Previous references in this blog to tumultuous and febrile times had nothing on what’s unfolded during the last week but the cumulative pile-on of the last few months would have caused many of us to feel that this was a defenestration waiting to happen. How the mighty have fallen – Boris Johnson, the would-be ‘king of the world’ (his childhood ambition), brought down by his own serial lying and misdemeanours but whose narcissistic self-defence, witnessed in spades during his resignation statement, enables him to believe he’s been stabbed in the back by ingrates. Unfortunately he’s aided and abetted in this mindset by the right wing press, eg Saturday’s Daily Mail headline screeching ‘Red Wall backlash at Tory traitors’.
This week we learned (no surprise because it’s been on the rise for years) that 500,000 more people were taking antidepressants than last year, one in 7 patients, twice as many women as men. The uncertain world we’re living in and lack of NHS therapy will be contributing to the cause but the uncertainty of our world due to the chaotic and corrupt state of our government has no doubt played a major part in worsening mental health.
The catalyst of this dénouement and last straw appeared to be the catalogue of denials, evasions and half-truths, a Downing Street speciality, starting with insistence that Johnson had known nothing about the Chris Pincher allegations when he appointed him to the position of Deputy Chief Whip, moving onto no knowledge of ‘specific allegations’ before being forced to admit the PM had always known. The Guardian reminds us of the role of Dominic Cummings throughout, though he’s been fairly quiet recently, perhaps keeping his powder dry: ‘Johnson’s former adviser Dominic Cummings, long waiting for the opportunity to land the final blow, suggested Johnson had known all along and had referred to his colleague as “Pincher by name, pincher by nature”’. Then there was the revelation by former senior Foreign Office civil servant, Simon McDonald, of a previous Pincher incident in 2019, about which Johnson had been briefed in person. Not for the first time, this calls into question the skills of the much vaunted Guto Harri, the new Downing Street communications director parachuted in back in February as part of what Johnson presented as a clean sweep to quell complaints about his conduct. This article suggests some similarity to his boss rather than the wily but honest operator number 10 needs. It’s also likely that a further catalyst of Johnson’s downfall, rumbling below the surface and again not addressed by any communications strategy, was his arrogant statement following the by-election losses that he expected to be in office for a third term. This does seem to have caused more unease in government circles than even his other pronouncements. Yet further catalysts have been the various aspects of ‘Carriegate’ (one of them highly unsavoury) and the belated Lord Geidt resignation, Johnson now having seen off two ethics advisers.
Backtracking a few days, anything anyone was going to write about politics paled into insignificance because of the biggest of all stories – Javid and Sunak resignations prompting a tsunami of others, 59 altogether. There were accounts of Johnson trying to avoid the entreaties of Cabinet members urging him to go, ironically including the very same individual (Peter Principle Zawahi) the PM had ‘promoted’ to the role of Chancellor only hours before. There followed dozens of sickening resignation statements from those who’ve supported the PM for months, overseeing and facilitating all his corrupt and incompetent moves, only finally to decide their ‘integrity’ and ‘values’ would be compromised if they stayed a minute longer. One of the striking aspects of this psychodrama is the hypocrisy of those using such phraseology as ‘one lie too many’ (as if some were ok) and ‘I can no longer pirouette around our fractured values’ (Victoria Atkins, a former Justice minister).
Why did they ever ‘dance’ at all when for months they’ve enabled Boris Johnson’s venality? Of course the answer’s obvious – blatant opportunism. Chris Bryant, Chair of the Commons Select Committee on Standards and Commons Select Committee of Privileges, tweeted: ‘I’m struggling with the idea of “decent Tories” today. They all propped up the disgraced prime minister for far too long. They defended him. They held onto their jobs claiming they were personally indispensable to some project or other. They only moved when the wind changed’. But it got worse when it dawned that the ‘resignation’ speech (described by Bryant as ‘utterly disgraceful …selfish; self-centred, narcissistic, poor me the victim, no regrets, no fault, no mistakes, no apology, no resignation) didn’t actually constitute a resignation and that he’d be staying on until a successor was appointed.
Some have rightly seen this as yet another cynical strategy to delay the inevitable, perhaps hoping some other crisis would blow up which ‘demanded’ his continued presence. (This is quite likely since Johnson has managed to convince some that the defence of Ukraine depends on him remaining as PM). As one commentator tweeted ‘When is resignation statement not a resignation statement? When it’s given by a Big Liar…. In what way has Johnson resigned – he’s still there and still PM, appointing new ministers?’ Writer and broadcaster Gavin Esler tweeted: ‘Why do we believe the prime minister has resigned when he is still in the job? In what sense is staying in Downing Street and appointing ministers a resignation? Can anyone else do this kind of thing? Anyone?’ The waggish Parody Boris account tweeted: ‘It’s surprising how little difference there is between life as Prime Minister and life after you have resigned’. Unfortunately, the BBC at least seems to be colluding with the resignation assumption, constantly referring to Johnson’s ‘post prime ministerial life’ and the like, which could lull us into a false sense of security when the ‘king’ has no intention of actually being deposed.
Commentator Simon Jenkins, writing about Johnson’s ‘terrible legacy’, ‘holding the country and his party hostage’ believesJohnson’s plan is ‘to appeal to a popular electoral mandate over the heads of his parliamentary colleagues: a grim parody of the lingering campaign of his opposite number and erstwhile admirer, Donald Trump in America. But it won’t and can’t work. In Britain, layers of political membrane separate the office of prime minister from the electorate’. But what Johnson doesn’t seem able to see is that a political leader needs both dignity and authority: the first he never had and whatever was possessed of the second has evaporated. ‘The issues that have brought Johnson down – Partygate, honours sleaze, the resignation of Lord Geidt, (his former ethics adviser), and of course the allegations levelled at his former deputy chief whip Christopher Pincher – may not be matters of life and war and death, but still they matter and their cumulative effect has drained him of authority among his colleagues and the public’. Not to mention, of course, the two dramatic by-election losses and stand-off with the rail unions.
All of this amounts to more evidence that the UK needs a written Constitution, new electoral process and regulatory systems to ensure that prime ministers and others follow the rules and protocols of democratic government. It’s crystal clear that we can no longer (if we ever could) rely on gentlemen’s agreements and the assumption of all those in power being fundamentally ‘good eggs’. And it should not be the sole decision of Conservative Party members to decide the new PM. Listening to some local association chairs interviewed in the media could lead to despair: as well as taking themselves absurdly seriously, they seem to believe that Johnson was shafted or that one or other of the former sycophants seeking to replace him have great qualities for which there is zero evidence.
Yet the scandal a day pattern did not abate, news emerging of the Johnsons’ plan to hold a big wedding party at Chequers within weeks, the leaked Downing Street flat refurbishment invoice totalling £200,000 and the Independent’s number of the day on Friday, that Johnson and ministers will get resignation severance pay totalling £420,000 – great news for the cost of living crisis. The key reason why the shameless charlatan ‘needs’ to stay on, though, might not only relate to the determination to continue using public property Chequers but also because out of office there will be serious legal questions to answer on security and corruption starting with that meeting with former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev: as Foreign Secretary he had met the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev (the father of his friend and then owner of the Evening Standard Evgeny Lebedev), without officials present in Italy at a time of considerable tensions with Moscow. (The outcry has apparently forced the Johnsons to find another venue for their party – because they were found out).
As someone who may actually know him best, Dominic Cummings made this prediction: ‘I’m telling you – he doesn’t think it’s over…If MPs leave him in situ there’ll be CARNAGE’. I’m grateful to a fellow Twitter user for alerting me to a couple of pieces focusing on whether Johnson has actually resigned, what the legal ramifications are etc, one by tax, politics and the economy commentator Richard Murphy.
He reckons Johnson ‘has a plan’ (different from the one Simon Jenkins proposes). ‘So, what Johnson will do is let the leadership race begin, and wait for it to become bitter, chaotic, and frankly nasty as the rats fight it out with each other, as they will. When that becomes more widely apparent he will make his move. As remaining prime minister he will tell Tory MPs that they do, of course, have another option, which is to continue with him. They need only end their silly party leadership election and they can have him back. Will they fall for that? I rather share Johnson’s view that they are stupid enough to fall for anything right now. They might, just. Then what? If Johnson comes back we get full throttle fascism. And you can be sure that the leading opponents – from Sunak and Javid onwards – will be culled from the party, which he had done before’.
The comments on this piece are also interesting, one saying: ‘….never underestimate the part that the British media will play in a Johnson revival. They always do the real heavy-lifting in Tory campaigns. When Johnson starts making noises about a comeback it will only be after the ground for such an idea has been comprehensively prepared, sown and watered into life by the newspapers you mention, the TV stations that slavishly follow their news agenda and all the other media outlets too terrified to tell the truth. Johnson will only lend his weight to the idea after enough of the deluded have started to believe that it is a good idea that they have just thought of’. [Unfortunately the link cannot be embedded here].
Guardian columnist Gaby Hinsliff wrote a typically powerful piece about Johnson’s downfall, which also captures a key problem for the Conservatives – how to get rid of the person they for so long saw as their saviour. ‘When the Downing Street limpet was finally chiselled off his rock, it was only to deliver a parting salvo lacking in all humility or self-awareness but instead verging on the accusatory. The prime minister thanked the millions of voters who trusted his party, without acknowledging that he had gleefully spaffed that trust up the wall for two-and-a-half long years. Instead he called his colleagues “eccentric” for wanting to ditch him now, just when everything was going so brilliantly, unless of course you count the lying and the unchecked sexual predators and the crumbling public services and the grinding poverty’. She rightly says ‘The party created a monster. It should not underestimate how hard it will be to stop him, even after he is prised from power’…. because he doesn’t respond like a normal politician. It’s as if they’ve created a ghastly Trojan horse that appeared to serve them well for a while but which now can’t be ejected. The piece is worth seeing for the Johnson photo alone – the truculent downturned mouth speaks volumes about his outrage and disbelief about finally being found out and rejected.
In a damning piece, Irish journalist and commentator Fintan O’Toole describes how Boris Johnson has ‘vandalised the political architecture of Britain, Ireland and Europe’, quite some charge. The damage he has inflicted during a relatively brief period has been considerable, yet some persist (aided by the media) in seeing him as some kind of harmless comic you could have a drink with. ‘Johnson’s dark genius was to shape Britain in his own image. His roguishness has made it a rogue state, openly defiant of international law. His triviality has diminished it in the eyes of the world. His relentless mendacity and blatantly self-seeking abuse of power have ruined its reputation for democratic decency. His bad jokes made the country he professes to love increasingly risible… As Europe faces two overlapping existential crises (the climate crisis and the invasion of Ukraine), Johnson’s Britain has made itself a source of further disruption and uncertainty…. Johnson turned one of the great historic democracies into a state in which his own cynicism, recklessness and lack of honour became official policy. In doing so, he has allowed every enemy of democracy to say that it is a hollow system whose rules and values are a sham’. Oof.
In yet another damning piece, Jonathan Freedland points up a key irony: ‘The one consistent principle of his career has been cakeism, his ardent belief that he alone should be able to have his cake and eat it. And so, true to that spirit even to the last, he has decided both to resign and to remain in office (my italics)…. The prime minister’s exit not only disgraces him and his party – it indicts the fast-unravelling project that brought him to No 10… The politicians might not want to say it, but this week is a milestone in the fate of Brexit. The prime author of Britain’s exit from the EU has fallen: the standing of his calamitous project is heading the same way’.
Despite the opprobrium rightly heaped on Boris Johnson he still has plenty of defenders besides some of the local party chairs mentioned above: Spalding in Lincolnshire recently emerged as a source of support, interviews with locals having us wondering where on earth these people get their news and their level of political innocence. One said ‘He’s the best prime minister we’ve had for a very long time. He did a very good job, faced up to the country’s problems, the common market. Nobody else is worth voting for’. Another said ‘He’s been stabbed in the back….All politicians are liars, but Boris is the one that’s been caught out. Look at Keir Starmer – he should be punished same as Boris’. Pure Daily Mail.
The succession contest itself would be laughable if it wasn’t so seriously deranged, all sorts of people ‘putting themselves in the shop window’, as Sir Charles Walker put it, when they can have little hope of garnering the necessary support. It’s extraordinary that, with little substance, their self-esteem seems inflated well beyond their abilities and this goes for most of them. The front runners are Rishi Sunak, Liz Truss, Jeremy Hunt, Sajid Javid, Nadhim Zawahi, Priti Patel and Tom Tugendhat, with Penny Mordaunt and Grant Shapps joining the list later. Shapps’s pitch during a Radio 4 interview (Sunday’s Broadcasting House) was predictably but staggeringly grandiose and deluded, this candidate saying he was ‘passionate about the country’, ‘I think I’d make a good prime minister’, stressing the importance of ‘competent government’ and how he wanted to focus on ‘the bread and butter of what matters to people’.
And we might have known, of course, that Johnson would be interfering with the leadership contest, Downing Street briefing against candidates, starting with Rishi Sunak. ‘Another senior figure in the government added that Johnson was so incensed at the way he had been ousted, having won such a huge mandate at the 2019 general election, that he was now intent on exacting revenge on those he saw as responsible, and on influencing events wherever possible from the outside. This is not an administration that is going to go quietly. The source said there is a lot of anger about how this all happened and it was clear that that much of it will now focus on Rishi’. The added suggested that this was ‘very Trumpian’ reinforces what we already know – that this vengeful narcissist will stop at nothing in his attempts to unseat anyone daring to oppose him.
Meanwhile, some of those ‘promoted’ to Cabinet and other posts following the tsunami of resignations were only in those posts very briefly before resigning or being replaced themselves, Michael Gove being dramatically sacked for ‘disloyalty’. One example was Michelle Donelan, who had been Education Secretary for less than 48 hours when she quit, having replaced Nadhim Zahawi, who was made Chancellor. What on earth must this ridiculous pantomime look like to the world leaders who any future PM will need to do business with? Any credibility hobbled from the outset. News of some appointments was greeted with derision in some quarters, Johnson seen to be scraping the bottom of the already depleted barrel to find people for these posts. Surprise was expressed at James Cleverly being appointed Education Secretary and surely the most laughable was extreme right-wing backbencher Peter Bone becoming Deputy Leader of the Commons, a post so unnecessary that it hadn’t been used since 2018. But Johnson felt the need to reward his ‘loyalty’. A striking irony is Johnson’s determination to reward ‘loyalty’ and punish ‘disloyalty’ while having no grasp of this quality himself.
During all this upheaval, an NHS staffer tweeted ‘In case anyone’s forgotten, the NHS waiting lists in England alone are 6.5 million; the longest ever on record’. This shines light on the prioritisation of politics and power over need – Steve Barclay as new Health Secretary will surely have an impossibly steep learning curve on this portfolio at a time when (thanks to Tory policy and underfunding) the NHS is in crisis. At least he’s been let off his Downing Street Chief of Staff duties, as Samantha ‘the Panther’ Cohen (a former royal aide) has been appointed to this role. It’s striking that two former health secretaries (Hunt and Javid) are running for the Conservative Party leadership when they did their best to underfund and wreck morale within the NHS in order to facilitate their long term goal – privatisation by stealth. Everyone has stories about their NHS experience, some good and that’s great but many appalling and frightening. We hear how ambulance waiting times have seriously worsened, attendance to urgent calls averaging 40 minutes instead of 18 and one 94 year old in Gloucester had to wait so long after a fall (five hours) that he suggested the responders send an undertaker. Very sadly, he died later that day.
A key reason, of course, is ambulances having to queue for long periods outside hospitals because of lack of beds, which in turn is partly due to being unable to discharge other patients into threadbare social care facilities. As we know, social care is the very thing that Boris Johnson trumpeted ‘from the steps of Downing Street’, after his election win in 2019, would be ‘fixed’ for good, but we still have no plan. So the NHS is a classic example of the knock on effect of failing to properly fund and deliver one basic service, affecting all the related ones.
A study carried out by The Lancet proved that NHS privatisation (outsourcing accelerated by Andrew Lansley’s Health and Social Care Act in 2012) has led to reduced quality of care and more deaths. ‘Our study suggests that increased for-profit outsourcing from clinical commissioning groups [CCGs] in England might have adversely affected the quality of care delivered to patients and resulted in increased mortality rates. Our findings suggest that further privatisation of the NHS might lead to worse population health outcomes’. No surprise here but the situation could become far worse as the government seeks to cut the 6.5 million waiting list by using private companies to clear the backlog. The researchers found that between 2013 and 2020, outsourcing by Clinical Commissioning Groups grew from 3.9% to more than 6.4%. In total, £11.5bn was handed to private companies over the period, although the amount varied considerably between CCGs. One of the worrying aspects of privatisation by stealth is that many patients don’t know it’s happening. In recent years an offshoot of a US conglomerate (Centene/Operose) has been facilitated by the CCGs to take over the running of numerous GP practices. The Keep Our NHS Public campaign has been doing excellent work to raise awareness and oppose these developments despite a worse Health and Social Care Act being passed recently. [You might have seen BBC’s Panorama on this subject on 13 June]. As a commentator said ‘This model of healthcare runs entirely counter to the founding principles of the NHS, which has sought to insulate healthcare in the UK from the profit motive.”
Still on the NHS, there have been many complaints from patients about the difficulty in getting GP appointments, many practices trying to force patients down the virtual consultation route when some GPs themselves have written to the national press to express their unease with this. If they can’t see the patient physically in front of them key aspects of a possible illness could be missed as much can be discerned from the patient’s demeanour and gait, for example. GP practices (I’ve had to complain about mine twice within a few months) also purposely or inadvertently put barriers in the way of communication, for example having unintuitive websites and forcing patients to quote data not immediately to hand. I had to point out to mine (was there no testing before releasing this website?) that the oft-demanded date of birth box kept defaulting to 2022, meaning one could not progress the message. It’s long been known there’s a shortage of GPs, many having left due to stress or are working part-time because their pension pots don’t facilitate more hours, and now it’s been shown (unfortunately but not surprisingly) that ‘criminal acts of violence’ at UK practices have almost doubled over the last five years. Even those without a condition of health anxiety can become very worried when their health is at stake and the frustration of not being able to see the very individual who could ease that anxiety is hard to bear.
‘British Medical Association chair, Dr Chaand Nagpaul, said it was “no surprise” that patients were struggling to get appointments because of the national “lack of capacity” and “lack of historic investment in general practice”. In 2015, Jeremy Hunt, the then health secretary, pledged to hire 5,000 more GPs within five years – but the total went down instead of up. In their 2019 manifesto, the Conservatives promised to recruit 6,000 more GPs by 2024, but Sajid Javid, the then health secretary, admitted last November that they were unlikely to hit their target’. Great, isn’t it, that these two are now running for the Conservative Party leadership? Watch out for more of the same. A letter to The Times from a retired GP pointed out another overlooked phenomenon: that when he retired patients on average saw their GP five times a year (up from three when he started) and now it’s risen to eight times a year. He suggests the government has no plan for how to manage this demand apart from demanding that GPs work longer hours – the public’s expectations of GPs have changed and this itself is unlikely to change any time soon. There’s also, of course, a backlog of patients seeking treatment they felt unable to during the worst of the pandemic. Let’s hope the media, rather than colluding with their delusions, interrogate PM candidates as to how they plan to manage this crisis. Not to mention the significant increase in Covid cases as well.
As the cost of living crisis continues to challenge the government, the average shopping basket predicted to rise by £380 this year, we are likely to see more and more demands for pay increases and no doubt the rail unions are planning the next round of strikes. RMT leader Mick Lynch emerged as an unlikely media star during the last round, remaining admirably calm while demolishing during media interviews a tranche of Tory MPs and ministers, including the thuggish Jonathan Gullis, calling out their reliance on a pre-prepared script of sound bites. You can see some good clips of these interviews on YouTube, including the one where Lynch on Newsnight repeatedly tells MP Chris Philp ‘you’re a liar, you’re a liar’.
The cost of living crisis has brought to the fore a term first coined in the US – ‘skimpflation’, a phenomenon where service providers and retailers don’t very obviously raise their prices, maybe, but do it by stealth. One example is restaurants swapping their dishes and plates for smaller ones, enabling stingier portions to be charged at the same price. Do they think we won’t notice? And don’t even get me started on the ‘small plates’ rip-off. Other examples include cancelled flights, hanging on the phone for customer service and clothing made of inferior material. ‘Skimpflation is when consumers are getting less for their money,” says Alan Cole, a writer at Full Stack Economics and formerly a senior economist at the joint economic committee of the US Congress. “Unlike typical inflation, where they’re paying more for the same goods, skimpflation is when they’re paying the same for something that worsened in quality.”…. But even if it is not as easy to identify, when you start to look for skimpflation, you can see it everywhere. It is in the supermarket, when you bump into someone filling shelves because costlier night-shift work has been axed, or when your favourite brand is no longer there because the range has been reduced to cut warehouse costs’.
As we enter the main holiday season many travelling abroad continue to experience anxiety as to whether they will actually reach their destinations (and return on time) due to airline chaos, repeated cancellations and changes of flight times. I heard of one example where the traveller was actually not once but twice at the departure gate when their flight was cancelled. This does seem appalling because the airline must have known hours before that they weren’t able to assemble a crew or manage whatever problem was cited. Airline chiefs try to deflect blame, citing the surge in demand, lack of staff partly caused by Brexit and delays in security operations. At least one commentator, though, says the airlines only have themselves to blame, as they axed thousands of staff (10,000 by British Airways alone) while taking advantage of furlough arrangements and now clearly have trouble getting their staffing levels up to the necessary.
I saw an interesting example of this recently in the form of a newly created rail company staffed partly by former airline staff and very friendly and efficient they were, too. They may well have given up for good on airline jobs. But another commentator reckons the problem is much wider than airlines, who could be unfairly blamed: ‘The pandemic has caused chaos across the whole economy – this is more complex than a mere balls up on the part of the travel industry’. Even those playing safe by holidaying in the UK aren’t free of problems, though – with rocketing accommodation prices, busy roads and the potential for more rail strikes going anywhere could look risky. It’s usually great when we get there, though.
The Financial Times report on the return of an erstwhile private sector treat after a two year pandemic gap – the resurgence of ‘corporate jollies’. It gives examples of firms booking exotic venues and activities, ‘to the delight of the hospitality industry’, reporting that demand is so high that some venues are fully booked until the autumn. But besides enabling staff to feel appreciated, companies are also hoping that such events will tempt more staff back to the office and restore a sense of corporate identity which could have taken a hit in the interim. It would be interesting to know whether these goals are realised.
Finally, those old enough to remember the ubiquity of salad cream (some time ago displaced by the more sophisticated mayonnaise) might be interested to learn that it’s having a renaissance. First produced by Heinz in 1914, its predominant flavours of mustard and vinegar are thought to be appealing to palates once again. The writer describes a simple recipe (pretty sure I used to make this in the 1970s) of mashing the yolks removed from hard boiled eggs, mixing these with salad cream and a few other things like curry powder and Worcestershire sauce, then putting this mixture into the half whites. ‘Every time I’ve served this at a dinner party guests claw at the plate in unbridled greed’!!