This week Pecksniff has been sneaking beyond the confines of East Anglia, using his Walsingham-like network of earwiggers, keyhole listeners and trawlers through wastepaper baskets to determine some revealing goings-on. In government it seems, one no longer has to brief the prime minister on a sheet of A4, one side only. His attention span being that of a mollusc, even that has become too much for Johnson to absorb. These days it’s briefing by WhatsApp.
This is becoming bewildering for Tory backbenchers too. The most common complaint about our MPs in East Anglia is that they have no interest in their constituents and never respond to correspondence. Though they deserve little sympathy, it is instructive that it seems they suffer in the same way when trying to reach those in government. Nobody picks up the phone. Nobody replies to letters – in fact there is little evidence that ministers even read them. Government by WhatsApp again. Some Tory MPs have been driven to sending exasperated tweets aimed at ministers in the hope of gaining their attention.
But ministers in their turn are trying to get sense out of No.10, and find themselves with the same frustrations. Ministers are usually a long way down the list of those No.10 would choose to talk to, ranking below valets and tweeny maids. After all, they have no power. Their only function is to megaphone whatever the prime minister’s close coterie decide should be today’s nonsense.
So actually nobody knows what’s going on. Which is probably because very little is, other than saving the prime minister’s skin.
For anybody who has tried to call his or her local council, or police, or any other public body, this frustrating experience will be familiar. The public are seen as a drain on resources, and to be avoided wherever possible. After writing the EAB story on Anglian Water, a colleague joined Pecksniff for a lengthy session in the Muckrakers to express his exasperation that, after 20 minutes on the phone to the company, they still hadn’t found anybody prepared to speak to him. “Could he perhaps send an email?” When somebody was found, it seemed that picking up the phone was at the far end of their professional capabilities, and they were unable to answer a single question – even though being in the press office and speaking to a journalist. Giving out information, especially in answer to questions, was apparently counter to corporate culture, and a dangerous habit to get into.
And on the subject of government ineptitude, readers will be aware of their keenness through the Elections Bill to introduce voter identification. This keenness seems undermined by the apparent lack of any preparation for their introduction. A casual enquiry to a local authority led to a wider search, and among those councils questioned it seems there exist no guidelines or instructions from government on how they are to proceed, no advice or preparation at all for the introduction of the scheme. The government has told local authorities nothing. They have no plans, no ideas. A search for any mention of the measure on internal local government intranet systems, Pecksniff is told, shows zero.
The government’s attempt at vote rigging by insisting on voter identification is an attempt to restrict voting among those they consider not natural Tories. But less well observed are the plans it introduces for returning every election to first-past-the-post. At the moment, elections for mayors and police and crime commissioners are conducted on proportional representation. Not anymore. With growing support for PR to thwart Tory wins in the future, in a further blatant plan for their small clique to hold power, the bill returns those elections to FPTP as well.
Peter Aldous MP (Conservative, Waveney) is once again the Tories’ fly in the ointment. On PoliticsHome, he declares himself disappointed with the Chancellor’s spring statement, and points out that universal credit and other benefits claimants will see a significant fall in their household incomes.
“The effects of this could imperil the livelihoods of those who are a long way from the workplace, face complicated circumstances and, for a variety of reasons, cannot simply work their way out of poverty.
“We must recognise the prevailing attitude that ‘more work is always the answer’ cannot spare everyone the potential destitution some now face.”
To his other sins it seems we must now acknowledge the prime minister’s addiction to war porn. According to Tory party chairman and MP for Hertsmere, Oliver Dowden, the man is gagging to go to Ukraine, “desperate” according to Dowden to “experience what is happening there”. We can all think of a word for that, and it isn’t a nice one. Quite apart from putting others’ lives at risk just so he can get off on watching buildings explode and bodies dragged out of the rubble.
Mr Dowden it seems is becoming particularly weird himself. He gave a speech last week in which he declared proudly that “the privet hedges of suburbia are the privet hedges of a free people”.
Let us turn now to Priti Patel MP, the home secretary, who represents Witham. New evidence suggests that her father came to this country from Uganda in 1965, not during Idi Amin’s expulsion of Asians in 1972. The reason this matters is that it makes her father an economic migrant, just the group most likely to attract Ms Patel’s spleen when it involves anybody but her father.
More about Priti Patel, and also – Will you put your hands together please for an old favourite? – Matt Hancock MP (West Suffolk). The Good Law Project claims to have extensive evidence of links between Patel, Hancock and two middlemen keen to provide PPE during the Covid crisis. Keen also to support the Tory party, as they made explicitly clear. It is alleged the farrago ended with an invoice for £102.6 million, and surgical masks bought at £5.13 each rather than the going price of £2.69.
But move along now, nothing to see here…
It never stops. Priti Patel has been found to have acted unlawfully in seizing data from refugees’ mobile phones. It seems immigration officers practiced a “secret and blanket policy” of seizing the phones, which was unlawfully carried out using immigration powers.
In fact the world is growing increasingly bizarre. Last week the East Anglian Daily Times carried the headline: “Hancock leads protest march”.
The government is always keen on crackdowns, especially when they are on the poor and especially when they fall to Therese Coffey, work and pensions secretary and MP for Suffolk Coastal. The latest seeks to impose more sanctions on jobseekers and was rushed through the Commons as emergency legislation without a vote by MPs or scrutiny by the Social Security Advisory Committee.
This has fallen foul of the Lords, who proclaimed the emergency move “unjustified”. They told Coffey: “Extensive additional evidence still left us with the view that the target is aspirational, its delivery not yet fully thought through, and the Department’s ability to say whether its target has been achieved somewhat uncertain.”
Nadine Dorries MP (Mid Beds) and culture secretary – My god, they’re all here this week! – was one of those ministers to whom Russia apparently wanted to send hoax calls last week. But they didn’t manage to get through to our Nads. As Alex Andreou remarked: “If they were after intelligence, this was not the place to find it”.
So are things any more sane or honest when away from the wacky world of Westminster? Apparently not. Step forward Cambridgeshire County Council, who it seems have just spent £18 million of taxpayers’ money on a glossy new headquarters… only to find it’s too small. The main room in which meetings of the full council are held is too close to the public, apparently. (The people, my dear, the noise!) Director of resources Tom Kelly is quoted as explaining that the problem will require “commissioning of specialist architectural and construction consultancy”. Which is to say knocking bits off and starting again.
Pecksniff has reported on the sordid business of former UKIP man Councillor Shane Pooley being suspended by Ipswich Conservatives for three months for urging on Putin’s bloody war on Ukraine. But it seems that, without the apparent benefits the Tory whip gives him, Councillor Pooley has little interest in his constituents of Gainsborough Ward. Here is his empty desk at the last full meeting of Ipswich Borough Council.
But for those feeling for the hapless Pooley, fear not. He still has friends. Here is a Tory election leaflet currently being pushed through letterboxes in his ward, featuring him with Tory councillor Liz Harsant and his close friend Ipswich MP Tom Hunt.
By the way and since we mention Mr Hunt, Pecksniff notes he has consistently voted against measures to reduce tax avoidance. It would be interesting to see how that goes down in Gainsborough too.
Regular readers will recall that West Norfolk Council is presently in a spot of bother, involving a police investigation into the activities of one of its councillors (who does a bit of property development on the side) and an area of grass and woodland called Parkway. The council are keen to build 226 houses on the site, Kings Lynn’s main recreation area and open space. The council incidentally have what to other organisations might appear an embarrassing conflict of interest: they both own the site and hold planning authority over it.
So given the, shall we say, delicacies surrounding the development, it perhaps came as a surprise this week to learn that the Department for Levelling Up – no jokes please – has agreed that the building should commence. Apparently, the council put pressure on Michael Gove as the man in charge, to rush through the decision so it would fit within a convenient ‘funding window’.
Wildlife? Environmental concerns? Trees and open space? Real and constant danger of flooding? Let alone potential planning improprieties and an ongoing police investigation? Just send in the bulldozers and get it done before anybody comes up with a plan to stop it.
It seems local residents are savagely angry about the decision and the haste with which it has been pursued. Unlikely as it sounds, don’t bet against the revolution beginning in Kings Lynn.
A new report reveals that the £160 million reorganisation of Suffolk’s education system to eliminate middle schools “has not raised standards”. (Hat tip to the East Anglian Daily Times for the freedom of information request.) But Councillor Rachel Hood, cabinet member with responsibilities for education, won’t have it.
She says: “It is written in black and white in the report by the National Middle Schools’ Forum that education attainment for pupils aged 11 in Suffolk has risen”. She does not mention the performance of any pupils who are other ages than 11, however. And Suffolk still lies in the bottom quarter in education league tables.
But who knows where the truth lies? Councillor Graham Newman, (Conservative, Felixstowe Coastal) tries to help: “In my view, we have convincingly moved the goalposts. I can’t tell you exactly where we are at the moment.”
Ah well, it’s only £160 million and an entire generation of kids’ education we’re talking about.
And as if that weren’t enough, Pecksniff’s next jottings are about the Cambridgeshire and Peterborough Combined Authority. We’ll hear far too much about that little nest of vipers in the weeks ahead. Enough! The corner stool at the bar of the Muckrakers is calling… ?
<<< Pecksniff’s Diary: last week