Friday 14 December 2018

What I want for Christmas

It’s a good few years since I stopped believing in Santa Claus, but after the events of the past week, I’ve decided to give him one more chance. So here’s my Christmas present wish list.

Dear Santa

What I really, really want for Christmas is a bunch of MPs who will vote according to what they think will be best for their country, not just best for their party.

Can I also have a prime minister who says what she believes, not just what she thinks will get her through one more crisis?

The thing is, Santa, I’d love to unwrap something on Christmas morning that will make me feel a bit better about the future. I’ve looked everywhere online for something called an UnBrexit, but I haven’t found anything at all. Perhaps you’ll have more luck.

How about a Make A New Prime Minister kit? I’ve never been much good at making things, but I’m sure I could do a lot better than whoever made the one we’ve got.

Can I have a Book of Spells as well? I’d love a Make People Disappear spell, because I’ve got a long list of people I want to try it on. I’d start with Boris Johnson (did you see that The Economist named him as this year’s ‘politician who has done most to let down his party and country’? They called him ‘a demagogue not a statesman’, and said ‘he is the most irresponsible politician the country has seen for many years.’ That’s why I want to make him disappear.)

If I can make the spell work, I’d also try it out on Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Chris Grayling and Dominic Raab. I’m sure you’re familiar with Ko-Ko’s song in The Mikado by Gilbert and Sullivan: ‘They’d none of ‘em be missed, they’d none of ‘em be missed.’

I know you realise that I’m far too old to be writing letters to Santa: you know perfectly well that I know, deep down, that they are the stuff of fantasy. But fantasy seems to be all I’ve got left this Christmas – I’ve had a bellyful of reality and I’ve decided I don’t like it very much.

I particularly don’t like reading articles like this one, in which Brexit-obsessed Britain is mocked as ‘small, boring and stupid’. ‘It is Britain’s unique ignorance that makes Britain so boring. Ignorant about its leverage and ignorant about the EU, the U.K. is coming across as clumsy and caddish.’

Oh yes, one last thing. Could you tell people to stop asking me what’s going to happen next? Perhaps you could put a little note under every Christmas tree: ‘Robin Lustig wants you to know he’s a reporter, not a fortune teller.’ (I did try a bit of futurology last week, but it wasn’t a great success.)

On which note, happy Christmas to one and all.

Friday 7 December 2018

Is this how May will exit Brexit?

In the current political climate, only a total idiot would try to predict what’s likely to happen at Westminster next week.

So here is my prediction. (Warning: my crystal ball is badly cracked, covered in dust, and its operating system hasn’t been upgraded since the day before yesterday.)

Here goes:

Next Tuesday, the government’s EU Withdrawal Bill will be defeated in the House of Commons.

On Wednesday morning, after a steady stream of Cabinet ministers have been observed entering and leaving Number 10, Theresa May will make the following statement to reporters in Downing Street:

‘After last night’s vote in the House of Commons, I have consulted widely with colleagues and others to decide on how best to move forward. I have concluded that, in the national interest, I should now step down as leader of the Conservative party in order to allow a new person a chance to take our country into the next chapter of our glorious history. I shall continue to serve as prime minister until a new leader has been elected.

‘As I have said many times during the Brexit process, I have been guided throughout by what I have judged to be the best interests of our country and of our people. As it is now clear that my judgement is not shared by a majority of members of parliament, or by several members of my Cabinet, it is only right that I should make way for someone else to lead our party and our country.

‘It continues to be my view that it is the duty of government to carry out the wishes of the 17.4 million people who voted Leave in the Brexit referendum two and a half years ago. Voters were given a solemn undertaking that their wishes would be respected, and we owe it to them to fulfil that undertaking. That is why I wrote the so-called Article 50 letter in March 2017, beginning the process by which the UK would withdraw from the European Union.

‘However, in view of the difficulties that have since arisen, and of the need to find a withdrawal mechanism that respects both the will of the people and commands the support of parliament, I have today written again to Donald Tusk, the president of the European Council, to withdraw that letter as we are entitled to do without seeking the approval of other EU member states, in accordance with this week’s ruling by the European Court of Justice.

‘As a result, the UK will remain a full member of the European Union until and unless a new leader begins the withdrawal process anew. I am confident that my successor will want carefully to consider whether to seek the country’s approval again before making a decision.

‘I have taken this action in order to allow my successor the greatest possible freedom of action. It would not be right for me to hand over the baton with the count-down clock still ticking and with too little time left to develop a new approach to the greatest challenge our nation has faced since the end of the Second World War.

‘The choices that we face remain exactly the same as they were on 23 June 2016: to remain in the EU, to leave with an agreed withdrawal framework and a new negotiated trading relationship, or to leave with no agreement in place. It will now fall to a new leader to decide how best to choose which of those options will serve our nation best.

‘When I took office in 2016, I made this pledge: “As we leave the European Union, we will forge a bold new positive role for ourselves in the world, and we will make Britain a country that works not for a privileged few, but for every one of us.” That has been my single aim every day since then, and I now leave it to others to take that work forward.’

And then? I’m afraid at this point, my crystal ball shatters into tiny pieces. But by this time next week, who knows, perhaps I’ll no longer need it.

Friday 30 November 2018

The Met and the moped-mounted muggers

I’m going to assume, for the purposes of argument, that you are not, in principle, in favour of killing children.

I’m also going to assume, for the same reason, that you don’t think stealing a mobile phone or a handbag should be punishable by death.

So I wonder what you make of the Metropolitan Police’s newly revealed tactic of deliberately knocking moped-mounted muggers, some of whom are in their early or mid-teens, off their bikes.

The Met say that so far this year, they have used the tactic sixty-three times and that none of the suspects has been seriously hurt as a result. It is not unreasonable, however, to assume that one day, someone will die. Bear in mind that in 2016, police pursuits led to the deaths of twenty-eight people, most of whom were innocent bystanders.   

The Met also say that the tactic works and that the number of thefts from mopeds has dropped by more than a third. According to a report in The Times, however, ‘Much of the reduction in moped-enabled crime is linked to the force’s drive to stop thefts of mopeds and catch the thieves by using forensic marking techniques and raising awareness among owners.’

Perhaps I need to spell something out here: there is a real, urgent crime problem, in London as elsewhere, especially among teenagers and young men, and the police are faced with a genuinely complex set of challenges. Knife crime is a particular issue – in England and Wales as a whole, the number of young people killed in knife attacks this year looks set to become the highest for ten years, and the fourth worst on record.

But simple solutions are rarely the answer, even when law enforcement officials insist that they are effective. I’m sure that prosecutors in Saudi Arabia would argue that chopping off the hands of thieves reduces the numbers of thefts in that country – and that their counterparts in China would similarly argue that shooting corrupt local government officials in the back of the head reduces corruption. Even so, I very much doubt that the Met would be tempted to follow their example.

Chasing miscreants on mopeds along crowded city streets is a highly dangerous activity, even if, as the Met insist, the only officers involved in such pursuits are specially trained and will always attempt to slow down a suspect before ‘nudging’ him off his bike. (If you want to see what ‘nudging’ looks like, by the way, there’s a helpful police video here.)

And there seems to be some doubt as to whether the tactic is even legal. The Police Federation, for example, which backs the policy, says it clearly breaches current legislation. ‘Judged against the common standard, as police officers are, it is dangerous to drive a car deliberately at another road user. The law classifies this as dangerous driving, and officers could be prosecuted.’

The Home Secretary, Sajid Javid, doesn’t seem to be too bothered about such niceties. His view is that ‘risk-assessed tactical contact is exactly what we need. Criminals are not above the law.’

Wouldn’t George Orwell have loved ‘risk-assessed tactical contact’? I’m going to add it to my dictionary of euphemisms, along with ‘collateral damage’ and ‘terminate with extreme prejudice’. And as for ‘criminals are not above the law’ – well, er, no, they’re not, obviously, otherwise they wouldn’t be criminals, would they …

Diane Abbott, on the other hand, got it exactly right. ‘Knocking people off bikes is potentially very dangerous. It shouldn’t be legal for anyone. Police are not above the law.’

Politicians know that you never lose votes by promising tougher action against criminals. And the police know that juries very rarely convict officers who are alleged to have exceeded their lawful powers. So both Sajid Javid and Scotland Yard are probably right to think that few voters will object. That doesn’t mean, however, that their policy is right.   

There are nearly always better, safer and more effective ways to tackle crime than by focusing only on criminals. Take car thefts, for example: in 2002-3, more than 300,000 vehicles were reported stolen – by 2017-2018, the number was down by two-thirds, to just over 100,000. (It was even lower three years ago.) Why? Because car makers worked out how to make it much more difficult to steal cars.

So perhaps moped manufacturers should do the same. It would be a lot less dangerous than encouraging police officers to deliberately knock teenage thieves off their bikes.