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Bated Breath

Abroad and at home it’s an ugly picture. Fears are justified that blood already shed could lead to an uncontrolled Middle Eastern war. At Westminster too the snapping and snarling intensifies. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the flickering hope is that cool heads might yet prevail.

Hamas, the Islamist outfit behind the October 7th massacre in the name of the Palestinian cause, must have known it couldn’t win a war against Israel.

At least, not on its own.

It must also have known that, albeit heavily armed, its allies in the area don’t actually want to get too closely involved.

But, against a backdrop of seething Arab resentment against the very existence of the state of Israel, one murderous thing could so easily lead to another.

After World War Two, survivors of the horrors of the holocaust surged to the Promised Land, the fabled Jewish place of safety dating back to the bible.

They got what they wanted, but at a terrible and ongoing cost, because habitable territory was scant, much of it already occupied by Palestinians.

Since then every attempt to get inhabitants and incomers to share the space harmoniously, the so-called two-state solution, has failed.

And, seemingly inexorably, the superpowers are being drawn into the tinderbox that’s just exploded.

The Americans’ unwavering support for Israel is tempered by warnings against overreaction, that could inflame tensions yet further.

But they themselves have launched retaliatory air strikes against facilities in Syria used by militias that have links to Hamas.

Meanwhile the Russian President has invited people from these same groupings for talks in Moscow, prompting fears he’s trying to form an ‘axis of terror’.

All the time, the daily death toll is rising, notably among children in Gaza, where the humanitarian disaster looks set to slide into catastrophe.

Little wonder then that the cauldron of emotion is bubbling over everywhere, including here in Britain.

Keir Starmer has steadfastly refused to call for the ceasefire that could allow aid to pour into the desperate and heavily bombarded city.

But hundreds of Labour councillors and dozens of the party’s MPs say he’s called this wrong. And several shadow ministers may actually resign.

It’s the kind of problem that no party leader could reasonably anticipate, but which could cause untold damage.

Still more so if that leader happens to be Prime Minister. Which, on current predictions, Starmer’s looking increasingly likely to become.

The latest YouGov poll puts Labour’s support at double that of the Tories, which points not just to victory but a landslide win at the general election.

Not much of a birthday present for Rishi Sunak, in the week that marks his first anniversary in the top job.

Likewise the unwelcome news of his own personal rating. Down from minus nine when he first took office to, er, minus forty.

On top of that, a separate survey suggested nearly three-quarters of punters want the chance to chuck him out by May next year at the latest.

And yet he can, somehow, manage the odd gag that’s really quite funny.

At question time last week Starmer reminded him that Labour had just won two local contests, in huge swings against the Tories.

In response, Sunak joked that one of the new MPs: ‘May actually support me a little bit more than the last one.’

A good-natured dig at the woman the newbie had replaced, Nadine Dorries, who’d been an ongoing thorn in his side.

The other Tory MP who’d created a vacancy was Chris Pincher, who’d been chucked out for sexual misbehaviour.

And the next odds-on by-election will be to replace former Conservative minister Peter Bone, who’s also accused of something similar, plus bullying.

Then there’s the curious case of Crispin Blunt, the former junior Tory minister who’s been suspended while police investigate an allegation of rape.

He insists he’s got nothing to hide, but many will conclude there’s an ever-worsening stench of decay hanging over the Conservative party.

On top of that, there’s yet more reputational damage coming their way this week as the Covid inquiry ratchets up a gear.

Just as the Number Ten team’s trying to fine-tune new laws planned for the King’s Speech in a few days, nasty stories will be hitting the headlines.

That’s because Dominic Cummings – Remember him? Beanie hats? Dodgy eyesight? – will be taking the stand.

And, in his capacity as Boris Johnson’s former strap-on brain, he’ll be fending off uncomplimentary claims about WhatsApp messages they exchanged.

‘Disgusting and misogynistic’ is how they’ve been described by George Osborne, who is, lest we forget, a former Conservative Chancellor.

A happy ship? A sinking one? Discuss.

Still, Sunak will grab a few headlines for himself this week, by holding what he maintains is the first-ever Artificial Intelligence safety summit.

In it, he’ll announce the government’s splashing out on a new supercomputer that’s apparently thousands of times faster than anything we’ve got at home.

Fitting then that this get-together should be staged at Bletchley Park, where wartime boffins used the world’s first computer to decode Hitler’s messages.

But scroll forward to now, and there’s more than a hint of Oppenheimer about where the technology might lead us.

On the one hand it can be brilliant at solving problems, curing disease and keeping us all safe.

On the other, according to material to be issued alongside Sunak’s speech, it could pose a threat to humanity itself.

A very low likelihood, it says, not altogether reassuringly. But less so its use in a few years for mass disinformation or developing biological weapons.

Even before that, it might make it easier to commit fraud, mount cyberattacks and enhance terrorist capabilities.

Bit of a balance to be struck there, then, both in what precautionary steps are needed and who should take them.

Already eyebrows have been raised about the invitation extended to the Chinese, given their nasty knack of keeping an eye on their own people.

Still, the American Vice-President Kamala Harris will also be there. If nothing else, doubtless, to get a handle on what these guys might have in mind.

Shame humanity can’t just settle for the kind of helping hand that comes minus snags or reprisal threats.

Bats, it seems, are quite happy to do their bit to protect precious literature in the Joanina Library at a top Portuguese uni.

That’s because they like to tuck into book-eating insects. Everybody happy then. Apart from the insects, obvs.

Engaging the services of ferret electricians, by contrast, is entirely victim-free.

According to James McKay of the National Ferret School (yes, there really is one) it’s their natural curiosity that makes them such natural allies.

Show them any kind of opening, he explains, and they just can’t resist finding out what’s at the other end.

Thus did Felicia the ferret became a furry pipe cleaner for the Fermilab particle accelerator in Illinois in 1971.

Others wriggled under the floor of St Paul’s Cathedral with harnesses attached to nylon lines, meaning the royal wedding in 1981 could go live on telly.

Yet another made it possible to cable up the Millennium Dome.

And there’s more, quite a few more, where that came from. Soon. Maybe next week …


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