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18 November 2017

Why Johnson and Gove barely grasp the concept of compromise

As former journalists, they spent much of their lives mocking the faint-hearted.

By Peter Wilby

It is impossible to understand Boris Johnson and Michael Gove unless you remember that both are journalists by trade. They were highly successful columnists and commentators. Before they became MPs – aged 36 and 37 respectively – they did nothing after university except write and edit. They are not like most other politicians, who think purely in terms of power. Neither is wholly comfortable with responsibility or with the often unglamorous detail involved in running government departments. They barely grasp the concept of compromise.

They are natural outsiders, thinking in terms of memorable phrases, striking headlines and big ideas. They have spent much of their lives mocking the faint-hearted, despising public servants and waving away pettifogging practical objections to the clever propositions they dreamed up on a Sunday for a Monday morning op-ed. If they were still writing columns, they would joyously put the boot into Theresa May’s unsteadiness and Philip Hammond’s caution.

How would a typical Gove or Johnson column describe their menacing joint letter to Theresa May, leaked on 12 November? I can see it now, in the second or third paragraph: “The two ministers have warned May that it would be most unfortunate if she ignored their suggestions and her body were then to be found under several feet of water beneath Westminster Bridge”.

Fake news excuses

In the Soviet Union’s heyday, worker unrest in Western countries was frequently blamed on communist subversion orchestrated from Moscow, which provided funds, circulated propaganda and helped rig union ballots. Many charges were true but the workers still had genuine grievances that Western politicians needed to address. Now, in a speech, May says Russia uses “fake news” – as we now call propaganda – to “sow discord” in democracies. Again, it’s probably true. But again that doesn’t absolve mainstream politicians from dealing with popular grievances, such as falling wages and crumbling public services, that provide Moscow with a receptive audience.

History repeating

Last month, I observed that the Tories’ bungled introduction of Universal Credit is uncannily similar to Labour’s bungled introduction of an earlier tax credit scheme in 2003. Here is another example of how governments don’t learn from their predecessors’ mistakes, even quite recent ones.

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A BBC Panorama programme the other night revealed how fraudsters exploit the student loan system. The UK has 130 established universities, all technically private though largely dependent on public funds. The Tories consider them conservative and unimaginative because they have no history of operating as proper, sharp-nosed businesses. To encourage “innovation” and better “value for money”, ministers approved 112 “alternative providers” (private colleges) where students taking degrees or diplomas can, like those at established universities, receive government loans for fees and maintenance. Panorama showed how, at two colleges, fraudsters enrol bogus students with bogus qualifications, fake their attendance records and write required essays. They get a cut of loans worth £17,000 a year.

In 1997, New Labour introduced “individual learning accounts” to help poorly qualified people “buy” training courses to improve their skills. Labour also wanted a “dynamic and innovative” market. “New providers” would offer the courses, not the stuffy old further education colleges regarded as pillars of the dreaded “education establishment”. Alas, in many instances, neither the providers nor the trainees existed; names of some learning account holders turned out to be Hindi swear words. In 2001, ministers wound up the scheme, after spending £290m of taxpayers’ money. Fraudsters pocketed at least £97m.

Let’s hope the £400m now being spent on providing loans to students at private colleges has better results.

Gang by another name

The basis of peace in Northern Ireland is that the paramilitaries no longer attack the British military, Westminster politicians or big shopping centres. Yet they can still terrorise the province’s working-class areas.

Further evidence for this view emerged this month and, as usual, received little attention. First, The Detail, an investigative website, revealed that in the past five years the inhabitants of more than 2,000 homes in Northern Ireland have been forced to move, mainly because of paramilitary intimidation. Second, new police figures show that most racist hate crimes in the province do not result in prosecutions or even warnings. Amnesty International believes this is because many offenders have links with the paramilitaries, making the public reluctant to give evidence.

Paramilitaries would not be tolerated in any other British city. In some respects, they are similar to criminal gangs that are allowed leeway in working-class areas by authorities in cities across the world. However, it is useful to remind ourselves, now and again, of how the world really works.

In hot water

For my 73rd birthday, we had afternoon tea at Claridge’s, the London hotel particularly favoured by royalty. All was perfect: sandwiches, scones and cakes impeccably served on fine bone china in a magnificent art deco foyer. Except for the tea drink itself which, as the hotel’s literature puts it, should be “the centrepiece”. It wasn’t hot enough, it tasted slightly stewed, it lacked flavour.

I don’t want to sound like Nigel Farage by blaming it on foreign staff. Rather, I’ll blame it on youth. To make proper tea, you should warm the pot then pour freshly boiling water on the tea leaves. This procedure is no longer understood, in my experience, by anybody under 50. Which explains why you can’t get a decent cuppa in big cities and the only places you can are country tea rooms run by retired couples. 

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This article appears in the 15 Nov 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The plot to stop Brexit