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17 June 2020

Britain’s disappearing statues, chaos at the health department and will Trump go?

The question of whether Trump will leave quietly if he loses the presidential election in November is widely discussed in the US. 

By Peter Wilby

Were the events of 1-2 June, when Donald Trump reportedly wanted 10,000 active-duty troops to restore order to the streets of Washington, DC, more significant than they seemed at the time? The question of whether Trump will go quietly if he loses the presidential election in November is widely discussed in the US. He has already indicated how he may challenge the result: mail-in ballots, he says, are “substantially fraudulent” and the 2016 popular vote, which he lost, counted “millions” who voted illegally.

How could he cling on? As Mao said, political power comes from the barrel of a gun. That is why we should note how Mark Esper, the US defence secretary, and Mark Milley, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, frustrated Trump on 1-2 June and stated that troops should support the constitution – in other words, keep out of domestic politics. Several ex-military officers supported this view as, reportedly, did many serving officers.

But those two days leave another possibility, raised by the Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent Dexter Filkins in the New Yorker. Each US state has a national guard, a reserve, largely part-time force under gubernatorial control. At some stage, according to reports, at least three governors were asked if they would deploy forces to Washington. Would Trump, after an election defeat, make a similar request to friendly governors for troops to prevent him being ejected from the White House?

Wild evenings

David Cameron’s sister-in-law Emily Sheffield, who succeeds George Osborne as editor of the London Evening Standard in July, has spent the past three years launching ThisMuchIKnow, an app that delivers “smart, sassy and digestible” news for “people who want to feel hopeful”. But her main journalistic experience comes from 11 years as deputy editor of British Vogue. That, she recalled this year, involved cocktails at the Paris Ritz, “wild nights in Tokyo”, partying with Kate Moss at London’s Dorchester hotel until dawn, and wearing dresses with three-foot trains. A tech start-up proved harder work but she still kept “finding myself on dance floors at 5am”. I do hope she can cope with covering a city where social distancing now cramps the glamorous lifestyle.

Evgeny’s warning

Talking of the Standard, its Russian-born proprietor, Evgeny Lebedev, writing in the Mail on Sunday “as a child of the USSR” – he left for Britain in 1988, aged eight, with his father, a KGB officer – recalls how Stalin, after purging comrades, “disappeared” them from photographs. Britain, by toppling statues, is going the same way, he warns. However, “millions are not dying in labour camps”. Glad he spotted that.

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Disappeared deputies

Not that Boris Johnson’s government is above “disappearing” unfriendly faces. Jonathan Van-Tam, deputy chief medical officer for England, hasn’t been seen at a daily press briefing since 30 May when, asked at the briefing about Dominic Cummings’s meanderings, he replied: “In my opinion, the rules… apply to all.” Also missing are his medical colleagues Jenny Harries and Ruth May, who indicated that they agreed.

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Unfriendly statistics have also disappeared. For three weeks, the health department has “paused” reporting of the number of people tested. Though ministers claim well over 100,000 tests are carried out daily, it seems that around a quarter are either faulty (and need to be repeated) or posted without any guarantee of return. Some care homes report receiving twice as many tests as they need. It remains unclear whether the target of testing 100,000 individuals daily, promised for 30 April, is now being reached consistently.

Purge at the Times

Also in danger of being disappeared, I hear, is Philip Collins, the amusing and thoughtful former Tony Blair aide who writes a weekly Times column. The editor, John Witherow, is said to be “close to Cummings”, while his deputy, Tony Gallagher, is “close to Johnson”. They are keen to insert a columnist “less hostile to the government”. Does such a person still exist? If so, he probably works at the Spectator.

This article appears in the 17 Jun 2020 issue of the New Statesman, The History Wars