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Sensemaker: No Bojo mojo

Sensemaker: No Bojo mojo

Tuesday 23 November 2021

What just happened


Long stories short

  • Protesters fired live rounds at police as a general strike over Covid restrictions imposed by Paris entered its second week in the French overseas territory of Guadeloupe.
  • At least 46 people died when a bus travelling from North Macedonia crashed and caught fire southwest of the Bulgarian capital, Sofia.
  • An LA court said the actor Kevin Spacey has been told to pay $30 million to the producers of House of Cards to compensate for lost revenue because of sexual misconduct claims against him. 

No Bojo mojo

In the long gaps between elections there is only kremlinology. So non-UK readers will forgive a brief look at Boris Johnson’s weird free-form speech yesterday to the Confederation of British Industry, which was hoping for a sign that the PM take business seriously. Instead it saw him even more dishevelled than usual, losing his place, muttering apologies and riffing on Peppa Pig.

“Message received loud and clear,” the entrepreneur Deborah Meaden tweeted afterwards. “We are not valued enough to prepare and properly deliver a hugely important speech that should have built bridges, confidence and offered a vision we could all work towards… instead we got bumble bumble Peppa Piffle.”

The speech. Number Ten insisted its official transcript was “exactly as… delivered” but it omitted Johnson’s repeated “forgive me”s and an excruciating 20-second silence because there was nothing to transcribe. His account of a trip to Peppa Pig World, a mini-theme park in Hampshire, was broadly accurate – he went there at the weekend with his wife and young son.

Before veering off script the speech was an upbeat list of tributes to British enterprise and commerce, with nods to its (contested) role in beating back Covid and its need to change to meet the climate challenge. Johnson also spoke at length, with sound effects, about the cars he drove in a past life as motoring correspondent for GQ. But there was little of substance to suggest Meaden (above) was wrong.

The reaction.

  • Labour condemned it as shambolic. 
  • A senior Downing Street source told the BBC the Number Ten operation was “just not working”.
  • Some Tories said Johnson simply had a cold but others channeled colleagues’ “anger and despair” at the amateurism of it all. 

The rebellion. Last night 19 Tory MPs voted against the government’s amendment to the Health and Social Care Bill, which will make the less well-off pay more for their care in old age than under the terms of the original bill. 68 Conservatives abstained. If this proved the start of a pattern, Johnson’s majority would have been cut by three quarters. 

The context is a disastrous three weeks for a once unassailable prime minister who admitted to the 1922 Committee of backbenchers that he “crashed the car” when trying to save a colleague from corruption allegations. His approval ratings have never been lower and he faces calls for a wholesale shakeup of his staff. 

The horizon is darkened by the prospect of two by-elections next month, in North Shropshire and Old Bexley and Sidcup. Both are safe Tory seats but the vote tallies will be closely watched and defeat in either could lead to a leadership challenge in London.

The reality check. Johnson doesn’t need to call a general election until 2024. A cottage industry of lobby reporters exists to magnify his stumbles, which will be swiftly forgotten outside Westminster – unless he goes on making them.

Last night’s vote notwithstanding, Johnson still has a 77-seat majority. The Independent’s Sean O’Grady wrote a column yesterday headlined “Mark my words, Johnson will be gone by Christmas”, but as he admitted, he makes the same prediction every year.


belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Fast visas
In May the UK’s home secretary, Priti Patel, launched a scheme to attract “the best and brightest” by awarding visas to Nobel prize laureates and other academic award winners. But the New Scientist reports via an FOI that not a single person has applied for the scheme. Manchester University’s Andre Geim, who won a Nobel for his work on graphene in 2010, called it “a joke”. Why? Access to European funding is uncertain, the cost of graduate courses is up, pensions are down. The list is long. Scientists and universities across Europe are meanwhile demanding that Ursula von der Leyen, the European Commission president, take action to stop the UK’s membership of the €80 billion Horizon Europe research programme becoming collateral damage in disputes over fishing and Northern Ireland. There are whisperings of a Discovery Fund to match the money, but it’s unlikely to carry the collaborative weight of Horizon. “Science superpower”? Not at this rate. 


New things technology, science, engineering

Right to repair
For years, Apple’s loyal customers have been able to spend thousands on its phones but have not been able to repair them. The parts, instructions and software were either not available or too expensive. A replacement screen for an iPhone 13 Pro Max can cost $599. Endless nudges to ditch old or faulty phones (and laptops, tablets and smart watches) for new ones are a central component of Big Tech business models. But after a campaign by the US Public Interest Research Group, among others, Apple relented last week and said it would increase support for people who want to fix stuff rather than throw it away. It’s not clear yet how cheap and easy it’ll be to get the spares, but the US PIRG welcomes this as a step towards a more circular economy and away from the prodigious waste of chips and rare earths in discarded phones. Score one for Ralph Nader, who proposed the PIRG model in the 1970s.


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

Opioids rule
A record 100,306 people died from opioid overdoses in the US last year despite years of warnings against their use and a high-profile $4.5 billion settlement paid by the Sackler family out of a fortune earned from sales of the opioid known as Oxycontin. Prescriptions of other opioids remain high even though some are 30 times more potent than heroin. A study by the Centers for Disease Control found last year’s increase in opioid deaths was the steepest ever. Many are caused by a single overdose of fentanyl, a synthetic opioid designed to be more potent than morphine, and more profitable for illicit drug dealers than cocaine. It’s not the only cause of California’s epidemic of homelessness, but it’s a factor.


Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Dirty tractors
In an unusual U-turn for India’s prime minister, Narendra Modi is repealing laws that would have privatised and deregulated the farming industry. His announcement comes almost a year to the day since farmers began protesting against the reforms. It’s likely the change of tack reflects anxiety within the leading BJP party ahead of state elections Uttar Pradesh, a BJP stronghold where eight people were killed last month by a convoy of cars linked to a son of one of Modi’s ministers ramming into protesters. The reversal is good news for the farmers; less good for the climate. New Delhi’s choking smog is caused in part by farmers burning scrub – and one of the protesters’ asks is for an end to fines for doing so. Agriculture as a whole accounts for around 15 per cent of India’s emissions and urgently needs modernisation. Modi has his eyes on elections in 2024 elections, but has just made his new target of Net Zero by 2070 harder to achieve.


Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Bulb gone
Bulb was one of the UK’s biggest new energy companies, with 1.7 million customers. Its co-founder Hayden Wood was a favourite of investors and government. Now it’s gone bankrupt because of the gas price spike and a price cap that was supposed to protect consumers from energy retailers who tried to charge too much or failed to anticipate fluctuations in the wholesale market. The burden of those fluctuations has shifted to taxpayers. Bulb’s customers are being urged to do nothing while Ofgem takes over running the company and the exchequer pays the difference between their chosen tariffs and the price of gas. The industry said the cap wouldn’t work and it was right. It’s also saying this mess is an argument for more investment in gas as a transition fuel, which is less convincing. Once enough renewable capacity is installed the marginal cost of extra energy is zero. That makes it a highly competitive market for producers, but it’s the way ahead for consumers and the planet.  

And finally, make time for this beautiful film about a man who’s lived alone for 40 years on the shore of Scotland’s loneliest loch – inspired by the story of another man who showed how it could be done in Alaska’s Lake Clark National Park.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell
@GWhittell

Phoebe Davis
@phoebe_ivy

Edited and produced by Phoebe Davis.

Photographs Getty Images