Archive for May, 2020

Cummings Crisis: Is It Over?

Tuesday, May 26th, 2020

Depends what you mean by over. If you think over means that’s it we move on and forget about it, no. If you think over means there has been no damage to the government’s standing and credibility in the Covid 19 emergency, very no.

The gullible may have been impressed by the Cummings performance in the garden of No 10 yesterday. Personally I saw an elaborate reworking of the circumstances driving a decision, to fit both the chain of actual events and the political demand. But the fact of the decision remains clear and stark. In defiance of the universal understanding of rules for the lock-down Cummings and his wife decided to jump in their car and undertake a journey of over 250 miles to change the location of their compulsory isolation, when at least one of them had Covid symptoms.

Their child was with them and the excuse offered was that his welfare empowered them to this breech of lockdown,  which would have involved a £1000 fine for anyone else under emergency rules, of which Cummings himself was a lead author. Without bothering to expose the obvious bullshit at the heart of this stuff, as it is well rehearsed everywhere, that will not make this issue go away. As for the assertion that a sixty mile round car trip to test Cumming’s eyesight was within these rules, or even within the Highway Code, is so ridiculous as to be literally beyond belief.

What is important is this. The Boris/Cummings team of political campaign  management has become a legend of invincibility. The Brexit referendum, the Tory leadership election and the 2019 general election victories, all proved they appeared to be unbeatable. What this episode has revealed is that once in government their combination is a weakness which, if not ended soon, will in time bring the whole government down. People have rumbled a flaky brand.

 

Sunday Blog 16: May 24 2020:What A Difference A Week Makes

Sunday, May 24th, 2020

A week ago the government was rather pleased with itself, in spite of the many missteps littering its progress. But now. Oh dear. It is perhaps inevitable that if you place a box of fireworks like Cummings at the heart of government, sooner or later it will explode.  And it has.

But first let us look at the general picture. Covid 19 remains the driver of everything. Then we will look at Cummings.

Covid 19

The last national emergency which disrupted life on the scale of Covid 19 was WWII. There have been minor, by comparison, upsets. The three day week of 1974, the drought of 1976 and the Winter of Discontent of 1979 were tricky times, but nothing on a scale comparable to what is happening now.

Reflecting back to the war, the beginning was a disaster. An appeasement government had failed to re-arm early enough and was playing catch up. First came defeat in Norway, then France. That brought down Chamberlain, but Churchill could not stem the tide in the ground war. Tobruk, Greece, Crete, Malaya, Burma, Singapore, Hong Kong and that list is not exhaustive, followed, when British forces evacuated, retreated or surrendered. But we won, on our own, the Battle of Britain and with American help, the Battle of the Atlantic. This did not make GB victorious, but it made it too tough a nut for either Germany or Japan, or the two combined, to crack. In the beginning the war was run from Whitehall, but in the end it was a war won by mobilising everybody into a gigantic national effort augmented by support from allies and Empire.

At the start of Covid 19 the government and Whitehall ran the response, working with out of date modelling, selective science to suit the political narrative and a failure to appreciate the strength of the enemy, in this case a new misunderstood virus. The instruments of state management, the public institutions and services, were truncated by nearly a decade of economies and cuts.  Downing Street was dominated by people unqualified and unprepared for the tests to come.

The consequence was failure and confusion at almost every level bar one. The expansion of the NHS to a specialist virus health facility, always having capacity ahead of demand, was by any standard a triumph of planning and execution. But  that victory distracted the government from its critical duties elsewhere. There has thus been a cost in thousands, even tens of thousands, of lives. Because the critical issue was not in reality the capacity of the NHS. It was the ability to test, track and trace.

Fast forward to now and we see a very different picture, involving a national mobilisation of human endeavour, medical science, academic research, pharmaceutical industries, distribution systems, national, regional and local government and personal self-discipline without precedent in peacetime. The government’s aim is to end the pandemic emergency as the world beater in testing and vaccines and their universal delivery, which not only brings Covid 19 under control, but shuts down its destructive and disruptive powers.

So for the Boris Government, itself like no other, the stakes are high. If it fails, it will fall. Meanwhile suddenly a new cloud darkens the political sky. Cummings.

Cummings

There are two clear issues here. The first is the lockdown rules. These were clearly breeched unless you apply  an elastic interpretation riddled with caveats to suit your actions. The second is about lies. The Cummings family claim it was to safeguard their four year old child. Yet if you go into the Today archives and listen to Mary Wakefield’s slot in late April, she describes with a mum’s pride  how her little boy helped her when she threw up on the bathroom floor and later dressed up in a doctor’s toy kit and fed his father Ribena as he lay in bed panting. So it appears the child was with them throughout, not isolated from the illness. Indeed he was at the epicentre. So why drive 250 miles? Anyway a friend, neighbour or nanny (this is not a destitute family) could easily have taken care of the boy if needed.

Yesterday’s Downing Street Briefing was reduced more or less to farce because every, bar one, press question was about Cummings. He has become the story. Worse, he is now the sensation. It is almost the only story in the Sunday papers. What is so outrageous is that everybody else has to stick to the rules, some in terrible hardship and heart rending situations. Yet the Cummings family are special. I don’t think so. The only questions  are whether he goes voluntarily or is sacked. Or whether Boris bottles out of sacking him. In which case he will go down with Cummings. Not at the same time, but not long after. As I said before, once the shine goes off the Boris brand it will be done for.

Freedom of Movement: Ending It Will Be A Disaster

Wednesday, May 20th, 2020

The freedom to move all across Europe is a modern human right on a continent awash with needless bloodshed, spilled over  the centuries since the fall of the Roman Empire. It is one of the greatest political achievements in recorded history.  My own citizenship of Europe is something I value above all other official recognitions which bind me to where I live and who I am. I am far from convinced that once acquired it can be taken away without cause, but I have to face that this is one of the facts of Brexit.

The Home Secretary, not one of my favourites, is triumphalist in her support of the legislation now before parliament which introduces the new muddle headed immigration system. Yet already there is an emergency to get in the fruit and vegetable harvest due to a shortage of gatherers. This kind of problem will become common all across the piece, once the hard Brexit we are embarked upon takes effect, as one issue after another, that the narrow minded nationalism of the Brexit junkies never thought of,  pops up to derail industrial, commercial, cultural and leisure activities at every level.

The missteps of the pandemic emergency which have cost hundreds, even thousands, of lives are but a foretaste of what is ahead as the economy, not the pandemic, begins to dominate the daily life of the nation. It is therefore critical that the takeover of the Tory party’s central direction by an incompetent cohort of nationalist politicians and their fanatical advisers, be reversed. And sooner rather than later.

Brexit: It Has Not Gone Away

Tuesday, May 19th, 2020

That nobody in the population at large has a moment spare to think about the distraction of Brexit, in the midst of a double crisis, each segment of which is on a scale hitherto unseen, is likely to be an understatement. Yet Brexit is still there and, unless the government implodes, there will be no extension beyond December 31st for negotiations about a UK free trade agreement with the EU. The expectation in the EU is that the UK will cave in and sign up to some fudged deal which leaves it subject to key EU rules and behaviours. That seems most unlikely without astonishing U-Turns all over Whitehall.

So a hard Brexit is very much on the cards. As one who is opposed to Brexit hook line and sinker, I am nevertheless persuaded in the new post Covid 19 world, it may not be such a bad thing. The reason I am inclined to think this heresy is that we will face the massive task of rebooting the UK economy to climb out of the economic crater caused by the pandemic. The public mood will certainly no longer go with long hours, two jobs, low pay and a world ruled by estate agents. Instead it will want real jobs, bigger money, cheaper better housing, public services which can deliver because they are fully funded and an end to NHS waiting lists. All of that will require government investment in  infrastructure, communications, start-ups, home manufacturing, green industries and transport, on a scale which will violate every rule in the EU’s book.

But it will transform Britain and preserve the Union.

Think about it.

Sunday Blog15: May 17 2010: Is The Government Losing Support?

Sunday, May 17th, 2020

In the election sense no it is not. Opinion polls continue to show a comfortable lead for the Tories and Labour has a lot of work to do to establish itself as a potential alternative government. But there will be no general election for another four years, so these polls are of little importance.

However on specific questions of how well the government is handling the pandemic issues, too late to lock down, lack of PPE, arguments and confusion about lifting restrictions, polls show widespread dissatisfaction over the government’s performance. Any inquiry will reinforce that anxiety and connect to the outcome of more people dying as a result. Once confidence in a government is lost at a time of national crisis, its majority, however big, counts for nothing. Change has to be made. At the top. Neither of the two world wars ended with the same prime minister as they began it.

Boris bungled his address to the nation last Sunday, demonstrating, since it was recorded and therefore edited before transmission, systemic incompetence among his inner circle of Brexit junkies. Everybody was confused afterwards by a blizzard of contradictory statements and wild announcements like go back to work in the morning if you can.  Most of the political week has been occupied in cleaning up the mess, with the four nations embarked on separate programmes and the English regions, whose R rate is higher than London, up in arms.

Boris is a unique brand in modern UK politics.  A left wing Tory who connects to ordinary people, who feel he is on their side, including many habitual Labour voters. He wins elections and career politicians will follow any party leader who wins elections for them. Yet in spite of all these strengths, there are the issues of accuracy and detail. Winning elections, sadly, needs little of either. Running a pandemic crisis and orchestrating recovery from the biggest financial shock in 300 years, requires a mastery of both.

So Boris needs to get a grip, not only of the pandemic response, but especially of himself. His brand of blustering populism which tells everybody what they want to hear is fine while it lasts. But once it turns sour and people turn away, Boris  as prime minister will be over. Not for the first time in its vivid political history,  the nation has identified a likely replacement working next door.

 

C-Virus Special: Stay Alert: Has Boris Got It Wrong?

Wednesday, May 13th, 2020

In the messaging yes, Boris created a lot of anxiety and confusion with his over generalised broadcast and his blustering enthusiasm. Covid 19 is not a war which can be ended when the enemy signs a surrender document. So stuff like ‘together we will beat it’ really is off target. Moreover there is a general theme that if you follow certain rules, habits and regulations, you can be ‘safe’. This is only true if you remain isolated and indoors.

Once you step outside, unless and until the virus either dies out or is controlled by universal vaccination, you cannot be absolutely safe. What you can do is assess the risk and mitigate it by actions and behaviours which take into account both your own vulnerability but also the environment and contacts with whom you engage.

To help you, extensive guidance has  been published, covering  every activity and every level of society. Some restrictions are being relaxed immediately, with more to come if the R number remains below one. A Road Map and various new and developing processes, including an alert system and extensive testing, are all part of the staged ending of the lock down.

From today some people can go back to work and everyone is free to exercise as much as they like out of doors. Most of this is clear and there is no point in criticising ministers. Maybe it could be done better, maybe not. But what is wrong for sure, is the over-riding message that somehow you and yours can be safe.

What the new regulations are designed to achieve, is to reduce the risk to acceptable levels so that a modified form of normal life can return. That is how Boris and his government should present their policy. Their priority now is to get their testing and tracing, PPE and other essential infrastructure fully functional and capable of  meeting the challenges of coming out of lock down. Continued fumbling and failure here is not an option.

 

Sunday Blog 14: Waiting For Boris

Sunday, May 10th, 2020

There is little point in commenting today until after Boris has delivered his address to the nation later, so expect a mid-week follow on as the situation becomes less confused. For confused it certainly is with briefings this way and that, messaging which says one thing and means another, cracks in the four nation unified approach, doubts about testing efficiency, questions about the vital new phone app and so much else that it is hard to know where to start. At this moment the government appears to be losing its touch and the public is showing signs of becoming less compliant to its leadership. Tonight at 7pm, Boris has to clear up a lot of muddles and misunderstandings. Only then will we know where we are headed and whether it is in the right direction.

What was a crisis of saving lives from being taken by Covid 19, is now that plus a crisis of economic damage on a scale unseen before in peacetime and collateral death and illness caused by the lock down and withdrawal of all but emergency services by the NHS. Boris knows that he has tonight to be at his best, because lurking in the corner is the early shape of a political crisis. That is the only thing he truly fears. The problem for him is that fighting a pandemic depends on a mastery of interlocking detail. And detail is the thing at which he is worst.

Sunday Blog 13: May 3 2020: Has The Government Learned A Lesson?: What About Labour?

Sunday, May 3rd, 2020

The Government

Although it is steadfast in its insistence that it does the right things at the right time, it is now clear that ministers and the scientific advisers they listen to, accept that they got it wrong at the beginning of the crisis and have been playing frantic catch-up ever since. The initial plan to abandon testing and containment and go to what has become known as herd immunity, was based on off the shelf modelling around a flu pandemic which ignored raw data coming from the epidemic front lines. Covid 19 is very not seasonal flu.

When the realisation dawned it was already too late. Although the expansion of the NHS to cope with overwhelming numbers has indeed been a triumph, the failures in almost every other area, especially testing infrastructure and PPE supply, have been obvious.

The price has been a death toll way ahead of the worst fears, at least within the parameters of trying to limit the spread. We are about to become the highest death toll in Europe, perhaps even the second highest in the world. We are accepting daily fatalities in hundreds, comforted only by the fact they are slowly falling. Clearly not everything done was right nor was it timely.

Proof of that is the far more enlightened and comprehensive plan, subject to clear cut and logical conditions, for the gradual easing of the current lock down. The overriding priority is to prevent a second wave. Had these ideas been acted upon at the end of February or the beginning of March, after proper pandemic preparation based on front line data, the first wave would have been a good deal less devastating and the economic shock a lot more short term.

Labour

Labour supporters may be forgiven if they feel disappointment that the election of a new leader and the appointment of a talented shadow cabinet has not produced a bounce in the polls. The more so because Keir Starmer’s performance in both the media and parliament has been impressive. But this is a time of national emergency when the ruling party is constantly active across all media, national unity limits criticism and the general public has no time at all for adversarial party politics.

As the medical emergency eases, economics will come once again to the fore. People will learn to live with the fear of catching the c-virus, as during the war they learned to live under falling bombs. Take reasonable precautions and trust your luck. But money and how to earn it will become the bigger worry and the soul destroying experience of unemployment among those who never thought it would happen to them, will create a different political dynamic.

That should be Labour’s moment. However the problem will be that the Boris/Cummings government is economically far to the left of anything Labour has even dreamt of for decades. It would be so easy if an austerity style Tory government sough to pay for the huge cost of the eye watering cost of hibernating the economy to preserve the basis of revival, with another few years of cuts and a fetish about balancing ‘the books’. But no.

It will be a government hell bent on investing its way out of the problem by borrowing and printing whatever it takes, hundreds of billions upon hundreds of billions, in order to grow the economy on a scale generally associated with Asia rather than Europe or the US. And one which styles itself ‘the People’s Government’ and which sees a society dominated by the priorities and needs ordinary workers and public servants, who are currently risking their lives in the front line of the pandemic. If it does not turn its back entirely on the hedge fund managers, lawyers and bankers, they will most certainly no longer be the first in line. Nor will inflation of fixed assets be the mainstay of growth.

So Labour will have to show great maturity and much self discipline. It will have to show it can do all of it but do it better. That is easier said than done. But done it will have to be if Labour is ever again to form a majority government.