So the would-be ‘king of the world’ has finally gone, deposed by those who supported him for so long for fear of losing their own seats…. but not so fast. It already appears that some commentators like Simon Jenkins could be right about this being too easy an assumption: during the deluded and unreal leadership contest there’s been evidence of skulduggery and briefing originating from Downing Street against candidates and that final ‘hasta la vista’ declaration could confirm Johnson’s intention to hang on or make a comeback. (And, unbelievably, Tory donor ‘Lord’ Cruddas, an honour Johnson gave him against official advice, is threatening to withdraw further funding until Johnson’s name is on the ballot and has a petition 7,000 have signed to refuse Johnson’s resignation in the first place). In the Daily Mail Cruddas said: ‘The ousting of Boris Johnson as Prime Minister by a minority of MPs is deeply anti-democratic. It defies the will of the country and the Conservative Party members who elected him. It amounts to a coup. I am ashamed that this can happen in Britain, the birthplace of modern democracy. If that’s what politics has become, we’re living in a nation I can barely recognise any longer’. He clearly doesn’t grasp the irony of alluding to British democracy when the regime he supports has done its best for years to undermine it and its institutions.
Last week saw the initially polite but increasingly bitter Tory leadership contest knock out one candidate after another, but not before we witnessed the key moment when they were asked if they’d have Boris Johnson in their cabinet and not one said they would. Now that the fight is between Sunak and Truss, presaging ‘a brutal summer of vicious infighting’ as the Independent put it, there’s been much focus on what some see as Truss’s economic illiteracy. In her Radio 4 car crash interview on Thursday (during which she insisted she had the ‘grit and strength to stand up to Putin’, not to mention everything she’s ‘delivered’, actually very little) she insisted her £30bn tax cutting strategy (dependent upon borrowing) would be deflationary, not inflationary as key economists are claiming.
‘One economics professor told The Independent the claim was “ridiculous”, while the respected Institute for Fiscal Studies went further, also highlighting the danger for public services and spending rules’. In turn Truss faulted the dogged ‘orthodoxy’ of the Treasury.
The Independent tells us ‘there were appeals for the two contenders to succeed Boris Johnson to avoid “blue on blue” attacks on one another, amid Tory fears that a bloody battle will undermine efforts to restore public trust in the party’ – what a joke: do they seriously think it can be restored? Roll on constitutional reform – more and more are saying how unacceptable it is that the next UK prime minister will be chosen by 160,000 mostly elderly, white, male Conservative party members, few of whom seem to have any real grasp of politics or economics.
All this unfurled last week as much of the UK sweltered in unprecedentedly high temperatures described as ‘blowtorch Britain’ by one tabloid (astonishingly, media interviewers didn’t ask candidates how they’d address climate change though campaigners were dismayed by intentions to cancel the green levy and the net zero commitment) and the chaos at Dover worsened at the start of school holidays. On Friday around 8,500 cars were ‘processed’ leaving the UK, forecast to rise to 10,000 on Saturday, resulting in 6 hour delays for travellers largely due to Brexit-induced additional security checking. Not surprisingly, the right-wing press and some politicians are blaming the French for this. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Truss has appealed to her base by promising to delete all EU legislation from the UK statute book by 2023, but ironically, partly due to civil service cuts inflicted by her own government, she might find this more difficult than anticipated.
‘Her Brexit plan would mean each remaining EU law and regulation would be “evaluated on the basis of whether it supports UK growth or boosts investment”, with those deemed not to do so replaced. Any EU laws not replaced would simply disappear at the end of 2023, just 15 months after Truss potentially takes power in September. Truss said this would mean that as PM she could ‘unleash the full potential of Britain post-Brexit, and accelerate plans to get EU law off our statute books so we can boost growth and make the most of our newfound freedoms outside the EU’’. I can’t wait to see what this ‘unleashing’ of potential will look like.
Meanwhile, a panel of Guardian journalists assesses both leadership candidates, one making the obvious point that this can’t be ‘a clean start’ as both are indelibly connected to the 12 preceding years of Tory rule. (When this was raised by an interviewer last week, Truss fell back on ‘collective Cabinet responsibility’ as her rationale for going along with the damaging policies of recent years). ‘So two candidates who look to the non-Conservative voter like genuinely eccentric propositions – an ex-chancellor so personally rich he reads like a walking conspiracy theory, a foreign secretary who communicates in lists of her own achievements – will read to the members like the most boring of the lot. I reckon Truss takes it, and I can’t wait’. The whole thing sounds increasingly like Hobson’s choice, one panel member believing that neither is seen as having genuine economic solutions.
Coming out firmly for Sunak (‘he may also lack experience, but his performance at the Treasury during Johnson’s nightmare premiership suggests a man of sound judgment, caution and competence’) Simon Jenkins adds to those already faulting the way this decision will be made. ‘The decision of Truss versus Rishi Sunak now goes to a bizarre “selectorate” of the Tory party members. As of 2017, their average age was 57. More than half are over 60 and more than 70% are male. They live predominantly in the south of England. That the nation’s leadership should hang on this tiny unrepresentative group is a perversion of parliamentary democracy’.
The candidates and their supporters continue to take themselves absurdly seriously, despite significant reservations expressed by experts in key fields like climate change. The Guardian’s environment correspondent, Fiona Harvey, believes neither has a convincing track record. ‘Liz Truss was awful as environment secretary. She was foreign secretary for Cop26, but she did nothing in the run-up, hardly went, and never talked about it again..When she was asked about net zero at the Channel 4 debate on Friday, she quickly pivoted to “a new survey of nature”. “That was pathetic. Biodiversity is important, but we know the state we’re in. We don’t need to start counting voles’. Harvey is no more positive about Sunak. ‘…..he was dreadful at the Treasury. He blocked funding for insulation, investment, carbon pricing – he just kiboshed everything. The real worry is that you get someone who says they are committed to net zero, gives us all the platitudes, but does nothing about it. We’ve had something of that for the last three years under Johnson – a government that doesn’t actually grasp it wholeheartedly’. Note to media presenters: don’t be fobbed off, as you often are, by lip service.
Meanwhile, that tower of intellectual heft, Kit Malthouse (now Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – which sounds initially just like a grand title but actually carries quite a bit of responsibility if the incumbent takes ‘oversight’ seriously) said of the heatwave: ‘The UK must learn to live with extreme weather’, as the government was accused of going missing ‘while Britain burns’. He said the impacts of climate change are with us now, which smacks of passivity. While we’re sadly used to seeing news of horrendous fires in Spain, Italy and elsewhere, it was shocking to hear that 60 UK homes had been destroyed by fires last Tuesday. ‘Riccardo la Torre, national officer of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), said firefighters worked in “ferocious and horrific conditions” on Tuesday in the wake of staff cuts. He said 11,500 firefighter jobs have gone since 2010’. No surprise there.
Malthouse also repeated an untrue statement to the effect that the government had been ‘at the forefront of international efforts to reach net zero’ when the 2021 report of the Climate Change Committee (an independent public body that advises the UK government and parliament) said that the UK’s climate emergency preparations were inadequate.
Richard Ratcliffe presents another view on Truss’s performance, which many may have been unaware of. For someone who repeatedly states what she reckons she’s ‘delivered’, he concedes that yes, she did get Nazanin out by paying the longstanding debt to Iran which had stood in the way, but she has failed to ‘deliver’ on another important undertaking. This was to sanction at least ten key Iranian officials who were responsible for her imprisonment and much else besides, such as torture of prisoners. ‘Despite having had that file (of evidence) for nine months, Truss has not sanctioned these individuals. The Foreign Office regularly tells us it is still studying the file. In those nine months, a number of these individuals known to the Foreign, Commonwealth and Development Office (FCDO) played a key role in the continuing mistreatment of British citizens…. Government inaction always has a price. Bad things happen when governments look the other way – bad things with ripple effects. … Again, the UK is falling behind its key ally. Unlike the US, the UK has seemingly been pretty sanguine about the torture and hostage-taking of its citizens. Advice to families is still to keep quiet, while the government wrings its hands publicly about how little it can do. The UK still resists recognising Nazanin as a hostage. FCDO officials still went along with her being forced to confess. We still await answers on who authorised this and why’. Have any media interviewers challenged Truss on this yet?
Johnson’s swan song (alleged) in the Commons this week inevitably spawned many column inches, writers picking out the key points such as his deluded summing up of his own ‘achievements’ (‘dealing with’ Covid, ‘getting Brexit done’ etc except it’s only just beginning, ‘mission largely accomplished… for now’, ‘I am proud of the leadership I’ve given and will leave with my head held high’) and former PM Theresa May pointedly refusing to clap. ‘It was bonkers. The same Tory MPs who had spent months summoning up the self-worth to remove a prime minister who had done little, lied a lot and was totally unfit for office, now indulged themselves in a mawkish farewell. As if they were seeing off a three-term leader with a long record of achievement. Not a lazy poundshop Arnie who squandered an 80-seat majority in a midden of sleaze, corruption and lawbreaking’. This last PMQs before the recess came across as shamefully farcical, the very weak Speaker adding to this by reminding those present (however irrelevant!) that it was ‘customary’ for MPs to say something nice about a departing prime minister. ‘It was a bleak day for the people of the UK, who would find themselves with a prime minister just as incapable of running the country as The Convict. Only marginally less likely to lie about it’.
But whatever ‘comeback’ intentions Boris Johnson might be harbouring, he could yet be undone by Commons Privileges Committee’s investigation. ‘Despite having resigned as Conservative leader, Johnson still faces a parliamentary probe over whether he misled MPs when he told them repeatedly that “all guidance was followed” in Downing Street during the pandemic – something subsequently proved to be untrue. The committee, which will start taking oral evidence in the autumn, including from the prime minister, published a report on Thursday setting out how it will carry out its inquiry – including the fact that, as previously reported, witnesses will be questioned under oath’. Not only this: this inquiry could have real teeth because the concept of ‘unintentional’ misleading of Parliament has been removed – misleading pure and simple without any ‘deliberate’ or not sophistry – plus the Committee has obtained a Speaker ruling to the effect that if suspended from the House, this could trigger the Recall Act, with Johnson having to face a by-election. A good example of karma must be that Johnson could be hoist by his own petard, since it was his own efforts to avoid Owen Paterson being suspended which not only sparked ‘a furious backlash from colleagues’ but also catalysed the Partygate digging and revelations.
As if they didn’t already have enough on their plate, the successful candidate will also have a vengeful predecessor to reckon with, believes Rafael Behr: ‘A bitter, unrepentant Boris Johnson will be a curse on the next prime minister…. So we will get a leader appointed in the weird hybrid mode that is presidential in style, parliamentary in principle and plain weird in practice. The new prime minister will try simultaneously to repudiate and preserve Johnson’s legacy, relying on a hand-me-down mandate that the current jealous holder will not relinquish, because he thinks it is his personal property’. Citing three key reasons for the new Downing Street ‘tenant’ paying a heavy price for the arguably illegitimate way they’ve assumed the reins, Behr returns to the spectre of their detracting predecessor hanging around to undermine them. ‘Johnson’s final weeks in power will combine despotic indolence – milking the job for its perks – with self-pity and spite. He bunked a Cobra meeting on extreme weather, but found time for a jolly ride in a fighter jet. He has turned the cabinet into a kennel of nodding dogs. There is no hint of forgiveness for old enemies, only vengeance’.
Despite Johnson’s disgrace, which he’s widely sought to present as a list of amazing achievements, he’s set to go ahead with a resignation list unless those petitioning against it get their way. It does seem appalling that, not only has he created umpteen honours in order to cynically pack out the Lords for legislative support and/or reward Tory donors, he could also create more when there can scarcely be a public figure now who’s not a ‘dame’ or a ‘lord’ this or that. It’s gone a little quiet after this article was penned but at the time it was thought that, incredibly, there could be gongs for the Culture Secretary, Nadine Dorries, whose ‘loyalty’ to ‘Boris’ has been widely lampooned, and for the former Daily Mail editor Paul Dacre, among others. If such ‘honours’ ever come to pass I wonder if in some quarters these ‘Boris gongs’ could be disregarded and not used on account of the travesty they would be.
Meanwhile, we now face weeks of no-government limbo, with a vacuum at the top and MPs away on what many consider an inappropriately long break, especially given the war in Ukraine, cost of living crisis, climate emergency and travel chaos. Some have suggested that a symbol of this is the failure to appoint a science minister in the wake of George Freeman’s resignation, although that could be partly down to the barrel of lightweights finally being scraped dry. So much for the intention to make the UK a science superpower.
Chemistry World explains how problematic this is, at a time when uncertainty over involvement in European programmes continues.
‘Freeman had sought to secure the UK’s participation in the EU’s research programmes, including Horizon Europe, Copernicus and Euratom. However, political wrangling over the Northern Ireland protocol appears to have scuppered the chances of an agreement being reached. Freeman had begun work on a ‘plan B’ to support UK science in the event of the country being formally ejected from the European funding programmes – although reports suggest that he still faced challenges to gain backing for the scheme within government. ‘George Freeman is a passionate advocate for science and his departure is a great loss to our community,’ said University of Oxford zoologist John Krebs’. It’s not a substitute but let’s hope the civil servants Freeman worked with have sufficient knowledge and impetus to keep the work going until a new minister is appointed.
As the ambulance waiting times crisis deepens, Covid cases rise rapidly (despite Dominic Raab trying to brainwash us that we’re in a ‘post-Covid transition) and treatment waiting lists pass the six million mark, there’s recently been more media focus on the NHS and its future, including an episode of Radio 4’s Moral Maze discussion last week. Perhaps the most shocking aspect is the extent of privatization by stealth, always this government’s intention, which many patients don’t even realize is happening. Howard Beckett of the Unite union tweeted this week: ‘US health insurance giant, Centene, is now the largest single provider of NHS GP care in England. A company that even the Daily Mail has called “profit greedy”. They are starving the NHS of investment while selling the services to US corporates’. Raab resorts to management-speak such as the need for more ‘improvements and efficiencies’ within the NHS to obscure the severe underfunding which has taken place over the last 12 years of Tory administration. Another key question is whether the new Integrated Care Systems across England will perform any better than the former Clinical Commissioning Groups. The nation’s mental health, already having taken a massive hit, is likely to be further impacted by the continuing political shenanigans. It’s shocking that the Covid Inquiry, which finally began this week, only included mental health in its remit following pressure from organisations like the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy.
This, when it’s increasingly clear that ambulance waiting times are a frontline manifestation of the failure to reform social care and the failure to recruit and train doctors and nurses and to pay them adequately goes back to Jeremy Hunt’s tenure as Health Secretary. More and more patients are now paying for private treatment but what about those who can’t afford it? As one presenter rightly said, this is leading to a two tier system. On Stephen Nolan’s BBC5Live programme on Friday evening, one caller described his own situation, having decided to opt for private treatment when he was given an estimate of months ahead for an NHS biopsy on a potentially cancerous lump. Howard Beckett again: ‘Private hospitals provided less than 1% of Covid care overall. Yet just 8 firms (in 1 year only) received an eye watering £1.69bn from the NHS, for the use of private hospital beds. They are bleeding the NHS of funds’. This situation needs an honest cross-party discussion amid views that Labour is not making enough noise about it and has its own private health interests.
A number of GPs have written to the national press suggesting solutions for their own recruitment and retention crisis – almost 19,000 family doctors plan to leave the NHS during the next five years, owing to retirement, stress and burnout. Interestingly, a retired GP has written to the Telegraph to suggest another reason: that the work has become boring. Not the kind of thing you’d expect a GP to say. He said they’ve become ‘public health doctors, buried in vaccination programmes, time-consuming and remote consultations, overwhelming bureaucracy and failing management…. Look what’s been taken away from them: acute medicine and maternity care’. He opines that these areas were what formed a bond between doctors, families and communities and that GPs need to have them restored. ‘GPs need to be allowed to do what they were trained to do: practice medicine’. It would be interesting to know what other clinicians and NHS organizations think about this. It seems to me he’s underestimating the importance of public health work, which should be preventative, thereby reducing pressure on the service.
Retail has long been in a state of flux but could it be in for further turbulence now that more clothing companies are going to charge for returns on online purchases? We regularly hear of people whose online shopping involves numerous items in numerous sizes, the unwanted items being sent back on the ‘free returns’ policy, though it could be argued that this cost has always been built into the overarching business model. ‘The days of the bedroom fitting room are numbered. Online retail giant Boohoo has become the latest in a string of retailers, including Next, Uniqlo, and Zara, to start charging shoppers for returns. Starting earlier this month, its customers face a £1.99 fee for each return, deducted from their refund. It’s all in the name of tackling the increased costs of shipping, the fast-fashion behemoth says’. The article points how the most extreme cavalier behaviour, posting photos online then returning the items, also has a significant environmental cost (not to mention all those vans driving around delivering them).
‘When clothes are returned, they’re likely to be thrown away rather than resold. In the US, 2.6m tonnes of returned goods end up in landfill every year, generating 15m tonnes of carbon dioxide emissions annually. Processing returns is time-consuming and costly. Buttons need to be rebuttoned, cardboard inserts need to be put back in, labels need to be reattached, products need refolding and rebagging, and then they must be put back into stock on the system. It’s a complex process and sometimes the cheapest and easiest solution is simply cutting the loss and sending the whole lot to landfill. It’s a hideous waste of resources, not to mention an insult to the skilled people who put their time into making each product, but it’s the reality of modern fashion, and retail in general’. It will be interesting to see how this pans out – perhaps a partial return to bricks and mortar stores.
It’s long been the case thatworks of art and similar have had no overarching listing in the UK and I think it was only relatively recently that collections of paintings were identified and catalogued. It’s good news in The Week, then, that the UK’s thousands of public sculptures have been catalogued, thanks to the charity Art UK. 500 volunteers were sent across the country searching for these works, totalling a staggering 13,500 including 30 Barbara Hepworths and 70 Henry Moores. The charity now hopes to list all the UK’s public murals. This reminded me that, starting in lockdown, a museums studies academic at Birkbeck College, University of London, set about identifying and listing all the (often tiny) specialist museums (‘micromuseums) which could be run by just one individual from their living room. These are often endangered collections, in the sense that there’s usually no funding for them and no one to take over should anything happen to prevent the owner taking care of them. Fiona Candlin, professor of museology and director in the Mapping Museums project at Birkbeck has written a book about this important work, which should be published next year. Let’s hope it gets plenty of media coverage.
Finally, in a counterintuitive move, a French patissier turns vegan, prompting many others to follow suit. ‘France is experiencing a surprise boom in vegan artisan pâtisserie. The meat-heavy nation, whose centuries-old pastry tradition was built on eggs, butter and cream, has been shaken by a new generation of pastry chefs reinventing classics without animal products’. The most recent is one Rodolphe Landemaine, very brave considering ‘France is not an easy market to crack. According to an Ifop poll in 2020, fewer than 1% of the population is vegan, and the word ‘vegan’ itself had become laden with negative political associations amid rows over activism against butcher shops….He launched his vegan pâtisserie and bakery, Land and Monkeys (named for a return to the earth and our ancestors) just before the Covid pandemic, fearing it might fold after three months. But he now has six shops in Paris and another opening in the business district La Défense in September’. It seems he introduced his products partly through stealth, not immediately presenting them as vegan. It will be interesting to see if anything like this seriously takes off here!