Five of the Best

The top five comment pieces from today's papers

The Independent's Hamish McRae says that politicians must struggle to get the deficit under control before the next downturn in eight or ten years' time:

[C]orrecting the deficit is a race against time. We got through the downturn in the early 2000s in very good shape because our public finances were exceptionally strong when we went into it and public spending could, to some extent, offset slower private spending. We are doing badly this time because our finances were relatively weak. We don't want to face an even bigger catastrophe next time round.

In the Daily Telegraph, Irwin Stelzer writes that David Cameron continues to be alarmingly unclear about his economic policies:

[A]ll we know is that he plans to eliminate waste, and that he might go along with Labour's plan to raise the marginal tax rate to 50 per cent, but might not. He would like to cut benefits, but is not certain which ones -- or is not saying. He plans to extend parent choice, but is against vouchers. He might be planning green taxes, but we can't be sure. He does want to raise VAT, but might change his mind if the recession continues to bite and shopkeepers howl.

The Guardian's Jonathan Freedland warns that if Barack Obama can't win support for health-care reform there is no hope of the US reaching agreement on a new climate-change treaty. The greens and diplomats who hailed his victory may be disappointed:

They have seen a summer campaign demonise him as an amalgam of Stalin, Hitler and Big Brother, bent on sending America's frail grannies to their deaths in the name of a new socialism. If that's the response he gets when he suggests Americans should be covered even when they change jobs or get sick, imagine the monstering coming his way if he tells his compatriots they have to start cutting back on the 19 tonnes of CO2 each one of them emits per year (more than twice the amount belched out by the average Brit).

In the New York Times, Maureen Dowd says that the disciplining of Congressman Joe Wilson for calling Barack Obama a "liar" in Congress revealed a positive side to US politics:

It was a rare triumph for civility in a country that seems to have lost all sense of it -- from music arenas to tennis courts to political gatherings to hallowed halls -- and a ratification of an institution that has relied on strict codes of conduct for two centuries to prevent a breakdown of order.

The Times's Daniel Finkelstein argues that parties must broaden their membership to avoid the dangers of "group polarisation", under which individuals become more extreme as they deliberate with each other:

Group discussion among racially prejudiced people made them more prejudiced; the punitive damage awards of mock juries are higher than the median of individual jurors; a group of chess players was more inclined to a risky strategy than the individuals; a group of burglars became more cautious about the ease of breaking into a house than they would individually; protesters against police brutality became more supportive of violent action after group debate.

 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

Picture: ANDRÉ CARRILHO
Show Hide image

Leader: Boris Johnson, a liar and a charlatan

The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. 

Boris Johnson is a liar, a charlatan and a narcissist. In 1988, when he was a reporter at the Times, he fabricated a quotation from his godfather, an eminent historian, which duly appeared in a news story on the front page. He was sacked. (We might pause here to acknowledge the advantage to a young journalist of having a godfather whose opinions were deemed worthy of appearing in a national newspaper.) Three decades later, his character has not improved.

On 17 September, Mr Johnson wrote a lengthy, hyperbolic article for the Daily Telegraph laying out his “vision” for Brexit – in terms calculated to provoke and undermine the Prime Minister (who was scheduled to give a speech on Brexit in Florence, Italy, as we went to press). Extracts of his “article”, which reads more like a speech, appeared while a terror suspect was on the loose and the country’s threat level was at “critical”, leading the Scottish Conservative leader, Ruth Davidson, to remark: “On the day of a terror attack where Britons were maimed, just hours after the threat level is raised, our only thoughts should be on service.”

Three other facets of this story are noteworthy. First, the article was published alongside other pieces echoing and praising its conclusions, indicating that the Telegraph is now operating as a subsidiary of the Johnson for PM campaign. Second, Theresa May did not respond by immediately sacking her disloyal Foreign Secretary – a measure of how much the botched election campaign has weakened her authority. Finally, it is remarkable that Mr Johnson’s article repeated the most egregious – and most effective – lie of the EU referendum campaign. “Once we have settled our accounts, we will take back control of roughly £350m per week,” the Foreign Secretary claimed. “It would be a fine thing, as many of us have pointed out, if a lot of that money went on the NHS.”

This was the promise of Brexit laid out by the official Vote Leave team: we send £350m to Brussels, and after leaving the EU, that money can be spent on public services. Yet the £350m figure includes the rebate secured by Margaret Thatcher – so just under a third of the sum never leaves the country. Also, any plausible deal will involve paying significant amounts to the EU budget in return for continued participation in science and security agreements. To continue to invoke this figure is shameless. That is not a partisan sentiment: the head of the UK Statistics Authority, Sir David Norgrove, denounced Mr Johnson’s “clear misuse of official statistics”.

In the days that followed, the chief strategist of Vote Leave, Dominic Cummings – who, as Simon Heffer writes in this week's New Statesman, is widely suspected of involvement in Mr Johnson’s article – added his voice. Brexit was a “shambles” so far, he claimed, because of the ineptitude of the civil service and the government’s decision to invoke Article 50 before outlining its own detailed demands.

There is a fine Yiddish word to describe this – chutzpah. Mr Johnson, like all the other senior members of Vote Leave in parliament, voted to trigger Article 50 in March. If he and his allies had concerns about this process, the time to speak up was then.

It has been clear for some time that Mr Johnson has no ideological attachment to Brexit. (During the referendum campaign, he wrote articles arguing both the Leave and Remain case, before deciding which one to publish – in the Telegraph, naturally.) However, every day brings fresh evidence that he and his allies are not interested in the tough, detailed negotiations required for such an epic undertaking. They will brush aside any concerns about our readiness for such a huge challenge by insisting that Brexit would be a success if only they were in charge of it.

This is unlikely. Constant reports emerge of how lightly Mr Johnson treats his current role. At a summit aiming to tackle the grotesque humanitarian crisis in Yemen, he is said to have astounded diplomats by joking: “With friends like these, who needs Yemenis?” The Foreign Secretary demeans a great office of state with his carelessness and posturing. By extension, he demeans our politics. 

This article first appeared in the 21 September 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The revenge of the left