Sarah Ingham: Could we hear less of Symonds, please? And more from Conservative Ministers.

1 May

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It’s curtains for the Prime Minister. As well as a sofa and some wallpaper.

The Cash for Cushions (and sundry furnishings) saga seems a heady old school mix, combining Are You Being Served? with Yes, Prime Minister. On Wednesday, the John Lewis marketing team treated its devoted middle-Britain fan base to a masterclass in crisis management. Reports that the Johnson-Symonds’ household wanted to rid themselves of the ‘John Lewis furniture nightmare’ at their No11 flat prompted the company to tweet.

With an image of one of its vans outside Downing Street captioned ‘a good thing we have a recycling service for pre-loved furniture’, its response was less musty Grace Brothers and more that other band of brothers; Sonny, Fredo and Michael Corleone. The company’s motto ‘Never Knowingly Undersold’ should be replaced with Winston Churchill’s ‘Never Let a Crisis go to Waste’.

John Lewis’s fleet-footed riposte to the reported bashing of its brand is a lesson for Number Ten – and in particular for the Prime Minister’s partner, Carrie Symonds. The former £80,000 a year Conservative Party communications’ chief seems to find it tricky to read the metaphorical room – especially, it seems, one decorated in anything from the lighting department in Peter Jones’ basement.

At the root of the current controversy over exactly who paid what and when for the refurb of the Prime Ministerial residence is concern about unaccountable influence over public policy.

Prime Ministers’ personal lives, which might include a taste for super-Sloane Soane soft furnishings, should not become a matter of public interest. And an unelected partner of any politician should never be suspected of meddling in policy.

Regrettably for Symonds, too many stories have appeared in the media about her sticking her oar in – for example, over badgers from being culled last summer, or the appointment of senior Downing Street staff.

Symonds’ supporters refuse to accept that any unaccountable influence wielded by her is a legitimate area of inquiry. Whenever the subject is brought up, unhelpfully for her, some, including Caroline Nokes, the Women and Equalities Committee Chair, attempt to shut it down with accusations of sexism and misogyny.

If anything is ‘dunked in 1950s sexism’ in Lord (Zac) Goldsmith’s memorable tweet attacking Symonds’ critic Dan Hodges of the Mail on Sunday, it is the outdated concept of the First Lord of the Treasury’s plus-one. Boundaries are blurred because 10 Downing Street is both Prime Ministerial home and workplace: there must be an enormous temptation for every day to be Take Your Squeeze to Work Day.

Just as voters do not pay good money for a ticket to a Premier League match to see footballers’ WAGs on the pitch, partners do not need to clutter up the Downing Street machine.

Johnson follows two female Prime Ministers – a decent-ish record for the Conservative Party, which has done much to get more women elected to Parliament and into local government in the past two decades.

Alas, for most of the year-long Covid crisis, the Government has chosen almost consistently to field an all-male team as its public face: Johnson, Hancock, Shapps, often Jenrick, with Sunak on the subs’ bench.

This snubbing of women who have actually gone to the trouble of getting themselves democratically elected makes the perceived reach of the unelected Symonds all the more toxic. What message does the Johnson administration and the Conservative Party want to send to women about their role in public life in 202? The current power-behind-the-throne optics are less dunked than steeped.

Haunted by Bill Clinton’s assertion to US voters they would be getting two-for-the-price-of-one, Hillary Clinton could only look feminists in the eye when in her own right she became a Senator in 2001. Unhappily for this talented woman, her unpopularity as interfering First Lady would never be properly erased when it came to her Presidential bid in 2016.

In contrast to Clinton, the quantum chemist, Prof Joachim Sauer, has been so low profile he is almost invisible in Germany where his wife, Angela Merkel, has been Chancellor since 2005. The Sauer approach, emulated recently by Sarah Brown and Philip May, is surely the least corrosive to public goodwill.

During the week, it was reported that the magnificent Baroness Boothroyd, the first woman Speaker, was being reprimanded for not attending an unconscious bias training course put on the benefit of members of the House of Lords, the equally doughty Arlene Foster announced her resignation as Northern Ireland First Minister and DUP leader.

Less helpfully for any women seeking inspirational political role models, Ursula von der Leyen confided she felt ‘hurt and left alone’ after her own problems with furniture at a meeting with Turkey’s President Erdogan, when she was isolated on a sofa. Never mind left alone: didn’t the dignity of her office demand she immediately leave the meeting, rather than subsequently tweet that the episode showed ‘how far we still have to go before women are treated as equals’? Perhaps von der Leyen should be a tad more mindful of the Suffragette slogan ‘Deeds not Words’.

As a comms specialist, Symonds would surely acknowledge the genius of the John Lewis tweets. The Prime Minister’s declaration of love for the brand and Sir Keir’s stampede to a store is recognition of its place in voters’ hearts.

As a political insider, however, she might well have winced at the sight of the furniture van on Whitehall next to the wrought-iron Downing Street gates. Another trifling ‘farrago of nonsense’ beside those gates grew and grew into Pleb-gate until it was curtains for a Ministerial career.

Sarah Ingham: Greensill – not so much “what does Jeremy think?” as “what on earth was Jeremy thinking?”

17 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

The Greensill controversy has come like pennies from heaven – and definitely not in a brown envelope – for the Leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition.

After a year as Labour leader, his personal Key Stage 1, SKeir Starmer’s approval ratings are at best tepid. Unsurprisingly at this week’s Prime Minister’s Questions, he sought to join various dots – ‘dodgy contracts, privileged access, jobs for their mates’ – to conjure up a picture of the return of Tory sleaze.

The former Director of Public Prosecutions clearly wishes to make the case that this Conservative administration is as tainted by corruption as John Major’s was almost three decades ago.

Sir Keir might have leapt on the Greensill bandwagon a tad hastily, without really knowing where it might end up. Although a former Conservative Prime Minister is ostensibly the star of the saga, it is becoming clear that this is might not be a story about Westminster, but Whitehall; about mandarins, not MPs and ministers.

Photographed with Lex Greensill, David Cameron’s very own Deal in the Desert raises a number of questions, not least whether the Aussie has shares in R.M Williams. But surely the most famous blue-suited bromance since Gerard Butler and Bradley Cooper were at Centre Court for the 2013 Wimbledon Men’s Final – however funny-odd the image is – has begun to fade compared with the more recent revelations about civil servants’ moonlighting.

The United Kingdom’s Chief Procurement Officer oversees a budget of £40 billion. The demands of looking after that huge amount of taxpayers’ hard-earned money apparently failed to preclude a side-hustle of working for Greensill for a couple of months. And it seems that Bill Crothers’ ‘one man, two guvnors’ approach might not be an isolated instance in Whitehall.

On Thursday, Lord Pickles, Chairman of the Advisory Committee on Business Appointments (Acoba), which guides former ministers and civil servants on outside employment, stated there ‘doesn’t seem to have been any boundaries at all’ between civil servants and the private sector.

The previous day at Prime Minister’s Questions, Boris Johnson suggested that it was not clear that those boundaries ‘have been properly understood’, although he thought that ‘it is a good idea in principle that top civil servants should be able to engage with business and should have experience of the private sector.’

As Crothers’ former boss, the late Lord Heywood of Whitehall, found, private sector experience is complicated. What Does Jeremy Think?  written by his widow Suzanne, details his three-year mid-career stint at Morgan Stanley, a job he took up in early 2004 ‘following the three months of unpaid leave required by the Cabinet Office’).

On his return to the civil service, working for Gordon Brown in the Cabinet Office, Heywood’s banking experience and contacts proved invaluable following the 2008 financial crash and its aftermath. Conversely, Morgan Stanley may have benefited from Heywood’s input in its pitch to work for QinetiQ, the former government defence research agency, which the bank hoped it would be able to help float on the Stock Exchange.

Ever since the Greensill story broke, the media has been gripped by an ethical panic, emulated this week by MPs. Sir Keir’s call for a Parliamentary Inquiry into the saga was defeated by 95 votes. This reminder of dismal political reality for the Opposition turns out to have been unnecessary. In a Parliamentary pile-on, no fewer than seven inquiries into lobbying have been set up, including by the Treasury Select Committee and the Public Administration and Constitutional Affairs Committee.

Such inquiries are pointless – creating as much hot air as the demands this week that Something Must Be Done. Something usually involves political grandstanding, followed by gratuitous legislation.

These inquiries should save themselves their time and our money by examining the existing ethical framework that governs the conduct of MPs, civil servants and others in the public sector. If the 1990s is being revisited by anyone trying to build a case concerning Conservative corruption, they should focus not on cash for questions, but the answers provided by Lord Nolan’s 1995 Report on Standards in Public Life.

This sets out expected ethical standards – including honesty, openness and integrity – because, as Nolan stated more than a generation ago, ‘people in public life are not always as clear as they should be about where the boundaries of acceptable conduct lie’.

In a 1993 MORI poll cited by Nolan, only 14 per cent of respondents generally trusted that politicians would tell the truth, opposed to 37 per cent trusting civil servants. MPs planning to involve themselves in Greensill autopsies should perhaps reflect on the finding that 69 per cent thought it wrong to accept free tickets to Wimbledon or other sporting events. Whether the public’s attitude towards freebies has changed since then is surely something to be considered by the Committee on Standards. Its on-going inquiry into the Code of Conduct for MPs is timely.

As Cabinet Secretary to two Prime Ministers and Head of the Home Civil Service, Heywood sought to modernise the mandarinate, while adhering to the overarching principles of public service, first set down in the 1854 Northcote-Trevelyan report: honesty, integrity and political impartiality.

Westminster and Whitehall are already bound by numerous laws and rules and, overseen by supervisory bodies such as the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority. The thickets of formal regulation that have grown up in the past few decades did not prevent Greensill or the MPs’ expenses’ scandal.

In January, the Standards Committee heard that the plethora of existing guidance can be ‘byzantine’. In his evidence, Graham Brady observed that something is lost if we move to a world where we are expecting absolute, detailed compliance with a detailed set of rules, ‘rather than an overarching expectation that members should behave with integrity and honesty’.

The rush towards Something Must Be Done should be paused. How about dusting off Nolan and Northcote-Trevelyan – and having a fresh look at ethics, values and standards, as well as the concept of trust?

Or, in another echo of the 1990s, going back to basics.

Sarah Ingham: We might have had a Juan Carlos or an Ernst August. Instead, we’ve had the Queen – and the Duke.

11 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

As the pomp and circumstance of a 41-gun salute led by the Royal Navy echoed around the United Kingdom and across the seas from noon on Saturday, it was a tribute to much more than a royal consort.

The passing of the Duke of Edinburgh has highlighted the towering contribution he made for more than seven decades in the service of this country, its people and the wider Commonwealth.

Like the Queen, to whom he swore fealty at the Coronation almost 70 years ago, he exemplified public service, duty and self-sacrifice.

Statistics compiled by the Press Association provide a snapshot of an extraordinary record; before his official retirement aged 96, he had undertaken 22,191 solo engagements and made 5,493 speeches. This does not include those ten of thousands of occasions he accompanied the Queen, both at home and abroad, in his chief role as Royal Consort. As an early Private Secretary, Michael Parker, explained: ‘He told me the first day he offered me my job, that his job, first, second and last, was never to let her down.’

For those of us daunted at the prospect of getting dressed up for a work do and an evening of indifferent food and small talk – if not tiny talk – with strangers, our sinking hearts must go out to the late Duke. Not for him crying off at the last minute or that extra glass of wine to help jolly things along. No looking bored or swallowing yawns, either. Year in, year out, he was permanently on parade.

The Duke’s decades as an exemplary consort would have been enough to earn him gratitude across the globe, but he gave so much more. He was involved in hundreds of charities, great and small, from the Society of Underwater Technology to the Junior Astronomical Society via the Alvis Owner Club. The Duke of Edinburgh’s Award was a counterpoint for millions of young people increasingly cocooned by a health and safety-obsessed culture, while the Duke himself wanted to build a green future long before the

Ecology Party became the Green Party. His concern about the under-reported problem of global over-population – a concern more recently shared by environmental scientist James Lovelock – is worth revisiting.

Like the majority of men his age, he had served the country in the Armed Forces during the Second World War, when he was mentioned in despatches. His anticipated life-time career in the Royal Navy was cut short with the Queen’s accession. Instead, he served Queen and country in a very different role.

In famously walking two paces behind The Queen, for decades Prince Philip offered the country moral leadership.

It is only following the Duke’s death that his qualities are being fully appreciated. In a pre-feminist era, many men would have baulked at publicly subordinating themselves to a woman. As the man in the shadows to a woman in the limelight, he pre-dated Denis Thatcher by more than a quarter of a century in time – and light years in public attitudes towards gender equality.

The Duke leaves behind a country where political leadership is not viewed as an honour in itself, but a potentially lucrative entry in the CV. His passing coincides with uncomfortable questions for David Cameron about lobbying on behalf of Greensill Capital, along with the general murkiness surrounding billions of pounds of Covid-related contracts which have led to accusations of cronyism.

For the Duke to have spent decades in the public eye beyond any reproach and above suspicion is testimony to him. Two examples in Europe point to might have been: King Juan Carlos and Prince Ernst August of Hanover. The former Spanish monarch was forced to abdicate and is now in exile following accusations of corruption, while the German prince last month received a suspended prison sentence for assaulting a police officer. Conversely, the Duke’s charge sheet seems to amount to handful of ill-chosen remarks.

Had he been a 26-year-old marrying into the Royal Family today rather than in 1947, much would have been made of his personal journey from stateless, penniless refugee to palace. Instead, as he said, ‘I just had to get on with it. You do. One does.’ This stoicism was apparent when he reflected on lost or wounded naval comrades. He observed: ‘It was part of the fortunes of war. We didn’t have counsellors rushing around every time somebody let off a gun . . . You just got on with it.’

The Duke was in hospital when Oprah Winfrey interviewed the Duke of Sussex. It is unimaginable that the Duke would ever have offered up to the media his unsettled childhood, his parents’ divorce or the history of his mother’s mental health in an effort to claim exculpatory victimhood and garner the sympathy of press and public. Following the loss of their patronages in February, the Sussexes declared: ‘We can all live a life of service. Service is universal.’ This underlines the generation gap between grandfather and grandson – and the gulf in their values.

In the hours after his death was announced, Boris Johnson stated that the Duke helped to steer the Royal Family and the Monarchy so that it remained an institution ‘indisputably vital to the balance and happiness of our national life.

On Friday evening the tenor bell at Westminster Abbey tolled 99 times, one for each year of the Duke’s life. The Queen has lost a beloved husband and the country has lost one of the most admirable public servants in its history.

Sarah Ingham: After the Batley protests and on this Easter Saturday, a case for tolerating religious belief

3 Apr

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

It says much about religion in this country that, during Holy Week, the Archbishop of Canterbury intervened in the ongoing row about freedom of speech and Islam.

The head of the Anglican Communion told La Repubblica: “We have to be open to hearing things we really dislike.” Justin Welby spoke as the storm over faith and free speech continued. It was sparked by a cartoon image of Mohammed which was allegedly shown to students during a religious studies lesson at Batley Grammar School.

As protestors gathered outside the school gates at the end of last week, the teacher involved was suspended and is currently in hiding. He reportedly fears that he and his family will be killed. A spokesman for the Batley Parents and Community Partnership, Yunus Linat, stated that the image was offensive and Islamophobic. Their children should be able to attend school “without having their faith – which is protected in law – or their culture, ridiculed, insulted or vilified”.

For those defending freedom of expression, there is no reason in heaven or on earth why faith should not be ridiculed, insulted or vilified. The sacred must take its chances with the profane. In a letter to Gavin Williamson, Toby Young of the Free Speech Union called for the Department of Education’s guidance on British values to be amended to ensure free speech is prioritised.

In Britain, ‘we don’t do God’ too much. Should we go to church, most are not C of E, but C and E; Christmas and Easter. This is confirmed by the Church of England’s Statistics for Mission. It reports that in 2019, on average 690,000 attended Sunday services, but 1.1 million went to church at Easter, while 2.3 million did so at Christmas, when one third of received Communion.

Perhaps swayed by Alastair Campbell, Tony Blair didn’t “do God” until after he left office. Of recent Prime Ministers, only Theresa May seemed entirely comfortable with public displays of faith. Regularly caught on camera leaving her parish church, the middle-England, Waitrose-shopping vicar’s daughter perfectly embodies the description of the Church of England being ‘the Tory party at prayer’.

Looking like a man born to read a lesson at Matins, David Cameron famously said his faith came and went, a bit like the reception for Magic FM in the Chilterns. In the Church Times, he also wrote about the Church of England being rooted in the fabric of nation. Describing churches in his Witney constituency that ‘take your breath away with their beauty, simplicity and serenity’, he called for Anglicans ‘to be more evangelical about a faith that compels us to get out there and make a difference to people’s lives.’

Since the Batley cartoon controversy broke, many commentators have rushed to the barricades to defend freedom of speech. Notably absent from the articles and blogs is any reproduction of the offending image, which allegedly first appeared in the French satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo in 2015. Given that it led to the 12 people being shot dead, it is unsurprising that few are in any hurry to reprint: je ne suis pas Charlie.

For the commentariat to treat this cartoon as radioactive but then demand it be shown in schools is baffling. It is almost as baffling as the clumsy decision to include it in a lesson plan, especially after the execution of French teacher Samuel Paty last October, after it was mendaciously claimed that he showed images of the Prophet to his students.

Ten years ago, the 2011 Census seemed to highlight a move away from religion – or more accurately, from Christianity. Some 14 million people in England and Wales – 25 per cent – answered ‘No Religion’, up from 7.7 million in 2001. About 2.7 million people identified as Muslim, up from 1.5 million in ten years. Although the number of those identifying as Christian had dropped since 2001, it still stood at 33.2 million, accounting for 59 per cent of those who replied.

As we await the results of the 2021 Census, its predecessor probably did little to gladden the heart of zealous atheist Professor Richard Dawkins, author of The God Delusion. A decade ago, its findings underlined that Britain is a Christian country, but one where, with his usual prescience, Prince Charles was correct in talking about being a future defender of faiths.

Much of the comment surrounding recent events at Batley Grammar School has vilified sincerely held religious belief, while suggesting that British values are under threat. But many consider that the foremost British value which they hold dear is tolerance – which includes tolerating the creeds of others.

As the Archbishop stated, “Exercise your freedom of speech but don’t prevent other people exercising their freedom of speech”. He reminded us that the blasphemy laws were abolished comparatively recently, with the support of the Church. Blasphemy, he suggested, is “morally a bad choice, in the sense of denigrating other people’s faith in a bad way, but it should not be a criminal matter”.

Tolerance should be extended to the couple of dozen demonstrators who made their noisy protest outside the Batley school gate: equally those protestors should reciprocate that tolerance. Perhaps this weekend, above all, they should reflect on the Christian message of forgiveness.

Happy Easter. As the late, great comedian Dave Allen used to say, may your God go with you.

Sarah Ingham: After the party, the hangover. This week, the Integrated Review. Next Monday, defence cuts?

20 Mar

Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant.

As civilians bask in the sunlit vision of Global Britain described in Tuesday’s Integrated Review, this is an anxious weekend for the country’s military.

Monday’s Defence Command Paper will set out the future for Britain’s Armed Forces. The lull between the two Reviews is less than a week, but it might well represent the gulf between the dreams and reality.

As the Prime Minister set out his plan for Global Britain in a Competitive Age, the fizzing, optimistic Boris we know, love and elected with a stonking 80-seat majority was back.

Global Britain outlined the country’s security and international policy objectives for the next five years and beyond. The Prime Minister-penned foreword crackles with can-do about a stronger, more secure and prosperous Britain being a force for good in the world. In the Commons on Tuesday, he was no less upbeat. Britain would be a science superpower, lead by example on Carbon Net Zero, and be ‘more dynamic abroad.’ Not for Britons ‘the cramped horizons of a regional foreign policy.’

Few listening seem to have been troubled by the paradox that the horizons of Britain’s citizens are currently pretty cramped as we are currently under house arrest and forbidden to leave the country to see the world which the Prime Minister was describing. Planet Integrated Review is not only post-pandemic but is a place where the West seems mysteriously unaffected by its governments icing their economies for a year and racking up trillions in debt.

Global Britain was described as ‘the most comprehensive Review since the Cold War’. For those connected to the Armed Forces with long memories of previous Defence Reviews, this phrase probably caused hearts to sink a tad.

Following the fall of the Soviet Union, in July 1990 John Major’s government published Options for Change, its post-Cold War assessment of Britain’s future defence capability. Its aim was ‘smaller forces, better equipped, properly trained and housed and well-motivated.’

Many Forces’ personnel were right to stop listening after ‘smaller’: the government aimed to cut strength by 18 per cent over five years, down to 155,000 Servicemen and women.

Highlighting the difference between the theory of defence reviews and the actual practice of international events, less than a week after the launch of Options for Change, Saddam Hussein invaded Kuwait. For all the talk of The End of History and President George HW Bush’s new world order, within weeks British armour and boots were on the ground in Saudi Arabia ahead of the Gulf War.

The swingeing cuts to the Royal Navy outlined in the 1981 Defence Review were on the brink of being implemented just as Argentina invaded the Falkland Islands. Had the Buenos Aires junta delayed, the core of the naval task force – HMSs Hermes, Invisible, Fearless and Intrepid – would have probably been scrap and Port Stanley today would still be renamed Puerto Argentino. Sir Lawrence Freedman, the official historian of the conflict, observed that the Falklands ‘was precisely the war for which Britain was planning least’.

While the Blair government’s 1998 Strategic Defence Review is lauded for trying to marry strategic ends and military means, its successors failed to anticipate how protracted the campaigns in Iraq and Afghanistan might be. The Coalition’s abysmal 2010 Review saw the sell-off of Forces’ family silver, including the Royal Navy’s flagship HMS Ark Royal and RAF Nimrods.

Having banged on about the Military Covenant – the unwritten compact by which Forces’ personnel will be supported in exchange for their service to the nation – David Cameron was caught on camera being berated by a soon-to-be-unemployed Harrier pilot whose fleet was about to be axed. A UK aircraft carrier might have come in handy during the 2011 NATO intervention in Libya when France deployed the Charles de Gaulle.

Despite Boris Johnson’s assertion that Global Britain is not a reflection of old obligations, the Integrated Review’s tilt to the Indo-Pacific region inevitably conjures up the UK’s long-lost military and naval reach, which stretched far beyond the Mediterranean. The January 1968 decision to withdraw from all bases East of Suez – which marked a turning point in Britain’s defence and foreign policy – was not made in any Review but on ‘black Tuesday’ by a Harold Wilson Cabinet buffeted by the shock devaluation of sterling two months earlier.

In the context of defence, Global Britain reinforces the direction of travel for the Armed Forces set out in September’s Integrated Operating Concept. In a speech on the IOC, the Chief of the Defence Staff General, Sir Nick Carter highlighted how Britain’s military must shift from ‘an industrial age of platforms to an information age of systems’. In November, the Prime Minister announced that defence spending would be boosted by £16.5 billion over the next five years, with £6.6 billion going to research and development, particularly AI.

Global Britain underlines the ongoing commitment to NATO, how current defence spending at 2.2 per cent of GDP exceeds the Alliance’s minimum, and that the Government is on the starting blocks to begin the biggest programme of defence investment for three decades, which will include the newer battlegrounds of cyber and space.

Along with the exhilarating prospect of the next generation of naval vessels, Dreadnought submarines and the Future Combat Air System, is the intent towards ‘reshaping our Armed Forces for a more competitive edge’. Andy Smith, the Director of Defence UK observes: ‘The Integrated Review is a very good start, but until we see more of the details on funding and capabilities, the jury is out.’

We will have confirmation on Monday about whether Britain’s Armed Forces are to be the world’s most technologically advanced, able more effectively to operate in the grey zone between war and peace – and will be smaller.

Sarah Ingham: The Duchess, the Queen – and that Oprah interview. It’s time for Johnson to step in.

14 Mar

Dr Sarah Ingham is the author of The Military Covenant: Its Impact on Civil-Military Relations in Britain.

Boris Johnson may have wanted to be the reincarnation of Winston Churchill, but it looks increasingly likely that he has to be the next Stanley Baldwin.

Baldwin played a crucial role in the Abdication of King Edward VIII in 1936: as the leader of Her Majesty’s Government,  Johnson must step in and help sort out the constitutional mess that is being created by the Duke and Duchess of Sussex.

Make no mistake, the fall-out from the Sussexes’ interview with Oprah Winfrey is perilous for the future of the Crown. The monarchy is the symbol of Britain’s national unity or it is nothing.

Thanks to the insinuations by Prince Harry and his wife, the heir to the throne and his successor stand accused of being racists. At the time of writing, it is not known who speculated about the skin tone of the Sussex’s unborn child: although the couple deigned not identify the culprit, they intimated that such conjecture was made from the basest of motives.

The Queen’s response to the interview, which has now been watched by tens of millions, stated that the matter will be dealt with privately. No one can blame her for not wanting any more royal monogrammed linen to be washed in public, but the Sussex’s accusations are a matter of state.

Racism is a grievous accusation to level against any individual or institution. It is often career-ending, as the Duchess’s close friend Jessica Mulroney can attest.

In the last 12 months, British society has become increasingly polarised about race. Taking the knee, Black Lives Matter, the Edward Colston statue, slave-ownership and National Trust properties, Covid and the BAME community …we are living in fractious, fissiparous times. This is all the more reason why the Crown must be believed not only to be above the political fray, but, more importantly, above suspicion in connection with that most socially divisive of all political issues: racism.

In a constitutional monarchy, the personal is political. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex have raised the spectre that a future head of state is a racist. Should any politician have a similar accusation made against them, it is highly unlikely that they would ever become Prime Minister, having weekly audiences with the sovereign.

And not content with doing their best to destabilize the monarchy, the Sussexes are threatening free speech and the freedom of the press.

Reports that a Royal Duchess brought pressure to bear on ITV, one of Britain’s national broadcasters are alarming. Can we look forward to the company’s new series – Britain’s Got Feudalism?

Just as ITV’s share price began to plummet following the departure from Good Morning Britain of that Scourge of Sussex, Piers Morgan, The Sun was carrying another report on media interference by the Duke and Duchess: their PR people allegedly told the BBC not to use just ‘old white men’ in any post-interview analysis. Shall we all sit down to Are You Being Serfs?

Holly Lynch, a Labour MP, demanded that a media environment be created ‘where a woman isn’t hounded in the way we saw Meghan Markle being hounded’. Presumably, she is not talking about Vanity Fair cover stories or guest editorships of Vogue.

“What Meghan wants, Meghan gets” should have remained the outburst of a besotted fiancé, never becoming the guiding principle of a publicly-listed television company or of our state broadcaster. It certainly should not be a call-to-arms by a Labour MP, whose Halifax constituents are probably wondering why she is choosing to channel her energies into the plight of a wealthy duchess living the dream in California.

Of course, Britain could be thanking the Sussexes for providing us with a much-needed diversion from the longueurs of lockdown. Giving us plenty to pick over, the Oprah interview raised questions in households up and down the land, not least how the American duchess can cope with Harry’s English teeth. Indeed, slanted a different way, injected with a bit more gratitude and grace, the programme might have been considered an act of ‘universal’ service that the couple alluded to last month when they lost their royal patronages.

Instead, a family psychodrama has been played out in public, creating one of the biggest crises in the Queen’s long reign. What are Commonwealth countries making of the Sussexes’ allegations?

Living in the United States, the Duke and Duchess of Sussex are no longer invested in this country. They are heedless of the damage they are currently doing to Britain or to the Crown. How many more incendiary interviews will there be in the years ahead? There are also the long hours of podcasts and broadcasts the Sussexes have to fill for Spotify and Netflix, who will be wanting their multi-million dollar of flesh.

As a British Army Officer, Prince Harry took an oath of allegiance to ‘honestly and faithfully defend Her Majesty, her heirs and successors’. We can infer from the interview that this is now irrelevant to him. Why should he remain one of those successors?

The Duke and Duchess of Sussex received their titles and status as working royals, but they resigned more than a year ago. Boris Johnson must find his inner Stanley Baldwin and act.  Her Prime Minister should advise the Queen that as private citizens, the Sussexes can intervene in politics, jeopardise the monarchy and try to muzzle the press and free speech all they like.  He should suggest that, however, Britain cannot risk allowing them, in any royal capacity, to trash this country or its institutions ever again.

Sarah Ingham: Corbyn and his gang could scarcely have handled coronavirus worse than the Government

20 Feb

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea and Fulham Conservative Association.

Might it have been better if Jeremy Corbyn and his band of merry Trots won the December 2019 General Election?

Had Corbyn and the comrades somehow got their hands on the levers of power, it is unlikely that the press, Parliament and public would let them get away with the assault on our liberties and livelihoods in the doomed attempt to combat Covid-19 that we have experienced since 23rd March 2020.

Lockdown was supposed to last for three weeks. Eleven months on, not only are we under house arrest and but we are kettled in Britain, forbidden to leave the country. We are warned that we face a ten-year prison sentence if we fib about our travel history. Meanwhile, millions are on furlough and thousands of businesses have vanished.

Declaring it wanted to put its arms around us, this Government has brought the country to its knees and the state has its boot on our collective windpipe.

Britain’s economy has been trashed and children’s education destroyed, the long-term health of millions sacrificed and ancient liberties cast aside. This Government has jettisoned every Conservative principle. We have statist Corbynism by stealth, aided and abetted by supine MPs who were only too happy to get themselves elected on the Tory ticket.

The party for which millions voted in December 2019 stood for Brexit, but also for Conservatism. This means a love of freedom, personal responsibility and a level of state intervention which protects society’s vulnerable. Voters believed that the Party was on the side of enterprise and business, that it was instinctively wary of meddling officialdom.

Statist authoritarianism has now become almost as routine as serial incompetence, cronyism and the non-stop barrage of Covid-related propaganda paid for by us. Orwell’s Two Minute Hate only lasted two minutes.

A disproportionate amount has been exacted to ‘save lives’, but it has failed. If the Government’s measures were so successful, how it is Britain’s death rate is among the highest per capita in the world? The threat to bang us up for going to the Algarve would not be justified even if, instead of 115,000, 1,500 had perished from the virus – as in South Korea.

If John McDonnell were in Number 11 would we be so relaxed about the Government’s discovery of a Magic Money Forest, or about the billions disappearing in Bounce Back loans? No wonder many are braced for confiscatory taxes in next month’s budget.

Children are the collateral damage in all this, but it’s not Piers and Poppy at their expensive prep schools who are missing out. Should Angela Rayner be at the helm of the Education Department, the teaching unions might not be so stroppy – and so happy to bake in social disadvantage by denying schooling to the most under-privileged.

Had Prime Minister Corbyn’s team exercised power in the arbitrary manner of this government, it is hoped that Conservatives MPs would have channelled their all-too-latent Oliver Cromwell or John Pym. But instead of holding the overmighty Executive to account, with a few honourable exceptions, our MPs have had their trotters up for 11 months. With only 50 MPs allowed in the Commons’ Chamber,  Parliament is not so much hybrid as comatose. Bring back Bercow.

For almost a year, democracy has been iced. The warning bells sounded when the under-scrutinised Coronavirus Bill was fast-tracked in one day through a pandemic-spooked Parliament. Questions about why the 2004 Civil Contingencies Act was not being deployed were brushed aside. Specifically drawn up to deal with emergencies, regular Parliamentary oversight is integral to the CCA – unlike the Coronavirus Act.

Asleep-at-the-switch MPs are allowing rule by ministerial caprice. Currently, ministerial wishes are commands, to be interpreted by Britain’s police forces. Exercise within five miles from home, for an hour a day? In relation to the lockdown, the cause of liberty – the lodestar of Conservatism – is not helped by the deliberate muddying of the difference between the law and the guidance.

Against expectations, we have a vaccine and the roll-out is going spectacularly well. Millions have also had the virus, but we are hearing little about the possible immunity it confers. In addition, because of natural immunity it is far from impossible that some might never succumb to Covid-19 at all… All this is surely a cause for celebration. Plans should be made to unlock as much as possible, as soon as possible.

When the penny finally drops for the slow learners around the Cabinet table and on the Government benches in the Commons that Covid-19 is not the bubonic plague, perhaps they might recover a sense of proportion and political nous. ‘Until the public inquiry’ is this year’s ‘kicking the can down the road’.

Because they are going unchallenged, too many of Labour’s narratives are taking hold, among them locking down too late. But from about 8th March, the majority of the public was making its own risk assessment, not waiting for state directives about ‘stay home’. Unlike too many elected Conservatives, Jo/Joe Public was being Conservative. This same public differentiates between the death of teenagers and those aged 80+. They wonder why the Government has been in thrall to do-as-I-say, not-as-I-do scientists.

If Corbyn and his followers are not to have the last laugh, perhaps Conservative MPs could reflect on a title of a book to which some Tory ministers contributed – Britannia Unchained. If irony hasn’t died, how about some action this day?

Sarah Ingham: How so many gym-goers escaped Covid-19 is one of the great mysteries of this virus

22 Jul

Dr Sarah Ingham is a member of Kensington, Chelsea & Fulham Conservatives and launched the Gym-Goers’ Covid-19 survey.

On a spectrum of illness that runs from a mild cold to the Black Death, many of us have put Covid-19 at the fatal end of the range.

This is unsurprising. The initial images of the illness would not have been out of place in a disaster movie. People apparently lying dead in the eerily empty streets of Wuhan; the intubated patients in Italian intensive care units reminiscent of autopsy scenes, and the teams in hazmat suits.

That this particular Coronavirus may have been cooked up in a biological warfare lab in China has added to the apocalyptic nature of the threat. With the Steven Soderbergh film Contagion suddenly more like fact than fiction, many didn’t wait for the Government officially to order the lockdown on March 23.

By the second week of March they were already shielding themselves and their families. Children were pulled out of schools, essentials were stockpiled and events cancelled. The Government might have been following the science, but the great British public followed its gut instinct and stayed at home. It looked wise in the light of the prediction of 500,000 deaths, which it later transpired was instrumental in locking down the country.

Death at Teatime sounds like a cosy Agatha Christie mystery, but is in fact what the daily Downing Street press briefings became. This statistical ritual, with its rising death toll – first in hundreds, then in thousands, then in tens of thousands – reinforced initial impressions about the infectiousness and lethality of Covid-19.

When gyms and fitness studios reopen on Saturday, four long months will have passed since the lockdown was introduced. And it is surely in the context of the indoor sports sector that we can start questioning our current assumptions about Covid-19 and whether State-induced mortal fear promulgated by Government ministers is justified.

Among the mysteries surrounding Covid-19 – including when it actually arrived in Britain – is how any of the country’s gyms-goers and fitness studio fiends escaped it before the Government imposed the Lockdown.

Anyone who was a regular in one of Britain’s gyms, studios or indoor sports centres before their closure in March can testify that most were hardly operating-theatre sterile, particularly in city centres where space is at a premium.

Machines or mats crammed together, shared equipment, crowded changing rooms… Many working out got up close and personal with the heavy breathing and sweat of their fellow fitness fans whether they wanted to or not, in environments which were often strangers to anti-viral wipes.

Hot yoga fans relished classes in fetid, rammed studios heated to close to 100 degrees. Covid-19 was supposed to be dangerously infectious, justifying the emergency Coronavirus Act of March 25, which enabled the police, immigration and public health officials to detain “potentially infectious persons”.

Civil libertarians across the political spectrum have expressed concerns about the Act: the Institute for Economic Affairs states it imposes the “greatest restrictions on liberty in modern British history” while Liberty says it “strips away our civil liberties”. The enforced closure of gyms and studios follows a record-breaking year.

The 2019 State of the UK Fitness Industry Report by Leisure DB highlights that total UK membership broke the 10 million mark, with one in seven of us now members of a gym, while the number of fitness centres reached an all-time high. The industry is worth more than £5 billion a year.

Regulars to gyms, as well as yoga and pilates studios, are now getting updates about the measures that will be in place ahead of Saturday’s reopening. These might include screens around machines such as cross-trainers, fewer people in classes and more cleaning, making them very different places compared with the pre-lockdown era.

Whether regulars will return to their pre-Covid fitness regimes is the question that must be haunting the industry. With predictions about working from home, is working out at home also going to become the new normal?

And just as privately-owned centres might be soon feeling the financial burn, public fitness facilities, many funded by local authorities, are facing an uncertain future: reports last week from ukactive suggested that Britain is “sleep walking” towards losing many of them.

Like restaurants and cinemas, gyms can create a safe, socially-distanced environment, but it is not automatic that punters will have the confidence to return to them. Since March, the Government’s Project Coronavirus Fear has been relentless, putting Covid-19 at the Black Death end of the illness scale, bolstered by a media which has delighted in drinking the Corona apocalypse Kool-Aid.

But if Covid-19 were lethal and infectious enough to justify a four-month lockdown that was only supposed to last three weeks, then surely our indoor gyms and fitness studios would have been the places to find high rates of transmission?

Although the numbers dropped throughout the month, one boss of a leading high-end gym chain estimates there were at least 20 million gym visits in March, as peak virus was being reached.

Wouldn’t a London-based yoga teacher who was teaching 350 students a week have caught it, along with her colleagues and students?

She didn’t; they didn’t: why not?

Perhaps, as Roosevelt once suggested, most of us have nothing to fear but fear itself.