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Off the rails ....

Gruesome to say, it’s not uncommon within the animal kingdom for mothers to eat their own offspring. Sadly, the news cycle does much the same thing. Though, as our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, ex-journalist Johnson well understands this phenomenon, and is grateful for it.

Seems only yesterday we were on the eve of destruction. For a good fortnight we really did have to sit up straight and pay attention.

Not any more. The Prime Minister going off the rails, one way and another, has caught that little tale by the tail, and gobbled it up.

All better now then? Climate emergency over? Er, not exactly.

That said, a consensus is building that while the COP conference in Glasgow fell way short of many expectations, it did herald steps in the right direction.

And there’s no denying a seismic shift in humanity’s collective consciousness was always going to be more a process than event.

The same, within a tighter timetable, applies to the building of the High Speed Two rail link.

Bojo, ever one for the huge headline, billed it as full steam ahead for northern empowerment. Levelling up with a first class window seat and free cocktails.

Up to a point, Lord Copper? With a whole chunk taken out and upgrades linking Leeds to Manchester watered down, it’s more a matter of stop at a point.

For Chattanooga Choo Choo read chatter chatter and more chatter.

Labour says it’s a ‘great train robbery’. And, more significantly, a lot of Tory MP’s representing seats that traditionally voted red are also seeing red.

What’s particularly got their goat is the derailing of the high speed links between cities in the region, intended to make everyone oop north a bit richer.

But there’s a lot of grumpiness around on the Conservative back benches just now, thanks to a lot of other things.

Top of the list remains Johnson’s total cock-up regarding the former minister, also now former MP, Owen Paterson.

To recap: After he’d been judged not just a naughty boy but a very naughty boy for too much of the wrong sort of lobbying, the PM tried to save his mate’s skin.

But making his MP’s back his idea of sweeping Paterson’s bad behaviour under the carpet of reforming the parliamentary policing system disturbed them.

The more so when Johnson realised he’d gone too far and did a screeching U-turn. Meaning they’d done something distasteful for nothing.

After trying and failing to brazen it out, he finally fessed up. Telling them: ‘On a clear road I crashed the car into a ditch.’

Hmm. Not as if Johnson hasn’t got form on ditch metaphors.

In 2019 he said he’d ‘rather be dead in a ditch’ than delay Brexit beyond 29 September that year. Then did.

A smartarse sideswipe, perhaps, but relevant in one sense, given Johnson’s professional antecedents.

Journalists churn out food for thought, so aren’t really accountable for past utterances. Prime Ministers are.

Also, ideas tossed about in newspapers are no more than that. They don’t have to last long. Unlike government policies, that do.

Take the new social care system. Still years away, but a mini anno sneaked in last week revealed poorer pensioners will have to pay thousands more for it.

Far sooner than that will come confirmation that reforms to student tuition fees will mean they’ll have to pay back more sooner.

Then there are those manifesto-breaking tax rises, coming in next year. One top Tory described them as nothing less than ‘socialist’. Oh dear oh dear.

Most commentators agree Tory hard-heads chose Boris Johnson as their leader not out of adoration but because he looked like a winner.

So what if that changes?

The historian Sir Anthony Seldon, whose speciality is the rise and fall of prime ministers, wrote ominously last week about the current incumbent.

‘There comes an inflection point in every premiership. Once passed, there is no going back .. Boris Johnson is not there yet, but he's dancing perilously close.

‘Pass it and the only thing keeping the PM at No 10 is the absence of credible successors willing to challenge.

‘If Boris Johnson doesn't change, he will come under serious pressure long before the party conference in 2022 and he will be gone by the end of 2023.’

And documentary-maker Michael Cockerell, who’s interviewed no fewer than twelve prime ministers, has an interesting take on Bojo. He says he’s:

‘That mixture of the most fun and most frustrating politician. Partly because a lot of the time as he starts a sentence he doesn’t know where it’s going.’

Make of that what you will.

Certainly, a fortnight’s filthy headlines do not a catastrophe make. Making amends might help, however.

But even Johnson’s proposed cutting back on MPs’ second jobs is looking half-hearted.

The idea of keeping moonlighting within ‘reasonable limits’ was voted through last week with no objectors.

But subsequent analysis suggests fewer than ten of them are actually likely to be affected by the rule change.

Little wonder perhaps that the Conservatives’ comfortable poll lead has been severely dented of late.

The latest Private Eye cover says it all. ‘Tories do as they sleaze.’

But here’s a thought to wipe the wee-wees off Bojo’s birthday cake.

A fortnight ago YouGov’s poll for The Times joined the throng of others showing the Tory lead had vanished.

But a week really must be a long time in politics. Their latest survey suggests that trend’s ended, with the Conservatives now two points ahead.

The title of one of the French-Czech writer Milan Kundera’s novels springs to mind. The Book of Laughter and Forgetting.

Mirth’s magic, but forgetting can be a bad idea. Remember Bosnia’s bloodbath thirty years ago? Rather belatedly, western military muscle sorted it.

But now it seems the new Serbian strongman/seriously nasty person looks minded to rip it all apart again.

Two media axioms heave into view. One: ‘News is not what happens, but what is reported.’ And two: ‘If it bleeds, it leads.’

Hasn’t come to that. Yet. But it’s one disaster in the making that it’s worth the news cycle not scoffing up.

Depressing thought. Apologies. Time to put the nasty notion that led this piece on its head.

Human intelligence expert Professor James Goodwin has been looking into the damage caused by lockdown-induced loneliness.

He points to research at Berkeley Uni in California, which suggests it can have a worse effect than fifteen ciggies a day and a bottle of gin.

But the consolation comes, he says, from a study carried out on rats.

When males were put together with females who were, ahem, up for it, they grew massively more brain cells. It even reversed the ageing effect.

Supports the theory espoused in the old song ‘Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall In Love’.

As one verse wisely points out: ‘Even educated fleas do it.’

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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