Gibraltar: for some the least appealing rock, bar Paul Burrell. News that the British overseas territory is being considered by the Home Office as an asylum-processing location, along with the Isle of Man, turns out to be exactly that – news. News to Gibraltar and news to the Isle of Man, whose chief minister responded tartly: “Along with ideas to build a road tunnel under the Irish Sea or a bridge above it, this latest idea simply adds to the rich tapestry of life we are dealing with at present. April 1 isn’t until next month.” We’ll pop him down as a maybe.
So, then, to Priti Patel’s plan to overhaul the asylum system, a plan she has brilliantly failed to mention to the territories about to get a shoutout. Can it really be just six months since Patel was looking at processing asylum seekers on Ascension Island, a place as volcanic as her own temper? Can it really be just the same six months since we learned she’d considered giant wave machines to force boats back to France? Can it really be just four years since Michael Howard was suggesting Theresa May would go to war with Spain over Gibraltar, just like Margaret Thatcher went to war over the Falklands? Can it really be that Patel has yet to cross the streams and alight on the idea of processing asylum seekers in the Falklands?
The badge-kissing inhumanity of it all was not a subject on which Boris Johnson seemed especially willing to be drawn during last night’s Downing Street briefing, where he opted for the easier role of a man solely concerned about unscrupulous smugglers. Incidentally, I was puzzled to see he didn’t use the special new £2.6m press conference room for the event. What are they doing? Keeping it for best? At this rate, participants will only be allowed to use it if they keep the plastic showroom covers over all the fittings, like the driver of a new car who wants it to stay showroom fresh, no matter what an uncomfy ninny it makes him look.
Speaking of uncomfy ninnies, let’s proceed to Matt Hancock, who began Wednesday’s briefing – in which significant vaccine supply issues would become clear – with the words: “I’ve got some fantastic news to bring you on the vaccine rollout … ” To which the only reasonable response turned out to be: FFS – what’s the bad news, then? The vaccine delay exposed the new neediness of global Britain. While foreign secretary Dominic Raab is happy to blast the EU for “acting like a dictatorship” over threats to withhold supply, India’s decision to do the same was ascribed by Johnson to “various technical reasons”.
None of which is to excuse the behaviour of the EU on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been a true masterclass in shithousery, particularly by the EU commission’s Ursula von der Leyen and anti-vax-adjacent French president, Emmanuel Macron. “Macron is so interested that he can challenge the scientists,” one French politician trilled last month, making the president sound like your cousin who shares wingnut videos about Bill Gates on Facebook. “He will end up an epidemiologist.” Will he, now. Feels like a stretch for a guy currently coming off as Matt Le Tissier in a slightly better coat.
Still, we Brits needn’t spend too long worrying about where we stand on Macron (his windpipe, to nick a Steve Coogan joke). Of more operational concern is someone like Raab, only recently emerged from the silent retreat he’s been on for the past few months. Whatever inner discoveries the foreign secretary made during his time of seclusion, they have not extended to understanding the Brexit deal his own government signed. At time of inking, you could barely move for people remarking loudly upon the fact that this did what Theresa May vowed never to do, and effectively erected a barrier down the Irish Sea. BREAKING NEWS, then, as this week Dominic Raab accused the EU of seeking to “erect a barrier down the Irish Sea”.
As for Dominic Cummings’ select committee appearance, the failed spad’s decision to brand the Department of Health a “smoking ruin” once again confirms his MO: go through life whining about what he could have done if it hadn’t been for things that were other people’s fault. Weirdly, you never hear genuinely successful people in any field do this. In fact, Dominic Cummings had it all. Granted extraordinary extra powers and virtually unlimited funds during the Covid crisis, one of the two most powerful men in the country presided over the worst death toll in Europe and what looks set to be the worst economic hit, as well as personally undermining the most important public health message in a generation and trust in the entire political class. So yes, apart from the people who have died, I think we can all live without the spectacle of him droning on while holding up some diagram he picked up in one of his books. Jack Welch’s autobiography, maybe, or 10 Habits To Make YOU the Most Effective Systems Manager in the Tristate Area.
All in all, it was another week to despair at the calibre of Boris Johnson’s senior teams, past and present. When he made factory visits, the former French president turned electronic tag model Nicolas Sarkozy was known to demand that any workers co-opted for his photo opportunities were physically shorter than him. In similar vein, the late Gabonese president Omar Bongo was fabled to prefer more diminutive cabinet ministers than himself. He was 4ft 11. Competence-wise, it is easy to survey our own cabinet and conclude that Boris Johnson is doing the same: only cabinet ministers less competent even than him can be tolerated for high office.
One mark of how out of their depth most ministers are is their preference for the shallows of the culture wars. The old US truism about culture wars was that conservatives started them and liberals ended them. I’m not sure that’s true there or here any more, as people performatively lose their minds over the flags or pictures of the Queen in the background of ministerial TV appearances, or assume that all right-thinking people share their righteous concern about the Montecito-based Duke of Sussex being “financially cut off”.
But whichever side you fall on, one thing should be clear: these are sideshows to sideshows. Neither of these would even make the top 20 things the government really, really needs to get a handle on fast if it’s even remotely committed to “levelling up”.
If the UK was in a bad way before the pandemic hit, it faces some truly mindboggling challenges now, with huge numbers of people desperate for, and deserving of, better lives. And patriotism, however your particular tribe chooses to define it, isn’t going to butter any parsnips on that front. The fact the government would choose to spend any of this week on legislative nonsense about statues – or any of the next weeks striking populist poses over pretty small numbers of asylum seekers – suggests it may all be far beyond them. If they really believe themselves capable of transformational policymaking, now would be a very good time to start.