Sunday 23 January

The febrile political atmosphere has been intensifying over the last fortnight, catalyzed by ‘Partygate’, as allegations and revelations come thick and fast, the Prime Minister finally well and truly on the ropes. Although anger over Partygate has been building since before Christmas, three key events this last week have heightened tensions – the emergence of a significant email from a senior official warning Martin Reynolds, the PM’s personal private secretary, not to hold the summer party on 20 May, making crystal clear that this could not be described as ‘work’ (although such a gathering would also have been illegal); proof that Boris Johnson had indeed known in advance about the party (despite his protestations to the contrary); and the latest silo from his nemesis Dominic Cummings to the effect that he had challenged the PM about the party but this was ignored.

And these three events build on Johnson’s non-apology in the House of Commons which had angered so many, especially the thousands who had stuck to the rules and were unable to see loved ones before they died from Covid. Sue Gray must have lost count of the number of ‘gatherings’ she has to investigate since it emerged that the ones hitting the news were supplemented by regular ‘wine down Friday’ drinks, which Boris Johnson observed en route to his flat but did nothing to intervene on. As if this wasn’t enough, rumours have been circulating of further parties in the PM’s flat, involving friends of Carrie Johnson. Gray will now have access a detailed log of staff movements in and out of the building from security data including swipecards.

With his long history of getting away with things, it seems if he gets away with this mountain of fibs and misdemeanours, he can get away with anything. Facilitated, shockingly but predictably, by a scores of sycophants prepared to suppress any moral compass they may have possessed to ensure their own survival, not to mention the too often compliant media. The threat to Johnson’s leadership of so many ‘2019ers’ (Red Wall Tory MPs taking seats from Labour at the last election) and others writing letters to the 1922 Committee seems to have slightly receded and the defection of Christian Wakeford to Labour is said not to have had the impact it could have had, but knowing what we know now, this version could be ministers briefing against the rebels. But as the PM and ministers continue to repeat the litany ‘wait for Sue Gray’s report’ (when civil servant Sue Gray isn’t even independent and is quite likely to exonerate the PM in yet another whitewash) these revelations about bullying whips could prove further nails in the PM’s political coffin.

‘Tory whips were accused on Thursday of using dirty tactics to intimidate rebels as Boris Johnson was said to be increasingly convinced he could see off a vote of no confidence. Though allies of Johnson believe a vote is almost inevitable after the inquiry into Downing Street parties is published next week, one cabinet minister said on Thursday there were now significant doubts among the rebels about whether they could defeat the prime minister. The Guardian has been told of at least five MPs who have expressed concerns about the government threatening funding for their constituency or encouraging damaging stories to be published in newspapers’. Typically, the PM and various ministers have said they’ve ‘seen no evidence’ of those threats: of course they won’t have if they look the other way and don’t do or say anything to arouse the whips’ ire. Such stonewalling will be stopped in its tracks if the victims of this bullying decide to release recordings or texts of these exchanges with whips. It’s also quite possible that the rebels remain firm, as it’s been suggested that sources close to the PM have been briefing against the rebels as a damage limitation exercise.

A Radio 4 stalwart tweeted: ‘It’s not the whips pulling the strings, is it? They do what Johnson tells them to. It’s the Eton Flashman bullying system, fags, whips etc. same thing. The bully at the top infiltrates those below’.

With the title ‘Baby-faced assassin has Boris Johnson in his sights’, the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer describes how Tory MP William Wragg outed the whips’ alleged bullying tactics as he opened proceedings of the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Select Committee, which he chairs. ‘He wanted to make a statement, he said. It had been brought to his attention that a number of MPs believed to be unhappy with Johnson’s leadership had reportedly been intimidated by government whips and threatened – in a direct breach of the ministerial code – with having public money withdrawn from investments in their constituencies. Furthermore, these MPs had also allegedly been leant on with blackmail threats. If they didn’t fall in line, then the government would whisper in the ear of tame newspapers to plant hostile stories – who cared if they were true? – in the press’. 

Wragg is surely naïve about this, though: ‘As such it would be my general advice to colleagues to report these matters to the Speaker of the House of Commons and the commissioner of the Metropolitan police’. Good luck with that as neither of these two sources of authority have shown any recent interest in exercising it in the current context. Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie tweeted: ‘Lots of people trying to discredit William Wragg. I believe him. In last 24 hours two Tory MPs have told me how whips have threatened their constituencies but both are frightened about going public. It’s shameful behaviour by the whips’. Another commentator said: ‘The whips & no10 briefing against junior MPs is a desperate low. Everyone is lambs to the slaughter for the man who wanted to be king of the world and pissed it all away’.

I found it equally interesting but appalling listening to an interview with a former whip, Rob Wilson, during Thursday’s edition of Radio 4’s The World tonight, in which Wilson said people didn’t understand the whipping process (how could they when it’s been kept so dark within the Westminster bubble?), going on to casually and almost jokingly allude to some of the very unpleasant tactics used. He seemed concerned that news coverage might ‘blow the lid off years of parliamentary practice’ but in my view it’s high time the public was made to see what dastardly tactics are being used behind the scenes of our ‘democracy’. Another interviewee was Lucy Fisher, deputy political editor at the Telegraph, who interestingly implied that the 2019er rebels could be more courageous as they had mainly only had each for political company (eg via WhatsApp) and because of the restrictions and their recent election had not been inculcated into Westminster culture over years like their more experienced colleagues.

I spoke too soon about the police tardiness in investigating serious allegations as the Met has now agreed to meet Wragg next week and has even more cause to do so following suggestions that Conservative ministers and whips have started spreading rumours about his personal life. It’s noticeable that deniers and apologists interviewed in the media so far aren’t those who would attract the attention of the whips and even if the whips don’t have the power to remove funding from certain constituencies it doesn’t stop them making the threats. How refreshing to hear Chris Bryant (Chair of the Committee on Standards) on the Today programme on Saturday, telling it how it is, including the fact that at least 12 MPs have spoken to him about these bullying tactics. Christian Wakeford has recently confirmed that Gavin Williamson was the MP (then a whip) who threatened to cancel a new school in his constituency if he voted against the government on free school meals.

What could complicate the picture further is the extent to which the parliamentary Conservative Party is divided, more and more factions emerging which could prove problematic in getting the government’s agenda through. Not that there’s been that much progress in any area, especially ‘Levelling Up’. The more Johnson feels his position under threat the more concessions he could be tempted to make to satisfy noisy demands, the 2019ers themselves numbering more than 100 MPs. The list includes Singapore-on-Thames brigade (MPs ‘frustrated that after departure from the EU Johnson has not fully seized what they believe are the opportunities for slashing regulations and focusing on growth through unfettered free enterprise’); Brexit ultras; lockdown opponents (largely comprising the so-called Covid Recovery Group, anti lockdown and restrictions); net zero sceptics; the 2019 intake (feeling ‘let down and worrying that the man who helped propel them into parliament is now electorally toxic’); the culture warriors (includes the Common Sense Group (!), led by the veteran MP John Hayes, which opposes what it calls “subversives” such as Extinction Rebellion and Black Lives Matter); and the dislikers (linked by the desire for Boris Johnson to go).

Before all this, though, the situation was already building to a crescendo, with David Davis’s unexpected intervention at Prime Minister’s Questions (‘in the name of God, go’), the highly transparent and absurdly named Operation Save Big Dog and Operation Red Meat intended to beef (!) up Johnson’s flagging authority, and the appalling (in the eyes of many) decision for Plan B restrictions to be eased despite the mounting Covid death toll. For weeks the government and collusive media have been spinning the line that the pandemic is mostly in the past, but a clinician interviewed recently is probably right: we might be past the peak of Omicron but not beyond the broader pandemic. A commentator tweeted:  ‘How could anyone in their right mind look at this data and justify lifting the basic protective measures we still have left? Our PM is literally gambling with our lives to save his own job!’ Another said: ‘No experts attended Sajid Javid’s conference. This is because this move is purely political and not based on science or medical advice. Johnson is making decisions that will kill people in order to stay in power. It is corrupt and it is murderous’.

One of the planks of both ‘operations’ was Johnson loyalist Nadine Dorries’ statement about the future of the BBC licence fee, a dog whistle aimed at galvanizing right wingers against alleged left-wing bias when it’s been clear for years that the bias is right wing. She stated that the BBC licence fee will be abolished in 2027 and the broadcaster’s funding will be frozen for the next two years. There are difficulties with both the licence fee and a subscription system but what always strikes me is the strange attitude some have that because they don’t watch the BBC ‘live’, then they are not liable to pay and the failure of some to see how much good content there is across the board of BBC radio and tv programming which may not be apparent to those who default to Netflix and their like. The danger with Dorries’ threat is that news coverage will become even more right wing biased, as both the Tory chairman and director general seek to appease their paymasters by failing to challenge the Tory narrative. It also threatens the longstanding reputation of the BBC as a state broadcaster which has generated trust globally, not a good plan in terms of geopolitics.

Many will be troubled by the announcement so transparently aimed at shoring up the PM that plan B measures will stop on 26 January and compulsory self-isolation for people with Covid on 24 March. Already some arts and hospitality venues are resisting this and asking visitors and customers to continue wearing masks inside except when eating or drinking. ‘A director of public health at a city in the north of England said they were also concerned at the move. “This feels like more of a political decision than a decision based on the evidence and the science, and it could be quite London-centric…We’re seeing a reduction in cases, but they’re still incredibly high. Taking out all these measures does feel risky. And if our focus is keeping kids in schools as much as possible, this may result in more disruption to education. I worry the decision has not been made for the right reasons.” While Johnson’s statement will please a number of his backbenchers, it prompted concern from teaching and health unions, and from NHS and public health representatives’. This situation could also heighten existing polarities between the non-compliant and the risk averse as the latter will no longer be able to argue that rules are in place to mandate mask wearing, etc. And where does this leave employers who want their staff back in the office, faced with a good number, most likely, who prefer to continue working at home?

What all this unfortunately lays bare is the plummeting of standards in public life, from the casual drinking and socialising culture clearly pervading Downing Street to the dirty tactics increasingly used by those in power to influence policy making and funding. More importantly, it affects the mental health of all of us: not only are we in the hands of an incompetent and disingenuous government but this same government is chillingly prepared to sacrifice lives and the public’s mental wellbeing in order to cling to power. So much for democracy – it seems absurd that so much hangs on the Conservative Party and what it decides over the next few months. There should surely be a way, in extremis, of the electorate being able to call for an election or vote of no confidence. It doesn’t help that we have a compliant media, as least as far as the right wing press and the BBC are concerned, the flagship programmes subjecting news items with potential for government embarrassment to a blackout (eg the current massive buildup of lorries en route to Dover, tailing back 15 km ) and not challenging the PM or ministers for repeating untruths like the ‘UK has the fastest vaccine rollout in Europe’. Ditto on examples of Tory narrative like ‘We are continuing to deliver for the British people’, when very little has actually been ‘delivered’, least of all Brexit, when supply chain problems and the Northern Ireland protocol remain unresolved. There’s also the widely overlooked issue of Covid deaths statistics, the government using the figure of 150,000 when the true number substantiated by the Office for National Statistics is 172,420.

Journalist Jonathan Freedland writes that the current crisis isn’t just about Boris Johnson although he’s a major part of it – it’s also much about the collusion of so many others, Brexit, he thinks, and a widespread undermining of values the Conservative Party long held dear. ‘… the shaming events in Downing Street are a function of a Conservative party that is now something else. Despite the name, that organisation is no longer conservative in the way that was previously understood and in which it once took great pride…. There was a time, not so long ago, when no Conservative would have dreamed of partying in a government building on the eve of a royal funeral, even if there was no pandemic. They would have been affronted by the very idea of it’. In contrast to these values and standards, he cites the unthinking and destructive actions of Johnson acolytes Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg, respectively committed to undermining the BBC as we know it and endangering relations with the Scottish Conservative Party.

‘Vandalism became a Brexit habit – hardly surprising for a project dedicated to uprooting a tangle of connections with our continental neighbours that had grown dense and thick over half a century – and this is the Brexit government. Like all revolutionary endeavours, it believes that the end justifies all means, no matter the damage to those things conservatives once cherished’. And this attitude is what we often now see, even recently exemplified by interviews with Edwina Currie and Michael Heseltine, whose stance is effectively ‘this is politics today so suck it up’.

Given his recent record, we have to wonder what further revelations Dominic Cummings might have up his sleeve to complete his Operation PM defenestration. Many of us will just see the blog quotes he tweets but here’s a view from a subscriber to the £10 a month silo stack. ‘Whenever and whatever he does post, you can be sure it will contain plenty of extraordinary ideas, unexpected insights and eye-popping indiscretions. Cummings appears to have little or no filter on his thoughts, with the result that his writing offers as clear a view into the dark heart of contemporary politics as is available anywhere. He has no time for any of the usual pieties. What you get is a voracious intellect – Cummings is interested in everything from 19th-century German history to quantum physics – coupled with a tireless curiosity about anything that lies outside the conventional wisdom. It’s a revelation’.

But there’s a serious downside. ‘His blog is exhausting to read – too long, too aggressive, too inward-looking. He rarely bothers to explain who’s who in his cast list of spads (government special advisers), physicists and tech gurus. Anyone in the know will already know, and everyone else should be grateful simply to be allowed inside the loop. His hobbyhorses are ridden to death’. Interestingly, this article is itself very long but worth reading. What does it conclude?

For a little bit of light relief, you could do worse than view the Twitter feed of ‘Parody Boris Johnson’ – one of his latest reads: ‘If you are wondering where I am, I’m currently working around the clock on a matter of the utmost national importance – how to save my own skin’. He could even be ‘straining every sinew’.

Another individual increasingly on the ropes is Prince Andrew, who has experienced one humiliation after another recently, his medals, patronages and HRH title having been taken away as he continues to face the Giuffre civil law suit. It seems he’s almost being airbrushed away, as the royals worry that this case will tarnish the forthcoming Platinum Jubilee. There’s even been a suggestion that he could have to start paying for his own security and it can’t have helped that ITV last week broadcast a documentary about the Ghislaine Maxwell case in which he was clearly in the frame. Whatever the outcome is, commentators have said he is now ‘out in the cold’ and his future looks poor.

As much airtime continues to be wasted by MPs and ministers responding to key questions (eg ‘Is the Prime Minister a liability?’) with the cowardly ‘wait for the Sue Gray report’, there’s a danger other important issues could be overlooked. One is that, thankfully, the Lords successfully toned down and removed the key damaging clauses of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts bill, for example the provision to disallow ‘noisy protests’. Disappointingly, though, it seems the Lords have fallen down on the job with the Health and Social Care bill, meaning that, if it goes ahead, no one can any longer be sure of being guaranteed free NHS treatment. This then opens the field for the ever increasing incursions of the private sector into our healthcare system, exactly what Conservative administrations have aimed at for years. One of the excellent blogs you could follow on this is Calderdale and Kirklees 999 call for the NHS on WordPress and also the Twitter accounts of organisations such as Keep our NHS Public. One example of privatisation by stealth is the news that the NHS is purchasing services from the private sector: yes, they need to get through their long waiting list but how much of a slippery slope is this?

Finally, we learn that Lake Superior State University in Michigan has published its annual list of banned terms, this time including ‘no worries’, ‘that being said’, ‘deep dive, ‘circle back’ and ‘at the end of the day’. All excellent candidates but some others favoured by business people and politicians could be added, such as ‘going forward’ and ‘direction of travel’. Others will be able to suggest more candidates!

Published by therapistinlockdown

I'm a psychodynamic therapist in private practice, also doing some voluntary work, and I'm interested in the whole field of mental health, especially how it's faring in this unprecedented crisis we're all going through. I wanted to explore some of the psychological aspects to this crisis which, it seems to me, aren't being dealt with sufficiently by the media or policymakers, for example the mental health burden already in evidence and likely to become more severe as time goes on.

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