Last week the Greensill scandal continued to be the gift that kept on giving, fresh revelations mushrooming up every day, although the government must have been grateful for the three distractions which the media made the most of. The latest bombshell from Dominic Cummings is a distraction the PM definitely won’t be grateful for – more later. The first, of course, was the funeral of the Duke of Edinburgh, which many found moving and which caused me to reflect, not for the first time, that Brits do spectacle well. It was a shame it had to be spoiled by media coverage which included hours of what had occurred the previous week – speculation about this or that, interviews with anyone who might have had the most tentative of involvements or even sightings of the Duke, and worse – much obsequious commentary. Last Sunday BBC Royal Correspondent, Nick Witchell, was trending on Twitter for his version of it, which many also found distastefully biased and over critical of Harry.
The other distraction from Greensill was all the heat generated by the European Superleague plan, which collapsed days later following unanticipated opposition from football fans. It was interesting to see how exercised and indignant Boris Johnson and his ministers became about it, saying they would do everything within their power to stop it. They then seemed to claim credit for its collapse when it’s likely this was more due to the strength of opposition from fans. The most ironic part of the government’s intervention was exemplified by Secretary of State for Digital, Media and Sport Oliver Dowden, who castigated football bosses’ ‘greed’ and declared: ‘We will not have our national game taken away from us for profit’ and much more. The lack of awareness was astonishing, given his own government’s awarding during the pandemic of millions of pounds in contracts to profit-seeking firms with connections to the Conservatives. Pots and kettles come to mind.
The third distraction was the worrying discovery in the UK of 77 cases of the highly contagious Indian variant of the virus, coupled with the government’s decision to leave four days before implementing its decision to stop flights arriving from India. During this time (it was said last week that nine flights were arriving daily at Heathrow from India, let alone other airports) thousands of passengers from India will have disembarked and won’t have been properly vetted by the authorities and inefficient Track and Trace. One bit of good news, though it’s a shocking indictment of Track and Trace, is the adoption of this work by more local public health authorities, which of course should have been allowed in the first place. The latest example is Hertfordshire, where public health teams are making sure that those testing positive and other members of their households can self-isolate effectively. This crucial work can begin promptly rather than waiting for an inevitably slower national system to react. The Watford Observer quotes Jim McManus, Director of Public Health for Hertfordshire: ‘The new scheme is an important step as it will allow teams at the district and borough councils to use their local knowledge of communities and their expertise to determine more quickly where people may have caught the virus, and that knowledge will help to stop the spread and identify any possible local outbreaks’. It will be interesting to see how many other local authorities follow suit.
But back to Greensill…. ByLine Times, which the BBC steadfastly fails to even mention in its reviews of newspapers and websites, relates how the PM is using Cameron as a scapegoat. Author Hardeep Matharu describes how, ‘With his dual tactics of projection and deflection, the current Prime Minister has pulled off a masterstroke by launching an inquiry into the former Prime Minister’s conflicts of interest’. Although Cameron definitely has a case to answer, even more having emerged this week, launching this kind of inquiry against a former PM, said to be unprecedented, is arguably pretty rich coming from the current PM who has numerous accusations of corruption and cronyism levelled against him. ‘By launching this inquiry – without any discussion by opposition politicians or the mainstream media about whether similar accountability will be allowed with regards to his own, current Government – Johnson affirms to himself once more that the normal rules don’t apply to him’.
Meanwhile, based on the Sunday Times investigation, the Guardian unpacks how, (mis)using his personal contacts, David Cameron involved the NHS in an attempt to get them to adopt a Greensill payment app called Earnd. This would allegedly improve the workforce’s wellbeing by enabling them to be paid daily instead of monthly. We already knew last week about Cameron’s texts to Chancellor Rishi Sunak and his drink with Health Secretary Matt Hancock. But Cameron was also found to have liaised with Matthew Gould, chief executive of NHSX, an NHS agency promoting digital innovation, in order to request the personal details of NHS staff. Gould was already known to Cameron because he’d worked for the coalition government and was a school friend of George Osborne, Cameron’s then Chancellor. This is an example of the Eton-born calculating exploitation of contacts to achieve dubious ends, not to mention that alma mater’s commitment to instilling an ethos of ‘effortless superiority’.
We hear regularly about the NHS England Chief Executive, Sir Simon Stevens, but I admit this is the first time I heard of a Chair, who has questions to answer in this scandal. Lord (David) Prior, the son of Jim Prior, a minister in the Thatcher administration, was called upon to explain how lobbyists managed to access senior NHS staff. Again, we see how these networks operate, one contact leading to more, creating quite a complex web. Lord Prior arranged a meeting between Greensill and Lady Harding, chair of NHS financial regulator NHS Improvement. This then led to introductions to various heads of NHS trusts, with a view to persuading them to get on board with the Earnd app.
Lord Prior also arranged for Bill Crothers, an ex-head of government procurement under Cameron, to meet Julian Kelly, NHS England’s chief financial officer, in July 2019 at a meeting also attended briefly by Sir Simon Stevens. We have to wonder how it was that government officials and trusts succumbed so easily to this lobbying but one reason is clear: having been taught from early days in many cases that forging and exploiting networks of contacts is the way to get ahead, they didn’t seek to question it. This is a dangerous and unethical position they’ve occupied, apparently without awareness of the possible consequences. Shadow Health Secretary Jon Ashworth said: ‘We now need to know how many NHS leaders and officials did Cameron and Greensill lobby? How many NHS trusts in total were approached about a scheme that was really a form of usury?’
Meanwhile, Lex Greensill himself is reported to have ‘gone to ground’, refusing all interviews, an odd situation when surely he and the affairs of his bankrupt company should be investigated.
All of this has revealed the lack of boundaries in government and parts of the Civil Service, evidenced by the inappropriate use and widespread sharing of personal phone numbers for official businesses. The next thread in this complex web of chumocracy was the discovery of text messages between Boris Johnson and Tory donor James Dyson, promising to ‘fix’ tax rules in his favour if he manufactured ventilators for the NHS. As we know, Dyson’s expertise did not lie in this area and we understand that not a single ventilator was delivered.
As a Radio 4 listener tweeter: ‘What is so amazing over the Dyson story is that actual manufacturers of ventilators were ignored despite offers in favour of Tory donors who had never made ventilators. I can’t square that circle in an emergency can anyone else’. Perhaps the most ‘amazing’ thing, though, is that this behaviour was defended on air by the current Business Secretary Kwasi Kwarteng, trying to normalise improper communication: ‘…people are trying to lobby ministers, lobby MPs all the time…. business leaders having “direct access” to ministers is good for democracy’. In response to the PM’s ‘If you think there is anything remotely dodgy or rum or sleazy about trying to secure more ventilators at a time of a national pandemic… I think you’re out of your mind’, a wag tweeted: ‘If you don’t think there is anything dodgy and sleazy about guaranteeing a billionaire tax breaks for not manufacturing ventilators at a time of national emergency then you really are out of your mind’.
Having perhaps pre-empted the onslaught of Boris Johnson’s accusations of leaks, his former adviser Dominic Cummings has now hit back with a bombshell that will surely dominate the airwaves for some time. He makes sure he threw his former boss under the bus before he himself was thrown. In his blog Cummings accuses Johnson of trying to quash a leak inquiry as it implicated an ally, and suggested that the plan for donors to pay for the flat renovation was ‘possibly illegal’. He said Johnson had behaved in a way he considered ‘mad and totally unethical’, and that he would happily give evidence under oath to an inquiry.
Beth Rigby (Sky News) tweeted: ‘This is just astonishing. Cummings publishes a complete demolition job of his former boss and No 10 team after No 10 ‘source’ briefings against him’. She quotes Cummings: ‘It’s sad to see the PM and this office fall so far below the standards of competence and integrity the country deserves’. Pots and kettles come once more to mind, but perhaps this is just one ‘demolition job’ too far, one which the slippery PM won’t be able to shake off. On Saturday’s Today programme (08.10 interview) an apoplectic Dominic Grieve, former Attorney General, unforgettably described Johnson as a ‘vacuum of integrity’, ‘running a cronyistic cabal’ and ‘chaotic government’ for ‘self-enrichment’.
Although it’s been serialised before, Radio 4’s current broadcast of its documentary series The Great Post Office Trial is bound to attract more listeners following the quashing of unsafe fraud convictions of 39 post sub postmasters, a shocking 20 years after the problems first began. Instead of looking into the possibly faulty Fujitsu Horizon IT system, many sub postmasters were accused of theft, fraud and false accounting, prosecuted by the Post Office with no police involvement and made to believe they were an isolated case. At least some impoverished themselves by attempting to put back the ‘missing’ thousands with their own money. Some of the tapes of the accused and Post Office interviews are heartbreaking to listen to, guilt clearly being assumed by the interrogators.
By the time of the conviction quashing verdict, three had died, but some of those interviewed sounded remarkably sanguine considering what they had gone through, including prison sentences, mental and relationship breakdowns. One commentator tweeted: ‘The Post Office Scandal is indeed a pitiful tale, all the more so because this was done by a public service, therefore in a sense done on behalf of us all. It makes me very, very angry. The Post Office should be deeply ashamed’. Another said: ‘The Post Office has paid 556 victims a total of £58m, that’s around £104,000 each. That is nowhere near enough these people lost their reputations for 20-years, many lost their homes, all of them lost their jobs. The damages should be 10 times what they have been given’.
But what about the perpetrators? So far no media interview I’ve heard has said how the Post Office bosses at the time would be called to account for their actions, apart from the feeble suggestion by the former minister that there should be a public inquiry (aka whitewash). Former boss Paula Vennells (now an ordained priest, holding other public positions) apparently left the Post Office in 2019 £5m better off but 900 staff were wrongfully prosecuted under her watch.
The Rev. Richard Coles tweeted: ‘I think the case for a full public inquiry into the Post Office Scandal is now overwhelming. We need to establish how it happened, and when that’s clear, those responsible must be held to account, even if that path leads through the boardroom to more exalted corridors of power’. Another was more direct: ‘Vennells is still a CBE and an ordained priest! People died as a direct result of her incompetence, yet her magic invisible friend will forgive her. She should be stripped of her titles and made to stand in a queue for at least 10 years’.
Continuing the theme of ‘re-entry anxiety’, the Observer profiles a Danish ‘happiness guru’ called Meik Wiking (pronounced ‘Mike Viking’), whose role this last year has been severely challenged by the circumstances dictated by Covid 19. ‘The pandemic has launched an all-out attack on the emotion to which he has dedicated his career. With much of the world stripped of socialising and confined to cramped apartments, the past 12 months might well go down as the grimmest passage in living memory, with many people experiencing a spike in loneliness, anxiety and suffering’. Author of the now famous The Little Book of Hygge, on the ‘Danish art of being cosy and content during harsh winters’, Wiking had already set up a think tank to explore happiness from a scientific viewpoint. His Happiness Research Institute is investigating why some have the capacity for contentment others don’t and how societies can boost their wellbeing. This sounds very worthwhile, though he didn’t need to set up a think tank to discover answers to the first question. A key aspect he looks at is how, despite the bad press it’s had, the pandemic and lockdowns could have brought about a realisation of the benefits of a ‘smaller’, simpler lifestyle.
It’s worth reading this article because it’s not simplistic, despite the mixed reputation often attributed to developing and measuring ‘happiness’. He points out that the pandemic has ‘decoupled wealth from happiness’, reduced the making of social comparisons and highlighted the joy of simple pleasures which can be overlooked in a hectic lifestyle. One of the key elements his research identified was the importance of ‘a sense of purpose or meaning, based on Aristotle’s thoughts on the good life (eudaimonia)’. The pandemic and lockdowns have undoubtedly revealed that many lack this sense of purpose and meaning, which perhaps has been masked until now by busyness and socialising. It’s when such activities are interrupted or prevented that we become more aware of what could be missing in our lives at a deeper level.
‘I wish there was a silver bullet, but that’s not the case. I think you know a lot of the things I’m telling you: that your relationships matter, having a short commute and a fulfilling job matters, having enough money to get by matters, comparisons to others matter. Yet even if people do already know, we need to be reminded of things – such as the fact that more money does not always translate to more happiness’.
But according to some reports there are plenty who don’t seem to be experiencing re-entry anxiety (or they’ve managed to quell it), spending liberally on clothes and makeup in order to launch themselves into the world once more. It’s interesting that so many feel the urge to buy new stuff, when they probably already have plenty of perfectly ok items in their wardrobes and cosmetics boxes and there’s an obvious environmental cost to acquiring more Stuff. The queues outside shops like Primark (thought to be responsible for 8% of landfill) are a sight to behold on our high streets. Apparently items like foundation, fake tan, mascara and nail polish are ‘flying off the shelves’, retailers finding significantly increased demand each time the government announces a further stage in lockdown easing. ‘Shoppers, retailers say, are eager to jettison joggers and leggings and are seeking out bright, cheerful colours as they look forward to better times’. This might be a particular demographic, though: ‘not everyone is keen to put style over comfort, with sales of flip flops, sandals and trainers also up sharply’.
On the subject of shopping, some sad light is being shed on the decline of bricks and mortar retail and what could be the fate of classic department stores. The Observer warns that ‘locally beloved buildings, from 1930s classics to brutalist edifices, are facing developers’ wrecking balls’, following the closure of stores belonging to erstwhile household names like Debenhams. ‘The Twentieth Century Society is taking action against the destruction or redesign of seven sites, and has concerns about the future of another 23 threatened by the reinvention of town centres following the pandemic and the shift to online shopping’.
Buildings under threat are all over the country, including Glasgow, Chester and Birmingham, where Rackhams has been the subject of an application for immunity from listing, leading to fears that it could be redeveloped in an unsympathetic way. The article quotes Matthew Vaughan, a trustee of Birmingham Civic Society. ‘It is a really high quality building that is not appreciated now, apart from locally, but will be in 10 years’ time. If it can’t be listed then it is lost. If immunity is granted it gives carte blanche to do something extensive’. Mention of Rackhams prompted some memories from years ago: there were two restaurants, the posh one with waiter service, the Lilac Tree, and the self-service one we patronised (but still considered a treat), The Gay Tray. That’s a name that wouldn’t be used now!
Finally, as we approach the end of this gripping series of Line of Duty, which most of the nation seems to be glued to every Sunday night, creator Jed Mercurio must be struck by the sayings of Superintendent Ted Hastings reaching the highest echelons in the land (or what should be), Boris Johnson alluding this week to the need to ‘root out bent coppers’. The irony isn’t lost on us.