On a hillside desolate
Will nature make a man of me yet?’
Who would have though it, from leaden-footed hoofer to Fred Astaire? The PM is riding high in the opinion polls after avoiding Brexit chaos, delivering to-date a successful C-19 vaccination programme, and a well thought out step-by-step exit from lock-down. Seemingly, he can do no wrong. Or so it seems…
After the hardest of possible Brexits to appease the right of the Tory party, many of the promises made during the referendum campaign have gone by the wayside.
Johnson and Gove’s Vote Leave campaign said that that Brexit would free Britain to strike deals ‘with major economies like China and India’.
That pretence still continues; some weeks ago the Sun announced that Liz Truss, the international trade secretary, had created a post-Brexit ‘Enhanced Trade Partnership’ with Delhi, which has already ‘created’ 1,540 jobs, courtesy of the Indian tech firm Tata Consultancy Services.
The truth is somewhat different; the ‘Enhanced Trade Partnership’ is meaningless, there is no agreement only a ‘commitment’ to a ‘long-term India-UK partnership’. Tata Consultancy is already established in Britain, and Truss’s department accepts Tata’s new jobs are ‘not linked directly’ to the alleged partnership.
The new cold war, Hong Kong and the persecution of Uighurs make a trade deal with China a remote possibility, scotching the other half of Vote Leave promise.
Whilst Brexit has changed everything about our relationship with the EU, much has stayed the same. Trade now stumbles across closed borders rather than flowing through open ones, but the politics are unchanged, suspicion and self-sabotage are still the order of the day.
Brexit engendered the belief that we don’t depend on our neighbours, meaning that the diplomacy required to make things work is neglected.
Every negotiation becomes a test of national self-esteem, any adjustment is resented as a surrender of sovereignty.
Euroscepticism is a machine that keep giving for the populist Tories, generating perpetual grievances
Euroscepticism is a machine that keep giving for the populist Tories, generating perpetual grievances. Brussels is our enemy, spoiling relations, this satiates the domestic audience, proving that the other side does not want to be friends.
The machine is kept fuelled by our right-wing press who would rather tell us fairy stories with happy-ever-after endings, rather than admit their mistake in selling Brexit and misleading their readers.
Turning to the vaccination programme, at current rates, the 32 million people in the top nine priority groups in the UK will be offered a first jab by 4 April, ahead of the 30 April deadline. The government is now also expecting all adults to be offered their first jab by 31 July, two months ahead of the previous target of September.
Everyone involved in vaccination, from the scientists developing it and the regulators pushing it through to the NHS staff delivering it, the volunteer stewards have done something collective and tremendous. All the government can be credited with is being quick out of the blocks in ordering before other countries.
Considering our roadmap to exit lockdown, Johnson’s new approach is to look at ‘data not dates’, thereby introducing an element of elasticity entirely at odds with the concept of a roadmap. However, it is pleasing to see that he is now deferring to the science rather than his backbenchers.
Despite this he still can’t resist resorting to type; e.g., his foolish undertaking that this lockdown will be the last.
The combination of the vaccine’s success and the steep climb of the second wave seems to have convinced the public that, whatever mistakes have been made, whatever corruption uncovered, whatever short-sightedness and flakiness you could reasonably charge the government with, this is a dire situation that no mortal could have judged perfectly.
This spirit of fair play has been grasped with both hands by the government, making itself the victim of the disaster rather than its architect.
Its approach is highly political, claiming every triumph for itself, and blaming us for every failure
Whilst the government likes to pretend that it isn’t playing politics with C-19, that’s the case. Its approach is highly political, claiming every triumph for itself, and blaming us for every failure.
Part of the government’s response to C-19 has been a set of U-turns typical of its divide and conquer populist approach that pretend to be listening to the electorate but is simply based on bad decisions.
Last weeks proposal to reverse the health policies implemented by the Cameron administration, is the latest in a long line which includes, the role of the state, EU membership, the north-south divide, and the relationship between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Despite this clear lack of direction, the Tories vote has increased and in each general election their vote has risen. Perhaps people like to feel they are being consulted and listened to?
One of the Tories great Thatcherite policies, free-market capitalism, is declining in popularity with many voters, and the elderly, a key voter group for the Tories, is seeing its electoral supremacy threatened by the radicalisation of the young.
This populist malleability enables them to maximise their support, often playing both sides of the game.
This can be highlighted by their policy of austerity which, from 2010 to 2015, saw dramatic cuts in state benefits, whilst simultaneously framing Labour as spendthrift. This was sufficient to persuade voters of the need for harsh measures on the public finances.
When Brexit and Labour’s 2017 election surge demonstrated that austerity was a political liability, the Conservatives suddenly declared themselves horrified by what it had done to large parts of the country.
Their 2019 manifesto said, ‘too many communities feel let down’, as they reinvented themselves as champions of public investment.
In a way the Tories are their own opposition so much so that we don’t need other parties when the Conservatives are several parties in one.
the Tories are their own opposition so much so that we don’t need other parties
Their strength isn’t governing per se, it’s improvisation, trying policies out, and if they don’t work politically, trying the opposite. The support of by their faithful right-wing press gives them a freedom to manoeuvre in a way no Labour government could ever contemplate.
In short, Fred Astaire is as leaden footed as before but with a patina of success. However, one area that is a nailed-on success for the government is cronyism.
Last week in the high court The Good Law Project proved that the government had breached what the judge called the ‘vital public function’ of transparency over ‘vast quantities’ of taxpayers’ money.
A VIP fast-lane for PPE contracts made the contacts of ministers, MPs, peers and officials 10 times more likely to win contracts. PPE prices sky-rocketed. The Good Law Project’s demands for publication of those favoured suppliers, their VIP sponsors, and prices paid have been denied so far.
The Guardian has already revealed that the medical regulator is investigating Alex Bourne, health secretary Matt Hancock’s ex-neighbour, who won £30m of work producing medical vials, despite having no experience in the field.
one area that is a nailed-on success for the government is cronyism
Cronyism comes in different forms, for example, ‘unregulated appointments’, such as that of Tory peer Dido Harding to head the disastrous test-and-trace programme.
Last week the health department’s own evidence showed the £22bn she has spent had had a ‘relatively small’ effect.
Although this flagrant squandering of public funds to fatten-up their mates is far from funny, there is an ironic humour when this fraud is compared to Johnson’s forward in the Ministerial Code; ‘There must be no bullying and no harassment; no leaking; no breach of collective responsibility. No misuse of taxpayer money and no actual or perceived conflicts of interest. The precious principles of public life enshrined in this document – integrity, objectivity, accountability, transparency, honesty and leadership in the public interest – must be honoured at all times; as must the political impartiality of our much admired civil service.’
Of course, talk is cheap, and there is no better example of that than our PM. The Sunday Times has reported that that Lord Udny-Lister, as deputy mayor of London under Johnson, helped approve £4bn of property schemes for developers, and, within months of leaving office went on to work for them.
As Downing Street strategic adviser last year, he stayed on their payrolls, and followed codes of conduct.
Whilst cronyism might have a few in the Shires tut-tutting, I suspect their biggest emotion will have been that of missing out on the money tree. Still, there is a perennial favourite, the so-called ‘war on woke’, to cheer them as we warm-up for this spring’s local and mayoral elections.
might have a few in the Shires tut-tutting, I suspect their biggest emotion will have been that of missing out on the money tree
Leading the charge was the communities secretary, Robert Jenrick, who seized on a brief lull in pandemic news last month to announce a minor tweak in planning rules dressed up as a crusade to stop historical statues being taken down if they cause contemporary offence.
Followed by the education secretary, Gavin Williamson, who, rather than devoting himself to organising the reopening of schools in three weeks’ time, promises a ‘free speech champion’ to fight back against the no-platforming of speakers on ideological grounds in British universities.
Not to be left out there is Oliver Dowden, the culture secretary, who instructed heritage bodies and museums to ‘defend our culture and history from the noisy minority of activists constantly trying to do Britain down’.
Does he mean exposing all the things we did wrong and swept under the carpet, I wonder?
Last and definitely least was the wicked witch herself, the home secretary, Priti Patel, declaring that she had found the Black Lives Matter protests that erupted in Britain last summer ‘dreadful’.
People may laugh at ‘Wokery, but it’s roots are in people rightly demanding to be treated equally.
This is the usual bigoted stupidity we have come to expect from Johnson populist hordes, which is consistently lapped up by his bigoted and stupid supporters, it creates an agenda for post-Covid politics.
The last thing Keir Starmer wants ahead of May’s elections is a culture war, there is no conceivable stance on taking the knee, or pushing statues into Bristol harbour that could possibly please both millennial Labour voters at ease with contemporary identity politics, and older, more socially conservative voters thoroughly exasperated by it.
The last thing Keir Starmer wants ahead of May’s elections is a culture war
Furthermore, this forces Labour into saying whether it supports them or not, knowing that will divide the party regardless of which side it picks.
To date, Starmer has refused to get involved and taken the battle to the Tories by pushing economic arguments that, he knows, divide them. The risk here is that there comes a point when the refusal to say something, and not the defending the cherished liberal causes under attack, becomes a statement in itself.
Instead Starmer should focus on the millions of council tax payers in-line for increases of up to 5% in their annual bills from April, with those on low and middle incomes hit hardest by a sixth year of increases in England above the rate of inflation.
those on low and middle incomes hit hardest by a sixth year of increases in England above the rate of inflation
Labour calculates that this amounts to a ‘£2bn council tax bombshell’ for families still coping with the pandemic, and one which proceed despite Boris Johnson’s claim that he would end years of austerity.
Hundreds of councils must decide soon whether to raise the tax by the maximum allowed by government, 4.99%, or to make big cuts in services.
Tory-controlled Hillingdon council, which covers the Johnson’s constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, is due to vote this week on proposals for a 4.8% increase in bills, while Bath and North East Somerset council, which covers leader of the house Jacob Rees-Mogg’s constituency, will vote on a 4.99% increase, adding £70 a year to the average bill.
Anneliese Dodds, Labour’s shadow chancellor, said: ‘Rishi Sunak’s £2bn council tax bombshell in the middle of a pandemic isn’t just economically illiterate – it’s wrong. The chancellor should be building up confidence in the economy and supporting families to get through the worst economic crisis of any major economy.’
I have a feeling I was somewhat harsh on Starmer last week, as, for the first time he spoke of his view of the economy, how it has been failed by the Conservatives, and how it would be run under Labour.
He pointed out that Tory ideology made the UK particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, and now offers only a ‘roadmap to yesterday’, whereas Labour would ‘protect families’.
Tory ideology made the UK particularly vulnerable to the pandemic, and now offers only a ‘roadmap to yesterday’
He drew dividing lines ahead of the budget, saying he would keep the universal credit uplift, end the pay freeze for key workers, prevent council tax rises, extend business rates relief and the VAT cut for hospitality and leisure, and renew the furlough scheme.
He bought together the themes present in Labour’s interventions over the past year: family, dignity, security, fiscal responsibility, and long-term thinking.
Starmer faces competing demands from two audiences:
- The Westminster watchers, bored by politics after the Brexit years, and weary with Labour’s careful tone after becoming accustomed to the bolder policies and messaging under Jeremy Corbyn,
- The wider public who keep-up with only the big stories of the day.
The latter may have found some comfort in Starmer’s support for extending the furlough scheme and universal credit, and his description of inequality as both ‘morally bankrupt’ and ‘economic stupidity’, whereas references to the Beveridge report may have gone over many heads.
The new trends should be Equality, Justice and Capitalism.
Capitalism isn’t about the richest 3% who don’t care about the rest, it’s about making sure we all have a share, social justice, opportunities, and equality.
The age of shareholder capitalism has proved imperfect and spawned massive inequality. Rich CEO’s now earn 100s of times more than their GIG economy workers who have zero security and live on the periphery of society.
Proof that things are already changing was illustrated by Norges Bank, who are selling stocks that aren’t transparent about their taxes.
If we don’t fix the rotting foundations of capitalism the whole edifice will come crashing down. This is not communism; capitalism will thrive if its fair.
‘..Why don’t you take a close look and tell me what you see
The things I say, you only disagree
You’ll never understand, that’s what I want to be..’
Moving on from his ‘long reads’ Philip returns to a weekly commentary – ‘this week I have tried to disprove the popular misconception that Johnson and his mob are reborn and doing everything right’.
Much may seem familiar, but there is a sense with the roll out of the vaccine apparently ahead of schedule – and comfortably ahead of anything across La Manche – things may have fallen rather nicely for Boris, and he’s not been backward in coming forward to mop up this rather indulgent gravy.
For reasons he explains towards the end of the piece, Philip feels that last week’s piece may have been a little harsh on Sir Kier, but events that see Boris flying high in the polls, also conspire against the role of an opposition leader in the teeth of a pandemic.
The Tories are able to road-test any number of strategies, which, if they fall flat can be excused because we’re in uncharted territory; it could even be seen as churlish to suggest that this is the way a populist government would have behaved anyway because we’re ‘winning the vaccination war’ aren’t we.
Anything other that offering rather muted support from the touchline would see the leader of Brenda’s opposition attacked as somehow anti-nationalist; presumably why the image consultants would have him take to the stage with union jack y-fronts over his not-very-working-class Saville Row suit.
A very big downside of having a bomb-proof Tory administration is that the jiggery-pokery that may have been kept back-stage is now played out in plain sight.
Matt Hancock was found to have acted ‘unlawfully’ in handing out PPE contracts to his mates with impunity; Grant ‘Two Planes’ Shapps acted outside the law when overturning the refusal of a DCO to re-open Manston . What are the chances of seeing them in a flowery dell with Grouty any time soon?
If their behaviour was grubby, what kind of administration allows someone with an almost unblemished track-record of abject failure like Dido Harding to spaff £22bn on a Where’s Wally app when it can’t feed schoolchildren in poverty?
And the wave of ineptitude comes thick and fast; possibly nailed on as the Tory people would least like to have on their pub team, Gavin Williamson when pressed as to what primary schools could do with the pitiful £6,000 grant he was proposing, suggested they could get ‘some more teachers’.
He’s not even got the excuse of only having three grandparents, being sent to boarding school aged two and basted in gentleman’s relish.
Philip is not quite as cross with Boris as is sometimes the case, maybe, just maybe there is some light at the end of the tunnel; the theme of inequality is bound to run and run as the poor are most seriously disadvantaged in every way – jobs will evaporate with furlough, and mortgage holidays will be found to come with a huge hangover.
Meantime, savings ratios amongst the more comfortably off have never been higher, and it is their ‘pent up’ demand for foreign travel that we should fear as they seek out obscure variants of the virus around the globe. Never say never Boris.
Two tracks for fun only this week The Smiths and ‘This Charming Man’ and The Jesus and Mary Chain and ‘Never Understand’. Enjoy!
Philip is a great believer in meritocracy, and in the belief that if you want something enough you can make it happen. These beliefs were formed in his formative years, of the late 1970s and 80s