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All change, please

Forty-one days ago, Rishi Sunak declared in his party conference speech:

Politics doesn’t work the way it should. We’ve had thirty years of a political system which incentivises the easy decision, not the right one. Thirty years of vested interests standing in the way of change. Thirty years of rhetorical ambition which achieves little more than a short-term headline.

You either think this country needs to change or you don’t.

Yesterday, the man who led the Conservative Party for more than a third of those thirty failing years was appointed by Sunak as our Foreign Secretary.

It seems that Sunak is placing himself in the ‘don’t’ category.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , .


Rishi Sunak claimed yesterday:

This King’s Speech delivers change. Change in our economy. Change in our society. Change in our communities.

It doesn’t, though, does it?

The only thing ‘delivered’ was a speech, once in a ceremonial pouch and once verbally from a throne.

There was precisely no difference in our economy, society or communities after the speech compared to before it. We can argue all day about whether the speech discussed meaningful change in those areas, but nobody—nobody—can credibly claim that it delivered any change whatsoever.

Rishi Sunak appears to use ‘deliver’ as a synonym for ‘talk about.’

Once this is understood, a whole load of puzzling pronouncements suddenly make sense. Take this from the Government’s briefing on the King’s speech:

Integrity, professionalism, accountability. That’s what I promised when I stood on the steps of Downing Street just over a year ago – and that’s what we have delivered.

Read ‘talked about’ for ‘delivered’, and this is a far less disorienting description. It’s a similar story for this section of his recent conference speech:

I have seen up close the quality of our Armed Forces and intelligence services. Truly, the finest in the world. The debt of gratitude we owe them is why we are making this the best place to be a veteran.  I know we will deliver because we have a minister for veterans affairs sitting in Cabinet.

We ought to parse this as ‘I know we will talk about this because I’ve appointed someone to talk about it.’

It’s maybe churlish to point out that the Government’s own guidance says that the word ‘deliver’ ought to be avoided as insufficiently clear:

Use ‘make’, ‘create’, ‘provide’ or a more specific term (pizzas, post and services are delivered – not abstract concepts like improvements)

But at least the Prime Minister has helped us understand his idiosyncratic use of the word.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

Bold new timidity

It’s the State Opening of Parliament today.

Wendy and I have been speculating for weeks on who might lead the BBC’s television coverage in the absence of Huw Edwards—there’s never a dull moment in our house. We’d guessed Kirsty Young, but the job has gone to Wheel of Fortune and radio phone-in host Nicky Campbell.

It may turn out to be today’s boldest decision. Rishi Sunak appears to be pursuing a slightly weird strategy of promising boldness while delivering abject timidity. His bold new plan for HS2 was not to build half of it. His conference ‘rabbit’ was to ask Parliament to have a little think about banning smoking, but not to ask his MPs to actually vote for it. His solution to overcrowded prisons is not to reform criminal justice nor build more cells, but to rent some rooms overseas. His approach to meeting targets on net zero is to water them down. He’s exercised about tinkering with the guidance for local Councils on speed limits. The King’s Speech will announce a bill to ban some leaseholds, but not the tricky ones such as flats.

I’m no fan of the majority of policies pursued by this Government, not of its approach to governing, so I ought to be thrilled that Sunak has set his sights so low. Yet the overriding impression is of bathetic smallness and inadequacy.

Surely the country can do better than this?

According to YouGov, 77% of adults in Great Britain think Sunak’s government has achieved ‘not very much’ or ‘not much at all.’ It doesn’t feel like this approach is a great way to tackle that perception.

The picture at the top is my own from a few years ago. I like the unusual opportunity to see Parliament with all the ugly security barriers removed during the State Opening. I also used it in 2014 for a post reflecting on the legislative harm associated with the State Opening.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , .

The Rishiversary

A year ago today, Rishi Sunak stood outside the front door of 10 Downing Street and gave a speech. The opening lines were:

Good morning,

I have just been to Buckingham Palace and accepted His Majesty The King’s invitation to form a government in his name.

It is only right to explain why I am standing here as your new Prime Minister.

He never did get around to covering the topic he set himself and explaining why he is the new Prime Minister. It’s a peculiar omission which struck Wendy and me at the time. It comes across almost as though he’s not quite sure how he ended up there.

That’s not an impression that has faded with time.

There’s this odd section, where I can only assume he unintentionally skipped a line or a page from his script:

After the billions of pounds it cost us to combat Covid, after all the dislocation that caused in the midst of a terrible war that must be seen successfully to its conclusions I fully appreciate how hard things are.

There’s no pause nor flicker of recognition of stringing together 39 words into a single sentence that is devoid of meaning. It sounds though he’s slightly robotic, as though he’s converting text to speech in a manner that bypasses higher executive function.

That, too, turned out not to be a passing vibe.

I’m rubbish at political predictions, but—despite what the commentators might say about an election that’s as late as possible—I just can’t see this charade lasting another year.

The image at the top of this post was generated by DALL·E 3.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

Not in my backyard

Here in Newcastle, there’s been a long-running saga about a massive new housing estate—Great Park. In fact, ‘massive housing estate’ considerably undersells it: with more than 4,000 homes planned, it is essentially a whole new suburb of the city.

Construction started in 2001 and has continued apace. A town centre was constructed some years ago, but until recently it was the subject of great controversy because there were virtually no shops or services open in the units built along it. Residents were very upset that they had no local services. Earlier this year, Morrisons opened in the town centre to great fanfare.

It’s against this backdrop that I read over the weekend that Rishi Sunak disapproves of services being close to where people live. To quote BBC News:

The Government said its plan would stop councils implementing “15-minute cities”, where essential amenities are always within a 15-minute walk.

Apparently, Sunak considers building essential amenities close to people’s homes to be part of a

war on motorists

A war we can only assume is being waged by the Government. Imagine how angry he will be when he realises who’s in charge of that.

Now, Newcastle hasn’t had so much as a Conservative councillor for almost three decades, so perhaps I’m out of touch. Indeed, in the latest round of local elections, their percentage share of the vote didn’t make it into double figures, their 27 candidates averaging fewer than 300 votes apiece. I walk past my local Conservative club most days, and their brass plaque is frequently defaced with amusing, topically critical slogans written on masking tape, which always strikes me as a politely British form of protest.

Yet: I can’t imagine that a desire to put essential amenities further away from people’s houses is likely to be a vote-winner. I don’t know anyone who has ever said “I can’t rent this place, the GP is less than 15 minutes’ walk away!”

This is Sunak pandering to ridiculous conspiracy theorists, seemingly without any insight into the fact that the Government is assumed to be part of the conspiracy. It is literally laughable: I was sitting on a park bench when I read that BBC line, and I laughed out loud.

Today, we get to see whether he has enough similarly insane policy ideas to turn his first—and, I’d happily wager, last—conference party leader speech into a stand-up comedy act.

Here’s hoping.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

I like Sunak’s confidence

Writing for the Financial Times yesterday, George Parker and Lucy Fisher said:

Next year, Sunak will ask the public at a general election to trust the Tories with another five years in power. Even many in his own party believe he is doomed to fail, that he will be dragged under by the legacy of 13 years of Conservative rule: public sector austerity, Brexit, the chaos and lies of Boris Johnson, the Covid-19 lockdown parties and the economic meltdown of Truss’s brief tenure.

Nonetheless, Sunak remains bullish about his chances of defying the sceptics, with the economy faring better and inflation coming under control. A revamped Number 10 operation is determined to deliver a fifth consecutive Tory election victory. “He really believes he can do it,” says one Downing Street insider.

I think—and hope—Sunak is wrong. I don’t think the Government he leads represents the best group of people to run the country. But Sunak’s confidence gives me optimism.

I worry that Sunak’s best chance of retaining power is a snap, single-issue election in the next handful of months, the issue being the European Convention on Human Rights. A pretext can be manufactured easily, and may even be handed on a plate by a Supreme Court decision that deporting asylum seekers to Rwanda contravenes the Convention. The fact that withdrawal would be controversial provides a strong pretext for “putting it to the people” at a general election. It’s not hard to imagine the right-wing press campaigning fervently in support: “you might not like everything about the Tories, but this is our one opportunity to get this done.” It’s also not hard to imagine that message cutting through.

The logic of enacting this plan this autumn is also straightforward: Sunak can argue that he is “making progress” on his “priorities” and it bounces Labour onto the turf on which they are currently least comfortable, before they’ve worked out their election position. With the press behind them, the Conservatives can define the terms of the debate and largely keep the election as a single-issue vote.

The most dangerous thing for a party heading to an election is ennui introduced by low expectations. The clear narrative based on polling is that Labour is on course to win the next election. The best way to suspend those expectations is by doing something unexpected: calling an early election and redefining the terms of that election to something where the majority view is less clear-cut. Suddenly, the narrative becomes that “it’s all to play for”—inflating the perception of the popularity of the Conservative vote.

This would be a horrible thing to happen. It would spark a distressingly toxic debate and—by definition—give voice to some of our most inhumane tendencies. For what it’s worth, I also don’t think it would work: I don’t think moderate Conservatives would fall into line, I don’t think this sort of campaign would energise large sections of their base, and I think Labour would find ways to cut through with strong ‘change’ messages. This ‘nuclear option’ might be Sunak’s best shot, but I still think it’s a long shot.

If Sunak “really believes” he can win conventionally, then this bet—not to mention the damage it could do to Sunak’s reputation and future earning potential—is not worth the risk. And if Sunak’s confidence avoids us taking a disastrous path, then it’s hard not to like it.

This post was filed under: Politics, Post-a-day 2023, , , , .

Rishi Sunak’s delivery

One of my New Year’s promises to you was to grow the economy and today we’re announcing the second round of allocations from our levelling up fund … [to] help deliver on that promise to boost growth.

Politics aside… I can’t pretend that anyone will remember the content of Sunak’s remarks more than the fact that he was breaking the law as he gave them.

But I also can’t pretend that I didn’t wince at “delivering on” a “promise.”

Promises are for making, keeping, or breaking. Courier bikes are for delivering on.

And seatbelts are for safety.

This post was filed under: News and Comment, Politics, Post-a-day 2023, .

31 things I learned in July 2020

1: I knew a little about Milton Glaser, but I didn’t know how prolific he was.

2: Priority postboxes, for return of completed home swabs for COVID-19, have appeared as if overnight. Or at least, stickers which designate existing post boxes which are already emptied later in the day as “priority post boxes”.


3: Finland’s air force stopped using a swastika in its logo three and a half years ago, and no-one really noticed until now.

4: “These trying months have shown us a government and a prime minister of unique incompetence, deceitful and panicky, often inattentive to essential business (remember those five Cobra meetings that Johnson bunked), and incapable of pursuing a steady policy for more than five minutes. Yet when we emerge from the epidemic, we will be faced with the same government and the same prime minister and the same government demanding more powers, more central control.”

5: I’ve read quite a lot about Concorde over the years and the one parked up in Manchester is still on my “to visit” list. I’ve never read anything that got quite as closely into the financial side of the project as this 2002 article by Francis Spufford which I dredged up today.

6: In one of life’s stranger coincidences, after a few years of using Android phones, I bought my first iPhone since the 4S today—then realised that it is ten years to the day after I wrote about switching to the iPhone the first time round.

7: A mobile phone game can be a surprisingly powerful emotional experience.

8: Goats have rectangular pupils.

9: Someone wasn’t allowed on my bus today because they weren’t wearing a face covering: so I’ve learned that the rules are now being enforced.

10: “Nowhere in Christian scripture is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god. Hart regards it as a historical tragedy that the early church evolved into an institution of secular power and social domination, too often reinforced by an elaborate mythology of perdition based on the scantest scriptural hints and metaphors. The fear of damnation can serve as a potent means of social control.”

11: Torontonians are without their water fountains during the current heatwave.

12: I learned only recently that it is expected behaviour—and, in some cases, a school rule—for children to make their own way to school from around the age of five in Switzerland. The Swiss government’s response to a five year old being fined last year for travelling on a bus without a ticket is heartwarming sensible: to make public transport free for young children, with the side-effect of further cementing this approach to school transport.

13: Commercial analogue radio is to continue for a further decade (at least).

14: There’s a feeling of change in the air. Yesterday, I felt hopeful that covid-19 may be bringing to an end this brief era of populism: it seemed plausible that the crisis might sweep away the bombast of Trump, Johnson and Bolsanaro in favour of quieter competence. In the UK, witness the poll rating of Sunak and Starmer as examples of senior politicians who can both think and communicate clearly. Today, The New Yorker’s historical review had reminded me that things are rarely so straightforward: things can get worse as well as better.

15: “Andrew Lloyd Webber has sent a cease-and-desist letter to Donald Trump” sounds like the setup for a particularly corny joke, but it turns out that it’s the news these days.

16: We’re at a curious point in the Government’s response to covid-19. The official advice on gov.uk remains “stay at home as much as possible” yet the Government is running a major advertising campaign to convince everyone to do exactly the opposite, presumably for economic reasons.

17: One of the scariest charts I’ve seen in relation to covid-19 in the UK so far:

18: “When the inquiry does begin, the primary target for the Johnson government’s ire is already clear: PHE. One health service official predicted it would be ‘toast’ after the inquiry. One minister says: ‘We haven’t blamed Public Health England — yet.’”

19: “When Carnegie Mellon researchers interrupted college students with text messages while they were taking a test, the students had average test scores that were 20 per cent lower than the scores of those who took the exam with their phones turned off.”

20: “Britain’s health secretary, Matt Hancock, delivered its message to the assembly. He spoke perkily, as if everything in his country was under control. In fact Britain is the country which, given its relative wealth and long warning time, has failed most grievously to protect its people against the first onslaught of the virus. Its failure lay primarily in its neglect of the low-tech, low-cost, labour-intensive public health methods and community mobilisation that successfully prevented disease in low-income countries: universal lockdowns, self-isolation, masking, quarantine and tracing – by people, not apps – of all those whom sick people have been in contact with. Yet in his short video message Hancock was speaking the old language of Americans and Europeans, coming up with a tech solution – in this case, a vaccine that doesn’t yet exist – to the world’s problems. ‘I’m proud that the UK is leading this work,’ he said, ‘that we’re the biggest donor to the global effort to find a vaccine, and that UK research efforts are leading the way.’ Hancock’s wasn’t the only speech at the assembly to prompt the thought that before there can be solidarity, a little humility would help.”

21: This Psyche documentary following actors at The National Theatre in the hour before they go on stage is fascinating.

22: I learned more about the history of Nespresso. I am a heavy Nespresso drinker. I do at least make sure all of my pods are recycled.

23: “Answering emails is hard, and no matter how fancy your email app, that email isn’t going to write itself. There’s no tool smart enough to cure human stupidity, so maybe we should stop looking for it.”

24: Victorian Britain’s relationship with the seaside was complicated.

25: I think I use singular “they” without really thinking about it: it’s not a point of grammar I can get worked up about. I hadn’t previously clocked this common usage: “How do you complete the following sentence: ‘Everyone misplaces ____ keys’? There is no way to do so that is both uncontroversially grammatical and generally liked. Most people, even those who as a rule don’t like it, will be pulled towards the singular ‘they’: ‘Everyone misplaces their keys.’ The problem with ‘their’ is that pronouns should agree with their subjects in both gender and number. ‘Their’ is fine on the first count, because ‘everyone’ is genderless, but fails on the second, since ‘everyone’ is grammatically speaking singular, and ‘they’ is plural.”

26: Meditation is probably associated with a lower prevalence of cardiovascular risks (at least according to this one limited study). All of my psychiatrist friends meditate themselves and tell me it’s the best thing since sliced bread, in much the same was as endocrinologists tend to talk about Vitamin D supplementation. I wonder what public health people are reputed to bang on about?

27: Satire may have finally been killed off. “Boris Johnson has today unveiled plans to curb junk food promotional deals as part of a new government obesity strategy triggered by the pandemic” just seven days before the start of “a government subsidy to offer people 50% off meals in fast food restaurants.”

28: From Walter Isaacson’s outstanding biography of Leonardo da Vinci, I have learned that Leonardo described the mechanism of closure of the aortic valve in 1510, but it didn’t start to gain mainstream currency among cardiologists until Bellhouse’s work confirmed the description in the 1960s.

29: The decline of the landline is changing literary fiction.

30: The teasmade has been reinvented. It doesn’t look like the one my grandparents used to have beside their bed: the new version is much uglier.

31: Unorthodox was a great miniseries.

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