There are almost no words for the shameful spectacle which has engulfed British politics during the last few weeks but which has its roots in the privilege and sense of entitlement nurtured over many years, particularly within the Conservative Party. This will be adding to public anxiety, already long exacerbated by the effects of pandemic and Brexit-related incompetence and corruption. Little could Boris Johnson or Owen Paterson have realised how dramatically and humiliatingly this would unfurl and the fact that it was allowed to explode during COP, when we needed to sell the UK as an effective and dignified democracy, was incomprehensible. As we well know, the PM’s ego rules supreme, yet his astonishing U-turn, when he’d whipped his MPs to support moral compass busting measures to rip up the rules, humiliated and infuriated them. He was then forced to admit to the 1922 Committee that he’d ‘driven the car into a ditch’.
But it’s also now clear, partly thanks to Tom Newton-Dunn in London’s Evening Standard (Wednesday) that the much more independent-minded 2019 intake of Tory Red Wall MPs control the PM’s majority and are now effectively in charge. There are 107 of them, close to a third of all Tory MPs, ‘relatively close-knit, well-organised and held together by their own WhatsApp group called The 109, after a journalist misrepresented their number…. .there’s a new sheriff in town and the 2019ers are the masters now’: they ‘led the coup against Downing Street’s defence of the indefensible, the Old Guard Tory who was bang to rights over corruption’. At the same time as undermining the authority of the PM and Chief Whip they also ‘despatched the Spartans – the group of older and fervently Eurosceptic Tory MPs – who for years had been the pre-eminent Tory grouping and had also orchestrated Owen Paterson’s botched defence’. Boris Johnson’s recognition of this power shift was partly illustrated by his inviting The 109 to drinks at no 10 and apparently working the room hard, assuring them it would all come right in the end. Unlike the older, longstanding grandees, it’s far less likely this lot will be taken in by his plea for them to trust him.
So now there must be an open war within the parliamentary Conservative Party, 2019ers versus the Spartans, the latter now exposed in all their unprincipled glory and likely to lose thousands of pounds in the longer term. Would any of this have come about without Paterson’s protests at his proposed Commons suspension? ‘…they as well as Boris know they control his political future. If they lose their seats in 2024, he loses his majority. It all means the PM now has his work cut out over the next three years to keep them on side. They won’t let him forget them again’. Fascinating stuff but it’s constituents and this country’s reputation on the global stage which suffer most, the effects of which seem to have escaped the PM and his cohort.
Although it’s long been known that some MPs have additional sources of income and many of them are involved in lobbying, the Owen Paterson debacle has caused the massive iceberg beneath this ‘tip’ to emerge. In parliament, 90 out of 360 Conservative MPs have second jobs compared with five of Labour’s 199 MPs and two each from the SNP and the Lib Dems. Questions have rightly been asked as to whether well-paid parliamentarians should have second jobs, which are almost bound to detract from their primary duty to constituents. What’s extraordinary, though, is the difficulty some politicians and media appear to have in grasping the distinction between someone working as a doctor, nurse or teacher (ie public service) and someone blatantly engaged in private sector work with an agenda to influence government policy. It’s been appalling for many to witness the transparency with which the second jobs defenders voted down Labour’s proposals for a clear system with an implementation timetable, instead watering them down to measures which it’s estimated would only affect about 10 MPs. The Standards Committee will report in the New Year on the parliamentary code of conduct including second jobs but we have to wonder what ice this will cut.
The Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer, John Crace, produced a blistering account of Boris Johnson’s performance at Wednesday’s Prime Minister’s Questions. Noting the rare sight of sparsely occupied Conservative benches (on account of their extreme dissatisfaction with their leader) he reckons those who did attend may desist in the future because ‘what we got was Boris at his absolute worst’…. the raw, childlike, unchannelled, psychotic Boris. Angry, out of control and out of his depth. Lashing out randomly while blaming others for his own shortcomings. The shallowness of his empty narcissism ruthlessly exposed. Not a pretty sight and one normally only seen by women and friends he has betrayed’. A key parliamentary moment must have been when an angry Speaker, who normally allows Johnson to get away with far too much, instructed him to sit down, reminding him that it wasn’t the Leader of the Opposition’s questions. But the PM’s day didn’t get any better – he apparently had a rough ride later at the Commons Liaison Committee. ‘If Boris thought his troubles were over once the questions moved away from sleaze, he was badly mistaken. Everyone went for him. Particularly his own MPs. Mel Stride, Philip Dunne, Julian Knight, Tobias Ellwood and Jeremy Hunt all took chunks out of an under-prepared and badly briefed Johnson’.
As if all this wasn’t enough, Boris Johnson further shot himself in the foot via the admission that he benefited from £1800 worth of hospitality at Heathrow in the form of his use of the luxurious private Windsor suite en route to his Zac Goldsmith donated holiday in Malaga. ‘The declaration was made in the latest update to the register of MPs’ interests, where donations or other gifts must be set out, with their value’. In addition, those attending the recent private dinner at the Garrick Club were stunned to hear the PM making unguarded and derogatory observations about his marriage. The New European reports: ‘At the dinner, hosted by Daily Telegraph columnist Charles Moore at the all-male Garrick Club, Johnson appears to have made the grave error of assuming all those gathered at the table were friends whose discretion could be depended on. For a journalist to make such a mistake demonstrates a worrying lack of judgment……the prime minister was asked how family life with his new wife and mother to his child Carrie Symonds was going. His reported answer, that he was experiencing “buyer’s remorse” over the union, astonished some of those present’.
Commenting on this latest lapse of judgement besides the ongoing major one, the article points up the sense of entitlement behind the stance that rules must work in the PM’s favour. ‘And so if a rule doesn’t work in his interest, it should be apparent to everyone that it should change. That is why the government is so brazen when it rips up the rule book, defies standards and conventions, and why it can never really come up with good ways to hide what it’s doing: the man at the top doesn’t even realise he should be hiding it, or should be ashamed. No wonder polls now show the country is getting buyer’s remorse’ (my italics). Shockingly, it’s been revealed that on Thursday night the Director of Communications at 10 Downing Street phoned the New European’s editor, saying Boris Johnson would be suing the paper for defamation but later denied they had made this threat. The paper intends to stand by its story. This is important news in the public interest but the BBC isn’t reporting it and is appearing to intensify its collusion with the government narrative.
More Conservatives seem to be increasingly disenchanted by their leader and more across the politician spectrum are concerned at what they see evidence of growing dictatorship whereby opposing voices are silenced. The latest example is ministers removing funding and powers from the umbrella transport authority for the north following the body’s furious reaction to swingeing cuts to the flagship Northern Powerhouse Rail (NPR) project. Eminence grise and former Chancellor Ken Clarke said: ‘I…am not pleased that people who think like me – internationalist, outward-looking, progressive – have been marginalised. The party is now more right wing and nationalist than at any time in my lifetime’.
As the PM headed for (or should that be ‘fled to’?) Chequers for the weekend, there was understandably much disquiet amongst his colleagues. One former Cabinet minister told the Mirror: ‘There’s a lot of very unhappy people and the longer this rumbles on the more unhappy they’ll become. Boris has failed to get a grip on this and now it’s in danger of spiralling out of control. He has never had many friends in the Commons and the number of times he’s marched us up the hill, he has fewer than ever’. Another Tory backbencher said: ‘A lot of us put our faith in him because he was an election winner. But the scales have started to fall away for many of us. If that lustre continues to fade…’. Another senior Tory said: ‘No 10 is a really difficult job and he doesn’t have the skillset to run it, he just doesn’t. He’s a great campaigner; a terrible administrator. But he doesn’t trust anyone to run it for him’. Professor Rob Ford, an elections expert at Manchester University, observed: ‘I can’t think of a story when there’s been so much harm wilfully inflicted by a government on itself’. Astonishingly, though, voters in recent focus groups still seem to have faith in the government – ‘they’re in an unprecedented situation, they’re doing their best job’. ‘Their’ is surely the operative word – their best job is manifestly way below the standard we should be able to expect.
The Prime Minister didn’t just ‘drive the car into a ditch’, as admitted to the 1922 Committee, but also ran the train into the buffers with the announcement about the northern section of HS2. The government attracted more opprobrium for cancelling its Eastern ‘leg’ to Leeds and also the Northern Powerhouse line. Rail experts branded the revised Integrated Rail Plan ‘incoherent’ and demonstrating a worrying lack of awareness of how railways actually work. In another government flight of fantasy, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps, called the long-awaited £96 billion Integrated Rail Plan, ‘an ambitious and unparalleled programme’ to overhaul links across the north and Midlands.
Yet again (why isn’t there a rule against this?) the plan is an example of misrepresenting the amount of ‘investment’ because only a portion of this is new money. A sceptic tweeted: ‘Now that rail development plans have proved to be a Johnson lie, will the penny finally drop that the benefits of levelling up and Brexit have also been a Johnson lie?’ Critics have observed that the anger and sense of betrayal in the region are palpable, perhaps seen as a final nail in the coffin of ‘levelling up’? We’re now faced with the disconnect just after COP26 whereby passengers and freight that would have moved on clean, swift trains will instead be burning up petrol on the roads.
Interviewed on Radio 4’s Today programme, Rother Valley MP Alex Stafford breezily alluded to the need to get all the properties compulsorily purchased ‘back on the market’ but this isn’t likely to happen any time soon, if at all. An HS2 letter to local councillors stated: ‘Safeguarding remains in place along the full route, as does access to the range of HS2 property schemes. At this time, we do not expect any changes to safeguarding, or to eligibility for these schemes, unless and until different plans are confirmed’. Stafford’s stance, not to mention that of ministers, also ignores the plight of those whose homes were compulsorily purchased. Today Labour’s Lord Berkeley alluded to a ruling (doesn’t the government know?) which in such circumstances allows compulsorily purchased homes to be bought back at the same price. This surely needs a more media coverage.
Journalist Jonathan Freedland traces the trajectory of how Boris Johnson’s personal dishonesty has spread wholesale to the Conservative Party, the lies and broken promises ranging from HS2 to Brexit. ‘But dishonesty is no longer merely the character flaw of one man. It has become the imprint of his party and this government.
‘Admittedly, the Conservatives’ collective dishonesty is less florid than Johnson’s individual variety. If you were being kind, you would call it intellectual dishonesty or, kinder still, magical thinking. Sometimes it takes the form of arguing two contradictory things at once; often it comes down to saying one thing and doing the exact opposite…. The government has adopted Johnson’s notorious attitude to cake – wanting to have it and to eat it – and made cakeism its defining creed. The Tories want both to look good on climate and withhold cash from the transport system. They want both to spend big and keep taxes low. They want both to leave the EU and keep Northern Ireland exactly as it was. They want both to hold the red wall and keep giving preferential treatment to their own blue-wall faithful’. Unfortunately, though, judging by the polls, some are still taken in by the false promises.
There’s been increasing concern recently at how the BBC is colluding with the government narrative, in flagship news programmes focusing on what’s happening elsewhere or frankly trivial issues rather than government misdemeanours and failures. A clear example of this is the focus on the rise of Covid cases in Europe when the situation is worse here. Statistics for Thursday recorded 46,807 infections in the last 24 hours, 277,261 infections in the previous 7 days, 199 deaths during the previous 24 hours and 1,026 deaths during the previous 7. Austria is to go into a national lockdown on Monday as a fourth wave of coronavirus sweeps across Europe. Vaccinated and unvaccinated people alike will be ordered to stay at home for between 10 and 20 days, with exceptions for grocery shopping, taking exercise and seeking medical help. Vaccination will be compelled from February. Yet a chart of COVID cases per million people clearly shows the UK (as third, after Belgium and the Netherlands) as having a higher number of cases than the countries constantly featured in the news. Ministers are still holding off introducing Plan B measures like mask wearing despite further evidence of its efficacy. They seem terrified of upsetting sceptics and vaccine hesitants but at what cost?
A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘Flabbergasting that Today presenters are so nonchalant about the extremely high Covid 19 infection rates in UK, in top 3 in world, completely overlooking this in coverage of other W European countries where there is concern on high infection rates & which are now taking measures’. It’s frankly terrifying that rather than acting on the evidence the government is relying on chance and luck: ‘Ministers hope immunity is higher in England than in some other countries because of the decision to open up earlier’. Even worse is the nonchalance around the state of the NHS, whereby ‘significant strain’ seems to be acceptable despite the stress and upset it causes staff. Ministers only react when it’s ‘at breaking point’. A clinician said: ‘We’re going to have high levels of infection for many months, so I think the NHS will unfortunately be under significant strain. It may not get to breaking point, where we were close to before, but significant strain for a very long period of time is certainly on the cards…’. This is the kind of thing guaranteed to rack up public anxiety – the increasing awareness that ministers are in office but not in charge.
For quite some weeks now we’ve witnessed media handwringing about possible shortages at Christmas, from food to consumer goods and toys. Now we also have it about next week’s Black Friday spending extravaganza, surely a disconnect hot on the heels of COP26 if there ever was one and a key candidate for Twitter’s First World Problems hashtag. Retail experts predict that shoppers will spend £9.2bn next weekend – 15% more than in 2020 when much of the UK’s high street was in lockdown. Numerous retailers don’t stop at just one day or even a weekend – Black Friday offers seem to be running for over a fortnight in some cases. It’s ironic that news programmes don’t seem to see the contradiction of covering climate change and the Right to Repair initiative, only minutes later to bang on about Black Friday.
The knotty issue of cultural restitution has come to the fore again, focusing on the perennial case of the Elgin Marbles but which has implications for many museums and heritage organisations. How typical then, of our Prime Minister to demonstrate his laissez faire approach once more, saying the decision would be up to the British Museum. Surely what we need is a consistent policy on cultural restitution and not this abdication of responsibility, which puts unfair pressure on individual institutions. But this is seen as a softening of the government’s position because before this it had been opposed to returning the marbles to Greece. ‘Johnson met the Greek prime minister, Kyriakos Mitsotakis, at No 10 on Tuesday evening, with Mitsotakis reiterating his offer to exchange a series of treasures that had never before left Greece as rotating exhibitions for the British Museum in exchange for the marbles’. Or could Boris Johnson just be telling the Greek PM what he wanted to hear?
You couldn’t make up the next bit, when the spokesman reiterated the independence of the British Museum when we’ve increasingly seen evidence of government influence in the cultural sector, regarding the linking of funding to institutions’ stance on historical interpretation (acknowledgement of slavery connections, etc). ‘The British Museum operates independently of the government. It is free, rightly, from political interference…..’. And, conveniently, the chair of this ‘independent’ institution’s trustees is one George Osborne. This issue isn’t going away any time soon. ‘There is no doubt that the pressure is building up for genuine, post-imperial reconciliation in the cultural sphere and Johnson is trying to evade it. Greek media said Mitsotakis had told the UK leader the marbles were “a significant issue” for bilateral relations that Athens would not be dropping’.
Still on cultural matters, an interesting article laments the lack of attention paid to ‘treasures’ rarely treated to media attention because they’re housed in institutions in the north of the country. This is particularly relevant in the week that London’s Courtauld Gallery re-opens after a three year closure for refurbishment but also because of the much-trumpeted ‘levelling up’ mantra. Although not down to ministers, it could be helpful for journalists, academics and others to highlight these northern treasures. Describing impressive exhibits in York’s art gallery, Rachel Cooke writes on this north-south divide: ‘But still, something in me rankles as I read of this comeback (Courtauld), phase one of which has cost £22m. Once again, London draws all the oxygen, not to mention the cash; once again, it’s as if nothing could possibly be happening anywhere else. I always carry a slight resentment of this metropolitan monomania: a bat-squeak grudge born not only of my roots, but also of the way I tend to side instinctively with the underdog’.
Finally, around this time of year we’re treated to a mince pie league table and this year is no exception. It’s interesting that, perhaps compared with a few years ago, we can no longer predict that the quality retailers will outdo the cheaper ones. We learn from consumer group Which that this year Iceland is stocking the best mince pies. ‘In a blind taste test conducted by 66 shoppers, Iceland’s Luxury All Butter Mince Pies came out joint top with Tesco’s Finest and Co-op’s Irresistible ranges. But at a price of only £1.89, Iceland’s mince pies are the best value at 11p cheaper than the Tesco and Co-op versions’. So, if you like mince pies get thee to Iceland PDQ!