O wad some
Pow’r the giftie gie us
To see oursels as ithers see us!
time we Brits took a look around us and see what sort of reputation we have in
the world these days. So here’s an example I have seen today.
A Travers la Manche
Bermann has a new book out, called Goodbye Britannia. Ms Bermann has
a distinguished CV: graduate of the Sorbonne, studied China and spent time as a
student in Beijing. She worked in the French Diplomatic Service in Beijing,
Paris and Moscow. Her last job before retirement was as France’s Ambassador to
Russia. She is clearly a woman of some considerable experience and skill.
Of more relevance here is the fact that she was French
Ambassador in London between 2014 and 2017, a period which included the fateful
referendum on Britain’s EU membership. During her years as a French Diplomat,
she would, no doubt, couch the advice and opinions she gave in the most
diplomatic language. No longer a career civil servant, she is free to speak her
mind. And most interesting it is.
So let’s see what a straight-talking French diplomat has to
say about les rosbifs. So far, I’ve only seen extracts quoted in the UK
press, but they make for some excellent reading. Here’s a few:
Boris Johnson is an unrepentant and
inveterate liar. Je suis d’accord*.
Johnson feels he is not subject to the same
rules as others. Je suis d’accord. And it seems, so did his school
master at Eton, writing in 1982: “Boris really has adopted a disgracefully
cavalier attitude to his classical studies . . . Boris sometimes seems
affronted when criticised for what amounts to a gross failure of responsibility…
I think he honestly believes that it is churlish of us not to regard him as an
exception, one who should be free of the network of obligation which binds
Some Br*xiters are consumed with hatred for
Germany. Je suis d’accord.
They are gripped by a myth that Britain
liberated Europe single-handedly. Je suis d’accord. Try telling that
to the relatives of the 22 million Russians who died in WW2.
The referendum result was a triumph of
emotion over reason. Je suis d’accord.
The Leave campaign was full of lies. Je
Leave campaigners exploited negative attitudes
of many Brits to immigration. Je suis d’accord.
Johnson’s government’s handling of the Covid
pandemic is among the worst in the world, alongside Trump’s USA and Bolsonaro’s
Brazil. Je suis d’accord.
Johnson will try to hide the economic losses
caused by the UK leaving the EU, blaming all negative economic impacts on Covid.
Je suis d’accord. Johnson and his gang can be guaranteed to play this
trick: many will be fooled. Don’t be.
It seems to me entirely appropriate that the Burns quotation
at the start comes from a poem entitled To a Louse.
And it’s even more appropriate that the French for “a louse”
is “un pou”.
I had my first Covid jab earlier this week. It was
everything you would expect from the NHS when given the resources to get on
with the job.
From the phone call from my GP practice the previous Friday
to the visit to the vaccination centre, it was all very well organised. Staff
were friendly, helpful and professional, offering information and reassurance
as needed. Clearly, some of the people at the centre were volunteers: you could
tell by their sense of enthusiasm at having the opportunity to help others. And
everyone there was working to a common purpose, so there was a clear sense of
team spirit in the air.
Including the mandatory 15 minute rest (and observation for any
adverse reaction) after the jab, the whole process took 20-25 minutes from
start to finish. A fine example of public service at its best.
Public Service Ethos
Back in 2016, I wrote a blog post called In
Praise of Public Service Values. In it, I explain how certain public
services should never be – or should never have been – privatised. The main reason
I gave then was the commonality of purpose all the way through the public
sector, from the top management through to the front-line staff. In a
privatised service, there is some discontinuity between profit-maximising leaders
and service-oriented junior staff. Priorities get blurred; messages get mixed.
I now recognise there is a second, powerful reason why
public services should remain in the public sector. I have recently watched the
2020 Reith Lectures given by former Bank of England chief Mark Carney. In his
first lecture, he speaks of the “moral hazard” of “commodification”.
Experiments show that, in carrying out an activity with a clear moral purpose,
people are disincentivised by financial gain. People are more effective
when morality, rather than money, drives their actions.
A further danger of commodification is what Carney calls “flattening”
of moral value or civic virtue. Once an activity is described solely in terms
of money, in profit or loss, something of real human value gets lost.
Good deeds become mere transactions; cynicism and boredom can creep in.
Government Failure to Learn
We should have learnt from the lessons of the 2012 London Olympics,
when Serco’s failure to recruit sufficient “Olympic greeters” led to the army
to be called in to help out. But this government didn’t learn. Perhaps the most
deadly of the consequences of the failure to learn from past mistakes are the
repeated failures over lockdowns: too late to impose, too soon to relax
restrictions. Johnson and his gang are far too ready to listen to the bayings
of the death squad of Tory backbenchers grotesquely misnamed the “Covid
It is extraordinary to think that, over 11 months into the
pandemic, the Government has still not properly implemented border controls for
people entering the UK. Failure to learn lessons from other countries’
approaches to quarantine and its enforcement is particularly ironic when “control
of borders” was a key rallying cry of the prominent Leavers now running the
Private Sector Failure
But a major government failure was to hand Test and Trace to the private sector, and specifically to friends of the Cabinet members – corruption on an eye-watering scale. Compare and contrast the spectacular failure of the £22bn privatised “NHS Test and Trace”. (The link in the last sentence leads to a page which lists 22, mainly private sector, companies involved: Serco and Sodexo are perhaps the most significant.) I’m not clear whether the list of 22 includes all the companies whom Serco and Sodexo have subcontracted work to.
I believe that one key underlying problem in using the private sector was the failure to use vital public health expertise in its design. The private sector dominated thinking was based upon the model of running call centres (for which the private sector has plenty of experience). What was overlooked was the public health expertise in the subtleties of the interpersonal relationships and sensitivities in cold calling people about health issues. Many of us see our health as an intensely personal matter and there was an understandable reluctance for “cold called” people to engage.
Finally, here’s the BMA’s
view from last September giving the medical professions view on the many
and varied shortcomings in over-reliance on the private sector.
Called to Account?
As for accountability, my best estimate currently is this.
Of the 110, 000 deaths to Covid so far, somewhere between 50,000 and 80,000
could have been avoided through better governance and decision-making. It would
be a betrayal to those who died and their grieving families if this stark
analysis were somehow forgotten. To govern is to be accountable.
As the country’s mood lifts, from fear and despair to hope and positive expectation of an end to the pandemic, I have a concern that that public opinion will fail to call to account the actions of this government over the past year. Repeated failure and disastrously poor decision-making vastly exceed the one thing we seem to have got right: vaccination, thanks to the “real” NHS. It would be grossly unfair for Johnson and co to be let off the hook over their lamentable performance overall.
It’s only two and a half weeks since my last post and there are three news stories that would be really big in their own right, all happening at the same time. Each one would produce an open-mouthed look of astonishment. And yet… I find myself strangely unable to gather the right words to describe my reaction to any of them.
They are: the UK reaching the end of the transition period and
actually leaving the EU, the third national lockdown following shocking rises
in Covid cases and deaths and Donald Trump inciting a mob to violent
insurrection in the Capitol Building in Washington DC.
End of UK’s EU Membership
The UK ended its 47-year membership of the European Union at
midnight Brussels time on New Year’s Eve. New Year celebrations were muted this
year because of the pandemic. But, of course, there was no cause for celebration.
Johnson had achieved something of an historic moment: the enactment of the
first trade deal in recorded history that actually erected trade barriers
rather than removed them. The UK now has trade deals with fewer countries
now that when it was an EU member.
After end of year stockpiling and the usual traffic lull over the holiday period, stories are beginning to emerge of delays at ports on the Channel and Irish Sea. A common reason is lack of preparation by traders and hauliers and incomplete paperwork. Companies such as John Lewis, Debenhams, Waterstones, Fortum and Mason and M&S have either ceased or suspended sales into the EU (include Ireland, North and South), either because of the disruption or because they see it as no longer an economically viable proposition. And supermarkets report empty shelves in Northern Ireland.
Meanwhile, customers in the EU are finding VAT and customs
charges demanded by their postal organisations for online purchases from the
Here’s an Irish perspective. It’s easy to predict that a lot of customers
in EU countries will be deterred from placing orders from UK-based sites when
online shopping. And, of course, as a third country airline passengers are
being turned back at EU airports as our “plague island” status makes us no
longer exempt from EU travel bans.
The real tragedy of all this is that every one of these problems were predictable – and predicted by those of us who wanted to remain in the EU.
Whilst the cabinet and Prime Minister were distracted by EU
trade negotiations, cases of Covid-19 have been rising and rising. And all at a
time when the government’s full attention should have been on policies and
communications to reduce the spread of the virus. And so England finds itself in
its third nationwide lockdown of the pandemic, announced last Monday with just
a few hours’ notice.
So, let’s just track back what has happened in recent weeks:
In late September, scientists and Keir Starmer advocated a 2-week “circuit breaker” lockdown just as the new variant of the virus was emerging. The government did nothing, apart from some tinkering with the tier system.
In early November, as the case for stricter measures became unanswerable, a necessarily longer 4-week second lockdown was imposed.
In early December, after Lockdown 2, Johnson announced a 5-day relaxing of the household mixing rules over the Christmas period. People naturally saw this as a “green light” for something of a 5-day “holiday” from restrictions. Plans were made, train tickets booked.
As Covid cases kept rising, just a few days before Christmas, Johnson cut the Christmas relaxation to just Christmas Day. Families cancelled plans, tried to get refunds on train tickets. (Remember, no trains run in England on Christmas Day and Boxing Day). Meantime, Education Secretary Williamson stated keeping schools open was a “national priority”. Local authorities, who had better local information of local spikes in cases, were overruled when they tried to close their schools. Greenwich Council was threatened with legal action to enforce the “national priority”. An opportunity was missed to control mixing between households in schools in hotspot areas in the runup to Christmas.
Families mixed on Christmas Day, with Government blessing, allowing the virus to spread within extended families. Teachers made plans for a Covid-safe phased reopening in the New Year.
On January 4th, schools reopened. This allowed the virus which had spread within families on Christmas Day to spread again between families with school-aged children.
On that same day, Johnson announced Lockdown 3 and the closure of all schools the following day. Teachers scrambled to rearrange their plans back to home schooling.
On January 5th, schoolchildren stayed at home, along with some parents working from home, thereby enabling them to bring their newly school-acquired infection into the family home once again.
So, in summary, the Governments actions – and inactions – encouraged
the virus to spread between families in the runup to Christmas, within families
at Christmas, between families again on the one day of schooling and finally
within families again from last Tuesday. Add to this the delays to Lockdown 1
in March and “Eat out to Help Out” in the summer, which kept Covid case numbers
bubbling along at higher levels for the autumn that they need have been. Can
anyone think of a worse possible way this could have been handled? I can’t.
And yet Johnson and Williamson are still in post. Parliament
passed a vote of no confidence against Neville Chamberlain because he was so
useless. He resigned and on May
10 1940, he was replaced by some other bloke with a name like an insurance
company. The rest, as they say, is history.
So, how come only 43 percent in a very
recent poll want Johnson to stand down? (Those wanting him to stay number
nearly 40 percent. I don’t understand: what do these folk want him to do before
they change their views? Slaughter all first-born? Whoops! That’s me gone.) As
I’ve said before, we need a Government of National Unity.
Mob Rule in Washington
And so to America, the “shining city on a hill” of
It’s only in the last few days that I’ve ever in my life had
the following thought: that is now within the bounds of possibility that the
USA will descend into a second Civil War. And that is a truly shocking thought!
I don’t think there’s any doubt now that Trump incited a mob to march on the Capitol and commit acts of violent insurrection. Impeach him tomorrow; simple as that. Get his stubby fingers off the nuclear codes. Immediately.
But the poison Trump spread will linger. It’s truly an awful
prospect. We will no doubt return to this subject again, Meantime, good luck
They’re Only Words
And yet the most frustrating thing is this. My words and
those of professional commentators are just that. Words. I feel they won’t
change anything. Words – reasoned argument – implies reason. Certainly Trump and
a sinister cohort of his followers are way beyond reason. And this is all
happening in a country with more privately-owned guns than people.
So we continue. With our words. For words are all I have. And
Hope – for the best.
I write this on the day of the announcement about a trade
deal between the EU and the UK. This post explores the twin themes: Thick
and Fast and Thick and Slow. I will explain.
Thick and Fast
Now that we appear to have some sort of deal, we can expect one sure-fire thing: the lies will keep coming thick and fast. Johnson and his gang of no-hopers will try to convince us that it is a great deal, one which has been hard-fought and won thanks to the skills of the UK negotiating team. And it will all be bollocks.
The timing of the announcement is interesting, with no
newspapers tomorrow (Christmas Day). But be assured that the usual suspects (Sun,
Mail, Telegraph, Times, Express) will find space in their Boxing Day
editions to spread even bigger lies than the government itself will do.
Obviously, Johnson and co. will feed much of the stuff to the friendly media
The lunatic fringe on the Tory backbenchers (Master Francois
and his ilk) are speaking of “star chambers” of tame lawyers who will check the
“purity” of the agreement: to see if the small print accords with their
delusional thoughts. And the big unknown will be Labour’s response. Worrying
signals from Keir Starmer’s office in recent days seem to echo the phrase “a
deal is better than no deal”. The honourable position for all Labour MPs is to abstain
in the required Parliamentary vote.
One thing has been abundantly clear for four and a half years
or more. Any deal with the EU will be worse for the country than EU
membership. We must not allow the government to hide behind the smokescreen of
the pandemic. Leaving the EU will make all of us poorer, slowly, year by year,
estimated at a permanent loss of 2% a year off GDP growth. Certainly, the
effects of gross mismanagement, procrastination and poor policies will continue
to make Covid the bigger short-term shock. But the lasting, slow-burn damage
will be leaving the European Union.
So, prepare to be inundated with an avalanche of lies from
our elected leaders: they’ll be coming thick and fast.
Thick and Slow
By way of contrast, if you were to look for an epithet to
describe every member of the UK Government, “thick and slow” would be a
good one. Historians will one day look back in amazement and disbelief at our
misfortune: to have the most incompetent government of modern times at a time
of our greatest need for at least 75 years.
Thick: it would be invidious to try to rank the members of the Cabinet in order of stupidity. For sure, Stupid Boy Pike, a.k.a. one Gavin Williamson and Little Miss Pretty Petrifying, a.k.a. Priti Patel would rank near the bottom of the pile: “rank” being the operative word.
There are those who believe that the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, somehow stands above the pack. I disagree. Sunak is one of the country’s biggest problems. His failure to understand the impact of the pandemic on the poorest people – after all, his wife is richer than the Queen – or to implement consistent financial support for those losing their incomes cuts directly across attempts to control the spread of the virus. Millions of people are in such poorly paid and insecure jobs that they simply cannot afford to self-isolate when required. Sunak’s resistance to improving benefit payments to something closer to the European norm further compounds the problem.
Slow: We are in this mess now because of one of Johnson’s
personality faults. He has a Trump-like desire to be liked and so has a
pathological problem with decision making, particularly when it means being the
bearer of bad news. Hence the last-minute U-turn on Christmas, the last of many
– far too many – examples of delayed decision making.
But perhaps the most damning indictment of Johnson and his gang is their collective slow learning. It’s generally understood that the UK government was too slow in March imposing a lockdown, resulting in tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths. The same mistake was repeated in September, when scientists and Keir Starmer all urged the Prime Minister to impose a 2-week circuit breaker. Johnson failed to do so and we had a 4-week lockdown – with only partial success – 6 weeks later. And now we’ve just had the third repeat of the same basic “too late” decision making and ruining millions of people’s plans for Christmas into the bargain.
So the unmerited trumpet-blowing we can now expect over the
EU trade deal also acts as a convenient distraction from the government’s
continuing serious mishandling of the pandemic crisis.
I guess you need to be above a certain age to remember Victor Sylvester, bandleader and erstwhile king of ballroom dancing on British TV and radio. But fans of Strictly Come Dancing will no doubt also be familiar with the foxtrot pattern Slow, Slow, Quick Quick Slow. Change “quick” to “thick” and there you have it. That’s your government, that is.
Next slide, please…
With acknowledgement to Rob Newman and David Baddiel
The world – or our little bit of it – has recently become
very strange indeed.
On the day when we have one genuinely excellent piece of news – the first vaccinations against Covid – we find ourselves on the brink of disaster – or worse. And which of those it will be is in the hands of a man with the attention span of a gnat and no discernible talents whatsoever. I refer, of course, to our Prime Minister and his theatrical 11th hour and 59th minute dash to Brussels.
Dumb and Dumber
When I use the terms “disaster” and “disasterer”, I’m
referring to the choice between Johnson’s putative feeble and thin trade deal
with the EU and the bigger disaster of “no deal” (which Johnson dresses up as “Australian-style”).
Choose your metaphor: Disaster or Disasterer, a Rock and a Hard Place, (for the
classically-minded) Scylla or
Charybdis; the Devil or the Deep Blue Sea, Dumb or Dumber. You choose: all
of them worse than where we now are.
That Elusive “Sovereignty”
Apologists for leaving the EU have been banging on for years
about something called “national sovereignty”. There is quite a good definition
statement of this abstract concept to be found in this
US website. In the abstract, this sounds like a good idea – as long as you
don’t think too deeply about it. As far as we are allowed to know, at the time
of writing, the issues still divide UK and EU negotiating positions seem to
boil down to two things.
The first is our future theoretical desire to deviate from
EU norms and standards, in state aid for UK companies, workers’ rights and
consumer protection mainly. And the second is how any divergence is policed –
and by whom. (Rumour has it that there’s a deal already hammered out for fish. Topical
comparison: more people work at the Addenbrookes Medical Campus in Cambridge
than in the whole UK fishing industry, but no matter, for now.)
Lockdown in My Head
To be honest, I have some instinctive liking for having these theoretical freedoms. Consider, for a moment, the restrictions of our day-to-day freedoms brought about by the Covid lockdown restrictions. There’s a kind of “lockdown in my head” feeling of frustration and unease flowing from those things I’m currently not allowed to do. (We’re in tier 2, by the way.) It’s a feeling that won’t quite go away: akin, I guess, to some form of mini-imprisonment.
But, in practice, life is not that much different from “normal”
times. The amount of socialising we do these days is pretty minimal, Zoom
meetings have replaced face-to-face ones and we do more shopping online.
Furthermore, medical issues over the period from 3 years to 1 year ago meant that
my activities were curtailed compared to my life before then. Our holiday plans
have been much changed, but we still managed a weekend break in February (before
Covid really struck the UK) and a week in a cottage in Wales in September. We’ve
been relatively fortunate so far. But that “lockdown in my head” feeling is
still there, in the background.
So I do “get” the instinctive desire to be “free”.
In the Real World
But now we must get real. As John Donne said in his 17th
XVII, “No man is an island”. The bald fact is that we live in a very
interconnected world. Back in the 19th century, when Lord Palmerson
was Foreign Secretary, Britain could flex its muscles and send in a gunboat to
teach Johnny Foreigner a lesson. That was because Britain was indisputably the
strongest nation on earth – and we threw our weight around. We had 10% of the
world’s GDP; that’s now less than 2.5%.
Nowadays, we need collaboration with other countries, and
our nearest neighbours in particular. 40% of our food is imported, mostly from
the EU – frictionlessly until 31st December. Combatting transnational
crime and terrorism needs good cooperation and easy transfer of data and
intelligence: all under threat after the end of this year. The EU is the only
entity so far on a global stage to challenge the overmighty power of companies
like Google and Amazon. Britain alone will be powerless against abuse of
dominant market monopolies.
Our supply chains (for example in motor manufacturing), our love lives and relationships, our holidays and trading by companies large and small have been built around frictionless movement of goods and people. From January 1st? For people, all that stops. For goods, we still don’t know.
By acting as the rogue state of Europe – for example, by
breaking international law – we have poisoned the well of trust needed to
smooth the flow of day-to-day interactions across borders. (I believe some sort
of deal has been brokered so that we can withdraw the offending paragraphs from
legislation going through Parliament – but it’s all a bit unclear as I write.)
So the prized concept of “sovereignty” is, in reality,
illusory. This means Johnson and co. are chasing an illusion with no upsides in
Before the Normans
But there is a deeper psychological illusion lurking behind all
this insanity. Leave extremists, like Johnson and Rees-Mogg, seem to have a
different understanding of the concept of freedom itself. Look at the language
they use. Behind it lies a mythological past dating back to the days before the
Norman conquest in 1066. We learnt at school about the Battle of Hastings, the
Domesday Book – how dare they write it all down to ease taxation? – and Norman
castles all over the land, to oppress the local populations behind the safety
of battlements and drawbridges.
This stuff cuts deep into our national psyche. The myth of a
golden age of “free” Angles and Saxons lies beneath this yearning for the
illusion of “sovereignty”. And I feel it is high time we let it go and face
reality in the 21st century.
Labour Must Abstain
If Johnson does come back from Brussels with a deal, beware the lies which will be spun: world-class, heroically won or whatever. It will bring disruption, extra bureaucracy, shortages of food and medicine and lost jobs – to name a few. And don’t let the government hide behind the tribulations of the pandemic: these problems will be Tory Government-made and were avoidable.
So Keir Starmer must lead his party to abstain: on the positive, moral principle of “a plague on both your houses”. Let the government take the blame they deserve. At the end of the same John Donne poem mentioned above, we find the equally famous words: “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee”. Johnson take heed.
When the month
ends, it will be “good riddance” to 2020: it’s been an awful year. Ring in the New
Year by all means: the vaccines, at least, bring hope. But our status in the
world will have been diminished mightily. A mournful chime for us all.
It seems the pathologically oversized ego got the better of
him. Leaving by the front door, cardboard box in hand, is self-evidently the
work of a poseur and narcissist. Well, he got his page one headlines and I’m
doing him the perverse service of reproducing the moment below. But the image
is too delicious to pass over.
Good. Good riddance.
I rarely agree with former PM David Cameron. But it was he
who first coined the term “career psychopath” for the man-with-a-box shown
above. The abbreviation “CP” seems to lend too much of an air of “cool” to such
a repellent, twisted creature. So I’ll use the name “Seepy” from here on. It
seems quite appropriate: the malign poison he exudes seems to have seeped out
all over the body politic of this country. And it rhymes with creepy.
From education, to Vote Leave, mismanagement of the Covid
pandemic, the needless deaths and job losses shown plainly that, whilst he may
have been an effective campaigner and a “breaker and shaker”, when it comes to actually
governing a country, his presence has been pure poison.
Henchman at Education
I personally first became aware of Seepy ten years ago, when he was Gove’s henchman at Education. His wild ideas clearly struck a chord with the former Murdoch hack Gove. The changes introduced in these years have wreaked havoc with our education system: I estimate it will take twenty years to recover once reversal of these policies has started (which, of course, it hasn’t yet). The fragmentation and disruption to schools in particular has produced not one scrap of evidence that improvement to outcomes has resulted. And the marketisation of university life has led to some perverse results. As a result of high student fees and hence competition for students, we have a generation with high student debts. Because of Covid, we have extra students crammed into accommodation, virtually as prisoners as the virus swept through our campuses in late September and October.
I distinctly remember a conversation I had about seven years
ago with a former Local Education Authority Chief Education officer. She
lamented the “responsibility without power” dilemma created by Gove’s
newly-introduced dogma-driven policy. Since the Gove changes, Local Education
Authorities are forbidden from opening new LA-run schools. But they retain
statutory responsibility to ensure all children in their area have a school
place. So, where demand exceeded supply, she had to persuade, cajole and beg
unaccountable Academy Trusts to expand or build new schools to meet the need.
This was, and is, clearly a more difficult and stressful job than when Local
Authorities controlled all the “levers”. It’s not at all clear to me how this
loss of control benefits children’s education.
How much of this was the brainchild of Seepy personally, I
just don’t know. But it’s easy to imagine his enthusiastic campaigning for this
piece of market-inspired dogma.
Vote Leave: Lies and Misuse of Data
Much has been written
already about the lies told by the Vote Leave campaign, from the £350m for the
NHS through to the 20 million Turks about to “invade” Britain once Turkey
joined the EU. This latter was presented almost as an established fact: the
truth was that under Erdogan, Turkey was moving further and further away from
meeting the EU’s exacting criteria for membership.
And, of course, Vote Leave was fined £61,000 by the Electoral Commission for breaking spending limits with some very dodgy shifting around of funds. Unfortunately for true justice, the level of penalties available to the Electoral Commission were based upon General Elections, where each malpractice potentially only affects one of 630 constituencies. The referendum result, self-evidently, affected the whole United Kingdom.
And it was Seepy who headed the Vote Leave operation and
should carry the can for its misdeeds.
Number Ten: Reign of Terror
The scope for misdeeds continued on a nationally significant
scale when Seepy was put in charge of running Johnson’s Downing Street operation
when the latter became Prime Minister. All the departmental special advisers,
in a break from the previous norm, were told they had a dual responsibility:
now reporting to Seepy himself as well as their own Minister. One outfall from
this was the resignation of Savid Jared as Chancellor who saw this as a
diminution of the power of the treasury.
Another fallout from this change was the incident in August
2019 when Sonia Khan, former Spad to Jared, was frogmarched from Number Ten on Seepy’s
orders. Khan made allegations of his aggression and bullying behaviour. She has
now reached an out-of-court
settlement “for a five-figure sum” in lieu of an employment tribunal
hearing due next month to hear her claim for unfair dismissal. Seepy was named
as a respondent in the case; Cabinet Office lawyers tried – unsuccessfully – to
get his name removed, presumably so that the full story of Seepy’s behaviour
was not presented in open court.
And Then Came Covid
Johnson is notorious, from both during and before his time
as Mayor of London, for being lazy and not on top of the detail of running his
office. So it was no surprise that his Number Ten Cabinet Office as proved to
be dysfunctional and incapable of governing the country. The pressures of managing
the pandemic have made this problem a lot worse, and the results: worst death
rate in Europe, biggest hit to the economy, are in plain view. It’s a matter of
open record that Johnson has been over-dependent, to an unhealthy degree, on
his chief adviser. It must remain a matter of speculation how much of this dysfunction
is a result of the chaos and infighting which Seepy has encouraged by his
The Ballad of Barnard Castle
I think few now doubt that the poor adherence to Government
guidance in the pandemic by sections of the public is due in part to the famous
trip to Durham and Barnard Castle. Certainly senior police officers quote
the incident being used as justification for rule-breaking when their officers
apprehend members of the public. It follows, as night follows day, that people
have died – and continue to die – as a result of this one incident. Worse,
Johnson’s attempt to defend the actions of his henchman has undermined the
whole moral authority of the UK government.
EU and US Trade Deals
There are now fewer than 50 days until the UK is scheduled
to finish the transition period and “fully” leave the EU. The government,
businesses and those responsible for new border IT systems are woefully unprepared.
How can companies (including logistic firms) prepare for something, the details
of which are still to be negotiated?
Leaving the EU was the raison d’être of the Johnson
government and of Seepy’s appointment to a leading role. Some damage limitation
could be achieved by negotiating a trade deal with the EU in the extremely
limited time left. Johnson and his sidekick seem more emotionally attached to a
deal with the US, with food poisoning, threats to UK farmers’ livelihoods, NHS
creeping takeover by US private health companies as clear threats. Their dreams
were based on their soulmate across the water, one Donald Trump.
But there’s just one problem with these dreams. Trump lost.
And Joe Biden, his successor-to-be takes a different view. Firstly, he is proud
of his Irish roots and very strongly opposed to anything which might affect the
Good Friday Agreement. Meanwhile, Trump, the Arch Bunker of populism, is in
denial, skulking in the Twituation Room in the White House.
The received view was that Seepy was keen on No Deal with
the EU. Johnson is, presumably a tabula
rasa in this respect: he is, after all, the journalist who wrote two versions, Remain and Leave, of his
article for the Daily Telegraph at
the start of the referendum campaign. So, with Seepy gone, the betting shifts
towards a last-minute deal. Johnson will dress this up as a great feat of
negotiating: just one more lie, like “oven ready” was last autumn.
There were, of course, two items of good news in the past week. The announcement of an effective vaccine was one; the departure of the man at the centre of this blog post was the other. The Covid vaccine needs to be stored and transported at -70 degrees. Let’s hope the lorries carrying them don’t get stuck on their way from Belgium (where the vaccine will be made). Meantime, stay safe and stick to the rules! (Even if some don’t!)
His influence has left lasting damage, first in education, then the economy (through leaving the EU single market) and then health (through dysfunction and chaos at the heart of government and the loss of government authority from Barnard Castle).
I’m very glad he’s gone. But the damage he’s done will be with us for some time to come.
Our electric oven is not ready. It’s not working. Rather
like the British government: not ready for anything. Pandemic wave two. EU
trade deal. Test and trace. Anything more taxing than a three-word slogan: cook
Oven and Out
Last week, our kitchen oven stopped working. Or, to be more
precise, it stopped working properly. Our dinner was cooking nicely in a hot
oven: 200 degrees. The only trouble was it didn’t stop at 200 degrees: it kept
on getting hotter and hotter. By the time we had noticed, our meal was burnt.
Black. Charcoal. Not at all the way we like it.
It’s getting fixed tomorrow: new circuit board: 200 quid.
Cheaper than a new oven, we think. Anyway, the oven-as-charcoal-burner reminded
me of something.
Oven At ‘Em
Those of you with attention spans longer than our Prime
Minister (which is nearly everyone) will remember a phrase from the election
campaign last year. “Oven ready”. Following the election, Johnson quickly caved
in to the EU’s concerns about preserving the integrity of the Single Market by
agreeing to customs checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. This was
quickly pushed through Parliament following the election and voted on by
Johnson’s New Model Army of compliant MPs. It seems that neither Johnson nor
those MPs had really understood what they were voting for. Certainly we know
Johnson doesn’t bother himself with detail: how many of his MPs, I wonder, knew
they were helping to set things up for a no deal crash out of the EU?
Now, eight months later, the CCJ (see last blog post) is bringing before Parliament legislation which breaks international law: Minister Bandon Lewis admitted as much today in the Commons. A senior government lawyer has quit his post because of this. And a senior diplomat compared the UK government to a “rogue state”. Even Johnson’s predecessor Theresa May condemned the move as leading to other countries not trusting the UK in any future trade negotiations.
We Just Don’t Kerr
Oh, and a bit more about the “senior diplomat” mentioned
above. He is none other than John
Kerr, now a member of the House of Lords. He is a former British Ambassador
to the USA and a former member of the European Convention which drafted Article
50, the procedure agreed by all 28 EU states at the time (including UK) for any
member wishing to leave the EU. So not just any old “senior diplomat”, then.
You Have to Laugh
… even when crying, screaming and kicking the dog (no
offence) might come more naturally.
It’s the following morning when I’m finishing this piece
off. The oven repair engineer hasn’t shown up yet. So here we are: England,
September 2020. The country you will never trust again. Break international treaties
by all means, but don’t gather in groups of 7. Unless you’re at school. Or a
premier league footballer. Or you’ve bred like a rabbit and got loads of kids –
one for the Rees-Moggs there, I feel. Simples.
I’d like to end with some good news. I’d like to, but there
isn’t any. So instead, here’s a few things that made me smile in today’s Guardian:
“Frosty the No Man”: thanks Marina Hyde, good value as ever,
describing the UK’s chief negotiator with the EU.
And a few extracts from letters from readers, witty as ever:
“our PM would have us waive the rules as well as rule the waves”, “perfidious
Albion is living up to its name” and “Johnson’s ‘oven-ready’ deal was a turkey”.
Thank you all.
Back in the heady pre-EU referendum days of early 2016, I
wrote a blog post which I entitled Sliding
Into Fascism. Reading it again now, I was struck by how much has
changed since then. The issues and concerns about which I wrote seem to have
taken place so long ago. Some of the names are the same as now, but all in
different jobs. I made reference to Education Secretary Nicky Morgan – remember
her? – and her predecessor Michael Gove, then at the Ministry of Justice. George
“austerity” Osborne was, of course, Chancellor of the Exchequer and, in a
comment in reply to the post, even a junior minister in the Cabinet Office, “Matthew”
Hancock, gets a mention.
Some of the themes in the post still ring familiar. The Education Secretary was making threatening-sounding statements to the teaching unions. Opaquely-funded so-called “think tanks” were allowed to continue their right-wing propaganda and fake news whilst charities’ freedoms to speak out were being curtailed. The House of Lords was being stuffed full of extra cronies of the Prime Minister.
Other measures reported in the post seemed all to point in one direction: namely, changes designed, bit by bit, to consolidate the Tories’ stranglehold on the electorate to perpetuate a de facto one-party rule. Since the, matters have taken a turn for a whole lot worse.
Under a Bus
The fact that the vast majority of the press are Tory
supporters, often advocating policies and actions even more extreme that the
government itself, doesn’t seem enough for the CJJ. Cummings’ power grab for
political advisers effectively reporting to his command and the widespread
sacking of senior civil servants is all part of the so-called “hard rain”
falling on the Civil Service. Mark Sedwill from the Cabinet Office, Jonathan
Slater from Education, Sally Collier from Ofqual are just three senior heads to
roll in recent days. Veteran journalist John Humphreys weighs into the debate
in an article for YouGov here.
(His article also served as a reminder of a resignation early in 2020 following
bullying by Home Secretary Priti Patel.)
The head of the FDA (the senior civil servants’ “trade union”) put it this way: “This administration will throw civil service leaders under a bus without a moment’s hesitation to shield ministers from any kind of accountability”. History shows that power without accountability always leads to greater and greater abuse of that power.
Taking the Central Line
The United Kingdom as a state has always been centralised
compared with many of its counterparts. The freedom given to the government of
the day by our unwritten “constitution” fails to provide the checks and
balances which act as a safeguard elsewhere. But the centralisation of power
into Westminster has proceeded more rapidly since the days when Thatcher was
PM. Local government has been reduced almost to a cipher whose job is to do the
bidding of, and beg for discretionary funding from, central government.
The pandemic has thrown the results of all this
centralisation into stark relief – but it has also shown how ineffective it is,
compared to more successful countries (i.e. nearly all of them) in managing the
effects of coronavirus. Early on, repeated failures in supply of PPE followed a
centralisation of procurement in the NHS. Confusing and unsafe repeated changes
of policy on wearing PPE were undoubtedly driven by rationing shortages rather
than any public health “science” claimed by ministers.
Centralised Test and Trace has been the opposite of Johnson
and Hancock’s “world beating” claim. The number of times this and similar
phrases are used by those in positions of power show just how insecure they
feel inside about the alleged “Greatness” of Britain. Puerile hysteria about
blue passports and the offensive jingoistic lyrics of some “traditional” songs
are further evidence of this insecurity.
Without a Trace
The main reason that Track and Trace has been such a
disaster – failing to meet its targets nine weeks in a row – is the dogmatic
obsession with running everything from Whitehall and subcontracting (and
sub-subcontracting) everything to the government’s mates in the private sector.
The announced U-turn on handing more work and power to local Directors of
Public Health with the necessary local government spending is happening only
painfully slowly. Hancock is acting like a drowning man, not wanting to let go
of any scrap of centralised power for reasons of pure dogma and an
authoritarian instinct. The true black hole into which power is being sucked
goes by the name of the man whose eyesight needed testing on the road to Barnard
Oh, in case you missed it, here’s a couple of things about Dido “Dodo” Harding, head of Track and Trace and the bits of Public Health England that the government hasn’t forgotten about, you may find interesting. As CEO of TalkTalk, Marketing magazine described her in these terms: “TalkTalk boss Dido Harding’s utter ignorance is a lesson to us all.” So that puts her on a par with every member of the Cabinet. And the second thing is her horsey connections as a board member of Cheltenham Racecourse. Matt Hancock is MP for Newmarket. Health experts have reckoned that at least 20,000 lives could have been saved if the UK had locked down a week earlier. And what happened during that, literally, fatal week? Why, the Cheltenham Festival, of course. Coincidence? I don’t think so.
One other key plank in the “abolish all dissent” plans of
the CJJ concerns judicial review. Gina Miller tweeted today: “Sneaky Govt! On 31 July
they announce Independent Review of Administrative Law via a press notice.
Tonight they quietly put on http://Parliament.uk the scope & who’ll decide if to act on recommendations.
I’ve highlighted & abbreviated.” (Gina
Miller is the lawyer who won two court cases between the 2016 referendum and
the 2019 general election. The first ruled that the government must seek a Parliamentary
vote of approval before signing the withdrawal agreement: this led to the
notorious Daily Mail “Enemies of the People” front page. The second ruled Johnson’s
2019 proroguing of parliament illegal. Between them, they reinforced the
principle that ministers are not above the law.)
Johnson has found a sympathetic chair
in Edward Faulks QC. Now, the next bit you simply couldn’t make up. Faulks’s
middle names are “Peter Lawless”. Yes, Lawless. His wife Catherine is a Tory
councillor. Lord Chancellor Robert Buckland and Cabinet Office Minister Michael
Gove have taken upon themselves the role of deciding what the government will
do following the Review. The intention is already clear. Johnson wants to put
himself and his government above the law. These are the actions of a dictator
and not those of Head of Government in a supposedly democratic state.
I’d like to end with some wise
words. The first come from the leader writer in today’s Guardian, who writes of the Cummings-Johnson Junta as “an administration that refuses to delegate
but fails to govern”. To those who find this all a bit boring, the second words
come from no less a figure than Plato: “The price of apathy towards public affairs
is to be ruled by evil men”.
That just about sums it up. You were warned.
Or, How to Stay Cheerful, in spite of the evidence…
Anyway, some bad news first.
The most reliable way of comparing countries in the
coronavirus pandemic is to measure excess deaths. (It’s the least dodgy of all
the various statistics.)
Top of the Charts
The PM refers to the UK government’s handling of the
pandemic in England as a “massive
success”. That’s only true if you count “success” as the height of the pile
of dead bodies. Here’s a chart showing the excess deaths for several European
countries, measured as a percentage of the total deaths expected at the time of
year. Cumulative figures since the start of 2020 show England top of the charts
with 7.5% excess deaths:
The Mountain Top
The charts below look like a series of mountains and show excess
deaths for the four worst-hit European countries week by week. Although the
other “top 3” (for deaths) show sharper peaks, it’s clear it’s taken England
and Wales longer to control the outbreak: note the two smaller peaks in later
weeks for England and Wales: no such pattern exists for the other countries
A much fuller analysis, using official government figures,
can be found at the ONS website here.
There are those who argue that there is a balance to be
struck between saving lives during the pandemic and saving jobs. Not so. The Johnson
government has failed on both. The Guardian,
perhaps unsurprisingly today (as I write) runs the story UK
to Plunge into Deepest Slump on Record with worst fall in GDP among G7. For
political “balance”, compare and contrast that with, also today, the Telegraph headline “UK Poised to Suffer
the Biggest Covid Blow of Any Major Economy”.
Still, not to worry. If you live in the fantasy universe of
Johnson and his gang, it’s good news all the way. This was faithfully reported
in that fantasy-filled rag, the Daily
Express, a couple of days ago:
As I saw commented on Twitter that day, this front page
would be what one might only expect to see in the most repressive dictatorships
imaginable. It’s a disgrace to the sort of journalism that we should expect in
a supposedly democratic country. (I was bemused to see, incidentally, that Express copywriters haven’t cottoned on
to the fact that the UK has been measuring temperatures in degrees Celsius
since 1963, only 57 years ago. Still, I suppose it fits with the paper’s target
readership: those whose brains ceased to function at least half a century ago).
The Brex Street Kids
Even more good news: we don’t even have to wait until the end of the year to suffer from the entirely self-inflicted damage at the end of the EU Exit transition period. Today’s Observer cheerfully reports the exodus of the brightest and best in a piece entitled Br*xit Fuels Brain Drain as Skilled Britons Head to the EU. The “brain drain” started soon after the 2016 referendum result, the paper reports.
And yet, the Brex Street Kids running the country remain cheerful, it seems. As long as companies making Tory Party donations continue to win government contracts without due process of competitive tendering, all seems right their world. If ever there was doubt before, the “it’s one rule for us and another rule for the rest of you” attitude of those in power is plain for all to see. Blatant rule-breaking, rampant misogyny, cronyism (here’s a view from abroad) and corruption all get the blind-eye treatment by Johnson and his gang. OK, I admit that the last link on corruption takes you to a rather partisan source. But this story has been running, in various forms, in mainstream media (including the FT) on various dates since at least May. Just put “PPE contracts Tory donors” into your favourite search engine to see for yourself.
Give Us a (Second) Wave
Feeling the heat after all this doom and gloom? Then why not
head off to Bournemouth beach? I’m sure you will find yourself in good company:
that total stranger might shuffle up a bit to give you room to sit down. Give
them a wave: after a second one of those, you may be feeling the heat a little
Whilst you’re there, why not bury your head in the sand? Don’t worry, that good old English
Exceptionalism will see us through! And with the Brex Street Kids in charge,
what could go wrong?
Has the UK entered the final death spiral of some ironic
self-referential spin into a black hole of incompetence? Quite possibly. I had
never thought it logically possible to include the words “intelligence” and “Chris
Grayling” in the same sentence. But the gods of surrealism have now made it
There’s stupid. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s
incompetent. And then there’s Chris Grayling. There’s failing. And then… you
know the rest.
The media is awash with lists of the man’s failures. The Daily Mirror found eighteen. Perhaps the most notorious are:
The disastrous part-privatisation of the
probation service, now recently reversed;
The contract with the ferry company with no
The unlawful ban on prisoners receiving books
from their visitors;
The nightmarish new timetable for Thameslink and
You can read the full list at the link above.
In 1967, the Hollies released a single “King Midas in Reverse”.
Could’ve been written for Grayling.
Taking the Piss
The report into alleged Russian government interference in UK politics was presented to the Intelligence and Security Subcommittee last autumn. Its publication was delayed on the pretext of the upcoming election. Johnson then delayed the Tory nominations to the Committee for over six months. And then, in an act of breathtaking surrealism, the government has nominated as Chair one Chris Grayling, serial failure.
To which there is really only one response. You’re totally
taking the piss, Prime Minister.
Cherry on the Cake
Another Tory nomination to the Committee runs Grayling a
close second in uselessness and incompetence: Theresa Villiers. Quite posh too, it
Here’s a few highlights of her incompetence:
When Northern Ireland Secretary, talking
bollocks over the impact of the UK leaving the UK in its effect on the
border between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic