It already seems a long time since last weekend, when many were disturbed to see the thousands taking part in an anti-lockdown protest in London’s Hyde Park and Oxford Street, apparently allowed by the police to go ahead. Of course there was no distancing or mask wearing and a group of six women interviewed for television news sounded worryingly confused, describing the last year’s restrictions as ‘genocide’ without stopping to think what the death toll would have been like with no lockdowns. An NHS staffer tweeted: ‘When I see these ‘antilockdown’ people call a quarantine ‘genocide’, I think of rows of graves in Manaus, Covid running rampant through South America, people gasping for air in car parks outside Indian hospitals, and I feel anger, disgust and shame at their infantile narcissism.’
But last week will surely go down in the nation’s memory as the one when we could seriously wonder if finally, as accusations of misconduct against the Prime Minister pile up, Teflon Boris won’t be able to wriggle away and deflect attention from them. No fewer than three inquiries are said to be underway into his conduct including the funding of the Downing Street flat refurbishment, the effective shielding from scrutiny of a friend of fiancé Carrie Symonds, and the PM allegedly saying he’d rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown. A fourth inquiry, highlighted by Labour’s Margaret Hodge, also looks likely to enter the fray. But what a waste of public money, given all the resources inquiries take, when one, properly conducted, would suffice. It seems the reason for several inquiries is limitations on the remit of each organisation to look at the big picture. Meanwhile, many are already disillusioned by the findings of some recent inquiries, which have effectively been whitewashes.
Although there has been more media coverage of the beleaguered prime minister and his government this week, there has also been much deflecting coverage of India’s Covid crisis, almost as if the UK was not in a terrible situation itself not so long ago. Interviewed on BBC Broadcasting House, former speaker John Bercow said Boris Johnson has ‘an insouciant and flippant disregard for the accuracy of what he says to the House of Commons’, prompting a suggestion from one listener that this sounds ‘like a lot of words for lying’. Demanding that the PM reveals who paid for the renovations, Bercow told LBC: ‘We need to know who paid the bill in the first instance, it’s a blindingly simple and straightforward question.’
Earlier in the week it was confirmed that ‘generous philanthropist’ Lord Brownlow had made a donation of £58,000.Who he, we could ask. ‘Lord Brownlow of Shurlock Row in the royal county of Berkshire, who is ranked the 521st richest person in the UK with an estimated £271m fortune in the Sunday Times rich list, was revealed by the Daily Mail to have paid the Tory party nearly £60,000 towards the cost of the makeover by Lulu Lytle, described by Tatler magazine as “one of smart set’s most loved designers”…. Brownlow has donated almost £3m to the Conservatives and even more to projects and charities supported by the Prince of Wales’. Although this article reveals him as a perhaps a more interesting character than some Tory donors, operating his own company ‘as a meritocracy’, it’s no coincidence that he was made a peer in Theresa May’s resignation honours list. But, astonishingly, this donation represents only part of the bill, so questions continue as to where the rest came from and what obligations the PM would be under as a result of it. The whole issue continues to be dogged by opacity.
If it wasn’t so depressing, it has been almost amusing to witness the ministers and others paraded on the media this last week to defend the Prime Minister. Defence Secretary Ben Wallace denied a Daily Mail report alleging Prime Minister Boris Johnson said he would rather see ‘bodies pile high in their thousands’ than order a third lockdown, describing him as ‘a first class leader’. Work and Pensions Minister Therese Coffey, wriggling on the end of Today presenter Justin Webb’s stick, couldn’t bring herself to admit that declarations of funding are a law. Instead, she claimed the government was focusing on ‘the important things like climate change’, perhaps not surprisingly given the UK will be hosting COP26 later this year. These defenders are a sharp contrast to former Attorney General Dominic Grieve, who described the PM as ‘a vacuum of integrity’.
A listener tweeted: ‘One of the things that ‘makes a difference to people’s daily lives’ is having an honest, transparent and competent government and Prime Minister’. Another said: ‘Therese Coffey – can I give you my enormous thanks for explaining on Today exactly what I should, and should not, be caring about. I was getting very confused about finding myself caring about ethics and sleaze and corruption, so it’s a relief to know I can ignore them’. Meanwhile, the Prime Minister and ministers continue to spin the line that the public doesn’t care about such matters (when they have no grounds to make such assumptions), benefiting from some press collusion by way of a ‘cash for cushions’ trivialisation. An Andrew Marr programme viewer tweeted: ‘It’s very frightening to watch the mainstream media constantly feed us the narrative that we don’t care or expect those who control our fate as a country to be honest’. Of course this is dangerous because it leads to dishonesty being normalised rather than called out. Green MP Caroline Lucas tweeted: ‘There’s a reason Johnson carefully choreographs his image as casual and sloppy, down to fake ruffling of hair before he goes into PMQs or on TV – it’s to help give impression his lies are accidental but it’s a script and he knows exactly what he’s doing. And it’s dangerous’.
Increasingly used this week, the ‘sleaze’ descriptor came into its own at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions in the Commons, during which Keir Starmer forensically presented the evidence for public concerns and questions arising from them. This clearly drove the PM into a finger pointing, fist jabbing fury, the like of which must rarely have been seen in this chamber. (Is another accusation fitting here, that of unparliamentary behaviour?) Boris Johnson must be truly rueing the day he brought Dominic Cummings into his inner circle, since the much-publicised revelations of his blog look likely to exact a revenge on the scale of Jacobean drama. ‘Demands for action grew on Saturday after Boris Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings made a series of allegations relating to his former boss, including that he had been plotting an “unethical, foolish, possibly illegal” plan to get Tory donors to secretly fund the refurbishment of the No 11 flat in which he lives with his fiancee and their young child. The government has since said Johnson has himself paid the £58,000 bill, but it remains unclear whether he paid directly, or received a loan from the party or a donor. Labour has also raised the question of whether the correct tax has been paid on the refurbishments and any potential gifts’.
We have to wonder whether journalist Sarah Vine (not always acknowledged by the media as Michael Gove’s wife) thought she was doing the government a favour by defending the refurbishment many have considered unnecessary, suggesting the PM shouldn’t be expected ‘to live in a skip’. A listener tweeted: ‘No one suggests he should live ‘in a skip’ but having a major refurb from an elite designer is a far cry from ensuring the Downing Street flat is functional and well-maintained. The rest is ego-driven froth in this case’.
Despite categorical denials from the PM and Downing Street staff, the BBC confirmed with various sources and witnesses that the bodies piling high remarks had indeed been made ‘during a heated discussion in No 10’ (no more f……. lockdowns – let the bodies pile high in their thousands’). They were allegedly made ‘after he felt corralled into agreeing to a four-week lockdown in November, months after it was recommended by Sage scientists to curb soaring coronavirus cases. He apparently warned he would never again back another national lockdown’. These words were experienced even more painfully by the Covid-19 Bereaved Families for Justice group, already angry at the government’s claim it was too busy now to launch a public inquiry into the UK’s handling of the pandemic. Again illustrating his occupation of a parallel universe and his capacity for taking the public for fools, the PM said suggestions he had made the remarks about letting bodies pile up were ‘total rubbish’…… What I certainly think is that this country has done an amazing job with the lockdowns. And they’ve been very difficult. And they’ve been very tough for people. And there’s no question about that’.
It’s quite striking and testament to the lack of political awareness in this country (eg one Doncaster vox pops respondent thought the PM in 2017 was John Major and another had never heard of Keir Starmer) that despite all the muck the government is mired in, the Conservatives are still doing quite well in the polls, especially important ahead of next week’s local elections. A YouGov poll for The Timesfound an 11-point gap between the Tories and Labour. The Conservatives are on 44 per cent, the same as a week ago, with Labour down one point on 33. The latest Opinium poll for the Observer suggests the issue of sleaze is getting through, but not yet affecting the parties’ standings. ‘Almost four out of 10 voters think Johnson and the Tory party are corrupt. Some 37% describe Johnson as mostly or completely corrupt, compared with 31% who say he is clean and honest. Even more – 38% – say the Conservative party is corrupt, with 31% saying it is clean and honest’.
The Observer portrays this Prime Minister as unfit for public life, reminding us of the Nolan Principles: ‘Integrity is one of the seven principles of public life, alongside selflessness, objectivity, accountability, openness, honesty and leadership. Enunciated by Lord Nolan in 1995, they set out the ethical standards to which all those who work in the public sector should adhere. It would be fair to expect the prime minister, the most senior public office holder in the land, to set an example for other public servants’. The article shows how the Prime Minister has fallen so short on all of them. ‘That these serious allegations are entirely plausible speaks volumes about just how weak and dishonourable Johnson has already revealed himself to be. Johnson’s premiership embodies perfectly what happens when you get government by people who are motivated not by public service or the national interest but who instead see politics as a power trip that will eventually pave the way for lucrative financial gain. The lack of vision, integrity and principle leaves a vacuum that gets filled with petty infighting, briefing and counter-briefing and obsessing about whether the furnishing of official residences caters to personal tastes’.
At least one commentator believes the ‘sleaze’ descriptor is inadequate. Describing the PM as ‘utterly careless about everyone except himself’, Aditya Chakrabortty likens him to ‘one of F Scott Fitzgerald’s characters, so insulated by privilege that he will never see the wreckage strewn behind him’. He thinks the ‘sleaze’ word is way insufficient to ‘describe the actions of a prime minister who, amid a deadly pandemic, plots with advisers and public officials on how to drum up a reported £200,000 to redecorate his temporary home in Downing Street…This isn’t some fever dream about soft furnishings; it is about who advanced money to our prime minister, and what they may have expected in return, which is why it is now under investigation by the Electoral Commission. From Jennifer Arcuri to a £15,000 winter break in Mustique, every decision smacks of a knowing recklessness and an assurance that the tab will always be picked up by someone else’.
But much as the PM and ministers in their Westminster bubble might like to think they’re through the woods and can control the outcome of inquiries (since, absurdly, in at least one the PM has to give his consent, making him judge and jury at his own trial), serious deficits are appearing behind the scenes. Some senior Tories are suggesting Boris is becoming isolated and ‘uncontrollable’, without trusted aides and close advisers insufficiently experienced to deal with this fallout. One source said: ‘The prime minister is being failed here. There need to be interventions from his team but that isn’t happening. These are the moments when it matters – having people who can say no. He is surrounded now by people he doesn’t particularly trust or particularly know’. A good number of Conservatives must now be worried by what further blows formidable adversary Cummings could be planning to inflict and there’s a feeling that, of the two, Johnson has far more to lose. ‘There is now significant disquiet in the building about what Cummings could say or do next. The former adviser has said he will give evidence to a committee of MPs on 26 May’.
There’s some hope the inquiries will be useful: the Electoral Commission one has ‘sweeping powers to call witnesses and refer matters to the police’ and the one by Christopher Geidt, the new adviser on ministerial standards, sounds as if its initiator won’t have the wool pulled over his eyes. He was described by a former colleague as ‘suave and charming, very proper, clipped and British with a regimental tie, but also with a touch of the spook about him’. Paul Waugh of the Huffington Post tweeted: ‘Boris Johnson says ‘I think I’ve answered this question’, as he fails to answer the question. That may work in PMQs but it won’t work with the Electoral Commission’
But ‘Downing Street admitted that Johnson will retain the power to quash both probes and exonerate himself and ministers’, begging the question as to whether such inquiries are merely a sop to public concern.
Meanwhile, the Law Society has expressed disquiet about changes being made to the judicial review process which are thought to reduce government accountability. ‘Collectively, the most controversial proposals would allow unlawful acts by government or public bodies to be untouched or untouchable. This would harm individuals that challenged them and others who might fall foul of the same unlawful act or decision in the future. The effect of the proposals would be a fundamental distortion of the protection judicial review is supposed to provide against state action, undermining the rule of law and restricting access to justice’. Human rights organisation Liberty said the plans were ‘part of a much bigger attempt to put itself beyond scrutiny in the courts, in parliament and on the streets’.
Confirming findings already published, two further pieces of research indicate how mental health services have not been meeting patients’ needs during the pandemic, many reporting a lower quality of care. The research by University College London found that others had problems accessing medication, with appointments being cancelled and, although this could not be helped to some extent, the loss of in person care was felt acutely. It highlights what we’ve long known, that whereas services delivered digitally are satisfactory for some, for many they are not, due to a number of issues such as poor or inadequate IT systems or lack of confidence with them. One patient said: ‘Lockdown has made me feel very angry. I feel the professionals used it as an excuse to stop offering appointments. I was seeing her every week and it’s been cut to every three weeks by telephone’.
Needless to say, the NHS issued its usual defence, though it’s long been known that there’s serious underinvestment in UK mental health services. ‘The pandemic has taken its toll on people’s mental health, but the NHS has continued to provide mental health services – increased appointments were offered, including face to face, and 24/7 helplines are available to anyone who needs urgent support’.
The NHS doesn’t seem to understand how inadequate many patients and some professionals find digital delivery of services and there’s quite some debate amongst counsellors and psychotherapists about returning (or not) to face-to-face working. Research by mental health charity Mind, involving 2,000 people, found that nearly a quarter of those using NHS services reported their mental health had declined during the pandemic. Specifically addressing the move of services online, ‘about 35% said they found the service difficult to use and 23% said their mental health actually got worse as a result of the support they were offered’. Mind is warning that online delivery mustn’t become ‘the new normal’. Although some respondents liked not having to travel to appointments and appreciated flexibility on timings of sessions, Mind is very clear on what it sees as the downsides. ‘Online therapy cannot be seen as an easy answer to fixing growing pressures on overstretched mental health services. There is no cheap fix’.
On a lighter note, though you do have to wonder about the use (or misuse) of energy, unless it’s a welcome displacement from the depressing news agenda, the Sunday Times tells us how Sainsburys had to apologise for a faux pas. ‘Sainsbury’s has promised to change a picture in one of its Cornish stores because it showed the wrong sort of tea. The image at a branch in Truro depicted a fruit scone — itself an error for purists who say it must be a plain Cornish split — with clotted cream on the bottom and the jam uppermost. The done thing in Cornwall is to put the jam on first, while in Devon they start with the cream’. ‘Creamteagate’ led to a ding dong between various individuals and authorities in Devon and Cornwall, some customers threatening to boycott the supermarket. The article gave rise to numerous comments, one perhaps getting to the heart of how the dispute developed with such ferocity: ‘We need a lot more of this type of news!! The rest is boring, depressing and repetitive. This is both important and entertaining’.
Finally, some gardeners could be worried by reports in The Week of a serious shortage of garden gnomes. Apparently there was a ‘massive upswing in their popularity during lockdown’ but now supplies are running down because of problems associated with the recent Suez Canal blockage. This concern was news to me, always have been led to believe that garden gnomes were the epitome of bad taste, but perhaps I will hear otherwise!