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Costly Countdown



With three by-elections coming up this week, Tory MPs are fishing out their heaviest-duty steel-reinforced cricket boxes. Or if they aren’t they should be, as there’s a good chance their numbers are about to be depleted. By three. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the ripple effect on morale is likely to be huge.


It’s not that the punters have fallen in love with the Labour party, or its leader. More that they’ve taken a strident dislike to the Conservatives.


Which is why Rishi Sunak’s already as good as admitted the two formerly safe Tory seats, and the third, vacated by Boris Johnson, are a goner.


And the fact that the Prime Minister will still command an overall Commons majority that Keir Starmer would give his back teeth for is irrelevant.


What matters is the huge hole this week’s voting will probably dig in Conservative MPs’ already evanescent will to fight.


The number who’ve announced they’re not even going to try to hold their seats at the next election has topped forty so far. Doubtless many more will follow.


Not that any of the above is to be wondered at.


Yes, Sunak did enable the nation to swerve the bankruptcy that Liz Truss was on the point of delivering.


And yes too, thanks to the furlough scheme he devised as Chancellor a significant swathe of the population was saved from destitution during the Covid lockdowns.


But the pandemic, along with the Ukraine war and the damage to the British economy inflicted by Brexit, left him a poisoned chalice at Number Ten.


In short, after thirteen years of feeble growth under the Tories, the cost of living crisis had finally come to a head.


Soaring inflation, and interest rates dealing a hammer blow to mortgage holders, has meant thirteen is an unlucky number for all too many of us.


The upshot being all Keir Starmer needs is to be someone other than a would-be Tory Prime Minister – and the job’s set to be his.


None of which changes the fact that if/when he gets it he’ll have plenty of good reasons for wishing he hadn’t.


Forbidding figures published last week by the government’s official number crunchers are backed an equally not rollicking report from the accountants Grant Thornton.


They reckon living standards will get worse and worse for the best part of another year, with households’ spending power down by getting on for seventy billion pounds.


Which is why Sunak’s likely to hold back on the general election for as long as he can. Not that anyone in the know seriously expects an upturn in time to save his bacon.


It’s also why Starmer’s not letting on about what exactly, or even much more than vaguely, how he’d fix any of it.


It’ll be nice to hear what he’s for, as well as what he’s against. But politics was ever the art of the possible. Notably, in this case, what if anything’s left in the kitty.


Makes you wonder how long it’ll be before his perpetually pained expression and nagging tone will start to grate on those who voted for him.


But that’s for another day. Meantime, Sunak does seem to have made inroads into the wave of strikes that’s caused so much grief to so many.


Giving the go-ahead for pay rises of about six per cent for millions of public sector workers did bear immediate fruit.


The teachers’ four main unions responded by calling off the co-ordinated strikes they’d planned for the beginning of next term.


Yippee, doubtless Downing Street cried. But also yikes, as junior doctors diagnosed the offer as not ‘credible’, and vowed to press on with their planned industrial action.


Sunak was tactful enough not to reprise Churchill’s oft-quoted thought when the tide of war showed tentative signs of turning. But he may be (wishfully) thinking:


‘Now this is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.’


That, incidentally, might also serve in today’s disturbing reminder of the last century’s two world wars.


Ukraine’s much vaunted spring offensive may not have led to the breakthrough that many hoped for, but nor has it failed to produce results.


Experts calculate that the defenders have managed in little over a month to liberate almost as much territory as the Russians captured in half a year. Not bad going.


At last week’s NATO summit Volodymyr Zelensky really really hoped to secure membership for his country, but must have had a shrewd idea it was a no-no.


After all, given the western alliance’s one-for-all all-for-one credo, it would have meant World War Three, against the most heavily nuclear-armed nation on the planet.


Goodnight Vienna for all of us then. Probably. Which is why that’ll have to wait till the fighting’s over.


This could, however, come sooner than many thought, thanks to the unexpected Yankee gift of the cluster bombs that have now already been delivered.


Controversial, yes, and banned in many countries because of their hideous way of killing indiscriminately.


But an immensely potent and potentially balance-shifting weapon in the drive to smash the Russians’ heavily fortified positions.


Heartless to say these guys are not civilians and so have it coming to them. But that’s likely to have figured in Joe Biden’s calculations.


At the same time the fear factor could figure in Russian squaddies’ calculations.


When the hitherto unheard-of tanks were first deployed on the Somme in 1916, many panicked German soldiers simply ran for their lives.


Conditions there in France and now in Ukraine bear easy if heartrending comparison. So, yet again, the Churchill line might have some relevance here.


But on a marginally cheerier note, there’s a sense within the commentariat that maybe it’s time to stop being so beastly about Auntie Beeb’s poor Huw Edwards.


Now that he’s finally been outed, some of the keyboard warriors’ cruel rubbernecking has been replaced by something a little closer to sympathy.


After all, since the Old Bill say he’s broken no laws and both he and his family are clearly suffering horribly, some focus is switching to ruthless tabloid techniques.


And about time too, arguably. Since it was the Sun wot whodunnit.


Certainly, nothing is ever as simple as it seems. Take that favourite little girl’s dolly, Barbie, so much in the news now with her very own movie on the point of release.


What the toymaker Mattel don’t big up is where the dear pink potpourri of perfection might just have come from in the first place.


The answer, according to author Robin Gerber, is Germany. In the form of an altogether less congenially cuddle-worthy plaything called Lilli.


Basically a high-end call girl, she had a generously cut chest, platinum-blonde ponytail, red puckered lips and blue eye shadow.


Eagerly scooped up in bars and adult-themed toy stores, she was often given by blokes to their girlfriends as nudge-nudge nod-and-a-wink tokens.


Though the Barbie we know and love gave a very wide birth to Lilli’s heavy makeup and suggestive eyebrows, her curvy proportions could be said to give the game away.


There. As Michael Caine so beautifully put it all those years back: ‘Not a lotta people know dat.’

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