The week we might have expected Suella Braverman to be forced to resign, but instead it is Sir Gavin Williamson. He bowed to the inevitable following three separate scandalous accusations, and a fourth was made public shortly afterwards.
Two were of leaking secrets concerning national security, which it is claimed could have cost lives. That sort of act used to be called high treason, but these days hardly merits a ticking off. Rishi Sunak didn’t know apparently – miraculously being almost the only person in the country in that unfortunate state of ignorance. But it turns out Sir Gavin is apparently still a good chap anyway and the case is closed. Except that it sounds as though Mr Sunak would welcome him back after a decent interval of, say, a fortnight.
Ms Braverman owes her continued position entirely to the fact that the media’s attention was drawn elsewhere. Since she is incapable of getting through a day without putting her foot through it too, her time will come.
Miraculously, few of our regional MPs made buffoons of themselves… except Tom Hunt of course. But well, you know…
It was reported this week that Liz Truss suffered a rather public embarrassment in finding her credit card wouldn’t work whilst trying to pay in a crowded and inevitably “trendy” restaurant. It has probably happened to all of us at one time or another, without its being spread all over the Sun. But against your better judgement, dear reader, Pecksniff must beseech that you do not feel you should expend any sympathy for Liz of the Fifty Days. Over the past year, Pecksniff has reported on her laughing at a constituent’s mental illness, being a stranger in her own South West Norfolk constituency, wasting half a million quid on a private jet just for the swank, and so many other incidents one would prefer to forget.
The word schadenfreude, from the German, was coined specifically for times like this. Enjoy.
He has also confused much of his party membership – those anyway who believe that the purpose of the Labour Party should be to form a government which pursues progressive ideals.
Pecksniff will not hear arguments here of his playing canny politics. (How canny is it to deny the pro EU aspirations of over half your voters?) It is quite possible for him to quash any accusations by the Tories by declaring that there is no question of his contemplating a return to the EU during his government, or of throwing wide the immigration gates. That can be taken as read, since to hope for the opposite is to believe in fairies.
But since it can’t be canny politics, what are the alternatives? Either he is lying, and he would change his policy immediately when elected; or that he has really been a Brexit supporter or closet xenophobe all along, and never been a progressive.
Or of course, that he is still in thrall to ‘our people’, those whose traditional suspicions of change have long since left Labour, but who live on vividly in Labour culture. Because every Labour MP still wants to see him or herself as a champion of the working class, not – as is more likely – the representative of young graduates who drink skinny lattes and do entrepreneurial things in IT.
One of the great puzzles about the government, any government of the last few years, is Thérèse Coffey (Suffolk Coastal). To wit: she is always in it. But that puzzlement is only justified if we assume ministers are there to do things. If instead we accept that they are there specifically not to do things, all becomes clear.
Some time ago a prime minister, probably David Cameron, realised his cabinet had become not problem solvers, but themselves the problem. From then, any newly appointed minister has been given the testy warning: “Just don’t touch anything!”
So the best ministers are those who attempt nothing, just let stuff happen. (This of course was a dictum to which Boris Johnson clung assiduously in his own performance. He realised the more he was actually in the office, the more likely he was to break things. Hence all those Caribbean holidays and long weekends at Chequers.)
In this, Dr Coffey is ideal. She attempts nothing whatever to advance the interests of her brief, and is additionally prepared to play her accomplished role in breakfast TV interviews as Giles’s cartoon Grandma speaking under the influence of temazepam.
There is however another mystery about Thérèse Coffey. Pecksniff has almost never attended the Palace of Westminster without seeing that familiar figure slouching around the corridors. She always appears to be wearing carpet slippers. She is usually clutching a single piece of paper. But where is she going? She is always alone. Is she unpopular? The only other politicians to whom she is known to be close could have been better chosen: Liz Truss, who is described as a close friend, and Matt Hancock with whom she annually wows the Tory conference karaoke evening with their celebrated Sonny and Cher tribute act.
The committee of West Suffolk Conservatives must be in an uncomfortable dilemma over the antics of their MP Matt Hancock. Watching ordure poured over him in the Australian jungle may perversely be popular with his benighted constituents, but what are his local party to do with him when he returns?
Mr Hancock still has support in Newmarket, and in particular in the Jockey Club which he has courted so assiduously. (To be fair, the courting has not been entirely unrequited. It is always worthwhile having a cabinet minister at your beck and call.)
The Tories lost Chesham and Amersham with a 25% swing, and Shropshire North with 34%. Mr Hancock won 65% of the vote last time, but even that looks soft in the current polls. The problem for his local party is whether to act now to get rid of him. It would be a bold move, something of a scandal – a sitting MP de-selected by his party. But at least it would put them on the right side of their electorate. If they do nothing and leave the matter to Mr Hancock to choose the means and timing of his departure, then they are likely to find themselves fighting to hold the seat in the stench of an arrogant self-serving MP and the sound of his laughter still ringing in their ears.
This week too, the High Court has ruled that Matt Hancock broke the law in appointing Dido Harding as head of the catastrophic Test and Trace operation.
The court found that Boris Johnson also broke the law in making the appointment. Both were breaches of the Public Sector Equality Duty, which maintains that appointments should be made fairly and with awareness of those who “are too often shut out of public life”; and not just given to a baroness and board member of the Jockey Club who you happen to suck up to at drinks parties.
The case was brought by the Runnymede Trust and campaigning organisation the Good Law Project, who point out that “the government will now have to be much more careful to make sure its recruitment processes are fair, equitable and open to all”.
That’s it, apparently. There is no mention of sanctions, and no suggestion that this will cause any distress whatever to Messrs Hancock or Johnson. Meanwhile at the Jockey Club bar, there will not even be sufficient frisson to tinkle the ice in the gin and tonics.
Readers may already have read the fascinating article by Professor Paul Whiteley elsewhere on EAB, “70 years of data suggest the Conservatives will suffer a big defeat at the next election – here’s how I worked it out”. Pecksniff often speculates as to the state of opinion in our own backyard, where in-depth investigation during last year’s local elections suggested a distinct softening of the Tory vote – particularly in Cambridgeshire and Hertfordshire. This is a subject which we shall continue to explore.
But whatever the disastrous state of the Tories in the polls, Pecksniff is hearing tales of growing unrest among local activists in both Labour and the Liberal Democrats across the region. The complaint from both parties is of arrogance at regional level towards local members, and their incompetence in translating ideas into action. Given the historically inept state of progressive parties in this region, that may not come as a surprise. For anyone of a progressive political persuasion though, it can hardly be cause for optimism. One can only hope the problems are solved. Or of course, one can join a party.
The Tories have always seen immigration as one of their strong issues, though as was pointed out in last week’s diary, that is no longer the case. Labour now holds a strong lead. As Professor John Curtice explains this week in his piece entitled ‘Why immigration is no longer a vote winner for the Tories,’ the answer is simple. The public have come to the conclusion that they can’t deliver. A series of Tory home secretaries have learned to their cost that there is a difference between coming up with ever more blood and thunder strategies and making them work. None of them have and, not surprisingly, the public have noticed.
In particular, the more they stir up their base with tales of malevolent refugees coming over here and stealing our jobs/women/GP appointments, the more attention is drawn to these increasingly barking ideas and the more frustrated the Tories’ pet racists become.
All this leaves Tom Hunt (Ipswich) in a particular predicament.
Naturally he has given no thought to the words of Professor Curtice, that the more the Tories draw attention to refugees, the more they exasperate their supporters by their inability to do anything about the situation. So he bangs on to an empty Commons chamber about housing refugees in hotels, bewildered at the rage in his postbag but also that he appears to be on the same side as his political opponents – albeit for different reasons. But Mr Hunt is like a bumblebee continuously head-butting a windowpane. It is the only thing he knows how to do.
On the subject of refugees, it’s clear BBC Look East have been bombarded by the kind of racist outrage that usually attends any media report of any aspect of refugees or immigration. This week they felt it necessary to explain quite why the programme always referred to ‘migrants’, since this word covers all groups, instead of ‘dirty foreign scroungers of a dusky hue who should all be sent to Rwanda’, which would be many viewers’ preferred description. Hacks across the region will tell you how they have to cancel the comments columns on even the most innocuous online news story, for fear of the racist response.
As EAB has explained this week in ‘Who are we? Findings from the census’, East Anglia is the oldest region in the country. It is also one of the most pro-Brexit. Is there a link there, between growing old and disliking foreigners? Polls suggest it. But many of EAB’s readers would also fit into the mature category and would be appalled at being connected to the xenophobe tag. So presumably it’s a matter of cohort rather than simply age. But what are the other characteristics of that cohort which make them so distrustful, inward-looking and mean spirited?
“Qatar lavished British MPs with gifts ahead of World Cup”, the Guardian reveals.
Any story about MPs which includes the words “MPs” and “lavished gifts” prompts a decent hack to browse, mentally compiling a list of the likely names to pop up. Sure enough, from this region there is an old favourite, Sir John Whittingdale OBE (Maldon).
Sir John and a guest were apparently entertained at the Goodwood Festival last July. Rose Whiffen, from Transparency International, pointed out that “too many MPs” were showing “poor judgment” in accepting gifts from overseas administrations. She added that they must “seriously consider if it is appropriate to accept these sorts of trips – not just whether they are allowed to.”
That question is believed never to be far from Sir John’s mind.
Sir Mike Penning is the MP for Hemel Hempstead, and has been for 17 years. For this role he is paid £84,000. He also holds three extra-parliamentary jobs which earn him £104,000, which suggest that financially at least his role as MP is the least important. Except… If he gave up his position as an MP, with all its useful contacts, would his three other employers still be willing to cough up?
His latest job, announced this week, is with Tenacious Holdings and allows him to trouser £60,000 p.a. The company has significant ties with Bermuda, a tax haven. Rather like Sir John Whittingdale (above), voters have a right to ask whether he should be associated with a dubious company in any way. There is no suggestion that Mr Penning does not pay his taxes, but those same voters might be entitled to ask whether their MP should be so closely associated with those who don’t.
At the last election, Mr Penning had a majority of 14,563 – sizeable in normal times. But these aren’t normal times, and that majority is within reach of Labour according to the present polls.
Supporters of the Queen Elizabeth Hospital at Kings Lynn have asked James Wild (North West Norfolk) to back public sector budgets being raised in line with inflation. He declined, asking in a worldly way how it would be paid for.
Presumably he thought this was a safe and uncontroversial response. But a moment’s thought shows what he was saying is that we should expect public services to continue to decline, at huge cost to our children’s education and the nation’s health, and that this should seem the most natural thing in the world. His own local hospital’s roof is being held up by thousands of props, and this is to be expected. It is at least if you are a Tory MP.
Now an impressive debut by a man prepared to pour oil on the flames of a sensitive public issue in order to further his political career. Step forward David Lloyd, police and crime commissioner for Hertfordshire.
Immediately after his chief constable admitted that his force was wrong to have arrested journalists at the Just Stop Oil protests, Mr Lloyd attacked LBC, which employed one of the journalists. He told them: “Your editorial policy needs to reflect on whether or not we want to be part of the problem, which is how Just Stop Oil manage to get their message out there so very successfully.”
Which seems to say that LBC should not broadcast views Mr Lloyd finds a “problem”. Given his role as PCC, he might at least pretend to be neutral on issues of controversy, since he is bound by the Nolan Principles which include the need for objectivity.
Later, he suggested journalists should treat such protestors like people “trying to commit suicide”.
Speaking of which, Mr Lloyd has previous. Frances Crook, former head of the Howard League for Penal Reform, spoke to him about reducing the number of suicides in police custody. She recalls: “He said it didn’t matter if people hanged themselves in police or prison custody, as it was cheaper than processing them.”
There are ructions over the proposed Cambridge sustainable travel zone.
Many predictably arise over plans to introduce a congestion charge for cars. For some drivers, for whom their cars have become a penis extension, this is a form of emasculation to be opposed at any cost.
Others, however, seem to have valid concerns about how effective the new bus plans will be, and the wording of the Making Connections document is not reassuring. It reads not as a consultation document but as a take-it-or-leave-it hard sell.
Pecksniff has known any number of such projects, which drag on for so long they are eventually pushed through out of exasperation. But whatever the intrinsic merits of the plan, they will never come to fruition if they leave behind them an unconvinced and embittered public.
EAB has frequently covered the issue of raw sewage in our rivers. But just as a reminder as Anglian Water continue their wanton pollution, the good people testing the Deben in Suffolk regularly posted this picture this week, showing the extent of e.Coli in their river. The Environment Agency in their po-faced way insist that in the size of sample shown nine dots of e.Coli is the limit. Instead, as you will see dear reader, there are probably a couple of hundred.
Colleagues at EAB continue to press the company for answers to their lamentable record, and they continue misleading, obfuscating – ‘lying’ is such an ugly word – and generally doing whatever it takes to try to keep up the pretence they are a responsible company which gives a sewage outfall about their customers, or the environment which they so blatantly pollute every week.
All they want to talk about is the gratitude we should show for their long term investment, when what we want to ask is “When are you going to stop dumping sh*t in our rivers?”.
How fortunate Anglian Water must feel themselves that protesters against having to swim in sewage are so patient, and don’t take a leaf out of the books of Just Stop Oil. We might muse on quite what form direct action would take…