British prime minister fires British prime minister’s brain

On Friday, Boris Johnson fired Dominic Cummings, who’s functioned as Johnson’s brain since Johnson took office. This leaves a major gap not just at 10 Downing Street but between the prime ministerial ears, since we’re doing body metaphors.

Everyone in government will be rushing to fill it. 

This all started with Cummings’ ally, Lee Cain, resigning. Johnson had been about to promote him but seems to have been shoved onto a different track by Allegra Stratton and Johnson’s partner, Carrie Symonds, a woman with a considerable political background of her own. 

They had some help, and we’ll come back to that, but first: Stratton got into the picture when she was appointed to lead government press conferences and came into conflict with Cummings and Cain over whether they should be real press conferences or what they’re calling White House-style briefings, where no real questions are answered. She considered the White House-style briefing cosmetic and pointless.

Potentially relevant photo: Cummings and Cain will have plenty of time on their hands. They could take up a fine old English tradition and join a morris dancing side. You don’t actually get to hit anyone with the stick, which I suspect will disappoint them, but you do at least get to pretend.

Symonds’ influence raises an interesting issue. She’s not an elected member of government, which makes it easy to rear back and think, Hold on. Who the hell is she to have so much influence just because she’s in a relationship with the prime minister? And some of the cheesier papers are doing that. What the hell, she has no job title and she’s a woman. Women make a tempting target. 

One the other hand, Cummings and Cain weren’t elected either. Who the hell were they to have so much influence? We could argue that Symonds is saving the country a lot of money by not drawing a salary. Or we could skip making that argument. My point is that we can’t draw a clear line between Johnson’s special advisors and his fiancee. It’s murky–and interesting–territory, full of  moral ambiguities.

Johnson is said to  have been furious that Cummings and Cain were briefing against him and Symonds. “Briefing against” translates to undermining their reputation.

Assorted other personalities and factions within the government and in the Conservative Party also got into the push-and-shove over who was going to have the prime ministerial ear. Factions seem to be the latest thing in the Conservative Party–something I’d thought only Labour was good at. Backbenchers–

Hang on. Time for a definition. Backbenchers are Members of Parliament who haven’t gotten the top government jobs (or the shadow jobs that the opposition party hands out). They sit at the back of the room when parliament meets, playing with their phones and throwing spitballs. Every so often, they get to jeer the opposing party, which has the virtue of waking everybody up, but otherwise they’re supposed to vote as instructed and shut up (or say what’s expected) the rest of the time. 

They don’t actually throw spitballs. They do jeer and carry on as if their development stopped at spitball-throwing age.

With the explanation out of the way, we’ll go on: Backbench Conservatives have been forming pressure groups. It worked for Brexit, they figure, so why not start groups opposing Covid lockdowns or accusing the National Trust of having a Marxist agenda because it’s acknowledging that role of slavery in creating the properties it manages and opens to the public?

Cummings and Covid are taking the blame for Johnson not having kept good relations with his party’s MPs. As one backbencher said, new MPs never got a chance to know Johnson and “they have spiralled off into orbit, and if the party isn’t careful, they will become serial rebels, never to be seen again.” 

With Cummings going, some of them are hoping for a fresh start, but a former staff member said, “The contempt for MPs does not come from Dominic Cummings, he’s just a harder version of the smiling frontman. The basic contempt comes from Boris Johnson.” 

What happens next? Don’t I wish I knew. Cummings and Cain are old political pals of Johnson’s from the Brexit campaign, and they formed the hub of the hard Brexiteers in Number 10. With them gone and Brexit looming, it’s hard to say which way things will go. Britain’s still in talks with the European Union and there isn’t much time left to put together a deal before we leave the EU without one.

The same staff member I quoted a couple of paragraphs back said about Johnson, “This is a guy who gets blown around by whatever storm; he has no political compass.” And advisors–presumably Cain and Cummings–had complained about Johnson not being able to make big decisions. 

That makes it particularly important who’s getting to whisper in his ear.

Whee.

And did I mention anything a pandemic? Somewhere in here, some actual work needs to be done. 

Whoever’s left at Number 10 is expecting Cummings to take public revenge and is–or possibly are; surely there’s more than one–preparing responses. One official was quoted as saying, “It’s the last days of Rome in there.” 

I’m’ sure the most interesting dirt hasn’t been dished yet. Have patience, my friends. It will leak out eventually.

Feeding hungry kids: the English public strikes back

After the government voted to deny £15 vouchers to low income families in England so that their kids wouldn’t go hungry during the school holidays, a local pub banned the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, from its premises.

For life.

It did the same to three other local MPs who voted against the vouchers with him.  Pubs can do that here, but they usually reserve it for the kind of customer who sets off fireworks on the bar or pulls the plumbing out of the men’s room. But I guess it’s a question of who does more damage in the long run.

The ban was posted on the pub’s Facebook page, which also reproduced a menu from one of the House of Commons’ many restaurants, where steak and chips are going for £11.77–a price subsidized by the taxpayer.

Don’t usually do politics but here goes,” the Facebook page said. “I have never known a Government which is consistently the wrong end of every argument.”

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Irrelevant photo: The Cornish coastline.

In tweeting about against the vouchers, Conservative MP Ben Bradley wrote, “At one school in Mansfield 75% of kids have a social worker, 25% of parents are illiterate. Their estate is the centre of the area’s crime.

“One kid lives in a crack den, another in a brothel. These are the kids that most need our help, extending FSM doesn’t reach these kids.”

FSM being free school meals. This is shorthand for the voucher program. Which is also shorthand.

Don’t worry about it.

When he started catching flak for that and a few other tweets, he complained that they’d been taken out of context. I’m still trying to figure out how to squeeze any context at all into 280 characters. Short of writing in Japanese, Chinese, or Korean, where a single character can be a whole word. 

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In the meantime, players from Leeds United donated £25,000 for kids’ meals over the school break, and the club they play for has announced that it will match that.  

Businesses, restaurants, and local governments (including at least a few led by the Conservative Party–the party that voted against the £15 vouchers) have also stepped up with offers to help, and Conservatives are beginning to say that the government misjudged the feelings of the country. Not that kids need to eat and they want to do the right thing, but that people are mad at them.

They don’t even know how to say, “Ooops,” right.

All of it goes a good distance toward restoring my battered faith in humanity, but it’s worth remembering that whether kids get fed will depend on where they live. In some places there’ll be multiple offers and in others there’ll be none.

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This morning, I listened to Matt Hancock, the secretary of state for health and social care, interviewed on the radio. I was driving and it was him or nothing. We eventually realized that nothing was much better, but before we did I was interested to hear that he’s not singing Ben Bradley’s tune. I doubt even Ben Bradley’s singing Ben Bradley’s tune anymore. It didn’t go over well. What he said was that of course the government’s making sure every child gets fed, but local governments are better at that than central government and we’ve given them money for it.

But, the interviewer said, that was way back when and it was spent long ago.

We’ve given them money, he said in seventeen different ways.

It’s an approach I’ve heard a lot in the last few years. Ask a government minister why the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank is so short of money and they’ll tell you how much money they already spent on the NHS / social care / the schools / fill in the blank. It doesn’t answer the question, and sometimes they’re talking about money that was allocated before William the Conqueror’s boat first touched England’s southern shores, but it sounds like an answer and can usually be counted on to derail the conversation.

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Since as a nation we’re not handing low-income parents £15 to waste on feeding their kids, let’s review another spending program. No one tweeted that the £12.7 billion program to help the self-employed through the pandemic was pouring spaghetti sauce into crack dens, but a study from the Resolution Foundation says it gave £1.3 billion to workers who hadn’t lost any income while successfully missing 500,000 who did. The study blames a combination of strict eligibility rules and weak assessment. Basically, they excluded lots of categories of the self-employed and then didn’t ask people in the categories they accepted to document their losses. 

The  study also said that the self-employed were hit even harder in the first six months of the pandemic than employees were. Three out of ten stopped working during the worst of the crisis, and one in six is still out of work. 

About 5 million people count as self-employed in Britain, although some of them, inevitably, will be the mythically self-employed. It pays for corporations to offload the expenses of employing people by calling them freelancers, and people are desperate enough to accept that.

Do you remember when life was going to get endlessly better? 

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The lockdown in Wales is tighter than England’s, and it’s closed shops that sell nonessential goods, which has had the odd consequence of restricting supermarket sales of the same items. They’ve had to have had to cover shelves to hide the socks, the decorative hair thingies, the–

Actually, it’s hard to decide where to draw the line. The cake decorations? They’re edible, so maybe they can stay. The birthday candles? Non-edible but on the same shelves as the cake decorations. The mugs that say, “You’re the best”? The ones that say, “I changed my mind. You’re a cockwomble”?

Let’s turn to the experts: Nonessentials include electrical goods, telephones, clothes, toys and games, garden products, and homewares, and the decision on individual items depends on what part of the supermarket they’re in rather than their inherent essentialness. So forget the cups, but you can probably buy birthday candles.

Supplies for the “essential upkeep, maintenance and functioning of the household,” such as batteries, light bulbs, and rubber gloves, are okay. Because who could function without rubber gloves?

It’s easy to make fun of, and I’m having a hard time holding myself back, but there is a logic to it. To slow the virus, you need to shut down everything you can, but they don’t want to hand supermarkets the business they’ve denied to small shops. Yes, it’s crazy. And yes, it makes sense anyway.

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While we’re talking about the odd places that rules lead us into, England’s rule of six limits gatherings–indoor, outdoor, underground, and hallucinated–to six people unless they’re all from a single household (it’s slightly more complicated than that, but close enough for our purposes). But some of London’s fancier restaurants have discovered that if people are talking business they can gather in groups of thirty.

Wheee. Take your foot off the brake and don’t be such a scaredy cat. 

One of the restaurants emailed its client list to let them know that “when the topic is business you can still meet over a fabulous working lunch or dinner without the restriction of the ‘single household rule.’ ” 

You will, however, need to employ at least one overcooked adjective and a full set of quotation marks, however unnecessary and aesthetically offensive they may be. 

At one expensive restaurant, the Sexy Fish, caviar sushi sells for £42 a piece, and you can buy a £16,000 Armand de Brignac champagne if you really need to. The reporter who scouted the place and asked diners if they were discussing business got himself thrown out. Which was lucky, because I doubt the Guardian’s budget stretches as far as the sushi, never mind the champagne.