Sunday 31 July

Our politics this last week has been even less of an edifying spectacle than usual, with (Boris Johnson is said to have connived at this weeks ago) the two Conservative Party leadership candidates fighting like ferrets in a sack, only equalled, it seems, by their supporters and some in Whitehall briefing madly against one or the other. Of course they don’t think what kind of impression this is giving to world leaders – an embarrassment on the world stage. Now we’re onto the party hustings – one down, 11 to go, which sound exhausting (for both participants and audience). As the Guardian’s John Crace described the formula, ‘….we don’t even get the pleasure of seeing them disagree with each other. Rather they do battle to feed the delusions of the 160,000 or so Tory members who are the only voters that count for this particular election with ever more far-fetched rightwing policies’.

I suspect that many are finding this obsessional contest distasteful, if not obscene, as further rail strikes hit ‘the travelling public’, more pay demands reinforce calls for a General Strike, the energy crisis bites even deeper and the mental health impact worsens (see below more on children’s mental health). All of this with an AWOL government and continuing limbo until 5 September, except it won’t get any better then. News of billion-pound profits being made by energy companies comes after UK households warned average annual bill could hit £3,850 by 2023, fuel poverty possibly giving rise to ‘heat banks’ besides food banks. Personal finance expert Martin Lewis again won’t have pleased ministers with his blunt exhortations to Truss, Sunak and Johnson to get round a table to come up with some solutions as a matter of urgency. Lewis faults the ‘zombie government’ as the Independent’s figure of the day on Friday was £1.34bn, representing a five-fold increase in British Gas owner Centrica’s profits. And another energy price cap rise is due for the autumn. Meanwhile ministers sit back, perhaps on a distant beach, and Transport Minister Grant Shapps still refuses to negotiate with the unions as RMT leader Mick Lynch continues his starring role in media interviews.

Thanks to The Week for covering an interesting piece from the Conservative Home website written by former minister Francis Maude. As a self-described ‘grizzled veteran’ of leadership contests, he stresses the need for the successful candidate to be able to ‘keep 27 plates spinning’ at a time (doubtful the short attention span Johnson could ever do that) but also several other essential qualities. These are: a flair for making quick decisions on the hoof; decent performance skills in the House of Commons; the gravitas and temperament to build strong relationships with our neighbours and partners; and to interact normally with normal people. The Week suggests that, given the growth of personality-driven and presidential politics, the last quality may count for most with voters. It’s surely striking, though, that Boris Johnson spectacularly fails on most of the qualities described.

As paralysis in government circles takes further hold amid crises in the economy, energy supply, NHS and travel sectors, the leadership contest hasn’t taken Boris Johnson’s eye off the ball of his endless machinations or prevented further damaging revelations coming to light. We can be sure that some of the negative briefing on the leadership candidates emanates from Downing Street (looking for work now the PM should, if not yet, be on the way out?) and he appears to be playing both sides regarding the plan by some (notably ‘Lord’ Cruddas) to get him on the ballot paper. Many wondered why Boris Johnson wasn’t fined for two Partygate events and now the Met has admitted (only after the intervention of the Good Law Project so what else is being hidden?)  it didn’t send him questionnaires for all the parties. Why not?

Said GLP: ‘The Met’s actions have raised grave concerns about the deferential way in which they are policing those in power.We don’t think the Met’s response is consistent with their legal duty of candour. And we certainly don’t think it’s consistent with what the Met has elsewhere conceded is their public duty to maintain public confidence in policing’. GLP is being assisted by Brian Paddick, the Liberal Democrat peer and former senior police officer. And while Downing Street ‘declined to comment’ (no surprise there) Scotland Yard’s response was feeble: ‘Questionnaires were a useful part of the investigation, but if answers were clear from other evidence, there was little to be gained from sending one to a particular person simply for them to confirm what was already known, and there was no duty to send one’. Many could disagree with that.

This government has long been at work politicising the House of Lords, attempting to pack it with their own supporters regardless of what honours are supposed to be all about. Besides the possibility of a resignation honours list going down the same predictable path, rendering these titles increasingly meaningless, former PM Gordon Brown writes that Johnson Boris Johnson ‘is planning to fill the Lords with his cronies and legitimise bribery. Brown describes the shocking content of a ‘confidential’ document he’s had sight of – how did that come about, we can wonder…..

‘A confidential document prepared by CT Group, the influential lobbying firm run by Lynton Crosby which advises Boris Johnson, and which I have seen, makes no bones about the defenestrated prime minister’s aim to pack the House of Lords. The document proposes that Johnson ride roughshod over every convention and standard of propriety in an effort to secure political nominees who will vote for the Tory government, especially its bill to disown the international treaty it has itself signed over Northern Ireland. This draft plan to add 39 to 50 new Tory peers includes an extraordinary requirement that each new peer sign away their right to make their own judgment on legislation that comes before them. They have to give, the paper says, a written undertaking to attend and vote with the government (my italics). The document, predictably and cynically, includes plans to counter media and public backlash with spurious justification (eg it’s ‘levelling up’ as the South-east has more peers than the north, etc). This is corruption not, unfortunately, in plain sight: Brown analyses the relationship between peerages and donations, citing a term used by one newly ennobled individual, ‘access capitalism’.

‘Money talks, and nowhere more so than in the Lords. Twenty-two of the party’s biggest donors – who together have donated £54m to the Conservatives – have been made lords since 2010. Not only do these 22 have peerages but, as one leading Tory donor, Mohamed Amersi, confirmed this week when talking of “access capitalism”, large cash donations give “a privileged few unrivalled access to decision-makers’….. Brown quotes one former Conservative Party chair as saying ‘Once you pay your £3m, you get your peerage’. All this when surveys show 71% of the public want Lords reform and only 12% back it in its current form. Perhaps people will boycott these ‘Boris gongs’, refusing to use these improperly conferred titles.

Another shocking development representing a clear attack on democracy is the Attorney General Suella Braverman’s decision to stop her government lawyers advising ministers when their proposals are illegal. Together with the hindering of judicial review, this effectively represents the end of the Rule of Law.

But if Johnson thinks he’s out of the woods on Partygate, that’s by no means the case regarding the ‘defining’ Lebedev scandal, which we have persistent investigative journalist Carole Cadwalladr to thank for uncovering much more of. The story is now familiar: when Foreign Secretary in 2018, at a time of heightened tensions with Moscow because of inter alia the Salisbury poisonings, Johnson, who had been attending an emergency NATO meeting in Brussels, shook off his security people in order to fly to Italy to attend a party at a villa owned by the former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev, father of Evgeny, owner of the Evening Standard and The Independent and ennobled by Johnson in 2020. Without first being revealed by the Observer and taken up by Ms Cadwalladr, none of this may have emerged but Johnson was forced to admit to MPs recently that the meeting took place ‘in breach of all protocols, without any foreign office officials present’. Despite the extraordinary behaviours exhibited by Johnson over the last few years, that he could do such a thing beggars belief.

‘This scandal isn’t about breaking his own laws or impropriety with Conservative party funds or Lulu Lytle wallpaper. It’s not even a scandal in the traditional sense. This is about what appears to be a fundamental breach of our national security. A breach that potentially endangered not just our country but the entire Nato alliance. And we still know almost nothing about it…. In Britain, we treated it as a botched assassination attempt, but Nato understood something far more sinister had taken place. It was a chemical warfare attack on the civilian population of a Nato country. Under Nato’s rules, an attack on one member nation is an attack on all. It’s worth reading the whole of this article, which tells an extraordinary story, one element of which is that the BBC has only recently started covering it. Whose backs were they covering and whose are they continuing to cover?

‘The news did not “emerge” last week. It was not even, as the BBC claimed, the first time it had been “confirmed”. We got confirmation from Lebedev’s press secretary three years ago and we – the Observer, the Guardian, and niche independent outlets Byline Times, Open Democracy and Tortoise Media – have been talking about this relationship to anyone who will listen for years. What happened last week was just the first time that anyone with access to Johnson had ever asked him a question about it (a Labour MP at the liaison committee, the parliamentary body tasked with overseeing the office of the prime minister). What’s profoundly worrying and undemocratic is how some powerful figures are protected from scrutiny by the mainstream media, the reason why many knew next to nothing about these revelations.

But more was to come….. Details subsequently emerged (only via a Freedom of Information request) of a weekend in Moscow Lebedev minor tried to arrange for Johnson during his time as Mayor, in 2014. Indicative of the relationship between the two, the proposed weekend could have gone ahead had it not been for the inconvenient invasion by Russia of the Ukrainian province of Crimea in spring 2014. ‘Len Duvall, a Labour member of the London Assembly, who helped uncover the correspondence (including the involvement of Johnson’s aide Lister), said the emails “raise questions about some of the international business and investment links that were forged under Boris Johnson’s mayoralty”. [Johnson’s aide at the time, Lister, had been involved in the planning of the visit and had shared a meal with Lebedev in a pricey London restaurant, paid for by Lebedev].

This is truly alarming stuff. One of the most striking aspects of the whole affair must be Johnson’s casual defence at the Liaison Committee regarding the 2018 villa party, that ‘as far I am aware, no government business was discussed’, suggesting a lack of ‘awareness’ in a highly compromising and potentially dangerous situation. One reason for this reduced awareness could be gleaned from the account of someone who contacted Carole Cadwalladr to say he had spotted Johnson at Perugia airport alone, with no luggage, ‘in a dishevelled, hungover state, looking like he’d slept in his clothes and struggling to walk in a straight line’. Dynamite mostly ignored by the mainstream media.

The revelations keep on coming, yet the two leadership contenders are increasingly being seen in some quarters as Johnson continuity candidates, despite having been keen to offload him and saying they would not have him in their Cabinets. As a Radio 4 Any Questions listener tweeted: ‘Tory politicians can’t bring themselves to admit they supported and brought to power a charlatan who would go on to severely damage the body politic and its institutions. Boris Johnson is now a Trojan Horse they can’t get rid of’. It’s highly likely his influence and manipulations will be felt for many months to come whichever candidate is successful.

But this weekend all of this shaming and reputation shredding stuff is unlikely to bother Johnson, having found an alternative venue for his delayed wedding party. As the Chequers plan was rumbled, it behoved him to go back to the drawing board and sure enough, Tory donor ‘Lord’ Bamford, chair of construction equipment manufacturer JCB, came up with the goods. His 18th century Gloucestershire mansion, Daylesford House, where a large marquee has been erected, will enable guests to ‘relax on hay bales placed outside the tent and eat and drink at casks and small tables as they enjoy views across meadows and orchards’. How very nice for them, as many across the country continue to suffer the damage inflicted by their narcissistic charlatan of a host. Downing Street ‘declined to comment on a private matter’ but it is arguably in the public interest, especially as it’s likely to have played a part in Johnson’s non-appearance at the opening of the Commonwealth Games.

But it could be worse….Writing in the Berlin newspaper Tagesspiegel (summarised in The Week), Stephan-Andreas Casdorff criticises Finance Minister Christian Lindner for extravagance when so many are facing deprivation. Earlier this month Lindner held a three day ‘wedding bash’ on the North Sea island of Sylt, its ‘endless white beaches a dream setting for any wedding’. But the cost to German taxpayers was predicted to be ‘astronomical’, not least due to the security operations including snipers and armoured cars needed for the high profile guests like Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Casdorff contrasts this extravagance with the austerity imposed on the general population: ‘we’ve got ourselves a finance minister who clearly lacks any political sense’. This makes me wonder what ‘security’ has been planned for the Boris/Carrie party, what it’s costing and whether any paparazzi will be able to circumvent it. No doubt we will see any results of the latter over the course of this weekend.

The NHS continues to struggle amid its various crises, the latest focus being the financial compensation, after decades, to the victims of contaminated blood. ‘At least 2,400 people died after contracting HIV or hepatitis C through NHS treatments in the 1970s and 80s…..More than 4,000 surviving victims of the contaminated blood scandal should receive provisional compensation of £100,000 each, ajudge has said. The chairman of the infected blood public inquiry, Sir Brian Langstaff, said there was a compelling case to make the payments quickly’. It’s interesting that an independent study commissioned by the government said victims should eventually be compensated not solely for physical and social injury but also ‘the stigma of the disease, the impact on family and work life, and the cost of care’. It’s noticeable that at least three former health secretaries including Jeremy Hunt have prominently pressed for prompt payments to be made, almost as if this is a substitute for their own inaction in key areas. But when is payment likely to be organised given the current vacuum in UK politics? A government spokesperson recognised the importance of this judgement for those affected and promised to ‘consider’ the report and judge’s recommendations ‘with the utmost urgency’ but what we’ve seen for some time is zero understanding of urgency.

The NHS has also been in the news for its ongoing funding and recruitment crises (former Health Secretary Hunt ironically being wheeled out in the media when so much of this began on his watch), both of which have led to more pressure on patients to seek private treatment. We’ve long known (unfortunately often sidestepped by the mainstream media) about privatisation by stealth in the NHS but now a former health trust CEO has said that to ease pressures on funding the over 60s should be paying for prescriptions and paying for hospital stays and equipment they use such as walking aids. ‘Professor Stephen Smith, the former chair of the East Kent acute hospital trust, has set out his ideas in a new book published by the think tank RadixUK. Its trustees include the ex-Conservative health secretary Andrew Lansley and the Labour MP Stephen Kinnock’. No surprise to see Lansley is a trustee but what about Kinnock? Radix gives several descriptors on its website: ‘system renewal’, ‘challenging established notions’ and ‘reimagining our societies’: these sound quite wholesome, don’t they, but are anything but if these are the sort of proposals they come up with. How about ‘promoting vested interests’? This is also a reminder that the BBC rarely states the affiliation and source of funding for the many think tank views shared on its platforms – this should be standard practice.

Smith also suggested raising money through ‘financial penalties for abusing the NHS by repeatedly missing appointments, a hypothecated tax to bring in extra income for the NHS and social care, and tax breaks for high earners who take out private medical insurance’. The first of these might not be a bad idea but how would the payment be collected and what about those unable to pay?

Dr John Puntis, the co-chair of the campaign group Keep Our NHS Public, hit back and ‘accused Smith of advancing harebrained ideas and zombie policies which would end the basis on which the service has operated since its creation in 1948, including that it is paid for by general taxation’. The key point he makes is that ‘Charging people to cover part of the cost of a hospital stay would be a fundamental departure from the founding principles of the NHS and show that the longstanding consensus on a tax-funded public service model of healthcare has been truly abandoned’. Unfortunately, this government, aided and abetted by lobbyists and others with an agenda, seems committed to going further down this path. To quote that ghastly expression, we can clearly discern ‘the direction of travel’. This is nothing short of frightening for many patients, especially those who urgently need treatment or surgery but can’t afford it.

As if this wasn’t enough, mental health has once more come to the fore as another NHS deficit. We’ve long been aware of this but now a review by former children’s commissioner Anne Longfield has called for the UK’s prospective prime ministers to commit to £1 billion in funding for children and young people’s mental health services, such is the need. The government is always good at telling us in response to problems that they’ve committed or are spending X million on this or that but it’s usually never enough and often misdirected. ‘Suicidal children are being turned away and the most vulnerable put at risk as mental health services “buckle” under demand, a new report has warned’. ‘Buckle’ is an understatement: mental health services as a whole have been at breaking point for some considerable time, the bar ever being raised to prevent some patients being eligible for treatment and forcing those who can afford it to opt for private treatment. But why should people have to?

‘The report, co-authored with the leading think tank Centre for Mental Health, and the Children and Young People’s Mental Health Coalition, reveals a profound crisis in children and young people’s mental health services in England and a system of support that is buckling under pressure, frequently over-medicalised and bureaucratic, unresponsive, outdated, and siloed. Speaking with professionals who work with children, and to children and families themselves, the Commission has heard about young people who have barely returned to school since Covid, the increase in the regularity and extreme nature of many young people’s mental health problems, and how self-harm and suicide attempts are a much more regular feature of school and college life’.

The report highlights a number of deficits, including the fact that (despite the entreaties of professional bodies like the British Association for Counselling and Psychotherapy) only one third of schools in England have mental health support, meaning two thirds still do not. We also have to challenge what often passes for ‘support’: increasingly, services in institutions, especially higher education, have offloaded qualified and experienced therapists in favour of cheaper options such as online or ‘wellbeing’ interventions. BACP has long asked that all schools have a counselling service. ‘The Commission has also been shocked to hear from those working with young people about how often those suffering from serious mental health conditions are unable to receive treatment in some areas until they have had multiple suicide attempts ‘with serious intent’.  It has heard traumatic stories of teenagers who have attempted suicide but still not received an immediate referral for help, and from teaching staff in schools and colleges who are seeing a large increase in the number of their students attempting suicide’.

There are many good recommendations in this report, including guaranteed mental health assessments for children and young people at points of vulnerability (leading to a mental health package), an ambitious programme of drop in mental health hubs delivered in the community anda national ‘Programmes on Prescription’ scheme in every area. I find this latter one interesting because social prescribing has grown in recent years but is often aimed at older generations so this is a different target. It’s a great way to improve people’s mental health in a non-medicalised way. Commentators made very worthwhile points, including the threat to children’s future prosperity and success if these urgent issues aren’t dealt with. Another was the link to crime: ‘Until we tackle the drivers of youth crime, including underlying psychological and mental health issues, we will continue to fail children and young people at risk of being excluded, exploited and criminalised’. Mental health is inextricably linked to so many other issues that politicians’ frequent attempts to place it within a silo are far from helpful.

A London School of Economics blog post conveys interestingly how the ‘super-rich’ (including oligarchs?) live, in such a way as to avoid contact with the hoi-polloi. Although it’s been rumbled as an empty sound bite, the concept of ‘levelling up’ could apply just as much to cities as to regions of the country. There surely can be no real ‘levelling up’ if such people are effectively living in silos. Author Rowland Atkinson describes an example of an expensive Hampstead (North London) property, much of which was below ground level and therefore invisible to most. (This reminds me of battles raging in wealthy areas between property magnates and pop stars and the like having vast basements dug out to accommodate pools, cinemas, even ballrooms, and those trying to protect from subsidence and disturbance their own properties adjoining these building sites). Atkinson writes: ‘As a sociologist, one way of thinking through the implications of gated communities and fortress homes is to consider what these spaces say about and do to urban social practices and patterns of sociability – why are such homes created; what fears and aspirations do they respond to; how do such spaces reinforce and help to reproduce the existing inequalities of the city?’

The author discusses key aspects of what has been happening under our noses but which often goes unnoticed by most of us: ‘the changes we have seen in London and the appropriation of positional homes by international capital….. the moving frontier of gentrification and displacement that now takes in the destruction of good public housing in return for private and ‘affordable’ apartments….. changes in housing affordability, austerity and critical changes to the conditions under which welfare support is offered have also had massive impacts…..Of course this is now a world of pronounced inequality and one in which the public realm and social investment are increasingly at stake in a political vision of the world in which trickle-down economics and naked personal ambition are feted by politicians and think-tanks. The result of these inequalities and social conditions is the production of urban anxieties that translate into bunker style homes as well as the opulent display of defensive measures like remotely accessed gated developments, as affluent residents of the street in Lanchester’s novel Capital learn ‘we want what you’ve got’.

Depending on how much we move around, we can easily see more and more examples of this fortress living, and this piece links to those above, as ‘Londongrad’ has long been seen (still is despite the fuss about sanctioning oligarchs) as a home for Russian money and for money laundering, not that these are always linked. This government reinforces this structure by facilitating so much foreign property ownership (the properties themselves often remaining empty as they’re for investment), the fortress aspect manifesting in apartment blocks with ‘poor doors’, drive in car-parks and gated entry systems. Much of this has happened almost by stealth, with no one in power, it seems, questioning its effects on the city as a whole, let alone challenging it.

The Commonwealth Games now underway in the ‘second city’ have focused attention on Birmingham (once known as the city of a thousand trades), several journalists and presenters drawing our attention to claims to fame we may not have known about. It’s a place which has often been alluded to patronisingly, not least, perhaps, because of the very particular Brummie accent, but these people reckon it has a lot going for it. Its assets include the well known features like Peaky Blinders, the Balti triangle, famous pop stars/bands (eg Slade, ELO, UB40 and Black Sabbath) and comedians including Jasper Carrott, two football teams including Aston Villa, and perhaps more controversially, Spaghetti Junction. Less well known are its ‘outer circle’ number 11 bus (the longest route in the UK, apparently), the largest Pre-Raphaelite collection in the world at the art gallery, the Electric Cinema (the oldest in the country) and its development of the technology for the precursor of call centres and the electric kettle. No article or programme can hope to cover the lot and a few things have been missed (Steve Winwood and the Moody Blues went to my school) but they’ve still done a great job to possibly change some perceptions of Brum.

Finally, not content with opinion polls and surveys, it seems some have been consulting a fortune teller in order to predict the next Prime Minister. Mystic Veg (geddit?) has apparently been using asparagus in this quest, a technique which was apparently successful in foreseeing Prince Philip’s death and the Brexit referendum result. It failed this time, though, the tossing of the prestigious spears in the air and analysis of their landings suggesting that Ben Wallace or possibly Nadine Dorries would get the keys of Downing Street. In the end neither of them entered the contest. Maybe time to return to the opinion polls!

Published by therapistinlockdown

I'm a psychodynamic therapist in private practice, also doing some voluntary work, and I'm interested in the whole field of mental health, especially how it's faring in this unprecedented crisis we're all going through. I wanted to explore some of the psychological aspects to this crisis which, it seems to me, aren't being dealt with sufficiently by the media or policymakers, for example the mental health burden already in evidence and likely to become more severe as time goes on.

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