Tuesday, 17 May 2022

In a sense it really is our own fault

 

Yesterday’s story about the government minister who suggested that people who are struggling to get by should work longer hours or get a better job tells us a lot about the underlying philosophy of the current government, and is a form of victim-blaming. If people are unable to get by on their income, this is, apparently, not because employers are underpaying them, nor is it anything to do with legislation which allows employers to pay less than a living wage, or the actions of the benefits agency in threatening to withhold benefits from people who don’t take low-paid work. No, according to the Tory gospel, it’s their own fault for staying in poorly-paid employment. Whilst there was something of a grudging admission that changing jobs or working longer hours wouldn’t work for everyone, the way the exception was phrased suggests a belief that it is indeed the answer for most.

The idea that people can and should better themselves with no need for legislation or assistance is a key fallacy of Tory ideology, but it lies behind a lot of their thinking, and deliberately conflates the idea of ‘anybody’ with ‘everybody’. As a general rule (although there are always some exceptions), it is true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job, just as ‘anyone’ can become a successful billionaire entrepreneur. And their idea of social justice is based on that idea that opportunities are equal, with its concomitant that anyone who doesn’t do either or both of those things therefore has only themselves to blame. Poverty, in their eyes, is the fault of the poor themselves; people who do not enjoy ‘success’ are just life’s losers. But here’s the point: whilst it’s true that ‘anyone’ can get a better job or become a billionaire, it doesn’t follow that ‘everyone’ can. Indeed it would be impossible for ‘everyone’ to do so. Whilst some doors might theoretically be open to ‘anyone’, we know that only a limited number can pass through them before the room becomes full. We also know that which people pass through them isn’t simply a matter of individual determination; there’s also a good amount of luck involved, to say nothing of the individual’s background.

Let us take as an example, a certain B Johnson, currently the temporary resident of number 10, Downing Street. In theory, anyone in the UK could have ended up living at his current address, but given his limited ability, his utter inconsistency, and his penchant for lies, would he be in the same place today had he been brought up on a council estate? Would he have ever gone to Eton? And without going to Eton, would he ever have got into Oxford? And without both of those things happening, would the Conservative Party ever have endorsed a man (let alone a woman) with such a cavalier disregard for the law and for truth, who is known to have conspired with another to have a journalist beaten up, and who has been fired from two jobs for lying, as a candidate for parliament, never mind for PM? Background, and more particularly parental income and wealth, to say nothing of the consequential power relationships, matter; they matter a lot.

It suits the Tories, though, to blame the poor for their own plight. It suits them even better to blame the poor for the fact that those above the poverty line are also struggling. From their perspective, it’s far better for the not-so-well-off to blame the even poorer for their situation than to encourage them to look at where the power and wealth are being increasingly concentrated. The words of the hapless minister yesterday weren’t a mistake or a slip of the tongue, they were part of a deliberate culture of victim-blaming. One thing that is entirely the fault of those of us who are not part of their priviliged elite is allowing them to get away with it.

Monday, 16 May 2022

Yet another cunning plan seems likely to fail

 

There are contradictory reports about what the government is or is not planning to do about the Northern Ireland Protocol this week. Some are suggesting that the PM is telling his ministers to tone down the rhetoric, and that he will vow not to scrap the protocol; whilst others are suggesting that he is imminently going to give the green light to a new parliamentary bill which will effectively nullify part of the international agreement which he signed. There might be circumstances in which ‘keeping the other side guessing’ is a valid negotiating tactic, but sending mixed messages to a party such as the DUP, which sees everything in stark black and white terms, before meeting with them isn’t one of them. Indeed, giving that party mixed messages and a succession of broken promises rather than honesty about what was going to happen and why is one of the causes of the current mess. The mixed messages look less like a negotiating tactic than a reflection of the fact that the PM can’t make up his own mind and simply veers between options depending on who he spoke to last.

It appears that getting Tory MPs to pass an Act of Parliament which specifically authorises ministers to over-ride the provisions of an international treaty that they negotiated and signed up to may not be a simple task. There are still a few brave souls in the traditional party of law and order who cling to the outdated belief that abiding by international law is, on the whole, rather a good thing. And then there is the House of Lords. Given that this is not a manifesto commitment by the governing party (indeed, there was a clear manifesto commitment to implement the agreement, not to change it), their lordships have the constitutional right to delay the legislation for up to a year – and it is highly likely that, with no whipped majority available to the PM, they will do precisely that.

The measure is likely to be sold to the dissenting MPs on the basis that the government has no intention of using the powers which the legislation, if and when passed, will give them; it is merely a bargaining stick to convince the EU that it must change its stance or else. Even assuming that a sufficient number of dissenting MPs are persuaded by that (it does, after all, require them to believe the word of a known serial liar), it is unlikely that their noble lordships will fall for it. But, not for the first time, it looks as though the PM and his team have either not thought through the consequences of their actions, or else are assuming that what happens in the UK is somehow invisible to those pesky foreigners in Brussels and beyond.

If they could only try and stand in the shoes of the EU Commission for just a few moments, they might start to understand that watching the UK government struggle to get unilateral changes through its own parliament doesn’t exactly come across as a huge threat requiring their immediate capitulation. What it does encourage is quite the opposite: do nothing while the UK parliamentary drama plays out, with at least an evens chance that the whole thing will blow up in the face of the UK Government, or even that there will be a change of government during that year. It also, of course, gives them twelve months to plan quietly and implement their own response to any attempt to unilaterally change the rules through act of parliament. The UK government will in the meantime make the same preparations for implementing its proposed changes as it did for the Brexit Agreement itself (i.e. do nothing). It will then come as a complete surprise when the EU, once again, seamlessly implements its own fallback plan, leaving the UK Government astounded at the inability of those Europeans to understand just how special the UK is.

Friday, 13 May 2022

Improving government efficiency

 

Civil servants perform no useful function, and we can simply sack 20% of them with no impact on government services or performance. That is, apparently, what the PM believes, and why he has asked every department to reduce its numbers by that arbitrary percentage, leading to an overall reduction of 90,000 jobs. It’s hardly as if there are any backlogs in, say, the Passport Office or the DVLA which might be exacerbated by an arbitrary 20% cut in staff numbers.

I suppose that, for the head of a cabinet which could easily reduce its headcount by 100% with only a net positive effect on government performance, a cut of a mere 20% might even look to be a bit on the cautious side. And I somehow doubt that, in calculating the cost savings involved by not paying 90,000 salaries, he has taken any account of the potential corresponding increase in expenditure on benefits (or pensions, for those ex-civil servants who decide that they will simply retire early rather than seek alternative employment). Then again, because there will be no one available to administer said benefits and pensions, maybe it doesn’t matter anyway. Another brilliant cost-saving ‘efficiency’.

Interestingly, one of the things he said was that he wanted civil service numbers to get back down to where they were in 2016. For all of 10 milliseconds, I found myself wondering what could possibly be significant about that date. Could there have been some strange event which subsequently required the government to employ thousands of extra civil servants to negotiate trade deals, to implement new border controls, or to replicate other functions previously performed elsewhere, such as in Brussels maybe? But luckily, now that Brexit is officially ‘done’, none of that is needed any more. Obviously. And those unicorns are still grazing happily on the sunlit uplands.

Thursday, 12 May 2022

Eventually, reality will assert itself

 

The significance of Sinn Fein becoming the largest party in Northern Ireland after the recent elections has received a lot of attention, although the detail of the result suggests it is more symbolic than seismic. One thing which did emerge from that election though is that it, as the BBC put it, “cemented a majority for parties which accept the protocol”, largely as a result of the growth in the number of Alliance MLAs. The Assembly now contains an even bigger majority in favour of accepting the Northern Ireland protocol and making it work than it did before the elections. The UK government, being what it is, has instead chosen to interpret the result as a resounding demand for scrapping the protocol, even if that leads to a trade war with the EU.

I’m sure that I remember ministers of the government which now wants to scrap the protocol describing it as giving Northern Ireland “the best of both worlds”, and the overall deal as being very good for the whole of the UK, but that was in a long-ago past. The problem is, as the Guardian put it, whilst “A responsible prime minister would have set about trying to reconcile unionists to the deal, while negotiating adjustment to level the controls”, what he has actually done is “stoked the DUP grievance, trying to use its intransigence as a lever to exert pressure on Brussels”. The DUPs have been used as dupes all along. Although, in fairness, anyone caught out believing anything Johnson told them deserves to end up looking foolish.

The problem which now exists – of trying to get workable power-sharing operating again at Stormont – is one entirely of the PM’s own making. It was he who promised not to put a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, he who then negotiated and agreed a customs barrier in the Irish Sea, and he who is refusing to implement the agreement which he negotiated. It is all based, as it has been from the outset, on the exceptionalist belief that the UK is so special that it can have whatever it wants, and that mere foreigners can be blustered and threatened into subservience. And the traditional intransigence of the DUP – never a party to knowingly learn from its mistakes – is being used again as a tool with which to seek to batter ‘Brussels’.

There are only three potential ultimate outcomes from this mess, even if it takes an all-out trade war with the EU before a new UK government recognises the fact:

·        The UK can implement the agreement it has signed, and somehow try to persuade or bribe the DUP into accepting the protocol with a few minor changes

·        The EU will be obliged to implement formal border controls across the island of Ireland, which would probably delight the DUP, given its inability to see beyond the short term, but infuriate the US and probably hasten Irish unity in the longer term

·        The UK could agree to align itself more closely with EU single market and customs union rules (which is what the Brexiteers actually promised back in 2016), thereby removing the need for the protocol (and incidentally hugely benefiting the UK economy as a whole).

The nearest thing to a certainty is that none of the above will happen until the current government is replaced, because they are incapable of understanding the consequences of their own actions to date, let alone the real status of the UK in the world. Trying to escape the consequences of past lies by telling even bigger ones eventually catches up with people, even those with the attributes of a greased piglet.

Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Seizing the opportunity

 

There is no ‘right’ answer to the question ‘how many members should a parliament have?’ For sure, constitutional experts can pore over comparisons with other countries and earnestly assess workloads and processes, but for all that, it ultimately comes down to a judgement by politicians, often based on a compromise between what they think the answer should be and what they think the populace will accept. For those who oppose the existence of a particular institution (like many Tories in relation to the Senedd), the ‘right’ answer for them is zero, compelling them to oppose any and every suggestion of an increase. Similarly, there is neither a ‘right’ size nor a ‘right’ number of constituencies; for those who want a direct relationship between electors and their representatives, the answer is a large number of small single member constituencies, whereas for those who want the most proportional outcome possible for any election, the answer will be a small number of large multi-member constituencies. For all the attempts to rationalise and justify any particular number, the reality is that it depends on the political viewpoints and priorities of those making the decisions.

The joint declaration by Plaid and Labour yesterday that there should be 96 members elected from 16 six-member constituencies is a statement of their joint judgement on those questions, as is the knee-jerk response from the Tories opposing any increase, under any circumstances, ever. It’s a bold plan, bolder than I was expecting, and in terms of overall numbers of members and constituencies, they’ve come up with a very good answer. There are two little niggles, though.

The first is the way in which the boundaries are to be drawn. Simply using the boundaries of the 32 Westminster constituencies and pairing them up is likely to produce a few odd constituencies which don’t entirely reflect human geography. If it is, as suggested, just a ‘quick and dirty fix’, on a one-off basis to get the changes in place for the 2026 election, then it’s a reasonable way ahead. The problem is that ‘quick fixes’ have a tendency to become established: agreeing changes is always difficult, and by the time they are up for discussion there will be elected members who are invested in those boundaries.

The second is the method of election, using the d’Hondt system, rather than full STV. The method is not without its advantages. Marking just one party with a single cross is similar to the familiar FPTP system, and was used for electing MEPs. It produces a much more proportional result overall (even based, as it effectively is, on counting only first choice votes), and coupled with the proposal that parties will have to ‘zip’ male and female candidates is likely to produce a very gender-balanced Senedd. It abolishes the distinction between ‘constituency’ and ‘list’ members, under which the latter were often perceived (wrongly) to be some sort of second-class members. It also helps to shatter the myth, fundamental to the Westminster system and much beloved by certain egotistical politicians, that the election of individuals is down to their unique talents and abilities and not to the colour of their rosette; that voters elect individuals not parties. (There has been, as far as I can see, no mention of the obvious corollary – any MS elected solely on a party ticket who ‘jumps ship’ should be disqualified and replaced with the next person on the relevant party’s list. That’s a flaw in the current system for list members and could easily be rectified as part of these new proposals.) There are some downsides, though. It is not as fully proportional as a full STV system; so-called ‘closed’ lists leave considerable power to determine which of their candidates get elected in the hands of the parties rather than the electorate; and it takes no account of the second (third, etc.) preferences of those voters whose first choice party doesn’t cross the threshold for representation.

It bears the obvious hallmarks of compromise between two parties seeking out common ground in order to get something in place whilst they have a window of opportunity to do so, but is nevertheless better and more radical than I had expected from such a process. None of us knows when – or even whether – such a window of opportunity will present itself again. We should not delude ourselves about the timescale – or even the possibility – of further change once these changes are in place, but they represent a huge leap forward from where we are today. Grabbing that opportunity whilst the Senedd majority for implementing it exists is more important than any remaining niggles.

Tuesday, 10 May 2022

Limping ever onwards

 

To the pleasant surprise of many, including myself, it turned out that gambling on Keir Starmer being as unprincipled as Boris Johnson was a very bad bet indeed. I’m not the only one to have underestimated Starmer on this occasion. One can nit-pick about what happens in the event of the ‘Barnard Castle’ loophole – a police investigation which concludes that there was probably a minor breach but issues no fines. And one can hypothesise that all Starmer has done is to accept, in advance, that which would have been inevitable in any event if a fine were issued; but it looks as though he has managed to seize the initiative and put himself ahead of the story. Had he waited – as apparently some of his aides wished – until a fine/no fine decision had been taken by the police, he might have missed an opportunity to draw a clear line between himself and the PM, and been beset by reporting on this issue for the whole of the next 6-8 weeks whilst a police investigation which appears to be even more painfully slow than that into the shenanigans at Downing Street takes place.

It's a gamble, of course – but, in the event, a rather better bet than the one which the Tories took in demanding that Starmer be investigated, and it turns the focus right back onto Johnson and those around him. The PM won’t resign; that would require a degree of self-awareness and a sense of shame or embarrassment, none of which he possesses. And his MPs seem determined to demonstrate their own lack of principle and the backbone which would be needed to dislodge him. He’ll simply limp on until the next crisis (more fines? Sue Gray?) in the hope that something will turn up. It isn’t quite what Macmillan meant by “Events, dear boy. Events.” Nor is it the “finest hour” to which his hero referred. It’s a good example of an utterly dysfunctional semi-democracy in inaction though.

Monday, 9 May 2022

Gambling everything on a lack of principles

 

Given his alleged familiarity with Ancient Greece, it’s likely that Boris Johnson is at least aware of Aesop’s injunction to “be careful what you wish for” (although given his recent self-comparison with King Lear at the time the latter was going mad, it’s by no means certain that he understands the context or significance). It’s a suggestion which he and those others in his party currently revelling in the thought that Keir Starmer might also be fined for lockdown breaches should probably bear in mind.

We don’t yet know the outcome of the new police enquiry; whilst some of the reporting yesterday suggests that the version of events we’ve previously been given might not be an exact match with the verité, they may still conclude that no offences worthy of a fine have been committed, and that is probably the likeliest outcome. The Tories will not be unhappy with that as a result – they’ve slung a lot of mud, some of which has stuck, and they’ve managed to give the impression that it isn’t only the Tories who have broken rules. It’s not particularly edifying as a political process, but it meets the only remaining objective of the current PM and government – clinging to power at all costs.

But what if… Just suppose for a moment that the police do find a breach and issue one or more fines to those present – what are the consequences of that, and have the Tories thought them through? The first and most obvious consequence is that the Durham Police Force will find it difficult to justify opening a retrospective investigation and issuing retrospective fines in one case, having refused to do so in another. Dominic Cummings and his amazing eye test could easily become a live issue once again.

The second consequence would be that the spotlight gets shone on Starmer – will he do as he said that Johnson should do, and resign, or will he attempt to argue that any breach was inadvertent and that things are different for him because, unlike Johnson, he wasn’t the one making the rules? The Tories are betting heavily on the latter. Their aim is to portray Starmer and Labour as being no better than themselves, and therefore ease the pressure on Johnson. However, if Starmer were to resign it would have completely the opposite effect. There would then be a clear contrast between a man caught out once who does the principled thing and resigns and a serial offender who carries on regardless. The pressure would move back to Johnson. There’s little chance he would resign even then – this is not a man who has ever felt any shame or embarrassment. But it might well lead to further unease amongst those of his troops who are sent out to defend the indefensible, once again. It would also, of course, give Labour a chance to replace a man who hasn’t exactly sparkled in the role to date. All that clamour for a reinvestigation would end up being a classic piece of self foot-shooting.

In short, the Tories are gambling heavily on their assumption that Starmer is no more principled than Johnson. I wish I could say that it looked like a really bad bet.

Thursday, 5 May 2022

Aiming for the Moon. And missing.

There is a certain inevitability about the way that local elections are reported on, and interpreted, through the prism of ‘national’ politics. It’s not a particularly new phenomenon, although the extent to which it happens seems to have increased in recent years. It stems, ultimately, from the belief that ‘national’ (i.e. Westminster) elections are the only important ones and that everything else is a side-show, a mere indicator as to how opinion might be moving ahead of the next ‘national’ election. It's a pity in many ways; from experience, I’m well aware of many dedicated councillors (from all parties) who end up losing their seats because of the overall state of their party despite their record on behalf of their communities; and conversely, I’m aware of plenty of lazy and incompetent councillors who are only there because they’ve been dragged in on the coat tails of ‘national’ swings. It’s a pity in another way, as well: for those of us who believe that decision-making could and should be more local, and that there’s nothing wrong with two neighbouring councils following radically different policies if that’s what the citizens vote for, it leads to increasing expectations that parties will propose common platforms across the whole country, rather than having more freedom to propose county-wide manifestoes under the broad principles which their parties support.

It also leads to that truly horrible idea that electors should use local elections to ‘send a message’ to national politicians rather than to think about what they want for their own communities within the limited powers which local councils possess. Given the extent to which overall local policy can only be implemented within the financial straitjacket set ‘nationally’, there’s an inevitability about that as well; but it means a stifling of debate about whether local councils should have more power and more financial autonomy. Long gone, it seems to me, are the days when Plaid, for instance, used to argue for the ultra vires law to be replace by an intra vires law – basically meaning that councils would be able to do anything not expressly forbidden rather than only those things expressly allowed by central legislation. These days, parties seem to be more interested in giving more direction to local authorities than more discretion.

It also produces some outlandish claims about what a vote for a particular party might mean. My own favourite from this round of council elections is the Tories’ claim that “Only by voting Welsh Conservative can you stop Labour’s plan for more politicians in Cardiff Bay”. The precise mechanism by which electing Conservative councillors would change the plans for expanding the Senedd is – probably wisely – left unexplained. In truth, even if the Tories won every seat on every council in Wales – an outcome which some might think impossible given that they’re not contesting every seat (although for a party prepared to disenfranchise supporters of other parties and take direct political control of the Electoral Commission, not contesting seats doesn’t necessarily look like an insurmountable obstacle to winning them) – they would still have zero impact on this issue. It looks more like an attempt to scoop up the residual anti-Senedd vote than a serious policy proposal. They might just as well promise to mine the moon’s cheese reserves. At least that might show some innovation and initiative.


Monday, 2 May 2022

Right hands and right hands

 

Insofar as the UK government can be said to have an economic strategy at all, it is one which depends on achieving a level of growth in the UK economy. But that growth is expected to somehow just appear, as if by magic, with no meaningful government action to bring it about. In the meantime, according to one former Bank of England official, the ‘independent’ Bank of England is obliged to force the UK economy into recession in order to hit its 2% inflation target. And who, exactly, sets the BoE’s target and demands that it meet said target? Well, that would be the same government whose forecasts on tax revenue and deficits assume that the economy will grow rather than shrink. They could, of course, change the BoE’s targets at any time. That would rather expose the fact that the idea that the BoE is in any meaningful sense ‘independent’ is more myth than reality, but leaving aside that entirely self-generated political problem there is nothing to stop the government relaxing the inflation target (whether in the long term or only temporarily) and replacing it with a target of achieving full employment. That would offend the Tory ideologues, of course, but it would benefit those citizens in difficulty in the here and now.

Worse, amongst the factors claimed to be driving inflation (other explanations are available) are a shortage of labour in some sectors (a more-or-less direct result of the ending of Freedom of Movement with EU countries), a privatised energy sector which has prioritised short term profit over longer term energy storage and security, the impact of Brexit and Covid on trade, and the war in Ukraine. Only two of those (Covid and the war) are not the direct result of ideology-based government policies, and both of those are exacerbated by a government declining to take mitigating action. In short, if we accept the theory of inflation being promulgated by one of those who has been very close to decision-making in the past, and whose views appear to be in line with Treasury thinking, we have a government which is deliberately following policies which lead to higher inflation, instructing the BoE to force the country into recession, if necessary, to control that inflation, and then basing its fiscal policies on the assumption not only that there will be no recession but that the economy will grow, all-the-while wringing its hands about the utterly but conveniently misnamed ‘cost of living crisis’. It’s not in fact a ‘cost-of-living’ crisis at all; it’s a full-blown economic crisis directly caused by government policy. It’s not so much that the left hand doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, as that having two right hands inevitably leads to some form of circular anatine aquatic motion (as the late Rhodri Morgan might almost have put it). At best.

Thursday, 28 April 2022

Agreeing with Dorries

 

This week brought a rather frightening occurrence – I found myself agreeing with something said by Nadine Dorries. They say that given an infinite number of chimpanzees with an infinite number of typewriters and an infinite period of time, one of them will eventually produce the complete works of Shakespeare, in the correct order, and duplicating every single one of the bard’s original spelling errors. (Mathematically speaking, the idea is wrong – infinity is so vast that we’d actually end up with an infinite number of perfect copies, but let’s not allow mathematical precision to spoil the flow.) The thing is, the perfect copy doesn’t have to be the infinitieth one; the power of randomness is such that it could equally be the first, which means that it doesn’t need an infinite period of time for even Dorries to say something sensible. It just feels that way sometimes. Mind you, given a choice between agreeing with Dorries or agreeing with Jake, it’s a tough call for many of us, although that didn’t prevent the PM from coming down firmly on the side of Jake.

It isn’t just me: both the columnist Simon Jenkins and many of the heads of the Civil Service have also found themselves obliged to agree with Dorries on this occasion, even if it’s a trend which won’t last. Jake is, of course, famed for being out of touch with reality, and it didn’t really need him to wander round the offices of civil servants leaving patronising and insulting notices on empty desks to demonstrate how removed he is from the real world in which most of us live. He manages that just by getting up in the morning. And I suppose, given the PM's history of sexism and misogyny, that it shouldn’t be a surprise that Johnson would support a fellow old-Etonian and Oxford graduate ahead of a mere woman, especially one from a working-class background. She, like the civil servants who have attracted the derision of Jake, is supposed to know her place, and her deviation from her usual position of providing adulation for the PM will not have been welcome.

The point she made, though, is a valid one. The issue we should be addressing is not whether civil servants are at their desks for the specified 37 hours per week, but what they do with their time and how productive they are. If the job gets done efficiently, why should we care where they do it? Whilst there are some roles, even within the civil service, where staff working together and talking directly to each other can spark innovation and efficiency, there are plenty of other, much more mechanistic, jobs where the opportunity to mingle round the coffee machine or the water cooler can actually damage overall productivity. And even those where it is of benefit don’t really require 5 precise days of 7 hours each to achieve the necessary effect.

So, are the civil servants working from home being productive or not? And if not, why not? We know that there are problems with backlogs at the DVLA and the Passport Office, and we know that both have got worse since the start of the pandemic (although neither were particularly famous for the speed of their response even before that). Is it because they are inherently inefficient or workshy, or is it because of a lack of resources (staff absences due to Covid have been high) or even a lack of systems to support homeworking? Are the rules about what staff can work on at home too restrictive, meaning that some particular tasks end up with a backlog? Could changes to rules, or better systems actually facilitate more efficient working? Despite Jake’s obsession with seeing offices full of people sitting at desks doing whatever it is that they do, we know that a combination of Covid, a war in Europe hitting energy costs and supplies, and the need to reduce our carbon usage all mean that working from home, where it can be managed, is to be preferred, and that’s without even beginning to consider issues such as work/life balance.

That’s not an analysis which Jake has done, of course – nor is it one he’s ever likely to do. He doesn’t need to when he ‘knows’ that state employees are inherently lazy and workshy and can only be managed by close direct supervision. Both he and Johnson share the ideological standpoint that everything the state does is essentially rubbish (the civil service can’t even organise decent parties – as some of the ministers defending the PM have pointed out, there were no outside caterers, no balloons or poppers, and people were wearing suits). For ideological Tories, delays at the DVLA and the Passport Office can only ever be down to the poor performance of individual civil servants, and the underlying assumption is always that employing fewer staff on minimum wage level salaries in companies owned by Tory donors will do a better job, presumably because the employers will be able to use bigger whips. The more one thinks about it, the more surprising it is that Dorries seems to have abandoned her party’s ideology and struck the nail on the head. It could just be the effect of that randomness mentioned earlier. Or maybe she just didn’t get the memo telling her what she’s supposed to believe. Perhaps the memo's author was working from home and wasn’t allowed to send the e-mail because of civil service rules.

Monday, 25 April 2022

Certainty and stability

 

In an attempt to stave off attempts by some Tory MPs to dislodge Boris Johnson from Downing Street, the Tory Party Chair, Oliver Dowden, said yesterday that changing the PM would lead to "instability and uncertainty". In principle, he has a point: change can indeed lead to instability and uncertainty. However, in practice, his statement requires us to believe the converse: i.e. that keeping Johnson in place is providing ‘stability and certainty’. That’s a big ask. Just last week, the Guardian catalogued 30 times when Johnson has performed a U-turn, sometimes with dazzling speed. Also last week, the Education Minister was sent out to tour the studios in the morning explaining why it was absolutely right to vote down Labour’s proposal for an enquiry into whether the PM had misled parliament, only to discover as soon as he got back to the office that what he should have been saying was that it was absolutely right to support Labour’s proposal. It’s his own fault, mind: plenty of other ministers have found out that the line which they’ve vociferously been explaining in the media has changed before they even get back to their desks, and they never seem to learn. It’s an example of Johnsonian certainty in action.

In fairness, it is true that uncertainty can lead to instability, and not everything about the current PM is uncertain. There are some certainties:

·        Whatever he says today, he’ll say something different tomorrow

·        Whether something is true or not is not a consideration to him

·        He betrays everyone eventually.

Things may look different to ministers appointed by Johnson, of course, especially those who have been most loyal and most willing to allow themselves to be swept along by the tide of lies, illegality and corruption. Under a different leader (assuming that the Tories can find one untainted by Johnson), their future does indeed look very unstable and uncertain. It’s easy to see why Dowden would be feeling more than a little uncertain about his own future when it comes to replacing the PM. For the rest of us, the bigger worry is that there really isn’t anyone in the current Tory Party who’d be much better. The possibility that there isn’t looks more certain than not.

Saturday, 23 April 2022

No refresher course needed

 

There is an old story about the trade unionist who was sent in to negotiate a pay rise but returned to his members to tell them that he hadn’t got them a rise at all, and in fact had been forced to accept a pay cut on their behalf. The good news was that he'd got it backdated. Perhaps in later life he became a teacher at Eton, instructing the likes of Boris Johnson in negotiating skills.

This week, the PM went to India, and the trip was billed in advance as an opportunity to get India onside with sanctions against Russia for its attack on Ukraine. By all reports, they didn’t quite get around to discussing that in detail, but Johnson did manage to agree to a relaxation of the rules on export of British military equipment, one of the consequences of which is that it will now be easier for such equipment to reach Russia via India. He promised to plug any ‘loopholes’, seemingly oblivious to the fact that avoiding such loopholes was precisely the objective of the licensing rules he’s just removed.

In other talks whilst he was there he pushed for an expedited timetable for a trade deal with India, to be concluded by a wholly arbitrary date, apparently forgetting that the details of the last trade deal he signed in a rush are still busily unravelling. Responding to a question on that matter while he was there, he helpfully reminded the world that his response to any deal signed in a rush is to unilaterally opt out of the bits he doesn’t like. For good measure, he also managed to demonstrate in successive interviews that he can’t even negotiate successfully with his own MPs. It’s an approach guaranteed to fill the Indian negotiators with confidence about the integrity and dependability of their interlocutors, to say nothing of the likely longevity of Johnson's term of office. Or maybe not. It may be significant that in calling for a trade deal "by Diwali in October", no year was specified.

He has, though, clearly shown that he doesn’t need to go back to that trade union negotiator/ mentor for a refresher course – the lessons are all still quite clear in his mind.

Friday, 22 April 2022

Following orders

 

The top civil servant in the Home Office has apparently found it necessary to tell the department’s staff that they will not be breaking the law nor be guilty of racism if they implement the Home Secretary’s plan to deport some asylum seekers to Rwanda. The claim that the plan does not break any laws is a bold one for a civil servant to make; ultimately it is for the courts to decide whether the plan is legal or not, and we can be certain that there will be legal challenges aplenty. The question as to whether it is racist or not is more complex. It is arguably not directly racist in the sense that race will not be a factor in the criteria for deciding which of those migrants who arrive by one particular mode of entry will be sent; but since the overwhelming majority of those arriving by that route are of African or Middle Eastern origin (Europeans generally having safer routes available to them, as well as less need to seek sanctuary - current circumstances notwithstanding), there is every probability that it will be indirectly racist.

But perhaps the most significant part of the mandarin’s lecture to staff was the bit where he said that staff were obliged to implement ministers’ decisions. That sounded a lot like telling them that they must always follow orders, an approach to government which many will have thought to have been seriously discredited at Nuremburg. There are lots of things in human history which have been entirely legal under the laws in force at the time – including, of course, slavery – but being ‘legal’ doesn’t make them right, and it doesn’t absolve those implementing them of all moral responsibility for their actions. Where to draw the line is far from being an easy question: a situation in which different civil servants draw the line in different places depending on their own consciences would clearly cause untold difficulties. But the precedents for a government which falls back on instructing its servants to do as they are told regardless of any reservations about legality or morality – which is where we seem to be headed – are not exactly good. The Civil Service is, quite rightly, expected to be neutral rather than partisan in implementing the policy of the elected government of the day. But acting in a neutral fashion isn’t – and should not be allowed to become – the same thing as acting without any sense of morality. The fact that the head honcho at the Home Office doesn’t seem to understand the nuance here is something that should worry us all.

Thursday, 21 April 2022

What if they cease to be useful?

 

During his visit to Ukraine to meet with President Zelensky last week, Johnson was fulsome in his expression of support for the right of Ukraine to choose to exist as a free and sovereign nation, and pledged to do everything he could to ensure that happens. Some people might remember him saying something very similar to Nicola Sturgeon the last time he visited Scotland. Oh, wait…

It isn’t the only discordancy in his treatment of the two different situations; in a whole range of ways, on the substantive issue of Ukraine’s right to existence, his views, and the views of his party, are much closer to those of Putin than Zelensky:

·        Putin believes that the loss of the Russian Empire, or even its revised post WW2 incarnation, was a historic geo-political mistake; Johnson has expressed similar views about the British Empire.

·        Putin seeks to recreate the old Russian Empire – Johnson and his Brexiteers wanted to build Empire 2.0.

·        Putin deeply regrets that Ukraine was allowed to vote for independence in 1992; Johnson deeply regrets that Wales and Scotland were allowed to vote for devolution in 1999.

·        Putin believes that he has the unilateral right to claw back that level of independence; Johnson believes that he has the right to claw back any and all devolved powers.

·        Putin believes that Ukrainians aren’t really a nation at all, just a different type of Russian with an odd accent and a local patois which should be eliminated; Johnson’s views about Wales and Scotland are not exactly dissimilar – they’re really just the same as the English. (When he's not publishing articles calling them 'verminous', that is.)

·        Putin believes that Ukraine has fallen under the sway of evil nationalists who have created the entirely false idea that Ukraine is a separate and distinct nation; Johnson feels much the same about Scotland and Wales (and probably Ireland as well).

·        Putin believes that he is defending Russia by using military force to ensure that Ukraine can never become host to unfriendly forces; some Tories made it clear that England would feel obliged to bomb Scotland in similar circumstances.

·        Putin believed that Russian ‘liberators’ would be welcomed with open arms and banners when they returned Ukrainian territory to the Russian fold; Johnson similarly seems to believe that Scots welcome his determination to not allow them any choice over their future.

·        Putin believes that Ukraine should know its place and do whatever its larger neighbour tells it; Johnson thinks that the same applies to Ireland as well as Scotland and Wales, and some Tories even suggested starving Ireland in order to make them comply with the UK's wishes over Brexit.

·        Both Putin and Johnson and their parties are kept afloat by a huge influx of cash from Russian oligarch cronies, without which they would be struggling.

It’s enough to make me wonder whether he just forgot to write the other article before deciding which side to support. More likely, he just came to the same conclusion as he did over Brexit, which was nothing to do with advantages and disadvantages for the UK, or even with what was right or moral, but with which did the most to promote his own personal interests. There is no moral judgement involved in deciding which side to support, and his history shows that, over time, he betrays or lets down everyone in pursuit of his own self-interest. At the moment, Zelensky and Ukraine are useful as an utterly absurd excuse for not replacing a chancer with a serious and dependable person (always assuming that such a person could still be found in the Johnson-led Tories) at a time of crisis. If he is not removed from office, what happens when their usefulness wanes? Or if he just gets bored?


Wednesday, 20 April 2022

Abandoning morality

 

An inability to learn from experience seems to be a standard requirement for Tory MPs, particularly when sent out on defend-the-PM duties. Every time any of them comes up with a new line of defence which they think to be clever and apt, some quote or action will be dredged up from the PMs 'colourful' past to undermine the point they are making, yet still they keep trying to do it. And thus it came to pass yesterday that, within hours of one Cabinet Minister comparing the fixed penalty notice with a parking fine, someone drew attention to the PM’s views on parking fines – as in that he accumulated piles of them, deliberately ignored them, didn’t pay them, and allowed them to disintegrate in the rain, using a Belgian-registered car as his excuse on the basis that the local constabulary wouldn’t bother to chase the owner of a foreign vehicle. Another handy comparison bites the dust, unless the more limited lesson that we’re supposed to draw is that at least he pays his fines these days. The long arm of the law doesn't seem to be long enough to catch even a self-confessed serial fine dodger.

According to an increasing number of reports, many Tory MPs have decided to wait until after the May local elections before moving to depose their leader. The theory behind this is, apparently, that a really bad set of results will demonstrate that the electors at large want him out and that will be the trigger for the gutless ones to think about doing something to remove him. It’s a way of evading any sense of morality or propriety that might still be lurking somewhere about their personage; it says, in effect, that all the lawbreaking, the lying, the misleading are entirely acceptable to Tory MPs up until the point that the electorate demonstrate at the ballot box that they are no longer acceptable to voters, and thereby threaten the continued presence of the spineless ones in the distant recesses of the palace of Westminster. It’s every bit as self-serving and immoral as the PM himself. They deserve all the opprobrium which is heading their way.

Tuesday, 19 April 2022

The issue is defining the problem, not the solution

 

The criticism of the UK government’s policy of sending people involuntarily to Rwanda has been fierce, and has provoked the response from the Foreign Secretary that the critics “fail to offer their own solutions”. Disingenuous doesn’t begin to describe this response – because the issue is not about alternative solutions but about the definition of the problem, which she presents as being the “deadly trade” of people trafficking and also the “deeply unfair” current situation that “advantages those with the means to pay people traffickers over vulnerable people who cannot”. From that perspective, any ‘solution’ which doesn’t accept her definition of the ‘problem’ can easily be dismissed as failing to be a ‘solution’ at all.

The real problem is the desperate conditions in which many people in many parts of the world are living; conditions which are usually caused, or at least exacerbated, by the actions of rich countries like the UK, which have for centuries extracted the wealth of poorer countries, supported oppressive and corrupt regimes, and supplied weapons and armaments (sometimes to both sides) in even those wars in which they have not themselves been directly engaged. The problem is not that desperate people are prepared to take enormous risks to come to the UK, it is that war, oppression, hunger and poverty drive them to leave their homes and communities in search of a better life in the first place. The UK is only one country (and far from being even the favourite country) to which they seek to migrate. It’s a problem to which the UK’s ‘solution’ has been to cut the aid budget, and pretend that the issues aren’t linked.

People trafficking is, of course, a problem which needs to be eliminated; but people selling illegal routes to the UK can only thrive because all the legal routes have been closed to those who use their services. And deporting some of their ‘customers’ is punishing the victims, not the perpetrators. We don’t lock up those who’ve been burgled because we can neither identify nor catch the burglars. Flying people to Rwanda is itself a bit like a dark form of officially-sanctioned people trafficking, except that the Government doesn’t make them pay and doesn’t take them where they want to go, but merely dumps them in a country to which they have even less connection.

I’m not even convinced that Patel has been entirely honest about her own definition of the ‘problem’ which she’s trying to solve – I suspect that her real issue is either concern that the sort of people who vote Tory don’t want immigrants of any sort coming to the UK or her wish to bolster her own credentials with the equally unpleasant elements who now control her own party. Expecting those who think that what she’s doing is morally repugnant to propose an alternative solution to achieve the same ends is even less realistic in either case. The real ‘problem’ which needs solving is that we have a deeply corrupt, immoral, uncaring, and dishonest government, which according to their own words (albeit not their actions) is behaving in a wholly un-British fashion. It’s a problem to which there is no solution which leaves the current structures and constitution in place.

Friday, 15 April 2022

Failure is a feature of the UK, not a bug

 

As a general rule, I support the UK being generous towards those who come to these shores fleeing war and oppression, and even those who are fleeing poverty (who some prefer to call economic migrants), especially given the UK’s historical role in creating the poverty which they are trying to escape. I’ll admit though that when I read yesterday’s news, the uncharitable thought crossed my mind that the UK today might be an altogether kinder and gentler place if Mr & Mrs Patel, Mr & Mrs Sunak, and Mr & Mrs Javid had been detained at the border and flown to a detention centre in Rwanda, and if Mr & Mrs Johnson had been prevented from bringing any US-born offspring into the UK. (People criticising Sunak for being a permanent US resident whilst also being Chancellor of the Exchequer tend to forget that until he renounced his US citizenship in 2016 – and only then to avoid a tax bill – the current PM was himself both a member of parliament and a US citizen obliged to pay tax under US rules on all his earnings. Even if Sunak had told his boss about the Green Card issue, it’s unlikely that someone who saw no significant problem in a full US citizen becoming Foreign Secretary would object to a Chancellor holding the much lower status of mere permanent resident of the US.)

Whether the policy will ever be implemented or is just a very cruel gimmick to try and get racist voters to back the Tories in local elections next month, or even an attempt to divert attention from the government’s other misdeeds by appealing to that sense of racism, is an open question. I don’t doubt that money will change hands and Rwanda will receive some much-needed cash (although I wouldn’t put it past the current government to take the money out of the overseas aid budget), but that doesn’t mean anyone will actually be sent there. There are more than a few legal issues to overcome (in domestic law as well as in international law), which is why Johnson himself is already firing warning shots at the lawyers who might be tempted to use the courts to prevent any flights from taking place (or to enforce the actual law of the UK rather than what Johnson and Patel think the law should be, to describe it more accurately). He and Patel like to refer to lawyers as ‘politically-motivated lefty activists’, although a more accurate description would be ‘people who believe that following the rule of law is, on the whole, rather a good thing’. The rule of law is, however, an increasingly strange concept to the corrupt lawbreakers who staged a coup within the Tory Party and are now doing the same to the UK as a whole. I’m still waiting for the defence that it’s only breaking the law in a very specific and limited way (just like committing a murder or two, really).

Both nationally and internationally, the move has generated a great deal of condemnation, including from the Council of Europe Commissioner for Human Rights. The UK ought to be sanctioned for its actions, including expulsion from the Council or Europe and all international human rights organisations. The problem with that is that those behind this policy would see that as a positive, not a punishment. Our own Mark Drakeford has, in fairness and as one would expect, condemned the policy unreservedly, but what he and others like him need to realise is that this sort of thing isn’t a bug in the UK system which can be put right by a change of government in England (even if that looked like a remotely conceivable possibility, and even if English Labour wasn’t trying to present itself as being as keen as the Tories to enforce border controls), it’s a feature with which we will have to put up until Wales decides to opt out of the failed state which the UK is rapidly becoming.

Monday, 11 April 2022

All following the same rules

 

If the government were a football team, the strong support given to the Chancellor over the weekend by the club chairman, Boris Johnson, would have been widely interpreted as meaning that Sunak was about to resign, but hadn’t been told yet. In this case, however, the chairman needs to retain someone who’s doing such a good job of diverting attention from his own failings, so an involuntary resignation doesn’t appear to be imminent. This leaves the Chancellor free to pursue his penchant for ignoring the first rule of holes, which is to stop digging. Having been caught out doing something which almost everyone considers to be, at best, a little dodgy, best practice would be to admit it and hope to move on. Setting up a mole hunt to find out who leaked the information is a guaranteed way of giving the story more legs, as is the Chancellor’s formal request for a full investigation into his own financial arrangements. We can write the outcome of that investigation now, in a single sentence: ‘no rules were broken’; but the question of the morality of it all will still hang over him.

According to a report in the Sunday Times yesterday, one of the first things Sunak did on being appointed as a minister in 2018 was to sit down “with … the head of propriety and ethics, and [talk] her through his own finances, reported to amount to £200 million, and that of his wife”. Apparently, he told her that his wife was a non-dom for tax purposes and also that they both held green cards which had been obtained by declaring themselves to be permanent residents of the US. Her response was not reported by the paper, but it is surely unlikely that any ethics adviser – even one appointed by probably the most unethical government in history – would not have raised an eyebrow or three and asked him to consider how it might look if it were to become public. An outcome of that discussion under which Sunak decided to tell as few people as possible, including not even telling his boss, in itself suggests a certain awareness that it might not be an entirely good look.

Still, there is one potential benefit to come out of all of this, given the number of Tories prepared to argue that the finances of a husband and wife are entirely separate and should not be considered together. I’m sure that they’ll be equally sympathetic to any future benefits claimant who refuses to give any financial details of other members of the household on the basis that they aren’t the ones making the claim and that it’s unfair to consider the household income as a whole. After all, they wouldn’t want to argue that different rules apply to themselves, would they?

Saturday, 9 April 2022

Honourable action not expected soon

 

Standard advice for individuals and organisations facing bad news stories is to get all the bad news out at once, apologise profusely, make the necessary changes to what you’re doing, and hope people will forgive and forget. And if really necessary, let a few heads roll. The worst thing one can do is deny the undeniable, justify the unjustifiable, and hope that whoever felt sufficiently motivated to leak the bad news won't go on to leak the worse news. Neither Boris Johnson over the widespread rule-breaking during lockdown, nor Rishi Sunak over his tax affairs, seem to have received the memo.

The idea that the Chancellor’s household could benefit from a tax avoidance loophole which he could have chosen to close but didn’t was bad enough; the revelation that he held a US Green Card visa for six and a half years as a UK MP (one and a half years of that time as Chancellor) is worse, much worse. And his answers to date leave a series of obvious questions unanswered. In the first place, they tell us that Sunak, like Johnson, believes that rules don’t apply to people like himself: having given a binding commitment to be a permanent resident of the US, moving to another country and taking on a position as a government minister looks a lot like extracting the urine. It also suggests a certain lack of commitment to both countries – for how long does one have to be a member of a legislature, let alone a minister of the Crown, before realising that you are, perhaps, no longer a permanent resident somewhere else?

The statement issued on his behalf says that “All laws and rules have been followed and full taxes have been paid where required in the duration he held his green card”. It’s deliberately opaque. If all taxes on all worldwide earnings were paid to the US authorities in accordance with green card rules, that would imply that he paid tax on his MP and ministerial salaries to the US government. The unanswered question is whether that was as well as, or instead of, paying them to the UK Treasury. Either would be astonishing: on the one hand, paying tax twice on the same salary, to two different governments, seems somewhat out of character for a household willing to use tax avoidance measures (people don’t get to be, or to stay, as rich as the Sunaks by paying tax twice over), whilst on the other hand, having a Chancellor setting income tax rates which he doesn’t have to pay himself because he’s officially resident elsewhere would be a very strange state of affairs.

There is another unanswered question about the circumstances in which he then surrendered his green card. The statement says, “Upon his first trip to the US in a government capacity as chancellor, he discussed the appropriate course of action with the US authorities. At that point it was considered best to return his green card, which he did immediately.” The use of the passive is interesting. Whilst obviously intended to give the impression that the Sunaks were being pro-active here, the statement does not tell us which side initiated the discussion, nor does it preclude the other, and probably likelier, interpretation that the US authorities said something along the lines of, “You’re having a laugh aren’t you? Hand it over now.”

In what strange universe could Sunak, or anyone else, have thought it appropriate to continue to hold the card, and claim to be a permanent resident of the US, whilst serving as a legislator and minister of another country? In any functioning democracy, the actions of the Chancellor would be considered terminal for his career as both a minister and an MP. But that would depend on him acting honourably. And given that honourable action by the Chancellor might lead people to expect the same from the PM, it's unlikely that his resignation should be expected anytime soon.

Friday, 8 April 2022

Not being unlawful isn't the same as being acceptable

 

Most people will have some sympathy, initially at least, with the protests from Sunak and his supporters that attacking his wife is an unfair political tactic. He, after all, is the politician and therefore fair game, not her. Their protests might have a bit more credibility, however, if they didn’t come just days after the UK government decided to sanction the alleged (they don’t even seem entirely sure of that) step-daughter of the Russian foreign minister on the grounds that “those benefiting from association of those responsible for Russian aggression are in scope of our sanctions”. It's a simple fact that any close association between individuals can mean that someone benefits from the wealth or activity of another, and there are few associations closer than marriage. Sunak might not need his wife’s money, but any income she receives is part of his household’s income and must therefore be open to a degree of scrutiny. A Chancellor who claims to oppose tax avoidance yet whose household benefits from it ought to realise that he has questions to answer; the fact that he doesn’t tells us a lot about his sensitivity (or lack of) to what others might think.

By the same token, his marital arrangements are, in principle, solely a matter between the two of them, but when the spouse of someone who thinks he should be PM is openly declaring her intention to return to India where she claims to be domiciled, he really shouldn’t be surprised if people start wondering about the extent of his own commitment to the country which he seeks to govern. With that ambition in mind, his protests about opposition politicians would sound a great deal more sincere if it wasn’t almost certain that the information had been leaked by someone on his own side determined to stop him achieving said ambition.

He and his supporters are claiming that neither he nor his wife have done anything wrong, and in legal terms they are correct. But is merely being ‘legal’ enough? It isn’t just Sunak; time after time politicians caught out doing something which others might feel is perhaps a little dodgy respond by denying any wrongdoing and stating that ‘no rules were broken’. Confusing what is right or moral with what is legal has become increasingly common as politicians outsource any sense of morality to whoever makes the rules. Being legal, however, isn’t the same as being ‘right’; the fact that something hasn’t yet been legislated against doesn’t make it acceptable. It is not at all unreasonable to expect those who govern us, or seek to govern us, to give at least a little bit of thought to whether what they are doing is not only ‘not currently banned’ but also stands up to scrutiny in terms of what the governed might see as reasonable. They do, after all, keep telling us that a sense of fair play is one of the great British values which allegedly unites us. It does not, however, seem to be one of the values which they think is important in terms of their own actions.

Thursday, 7 April 2022

Words, not action

 

For as long as most of us can remember – at least the last 60 years or so – nuclear fusion reactors have been the great promise for the future, and they’ve always been just 20-30 years in the future. Based on experience to date, and the problems still to be overcome, I will confidently predict that, 20-30 years from now, operating fusion reactors will still be just 20-30 years away. Only in the land of make-believe (otherwise known as Global Britain) would local authorities be putting time and effort into bidding to host a power plant which we don’t yet know how to build and which is unlikely to be built for at least half a century. In the meantime, the only type of nuclear power generation which we do know how to build and operate is the fission reactor, and any realistic talk of expanding nuclear power production is inevitably going to be based on that technology. And whilst there has long been talk of alternatives to uranium and plutonium (such as thorium), switching to a different technology would itself add time and cost to the development of the first power stations.

When nuclear energy generation started in the 1950s, the promise was that the electricity would be ‘too cheap to meter’, a forecast which has been proved spectacularly wrong. As things stand, I don’t believe that there is a single nuclear power project, anywhere in the world, which is not both much-delayed and running hopelessly over budget; pinning the hopes for future energy generation on this technology looks like a triumph of hope over experience and reality (which is at least, I suppose, a good match for the PM’s natural temperament). To add to the uncertainty, the UK government seems to be pinning its hopes on building a new type of reactor, or Small Modular Reactors as they are known. Whilst it would be unfair to refer to this as an entirely untested technology, it is nevertheless true that there is only one such reactor actually operating in the world today. And – ooh, look, it’s Russian. I’m sure that they’ll be willing to share their experience to help us free ourselves of dependence on Russian fossil fuels. They’ll probably see it as an opportunity to sell us their uranium instead. Even with the best will in the world, and a great deal of luck, the idea that these power plants will be rolling off a production line somewhere within the next few years is credible only to those who believe in unicorns and the benefits of Brexit. Which brings us, of course, to the current UK government. Today’s announcement of what it refers to as an ‘energy strategy’ (a title chosen, presumably, because it is neither a workable strategy and nor will it generate much electricity anytime soon) talks of there being 6 or 7 new power stations operating by 2050 – by the time the sunlight hits those uplands, it will have been filtered through so many sky-borne pies as to leave us in almost total darkness.

Even if the timescales were remotely achievable, and even if the unsolved problems of dealing with the radioactive waste could be solved (I assume that Ynys Môn council will be volunteering to host at least its share of the waste for a few thousand years in the meantime, given its enthusiasm for the technology), the proposals put forward today would still be, at the very best, a long-term solution to an immediate problem. And a very costly solution at that. It’s a huge missed opportunity; there are plenty of other quick and effective things which the UK and Europe could and should do to bring to an immediate end the dependence on Russian fossil fuels, including more energy-saving measures.

There are a number of possible reasons for the failure to act now. One of them is the attempt to minimise the pain felt domestically; but all of the so-called ‘crippling’ sanctions on Russia will have little impact whilst European countries continue to pay Russia billions for oil and gas. Trying to stop the war ‘painlessly’ is a recipe for the continuation of the slaughter. Another is the continued insistence on competition rather than collaboration as a guiding principle. Germany drags its feet over cancelling gas contracts, the UK has been slow to impose penalties which would impact its financial sector; both are looking after their own interests rather than working together. Sharing available resources – and the pain involved in a reduction in availability – would be much more effective.

But I can’t help but wonder whether there isn’t another, more Johnsonian, element to the publication of today’s ‘strategy’. His whole career is littered with the remnants of grand and expensive plans, announced to a great fanfare, which solve nothing in the short term but can be talked up incessantly for a year or two before being quietly abandoned before they start to cost serious money. Being seen to ‘act’ (i.e. talk) now is a way of doing nothing in the end. It’s his whole modus operandi – why would he change now?