On the home front
Susie and I are grateful to have had our first COVID jab, with the Oxford AstroZeneca vaccine, at the beginning of February. I know it doesn’t work, apparently, in France and in Belgium, but there is no prospect of our being there in the immediate future. Friends in continental Europe are envious, and perhaps a bit amazed, at the speed of the vaccine roll-out here in the UK. And the success of the vaccination programme has given blustering Boris a bit of a bounce in the polls. Helped by the fact that Sir Keir Starmer, though a credible politician and a considerable improvement on Jeremy Corbyn, has all the charisma of yesterday’s porridge.
I am pretty sceptical about the government’s willingness to claim credit for the vaccination programme. Which probably owes more to the dedication of NHS staff assisted by a large number of volunteers. And I think it needs to be underlined that Boris and his government are seriously failing in other areas. The consequences of BREXIT continue to cause alarm. As CAP [Christians against Poverty] underlined this week, the financial hit consequent on the COVID pandemic is not shared equally across the population.
The consequences of BREXIT: the fishing industry, and Northern Ireland
Fishing played a surprisingly prominent role in the BREXIT negotiations. One of the bizarre images of the campaign was Nigel Farage and Kate Hoey sailing up in the river Thames in a trawler. Boris echoed their slogan in promising to make our coastal water “a sea of opportunity”. Three months on the reality is that most of Britain’s fishing fleet is tied up in port, unable to go to sea because their profitable markets in the EU are blocked off by Whitehall bureaucracy and red tape. Post-BREXIT arrangements have meant a dramatic increase in the amount of paperwork before British shellfish can be exported into the EU. For Scottish fishermen Boris has delivered a deal that is even worse than the widely unpopular Common Fisheries Policy.
The situation in Northern Ireland is worse. The Northern Ireland border was the great BREXIT lie. Boris told the taoiseach that there would be no border in Ireland. He then told North Ireland’s unionists that there would be no border in the Irish Sea. At the same time he told everyone who was listening that he would leave Europe’s customs union. The policy was self-contradictory, a messy fudge, a Johnsonian untruth.
Now that the UK is refusing to regulate a customs border in Belfast, Brussels is understandably angry. Since Christmas there have been problems with food supplies getting into Northern Ireland and empty shelves in supermarkets. The sticking-plaster response of the UK government is to extend, without consultation, the length of the initial transition period. Which amounts, in current journalistic parlance, to kicking the can down the road. At some point Boris must decide whether to erect a customs barrier round the six counties of the north, which would be a clear breach of the Good Friday agreement. Or to erect a customer barrier round the Belfast docks. The first option would be a logistic and emotional nightmare, and would probably drive the north’s eventual reunion with the south. Barricading the Belfast docks would enrage the Conservative party’s Unionist allies. And violence would no doubt follow. A decision will have to be made. But, as we know, Boris is not very good at decisions. A northern Irish telecoms engineer has just been upgrading our broadband connection. His comments on the present mess were unprintable. Sadly, since he was from Donegal, they were also largely incomprehensible.
In recent days that undiplomatic ex-diplomat David [Lord] Frost has complained of the EU’s continuing ill will towards Britain. The EU’s attitude might of course be an understandable response to the relentless mixture of half-truth and belligerence with which Frost and his political boss conducted the BREXIT negotiations. There is no reason why the EU should make it easy for Britain to leave. Versions of the Northern Ireland problem have existed ever since partition in 1922. The issue was exacerbated by Boris’s instance on leaving the customs union. Frosts’s haphazard negotiations left a range of issues unsolved; Scottish fishing, the status of the financial institutions, policing and terrorist information exchange, cultural exchanges. Britain could leave the customs union. Northern Ireland realistically could not.
When he became PM, one of Boris’s frequently repeated promises was that of ‘levelling up’. He presents as an inclusive, one-nation Tory. But we all know that the UK is increasingly two nations; rich and poor, north and south, employed and jobless, pro- and anti-BREXIT. To say nothing of pressures on the United Kingdom: the coming [May] independence referendum in Scotland; growing discussion of the possibility of a united Ireland; and even some noises about Welsh independence. Sadly, if predictably, the levelling up seems to exist only in Boris’s campaigning speeches. Money is available for consultants to work on the failing Test and Trace system, and to renew the decoration of their Downing Street apartment in accordance with Carrie’ expensive tastes. And to ‘help out’ with urban regeneration in a few Tory constituencies. But there is no aid money for struggling Yemen. Not enough money to give NHS staff their previously agreed pay rises. And no mention in Rishi Sunak’s budget of Social Work, another area where Boris promised major new initiatives. Which are now forgotten.
Who gets the money ? The Community Renewal Fund
In theory the Community Renewal Fund [CRF] exists to accelerate the promised levelling up. But in Sunak’s recent budget it transpires that a significant proportion of the areas selected to receive this money are not notably deprived, but that the vast majority of them are represented by Conservative MPs. Similar concerns have been expressed about two other funds intended for similar purposes. There is a fund specifically for urban areas that need a helping hand, but 39 out of the 45 places that the fund supports have Tory MPs.
The shadow communities secretary, Steve Reed, said that the allocation of these funds “must be done transparently, fairly, and with a say for local communities … but Ministers’ murky decisions to prioritise wealthier areas are anything but fair or transparent.”
Rishi Sunak has not yet been willing to outline the formula by which CRF funds are allocated. It is shocking that Richmond-shire in North Yorkshire, Sunak’s own constituency, a markedly wealthy area that attracts the well-heeled retired middle classes, has received money from both funds.
Last November Parliament’s spending watchdog raised serious concerns that the distribution of the £3.6 billion of town funds was politically motivated. The cross-party public accounts committee said it was “not convinced by the rationales for selecting some towns and not others” when the first money from the fund was distributed by the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government (MHCLG) in 2019. A MHCLG spokeswoman said that allocation of funds took into account things other than deprivation measures. And that statement certainly seems to be true ! Like, ‘Are they our people ?’
Who get money for what ? Test and Trace
For the past year a motley collection of Tory ministers have stressed that the government’s priority it to tackle the COVID pandemic. We have often been behind the curve. But ministers insist they they will do ‘whatever it takes’. And Rishi Sunak has been spending [public] money on a hitherto unimaginable scale. This has been particularly true of our test and trace system. We all remember that last year Boris promised a world-beating Test and Trace system. Which would be run, as a token of his commitment, by his old chum and Tory peer [Baroness] Dido Harding. It emerges today that Test and Trace have currently spent the eye-watering sum of £22 billion. But, according to a report today by a cross-party group of MPs, there is no clear evidence that the scheme has contributed to any significant reduction in the corona-virus infection.
Labour’s shadow chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster Rachel Reeves said the report shows the significantly outsourced system has “failed the British people and led our country into restrictive lockdown after lockdown”. She said that: “It underlines the epic amounts of waste and incompetence, an over-reliance on management consultants, … while ministers insist our NHS heroes deserve nothing more than a clap and a pay cut.” Lord Macpherson, a former Treasury chief, tweeted that the Government’s flagship £22 billion Test and Trace programme “wins the prize for the most wasteful and inept public spending programme of all time.”
Who doesn’t get the money ? Yemen
Last November the UK ditched its policy of spending 0.7% of national income on overseas aid, a key promise in the party’s 2019 general election manifesto; supposedly to help pay for the coronavirus crisis at home. At the time the Tory MP Andrew Mitchell called Rishi Sunak’s foreign aid cut a ‘shameful mistake‘ that will make Britain ‘less safe and less prosperous’.
Now tens of thousands of lives will be lost as a result of cuts to the UK’s aid budget, according to the chief executive of Oxfam. Oxfam is one of more than a hundred UK charities that have written to the Prime Minister condemning a government decision to cut aid to Yemen. The UK says it will now give £87m in aid to to Yemen having previously promised £160m in 2020 and £200m in 2019.
Meanwhile, a leaked document says civil servants have discussed reducing aid to Syria from £137m pledged last year to just over £45m this year. In South Sudan, spending could drop from £110m to £45m, while aid to Libya could be cut by 63% and Somalia by 60%.
Oxfam chief executive Danny Sriskandarajah, one of the signatories of the letter to the Prime Minister, commented: “The UK government has been proudly leading the effort to provide humanitarian assistance in places like Yemen. It’s a betrayal of not just the promises we made to the world’s poorest and most needy. It’s a brutal betrayal of British values. It’s an undermining of this government’s stated aim to be global Britain … … And arguably, worst of all, it’s a particularly callous decision because this government has actually increased the sales of British arms to Saudi Arabia which is a party to the conflict (in Yemen).”
Who get money for what ? Refurbishing bits of Downing Street
Those with long memories may remember the furore caused when Derry Irvine, the first of Tony Blair’s Lord Chancellors, spent £59, 000 on hand-made wallpaper for his grace-and-favour apartment. [The same man who in a recent speech described the COVID pandemic as “a unique financial opportunity”.] This sum seems relatively modest compared with the reported £250,000 that Carrie Symonds is reportedly spending on refurbishing the Downing Street flat. Reports stress that she has “exquisite taste”. Even the Daily Mail is excited about the costs. Who is going to pay ? There is some doubt as to whether the Johnson-Symonds family budget will stretch to meeting the full cost. Especially after they have paid the cost of making good the damage done by their dog at Chequers. So the latest wheeze is to set up a privately-funded, not for profit organisation on the lines of Jackie Kennedy’s White House Historical Association.
According to the Daily Mail, Boris was present when a plan was mooted to ask Tory donors – including environment minister Lord [Zac] Goldsmith, a close friend of Carrie Symonds, controversially ennobled by Boris in 2019, and billionaire JCB construction boss Lord Bamford, to contribute to the costs. The same source reports that there is some concern among some senior Tory figures over whether it was ‘appropriate’ for party funds to be used ‘in effect, to subsidise the Prime Minister and his partner’s lifestyle’. Sir Alistair Graham, the former head of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, described the plans as “monstrous”.
It appears that the couple have also enjoyed an estimated £12,500 of food deliveries in Downing Street, delivered to the back door, from a luxury organic farm-shop owned by Lord Bamford’s wife.
There is of course ample opportunity in these arrangements for blatant conflict of interest. Two chandeliers for a knighthood ? A month’s supply of smoked salmon for a peerage ? Meanwhile a reported £2.6 million has been spent turning the basement of 9 Downing Street into a suitable setting for White House style press conferences. Another of Boris’s ‘vanity projects’. It hasn’t been used yet. Maybe Boris is starting to realise that public appearances where he constantly refuses to answer questions are not an electoral asset ?
The unknown-to me Lib Dem MP Daisy Cooper said: “This is nothing more than an expensive vanity project and is just more evidence that this government’s priority is spin, not substance … … the prime minister himself said that he ‘owed his life’ to Covid doctors and nurses but now he’s happy to see frontline nurses take a real-terms pay cut, whilst he gets a flashy new TV studio”.
I could go on. But it’s too depressing. If John Moore reads this, he will no doubt say that it is our Christian duty to pray for leaders, even including blustering Boris and his colleagues. And I’m sure that he is right. I think I’ll go and cheer myself up by reading Jörgen Moltmann’s The Crucified God. Of which more in due course. Disgracefully I have lost my current bible-reading notes, so I am reading Moltmann as a Lenten penance. It is good stuff But it is hard work. He reminds me why I have never aspired to be a theologian.