Friday 25 October 2019

The PM with his pants on fire

My advice? Don’t believe him.

Don’t believe him when he says he will pull his EU Withdrawal Agreement Bill unless MPs vote on Monday for a December election, and don’t believe him when he says the government will go on strike unless he gets what he wants.

Because Boris Johnson is a liar. He lies routinely about what he plans to do next, and he also lies, repeatedly, about what is in his Brexit deal.

Which is why MPs are absolutely right to insist that they must have enough time to find the lies, expose them, and do something about them. His rabbit-out-of-a-hat offer last night to ‘allow’ a few more days’ debate if – and only if – they vote for a pre-Christmas election was as tawdry and puerile as pretty much everything else he has tried since the summer.

In the words of an anonymous Tory MP quoted last night in The Guardian: ‘The PM might be popular, but he is not trusted.’ Really? I wonder why that is …

I was encouraged by a line in the Ofcom review of the BBC’s news output, published yesterday. What it says about the BBC’s journalists applies equally to all journalists: ‘They should feel able to challenge controversial viewpoints that have little support or are not backed up by facts, making this clear to viewers, listeners and readers.’

So here goes. Boris Johnson is lying. He is a liar. What he says is not backed up by facts.

An example: he told MPs earlier this week that the ‘salient feature’ of the arrangements he has negotiated for trade across the Irish Sea is that ‘they evaporate. They disintegrate. They vanish, unless a majority of the Northern Ireland assembly elects to keep them … The default position is alignment with the UK …’

Wrong. According to Hugo Dixon of the invaluable anti-Brexit fact-checking website ‘The default position is alignment with the EU – and that only changes if a majority of the NI Assembly votes otherwise. If the Assembly doesn’t meet, which has been the case for most of the past three years, there won’t even be a vote.’

Another example: the prime minister told MPs: ‘There are no checks GB-NI. There will be some light touch measures to ensure there is no illegal trade in endangered animal species and banned firearms.’

Wrong again. According to the government’s own impact assessment: ‘Goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland will be required to complete both import declarations and entry summary declarations … This will result in additional administrative costs to businesses.’

I don’t want to labour the point unnecessarily, but this stuff is important. And if you want a taste of the true level of this government’s duplicity, mendacity and sheer effrontery, read the following exchange between the prime minister’s official spokesman (PMOS) and Adam Blenkov of Business Insider on Wednesday.

AB: Why did the prime minister say there will be no checks between Northern Ireland and Great Britain when the impact assessment says there will be exit and entry declarations?

PMOS: I think the fact is that Northern Ireland is and will remain in the UK’s customs territory. The deal explicitly allows the UK to ensure unfettered market access for goods moving from Northern Ireland to GB. We don’t intend to carry out checks on these goods. There will be a minimal administrative process provided electronically.

AB: Those administrative processes are checks. Those declarations will be checked, won’t they?

PMOS: No, they are administrative processes.

Journalist: So nobody needs to bother filling them in then? You don’t have to bother with this administrative process if nobody is going to check it.

PMOS: That’s a different question.

Journalist: Are there going to be checks or are there not?

PMOS: There will be a minimal administrative process.

Don’t worry, though. It’ll all be fine. It’s a really great deal. Boris says so.

On the other side of the Atlantic, US news media have got used to calling out President Trump’s lies. According to the Washington Post, which has been keeping count since the day he took office, Trump had made 13,435 false or misleading claims as he approached his 1,000th day in the White House last week. That’s an average of more than thirteen every single day, although the Post says that since the start of impeachment proceedings against him, he has ‘significantly stepped up his pace of spouting exaggerated numbers, unwarranted boasts and outright falsehoods.’

It’s time we started doing the same for Boris Johnson. Expose every lie. Keep count of them. And if there is to be an early general election, install a team of fact checkers in every major news organisation.

Oh, and by the way, remember this from just last month?

Question: ‘Can you make a promise today to the British public that you will not go back to Brussels and ask for another delay to Brexit?’

Answer: ‘Yes, I can. I’d rather be dead in a ditch.’

Fact: Boris Johnson did go back to Brussels and he did ask for another delay to Brexit. And at time of writing, he is not dead in a ditch.

Friday 18 October 2019

Even more important than Brexit

I bring you just a little bit of good news – and I think it’s a lot more important than the latest Brexit breakthrough. (Which, of course, may turn out not to be a breakthrough at all, but merely another step along the rocky path to, well, who knows where it leads?)

The good news, such as it is, is this: according to the environmental news website Carbon Brief, the UK generated more energy from non-carbon sources – windfarms, solar panels, biomass and hydro-electric plants – in the third quarter of 2019 than the entire combined output from coal, oil and gas power stations.

It was, Carbon Brief reports, the first-ever three-month period during which this was achieved since the UK’s first public electricity generating station opened in 1882, and it marks another symbolic milestone in the transformation of the country’s electricity system over the past ten years.

This is the break-down: 40% of electricity generation came from renewables (20% from wind, 12% from biomass, and 6% from solar). Thirty-nine per cent came from coal, oil and gas, nearly all of it from gas. The remaining 19% came from nuclear.

And that, I’m afraid, is the end of the good news. Because we’re still off track to meet the UK’s legally binding carbon budgets, despite the government’s target of reaching net-zero carbon emissions by 2050. (The Extinction Rebellion protesters want to reach net-zero by 2025, which unfortunately looks even less likely. As it happens, I have a lot of respect for the protesters, although I’m not convinced that targeting public transport during the morning rush hour is the best way to win friends and influence people.)

One of the biggest problems we face is that energy efficiency improvements are being introduced far more slowly than is necessary if the net-zero carbon target is to be met. Emissions from cars and other road vehicles? Nowhere near good enough. Loft insulation improvements? Likewise.

And as winter edges ever closer and we begin to think about turning on the central heating again, let us remind ourselves that 14% of the UK’s greenhouse gas emissions come from our home heating systems. According to a report launched this week by the climate change minister Ian Duncan, continuing to heat our homes with fossil fuels threatens fatally to undermine the government’s carbon reduction targets. If we are really serious about meeting those targets, something like 20,000 homes per week will have to be converted to low-carbon heating before 2050. That is, to put it mildly, one hell of an undertaking.

And – how can I put this? – I’m afraid there’s more. A team of Russian scientists have reported finding the most powerful ever methane jets shooting up from beneath the bed of the East Siberian Sea. (Methane is an even more damaging greenhouse gas than carbon dioxide.)

The emissions are being fuelled by the melting of permafrost due to higher global temperatures, and Professor Igor Semiletov of Tomsk Polytechnic University has reported that whereas methane levels found on previous research trips to the area were around 3, 4 or 5 parts per million, on his most recent trip, he measured levels of up to 16 parts per million.

The Guardian published what it called an ‘environmental pledge’ this week, saying that the ‘escalating climate crisis is the defining issue of our lifetimes and that the planet is in the grip of an emergency.’ I agree.

Yes, of course Brexit is important. But the climate emergency is far more important.

Friday 11 October 2019

A President unhinged

If there is anyone more dangerous than Donald Trump when he thinks he is invincible, it is Donald Trump when he fears he is vulnerable.

It is, therefore, seriously troubling to watch him unravel as the impeachment vultures start circling above his head, and his previously sycophantic acolytes begin to distance themselves from him. (According to one report yesterday, ‘White House officials close to President Donald Trump are pulling off a disappearing act, remaining largely absent from public view, in the middle of the storm over impeachment.’)

And his mood will not have improved with last night’s news that two business associates of his personal lawyer Rudy Giuliani, the man at the centre of the Ukraine shake-down allegations, have been arrested at Dulles airport with one-way tickets to Frankfurt and charged with plotting to channel foreign cash into a pro-Trump political action committee. Trump insists he doesn’t know them, although he accepts he might have been photographed with them. (He was: here’s the photo.)

Immediately after the presidential election in November 2016, I wrote a piece headlined ‘Caution: dangerous world ahead.’ ‘The election of Donald Trump has made the world a much more dangerous place,’ I wrote. ‘What scares me most about [him] is not only that he is a deeply unpleasant man with deeply unpleasant views but also that he is grotesquely, frighteningly incompetent and woefully unprepared for the task ahead.’

It was one of those occasions when I hoped I would be proved wrong. Perhaps he would put together a team of senior advisers who knew what they were doing and could prevent him making too many mistakes.

Fat chance.

So here we are, with a president who sees nothing wrong with asking the president of Ukraine to dig up some dirt on a political rival, then doubles down by asking China to do the same, and then after a weekend chat on the phone with President Erdoğan of Turkey, announces a major change of US policy in Syria which is likely to leave his erstwhile Kurdish allies at the mercy of the Turkish military.

But hey, who cares? In the words of Trump himself (and remember, he is also commander-in-chief of the US military): ‘The Kurds didn’t help us in the Second World War, they didn’t help us in Normandy.’(If you don’t believe that he really said it, here’s the clip. He was wrong, anyway: in fact, thousands of Kurds fought with the British in Iraq during WWII.)

And in response to suggestions that thousands of imprisoned Islamic State fighters might now be sprung from Kurdish custody, hey, what’s the problem? ‘They’re going to be escaping to Europe. That’s where they want to go.’

No one expects consistency from Donald Trump, but for the record, here is what he said a year ago about the Kurdish fighters whom he has now abandoned: ‘We’re trying to help them a lot … We have to help them. I want to help them. They fought with us. They died with us. They died. We lost tens of thousands of Kurds, died fighting ISIS. They’re great people. And we have not forgotten. We don’t forget.’

How hollow those words sound now.

Turkey says it wants to create a 20-mile deep ‘safe zone’ along its border with Syria, and appears to be hoping that it can establish a Kurd-free area into which it can then resettle at least some of the three million Syrian refugees who have sought shelter on its territory over the past eight years. The words ‘ethnic cleansing’ spring to mind.

Trump likes to boast that under his leadership, the US destroyed the IS threat. The truth is that it was largely Kurdish fighters who took on IS, with US assistance. So now, the way Trump sees it, who needs the Kurds any more? Erdoğan has always hated the US-Kurdish alliance – to Turkey, the Kurds pose a major security threat – so he asked Trump to move US forces out of the way, and bingo! Turkey moved in.

It has been much too easy over the past three years to dismiss Trump as a ludicrous clown, to be mocked mercilessly but not to be taken too seriously. It was always a mistake, but now the evidence is clearer than ever: Turkish warplanes are in action over Syria, their troops are on the ground, and civilians are fleeing from their homes in fear.

As the historian Simon Schama observed pithily: ‘Just because he’s a lunatic doesn’t mean he’s also not very very stupid.

A former senior official in the US State Department during the Obama era, Amanda Sloat, wrote in the Washington Post: ‘Trump’s hasty decision to withdraw US advisers from the Syrian border, and at least tacitly approve a Turkish military operation, was sloppy and cruel … Renewed fighting will harm civilians in a now-peaceful part of a war-torn country, enable the Islamic State to regroup, and empower Russia and Iran, who are backing the Assad regime and hungry for more influence.’

This all raises a deeply worrying question. What might Trump do next as the impeachment process tightens its grip? To put it melodramatically, how many more people will die as a result of his woeful ignorance and emotional incontinence?

Anyone who follows his rantings on Twitter (I don’t recommend it) will know how enraged he is at opinion polls showing that public support for his impeachment is steadily growing. After Fox News – yes, Fox News – reported that more than half of American voters now want him to be impeached and removed from office, he responded: ‘From the day I announced I was running for President, I have NEVER had a good Fox News poll. Whoever their Pollster is, they suck … Fox News doesn’t deliver for US any more. It is so different than it used to be. Oh well, I’m President.’

Twenty years ago, in the film Wag the Dog, starring Dustin Hoffman and Robert De Niro, a fictional US President invented a fictional war to divert attention from his domestic political difficulties. That was satire, but this is reality. To the great misfortune of the hundreds of thousands of people living along the Syrian-Turkish border, there is nothing fictional about this president – or this war.