As ever, a fortnight is a long time in politics and world events: much has happened to further bring the Conservative Party into disrepute, especially the Angela Rayner leg crossing saga, ‘Tractorgate’, which resulted in the resignation of porn viewing MP Neil Parish, and the High Court’s finding against the government on care home Covid deaths. Erstwhile Health Secretary Matt Hancock wasted no time defending himself against the Court’s decision, following in the footsteps of his former boss in lying outrageously to suggest the Court had exonerated him, which was not the case. Did he not think anyone would check? Another lie was Johnson and Hancock telling the House and journalists that ‘of course’ Covid asymptomatic transmission was not known about in March 2020 when in fact this phenomenon was well known by the January.
But the epitome of hubris must be Matt Hancock writing a book about ‘the inside story of the pandemic’, royalties to be given to NHS charities. You really couldn’t make it up: no doubt Matt will once again attempt to exonerate himself and his government’s terrible performance. The publisher, Biteback, sounds equally deluded, saying said it was ‘delighted’ to announce Hancock’s book, which it describes as a ‘unique and candid account of Britain’s battle to turn the tide against Covid-19….it will offer an honest assessment of the lessons we need to learn for next time – because there will be a next time’. Are they not aware that Matt and his colleagues could have been much better prepared this time, if they’d taken sufficient note of the 2016 pandemic preparedness Cygnus exercise?
Besides his generally poor performance during the Susanna Reid Good Morning Britain interview on Tuesday, the much-vaunted ‘Oxford Union debating skills’ sadly not in evidence, there was yet another lie, not to mention avoidance of the key issue: during the revealing exchange about pensioner Elsie travelling around London on buses as she couldn’t afford to heat her home, Johnson said he had introduced the Freedom Pass. This was untrue, as was another lie, that he had, as London Mayor, funded the Elizabeth Line (formerly Crossrail), which is due to open on 24 May. Personally, I find these desperate lies as bad as the Partygate ones, because their spontaneous opportunism is just so chilling and the gullible will be taken in yet again.
Nevertheless, the Partygate ones have been a turning point in British politics, not only for demonstrating contempt for Parliament and democratic norms, but also for their routine rolling out and collusion of so many colleagues. As one tweeter said: ‘It isn’t just the gatherings, it’s the months of denial that anything happened until forced to admit it, and they’ll keep denying things until forced to admit them, and there are many more lies’. There have now been a number of calls, including that of the Speaker, Lindsay Hoyle, for Parliament to be reformed but who would initiate this? I’d go much further: the entire ‘democratic’ process in this country needs reforming, including local government, which routinely sees a low turnout rate at election time, and our lack of a written and effective Constitution.
There should be a way whereby, in extremis, the people can trigger a vote of no confidence or an election: this should not be the sole fiefdom of the party in office. Within the current arrangements, we are dependent on the Tories to offload Boris Johnson, or not – this is unacceptable, especially given the challenges the country is up against. Business Minister Kwasi Kwarteng, in the wake of Tractorgate, tried to suggest that no fundamental reform was necessary, it was just a ‘few bad apples’. Classic avoidance and defensiveness on the part of an individual benefiting from the status quo. But the weak Speaker is one of the problems and his plea for ‘kindness’ isn’t going to cut it.
Relevant to all this is a news item I suspect could easily be missed, that in an ‘election shock’ in Slovenia, a newly formed liberal/green party, led by a political novice (this could be a trend, given Zelensky and others) has won a massive victory, ending the regime of a right-wing populist who had been in line for a fourth term in office (though not consecutive). The Week tells us that Robert Golob, an energy expert, formed the Freedom Movement in January and billed this election ‘a referendum on democracy’. Something we could do with here. The defeated populist, Janez Jansa, was felt to be eroding democratic norms and clashed with the EU – remind you of anyone? It will be interesting to see how the new government fares.
John Crace lampoons the PM’s tv interview: Boris Johnson’s compassion-free GMB interview went from car crash to pile-up as he mansplained away his dishonesty. Reid asked:“Are you honest, prime minister?” “Yes,” replied the Convict. The interview had run for less than 20 seconds and Johnson had already told his first lie. Reid gave him a second chance to rethink his answer. Neither she nor Boris seemed to think it at all unusual that the first thing she would want to ask a prime minister after five years was whether he was a liar. Both knew the presumption was that he was. That’s how low we’ve sunk. A country reduced to the level of a shallow narcissist….. “I do my best to represent faithfully and accurately what I believe,” he said. This was telling. Both for the admission that the truth does not come easily to him, that at times there is an unbridgeable gap between fantasy and reality in his consciousness, and the implicit acknowledgment that the only cause in which he truly believes is his own survival’.
There’s of course been much else in the news and in people’s minds but the local election results have pushed everything else into the background for the time being. Despite some efforts to dismiss these as being about ‘local squabbling’ and cynical attempts of ‘local Conservatives’ to distance themselves from their Westminster colleagues, they’re key indicators of how voters are feeling about the parties overall and this government in particular. It’s also a massive exercise, with 4,000 council seats in England being contested, 1,200 in both Scotland and Wales and all 90 seats of the Northern Ireland Assembly in contention. Commentators initially discerned a marked anti-Tory feeling but not one which translates to a very positive feeling for Labour.
The fact that the Lib Dems and Greens have done well has again prompted suggestions of an opposition alliance, but none of them have so far shown enthusiasm for this. But during Friday the Tory position worsened considerably, losing almost 500 seats. One minister declared it ‘shocking’ but said Johnson would not recognise that he had caused the problem. ‘He won’t care though. We’ll have to lose a general election first’. How depressing to have to recognize that in your leader but we can’t be too sympathetic as the Boris Johnson writing was always on the wall. A London Tory MP showed less of a grasp on reality: ‘We had thought that our people would stay at home and not vote. That is what we were told. But they didn’t. They came out in anger to kill us’.
Labour took Crawley, Worthing and Southampton; Lib Dems took Somerset and Woking; and the Tories lose control and/or biggest party status in W Oxfordshire, Tunbridge Wells, Maidstone, Huntingdon, Wokingham, Castle Point and, notably, Monmouthshire, when this county had been the only one they controlled in Wales. It must have been a shock for the DUP that for the first time Sinn Fein got more seats in Northern Ireland. How typical that the DUP are now finding a reason not to allow Sinn Fein to take up the First Minister role, thus again depriving people of their government there.
A telling article drills down to the feelings of locals in two former flagship Tory councils, Westminster and Wandsworth. A Westminster resident, happy that Labour won, had been appalled by the council’s decision to spend £6m on a mound at Marble Arch, which was widely mocked and forced to close after failing to attract visitors. Some others, though, are still in thrall to the cult of Boris. A Daily Mail reader said Boris Johnson had had a ‘bad patch’ but added: “He’s started to regain his touch. I don’t think Boris has done anything wrong. What’s the matter with having a drink when you’re the prime minister? Starmer did it as well’. A Wandsworth resident gets it in one: ‘The council hasn’t behaved as outrageously as the prime minister, but it is time for a change. I work in a food bank, and poverty here is just disgraceful. People are just desperate’. What’s noticeable in these vox pops is their divergence from what many Conservatives say they are hearing: many of them would have us believe that the doorstep canvassing chats didn’t include anything about Partygate, a likely story.
There was predictable yet still disgraceful anti-Labour bias shown by presenters Nick Robinson and Mishal Husain on Friday’s Radio Today programme and by Political Editor Laura Kuenssberg, trying to suggest opposition parties had not done well and totally minimizing the key Conservative losses of six councils including the flagships of Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet. Unlike their Cabinet colleagues, Tory council leaders have clearly pointed the finger at Boris Johnson, saying he’s been the problem ‘on the doorsteps’, Johnson himself only conceding that it had been ‘a tough night’ for the Conservatives in London. Meanwhile, elections expert John Curtice said the Tories are finding out Boris Johnson is ‘electorally mortal’, regarded as ‘probably the most damning thing he’s ever said’. How long can this liability hold out for? Nevertheless, the so-called ‘cult of Boris’ continues, allegedly 30% of the electorate, one example being the deluded Tory councillor in Ipswich, who, on losing her seat, said ‘I would die on a hill for Boris’. It beggars belief.
Another worrying example of media censorship, especially in the lead up to these elections, is the failure of the BBC to report the raiding of a peer’s home as part of an investigation into corrupt Covid contracts. Conservative peer Michelle Mone is implicated in the National Crime Agency investigation into PPE Medpro, a company that secured more than £200m in government contracts near the start of the pandemic without public tender. ‘The Guardian has previously reported that Mone approached Gove, Lord Agnew and Lord Bethell on behalf of PPE Medpro. All were at the time ministers involved in pandemic procurement… Mone appears to have been instrumental in PPE Medpro being entered into the “high priority” VIP lane by Agnew in May 2020’. This kind of thing makes you wonder how much more is yet to come out about the PPE contracting corruption saga.
It’s not only censorship by omission, though: it’s been noticeable these last few days how many BBC presenters have seized on the confected ‘Beergate’ story and how many others have tried to suggest that there’s some parallel between what Keir Starmer could have done and what Boris Johnson has repeatedly done.
Conservative Party chairman, Oliver Dowden, was Friday’s candidate for the media round, getting into quite a satisfying tussle with Nick Robinson on Today, who, despite his own Tory credentials didn’t give Dowden an easy ride. Such people have taken dishonest reframing to a new level, Dowden suggesting how well they’d done outside London and citing Nuneaton Council in the same breath as the lost Westminster flagship. Dowden tried to brush away ‘difficult headlines’ such as Partygate, Tractorgate and non-dom status as if they didn’t actually happen and his recipe for the future was to ‘focus on delivery’. This assumes they had something to ‘deliver’ in the first place and falls into the cynical Tory narrative camp, of which DWP minister Therese Coffey showed herself to be a paid up member on Friday’s World at One programme. A key phrase in this script is ‘continue to work on the things that matter to the British people…., getting on with the job’, etc, as if they’ve been working on ‘the things that matter’ in the first place. Asked to comment on the role the cost of living crisis has played in the results, out of touch Dowden said ‘I don’t accept this is an economic horror story: we need a sense of proportion.’ As one tweeter asked: ‘Does ‘proportion’ provide food or heating?’
On the contrary, the government has, as with so many issues, sidestepped the cost of living crisis, claiming credit for its ‘range of measures’ (noticed how it’s never just one intervention cited, always bigged up to ‘a range’?) which don’t do the business or for which many of those in need are ineligible. The existing contributory factors like escalating energy and food prices have now been added to by the Bank of England raising interest rates – inflation is now set to rise to 10%. (The Tory script here is to attribute the cost of living crisis to ‘global’ factors, suggesting that the entire world is experiencing something similar – not entirely true – and Brexit is barely mentioned). A Times/YouGov poll showed that four in five adults think Boris Johnson doesn’t understand the impact of cost of living increases on ordinary people.
Rivalling Dowden’s out of touch record was Environment Minister George Eustice, interviewed on the Today programme on Wednesday because his boss, Boris Johnson, had failed to step up to the party leaders pre-election interviews. Oh dear. Pedestrian at the best of times, Eustice excelled himself by denying Johnson had euphemistically alluded to people ‘feeling the pinch’ when they’re actually dependent on food banks, suggesting that doing more to help families would fuel inflation and suggesting that people could better manage their household budgets by substituting supermarkets’ own products for branded items. It’s shocking that 13 million people are using food banks and that it’s said the UK has more food banks than branches of McDonald’s.
The BBC reported the response of Labour’s shadow chancellor Rachel Reeves said that ‘Hard-pressed Brits need support’, urging the government to hold an emergency budget and reduce energy bills through a windfall tax on oil and gas companies. ‘The response by the Conservatives to the cost-of-living crisis has been nothing short of insulting. They are out of touch and out of ideas’.
If party faithful Robert Jenrick and Oliver Dowden gave poor post-election performances, they were topped by a car crash interview on Saturday’s Today programme featuring a deluded-sounding Nadhim Zahawi, still peddling the ‘he (Boris Johnson) got the big calls right’ script and harking back to the vaccination programme, not resisting inserting himself in there. It could reasonably be thought that the biggest ‘call’ is honesty in Parliament, certainly not ‘delivering’ Brexit, which hasn’t been ‘delivered’ anyway, as the Northern Ireland Protocol continues to demonstrate. As Lord Blunkett, appearing shortly afterwards said, the Conservatives talked a lot over the last 12 years about the areas needing serious reform but they manifestly haven’t tackled them, eg social care. The Guardian’s John Crace uses the ‘useful idiots’, those prepared to go on the airwaves to defend the indefensible, attributing this preparedness to their neediness. ‘On LBC, Nick Ferrari asked Dowden what had gone wrong and what had come up on the doorstep for Tory canvassers. Dumber ummed and aahed. No one had mentioned parties. Not one. Amazing, that. Though if they had done, it would have been to ask why they hadn’t been invited. No, what had come up most was the sheer abundance of new Brexit opportunities’.
Although the government and media would like us to believe otherwise, Covid hasn’t gone away and the ONS statistics are effectively incomplete because of the numbers of people no longer testing now tests have to be paid for. It’s quite extraordinary that this isn’t being understood. Death figures (the only meaningful statistic now) are around 1000 per week and surely this is what politicians and policymakers should be focusing on. Instead, we’re being expected to believe that ‘numbers are going down’, when even evidence ‘on the ground’ (eg many more friends, family and acquaintances falling prey to Covid) tells us the opposite.
Shocking but no longer surprising, given the long term deficits of the UK’s mental health services, is the news that the NHS is paying £2bn a year to private hospitals to care for mental health patients because it does not have enough of its own beds. What a false economy the bed reduction exercise was throughout Conservative administrations. We’re told that the ‘independent sector receives about 13.5% of the £14.8bn the NHS in England spends on mental health, a dramatic rise since 2005 when it was paid £951m. Nine out of every 10 of the 10,123 mental health beds run by private operators are occupied by NHS patients’. Healthcare market analysts LaingBuisson research showed that independent mental health care providers now make 91% of their income from the NHS.Yet Care Quality Commission inspections have revealed multiple failures of a large number of these services, graded as ‘inadequate’. This official comment from NHS England speaks volumes, demonstrating an unacceptable arms-length policy, in my view. ‘The NHS has been clear that we expect all services to provide safe and high-quality care and to deliver on our commitments in their contracts, irrespective of whether they are NHS or independent sector-led.”
Still on mental health, it’s striking that more than 4 years after a major review of mental health legislation, some of which was long regarded as antiquated and inadequate, the government is finally acting. Clearly, democracy undermining legislation like the policing and borders bills have been regarded as far more important. ‘The reforms – which will be part of the Queen’s speech next week and are the first big changes to the Mental Health Act in four decades – are designed to reduce the number of people being detained under current laws in England and Wales. The number of detentions rose by 40% between 2005-06 and 2015-16 and have continued to rise year on year’. (Referring to the above item, let’s hope this is a genuine commitment and not just a cynical exercise to reduce pressure on mental health beds). Key measures include ending the potential detentions of those with autism or learning disabilities and allowing those detained against their will to express a preference or refuse a specific treatment where a suitable alternative is available. This must be carefully monitored as we can well imagine situations where detention would take place because insufficient effort was made or funding available for ‘alternative treatment’.
None of this addresses systemic underinvestment, though. ‘The pandemic has led to a dramatic rise in the numbers of people experiencing mental health problems, with 1.6 million waiting for specialised treatment and another 8 million who would benefit from support unable to get on the waiting list’.
So, with the media trying to whip up interest in the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee (paper plates, cake stands and cups piled high in Wilko if anyone’s interested), we hear that neither Prince Andrew nor Harry and Meghan will appear on the Buckingham Palace balcony – only those carrying out royal duties. Seems fair enough but makes a nonsense of Harry recently claiming the role of protector of his grandmother, making ‘sure she has the right people around her’, who talks to him about things she doesn’t to others, special relationship etc etc. Andrew suffered another humiliation recently in the form of York councillors removing his Freedom of the city but possibly more is to come. ‘The removal of this honorary title sends the right message that we as a city stand with victims of abuse. The next logical step is now for Prince Andrew to do the right thing and relinquish his Duke of York title. If he fails to do so, the government and Buckingham Palace must step in to remove his title to finally end Prince Andrew’s connection to York’.
It will be interesting to see how this Jubilee goes, as it seems support for the monarchy has markedly declined in recent years, leading to far less public celebration than for earlier jubilees. This won’t stop people enjoying an extended Bank Holiday, though!
Finally, a poll by Walkers Crisps (so there may be questions hanging over its findings) reckons that ‘the average UK adult eats 35 crisp sandwiches a year’. A writer in the Spectator has ‘long regarded the crisp sarnie as the ultimate fast food, a simple, salty and satisfying snack that speaks of the person you are rather than the person you want to be’. Ingredients regarded as de rigeur include thick white sliced bread (ie nothing posh) and bog standard crisps (again not fancy ones). It’s suggested that a crisp sandwich ‘may not scream nutritional balance’ (you can say that again) but it deserves its status as a classic. I’ve never consumed one and can’t imagine myself doing so, so if some others feel the same it suggests that some ‘average UK adults’ may be consuming rather more than the 35 the poll cites. But I’m now rather intrigued and feel perhaps I should try one to see what the fuss is about – anyone else?!