18 April 2019
Lens on the Week
BREXIT: The six months extension gives time for contemplation and the Government and Labour retire to their respective corners to think. The trouble is that the gap looks unbridgeable with the Tories unable to accept continuing membership of the market with its bar on third party trade deals and Labour unable to agree that May’s deal was probably the best that can be done. because it would make them look bad. Maybe the period of contemplation will persuade Mrs May that a referendum is the only way of resolving it.
Meanwhile politics turns to more normal channels with a pledge to abolish SATS for primary schools from Labour and a proposal to remove the rights of Landlords to evict without cause from the Conservatives.
MISREMEMBERED: Pity poor Richard Burgon, Labour MP and shadow justice minister. Asked about statements he had made to the effect that Zionism is the enemy of peace he denied having made them, or even that that had ever been his view. Unfortunate then that a recording of his using the words should have emerged. It is perhaps surprising that he should misremember not just what he said but even what his view on the issue had been. Quite a feat really but awkward that he is shadow justice minister, a post calling for a certain amount of integrity. About time the Labour leadership announced that it had complete confidence in him.
ASSANGE: The Ecuadorian government allowed the Metropolitan Police into its embassy last week to arrest wikileaks founder Julian Assange who has been living there for the past seven years. Mr Assange faces a year in a UK prison for his failure to surrender to bail and the US is seeking extradition for seeking to break government passwords. Sweden is resuscitating charges for alleged sexual offences.
EXTINCTION REBELLION: 120 arrests, damage at the headquarters of Shell. Demonstrations re climate change are getting under way and, much though one may deplore their methods, the demonstrators clearly have a point. It is time for some radical thinking from government and in Mr Gove they have a real reformer at DEFRA. This is surely the moment for him to seize the initiative, take a leading part in the debate and help save the world. Come on, Mr Gove, Carpe Diem!
SUDAN: Ten days of mass protests in the capital Khartoum and months of protests around the country have succeeded in toppling President Bashir, the brutal “Butcher of Darfur”, who had been in power for thirty years. He was ousted by the army and has been replaced by a military council, which has promised elections in two years time. The thousands of protesters have refused to disperse, however, demanding a complete transfer of power away from the army to a civilian body, the removal of all associates of the ex-president from positions of authority, and the disbanding of Bashir’s security apparatus. The military ruling council is in negotiation with representatives of the protesters and has already made some concessions, but the dangers of a violent confrontation and breakdown remains.
INGENUITY: Scientists in Israel have used 3D printing to create a living heart from human tissue. They took cells from the patient and then printed the heart – ventricles, vessels and all – layer by layer in a process which took less than three hours. The heart is a miniature version, but they believe that a full-sized version can be built and that created organs rather than donated organs will be used in transplants within a few years. Patients wouldn’t have to wait for donations and the use of their own tissue would guarantee a biological match and so reduce the danger of rejection.
In China, scientists have injected a human gene into a monkey’s brain – which has improved its memory. The MCPH1 gene is part of the DNA which determines brain development and size. Eleven rhesus monkeys were used at the Kunming Institute of Zoology, southern China. They’re lucky, according to an Oxford ethicist commenting on the research. “They just gave the monkeys a slightly better memory, not a disease” he said. “Millions of other studies give animals diseases such as cancer”. If such experiments continue, monkeys will soon be intelligent enough to start experimenting on us.
MEASLES: An outbreak of measles in Madagascar has killed 1,200 people (most of them children) in the last six months. 115,000 people have been infected. Only 58% of the population has been vaccinated. This is due to poverty, but anti-vaccinationists elsewhere should take note. The return of this potentially deadly but easily-prevented disease to Europe and other first world regions is perhaps proof that homo sapiens as a whole isn’t so ingenious (see above) after all.
NANNY KNOWS BEST: One of the great successes of the Tory government of the 1980’s was the liberalisation of the rented housing market. Prior to that, older readers may recall, it was almost impossible to rent a flat or house; rents were controlled, tenants had rights almost in perpetuity and to their children, and landlord’s sole objectives were to get their rented property back and sell it; in the meantime there was no incentive to repair or improve let property. The freeing up of the market and the introduction of limited term tenancies changed all that, giving the UK one of the most successful rental sectors in the world. But in recent years the Conservative government seem to have taken against their own success; tax disincentives have been introduced and are constantly been made more painful; regulation has endlessly increased. And now Mrs May has announced that landlords will no longer be able to ask tenants to leave at the end of the contractual period (they get two extra months notice at present). In future the landlord will have to go to court and give good reason as to what he would like to do with his own property. That looks like the end of the private rental market as we know it.
COOL? OR FROZEN? The Chancellor of the Exchequer is having a fun time in Washington, launching furious attacks on Brexiteer colleagues. Less noticed perhaps was his statement at the weekend that Britain was no longer “Cool, calm and collected”. Mr Hammond was talking about difficulties in recruiting a new Governor of the Bank of England but he widened that to include, without citing specific evidence, the difficulties in finding top international talent to work in the UK. He put this down to the uncertainties over Brexit, although not citing his own government’s failure to deliver that; or indeed Britain’s record high tax burden under his Chancellorship.
GOOD SPORTS: It seems a rare event to report a retailer who is doing well; but if you want to be a shopkeeper maybe it is a sporting goods shop that you should be keeping. The success of Sports Direct is well known, giving Mike Ashley his ability to be acquisitive of department (and other) stores; but his greatest rival, JD Sports, is also having a good time. Profits for the year ended 2nd February were up 15% on the previous year, to £340m, and adjusted turnover (deducting new openings in the year) was up 6%. Cash flow is strong and JDS has been quietly mopping up smaller rivals and complementary businesses such as Finish Line in the USA, and Footasylum, a struggling sports retailer. Analysts say the business is tightly run with a good range of offers, and the benefit of being in the hip sports related sector. The shares rose 576p, making JD worth more than Marks and Spencer – and three times the value of Sports Direct.
BAD SPORTS: There’s nothing like a takeover battle for bringing out the worst in people. And, like divorce lawyers, the advisors on either side have every motivation to keep tipping a bit of petrol on the flames. Not that the principals in the current battle between Bradford based Provident, a specialist financier of consumer credit, and its rival, Non-Standard Finance (“NSF”) need any urging on, as NSF tries to get ownership of Provident. Both sides have been derogatory about each other’s management and business abilities – a conflict made especially piquant as head of NSF John Van Kuffeler who leads the would-be acquirer was formerly chief executive and chairman of Provident. Steady on chaps…