘long regarded the crisp sarnie as the ultimate fast food, a simple, salty and satisfying snack that speaks of the person you are rather than the person you want to be’. Ingredients regarded as de rigeur include thick white sliced bread (ie nothing posh) and bog standard crisps (again not fancy ones). It’s suggested that a crisp sandwich ‘may not scream nutritional balance’ (you can say that again) but it deserves its status as a classic. I’ve never consumed one and can’t imagine myself doing so, so if some others feel the same it suggests that some ‘average UK adults’ may be consuming rather more than the 35 the poll cites. But I’m now rather intrigued and feel perhaps I should try one to see what the fuss is about – anyone else?!  

Sunday 24 April

Happy Easter to Orthodox Christians celebrating today, including Ukrainians, many of whom will be far from home yet making a point of enjoying their culinary traditions, including painted eggs, sausage and the Easter cake ‘pascha’. It’s now the third month of this invasion (surely increasing the risk of this becoming normalized in the media and in people’s minds) and missiles have now fallen on Odesa at the same time as the evacuation of those remaining in Mariupol seems to have stalled. In the background of all this is what some are calling Putin’s ‘nuclear blackmail’, placing the West in a kind of paralysis. However, it seemed typically unhelpful of our PM to publicly predict that this war would still be going on in 2023.

Here in the UK, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has come in for strong criticism and it’s timely that an anonymous whistleblower has confirmed what many suspected: he revealed ‘that he and his colleagues “don’t know what we’re doing”, and claims the scheme has been “designed to fail” in order to limit numbers entering the UK’. He said he had dealt with numerous cases where UK visas had been issued for an entire Ukrainian family apart from one child, which in effect stopped the family travelling to the UK. What a cynical tactic. ‘This allows the government to say we’ve issued lots of visas. Yet, because they have withheld one, it’s a guarantee those Ukrainians won’t travel’.

According to government figures, 40,000 UK visas have been issued under the scheme since it was launched five weeks ago. But only 6,600 Ukrainians have actually arrived. It’s appalling that we can no longer be surprised at such findings but why does the government think that such facts won’t emerge? As time goes on, I suspect more and more whistleblowers will come forward on this and other issues.

The tumultuous series of events over the last week yet again proves that every time you think this government can’t get worse, it does. Having had some respite over the Easter recess from Partygate revelations, the news that he and his wife had received fines ensured that Boris Johnson had no choice on Tuesday but to face the music in the House of Commons. What a long drawn out spectacle this was, the PM endlessly issuing his robotic apology, the insincerity of which was, not for the first time, demonstrated by his words to Tory MPs in a meeting afterwards and looking pretty terrible throughout. Besides the evident anger in many quarters, it was notable that while some stalwarts still tried to defend the indefensible (eg Bill Cash suggesting that a fixed penalty notice did not signify criminal status, refuted later by a QC on Twitter), not to mention those trying to equate these fines with a speeding fine, support from his colleagues was manifestly leaking away.

The key example was Mark Harper, an erstwhile strong ally, calling for the PM to go and saying he was ‘no longer worthy of the office’. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker also dramatically changed his long-term tune, having seen no remorse in the PM’s apology and feeling annoyed by the Cabinet ‘sitting there fat, dumb and happy’, condemning their sycophancy (‘the gig’s up’). Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood was another, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I fear it’s now when, not if, a vote of confidence takes place. Sadly the absence of discipline, focus and leadership in No 10 has led to this breach of trust with the British people. And it’s causing long-term damage to the party’s brand and that’s proving difficult to repair despite good people now coming into No 10’.

Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, was the government’s U-turn on the issue of referring the PM to the Privileges Committee, which would have delayed any decision on the PM till after the completion of all investigations. Commentator Simon Jenkins described this failure to block the motion to refer the prime minister to this Commons committee as ‘a watershed moment’ from which ‘there is no way back’. ‘The prime minister has no programme, no strategy, no professed ideology: only a frantic search for survival. In a revealing aside last Tuesday, Johnson argued that this was demanded by circumstance. Whenever challenged, he refers to the war in Ukraine, as if this was Britain’s business…..Denial was buried deep in his narcissism. He fell back on a conviction that he could bluff and squirm his way through what should have been a passing crisis. In doing so he has subjected his country to a distasteful farce that has lasted six months and is not yet over’.

Too many Tory MPs for the whips’ liking have now at last come to see this situation as a poisoned chalice, whereby, like the Owen Paterson case, they would have effectively been asked to taint their own reputations in order to save that of ‘Big Dog’. And now it appears more fines are likely to be coming the PM’s way. ‘Boris Johnson is facing deepening peril over the Partygate scandal after a source said a fine had been issued for a second event attended by the prime minister, while senior Conservatives warned he could face a leadership challenge within weeks. This was confirmed when Anushka Asthana, ITV’s deputy political editor, tweeted that ‘fines are landing into people’s inboxes relating to the garden event on May 20th 2020 – the BYOB [bring your own bottle] event – that Boris Johnson did go to’. Afterwards No 10 was forced to deny Johnson had received another fixed penalty notice and on the plane back from India he refused to speak to journalists, who were told he was ‘asleep’. Yes, in more ways than one, yet he felt sufficiently confident (or arrogant) to reassure journalists during his trip that yes, he would still be Prime Minister in October.

 As many have observed, Boris Johnson seems to have long had a serious difficulty distinguishing a social from a work event despite the clear evidence of the presence of food and alcohol, which he was witnessed pouring for invitees himself on at least one occasion. Of course the most insulting thing, except he’s seen it work on the gullible, is the expectation that his protestations will be believed. Remarkably, the Met police have said they won’t release further details of fines until after the local government elections, which indicates they’re politicised: voters are entitled to such information in order for them to get the full picture beforehand.

All this is quite extraordinary, not only the speed of events and U-turns, the way those on his own side are increasingly turning against him and the pathetic attempts to distract us in the form of the Rwanda plan and ‘rail sale’, but the fact that this could be the first time in the PM’s life that he hasn’t ‘got away with it’. That’s quite something now he’s 56. I’m not sure whether this is unprecedented but this last week the PM was eviscerated three times by the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer John Crace: ‘It’s about the fact that the Convict never thought for a minute that the rules limiting social gatherings applied to him or his crew. He understood how angry and disappointed people were, he said. And the country had deserved better from him. Nearly there, Boris. What he should have said was that the country deserved better than him….There’s worse coming down the track and the Convict knows it. Much worse. But hopefully if he looked busy in Ukraine then the country would forgive him.Deep down Johnson knows he’s a liar and a fraud. He won’t resign because that’s not his style. But something inside him has been broken. He’s no longer funny. No longer clever. Just a pathetic nobody, desperately clinging to power’. The tide definitely seems to have turned over the last few weeks, changing the situation from ‘if’ the PM survives to ‘when’ it’s the end of the road for him.

 ‘Parody Boris’ tweeted: ‘I’m getting on with the job. Which is to spend all of my time trying to evade the consequences of my lies and crimes in a desperate attempt to cling to power’ and another Twitter user said:’ Tories like Sir Geoffrey (Clifton-Brown) and Conor Burns are going to look increasingly isolated and foolish as their defence of Boris Johnson sees them clutching at more and more straws’.

As if our democracy wasn’t already undermined enough with the blatant disregard for the law and governmental norms over the last two years, there’s another threat in the form of what is surely a significant rise in sexual misconduct complaints against MPs.  It’s thought 70 separate complaints were submitted to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (set up in the context of the Me Too movement and allegations against several MPs’ conduct), which concern 56 MPs including three Cabinet ministers and two Shadow Cabinet members. ‘The FDA union, which represents civil servants, said it was time to “look again” at the employment relationship between MPs and their staff’. Meanwhile, we hear that Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who was convicted of molesting a 15 year old boy and who undertook to resign his seat still has not done so. It does seem that such attitudes and the numbers of MPs under investigation are further indications of an arrogant and dark side of a Westminster bubble which needs bursting.

Meanwhile, it continues to be alarming that the government and media seem to be colluding to keep Covid news to a minimum, yet last week several days saw a marked increase in deaths (482 on Tuesday, 508 on Wednesday and 646 on Thursday). The Office for National Statistics has shown that only 53% are self-isolating after testing positive and apart from the over-75s, who are receiving their booster vaccinations, our protection from the two vaccinations and booster has been steadily waning over the last few months. It will be interesting (and no doubt worrying) to see the effect of Easter holidays and all that travel requiring no protective measures. No wonder #CovidIsNotOver is a commonly seen hashtag on Twitter.  

The cost of living increase continues to take centre stage and must surely be a significant factor in streaming giant Netflix losing 200,000 subscribers since January, its share price dropping 35%. The company itself attributes this situation to increased competition between streaming services, the war in Ukraine and the number of people who share their logins but numerous subscribers feeling the pinch must be amongst the 200k or at least considering letting Netflix go. As someone who’s never subscribed to any additional tv services, I struggle to understand the perceived need when there’s so much good material on Freeview. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out over the next few years given the evolving television viewing environment and issues like the future of Channel 4 and funding of the BBC.

Difficulties caused by second homes are coming further up the political agenda, especially in the context of the imminent local elections. More tenants are complaining about the increasing use of Section 21 (no fault) evictions being used for lucrative intent.  The syndrome whereby second homes in picturesque locations are depriving locals of much-needed housing seems particularly acute in Cornwall and parts of Wales. In the Gwynedd seaside village of Abersoch some locals are having to live in caravans because they’ve been priced out of the housing market and it will be interesting to see if the Welsh government’s raising council tax on these properties to 300% will make much difference. It might be reported less but a similar situation applies in inland villages, as a barista told me recently, her own village having been taken over and homes left empty most of the year. This is a key point, too, as it’s not just about the money – ownership of properties only occupied for part of the year by non-locals will profoundly affect the dynamics of the place. It makes me wonder what locals in Europe think about Brits owning properties in their villages.

In Cornwall, Cath Navin, co-founder of protest group First Not Second Homes, said: ‘Last month, there were 111 Airbnbs in and around St Agnes, 96 of which were whole houses. If you looked for long-term rentals, the closest place was Portreath (seven miles away). There’s nothing locally for people to live in’. How are local councillors and MPs responding to complaints about this? Talking about a housing strategy often won’t be enough, as it’s not just about building more houses but about the use of existing ones. Surely ownership could be restricted in some way, as is done in the Channel Islands, for example.

In recent years there’s been serious questioning and challenge to cultural organisations regarding their sources of funding, especially tricky when their government grants are cut or are non-existent. Many have accepted funding for exhibitions and extensions from what are increasingly regarded as unsavoury sources, eg fossil fuel producer BP and the Sackler family via ‘big pharma’ Purdue of addictive opioids notoriety. A number of institutions have been able to eliminate such funding but some large ones remain linked, such as the National Gallery still having a Sackler Room and the V&A a ‘Sackler Courtyard’. Now the British Museum has removed the Sackler branding from its walls after an association lasting 30 years and it’s expected that BP will be the next target. In fact the splendidly named Culture Unstained campaigning organisation reported in February that the National Gallery is cutting ties with BP after 30 years and a large demo at the BM yesterday was to encourage the BM to do the same.

During the pandemic-catalysed closure of numerous department stores, we may have overlooked the cultural aspects of this result of changing shopping habits. A report by Save Britain’s Heritage called Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk ‘details 46 landmark department stores in town and city centres. Some have been restored or redeveloped while keeping their architectural heritage, but others are vacant and at risk of decay or demolition’. At least 18 are thought to be at risk, yet these buildings are often beautiful in themselves, with striking Edwardian or Art Deco features. ‘The same loss of relevance previously faced by stately homes, warehouses and many churches now threatens a new building type for the first time: the department store’, says the author. The idea is that such buildings could be repurposed as homes or cultural centres, both very much needed. Let’s hope some good comes of this report as we don’t want to be regretting their easy loss in years to come, as happened with umpteen stately homes when death duties and maintenance costs defeated the owners. There’s some encouraging evidence in Bournemouth at least – ‘Bobby’s has been successfully repurposed since it closed as a department store last year. As well as retail space, there is an art gallery, with a food hall and rooftop bar planned. The premises include community spaces, and architectural features are being restored’.

In large cities we’ve got used to the sight and experience of gourmet coffee shops and tea bars but now a new market entrant might temp some customers away – a purveyor of luxury chocolate drinks, Knoops, now has 7 outlets selling 20 different types, with gastronomic qualities one might normally associate with wine or coffee. For example, its 80% drink from Uganda evokes ‘a subtle smokiness’. Rather than customers tiring of coffee, though, I think these drinks are suited to particular times of day, eg coffee in the morning and chocolate in the afternoon. In any case it will be interesting to see how Knoops fares, because, like the posh water shop featured here recently, such places could take a hit due to the cost of living crisis. On the other hand perhaps not, since their locations so far are in well-heeled London areas such as Richmond, Kensington and Chelsea. But don’t despair (these people have really thought about their marketing) – they have a Knoopsmobile, which can travel around to customers at festivals and sports events.

Finally, last week’s blog featured hot cross buns and variations on that theme, including even a hot cross bun espresso martini. (Would be interesting to know if anyone had tried this). Now journalist and cocktail expert Richard Godwin has suggested that whatever happens (‘crash, plague, war, depression – we’re not fussy’) the British will continue to drink and cocktails are selling in record numbers. He believes there’s a correlation between cocktails and economics: from 1910-1930 they did well in these years of ‘robber barons, rampant deregulation and boom and bust’; far less well between 1945-79 when incomes grew and beer and wine assumed aspirational qualities; then better again as the income gap widened. But perhaps his key point is that whatever is happening in the ‘outside world’, people do need relatively small luxuries ‘such as lipsticks and martinis’ in the same way as they ‘need’ their lattes and cappuccinos when doing without pricier items: ‘they are relatively affordable ways of escaping reality for a moment and for this reason he thinks ‘we’ll be sinking them for a while yet’!

Friday 15 April

As we approach the Easter weekend the news continues to be grim, with the war raging in Ukraine, inflation running at 7%, rapidly rising Covid cases, service closures and clogged roads and airports due to engineering works Covid absences and Brexit-related delays and continuing mismanagement of crises by this government. All of this is likely to add further to the mental health burden in this country which has steadily worsened over the course of the last two years. But what’s just blown this news aside is the Partygate fines (50 issued so far), which have now drawn Boris Johnson, Rishi Sunak and Carrie Johnson into the net, the former two resisting calls to resign. The craven sycophancy of Tory MPs worried about their seats and futures is embarrassing to behold, many citing the specious idea that the PM can’t resign during a war (except it’s not our war). Needless to say, plenty of commentators and social media users have pointed out extensive precedent for prime ministers resigning during wars and ones which the UK was directly involved in at that. The argument makes even less sense when an acrimonious election is taking place just across the Channel.

The shameless Transport Minister, Grant Shapps, drew the short straw for Wednesday’s Today programme, advancing the usual ‘defences’ such as the PM ‘didn’t break the law knowingly’ or ‘with malice’, ‘he’s apologised’ (devoid of sincerity), ‘you have to look at the man in the round’ and (of course) ‘he got the big calls right’. (But it doesn’t stop here – we now hear the PM may be in line for three more fines. It comes to something when one of his own, Defence Select Committee Chairman Tobias Ellwood, suggested the PM should hold a vote of confidence on himself, albeit only after the local elections).

One listener tweeted: ‘The squirming, wriggling Shapps cannot bring himself to admit there were illegal parties at No.10. What a spineless, shameless excuse for a human being. No honour, no integrity, complete and utter sycophancy’. Tory MP Rory Stewart said: ‘The key point is not that Boris Johnson received a penalty notice. The key point is that the fine proves he has repeatedly lied to parliament about his actions during COVID. Democracy requires – for voting for accountability – leaders who tell the truth. He must go’. It shows the sorry state of our politics that some have gone public and said he can’t go because there’s no one to replace him, especially since Rishi Sunak (compared to Icarus in one headline) so spectacularly blotted his copy book recently. Another rightly pointed out, in response to Shapps saying whether the PM misled Parliament was for the police to decide, that ‘No. It is the responsibility of MPs & ministers to uphold the rules of our democracy. They have to stop trying to slough that responsibility off onto someone else’.

The Guardian’s sketch writer, John Crace, delivers his usual excoriation of Boris Johnson, the ‘Suspect’ now morphing into ‘the Convict’ – so much for the PM’s hope that the Ukraine war and his own absurd and initially secret photo op visit there would make Partygate go away.

Nor did Grant Shapps escape Crace’s acerbic pen, put to use dissecting that Radio 4 interview. ‘It wasn’t his intention to lie….There was no malice in anything he did etc etc (as if ‘malice was the key point) – Johnson had never set out to break the law. It had just never occurred to him that the law might also apply to him. He had always assumed the rules were for the Little People’.

So what’s next? ‘Downing Street has promised that Johnson will make a statement only when the entire police operation is over. However, this could take many more weeks and there is pressure for him to say something immediately, with Labour, the Lib Dems and SNP calling for the Commons, which is currently on Easter recess, to be recalled’. This is surely the kernel of the matter – the country cannot have a criminal in charge, a terrible precedent to set: ‘It is not believed that a prime minister and/or a chancellor has broken the law while in office’. Despite Tory MPs mostly falling over themselves to support the embattled PM, a former no 10 adviser told a journalist: ‘Conservatives, if they stand for anything, stand for the rule of law and the maintenance of order. If they cannot abide their own rules, and do not show humility in the face of justice, it is impossible for them to maintain that mantle’. No doubt the PM and ministers must be relieved at no Prime Minister’s Questions straight after these revelations and they will need some robust preparation for when Parliament resumes. But whether or not he resigns or is pushed should not be the sole decision of the party in office – this is surely one of the things wrong with our unwritten Constitution and why we need a completely new one.

One thing at least seems clear – government via WhatsApp has to stop. The Partygate and other investigations have indisputably found that vital evidence of specific agreements and transactions are too easily obscured by use of different phones and by the convenient ‘loss’ of phones.

Needless to say, many who lost family members and friends during the last two years expressed disgust. On said her father ‘died on his own, on a cold Covid ward without anyone there to hold his hand’ because she and her family had followed the rules. ‘Lobby Akinnola, a spokesperson for Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice, said: ‘After everything that’s happened, it’s still unbelievably painful to know that the prime minister was partying and breaking his own lockdown rules, while we were unable to be at our loved ones’ sides in their dying moments, or in miserable funerals with only a handful of people – because we were following the rules. The fact that the prime minister and his chancellor then lied about it and would have continued to do so if the police hadn’t intervened is truly shameless. They broke the law. But, even worse, they took us all for mugs. When we met the PM in the No 10 garden – the same one where they had these parties – he looked us in the eyes and said he had done everything he could to save our loved ones. We now know that that was a lie’.

What interesting timing, then, amid the Partygate fines scandal and before the local elections, is for the government to announce a new scheme to send asylum seekers to Rwanda for processing, a piece of news you’d think was an April Fool had it been 1 April. Widely condemned for its breaching of the UN Convention of Human Rights, the  likely costs and impracticability, yet hotly defended by the PM’s colleagues, it’s been seen by many for what it is: a dystopian pretend solution to a broken asylum system timed to distract attention from Partygate and possible trouncing in the local elections. As one tweeter said: ‘Boris Johnson using the war in Ukraine to save his job by visiting Kyiv last week for photo op. Now it’s the old time favourite, Johnson is using xenophobia to divide us by announcing he’ll send refugees to Rwanda as a distraction for his Partygate.’ Another pointed out the dishonest description: ‘This is *not* offshore processing, it will *not* save money, nor stop asylum seekers, nor the boats. It will cost lives, money and our reputation’.

Again, John Crace wasted no time portraying his version of events at the press conference for the scheme, which, embarrassingly, new refugee minister Lord Harrington claimed to have not heard of 9 days previously. ‘Johnson started with the usual waffle. The stuff he needs to tell himself each morning so he can drag himself out of his bed and look in the mirror. Somehow he has to find a way of convincing himself he’s a decent man. Not some lying narcissist who will do and say anything to get him through the day relatively unscathed. So he mumbled something about Britain’s fine history of openness and generosity to refugees’. A paragraph was devoted to demolishing this myth (one of the many) put about that the UK has a generous record regarding refugees, summarising – ‘A quick reality check. The UK is the fifth or sixth largest economy and takes just 0.2% of the world’s refugees’.

Besides the obvious cruelty to vulnerable people underpinning such a scheme, possibly the most galling element of the presentation, in my view, has been the cynical attempt to portray it as ‘a world beating first’ (yes, that tautology was uttered by one media sap) which would avoid further ‘tragic loss of life’ and tackle ‘the business model of the criminal gangs’. This is obviously in the script they all have to trot out. Crace points out further irony: ‘Then things just turned surreal. First, the Convict tried to portray Rwanda as some kind of tropical human rights paradise. Regardless of the fact that it was a dictatorship that the UK had condemned for human rights violations. Then he tried to claim the programme would be a bargain. Ignoring the fact that some Tory MPs had estimated it would be cheaper to put all the refugees up at the Ritz. But he saved the best till last. This was necessary because he was a firm believer in the rule of law. From the man who has shown a spectacular disregard for it since he became prime minister’.

It’s been suggested the courts would rule against this scheme before it gets off the ground but, as we’ve already seen, this government has steadily worked to undermine the judiciary, with headlines in the right-wing press describing lawyers and judges as ‘enemies of the people’. Perhaps we need to have some hope in the fact that international law trumps national law.

For weeks now we’ve seen the Covid situation worsening, aggravated by the removal of all Covid safety measures and the withdrawal of free tests. Although some have chosen to contest the statistics, the shocking number of 651 deaths on Wednesday is seriously alarming and NHS chiefs are warning of ‘a brutal Easter’. They complain of the NHS being ‘abandoned’ and government complacency, one clinician tweeting: ‘We have a situation in our health service now which is **as bad as any winter**… we do not have a living with Covid plan, we have a living without restrictions ideology’.

Another reason not to get Covid is the significant risk of Long Covid, which has up to 200 symptoms under its ‘umbrella’ but also recent research by the UK Biobank Study which shows shrinkage of the brain in those who contracted Covid. Before and after scans revealed thinning of brain tissue, equating to 1-6 years of ageing, involving various areas of the brain such as those relating to memory, taste and smell. More research is needed to establish whether or not these changes were lasting but this news is surely alarming enough to make us less likely to be seduced by the ‘Covid is over’ pretence.

Professor and chair of global public health Devi Sridhar challenges the herd immunity mantra: ‘Covid-19 is not yet mild enough to be treated like the common cold because it makes people so ill that they cannot work. This has created widespread disruption for airlines, border control, supermarkets, schools, hospitals, police forces and even Apple stores. And it’s worth pointing out that while Omicron is milder than Delta, it is still hospitalising and killing people, especially those who are unvaccinated, the clinically vulnerable (including some for whom vaccines are ineffective), and elderly people. Waning immunity is also an ongoing concern, as is making sure boosters are provided at the right time’. She suggests governments ‘must use the triad of testing, therapeutics (in particular, rapid antiviral pills) and vaccines to manage Covid-19’. It will be interesting besides depressing to see what the statistics look like when the effects of Easter weekend travel have fed through.

Medics have already called out the withdrawal of funding for Covid studies and now they’ve spoken out about one the public may not have known about. ‘The React-1 study, which played a crucial role in detecting and tracking the spread of the Alpha variant in December 2020 ahead of the second lockdown, has been stopped as part of the government’s plan to cut its Covid costs. But in its last report, the study found 6.37 per cent of the population was infected between 8 and 31 March – the highest figure since it began in May 2020. More worryingly, the scientists behind the research said the prevalence rate has also reached new highs for people aged 55 and over, at 8.31 per cent’.

Meanwhile, exacerbated by Covid, the NHS continues to be under significant strain and it no longer seems cynical to see this as part of a strategy to undermine and underfund it to such an extent that it becomes unviable, opening the field up to further privatisation. We’re told at least 1 in 10 is having to wait more than 12 hours for treatment in A&E, very long waits for ambulances and, very risky, families are being asked to take in Covid-positive loved ones to help reduce the burden. But politicians continue with their Easter breaks, persisting in the narrative that the NHS can manage despite 20,000 people in England being hospitalised with Covid.

A senior A&E consultant, lamenting the crisis in urgent care, sounds despairing: ‘Staff now frequently start their shift with twice as many patients as they have cubicles, all waiting to go up to a ward bed. This shortage of beds, the shortage of staff, the social care crisis mean we end up practising emergency medicine in ambulances in car parks or any other space we can find. This is our reality – a world of constant apology, compromise, and frustration. A world of risk and worry when we know that long stays lead to patient harm and even death, emergency medicine teams stretched and working in corners and corridors so that patients can be treated, and teams with 10-20% of staff off sick as Covid circulates leaving an understaffed workforce further depleted’. Imagine having to face this every day at work, and worse.

 Of course it’s not just about funding – it’s about a range of factors including ensuring in advance effective workforce planning (it hasn’t happened for years, starting with Jeremy Hunt’s cuts years ago) and minimising the risks of burdens like Covid. But don’t expect change any time soon because apart from the funding element there’s a lack of preparedness to take account of and act on the bigger picture. ‘The true barrier to tackling this crisis is political unwillingness. Big problems require big solutions.’ Exactly, but this government is incapable of strategic and joined up nuanced thinking. Half measures just don’t do the business.

As if there wasn’t already enough to contend with, the cost of living crisis and inflation reaching 7% here have many in despair as to how they’re going to manage, following energy price and council tax hikes, the rise in national insurance and food price increases due to various factors including the Ukraine war and Brexit. Alarmingly, finance expert Martin Lewis and others have predicted civil unrest and a crime wave as a consequence. Commentators ‘hope’ for some help in the Autumn Statement but the situation for many sounds dire already – we can’t afford to wait that long. The Independent reported that staff at more than 550 food banks across Britain had warned Boris Johnson and Rishi Sunak that they are close to ‘breaking point’ from an unsustainable surge in demand, some saying their shelves were empty, partly because those who were donating are less able to do so. One tweeter suggested ‘a magic solution’ but of course these are measures the government doesn’t wish to enact as they would target Conservative Party donors and those who have long not paid their dues: ‘Windfall tax on energy companies and a proper price cap. Make companies like Amazon, Starbucks, Vodafone pay the billions in tax they owe. And cancel non-dom status for corrupt wealthy kleptocrats’.

Yet another delayed government strategy is the one relating to energy and, again, with interesting timing this was launched last week, when the Prime Minister typically donned his hard hat for an appearance at Hinkley Point C nuclear power plant in Somerset. He had the nerve to say his government was the first for years that had not ‘dodged the big decisions on energy’ when we know his government has form for ‘dodging the big decisions’ on most things, social care being the most pressing one. The strategy prioritises atomic energy, ‘yet within hours, critics spoke of a lack of ambition, particularly around onshore wind and energy efficiency, avenues that experts say offer the best and quickest hope of bringing down bills and achieving energy self-sufficiency’.

As the war continues in Ukraine, the casualties mount and there has been evidence of appalling Russian atrocities such as massacres, mass graves and extensive rape in the areas the Russian forces withdrew from. Use of chemical weapons in Mariupol has also been suspected. Attention now seems to be turning to what Putin can try to present to his people as success on 9 May, the anniversary of the original 1945 Victory Day marking Russia’s defeat of Nazi Germany. There have been challenges to those surprised by what Putin has done, as he has ‘form’ and his actions have been described as ‘straight out of Stalin’s playbook’. First giving examples of Putin’s humiliation of others, Gideon Rachman goes on to criticise the West’s treatment of him as ‘a pantomime villain’ and how they underestimated what Putin is capable of. It’s now rather late to be catching up with this reality.

‘Even though western intelligence services had warned for months that Russia was poised to attack, many experienced Putin-watchers, both in Russia and the west, refused to believe it. After more than 20 years of his leadership, they felt that they understood Putin. He was ruthless and violent, no doubt, but he was also believed to be rational, calculating and committed to Russia’s integration into the world economy. Few believed he was capable of such a reckless gamble. Looking back, however, it is clear that the outside world has consistently misread him. From the moment he took power, outsiders too often saw what they wanted and played down the darkest sides of Putinism’. He describes the ‘Putin fan club’ as including such influential figures (whether you like them or not) as Rudy Giuliani, Nigel Farage, Donald Trump, Matteo Salvini and China’s Xi Jinping.

Rachman describes how well Putin appeared to begin his administration, promising to ‘protect freedom of speech, freedom of conscience, freedom of the mass media, ownership rights, these fundamental elements of a civilised society’ but how, within a year, erosion of democratic standards set in. This intensified, with Russia’s few independent television networks being brought under government control at the same time as his PR people were hard at work portraying him as a strong and impressive figure, exemplified by the photos of  ‘Putin on horseback, Putin practising judo, Putin arm-wrestling or strolling bare-chested by a river in Siberia’.

The signs were there for us (or at least politicians and military experts) to see, but it seems the West has been too relaxed about this sinister trajectory. ‘In a speech in 2005, Putin labelled the collapse of the Soviet Union ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the 20th century’. As the years have passed, he has become increasingly preoccupied by Russian history. In the summer of 2021, he published a long essay entitled On the Historical Unity of Russians and Ukrainians – which, even at the time, some saw as a manifesto for invasion. Delving through centuries of history, Putin attempted to prove that Ukraine was an artificial state and that “Russia was robbed, indeed” when Ukraine gained independence in 1991’. In addition, he cites what sounds like a key speech Putin gave at the Munich Security Conference in 2007, suggesting that Putin’s ‘fury’ with the West amounted not only to ‘an angry reflection on the past’ but ‘also pointed the way to the future. The Russian president had put the west on notice that he intended to fight back against the US-led world order. It foreshadowed a lot of what was to come: Russia’s military intervention in Georgia in 2008, its annexation of Crimea in 2014, its dispatch of troops to Syria in 2015, its meddling in the US presidential election of 2016’. Much to reflect on here.

What’s geopolitics got to do with language learning, some may ask….. quite a lot, it seems. The Financial Times reports on the increase in Russian and Chinese learning following the collapse of the Soviet Union, iron Curtain etc and recognition of China as a major world power. Last year Chinese apparently overtook Russian on the Duolingo language app, becoming the 8th most popular but recent events mean both could plummet somewhat. ‘If Western businesses there are forced to make the sort of tough ethical decisions they’re making in Russia, spurning Chinese may turn out to be an educated bet’. This will be rather galling for those who’ve invested a lot of time and energy in learning these languages in the hope of putting them to use in a professional context.  

Those of us old enough to remember dessert trolleys in restaurants will recall them being wheeled out after the main course, bearing a variety of classic puds and the cheeseboard. It’s not clear what exactly led to their demise, unless it just fashion, but now apparently they are back, and not just about puddings. The Times gives examples of trolleys being pressed into service to showcase smoked and cured fish and one venue has several, one of which carries baked Alaska. But apparently they never went away altogether – Piccadilly bistro Maison Francais uses their multi-storey trolley for creations which need slicing, individual desserts and petit fours. It would almost be worth going there to see it in action despite the breathtaking prices!

Finally, on a seasonal point, it’s today, Good Friday, when hot cross buns are supposed to feature (in the Christian tradition anyway) and I admit to disapproving of seasonal items being available all the year round, even months in advance, like these buns, crème eggs and mince pies. But another development which could attract condemnation in some quarters is the introduction of different flavours and types, eg chocolate, triple berry and cheddar and caramelised onion chutney (Sainsburys) which obscure the meaning of the original recipe. Wales Online reminds us: ‘The buns were originally baked to mark the end of the Christian season of Lent and different parts of the delicacy have a certain meaning, including the cross representing the crucifixion of Jesus, and the spices inside signifying the spices used to embalm him at his burial and may also include orange peel to reflect the bitterness of his time on the Cross’. But ye gods, different flavours are one thing but now we apparently have hot cross bangers and smash, hot cross bun steak tartare and a new cocktail – hot cross bun espresso martini! It would be interesting to know how these innovations fare. Whatever you choose to eat and drink, a happy Easter to all!

Saturday 2 April

At the start of April, a quarter of the year having already gone, we find ourselves here in a wintry chill, the war still raging in Ukraine with not much sign of progress, the UK besmirched by further political scandals and a cost of living crisis unprecedented in recent years. Marvellous. T S Eliot, whose famous poem The Waste Land sees its centenary very soon, wasn’t joking when he penned that famous opening line – April is the cruellest month. 1 April marked the day energy prices doubled for many, throwing millions into poverty, adding to steadily growing inflation, and the ending of free Covid tests, regarded as reckless by many medics. The Tory script trotted out to ‘justify’ this and the lifting of other related Covid safety measures rests on three myths, excellently explained and demolished by well-known commentator Christina Pagel, a professor at University College London and member of Independent Sage.

These are that the use of the word ‘endemic’ (meaning predictable, therefore implying a capacity to control it) is inaccurate as there’s nothing predictable about Covid. The second is that Covid is evolving to become milder, each variant emerging logically from the previous one, as if in a logical sequence, whereas there’s been no progression through successive variants, and no building towards “mildness”. The third is that we’ve somehow ‘finished’ our vaccination programme, so we don’t need to wait to return to normal when actually immunity wanes after several months so we continue to be at risk. ‘We’re living in two realities: one in which people have returned to living life as if Covid is over, and the other in which we are approaching record levels of infections, with an estimated 4.26m cases last week’. Deaths range from 190-230 per day – that is a lot and it’s alarming to see how such numbers have been almost normalised.

‘Returning to normal behaviour does not return us to normal life. It returns us to a life with more disruption, more sickness and more strain on the NHS. But we can certainly learn to live with Covid better’. What Pagel sees as the partial answer is better public health measures to reduce transmissibility in the first place, such as ventilation, less crowding and tackling economic inequalities – all of which the government has shirked as clearly being too difficult and/or expensive for them. The very first thing that’s needed is for the media to properly challenge ministers and others when they attempt to peddle these myths.

A GP, well qualified to see what’s going on ‘on the ground’, tweeted: ‘It’s over. Any control over Covid we had is over. Duty doctor today. I’ve lost count of the number of patients I’ve seen with classic Covid symptoms NOT A SINGLE PERSON has isolated or done a PCR test. Everyone’s mixing & infecting each other. There is no control. It’s over’.

One in 13 are now said to have Covid and it’s interesting to note that quite a few are those who have been most risk averse and careful throughout. Some will have effectively closed down their lives for no purpose, since Covid got them in the end, proof of increased transmissibility, though it could be argued at least they avoided getting it twice or three times, as many have. A concerned Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Jenny Harries [chief executive of the UK Health Security Agency and, some would say, Boris Johnson loyalist] told Mishal Husain there’s been a small increase in the number of Covid deaths, as cases surge. Stats show a 26% increase on the 28 days deaths number. I wonder how high the % needs to be for Harries to call it a big increase?’ Another tweeted about the shaming decision to remove free parking for NHS staff: ‘Javid thanks NHS staff for their hard work throughout the pandemic (it’s still a pandemic) then imposes a parking tax on them to help support the NHS, whilst getting a free parking space himself.’

1 April also being April Fool’s Day prompted some good tweets from wags – if only some could be true, eg‘Carrie Symonds files for Divorce. Nadine Dorries implicated. No.10 declines to comment’; ‘BREAKING News – Boris Johnson admits he lied to the British people and Parliament over Partygate & in a tearful statement resigns as PM!’

The news that the Met has (after all this time!) decided to issue only 20 fines so far (and we may well never get to know to whom unless they choose to go public themselves) has brought Partygate centre stage again. For many, though, it never went away, despite the government’s fervent hope that the Ukraine crisis and myth that the UK was ‘leading the world’ on diplomacy and military support would somehow erase it all from our memories. (That particular myth should have been well and truly demolished by the dismal footage of a scruffy Boris Johnson at the NATO Summit being completely ignored as other leaders went around the room exchanging greetings and handshakes.  Also by what the former Finnish Prime Minister, Alexander Stubb, said: ‘This idea about ‘Global Britain’ is as true as ‘peaceful Russia’. Simply utter rubbish, to put it diplomatically. To claim that ⁦Boris Johnson ‘has taken a lead globally in standing up to Putin’ is an illusion only possible in Brexit La La Land’).

Infuriatingly and unjustifiably, Boris Johnson and ministers in the Commons and the media refuse to be drawn on whether the PM or others would resign if issued with a fine, even though Dominic Raab admitted on the Today programme that the PM had lied and misled Parliament and this is a condition of the ministerial code. There’s long been government contempt for this code but now it seems they are barely even bothering to cover things up now – brazen, suggesting a total absence of moral compass, respect for the law and accountability. But this conduct reached a new low this week:  the PM treating his MPs to a slap up dinner at a posh London hotel (nothing to do with needing their support, of course), the attendees walking past Covid19 Bereaved Families for Justice protesters and telling journalists that the events under investigation weren’t parties but ‘gatherings of colleagues’.

The protesters tweeted their disgust: ‘Last night, (29 March) Conservative MPs couldn’t even look bereaved families in the eye as they held yet another party on the day of the first partygate fines and anniversary of the National Memorial Wall’. It was also coincided with the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service. It has emerged (how unhelpful is this, smacking of turf wars?) that the Met is refusing to reveal which parties have attracted fines, keeping Sue Gray in the dark. ‘She is due to update and publish her report when the police investigation is complete, but is not expecting to receive full information on which of 12 parties under investigation and which officials, aides and potentially politicians have been fined’. What a way to hobble an investigation and why should those fined be granted anonymity, so that even the Cabinet Office and No 10 don’t know which of their staff are implicated? Meanwhile, in contrast to several ministers (they can’t even sing from the same song sheet on this vital issue), the PM is refusing to accept that a fine would mean he has broken the law, his allies suggested he would not resign if he were issued with a penalty. This is a complete twisting of the truth, a key concept explored by Stephen Reicher.

Professor Stephen Reicher says: ‘The PM’s actions are a resigning matter: democracy is in peril when our leaders no longer care about being seen to lie’. He’s well qualified to opine, being a frequent commentator since the start of the pandemic, a member of the Sage subcommittee advising on behavioural science, professor of psychology at the University of St Andrews, a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh and an authority on crowd psychology. For those who still misrepresent and trivialize Partygate as ‘about cake’, who can’t see the much deeper significance: ‘This matters, not just because it harms trust in this government, and therefore its ability to effectively govern. It’s also harmful because it makes the formation of consensus about what is “true” almost impossible. In Hannah Arendt’s seminal text The Origins of Totalitarianism, she argued that the dying of democracy is marked by a progressive contempt for facts and for those who study them, and a growing belief that truth derives from the power of those who fabricate it. If there is no independent validation of reality, what is permissible – and what counts as “true” – comes down to who is most shameless and shouts the loudest’.

He points up Arendt’s theory that such survival depends on the individual surrounding themselves with talentless acolytes who can be relied upon to fawn and warns us not to be seduced by specious arguments which erroneously claim to be taking account of the bigger picture. ‘Some people may now argue things such as “despite Partygate, Johnson got the big calls right” or “we can’t remove him in the midst of a war” – so called “greater good” arguments, which have always served as cover for the most toxic abuses’.

The PM cut a pathetic figure at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday, (the morning after the night before), one commentator suggesting he was incoherent ‘and gave the appearance of being desperately hungover’. The lies continue, unchallenged by the Speaker, backbenchers apparently cheering ‘whatever lies Boris chose to tell. And there were plenty of them; from the Tories having reduced the tax burden to Labour being hellbent on taking the UK back into both lockdown and the EU’. In theory the PM had an even harder time of it at the afternoon’s Parliamentary Liaison Committee (the parliamentary group of select committee chairs), where some tough questions were asked but the challengers seemed to come up hard against the PM’s party-induced soporific state and stonewalling.

SNP MP Pete Wishart bombarded the PM with a series of questions: ‘Could any prime minister survive being busted and found guilty? Was breaking the ministerial code a resigning matter? Would he accept that issuing FPNs was proof that criminality had taken place? Could he explain why his answers on parties had changed from “They never took place” to “I was outraged that other people had been to lockdown parties” to “I didn’t realise I was breaking the law”?

We have to wonder what the point of these Commons committees is, since so many feature good, solid work by their chairs and others but nothing seems to result from them.

Despite, predictably, presenting his Spring Statement as a progressive budget (worrying that so many will just be taken in by this, not looking for the omissions and misrepresentations) the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, came in for a great deal of flak, especially for its transparent mechanism to allow a tax cut just before the next General Election. Some of the most polite yet firm of the challenges came from Labour’s Angela Eagle and Siobhain McDonagh, the latter asking him, incredulously: ‘Do you think people are stupid?’ Many were shocked by Sunak declaring that he was ‘comfortable’ with the choices he’d made, when the energy price cap went up 54% , putting millions at risk.

Unfortunately, what we’re seeing now from this government is an increasing amount of cynical gaslighting and victim card playing as defensive strategies.  For example, on coming under fire because his wife is said to be collecting “blood money” in dividends from a family company continuing to operate in Russia despite the invasion of Ukraine, Sunak made a specious comparison with Jada Pinkett Smith in the recent Oscars row, saying it was ‘very upsetting and … wrong for people to try and come at my wife’. Ahem, the difference is, Chancellor, that your wife (who holds a stake in her billionaire father’s firm worth approximately £690m, and which yielded her £11.5m in dividend payments over the past year) is a legitimate target whereas Pinkett Smith was not.

But this isn’t the end of it….. inflation continues to climb (the Office for Budget Responsibility says it will average 7.4% during 2022) and it’s thought the price cap will rise again later this year. The Resolution Foundation think tank suggests that it could push an additional 2.5m households into ‘fuel stress’ (those spending 10 per cent or more of their income after housing costs on energy bills) – culminating in a total of 7.5m households.

It looks as if, yet again, the government has used the domination of the news agenda by the Ukraine war, Spring Statement and Oscars to slip out news which could prove most unwelcome. It seems Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries has ignored the advice of the scrutiny committee of MPs and gone ahead with appointing former Tory candidate Orlando Fraser to chair the Charity Commission. ‘The select committee said in its pre-appointment scrutiny report this week it could not endorse ministers’ “slapdash and unimaginative choice” of Fraser for the £62,000 a year job as head of the charities regulator in England’. Questions have been raised about this and other appointments, eg the one of Lord Grade as Ofcom chair. Fraser’s name and appearance would partly reinforce what we’re told about him: ‘Educated at a private school and Cambridge University, Fraser is a white, upper middle-class barrister. He is the son of the late Tory MP Sir Hugh Fraser and the writer Lady Antonia Fraser. His grandfather was the Labour peer Lord Longford’.

So, ‘one of us’, as Mrs Thatcher might have said, though, to be fair, Fraser himself insisted the Commission under his watch would be independent of government and not allow itself to be ‘dragged into culture wars’. It will be interesting to see how far he maintains this independence, though, as previous culture secretary Oliver Dowden said the regulator’s next chair should be prepared to pursue charities which stray into so-called “woke” and “political” activities. That cynical agenda strikes again.

More than a month after the Ukraine invasion (we have to wonder about those calling it a ‘conflict’), other very damaging consequences are being felt besides the tragic loss of life and displacement of over 10m Ukrainians. It’s reckoned over 160,000 people are trapped in the besieged port city of Mariupol, 7000 Russian soldiers have been killed and that some, experiencing at first hand the lack of food, fuel and effective strategy, have defected to the Ukraine side. We’re told that no one can stand up to Putin and besides several generals being killed, others have been sacked or put under house arrest. Extensive consequences are being felt regarding fuel prices and wheat supplies, Ukraineno longer able to be ‘the bread basket of the world’, thought likely to lead to starvation in some countries heavily dependent on this supply.

The ‘peace talks’ just seem like window dressing and why should Ukraine have to make any concessions when the invasion was unprovoked? It’s as if we were all supposedto feel grateful to Russia for promising a significant withdrawal of forces from outside Kiev, but not only has this not happened, war crimes like the shelling of hospitals and humanitarian pathways and forcibly taking Ukrainians to Russia persist. Then we have to contend with the endless pontificating of ministers lambasting Putin – the irony. One tweeter observed:  ‘Keep hearing commentators say “Nothing Vladimir Putin says can be trusted or taken at face value.” And they’re absolutely right. The problem is that precisely the same words can be uttered about Boris Johnson’. There’s one thing to be grateful for, though: advisers must have managed to nip in the bud the appalling suggestion a fortnight ago that Boris Johnson was ‘desperate’ to visit Ukraine. According to that fount of all wisdom, Oliver Dowden, the PM ‘feels a real emotional connection with the Ukrainian people’ when it’s clear to most of us that he is incapable of such a connection with anyone.

The Prime Minister’s ‘journalist’ sister, Rachel Johnson, was excoriated for blithely suggesting on LBC that she was ok with Putin taking some territory (presumably the parts already occupied by Russian forces) if this would then keep him at bay. Besides being outrageously presumptuous, we know such placatory strategy doesn’t work, along the lines of the old English expression ‘give them an inch and they’ll take an ell’. Many, not least Putin and colleagues, have been clearly taken aback by the strength, persistence and determination of the Ukrainian resistance and how they came from a low base to quickly develop an effective cyber strategy.

Initially it was said that they were winning the cyber war but now others seem to imply Putin is winning but just playing a longer game, helped by China, accused of mounting cyber attacks against Ukraine. ‘UK intelligence officers warned on Thursday that Russia is increasingly seeking out cyber targets as its ground military campaign in Ukraine stalls. Additional reports on Wednesday revealed Russian hackers recently attempted to penetrate the networks of Nato and the militaries of some eastern European countries. These developments showed that “things are heating up” on the cyber front, said Theresa Payton, cybersecurity expert and former White House chief information officer. “We should prepare for the worst and operate at our best,” she said….. Putin might also be “playing a long game” and having his cyber operatives infiltrate various adversaries and gain footholds, then wait until he decides to launch a cyber-attack’.

Closer to home, there’s been much criticism of the Homes for Ukraine scheme for simply not working and giving people ‘false hope’ – it’s about cynically giving the appearance of taking action but actually making it too bureaucratic to be workable, also abdicating responsibility from central government onto the public. A fortnight after the scheme began, we were told no visas had been granted and the PM still refuses to answer questions in the Commons as to how many Ukrainians have obtained visas and have actually got here. The UK’s scheme is ‘a calculated pretence’, confirmed a Russian-speaking teacher (currently in Warsaw helping families with their paperwork) on Radio 4’s Any Answers today, also telling us that the Spanish had already processed 2000 who were already in Spain. It was reported elsewhere that at least one family (how many more??) had given up on the UK’s bureaucracy and gone to Germany instead.

It comes to something when even those on the government side find fault with the system but perhaps not all in the most savoury of ways. Another challenge Boris Johnson got at the Parliamentary Liaison Committee was from North Herefordshire MP Sir Bill Wiggin, who said:  ‘I am really worried, Prime Minister, that everything you have said to us today I actually want to happen. But it isn’t happening, and the only people who are turning up turned up in rubber boats. Why can’t we get the right people through our immigration system instead of the wrong ones?’ Isn’t it surprising that an MP is comfortable with expressing such a view, knowing that this forum was covered by the media? Meanwhile, numerous ‘wrong ones’ such as Syrians and Afghans remain holed up in hotels and there’s little reporting in the media about their plight.

Amid the war reporting and visa shenanigans there’s been insufficient attention paid to the trauma being experienced by Ukrainians so it’s good to see experts acknowledging this. (The same applied to Syrians and Afghans, of course). ‘Civilians fleeing conflict in Ukraine must be given immediate access to mental health support when they reach the UK, experts have said, adding there is an urgent need for more investment in such services. Jonathan Bisson, professor in psychiatry at Cardiff University and director of Traumatic Stress Wales, said many people remaining in Ukraine would be experiencing uncertainty, anxiety and fear and some were likely develop mental health problems’. But for years there’s been significant under-investment in mental health services in this country, many UK residents unable to obtain NHS help so there’s almost bound to be a severe shortfall where help for Ukrainians is concerned.

Typically, a government spokesman trotted out the usual empty promises, without, of course, mentioning the long waiting lists for help and limited choice of therapy and face-to-face therapy. ‘Ukrainians fleeing their home country will be guaranteed free access to NHS healthcare, including mental health care services and registration with a GP. Arrivals will be signposted to services including 24/7 mental health helplines available in every area, and information on accessing NHS services including talking therapies’.

In other news, many were dismayed this week to see the Queen, at the Duke of Edinburgh’s memorial service, so publicly accept Prince Andrew’s assistance as she made her way to her seat, potentially signalling some kind of rehabilitation. The rather feeble justification was that it was seen as ‘a family occasion’ rather than a state one but it’s doubtful this would cut much ice with those who were angered by the prince’s conduct and his longstanding avoidance of legal proceedings. Meanwhile, he seems to have been embroiled in another scandal. Although (concerned about litigation?) the article stated that ‘there is no suggestion of any wrongdoing by the prince or Ferguson’ it describes a convoluted situation which makes it clear that there was some involvement.

Some may be pleased to learn that our apparent love affair (not in all quarters) with the ‘small plates’ in restaurants (aka stingy portions costing quite a bit) could be over, since more customers are tiring of  it. Imogen West-Knights describes an experience of actually feeling full after a restaurant meal: ‘I realised that I hadn’t eaten this way in a restaurant in a long time. Without noticing it I had, for a good decade, been in thrall to small plates. And I was not alone. All over the country, small plates restaurants (often with short names to match) have proliferated, from Noto in Edinburgh to Poco in Bristol, Belfast’s Ora to Manchester’s Erst, and through almost every city in between’. This must be the quote of the week, one of her friends describing small plates as ‘the Tinder of eating – loads of choice, but satisfaction by no means guaranteed’.

Opinions are divided: ‘Those who loved them, loved them for their variety, but the naysayers had a litany of objections, associating them with pretentiousness and feeling confused, ripped off, overwhelmed by choice and often still hungry at the end of a meal’. The author describes restaurant managers being worn down trying to explain the concept of small plates to older people – perhaps this demographic is more sceptical and less taken in by urban cool. There are numerous suggestions in this article, for example that Brits aren’t regarded as keen on sharing, the absurdity of sharing 6 beans between 8 diners, say, and food critic Jay Rayner saying we don’t go out to eat because we’re hungry – what nonsense and arguably an insensitive comment to make given the cost of living increase and what many fear is semi-starvation to come in some sections of society. An amusing and worthwhile article and good that there are decent places mid spectrum serving proper adult portions, neither overpriced ‘small plates’ nor large portions of variable quality.

Finally, continuing the gastronomy theme, the Daily Telegraph discussed an interesting survey in which Italians were asked how they felt about 19 different ‘abuses’ of their cuisine (what about those who wouldn’t even recognise the ‘abuses’?!). Apparently, they were ‘remarkably relaxed’ about some, like pairing meatballs with spaghetti (many restaurants serve this dish!) but were ‘considerably less tolerant’ of other crimes like putting pineapple on pizzas and rinsing pasta under cold water. The surveyors found that Britons and Americans, like Italians, disapproved of putting ketchup on pasta, whereas Chinese and Indonesian respondents thought it was fine. Fascinating stuff!