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Boris Johnson’s Brexit payback peerages

Martin Rowson's illustration for The New European on the new peerages in the House of Lords. - Credit: Archant

MICHAEL WHITE runs the rule over the list of 36 new peerages, which he says screams dysfunctionality at the top.

When Boris Johnson ‘slammed on the brakes’ to halt the gradual easement of Britain’s Covid lockdown last weekend, the contrarian in me wondered if his government wasn’t finally getting ahead of the pandemic curve instead of running haphazardly behind it, overweight, indecisive and shouting ‘wait for me!’

This was not a universally-shared opinion. Many holidaymakers, abroad or heading that way, were even angrier and more confused by ‘mixed messaging’ than they had been the previous week. All those businesses poised for a further relaxation of rules groaned instead. Young people bursting with summer hormones headed off to the park, pub or beach regardless. Rishi Sunak’s ‘Eat Out’ scheme is shouting everyone a tenner’s worth of restaurant grub – while also cutting back on food deliveries for the sheltered. One Muslim leader called Boris ‘the Grinch who stole Eid’.

That last jibe seemed particularly unfair, as did those who complained that ministers were either careless of Muslim sensibilities or acted pre-Eid deliberately. ‘They wouldn’t have done it on Christmas Eve,’ roared shallow cynics. But surely they would and certainly should. Wouldn’t it have been so much more reprehensible to let people at risk celebrate their various faiths and family gatherings without forewarning them of resurgent danger?

There are obvious sensibilities in play here, illustrated by Tory MP, Craig Whittaker, who suggested that the latest spikes were associated with high density Muslim neighbourhoods in the towns and cities where tighter rules have been re-imposed. That inflammatory framing – not robustly denied by You Know Who in No.10 – isn’t quite right, is it? Across Europe suspected spreaders include those hormone-fuelled young hedonists, some claiming (as Mick Jagger has stopped doing) that they’d happily die young before they get old and boring. So are factories and other indoor places where secular folk gather to relax. Pubs even.

In Greater Manchester, it transpires, most new cases are among white residents. But insofar as there is Muslim dimension it’s better framed as arising from poverty and low-paid jobs done by people can’t afford to take sick leave from them, jobs which put them in contact with the public. We could add community-minded church or mosque attenders who don’t put their elderly into care homes on the taxpayer’s tab.

Right wing Tories are understandably restless over the damage lockdown has done to the economy. Their constituents’ holiday plans pile on more pressure. They don’t much like blanket regional restrictions either, ones that restrict life in Manchester’s affluent southern fringe as much as Rochdale or Moss Side. It’s especially galling to Mancunians who insist they live in Cheshire. I’ve passed through expensive northern towns and southern villages since lockdown easement and life looks much more ‘normal’ than elsewhere. Masks? What masks? They’re like Bournemouth minus sand.

Only two weeks ago the PM was talking about a second wave national lockdown this winter as being the unthinkable ‘nuclear option’ – to the evident disquiet of his scientists. With England confirmed as having Europe’s highest (‘world-beating?’) excess death levels it gets ever-harder to deny that ministers and their Sage sages locked down too late in March and reopened too quickly after Europe did. Nobody says it’s easy and many countries are experiencing localised spikes which highlight the risk of a full second wave in the northern winter ahead.

‘This virus isn’t going away, this virus is very dangerous, this virus doesn’t get bored, its only task is to multiply,’ the WHO’s Dr David Nabarro said with trenchant clarity mid-week. So we can’t let up on precautions, as individuals – rich and poor – or as society, local, national, global. ‘We’ve all got to learn to live with it,’ is the scientists’ bad news. There will have to be trade-offs, schools open or pubs perhaps. Trial and error.

So no more breezy Boris-column-talk of Covid-19 being whacked, conquered or wrestled to the ground by September or even Christmas. I think he’s finally got the message. But it flies against his character and pie-eating world view which wants to ‘liberate’ us all from petty constraints, including ethical ones and EU regulations. There is a bad smell of cronyism and divisive favours about the new list of peers whose eclectic eccentricity beats any fruity lists I can recall. We’ll come back to that.

Pending one of those medical miracles (‘game-changer’) that newspapers manically flag up twice-weekly, this means effective track, trace and isolate, better innovation and adaptation to keep the economy producing, better cooperation between local authorities and Whitehall. Manchester mayor, Andy Burnham, was consulted about the north west’s lockdown and supportive – though still frustrated at the lack of immediate enforcement powers. Media speculation about locking Londoners inside the M25 came as news to the capital’s mayor, understandably peeved Sadiq Khan.

Don’t think that gimmicky talk of appointing a high profile TV type (they won’t get one) to be the on-camera face of No.10 will solve mixed messaging or stop Team Boris quietly briefing Fleet Street mates, a recurring cause of Covid confusion. The boy wonders obviously know little about how the White House PR operation actually works. In any case it imploded under the weight of Trump’s mendacity long before his latest desperate flight from pandemic reality: ‘suspend the election for fear of fraud’ (his own).

No amount of obfuscation can hide the core fact that claims of an 80% English track-and-trace success rate sounds better than it is. If 80% of those testing positive are traced and hand over 80% of their recent contacts, 80% of whom are also traced and isolated, we are roughly at the 50% self-isolation mark – well below the 75% the boffins deem necessary to contain a fresh surge. It may remind you of Brexit’s ‘overwhelming’ mandate of 52% of votes cast which became an underwhelming 37% of voters on closer inspection.

I know, I know, all governments massage statistics. But it is hard to remember one which so persistently resorted to obfuscation, underhand behaviour or outright effrontery as this one, or on such a wide front and without apology. No not Thatcher, nor New Labour, whatever the ‘they’re all as bad as each other crowd’ tell you. They’re not.

Harold Wilson had a ‘lavender list’ of crony honours, Mrs T solicited party funds from Hong Kong billionaires, while Tony Blair and David Cameron both faced criticisms over party funding. Few politicians are as wholesome, wise or brave as the late-lamented John Hume. But those PMs also regularly took punishment beatings in the Commons – twice a week, can you imagine it? – and exercised a tight grip on government policy, even Cameron sometimes.

For all Dominic Cummings’ grandiose ambitions to ‘dismantle the administrative state’ (Alt-Right agitator, Steve Bannon’s phrase), they don’t do their own version of policy very well, do they? The wheels fell off last week’s ‘free bikes’ lark pretty quickly. The healthier food policy, buttressed by restaurateur Henry Dimbleby’s report (it was pro-choice) fared little better with serious students of diet.

This week ministerial mediocrities are trying to persuade us all that planning constraints are behind the housing shortage when consents already exist for one million unbuilt homes.

Rectifying shortages of skilled labour and ministers’ obsession with home ownership for young people who can barely afford to rent would be a better starting place. We should also know from 1970s experience that rabbit hutch standards produce tomorrow’s slums. No one pulls down Nye Bevan’s post-war council houses. Shame so many were sold off. Converting closed John Lewis branches into micro-flats is asking for trouble down the line.

The list of new peers screams dysfunctionality at the top. Of the 36 nominees set to be sent to the increasingly discredited and bloated upper house – see Andrew Adonis’s TNE column last week – only a handful are there on obvious and deserved merit. They don’t include Ian Botham whose genius with bat and ball do not justify his appointment as a legislator, even if he did vote for Brexit. Remember, they don’t get a salary – gig economy peers – but each costs an average £83,000 a year. Since 650 hereditary peers were expelled in 1999, 750 lifers have been created – Blair (374) and Cameron (245) the main offenders. Boris’s main excuse is ‘Brexit balance’.

As ex-chancellors, Remainers Ken Clarke and Phil Hammond are obviously qualified and suitable. So are the banker, Dame Helena Morrissey, Neil Mendoza, provost of ‘Rhodes Must Fall’ Oriel College, and Minouche Shafik, the distinguished economist. Louise Casey, noisy disrupter of Whitehall consensus in a non-Cummings (ie constructive) way, has earned her spurs, as has professor Prem Sikka, an academic accountant with interesting non-consensual views. We need more honest left-wing accountants who understand tax avoidance.

But why the PM’s fastidious brother and anti-Brexit martyr, Jo, has accepted this poisoned chalice is beyond me. Ditto Charles Moore, ex-Telegraph editor and fine biographer of Lady Thatcher, he doesn’t need this tarnished bauble. Ruth Davidson is a proper politician, but what a waste when her successor leading the embattled Scots Tories has just quit
after six months. You could say the same for the DUP’s Nigel Dodds. Is it a pay-off for being betrayed by Boris over the Irish Sea border? Even IDS is waking up to that one. As for the rest, I’m sure I’ve overlooked some decent worthies. But let’s not bother fretting about John Bercow’s exclusion or Labour’s Tom Watson, he’s had a narrow escape too. But most are time-serving Tory MPs you’ve likely never heard of – with good reason – or Labour defectors of one kind or another. Ian Austin and John Woodcock were brave anti-Corbynistas, but taking peerages from Boris would give politics a bad name if it didn’t already have one. Frank Field, whom I admire despite everything, Gisela Stuart and Kate Hoey become peers – £300 a day expenses just for signing on – as Brexit paybacks perhaps?. Neither they nor the Tory placemen will do much to dent the Lords pro-Remain maths. Sir Eddie Lister, Boris’s City Hall bagman, becomes Lord Eddie. Veronica Wadley was a pro-Boris Evening Standard editor and later City Hall arts functionary. Then there is Lord Roubles himself: Evgeny Lebedev,
owner of the aforementioned Standard. Against the capital’s pro-Remain majority, the newspaper endorsed Brexit Boris for PM.

Lebedev’s father is a former KGB colonel who has done well as a media tycoon in post-Soviet business. Cameron and George Osborne as well as Boris attended a Christmas party at the family’s £6 million house in Regent’s Park the day after his December 12 election win.

Boris’s junketing at assorted Lebedev palazzos may not be in the Jeffrey Epstein league.

But more than any other nominee Evgeny’s promotion smacks of mutual back-slapping of one kind or another, in my opinion. But grossly self-serving behaviour is par for the course now, much like Covid contracts awarded to Brexit pals without going out to tender. People start to get used to it and shrug their shoulders.

Thus Charlie Elphicke, ex-MP for Dover (his wife took the seat at the last election before filing for divorce) was convicted of sexual assault last week. Shrug. The case was quickly followed by reports of rape allegations against another Tory MP.

No side has a monopoly of wisdom or virtue, but there is a thread of cynical disregard for constraint here, one romantically disguised as liberty resisting the tyrannical state. Quentin Letts, Mail-to-Times sketch-writer, expressed the attitude well from frontline rural Hereford when he sarcastically likened mask-wearing to ‘socialist solidarity’. Wow! Columnist Sarah Vine says she’s willing to die for her freedom. But why take the rest of us with you, Sarah? Simon Dolan, a Monaco-based businessman is using his millions to challenge the lockdown in the High Court. From Berlin to Minnesota anti-mask protests rage, fuelled by the evidence-free hunch that Covid-19 is a plot to take away control like fluoride or vaccination.

It’s not much of a jump for many of these people straight into advocacy of a no-deal Brexit from which the nimbler among them may do very nicely, but most people won’t on most available evidence. Unlike Brexit agitator, Tommy Yaxley-Robinson, they can’t afford to move to Spain either. But in the August lull before the moment of Brexit truth awkward facts pile in.

Thus the wheeze to set up UK free ports won’t add to GDP, merely displace activity towards the low tax option. Gosh, who knew? And the EU won’t bend its regulatory rules to accommodate the cabinet’s cake-and-eat-it hopes. Gosh, who said that? Stanley Johnson did. Give him a peerage and shut him up.

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