It’s never the big things: small scandals in British politics

The real scandals aren’t the ones that bring politicians down. It’s the little ones that get them. The stupid ones. The ones we understand. So Suella Braverman, Britain’s home secretary and my nominee for this year’s Wicked Witch of the West Award, isn’t likely to lose her job over abusive treatment of immigrants and refugees or for cranking the national racism dial a few notches higher. Instead, it’s her handling of a speeding ticket that’s put her job in danger.

Braverman got nailed for speeding last summer, and if you’re not too far over the speed limit the law allows you to take a speed awareness course instead of paying a fine and getting points on your license.

Points? You don’t want those. If you rack up twelve, your license disappears in a puff of smoke, and if you try to drive after that you disappear in a much larger puff of smoke. 

And your car turns into a ham sandwich.

Irrelevant photo: A neighbor’s flowering bush. No idea what it’s called, although more than one person has told me.

Braverman was eligible for the course but didn’t want to rub shoulders with the kind of lowlifes who show up at a speed awareness course. People might confuse her for one of them, and that would have been politically embarrassing. So she allegedly asked civil servants to see if they could arrange a personalized course for her own important self.

They (allegedly) replied with the diplomatic version of, “Fuck, no,” so she asked a political advisor to see what sort of wiggle room could be made for her. When the answer (apparently) was “none,” she paid a fine and got three points on her license instead of taking the course. 

In case you need help with this, three is several points short of twelve, so no smoke and no ham sandwich.

What’s the problem? Ministers aren’t supposed to involve civil servants in their personal lives. Civil servants aren’t there to pick up ministers’ dry cleaning, park their cars, or mediate between them and the speed awareness course people. 

The flap has only recently emerged into the light of public disapproval, and Rishi Sunak, our prime minister of the moment–we burn through them quickly these days–is having to answer awkward questions, like whether he’ll launch an investigation into what happened. Initially he said things like, “I know she’s expressed regret” and that he’s “availing” himself of the information.

I’m not sure what you do when you avail yourself of information. Is it like when I buy the paper but don’t read it? It’s available on my kitchen table. It’s not available in my brain, but it could be. Easily. 

Braverman’s said things like, “[I’m] content that nothing untoward happened.”

After the requisite amount of dithering, Sunak decided he was also content and the issue didn’t need investigation. So for the moment, officially speaking, nothing untoward happened. Watch this space, though. Watch several other spaces. In one of them, surely, something interesting will happen.


Okay, what’s my problem with Braverman?

I’ll refrain from the full-blown documentation my Wicked Witch nomination requires. Sorry. I did include in when I sent in the paperwork, but for the purposes of this blog–well, she’s beyond anything I can be funny about. I will say, though, that she seems to be  positioning herself as the rightest of the right wing candidates for next leader of the Conservative Party.  Political gossips–at least the ones who don’t like her–hold that she’s not known for her competence, but as recent history demonstrates, that doesn’t disqualify her for a top job.  A former and carefully unnamed minister who worked with her provides the best quote: “I don’t often say people are completely useless, but if her desk had not been occupied I wouldn’t have noticed.” 


And from the Department of Marie Antoinette Reincarnated comes this

Ann Widdecombe–once a Conservative MP, once (in the full spirit of irony) a Member of the European Parliament for the Brexit Party, and now a member of the post-Brexit creation Reform UK–was asked, on a BBC politics show, what she’d say to people who couldn’t afford the ingredients for a cheese sandwich. 

“Well, then, you don’t do the cheese sandwich,” she said. Compassionately.

She went on to remind us that we had no right to simply expect prices to stay stable and that if wages rose they’d only add to inflation. She didn’t advise people not to eat until prices come down, but it is the logical conclusion.


Meanwhile, the Diplomacy Department’s been busy

In a precedent-setting move, Ireland’s taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, showed up at the coronation–that’s the recent coronation, in case I haven’t been clear–bringing along his partner, Matt Barrett. So make that two precedent-setting moves: Ireland shows up at the coronation of a British king and a political leader brings his same-sex partner.

Not content with that, though, Barret–that’s the partner, in case you got lost in the last paragraph–set a precedent of his own, posting throughout the show to the 350 followers on his private Instagram account.

“Holy shit,” he wrote from the car before they got to the abbey, “I think I’m accidentally crowned king of England.”

During the ceremony itself, he posted about Charles’s crown, “Was genuinely half expecting it to shout ‘GRYFFINDOR.’”

About the Right Rev. James Newcome’s title, Clerk of the Closet, he said, “Had this job until my early 20s.” 

Of course, private account or not, it all went public. 

The taoiseach said, ““We’ve spoken about it and it won’t happen again.” 

He has not confiscated Barrett’s phone or grounded him for six months. In fact, his response is refreshingly sane: Barrett’s a “private individual and [whether he apologizes] is obviously up to him.”

Barrett has apologized. Unreservedly. 


Lost any luggage lately?

Have you ever wondered how many pieces of luggage the aviation industry lost, delayed, or damaged last year? We’re talking globally here, and the answer is 26 million, or 7.6 bags per 1,000 passengers. That’s not quite double the year before, but it’s close enough for a numerophobe like me. 

Covid’s getting the blame, which works well since it’s in no position to defend itself.

That may explain why James Cleverly, our foreign secretary, chose a private jet for his eight-day tour of the Caribbean and Latin America.

Okay, maybe political honchos all fly private jets. They need room for their briefcases and their aides and their security details. But Cleverly cleverly chose “the creme del la creme of private business jets,” which rents for more than £10,000 per hour and comes with a master suite that includes a queen-size bed, a private toilet, and a shower. Anyone who’s left to suffer in the lounge area at least has a big-screen TV. 

I’m not sure who I’m quoting on that creme de la creme comment. It was unattributed in one of the articles I read, and I know I could’ve stolen the accent marks along with the quotation, but as a writer I have strong feelings about plagiarism. 

In the interest of accuracy, I should mention that a second source lists the cost as £12,000 per hour, including fuel, and that when one source asked the rental company for a cost estimate for a similar trip, it came out at £348,000. 

I’m reasonably sure Cleverly’s luggage, aides, and security entourage were not lost in transit.

A very British sex scandal

I wasn’t going to write about this. Notes isn’t a political blog. And it isn’t a sex blog. But then it occurred to me that what we have here is a particularly British political scandal and—well, I’ve talked myself out of posting this several times, and then talked myself back into it. But it looks like I am going to post it, so I’ll paste an, um, awkward position warning on it and leave it up to you whether to read on.

C’mon, how many of you are really going to stop there?

Since we're on a tacky subject, I thought I'd toss in a photo of tacky stuff on sale in Swannage last summer. Do you really want to read on?

Since we’re on a tacky subject, I thought I’d toss in a photo of tacky stuff on sale in Swannage last summer.

Our story begins before the British 2010 election, when Lord Ashcroft—who probably has a first name but doesn’t need to use it because, good lord, he’s a lord—gave some money to the Conservative Party. And when I say “some,” I mean something in the neighborhood of £8 million. (“As you do,” as people here like to say when you couldn’t even remotely.) But when the Conservatives came close enough to winning the election to form a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats, the new Prime Minister, David Cameron, didn’t offer Ashcroft the kind of post he (that’s Ashcroft) believed he (that’s Cameron) had promised him (that’s Ashcroft again).

Well, the good lord isn’t a good enemy to have, because he started work on a biography of Cameron, and bits and pieces are now being leaked to the press. I’m coming late to this story, so when I say “now” I mean last week, but that’s close enough between friends, right? One of them claims that Cameron had sex with a pig.

Well, simulated sex. And the pig was dead at the time, for which I’m grateful. I’m sure the pig would have been as well if it had been in any condition to register an opinion. The exact description is that he put “a private part of his anatomy” in the pig’s mouth.

And then ran for office? Well, yes but not right away. This happened when he was still a student at Oxford, a university that as far as I can tell gathers up not only the most brilliant students but also the hopelessly over-privileged ones, and the folks in that second category apparently can’t find anything better to do with themselves than join bizarre clubs that—well, put it this way: If daddy and mommy didn’t have so much money they’d find their asses in jail for carrying on that way but since daddy and mommy do they not only get away with it, they think it’s their right.

That business about jail? That’s not about the pig, it’s about the vandalism one of the clubs is known for.

Then they go on to run the country and look smug on television. And lecture the rest of us on how to behave.

Now that this is leaking out, #piggate is all over Twitter. I mean, who can resist? The real scandals in our lives—the financial shenanigans, the political dittos, the backroom deals that bring the two categories together? Most of us can’t make heads or tails of them, even when they bring down the economy or bankrupt a country or two. But a sex scandal? Oh, hell yes. We’ll read every inch of type about that.

I’ve given you one link to a newspaper article, but they’re endless. If you want more, you’re on your own. In the U.K., all you have to do is google Cameron and pig. In other countries, you may need to add U.K.

Now I’m not claiming that no American politician ever got up to some kind of antics, sexual or otherwise, in college or afterward, but I’m guessing they never joined a (n allegedly) secret society whose initiation ceremony involved simulated sex with a dead pig. It puts the Clinton-Lewinsky scandal to shame for its lack of imagination. The adage in American politics used to be that you never wanted to get caught in bed with a dead girl or a live boy. Which tells you (a) how much times have changed and (b) how boring American sex scandals are.

Please tell me if I’m wrong about that. Or tell me anything else that seems appropriate. Or, given the topic here, inappropriate. The world’s a far stranger place than most of us imagine.