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It’s just 10 days until Christmas and we are still none the wiser about almost anything to do with the coronavirus restrictions or Brexit. But then in the Commons we had two cabinet ministers whose sole purpose is to know nothing. And, what’s more, they are proud of it. You might have thought their sense of futility would have kicked in by now, but I guess they both still get a thrill out of playing with the electric windows in their shiny ministerial limos.
First up was Alok Sharma, secretary of state for business, energy and industrial strategy, at departmental questions. Which is in itself an oxymoron as Sharma, one of the nicer ministers you could hope to meet, has never knowingly given a direct answer to anything. And today was no exception, as he had clearly decided, after waffling on for a few minutes about green energy that might happen in 2030 at the earliest, to give himself a break and let his junior ministers do most of the heavy lifting on Covid payouts and companies, such as British Airways, firing and rehiring employees.
Sharma’s only vaguely tricky moment came when Ed Miliband, Labour’s shadow business minister, observed that the hospitality industry had been left totally unsupported now that 60% of the country was in tier 3. This seemed to take Sharma completely by surprise and all he could say was that the government had gone the extra mile to help them. The problem was that many pubs and restaurants had been too conscientious about making their premises Covid secure, which obviously counted against them as currently the government seems to be running a complicated algorithm where the worse you are at your job, the more money you get. Hence Dominic Cummings’s 40% pay rise.
For his second question, Miliband moved on to Brexit. There were over 150,000 firms who still didn’t know what forms they would have to fill out in the new year because no one had a clue what the rules were. Other than that all lorries would have to be kept waiting for hours in an unfinished lorry park. This, too, came as a surprise to Sharma who now sounded like he was auditioning for an episode of Pointless Celebrities.
“Businesses just want us to do our best,” he said hopefully, before sidestepping any details of what the government’s various options might entail. Because deep down in his subconscious, he has this gnawing feeling that in a few months time the shit will really hit the fan whatever deal or no deal is reached. Just as well no one has got round to telling him that the French are planning to blockade Calais.
Still, Sharma comes across as an intellectual heavyweight compared to culture secretary, Oliver Dowden – a man with the hunted look of Foxton’s worst-performing estate agent, who was finally giving a statement, two years after it was promised, of what might appear in the government’s online harms bill. If and when it actually emerges as a white paper sometime next year.
The statement was a mirror image of Dowden’s own psyche. Long on “ground-breaking” waffle but short of any real clarity. That something needs to be done about illegal content, disinformation and cyberbullying is not in doubt; it’s Oliver’s ability to deliver it that is the issue. Labour’s shadow culture secretary, Jo Stevens, made little effort to conceal her sense of she’ll believe it when she sees it. Dowden looked devastated by the lack of enthusiasm – he really was giving it 110% – and was close to tears, before some colleagues reassured him they were certain it would be a very, very good bill if it ever happened.
There was rather more action away from Westminster, with the British Medical Journal and the Health Service Journal, stepping in to fill the indecision at the heart of government with a joint editorial begging Boris Johnson to rethink his plans to turn Christmas into a five-day free for all. Something which Keir Starmer was quick to follow up with his own letter to the prime minister, in which he pointed out the second round of tiering was going no better than the first and that it could be a good time to rethink the idea of hoping everyone would automatically behave sensibly over Xmas. And yes, he knew Boris had made a promise but people had long since stopped expecting him to keep promises.
Up in Scotland, Nicola Sturgeon was making her own coronavirus statement to the Scottish parliament. While the main body of her speech was on the new variant of the virus – thanks for nothing 2020 – and on the moving of three regions up to tier 3, most MSPs were waiting to see if the first minister would go rogue and unilaterally declare the Christmas amnesty null and void. In the past, Sturgeon has not been afraid to go it alone by bringing in restrictions before the other countries of the UK, but this time she was content to hold fire.
For the time being, at any rate. Sturgeon was the iron fist in the velvet glove, saying she was happy to work with all four nations but careful not to rule out the possibility of a change of course. It sounded very much like she would be leaning heavily on Michael Gove to have a rethink during their phone call later in the day. So we ended the day as we had started, with no one much the wiser. The government appears paralysed over Christmas. And in the absence of Boris yet to announce the Plan B we all know is probably coming, it looks like a wise move for the rest of us to make our own alternative arrangements.
Source: The Guardian
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