Various media outlets are now finally discussing the degree to which we can trust the Prime Minister, citing a plummeting in trust over recent months. The major theme of this blog has been the risks to public mental health when we can’t trust our leaders, who function as proxies for our early authority figures (eg parents) and who have a duty of care to psychologically hold their ‘charges’. It’s no coincidence that, since the start of this administration and most particularly since Covid, we have seen repeated inconsistency, corruption and incompetence which severely undermine the trust which should exist between political leaders and the people. This has contributed to the rise in public anxiety and demand for mental health services, themselves in a dire state.
At the recent departure of Angela Merkel as Germany’s longstanding Chancellor, there were understandable criticisms of some of her policies but there was pretty well a consensus on her capacity to ‘hold’ the nation. People could trust her, one manifestation being her pandemic strategy to effectively create a partnership between government, scientists and the people. This meant that, unlike the UK, politicians didn’t try to keep the public in the dark, so although Covid has proved an unprecedented challenge, Germans could feel safer and less anxious overall. There was someone actually in charge, not just in office.
Each week it seems as if an unprecedented amount has happened in the political sphere but this last week must cap them all, our Prime Minister central to all these related issues. It’s well-known that he has ‘got away with it’ all his life but now, finally, it looks as if his cynical, opportunistic and disingenuous chickens might be coming home to roost. And becoming a father once again can’t be expected to save him. To those who try to dismiss the many misdemeanours by saying they happened some time ago there are many more who see this is as a pattern which must be taken into account. A Radio 4 listener tweeted: ‘The attitudes and behavior from the previous year are still relevant today unless those offending individuals can show they have changed. The problem with #partygate is that they tried to deny it rather than fessing up, and therein lies the real problem’. Ok, so it’s ‘Never apologise (genuinely, that is – never explain. Another said: ‘There are some Tory loyalists bending over backwards to defend Johnson. It’s indefensible. The rules were there for a purpose. Millions followed them and missed important family gatherings, some for the last time’.
Adding to the pile on of this week, we now also have news of the Christmas quiz, where Boris Johnson was clearly seen in close proximity to two colleagues, one of whom was adorned by tinsel. We can wonder what else is waiting to come out. It’s noticeable that Downing Street is still trying to fib its way out of these scenarios, suggesting this was a ‘virtual quiz’.
Many are understandably very angry, especially those who lost friends and family members but who had obeyed the ‘rules’ set by the government. Some media phone-in callers still don’t see any of this as a moral failing, though: one even suggested the main problem to be that the revellers just hadn’t done enough to cover it up. Every day more evidence emerged to substantiate the previous revelations, such as The Times revealing that the party had been planned for weeks, invites having been sent via WhatsApp. ‘Invitations to last year’s event were circulated at the end of November, asking people to attend the press office’s “secret Santa” gathering with an exchange of gifts. The invitation said it would be held on December 18 and that there would be food and wine’.
As if this wasn’t enough, the Guardian attempts to list this plethora of parties, amounting to no fewer than six, and how many more might come to light?
I spoke too soon, as the independent Byline Times has identified eight parties including one at no 10 itself, allegedly organised by Carrie Johnson to celebrate the exit of Dominic Cummings. But as we’ve seen this year, Cummings has been more than getting his own back by intervening at crucial junctures, most recently on Partygate, saying it would be ‘very unwise’ for Downing Street to lie about these parties.
The Guardian’s John Crace lampooned the ‘partygate’ deniers (‘Sajid Javid and Mike Ellis both claim nothing untoward happened at events that did not take place’), describing how many tied themselves up in knots trying to defend the indefensible and cynically accepting ‘assurances’ that nothing of this kind took place. In retrospect, the media were fortunate (or unfortunate, depending on how you look at it) to have any ministers appear on their programmes during the early part of the week because in the latter part they were refusing to appear (finally refusing to do the PM’s dirty work and fed up with being put in a difficult position?), to the extent that the Today programme actually had to (!) interview an opposition spokesman instead. Many of those listening were impressed with the reasoned arguments of Wes Streeting, Shadow Minister for Health and Social Care.
It adds insult to injury that the Met Police have found all sorts of excuses not to investigate the party, especially when social media and media shows are full of callers saying how devastated they are to learn of this levity and complacency when their own relatives were sick and dying alone. The key excuse was the absurd suggestion that past events could not be investigated when, by definition, all crime is retrospective. Policing and prosecution sources told the Guardian there was no reason in law for police not to investigate, and essentially the Met’s decision was a choice. A former Met police chief said the force was acting as judge and jury. ‘Each investigation must pass a public interest test – that is, is it in the public interest to put resources, time and effort into an investigation. It is up to the discretion of the force, and ultimately subjective’. Surely such important decisions should not be discretionary: there should be uniformity across all police forces so that events of undeniable importance should be consistently investigated.
Going back to the start of the week, which now seems a long time ago, we heard Dominic Raab’s car crash interviews denying evidence of the ‘shambolic’ exit from Afghanistan and how the safety of Afghans who’d worked for the British government had been put at risk through careless exposure of their contact details; not long after Sajid Javid had said they had no intention of re-introducing Covid restrictions the government, finally spooked by Omicron, er, re-introduced Covid restrictions; the refusal of ‘Partygate’ to go away, leading to numerous MPs and ministers including Kit Malthouse choosing to accept ‘assurances’ that no party took place; as the hugely damaging footage of the mock Allegra Stratton party interview emerged, absurd attempts to redefine ‘party’ (eg ‘gathering’ or ‘a few drinks’); the resignation of a tearful Allegra Stratton proving that, clearly, a party had taken place; the emergence of news that other parties had also taken place including one held by then Education Secretary Gavin Williamson; and now the possibility that Boris Johnson misled Lord Geidt, who was investigating the issues around the financing of the Downing Street flat refurbishment and for which the Conservative Party has already been fined nearly £18k for not fully disclosing.
One of these would have been enough for people to question Boris Johnson’s credibility and integrity but the full range means there can be no doubt of what many have long known. Yet, astonishingly, as heard on various radio programmes, those in denial continue to call in, suggesting the Prime Minister has had a very challenging year and has dealt well with the pandemic via the vaccine rollout (when it’s been clear for some time that this can’t be the silver bullet originally intended), refusing to acknowledge what many are now openly calling the PM’s serial lying. Perhaps the clue lies in Stephen Nolan’s BBC 5 Live Friday programme, in which author and journalist Harry Mount, who’s known Johnson for a number of years, acknowledged the sheer disorganisation central to the PM’s modus operandi (and to some degree the lying) but said ‘you can’t help liking him’, citing ‘enormous charm’. Nolan rightly challenged the issue of liking someone who lies, and Mount responded that whether or not Johnson had completed his Telegraph article back in the day was ‘only a little lie’.
The stance of Tory stalwarts like Sir Roger Gale, interviewed on Radio 4, who kept stressing his ‘incredulity’ about the party has to be heard to be believed: this is either extreme naiveté (unlikely in a seasoned politician) or cynical denial to protect their own position. Accepting no 10 ‘reassurance’ about the Downing Street party (and the others) is effectively an admission of lack of backbone and moral compass, in my view.
Johnson’s conduct might just about pass muster for the journalist the PM once was but surely not for major political office. It comes to something when Johnson is publicly eviscerated by former Attorney General Dominic Grieve and former Speaker John Bercow, whose statement in a tv interview ended with the devastating ‘I’m sorry to say it, but I’ve known 12 Prime Ministers in my lifetime and by a country mile Boris Johnson is the worst… this guy stinks in the nostrils of decent people’. Oof.
Even worse comes from his own side, though. Westminster sources are suggesting this the endgame for him and Conservative MPs have not held back, judging by comments in the i newspaper: ‘Two years on almost to the day from Boris’s biggest triumph he has, not to put too fine a point on it, f***ed it. His chances of making the next election have slipped well below 50-50. He is treating the British public like he has his previous relationships and it’s not an edifying sight. Using a football analogy, another said: ‘He gave us some great victories, but now it feels like we’ve got a Mourinho during his second season and he’s lost the dressing room’.
Even given the prevailing shambles, though, it’s thought the 80 seat majority and Tory MPs reluctance to initiate a leadership challenge will ensure Boris Johnson will yet again emerge not unscathed but safe for now. So much for democracy in this country. This is the kind of statement that says it all, the use of euphemistic language clearly intended to take the heat out of it: ‘The next 18 months are going to be really difficult for him and he cannot afford any more missteps’. So this ‘dressing room’ is rather a mixed bag.
Meanwhile, on Friday pollsters reported Labour taking a six-point lead over the Tories and all eyes will be on the North Shropshire by-election next week to see if those constituents have woken from their long-term Tory MP returning slumbers. (You might recall that, a few weeks ago when news of the Owen Paterson scandal broke) numerous locals interviewed in Oswestry hadn’t known about his fall from grace and came out with views like ‘They’re all as bad as each other’/’Better the devil you know’.
It’s strange that Covid restrictions such as mask wearing on public transport have been introduced before Parliament votes on them. Many more were wearing masks on the London Underground and for the first time ever this week I saw Transport for London enforcement officers at work, but within days it was more ‘relaxed’, with only some station staff wearing a mask, or half wearing it. The restrictions have been lampooned on social media for their mixed messaging, ie ‘Don’t go to work, go to Christmas parties’.
The government faces a tough challenge when these measures come to the vote next week as around 57 Tory MPs have declared their intention to vote against them on the grounds of ‘human rights and civil liberties’. This prompted a tweet from a specialist in international refugee law: ‘Nope, sorry, not feeling it. If you’re an MP saying you’ll vote against public health measures because of “human rights and civil liberties”, but voted for the Borders Bill, which specifically strips both from other people, you obviously don’t care about either.’
But how will these MPs react to the leaked news that, due to Omicron cases rising exponentially, yet further measures are likely to be necessary? Interviewed on Radio 4’s Broadcasting House today, it was quite refreshing to hear Wales First Minister Mark Drakeford come out and say how ‘selfish’ it was in response to the stance of Tory MP Marcus Fysh and others up in arms about restrictions such as mask wearing. He rightly pointed out that such people were only concerned about their own freedom, rather than the collective concept of freedom which means considering others.
‘The warning (about the possibility of further restrictions) came as the government reported a further 50,867 daily Covid cases, 813 more admissions to hospital and 148 additional deaths on Thursday, marking rises on all measures over the past week. Omicron spreading faster than in South Africa The UK Health Security Agency identified a further 249 Omicron cases on Thursday, almost twice the number announced the day before, bringing the UK total to 817’. Experts predict that this pattern is likely to continue, possibly leading to 8,000 in a week and 64,000 in two weeks on top of the continuing Delta cases’. We know the government is going to review these measures on 18 December, suggesting that this gives people time to consider their Christmas arrangements but it’s far too late in the day for that. In any case we have to seriously consider the possibility that the government’s proven hypocrisy regarding Covid rules means that any made now are likely to be widely disregarded.
But the big question which must be occupying many minds now is whether Christmas in terms of gatherings and household mixing can go ahead and major decisions on 18 December will leave many scrambling to implement their own Plan B. Commentators have rightly pointed out that ministers with a different take on these issues will be deciding this year, ie Steve Barclay and Sajid Javid, as opposed to the more cautious Michael Gove and Matt Hancock this year. Those of us who fault the government’s short-sighted policy of focusing mostly on vaccination as the silver bullet have been vindicated by at least one adviser to the government’s Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (Sage), who described this approach as “all the eggs in one basket”: it puts everything onto ‘scientific intervention’ to limit the spread of Covid than human behaviour.
But the Prime Minister’s broadcast (pre-recorded, which was criticised for the fact that no journalists would be there to ask questions) this evening wasn’t as some may have wished (his resignation) but to declare a state of (Omicron-driven) emergency which previously he had seemed fairly relaxed about. What a lot can change in a week.
As for the resignation of scapegoat Allegra Stratton, many were infuriated first by the original footage showing her laughing and joking on film then unconvinced on Wednesday by her tearful appearance in front of tv crews when she had known about this and lived with it for a year. For anyone with a moral compass this would be quite a task. ‘The British people have made immense sacrifices in the battle against Covid 19. I now fear that my comments in the leaked video of 20 December may have become a distraction against that fight’, said Stratton, whose resignation surely would not have happened without the emergence of the incriminating footage. Before this the party was still being denied by official sources but this resignation placed it beyond doubt. Robert Peston, ITV’s political editor, who had worked with Stratton while she was a journalist, said her resignation was confirmation the event had taken place. “She is a model for many in modern politics … in that she has taken responsibility and quit without prevarication. It would be nonsensical for [Stratton] to have resigned if the Downing Street party had never happened, and she wasn’t conspicuously making light of it. So she has just blown up the prime minister’s ‘I’ve been assured the party never happened.’”
The investigation of ‘Partygate’ by Cabinet Secretary Simon Case has already been labelled a ‘whitewash’ in some quarters – like so many inquiries which have taken place over recent years, such a waste of public time and money. Numerous newspaper columns and commentaries have now been devoted to the ramifications of Partygate but it’s worth reading John Crace on it – he manages to be funny at the same time as capturing the ghastliness of this situation. In ‘It’s my party and I’ll lie if I want to: Boris Johnson is bang to rights’, Crace observes the demeanour of Johnson’s colleagues at Prime Minister’s Questions on Wednesday. ‘Some of the Tory backbenchers looked furious. The others just appeared bewildered to have been fooled for so long. Taken for mugs, like the rest of the country. But they needn’t have been. After all, Boris Johnson was always going to be Boris Johnson. A liar is gonna lie. He speaks, he lies. He’s a man without moral authority who degrades and poisons everything with which he comes in contact. A sociopath whose main pleasures are self-preservation and laughing at those to whom he has a duty of care’. While the PM tries to brazen out the accusations and jeers coming from the floor, even trying to play the innocent by saying he was ‘furious’ when he saw ‘that’ footage, ‘…his eyes gave the game away. Bloodshot, furtive pinpricks. The telltale signs of the chancer who feels his world beginning to close in on him’.
Despite the PM’s reality distortions ‘no one believed the prime minister, so could he at least show some self-respect by admitting the truth…. The rules were for the little people. Like Tricia, who had not been able to say goodbye to her mother in person while staff at No 10 were having a knees-up and rehearsing their lies. Like the Queen, who had sat alone during Prince Philip’s funeral. Just not for Boris and his cronies. They could do what they wanted… Labour’s Rosena Allin-Khan wondered how Boris sleeps at night. The answer was simple. He sleeps on one side of the bed and his conscience sleeps on the other. God knows where Carrie sleeps’.
With so much going on last week something potentially important could be overlooked (though many commentators fear it misses the boat) – that is the government’s new ten year drugs strategy. This (eventually) comes in the wake of the second part of the review, published in July, by Dame Carole Black, who estimated that the illicit drug market in the UK was worth £9.4bn a year, but cost society more than double that figure in terms of health, crime and societal impacts. This is surely the most important issue to consider: I always remember a striking exhibit in the Wellcome Collection’s exhibition about drugs some years ago. It was a frieze occupying the length of an entire wall, which tracked the journey of drugs such as cocaine from their origins in South or Central America to the streets of Europe, adding on the financial and human costs at each stage. It’s this chain of misery which the government probably rightly believes that ‘middle class weekend cocaine users’ just don’t get as they don’t see the wider implications of their recreational use.
‘So-called “lifestyle” users of class A drugs face losing their passports or driving licences under proposals designed to target wealthy professionals who the government will argue are driving exploitative practices with their demand. Police officers will be handed powers to go through drug dealers’ phones and contact their clients with warnings about drug use in a bid to spook them into changing their behaviour’. Ministers have been said to be now convinced that drug use is a health issue and that the strategy will include ‘overhauling’ treatment plans. It will be interesting to see how this strategy pans out – commentators are already critical of it ‘for going “backwards” by embracing a criminal sanction-led approach while other countries and federal states are adopting more progressive approaches, such as legalisation of cannabis in Canada’. And a recent analysis of policies in other countries concluded that, contrary to expectation and belief in some quarters, decriminalising cannabis use, for example (often seen as the first step to use of heavier drugs) has not actually done away with the illegal trade, a major goal of decriminalisation. At least one irony is that evidence has been found of drug taking in the House of Commons.
Finally, some light relief in the form of a cheering story. Since March 2017 Lancashire plumber James Anderson has been offering free or low cost plumbing services to those in need, like the elderly bed-bound man whose boiler had stopped working. ‘Since that day, Anderson has worked to protect other vulnerable people from exploitative or unaffordable heating bills. He founded Depher, a community interest company (he is in the process of turning it into a registered charity) that provides free or heavily subsidised plumbing and heating services to people on low incomes and other vulnerable groups. Around 30% of Depher’s funding comes from donations, although it’s always a struggle to get enough. The rest comes from Anderson’s own pocket. When he launched Depher, he closed his profitable plumbing and heating business without thinking twice’. This work has made him aware of the hidden poverty in his town, likely to get worse with rapidly rising energy bills. He says: ‘It’s not about getting a reward. It’s about that feeling of humanity you get when people work together. Imagine how much better this country could be, if everyone pulled together’. Quite right and good on him – what an absolute contrast to the cynical manoeuvrings of this government.
This blog will now be taking a break till the New Year. Seasonal greetings to everyone and thanks for following and reading!