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Now You See Them

Prince Charles at the state opening of parliament 2022

Where is Her Majesty? Where is the new government in Northern Ireland? Where is the Russian air force? Where is Boris Johnson? As our Political Correspondent Peter Spencer reports, he at least is present and correct (sort of) for the moment, but for how long is anyone’s guess.

Overshadowing all the week’s news is something at once subliminal and irrefutable.

Bad manners to mention a lady’s age, but The Queen is ninety-six, for god’s sake. The reference by the palace to ‘episodic mobility issues’ is a polite way of saying just that.

And the State Opening of Parliament is a tougher gig than it might look. For a start the crown itself weighs a whopping five pounds.

So her absence last Tuesday is hardly to be wondered at. But a different royal doing the business for her is a first, in seventy years.

No one likes to use the A-word, especially as she ruled out abdication at the outset, pledging instead to carry on carrying on for as long as she lived.

But a clear third of those asked by the pollster YouGov suggested now is the time. Likely this will be a process not an event – but it does finally look like it’s started.

Been quite a process too, working out what on earth to do about Northern Ireland vis-à-vis the European Union.

Perhaps in anticipation of post-Brexit brouhaha, the people of the province voted Remain. Too bad for them a sliver of a majority in UK had other ideas.

Upshot – the fragile peace sorted in Tony Blair’s early days has been that much more so ever since.

Putting checkpoints along the land border with the Republic of Ireland was rightly judged too risky. So instead the border’s effectively in the middle of the Irish Sea.

This compromise thrashed out with the EU infuriated unionists, who feel they’re no longer properly part of the United Kingdom.

Matters came to a head at the elections earlier this month when Sinn Fein, who of course want a united Ireland, won the most seats, for the first time ever.

Their rivals in the Democratic Unionist party should in theory just accept the result. But they’re so cross they’re refusing to allow a new government to be formed.

Johnson’s answer is, or may well be, to rip up the so-called Northern Ireland Protocol that he himself signed up to.

His problem being that if he does that Brussels might biff us back, by making life that bit more difficult for ordinary Brits trying to earn an honest buck.

Calls to mind an old Laurel and Hardy movie. Another Fine Mess.

Not that things are looking that hot in Downing Street just now. Or maybe that should read they’re hotting up, rather a lot.

The Brexit Opportunities Minister Jacob Rees-Mogg, he of the laid-back (on the green benches) look, says the new tranche of partygate fines is a ‘non-story’.

Yerright. Others are not so chilled about the tally of more than a hundred penalties meted out by the Old Bill for lockdown-breaking hi-jinks.

And what with who knows how many more to come, not to mention the inquiry by top Whitehall dude Sue Gray, the name of an old Cole Porter song fits: ‘Anything Goes.’

Including, potentially, Johnson himself.

Bullish displays on the airwaves mask the open secret that ministers have an open mind about outcomes.

Little wonder possible contenders for the top job, like former Foreign Secretary Jeremy Hunt, are not very discreetly on manoeuvres.

His target last week was the cost of living crisis. An easy one, as spiralling inflation, rocketing fuel prices and looming recession mean wages and benefits can’t keep up.

Spare a thought then for Her Majesty’s stand-in, Prince Charles, having to read out all that stuff the government is planning for the forthcoming year.

It’s often a bit turgid, but this time round was ‘as dull as hell’. Simon Hart’s words, not this commentator’s. He’s a government minister, btw, and he uttered them on telly.

Incomprehensibly, this was meant to be helpful to his colleagues. But indisputably, what the long list of bills lacked was a clear plan for helping people pay theirs.

Johnson’s been dropping hints, subsequently hastily picked up again, about cutting taxes. And there’s been loose talk about dipping into energy companies’ mega-profits.

Also, Ashfield’s Tory MP Lee Anderson suggested in the Commons people who use food banks should learn how to cook, and manage their finances better.

This didn’t go down awfully well. And, though no one put it quite like this, the feeling was he qualified for the plonker of the week award.

But the nearest we’ve got to any concrete proposals on how to make life easier for people is to cut the cost of government.

Jacob Rees-Mogg (ITMA, sorry about that) insists his ninety-thousand civil service jobs cull does not add up to renewed austerity.

Nor will it likely add up to the hill of beans he’s implying, in regard to a leg-up for the rest of us. Such things are nearly always more headline grabbing than helping hand.

Of course unions are spitting nails. But punters too may notice fewer job advisers, probation officers, and people processing their passport and driving licence renewals.

And the Home Office gives the impression it’s crying out for more not fewer people, to sort visa applications from terrified women and children desperately fleeing Ukraine.

Alongside the brutality of the war itself, and the atrocities perpetrated on civilians, horror stories abound of families unable to get here because of bureaucratic delays.

Not that such trifles trouble the Russian President, though even he must have spotted selling his faltering incursion as a triumph was always going to be tricky.

He did his best at last week’s celebration of Hitler’s defeat, and experts noted with relief he didn’t seem totally doolally, as it lowers the likelihood of nuclear annihilation.

But there was something, dare one say, Trumpian, about the way officials blamed the perfectly nice weather for the absence of the usual climactic air force fly-past.

And Private Eye’s latest cover aptly juxtaposes an earlier image of Soviet servicemen looking eagerly skywards with a bashed-up Russian tank towed by a Ukrainian tractor.

For all its formidable firepower and crass cruelty, Putin’s mission has so far achieved exactly the reverse of its intended purpose.

Far from exposing the Western alliance as every bit as useless as the League of Nations turned out to be in the face of Nazi Germany, it’s galvanized it.

Witness Sweden and Finland, hitherto cautiously straddling the east-west divide, now eager to join NATO ASAP.

Then there’s Putin’s physical health. To scotch the possibly well-founded rumour that he’s terminally ill, his secret service has instructed agents not to swallow it.

As a result most of them have done just that. Goes to show fibbing has its downside, as it bolsters the belief that nothing ever is true .. until it’s officially denied.

The suggestion is the man’s got some form of blood cancer. Couldn’t happen to a nicer feller, eh?

On an even cheerier note, regular readers will remember last week’s payoff story about a Ukrainian man called Maksym, grappling with trying to sell his wares through eBay.

He’d gone quiet for a few days, which worried this correspondent, who’s become a chum.

But his latest dispatch dispels fears of the worst. Here it is, in full:

‘Oh bad internet. And even in Kyiv there are big problems with gasoline. It’s even worse in small towns. You have to stand in line for about three hours to buy ten litres.

‘Those who have electric cars are very cool now.’

Cool? Sums up his stoical sense of humour perfectly. You can’t help but love his style.

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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