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The winter sun rose this morning over a nation utterly transformed. Boris Johnson now commands the biggest majority since Mrs Thatcher in 1983. The pound has surged. What will Boris do with his newly-gained power? Victor Hill reflects.
The scale of the Tory victory was beyond expectations. The Tories will command a majority of more than 70 in the new House of Commons. Mr Corbyn’s Labour has been humbled. Ms Swinson, the leader of the Liberal Democrats, lost her seat. The Tories made inroads into Northern English seats that have been Labour for generations. The SNP advanced in Scotland, though mostly at Labour’s expense.
But what a profoundly unsatisfying experience the election campaign turned out to be. We were told this was make or break, in or out, left or right, up or down – do or die… a historic fork in the road…
But finally, one felt as if one had booked top-end tickets to see a magisterial production of Wagner’s Ring Cycle at the Bayreuth Festival – only to be served up with a provincial repertory version of Gilbert and Sullivan’s The Mikado with Mr Johnson cast as Ko-Ko and Mr Corbyn playing Nanki-Poo. (Ms Swinson offered an excessively portentous Yum-Yum, and, very sadly, was booed off stage towards the end of Act One.)
I discussed last week how, on all sides, the nitty-gritty of modern policy making was studiously avoided in favour of phony auctions – who can plant most trees; who can spend more on the (failing) NHS; who can commit the most wind-turbines stroke infrastructure projects. (All sides managed to keep schtum about the desperately needed third runway at Heathrow.) HS2 might still go ahead, thus gobbling up huge swaths of farmland and potential reforested land in Staffordshire and elsewhere. But no one is quite sure.
The sadly unlamented Mrs May gained immortality by declaring that Brexit means Brexit. Mr Johnson, this time round, enthused us with Get Brexit Done. Not even the most ardent and intellectually gifted Brexiteers – such as Mr Gove – even bothered to remind us why the United Kingdom should leave the European Union at all. I (as regular readers will be aware) can think of a few reasons for Brexit; but it would be reassuring if that part of the British political class which is hell-bent on it could remind us how we got here.
The National Sickness Service
Perhaps inevitably, the Brexit issue was eclipsed in the final week of the campaign by a stale and tedious argument about the state of the NHS.
If you want to damage a prime minister these days, all you have to do is to place a photo on a smartphone of a sick baby on a hospital floor under his nose. (It was the Leeds General Infirmary in this particular case.)
According to one account on social media the mother placed her child, suffering from pneumonia in Accident & Emergency, on the floor and took photos as a kind of protest. Of course, I don’t know exactly what happened – I wasn’t there. But the day-to-day management of hospitals is the responsibility of hospital management, not the prime minister.
There is something systemically wrong with how the NHS is managed. I’ll give you just one example. I attended a talk recently by a prostate cancer survivor. His group of volunteers[i] raised over £14,000 to fund a “procedure couch” used to conduct biopsies for men with suspected prostate cancer at the Norfolk and Norwich University Hospital. This piece of kit, apparently, saves the NHS more than £300,000 per year.
So why didn’t the NHS fund it internally? Apparently, there was no procurement budget. It’s baffling.
I’ve always been a great admirer of Ms Greer. I had an American aunt who explained The Female Eunuch to me in great detail when I was about eleven. And I have always understood that the end-point of feminism was equality – meaning that men and women are treated the same by the state and in the workplace.
But, during the election campaign, a pressure group of uncertain origin called Women against State Pension Inequality (WASPI) captured the Labour Party.
The act of parliament that impelled the equalisation of the state pension age for men and women was passed in 1995 under the Tory government of (Sir) John Major. It determined that the pension age for men and women should be equalised between 2010 and 2020. That was 24 years ago, in case feminists don’t possess calculators. True, letters advising the “victims” were not sent out until 2010 – though there was never any requirement in the 1995 Act to send such letters. Lawyers will tell you that ignorance is not a defence in the eyes of the law. The women affected (those born roughly between 1953 and 1957) should have been aware of the reform.
Given that the entire pension apparatus is becoming increasingly unaffordable due to extending life expectancy, there is a strong argument that women, who still live longer than men in the UK, should receive their state retirement pensions at an older age than men. But that would offend the equality principle.
David Cameron (PM from 2010 to 2016) determined that E-day (the day on which men and women’s pension rights would be equalised) would fall in 2018. But, unexpectedly, during the election campaign Labour suddenly decided that it would be worth bribing about 3 million women affected (some poor, and some rich like Diane Abbott who would have got about £23,000). The bill for this largesse would have been £58 billion. (This on top of all the other trillions of pounds of spending commitments.)
Adam Price, the leader of Plaid Cymru, believes that politicians should be criminally charged for lying. When Labour asserts that the “WASPI scandal” should be rectified because it is a “moral outrage against women” – is that a criminal lie or just mental incontinence?
And have these moral exemplars ever considered that it is their children who will pay for the consequences of their squandering tendencies?
Goodbye, Ms Soubry – and here’s hoping you’ll swiftly find an occupation more suited to your undoubted talents. Au revoir, Monsieur Grieve; here’s wishing you a long and happy retirement in la belle France, where you are evidently more popular than here. Sorry, Chukka mate, about your defeat. See you down the Citizen’s Advice Bureau sometime soon. Goodbye, Mr Goldsmith, come back soon. Farewell, Mr Skinner, Beast of Bolsover for the last half century: we shall miss you.
Mentioned in despatches
George Baker, the Labour candidate for Winchester, ran against the Tory incumbent Steve Brine, who has held the seat since 2010. He lost, as expected. George has suffered, since birth, from a severe form of muscular dystrophy. He’s been whizzing around Winchester in his electric wheelchair with huge energy. We exchanged messages – I love to hear from people who disagree with me. He thinks that Winston Churchill aspired to a federal Europe including the UK. I beg to differ: but I salute George as an extraordinary man.
My friend John Lamont ran a dynamic campaign in the beautiful Scottish Borders to retain his seat in Berwickshire, Roxburgh & Selkirk. This was against a fierce onslaught from the SNP who held the seat from 2015-2017. John has been posting that, in his daily experience, support for Scottish separatism on doorsteps in the Borders is in decline. He thinks that most Scots are fed-up with the interminable independence saga, just as most English people are fed-up with the Brexit box set.
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Gareth Johnson (no relation to the PM) held the bellwether seat of Dartford, Kent with an increased majority. Gareth is a stalwart constituency MP who practiced as a solicitor in Dartford before he was first elected (taking the seat from Labour) in 2010. He has been a discreet and diplomatic Get Brexit Done man since 2016 (no ERG member, he). He supported his namesake in the election campaign but has spoken about the need for reconciliation. He is a champion of the proposed new Thames Crossing (a tunnel from Greys to Gravesend to relieve the Dartford Crossing). Boris might just have a budget for that.
It’s beginning to look a look a lot like Brexit
The new parliament will convene on Tuesday next week. The top item on the agenda will be the prime minister’s determination to get his own version of Mrs May’s Withdrawal Agreement through parliament, and thus to leave the EU. So it’s pretty much a dead cert that Brexit will happen at the end of January 2020.
Only Brexit (pace, Mrs May) doesn’t always mean Brexit. The real issue in 2020 will be the extent to which the UK will continue to maintain regulatory alignment with the EU post-Brexit. Overall, I suspect that the most pragmatic outcome will be a soft Brexit in which Britain follows most of the EU rules.
It is unlikely that a comprehensive trade agreement could be finalised by the end of 2020, as Monsieur Barnier has warned. However, it is reasonable to expect progress on a sector by sector basis. Expect the focus in 2020 to be on the aerospace and automotive industries. It’s not overly optimistic to expect frictionless trade in these domains. However, negotiations on the entire gamut of trade will drag on for years.
The “beautiful” trade deal with the USA will not happen in 2020. There will be a budget in February which will no doubt contain some shiny baubles. I’ll be following the evolution of UK government finance in 2020 with interest – and trepidation.
Another sector to watch will be agriculture. A new regime will be unveiled in 2020 to replace the Common Agricultural Policy (CAP). I believe that this could prove both popular and transformative. It will have dark green credentials. We can expect Mr Johnson to make frequent mention of the “climate emergency”.
The epistle of Saint Hugh
I do wish “celebrities” would just get lost during elections.
The most nauseating moment of my week was, while perusing the Telegraph over a strong morning brew, hearing Hugh Grant pontificate on the increasingly ghastly BBC R4 Today Programme. Once floppy-haired Hugh told us that he hadn’t really known much about the EU before the referendum, but that, since then, he’d “read a lot of books” and was now convinced that Brexit is a catastrophe. In fact: even worse than the climate catastrophe…
I’m glad that Hugh has adopted a reading habit; though from what he gushed one didn’t glean much critical thinking. Hugh opined that people should vote tactically against the Tories in order to stop Tory lies. Tactical voting would not result in Mr Corbyn reaching Number Ten, but would deprive Mr Johnson of the premiership…Yawn.
The markets this morning
The pound is trading at $1.34 and €1.20 – a nice pep just in time for the winter holidays. The FTSE-100 was up at opening by about 1.7 percent. A protracted period of FTSE doldrums may be ending.
Touching the Void
I had to empty my mind of politics and economics. (Reverse mindfulness, if you wish.) The day before the election I took the day off and went to see Touching the Void at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London’s theatre-land.
If you don’t know the extraordinary story, having seen the film or read the book, I won’t spoil it for you. Ostensibly about a mountaineering adventure that goes wrong, it’s really about our autochthonous, primordial fear of dying alone – and the majestic achievement of cheating death against incalculable odds.
Thanks to our willing suspension of disbelief, a very clever set and four pitch-perfect performances we (the audience) really imagine ourselves on a bleak mountainside in the Peruvian Andes. Josh Williams, a young actor whom I hadn’t come across before, gives a powerful performance as Joe. The infamous moment when the rope is cut is totally traumatic – I don’t know how Josh managed to fall from such a height on that historic stage without injury.
I suspect Mr McDonnell will now decide to cut the severely injured, dangling Mr Corbyn’s rope.
[i] Norfolk & Waveney Prostate Cancer Support Group.