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Losing His Marbles?

No one’s suggesting Rishi Sunak’s gone bonkers. But plenty are wondering what his game is. On the three big topics of the week the signals he’s sending out are mightily confusing. As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, everything appears to be not going his way.

First off, climate change. After what looks set to have been the hottest year on record, world leaders who’re gathered in Dubai say something really must be done about it.

Preferably, however, in all too many cases, by someone else.

Sunak’s tried to buck that trend by announcing a one-and-a-half billion pound dollop of dosh to advance green technology in UK.

But scroll back to the by-election in Boris Johnson’s old seat, in which local discontent about having to pay extra to drive more heavily polluting cars saved the Tories’ bacon.

On the back of that, dear Dishi Rishi reined back on green targets, the idea being to make the environment into an issue on which his side could outsmart the Labour party.

So which way does he swing then? His track record in this area isn’t that good anyway.

By contrast, he does tend to perform pretty well on the world stage. Unlike his two predecessors at Number Ten, he’s not given to sticking his tongue out at Johnny Foreigner.

Then again, there was that silly spat last week about those priceless antiquities variously known as the Elgin Marbles and the Parthenon Marbles. Delete according to taste.

A couple of centuries ago, Britain’s ambassador to the Ottoman Empire Lord Elgin hacked them down, shipped them to UK and made a fair old wedge by selling them to the government.

He said the Ottomans, who were running Greece at the time, gave him the thumbs up, though there’s no evidence to support the claim.

It’s been a running sore ever since. Hardly surprisingly.

The actor/funny man/national treasure Stephen Fry says the heist was comparable to nicking the Eiffel Tower during the Nazi occupation of Paris.

And the former Tory Chancellor George Osborne, who now runs the British Museum, was up for letting the Greeks take the marbles back on a long-term, possibly permanent loan.

But Sunak wasn’t. What’s more, when his Greek counterpart came over for a prearranged chat about it the meeting was abruptly cancelled.

Downing Street was not prepared to admit this was because Rishi got snitty after the Greek guy had a meeting first with Keir Starmer. But that was how it looked.

Former Tory leader William Hague tartly remarked the PM’s behaviour was: ‘Not a great advert for diplomacy.’ Which sort of said it all.

Indeed, keen-eyed observers have noted lately that, when Sunak’s mask of sunny optimism slips, the emotion on display is irritability.

Not altogether surprising, that, given that every ploy he’s tried to erode the opposition’s huge poll lead has earned him precisely diddly-squat.

The Tories did get a bit of a bounce after the Chancellor’s little tax giveaway in the Autumn Statement a week or so back. But that has now vanished.

And, with every hearing in the long-running inquiry into how the government handled the Covid crisis, the Tory brand gets a bit more tarnished.

Of course, faced with an epidemic seemingly comparable to the Spanish flu outbreak that killed millions, every other administration in the world was as panic-stricken as ours.

But the poisonous hatreds between the key players was something else again.

Former Chancellor Sajid Javid confessed he had: ‘Not experienced that extent of dysfunction in any government before.’

He also said Johnson’s one-time bestie Dominic Cummings – he of the dodgy eyesight – was at that time Prime Minister ‘in all but name’.

Oh and BTW, former Health Secretary Matt Hancock, scrubbed up after his telly turns in the jungle, accused Cummings of being a ‘malign actor’.

Be interesting to see what Bozza himself has to say about all this when he’s up before the inquiry this week. Those sessions will be serious box office. As well as, likely, seriously damaging.

What with him, and then Liz ‘Loony’ Truss, it makes perfect sense for Sunak to try and present himself as the change candidate.

He tried to bolster his credentials in that direction a bit further last week by saying the record level of legal migration to this country is something he inherited rather than created.

Not that that gets him out of the bind he’s in with Tory right-wingers who’ve been frothing at the mouth ever since the figures came out.

They of course are conveniently forgetting that without these incomers the nation’s care sector would implode.

It’s an open secret that the stress levels in the sectors are so high, and the wages so low, that the Brits tend to prefer an easier and better-paid life working in supermarkets and call centres.

As to the argument that the answer is surely to pay these people better, there’s another snag. Care workers are mostly employees of local authorities, and they’re all strapped for cash.

All this goes right back to, ahem, the man who wants to be nice about those contested marbles.

Included in George Osborne’s austerity package, following the worldwide financial crash fifteen years ago, was a massive cut in central government’s funding of town halls.

In short, they’re not upping care workers’ wages because they can’t. So all talk of getting Brits to take their place, on the promise of better salaries, is for the birds. Simple as that.

Anything but simple, meanwhile, is that festering sore in Sunak’s in tray, illegal migrants.

Arguably, he’d have been better off not getting folk in such a fluster by endlessly banging on about it, as his whacko wheeze of whizzing them off to Rwanda seems to be going nowhere.

From the moment Britain’s top judges ruled the scheme illegal he’s been scrabbling around for ways to get round the problem.

Emergency legislation? Special treaties? New international agreements? What’s happened to all that then? Er, not much. So far. The Tory vultures are circling. And dribbling.

Not that any of this is meant as a diatribe against the current government. Most of these problems will still be staring at Keir Starmer, assuming he wins the election next year.

But they probably are indicative of why the polls are so consistent, and insistent, that the punters think it’s time for a change.

How much Labour can achieve, however, is doubly debatable, given that the Bank of England boss said last week that the outlook for the economy is the worst he’s ever seen.

Thinking caps on, everyone.

Still, they had a better idea in the Netherlands last week, with a distinctly quirky celebration than involved people putting on their heads, in lieu of caps, pancakes.

It all dates back to a twelfth-century tale known as The Gospel of Saint Pannekoek.

Apparently, when the monks in one particular monastery were having a birthday party there were only enough pancakes for one each.

But when the old abbot came in, feeling a bit chilly, the birthday boy very sweetly popped his one onto the poor chap’s bonce, to brighten his day.

At this, we’re told, an angel came down from heaven with a golden frying pan containing another pancake, and flipped it onto the youngster’s head.

Whereupon the rest of them decided this was a miracle, the lad was a saint, and the way forward was to put their own pancakes on their heads.

If only politics were that simple …


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