Last week foreign secretary Liz Truss (South West Norfolk) seemed not to know that the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea were not one and the same, rather than (as is the case) at opposite ends of Europe. But wherever they are, she was determined to send British troops there. Imagine the surprise of Turkey and Bulgaria at their arrival, all waving their Latvian phrase books.
This week however, La Truss has exceeded all expectations. She appears to suspect – or at least to pretend to suspect, in order to maintain her leadership aspirations – that China may be about to invade or at least interfere with the Falklands. Even for Ms Truss this delusion is magnificent in its idiocy. This time she has overlooked that China and the Falklands aren’t even in the same ocean and have the continent of South America between them. So in the name of all Her Britannic Majesty’s imperial power, she sent a tweet.
The last time the Falklands were invaded, the British foreign secretary of the time, Lord Carrington, resigned as a point of honour. (Remember that old thing?) Ms Truss however has something far more pressing than honour to consider, however. She has her career to pursue. So undaunted by the kind of cock-ups which used to make politicians die of shame, she presses on, always with an eye on a photo op. What she lacks in armed forces, she makes up for through social media. But her greatest catastrophe was saved till last. Let us hope it’s her last, though she’s not on the plane home yet, at least as we go to press. This last catastrophe was to declare war on Russia…
It was in an exchange which has been widely reported, but bears repeating if only because some of those reading this will be in her own benighted constituency. She had demanded that Russia withdraw her troops from the border. Russian foreign minister Sergei Lavrov, in mocking the extraordinary ignorance which Truss has shown throughout her visit, asked her sarcastically:
“You do recognise Russia’s sovereignty over the Rostov and Veronezh regions?”
“Great Britain will never recognise Russia’s sovereignty over those regions!” she declared.
At this point Britain’s Russian ambassador, Deborah Bronnert, stepped in to explain delicately to Ms Truss that those regions are already part of Russia.
A gentleman-at-the-bar at the Muckrakers was himself a senior diplomat, and over a small pint explained exactly the briefing Ms Truss would have received before the meeting, (having given many such briefings himself.) It would have involved detailed maps, and troop positions. So either Ms Truss didn’t understand them or didn’t bother listening.
Former UK ambassador to Russia Tony Brenton told the BBC that the Truss visit has been “a disaster – she was in transmit mode and didn’t listen”. He added that British diplomatic influence and reputation in Moscow is now less than zero.
So now we have a foreign secretary rattling her empty scabbard first at Russia, then at China, then Russia again, having reduced Britain to a mere pimple on the world’s body politic. All this in the name of her mad Doctor Strangelove ambition for personal glory, dragging the tawdry remains of Britain’s international reputation behind her. We used to send a gunboat. Now we send a tweet.
Steve Barclay, MP for North East Cambridgeshire is another surprise gatecrasher to public prominence. His government role was and still is Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster – in other words, a cabinet office minister. But to the surprise of everybody and the concern of most, the PM has also made him his chief of staff.
The concern is not necessarily because such grand titles seem hardly to befit a man of such apparently limited accomplishment, but because his new title appears to be unconstitutional. As an MP, he is answerable to his constituents. As a government minister he is answerable to the prime minister. But as the PM’s chief of staff he is supposedly governed by civil service rules. The man and his new title seems neither fish nor fowl. He is appointed by the PM, yet his profile in the official list of MPs and their government appointments on the Parliament website does not mention the new role.
So, what is he? Answers on a postcard please…
It seems that the blithely contemptible Therese Coffey, MP for Suffolk Coastal and also Work and Pensions Secretary, has refused to publish a report which might have given undue concern to those predetermined to think the worst of the government, regarding how low-income people who are reliant on disability benefits are struggling to meet essential living costs.
The report has been kept hidden away for over a year, on the grounds that it is important to “protect the private space” in which ministers develop policy. In other words, it was a cover-up. But now MPs have forced its publication. It criticises the way evidence of the appalling treatment of claimants is hidden away, and the Commons select committee has criticised her for “trying to bury uncomfortable truths”.
Last week it emerged that Coffey had blocked the publication of another internal DWP report into the effectiveness of benefit sanctions. Again she argued its release was not in the public interest, in spite of promising MPs that it would be published. Another cover-up.
The great surprise about Dr Coffey is that, however widely she is despised, there is no real movement against her in her own constituency. Just the usual whingeing. The English are hopelessly complacent about their politicians, of course, but Dr Coffey’s constituency includes several hotbeds of the arty, liberal, climate activist and second generation hippy persuasion. One would have thought that their MP’s abject performance might at least generate the odd ‘Coffey Out’ poster. Instead, the last Pecksniff heard of a demonstration there, the main weapon chosen to unseat the government was to read poetry at them.
Meanwhile, in the depths of rural Norfolk, the constituents of the until-now wholly anonymous Richard Bacon (South Norfolk) are holding regular demonstrations against him. Tensions are building – well, as far as tensions ever do build in a Norfolk breast. But perhaps what they lack in their armoury is a couple of haiku.
We continue with Richard Bacon who, unearthed now the voters have found his burrow, has been stirred to respond. With his natural inclination to suck up to those in power to preserve his indolence now challenged by the PM being vilified across the country, Mr Bacon has had to make a choice. Does he side with his PM or his voters? In the end, he has decided on the devil he knows, Mr Johnson, whose remaining in power, however precarious, seems more likely to him than that his constituents will vote him out.
Such complacency is misplaced in any politician, however large his majority. But he has written to voters explaining his position. In a long letter to constituents – and one should always distrust long letters from MPs: the intention is to give the false impression that they are taking you seriously – Mr Bacon waffles on about all the factors one should take into consideration before thinking of castigating Mr Johnson. He concludes:
“I also believe it would be an act of folly to remove a major Western leader at a time of international peril with 135,000 Russian troops massed on the Ukrainian border with the possibility of an invasion. I do understand that some people will not be satisfied with these reasons but this is the judgement I have reached. The Prime Minister continues to receive my full support.”
So there you have it. Do your worst, says Mr Bacon, I stand by the PM’s flag. It is hardly reassuring, however, to realise that in his reasoning, the PM’s security in his post perhaps rests with continued tension in Ukraine. Now it appears both Mr Johnson and Ms Truss are banking on our fear of war to secure their own personal ambitions.
We now muse on those letters of no confidence in Boris Johnson which are being sent to the chair of the Tory 1922 committee. Last week Pecksniff reported that Peter Aldous (Waveney) had sent such a letter, and we wondered how long it might be before he was joined by Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk).
There is still no word, though it seems to be getting closer. Dr Poulter makes clear in a letter he has sent to constituents that he is not impressed by Johnson’s Savile slur against Keir Starmer. He writes:
“If we believe in a kinder, gentler politics then all of us in public life have a duty to focus on civilised debate and should set an example – including the Prime Minister.”
So it is perhaps time to review the positions of East Anglia regarding supporting the prime minister, or asking for a vote of no confidence. The best list Pecksniff has seen of those likely to write that letter is as follows:
Duncan Baker (North Norfolk)
Jackie Doyle-Price (Thurrock)
Tom Hunt (Ipswich) who has been playing ducks and drakes
Dan Poulter (Central Suffolk)
Jo Churchill (Bury St Edmunds)
George Freeman (Mid Norfolk) having second thoughts
Oliver Heald (North East Herts)
Bernard Jenkin (Harwich and North Essex)
Andrew Selous (South West Beds)
There may be perhaps a dozen or so others from the region who are keeping their views to themselves, for a mixture of motives.
One of the surprise characters to emerge in this diary is laughing boy Bim Afolami, MP for Hitchin and Harpenden. Here he is having a joke about the numbers of Covid deaths and how it’s a cunning plan to help with the government’s levelling up agenda
Last week we reported on the victory for Anna Firth in the Southend West by election. Since then, she has been boasting about her triumph. Boasting, my dears. Pecksniff would point out that Ms Firth’s triumph amounted to polling just 24% of the electorate, and that was only after Labour, Greens and Liberal Democrats had declined to stand candidates against her.
A reader writes, keen that his own MP should not be overlooked in the weekly opprobrium. So step forward Sheilesh Vara (Conservative, North West Cambridge), who on a list of the best and worst MPs is actually rated at number 327, which out of 650 looks positively applaudable, (though admittedly that rather depends on what the 326 above him are like). But since my informant is keen that Mr Vara has plenty of form worthy of dobbing him in, Pecksniff awaits.
Yet what is this? At number 645 on the list, only five above the bottom, here is Huntingdon’s own Jonathan Djanogly, he of the stake in a company which picked up covid-related government contracts worth £186 million. That company, Thriva, was worth just £922,000 at the end of 2019, but this figure had miraculously soared to £30 million a few months ago. (One has to wonder what happened to the other £156 million.)
The company’s first £61 million covid contract was awarded without competition in August 2020, after its directors had met former health minister Lord Bethell. He was sacked a few months ago amid controversy over the use of his private email address for official business.
Among the regrets this week and in many others is the lack of time to address some of the more extraordinary happenings in local politics. For example, this week Uttlesford Council has been placed under special measures. This deserves more than a cursory observation. As does Fenland Council, numerous goings-on (or not goings-on) at Suffolk County Council, and of course that outstanding matter at Breckland Council. We shall return to all these miscreants once those in national government give us breathing space in between their efforts at making a pig’s rectum of the country.