COCK OF THE JUNGLE

Jungle CockAnyone looking for proof of Peter Capaldi’s gifts as an actor need not only recall the fact he continued to exude the necessary charisma and gravitas as Doctor Who despite the diminishing quality of the scripts and the Doctor’s impending exile on Planet Woke, but that he also gave us the memorably visceral Whitehall spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in ‘The Thick of It’. There were dozens of scenes from the series in which Tucker’s hyperactive potty mouth scaled heights of genius linguistic obscenity, but Capaldi’s character was much more than just a viciously funny caricature of Alastair Campbell at his worst. I remember one episode in which Tucker had been toppled from his position of power and, suddenly deprived of his raison d’être, cut a lost, pathetic figure, realising he had little else to occupy his time; contacted by the producers of a reality TV show of the kind that seeks out has-beens and down-at-heel celebrities, Tucker swallows his pride and meets the producers. As the format of the programme is explained to him, Tucker’s despair at how low he’s sunk is writ large on his despondent countenance, and sympathy for a character who had previously elicited anything but is brilliantly coaxed out of the viewer. In the end, Malcolm Tucker walks out of the interview and shows his true grit by staging a successful comeback without recourse to reality television; perhaps Matt Hancock should have been taking notes.

The former Health Secretary, who presided over one of the most disastrous policy decisions in the history of the post, was fortunate to escape the post-Covid fallout with just the loss of his job; but at least the public received some consolation via the humiliating nature of his exit – caught on camera breaking social distancing rules in the most toe-curling manner by snogging and groping a female aide in a corridor like some geeky adolescent indulging in his first kiss at the High School Prom. Once exposed as a ‘love rat’ (as the tabloids used to say), Hancock left his wife and family for said aide and then embarked upon a fittingly embarrassing online ‘comeback’, responsible for soaring sales of sick buckets as he declared his love for his former bit on the side. Perhaps it’s therefore no surprise that Hancock has now succumbed to the lure of reality TV, recently announced as a contestant in the upcoming series of the show that seems destined to run until the bomb drops, ‘Help! I’m A Celebrity…Get Me Out of Here’. The reported fee of £400,000 probably helped too – that’s if he could read the cheque on account of his ‘dyslexia’, the convenient cause he claims his appearance on the programme will highlight.

When the subject of Hancock’s participation in the annual kangaroo-knackers banquet cropped-up on this weekend’s ‘The Week in Westminster’, columnist and broadcaster Matthew Parris attempted to defend Hancock, deflecting criticism of Hancock’s decision by dismissing it as snobbishness, citing past appearances by the likes of Nadine Dorries on reality TV whilst a serving MP. However, Parris eventually declared an interest by admitting ‘Cockers’ was a friend of his. Lest we forget, Matthew Parris first sprang to national prominence when, as a Conservative MP himself, he took part in a 1984 edition of ‘World in Action’. This famous experiment, which Mrs Thatcher advised him not to do, was a test to see if the promising young MP could live on the weekly social security benefit his Government said was perfectly adequate. Dispatched to a neighbourhood of Newcastle with a high rate of unemployment, Parris struggled to make it through the week on the dole and ended up running out of money for the meter before the seven days was over.

Parris stood down as an MP a couple of years after his first foray into television and took over from Brian Walden as host of ITV’s Sunday lunchtime institution, ‘Weekend World’; but he has often hinted his experience on ‘World in Action’ opened his eyes to not simply the world of broadcasting – he also received first-hand knowledge of how the other half live. Parris returned to Newcastle twenty years after his sobering education on the dole for a follow-up programme and discovered little improvement in the lives of the residents there; he found the legacy of the early 80s economic decimation of the city was that many in the community were now dependent on antidepressants. Both programmes validated Parris’s appearance in them, but particularly the first one; it was a serious, worthy attempt to test an advocate of Government policy by inviting him to try living under it himself – something that should actually be a compulsory course for anyone attempting to stand for Parliament. There’s a huge difference between the motivation behind ‘World in Action’ and the Ant & Dec circus, so I don’t really think Matt Hancock signing-up for that is any way comparable to Matthew Parris’s 80s venture into the North East.

Regardless of Hancock’s unconvincing attempts to justify his participation in the programme, the now-backbencher has had the whip suspended as a result, and though still a member of the Conservative Party, he now sits as an independent in the Commons. The fact Hancock chose to take part in the show with Parliament in session understandably didn’t go down well with his West Suffolk constituents either; I often think gaining an audience with a member of the Cabinet at their constituency surgery must be considerably harder than it would be with any ‘normal’ MP, but when that MP is no longer running a department there should be no excuses for their non-appearance. Not that the loss of power seems to make much difference to their accessibility within their constituencies, mind; after all, imagine if your local MP was Boris Johnson, needing to discuss a pressing problem with him in that capacity, yet being told he’s sunning his considerable bulk on some distant exotic shore. And now there’s the disgraced ex-Health Secretary to be found Down Under, hanging out with the usual leftovers from all the other reality shows when his constituents might actually require his assistance for the job he’s being paid to do on their behalf.

Ah, but he’s got estranged children to support as well as financing his love-nest with Gina Coladangelo, and the wages of a backbencher don’t quite match up to the ministerial salary. Overly-optimistic rumours of a return to Government under Rishi Sunak came to nothing, so Hancock has clearly chosen an option he seems to imagine will somehow rehabilitate his trashed reputation amongst the general public. And a man referred to as a ‘showbiz guru’ by the name of Jonathan Shalit reckons Hancock has a profitable celebrity career ahead of him, claiming ‘Cockers’ could earn up to £1 million a year if he plays his cards right. ‘I’m A Celebrity provides an opportunity to go on a new journey,’ says Shalit, foreseeing an increase in Hancock’s income if he performs well on the programme. ‘Someone like Matt can probably make about £1 million a year, quite often on weekends. For example, he could probably do three or four appearances for £10-15,000 each, minimum, if not up to £60-70,000.’ Yes, these guys do like to talk in numbers, but showbiz types share that with greedy Honourable Members, and someone did once say that politics is showbiz for ugly people, so there you go.

Matt Hancock’s deserved political downfall was a consequence of the double standards at play in Boris’s administration during the pandemic; this is the man who threatened to outlaw outdoor exercise if the plebs didn’t adhere to the social distancing rules he himself evidently regarded as unnecessary when indulging in a spot of buttock-clutching, who was photographed sans-mask when he told the rest of us to wear them at all times, and who handed out PPE contracts to his buddies – typical corruption of the kind we expect from our MPs, I guess. But the buck stopped with him when Covid-infected pensioners were returned from hospital to care home; if anyone killed granny, it was Matt Hancock. And no amount of Barrymore-esque efforts to court forgiveness via light entertainment will change that.

© The Editor

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KEEPING THE BRITISH END UP

Postcard 3Well done, Matt Hancock. Credit where credit’s due; the Health Secretary has at least publicly apologised for breaking social distancing rules, even if he hasn’t done likewise for breaking his marriage vows. Considering his way of spurning social distancing was to snog and grab the arse of his ‘close aide’, I would’ve personally thought the ramifications for his marital status mattered more. Mind you, he’s a Tory Cabinet Minister and it’s fair to say that strange breed do have something of a history when it comes to this sort of thing. And, of course, he’s not any old Tory Cabinet Minster; he’s one of Boris Johnson’s Tory Cabinet Ministers, which means pretty much anything goes except your job. It was evident from the recently-released private messages between Dominic Cummings and the PM that Hancock had been nominated as the patsy for any failures associated with the Government’s pandemic policy; he will carry the can come the day of judgement, and the longer he stays in his post the likelihood of another f**k-up is fairly strong, so I guess the Health Secretary can sleep a little easier tonight – in the spare room, naturally.

Boris has apparently accepted Hancock’s apology, and whilst this could be viewed as akin to the kind of public backing under-fire football managers receive from their club chairman on the eve of being sacked, if the plan is for Hancock to shoulder the majority of the Covid blame then the PM is not likely to dismiss him just yet. Not that Boris himself has much of a moral leg to stand on considering his own extramarital track record, nor in his ‘flexible’ approach to social distancing as seen at the recent G7 summit in Cornwall. Photos of the gathered world leaders not exactly adhering to the ridiculous rules and regulations us plebs are still honour bound to observe in the name of ‘safety’ hammered home the difference between VIPs and me & thee, if it even needed to be hammered home. It’s not as if we didn’t already know it.

Hot on the heels of Michael Gove being spared post-foreign travel isolation, the bigwigs from UEFA and FIFA flown in to gorge on prawn cocktails in the Wembley executive boxes haven’t had to jump through any of the myriad hoops any ‘un-important person’ has to endure when arriving from abroad; but we’re told the Euros will be abruptly relocated to the land of the free that is mainland Europe if we don’t bend the rules for football’s international dignitaries – and they’re all renowned for their virtue and probity, anyway, so it’s not as if we shouldn’t receive them with the red carpet and accompanying grovelling. No, we don’t really need to see shots of mask-free FIFA gangsters quaffing champers as the England players deliver their latest lecture on how racist we all are to be reminded of our place in the scheme of things, I suppose.

Any Brit hoping to travel in the opposite direction to said dignitaries won’t be welcomed in quite the same way. In a move absolutely not remotely related to any ongoing punitive punishment by European leaders for Brexit, Frau Merkel and Monsieur Macron have demanded the EU impose quarantine restrictions on British visitors in order to prevent the potential spread of the Narnia Variant on the Continent. Brits can actually set foot on French soil at the moment free from self-isolation as long as they have the double vaccine passport on account of our place on France’s amber list, though Germany has quarantine restrictions for British tourists and wants the rest of Europe to fall in line. However, the likes of Greece and Spain – which have always been favoured destinations for Brits due to their ownership of the sun – are less likely to follow suit if they want to continue having a tourism industry. Either way, crossing the Channel this summer hardly seems worth the effort, so why not holiday at home, eh? Fine – if you can afford it.

Back when the worst night of the week for the television schedule always seemed to be Sunday – reflecting the unique boredom of the day of rest, I guess – one of the main offenders for me was the BBC’s long-running ‘Holiday’ programme. The period of the show I most remember is the one when comb-over king Cliff Michelmore presented and ‘Here Comes the Sun’ was used as the theme tune; indeed, it took a good few years before George Harrison’s joyous ditty finally shook off its drab Sunday teatime associations in my head as a consequence. The programme aired in the winter months for the same reason travel agent ads suddenly bombarded every ITV commercial break as soon as New Year’s Day was out of the way; the aim was to look ahead (and book ahead) to the summer, but reports on exotic climes the majority of viewers wouldn’t be able to afford somehow seemed to emphasise the chasm between sun-kissed beaches and chilly January Blightly even more. For most of my childhood, holidays equated with home soil, and every permutation from caravanning to camping and from Butlin’s to B&B’s was sampled for a week – or two, if it was a particularly lousy summer.

For obvious reasons, holidaying at home is one of the few remaining options open to those who don’t happen to be VIPs yet still feel entitled to a break again after a year off in 2020. It’s no great surprise, however, that an industry no different from many others in that it suffered financial meltdown during lockdown has capitalised on circumstances by raising its prices way beyond what holiday-makers would ordinarily expect. A week for a family of four at Center Parcs apparently costs more than a Caribbean vacation this year; a holiday let in Cornwall is up 30% on 2019, whilst Skegness has increased its prices by 40%; even the traditionally cheap choice of the caravan park will charge a family of four an average of around £1,800 for a week. Donna Brunton, a nurse from County Durham, had booked an all-in holiday for her family at a four-star beach hotel in Malta for the princely sum of £2,500 and was then forced to look closer to home as an alternative. ‘A holiday park in north Cornwall was quoting £3,699 for the four of us to stay seven nights, self-catering in what looks like an upmarket caravan,’ she said in a Guardian exposé on the economic realities of ‘Staycation’.

Ever since taking one’s child out of the classroom during term-time for a holiday became a crime, owners of cottages, campsites and hotels in coastal resorts have become accustomed to hiking prices during the school summer holidays; added to that routine this year is an additional increase making the most of the fact that fewer families will be leaving the country in July or August. Having said that, avoiding the obvious tourist spots is as useful a tip in the UK as it would be were overseas restrictions not in place. One can’t really blame the travel industry for exploiting the climate after a fairly fallow year (to put it mildly), and if people are not going to use their imaginations by flocking to the same old locations, it’s inevitable the prices are going to rise considerably – and it seems most of them are already fully booked-up for the school’s out season.

Whether or not father of three Matt Hancock will be enjoying a family holiday this year is not something the Health Secretary mentioned in his statement earlier today; I suspect that decision will be down to Mrs Hancock. But the fact he followed in the footsteps of the SAGE soothsayer Neil Ferguson in sacrificing social distancing for a spot of hanky-panky with a married woman at least shows he’s human. Someone needs to tell him we are too.

© The Editor

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THE AXE-MAN COMETH

Dean and CummingsFor the second post in a row I open with a reference to Watergate, though once again the post has nothing to do with the mother of all political scandals. I was just thinking of John Dean. An attorney and White House Counsel for Nixon, Dean was the reluctant Judas whose testimony to Congress in 1973 blew the lid wide open on the murky machinations at the dark heart of the Presidency. During his appearance at the Watergate hearings, John Dean didn’t come across as someone enjoying the grinding of an axe; despite being promised a degree of immunity from prosecution in return for co-operating with the committee, Dean still looked like a condemned schoolboy poised to receive a sound thrashing from the headmaster as a prelude to expulsion. He could probably foresee what his evidence would ultimately lead to, but the burden of playing a key role in the downfall of a US President perhaps wasn’t the kind of historical footnote he sought or relished. Whereas the Watergate hearings happened at the tail-end of the last era in which the vast majority of people didn’t want to believe the worst of their elected representatives – and indeed it undoubtedly began the process of terminal disillusionment in them – nobody expects anything better from them now.

Maybe the ghost of John Dean was evoked yesterday as a glaring contrast with the deliverance of similarly damning testimony of a government given by another former inside man. Indeed, the gulf between the diffident Dean and the hell-bent-on-revenge performance of Dominic Cummings couldn’t be wider. We’ve been living in a post-Watergate world of cynicism and scepticism when it comes to the integrity of political figures ever since John Dean confessed all in the summer of 1973, and Cummings’s grandstand audition for the next Tory administration – carefully distancing himself from the pandemic can-carriers by both laying into them and omitting names he clearly thinks will rise from the ashes and call upon his services in the future – was unedifying confirmation that the public’s tendency to believe the worst is entirely justified.

I’ve watched a sizeable chunk of the opening of John Dean’s Watergate testimony on YouTube, but just the first part of four instalments runs for six hours – and the rest nearly five each – so I’m presuming his appearance lasted several days; Dominic Cummings’s appearance before a select committee of MPs was scheduled for just the one day, but it still spanned seven straight hours – and I therefore had no option but to stick with the edited highlights. What made John Dean’s testimony so much more effective was that he delivered genuinely devastating revelations in such a mild-mannered manner; the weight of what he had to say seemed enhanced by the way in which he slowly unveiled it; moreover, the impact of those revelations was also given considerable clout by being made at that particular point in history, which was – as stated – a less cynical time. Cummings, on the other hand, embarked upon his theatrical kiss-and-tell at a moment when the standing of public servants probably couldn’t sink much lower. With Dean, it was the information that counted above all else; with Cummings, the focus was all on the performance; the information simply confirmed what most already knew.

I suppose one could say with friends like Dominic Cummings, who needs enemies? The man who ran away from the media spotlight throughout the fallout from his eye-testing expedition up north in the depths of lockdown owned the media spotlight yesterday and appeared to love every minute of it. He may have been ostensibly answering select committee questions, but he wasn’t going to leave without having done as much damage to the pretty threadbare reputation of his man at No.10 as was within his power as an ex-insider; this was the opportunity to get his own back after being prompted to jump last year – and Cummings grabbed it with both claws. His bitterness at being usurped at Downing Street by Carrie and her Woke entourage was laid bare; the day of reckoning had finally come for the jilted partner – and he damned Boris with all the vociferous, vengeful fury of a dumped spouse in a celebrity divorce case. The man whose rise to power he played no inconsiderable part in is now apparently ‘unfit for office’. Well, we didn’t need Dominic Cummings to tell us that, but it was still grotesquely compelling car-crash telly to see the ex-Svengali ripping into Boris and saying it out loud. According to Cummings, it’s ‘crackers’ that Boris is PM and that ‘thousands of people’ could provide better leadership. Boris is ‘a shopping trolley, smashing from one side of the aisle to the other’. Who was it pushing that trolley in the supermarket, though? Ah, yes – but maybe that proves Cummings was in sore need of an eye-test after all.

Of course, the pandemic was at the top of the agenda when it came to the actual questions Cummings was being posed yesterday; and his assessment of the approach taken by Boris and the Cabinet to the coronavirus gave him a chance to drive his first batch of nails into the Johnson coffin. He claimed Boris dismissed Covid as a scare story as late as February 2020, though to be fair that hardly makes Boris unique; he also said Boris’s main concern as the first lockdown was imminent was more the impact on the economy than lives – though once we were all under house arrest, the state of the economy proved to be a prime cause of worry for many. Boris’s reluctance to instigate lockdown was undoubtedly the reason it was delayed for so long, but Cummings paints himself as a bit of a hardcore pro-lockdown cheerleader whose advice was ignored, as though had it been taken by the PM thousands of lives would’ve been saved. He even said he overheard Boris utter the statement reported in the press, the one about him preferring to see ‘bodies piled high’ than impose Lockdown III. Not that Cummings reserved his most scathing accusations for Boris, however; no, the main guilty party in his opinion was Matt Hancock.

Cummings claimed he repeatedly told Boris to sack Hancock, but said the PM wanted the Health Secretary to stay in the job so he could take the majority of the blame whenever the whole affair eventually receives a public inquiry; Cummings more or less said Hancock was an incompetent liar and declared he should have been fired multiple times. Hancock’s hilarious, hurried response when briefly ‘door-stepped’ by a camera crew yesterday was to claim he was too busy ‘saving lives’ to react to Cummings’s accusations. Yes, our Health Secretary is actually a superhero armed with a super-power with which he heals the sick, dashing from one quarantined household to another. Is it a bird? Is it a plane? No, it’s Super-Cock! Super-Cock was forced to defend his record in the Commons today – a tough call considering his disastrous care home policy at the height of the pandemic, not to mention his jobs-for-the-boys approach to dishing out Covid-related contracts; Cummings’s assessment of Hancock is one few would dispute, though there was plenty of stating the bleedin’ obvious during the performance. It was just unusual to hear it coming from someone who had been there.

For a man who was hysterically denounced as an untrustworthy, bare-faced liar during the period in which his lockdown trip to Northumberland was exposed, it’s amazing how many Boris-haters on social media now suddenly believe every word Cummings says just because he’s saying what they want to hear. Most of us recognise Cummings’s agenda and though a lot of what he said was unarguable, particularly when it comes to the incompetence of the PM and those around him, let’s not pretend Dominic Cummings was some blameless voice of reason in the eye of the storm. Yes, John Dean was as keen to save his own skin in 1973 as Dominic Cummings is in 2021; but whereas at the Watergate hearings Dean didn’t shy away from his part in what went on in the Nixon administration, with Dominic Cummings it felt more like a case of ‘Please, sir – it wasn’t me.’

© The Editor