PMQs ~”getting on, helping companies through it, helping people through it”

As the country opens up further, the problems caused by the crisis are mounting. Thousands will be out of a job by the end of the year, and many businesses are on the brink of closure as our already desolate high streets struggle with the cost of Covid-19.

Rishi Sunak’s announcements may seem like a beacon of hope for some, but for many others, it bears no insight into their reality. The pressure is mounting even further as the government prepares for the inevitable – a second wave.

Image: CNBC

The week in politics so far

This week marks another U-turn to add to the collection as the government announced from 24 July, face masks will be compulsory in shops in England and refusing to wear one could result in a £100 fine.

This was announced just days after Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, said that wearing masks should not be mandatory, as he believed the British public had a great conduct of common sense.

Although welcomed, this policy has also been criticized for its lateness and for its exclusivity to shops. Many have called for the wearing of masks in office spaces and other workplaces.

Tensions have increased between the UK and China, as the Culture Secretary, Oliver Dowden, told the House of Commons that Huawei will have no involvement in the building of the UK’s 5G network. This follows a background of sanctions from Washington, as Donald Trump gears up his rhetoric against the rival super power.

This week, experts have predicted the worst case scenario for a second wave of Covid-19, suggesting a death toll of 120,000 in the coming Winter. Pressure has been mounting on the government to reveal their plans ahead of a second wave.

Rishi Sunak’s economic policies were announced last week, including reducing V.A.T from 20 to 5% to encourage consumer spending. The announcement also included a job retention bonus of £1000 per employer, and a new voucher scheme to encourage families to “eat out to help out.”

PMQs summary

  • Keir Starmer opened with a critique of the economic announcements, highlighting there was no sector specific support.
  • Boris Johnson defended the criticism in claiming there were a range of measures issued by the Chancellor, including the job retention bonus and a kick starter scheme. He was keen to point out that the government cannot save every job.
  • Starmer refused to engage in“rhetorical nonsense” as we saw the return of the PM using this tactic to avoid scrutiny from the opposition.
  • Starmer drew attention to the new report on the worst case scenario and asked the government what their plans were. Starmer asked the PM if he had read the report, to which he replied, he was aware of it.
  • Johnson stated the government were preparing for a second wave by investing in the NHS and preventing it from becoming overwhelmed in the months to come.
  • Starmer returned to Test and Trace, pointing out that the number of people contacted had fallen from 90% to 70%.
  • The PM reassured Starmer that we had the best system in the world and 144,000 people, as a result of Test and Trace, had agreed to self isolate.
  • The PM was keen to point out they were doing everything in their power to prevent a second outbreak but did not give details about how.
  • Sir Ed Davy MP tried to get the PM to commit to a future inquiry into the Covid crisis, amidst the UK having one of the worst death rates in the world. Although the PM didn’t commit to one there and then, it appears it is not off the cards entirely.
  • Darren Henry MP raised the issue of the mental health implications from the crisis and asked the PM what the government planned to do. The PM cited a new mental health investment of 12.5 billion.

Analysis

I’m finding listening to PMQs increasingly tiring as the weeks go on. This is part of the reason why I don’t do these every week. Each week we see the return of the same rhetoric issued by Johnson, as he avoids scrutiny from the opposition.

When faced with difficult questions, the PM simply turns the criticism on its head. This diverts attention away from the PM and the issue at hand, and allows him to get away with it. The debate becomes one of rhetoric, rather than policy.

At the heart of preparations for a second wave appeared to be financial investment, mainly within the NHS. Money is all well and good, but it would have been beneficial to see an outline of the policies that are going to reduce the severity of a second wave. Indeed, it was slightly worrying that the PM was aware of the recent report from experts, but didn’t appear to have read it himself.

Each PMQs paints an increasing picture of government confusion as the current crisis unfolds. In a time of penultimate upheaval, it is endlessly disappointing that the PM cannot issue the public with the answers they deserve.

Covid-19 has made a government of disgrace the new normal

For any government, facing a global pandemic would be an enormous political challenge. The implementation of an unprecedented nationwide lockdown could never have been predicted back in December, when the Tories won their majority. However, the actions they have taken will indiscriminately define the rest of their tenure.

Regardless of the demanding nature of our current climate, without a doubt, this crisis has exposed this government and the Prime Minister, for what they really are.

Crises are known for bringing to the surface the real nature of leaders in defining moments. For over a decade, our country has been led by the same party, but the crisis has revealed ever more blatantly, the kind of politics they wish to govern by. In the wake of the pandemic one would hope the world will become a better place. But will this transfer to British politics?

The country held its breath when Boris Johnson was taken into intensive care in early April and it was a defining moment in the nation’s experience of the crisis. Furthermore, the Health Secretary, Matt Hancock, contracted the virus at the end of March. Unlike Johnson, Hancock managed to escape with a mild experience of the virus. Despite having a real and life threatening experience, it seems ludicrous that the PM has opened the floodgates as early as July 4th, even encouraging a return to hustle and bustle, despite a still ever present threat in circulation

Image: Insider. Soho, London, 4 July.

Furthermore, these past few weeks have seen the rise of racial tensions in Britain, in response to the death of George Floyd, who was murdered by a white policeman in Minneapolis. The Black Lives Matter movement has hit many cities and towns across the country in joining the fight against exposing the persistent racial inequality in our country and expressing solidarity with America. However, this was also met with protests from the far right, evoking, “scenes of violence, desecration and racism” in central London just a few weeks ago. 

Johnson’s treatment of the BLM movement was half hearted and his address only initially prompted by the leader of the opposition at Prime Minister’s Questions.

Moreover, the biggest blunder during the address of the BLM movement was Dominic Raab’s treatment of “taking a knee.” The term refers to the symbolic gesture adopted by footballer Colin Kaepernick in 2016, during a national anthem to highlight the persistent racism underpinning American society. Despite this, the foreign secretary described it as “a symbol of subjugation and subordination” originating in the Game of Thrones TV series.

Not only does this show a sheer lack of sensitivity during a pivotal moment for the BLM both here and in the US, but a mirror into how out of touch this party really is. 

Scenes from Central London, depicting a far-right protest. Image: The Guardian

The Covid crisis has exposed the bare bones of the charleton, Johsnon. He is a career politician that thrives from using the tactic of “political bluster” as seen in this season’s PMQs. It worked with Jeremy Corbyn, however, with the meticulous Keir Starmer, he only appears more out of touch than usual.

During the crisis, we’ve already witnessed two major U-turns in the government, with the abandonment of the NHS surcharge for migrant healthcare workers and the Marcus Rashford led campaign to continue food provision for some of Britain’s poorest families. U-turns alone are not proof of weakness, but these examples certainly illustrate that this crisis reveals a government and leader out of touch with the rest of society and their concerns. 

And then there’s Dominic Cummings. The evident breaking of the lockdown rules by the government’s chief advisor was the cherry on the cake in terms of symbolising hypocrisy and ignorance.

If the maker of the rules himself could not abide by them, how was there ever any hope for the public? The Cummings debacle may have been brushed under the carpet, but it is one that will certainly define the Tory’s handling of this pandemic in years to come. Moreover, it provides us with the most glaring of symbols into the realities of this government. 

The sea of social change anticipated by the joint experience of Covid-19 and the BLM movement could be on the horizon, however, the leadership of this government has maintained its status quo and exposed itself for what it really is; a government of disgrace, hypocrisy and removed from the issues felt by the majority.

Experience of a crisis can often bring out the best in people, however, for the Tory’s, their worst sides have definitely been revealed. The most worrying part? It has become the new normal. 

PMQs ~ “The Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives”

This weeks PMQs saw the return of Boris Johnson refusing to co-operate by avoiding difficult questions. Just days before the grand reopening it is worrying that the PM cannot even give the public an ounce of clarity.

This week in politics (so far)

It’s been a bit of a rough week for Keir Starmer. The lingering impact of the sacking of Rebecca Long-Bailey, the former shadow Education secretary, is still sparking fury from members of the party and MPs. Long-Bailey was sacked for re-tweeting an article containing an anti-Semitic conspiracy theory. In The Guardian, she issued an apology and explained her actions amidst a plea for re-admission to the shadow cabinet.

Starmer has also been criticised for comments made about the Black Lives Matter Movement, stating that de-funding the police was, “nonsense“. De-funding the police is one of the main agendas of the movement, as activists are campaigning for investment in the police force to be redistributed to social care provision and rehabilitation schemes. Starmer has been criticised by writer and activist, Reni Eddo-Lodge and MP Bell Ribeiro-Addy for dismissing a main element of the BLM movement which seeks to disentangle systemic racism still prevalent in our institutions – most notably, the police.

This week Johnson announced a ‘New Deal‘ to prepare for the economic fallout caused by the Covid-19 crisis. Focus is on building homes and investing in employment training with a new national skills fund. The government plans to spend £5b on infrastructure in England.

The first local lockdown was announced in Leicester before England is due to experience the biggest lifting of restrictions since the full lockdown. Residents in Leicester were told that shops, pubs and non-essential retail would not be re-opening with the rest of the country at the weekend. Restrictions will last until at least July 18. William Bach, Leicester’s leading Police and Crime Commissioner has critiqued the government for a lack of guidance and pre-warning.

PMQs summary

  • Starmer opened the session with exposing the weaknesses in the government’s Test, Track and Isolate system, as two thirds of those testing positive are not being reached.
  • Johnson claimed TTI was successful and Starmer should support the government in channeling its use to quell the spread of the virus.
  • Starmer responded by asking the PM again what is happening to those who haven’t been reached, but his question wasn’t answered.
  • Johnson claimed Starmer’s questions were “misleading” and that he needs to start supporting the government.
  • Starmer stated the, “Prime Minister should welcome challenge that could save lives”
  • Starmer pushed the PM on the lack of clarity over local lockdowns, following ongoing criticism about Leicester. Johnson claimed the government were engaging in a, “cluster busting operation” to keep future potential outbreaks under control. No detail was given to how this is going to be implemented.
  • Starmer also pressed the PM on the failures of the NHS app which the PM promised would be ready by 1 June, the government having spent £12m on it.
  • Johnson claimed the app had minor significance in beating the virus, despite the amount of spending and time that has gone into it. He argues that no country in the world has an efficient app.
  • Starmer pointed to Germany whose tracing app has already hit 12 million downloads.

Analysis

All in all, not many answers were gained from this session. Starmer posed difficult but essential questions in front of the PM who simply dismissed them or refused to answer. As the country is due to come out of lockdown, it is worrying that he can’t give the public any answers. Issues over TTI and the app are significant, as we’ve been told throughout that this is imperative for preventing the spread of the virus.

Starmer himself was able to adequately summarise the problems with the session, stating the PM should “welcome challenge” instead of avoiding it. It seems a genuine discussion of government inadequacies simply cannot happen when the PM refuses to engage.

Johnson recycled the rebuttal of Labour’s confusing position on children returning to school, amidst Starmer’s demand for the PM to correct his out of date figures on child poverty, stated a few weeks before. Johnson’s use of false figures and denial has not gone unnoticed by the leader of the opposition, as it’s set to be a theme dominating the future of PMQs.

As England is set to be unleashed by the weekend, one would think an active dialogue between leaders of opposing parties would take place. With the daily press conferences no longer on the cards, the public have been largely left in the dark. The provision of a coherent, active debate between leaders would do the world of wonders. One can only hope that things will get better, and that Johnson will soon abandon his rhetoric of denial and avoidance – for all our sakes.

Book Review: Airhead ~ The Imperfect Art of Making News

Image: Deadline

Emily Maitlis is rather topical in the UK at the moment because of her framing of the Dominic Cummings debate on Newsnight. Maitlis opened the current affairs program with,

“…He made those who struggled to keep the rules feel like fools and has allowed many more to assume the can now flout them.

The Prime Minister knows all this but despite the resignation of one minister, growing unease from his back benchers, the dramatic early warning from the polls and a deep national disquiet – Boris Johnson has chosen to ignore it…    

(You can see the full opening statement here.) In my opinion, her statement did not break “impartiality” regulations but there we go, some are always bound to think otherwise.

However, funnily enough I was actually reading her book before this started. I’ve always admired Emily Maitlis for her approach to broadcasting and this was largely inspired by her brilliant interview with Prince Andrew during the Epstein scandal last year. As someone who wants to go into journalism, I couldn’t wait to read her book.

Review

Title: Airhead: The Imperfect Art of Making News

Author: Emily Maitlis, British journalist and presenter of Newsnight

Genre: Non-fiction, biography

My rating: ★★★☆☆

Maitlis’ Airhead is premised as an autobiography of her experience as one of the UK’s leading British broadcasters. In hosting the current affairs program, Newsnight, she is often at the forefront of breaking news. This book documents a range of interviews she has conducted, from President Donald Trump, to the Dalai Lama. Each chapter is structured as a specific interview, or peppered with a particular experience in her career – such as when the BBC got arrested in Cuba, or when she took her twelve year old son to see the Chippendale’s in a Las Vegas strip show.

Although the interviews were interesting to read, I found they were largely driven by pure narrative, and each chapter had the same structure and format. In a sense, it was quite repetitive and lacked substance. Some chapters were better than others, and I did enjoy reading her experience as the interviewer – one that stands out is the interview with former British Prime Minister, Theresa May, days after the Grenfell tower tragedy. Her writing reveals to the reader that indeed, no interview is ever perfect and a lot of the time, due to constraints they are haphazardly glued together in the moment, for the purpose of fulfilling the “breaking news” agenda.

Before reading this I thought it would focus more on the ins and outs of news making and the philosophies of journalism itself. By this, I mean who does news making aim to please, the morals and ethics of breaking news reporting, and how instant reporting via social media has undergone a revolution in recent years. Also, the impact that breaking news has on history making and our conception of events. These are all things Maitlis has been in the thick of over the years, and I was therefore, surprised they weren’t really discussed. Perhaps I expected too much?

Maitlis integrates some of this ever so slightly, but only in the final chapter,

“A huge amount of thought goes into what we do. Interpreting moments of history whilst they are still unfolding is both deeply rewarding and endlessly challenging. Television news is messy. It gets things wrong. It is imperfect – sometimes laughably so – and sometimes you just nail it.”

Emily Maitlis, Airhead

I felt that she had saved the best until last – this reflection on the art of making news should have framed the entire book, and she could have gone deeper into this and been more selective with the amount of interviews included.

The book is marketed as an “autobiography” but it certainly doesn’t read like one, we don’t receive details of her early life, childhood, or how she got into journalism, just snapshots of favourite moments in her career that when reading, feels more like a diary entry. Don’t get me wrong, the interviews were interesting and funny at times, but I found the book lacked depth she could easily convey, considering her remarkable career.

There’s a lot to be said about news making and the ethics of broadcasting, and Maitlis is one of the best people to discuss it, but it’s a shame she didn’t make this more of a feature, perhaps she is saving it for another title!

All in all, this is an interesting book and a worthwhile read for anyone that is interested in broadcast journalism and wants to read about it from her perspective. But don’t expect too much from the sub title, “the imperfect art of making news” as this isn’t given the attention it deserves.

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