To hear politicians pontificating from their conference hall bubbles recently, you’d almost think there wasn’t a fuel and supply chain crisis surging through the rest of the country, the sticking plaster solutions clearly not working. The request for overseas drivers (some of whom have not minced words in their media about how badly they felt treated by the UK) resulted in just 27 applications, at one point misrepresented by media as 127. It’s estimated about one in six adults have been unable to buy essential food items during the past fortnight and that these shortages, together with fuel and carbon dioxide shortages, have led to panic buying, a vicious circle and the threat of ‘ruining Christmas for millions’. But this obsession with Christmas does seem a bit ‘first world problems’ compared with what’s going on elsewhere in the world. It’s also manifest short-termism because supply chain problems aren’t just for Christmas.
It’s also been suggested that ‘everyday cleaning products’ are becoming hard to come by, but this might be an opportunity to ditch these polluting chemical products in favour of our grandmothers’ remedies for household management, unless, that is, items like vinegar, bicarbonate of soda and lemon juice are also disappearing from supermarket shelves. In which case, the corner shop might save the day, as they were often found to do during lockdowns. Despite much evidence to the contrary, Boris Johnson said the fuel crisis was ‘abating’ and he was ‘very confident’ that this Christmas would be ‘considerably better’ than last year, but by now we have the measure of the value of his ‘confidence’.
How shaming is it that ex-Tesco boss David Lewis has now been parachuted in to ‘save Christmas’ (and the Prime Minister’s skin?) after such a build up of incompetence? Downing Street said ‘Drastic Dave’ has been tasked with ‘both identifying the causes of current blockages (!!) and pre-empting potential future ones, and advising on resolutions either through direct Government action or through industry with Government support’. We’re told ‘this will be the first restriction-free holiday since the Covid emergency erupted in March last year. As such, retailers are expecting a party like no other. Sainsbury’s is taking on an extra 22,000 staff and paying out handsome bonuses’. Maybe this is taking too much for granted (remember last year?) as, despite a seeming news blackout on it, Covid cases are rising (on Friday 127 Covid-related deaths and a further 36,060 infections recorded) and 1 in 4 believe there will be another lockdown this winter. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Sewage in our water, rocketing energy prices empty shelves, fuel supply issues, inflation rising, worst Covid rates in Europe, pigs incinerated, another bleak Christmas: “You’ve never had it so bad” under these BrexiCons’.
Revelations of corruption and profiteering emerging from the Pandora papers leaking came thick and fast during the week, highlighting high profile figures like Tony Blair and those connected to the Conservative Party – hardly likely to inspire confidence. ‘Millions of documents reveal the secret transactions of 35 present and former leaders and more than 300 public officials’, proving once again the apparent belief that for some in public life ethical conduct is optional. The Times reported the case of one party donor. ‘A millionaire Conservative donor who has given more than £500,000 to the party has been named in connection with a corruption scandal in which a bribe was paid to the daughter of Uzbekistan’s president. Mohamed Amersi, who donated to Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign, is said to have advised a Swedish telecoms company on the structure of a deal which was later found to include a £162 million bribe…..Fergus Shiel, from the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, said: “There’s never been anything on this scale and it shows the reality of what offshore companies can offer to help people hide dodgy cash or avoid tax’’…. The leak could prove embarrassing for the British government, which has repeatedly failed to act on promises to introduce a register of offshore property owners despite concerns that buyers could be hiding money-laundering activities’. The parade of world leaders cited by the Pandora Papers shows just how depressingly widespread this kind of covert activity is.
It seems like the Pandora papers constitute a gift that keep on giving, judging by the number of revelations that kept piling up last week. Labour has now written to the co-chair of the Conservatives, Oliver Dowden, regarding donations to 34 Tory MPs by the companies backed by a Russian-born oil tycoon linked to an alleged corruption scandal. One of the striking things about all these ‘arrangements’ coming to light is the lengths those involved and their facilitators have clearly gone to construct complex webs of ownership and provenance to disguise their unsavoury activities.
Another blow for many was the ending on Wednesday of the Universal Credit uplift, defended by Justice Secretary Dominic Raab in a typically poor Today interview, saying it was ‘unsustainable long term’ when pursuing unpaid tax would pay for it and billions have been wasted by this government in crony Covid-related contracts. But there may be another U-turn yet, as a Tory peer who helped design the UC system is tackling the government on it and the now Dr Marcus Rashford has entered the fray. Philippa Stroud, Chief Executive of the rightwing think tank the Legatum Institute and a former adviser to Iain Duncan Smith during his time as work and pensions secretary said: ‘By our calculations, the decision today to remove this uplift will push 840,000 people into poverty – 290,000 of those are children – and so this is … a really bleak day for many, many families up and down the country…. Our safety net is supposed to protect vulnerable people and that includes people who are sick, disabled and who have disabled children at this time.’
Lady Stroud has spoken of challenging Boris Johnson from the House of Lords, noting that the decision was taken by ‘the executive’ and that MPs weren’t given a say. It will be interesting to see if Lady Stroud and/or Marcus Rashford (who has stepped up his campaign against child hunger in the run-up to the government’s spending review on 27 October) will cut any ice. The level of engagement amongst Tory MPs can perhaps be illustrated by the fact that only four turned up to the food bank charity Trussell Trust’s breakfast meeting held during the conference.
Earlier in the week there was justified criticism of Dame Cressida Dick being allowed to stay on in her Met Commissioner post despite evidence of misdemeanours by other serving police officers and of the public inquiry announced in response to the Sarah Everard murder. This government seems to have a particular talent for offering half measures (the fact that the inquiry isn’t statutory means witnesses cannot be compelled to give evidence) but to want kudos for simply appearing to respond to a problem. Surely by now even some Tory supporters are beginning to see through this ‘all fur coat and no knickers’ approach to public policy.
Not surprisingly, much discussion and newsprint this week have been devoted to the Conservative Party conference and a more embarrassingly bad speech by our Prime Minister I can hardly imagine. The contrast between the adoring and gullible sea of faces there and the excoriation by commentators, trade unions and business leaders was palpable. Prior to this, though, Boris Johnson had been interviewed on the Today programme for the first time in two years and it was classic radio when presenter Nick Robinson told the PM to ‘stop talking’, clearly recognising the PM’s determination to control the exchange. Every claim could be deconstructed, for example ‘We’re putting money into every area of UK public services’. Not in any genuine sense as there have been massive cuts in public health services, with serious consequences further down the line, and what is ‘put in’ now in no way compensates for earlier cuts. Only days before during Andrew Marr’s programme had the PM been caught out, claiming that ‘wages are going up’ when Office of National Statistics figures tell a different story.
The conference seemed marked by two profoundly worrying phenomena: the deluded denial from this bubble of the crises engulfing the country (manifested by karaoke sessions which included DWP minister Therese Coffey singing along to I’ve Had The Time of my Life – no doubt benefits claimants would see it differently) and the presentation of failures as successes, for example the shortages as a change of direction, a ‘transition to a high wage economy’. A third could be added: how seriously they take themselves, which would be amusing if it wasn’t so serious. Journalist Rafael Behr supplied a good example of this spin in motion: Michael Gove describing the blights of inequality and poverty pay as a function of the ‘old EU model’ that voters had rejected when the EU had never actually sanctioned low wages and inadequate workplace rights. It all adds up to the most sinister kind of gaslighting.
As for the PM’s speech itself, Times columnist Iain Martin said ‘Boris sounded like a man at the bar in the first class lounge of the Titanic ordering another round of drinks and telling funny stories just after midnight as it becomes clear there is insufficient lifeboat capacity’. It was described as ‘bombastic, vacuous and economically illiterate’ by right wing think tank the Adam Smith Institute, and another conservative think tank, Bright Blue, opined: ‘The public will soon tire of Boris’s banter if the government does not get a grip of mounting crises: price rises, tax rises, fuel shortages, labour shortages. There was nothing new in this speech, no inspiring new vision or policy’.
The Guardian’s John Crace offers a scarily comic analysis: ‘The lights went out and Spandau Ballet played through the PA system. “You’re indestructible, always believing you’re gold” is the narcissist’s theme tune. No wonder Boris loves it. He is the man who doesn’t have to try too hard. Even when the country feels like it is falling apart around him, in his universe he can reconfigure it into his own image as a roaring success.
Johnson looked up and smiled. The conference centre was his kingdom. His bubble. He could say what he liked and no one would care. The audience just wanted to be embraced into his realm. To experience his vision of an England where there were no queues for petrol, no food and labour shortages, no inflation and no tax rises. Those things were all constructs of a media and Labour party obsessed with talking the country down. The longer he went on, the more rambling and lazy the speech became. It lasted a thankfully brief 45 minutes but it wasn’t even immediately clear that he had actually ended as he seemed to finish mid-sentence. No one cared. The audience cheered, none more so than the cabinet – each of whom was desperate not to be seen to be the first one to stop clapping’.
You couldn’t make it up – the conference’s theme was ‘delivery’. The Guardian’s Polly Toynbee describes a ‘party in denial’: ‘ministers witlessly blamed petrol queues on public ‘panic’ – an insult to those desperate to get to work, school or hospital. Next, ministers claimed this had nothing to do with Brexit – even though there are no queues or empty shelves across the Channel…. Under Johnson, Britain is living through a real-time great economic experiment, the uncharted waters of a Brexit without plans: with more than a million job vacancies, will the invisible hand of pure market forces send pay shooting high enough to pull people into unappealing work in far-off places? That free market religion had the fantastical Brexit minister Lord Frost claiming, “The British Renaissance has begun!”Dare the prime minister sit back, arms folded, waiting for free markets to fix everything?’ The current crisis has certainly exposed the dangers of over-relying on ‘the markets’.
In response to a tweet (‘Brexit is done and not to be talked about anymore, and its effects nonexistent. 2. Brexit Wars must be continued as the existence of an external enemy (all evils are due to the EU) keeps the Conservative Party united and in line and in the HoC majority’) a psychiatrist rightly responded: ‘We psychiatrists call this cognitive dissonance and this usually ends badly for your mental health’. Meanwhile, one of the most recent lambastings of our Prime Minister comes from Matthew Parris in the Times, who challenged the view that the PM has lost his judgement (he never had any) and that ‘he broke into Downing Street by clambering up a drainpipe called Brexit’.
Another was from commentator Max Hastings, suggesting it was now time for Johnson to ride off into the sunset: ‘He could resume his career as an entertainer and we might get a PM worthy of the office’. For his replacement ‘the most immediate and important task would be to appoint ministers for their competence, rather than for mere loyalty to their patron…. (and he’s so right about this): a habit has grown up in the media, as well as in the country, of displaying a courtesy towards members of this government that is only justifiable by their possession of state offices and the shrugged mantra “there is no alternative”, rather than any objective assessment of their performances’.
Yet another, from Ellie Mae O’Hagan, director of the Centre for Labour and Social Studies, gets to the theme of this blog, which is the connection between uncaring incompetence leading to crises and the resulting mistrust, which directly impact our mental health. ‘But ultimately this speech is merely tarpaulin the prime minister is using to cover up fuel shortages, soaring living costs and a brutal and cruel social care system that will be relatively unchanged by recent policy announcements. Johnson’s quixotic musings can’t make those issues any less real for the people of this country, and the gap between his rhetoric and their experiences may lead to more mistrust, more cynicism and less belief in the possibility of progressive change – which paradoxically create the anti-politics sentiment that leads to people voting for charlatans who govern in colour’.
We already know how much unmet need there is for mental health services in this country: now a global study has demonstrated what many have long suspected, that the pandemic has caused a huge mental health deficit around the world. Researchers found that cases of anxiety and depression increased dramatically around the world in 2020, ‘with an estimated 76m extra cases of anxiety and 53m extra cases of major depressive disorder than would have been expected had Covid not struck’. Women more affected than men and younger people more than older people.
The project head, Dr Damian Santomauro of the University of Queensland said: ‘The pandemic has placed a large burden on mental health systems that were already struggling to cope. We have to seriously re-evaluate how we respond to the mental health needs of the population moving forward. I’m hoping that our results can provide some guidance to those needing to make decisions around what needs to be prioritised and what populations are most impacted’. Fat chance of that in this country, it seems, as so many alerts have been issued about mental health service failings, which continue to be sidestepped by the NHS and government.
Such deficits are even more to the fore because it’s World Mental Health Day tomorrow, with a timely theme of Mental Health in an Unequal World. Each year the event aims to raise awareness, educate, and decrease the stigma around mental health. A while back the Mental Health Foundation, associated with the event in the UK, produced green ribbon badges (along the lines of the pink breast cancer awareness ones) so if you see one, you’ll know what it’s about. Commenting on the PM’s conference speech, mental health charity Mind said: ‘1.6million people are on the waiting list for mental health support (and 8 million more can’t even get on the waiting list because they’re not ‘sick enough’). But the Prime Minister didn’t mention mental health in his speech at the Conservative Party Conference today’.
Perhaps it’s no coincidence, given ‘that’ conference speech this week, that Radio 4’s Four Thought this week focused on doubt and how we could harness it more productively. Nicola Reindorp, CEO of Crisis Action, believes we should reframe doubt, to be seen as a strength in leaders, not a weakness. ‘I’d seen my own doubts as negative, disqualifying me from leadership. I had seen others believe the same. But, I asked myself, aren’t the best leaders not the ones that say they have all the answers, but those who know they don’t? Not those who say they see it all, but those who ask whose perspective is missing? Rather than a deficiency to be hidden, maybe doubt should be seen as a power to be harnessed?’ Perhaps a healthy alternative to politicians’ denial and hubris? She points out how human beings seek certainty and public figures displaying uncertainty get flak. But managing uncertainty is one of the milestones towards becoming a mature adult and perhaps colluding with people’s need of ‘certainty’ is unhelpful long term. She says ‘potential leaders hide their doubt’ but suggests the conviction that they can’t show it is a barrier to getting the ‘leaders we want and need’. And, importantly, ‘We’re starting to learn more about the perils of over-confidence’. Not half. The best leaders could indeed be the ones who know they don’t pretend have all the answers. ‘Build back better’, anyone? Or, as Greta Thunberg put it mockingly recently ‘Build back better blah blah blah’. And a quote attributed to philosopher Bertrand Russell: ‘The whole problem with the world is that fools and fanatics are always so certain of themselves, and wiser people so full of doubts’.
Finally, two news snippets this week made me wonder if I’d missed April fool’s Day. One was that Evan Blair (son of Tony Blair) has amassed a paper fortune of £167m after his education start-up attracted substantial investment, allegedly making him richer than his father. The other was actor Daniel Craig being made an honorary commander in the Royal Navy, the same rank as his James Bond character. This could be good timing for the actor in his last Bond appearance – what could Commander Craig get up to next?