Monthly Archives: May 2019

Three Maysted Years

On 11 April, European Council President Donald Tusk granted an extension to 31st October for the UK to secure an agreement with the EU and warned that his “message to British friends” was “please do not waste this time”.

Back in June 2017, the EU’s chief negotiator Michel Barnier had made a similar warning about not wasting time.

Now that Theresa May has announced her resignation is to be on the 7th June, what has the Tory Party decided to do? Yes, waste the next eight weeks having a leadership election. Around 100,000 elderly, bigoted, “No Deal” zealots, a.k.a. Tory Party members, will vote on who will be our next Prime Minister. That’s 0.15% of the population, entirely unrepresentative of the nation. The other 48 million of us who make up the UK electorate can only stand by aghast as this repellent charade is played out. One commentator has already described those standing as “a gallery of rogues, fanatics and nonentities”.  I’ll give my thoughts on this once the field of candidates is clarified.

Time Wasting: The First Year

Much of the first year was spent in a phoney war between the various factions in the Tory Party. This was the period of studied non-communication, when “Br*xit Means Br*xit” and the even more meaningless “Red, White and Blue Br*xit” were repeated as a mantra from May’s lips.

This was the time when May set the tone for what followed. No collegiate approach for her, she involved and confided in just a few trusted people in her close circle. Hers was always going to be a lonely exit, as I foretold in Forever Walk Alone in the summer of 2017. During her first year May rebuffed approaches from leaders in the devolved assemblies of the UK to play a formal role in the negotiation process. Elements in the Labour Party (but significantly, as I recall, not Jeremy Corbyn) made similar demands to be involved. All to no avail. May was treading her lonely path to oblivion.

In January 2017, she confirmed the now notorious “red lines”. These boxed in her negotiating position and introduced the contradiction (no freedom of movement, free movement on the island of Ireland) which led to the contortions over Irish “backstop”. Much magical thinking entered the debate at this stage. The UK’s reputation , built over centuries, for common sense and stable government was crumbling before the eyes of the world.

In March 2017, May gave formal notice to the EU by triggering Article 50 – with its built-in two year timetable. At this stage, she had not even begun to have a plan, let alone a plan agreed with her Cabinet. This was a serious political error: from now on, with the “clock ticking” (a phrase that was to be repeated many times), pressure was upon the UK government to agree its own position. The first serious attempt at this was 15 months later (see below).

A key watershed was the decision to call a general election in mid-2017. This was an act of hubris and a serious misjudgement of the public mood. Instead of “crushing the saboteurs” (as the Daily Mail described those who disagreed with its editorial line), May lost her overall Common majority. My spoof selection for May’s Desert Island Discs (first published six days after the election) still seems eerily appropriate.

Time Wasting: The Second Year

The loss of an overall Commons majority should have signalled a change of course. May should, at least by then, have reached out to other parties and pursued a more consensual approach. Instead, she signed a pact with the most bigoted group of MPs in the Commons – the DUP – and carried on as if she had a strong democratic mandate. (The pact included a £1 billion bribe which, it seems, is now in need of renewal.) We then had several more months of dithering when nothing happened which could be described as progress.

chequers aerial view
Chequers

The climax (or lowlight) of May’s second year was the so-called Chequers agreement. In her classic school-marmish approach, May locked her Cabinet in Chequers, removing mobile phones and, presumably, banged heads together. A document was produced and then disowned when Johnson and Davis resigned within two days. “Chequers” quickly became a dirty word, representing everything that was going wrong with May’s approach.

Time Wasting: The Third Year

At this point May seems to have taken personal charge of leading EU negotiations. The new Secretary of State for Exiting the EU, Dominic Raab, an extreme Leave fanatic, was to be the fall guy for anything which went wrong and May’s chief bag-carrier. Discussions progressed to the point when, in November, the Withdrawal Agreement was published. The EU approved this document two weeks later.

The following four months were spent in two main activities: periods of “letting the clock run down” interspersed with a series of lost votes as the House of Commons failed to agree any way forward. This period included a Commons defeat by 230 votes, a new record for any government in the democratic era. Exciting distractions included the resignation of Dominic Raab for disagreeing with his own withdrawal agreement and a vote of no confidence by Tory MPs with one third of her MPs voting for no confidence. Various skirmishes from the Tory lunatic fringe (a.k.a. European Research Group) ended with the ERG looking like a busted flush.

Towards the end of March, we then watched the demeaning sight of May going cap in hand to the EU to request an extension to our negotiating period. This was granted to midnight on Halloween, an auspicious date for the superstitious-minded. Oh, and May made her first offer of resignation, on condition she stand down as soon as a deal is passed. She chickened out at putting her new deal (i.e. old deal in a slightly different font) to the Commons and went on to resign unconditionally with a leave-by date of 7 June.

Time Wasting: Now to October 2019

And so here we are. Our next time-waster is the Tory leadership contest, expected to take around eight weeks of the period to 31st October. More of that in a future post when the full horror of the field has been finalised. Plus, we have the added spice of Boris Johnson being taken to court for misconduct in public office: maximum penalty is life imprisonment. If only.

In the meantime, here’s something to help you reflect on May’s legacy. It’s the front page of the new edition of Private Eye. I hope the good folks at the Eye don’t mind my “borrowing” it, but it sums up everything that needs to be said:

Private Eye cover
Says it all…

Makes you proud, doesn’t it?

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Duty of Care

Over 3 years ago, I wrote a blog post about public service values. Recent discussions that I’ve had prompted me to return to the subject but, this time, from a slightly different point of view.

My theme is the duty of care which people in public service, volunteers, politicians and paid staff alike owe to the people they serve. I shall show how this leads to this stark conclusion: anyone who advocates that the UK should leave the EU without a deal – and this includes the whole of UKIP and the B****t Party, plus some right-wing fanatics in the Tories – are not fit to be in public office.

Public Service Providers

But first, here are a few examples of the general principle of the duty of care.

Perhaps the most obvious examples are the people working for the NHS – a beacon of public service par excellence. When we put ourselves in the hands of medical professionals, often our lives literally depend on the care taken by NHS staff. It obviously applies when speaking of the care in diagnosis and in prescribing the right treatment. But all that glove wearing, hand-washing and ID-checking is part of it, too. (I lost count of the number of times I gave my date of birth to an NHS employee last year! And the extra checks before blood transfusions: well you know if you’ve been there.) Yes overworked, tired staff do make mistakes but the systems and training are, without a doubt, in place to minimise risks.

I’m currently reading a fascinating and highly readable book written by, and entitled, The Secret Barrister. The Secret Barrister obviously cares about the importance of a well-run, efficient and effective justice system. The book exposes how the effects of drastic budget cuts to our courts and legal aid have recklessly jeopardised the principles of just, effective lawkeeping as a key foundation that our democracy and freedoms rest upon. The part-privatisation of the probation service (just rescinded) by Failing Grayling when justice minister is a particularly good, by which I mean bad, example of what has gone wrong. At every stage of the process: police, CPS case preparation, court procedures, sentencing; a myriad of examples of the need for care is evident. Read the book: it explains things better than I can!

Privatised Utilities

In a frenzy of dogma over rationality, all our utility services: water, gas, electricity, telecommunications were privatized during the Thatcher era. All of these (except possibly telecommunications) are natural monopolies and the mechanics of the market has ill served the public. In a 21st century developed country, all these are considered basic necessities. In the intervening 35 years or so, the inevitable has occurred. Each privatised company has played every trick in the book (complex tariffs to confuse, customer loyalty penalties) to rip off the consumer and maximise profit. Regulatory bodies have been either weak or suffered “regulatory capture”. A prime example is the exhortation by Ofgem for householders to switch suppliers to try to enforce the mechanisms of the market.

I simply want these basic services supplied to me by a monopoly supplier with a public service ethos who doesn’t try to rip me off if I don’t shop around every year or so. That’s most effectively done by renationalisation. In this sector, the most obvious example of the disadvantage of public services run for maximum profit is the lack of investment in renewal of ageing water supply pipes and sewers. I believe our water supply industry would be better prepared for climate change if it had stayed in public hands.

Much the same can be (and has been) said of our private railway companies. I’m convinced that train crashes and passenger deaths in the Railtrack period were, at least in part, as a result of privatisation. The basic duty of care had been overridden by the pursuit of profit for shareholders. For now, suffice it for me to add that 80% of the public agree that the railways should be renationalized.

Politics and Politicians

During a recent discussion, I said that I do believe that most politicians enter politics with a genuine desire to make our society better in some way. As our representatives – and not our delegates – we trust and expect politicians to look after the best interests of their constituents. This follows a general principle for all people in public life. And, once again, part of that is a duty of care. I’ve given examples from the NHS above. Broadly speaking, when we put our lives, our safety of ourselves and our loved ones in the hands of another, there’s a certain expectation. That is that the other party takes care to a higher degree than we take for ourselves. This expectation seems to be “hard-wired” into human relationships. Another good example would be in the whole safeguarding regime used in schools and in care institutions.

For politicians, an obvious example is that that spend wisely the money we hand over in taxes. By this I mean both that well-considered decisions are made on spending priorities (the focal point for party political debate) and that public services are run as efficiently and effectively as possible.

“No Deal” Exit from EU

Whether, and on what terms, to leave the EU seems to me to be the most significant political decision of the last 75 years, more than my lifetime. It will affect our children and grand-children’s lives for years to come. It affects us all in a variety of ways: the economy, our safety (anti-terrorism collaboration, for example), education (Erasmus, etc.) , family relationships and our ability to tackle issues where international collaboration is necessary (climate change, air pollution, species extinction). No satisfactory answers have been given to these issues by proponents of crashing out of the EU with no deal.

And yet, opinion polls show popularity for a party whose only policy is exactly this: crash out, regardless of the consequences. Reckless does not even begin to cover it. Those who are considering to vote for such a party should think on just one thing. Does this policy pass the most basic duty of those exercising public policy: that of a duty of care?

I think not.

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