There is something of the Greek tragedy about first Boris Johnson and then Liz Truss clawing their way to power. Both are ruthlessly driven by self-interest but, as we know, hubris is always followed by Nemesis, and as in all Greek tragedies the protagonist’s end when it comes will be terrible.
One way or another this winter we may approach the end game. Whatever Ms Truss said during the leadership contest, behind the scenes, civil servants have been preparing for possible energy rationing and black-outs, and police forces across the country are preparing contingency plans for riots and widespread civil unrest. But Ms Truss is determined to ignore it all. She believes she can ride out the crisis, (though only 2% of voters give their wholehearted support).
If she is wrong, then divine retribution awaits. That semi-clothed and winged female bearing a lamp and a whip you noticed isn’t booked for somebody’s stag do; she is Nemesis, and she brings implacable justice on behalf of the gods – and we hope on behalf of the British people too.
In anticipating her premiership, the French Les Echos newspaper mocked the flaunted Truss‘s admiration for Margaret Thatcher, the ‘Iron Lady’, and calls her the ‘Iron Weathervane’.
The magazine notes her previous turnabouts – Remain under Cameron, staunch supporter of May until she ran out of staunch and flipped to Johnson just in time, now staunch Leaver. But all that staunchness counts for little if it’s ditched when things get tough. Because for all that tough talk, there is little so far to suggest courage in the Truss make-up. Bearing this in mind, Les Echos wonders whether, confronted with an implacable EU over Northern Ireland, Ms Truss will turn to her well rehearsed procedure of political handbrake turns and find (under whatever pretext) that there is more to support in the EU position than previously met the eye.
The same characteristic is also mentioned by her distinguished predecessor in South West Norfolk, Gillian (now Baroness) Shephard, who was a key cabinet member during the John Major years.
The sprightly baroness remarked of the recent bitter leadership campaign: “Some of the attacks do very little justice to the people making them. They need to remember that after all of this, hopefully there will still be a Conservative Party. But if they continue, there may very well not be a Conservative government.”
The Truss hard line on what she refers to as “hand-outs” has not gone down well either. “All I hear at ground level are fears about the cost of living and the effect on people’s budgets, not just households but on businesses as well,” Shephard tells the Eastern Daily Press. “I think Liz will have to row back on the promises she made on no tax rises and no handouts.” Then she adds, in what looks like the same Les Echos observation on Ms Truss switching parties, then her position on Brexit, then anything else which might have hampered her career: “But she is nothing if not pragmatic.”
Whilst musing on the opinions of Baroness Shephard, Pecksniff happened upon some older opinions of Liz Truss. There among the yellowing archive was an article in Lion & Unicorn, featuring this observation from one of her colleagues at university and chair of Liberal Democrat Youth and Students, of which Ms Truss was a member. He recalled: “a complete and utter egomaniac pain in the backside, incapable of working in a team”.
There is also a recollection of the outrage among the local Tories when her affair with Mark Field MP was revealed to them, though it had been common knowledge for some time. “’If SW Norfolk Tories are so incompetent that they can’t even Google, that’s their look-out,’ wrote Tory blogger Iain Dale, unsympathetically. ‘Their social attitudes are Neanderthal.’
“Some of the local party faithful found this a little insulting: ‘They make out we’re stupid, saying details of her affair were on Google, but no-one in Norfolk knows how to use Google’.”
There are already personal tragedies involved in the elevation of Liz Truss to Downing Street. Her estrangement from her family and in particular her father is already known. He is a lecturer and used to take her to CND rallies, so her career path has proved mortifying for him. A friend of the family says: “Her father was playing tennis with us this morning. We’ve stopped talking to him about it – he’s so distraught. He says she brings shame on the family.”
The new deputy prime minister – a role which has no constitutional standing whatever – is Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal). On the face of it, Ms Truss and Dr Coffey make an odd couple.
Whereas Ms Truss is blatantly transparent, Dr Coffey is a more complex character. She is keen to give the impression of being sociable: noting beer and football among her enthusiasms. (She once signed an early day motion demanding a knighthood for Kenny Dalglish.) She enjoys gardening. She is a roman catholic, and bizarrely at the time of the jubilee she sang a hymn to the Queen on Twitter – and in quite unnecessary close-up. And then there is that photograph.
So what does Ms Truss feel Dr Coffey can bring to the post of health secretary? At work and pensions, she spent her career either hiding embarrassing reports or publishing them in a deliberately misleading manner, and has showed no empathy for users of the department’s services or those who deliver them. This hardly speaks well for the future of the NHS, but one can see that Ms Truss might feel she has a need for somebody who is prepared to do the same at health.
A first furtive eavesdropping on Tory members too shows dismay and sometimes outrage, both that Liz Truss was ever chosen and at the portents for her government – and the party. One member protests: “This unity stuff is ridiculous. What policy are you backing? What has she announced? You are literally backing nothing. That means you’re putting loyalty before people. I can tell you as a member, people are sick of that.”
One of those ministers she sacked, Johnny Mercer, refused to go quietly. So did his wife, who declared: “This system stinks & treats people appallingly. Best person I know sacked by an imbecile.”
A BBC report after her election suggested some Tory MPs find Ms Truss “odd”, and Dominic Cummings is on record describing her as “crackers”. Even those to whom she has given ministerial jobs don’t hold out much hope. One, having only just emerged from No.10, told The Times: “I doubt she’ll last two years”.
Pecksniff recently reported on how James Cleverly (Braintree) has held six government posts in the past three years, three in the past eight months of this year alone. Now he has been appointed to a fourth: that of foreign secretary. What jokes will his civil servants at all those past departments tell of him? What possible purpose can he have served having sat only a few weeks in each job?
His last post before being switched to the Foreign office was at education. A deputy head makes the point perfectly:
It is not clear whether Priti Patel (Witham) jumped or was pushed. The length of the letter sent to Boris Johnson and the detail in which she attempts to justify her failures at the Home office suggests the latter. She goes on to say that she has chosen a career on the back benches, with only her constituency to hold her attention. Now nothing in her career suggests this is very likely. When Boris Johnson first formed his government, Pecksniff thought Patel the most likely first resignation, and that it would be over money.
This proved wrong, though perhaps with some justification. Those were the carefree days when we were still naïve enough to assume ministers would resign over scandal and law-breaking. But as to money, there is still lots to be made by any avaricious backbencher who is not too scrupulous about how it is earned. Let us not for a moment assume Ms Patel is one of those, but observe the progress of the Patel career from hereon and judge how well it avoids such temptations.
The resignation of Priti Patel comes as she and the Home Office were to begin defending themselves in court over the much criticised policy of sending refugees to Rwanda. The court was told that the plan was dismissed out of hand by the Foreign Office, but reinstated through pressure from both Ms Patel and Boris Johnson. The legal claim, brought by a trade union and several civil rights groups, is that the policy is illegal. The claimants cite internal memoranda from the Home Office which acknowledge the threat of torture and inhumane treatment to any refugees sent to Rwanda. The task of defending the policy will now fall to Suella Braverman, not a noted champion of human rights. As the previous attorney general she was frequently accused of misleading interpretations of the law.
One last point. For all her self-justifying proclamations about her team, apparently Ms Patel left the Home Office without as much as leaving a message for her civil servants – unheard-of.
Nadine Dorries (Mid Beds) has also left the cabinet. Whatever her attraction to Boris Johnson, Liz Truss did not see it.
Apparently Ms Dorries turned down a major publishing contract in order to remain in the government. So it seems the attraction of all that moolah, plus the prospect of a peerage – if still on offer – proved too tempting. But of course, a peerage would mean a by election…
Ms Dorries held a majority of 25,000 in 2019, but these are febrile times. The Liberal Democrats came third, with 8,000 as against the Tories’ 38,000, but have lots of previous in overthrowing huge majorities. If there is a by election, expect them to be first out of the gate. But what of Labour? They came second with 14,000 so ought to be prime challengers. But are they fleet enough to jump in as the Liberal Democrats have a knack of doing?
Labour wouldn’t give way to a challenge from opponents they beat into third place last time, but the Liberal Democrats have a way of seizing the initiative. So both may wish to fight it out. For supporters of an electoral understanding between progressive parties, a by election might prove challenging.
Fans of Tom Hunt (Ipswich) – or at least fans of his appearances in this diary – will be relieved to see he has blagged his way in here once again. This time he forces his attentions upon us for a leaflet that has been delivered through constituents’ doors. What strikes the reader immediately is that nowhere on the cover does it mention anywhere that our Mr Hunt is a Tory. One has to look carefully for it inside.
One of our readers accosted the deliverers for the outrage of putting a Tory leaflet through her door, but was puzzled to discover that none of the three men spoke any English. Nor did they seem to have a clear idea of what it was they were delivering.
One has to wonder. Clearly these gentlemen were not Tory members, unless the party has numerous adherents who speak not a word of the language, (which would explain everything). So who, we wonder, were these English-challenged persons presumably employed to do the Tories’ dirty work?
Incidentally, one of the declarations made by Tom Hunt in the leaflet is “It’s time Ipswich schools had the funding they deserve”.
Dear reader, indeed it is. Understandably however, the leaflet does not spell out that those in charge of the budget for the past 12 years has been the Tory-controlled Suffolk County Council and the Tory government. Reason enough, perhaps, to be so modest in identifying his party allegiance.
Tom Hunt is having rather a hard time of it. One furious Tory member berated him on Twitter: “Tom Hunt MP on GB news do your collar up, put your tie on properly, iron your shirt, you look like you’ve been in the bar all afternoon.”
Curiously, nobody in the national media appears to have picked this up. French newspaper Le Figaro reports that EDF board members representing the French government refused to sign off on an agreement on proceeding with Sizewell C last Wednesday week, 31 August. What isn’t realised is this amounted to the collapse of a carefully orchestrated attempt to have Boris Johnson leave office with a triumph. The assumption was that the EDF board would agree the deal, and he could announce the investment of billions (mostly foreign money), and after years of delay the final go-ahead for Sizewell C. It was to be the big project announced to the world to cement his many triumphs in Downing Street.
But it was not to be. With everything lined up, speeches written, fawning courtiers ready with their congratulations, the French let him down. There was no dramatic triumph to announce, and of course no mention either of the EDF decision which prevented it. Mr Johnson could only announce a paltry £700 million of government money, which was hardly enough to fill a few Suffolk fields with useless PPE.
So Boris Johnson quits in disappointment. The question is, of course, which way will EDF jump now? There are difficult times ahead. Is this the occasion to commit billions to a huge project in a perfidious next door neighbour like the UK?
There is puzzlement over a story in the Eastern Daily Press, in which a local shopkeeper complained how she might have to close down because of rampant fuel bills. But in the first edition of the paper the lady had gone on to say that she was a staunch supporter of Boris Johnson and a member of the Conservative Party.
This may seem naïve of her, but that is her business. The puzzlement arises from the sequence mentioning Boris Johnson was later edited out of the later story. Who can have wanted that part of the story omitted, who made the decision and why? Pecksniff requested an explanation from the paper, but came there none.
One of the reasons may lie here. Recently Pecksniff reported on the decline and in some cases the demise of Archant newspapers in our region, following the company’s take-over by Newsquest. In trying to follow up the EDP story above, Pecksniff rang the several newsroom numbers on file. None was now in service. The only number available is what used to be reception. To contact a hack, perhaps with a pulsating news story, the only option on ringing this number is to leave a message, and hope that somebody in the newsroom will pick it up.
Dear nobody ever did.
Pecksniff hears that the Burston school strike celebrations were well attended last weekend, as one might imagine. And given the nature of the event and the speakers arranged, there was of course doubt sown on whether Keir Starmer is the right man to lead the party. Some concerns are shared by many, including your correspondent, though Pecksniff is unlikely to be swayed by some of the speakers, such as fervent Brexit supporter Mick Lynch.
These are turbulent times, and they can only get worse. We should all beware the trite invitations from populists on the left and be reluctant to accept their glib arguments at face value.
Plans for the Norwich western link road shuffle forward. Whenever news about the scheme comes Pecksniff’s way, opposition appears to focus on how the road would demolish the roosts of a rare species of bat. Whatever the claims of the chiroptera lobby, history records no previous example of the interests of bats being placed before those of motorists, road developers, local authorities or those who hope to make a packet out of any such scheme. Arguments against the scheme appear to have been poorly put forward: hardly a first in campaigns on behalf of green issues.
But now we learn that, according to Norfolk County Council, as a result of going ahead with the road: “Our model shows that there is likely to be an overall reduction in carbon emissions”. This is quite brilliant and appears to solve much of the climate emergency at a stroke. If this new road will reduce carbon emissions, then all we do is build thousands more roads and the emissions problem will be a thing of the past.
Recently, as a result of a major water leak, whole districts of King’s Lynn were left without drinking water. Step forward Councillor Rob Colwell, who investigated the problem, negotiated with Anglian Water, took on the role of informing local people, organised a 1300 signature petition, held numerous meetings with Anglian Water, advised residents on how to make claims against the water company and made sure the problem was put right. This week the company agreed to the claims plus additional compensation estimated to be around £30,000.
Local MP James Wild (NW Norfolk) did nothing, and spent those several days presumably in Westminster. His voters may wish to remember this at the next election.
Special thanks this week go to Kate Viscardi and Elaine Patten.