The Hartlepool byelection spells disaster for Keir Starmer – and Labour

If Corbyn can’t win Hartlepool, and neither can Starmer, who can?

It looks like Labour is about to lose the seat of Hartlepool to the Conservatives for the first time since 1964.

A dramatic Survation poll shows that Jill Mortimer, the Tory candidate, has 49% support among the Red Wall constituency voters, easily beating the 42% share of Labour’s Paul Williams.

It’s one poll and it’s one view, and the obvious classic caveat is the one that the Tories are keen to stress – there’s only one poll that matters and that’s election day. But still, this has been billed as a key byelection to gauge the public mood, and all the signs are there that Labour is as far from power as ever.

So what on earth does all this mean? We can quibble over the extent, but nobody will be arguing that Sir Keir Starmer is anything but a clear departure from Jeremy Corbyn. Yet he is set to lose a seat that even Jezza didn’t manage to throw away in the great ‘Conservative Charity Seats Donation Fund’ event that was the 2019 General Election.

If we’re being completely fair, it’s probable that, absent the Brexit Party, the Tories could have taken that seat as it seems that entire block vote has now gone blue. But even if that were the case, even if it had gone blue and was now being contested in a byelection, surely Labour would need to be winning this back to show a direction, a path to Downing Street?

There could very likely be an election in summer 2023 – that is not a long time away. And if Hartlepool is any sort of marker, we could be in for an even larger Tory majority.

And where does that leave Labour? Five general election defeats in 13 years doesn’t bode well, particularly if the margin is only getting wider. And across the Labour spectrum as well – Gordon Brown, Ed Miliband, Jeremy Corbyn (twice) and Sir Keir Starmer would all have tried to swap sides of the House with the Tories, and all will have failed. Who do you turn to next? Who’s the next in line to the throne? Which faction takes the wheel next time, and based on what?

Honestly, predicting the complete downfall of a major party in the UK is a fool’s game…but is that where we’re headed? I couldn’t tell you the vision, the purpose, the blueprint for government that the Labour Party would bring, so how could I vote for them? You may say the same about the Tories, and I’d agree, but they’re in power. They have the incumbency and stuff to talk about – what is the purpose of Labour at this point?

Fans of Corbyn are often of the opinion that the election defeat wasn’t wholly his fault, that he was definitely popular, that everyone loved him really, that it was the media’s fault and that he was treated unfairly. Putting aside the childishness of those arguments, they were summarily dismissed by the wider commentariat – Jeremy Corbyn has to own his failures as leader. And that was quite right.

So the same is now true of Starmer. If Labour lose Hartlepool, it’s his loss, nobody else’s. He has to own it. The million pound question for Labour then is; if not Corbyn, if not Starmer, then who?

If only Jeremy Corbyn had won

It doesn’t matter who is in government – it’s the opposition that is more needed than ever

Cast your mind back to December 2019 (or 1BC, Before Covid, as it should probably henchforth be known). The general election has been a fraught campaign between the incumbent Prime Minister Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson who came to power on the back of the toppling of Theresa May, and Jeremy Corbyn who was battling accusations of antisemitism in his own party.

Somebody comes to you from the future – they can’t tell you who wins but they can tell you what is happening a year from now.

The Treasury – they tell you that the rail services have been effectively renationalised, the UK economy has shrunk by 11.3% (the largest for 300 years), the UK has borrowed £394billion, easily a peacetime record, including a government scheme costing £43billion to pay people not to work (indeed, making it illegal for those people to work) and they’ve given a million NHS workers a pay rise.

Unions – they tell you that the teaching unions have managed to persuade the government that all schools should be closed and children are to be taught remotely.

They tell you that everyone is confined by law to their own homes with minimal, strict exemptions and the opposition has not only failed to oppose this, but been incredulous that it took so long to do. They tell you a close government adviser praised the “innovative intervention” of China’s Communist Party in imprisoning their population, even saying “I think people’s sense of what is possible in terms of control changed quite dramatically between January and March; [China is] a communist one party state, we said. We couldn’t get away with it in Europe, we thought… and then Italy did it. And we realised we could.” And the government listened to this man and gave him a top table seat.

There’s a new national tradition – everyone has to come out of their homes and applaud public sector workers. The incumbent Prime Minister does it outside Number 10 – it is frowned upon to not do it.

Freedom passes‘ are coming – an official document that would be required to access the most basic services, Anthony Blair’s dream finally come to fruition, even more authoritarian than even he could have imagined. Papers, please.

Who, dear reader, do you think wins the election? The fop-haired [MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] “libertarian” [END MASSIVE AIR QUOTES] who campaigned to leave the EU or the turnip growing socialist who was frightening Jews? The man even gives you £100 to bet on it – where does the money go?

Ok sure, we’ve been sneaky here in neglecting to mention that a global pandemic struck. But ok, fine. Let’s tell them – a pandemic strikes and world leaders are panicking. Tell me with a straight face that you’d still lay a ton on De Pfeffel over Jezza.

And herein lies the problem. Johnson has paralysed the system because the way he chose to react (yes, it was a choice) to an undoubtedly scary situation was entirely against every “principle” he had ever claimed to espouse. Yet his followers, his party, those who have loved him for years, yearned for the day he would embrace his destiny and seize the keys to Number 10, can’t quite take it in. The Tory media can’t figure out how to approach the subject, MPs who love him but hate his approach to Covid have no idea how to hold him to account. They are confused, wrong-footed and nervous to try.

The man spent decades carefully building, honing and cultivating this mawkish, sickly adoration. He became a darling of the Conservatives and built up such a cultish following that, now the illusion has evaporated in plain view of anyone who cares to see it, his devotees are still staring dimly, wide eyed at the small, helpless Wizard of Oz, exposed as nothing more than a carnival showman with silly hair.

Still today, opinion pieces in the Telegraph and the Spectator pine for the ‘Old Boris‘, clamour for him to realise his mythical, non-existent ‘Churchillian spirit‘. It’s as pitiful as watching latter day Branch Davidians hold on to the myth of their founder.

Imagine – imagine – it was Corbyn in Number 10 and McDonnell in Number 11. Imagine the ferocity of the Tory benches. We’d actually have an opposition, which frankly is a damn sight more important at the moment than the resident of the seat of power.

It’s perfectly clear now that the government, of whichever stripe had been selected to lead the country, would have done exactly the same thing, give or take a few hundreds of billions of pounds (who can really take in these vast numbers any more?). What matters is how they are held to account and how they are opposed. Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour party has been supine, acquiescent at every turn, nay even demanding the government to go harder, faster, deeper. “What he said, but better” is the rallying cry of Her Majesty’s Most Loyal Opposition Leader.

The only opposition, once again, is a small sect of the Tory benches, just like on Brexit. This is simply not healthy. The government benches are supposed to back the government, the opposition benches are supposed to oppose. Like it or not, that’s the system and it’s breaking down. Every institution that is supposed to act as a brake on power has failed us – the opposition, Parliament itself, the media, the courts, every restraint on power currently lies slack while the proverbial bull trashes the – irony of ironies – China shop.

I have no love for Jeremy Corbyn. Any time Jewish people speak up and say they’re frightened is usually a good time to be very careful indeed. In that regard it was with a sense of huge relief that he got nowhere near power. But look what we have now. An authoritarian government and no opposition. Even if you believe everything the government has done has been right, even if they chose the right way to deal with this, no power should ever go this unchecked in a democracy. Ever. There is no excuse.

We will pay for this fealty for decades.

We cannot continue to be governed like this

This ‘government by press conference’ must be stopped

Yes I am aware, thanks – there’s a pandemic on.

That out of the way early doors, we have got to stop sitting back and allowing ourselves to be governed by diktat and press conference. The precedents that are being set at the moment are truly crazy, and frankly even these exceptional circumstances do not justify it.

It has been something of an amusement to watch a general population who consider Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson to be some kind of neo-fascist enabling authoritarian dictator, beg him to tell them (or more accurately, everyone else) exactly what they can and cannot do with their lives. A group of people who were (rightly) incandescent when the Prime Minister tried to prorogue Parliament in order to get something through, claiming that Parliament was the most important thing, that accountability was vital, that our democratically elected representatives should not be silenced in this way.

Yet where are we now? The government is using the Public Health Act 1984 as it’s own personal prescription pad. It writes some illegible, incoherent scrawl, tears it off, hands it to the population and tells us to do as we’re told. No debate, no accountability, no opposition, no checking with Her Majesty to see if that’s ok, nothing. Where is the outraged Speaker threatening to grind everything to a halt until things are done properly? Where is the leader of the Opposition demanding to know how these decisions are being made? Where is Gina Miller now? Nowhere to be seen.

Of course things need to move quickly when you need to react to a crisis. Things have to be more nimble than they usually are. But next time Parliament is sidelined and a load of dreadful laws and precedents are set, don’t be crying about it, because this is where it will have started and we’re allowing it.

A crisis is no reason to stop doing the important jobs of asking the right questions and holding the powerful to account – in fact it is even more important now. Handing over vast power and authority is sometimes necessary, but that’s no excuse to back down on the holding to account or the checks and balances that need to be in place to stop appalling laws from being created and disastrous precedents being set. Don’t assume that when you temporarily give up your rights and freedoms that there will be any hurry to give them back, whole or otherwise. We have to stay vigilant.

Today, HMG announced – just casually announced at a press conference – that further ‘reopening’ plans will be pushed back by two weeks. Having imposed local lockdowns again last night, the Eid plans of thousands of Muslims were ruined. Did the government not know that Eid was coming? A time when Muslims come together into each others’ homes and celebrate together? Do they not understand the impact of this? It’s like saying at 10pm on the 24th December that you can’t go to your family’s house tomorrow for Christmas. How would you react to that? ‘Oh well, guess the government is doing the best that it can, better suck it up and get on with it’ or ‘How can you possibly announce this so late and ruin our family celebrations?’

Again, yes I know – there’s a pandemic on. Things happen quickly. But that is no excuse for governing like this. It is haphazard, flailing and likely to put everyone’s backs up. Where was the transparency, the warnings, the hedging just in case? And let’s be honest – where is the law? By what authority do they do this? Is it guidance, a statutory instrument, a provision in the Public Health Act? Who is asking these questions? where is the opposition? Where are the journalists?

Weddings, which have already taken a massive hit, were planned for the time when the restrictions would ease. Now they will be restricted again. How can you possibly tell people whose weddings are already nothing like what they hoped and dreamed they would be, but honestly and respectfully went ahead and put together a Covid-appropriate wedding, that they can’t now go ahead with their plans, just like that? Sorry guys, no best day of your life now, cancel the food, the photographers, the restaurant booking, tell your guests to get lost. Oh and wash your hands, yeah? God Save the Queen and all that. It’s for the greater good (THE GREATER GOOD)*.

Well maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. But are you honestly expecting people are just going to accept this from a government that most believe has handled this crisis like a monkey might handle a Ming Vase?

Precedents are being set here that should worry everyone. Once these things take off, it’s hard to stop them. Let’s say by some miracle that we have some semblance of normality back in a few years. Let’s say a vaccine is created (dream on I know, but go with it). Let’s say we eradicate Covid-19 forever. What happens when the next one comes? What do we do with Covid-20? What if if we get a bad flu season?

Do we lockdown again, repeatedly, every time an infection starts to spread? Do we ‘hibernate’ our economy when the coughing starts? Do we close down all opposition and allow the government of the day to dictate to us day to day, minute to minute what we may or may not do, what we must or must not put on our faces, how far away from our loved ones we must stay, whether we may marry, whether we may say our last goodbyes to our closest family members? Is this an appropriate way to govern a law-based, Western, supposedly ‘free’ democracy?

You may scoff at me and think I’m being over-dramatic, but governments do not do well when they feel they will be blamed for something awful. No government will ever loosen security measures at airports. No government will ever remove the barriers on Westminster bridge. Once these things are there, you can’t get rid of them, because if the worst happens, everyone will blame those in power who ‘allowed’ it to happen. These measures are ratchets. Can you honestly tell me you can’t imagine this happening in future?

So when the next flu season hits and we’re all locked down again, it will be because of this. We never did it before, but we did for Covid-19. Never again will a government allow itself to be blamed for thousands of deaths, and why should they? We will be told what to do to save their bacon. And honestly, we’ll deserve it. We allowed them to do this. Nobody said ‘Ok fine we consent to this in order to stem this pandemic, but what are the conditions for relaxing? When will this end? Under what circumstances will you remove these restrictions?’ We all just accepted it, no questions asked. Any whiff of dissent was scolded. A three week lockdown to ‘save the NHS‘, transformed into semi-permanent paralysis where nobody must ever be allowed to contract or die from this disease at almost any cost. When did ‘flatten the curve’ become ‘avoid completely’?

These are the questions Keir Starmer should have been asking the whole time, but for political reasons he didn’t. He didn’t want to look like an opportunistic politician opposing ‘for opposing’s sake’. Pity that’s your actual job title though, Sir Keir. We could have used you.

There may very well be no end to this. This could be it now – this could well be our lives. I hold no hope in ‘normality by Christmas‘, nor in a vaccine being produced that will allow us to return to normal.

And so it will continue. Johnson will carry on taking our freedoms and liberties at the click of a finger as nobody seems bothered enough to stop him. Hard won, easily lost freedoms and ways of doing things, gone in a cloud of sneeze particles.

Yes I know. There’s a pandemic on.

*One for the Hot Fuzz fans. Needed one laugh in this pessimistic piece.

The PM becomes everything he once railed against

From rebellious child to Chief Nanny within 12 months – what happened?

Alexander ‘Boris’ Johnson recently celebrated a full year in office. It’s been a pretty eventful year, starting with the culmination of a long battle to remove the previous incumbent, through a fraught general election (which he of course won handsomely), the official departure of the UK from the EU and now a global crisis of historic proportions.

It’s a job he always wanted, apparently from early childhood, and so achieving the goal should have been momentous. And maybe it was for a short while, but it seems the enormity of what he had taken on hit him early, and hit him hard.

The arrival of Johnson into Number 10 and the subsequent defeat of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party heralded a new dawn in a politics that had been characterised by thin margins and difficult backbenches for the previous 10 years. He could govern freely. But what was it all really for? Why did he want it? For what point and purpose was he to obtain this office and level of power?

We all know who and what Jeremy Corbyn was. He never hid it and never really changed, even as the decades went by. It’s not difficult to imagine what a Corbyn premiership would have looked like, especially if he had a whippable majority the likes of which Johnson now enjoys. Whatever your view on the guy, he had principles and plans. We can imagine the country’s relationship with Israel would have changed significantly, rail companies would have started to move into public ownership, taxes would have risen, wealth taxes introduced, private schools abolished, the works.

But turning back to the chap who actually won – what does he stand for? What does he believe? And why does he want this job? When he got into Number 10, what was the driving vision, the force, the true goal of being there? What troubled him so greatly about the state of the nation that he was determined to lead it? What made him tick? Well, it’s difficult to pinpoint. But surely there are clues in his background and writing?

Most notoriously, he apparently penned two articles for the Telegraph before the referendum campaign kicked off – one in favour of Leave, one in favour of Remain. There are charitable readings of this, there are slightly less charitable ones. But the plain fact remains – he didn’t know.

In fairness, once he had chosen, he stuck to it, and continues to do so. But this is surely due more to political reality than any real conviction on the matter. He had readily and viciously attacked Britain’s membership of the EU in the past – but it suited him just fine back then, when it was all easy and hypothetical and grew his audience. Then it became easier to be its defender when he obtained office, so he did that. Does it bother him that much?

And then we come to the latest drive to ‘combat obesity’. I make no remark on the validity of this strategy, the requirement for it, nor even whether this is something that should or should not be happening. But again, less than a year into securing the top job, he shows all his previous utterances to be mere vapour.

One would have got the impression from his many columns and writings on the topic that Mr. Johnson was not just an advocate of the freedom of the individual, but positively rabid on the subject of so-called ‘nanny state’ intervention. Yet the second he takes a briefing from PHE on the matter, he’s a convert. What drives this? And how did that happen so fast?

As recently as July of 2019, he promised a review of so called ‘sin taxes’, vowing to end the “continuing creep of the nanny state”. He said the new taxes would “clobber those who can least afford it”.

Looking back to his column history, in 2004 he wrote a piece headlined “Face it: it’s all your own fat fault”. In it, he argued that “the more the state tries to take responsibility for the problem, the less soluble the problem will become”. Seems pretty straightforward. But years ago, right?

A couple of years later, he attacked Jamie Oliver for trying to introduce more nutritious food into schools. “If I was in charge I would get rid of Jamie Oliver and tell people to eat what they like”. Well now you are in charge, Mr Johnson. He allegedly also said of mothers who were pushing ‘unhealthy’ food through the railings of their children’s schools, “I say let people eat what they like. Why shouldn’t they push pies through the railings?”

He also used his Telegraph column to rail against the ‘cack-brained’ EU plan to introduce compulsory child booster seats up to the age of 12, claiming they were “poking their noses into the back seats of our cars”. Compulsory face coverings anyone? No state intervention there, no siree.

Perhaps an inkling as to how he might deal with a national health emergency came in 2012 when he penned a column headlined “To swim, perchance to drown, is an undeniable human right”. He was responding to a Port of London decision to ban swimming in the Thames without a permit. The driving message was that risk taking is part of life and that people should be allowed to do so without the nanny state wagging it’s bony finger at us. Ahem…

His flowery language, as has been typical of Johnson over the years, didn’t hold back: “this river-swimming ban is of a piece with the namby-pamby, risk-averse, mollycoddled airbagged approach that is doing so much economic damage to Britain”. Does this sound like the kind of man who, if ever trusted with power during a pandemic, would impose a lockdown, restrict freedoms, ‘mollycoddle’ and ‘airbag’ a ‘namby-pamby’ and ‘risk-averse’ population? Again, I make no comment on those policies such as they are, but why did Johnson, of all people, impose them when he has always set himself up as a defender of liberty against the strong arm of the state? If he really believed the state does more damage than individuals free to make their own choices, why did he not stand on that principle when it really came to a head?

This is not an argument for or against lockdowns or masks or anything like that. It’s a point about what different leaders would do when faced with these challenges. Lockdown wasn’t inevitable, nor compulsory face coverings. Other options were, and still are, available. You may believe these things to be vital, but ask yourself: why would a libertarian styled leader take these routes?

It goes without saying that having had Covid-19, and had it badly, that that would have an effect on him. A close brush with mortality would be enough to scare anyone. I have no wish to take away the impact that would have had.

But principles long held are typically difficult to shake. Those previously mentioned ‘nanny state’ columns were written when he was hugely overweight. He is still overweight – so what else changed? At the moment it feels like the walls crumble just a little too easily. As though the typically pro-immigration PM might suddenly become a Farage-style drawbridge puller, or become a puritanical religious believer, or start believing that Churchill was really a racist and should be erased from our collective memory.

Is this uncharitable? Perhaps. It’s just hard to watch this without imagining that it would simply not have happened with any number of other leaders. Imagine for a second that Corbyn had become the PM and secured a healthy majority. The way Johnson has behaved since taking office is like Jeremy Corbyn agreeing with Netanyahu that the West Bank settlements should be annexed, introducing a tax cut for the wealthy, repealing the sugar tax and sending a birthday card to Donald Trump. Maybe even writing a leader for the Telegraph, reintroducing grammar schools, expanding Trident and outlawing industrial action. All completely anathema – but of course, we always knew who he was and what he thought, so that would all have been crazy and straight of the blue.

Yet with Johnson, we just nod along. As though this is always what he thought and that it’s ok to, not just slightly bend your principles for the purposes of realpolitik, but turn fully 180degrees without a second’s thought and act as though this is normal. What is an anti-nanny-stater doing talking about sugar taxes? How can he think nobody has noticed?

Maybe because in reality, it actually doesn’t matter any more. Because political tribalism is so deeply embedded that nobody is voting for anyone any more, just against the other guy. It’s easy to scoff and point at those who had hope in the guy, who voted for him because they took him at his word. It’s difficult to feel sympathy, especially when it has been obvious to many just what kind of politician he is. I mean him no ill will, I’m sure he is perfectly pleasant company and, by all accounts, a rather personable chap.

But relying on his principles and sense of duty, his sense of driving purpose? Sorry, but he has never provided any evidence that he should be trusted to maintain a certain set of holding principles against all weathers and all comers. So why would we expect him to do so when push came to shove?

So there we have it: Al Johnson, from rebellious child to Chief Nanny. Who’d’a thunk it?

Cartoons Without Drawings #1 – Stable Doors

Boris and Rishi make an expensive purchase…

Welcome to the first in a new series on this site – Cartoons Without Drawings. Political cartoons are great fun – meant to make a point without too obviously making the point. Saying something sharp and cutting without actually saying it. The beauty is the lack of words, the lack of explanation, the expectation that the viewer is intelligent and well informed enough to understand the subtleties and nuances of what is being portrayed without having to resort to such excrescences as verbal commentary.

So, Off the Party Line will now be starting a cartoon series – except I can’t draw. And apparently all cartoonists are being laid off left right and centre. So all of the above rules will, unfortunately, have to be scrapped. Soz.

In this series, I will simply describe what I think the cartoon would look like and you’ll have to use your imaginations to make it come to life. I really, REALLY can’t draw…

Boris’s Opulent Stable Door

The scene is a farm; we see a stable.

In the foreground, the stable door is wide open. It is being upgraded by several highly skilled craftspeople, including goldsmiths, lapidaries and carpenters. The door is spectacularly bejewelled, diamond encrusted, gold plated and structurally solid.

A man, probably the owner of the stable, has his hand out towards a blonde, tousel-haired, overweight man in an ill fitting suit, holding one of those comically long itemised bills that spills and rolls out onto the floor; the headline sum reads ‘£∞’. The posh, rather scruffy gentleman is gesturing to his associate, a well dressed mixed race man who is standing in front of a money printing machine, holding on to the handles of a wheelbarrow to collect the reams of paper cash falling down from the machine’s conveyor.

The machine is being furiously operated (perhaps by some hilariously old school crank/lever system) by a gentleman wearing a badge that says ‘Bank of England’.

Meanwhile, in the background, we see a trail of hoofprints in the mud going from the stable into the distance, leading up to a horse that is bolting. The horse is being ridden by an anthropomorphised virus particle.

Jeremy Corbyn is in the background holding a placard…something about Israel. Not sure why he’s there but…

The end.

Newsnight is playing a dangerous game

As a concerned friend, I beg you to see that this isn’t healthy

“Dominic Cummings broke the rules. The country can see that, and it’s shocked the government cannot. The longer ministers and the prime minister tell us that we worked within them, the more angry the response to this scandal is likely to be…He made those who struggled to keep to the rules feel like fools, and has allowed many more to assume they can now flout them.”

The words of Emily Maitlis, opening the BBC Newsnight programme for 26th May 2020. True? Brave? Wise? Advisable? Appropriate?

It wasn’t until this morning that I saw the clip. I, like many others, haven’t watched Newsnight for years now, and I have my own reasons. The reaction to this has been divided, but I confess mine was one of deep discomfort and unease. I tried to find the best gif for it, but so many just didn’t quite do it. The closest I got was the classic Picard head in hands one, but even that isn’t exactly there.

It’s hard to explain this without sounding like a partisan. If you are willing, up front, to be assured that I am not, then I hope you will hear me. To ‘the Left’ (as unhelpful a term as that usually is, it’s the best I have at this point), those who like, defend and cherish the BBC, I beg you to hear this. As a critical friend, I offer this up.

To start with, read the lines again. Can you hear them in the voice of, say, Owen Jones? Can you imagine Ash Sarkar saying it? Polly Toynbee? Sounds right to me. Now, can you imagine it from Allison Pearson? Daniel Hannan? Ok this isn’t a perfect science, but you take my point.

It certainly sounds like an opening monologue from a CNN news show, perhaps MSNBC, and of course if you flip the perspective, Fox News. American channels whose biases are upfront for you to see. Does it sound like something that should be being said on a supposedly neutral show, on a supposedly impartial channel? It was praised by the Independent and HuffPost, criticised by the Daily Mail and the Express. What does that tell you?

Whatever you may think about this tiresome Cummings story (and I made my point clearly, I think he broke the law), the facts and the interpretation of the events are disputed. While I think he broke the law and you may do too, others don’t. And frankly, it seems to be straight along party lines whether you believe it or you don’t, which makes this even more of an issue. It looks like Maitlis, and by extension Newsnight, and by definition the BBC, are taking a side in a partisan dispute. And that just isn’t sensible.

The current government has not hidden its disdain and dislike for the BBC. At the start of its administration, the higher levels of the Conservative Party have been making strong noises about what will happen when the BBC’s charter expires (which, barring some monumental collapse, will occur under a Conservative government). Cabinet Ministers don’t appear on the main news shows (outside crisis time). I am absolutely not saying that the BBC should be kowtowing to the incumbents, far from it. But again, I say as a concerned friend, is it wise to be so brazenly flouting the charter rules? Is it really in your interests, long term, for Newsnight to editorialise along your party line? Is is wise to claim, on a neutral platform, that you are ‘speaking for the nation’?

Honestly, if Maitlis had taken my exact, biased thoughts and spelled them out in a monologue, I would not have cheered. It’s not the platform we should be hearing it from. It felt like Maitlis thought she was taking a loaded gun and firing it at the government. That it was fool proof, that this would be a clear shot with little repercussion. What it looks like she has instead done, is load the gun and hand it straight to them. The government is under the heaviest sustained attack it has yet faced, and now they have an out – ‘look at that, blatant bias, against the rules’, blah blah blah.

Newsnight is supposed to be impartial, to report the news. The news yesterday was that Cummings had given his account, that some of the story checked out, some of it was fishy at best, and there was serious doubt over whether what he did could reasonably have been said to have broken the law. That was the story, it is straightforward enough and, frankly, looks awful for the government when reported straight. But that’s not what the monologue said. And opinion could absolutely have been given by invited guests

Emily Maitlis is a great presenter and interviewer. I don’t think I’ll ever forget the interview she did with Prince Andrew last year, in which she slowly and quietly handed him the opportunity to sink or swim, and he duly threw himself into the water without a life raft. It was meticulous, it was thorough, it was well prepared, it was even on his territory. The interview with the Prince was so powerful because she stayed neutral, because she didn’t get tribal or aggressive.

Newsnight is the flagship BBC television news programme, and Maitlis has been key to it for a number of years now. She is very, very good. But last night she made an error. Not only did she make an error, but the whole team did. I struggle to understand how that speech managed to get written, then past however many layers of editorial checks that are required for a programme like that without being remotely questioned. Even if you agreed with every word, I plead with you to see that this isn’t a good thing.

The BBC takes serious risks with its own future when these sorts of things happen. This isn’t the time to be flagrantly taking a line when its whole financial model, its very existence could be coming under serious pressure very soon. As somebody who would hate to see the BBC disappear, I’m worried. And these rather silly attempts to look tough and trend on Twitter could be very costly indeed.

Dominic Cummings staying in place is a good thing

The government now has to accept that its ‘rules’ are flexible

Let’s just get this out of the way straight away – I don’t like Dominic Cummings. I don’t like Al ‘Boris’ Johnson. I don’t like his so called ‘Conservative’ government. I hold no candle for any of these people and do not wish to provide them with any sort of defence.

The important thing that must come out of this affair is that the lockdown, which I believe was a mistake in the first place, gets harder and harder to justify every minute of every day. And Dominic Cummings keeping his role as senior adviser to the PM adds immensely to the pressure that is continuing to build on the government to release us.

From the start, the government and Johnson himself have placed conflicting expectations upon the British public. The first was that we needed to use our common sense to deal with this crisis. The second was that we must follow a huge set of rules and guidelines. Who can forget those sinister words coming out of the mouth of the otherwise pretty wet and feeble Health Secretary, Matt Hancock: “This advice is not a request – it is an instruction”.

The problem is that stringent rules are the opposite to common sense. Common sense invites interpretation within a broad sense of an issue – rules require adherence. You can’t instruct the police to arrest anybody for not using common sense. As I’ve said, I have felt for a long time that we have engaged in a foolish mistake in our response to this undeniably dangerous virus, nevertheless myself and my family have stuck to the rules. I may hate the current state of the law, but I still consider myself bound by it.

I keep the scientifically unjustified distance of 2m away from people when I go out for my once a week shop, I stay at home, I take some exercise in my local park, I don’t meet family and I don’t go to other people’s houses. I do these things because of the law, not because of common sense.

Because the truth of it is, the actions of Dominic Cummings can be justified using common sense. It sounds like a terrible situation and he made a decision that many people may have made. But it cannot be justified under the rules. And he helped to write them.

And this is precisely why it is important that he stays – because if he had resigned or been let go, that would have been a victory for the rules over all of us taking responsibility for our own health and wellbeing. But he stays, which means that we are now free to interpret the rules and the guidance as we see fit, and it intensifies the pressure on this maddening policy. It also shows Johnson for what he really is – nothing without Dom.

So the media will rage, people will thrash about on social media and Cummings will keep his job. Like any other day. But with any luck, this sorry episode (where there are no winners, just losers everywhere) will bring forward the day when we are set free to live our lives again.

And if we have to sacrifice the government, Johnson and Cummings to do so, all the better.

Was lockdown a terrible mistake?

The Prime Minister panicked. And it may all have been for nothing.

It is seemingly imperative to start such a potentially controversial post by pointing out some things that I would hope might be obvious and therefore unnecessary to spell out, but these are not the times in which we live and so these first few paragraphs are purely an attempt at self-preservation from the flak I expect to receive. I called by blog ‘Off the Party Line’ for a reason, not because (despite some criticism) I am deliberately contrarian, but because sometimes the popular view is not altogether correct and therefore needs pointing out calmly and concisely. I should also point out that my world, my bubble, my circle is predominantly left wing, Northern, Labour voting, Remainy and middle class – places where the ‘party line’ can be firmly enforced when not appropriately toed. And whilst I am some of those things, I am not all. This can be uncomfortable at times, nevertheless it is important not to follow the herd when it heads for a cliff.

The novel coronavirus, COVID-19, is serious. I don’t doubt it for a moment. It spreads, it infects, it sometimes kills. These are facts that are not lost on me, nor are they facts that I take lightly. It got round our highly connected, globalised world quickly, taking advantage of modern miracles such as air transport and fast moving supply chains to insert itself into most countries on the planet.

However, it remains to be seen just how serious, how infectious and how deadly it is. Not only does it remain to be seen, but it was flagged early on by voices subsequently drowned out that we were liable to overreact and take measures that would be disproportionate to the threat we faced. We might become the elephant so scared of being scratched by a cat, that we jump off a cliff to save ourselves.

I will add my last note of mitigation here; that is to say that I do not take death or disease lightly. I believe every death, whether a child, a parent, a 40 year old, a grandparent, a 100 year old or an unborn baby, is tragic and is to be mourned. I hope this is enough to persuade you that what I come on to say is not cavalier or heartless. If you feel that you won’t be able to hear those kinds of arguments, it may be best for you to stop reading at this point, though I sincerely hope that having got this far, you’ll hear me out.

Let’s start with this now ubiquitous (but erroneous) term, ‘The Science’. The capitalisation is mine as it seems to me that it is being held way above its station, and is beginning to sound like something you might read in a dystopian novel. No, that does not make me a ‘Science denier’, it means that the assumptions being made about what constitutes ‘The Science’ are wholly unsatisfactory and in clear contravention of what those who engage in such work would ever profess to be doing – i.e. providing certainty and fool proof answers.

In terms of epidemiology, this is even more important to understand. Early on in this pandemic, government ministers now privately admit that they believed ‘The Science’ was more certain than it actually was. As James Forsyth reported, “they had not realised quickly enough that epidemiology was a lot more like economics than physics: lots of variables, lots of assumptions and no one right answer”.

One minister said, “we talk about following ‘the science’ as if there’s one opinion and not at least seven.”

This is vitally important to understand. Scientists disagree with one another. That’s what peer review is for, that’s why there are papers and counter papers. And in this instance, you’d better believe there is severe disagreement. For every Chris Whitty, there is an Anders Tegnell. For every Neil Ferguson (more on him later), there’s a Sucharit Bhakdi. Dr Bhakdi is an infectious medicine specialist and one of the most highly cited medical research scientists in Germany – i.e. he knows what he’s talking about. He describes the current fear over Covid-19 as ‘nothing but a spook‘. Is he right? Well I’m not an expert – but he is. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to do – listen to experts?

This should tell us that there really isn’t any such thing as ‘The Science’, and the quicker we understand that, the better.

Which brings us to our other eminent expert, Dr. Neil Ferguson. Dr. Ferguson is the man who is essentially the architect of much of the lockdown panic that has engulfed the world. His models, suggesting 500,000 deaths in the UK alone, have set the basis for terrified governments to enact some of the most extreme and unprecedented peacetime attacks upon the civil liberties of their citizens. In his recent address to the nation, the Prime Minister Alexander Johnson repeated this half a million deaths claim.

But this is incredibly specious. Reports in the last couple of days have made some pretty damning assessments of the modelling used by Dr. Ferguson, modelling that is 12-13 years old and was designed to model influenza outbreaks. According to leading figures, his code was “totally unreliable” and “something you wouldn’t stake your life on”.

David Richards, a tech entrepreneur said it was “a buggy mess that looks more like a bowl of angel hair pasta than a finely tuned piece of programming…in our commercial reality, we would fire anyone for developing code like this and any business that relied on it to produce software for sale would likely go bust.” And this is the model we’re using to hibernate the world economy?

The noises starting to emanate from government is that the lockdown will have avoided this catastrophic loss of life. But the evidence for this is extremely slim. It falls rather bluntly into post hoc ergo procter hoc territory and, in the first place, assumed a scenario where the government would do absolutely nothing; hardly a likely scenario, and certainly not one that should be used for spreading panicked headlines.

We need to understand the politics of these numbers as well. Consider the scenario where 500,000 deaths are predicted and there end up being 30,000. Bad, but not anywhere near what we feared, so that’s good. Well what if they’d predicted 25,000 deaths and there were 30,000? How awful – why did you get it so wrong? The incentive is to wildly overestimate and look like you did something, rather than try to be accurate and get it wrong. This is no way to make good policy.

There probably isn’t much need to go into Dr Ferguson breaching the lockdown he helped to create, as that’s been covered extensively anyway. Suffice to say, he can’t believe in it that much if he then flouts the rules as soon as he feels the rush of adulterous desire.

The new shift in the goalposts is now around the so called ‘R’ number. Yet another nail in the coffin of ‘The Science’ is that experts disagree on the effectiveness of this tool as well, despite it now being the tool that Al Johnson wants to use to monitor lockdown conditions.

We have never actually been told what the ‘R’ number is, and this may be something to do with the fact that nobody really knows. In her press conference, Deputy Chief Medical Officer Dr Jenny Harries sounded almost embarrassed at the use of this tool. Maybe because experts can’t agree – she said “the rate is derived from a different number of modelers. And each modeler will put in, each modeling group will put in slightly different data, it will process it in a different way; and they’re all compared to see, to come out with a broad consensus.”

She also explained that it would differ based on the setting: “(There) are predominately three different R values: we have community, which will be most people in their homes, and that’s where the ONS data is coming from, that’s households; we have care homes which have had high rates, they’re starting to come down; and we’ve had hospitals as well. So it’s quite difficult.”

As Kate Andrews points out, Dr Harries looked like she was mocking the use of this number. “We’ve got a number of different R rates. It’s a bit like saying everybody in one area has the same sort of house cause the average one looks like this.”

With such disagreement amongst even our own experts, never mind internationally, how are we supposed to know what to think? And is this really justified to lockdown entire nations when we really have no idea how effective that will be? Sweden seems to be doing no different to nations that have enforced strict conditions – why is that?

What will the effect be on our children? Studies being undertaken are finding little to no evidence of children spreading the disease, yet they’re locked up in the same way as everyone else and can’t go to school. My 2 year old son is desperate to see his friends, will have a lonely birthday when he thinks he’s having a party, and my youngest probably won’t even recognise anyone when we eventually get out. How can we know the full effects of this panic on our youngest members of society? I believe we will look back in shame at what we did to them.

The insane, nasty argument of accusing those of us who are questioning the government approach of putting ‘lives vs money’ when discussing the effects on the world economy  needs to stop. We are all arguing in good faith here, and these sorts of comebacks are unnecessary and unfair. And I don’t even do social media anymore, I only see it in the papers and on TV, I can’t imagine the howls of rage on the cesspits of the internet.

But this must be taken seriously. You think 10 years of Cameron/Osborne austerity was bad? You think daily headlines in the Guardian about the effects of austerity on the poor, the disabled, the BAME, the women were hard enough to stomach? Well wait for what’s coming. We’ve already spent the money ‘saved’ by austerity over those 10 years many times over. Johnson has promised that there will be no return to austerity, but do you trust him?

Haughty proclamations along the lines of ‘lives are more important than money, if we can save even one life it will be worth it, how can we even be thinking about the economy when people are dying?’ are, I’m afraid to say, dangerous and reckless. They’re incredibly easy to say (probably worth at least 50 likes on facebook, I’d say), but do not see the tsunami that follows. As this study from the IFS shows, ‘economic downturns have an impact on health as well as wealth’. It points to research showing a 1% drop in employment leads to a 2% increase in chronic conditions – what do you think might happen when we hit 5%? 10%? 15%? Are those lives worth saving, or are they too far in the future to care about right now?

If you’re of the mind that you wouldn’t be able to live with yourself if people close to you died because of lockdowns being lifted, then I would simply ask – can you live with the unintended consequences, the indirect loss of life, that could be far, far greater? How about some of these statistics:

  • A&E attendance has halved – so half the number of people who thought themselves sick enough to be checked out by an emergency medical professional are staying at home. Do you really think all of those people will have survived?
  • A leaked email from 31st March showed that children who would have survived, ended up dead.
    • “In one case, a mother reported that she was waiting to be spoken to on NHS 111 for more than 60 minutes while her child “arrested” – medical terminology for the heart or breathing stopping. The child subsequently died.In another case referred to in the email, a mother says she was told the ambulance service was too busy whilst her child was “semi conscious and vomiting”.And another set of parents were reported not to have taken their unwell child to hospital for five days as they believed there was “risk in hospitals of Covid-19″. The child also died.”
  • 2,700 fewer people every week are being diagnosed with cancer – do you think that there are just 2,700 fewer people a week getting cancer, or are these people just going to have it and then die because they couldn’t get medical care?
  • Given that mental health is something that people now talk about a lot, how about this one – only three weeks in (so over a month ago), “The research, conducted by King’s College London and pollsters Ipsos Mori, finds 15% of the population already say they are finding the restrictions very challenging and another 14% expect they will be unable to cope within the next month.” What do you think some of these people might do?
  • How many more people are killing themselves? How many more women are being beaten? These are horrible stats, but have to be considered as part of the ‘all lives matter’ conversation.

It’s also helpful to realign ourselves with what we normally consider a perfectly fine risk/reward ratio and what are normal deaths. As I said to my wife early on in this lockdown, imagine if (like we have now), every day, we had the BBC and the newspapers flashing the number of people who died the previous day at us. It would obviously be alarming. But we don’t have that, so we put it out of our minds. This is not to say that more people are now dying, but the numbers don’t seem to me to add up to anything like a proportionate increase that would require a complete lockdown.

Every year, around 1,800 people die in road casualties. Old people. Middle aged people. Children. Babies. Pregnant women. Dead. From being crushed and smashed by road vehicles.

Why is our response to these shocking figures not to ban cars, vans and trucks? Why do we accept these deaths? Because our risk/reward ratio tells us it is worth it for the freedom and the economy it gives us. So where is the cry of ‘every life should be protected at all costs’ when it comes to this? If you believe cars should not be banned, then are you saying you don’t care about leaving children orphaned and people permanently disabled? And how on earth, if you couldn’t live with yourself for passing on Covid-19 to a vulnerable person, could you possibly ever again get behind the wheel of over a tonne of steel, glass and rubber, fire it up with fume-producing explosive fuel and drive it around where you might kill a stranger, not to mention the child in your back seat or the elderly parent in your passenger seat?

Perspective and proportion are vital, and in normal times, we have no problems justifying our convenient (but sometimes deadly) societal norms. It is imperative that we rediscover this.

I do not say that we shouldn’t follow the guidelines. I do not say we should just go back to normal straight away. Those who are vulnerable should absolutely have the choice and freedom to keep themselves safe and out of harm’s way – this virus is dangerous for them. But as for the rest of us – why are the young and the healthy being quarantined in this way? Why are our freedoms still being trampled on? Why are we not trusted, as in Sweden, to analyse for ourselves the risks and take the appropriate action as we see fit?

The care home situation is a scandal, no doubt about it. Not even Sweden got that right. The inquiry into this should be swift and severe. But this didn’t have to happen. And we can’t go on with lockdown for much longer.

Simon Jenkins puts it perfectly in the Guardian, speaking of the PM: “In his U-turn he opted for the politics of fear. He now has workers terrified of working, and parents terrified of school. He has frightened his economy into inertia. I share the view of scientists such as Cambridge’s David Spiegelhalter and Oxford’s Carl Heneghan that this virus is unprecedented in its infectiousness, but that it will pass. The chief variant will prove to be how governments reacted, and the toll they took on the rest of their healthcare and the wider economy. Sweden gambled in its response, but so did the rest of the world. South Africa’s lockdown threatens it with economic and political catastrophe. The UN warns that the world could lose four years of growth at a cost of $8.5 trillion. Famine and further disease will be rife. That was surely the greater gamble.”

Unfortunately, it seems that for that to happen, we will need a miracle. Something that is as rare as Haley’s Comet. The PM will have to admit he made a mistake.

To finish, here’s a quick one – without looking, how many new cases of Covid-19 were there in London yesterday do you think? The city that has had over 25,000 cases. 5,000 more? 1,000 more?

24. 24 new cases. It’s time to get back to our lives.

All Joe Anderson cares about is publicity

What is really behind this blocking of a return to school?

Reports today suggest that Liverpool Council (and possibly some surrounding) will oppose the government push to start the first phase of reopening schools on 1st June. This is being led principally by Liverpool’s long standing mayor, Joe Anderson, a man not exactly allergic to pictures of himself on the front pages of newspapers.

This cynical move is the embodiment of the old adage ‘never let a good crisis go to waste’. Plus our mayor is the living embodiment of ‘stick a red rosette on a plant pot and it’ll be elected with a majority.’ I doubt very much that the mayor cares all that much about the outcomes of this move, more that this situation has set up a perfect opportunity to show him as the Scouse David standing tall against the mighty Goliath Johnson, staring him down with nought but a slingshot and a smooth set of byelaws and statutory guidance.

And what an opportunity it is. While the Prime Minister thrashes and flails his way through this crisis, he leaves space for ‘jobs for life’ politicians like Anderson to puff out their chests and virtue signal their way into the headlines. It won’t matter much that what he’s saying doesn’t make all that much sense, all that matters is that he can clothe himself in the glorious robes of ‘life vs economy’ nonsense and receive the gushing acclaim that inevitably follows. “I will save my people from the Evil Tories – nobody will go back until it is 100% safe and I shall not back down”.

I am no fan of the incumbent administration in No. 10 and I sincerely believe that they have made a catastrophic mistake in imposing lockdown. It will, in the future inquiry, be shown to have been an immense folly, driven by unnecessary panic and fear. Al Johnson has found himself way out of his depth and I wish this government had never been elected.

But now they are trying to get us out of the almighty mess they have created, and the naked politicking by the likes of Anderson isn’t going to help. Fine, if you have the power to do it Mr. Mayor, and you believe it to be the right thing, by all means stop children from going back to school, learning, playing with their friends, getting on with their young lives. But it is a serious mistake.

Not that you’ll ever pay for it of course – you wear a red rosette after all.

Vote of no confidence in the Government – PREDICTION

Mrs. May will almost certainly win, which is nothing short of perverse

Well I never would have predicted that. Today, I put the size of May’s defeat on the ‘meaningful vote’ at 141, a number which I changed three times but felt was a good shot. I started getting nervous when I realised I’d forgotten to consider possible abstentions. I needn’t have worried – the total ended up at 230. This is a monstrous number and one that is entirely unprecedented.

This prompted the Prime Minister to stand at the dispatch box and all but ask for a vote of no confidence. Jeremy Corbyn duly obliged. The debate will take place tomorrow and the vote carried out in the evening..

So how is this one going to go?

There are very few people predicting defeat for the Prime Minister (certainly nobody close to the process). The ERG (the thorn in her Brexit side, led by the Honourable Member for the 18th Century) have pledged that they will back her, her confidence and supply partners, the DUP, have also pledged their support and that pretty much gives her the numbers to see this off. Somewhat counterintuitively, this one will appear to be much closer than any of the other votes, but will in fact be much more certain.

She’s going to win. Which is ridiculous, but makes sense when you look at it from a Tory Party identity point of view. It is, of course, enraging that we all have to suffer the consequences of a Tory identity crisis, but that’s the way it is. I want to write soon about why I think political parties should have a shelf life, and this will form a central part of thinking.

What is utterly obscene about this is that the Tories will never, above anything else, jeopardise their position in government if they can help it. Only if they can be absolutely assured that they are safe will they ever make any ‘risky’ moves. This obviously doesn’t always work out…as Mrs May found to her cost when she was about a thousand points ahead and fancied a 6 week tour of the country. The difference there was that she didn’t see it as a risk.

This becomes a huge problem when pretty much all other norms of party management and loyalty have completely broken down. Apart from infighting about the European Union, which is standard Tory practice, cabinet collective responsibility is hugely damaged, factions have emerged and are all willing to vote down legislation, broadsides against the executive are now daily and they just crushed the PM in the biggest vote of her tenure.

The PM, on this evidence alone, clearly doesn’t command the confidence of the house – but they will never ever say so when the alternative is that the opposition could form a government, or a general election could be called. This is deadlock, and it will only get worse.

As I said earlier, I can’t see Mrs May ever standing down of her own accord. All those that know her say she driven above all by a sense of duty – but this means different things to different people. It could be argued that being completely incapable of getting your major business through would indicate that it is your duty to step down and let someone else get their own mandate. But she doesn’t, and won’t, see it that way. And her party will back her. C’est la vie.

So this won’t be a very interesting prediction I’m afraid,. What will be more interesting is the pressure this now puts on Jeremy Corbyn. Frankly, it’s about time he faced some political pressure over Brexit and hopefully (though nowhere near certainly) this might come from his supporters, who overwhelmingly support a second referendum.

I personally think that would be the most politically catastrophic thing to happen since the last one (I think referendums are constitutionally ridiculous anyway and hugely resent the first one), but he will now start facing heated calls to back such a vote. If he doesn’t, or he dithers over it, will May be able to catch a break? Perhaps, but this will surely be short lived.

The problem now is that, if I’m right, all options will have been exhausted for removing Mrs. May and there will be no mechanism to stop her until the crunch in March (unless John Bercow just invents one, which, in his current mood, I wouldn’t put past him). So we remain in deadlock with a government that can’t get its business through, an opposition that hasn’t got a policy and a deadline fast approaching. It will be extended, obviously, there’s no way we will be leaving on that date. But eventually something will have to give.

And I have no idea what that will be.

So, to the prediction. As always, I point out my appalling record of political predictions before encouraging you to pay the slightest attention. Generally you can take whatever I say and believe the opposite.

Can you see any way she could lose it?

Prediction

On the motion That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government

I predict:

The Ayes to the right – 312

The Noes to the left – 324

VICTORY BY 12 VOTES

Will she continue as Prime Minister VOLUNTARILY?

Yes