From David Maughan Brown in York: The circus has come to Town

July 9th

As those of us who have chosen to stay in what is now largely self-imposed lockdown live our generally uneventful lives, thanking our lucky stars that we weren’t in the impotent position of having had to rely on Matt Hancock to throw a protective ring around us, we watch the world stirring back to life with an underlying sense of apprehension.  When will the seemingly inevitable second wave or ‘spike’ strike?  What are the realistic chances of a vaccine being developed in the relatively near future?  When might we finally get to hug our grandchildren and visit family in far-flung places?  When, long after the 50%-off offer has lapsed, might we feel it is safe enough to try to get a booking at our favourite restaurant? How will all this affect the long-term futures of our children and grandchildren? Will anybody, apart perhaps from Jacinda Ardern, ever get a handle on how to deal, once and for all, with Covid-19?

Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, gave a very good impression in a lengthy BBC Today programme interview this morning of having a reasonably good handle on how to coax the economy back towards something resembling normality.   He may not have all the answers – particularly with regard to the self-employed and the UK’s October furlough ‘cliff-edge’ – but, given that he has to contend with the backwoodsmen on the Tory back benches, it is refreshing to hear him coming across as being just as ‘unencumbered by dogma’ as he claims to be.   Sunak was eminently reasonable and good-humoured in the face of Martha Kearney’s constant interruptions and her dogged insistence on asking the questions she obviously had  on a piece of paper in front of her, regardless of whether he had already pre-empted and answered them.   In fact I got much more irritated by her insistence on interrupting and talking over him than he appeared to.  As an economist, Sunak comes across as far too intelligent, and far too unencumbered by dogma, to believe that Brexit can possibly be a good thing, so I am left wondering what his long term strategy might be.

In the meantime the circus goes on around him.   Boris Johnson, temporarily forgetting that he is the unchallenged world-beating champion of the U-turn, is refusing to back down on his craven attempt to blame the care home managers for the 20,000 care home deaths that resulted from his government’s incompetent handling of the pandemic.   Dominic Raab, our Foreign Secretary, allows an unexpected glimmer of hope that our government might actually have a faint awareness of human rights, despite their perpetual denial by the Home Office, by placing sanctions on a number of prominent Russians and Saudis implicated in human rights abuses.  But that hope is promptly snuffed out by Elizabeth Truss, Secretary of State for International Trade, who rushes to resume sales of arms to the self-same Saudis so that they can get on with bombing civilians in Yemen.  Matt Hancock has stopped boasting about the number of Covid tests being carried out – possibly because he knew that someone somewhere would eventually discover that 30% of the tests that were hurriedly posted out to make up the numbers were never returned.   But that doesn’t stop him from boasting about how successful his Trace and Test programme has been in tracking down all the customers from the three pubs that had to close the day after the great ‘Independence’ opening because one customer from each had tested positive for Covid-19.  That was remarkably stupid, even for Hancock, because by then everyone knew that the Test and Trace programme had had absolutely nothing to do with contacting all the customers: the pubs’ landlords or landladies (mainly the latter) had personally telephoned up to 90 customers each.

The circus is scheduled to be performing every day for the next four and a half years.  The reviews can only continue to be very bad indeed.  The one change of personnel that might make the outcome slightly better would be the promotion of Rishi Sunak, who currently manages the ticket-office, to the role of ring-master.  That would allow Boris Johnson to be relegated to a role he is far better suited to, that of understudy for the clown: the one they call on when they need a clown who isn’t even remotely funny. 

From David Maughan Brown in York: Common Sense

May 14th

Boris has defended his much ridiculed shiny new ‘Stay alert.  Control the virus. Save lives’ slogan by asserting that he is relying on people to use their common sense.  His increasingly tetchy Secretary of State for Health and Social Care, by contrast, has adopted the tactic of responding to anyone who asks what the slogan is supposed to mean by boldly asserting that everyone obviously knows what it means.  Given that the First Minister of Scotland has asserted that she has no idea what it means and will stick to the original easily understood ‘Stay at Home’ slogan, thanks very much, one can only conclude that the United Kingdom is not as quite as united as it says on the tin.

Common sense appears to be in short supply, so Boris is gambling once again.  One of the BBC correspondents gave us the “shocking news” recently that the sales of new cars had gone down by 97% in the UK in April.  Anyone one who is “shocked” when he discovers that car sales have gone down in a month when every motor showroom in the country has been closed should not be allowed near the air-waves.  The more interesting question was how, in those circumstances, even 3% of previous sales had been maintained.  The news that GDP fell by 2% in the first quarter when it was only the last ten days of the quarter that were affected by the lockdown has similarly led reporters to scurry around asking economists whether they think that means we might be heading into a recession.  The Chancellor of the Exchequer, Rishi Sunak, who is the only cabinet minister who gives the impression that he has any idea what he is doing (in spite of apparently being a Brexit supporter), must have had his tongue firmly in his cheek this morning when he said he thought it possible that those figures might suggest a recession could be on its way.

The government guidance on how to interpret the new slogan is not, in itself, a shining example of common sense.   We are allowed to play basketball in the park, but people can’t meet both their parents in a park simultaneously, even if they remain socially distanced.  The First Secretary of State had to be corrected when he said he thought common sense dictated that the latter would be OK, and one can only assume that nobody responsible for the guidance has ever watched anyone playing basketball. Similarly, I can drive 50 miles to take a walk in the Lake District but I can’t take a flask of tea and sit down for a chat, appropriately socially distanced, in a lonely friend’s garden.  Why?  Because I might have to go through the house to get to the garden, and it isn’t permissible to meet people in their houses.  My daughter, who I know has been rigorously socially distancing, can’t come to my house, but any estate agent, who might for all I know be stupid enough to shake the hands of Covid-19 patients, can.   One can only conclude that common sense isn’t so common after all.  If you are looking for some from a government, try New Zealand or Scotland.