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Edging out .. on a knife-edge

Updated: Oct 3, 2020

Everything changed overnight. Much of what had been the law was scaled down to guidance as the nation started gearing up to opening up after what’s felt like a lifetime. But, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, the process could go into reverse at any time.

‘Que Sera, Sera, whatever will be, will be. The future’s not ours to see, Que Sera, Sera. What will be, will be.’ America’s sweetheart Doris Day sang the song in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1956 movie The Man Who Knew Too Much. Says it all about where we’re at right now, except that Boris Johnson could be cast as the man who doesn’t know enough. Yes, coronavirus deaths and infections are a fraction of what they once were. But are the numbers rising or falling? And what about the rate of spread? Behind the government’s blustery certainty the truthful answer is, er, well, you see, er … Little surprise there, as ministers are grappling with ten different models to come up with figures. And little surprise, therefore, that the original clear cut message ordering people to jolly well stay at home had now mutated into ‘trust the British public to use their common sense’. Not quite do what the hell you please, but not that far short of it. Which explains, when Bojo announced most businesses could reopen and punters should pop out and shop till they drop, the sharp intake of breath by the government’s scientific advisers. Not dissimilar to what you get from plumbers when they ask who in god’s name bodged up that dodgy pipework that’s all got to go. So, when images of Bournemouth’s heaving beach splattered across every newspaper and the police declared it a major incident, England’s chief medical officer Chris Whitty’s despair was predictable. And it seems that was just the beginning. Julliette Hautot, who runs Trencreek Holiday Park in Newquay, Cornwall, describes punter response to Boris Johnson’s we’re all going on a summer holiday announcement thus: ‘The calls have been bonkers, and there’s the emails and Facebook Messenger pinging.’ Everywhere hotels, bed and breakfasts, camping grounds and rental owners have been flooded with calls from folk gagging for a staycation in July or August. The obvious way of relieving the pressure is making it easier for more of us to jump on a plane. And, hey presto, the quarantine system brought in on June the eight is now on its way out. A relatively short-lived policy, then. Still, it did better than Lady Jane Grey, who only managed to reign for nine days. Meanwhile, Boris Johnson’s hinted at local lockdowns if people don’t use a bit of nous here in UK, but fought shy of a new blanket ban. Former health secretary Jeremy Hunt, however, is less inhibited. ‘We have to prepare for that as the ultimate blunderbuss weapon if there are no other alternatives.’ Our Yankee cousins, not great enthusiasts for gun control, have already pulled the trigger. With US cases of coronavirus now topping twenty million, Texas is the latest state to stop moving out of lockdown. Yet another Trump triumph? Discuss. Questions are already beginning to nag this side of The Pond too, with Tory MP Bernard Jenkin, who chairs one of parliament’s most powerful committees, calling for an inquiry into the British government’s performance. Bojo could do without that, even though there are comforting signs around of a return to normality. A minister on the ropes over a corruption scandal (admittedly a two-edged sword, that), a fresh bout of Labour infighting and yet another crucial European deadline whacking us between the eyes. Ah, the familiarity of Brexit, when all we had to worry about was the nation’s future prosperity and the government’s future survival. Happy, carefree days. Briefly, the minister in a spot of bother is the housing secretary Robert Jenrick, who allowed a planning application just in time to save the man making it a cool forty-million smackers. Nice of him, except that the property mogul in question, former Daily Express owner and one-time pornographer Richard Desmond, is a Tory party donor. Also he’s a bit chummy both with Mr Jenrick and Boris Johnson. Oops … Labour leader Keir Starmer had just that thought when he discovered his party’s education spokesperson Rebecca Long-Bailey had shared on Twitter an article containing a hefty whiff of political incorrectness. It suggested the US police had learned how to give the knee, with fatal consequences in the case of George Floyd, from the Israeli secret services. Given that the party spent the entire time Jeremy Corbyn was waiting to be Prime Minister waiting for him to stamp out antisemitism in the ranks, Starmer didn’t have much choice. But as Long-Bailey is also a long-standing standard bearer for the left, it’s got the comrades niggling nastily. Or rather, from the Tory perspective, nicely. That said, Starmer’s boxed clever over Brexit. With the deadline for seeking a bit longer to sort the final trade deal now upon us, the Labour leader’s nailed his union-jack shaped colours firmly to the mast. Most Labour members loved him for being Mr Remain when it was all kicking off in parliament last year, but lots of their voters clearly did not. Which is why, when push came to general election shove, so many of them lent their support to the Tories, giving Bojo that lovely eighty-strong majority. To say in his enthusiasm to get the comrades back Starmer’s stance has become more nuanced is like saying Hamlet’s to be or not to be speech showed he wasn’t one hundred per cent sure of the way forward. Here’s Sir Keir’s statement to a party member in Northumberland last week: ‘The Remain argument is over. And I think it’s very important that I say that, having been an open champion of remaining, which I thought was the right thing for us to do. We voted against, we have left. And we need to now focus on the future going forward.’ A mystery how the future can go anything but forward, but the message was clear. If you think undoing Brexit’s game on, dream on. He senses he might just have all to play for, in four years’ time. And certainly, the government is more vulnerable than it looks. Hence, perhaps, Bojo’s new promises to splash the cash, coupled with insistence that those who bore the brunt of austerity after the financial crash won’t cop it a second time over coronavirus. Could be he was rattled by last week’s defeat, when no fewer than forty-six Tory MP’s, former PM Theresa May and a serving minister among them, joined an opposition-led rebellion over how their own behaviour should be policed. Labour thought it was only fair that allegations of harassment or bullying are tackled through a genuinely independent process. And weren’t too impressed with the government’s idea that MP’s themselves should be in charge. Nothing wrong with that, surely? No different from allowing twelve good burglars and true to reach a verdict in robbery cases. It’s quite difficult to become an MP, even harder to make it to ministerial status. And, love ’em or hate ’em, politicians aren’t completely brain-dead. That said, you do wonder sometimes. Peter Spencer has 40 years experience as a Political Correspondent in Westminster, working with London Broadcasting and Sky News. For more of his fascinating musings on the turbulent political landscape, follow him on Facebook & Twitter.

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