When I began writing these things [blogging] some five months ago, I thought that the main focus would be on our dwindling contacts with the European mainland, and an occasional foray into contemporary politics. So I wrote and posted things most weeks, which were read by a small group of people, some doubtless reading them by mistake, and usually without comment. In practice I found that I was most often writing about whatever book[s] I had been reading. Which was a good, weekly discipline for me. But pretty dull, I guess, for anyone else. And now I realise that I haven’t written anything for almost a month. So – why not ?
It’s partly that we have had visitors, a rare occurrence in these days of lock-down, our first visitors for twenty plus weeks. It was Jem and Anna, our son and daughter-in-law, and their two children, Freya and Oskar. They were passing through on their way north to collect a hired motor home from somewhere near Forres. [After which they made for Skye, well populated with midges at this time of year, and then for Arisaig.] We were very pleased to see them for the first time since February. Talking to them brought home to me how privileged we are in lock-down here in Edinburgh; we have a spacious house and garden, plenty of books, and very few calls on our time from one week [or month] to the next. These months have been very much more difficult for younger families, with one or both parents working from home, and Zoomed work calls competing for attention with restless children who are missing school, or more precisely missing seeing their school friends.
Our other guest was Peter, a school friend from Gloucestershire who runs a small postcard publishing business. We went out for a Turkish meal, swopped a few stories, and tried not to reminisce too much about school life some sixty years ago.
It’s also partly that I have found my current book, Theodore Zeldin’s France, 1848-1945: Ambition, Love, and Politics, slow going. I have now finished the book – it is some 790 pages ! But arguably I don’t know enough about nineteenth century France to really benefit from reading it. Zeldin offers a fascinating portrait of the various sectors of society – the bourgeoisie, the bankers, the bureaucrats, the workers, and the peasants; and of the various political groupings – kings and aristocrats, republicans, bonapartists, radicals, and socialists. But I have to keep reminding myself which were the legitimists and which the Orléanists. And I get confused as to whether Directoire was a pre-Napoleonic form of government or a kind of vintage knickers.
But the main reason is that I had been intending to write something about blustering Boris on the anniversary of his election as Theresa May’s successor. And I find it very hard to do. Not because there is a shortage of things to say. But because almost all of it has already been said. And because amid the lies and the bluster there seem to be no redeeming features. Yes, he is capable of the occasional memorable phrase. And yes, he has some gifts as an electioneer. But that is not really what is needed from a prime minister, not at this time; when the fight is with a COVID pandemic rather than the parliamentary opposition. In a struggle against the virus, focus groups and slick slogans are of no value.
Blustering Boris, 2019-2020
It was on July 23rd, 2019 that Boris became leader of the Tory Party with a convincing win over Jeremy Hunt. In a characteristically flippant acceptance speech, he conceded that even some of his own supporters may “wonder quite what they have done”. Certainly those who are not his supporters wonder that. His campaign mantra was: “Deliver Brexit, unite the country and defeat Jeremy Corbyn.” Thus far he has managed only the third objective.
Johnson’s defenders stress that he has had a difficult year: the switch from the relative obscurity of the back-benches to the leadership and to 10 Downing Street; serious schisms within the Tory party; divorce from his [second] wife; setting up home in Downing Street with his new/current girl-friend; the birth of a baby, ‘out of wedlock’ as they used to say; the ravages of the COVID virus; and his own near-death experience. But in reality most of his misfortunes have been self-inflicted. Before his election as leader, Boris had few supporters and fewer friends in his party. It was generally known that he was a serial liar and a serial adulterer. He was best known by the public for his vanity projects: a new London Airport on ‘Boris Island’ in the Thames Estuary; a cable-car to link the City of London with the Olympic stadium; a new ‘garden bridge’ across the Thames; a new fleet of ‘Boris buses’ for London; an expensive water cannon for crowd control in London; another ‘Boris bridge’ to link Scotland and Northern Island. All these projects cost vast sums of money; none have come to fruition and most have been abandoned.
Johnson’s election as party leader was solely due to his commitment to BREXIT. As is well known, he had no fixed views on Europe prior to the 2016 referendum, but decided that BREXIT would best serve his own political ambitions. Within weeks of his becoming leader of the Tory party, he removed the whip from 21 MPs who voted against his government; a group that included such leading Tories as Ken Clarke, Rory Stewart, and Nicholas Soames. Several of this group decided not to stand in the subsequent general election. After the Tories’ convincing election victory, Johnson systematically cleared all dissenters out of his second administration. The sole qualification now was to be a ‘loyal’ Brexiteer. In consequence we have an unprecedentedly right-wing government, made up of political novices and intellectual pygmies.
The new cabinet included Priti Patel, the right-wing, pro-Leave, anti-gay marriage, pro-death penalty MP, who had been sacked from cabinet in 2017 for holding unauthorised and undeclared meetings with Israeli politicians while on holiday. She became Home Secretary. Dominic Raab, a lawyer and a karate black belt with a background history in workplace bullying, became Foreign Secretary. Matt Hancock, formerly economic advisor and bag carrier for George Osborne, became Secretary of State for Health and Social Care. Gavin Williamson, a former fireplace salesman [he left the firm after acknowledging an ‘inappropriate relationship’ with a colleague], best known as the proud owner of a Mexican tarantula, returned to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Education. The previous year Williamson had been forced to resign as Defence Secretary after the leaking of military secrets. Robert Jenrick, another lawyer, an ambitious corporate lawyer with murky connections in Moscow, became Communities and Housing Secretary.
Johnson’s much-repeated BREXIT slogan ‘Just get it done’ has not materialised. To date there has been neither breakthrough nor breakdown. Michel Barnier said in July that a trade and security deal with Boris Johnson’s government by the end of the year appeared “unlikely”, as he complained that Britain was demanding “near total exclusion” of European fishing boats from its waters. After the latest round of negotiations in London, Michel Barnier said that there had been “no progress” on the two most difficult areas: the rights of European fleets in British waters; and ensuring neither side drives down regulatory standards or is able to unfairly subsidise their businesses. In a statement, the UK’s chief negotiator, David Frost, agreed that there were “considerable gaps” while insisting that an agreement could still be reached in September. [For those who wonder why these negotiations have been entrusted to a dead, and not very funny, comedian, I should explain that this David Frost is a former career diplomat turned Scotch Whisky salesman. Which reminds me for no good reason that Von Ribbentrop was a champagne salesman.]
The sad truth is that:
- we have an impoverished and ill-equipped cabinet
* as noted, there is a total reliance on BREXITEERS and yes-men
* Boris is unwilling to fire people whose behaviour is an embarrassment [Robert Jenrick]
* Boris is unwilling to fire those who are incompetent [Matt Hancock, Gavin Wiliamson]
- the BREXIT negotiations are stalled and going nowhere
- the government’s record of managing COVID has been abysmal
* the government were too slow to react at the beginning
* Boris is known to be unwilling to take decisions which might be unpopular
* there was a striking failure to monitor incoming travellers at airports until it was too late
* inadequate supplies of PPE, which was then sourced wastefully without quality control
* the fiasco of Dominic Cummings’s trip to Durham destroyed any government credibility
* chaos of test and trace system [after Boris’s boast of a “world-beating system”]
* there is an obsession with organisational change [killing PHE] in order to deflect blame
* choosing to prioritise opening pubs over schools [see recent Private Eye cartoons]
- we have government by cronyism
* Hurd minor, an old Etonian chum, is to run a ‘COVID intelligence’ centre
* Baroness Dido [married to a Tory MP who has called for the abolition of the National Health Service], is to run not only test and trace, but also the replacement for PHE
* Boris who complains about the ‘unelected men’ of Brussels, has sent a bunch of chums to the House of Lords, including Ian Botham, onetime cricketer who lives in Spain; a wealthy Russian oligarch who has helped finance Boris’s lifestyle; and his own brother.
Carrie on Camping
The only light relief has been Boris and Carrie’s camping trip to Scotland. Plus baby and dog, and three security men. It is not clear that any of them are experienced campers. And the Applecross peninsula on the west coast is notoriously heavy with midges. According to the Daily Mail, not a wholly reliable source, they rented the old school-house for £1,500 a week, climbed over the fence to pitch a bell-tent in the adjacent field without asking the farmer’s permission. And further upset him by lighting a camp-fire in what were [by Scottish standards] dangerously dry conditions. A visit that may not have helped to counter the rising demand for Scotttsh independence.
Predictions in this time of pandemic are difficult. Rumours are that ‘secret’ Cabinet papers raise the very scary prospect of a significant second wave of COVID coinciding with a no-deal BREXIT. Producing significant food shortages in the supermarkets and the prospect of civil unrest on the streets. Recent opinion polls suggest that Keir Starmer is now regarded as better fitted than Boris to tackle the pandemic, and better fitted to be prime minister. But there is no general election in sight.
I was interested to see something that Max Hastings wrote last weekend:
“I have a hunch that Johnson will come to regret securing the prize for which he has struggled so long, because the experience of the premiership will lay bare his absolute unfitness for it.
I was Boris Johnson’s boss: he is utterly unfit to be prime minister.”
Next time, back to France.