5 things about this week (25 June 2019)

by Stephen Tall on June 25, 2019

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I had thought the most depressing thing about this week would be the near-inevitability of Boris Johnson becoming Prime Minister. A man who failed disastrously as foreign secretary — of whom his old boss at the Daily Telegraph, Max Hastings, writes, “There is room for debate about whether he is a scoundrel or mere rogue, but not much about his moral bankruptcy, rooted in a contempt for truth” — is about to be entrusted with the greatest of all public offices; and that at a moment when the UK desperately needs a leader of vision, resilience, depth, a capacity for hard grind, and the capacity to unite.

But Mr Johnson’s 99%-certain elevation is a runner-up to the depressing horror of seeing my country remorselessly embracing the US ‘culture wars’, that pitched battle between traditionalist conservative and liberal progressives.

First, it was the rush of Conservative MPs (and commentators) to the defence of their colleague Mark Field, who in a fit of anger slammed an unarmed, female Greenpeace protestor against a pillar before grabbing her by the neck and violently pushing her, an utterly disproportionate act of aggression which seemed to come all too easily to him.

Then it was the nasty attack, led by the right-wing media, against the south London couple who reported to the police (and subsequently The Guardian), a noisy row between Mr Johnson and his current girlfriend Carrie Symonds involving screaming, shouting, the sound of glasses or plates being smashed, along with Ms Symonds telling Johnson to “get off me” and “get out of my flat”. Their intervention has been labelled “Corbynista curtain twitching” by Jacob Rees-Mogg, who, without any apparent irony, added “politicians should feel safe and unmolested in their own homes”.

There are only three questions that matter here. First, were the couple (and other neighbours) right to report what could have been domestic violence to the police? Yes. Secondly, were they right to record the fight as potential evidence? Yes. And thirdly, were they right to then hand over the recording to a newspaper? This one’s more subjective, doubt I’d have done it myself, but I think it’s hard not to accept there’s a legitimate public interest.

Even if you think they were wrong to go to the press, though, it’s unarguable that if, say, the story had been about Jeremy Corbyn and broken by the Telegraph, those same conservative commentators would take a very different view. That the physical safety of a young woman is seen through such a tribal lens reveals how far down the Trump rabbit hole we’ve jumped.

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As for the Conservative leadership race itself… I was going to write “it’s Boris Johnson’s to lose”, but I’m not sure that’s possible any more. Like Trump, the more that’s thrown at him the less any of it sticks. Their devotees have acquired an immunity to their heroes’ all too evident failings. Every time they feel compelled to defend another lapse, the greater their investment. And the sunk costs are now too large for them to feel able to sell up.

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There is, of course, another leadership contest, albeit one almost entirely ignored by the media: the battle between Jo Swinson and Ed Davey to take over from Vince Cable at the helm of the Lib Dems.

If, like me, you’re resolutely undecided* help is at hand. There are three special episodes of the ‘Never Mind the Barcharts‘ podcast featuring exclusive interviews by Mark Pack with each candidate: the first, with Jo, is available to listen to now:

(Also available at Breaker, Google Podcasts, iTunes, Overcast, Pocket Casts, PodBean, RadioPublic, Spotify or Stitcher.)

The second will feature Ed Davey, natch; and in the third, Mark and I will dissect their leadership pitches. To that end, I’m going to attend the south-east hustings at the slightly improbably venue of… Gatwick. Which is actually a very convenient stopping point on commute home.

* Full confession: I’m undecided whether to vote at all. Both candidates have impressive credentials and will, I’m sure, be capable leaders. But as my regular reader will know, I think the party’s full-throttle enthusiasm for gender self-identification is wrong-headed; and the attempts to shut down debate on the issue unhealthily illiberal. (See this ‘5 things…‘, for example.) It seems highly unlikely either Jo or Ed will make any effort to remedy that, as Ed Davey’s not-terribly-well-received Q&A on Mumsnet made clear. And while I remain an active supporter of the Lib Dems (overall, the pluses outweigh the minuses) I’m not currently in any particular mood to back either candidate. But maybe Gatwick will win me round. We’ll see.

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I felt genuinely sad over the weekend listening to the latest New Statesman politics podcast, featuring Helen Lewis and Stephen Bush, as it’s the last one Helen, who’s off to The Atlantic, will appear in. They have made it an absolutely essential listen, each with in-depth knowledge of the political scene but also bringing to it their own interests, whether theatre or football. Plus they’re very funny and have a great chemistry.

In her sign-off piece for the Staggers, Helen wrote a typically insightful piece about ‘Why political journalism keeps getting it wrong‘. Do read it in full, but this snippet stuck out for me:

The seductive power of the conventional narrative is one of the most distorting forces in political journalism. Jeremy Corbyn is useless, Donald Trump is a joke, Theresa May is the Iron Lady, Remain will win, the Liberal Democrats are finished, Nigel Farage has retired from politics. All of these seem true, until – suddenly – they are not. For commentators and reporters on the left, that is particularly tricky terrain to navigate, because the printed press is dominated by the right, and therefore the consensus tends to be sympathetic to that point of view.

For me, indulging in the teleological view of history is the first deadly sin of political journalism. It is also the easiest to cure – just stop doing it! Ask questions even if they seem odd or niche. Pin down politicians on under-considered scenarios. We must try to tune out what everyone else is obsessed with, and ask ourselves: what could happen that no one is talking about?

I’ve doubtless written many inadequate things over the years, but one article continues to make me cringe: 7 things I expect to happen in the next few days. I wrote it on the eve of the June 2017 election, despite having previously vowed not to indulge in easy sooth-saying prediction churnalism. It is eye-poppingly wrong on almost every count and it genuinely embarrasses me. ‘Just stop doing it,’ urges Helen, and she’s right.

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I’ve finished watching BBC2’s Mum, Stefan Golaszewski’s brilliantly observed sit-com about, well, a mum. As Golaszewski noted in an interview with The Times:

“The very naming of the sitcom as Mum, has, in various reviews, been totally misinterpreted,” Golaszewski says. “People saying, ‘Why have you called it Mum? It’s such a bland name for a sitcom.’ Or, ‘This isn’t a portrayal of motherhood.’ And that completely misses the irony of calling it Mum, because it’s a show about a woman trying to shake off the label of “mum”. That was the idea — you have this woman who is forced to live up to the expectations of others as a widow or as a mum.”

The final episode is a treat. The line “Yes, well you can go and f*** yourself” will leave you both cheering the put-upon Cathy and with new-found respect for arch-snob Pauline.

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