Iain Dale: Covid-19. There is no good reason why the arts sector should get a billion pound bailout while coach operators do not

2 Oct

Iain Dale presents the evening show on LBC Radio and the For the Many podcast with Jacqui Smith.

Like most of you (I hope) I was absolutely appalled by the US Presidential debate on Wednesday. I stayed up to watch it, last I have done for virtually every debate of this kind since I saw Ronald Reagan whip Jimmy Carter’s sorry ass in 1980.

I suppose that I knew what was about to happen but, even so, to see it actually unfurl in front of my eyes was a real shock.

Trump was at his bombastic worst, flailing around in all directions and socking it to Joe Biden from start to finish. He ignored all the rules of the debate and reduced the moderator, Chris Wallace from Fox News, to a jabbering wreck.

All Biden had to do in response was be vaguely coherent and look statesmanlike. He failed on both counts. He was like a rabbit in the headlights, barely able to get a sentence out without stuttering. He repeatedly said ‘here’s the deal’ without actually explaining what the deal was. He lost his cool too often, and insulted Trump in the same childish way that Trump insulted him.

They both made our own political leaders look like giants in comparison. Even Boris Johnson at his blustering worst couldn’t have been as bad as either of these two embarrassments to their nation. And to think that there are two more of these debates to come. Watching them will be like rubbernecking a train crash – one for the whole of America.

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The understandable tension that exists between protecting the nation’s health and reopening the economy has been stark this week.

Whatever decisions the Government takes are bound to be wrong for either side of the extremes of this debate. Taking the ‘right decision at the right time’ is proving to be impossible.

Everyone hailed the Eat Out to Help Out Scheme: it certainly did wonders for the restaurant industry, and probably saved some businesses from going under.

But there’s also little doubt that it gave people a false sense that everything was about to return to normal. Not so. Coronavirus will be with us for many, many months to come. Normality – whatever that is – will not return until a mass vaccinisation programme is launched, and that won’t be until well into 2021.

Until then, everyone will have to adapt the best they can. For some sectors, it will be easier than others. The wedding industry, together with events and exhibitions, get a lot of publicity for the understandable woes they’re going through, but there are plenty of other sectors which don’t get any publicity at all, but are suffering just as badly.

I’ve taken up the cause of coach operators, who are going through some incredibly tough times, especially the smaller, often family-owned businesses. These are perfectly good and viable companies yet, through no fault of their own they are now living on a financial precipice.

These are the companies I hope that the Government will find an innovative way of helping. Banks cannot be relied on to come to their rescue and, while I fully accept that taxpayer subsidies cannot go on for ever, there is no reason that the arts and culture sectors should get a £1.5 billion bailout, when others are getting the sweet sum of diddly squat.

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After a couple of weeks of stories speculating about the Prime Minister’s health, motivation, finances and mojo, it’s been good to see him re-enter the fray this week, and actually looking and acingt the part.

Bluster will always be part of Johnson’s armoury, but he has to learn when it’s appropriate to deploy it and when not. In Prime Minister’s Questions this week, he decided to reduce it to Defcon 4, which was the right thing to do.

His statement to the Commons and press conference were at least part way to rediscovering the Boris of old. Now that the stories have started about the timing of his eventual departure from the job, it will be difficult to stop them.

The crucial factor here is whether he actually enjoys the job, and whether it is what he thought it would be. In any normal era, winning an 80 seat majority would mean you had a cast-iron right to fight the next election. (Of course, in 1987 Margaret Thatcher won a 100 seat majority and was out on her ear only three and a half years later.)

Contrary to what some people are writing, Conservative MPs may be a bit whingey and whiny at the moment, but they know that there would be no appetite to turf out a Prime Minister who won an election only nine and a half months ago.

No, if Johnson decides to depart early, it will his decision and his decision alone. The historical precedents suggest that his is unlikely to occur. With the exception of Harold Wilson, no Prime Minister in the last century has left office voluntarily. And before you cite Macmillan and Eden at me, both were forced to resign because of ill health. Blair was forced out by Brown, long before he really wanted to go, too.

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Tomorrow I am speaking (in person, rather than via Zoom) at the Cheltenham Literature Festival. The audience will be socially distanced and I’m not even sure I’m allowed to do a conventional book signing afterwards. Strange times.

Ben Roback: Whoever won yesterday’s travesty of a presidential debate in America, it certainly wasn’t the voters

30 Sep

Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.

Did you stay up to watch last night’s presidential debate? It’s impossible: you can’t have done, because no presidential debate took place last night. Shouting took place. Arguing happened. Insults were thrown. Accusations were levelled.

Chris Wallace, the moderator, was hardly a rose between two thorns. He did very little moderating. In many ways, he was given an impossible task – it looked at times like he was trying to nail jelly to the wall. Short of a remote control fitted with a mute button, there was no silencin either Donald Trump or Joe Biden.

The president likes to describe CNN as a poster child of the “fake news media” when its pejorative coverage shines a bad light on him. But neither Republicans nor Democrats will be pleased to see the verdict of Jake Tapper, that channel’s Chief Washington Correspondent: “That was a hot mess. Inside a dumpster fire. Inside a train wreck. That was the worst debate I have ever seen. It wasn’t even a debate. It was a disgrace.” Revere, fear or abhor CNN, it was hard to disagree with Tapper’s conclusion.

The President entered the stage in Ohio on the back foot. Were voters heading to the polls tomorrow, the outlook points to something of a blue wave. Joe Biden leads in key swing states like Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan and Arizona, with at least five more – Florida, Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and North Carolina – toss-ups.

In June, this column pondered whether the terms of the debate for the election might change drastically by November. At the time, we were deeply entrenched in police relations and race riots. We are now focussed on race again, but amidst the unexpected curveballs of the President’s leaked tax returns, a vacant Supreme Court seat, and with it the future of Roe vs. Wade.

This most unpredictable of elections is not going to become any more stable any time soon. The 2020 election dynamic could be upended at any moment. and the only guarantee is uncertainty.

And so to the debate.

Anyone expecting a serious discussion about the future of America will have gone to bed both tired and disappointed. That seems, at best, curious and, at worst, deeply disappointing, given the tipping point at which the country finds itself. The President who is inaugurated on Wednesday 20 January 2021 (we expect) faces a long and growing list of domestic and international challenges.

First, a country at increasing odds with itself over race relations. The heart of America beats faster as tensions deepen between communities.

It seemed genuinely staggering that in a presidential debate, one candidate – the incumbent no less – had to be asked “are you willing to condemn white supremacists and militia groups?” Consider that for a moment.

The President’s answer rightly caused consternation and concern for anyone who thinks that the fallout from the election outcome could spill over onto the streets of an increasingly armed America. “Proud boys, stand back and stand by.”  The Fighting Anti-Semitism and Hate organisation describes the Proud Boys as representing “an unconventional strain of right-wing extremism. The Biden campaign’s response was swift.

Second, healing the wounds of Covid-19 and averting further health and economic crises. The President surprised many by declaring himself pro-mask, and even pulling one from his blazer pocket. It was a shrewd move that kneecapped Biden, who’d accused him of doubting the science.

But, in true Trump fashion, it was swiftly followed by doubts over the recommendations of Anthony Fauci and the Centers for Diseases Control. The Trump tactic? Shock and awe. Chaos and confusion.

Third, accepting the outcome of the election. America is not a country of coups. The peaceful transfer of power is enis enshrined in the core of American society.

For now. Because the President has made a habit of casting doubt over the veracity of the election process and outcome, should it produce anything other than a handsome Trump victory. During last night’s debate, he again floated the notion that the result might need to be decided by the Supreme Court. Hence the GOP drive to jam Amy Coney Barrett’s nomination through with haste. The 2020 election seems destined for the courts – so we could be looking well into 2021 before we get a definitive result.

Can anyone have really ‘won’ a debate that took place in this way ?  It feels wrong to decipher a ‘winner’ from last night’s events. It  was certainly not the watching voters. More than three-quarters of those who saw it felt the tone was negative (83 per cent) with over two-thirds (69 per cebt) annoyed by it (CBS/YouGov).

The President sought to bully and dominate like he did – rightly or wrongly, but ultimately so successfully in 2016. The Biden campaign, scarred by the affect it had on Hillary Clinton, pursued a different approach.

Trump spent most of the debate looking at Biden and cutting him off wherever possible. At times, Biden fought fire with fire, but his goal was clearly to try to appear the adult in the room.

At times, this approach seemed overly passive. So Biden rarely looked at the President and mostly addressed the moderator or spoke down the camera, seeking to engage the American people directly.

After over an hour of cross-talk that bordered on two angry relatives shouting at each other across the dining room table, it is a wonder any of the American public were still watching. It makes for an unedifying prospect as one looks ahead to the two remaining debates on 15 and 22 October.