Two columns

I write a fortnightly column for the excellent Press and Journal newspaper. They remain one of the biggest selling regional papers. That may well be related to the fact they still believe in journalism – what it’s for, why it matters, how it has to be paid for.

For whatever reason my last couple of columns haven’t appeared on the P&J website. However, I want to share them publicly/preserve them digitally. Mainly as contemporary comments on this government’s approach to the coronavirus crisis. I don’t think it’s been very good.

Every announcement seems to be followed by a barrage of questions. That’s not that unusual. What is unacceptable is that the government so often seems not to have anticipated these queries. 

And while my family have self isolated after my son showed symptoms we learn today that Boris Johnson’s administration doesn’t see fit to join in an EU ventilator scheme.

We have done our bit and it’s hard, mentally there are good days and bad days.

They said ‘whatever it takes’. It’s clear they didn’t mean it. If joining that scheme will save even one life and it’s being shunned in the name of Brexit ideology then it’s hard to put into words just how low that would be.

Anyway, first here’s what I wrote for March 25:

Rank bampottery and alliterating with hats

Gordon Brown was mocked mercilessly when he said he’d saved the world. It was a hubristic slip of the tongue during the heat of Prime Minister’s Questions during his time in Number 10.

However, the claim was only slightly overblown. His intellectual heft and international gravitas did play a huge part in putting together a co-ordinated response to the financial crisis. (We’ll set aside for now how much responsibility he wears for creating the conditions for the crash to happen in the first place as it’s irrelevant to this column).

But it was easy to ridicule Brown’s mistake because there was nothing to compare his efforts with. We could not fairly judge if he’d done a better or worse job than anyone else because no-one else had faced such a scenario.

Not any more.

The nation and the planet face a different sort of crisis in Covid-19. But people don’t change that much. They look to the Prime Minister for leadership, to politicians for competence, to government for action.

But where Brown embodied all three as the world economy teetered on collapse 12 years ago, the current administration offers little but rank bampottery.

The coronavirus crisis has magnified all Boris Johnson’s foibles and failings. 

His penchant for wordsmithery was entertaining in his writings. But when the nation needs to know how to avoid a health catastrophe the message needs to be straight.

He’s notoriously inattentive to detail and fond of delegation, which explains why he sees no problem with allowing ministers to announce measures, that then need another day of clarification. Chancellor Rishi Sunak has essentially made three Budget speeches in the last fortnight, each induced by oversights in the previous one. The PM could blame Number 11 dysfunction if he hadn’t just booted Sajid Javid in the name of taking more oversight of the Treasury. Last week the government told everyone to stay away from pubs, cafes and cinemas on Monday then took till Friday to explain how it was going to support all the people inevitably made redundant as a result. That’s unforgivable in a climate in which people are already anxious about whether they’ll be able to find the ingredients for their next meal. They shouldn’t have to unnecessarily worry about whether they’ll be able to pay for it too.

Of course if the government really put the fate of the economy above ideology as they seem to have done with some of the measures they’ve announced such as wage support and scrapping tax then they’d scrap Brexit, or at the very least postpone it. It’s not a party political point, but putting up new trade barriers next year as the nation claws its way out of recession does not fit with what the Tories often value above all else – common sense.

The PM has a reputation for sloth. Which seems the only explanation for why the government insists on holding press conferences at the end of each day. It’s almost as if they can’t be bothered to get out of bed. Why not hold the press conferences first thing in the morning, get a grip on the day’s agenda and the nation’s worries and possibly wire some confidence through the markets too?

Ultimately this deadly serious epidemic has exposed the Prime Minister’s lack of seriousness. It’s alleged he urged manufacturers to help make more ventilators in an effort jokily referred to as ‘Operation Last Gasp’.

If he uttered them, those words ought to haunt him through the horror that awaits the nation and which we can already see unfolding in Italy.

He referred to the effort to flatten the curve of new coronavirus cases and reduce the stress on the NHS as ‘squashing the sombrero’. It’s not about a funny turn of phrase, it’s about saving lives. Why should anyone else be expected to take social distancing measures seriously if the man leading the nation is focussed on alliterating with hats.

Labour don’t come out of this crisis any better. If Jeremy Corbyn and his cronies had not led the party into oblivion we might have an alternative government to look to for proper leadership. Instead the Magic Grandad and all those vying to replace him have gone to ground. Of course it’s not a good look to undermine the government at a time of such grave matters. But it’s entirely possible to support the effort, help disseminate the key messages and draw attention to the government’s failings at the same time. Or at least it is if you are a politician of moderate skill and mental dexterity. Such people are lacking in this parliament so far. Though leaders will emerge. We may just have to look beyond Downing Street or even parliament to find them.

Almost everyone in the country wants to believe the PM is getting to grips with this issue, we are willing the administration to succeed. But the grim truth is that so far it is not. 

We must hope that changes. It begins with straight talk and hard work. There’s little evidence Boris Johnson is the man to embrace or embody those values.

 

And here’s my column from Budget Day predicting that whatever Rishi Sunak said would not survive contact with reality. That seems to be a bit of a pattern with his big announcements.

And I may have gone a bit strong with my Handmaid’s Tale comparisons, but we’re now in lockdown, the bulk of the extra childcare responsibilities will fall on women and the government has little interest in addressing or recognising that. In fact they’ve binned the gender pay gap reporting, a step back basically.

 

Optimism is at a premium

It was the Canadian author Margaret Atwood who said all writing is inherently optimistic, it’s an activity that assumes an audience.

If I write a column I hope someone will read it.

The same is true of Budgets. Chancellors stand up in parliament and set out their fiscal plans assuming, or at least hoping, that the economy will behave and 12 months later the accounts will reflect their projections.

They are always wrong.

The media quickly unpicks the stupid bits. It’s become something of a tradition. The high point of which was the year George Osborne unveiled a pasty tax, granny tax and a caravan tax in 2012’s effort. He had to undo or amend all those measures and he got booed at the Olympics. Remarkably, it was another four years before he got sacked.

What the journalists don’t savage is likely to be upended by the impartial hand of international economics.

Whatever the Brexiteers may tell you about British exceptionalism – or indeed what the SNP may tell you about how the Scottish economy can be kept afloat on whisky exports alone – the coronavirus crisis shows just how interconnected we are. Sunak could announce he’s abolishing tax but that’s not actually going to boost punters finances if the rest of the world is in lockdown.

And that’s why whatever Rishi Sunak says today can be safely disregarded.

He’s a lucky chap in that he only got to be Chancellor because Sajid Javid unexpectedly walked rather than succumb to Dominic Cummings’ oversight. But Sunak is unlucky in delivering a Budget that has already had to be rewritten a number of times in the last four weeks and may even be amended again between the PM’s coronavirus conflab Wednesday morning and actually delivering the speech a few hours later.

The main thing, perhaps the only thing, we know about the outbreak is that we don’t know how it’s going to play out. Consequently predictions and policies announced in the Budget are unlikely to survive contact with the coronavirus.

And anything that is left standing once the bug has blown itself out or a vaccine has put the lid on it will then have to reckon with the culmination of Brexit. This time next year we’ll know how we’ll trade with the EU going forward and just how high the new barriers put in place as a result will be.

Though rest assured if the nation’s bank balance is ragged come Budget 2021 the Brexiteers in Number 10 will solely blame coronavirus and roundly ignore the impact of the only policy they wanted to talk about three months ago.

It seems a fair question, then, to ask why I’m optimistically writing about the Budget if it is in fact a colossal waste of everyone’s time.

The answer is that precisely because we can discount the actual announcements we can look for bigger themes from the Budget, try to discern clues about this government’s outlook and what that tells us about the next four years. This is a meta Budget.

Two clear conclusions emerge.

This is a government that cares about its image. 

Boris Johnson was kept away from the recent floods for fear of photos that made him look daft or, worse, impotent. Strong man leaders must not look weak in the face of some water, the PM’s classical education clearly runs to the tale of King Cnut.

The Budget, and particularly one to be delivered by a young and photogenic Chancellor, presents an opportunity to project a positive image. The Treasury has gone hot for Instagram. And whoever is taking the pics for the department’s social media is clearly hot for Rishi Sunak. We’ve had shots of him laughing, eating, thinking and surrounded by his advisors. All men. All in sharp suits. Not so much the brat pack as the tax pack.

But one thing is noticeably absent from the photos – women. 

And this is the second lesson we can learn. This administration’s attitude to women is found wanting again.

One of Dominic Cummings first acts upon entering Downing Street was to have Sajid Javid’s top adviser – a woman – marched off the premises. Now Cummings has control of the Treasury and it’s an all male team in the Exchequer. Coincidence?

And it’s not just the Treasury. The Department for International Trade – vital to the next stage of Brexit – may be led by Liz Truss but the select committee formed last week to oversee its work includes three men called Mark plus a Mick, a Matt and a Martin, (they’re going to run out of M’s for the nameplates) but no women.

The PM presented his most recent coronovirus press conference flanked by his two top scientists – both men.

There’s a clear message coming out of this government. The big issues facing the country – the economy, our trading future, the health emergency are not really issues for women to worry about. They can go form a committee for fluffy kittens instead.

Men like Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Dominic Cummings and now Rishi Sunak will look after the serious business.

And this is where Margaret Atwood comes back into the picture. She’s the author of iconic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. It’s set in a dystopian future society in which women’s roles are strictly defined and utterly disempowered.

The Tory woman whose picture has been in the media most for the last couple of weeks has been Carrie Symonds. Because she’s having a baby. It’s a little bit Handmaid’s Tale isn’t it?

Optimism is going to be at a premium going forward.

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