From David Maughan Brown in York: Hot-air balloon?

Into the sunset?

November 15th.

The UK is currently facing two existential crises simultaneously, either of which would, on its own, constitute the severest test of a UK government since World War II.   On the one hand, we have a pandemic that has so far, even by the official underestimate, cost over 51,000 lives, is still getting worse, and is once again threatening to overwhelm our hospitals.  Our Chief Medical Officer, Chris Whitty, is predicting that the coming winter will be the NHS’s worst in decades.  The UK was always going to be affected by Covid-19 but the pandemic has been far worse in the UK, and has killed tens of thousands more people than it need have, as a result of our government’s embarrassing incompetence and, in particular, its desperately poor communication. On the other hand, as if the damage done to the economy by the pandemic were not bad enough, we have the economic catastrophe of an ideologically-driven Brexit to contend with in six weeks time.  This last will almost certainly result in a relatively short time in the break-up of our supposedly ‘United’ Kingdom.    In the meantime, as a ‘no-deal’ Brexit looms, the Prime Minister’s always very limited attention span is entirely taken up with the internecine ferret-fight in the Downing street sack that I wrote about in my last entry.

The first two ferrets to be evicted from the sack, or alternatively given it, have been Lee Cain, Boris Johnson’s Director of Communications, and the infamous Dominic Cummings.  Lee Cain’s career started with his appointment as a tabloid journalist working for The Sun, which provides a very good early indication of his moral compass, or lack thereof, although he may well have learned the art of telling convincing lies earlier.  His distinction in the field has been plummily expressed by no lesser personage than the honourable member for the eighteenth century, Jacob Rees-Mogg, who declared on his departure that Cain had been ‘a fantastic public servant … somebody instrumental in ensuring the Vote Leave campaign was successful and somebody who has made a huge contribution to this government’.  Enough said.  One has to assume that, as Johnson’s Director of Communications, Cain was at least partly responsible for the government’s shift from the clarity of its initial Covid slogan, ‘Stay Home. Protect the NHS. Save Lives’, to the much-ridiculed opacity of the May revision: ‘Stay Alert. Control the Virus. Save lives.’  It is arguable that the ineptness of that slogan, and Cain’s soul-mate Dominic Cummings’ drive to Barnard Castle to test his eyesight, were the two most significant factors in undermining the credibility of government communications about the pandemic.  Cain’s place in Downing St. is due to be taken by one James Slack, who is obviously perfectly named to take tighter control of the government’s communication strategy.

The ferret fight was over Lee Cain’s prospective promotion to being Boris Johnson’s chief of staff following the appointment of Allegra Stratton as the government’s political press secretary. The latter would appear to have a career death-wish as she has apparently agreed to front Downing Street’s proposed imitation of the White House daily press briefings.  That was obviously going to cut across Cain’s direction of communications, so another job needed to be found for him.  The whole point of what goes on behind the scenes in Downing Street is that it goes on in the dark as far as the public is concerned.  It, like Michael Howard, has ‘something of the night about it’, and it is this Achilles heel, alongside our lack of a written constitution, that point to the weakness in our democracy that I referred to in my last entry.  It is ‘special advisers’ who, no matter how comprehensively they fit into Dominic Cummings’ ‘misfits and wierdos’ category, currently determine the direction of government, not the cabinet, and certainly not parliament. 

According to Andrew Woodcock’s report in The Independent, the ferrets ranged against Cummings and Cain (and who knows how many of their dozen or so fellow travellers from the Vote Leave campaign who had joined them behind the scenes in Downing St.) were, we are told, Allegra Stratton, Munira Mirza, who is currently Johnson’s ‘policy chief’, and, no doubt crucially, Carrie Symonds. Symonds is Boris Johnson’s fiancée, mother of his most recent child, which makes her officially the latest in the long line of women with whom Johnson has shared his bed, not that history suggests she will be enjoying an exclusive privilege in that respect.   So who gets to hold some of the most influential political appointments in what we are pleased to call our ‘democracy’ can be largely determined, not by formal processes of advertisement, application and assessment,  by who our Prime Minister happens to have as his formally acknowledged bed partner at any given time. 

From time to time on still days when I’m working on my allotment I hear a sudden belching sound and look up to see a hot air balloon drifting gently overhead.  The one I saw most recently seems in retrospect to be pertinent.  Hot air balloons strike me as having a lot in common with our Prime Minister.  They are highly visible – all show  – but have very little substance; they are kept afloat by hot air, fuelled by toxic gases, and extremely vulnerable to the vagaries of circumstance, being blown, hapless and uncontrollable, in unwanted directions before any adverse wind that arises.  Nobody down on the ground, mere earthlings, can have any idea who the hell, if anybody at all, is steering them.   The balloons that fly over my allotment are often like the one illustrated, floating off towards the sunset  – one hopes not the sunset of our democracy.  The faintly discernible ‘Virgin’ is obviously very much less than accurate in Johnson’s case, but then he clearly relished driving around in a bus with an obvious lie about the NHS blazoned across its sides in the run-up to the referendum, so it doesn’t seem too inappropriate.  Anyone who takes the trouble to type ‘Hot-air clown balloons’ into the Google Images search facility will see that I would have been spoiled for choice had I wanted to choose one of those as an illustration for the analogy, but none of the clowns on view came close to capturing the uniquely Johnsonian combination of deranged hair and shifty eyes.

From David Maughan Brown in York: A Barney Castle

a meme travelling the internet after Cummings’s concern about his eyesight.

May 26th

The latest episode of Downing Street  – the West End’s moderately high-culture answer to EastEnders – was well worth waiting 24 hours for.   It featured Dominic Cummings, still Boris Johnson’s chief advisor, strolling out of the shadows to take centre stage in the 10 Downing Street garden and entertain an assembly of the journalists he treats with such contempt.  His demeanour, as he spent an hour painstakingly explaining to the slow-witted just how reasonable it was for him to have followed his paternal instincts and driven his wife and child 264 miles up to Durham when his very own slogan instructed everyone in the country to stay at home, suggested that he would much rather have been back in the blue-bell woods in the North East.  It is just possible that the journalists might also have preferred to spend their sunny Bank Holiday afternoon somewhere else. 

Cummings admitted that he had, indeed, driven the thirty miles to Barnard’s Castle over the Easter weekend, and explained that he had been worried that his eyesight had been affected by Covid-19 and so obviously needed to test it to see whether he could drive the 264 miles back to London safely. Smart idea that.  You can tell why he is Boris’s chief advisor.  Climb into the car with your wife and four-year old child on your wife’s birthday and drive for 30 miles down a highway to test your dodgy eyesight and, incidentally, visit a beauty spot.  If you don’t crash into someone or something, your sight must be fine and you can enjoy the beauty once you get there; if you do crash into something but manage to survive, you can make sure dodgy eyesight gets added to the list of Covid-19 symptoms, even if you are the only person in the entire world who has been affected by the virus in that way.

Boris either believed this absurd story himself, or decided that the great British public and his newly restive back-benchers were stupid enough to believe it, and sent Cummings out to air it in the 10 Downing Street garden, which is, one gathers, usually reserved for entertaining heads of state and the leaders of government.  As far as Boris is concerned Cummings behaved ‘responsibly, legally and with integrity’, and he was presumably convinced that everyone else would feel the same way.  The problem, of course, is that most of the people who needed to be convinced know that Boris’s familiarity with ‘integrity’ is pretty much on a par with Judas Iscariot’s familiarity with loyalty.  Many of them also appear to accept the wisdom of the adage that ‘when the aide becomes the story, the aide goes’.

Johnson’s desperation to hold onto Cummings at any cost betrays an astonishing and rather pathetic degree of dependence and weakness for a Prime Minister who has recently won a landslide election.  Perhaps allowing Cummings free rein of the 10 Downing Street garden was a tacit acknowledgement that Cummings is in effect, if not in name, the leader of this Conservative government.  Although quite how Cummings’ ‘political disrupter’ label and the term ‘conservative’ can sit comfortably side by side is anyone’s guess.  In the meantime, while Cummings insisted throughout his hour in the garden that he hadn’t done anything wrong, and certainly wasn’t about to apologise, is it just possible that he was having a private laugh at the expense of the rest of us?   Did he know, when choosing Barnard’s Castle as the beauty spot for his sightseeing eye-test, that in Durham dialect a ‘Barney Castle’ is an exceedingly pathetic excuse?