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Sensemaker: Long Johnson

Sensemaker: Long Johnson

Thursday 16 September 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Girls from Afghanistan’s youth national football team fled to Pakistan, having spent the past month in hiding out of fear of the Taliban’s crackdown on women’s rights.
  • Boris Johnson sacked a number of ministers and promoted some new faces in a major cabinet reshuffle (more below).
  • Researchers dated a series of camel sculptures in Saudi Arabia to about 6000 BC, making them the world’s oldest large-scale animal reliefs.

Key number: 4 – men arrested by police in Northern Ireland as part of the investigation into the murder of journalist Lyra McKee in 2019. One man has already been charged with murder.

Long Johnson

Boris Johnson will head to the UN General Assembly in New York this weekend with a new foreign secretary and a new whiff of authority. His hosts in the Biden administration have no time for his politics but they’re entering into a new security alliance with Britain and Australia anyway. His French and German counterparts still consider him unserious but somehow he’s the one unchallenged at home.

What happened? Hardened by two years in office and a brush with death, Johnson reorganised his cabinet with a view to reelection and a pivot away from the pandemic.

  • Dominic Raab, who stayed in a five-star hotel in Crete as Kabul fell to the Taliban, is out as foreign secretary, replaced by Liz Truss, who has shown a talent for rebadging EU trade deals as her own.
  • Gavin Williamson, who failed to protect schools from Covid and replaced public exams with national chaos, is out as education secretary, replaced by Nadhim Zahawi, who takes a lot of credit for the UK vaccine roll-out.
  • Oliver Dowden moves from culture to Conservative Party HQ, where he immediately reminded the faithful you can’t fatten a pig on market day, prompting rumours of an early election. He’s replaced by Nadine Dorries of I’m a Celebrity… fame. As culture secretary she will be in charge of culture wars.
  • Michael Gove was handed the housing brief. Technically a demotion from Cabinet Office minister, he’ll nonetheless be in charge of holding onto previously Labour-held red wall seats and making “levelling up” more than a slogan. He is the new minister for getting sh*t done.

The choreography. Johnson dislikes sacking people, and being seen to be pushed around by the press. Both factors tend to lead to delays in reshuffles but this one looked carefully-planned and smoothly executed. It was conducted in his House of Commons office to keep any unpleasantness out of Downing Street, and it was over in two hours. The only wrinkle was a 40-minute showdown with Raab, who felt ill-served having stood in as acting PM when Johnson was in hospital with Covid. His consolation is to be deputy prime minister as well as justice secretary, but veins were still standing out on the side of his head as he left Number 10 after the formal boot.

The meaning. Backing Brexit five years ago delivered for Johnson personally exactly what he wanted: leadership of his party and the country. It also delivered the logistical disaster of Brexit itself, an 80-seat majority and a simple screening mechanism by which to weed out all candidates for cabinet office who are not yes-people. They now tremble at his feet. 

In policy terms Truss has to big up Brexit Britain, Zahawi has to wise up backward Britain and Gove has to level up divided Britain. In political terms, Dowden’s move may or may not presage a general election in 2023 rather than 2024, but until Labour’s Keir Starmer finds a new way to mess with Johnson’s head, Westminster will be contemplating an unusually distant horizon. Britain could be stuck with Johnson until 2029. At least.


Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Shamima Begum
The former IS bride gave an interview to the BBC, pitching for her return to the UK and saying she could be an “asset” to Boris Johnson in the government’s fight against terror. Begum was 15 when she and two other east London schoolgirls left the UK for Syria to join the Islamic State. She married a Dutch recruit there and lived under IS rule for the next three years. In 2019 the Times’ Anthony Lloyd found her there in a refugee camp nine months pregnant (her baby later died of pneumonia). Then Sajid Javid, then home secretary, revoked her British citizenship on national security grounds. Begum had previously described the 2017 Manchester Arena bombing, which killed 22 people including children, as “retaliation” for military strikes on IS strongholds. Her tone is different now. “It makes me sick to my stomach really” she said yesterday of her decision to join IS. “It makes me hate myself.” But she got short shrift from Javid, now health secretary, who said his decision to revoke her citizenship was “morally right, absolutely right, but also legally correct and the right one to protect the British people”. Javid said he wouldn’t go into the details of the case, but told journalists that “you certainly haven’t seen what I saw”.


New things technology, science, engineering

Instagram’s dirty secret
Internal research by Facebook found that 32 per cent of teenage girls said “when they felt bad about their bodies, Instagram made them feel worse”. The research, conducted last year and seen by the WSJ, also found that 13 per cent of British users and 6 per cent of American users traced desires to take their own life to Instagram, and that 25 per cent of teenagers said Instagram made them feel worse about themselves “with UK girls the most negative”. Earlier this year Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s CEO, told a congressional hearing yet more internal research had shown social apps to connect with other people could have “positive mental-health benefits”. Facebook is under scrutiny for its plans to set up a version of Instagram specifically for under 13s. In response to the WSJ story, Instagram’s head of public policy, Karina Newton, said negative social comparison and anxiety exist already in the world “so they’re going to exist on social media too” – but that the company would work to respond to the research and “change Instagram for the better”. 

If you are upset by anything in this Nib, Samaritans can be contacted anytime on 116 123 or by email at jo@samaritans.org.


The 100-year life health, education, living, public poliCY

FBI failings
“I blame Larry Nassar and I also blame an entire system that enabled and perpetrated his abuse.” That was Simone Biles’ blistering testimony yesterday before the US Senate alongside three other elite gymnasts. All four set out in detail the failings of the FBI, USA Gymnastics and the US Olympic and Paralympic Committee in their handling of allegations of Nassar’s abuse as USA Gymnastics team doctor. These allegations were first brought to the FBI in July 2015 by Maggie Nichols, who told the committee Nassar continued to abuse women and girls while her complaints were with the bureau. As set out in a scathing Justice Department report released in July, the agency violated its own policies by failing to properly interview accusers, delaying the investigation and making false statements. Nassar is behind bars, but for Biles and the 120 other girls and women who suffered from his abuse the devastating impact on their lives continues.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Climate cake
Albert, a sustainability project backed by Bafta, found that “cake” was mentioned 10 times more often on British television shows than “climate change” in 2020, and “banana bread” more than “wind power” and “solar power” combined. The findings were based on an analysis of subtitles from around 400,000 programmes from the main broadcasters. It didn’t include news broadcasts. When references to climate change were made, the analysis found that they weren’t solutions-focused. Climate action or solution, for example, had a fraction of the mentions of climate crisis or emergency, and the number of mentions overall declined. “In any normal year, a drop in climate change mentions would be a worrying headline,” said Carys Taylor, Albert’s director. “But 2020 was no normal year.” True, but the climate doesn’t care about Covid. 


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Hiring!
Job vacancies in the UK hit a record high in the three months to August. There are now more than a million vacancies, according to new figures from the Office for National Statistics, and over a million people are still on furlough. Businesses are facing a hiring crisis. “With Brexit and Covid-19 driving a more deep-seated decline in labour supply, the end of furlough is unlikely to be a silver bullet to the ongoing shortages,” says Suren Thiru of the British Chambers of Commerce. The numbers – vacancies and furloughed employees – roughly match, but the distribution of vacancies across sectors is highly uneven. There are 134,000 vacancies in hospitality, for example, but only 15,000 in real estate. We also don’t know what proportion of furloughed workers will have jobs to return to.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Paul Caruana Galizia
@pcaruanagalizia

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

Produced by Phoebe Davis and edited by Xavier Greenwood. 

Photographs Getty Images