There are almost no words for the shaming debacle currently dominating Downing Street and our politics. There’s no doubt this is having a bad effect on the public’s mental health (more below), some saying publicly that they don’t know what to do with their rage. This rage is exacerbated by the feeling of helplessness arising from the fact that only the Conservative Party can offload this Prime Minister when it’s high time there was a way for the electorate to change the situation in times of crisis. We need a written constitution rather than the unwritten ‘gentleman’s agreement’ which has prevailed for so long.
Presenter Evan Davies’s Freudian slip (‘Drowning Street’) during Thursday’s Radio 4 PM programme was most timely. Every time you think it can’t get worse, it does, the most recent revelations and errors of judgement such as ‘BirthdayCakeGate’ and the unforgiveable ‘Jimmy Savile’ slur on Kier Starmer culminating in an irreversible slide into chaos and limbo. The government is technically in office but not in charge and the five Downing Street resignations in recent days could lead to what many have pleaded for and demanded for weeks – the resignation of the author of it all, Boris Johnson. But our Prime Minister and supporters nevertheless continue in their deluded attempts to persuade us that they are ‘getting on with the job’, the departures desperately presented as a ‘clearing out’ of Downing Street. We have to wonder how many self-respecting countries would operate with their head of government the subject of police investigation.
Besides the shocking attack on Keir Starmer at Prime Minister’s Questions, revelations of the parties in the Downing Street flat seem to have been the final straw for some Tory MPs, who very publicly withdrew their support from the PM. What’s striking, though, is the cowardice of so many of them, still dithering over writing letters to the 1922 Committee when the evidence of wrongdoing is overwhelming and the position of their boss untenable. Adding to those who have gone public, two more (former education minister Nick Gibb and Newcastle-under-Lyme MP Aaron Bell) have now posted letters on Twitter. This in itself must be galling for the Tory leadership, which would prefer to keep all this dissent under wraps and which treats letters to the 1922 as a state secret. Johnson has now written to all Tory MPs saying he is committed to improving the way 10 Downing Street works. But this doesn’t commit him to what’s really needed, improving the way he works, though it’s far too late for that.
It’s a surefire sign of desperation that several days ago the PM made a rare address to all his MPs, announcing imminent changes to his No 10 staff in the coming days, a flurry of (distracting) policies, visit to Ukraine, the manipulatively named ‘Brexit freedoms bill’ and also implied that his former election guru, Sir Lynton Crosby, would be returning to help in an unofficial role. Such determination to hang on in the face of rapidly leaching support isn’t clever, as Johnson probably imagines, but hugely damaging and in denial of the seriousness of the situation. The drinking and partying culture, besides the lazy and dishonest modus operandi come from the top so it’s for him to go – even better if he could take his incompetent and sycophantic Cabinet with him. It’s no surprise that #Carcrash is currently trending on Twitter following Culture Secretary Nadine Dorries’s terrible media interviews today – in denial, question dodging and alluding to the terrific ‘amount of change underway including at no 10’ without stating that the ‘change’ is due to staff resigning on principle.
The most recent bombshell outed by the Mirror’s political editor Pippa Crerar shows Boris Johnson raising a glass of beer at his lockdown birthday party in June 2020 – taken by his taxpayer funded official photographer. ‘Multiple images taken by the official No 10 photographer, Andrew Parsons, are also believed to have been handed over to Scotland Yard. Downing Street has admitted staff “gathered briefly” at a surprise birthday celebration organised by Carrie Johnson – but said the PM only stayed 10 minutes’. It’s strange that neither the PM nor his acolytes seem to have considered that this photographic evidence of parties he initially denied had taken place and subsequently denied being present at would eventually emerge. Far from quelling Sue Gray’s condemnation of ‘failures of leadership and judgment’ in No 10 and the Cabinet Office, Johnson’s clumsy and transparent efforts to claw back support seem to have only succeeded in precipitating a domino effect of revelations and rebukes from senior Conservatives, not to mention the ongoing defenestrating bullets from nemesis Dominic Cummings. As journalist Jonathan Freedland observed: ‘The PM’s behaviour this week was a reminder he will do and say anything to cling to power – no matter the cost to Britain’.
And does Boris Johnson seriously imagine that the Downing Street staff changes (Steve Barclay Chief of Staff and Guto Harri Director of Communications) will effect serious change when the problems stem from him? It sounds like more of the same: people are already asking how Steve Barclay can combine his roles (yet another MP who will be sidelining the needs of his consituents?) and Harri recently said on BBC5Live that he thought a change of staff would convey integrity. What planet?? But perhaps we can take cynicism too far – some have suggested that the Queen’s announcement regarding Camilla’s future role was timed to take the pressure off the PM. Whether it does or not, prepare for a slew of tedious and sanctimonious royal correspondents opining on the airwaves, one today even alluding to the Prince Andrew debacle as ‘difficulties across the pond’.
One Tory MP said Johnson’s determination to keep fighting meant removing him would be “extremely painful”, and veteran MP Charles Walker has ‘implored the prime minister to go of his own accord in the national interest, and likened events in the Tory party to a Greek tragedy’. Another said it was clear Tory MPs would at some point need to “get the screwdrivers out to prise his hands off the doors of Downing Street”. Perhaps it would take even more to remove the unelected Carrie Johnson, whose inappropriate and intrusive role seems to have been largely overlooked. Except for Woman’s Hour this week, during which two interviewees spelt out the difference between Mrs Johnson and other PMs’ spouses who have not been political operators in their own right. Unfortunately, both her marital status and her previous role in the Conservative Party seem to have led to an absence of and contempt for proper boundaries, feeling free to come and go in the kernel of government which is the Cabinet Room and her apparently active participation in the garden ‘work meetings’. And what else? Mrs Johnson, we’re told, was invited onto this Woman’s Hour discussion but demurred, citing the ongoing police investigation. A piece in the Guardian asks whether she’s the puppet master of Downing Street or an easy target. ‘…multiple sources from Downing Street past and present say her influence on the prime minister’s operation is undeniable’, exemplified by her initiation of some parties, the flat redecoration project, the departure of Dominic Cummings and retention of some of her allies in the staff ‘clearout’.
‘Former Downing Street insiders report feeling Carrie could make her husband change his mind, sometimes overnight, on an issue they thought was already agreed. The prime minister would also tell aides that if he didn’t take a particular course of action, it would anger his wife. They also reported Johnson himself receiving scores of messages from her during the working day – and Carrie Johnson repeatedly calling his staff, insisting the prime minister be hauled out of meetings to talk to her’. On the other hand, friends have described her as honourable and ‘tremendously fun and entertaining’, suggesting that critics are guilty of sexism and that there’s been an orchestrated campaign against her. Perhaps time will tell, especially as she besides her spouse will be giving evidence to the police investigation.
It was interesting timing that the long delayed (and rather threadbare, it seems) levelling up paper was delivered in just the week the PM has been in unprecedented trouble. Interviewed in the media, minister Michael Gove agreed with presenters that the levelling up agenda cannot be just a ‘cobbling together’ of disjointed measures but this is how many commentators have seen it. Not only that, they’ve suggested that one of the disingenuous aspects is the mainly lack of new money – much of the expenditure cited is that which has been announced previously. This certainly suggests some ‘cobbling together’.
Needless to say, Gove rejected suggestions that there was no new money and also failed to see the irony in the statement that ‘people in the north of England and Midlands have been overlooked and undervalued for years by politicians’. It’s his government that has been in office for ‘years’ and led on this overlooking and undervaluing. Gove must have felt too challenged in the earlier interviews as he declined an invitation to appear on ITV’s Good Morning Britain, the presenters then empty chairing him. This kind of cowardice is only too evident these days, ministers and others refusing the scrutiny which is a key part of democracy. It’s more than unfortunate that Gove seems to believe that opening government offices in Northern cities is proof of levelling up, but of course the real problem is that this is a vacuous concept in the first place.
The latest government misleading use of language has been demonstrated in the energy bills debate. Many are genuinely fearful of what these rising energy prices are going to lead to after April, never mind overarching general inflation, and are already having to make hard choices. Pathetic ‘advice’ to consumers like ‘speak to your energy provider’ about difficulty in paying bills and fuel poverty just doesn’t cut it. The government’s latest short-term and lazy solution is to force all of us to take a ‘discount’, which we will then have to repay. ‘As British households face a record 54% rise in energy bills from April, the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, has announced a £9bn plan intended to mitigate the cost-of-living crisis facing the nation. All households will receive a one-off £200 upfront discount on their energy bills this year, which, however, will be automatically recovered from people’s bills in £40 instalments over the five years from 2023’. The manipulative narrative lies in the Chancellor and ministers repeatedly referring to it as a ‘rebate’ when it’s actually a loan. We are not actually being given anything, although some households will quality for an extra council tax discount or warm homes discount. The hit people people will have to take is also aggravated by the National Insurance hike, leading to extreme concern about the rise in living costs.
Lest we forget amid the Downing Street antics, the Covid situation is still very serious but you wouldn’t think so to listen to the media, who repeatedly talk about ‘living with Covid’, ‘things opening up again’ and the hospitality and travel industries talking up increased bookings. There’s a second wave of Omicron, a new variant to contend with, and on Friday there were 84,053 new cases and 254 deaths. A doctor tweeted: ‘There have been about 7000 COVID deaths just in January. Government want you to think the pandemic is over. The pandemic isn’t over. Approximately 1800 people died in the last 7 days. We have the latest COVID Omicron BA.2 variant growing in numbers in the UK. It’s not over.’ On the other hand, it’s clear many are feeling a kind of ‘pandemic fatigue’ and some clinicians are more or less saying we should learn to accommodate it. ‘Covid should be treated as an endemic virus similar to flu, and ministers should end mass-vaccination after the booster campaign, Dr Clive Dix (former chairman of the UK’s vaccine taskforce). With health chiefs and senior Tories also lobbying for a post-pandemic plan for a straining NHS, Dix called for a major rethink of the UK’s Covid strategy, in effect reversing the approach of the past two years and returning to a “new normality”….’ It’s good, though, that he has urged the production of vaccines which would tackle new variants.
We all know that the NHS has been under significant strain for some time, well before the pandemic, but what’s not commonly known (partly as the media have mostly chosen not to report it) is the takeover of GP practices by a subsidiary of a large American private health provider. This is nothing short of privatization by stealth and a number of campaigners including Keep our NHS Public have been keeping up the momentum to raise awareness and challenge these decisions. On February 1 and 2nd there was a judicial review held at the High Court, thanks to a brave Islington (North London) councillor Anjna Khurana. The review challenged NHS commissioners’ decision to allow Centene Corporation’s take-over of dozens of London GP Surgeries, via its UK subsidiaries MH Services International Holdings (UK) and Operose Health Ltd. It’s disgraceful that Ms Khurana is one of around 375,000 patients across London who were told nothing about this takeover of their GP surgeries until after the event. And many will still have no idea. Campaigners are planning a day of action and awareness raising on 26th February so let’s hope it cuts some ice with NHS commissioners and the media who should be covering these issues.
The BBC has reported a significant rise in mental ill health in children and young people – hardly surprising given the last two years but much to do with inadequate NHS services due to underfunding and poor use of those funds in primary care. This is very serious and very worrying, partly because it’s in addition to the many with less severe conditions which would be dealt with in primary rather than secondary care settings. The ‘most serious’ include eating disorders and suicidality. ‘Last year saw a 77% rise in psychiatric service referrals for young people… ‘Only those with the most serious mental health problems are referred for specialist care. But schools are reporting a surge in mental health problems below this high threshold, with pupils needing extra support such as counselling’.
‘Almost 1,000 teaching and support staff who responded to a survey from the children’s mental health charity, Place2Be, and the National Association of Head Teachers (NAHT), described seeing an increase in emotional and mental health issues among pupils since the pandemic, including anxiety’. We’re told the government has planned 400 mental health ‘support teams’ for schools by 2023 but, as ever, this is too late, 400 won’t cover all schools and how of this ‘support’ will be professional counselling rather than the cheaper interventions? Indeed, the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition warn that these teams will only cover about a third of England’s pupils. For years professional bodies like BACP (British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) have pressed for counsellors to be in every school, but there’s a patchy situation across the UK and this has not yet been mandated for England.
The Telegraph recently published an interesting article about the ‘rise and rise’ of HR departments since the pandemic. This isn’t surprising given the number of additional issues and challenges they’ve had to conjure with , especially given workers’ rights, the wisdom (or not) of employers compelling their staff to return to the office and so on. The article contends that there’s a conflict of interest as these departments have moved on from mainly ‘hiring and firing’ to having to act as ‘union, mentor and doctor’, leading to a loss of clarity to whether they can be allied to both employer and worker. Quoting some bosses who have ‘had enough’, one said: ‘Never before has so much money been thrown at a department to do so many things they are unqualified for’. Some believe, with some justification, that these departments are unnecessary ballast, allowing employers and managers to duck their management responsibilities and that they should be ‘managing their people directly’. It will be interesting to see whether this debate gains traction but what I and others have often found is how inadequate these departments have been when we’ve needed their help or input. Something for those teaching human resources to reflect upon, besides bosses, perhaps.
On similar territory (or perhaps not!) many viewers are, after a year’s absence, glued to the new series of The Apprentice, in which Lord Alan Sugar submits a series of potential young business partners to some rigorous tests, many of which feature dismal failures. The egos of some of the candidates and of Lord Sugar himself have to be seen to be believed at times but there’s much to amuse viewers as well as irritate them. The best moments must be when Sugar comes out with his well-worn phrase ‘It’s a bladdy shambles’, not to mention ‘You’re fired’, and when his two sidekicks give their withering comments on the candidates’ performances.
Finally, a very welcome bit of light relief, benefitting our mental health, are the annual displays of seasonal plants and flowers, at this time of year snowdrops taking centre stage. The National Trust and other organizations have lists of places you can see good displays (I envy those living near the most striking ones such as Anglesey Abbey in Cambridgeshire) and it’s amazing just how many varieties there are. It’s great to have them in your own garden if you have one but much better, in my view, to see them in profusion. Just a shame some are quite difficult to get to on public transport. One which sounds great is this Devonian manifestation, a festival which has returned after last year’s online only version due to lockdown. A staggering 375 varieties are on display, attracting ‘hordes of galanthophiles – snowdrop lovers’. One visitor summed up the experience pretty well, I thought. “It’s wonderful to be here. The snowdrops are a sign that spring is on the way, that new life is with us. This is such a natural place, so restful. After the couple of years we’ve had, the sight of the snowdrops lights up the soul.”