18 July 2019
Lens on the Week
EXTINCTION REBELLION: The first of the 1000 plus extinction rebellion supporters have come up for trial with a number of conditional discharges being handed out. Obviously that is the right way to begin. The protests are very well mannered and the law uses a light touch. It will get more difficult though as they return for more and then no doubt there will be fines. Still, the lines between protest and public order offences are being redrawn and it behoves everyone to move with care. If following the change in PM the reforming Mr Gove is still in place, perhaps he will increase the amount of engagement with a view to developing environmental initiatives.
BACKSTOP: With both leadership candidates saying that they will not accept the Irish backstop and the prospective chairman of the Commission intent on holding the line on the withdrawal agreement, everything seems set for the UK to have to choose between remain and “no deal”, whether the mechanism is a further referendum or a fight in the Commons. That looks like becoming the real political battle for the autumn although assertions by the candidates that a time limited backstop would be unacceptable should not perhaps be taken at face value. After all, what is the real difference between that and a longer transitional period?
TRUMP DISPUTE: Both candidates for Tory leadership have joined with Mrs May in strong criticism of Mr Trump’s intemperate attack on four minority Democrat congresswomen, but without going so far as to accuse Mr Trump of racism. Strongly though they may feel on the subject (and Mr Hunt has half Chinese children) they presumably do not think that just before Brexit is a good moment to fall out with the US over what is essentially a domestic dispute.
LABOUR: Following the Panorama expose on anti-Semitism within the Labour party there are a number of areas which could come before the Courts: Libel actions by former members of the disputes committee, enforcement of non disclosure agreements and even action by the Party against the BBC. Throw in an enquiry by the Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) for good measure and one can only conclude that m’learned friends will do very nicely out of it all.
CRICKET: It must be frustrating to lose the cricket world cup on averages and doubly so when you have had an incorrect umpiring decision against you. Not to whinge in those circumstances is heroic and the New Zealand captain Kane Williamson deserves every credit for the way in which he has accepted an unlucky result. A gentleman by any standards.
SAUDI ARABIA: Officials have announced that the guardianship laws, which insist that adult women are effectively treated as minors, are to be relaxed. This means that Saudi women may soon be able to travel without permission from a male relative. Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman recently instructed a government committee to begin overhauling the laws, but the task has become more urgent with the need to offset international disapproval following the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and with the approach of next year’s G20 summit in Saudi Arabia (UN special rapporteur Agnes Callamard has called for the summit to be boycotted or relocated in protest against Saudi’s human rights record). Saudi Arabia’s first female ambassador, Princess Reema bint Bandar, has just taken her place in Washington as ambassador to the USA.
TURKEY: Tensions between Turkey and the EU are intensifying over the ownership of gas reserves around Cyprus. This week Turkey sent a fourth ship to join an exploration vessel and two drilling ships operating off the coast of Cyprus in the exclusive economic zone which is internationally recognised as the territory of the Republic of Cyprus, an EU member state. Turkey insists that its own coastal territory overlaps this zone and that the breakaway Turkish northern Cyprus should have a share in Cyprus’s gas industry. Turkish naval ships have blocked the operations of drilling ships commissioned by the Republic. The EU has now announced that it will place sanctions on Turkey, including cuts in pre-EU accession funds from Brussels, the suspension of talks about air traffic, and a review of the European Investment Bank’s loans to Turkey.
Turkey also increased the friction between itself and the USA and Nato this week by taking the first deliveries of missiles and equipment of the Russian S-400 surface-to-air missile system is has recently bought from Moscow in defiance of its Nato partners. It’s the first time a Nato member has bought arms from Russia, and could lead to further sanctions from the West and to its exclusion from military projects and co-operation with other Nato members.
EBOLA: The outbreak of Ebola in the Democratic Republic of Congo has killed 1665 people in the last year. It has now spread to the eastern regional capital of Goma (population of more than a million) on the border with Rwanda. The first cases have been recorded in Uganda. The World Health Organisation is considering declaring the outbreak a global emergency. Containing and treating the disease is made more difficult by the fear and suspicion which is making health workers and relief teams the target of violent attacks.
BAD NEWS FOR PESSIMISTS:In spite of much muttering from the economists, and from the Bank of England, the latest statistics on employment and pay show a cheery picture for the new Prime Minister when they take office in a couple of weeks. The number of unemployed persons fell in the last quarter by over 50,000, to just over one and a quarter million people. That bald figure contains some interesting trends too; the rate of self -employment continues to rise (that includes people who work for themselves both full and part time); the number of people employed has actually gone up by 28,000, the rest being accounted for by those who are newly running their own enterprises. The numbers overall employed full time have declined, more than offset by the numbers working part time. Some of this will be choice; some of it may not be, and is probably accounted for at least in part by the rapid fall in employment in retail as the high street sector continues to shrink. Pay is continuing to outstrip inflation by a significant amount – the annualised rate was up 3.4% in the last quarter. The concern is that the statistics do show that the rate of improvement in both employment and pay is slowing, but nevertheless things don’t look too bad among the workers.
IT’S COMPLICATED: It’s a while since Mike Ashley and Sports Direct appeared in these pages; Mr Ashley’s acquisition programme has slowed right down, because, observers say, his turnaround of House of Fraser which he bought last year is not going well. All department stores are suffering from high street declines and intense competition, and House of Fraser is not immune from the sector troubles. It is said Mr Ashley is reviewing his strategy to take the business upmarket – feeling that his strengths are more at the other end of the spectrum. Several of his inner management group have left suddenly, and latest news is that Sports Direct’s audited accounts (it is a quoted company) are three weeks late on delivery with auditor Grant Thornton said to be having difficulties dealing with the integration of House of Fraser into the Ashley controlled group. And to make life perfect, an American activist investor has just announced that it has bought 3.3% of Sports Direct’s shares, making it the fourth largest shareholder. Not that that will bother Mr A. much; he owns 61%.
NOT SO SWEET: The Scots have long being famous for being sweet toothed; tablet (extra sugary fudge), shortbread, cakes, deep fried mars bars are all part of the national diet, washed down with copious draughts of Irn-Bru, a mysterious rust red soft drink whose recipe is not known – but without doubt, containing large amounts of sugar. AG Barr, the quoted company based in Glasgow who makes Irn-Bru has recently changed the recipe to try and avoid the effects of the sugar tax, but that has not saved the bottom line from a sudden tightening. Turnover in the first half of this year was down 10%, and profits fell in line. The company says that this is a result of not so much a sudden health craze as a wet and cold spring and early summer which presumably led to customers to (sugary) tea rather than soft drinks. AG Barr expect the subdued performance to last the rest of the year and profits to be around £36m, compared with £45m in 2018. It is diversifying into fruit based drinks but says though that is going well, it will take time and that the market is very competitive.