Drain the Swamp

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Castro died in Cuba, while Philip Hammond, somewhat to his critics’ surprise, avoided the same fate in the House of Commons….

The death of the greatest man that George Galloway ever met was greeted with merriment in Miami but lamentation on the streets of Havana and Islington. Cuban flags flew at half-mast – in Havana too probably – and Buena Vista bars the length and breadth of Upper Street fell silent. Mr Galloway is more by way of a peripatetic revolutionary, but wherever his followers are, no doubt they were weeping too, and perhaps crawling around on the floor dressed as cats, in the time-honoured manner of their tribe.

Leading his north London congregation in celebration of a life well-lived and a beard full-grown, Jeremy Corbyn observed that Fidel Castro had created a world-class health and education system. This seemed a little disloyal towards the NHS which, the left likes to hold, is in a world-class of its own. Yet people who measure these things say that Cuban health outcomes are respectable, and life expectancy is good. After all, old Fidel himself lived longer than all but three of America’s 38 deceased presidents, albeit that two of those were Ronald Reagan and Gerald Ford, which might stick somewhat in the leftist craw. However you look at it, it is clear that when she decided to keep Jeremy Hunt on as her Health Secretary, Theresa May made the wrong choice. But it is too late now.

Castro’s death capped a good week for the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond. Not only did he manage to deliver an Autumn Statement that was both mildly interesting and relatively positive, but another of his ambitions is more clearly in sight. We know that Mr Hammond wanted nothing more than to be in charge of the Treasury,  but now the Cuban’s demise has taken away the most serious obstacle between him and the title of the world’s most boring public speaker. The late dictator achieved record-levels of tedium by going on and on. His addresses could sometimes last longer than a test match. The Chancellor is more of a limited overs performer, but can attain a comparable soporific effect. He is thus, when it comes to the International Ennui Index, much the more productive performer.

This will please him no end. Mr Hammond has a passion for productivity and although his Statement never had anything as racey as a centrepiece, the new National Productivity Fund that he unveiled perhaps came closest. This will be supplied with £23 billion, which may seem a lot of taxpayers’ money to pay for Mr Hammond’s hobby, but to think that is to misunderstand just how deep Britain’s productivity crisis is. The Germans, the Chancellor explained, can make in four days what it takes the British five. This is not quite true. The Germans can make a lot of Mercedes or precision tools in four days; the British cannot make these things at all.

The Autumn Statement, which Mr Hammond proudly announced would be his last, was nonetheless rich in the modern tradition. There was the compulsory jibe at the expense of George Osborne and, as is also conventional, Labour MP’s ignored John McDonnell when he rose to respond, preferring instead to fiddle with their mobile phones. There was also the regulation joke about Boris Johnson. The Foreign Secretary is said to be growing weary at all the joshing he is receiving in public from his senior colleagues – although Boris saying that he is fed up with jokes is a little like the Pope declaring that he has had enough of nuns.

Less observed was that Mr Hammond’s passage on productivity also contained a dig aimed at Theresa May whom, we hear, he heartily dislikes. She, after all, has appointed three Cabinet ministers to get us out of the European Union. This is the sort of over-manning not seen since the 1970s and, moreover, they will probably achieve less for our side than one German woman will for hers. Angela Merkel though doesn’t have the handicap of having to spend half her time wrestling Mark Carney to the ground and trying to get a gag in his mouth. The Governor of the Bank of England once again cheerfully stepped outside his remit to declare that we should have two extra years beyond the two given us by triggering Article 50 to extricate ourselves from the single market. This is Brexit so soft you could roll it out with an Andrex puppy, and not in tune with the spirit of the times.

Received wisdom was that, when Mr Carney graciously agreed to stick around for an extra year or so in his role, we should consider ourselves fortunate. How comforting that this sophisticated, knowing, foreigner still wanted to have anything to do with us.  Our embrace of Mr Carney’s generosity seemed to owe less to his economic record (mixed) than to the overwhelming fancy of the age that in this pyretic world the only person you can trust is a Canadian. At least this is not just our problem. It is good to realise that in Justin Trudeau, the Canadian prime minister, Mrs Merkel at least has some competition to be declared the leader of the free and self-righteous world.

Mr Carney himself may feel that he was only responding to the lead shown by Mrs May when she addressed the CBI at the start of the week. She said then that she did not want our leaving the European Union to mean that the economy fell off a cliff. Brexit still means Brexit it seems, but at least it has now acquired this new and satisfying dimension. There could be a “transitional deal”, the Prime Minister hinted in answer to a question after her speech, although Downing Street later downplayed the comment. This is an interesting development in itself: Mrs May’s people are usually sent out to dismantle the policy commitments made on the hoof by one or more of the three Brexiteers; this is the first time that its well-honed unpicking skills have had to be deployed against the Prime Minister herself.

Still, it was nice of Mrs May to try to be sensitive towards business. The months since the referendum have not been kind to the sort of people who attend CBI conferences. Once the heroes of Britain’s capitalist economy, the people who put the private into privatisation, who took the glittering prizes from enterprise, they find themselves suddenly characterised as the constituent parts of a swamp which, according to the modish dictum,  needs to be drained. The masters of the universe are now the putrid emblems of globalisation which we bid retreat. Mrs May, not above giving her audience rude messages, as the Police Federation once found out, could have said all this, but she chose to trim. Besides, she may have felt that, having scattered David Cameron’s Cabinet to the four corners of the earth, she has already done her bit for draining the swamp.


The Honorary Consul

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British politicians were trapped in the carapace of their own humbug toward Donald Trump’s unexpected victory, leaving Nigel Farage to make his move…. 

Since we have arrived at the end of the week and Donald Trump hasn’t yet blown up the world, it may be time to start looking out for articles proclaiming that, once again, the experts have got it wrong. Then again, it is still early days, and, strictly speaking, The Donald isn’t yet the President. We have to wait until after his inauguration in January – a ceremony at which, incidentally, the face of President Obama sitting on the podium is going to be a joy to behold – before they let him near the button. By then, we are assured by the incurably naieve, he will have surrounded himself with enough “good people” who can tell him when and when not he can push it and, hopefully, to hit him on the back of the head if he doesn’t listen.

In Britain, the political class divided sharply in reaction to Mr Trump’s victory, between those who were, in the words of Margaret Beckett, a former foreign secretary, horrified and terrified and Nigel Farage. Theresa May, who has a habit of keeping her political views like her shoes, concealed in a cupboard until the most expedient ones can be displayed for maximum effect, congratulated the President-elect while studiously avoiding the question of whether she considered him to be fit to hold the office. Mr Trump shouldn’t necessarily consider this a slight. It is evident that Mrs May doubts whether her own foreign secretary is fit to hold the office, but that didn’t stop her appointing him in the first place.

Some commentators contrasted Mrs May’s approach to Trump unfavourably with that of Angela Merkel, who gave the President-elect a little Germanic lecture in values. The world’s other notable female leader – one refers, of course, to Nicola Sturgeon – more or less told Mr Trump that if he comes anywhere near her she will punch him in the mouth. The President-elect, who is unable to tell Scotland from a golf course (it is a not unuseful interpretation),  would seem unlikely to want to risk it.

But it was Mr Farage who caught the attention. There he was, glowing like plutonium in the television studios on that Wednesday dawn, as the final results from Michigan limped in, and the weary and dejected Maitlises and Pestons limped off. There he was, soaring across the Atlantic as Britain’s self appointed envoy to the new court. The Honorary Consul had taken flight.

Before long Mr Trump and Mr Farage were pictured side by side, standing inside what looked to be Tutankhamun’s tomb, but was presumably part of the Trump Tower. At the same time stories started to surface – there is no evidence to suggest that the source of these stories was anyone other than their subject and beneficiary – that Mr Farage would be the go-between between the Trump administration and Mrs May’s government. Since Mr Trump does not have an administration (harsh critics might aver that Mrs May doesn’t really have a government), it may be an unfair ask for anyone to form a relationship with it. This didn’t matter because the media were by now growing weary of publicising celebrity Tweets threatening suicide and promising emigration, and needed a new angle. Liam Fox, the Daily Telegraph reported, would consult Mr Farage before beginning one of his own ersatz trade negotiations, but Downing Street was quick to tell him to forget it. Like the other Brexiteers, Dr Fox is kept on an exceedingly short leash, terminating in the sort of collar familiar to one of Michael Heseltine’s dogs. Mrs May only has to twist it for Dr Fox to go limp.

Fiddling with the lead, Mrs May hung around for the best part of a day, waiting for The Donald to call. That she was ninth (or eleventh according to some reports) on his list of world leaders was accorded immense geopolitical significance and we were advised by smug commentators that Britain had clearly fallen down the world pecking-order behind Ireland, Egypt and South Korea. By the same token, however, we were ahead of Germany, France or even Russia, although presumably Mr Trump has no need to call his mate Vlad since the pair had been Snapchatting each other since CNN called Pennsylvania for the GOP. Trump and May talked about the special relationship, about Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher and about Brexit. The prime minister may have advised the President-elect that in his huge proposed programme of infrastructure spending it would be a good idea to build himself a beautiful telephone exchange.

Otherwise, politics in Britain hung frozen across the week, as politicians took time to absorb the news and reach the most peaceful accommodation they could with the violence of their own cant. The Liberal Democrats took the opportunity to break cover and pledge that they would not back the triggering of Article 50 unless there were a specific pledge to hold a second referendum. Eighty MPs are aligned with this position – a coalition-in-denial of Lib Dems, the SNP and Labour rebels. Officially Labour and Jeremy Corbyn have said that they will not stand in the way of triggering the Article, although loyalty to Mr Corbyn’s point of view is not currently Labour’s predominant characteristic. The Labour leader is nevertheless feeling surprisingly chipper. He has spotted in the Trump victory the essence of a populist revolt against the establishment that he believes will be replicated in Britain and carry him to power. What he may not have noticed is that populist Donald has one thing that populist Jeremy lacks, which is popularity.