From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘Have yourself a Merry Little Christmas”

December 16th

On the 24th November, a whole month before Christmas Eve, the UK government (read government of England), under extreme pressure from the libertarian loons on its back benches, who regard any restrictions on their freedom to do whatever they like as an unwarranted imposition, corralled the governments of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland into agreeing to a five-day Christmas ‘amnesty’ from whatever Covid19 restrictions the devolved governments happened to have in place at the time.  The national November lockdown was about to end, but the three-tier system was destined immediately to be re-imposed, and it was assumed that the virus would be sufficiently suppressed by then for there to be no problem with families being allowed to travel the length and breath of the UK to join two other families for overnight stays between 23rd and 27th December for a close-to-‘normal’, no doubt boozy, Christmas knees-up.  Extra trains are being laid on; extra time for travel to Northern Ireland is being allowed; all stops, apart from the one that says STOP, are being pulled out.

Strangely enough, the virus didn’t just remain unsuppressed and unimpressed by the November lockdown, it went into overdrive: it has not only increased its infection rates exponentially in the three weeks since the amnesty decision, but has spun-off a Southern Counties mutation which appears, although the science is still out on this, to be even more infectious than the original is.   So greater London and parts of adjacent counties have been elevated from Tier 2 to Tier 3 exactly seven days before an amnesty that lifts their newly imposed restrictions kicks in.   Chocolate fire-screens come to mind.  Whether or not the virus is equity-minded and made a mental note that no cognisance whatever had been given by the powers that be to Eid, or Diwali, or Holi, or Hannukah, Covid19 is not going to regard Christmas as a season of goodwill to all mankind and take a break from its job of infecting anyone rash enough let it anywhere near.

If the virus is certain to be unimpressed by the Christmas amnesty, so is the medical profession, as represented in particular by the editors of the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal who view the approaching amnesty with such trepidation that they have published a joint editorial for only the second time in 100 years.  In similar manner to President-elect Joe Biden’s excoriating demolition of Donald Trump’s undermining of US democracy as soon as the electoral college had formally approved his election, the editorials don’t pull their punches where the UK government is concerned: ‘The government was too slow to introduce restrictions in the spring and again in the autumn…. We believe the government is about to blunder into another major error that will cost many lives.  If our political leaders fail to take swift and decisive action, they can no longer claim to be “protecting the NHS”.’  The joint editorial predicts that, even without the time-lag between the inevitable Christmas amnesty infections and consequent hospitalisations, by January 1st there will already be as many patients with coronavirus in UK hospitals as there were at the height of the first wave in April.

So will the UK government respond to the increasing pressure and change its mind about the wisdom of its amnesty? Not a chance. They always ‘follow the science’ – just as long as the science suits their short-term political interests.  They are running too scared of the loons, whose numbers are sufficient to annihilate the Tories’ 87 seat majority, and no Tory government, never mind one elected with a ‘land-slide’ majority barely 12 months ago, likes having to rely on Labour votes to get its legislation through parliament. True to their tradition of hopelessly muddled, and often contradictory messaging, the government is maintaining the amnesty in law but strongly advising people not to make use of it: Boris Johnson is wishing everyone a ‘Merry Little Christmas’ and implicitly granting the NHS a potentially overwhelmed and not at all happy new year.  In the meantime the Welsh part of the ‘United Kingdom’ is changing the legal limit to allow only two families to meet, and the Scottish part is strongly advising against any overnight stays and against meeting for more than one day.

Boris Johnson and his equally out-of-their-depth chums would, of course, deny that it is in any way contradictory.  It was Mr Robert Jenrick, Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government, whose turn it was to be the ventriloquist’s dummy justifying government policy on the Today programme yesterday.  Asserting that you “can’t legislate for every eventuality” he expressed the libertarians’ total confidence that people could be relied on to “weigh up the risks to their own loved ones” and “exercise their own good judgement” about their Christmas plans.   You couldn’t expect a ventriloquist’s dummy to realize that that makes a complete nonsense of putting 38 million people into Tier 3 today, and, indeed, of maintaining any kind of Tier system at all.  The entire rationale for having any restrictions can only be that people can’t, in fact, exercise their own good judgement.   

From David Maughan Brown in York: Covid corruption

October 21st 

It would appear that the supposedly Right Honourable Robin Jenrick – Member of Parliament for Newark and Secretary of State for Housing, Communities and Local Government – has achieved the elevated status of being informally appointed, in public school terms, as the Prime Minister’s private fag.  He is being sent scurrying all over the country, most often to media studios, running errands for Boris.  Most people have better things to do, even under Covid restrictions, than keep an accurate count of the number of hours the different cabinet ministers spend in front of microphones and TV cameras, but if anyone is keeping count they will almost certainly find that Jenrick is way out in the lead at present.   I suspect that, although he is so bland as to be instantly forgettable, his readiness to run errands enables Boris himself to get on with his other priorities in life which, if past record is anything to go by, involve spending a lot of time in bed – not with Covid-19 for company.  As the one Cabinet Minister who should very evidently have been sacked for corruption – in his case for his role in the Richard Desmond property scandal I wrote about on 28th June – it is entirely appropriate that Jenrick should be seen to be the government’s chief spokesperson these days. 

Anyone in the UK who stereotypically regards governance in Africa as endemically corrupt, needs to look closer to home.  Motes, beams and eyes come to mind.  Human Rights organisations around the world have been pointing to the extremely worrying extent to which the governments of a range of countries around the world have been taking advantage of the Covid-19 pandemic to crack down on human rights.  Far less publicity seems to have been given to the extent to which the pandemic has provided cover for governments to line their own pockets, and those of their friends and associates, while attention has been focussed on the far more immediate issues of national health systems and economies that are on the verge of being overwhelmed.   Arguing the need to act urgently in these “unprecedented” circumstances, without any parliamentary scrutiny or oversight, the UK government has seen the pandemic as the ideal opportunity to pour billions of pounds without any need for a competitive tendering process into the coffers of private sector companies that in many instances have had no previous experience whatever of the services or goods for which they have been contracted.   We should all by now be detecting a very pungent stink of rat every time a cabinet minister opens his or her mouth to utter the word “unprecedented”. 

An article by Ben Chu in Sunday’s Independent 1 titled ‘Has the government wasted billions on private firms?’ provides some revealing figures.   The desperately poorly performing “NHS” test and trace system, outsourced to companies like Serco, whose notoriety has up to now been based mainly on the crass way it runs detention centres and gaols, has quietly soaked up £12bn.  Serco apparently thinks its contribution to the programme has been a ‘triumph’.  Another 15bn has been allocated for personal protective equipment.  Ben Chu cites a figure of 1,997 private sector contracts that have been awarded to the private sector, to a total value of £12bn, since February. The absence of any need for competitive tenders has, inevitably, resulted in a number of suspicious awards such, for example, as a £840k contract for running focus groups awarded without competitive tender to what Ben Chu categorises as “close associates” (read “friends”) of Dominic Cummings and Michael Gove. 

In the context of this over-energetic pumping of tens of billions of pounds into the bank accounts of private sector companies – Serco’s trading profit for the first half of this year was up 53% at £76m – the additional £5m Boris Johnson balked at in his protracted negotiations with Andy Burnham, the Mayor of Manchester, is utterly trivial.  Burnham needs the money to provide support for those about to lose their incomes as a result of the imposition of Tier 3 on Greater Manchester and the significant, and wholly unexplained, drop in government support since the first lockdown.  Boris’s tactic of trying to pit the different regions in the North against each other by insisting on negotiating support packages with each region separately, rather than having a nation-wide formula, is cynical and contemptible but will almost certainly come back to bite him via its exacerbation of the North/South divide in this country.  A further example of the Tories’ utter disregard for the hardship and destitution being visited on so many families came with the voting down by a significant majority this evening of the proposal that free school meals should continue to be provided through the coming half-term and the school holidays until next Spring for children whose families qualify for them.  Angela Rayner, the Deputy Leader of the Labour Party was obliged to apologise for referring to one of the Tory backbench MPs as ‘scum’ during the debate.  She probably wouldn’t have got away with ‘lick-spittle’ either.

[1] https://www.pressreader.com/uk/the-independent-1029/20201018/281655372555692

From David Maughan Brown in York: Smoking guns

July 25th

So the Intelligence and Security Committee’s long and eagerly awaited Russia report did not contain the ‘smoking gun’ our cliché-loving journalists might have been either slightly apprehensive about (the right-wing majority) or hoping for (the very small proportion who don’t like Boris and the Tories one little bit.)  A ‘smoking gun’ was always unlikely at both a literal and metaphorical level.  At the literal level the Russians moved on from six-shooters long ago: their preferred author when it comes to getting interesting ideas about how to kill people is much more likely to be John Le Carré than Stephen King, and the preferred method for whacking the target more likely to be a scent-bottle full of novichok, or a few drops of polonium in a cup of tea, than a Smith and Wesson.  It was unlikely at the metaphorical level because unearthing a weapon of any description that has been used with ill intent tends to involve wanting to find it, and that means having to look for it.   The Intelligence and Security Committee is not in the business of hunting for weapons; its job is to analyse what they were being used for once they have been found.  So someone else has to find them and it has been transparently obvious ever since the Brexit referendum that the last thing the Conservative government wanted was an investigation into how the fraction of the electorate that voted to leave the EU was persuaded to do so.

Nobody was tasked with finding out if Russia had been trying to meddle in our democratic processes, and a blind eye was turned to all pointers to what might have been happening, such as the odd 145,000 or so anti-EU messages allegedly posted on social media by Russian bots in the 48 hours leading up to the referendum, so the committee’s report was always bound to have been unable to come to any substantive conclusions.   Boris and company, having engineered it, obviously knew that.  They knew precisely what was in the report and knew that it didn’t contain a ‘smoking gun.’  Which raises the interesting question as to why they should have bothered to stop it from being published before the General Election, in the face of considerable noisy flak from their parliamentary opposition.   And, following-on from that, why would Boris have deliberately delayed the Intelligence and Security Committee from holding any meetings at all for more than six months after the general election?  Could that delay have been deliberately designed to generate enough of a Brexit-related furore around the Intelligence and Security Committee’s report to distract attention from whatever else was going on that they really did need to cover up?   Was the ISC report just a decoy?

Even by the government’s own analysis, leaving the EU can only be seriously damaging for the UK’s economy.  It will, equally obviously, threaten the integrity of the UK which the Conservative and Unionist Party pretends to hold so dear.   Our cabinet cannot be so stupid that they don’t recognise those facts, or appreciate that trading under World Trade Organisation terms will make just as much of a nonsense of their cherished ‘independence’ as they claim trading on hated EU terms does.  So I can only conclude that what this is all about is personal wealth aggrandisement from Brexit in general and, more immediately, from the flow of Russian money into UK in particular.   The way the  ‘Leave’ campaign was conducted made it abundantly clear that the people now leading us into an economic wasteland wouldn’t recognise an ethic if it took its face-mask off, ignored social distancing, and introduced itself to them at a cocktail party.

If Robert Jenrick’s dinner side-dish of £12k into party coffers was a down-payment on a  £1 billion housing agreement with Richard Desmond, what was the value of the deal for which the wife of the former Putin minister, Lubov Chernukhin, was prepared to pay £160k, ostensibly just to play tennis with our fat (by his own admission) prime minister?  Boris was clearly seen for some reason to be likely to be more susceptible to female than male charms.   Ms Chernukhin was clearly so ready to take one for the team that she was also prepared not just to endure a dinner with Defence Secretary Gavin Williamson, a less than enthralling prospect, but even to pay £30k for the experience.   The same question needs answering there , and was it just coincidence that it happened to be our Defence Secretary who was the lucky beneficiary of her company? 

Boris and his already wealthy chums were bound to welcome any help they could get, from any source however shady, where the referendum and election were concerned, but is it possible that anger at the blatant failure on the part of government to take any interest whatever in whether external forces had influenced the outcomes was deliberately fomented to divert attention from, and investigation into, precisely whose pockets Russian money is flowing into even as it goes to swell the Conservative Party’s coffers?

From David Maughan Brown in York: We should be worried

July 7th

I am coming to the conclusion that there is only one way in present circumstances to allow drugs designed to lower my blood pressure any chance whatever of being more useful than a chocolate fire-guard, and that is to lock myself down in a dark room well out of reach of radios, televisions and newspapers.   The drugs can’t compete with the side effects of listening to or reading about Boris, who is now blaming care homes ‘that didn’t really follow procedures in the way they could have’ for the Covid-related deaths of 20,000 or so of their residents.   The managers of the care homes are understandably outraged. They may not have asked for 25,000 patients to be discharged from hospitals without being tested for the virus, many of them back into the care homes that Matt Hancock put such an effective ‘protective ring around’, but they ‘could have followed different procedures’?   One different procedure could have involved refusing to allow the residents back into the care homes and leaving them them to die somewhere else, outside Hancock’s PPE-free ‘protective ring’.  That would have stopped them taking the virus back into the care homes.  Their relatives might have objected to that, but the managers could have explained that the prime minister wanted them to follow different procedures.  Except, of course, that at the time he didn’t.

Watching the different acts going on under the big-top of Boris’s world-beating circus while reading numerous accounts of the ways in which repressive governments around the world have used the Covid-19 pandemic as an excuse for cracking down on the people they govern, has raised questions for me about the resilience or otherwise of our own democracy.  Precisely who is our prime minister accountable to for the next four and a half years, after having dissembled his way to a referendum victory followed by a landslide general election?  Boris certainly doesn’t feel accountable to parliament, as evidenced by his sending our fresh-faced friend Matt Hancock in his stead to try to explain away Boris’s care home comment, in the manner of a public school prefect sending his private fag off to run an errand for him.

Boris demonstrated his contempt for parliamentary democracy clearly enough prior to the general election via his abortive attempt to prorogue parliament to avoid democratic accountability .  That attempt was thwarted by the judiciary, which prompted immediate threats about the judiciary needing be brought into line.  We should be worried.  Boris has demonstrated his contempt for the independence of the civil service by easing out Sir Mark Sedwill, its most senior official, and replacing him as national security adviser with a political appointee, David Frost, who is manifestly under-qualified for the role.  At the same time, Boris has made it transparently clear that the likes of Dominic Cummings and Robert Jenrick, his unelected aides and his hand-picked cabinet ministers, will be untouchable, regardless of how badly they behave, just so long as he doesn’t want them touched.  We should, again, be worried.

Boris clearly doesn’t even feel accountable to the people who unwisely lent him the votes that won him the referendum and the general election.   The former was won in part by stoking fears about immigration, as in the lie about imminent Turkish accession to the EU.  But Boris clearly had no qualms whatever, never mind feeling the need to consult anyone, before inviting three million Hong Kong residents to come to live here.  And, in spite of knowing full well that employment is one of the chief anxieties leading to voters’ anti-immigrant sentiment, he issued his invitation at the precise moment when the UK is facing its worst unemployment crisis in decades.   All in the interest of throwing a gauntlet down to China to demonstrate his independent, post-Brexit macho credentials.  If China doesn’t behave itself he’ll doubtless send a couple of gun-boats around to sort them out.

Where are the checks and balances? How can a prime minister in circumstances such as these be held accountable?  Boris can win an election to ‘get Brexit done’ on the back of earnest assurances that he would obviously never contemplate a no-deal outcome to the trade negotiations, and then, having won the election, he can go hell for leather for a no-deal outcome.   Such an outcome might succeed in further enriching Boris and his chums, but even without the fall-out from a global pandemic it would have done enormous damage to the rest of us, as his own government’s analyses showed. In present circumstances it seems likely to prove catastrophic.  A no-deal Brexit was not on the ballot paper, either at the referendum or the general election, and by the time we left the European Union all the polls were showing that a significant majority of the electorate do not want a no-deal outcome.  So much for democracy.  We should be very worried indeed.

From David Maughan Brown in York: ‘The right deed for the wrong reason’

28th June

So bumptious Boris is back to his bounciest and most boisterous best, particularly at performing U-turns.   Overdoing the alliteration seems an appropriate way to pay deference to a man whose rhetoric overdoes everything, most of the time including the truth.   Suitably socially-distanced Boris watchers (health warning: only for those with their blood-pressure medication close to hand) might well be asking themselves whether Boris’s very obvious disorientation is the result of his making himself dizzy with so many U-turns in such a short time, or whether the U-turns are the result of his having no idea where he was going in the first place and simply being comprehensively lost.   Those of us who are old enough to remember what my grandchildren would regard as ‘the olden days’ before sat-navs were invented will probably remember the latter feeling, although we were fortunate enough not to have a visually-impaired Dominic Cummings in the back seat telling us where to go.  Watching Boris’s blunderings and speculating about their origins may not be a particularly productive or spiritually fulfilling way of spending one’s time in lockdown, but it can become compulsive.

The list of U-turns is impressive, indeed, dare I say it, potentially ‘world-beating’: vouchers for free school meals during the summer holidays; binning our ‘world-beating’ tracking and tracing app.; relenting on all primary school children being back in school before the summer holidays; reversing the decisions on the NHS surcharge and the bereavement scheme; remote voting in the House of Commons; and the imposition of the blanket quarantine.  And those are just the ones that come immediately to mind.  Those are, however, just details: the Grand-daddy of them all, which Boris has been ‘doubling down’ on again today, is the gargantuan Tory U-turn on ‘austerity’.   The other U-turns, which have to do to what are essentially mere details, were forced on an unthinking government, both congenitally and ideologically averse to consultation with anybody, least of all unions and local councils, by public pressure. This one, which involves borrowing at historically low interest-rates in order to spend our way out of recession and mass unemployment by investing in infrastructure, “Building, building, building”, suggests that there is, after all, a glimmer of intelligence, a flickering candle, somewhere in the pea-soup fog of collective Tory intelligence.

As the Keynesian economists they obdurately refused to listen to have been telling them for the last decade, that is what they should have been doing ever since the recession in 2008.  If they had gone down that road, they could have avoided the untold misery, anxiety, poverty and cultural impoverishment their ideological obsession with shrinking the state has occasioned:  the closing of youth and child services; the forcing of tens of thousands into the humiliation of having to rely on food-banks; the closing of municipal libraries; the strangling of the justice system; the denial of adequate funding to the NHS, which occasioned the lack of PPE and caused how many deaths?  The list goes on and on and on.  And, even in deciding on the U-turn, Boris still can’t bring himself to be entirely honest:  “We are absolutely not going back to the austerity of 10 years ago,” he told the Sunday Times today.  ‘The austerity of the last 10 years’, to which he gave every evidence of being wholly committed, would have been more honest.

Now, with his invariably tone-deaf timing, bouncy Boris declares his commitment to ‘Building, building, building’ at the precise moment his housing secretary, Robert Jenrick, is coming under increasing pressure for overruling Tower Hamlet officials, who apparently begged him not to give a last-minute go-ahead to Richard Desmond’s application to get ‘building, building, building’ a one billion pound housing development, involving 1500 houses, in an already overcrowded part of Tower Hamlets in London.  Having sat next to Desmond at a dinner, and allegedly watched a promotional video for the development, Jenrick is alleged to have overruled planning objections the day before Desmond would have been obliged to pay £45 million in extra developer’s contributions to the Labour-run Tower Hamlets council.  Desmond subsequently sent Jenrick a message thanking him for his speedy response and for saving him from having to pay ‘loads of doe (sic)’ to ‘the Marxists’.  It will, of course, have been entirely coincidental that Desmond then made a £12,000 donation to the Conservative Party.  But a mere twelve grand is peanuts in the grand scale of things:  the Independent reported yesterday that the Tories have received a total of £11 million in donations from building magnates in the six months since Boris became prime minister.   Who, any longer, wonders why?

T.S. Eliot has Becket say in his Christmas sermon in Murder in the Cathedral: ‘The last temptation is the greatest treason: to do the right deed for the wrong reason.’  In clinging on desperately to avoid losing Dominic Cummings, Boris was very clearly doing the wrong thing for the wrong reason: he is wholly dependent on Cummings to run the country for us.  In regarding the Jenrick matter as ‘closed’ (according to Priti Patel, who would know) he is laying himself open to the very strong imputation that his commitment to “building, building, building” is a case of doing the right thing for the wrong reason.  Infrastructure projects, as anyone who has ever managed them knows full well, leave all sorts of opportunities for corruption and sleaze.   

In his bouncily boyish way, Boris has been trying to demonstrate to the world that he is back to his best, but perhaps only managing to give the impression that he is, in P.G. Woodhouse terminology, a bounder.  Today he has told us that he is ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’ and we’ve been regaled with unedifying footage of his backside as he did press-ups for the benefit of the Mail on Sunday to prove it.  While many of us would be only too pleased to see his back, I don’t imagine that too many people want to be shown his backside as an accompaniment to Sunday dinner.   Boris may well be ‘fit as a butcher’s dog’, although how many press-ups he managed wasn’t mentioned.  Some of the women who know him best may, for all we know, also consider him to be as randy as a butcher’s dog and to have the moral compass of a butcher’s dog.  His apparent inability to see anything whatever wrong with Cummings’ and Jenrick’s behaviour might suggest to some people that he also has the ethics of a butcher’s dog.  But, however fit he may or may not be, best not to enter him in the butcher’s dog category at Crufts (‘The World’s Greatest Dog-show’) until someone has, at the very least, groomed him.   There are times when I get the impression that Crufts isn’t even in the same league when it comes to the world’s greatest dog-show.