Jonathan Fryer

Writer, Lecturer, Broadcaster and Liberal Democrat Politician

Posts Tagged ‘Dominic Cummings’

In Defence of Experts

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th July, 2020

Anthony Fauci and Donald TrumpIn the run-up to the EU Referendum in June 2016, the then Justice Secretary, Michael Gove, declared that “we have had enough of experts”. That argument unfortunately helped carry the day as millions of voters ignored the warnings from economists about the likely negative consequences of Brexit — and will soon have to live with them. The prejudice against experts also featured in the successful campaign by Donald Trump to become the 45th President of the United States. Indeed he took this philistinism up to another level, denying truths and propagating his own “alternative facts”. That willful amateurism may still resonate with much of Trump’s base, but in the age of coronavirus it is increasingly obvious that whereas populists may feel empowered by the conviction that anything they believe in must be true nonetheless scientific fact must take precedence. We see this acted out most starkly in the way that NIAID Director Anthony Fauci has resolutely offered a scientific counter-narrative to the President’s fantastic ramblings about COVID-19. This clearly irritates expert-phobes like Trump and Brazil’s President Jair Bolsonaro, but large swaths of the population in the Americas do seem to be preferring facts over fantasies when their own lives are at stake.

Boris Johnson and Dominic CummingsHere in Britain, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — whose own statements about the best way to react to the pandemic have been confusing and at times plain misguided — still enjoys the vocal support of a claque of loyalist Ministers who are regularly trotted out to defend him when he makes a gaffe, or even to promote disinformation. For example, Health Secretary Matt Hancock the other day blithely stated that the coronavirus lockdown in Britain had started on 16 March when it self-evidently began a week later, when Boris Johnson went on TV to announce it. UK opinion polls suggest some of the shine is coming off the Johnson government, but there are still significant numbers of voters who are prepared to swallow his disinformation and outright lies. Moreover, the PM’s eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, is carrying out a frontal assault on the civil service because civil servants do acquire expertise and act on facts rather than ideology. In this ongoing battle, on both sides of the Atlantic, one can only hope that the experts prevail.

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The Big Lie

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 6th July, 2020

Hitler and GoebbelsOne of the weirdest moments in my childhood was finding an English-language copy of Adolf Hitler’s Mein Kampf hidden in the bottom of a wardrobe in the nursery of my (adoptive) maternal grandmother’s house in Derbyshire. “Brown Grandma”, as she was always referred to at home because she always wore brown clothes (as opposed to “Black Grandma”, my adoptive father’s mother, who wore widow’s black) had been President of the local Conservative Association but didn’t strike me as a fascist, however I never plucked up the courage to ask her why the book was tucked away under a pile of blankets. However, I did read Adolf Hitler’s work surreptitiously. Much of it was pretty boring, while other bits — such as his hatred of the Jews — were revolting. But one thing which intrigued me and has stayed with me ever since was his theory of The Big Lie — that if a lie is colossal and you keep repeating it, people will believe it as they will feel that no-one would have the impudence to distort the truth so infamously. This propaganda technique was perfected and implemented by Hitler’s henchman Joseph Göbbels, who manipulated political discourse and in particular used the medium of radio to feed the German public a steady diet of nourishing lies.

Boris JOhnson and Donald TrumpI am surely not alone in thinking that the Nazis’ use of The Big Lie (mirrored by Josef Stalin and the Soviet Communists, one should note) is enjoying a kind of renaissance today on both sides of the Atlantic. In 2016 here in Britain during the EU Referendum the Leave campaign produced a series of seminal lies, even plastering one of the most effective on the side of a big red bus. The assertion that the NHS could benefit from the £350 million allegedly sent by Britain each week to Brussels was demonstrably untrue. An even bigger whopper was the claim that Turkey was about to join the EU, meaning that 70 million Turks would become eligible to move to the UK. Remainers complained in vain about this distortion of reality, but large swaths of the public were happy to believe what they were told, just as millions of Germans had in the 1930s. Meanwhile, in America, Donald Trump and his team were up to the same tricks, manufacturing and disseminating untruths to great effect. That helped him win the election and he has stuck with the strategy of The Big Lie while in office. So, to a large degree, has British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. I am certainly not arguing that Johnson is a fascist, but the technique of The Big Lie (perhaps promoted by the Prime Minister’s amanuensis, Dominic Cummings) is evident to me. The US presidential election in November will be a litmus test to see if sufficient people still swallow the lies. For the health of democracy both in the United States and here in Britain one cannot only hope that they do not.

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The Conservatives Are Trashing Britain

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 26th May, 2020

Dominic Cummings in rose gardenWhen prime ministerial advisor Dominic Cummings gave an unprecedented press conference in the rose garden at 10 Downing Street yesterday afternoon he hoped to draw a line under the matter of his allegedly breaking COVID-19 lockdown rules. But the issue is not just going to evaporate. This morning the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, Douglas Ross, has resigned in protest over the way Cummings’ behaviour and Boris Johnson’s unfailing support for his right-hand man have undermined official guidance for limiting the spread of the virus. All this at a time when millions of Brits have made great personal sacrifices over the past couple of months because of social distancing. It’s not just Opposition political parties and the media that are going to keep up the pressure on Cummings to be fired, given that he has asserted he is not going to resign. There is a huge amount of discontent among the general public, including members of the Conservative Party. Yet still Ministers such as Michael Gove trot out loyal statements backing Mr Cummings.

Boris Johnson scowlThe affair has already hit Boris Johnson’s personal opinion poll ratings, which have slumped. But perhaps even more worrying is the way that Britain’s reputation has taken a bashing abroad. As if it were not bad enough that the country now has the highest per capita rate of coronavirus deaths in the world, the Cummings fiasco has made us a laughing stock. Much of the foreign press is withering about how the British lion has lost its mojo. What’s more, the UK’s standing has been hit by a double whammy, as Brexit has also seen our position in the world diminished — a situation that can only get worse after the transition period ends. Boris Johnson and his pals conned the British electorate into backing him last December on the grounds that they would make Britain a proud, independent nation again, but the opposite has happened. The Johnson government is trashing the country with its incompetence. And given the way it is alienating the devolved governments in Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland, it could well end up breaking up the United Kingdom as well.

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Boris Johnson’s Theatre of the Absurd

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 24th May, 2020

45810B87-930A-4425-ACB4-08E90C9DDAF3UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has usually avoided appearing at the daily Downing Street COVID-19 press conferences — understandable while he was himself ill with the virus, of course — but today he really had no choice but to appear to face allegations that his special advisor, Dominic Cummings, had undermined the government’s message of staying safe at home to prevent a further spread of the disease. The accusation, backed by strong evidence, was that when Mr. Cummings and his wife felt Coronavirus symptoms coming on they got in their car with their infant son and drove 260 miles to his parents’ farm in County Durham. Other reports claimed that later the couple went on a day trip to a local heritage site and that soon afterwards, having returned to work in London, Mr. Cummings made a second trip to Durham. During the day today there has been a cacophony of calls from politicians of all stripes — including at least half a dozen Conservative MPs, as well as members of the public — for Dominic Cummings to resign. Social media were buzzing with outrage from people who had not been able to visit sick and sometimes dying relatives, or had been obliged to miss saying farewell to loved ones at funerals, because they were abiding by the government’s rules. So Mr. Cummings’ behaviour seemed to be a prima facie contravention of health instructions. Yet a series of Cabinet Ministers went into TV studios as the day went on declaring that Mr. Cummings had done nothing wrong, and had only been acting in the best interests of his young son.

C2D345C4-58FB-42C7-BFA9-4290BCB3468COne might then have expected Boris Johnson, when he appeared this afternoon, to bite the bullet and admit that a gross error of judgment had occurred. But not a bit of it. Instead, at the press conference he came out with the novel argument that Mr. Cummings had acted properly in line with “his instincts”. Does that mean, many viewers wondered, that in future everyone can follow their own instincts in responding to the pandemic? Far from cooling things the Prime Minister has stoked the anger. After he finished speaking, an extraordinary tweet appeared on the UK Civil Service’s twitter account decrying the situation. The tweet was removed and declared “unauthorised” within 10 minutes, but not before screenshots of it had been shared multiple times. If the mandarins find out who was responsible, they will doubtless try to fire or at least demote him or her. Hats off to author J. K. Rowling for saying she would happily pay the culprit a year’s salary!

So has Boris Johnson drawn a line under the Cummings saga? Absolutely not. The chorus of disapproval has got even louder this evening, with even Tory stalwarts denouncing the way that the Prime Minister is seemingly in thrall to his special advisor.  Cummings was of course not elected to any public office but now seems to be calling the shots in 10 Downing Street, with even Boris Johnson dancing to his tune. This was an unpopular situation among many Tory MPs even before the current scandal. That can only get worse. One has almost become weary of Boris Johnson’s bluster and Trumpian lies, but now he is playing fast and furious with the whole nature of government. He may feel he has defended Dominic Cummings but in behaving as he has the Prime Minister has in fact damaged his own standing, as well as undermining public confidence in government. His way of governing has become a theatre of the absurd. But what started out being amusing for some people has now morphed into something about which Britons have the right to be absolutely furious.

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Why Cummings Must Go

Posted by jonathanfryer on Saturday, 23rd May, 2020

Dominic Cummings 2Britain is going through a difficult period just now, as we enter the third month of COVID-19 lockdown, with millions of people worried about their future, not only because of the ongoing threat of the virus but also the danger of economic ruin. Many businesses, not least in the hospitality sector, face going under if they cannot soon start trading again and countless freelancers in the creative industries, as I know from my own situation, have seen their earnings plummet. But since last night, the political and media focus has been not so much on the government’s coronavirus strategy as on the behaviour of No 10 Downing’s Street’s unusual Special Advisor, Dominic Cummings. Though unelected, he is said to be the second most powerful man in the government, so strongly does Boris Johnson rely on his advice. Cummings was one of the architects of the Vote Leave campaign in the 2016 EU Referendum as well as the Get Brexit Done strategy in last December’s general election. He is unconventional in his dress and manners, and is in favour of blue sky thinking. He it was who called for “misfits and weirdos” to apply for jobs to work alongside him in Number 10.

No 10 Downing Street However, the reason he is all over the news at the moment is because he allegedly broke the COVID-19 isolation and “stay at home” rules in force when he and his wife, both of whom were infected with the virus, drove with their young son 250 miles to Durham to place the boy with his elderly grandparents. There is some dispute about whether he was already ill with coronavirus, or just his wife; either way, their action flew in the face of everything that Health Secretary Matt Hancock and other government Ministers and senior scientific and medical advisers have been saying over the past eight weeks, as well as demonstrating a curious lack of concern for the vulnerability of the grandparents. Michael Gove, Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, and other senior Conservative figures have been trying to make out that what Cummings did was alright. But for much of the public this looks like a situation of “one rule for the toffs in charge, another for the general population”. It also makes another dent in the Prime Minister’s reputation for allowing this to happen, if he he knew about it in advance.

A number of Tory MPs are understood to be livid about the matter and opposition party figures have been calling for Cummings to go. They are right to do so. Not only has he  apparently taken liberties when it came to the lockdown rules at a time when millions of Britons have been following them assiduously, at considerable personal inconvenience or cost; he also seems to have flouted what I call the Alastair Campbell rule, in honour of Tony Blair’s former Press guru, who realised that when he had become the story rather than the policies Blair’s government was trying to implement, it was time for him to bow out. If Cummings has any sense of decency he will resign. Otherwise, he should be fired.

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Turkey’s COVID-19 Aid

Posted by jonathanfryer on Monday, 20th April, 2020

COVID19 - Turkey aidIt was probably a surprise to many people in Britain that Turkey has sent a significant consignment of medical supplies — predominantly personal protection equipment (PPE) — to Britain, though presumably a welcome surprise. Actually, this is not the first time this has happened, as 10 days ago another such shipment arrived at RAF Brize Norton. China’s offer of COVID-19 assistance to many countries, including Britain, has received a lot of media attention, as has Cuba’s despatch of doctors and nurses, to predominantly developing countries hit by the pandemic. But Turkey’s efforts have had less press coverage, at least until now. But in fact Ankara has received requests for help from 88 different countries and has so far been able to spring into action for more than 30. This is despite the fact that Turkey itself has the highest rate of coronavirus infection in the Middle East. However, the Turkish government is proud of the fact that it closed schools and universities just one day after the first confirmed case was identified. Subsequently it has implemented weekend curfews (the first rather hurriedly, prompting a spate of panic buying) while urging people to maintain social distancing at all other times. Some cynics might argue that President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan is engaging in this COVID-diplomacy, like the Chinese, as an exercise in soft power. But Ankara insists that the motivation is in fact entirely humanitarian, as, it would say, has been its sheltering of over three-and-a-half million Syrian refugees.

RumiThough Turkey has officially been a secular state since the time of Kemal Atatürk, Islamic beliefs, including charity and compassion, are at the heart of the ruling AK Party’s ideology, or so it would argue. In a nice touch, the virus aid consignments to Britain as well as being branded with the UK and Turkish flags also bore a well-known saying by the 13th century poet Jalaluddin Rumi: “There is hope after despair and many suns after darkness”. With Ramadan approaching later this week, we can expect more of this kind of diplomatic discourse. There is of course an irony in the current situation regarding Turkish aid to the UK as during the EU Referendum some of the Leave campaign, including Dominic Cummings, raised the (completely fabricated) “threat” of 70 million Turks arriving in this country as a result of Turkey’s supposed imminent membership of the EU. I don’t recall Boris Johnson objecting to that. Yet of course part of his family lineage is Turkish. Anyway, the government in London has thanked Turkey appropriately for its assistance at this time of need and in Britain’s post-Brexit reality doubtless both sides will be keen to see a distinct warming in relations..

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When Things Fall Apart

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 8th September, 2019

Boris Johnson Emperor's New ClothesBoris Johnson has been Prime Minister of the United Kingdom for less than two months, but already the wheels are coming off his government’s carriage. He swept many Cabinet Ministers from their posts, replacing most of them with Brexiteer hardliners, and when some of those ousted had the temerity to vocalise their objection to a threatened “No Deal” Brexit on 31 October, he ordered the Conservative whip withdrawn from them. Actually, reports suggest that it is chief adviser Dominic Cummings — unelected and unaccountable — who has been calling the shots in 10 Downing Street since Boris Johnson moved in. Cummings master-minded the Vote Leave campaign in 2016 and has become Johnson’s eminence grise. The purged include two former Chancellors (Finance Ministers) and the grandson of wartime premier Winston Churchill. He, Nicholas Soames, along with several others, has said he will not stand at the next general election, but others have indicated that they will stay on and fight, as Independents or One Nation Conservatives or whatever. Meanwhile, several MPs — from both the Conservatives and Labour — have defected to the centre-left Liberal Democrats, attracted by the party’s unequivocal anti-Brexit stance.

BRITAIN-EU-POLITICS-BREXIT Pro-EU demonstrations have taken place up and down the country on an almost daily basis, though yesterday in London about 200 pro-Brexit protesters were also out in Whitehall, clashing with police and chanting that they love Boris Johnson. This does not bode well for public security in the near future. I have long believed that civil disobedience (from left and right) is a real possibility if the current malaise continues. Interestingly, the pound sterling has risen as Boris Johnson’s woes have increased, but he himself looks rattled; he is known by his intimates to have a short fuse to his temper. Denied the chance of calling a snap general election, thanks to a combination of the Fixed Term Parliament Act which the Liberal Democrats insisted on in the 2010-2015 Coalition government and the solidarity of the opposition parties (and some Tory rebels) in not agreeing to an election before No Deal is legally off the table, Johnson is now in office but not in power. Amber Rudd is the latest Minister to resign not only from her job but also the Conservative whip. In desperation Boris Johnson may look for a lifeline to Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party, asking for an electoral pact, but the Brexit Party currently has no MPs (despite its significant number of MEPs) and such a pact would likely drive more Conservatives away from their party. Things have fallen apart so much and so quickly that Boris Johnson is increasingly looking like an Emperor with no clothes [see brilliant cartoon above by the inimitable Peter Brookes]. No wonder rumours swirl that he could be forced to resign. But the Brexit millstone will not go away, whoever is Prime Minister, probably until the matter is put to the British electorate once more for a final decision one way or the other.

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Stop the Coup!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Sunday, 1st September, 2019

Stop the Coup 2Up and down Britain marches and rallies have been taking place to oppose Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s move to prorogue (i.e. suspend) Parliament by about five weeks from the second week of September, thus leaving precious little time for opponents of a No Deal Brexit to scupper his plans to take the United Kingdom out of the EU on 31 October. Former Conservative Party leader Iain Duncan Smith has branded the protesters as a “Corbyn hate mob”, as the government’s rhetoric against those who believe Britain is better and safer within the EU becomes ever more extreme. Rather as on the anti-Brexit marches that have taken place over the past three years, the self-styled “Stop the Coup” protests have mainly been populated by the anxious educated middle classes and the young, orderly and cheerful, despite their anger at what is going on. Many are not members of any political party and only a minority are Corbynistas (enthusiastic supporters of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn). These demonstrations have been nothing like the sometimes violent anti-Poll Tax riots of the Thatcher years. The police on duty, far from clashing with protesters, were often smiling and petting the numerous dogs. But there is an important difference between the current protests and the earlier anti-Brexit marches. The latter were big, one-off events, usually in the capital, whereas the new demos are all over the country — indeed, even in some foreign cities where there is a British migrant population or just holiday-makers determined the make their voices heard. Lots more are planned today and as next week could be crunch-time in Parliament for blocking No Deal or setting in motion a process to prolong Article 50 (the notice of Britain’s EU withdrawal). Meanwhile, Boris Johnson and his non-elected eminence grise, Dominic Cummings, have warned rebel Conservative MPs — including a significant number of former Cabinet Ministers — that they will not be allowed to stand as Conservatives at the next general election (which could be occur this autumn) if they oppose what the government is doing. Bravely, some, like David Gauke, former Justice Minister, have come out saying they will do what their conscience tells them is best for the country and not be cowed into silence.

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Yes, I am a “Collaborator”!

Posted by jonathanfryer on Wednesday, 14th August, 2019

Brexit march March 2019In the latest grotesque twist in the Alice in Wonderland alternative reality of Boris Johnson’s Brexit Britain, the Prime Minister has denounced as “collaborators” those who wish to prevent a No Deal crash-out of the EU on 31 October. That presumably includes noble souls such as the former Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, and the 70 MPs and members of the House of Lords who have taken legal steps to try to stop a No Deal Brexit (to be heard in the Courts during the first week of September) as well as the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, who has become a knight in shining armour defending British democracy. I suspect the choice of the word “collaborator” is the work of Dominic Cummings, the unelected demon “genius” at the heart of 10 Downing Street’s operations. And of course it comes hard on the heels of the dismissal of the independent judiciary as “traitors”, in the words of headline writers of some of Britain’s more disgusting Press, including the Daily Mail, the Sun and of course the Daily Telegraph, which until recently was paying Boris Johnson a reported quarter of a million pounds a year to spew out his own anti-EU poison. This is all part of a calculated campaign to whip up anger and possible violence among the arch-Brexiteer public (who are not a majority). No wonder some pro-Remain MPs have had to call  on police protection or even move home. As an arch-Remainer myself — who doesn’t want any sort of Brexit, let alone a No Deal Brexit, because of the harm this will do to the country — I believe we must stand up to this vilification and the slew of lies being put out by Number 10 and the Brexit camp. Moreover, I shall embrace warmly the pejoratively-intended term “collaborator” — rather as the Religious Society of Friends in the 17th century embraced the mocking word “Quaker” employed by their detractors. I am proud of being a Collaborator with our 27 fellow EU member states, who have been working together to make Europe and the world a better, safer and more prosperous place. I am proud to be a Collaborator with all those millions of people who have rallied to the anti-Brexit cause and who are increasingly organising themselves in a Remain Alliance. It is is the Boris Johnsons and Jacob Rees-Moggs of this world who are undermining Britain and its global standing. History will condemn them for it, but we must try to stop them first.

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With Friends Like John Bolton…

Posted by jonathanfryer on Tuesday, 13th August, 2019

John Bolton 2The hawkish US National Security Adviser, John Bolton, is in London for a couple of days, schmoozing Boris Johnson’s Brexiteer government. Though he is dangling the prospect of a significant US-UK trade deal after 31 October — whose terms will doubtless be more beneficial to Washington — his real motive for being here is to try to turn the screws on Britain to stand up against Iran. So far the UK has remained firm in its determination to try to salvage the Iran Nuclear Deal, from which the United States withdrew, and is thus more closely aligned with its European partners, France and Germany, on this issue. But the failure of the Europeans to rally round in support of a British suggestion to put together a maritime presence to protect shipping in the Persian Gulf and the Strait of Hormuz means that the Brits have had to join a US-led operation instead. John Bolton will be trying to persuade the Conservative government that it should go further and throw its whole weight behind the US strategy of exerting “maximum pressure” on Tehran, by strengthening sanctions. The Americans have even sanctioned the Iranian Foreign Minister, Mohammad Javad Zarif, who has been an important figure in trying to calm tensions between the Islamic Republic and the West. The last Foreign Secretary, Jeremy Hunt, established a good working relationship with Mr Zarif, but it is doubtful that his successor, Dominic Raab, will do the same. So the risk of Britain’s being dragged into a new military conflict in the Gulf (remember the invasion of Iraq in 2003?) is very real. Meanwhile, Mr Johnson (at the behest of special adviser Dominic Cummings, one wonders?) has instructed British diplomats to start withdrawing from joint meetings and initiatives with our EU partners even though we are still officially a member state. This will inevitably push us further into the arms of the Trump administration. No wonder Donald Trump — a self-declared Boris Johnson fan — and John Bolton look so happy. But frankly, with friends like John Bolton, who needs enemies?

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