11 July 2019
Or just a smokescreen?
by J.R. Thomas
Seven years ago your correspondent had the good fortune to be staying in the best hotel in Taormina, Sicily. (Just a short break for a special occasion, you understand.) The allotted suite looked directly across to the constantly smoking peak of that perfect volcano, Etna. On the second night we retired after a sybaritic evening of the finest Sicily can offer (which is remarkably fine) just after midnight. At 4.16am we were rudely woken by a massive explosion followed immediately by the fire alarm of the hotel. A peek from the window showed what the cause of this excitement was – the whole sky above Etna was putting on a magnificent fireworks display. Gathered in the car park at the back of the hotel, the incident was naturally dealt with in that calm and measured way one would expect in Italy. Having been assured that this was almost certainly the big one, monstrous lava flows must be imminent, further and greater eruptions were bound to follow, and we must expect almost immediate evacuation, my companion and I spent a lot of time ruminating as to the strangeness of happening to be present as a second Pompeii occurred, and how deep we would be buried in ash. (By 7.30am we were back in our room and the western sky brilliant blue and delicate grey.)
There are times in life when one wonders if one might be living at the moment of something epoch changing, that will be the subject of books and films, that will be recalled down the centuries. Once or twice in a life time perhaps, maybe a few more if one has the bad luck, or good, to move at the centre of things. Then it turns out to be a joke, or a bad dream.
But a couple of times a week; that is becoming completely absurd. Exiting the European Union is certainly one of those major historical events that will change the course of history. A Prime Minister seeking for a sure fire way to avoid a minor political difficulty makes a promise that, like a wisp of steam on Etna, ends in a massive column of fire and ash. Will we all be submerged in lava, petrified for ever? Or will a new and verdant land arise? Who knows; but to be alive at such times, oh my. The election as President of the most powerful country on earth of a vulgar and glitzy billionaire, on the votes of the poor and disgruntled; and the retreat of the traditional party of the anti-establishment voters into a sort of sous-liberal fantasy world, that’s another amazing event. An event that could lead to war and famine; or to a more prosperous and resurgent America, recovering its slow decline against the eastern dragon (tiger, if you prefer) nations.
In a small way, a Tory leadership contender must be thinking that his world too has shifted rather abruptly on its axis. It was always going to be a struggle to overcome the people’s favourite, Boris. But Mr Johnson is notoriously gaff prone, and his somewhat unrestrained sense of humour is not perhaps best suited for the serious times through which we are passing. Add his reluctance to get into TV debates, and alleged fierce arguments at Chateau-temporary-Boris, and Mr Hunt was rising rapidly in the polls. Now what, Jeremy brooded, could be the knockout blow? Of course; that old favourite of the shires: Bring back fox hunting! Whoops. Wrong. The modern Tory is no adherent of the old tally-ho! stuff – those types are galloping with Mr Farage now. Down in the polls Jeremy descends, down, and one surmises, out. Still wondering what low branch hit him, no doubt.
Who else is dreaming of what yet could be, even as the rest of us are laughing? Down in Kensington somewhere, an editorial pencil lies abandoned on a huge desk; the editor is on the telephone and the paper can go to bed just as it pleases. Yes, it is George Osborne, and he is ringing around to canvass support for his latest wheeze. Editor of Hello! Or Playboy? Nope, Head of the IMF is what George realizes is the perfect role for him. Gets him back into politics away from the frightful Leaver Tories, and well paid into the bargain, and lots of first class travel and exquisite lunches, so missed by modern editors, even of the Standard. George really thinks this is a runner; so much so that he has had the Standard come out for Boris as PM (he will need his vote). The rest of us think something has gone wrong with the timing of April Fools Day. Though Boris, if his dreams come true, might just tick the box for George and get rid of him from these shores.
Another Jeremy is also staring at the skies and wondering what the hell is going on. Mr Corbyn’s anti-Semitism problem will not go away but Jeremy does not get what the problem is. Sure, there are a few anti-Semitic elements lurking in the backwoods of the Labour Party, but no more than in the back reaches of the Conservative Party and no doubt of the Brexit Party, even the Lib-Dems. Politics tends to attract some wild views (though apparently not any more on fox hunting) and being against other races and religions to an unreasonable extent is a bit par for the course on the further fringes. Anti-Semitism, Jezza has explained, is nothing to do with sticking up for the rights of Palestinians, the occupied territories, and of a Palestinian state. It is obvious. So obvious he does not intend to explain this ever again. Why do people simply not get that, he thinks, and moves onto the next item in the 232 point agenda. It could not possibly cost us the next election; now comrade chairperson, next item, raising the basic rate of income tax.
In his small way, and simply because he will not explain and sack a couple of the stranger adherents of his cause to prove he is sound on this point, Mr Corbyn may well lose the next election for a party that ought to have it already in the bag. That means British history is likely to go a very different way from that which any student of politics would predict.
In Washington the British Ambassador has just being hit by the Presidential limousine. Not really, though it would hurt a lot less if he had. Sir Kim Darroch has apparently over the last three years or so sent the usual private digests of American politics to the Foreign Secretary. These, it has to be said, say very little about Sir Kim’s powers of analysis or originality of insight. They are the sort of abuse the current White House incumbent tends to get daily in the leftie press; a sort of Ambassadorial precis of the Guardian. In the Guardian they might be predicted, but one might expect the most senior person in the Diplomatic Service to put a little more thought into what he says, and considerable more polish and opaqueness into how he says it. (And to be more correct, another minor failing of the Darroch view.) Anglo/ US relations will no doubt recover from this debacle, but it is doubtful that Sir Kim’s career will.
What could possibly happen next? That it turns out to be Boris who leaked the digests?