Friday 28 June 2019

What could be more important than BoJo’s mojo?

I wonder if the name Janet Barker means anything to you. It should – because she’s the Greenpeace protester who was manhandled and ejected from a London banquet last week by the now-suspended Foreign Officer minister Mark Field. (If you haven’t yet seen the video of the incident, click here.)

She and her fellow-protesters had intended to disrupt a speech being given by the chancellor Philip Hammond by making a speech of their own, calling for greater government investment and leadership in tackling the global climate emergency.

Emergency? Perhaps you missed the story the other day reporting that carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere increased over the past year by the second highest amount of the past sixty years. Thirty years ago, the annual growth rate was around 1.5 parts per million; it’s now above 2.2 ppm and CO2 levels are at 414.8 ppm. If they reach 450 ppm, scientists say the earth’s climate will reach a tipping point beyond which the impact will be catastrophic and irreversible.

By my calculations, if current growth levels are maintained, we’ll be there in just fifteen years’ time. Words like ‘emergency’ and ‘crisis’ somehow seem inadequate.

So instead of fulminating against the latest idiocies emanating from both our main political parties – Boris Johnson’s new-found love of making model buses out of wine boxes, or Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that there’s still plenty of time to make up his mind about Brexit – I’ve decided to pass on some extracts from what the Greenpeace protesters would have said at that Mansion House banquet if Mark Field hadn’t grabbed Janet Barker round her neck and marched her off the premises. (The full text of the speech they had prepared is here.)

‘The climate crisis cannot be fixed by stepping back and just leaving it to the free market. Nor will it be solved through simply fiddling around the edges with a few regulations. These things are too slow and ineffective for the speed of transformation required. Left alone, the market is not designed to bring us a green and prosperous future. It is time to step forward. It’s time to intervene.

‘The last five years were the hottest ever recorded. There are a growing number and intensity of extreme weather events. Millions of people are already losing their homes and livelihoods. Coral reefs are set to disappear. Crops are set to fail. People and animals are set to go hungry. But look at this banquet. Look at each other. You are dining out while the planet burns.

‘Sometimes we have to take action and spend more money now, simply because it is the only option. To stand a chance of saving the lives of millions of people here and all around the world, we must limit climate change to 1.5 degrees Celsius. 1.5 degrees of warming gives us a chance of avoiding catastrophic droughts, crop failures, food crises, heat-waves, forest fires and flooding. Just a chance.

‘Yet just two weeks ago, Mr Hammond, you pretty much said “Please let us off the hook, otherwise it will cost too much.” What price would you pay to secure your children’s future on a liveable planet? What price to protect you and your families’ homes from irreparable flooding? What price to prevent millions of people worldwide from homelessness, statelessness and poverty? It’s time to change how the Treasury thinks. It’s time to redefine what it values.

‘If you want to know whether a policy is good, include the benefits as well as the costs. Here, the benefits include an economy fit for the 21st Century. Cleaner air. Warmer homes. Increasing the survival chances of civilisation itself. The Chancellor got his sums wrong. It’s time to change the Treasury’s models to fit with reality.

‘Policy decisions must no longer be hampered by the short-sighted logic of  “decarbonisation at least-cost.” Having a comparative advantage in the technologies that every country in the world will have to adopt is an economic opportunity, not a hindrance. Now is the time for a new approach. It must be about “maximising every decarbonisation opportunity.

‘The UK has been the birthplace of some of the greatest innovations, feats of engineering and cutting edge entrepreneurship in the world. We are now one of the leading creators and makers of the new technologies that can massively cut our carbon footprint, power our homes, factories and offices, and protect, harness and utilise the land, wind, waters and sun that are abundant on these isles. Talent, creativity and optimism are needed now more than ever before to avert the very worst impacts of climate breakdown.’

I think it’s a shame the protesters never got a chance to make their speech. If you agree, do feel free to share this with your friends and others. If nothing else, it makes a change from the latest antics of the mop-haired blond bombshell from Camberwell.

Friday 21 June 2019

It’s finally make your mind up time for Labour

For God’s sake, how much longer will it take? For three long, grim, post-referendum years, the Labour party have been trying to pretend that standing in the middle of the road is a sensible approach to traffic safety.

But not any more. Because hurtling towards them are the two wannabe Jeremy Clarksons of contemporary politics: Nigel Farage in a turbo-charged SUV, like Toad of Toad Hall after a long night in the pub, and Boris Johnson in a souped-up old Jag, detritus strewn across the back seats, hunched over the steering wheel muttering: ‘Brakes? Who needs brakes when all you need is to trust Boris?’

So it’s time to get out of the way. And that must mean heading to the side of the road marked Remain. Nothing else makes sense, and it looks as if the majority of the shadow cabinet – finally – have realised it. Let no one accuse them of acting in haste.

By the end of next month, the UK will have a new prime minister. If it’s Boris Johnson, his bumbling incompetence is likely to leave the country toppling over a no-deal Brexit cliff-edge. With the Labour party – well, doing what exactly? Still mumbling about being committed to the result of the 2016 referendum, despite everything that has happened since?

I assume that members of the shadow cabinet read The Guardian. So they will have seen this article by the founder of the YouGov polling organisation, Peter Kellner, in which he points out that barely half of the voters who voted Labour in the 2017 general election would do so now. More than a third would vote instead for one of the pro-Remain parties.

Fine, you may say. But what about those crucial Labour seats in the Midlands and north of England where the majority of voters voted Leave in the referendum? Well, guess what: three years is a long time in politics and things have moved on. According to Kellner, the national Brexit mood, judging by an average of recent polls, has shifted from 52-48% pro-Leave in 2016 to 56-44% pro-Remain now.

The shift, he says, has been driven by two main factors. ‘The first is demographic (older, mainly leave, voters dying while overwhelmingly pro-remain teenagers are reaching voting age). The second is Labour voters changing their minds – especially in the northern and midlands heartlands (my italics). One particular group that has swung decisively to remain are Britain’s nurses. Many of them were persuaded by the promise of an extra £350 million a week for the NHS, and they now feel they were deceived.’

So the message couldn’t be clearer. With the country still as deeply divided as it was at the time of the referendum, if not more so, the appointment of one of the architects of the pro-Leave campaign to head the UK government will force Labour to abandon its policy of trying to appeal to voters on both sides of the divide.

Jeremy Corbyn’s insistence that he wants to unite a divided country is all well and good, apart from the fact that you can’t straddle a divide that goes far deeper than the niceties of trading arrangements with our neighbours or the precise monitoring mechanisms along the Irish border.

This debate is now about the soul of Britain. Perhaps it always was, but we failed to see it in time. It is between those who want to live in a country that welcomes diversity and embraces tolerance, or one that has turned inwards on itself, retreating towards bigotry and extreme nationalism. Can there be any doubt which side the Labour party should be on?

Labour’s deputy leader Tom Watson put it as well as anyone: ‘European is who we are and who we have always been. Our members are remain. Our values are remain. Our hearts are remain. We need our Labour party to be true to who we are and be loud and proud in support of Europe.’

If Jeremy Corbyn and those around him can’t endorse every word of that, then Labour is done for. The millions of voters who turned their backs on the party in last month’s European parliament elections will not return to the fold without an unambiguous change of tone from the leader’s office.

Soon, the Lib Dems will have a new leader: probably Jo Swinson, young, female, and plugged in to the 2019 zeitgeist in a way that so far Mr Corbyn has signally failed to manage. And in Germany, the Green party has now overtaken both the Christian Democrats and the Social Democrats to become the country’s most popular party.

Of course, it could never happen here. Just as Nigel Farage could never win a second European election, or Boris Johnson become prime minister. Mr Corbyn has never been much good at adapting to new political realities, but the time for prevarication has run out.

Waiting for the autumn party conference is not an option. The 31 October Brexit deadline looms, as does an emergency general election.

The party – and the country -- will need a crystal clear message from the shadow cabinet. They meet next Tuesday.

Friday 14 June 2019

What the hell do Tory MPs think they are doing?

How I would love to be able to work out what goes on inside Tory MPs’ brains. (Don’t be rude: of course they have brains. Well, most of them …)

And if any Tory MP should happen to read these words, please feel free to get in touch. Because for the life of me, I cannot begin to fathom what on earth was going on inside the noddles of the 114 men and women who on Thursday voted for Boris Johnson to be the next prime minister of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

After all, they know him. (I do, too, a bit, since the days long ago when he was just a gob-for-hire, a journalist with opinions and a knack for making waves.) They know him to be, in the words of former Tory MP Matthew Parris, now a Times columnist: ‘a habitual liar, a cheat, a conspirator with a criminal pal to have an offending journalist’s ribs broken, a cruel betrayer of the women he seduces, a politician who connived in a bid for a court order to suppress mention of a daughter he fathered, a do-nothing mayor of London, and the worst foreign secretary in living memory.’

This is the man – incredibly – who they apparently think is best qualified to lead the nation. Except, of course, that’s not what they really think at all, nor is it why they voted for him. What they really think is – and Tory MPs, please do correct me if I’m wrong – that he’s the man most likely to enable them to hang on to their jobs at the next election.

So what if he’s an unprincipled liar? People will still vote for him, won’t they? Who cares if his insouciant, shoulder-shrugging acceptance of a ‘no deal Brexit’ would spell disaster for the UK, its economy and the jobs of thousands of British citizens? If he has a better chance than anyone else of seeing off Nigel Farage, what else could possibly matter?

It plainly doesn’t bother them a bit that a UK led by Boris Johnson would be a pitiable laughing stock among its erstwhile friends and allies. ‘Oh, the poor old UK,’ they will whisper in conference corridors. ‘They used to count for something. Remember? But look at them now. I mean … Boris Johnson?’

(And if you think I’m being unfair, I would urge you to read this eye-popping piece in the New Yorker. You will be astonished at my capacity for restraint.)

Once upon a time, we used to laugh at Boris The Clown. With his tousled hair, his little-boy-lost grin and his jolly japes public school vocabulary, he added to the gaiety of the nation. He had no power, so he could do no harm.

Then we mocked him. Having been elected mayor of London, he looked an utter prat as he waved an outsize Union flag at the close of the Beijing Olympics in 2008 with his jacket flapping open. Four years later, he somehow contrived to get himself stuck on a zip wire while ostensibly celebrating a Team GB Olympic gold medal.

But none of it seemed to matter much, because no one really took him seriously. We all understood that nothing that Johnson has done, either as a journalist or as a politician, has been about anything other than Johnson. He evidently sees himself as a modern incarnation of Winston Churchill: the reality, as the French newspaper Le Monde pointed out in a brutally cutting editorial this week, is that Johnson as the UK’s prime minister would be a ‘mini-Trump across the Channel dedicated to the destruction of the European Union.’

But now the time for mockery is over. Just as American voters discovered in 2016, when they woke up one November morning to discover that they had elected Donald Trump as their president, just because something makes no sense doesn’t mean it can’t happen.

Until quite recently, the conventional wisdom at Westminster was that Johnson was loathed as a lazy charlatan by his fellow MPs but loved by Conservative party activists because he’s a cheeky chappie who makes them laugh. What I never imagined was that more than a hundred of those same MPs, in the first round of an election to choose a new party leader, would vote for a man they loathe. Don’t anyone dare tell me that cynicism has no place in politics.

True, there are now reports of a Stop Boris coalition being discussed by some of his leadership rivals – but the likelihood is that whoever survives to face him in the final run-off vote will have to make do with the title of the Man (yes, they are all men) Who Couldn’t Beat Boris. A truly glorious political epitaph.

Nevertheless, Johnson could still stumble. His handlers’ attempts to keep him as far away as possible from opportunities to put his foot in it will not be sustainable as the campaign progresses – although they know full well that one ill-timed off-colour joke or ill-considered witticism could sink him. This, after all, is a man who still thinks there is nothing wrong with describing Muslim women who wear a full face veil, or niqab, as looking like letter boxes or bank robbers.

It is easy – and not inaccurate – to look at Johnson and see exactly what Le Monde sees: a mini-Trump. At his campaign launch press conference, a journalist who asked a tough question was jeered by his supporters – and a columnist in the Daily Telegraph, the newspaper that pays him handsomely to write a weekly column, warned the BBC that if it ‘continues to distort and withhold information from viewers there will be trouble.’

Let’s hope Johnson isn’t soon tempted to go one step further and label his former journalist colleagues ‘enemies of the people.’ Let’s also hope, for all our sakes, that Tory MPs – and party activists -- come to their senses before it is too late.