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17 February 2021

First thoughts: Meghan Markle, the future of the NHS and how the Tories abandoned small business

The Conservatives seem to have forgotten about the people who were once their most faithful supporters, and created a market gap. Labour should fill it.

By Peter Wilby

Along with the Valentine’s Day disclosure that Meghan Markle is expecting a second child, a picture of her, lying under a tree with her husband, the Duke of Sussex, while she cradles her bump, was released to the public. It was remotely shot by a professional photographer, Misan Harriman, whose work has graced the front cover of Vogue magazine. It was followed by news that Oprah Winfrey will interview the couple on the US network CBS.

It probably didn’t cross the couple’s minds that such attempts to attract media attention had any bearing on Markle’s high court action against the Mail on Sunday for breach of privacy. Mr Justice Warby accepted her case, concerning publication of a letter to her estranged father, and declined to hear the Mail’s defence. A “crude common law principle” that those who “seek favourable publicity. . . must accept adverse publicity” had been “discarded”, he ruled. Even, presumably, when Markle’s letter was apparently vetted – and perhaps partly written – by the Kensington Palace communications team.

Meghan and Harry may have dropped their HRHs, but their expected child will still be eighth in line to the throne. Without their royal connections, even a top-class photographer wouldn’t propel a mundane family event on to newspaper front pages, and even Winfrey wouldn’t secure 90 minutes on prime-time TV for an unremarkable couple talking about why they walked out on their employer. Nor would a woman’s cliché-ridden letter to her father, pleading that he had “broken my heart into a million pieces”, merit blanket coverage. If the law doesn’t recognise such connections, it should.

Starmer’s woes

Keir Starmer, struggling with his poll ratings, is being advised by aides to make Labour  “unashamedly pro-business”. Is there an anti-business party? Well, yes. You may recall that, in 2018, Boris Johnson reportedly said “fuck business” when told of its concerns about a hard Brexit. He never denied it; he just bumbled about being sceptical of “some” people who claimed to speak for business.

Now, the UK’s six million small and medium-sized businesses have been, er, screwed by Covid as well as Brexit. Unlike supermarkets or multinationals, they don’t have the resources to survive months of closure or cope with the complexities of trade barriers. The Tories seem to have abandoned people who were once their most faithful supporters, and created a market gap. Labour should fill it.

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Is the NHS safe?

You may think that, with ministers planning to reverse the market-led health reforms the Tories introduced in 2012, the NHS is now safe. But down in the Tory undergrowth, the influential pro-market Institute of Economic Affairs hasn’t given up. Its latest report says there is “no rational basis for the adulation the NHS is currently receiving” and “no reason to be ‘grateful’…  that we have it”. Only grudgingly does it acknowledge that the NHS “deserves some credit for the fast vaccine roll-out”.

[see also: How the UK could vaccinate every adult by mid-May and end lockdown]

That is a considerable understatement. Vaccinations have been wholly organised by the NHS while less successful pandemic operations such as test-and-trace and airport quarantine are run largely by private contractors. The NHS’s crucial advantage is simple: it holds sufficient data on the entire population to identify those who most urgently need vaccination and it commands sufficient trust to persuade most people to take advantage. In the US, nothing comparable exists, a shortcoming that many Americans now lament.

A warning for Xi

We haven’t heard much from the Lib Dems lately so it’s good to learn that Ed Davey, their leader, is on Xi Jinping’s case. In a story headlined by the Guardian as “Lib Dems warn China over international bullying”, he demands “an urgent response” over reports China will impose sanctions on countries that boycott the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics. One is reminded of the small-town Irish newspaper, the Skibbereen Eagle, which warned the Tsar of Russia in 1898 that it would “keep its eye” on him and his despotic behaviour. Xi should ponder the Tsar’s fate: he was overthrown and executed two decades later.

This article appears in the 17 Feb 2021 issue of the New Statesman, War against truth