THERE MAY BE TROUBLE AHEAD

TrussShe may have sped ahead of her solitary rival in a leadership race for the most select of audiences – and she is indeed fortunate to be up against a man so adept at shooting himself in the foot; but Liz Truss (whose name always sounds like it belongs in the toolbox of a St John’s Ambulance-man) was today confronted by stats that don’t reflect her 26-point lead over Rishi Sunak amongst Tory voters. A survey carried out by Opinium suggests Truss’s much-trumpeted solution to the cost-of-living crisis – tax cuts – has not gone down well with the wider electorate; 34% of those polled believe taxes, as well as spending on public services, should stay exactly where they are, and a further 26% want them raised. The survey appeared in the Observer, so Conservative Party members – in whose hands the decision rests, like so many clandestine cardinals picking a new Pope – were not included. Nevertheless, the chosen 160,000 seem to be favouring the Foreign Secretary over the former Chancellor.

Some wag on Twitter cleverly redubbed Rishi’s Tunbridge Wells boast about redirecting ‘levelling up’ funds from deprived urban areas to wealthy Tory shires with a soundtrack of Alan Partridge during his disastrous stint hosting an open-air country show. It was an apt manipulation of a mistimed moment. Yes, Sunak was preaching to the converted and telling them precisely what they wanted to hear, but he surely must have known someone in that crowd would be recording his speech on their phone and was highly unlikely to keep it to themselves. Whilst not necessarily in the same league as Gordon Brown’s infamous ‘bigoted woman’ comment, it was still something of a cock-up characteristic of a campaign that has oozed surface and has been short on substance. One could argue Rishi’s prime concern at the moment is to capture the faithful on whose votes he is ultimately dependent for the keys to No.10 – hence such crowd-pleasing claims – yet he should be aware as much as his rival that a General Election in a couple of years means he has to reach beyond them too.

However, even those who don’t have a say in this contest – i.e. around 97% of the electorate – haven’t been convinced by Sunak’s slick spiel; Truss is well ahead of Rishi as preferred PM amongst all voters; and, as was pointed out at the beginning of this post, Truss’s lead over Rishi is even more impressive amongst those who voted Conservative at the last General Election. Perhaps equally encouraging for Truss is the fact that the same poll puts her ahead of Keir Starmer as a potential Prime Minister, albeit only by one point – though Sunak is four points behind the Labour leader; maybe the fact Truss is regarded by those polled as being more in touch with ordinary folk is merely because the ex-Chancellor makes David Cameron look like Dennis Skinner. And it’s also worth noting that a larger proportion of the lucky 2000 punters asked for their opinions went for the ‘none of the above’ option, which seems to say more about the contenders and the opposition when it comes to this uninspiring spectacle than any of the other stats such a survey can throw up.

Needless to say, anything remotely approaching a ‘honeymoon period’ that Liz Truss is anticipating probably won’t last very long; she’ll take the reins of power in September and within a month she’ll be expected to do something about the much-publicised, astronomical soar in energy prices that is – according to the MSM – poised to plunge most of us who aren’t Tory Party members into fuel poverty. Oh, and the Bank of England is adding to the beloved Doomsday narrative by forecasting the mother of all recessions. When it comes to the issue of energy prices, the futile pursuit of ‘Net Zero’ is noticeably absent from so many column inches as one of the reasons why energy bills will rise for those least able to pay them. The war in Ukraine is a far more convenient reason – and one guaranteed to receive the thumbs-up; after all, it’s bloody horrible and everyone hates Vlad, so it’s a preferable excuse than one shining a light on the way in which Western Governments have capitulated to the most fanatical zealots of the Green lobby at the expense of plebs already struggling to make ends meet.

As for the other treat we’ve got to look forward to in the autumn – i.e. the impending recession – well, it’s not as if nobody saw this coming, is it? If you completely close down industry for months and give no clear indication as to when all those mothballed businesses can reopen, it’s pretty obvious what’s going to happen. The tax cuts Liz Truss favours over what she calls ‘handouts’ to help people cope is a clear nod to Rishi’s magic money tree during the furlough episode of lockdown, effective benefits for the employed which anyone with half-a-brain knew were glorified loans from the Government usurer that would eventually have to be paid back. Actual benefits in the shape of Universal Credit were unsurprisingly the first to feel the pinch, losing the £20-a-week uplift, and since then benefits haven’t kept up with inflation either. Lib Dem leader Ed Davey is keen on Parliament to be recalled from its summer hols to look as if something is being done – as is former PM Gordon Brown, who instigated a report into the cost-of-living crisis that has just been published.

Brown calls on the two leadership contenders as well as Boris to get their fingers out by delivering a special budget ASAP, and has aired his thoughts on the emergency, which are fittingly bleak for a man not renowned for being the life and soul of the party. But, let’s face it – we’re all now becoming as accustomed to emergencies as Brits back in the 1970s were, so the findings of this report make for the expected gloomy reading. Even before energy regulator Ofgem announces details of the rising price cap on fuel, the report claims many families and individuals in Britain appear to exist solely to pay bills at the moment; and having been in that position in the past, I know how demoralising it is. A grassroots movement encouraging those most terrified of what’s to come to essentially go on strike and refuse to pay their bills is a nice, collectivist concept in the tradition of what happened when the Poll Tax was introduced in 1990, but – like the fruits of Sunak’s magic money tree – it’ll still all have to be paid back in the end, anyway, so it’d only just be kicking the can further into the long grass, alas.

‘We are facing a humanitarian crisis that Britain hasn’t seen in decades,’ says Gordon Brown. ‘As living costs continue to skyrocket, families on the brink of making ends meet cannot bridge the gap. (The next Prime Minister) must ensure that families have enough to live, through this crisis and beyond.’ The author of the report, Professor Donald Hirsch, says even those receiving financial assistance from the Government stand to see their standard of living decline rapidly; Prof. Hirsch’s report states an unemployed couple with two kids will be as much as £1,300 worse off a year. Gordon Brown urges action immediately, and if that fails to happen soon, that failure will be responsible for ‘condemning millions of vulnerable and blameless children and pensioners to a winter of dire poverty’.

I guess many MPs will currently be sunning themselves on some beach that the majority of their constituents will never sun themselves on, and the recent publication of the latest expenses claims by Honourable Members suggests their world remains a parallel universe of privilege to ours. And, smack bang in the middle of this uneasy calm before a dreaded storm, we’re lumbered with a lame duck Prime Minister counting down the days till his eviction and a couple of potential replacements travelling up and down the country, selling themselves to people who are amongst the least threatened by what awaits the rest of us. Doesn’t fill you with much confidence, does it.

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MASS DEBATING

Dumb and DumberAlthough he remains television’s premier political inquisitor, Andrew Neil – the one-time heir to Day and Paxman – has seen his stock fall somewhat in the last couple of years. He quit the BBC in a flurry of publicity in order to be the frontman for GB News when it was launched as the ‘anti-Woke’ current affairs channel, yet backstage clashes saw him vanish from the station in a matter of weeks as GB News experienced its own off-screen, TV-am-style melodrama. After a period of silence, Neil re-emerged to tell his side of the story in the press and seemed to be begging for forgiveness from the MSM; slipping seamlessly into reverse gear, he resurfaced in the very newsroom GB News was supposed to be the antidote to, that of Channel 4. Perhaps it says a great deal about the quality of younger news presenters and interviewers that even after his recent about-turn and inconsistent opinions, Neil is still ‘The Man’, and nobody has impressed as the inheritor of the mantle he’s worn for over a decade. He’s fortunate this is the case, but he didn’t take as much time out as Jeremy Paxman had when he briefly returned to the fray for one last time during the 2017 General Election; alas, an extended holiday hosting ‘University Challenge’ and leisurely Sunday evening docs had utterly blunted his precision and Paxo came across as a parody of his old self. Andrew Neil, it seems, has still got what it takes.

On Monday it was announced Neil would be presenting an exclusive one-on-one interview with Prime Ministerial hopeful Rishi Sunak on C4 this Friday; and it looks as though the ex-Chancellor will be facing a grilling from Brillo alone. Sunak tweeted the announcement with a knowing ‘Just me then?’ comment, as Liz Truss appears to have turned down the offer. Mind you, if she’s seen as the continuity candidate, she’s sticking to the same script Boris penned during the last General Election, when he repeatedly refused to be drawn into an interrogation by Neil. Whilst supporters of the PM continue to wind-up the Boris-haters with talk of 10,000 members signing a petition for him to remain in the job or at least be considered a candidate in the leadership contest, the actual battle to seize the tenancy of No.10 is between his former Chancellor and his incumbent Foreign Secretary, whether or not the latter can’t handle Andrew Neil. Mind you, Liz Truss must imagine she doesn’t need to put herself in such a vulnerable position.

With the loss of two contenders who might have made a difference – Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt – the beneficiary of the whittling down has been Truss, whose lead over Rishi Sunak at the moment leaves the one-time golden boy with a lot of work to do, maybe explaining why he agreed to be grilled by Andrew Neil; Liz Truss’s abysmal showing on the first two TV debates perhaps points to another reason why she’s chickened out. She couldn’t really bottle it when it came to the BBC debate between just her and her rival, but I suspect confronted by Neil at his best (which one hopes we get), Truss’s evident limitations would be exposed even further. Having said that, her dullness and Rishi’s blandness are such a striking contrast with the sub-Berlusconi persona of Boris that neither could illuminate the small screen nor convince anyone outside of the tiny percentage of the electorate with a vote that either was worth investing in. Indeed, watching this spectacle as it unfolds almost makes me feel like a peasant witnessing the hustings at an 18th century Rotten Borough, with the two nominees in the pocket of the local landowner making their pitches to the gentry.

A candidate who fell at an earlier hurdle – Tom ‘I used to be in the Army, you know’ Tugendhat – has pledged he will gladly work in the Cabinet of either Sunak or Truss, exhuming the ‘serving the nation’ spiel he utilised during the first TV debate. ‘I would serve any Conservative leader who asked me to,’ he said on ‘The World at One’, ‘because it’s about serving the country and serving the British people. It would be a privilege to do so.’ Having recently re-watched the ‘Yes Minister’ episode in which Jim Hacker is promoted to PM at the end, I can’t help but imagine the furtive promises of posts which must have been whispered in corridors or made in dimly-lit rooms by both remaining candidates once everyone else had been eliminated. The booby prize back then – at least according to ‘Yes Minister’ – was the Northern Ireland job, though I guess some other Ministry is probably used as a similar threat today should a member of the Cabinet not vote a particular way. I suppose Scotland would be a pretty thankless task for a Tory Minister in 2022, though Ulster is still a far-from dream posting, if for different reasons now. However, the Home Office, the Foreign Office and the Treasury remain the biggest bargaining chips available to Sunak and Truss as they seek to court the favour of colleagues.

As was shrewdly pointed out on this very blog by a certain Mr Mudplugger at the time, the unexpected second placing of the UK at this year’s Eurovision now appears to have been a premeditated effort by European nations to ensure the Contest would be hosted once again by the Brits when the foregone conclusion of a Ukraine win would preclude that troubled nation as a venue next year. It’s coming home; it’s coming home etc. Anyway, the BBC’s choice of Stoke-on-Trent to be the location for the third TV debate on Monday was motivated by similarly canny planning. Of the city’s three Parliamentary Constituencies, two – North and Central – were Red Wall seats that fell to the Tories in 2019 after almost 70 years in Labour hands, whereas the other – Stoke-on-Trent South – has been blue since 2017. So, a Conservative city that has spent the majority of its life as a Labour one – where better to host the first head-to-head between the last two contenders standing?

And those two contenders looked like their future representations at Madame Tussaud’s in the bizarre intro to the BBC debate, staring into the camera side-by-side as Sophie Raworth introduced them; in fact, I had to make sure they were indeed the real thing and not waxworks by checking their blinking – not that it’s easy to tell, to be honest. Anyway, Sunak responded to the first question from an audience member – all Tory voters last time round, apparently – by paying tribute to the former Northern Ireland First Minister and Good Friday Agreement player David Trimble, whose death had just been announced; he then launched into a defence of his economic policies as well as a simultaneous assault on his opponent’s plans for the economy. Rishi reckons his record as Chancellor gives him a grounding in economics that Truss lacks and one that will provide him with an advantage as PM; he also constantly played the pandemic card whenever his record came into question, as though that freak event was to blame for any shortcomings in the office. He played the Brexit card too, eliciting applause from a studio audience in a city that voted overwhelmingly Leave. Smart move.

China came up as an issue, with both contenders accusing the other of sucking up to the Chinese; but this was a pattern throughout the debate, each hurling allegations between their respective lecterns based on quotes they’d made in the past. The descent down to playground level has been exacerbated by tit-for-tat comments emanating from supporters of both camps on the subject of suits, shoes and earrings; Truss dismissed such trivialities by harping on about the locality in which the debate was staged as well as her upbringing on the middle-class mean streets of Roundhay in Leeds, whilst Sunak counteracted accusations of his expensive fashion tastes by constantly referring to his immigrant parents and how hard they worked to provide for him. Sunak’s near-catchphrase ‘You know what?’ had a small handful of outings again, whilst Truss’s right arm was as active as before; but the fact that Sunak felt the need to distance himself from Boris whenever the PM was mentioned seemed to suggest he was reaching out beyond the Tory faithful that Truss appears content to solely appeal to. Maybe Andrew Neil will hone in on that come Friday. We shall see.

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ANOTHER FINE MESS

Tory LeadershipAs has been said several times since the Tory leadership race was pared down to a pair yesterday, if Rishi Sunak and Liz Truss are the best the Conservative Party can come up with to replace Boris Johnson, maybe they’d have been better off leaving Boris in the job. Well, blame the Tory MPs if you want to blame anybody. If online polls are any kind of guide, the actual membership out in the Shires seemed to favour the eliminated outsiders Kemi Badenoch and Penny Mordaunt – both of whom would have provided the break with the recent past that the two remaining contenders cannot by virtue of being tainted by their Boris associations, regardless of how Sunak has been recast overnight by the Right of the Party as the Conservative antichrist. Now those same Tory Party members who largely preferred the other candidates have to decide between the lacklustre couple their elected representatives selected, and what a choice for 0.3% of the electorate to be presented with.

Although not all of them stood up to applaud Boris’s PMQs finale in typically sycophantic fashion, those Tory MPs that clearly didn’t want the PM to go must be wondering if the erratic old frying pan was preferable to the unfamiliar fire they now find themselves in. Usually, a Prime Minister is forced from office when there’s an outstanding successor waiting in the wings; this time round, there was nobody. Rishi may have been in the lead from day one (or long before considering how instant his campaign was), but it still feels as though most are making do with the ex-Chancellor as a potential PM because the dearth of talent on the Tory frontbench means there’s no one else to get excited about; maybe the Party should have considered this before ousting the man who won it one of the biggest majorities in its history less than three years ago.

Theresa May was notable in keeping her hands to herself during the applause that accompanied Boris’s theatrical exit from the Commons yesterday; in fact, there’s almost a fascinatingly Heath/Thatcher vibe to their increasingly frosty relationship now, with the sulky old Maybot no doubt basking in the same euphoric sense of karma at Boris’s toppling as Ted did when Maggie was forced out in 1990. Her blatant visual statement was not wholly unique amongst her colleagues, though it had more of an outing on the other side of the House, where both the SNP and the Labour Party came across as scoring petty political points with what could be viewed as rather childish petulance. Or maybe they were merely in mourning as the man who they probably regarded as their greatest electoral asset left the stage. For voters allergic to the louder-than-life Boris, Sir Keir presented them with the perfect colourless antidote, whereas the Labour leader will now be going head-to-head with either a Tory PM who mirrors his blandness (Sunak) or one who reflects his dullness back at him (Truss). Both candidates could make the chalk & cheese contrasts Starmer was dependent upon with Boris at the next Election a suddenly redundant weapon.

‘Focus on the road ahead, but always remember to check the rear-view mirror’ were amongst Boris’s final telling words to the Commons as PM, something that could be perceived as another dig in the direction of the man who set the ball rolling a couple of weeks ago. Rishi Sunak is viewed by some Tories as being as guilty of treachery as Michael Heseltine once was, which might explain the otherwise unfathomable reason why Boris loyalist Liz Truss has managed to make it all the way to the final two, regardless of her dismal performances in the TV debates. And, of course, there’s the old saying concerning the wielder of the dagger failing to wear the crown; Rishi is seen as the assassin by Boris disciples, and perhaps the only option open to them that might soothe the pain is to see Sunak denied Downing Street by Liz Truss. Don’t rule it out as an outcome, though they should be careful what they wish for.

Last night, ‘Newsnight’ excavated some typically embarrassing early TV footage of both contenders, with 2001-vintage Sunak resembling one of those interchangeable adolescent archetypes routinely upgraded every couple of years on the likes of ‘Neighbours’. Meanwhile, the clip of Liz Truss in her former political life, speaking at the Lib Dem Conference in 1994, was pretty much up there in the toe-curling stakes with the infamous schoolboy incarnation of William Hague in 1977. Truss looked and sounded like the sort of annoying middle-class student who can’t help herself from lecturing anyone within range on a subject she’s just read about for the first time the day before, acting the expert in the most condescending way imaginable. True, most of us would find footage of ourselves as teenagers something of an endurance test, but it was possible to see in the 19-year-old Liz Truss the unmistakable genesis of everything about her that remains irritating three decades later.

The last man to relocate from No.11 to No.10 was Gordon Brown, which doesn’t necessarily bode well for Rishi Sunak. However, one of the reasons the dour Scotsman failed to connect with the electorate was his cringe-inducing attempts to echo the overconfident slickness of the man he replaced as soon as he moved next-door. A personality transplant carried out in public painfully highlighted the fact Gordon Brown was not Tony Blair, and all the forced Colgate-ad smiles and head-shaking efforts at cracking jokes during speeches failed miserably. What Gordon Brown should have offered was an alternative to Blair, not a supermarket own-brand version of him, and when it comes to following Boris the one thing we can at least be certain of is that neither Sunak nor Truss will take the Brown route; they’re playing upon the fact they can’t be anything but an alternative. The Boris character, seemingly the unholy offspring of PG Wodehouse and Jilly Cooper, is an utterly impossible act to follow in terms of imitation; Boris has inhabited that character for so many years now that he became a parody of himself a long time ago, and any attempt to ‘do a Boris’ by his successor would be like Mike Yarwood succeeding Harold Wilson in 1976.

So, what we are left with is the bland and the boring. Sunak has the ‘Cameron factor’ that both May and Boris lacked, even if it’s a one-time winner that the electorate had already become weary of by the time of the EU Referendum. On the other hand, one of the few things Truss has in common with Boris is her knack of saying something stupid in public, as well as a stint as Foreign Secretary almost as memorable as that of Johnson, if only for her embarrassing grasp of geography giving the game away. Sunak is too polished and too smooth, whereas Truss is a poor communicator prone to gaffes – no wonder the latter is regarded as ‘the continuity candidate’ by Boris groupies like Nadine Dorries and Jacob Rees-Mogg. Neither of them, however, is offering a clear vision for the country other than promising the usual goodie-bag of incentives to win over voters. Truss says she will reverse the National Insurance rise and suspend the green levy; Sunak says he will cut income tax and increase corporation tax. And that’s about it.

According to the latest listings, Sunak and Truss will engage in a debate on the BBC next Monday, and the cancelled Sky debate is scheduled to belatedly take place in a couple of weeks. Whether or not any further sparks will be ignited when the two are deprived of the other candidates whose interjections and accusations at least made the programme worth watching is something we don’t yet know. Whatever happens, neither can look forward to the lucrative book deals and after-dinner speaking their departing predecessor is probably pencilling into his diary before handing the chalice he poisoned to the lucky winner in September.

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FREE TIME

Zaghari RatcliffeHow many Foreign Secretaries does it take to change a light-bulb? Not entirely certain, but probably not as many as it took to secure last week’s joint release of Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori after they’d served six and five years respectively in Iranian detention. When Zaghari-Ratcliffe was arrested on trumped-up spying charges in 2016, Philip Hammond held the post of Foreign Secretary; during her detention, Zaghari-Ratcliffe has watched the revolving door at the Foreign Office from a distance and observed Boris Johnson, Jeremy Hunt, Dominic Raab and – finally – Liz Truss all pass through it. It’s no great surprise that she has expressed a degree of understandable bitterness that it took until the incumbent holder of the post before she managed to be released and returned to the UK. But her release – and that of Ashoori – was achieved through brokering a deal that can be seen as a last resort on the part of the British Government.

And the deal wot dun it? Repaying a debt stretching all the way back to the Shah of Iran during the last years of his reign in the 1970s, that’s wot. This was the period when, despite being an unelected Absolute Monarch running a ruthless regime fairly intolerant of any opposition, the Shah was the West’s man in the Middle East. Photos that routinely pop-up online of the stylish Western fashions worn by pretty Iranian girls who could’ve just as easily been in Milan as Tehran are often used as pre-1979 evidence of sartorial freedoms being exhibited without fear of condemnation, assault or imprisonment. What we now tend to think of as the characteristic (and considerably less uninhibited) standard uniform issued to all members of the female sex in Iran is conspicuously absent from images that portray the country as an exotic and glamorous destination for the beautiful people. But Iran experienced its own Industrial Revolution during the last Shah’s modernising 38-year reign, creating a prosperous and educated middle-class; the country also capitalised on the energy crisis of the mid-70s, placing it in a strong economic position during its dealings with the West.

In the golden age of OPEC, when the ruling elites of Arab nations belatedly began to take control of their natural resources and recognise the advantage they suddenly had over the struggling European powers, the figure of the chauffer-driven sheik buying up large chunks of London became a familiar one in popular culture. At a time when the Arabs appeared to be in possession of the strongest hand, pro-Western Middle Eastern countries were courted by Europe and America, and the Shah of Iran was one of the favourite rulers to flatter and enter into business with. When the British economy was making one of its perennial journeys up Shit Creek, the mouth-watering prospect of the Shah ordering UK military hardware for the princely sum of around £650 million was a nice little earner for the beleaguered sick man of Europe, and the first batch (185) of an intended 1,500 Chieftain tanks and 250 Armoured Recovery Vehicles was delivered to Iran.

The full payment for the entire order was received by a MoD subsidiary company, International Military Services, and then the Iranian Revolution occurred; the Shah was deposed, and the rest of the tanks remained on home soil; the rest of the money, however, was not returned when the tanks failed to be delivered. Selling arms to a hardline Islamic Republic that seized American hostages and held them against their will for 444 days wouldn’t have been seen as a good move, and the economic sanctions imposed on Iran also served as a convenient excuse for not repaying the debt from a British perspective. Iran’s efforts to recoup the money owed then dragged on for years; at one point, the International Chamber of Commerce found in favour of Iran, though the agreed payment of £328.5 million from IMS was prevented from being dispatched due to the ongoing sanctions. And this has been the stalemate position for over a decade – until now. Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe claims that her captors once offered the unpaid debt as a reason for her detainment; in 2021 Jeremy Hunt also raised the possibility the two cases may be connected, though Boris Johnson denied this. Considering the absolute bloody mess he made of resolving Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s situation during his own disastrous stint as Foreign Secretary, his denial must have added further fuel to her despair over the diplomatic failings of Britain to secure her release.

Relieved that Zaghari-Ratcliffe’s release at least took place on his watch (if not the watch he was on when her plight was his responsibility), the PM enthusiastically praised Liz Truss for managing to achieve something he himself failed miserably to do when in her job; but the freed prisoner herself was less complimentary and asked why any of Truss’s immediate predecessors couldn’t have done likewise. ‘I have seen five Foreign Secretaries change over the course of six years,’ she said in a press conference on Monday. ‘How many Foreign Secretaries does it take for someone to come home? We all know how I came home. It should have happened exactly six years ago.’ Zaghari-Ratcliffe gave more credit to the ceaseless campaigning of her husband Richard, and her lack of ‘gratitude’ towards the UK Government was at least accepted as reasonable by Jeremy Hunt, who tweeted ‘Those criticising Nazanin have got it so wrong. She doesn’t owe us gratitude: we owe her an explanation.’

Like Anoosheh Ashoori, Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe has dual British-Iranian nationality, and the 43-year-old London-based charity worker was visiting family in Iran with her infant daughter in 2016 when she was arrested as a spy and sentenced to five years’ imprisonment. The sentence became one of house arrest when she was allowed to switch from a prison cell to her parents’ home courtesy of Covid in 2020, though a year later she was the victim of a fresh albeit equally dubious charge of planning to topple the Iranian Government and was sentenced to a further five years. She lost her appeal against this additional conviction and it has taken until Foreign Secretary No.5 before Zaghari-Ratcliffe has finally been able to leave Iran and return home to her husband and child. Her case has been one of the most high-profile over the past six years – thanks in the main to social media campaigning and the ineptitude of the UK Government in negotiating her release; but she wasn’t alone.

There are dozens of holders of dual nationality passports currently behind Iranian bars, many of whom are American-Iranians, though one – Morad Tahbaz – has British-American-Iranian citizenship, something of a double-whammy where the Iranian Government is concerned. The 66-year-old wildlife conservationist was arrested along with seven colleagues in Iran in 2018 on espionage charges whilst they were in the country to track and film endangered species. Although he was released from prison ‘on furlough’ the same day as Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe and Anoosheh Ashoori, he was back inside within just two days and remains there, despite British Government assurances to his family. In reference to this particular case, the ever-active Jeremy Hunt has said Iran is ‘using an innocent person as a pawn in a diplomatic game’, adding he felt the American element of Mr Tahbaz’s nationality was a major factor in Iran’s reluctance to release him before some bargaining can be concocted.

The welcome freedom Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe can now enjoy after six years is something which a good deal of behind-the-scenes work has undoubtedly ensured, though her captivity was ill-timed in that it has taken place during the most woeful era of Ministers in living memory. Few of us would place our trust in Boris Johnson or Dominic Raab, let alone put our lives in their hands, yet Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe had no choice but to do precisely that. In short, she’s bloody well earned her freedom.

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INTERNATIONAL RESCUE

Liz TrussA decade or so ago, an ordinary member of the public whose job was either that of delivery man or taxi driver (his profession, as with his name, escapes me now) strolled onto the set of a BBC news programme and was inadvertently taken for a hired expert; roped in for a response to a story concerning big tech behemoth Apple, his absolute ignorance of the item in question and bewilderment with the surreal predicament he found himself in was instantly evident, yet he managed to create a moment of comedy gold that was repeatedly parodied for as long as its currency remained relevant. In a way, it summed up the needless emptiness of rolling news channels and their habit of pointlessly pontificating on every minor headline simply to fill the vast void of hours stretching out way beyond the point at which even the most casual viewer loses the will to live. The sudden accidental injection of humour into proceedings was a brief respite from the tedium though, had it not been picked up by social media, chances are few would have noticed it had happened.

The past few days I’ve received a few flashbacks of that amusing incident whenever I’ve seen Liz Truss issue statements on the Ukraine crisis; it’s almost as though she wandered into Broadcasting House to deliver Alan Yentob’s breakfast latte and was inexplicably assumed to be the Foreign Secretary; shoved in front of cameras and questioned as to what punishments Britain would be dishing out to Russia, Truss has the same air of utter cluelessness and absence of authority on the subject that was apparent in the confused countenance of the unfortunate gatecrasher onto the BBC News Channel. So far, no reporter has had the balls to present Ms Truss with a map of Eastern Europe and asked her to place pins in some of the locations of which she has recently betrayed her lack of geographical knowledge when it comes to the region, but I live in hope.

As the current situation is the kind of Godsend to rolling news channels that in theory prevents moments such as that already discussed from happening, there’s an endless succession of stories related to the big issue, one of which is a Kremlin spokesman attributing Russia being placed on nuclear alert courtesy of some clumsy comment on the part of Liz Truss. ‘There were unacceptable statements about possible conflict situations and even confrontations and clashes between NATO and Russia,’ said Dmitry Peskov. ‘I will not name the authors of these statements, although it was the British Foreign Secretary.’ That’ll be Ms Truss, then. The statements that seemed to have caused such offence have not been quoted, but take your pick. Liz Truss so far has been focused on bigging-up the economic sanctions not so much against Russia as a country, but against individual oligarchs; although she claims to have a ‘hit list’, she won’t name anyone on it.

At the same time, having been wined and dined by wealthy Russians for more than a decade and then repaid their generosity by allowing them to become embedded in the upper echelons of society with the kind of stealth China would certainly admire, the West appears to have hit Mother Russia where it hurts via sanctions. On the global markets, the rouble has plummeted in record time, sinking to an all-time low of 26% against the dollar. The US, along with the UK, the EU and numerous other nations, has barred leading Russian banks from Swift, a system which apparently enables the transfer of money to cross national borders with ease. The assets of the Bank of Russia have also been frozen by Western powers, severely reducing the access of its international dollar reserves; Canada has been quick to sign-up to this freezing of Russian bank accounts, though Putin’s support of the Canadian truckers has yet to be established. The UK has extended the freeze to all Russian banks, leaving many British businesses waiting indefinitely for money owed from Russian businesses; additionally, the UK has imposed restrictions on exports to Russia. The EU and UK have even been briefly reunited like a divorced couple reaching agreement over childcare, both issuing a blanket ban on Russian aircraft flying in EU or UK airspace. Meanwhile, having cut off its nuclear nose to spite its green face, Germany has been faced with little choice but to postpone the opening of the Nord Stream 2 gas pipeline from the Motherland to the Fatherland. No possible response outside of dispatching Western boots on Ukrainian soil, it seems, has been spared.

However, there appears to be the possibility of non-Ukrainian volunteers assembling in International Brigades-fashion to take on the invaders, and it’s interesting that those stating their intentions to do so here aren’t being dissuaded by the Foreign Secretary. When quizzed as to her opinion of Brits queuing-up to join a ‘Foreign Legion’ of fighters prepared to take on the might of the Russian Army, Liz Truss replied in an encouraging manner that is a notable contrast to the official line on those who sought to do likewise in Syria not so long ago. She certainly seemed to suggest she supported anyone committed enough to the cause; asked if she approved of British nationals taking up arms in Ukraine, Truss replied, ‘Absolutely, if that’s what they want to do. That is something people can make their own decisions about. The people of Ukraine are fighting for freedom and democracy, not just for Ukraine but for the whole of Europe.’

Interestingly, Liz Truss’s support hasn’t exactly been endorsed by representatives from the Foreign Office, who aren’t offering similar encouragement – though they also aren’t doing their best to prevent such voluntary actions by threatening to arrest Brits returning from fighting in Ukraine, as the Crown Prosecution Service did re Syria. The Chairman of the Commons Defence Committee Tobias Ellwood shuffled uneasily in his seat when made aware of the Foreign Secretary’s support. ‘It seems nonsensical to encourage untrained and unequipped British citizens to head to a war zone,’ he said. ‘It’d be far easier with this policy if there was some form of NATO commitment, but the decision was made some time ago to rule that out and yet here we are endorsing British citizens to take up arms.’

Of course, there’s always the chance that any volunteers for an unofficial fighting force comprising outsiders could be viewed as little more than mercenaries with an unhealthy appetite for interfering in the affairs of another country in the most dangerous fashion. That said, the Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky has already announced such a force has been formed, with recruits in the UK (including former British soldiers who are veterans of interventions in Iraq and Afghanistan) approaching the Ukrainian Embassy to offer their services. A website has been set up as a British recruitment platform by Macer Gifford, who himself fought against ISIS with Kurdish forces in Syria for three years; Gifford claims he knows of at least half-a-dozen British volunteers who have been tackling Russian separatists in Eastern Ukraine alongside Ukrainian troops for a while now, and he says that ‘judging by how many Britons contacted me in the past about going to Syria, I can imagine hundreds if not in the low thousands of people going out to Ukraine.’

I suppose if you’re old enough to remember the last time Brits volunteering to fight in a foreign conflict wasn’t something that came with the threat of arrest upon returning home (i.e. the Spanish Civil War), some of the images shot by amateur cameramen of Russian tanks cruising down residential streets and crushing private vehicles – not to mention the drivers in them – could easily evoke memories of Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968. Perhaps many imagined the end of the original Cold War at the turn of the 1990s had neutralised the possibility of the worst of recent European history repeating itself, though one wonders if a Treaty of Versailles-like grievance has been quietly festering in the Russian breast over the aftermath of the Cold War’s end from a Russian perspective ever since. Well, it’s probably fair to say that’s true when it comes to one particular Russian, anyway.

© The Editor

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DO THE DOWNING ST SHUFFLE

Liz Truss DiscoIt’s an interesting dilemma few outside of politics are ever confronted by – you’re sacked, fired from your job, your very important job, a job that came with a great deal of prestige; and yet your redundancy package doesn’t contain a P45 form, but a nice booby prize of three new high-profile jobs you’ll be doing simultaneously. That’s what happened to Alpha Plank Dominic Raab yesterday. Okay, so he’s no longer Foreign Secretary, but he’s now the Lord Chancellor, the Justice Secretary, and the Deputy Prime Minister. Welcome to the strange world of political dismissal, where a demotion is hardly akin to relegation from the Premier League to League Two or a fast-track to the nearest food bank. Yeah, okay – the Cabinet’s very own Chuck Norris no longer holds one of the four Great Offices of State; but stubbornly refusing to whip off the knotted hanky from your head at a moment of international crisis centred on a disintegrating nation thousands of your fellow countrymen sacrificed their lives to democratise doesn’t exactly embody commitment to the post. As Foreign Secretaries go, Raab may have approached the job by following in the proud traditions of Boris himself, but how much has Dominic Raab really lost?

I guess the tired old analogy of rearranging the deck-chairs on the Titanic has probably already been exhumed to describe the PM’s Cabinet reshuffle, so I won’t recycle it again; but in truth, I can’t really see many of those promoted being quite as bad as those they replaced. Raab was a useless Foreign Secretary as Gavin Williamson was a useless Education Secretary and Robert Buckland a useless Justice Secretary. Nadhim Zahawi’s U-turn on the topic of vaccine passports may have been rightly highlighted of late via the resurrection of his past refuting of their introduction on social media, but many perceive his handling of the vaccine rollout as a relative success; his promotion to Education Secretary, heading a department that arguably failed to tackle the ramifications of lockdown more than any other in government, can only be viewed as an improvement. Ironically, considering the subject of the previous post on here, Michael Gove has indeed lost his job as Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, albeit not for something nasty he said as a Tory Boy in the early 90s; besides, becoming the new Housing Secretary doesn’t mean he’ll be signing-on in the near future.

Much will probably be made of Liz Truss replacing Raab, no doubt; only the second woman to be elevated to the post – after Margaret Beckett’s brief stint during Tony Blair’s last year in Downing Street – Truss has often played upon her non-privileged roots ala Sajid Javid. But her roots are only non-privileged in comparison to many of the men surrounding her in government. I remember once reading a Fleet St profile of Truss pointing out she attended a comprehensive school in Leeds as though she’d been running around cobbled streets minus shoes on her feet; the school was in Roundhay, which for those who don’t know is a tad closer to Hampstead than Hackney. Nevertheless, hers is an interesting back-story in that she emanated from middle-class intellectual Socialist stock ala Ed Miliband, and even if she chose the wrong party from her parents’ perspective, Truss occupies a position in that party which appeals to many Red Wall voters disillusioned with Labour; her publicised criticism of Identity Politics certainly struck a chord with those alienated by the opposition’s vigorous embrace of it.

The most recognisable female face around the Cabinet table after Liz Truss will be Nadine Dorries, a Ministerial virgin; the novelist and former contestant on ‘I’m A Celebrity, Get Me Out of Here’ is now Secretary of State for that mixed bag of miscellany known as Digital, Culture, Media and Sport. To me, it always sounds like a department that those without hardcore political ambitions would probably enjoy being handed, the antithesis of the surrogate Siberia that the Northern Ireland job represented on ‘Yes, Minister’. But, in the same way the progression of Liz Truss from Secretary of State for International Trade to Foreign Secretary feels a logical one, appointing someone with ‘broadcasting experience’ and a fairly successful sideline career as an author to Digital, Culture, Media & Sport seems pretty sensible promotion. Like Truss, Nadine Dorries can also serve as a counterbalance to the privately-educated majority in the Cabinet, and she even has a ‘Working-Class Tory’ story to fall back on, being a born-and-bred council estate Scouser. Both women’s promotions appear a shrewd move on the part of the PM.

Overall, this reshuffle appears to have been relatively well-received after what has been another difficult couple of weeks for Boris. Not only has he suffered the death of his mother, but the most recent YouGov poll concerning voting intentions saw Labour overtake the Tories for the first time since the beginning of the year – 35% to 33%; this came in the wake of the tax increases via National Insurance contributions being announced, supposedly to be invested in social care and the NHS. Why anyone imagined taxes wouldn’t be raised at some point soon after well over a year of the ‘magic money tree’ furlough scheme is a mystery, but no governing party with a reputation for low taxation was going to be able to dig its way out of this one. Sure, there were the usual backbench grumblings, but the Government won the vote to approve the move fairly painlessly. Therefore, the timing of the reshuffle was convenient in terms of taking attention away from an unpopular (if inevitable) manifesto-breaker, but it also has the feel of assembling a fresh team with one eye on the next General Election, which many reckon will only be a couple of years away. However, there’s always the argument that Cabinet reshuffles are little more than superficial short-term fixes, a temporary shot of Botox rather than a full-on facelift.

In an increasingly-rare appearance on GB News – the station he has now officially walked away from as its main anchor – Andrew Neil yesterday made the point that reshuffles are often detrimental to government in that Ministers routinely fail to achieve anything in their jobs because they’re not given enough time to turn around the fortunes of their departments. Perhaps only football managers are expected to perform miracles in a shorter time span than someone bussed into a Ministerial post that has been failing to deliver under its previous stewardship. It’s a valid point, but so much of politics today is dependent on instant results, and if the same tired old faces don’t appear to be doing the business after several years in office the electorate associates them and the administration as a whole with failure; bringing in fresh faces may well be applying a plaster to a wound in need of surgery, but change tends to generate the impression of improvement overnight; and if the new face fails as well, just bring in another.

If Boris Johnson’s first phase at No.10 was defined by Brexit and the Parliamentary turmoil that accompanied its final stages in 2019, the second has undoubtedly been defined by Covid; with both Brexit and the pandemic having claimed the lion’s share of attention at the expense of other pressing issues over the past couple of years, it could be said this is the moment at which Boris is preparing for both the ‘post-war’ era and the next opportunity to give the country a say. Right now, I don’t think even a crystal ball is capable of showing where we’ll be in 2023 or ’24, so it’s impossible to predict if this reshuffle will play its part in deciding whether or not the Tories will be in a fit enough state to pull it off yet again. I suspect a great deal will remain dependent upon the condition of the Opposition as much as anything else. And that’s another piece of challenging guesswork that will make the brain hurt.

© The Editor

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WITHIN THESE WALLS

orangeConsidering the law of averages, I would imagine that most reading this (like me) have known at least one person to have been detained at Her Majesty’s Pleasure, though I’ve mercifully evaded the honour myself; and let’s face it, few issues spark such incandescent fury as the subject of prison conditions. On one side, there is the ‘short, sharp shock’ mindset that will routinely declare with mortification – ‘They have television sets in their cells!’ – something that strikes me as an empty argument; imagine being stuck in a cell for the first half of the day and having nothing to do but watch ‘Jeremy Kyle’, ‘Loose Women’ and ‘Cash in the Attic’; that sounds a pretty severe punishment regime to me. The other side is more about humane treatment and actual rehabilitation so that reoffending is minimised; but this, of course, stinks of lily-livered liberalism a long way from ‘tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’.

The Minister of the Interior in ‘A Clockwork Orange’ who utilises the technological brutality of Ludovico’s Technique as a fast-track means of rehabilitation, rides a wave of electoral populism that ignores the loss of free will in the process; though penned in the early 60s, Anthony Burgess’s novel anticipates a desperate government solution to rising crime that rings truer now it did at the time of its writing, let alone Kubrick’s movie adaptation of the book a decade later. Reducing the prison population whilst simultaneously satisfying the public clamour for lowering the crime rates makes the likelihood of a similar system to that devised by Burgess an ever-present possibility, though it hasn’t happened yet.

A pause for statistics, I think. Okay – the UK prison population is around 86,000; less than 4,000 are women, as men are 22 times as likely to be imprisoned as women. In 2009 it was said 8,500 former servicemen were behind bars – 10% of the prison population; prisoners over the age of 60 rose a staggering 130% between 2002 and 2013 – four out of ten of more than 4,000 over-60s in UK gaols have been imprisoned for historic sex offences, now the fastest growing age group in the prison estate; only a couple of days ago, a 101-year-old man (Ralph Clarke) was sentenced for historic sex offences, lest we forget.

14 prisons have closed their doors for good in the last 20 years, yet David Cameron’s solution whilst cutting prison staff by almost a third as PM was to propose reviving the antiquated tradition of ‘prison ships’, those decommissioned hulks that figured highly in nineteenth century literature’s landscape, perhaps most famously with the character of Magwitch in Dickens’ ‘Great Expectations’; what should have been more of a concern to Cameron’s law & order policy was the fact that during the first four years of the Coalition, there was a 29% drop in the numbers of prison staff.

At the same time as the above statistics were collated, 239 men and women died in prison, a 6% increase from the year before and 29% higher than five years before that; in the four years from 2010 to 2014 there was also a 28% increase in assaults on prison staff, whilst just this year the prison population shot up by more than a thousand between September and November; the increasing use of indeterminate sentences and long determinable sentences have served to double the prison population in the last 20 years.

Statistics issued by the Ministry of Justice a couple of years ago reported the average week in an average prison constitutes 70 assaults on staff, four to five prisoner deaths (of which one or two are suicides), and 500 self-harm incidents – and these statistics are restricted to prisons in England and Wales alone. That hackneyed old phrase ‘powder keg’ has never seemed more relevant, and events in HMP Birmingham over the last 48 hours seem to back this up.

Toss in claustrophobic confinement, contraband legal highs, and the increasing sectarian tensions resulting from the upsurge in sentences relating to Islamic terrorist offences, and you have a soufflé of simmering discontent with a system on its last legs that inevitably leads to riot. It happened 26 years ago at Strangeways and it would seem little has changed in the intervening two and-a-half decades other than a continuing conversation between public and politicians to equate punishment with a pseudo-medieval notion of eye-for-an-eye vengeance.

The institutionalisation effects of prison life on recently-released inmates – the sudden removal from day-to-day life of a rigid routine that is easy to submit to whilst simultaneously yearning for liberation from it – and the failure of the parole system to steer them away from returning to the environment that put them behind bars to begin with, is a conundrum of crime and punishment that has yet to be resolved. Neither hardline prison reform nor concerted attempts to elevate the imprisoned above the level of cattle has produced the desired effect. But it’s not just those coming out; those going in are also part of the problem – largely because there are too many of them. The endless number of laws added to the statue book from the Blair era onwards, not to mention the twin tabloid scourges of home-grown Jihadists and pensionable Paedos, has served to cram this country’s gaols to breaking point.

What happened in Birmingham, as what happened at HMP Ashwell in Rutland seven years ago (albeit without accompanying hysterical publicity), is something that shouldn’t be seen as an isolated incident or an aberration; in many respects, it’s a miracle it doesn’t occur more often – though I’ve a strong suspicion it will become a greater recurrence over the next few years. Sure, we’ve had the expected strong words from the Justice Secretary, but at least the Minister for the Interior who selected Alex de Large for special treatment had a crowd-pleasing solution up his sleeve; all Liz Truss has to fall back on is archaic Victorian Values rhetoric that promises to crack down on the unruly rabble who should be grateful to be spared the retribution of the hangman. And that won’t make our streets any safer for Us than it will for Them once we’re all sharing them again.

© The Editor

PS Allow me an indulgence – here’s a link to my appearance on Radio 4’s ‘iPM’ on 17.12.16…

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b0850blp