As the shock waves of the Matt Hancock revelations and resignation continue to be felt across the political spectrum, there was derision at Boris Johnson’s later attempt to rewrite history by implying he had actually sacked Hancock, contrary to all evidence. In a car crash Today (Radio 4) interview with Justice Minister Robert Buckland on Monday, Buckland complained about being asked about the Hancock affair when he’d been invited on to talk about youth offending. For once we were treated to a tour de force by presenter Nick Robinson, who gave the minister a deservedly tough ride when so often Labour politicians are grilled and ministers get an easy time.
Questions keep coming about the details of this debacle, the most recent ones focusing on the role and recruitment of non-executive directors. One minister interviewed last week tried to offer reassurance that all appointments were overseen by the Cabinet Office but, as we’ve seen, this ‘oversight’ is lacking and needs rethinking. Peter Riddell, the Commissioner for Public Appointments, said recently that such roles were ‘not regulated at all’ and take place more and more ‘without competition and without any form of regulatory oversight’.
Could it be, though, that rather than ‘hopeless Hancock’ being patronised and lined up as fall guy by Boris Johnson, he’s actually stolen a march on his boss by depriving him of a scapegoat and using questionable contracts/relationships and personal email to protect himself from scrutiny? A related news item this week is that of the Goves divorcing but their statement stresses that ‘no one else is involved’, apparently soon to be contradicted by the Sunday papers, and that they will ‘remain close friends’. What was interesting, though not surprising, about Sarah Vine’s recent article analysing the Hancock affair (and now we know she was speaking partly for herself) was the egoistic pull of Westminster life, the thirst for power needing others to feed it, a process which often would not be performed by a spouse who knew their wiles and defences. ‘…. long-time partners know all your history and insecurities and that they know deep down inside, you are not the Master of the Universe you purport to be.’
‘The problem with the wife who has known you since way before you were king of the world is that she sees through your facade…. there were some politicians who could walk away from power and others who will compromise everything for the sake of it….Westminster changes people… wives of senior politicians are still more or less the same person they were when they got married but their husbands sometimes are not…. And when someone changes, they require something new from a partner. Namely, someone who is as much a courtesan as a companion, one who understands their brilliance and, crucially, is personally invested in it’.
Returning to Hancock, there has also been unease in some quarters at his replacement, Sajid Javid, who raised eyebrows with one of his initial tweets in this role, saying his priority was to reopen the economy. We also understand that he is still continuing to work for the bank J P Morgan. It was as if he was still thinking like the Chancellor he once was, rather than a Health Secretary who should be prioritising public health. Liberal Democrats leader Ed Davey challenged Javid to ‘abolish Conservative cronyism’ at the Department of Health and Social Care, starting by ruling that Tory peer Dido Harding will not be made the next chief executive of NHS England. ‘The public expects so much better from the government during a pandemic’.
The government is between a rock and a hard place, as the alarming rise in Covid cases, the rapid spread of the Delta variant (60% more transmissible than Alpha) and increase in hospitalisations (including the double vaccinated) point to rethinking the 19th July date, but Tory lockdown sceptics, the travel and entertainment industries and others would be up in arms if it was delayed. Public Health England figures show a total of 161,981 confirmed and probable cases of Delta variant have now been identified in the UK – up by 50,824, or 46%, on the previous week. Senior medics are now asking the government to consider retaining some restrictions to help curb the spread of the virus.
‘The British Medical Association (BMA) said that keeping some protective measures in place was ‘crucial’ to stop spiralling cases numbers having a ‘devastating impact’ on people’s health, the NHS, the economy and education. Dr Chaand Nagpaul, BMA Council Chair, said easing restrictions was not an ‘all or nothing’ decision, and that ‘sensible, cautious’ measures would be vital to minimising the impact of further waves, new variants and lockdowns’. Will the BMA’s views cut any ice with the government? We will see. It will not be good for the nation’s mental health to know that such professional opinions have been expressed and ignored, especially if such a strategy results in yet another lockdown. Whatever the decisions are, we can expect some non-compliance to result from the ‘Hancock effect’, just as we had to from the ‘Barnard Castle effect’.
As ever, the government continues to oversell and over-rely on the vaccine, when important measures like Trace and Trace are seriously underperforming. Many are now complaining about what they see as its faulty strategy, pinging via the app anyone who’s been within any distance of someone testing positive, resulting in an increasing number of people deleting the app or switching off notifications. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘I suspect Boris Johnson unlocking promise on 19th has become a hostage to fortune. He’ll unlock & hope that the NHS can muddle through & accuse anyone being critical of being a doom-monger’.
Another blow to Conservatives came in the form of the Batley and Spen byelection on Thursday, the Labour candidate, Kim Leadbetter, winning by a 323 votes. This number would probably have been much higher without the vote being thoughtlessly split by George Galloway and others. The aftermath has seen much speculation about Keir Starmer’s future as Labour leader, but it doesn’t help that the Labour Party’s far left has been so determined to undermine him. The Conservative Party chair, Amanda Milling, rather ungraciously commented that it was ‘a Labour hold, rather than a Labour win’, but the Party must nevertheless be reflecting on their recent byelection losses and what they mean for the Party’s strategy.
While the extent of the Prime Minister’s less than honest statements is becoming better known, it’s hard to conjure with similar statements emerging from the official No 10 spokesman. One of these was the assertion that no personal email had been used in government business, but in the wake of the Hancock debacle, the Good Law Project issued a press release and tweeted that leaks confirmed use of personal email by Health Minister Lord Bethell (who had also sponsored the official pass of Ms Coladangelo). ‘It’s shocking that the Prime Minister, via his spokesperson, is misleading the public…… On 19 April 2020 Lord Feldman (who you’ll recall lobbied to win PPE contracts for at least one of his clients while working at DHSC) emailed Lord Bethell on his private @jbethell.com address about Covid-19 test kits. Plainly this is government business. And plainly Lord Feldman, once co-Chair of the Conservative Party, was writing to James Bethell at his private email address on that government business. This is far from the only email we hold involving Lord Bethell’s private email address’. The press release also mentioned leaked minutes which confirmed Hancock’s own use of personal email. It’s not yet clear how these issues are being investigated – Commons Select Committees can give those appearing before them a rough ride but what outcomes ensue?
Linked to this is evidence, again via the efforts of the Good Law Project, of the existence of a ‘VIP lane’ early in the pandemic not only for PPE supply but also for Covid testing. ‘Bids from politically connected firms to provide Covid-19 tests in Britain were designated as “fast track” according to an email that suggests a VIP priority lane may have operated for tests as well as for personal protective equipment in the early stages of the pandemic….. The same email, sent last April by Max Cairnduff, a Cabinet Office procurement director, also referred to Covid testing, saying there was a separate dedicated email where offers would be “triaged”. It said ‘If they come from a minister/private office then please put FASTTRACK at the beginning of the subject line’. It was later publicly confirmed that a ‘VIP lane’ or ‘high-priority route’ existed for PPE offers’ but it appears this is the first time such a route was found to exist for testing. ‘Jolyon Maugham, director of the Good Law Project, said there was clear evidence of a VIP route for companies supplying testing kits’ but government spokesmen have strongly denied this. Since they had to publicly admit the existence of the PPE one, how long before they admit the evidence of the testing one? An equally important question, though, is why is it left to organisations like the Good Law Project, to hold the government to account?
Still on accountability and its avoidance, it was reported this week that the widow of Jeremy Heywood, formerly head of the Civil Service, has expressed concern at the way the Greensill inquiry is being conducted. Suzanne Heywood is worried about the neutrality of the inquiry Chair, Nigel Boardman, and she fears her husband could be scapegoated to protect the government. Dominic Cummings said the inquiry would be a ‘stitch up’ and, more worryingly, Conservative-connected Boardman is said to have refused to accept a submission from Lady Heywood or anyone else representing her husband, who died in 2018. Besides the probity issues here, we have to wonder about the cost of such inquiries and lack of public confidence in them because of such weaknesses and biases. Wouldn’t you just know that, when asked for a response, a Cabinet Office spokesman supplied the following reassuring statement: ‘The Boardman review is ongoing, and as we have set out we will publish and present his findings to parliament and the government’s response, in due course’.
How often do we hear that government sound bite ‘levelling up’? This week further news emerged of what this really means: ‘declining life expectancy and deteriorating social conditions in England’s poorest areas’. Health inequalities expert Sir Michael Marmot, who produced two groundbreaking reviews on health equity in this country, has now produced Build Back Fairer in Greater Manchester: Health Equality and Dignified Lives, which reveals ‘jaw-dropping falls in life expectancy and widening social and health inequalities across the region over the past year’. One example is that the Covid 19 death rate was 25% higher in this region than the rest of England, made worse by lockdowns and spending cuts. Whereas the government’s idea of ‘levelling up’ (insofar as there is a genuine one) has attracted criticism for focusing on large infrastructure projects, but it seems the Marmot approach is much more granular, focusing on improving the lives of individuals and, crucially but more complex than large projects, getting to the roots of inequality by addressing the underlying social conditions.
‘Marmot called for a doubling of healthcare spending in the region over the next five years, as well as a refunding of local government, to tackle and prevent these inequalities and growing problems such as homelessness, low educational attainment, unemployment and poverty. Future spending should prioritise children and young people, who had been disproportionately harmed by the impacts of Covid restrictions and lockdowns, and had experienced the most rapid increases in unemployment and deteriorating levels of mental health’. The region’s mayor, Andy Burnham, would have had a hand in commissioning this report and sounds very firmly behind the findings and recommendations.
During the last few years much more attention has been paid to the fundraising choices made by cultural institutions and the decision by some to decline donations from companies associated with questionable or downright unsavoury activities. BP has been in the frame and notably American opioid purveyor Sackler. Culture Unstained is a research and campaigning organisation ‘which aims to end fossil fuel sponsorship of culture’ but I think their concerns extend beyond fossil fuel sponsorship. This is such an important issue for cultural organisations because, if they receive government funding in the first place, it will be limited by smaller amounts being made available, leaving them to seek it elsewhere. But there’s often an ethical cost to doing so.
We now hear that the billionaire founder of online gambling company Bet365, Denise Coates, is supporting a major Van Gogh exhibition at the Courtauld in London next year, described as ‘once-in-a-generation’, partly because it will include a previously unseen showing of Van Gogh self-portraits. But it’s not just this exhibition – Coates has funded an entire new exhibition space: the Denise Coates Exhibition Galleries. The Courtauld’s press release quoted her as saying: ‘I feel sure that the newly renovated Courtauld galleries will give all visitors, both in person and online, a world-class opportunity to experience their own connections to visual art. I have found great fulfilment from my own exposure to the visual arts and I am pleased to be able to support that journey for others with The Courtauld’.
Those familiar with the expression ‘there’s nothing new under the sun’ will be interested to learn of research at Cambridge University, reported in The Week, regarding problems which occupy the attention of podiatrists. There have long been concerns about high heels damaging feet, but the 1950s and 1960s fashion for ‘winklepicker’ shoes must have caused similar concern. Now a team of researchers has found that bunions are not a modern phenomenon but one which was common in the 14th and 15th centuries. Based on findings from an excavation of ancient skeletons, it was found that 27% of the population suffered from the ‘bony lumps’ (bunions), attributed to elongated shoes with pointed toes, called poulaines or crakows. These were apparently even worn by priests, despite being forbidden by the Pope. But the shoes didn’t only cause bunions – they also resulted in frequent fractures because of people wearing them falling forward. The mystery surely is how these pointy shoes were ever considered attractive, whether in the 15th century or the 20th.
Finally, something that might make you laugh. I was in Lush this week buying my regular body spray, and as he fetched it for me and chatted about this product, the young server said ‘You can also spray it on your butt cheeks’. Taken aback by this risqué comment to a customer, I realised, as he chatted on, that he’d actually said ‘You can also spray it on your bed sheets’. I wonder how many misunderstandings have occurred this last year as a result of mishearing what someone may have muttered or mumbled behind their mask!