Happy Easter to Orthodox Christians celebrating today, including Ukrainians, many of whom will be far from home yet making a point of enjoying their culinary traditions, including painted eggs, sausage and the Easter cake ‘pascha’. It’s now the third month of this invasion (surely increasing the risk of this becoming normalized in the media and in people’s minds) and missiles have now fallen on Odesa at the same time as the evacuation of those remaining in Mariupol seems to have stalled. In the background of all this is what some are calling Putin’s ‘nuclear blackmail’, placing the West in a kind of paralysis. However, it seemed typically unhelpful of our PM to publicly predict that this war would still be going on in 2023.
Here in the UK, the Homes for Ukraine scheme has come in for strong criticism and it’s timely that an anonymous whistleblower has confirmed what many suspected: he revealed ‘that he and his colleagues “don’t know what we’re doing”, and claims the scheme has been “designed to fail” in order to limit numbers entering the UK’. He said he had dealt with numerous cases where UK visas had been issued for an entire Ukrainian family apart from one child, which in effect stopped the family travelling to the UK. What a cynical tactic. ‘This allows the government to say we’ve issued lots of visas. Yet, because they have withheld one, it’s a guarantee those Ukrainians won’t travel’.
According to government figures, 40,000 UK visas have been issued under the scheme since it was launched five weeks ago. But only 6,600 Ukrainians have actually arrived. It’s appalling that we can no longer be surprised at such findings but why does the government think that such facts won’t emerge? As time goes on, I suspect more and more whistleblowers will come forward on this and other issues.
The tumultuous series of events over the last week yet again proves that every time you think this government can’t get worse, it does. Having had some respite over the Easter recess from Partygate revelations, the news that he and his wife had received fines ensured that Boris Johnson had no choice on Tuesday but to face the music in the House of Commons. What a long drawn out spectacle this was, the PM endlessly issuing his robotic apology, the insincerity of which was, not for the first time, demonstrated by his words to Tory MPs in a meeting afterwards and looking pretty terrible throughout. Besides the evident anger in many quarters, it was notable that while some stalwarts still tried to defend the indefensible (eg Bill Cash suggesting that a fixed penalty notice did not signify criminal status, refuted later by a QC on Twitter), not to mention those trying to equate these fines with a speeding fine, support from his colleagues was manifestly leaking away.
The key example was Mark Harper, an erstwhile strong ally, calling for the PM to go and saying he was ‘no longer worthy of the office’. Former Brexit minister Steve Baker also dramatically changed his long-term tune, having seen no remorse in the PM’s apology and feeling annoyed by the Cabinet ‘sitting there fat, dumb and happy’, condemning their sycophancy (‘the gig’s up’). Senior Tory Tobias Ellwood was another, telling Radio 4’s Today programme: ‘I fear it’s now when, not if, a vote of confidence takes place. Sadly the absence of discipline, focus and leadership in No 10 has led to this breach of trust with the British people. And it’s causing long-term damage to the party’s brand and that’s proving difficult to repair despite good people now coming into No 10’.
Perhaps the biggest indicator, though, was the government’s U-turn on the issue of referring the PM to the Privileges Committee, which would have delayed any decision on the PM till after the completion of all investigations. Commentator Simon Jenkins described this failure to block the motion to refer the prime minister to this Commons committee as ‘a watershed moment’ from which ‘there is no way back’. ‘The prime minister has no programme, no strategy, no professed ideology: only a frantic search for survival. In a revealing aside last Tuesday, Johnson argued that this was demanded by circumstance. Whenever challenged, he refers to the war in Ukraine, as if this was Britain’s business…..Denial was buried deep in his narcissism. He fell back on a conviction that he could bluff and squirm his way through what should have been a passing crisis. In doing so he has subjected his country to a distasteful farce that has lasted six months and is not yet over’.
Too many Tory MPs for the whips’ liking have now at last come to see this situation as a poisoned chalice, whereby, like the Owen Paterson case, they would have effectively been asked to taint their own reputations in order to save that of ‘Big Dog’. And now it appears more fines are likely to be coming the PM’s way. ‘Boris Johnson is facing deepening peril over the Partygate scandal after a source said a fine had been issued for a second event attended by the prime minister, while senior Conservatives warned he could face a leadership challenge within weeks. This was confirmed when Anushka Asthana, ITV’s deputy political editor, tweeted that ‘fines are landing into people’s inboxes relating to the garden event on May 20th 2020 – the BYOB [bring your own bottle] event – that Boris Johnson did go to’. Afterwards No 10 was forced to deny Johnson had received another fixed penalty notice and on the plane back from India he refused to speak to journalists, who were told he was ‘asleep’. Yes, in more ways than one, yet he felt sufficiently confident (or arrogant) to reassure journalists during his trip that yes, he would still be Prime Minister in October.
As many have observed, Boris Johnson seems to have long had a serious difficulty distinguishing a social from a work event despite the clear evidence of the presence of food and alcohol, which he was witnessed pouring for invitees himself on at least one occasion. Of course the most insulting thing, except he’s seen it work on the gullible, is the expectation that his protestations will be believed. Remarkably, the Met police have said they won’t release further details of fines until after the local government elections, which indicates they’re politicised: voters are entitled to such information in order for them to get the full picture beforehand.
All this is quite extraordinary, not only the speed of events and U-turns, the way those on his own side are increasingly turning against him and the pathetic attempts to distract us in the form of the Rwanda plan and ‘rail sale’, but the fact that this could be the first time in the PM’s life that he hasn’t ‘got away with it’. That’s quite something now he’s 56. I’m not sure whether this is unprecedented but this last week the PM was eviscerated three times by the Guardian’s parliamentary sketch writer John Crace: ‘It’s about the fact that the Convict never thought for a minute that the rules limiting social gatherings applied to him or his crew. He understood how angry and disappointed people were, he said. And the country had deserved better from him. Nearly there, Boris. What he should have said was that the country deserved better than him….There’s worse coming down the track and the Convict knows it. Much worse. But hopefully if he looked busy in Ukraine then the country would forgive him.Deep down Johnson knows he’s a liar and a fraud. He won’t resign because that’s not his style. But something inside him has been broken. He’s no longer funny. No longer clever. Just a pathetic nobody, desperately clinging to power’. The tide definitely seems to have turned over the last few weeks, changing the situation from ‘if’ the PM survives to ‘when’ it’s the end of the road for him.
‘Parody Boris’ tweeted: ‘I’m getting on with the job. Which is to spend all of my time trying to evade the consequences of my lies and crimes in a desperate attempt to cling to power’ and another Twitter user said:’ Tories like Sir Geoffrey (Clifton-Brown) and Conor Burns are going to look increasingly isolated and foolish as their defence of Boris Johnson sees them clutching at more and more straws’.
As if our democracy wasn’t already undermined enough with the blatant disregard for the law and governmental norms over the last two years, there’s another threat in the form of what is surely a significant rise in sexual misconduct complaints against MPs. It’s thought 70 separate complaints were submitted to the Independent Complaints and Grievance Scheme (set up in the context of the Me Too movement and allegations against several MPs’ conduct), which concern 56 MPs including three Cabinet ministers and two Shadow Cabinet members. ‘The FDA union, which represents civil servants, said it was time to “look again” at the employment relationship between MPs and their staff’. Meanwhile, we hear that Tory MP Imran Ahmad Khan, who was convicted of molesting a 15 year old boy and who undertook to resign his seat still has not done so. It does seem that such attitudes and the numbers of MPs under investigation are further indications of an arrogant and dark side of a Westminster bubble which needs bursting.
Meanwhile, it continues to be alarming that the government and media seem to be colluding to keep Covid news to a minimum, yet last week several days saw a marked increase in deaths (482 on Tuesday, 508 on Wednesday and 646 on Thursday). The Office for National Statistics has shown that only 53% are self-isolating after testing positive and apart from the over-75s, who are receiving their booster vaccinations, our protection from the two vaccinations and booster has been steadily waning over the last few months. It will be interesting (and no doubt worrying) to see the effect of Easter holidays and all that travel requiring no protective measures. No wonder #CovidIsNotOver is a commonly seen hashtag on Twitter.
The cost of living increase continues to take centre stage and must surely be a significant factor in streaming giant Netflix losing 200,000 subscribers since January, its share price dropping 35%. The company itself attributes this situation to increased competition between streaming services, the war in Ukraine and the number of people who share their logins but numerous subscribers feeling the pinch must be amongst the 200k or at least considering letting Netflix go. As someone who’s never subscribed to any additional tv services, I struggle to understand the perceived need when there’s so much good material on Freeview. It will be interesting to see how this situation pans out over the next few years given the evolving television viewing environment and issues like the future of Channel 4 and funding of the BBC.
Difficulties caused by second homes are coming further up the political agenda, especially in the context of the imminent local elections. More tenants are complaining about the increasing use of Section 21 (no fault) evictions being used for lucrative intent. The syndrome whereby second homes in picturesque locations are depriving locals of much-needed housing seems particularly acute in Cornwall and parts of Wales. In the Gwynedd seaside village of Abersoch some locals are having to live in caravans because they’ve been priced out of the housing market and it will be interesting to see if the Welsh government’s raising council tax on these properties to 300% will make much difference. It might be reported less but a similar situation applies in inland villages, as a barista told me recently, her own village having been taken over and homes left empty most of the year. This is a key point, too, as it’s not just about the money – ownership of properties only occupied for part of the year by non-locals will profoundly affect the dynamics of the place. It makes me wonder what locals in Europe think about Brits owning properties in their villages.
In Cornwall, Cath Navin, co-founder of protest group First Not Second Homes, said: ‘Last month, there were 111 Airbnbs in and around St Agnes, 96 of which were whole houses. If you looked for long-term rentals, the closest place was Portreath (seven miles away). There’s nothing locally for people to live in’. How are local councillors and MPs responding to complaints about this? Talking about a housing strategy often won’t be enough, as it’s not just about building more houses but about the use of existing ones. Surely ownership could be restricted in some way, as is done in the Channel Islands, for example.
In recent years there’s been serious questioning and challenge to cultural organisations regarding their sources of funding, especially tricky when their government grants are cut or are non-existent. Many have accepted funding for exhibitions and extensions from what are increasingly regarded as unsavoury sources, eg fossil fuel producer BP and the Sackler family via ‘big pharma’ Purdue of addictive opioids notoriety. A number of institutions have been able to eliminate such funding but some large ones remain linked, such as the National Gallery still having a Sackler Room and the V&A a ‘Sackler Courtyard’. Now the British Museum has removed the Sackler branding from its walls after an association lasting 30 years and it’s expected that BP will be the next target. In fact the splendidly named Culture Unstained campaigning organisation reported in February that the National Gallery is cutting ties with BP after 30 years and a large demo at the BM yesterday was to encourage the BM to do the same.
During the pandemic-catalysed closure of numerous department stores, we may have overlooked the cultural aspects of this result of changing shopping habits. A report by Save Britain’s Heritage called Departing Stores: Emporia at Risk ‘details 46 landmark department stores in town and city centres. Some have been restored or redeveloped while keeping their architectural heritage, but others are vacant and at risk of decay or demolition’. At least 18 are thought to be at risk, yet these buildings are often beautiful in themselves, with striking Edwardian or Art Deco features. ‘The same loss of relevance previously faced by stately homes, warehouses and many churches now threatens a new building type for the first time: the department store’, says the author. The idea is that such buildings could be repurposed as homes or cultural centres, both very much needed. Let’s hope some good comes of this report as we don’t want to be regretting their easy loss in years to come, as happened with umpteen stately homes when death duties and maintenance costs defeated the owners. There’s some encouraging evidence in Bournemouth at least – ‘Bobby’s has been successfully repurposed since it closed as a department store last year. As well as retail space, there is an art gallery, with a food hall and rooftop bar planned. The premises include community spaces, and architectural features are being restored’.
In large cities we’ve got used to the sight and experience of gourmet coffee shops and tea bars but now a new market entrant might temp some customers away – a purveyor of luxury chocolate drinks, Knoops, now has 7 outlets selling 20 different types, with gastronomic qualities one might normally associate with wine or coffee. For example, its 80% drink from Uganda evokes ‘a subtle smokiness’. Rather than customers tiring of coffee, though, I think these drinks are suited to particular times of day, eg coffee in the morning and chocolate in the afternoon. In any case it will be interesting to see how Knoops fares, because, like the posh water shop featured here recently, such places could take a hit due to the cost of living crisis. On the other hand perhaps not, since their locations so far are in well-heeled London areas such as Richmond, Kensington and Chelsea. But don’t despair (these people have really thought about their marketing) – they have a Knoopsmobile, which can travel around to customers at festivals and sports events.
Finally, last week’s blog featured hot cross buns and variations on that theme, including even a hot cross bun espresso martini. (Would be interesting to know if anyone had tried this). Now journalist and cocktail expert Richard Godwin has suggested that whatever happens (‘crash, plague, war, depression – we’re not fussy’) the British will continue to drink and cocktails are selling in record numbers. He believes there’s a correlation between cocktails and economics: from 1910-1930 they did well in these years of ‘robber barons, rampant deregulation and boom and bust’; far less well between 1945-79 when incomes grew and beer and wine assumed aspirational qualities; then better again as the income gap widened. But perhaps his key point is that whatever is happening in the ‘outside world’, people do need relatively small luxuries ‘such as lipsticks and martinis’ in the same way as they ‘need’ their lattes and cappuccinos when doing without pricier items: ‘they are relatively affordable ways of escaping reality for a moment and for this reason he thinks ‘we’ll be sinking them for a while yet’!