Category Archives: Conservative Party policy.

No bigger than a constituent’s hand on the keyboard

There’s a fascinating aspect of the small furore going on in the Tory Party (itself a reflection of a national teeth-grinding outside those hallowed halls).

It’s all the fall-out of the Cummings Affair.

It is generally reported that upwards of forty Tory MPs are now on record to have said the man must go.

If so, we are well into double percentage figures of the 365 Tories returned just last December. The gilt is off the ginger-bread, and the guilt is definitely on. But over a hundred of those 365 have nominal (or better) posts in this government — they are the ‘pay-roll vote’. So far just the one of them, a junior Scottish Office bag-carrier, has jumped ship. At which point we re-calculate and find over 15% of back-bench Tory MPs are none too happy. That proportion will almost certainly escalate rapidly, unless the ship is stabilised — and especially when, next week, the Whips require a show of total loyalty.

So let’s do another calculation, based on no more than historic appreciation and experience.

A couple of days ago, Stephen Bush of the New Statesman did an appreciation of The four Conservative groups that want Dominic Cummings out – and the two that matter. The four are (in my reading and in an unfair gloze of the excellent Bush):

  • the irreconcilable #Brexiteers, the hard men, John Major’s ‘bastards’, the died-in-the-wool and driest Thatcherites, who have soldiered on through one campaign after another, and still dream of seeing a Tory Party fashioned in their uncompromising purity;
  • the Chairs of the parliamentary select committees, who owe their position to the votes of other back-benchers. All have a brilliant future behind them.  But very little else to lose.
  • the men — and it is largely men — elected in 2015 or even 2010, who feel their talent remains unrecognised, and unrewarded. They see less-able types beating them in the cursus honorum, even when — or even because — they lack a Y-chromosome.
  • Prominent among this last group are those who see, and fear the light of the new Starmer dawn. They look at their majority, and wonder …

For many of those, all that glisters is the hope of a knighthood, ‘for public and political services’, at a vanishing point in the futi=ure. Though, that prospect might —just might  — be advanced by a modest and calculated show of dissidence. When the Whips run out of stick, there’s always such a carrot.

Here’s another thought …

Without doubt the Great British Public are pissed off by the lack of pubs, by the camaraderie there and the work-place, and even more so by the lack of hair-dressers and barbers.

We should be amazed tolerance has lasted this long.

But a significant motive has been sheer fear. This CoVid-19 has already achieved an attrition of one in a thousand. Today’s figure of ‘hospital deaths’ is over 38.000 — when we add in the concomitant numbers, those not primarily attributed to Covid-19 or because they chose to die elsewhere, the niumbers may well much greater.

So, a comparison. In 1940-41 the Luftwaffe pulverised British cities with forty to fifty thousand tons of high explosive and incendiaries. That achieved something not greatly above forty thousand dead civilians. In the crudest terms, this viral scourge has compressed the Blitz into less than a trimester (so far).

The Blitz, though, had a very visible cause. Not so with Covid-19.

Group solidarity, team-spirit, we’re all in this together (as the Tesco t-shirts have it) is not going to totally fragment. On the other hand, us-vesus-them was there in the Blitz, and is burgeoning forth now.

Which is the moment-of-danger for any democratically-elected government. Very quickly them-as-is in-charge lose respect. And with respect goes deference. And trust.

So let’s consider, did we need to, the decline in Boris Johnson’s ratings at represented by those infernal opinion polls. 6,041 YouGov interviews re currently giving him a +39% positive and -43% negative approval. Today’s poll was:

So back to the fourth group of Tory MPs, identified above. Does a 4½ per centre swing, in just a few days, make them sweat a bit?

 

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The election campaign of 1945: 1

Nowhere were the issues of the campaign more starkly represented than in this, instructive, cartoon by the great Philip Zec:

In essence, the politics were traditional.

The Tories had been in power, except for two brief moments in 1924 and 1929-31, continuously since 1918. Even those short-lived Labour governments were nominally so — in office, but not in “power”: they relied on support from other parties. Hence the odium of a dismal epoch fell on the Tories. However, 1945 had to be an election about change: the change offered by the Beveridge Report and all those White Papers And the Tories certainly didn’t want to talk about their record over those inter-War decades.

M’Lud, Ladies an’ Gennelmen of the Jury, I present you two pieces of evidence:

First, Ronald Blythe’s delicious romp: The Age of Illusion, England in the Twenties and Thirties, 1919–1940. I was delighted to find that, half-a-century on from publication still being recommended reading for University courses in history. It’s once-over-lightly, but it hits all the buttons:

All the events of the inter-war years took place against a huge, dingy, boring and inescapable backcloth—unemployment. By 1935 it had existed for so long and had proved to be so irremediable that it came to be regarded as a normality. The chronically unemployed had learned how to make a pattern of idleness and had become conditioned to hopeless poverty. The streets in which they lived breathed an apathy which in the worst areas was a kind of nerveless peace. Paint flaked from woodwork, doorsteps were ritualistically whitened, delicate undernourished children in darned jerseys and clothing-club boots flocked to see Shirley Temple and Tom Mix on Saturday afternoons for twopence, young men, many of whom had reached their mid-twenties without ever having a job, walked or bicycled in groups over the neighbouring hills and meadows; older men crouched on benches on their allotments and gossiped. The women suffered in a different way. It was they who were exhausted by the constant preoccupation with mean economies, they who under-ate so that the children had sufficient, they who answered the door to the debt and rent collectors, the Means Test spies and seedy touts of all kinds — for the extreme scarcity of money and the meaninglessness of time filled the slums with hawkers and spongers — and they who preserved the maleness of their menfolk when everything conspired to turn them into so many little cloth-capped negatives in the dole queue.

The strange thing is that it was both their plight and their salvation that no one came to their aid. Humiliated, degraded and intimidated by the Labour Exchanges, the Means Test, the Poor Law and the police, the British unemployed were a vast malleable force which only needed a leader for it to become a threat. When it marched on London, as it frequently did, like a dark, singing worm, there was an immediate but quite unnecessary tension. The worm, grudgingly allowed its civic rights, would be met and escorted through side-streets if possible to Hyde Park by foot and mounted police, where it would chop itself up into smaller — and safer — pieces and listen to Wal Hannington or Aneurin Bevan. Occasionally it was entertained by Oswald Mosley and the British Union of Fascists, a predominantly middle-class movement which was big enough on November 1st, 1936, for its leader to boast that it would put up a hundred candidates at the next general election.

Read that, and see why Zec’s cartoon resonated.

The second snippet is shorter. W H Auden was in New York when Hitler invaded Poland, and the flavour here was the mood of the time:

I sit in one of the dives
On Fifty-second Street
Uncertain and afraid
As the clever hopes expire
Of a low dishonest decade …

September 1 1939 is not Auden’s greatest. He himself came to see its weaknesses (and Ian Sansom, very subjectively, dissected them — and its enduring strengths).

In short, the Tory campaign of 1945 had to contend against the party’s history: the misery of the Thirties and the stench of appeasement. It had one antidote: adulation of Churchill, the War leader, in the pious hope that would decontaminate the rest.

Except, of course, Churchill’s own history came laced with remembered poisons: his opposition to women’s suffrage, Ulster Unionism, the Tonypandy Riots, the Battle of Sidney Street, the Dardanelles, the Gold Standard, the General Strike …

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Dissidence

I keep coming back to one thing: the fickleness of the press.

Only five months ago the Great White Wooly Wugga-Wugga that is Boris Johnson ruled the Plains of Arslikan.

Now the mood-music has changed. It isn’t just Covid-19: it’s general incompetence. Matthew Paris put up his regular column this weekend:

Boris Johnson needs to take control of the cockpit

This crisis is a flight into the unknown and we need the captain to stop the blustering and talk to us like grown-ups

This is The Times, so short on vituperation. Parris writes, as he speaks, thoughtfully and coherently. But here he takes aim at the Wugga-Wugga’s oratory. Or lack of it:

Well, here he is at prime minister’s questions this week. I quote at length and include the ums and ers because the halting prolixity, waffle and intellectual confusion need to be flagged up. An increasingly formidable Sir Keir Starmer had asked why Britain had abandoned its testing programme in March, only to resume it now.

The prime minister: “A-a-as I think is readily apparent, Mr Speaker, to everybody who has studied the, er, the situation, and I think the scientists would, er, confirm, the difficulty in mid-March was that, er, the, er, tracing capacity that we had — it had been useful … in the containment phase of the epidemic er, that capacity was no longer useful or relevant, since the, er, transmission from individuals within the UK um meant that it exceeded our capacity. … [A]as we get the new cases down, er, we will have a team that will genuinely be able to track and, er, trace hundreds of thousands of people across the country, and thereby to drive down the epidemic. And so, er, I mean, to put it in a nutshell, it is easier, er, to do now — now that we have built up the team on the, on the way out — than it was as er, the epidemic took off …”

The Wugga-Wugga, lest we forget, was President of the Oxford Union (at the second attempt). The Wugga-Wugga left Oxford with a second-class degree. Parris was a Cambridge man, and took a first-class degree.

20200509_cna1280Let me now turn to this week’s The Economist, where things don’t seem any rosier. Page 19 has an article explaining why

The Tory party is growing restive

As if one needed to know, it’s what Julian Critchley nailed as the ‘garigiste tendency’:

In its bones the party believes that law-abiding Britons should be free to go for an evening walk without explaining themselves to a police constable, or downloading a surveillance app on their mobiles. Public health is a matter for citizens goo judgment, not bossy officials. The state should not, as a rule, negotiate with trade unions to pay wage subsidies, or hand grants to stricken businesses. “All the wrong people are cheering,” says a Tory MP, noting the Labour Party’s support for the lockdown.

The party’s most loyal supporters are feeling the pain. Small businesses’ revenues are collapsing. healthy over-70s with busy social calendars are classified as “clinically vulnerable”, and may face a longer period of social distancing. Golf courses and garden centres are shut.

Which, read wryly, explains what matters to backwoods Tories. Pierre Poujade lives! And even plays golf.

Turn a couple more pages, and get Bagehot:

In these troubled times, Britain is starting to look like a very lonely little country

 

Boris Johnson came to power promising, in a very Johnsonian manner, to preserve Britain’s pro-global stance while also delivering Brexit.He routinely referred to the Europeans as “our neigh- bours and partners”. He got on famously with Donald Trump. Shortly before taking over as prime minister he told a Chinese tv station that his government would be “very pro-China”. He repeatedly insisted that there are two possible versions of Brexit: Nigel Farage represented the inward-looking and xenophobic one while he represented the outward-looking and cosmopolitan one.

Yet Mr Johnson’s party may be turning against his global vision.

It doesn’t look good for Wugga-Wuggadom. Even the ConHome website, loyal to the utterance, has caught the moment: Paul Goodman puts up ten testing questions on how the Wugga-Wugga can find a way out of lockdown: he probes and leaves little room for hedging.

Finally, The Times is running one of those vampire polls: is saving the economy more important than protecting public health? Currently the voting is 53/47 for no.

What does for political leaders is not error in itself: it is the ridicule that comes with it. Once a minister is disproportionately the butt of jokes, he (or she) is on the skids.

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The Archimedes principle

Compare and contrast:

1. Wart meets Archimedes (The Sword in the Stone):

Merlyn took off his pointed hat when he came into this chamber, because it was too high for the roof, and immediately there was a scamper in one of the dark corners and a flap of soft wings, and a tawny owl sitting on the black skull—cap which protected the top of his head.

‘Oh, what a lovely owl!’ cried the Wart.

But when he went up to it and held out his hand, the owl grew half as tall again, stood up as stiff as a poker, closed its eyes so that there was only the smallest slit to peep through – as you are in the habit of doing when told to shut your eyes at hide—and—seek – and said in a doubtful voice:

‘There is no owl.’

Then it shut its eyes entirely and looked the other way.

‘It is only a boy,’ said Merlyn.

‘There is no boy,’ said the owl hopefully, without turning round.

2. Rafael Behr (a.k.a. “Contributor Namy”) in today’s Guardian:

The heckles in the House of Commons can be as revealing as the speeches. When the prime minister was taking questions about her Brexit plans on Monday, Anna Soubry, Conservative MP for Broxtowe, asked about the no-deal scenario – whether the UK would “jump off the cliff”. At which point a male voice, dripping with derision, chimed in: “There is no cliff!”

Behr’s article is worth the trip, for illuminating us on the desiderata of the Tory head-bangers:

Interrogate the Brexit no-dealers on detail and they concede that their plan hinges on a doctrine of pain for gain. They advocate the abandonment of tariffs, inviting the world’s exporters to flood Britain with their wares. Thus would a beacon of free trade be lit on Albion’s shores, inspiring others to repent of their protectionist tendencies. This might bring cheap produce to supermarket shelves (consumer gain) but sabotage UK farmers, who would be undercut by an influx of American and Antipodean meat (producer pain).

Manufacturers would suffer too, but that is an intended consequence of opening the doors to invigorating winds of competition. The whole point is to sweep away inefficiency and blow down zombie businesses while fanning the flames of innovation. In this model, the UK economy is a vast pre-Thatcher coalfield that refuses to accept its obsolescence and must be made to confront it by force. If the timid will not jump into the future, they must be pushed.

Sadly that would take down the Irish economy with that of the UK. In the small matter of €1.3 billion of Irish exports to the UK each month, a fair chunk is essential chemicals and pharmaceuticals.

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Another fine mess …

I’m reading Modern Railways, pages 26-27, with great interest. Roger Ford’s hatchet job on Virgin Trains East East (VTEC is our main line here in ‘old’ York) starts well:

remember that while Virgin Trains West Coast is 1% Virgin/49% Stagecoach, East Coast is 90% Stagecoach with a 10% sprinkling of Virgin fairy dust.

After that, we know where it’s heading. And it’s all downhill.

For a start the Stagecoach prognosis is to lose £84.1 million on the East Coast franchise in the next two years.

There’s a further £44.8 million impairment of intangible assets associated with the right to operate the franchise. As far as I understand that bean-counting gobbledegook, I assume it amounts to paint jobs and cosmetics — including the very useful and passenger-friendly meet-and-greet stuff.

And on top of that there £57.5 million already spent, mainly on the £40 million rolling stock upgrade.

Then come the other problems.

Not this decade, Sir Richard

Those promised glossy Hitachi Azuma trains are at least two years behind schedule. And the schedule premium payments were based on a May 2019 introduction. Ford’s assessment is: a continuation of the VTEC franchise on its current terms untenable after May 2019. Ummm.

As I read it, the infrastructure problems are as acute. Not least of which is power supply. Ford has it that the Power Supply North is not done, in part because the Hendy Report took some out of the five year budget £40+ million needed to achieve the upgrade. With Cross-Pennine introducing electrics, that’s another drain on an already barely-adequate power supply.

Ford’s conclusion, as printed:

Overall, East Coast is probably a sorrier mess than the W[est] C[oast] R[ail] M[odernisation] (That’s going some— Ed!).

He also slips in another wrinkle: if the Azumas can’t be brought into service, the tax-payer is still committed to paying for them for a further twenty-seven and a half years.

A useful read.

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Going critical

The world’s first self-sustaining nuclear reaction took place in the west stands, Old Stagg Field, of the University of Chicago on 2nd December 1942. Which means that I was born in the atomic age. Just about.

I blanch at Enrico Fermi’s confidence in his own expertise, that one of the most (ahem!) explosive experiments in all science was undertaken alongside East 55th Street.

Coitus interruptus

Translate that to national economics, and today an experiment of comparable magnitude is happening next to Westminster Bridge. The (erstwhile) “Great Repeal Bill”, then down-rated to mere “Repeal Bill”, has now slithered into the light of parliamentary day as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

The Mayo Clinic reckons the withdrawal method of “contraception” has, in practice, a failure rate of 22%.

It’s hard, ain’t it hard?

Of course, today is only the First Reading, so little more than a nod-and-a-wink.

The real event will be the Second reading; and there we can expect the Labour Opposition to lay amendments, and vote against any substantive motion. With a nominal majority of a bare dozen (and that’s only achieved with the mercenary aid of the DUP), the work of the government whips will be severely taxing. This is where the business of minority government becomes progressively more onerous. All the Opposition has to do is keep the powder dry, and a cohort floating in and around the Commons chamber, and every single Tory (and paid DUPper) has to available for instant voting service.

The nearest to living through the dying months of the Callaghan Government is James Graham’s drama This House. I saw that in its original at the Cottesloe Theatre, so that must have been in the late autumn of 2012. Philip Glenister (yes, DCI Gene Hunt of Life on Mars) humanised the (more-brutish-in-real-life) Labour Whip, Bob Mellish. The best rôle was Charles Edwards as the Tory Whip (and later Speaker of the Commons) Jack Weatherill. The play was revived in the West End over the past winter. Next tour it will be on tour around the provincial theatres. It’s not just a good (arguably, great) play: it is supremely relevant to our present political predicament.

For anyone with socialist/anarchic tendencies (like myself), the progress of the Brexit legislation is going to somewhere between fascinating and a-laugh-a-minute. There are few things more delightful than watching the natural enemy impaled on a cross of his (or, in this case, her) own construction. As the BBC web-site summarises:

MPs must “work together” on Brexit, the minister in charge of the UK’s EU exit has said, as he published a bill to convert EU law into British law.

The legislation, known as the repeal bill, will ensure the same rules apply in the UK after Brexit, while giving UK parliaments the power to change them.

Brexit Secretary David Davis said he will “work with anyone” to make it a success, but he faces opposition.

Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron told the government: “This will be hell.”

Labour vowed to vote against the legislation unless there were significant changes to the details previously set out, while the SNP said there needed to be “clarity” over which powers repatriated from the EU should go to the devolved nations.

The Conservatives are relying on Democratic Unionist Party support to win key votes after losing their Commons majority in the general election.

BBC political editor Laura Kuenssberg said there could be “parliamentary guerrilla warfare” on the bill.

She told BBC Radio 4’s Today: “For opposition parties and for Remainer Tories there is a sense today of ‘here we go’. This is government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book”.

Formally known as the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, the draft legislation is a key plank of the government’s Brexit strategy.

Note therein: government critics’ first big chance, bit by bit in Parliament, to try to put their version of Brexit, not Theresa May’s, on to the statute book. This is why Theresa May was induced to go for that General Election, which was supposed to bring in a phalanx of Tory Brexiteers, all grateful to the all-powerful Theresa May for giving them their seat. This is why the Labour Opposition (who, where it counted, exploited the Remain tendency) feel the political wind behind them. This is why the SNP and Lib Dems feel they have a chance to regain lost ground. This is why, for all the Corbyn bounce and froth, the combined Opposition may not — yet — want to bring the whole thing crashing down. Better to watch, wait, and relish the Tories in a terminal agony.

The Tory press

What allowed Fermi’s reactor to “go critical” was withdrawing the control-rods:

A simple design for a control rod was developed, which could be made on the spot: cadmium sheet nailed to a flat wooden strip … The [thirteen-foot] strips had to be inserted and removed by hand. Except when the reactivity of the pile was being measured, they were kept inside the pile and locked using a simple hasp and padlock …

(Herbert Anderson, a research student at Columbia, under John R Dunning, who became Fermi’s assistant at Chicago, quoted by Richard Rhodes, pages 433-4)

The extent to which the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill goes critical, and toxic for the Tories, depends on how the public prints moderate the reaction. The analogy of those cadmium strips is how the “papers of record” record it. Since the UK press is heavily dominated by foreign and Brexiteering owners, I have little faith the delivery will be as honest (and inflammatory) as it should be.

Take, for an example, Iain Martin in today’s The Times.

His main thrust is:

Negotiating Brexit terms with a nascent superstate will require leadership that Theresa May is not equipped to provide

Out of the traps, one recognises a frothing Brexiteer by the travesty of the EU as a nascent superstate. It isn’t. It is a working model of 27 proud and separate nations who have chosen to subsume some aspects of sovereignty in a common enterprise. Martin even goes so far as to nominate the next Tory Prime Minister:

Of the available candidates the Brexit secretary David Davis looks to me the best choice and Boris seems done for. But the chancellor Philip Hammond could emerge, or a compromise candidate such as the home secretary Amber Rudd or Priti Patel, the international development secretary.

We can see we have wandered further into Cloud-Cuckoo-Land when Priti Patel (few come harder rightist) can be suggested as a compromise candidate.

Go forth, or fourth, and stupify

In the middle of Martin’s musings comes this:

Right now, Britain does not have any leadership: it must find it soon or lose badly.

Partly this is because voting to leave a superstate in the making is, it turns out, much easier than actually leaving. The hard Brexiteers had given too little thought to how it would be done, certainly. The softer Brexiteers (me included) cannot agree on what a compromise looks like. And gleeful ultra-Remainers want to try the experiment of telling the voters that last year’s referendum doesn’t count.

Martin elides any distinction between the Tory Party and the wider nation. If Theresa May is not up to the job, the whole national enterprise is rudderless, without leadership. Not so, unless we have truly evolved into an “imperial presidency”. The power in the land should be the collective will of the Commons. If there isn’t a dominating political majority, the various views represented in the Commons have to be sifted until a consensus (actually, no more than a general will of over 320-0r-so MPs) is arrived at.

But Martin’s worst bit of journalistic legerdemain is to assert there are only three possible viewpoints: hard Brexiteers, softer Brexiteers and gleeful ultra-Remainers. The 48% (or, as recent polling suggests, now nearer the mid-50s %) are all gleeful and, like the Irriducibili football hooligans of Lazio, ultras? Catch herself’ on, Iain!

Outside the foetid world of Tory tabloids, one general opinion is closer to a fourth category: soft Remainers.

These are the folk who, regretfully, accept what came out of the 23rd June 2016 referendum,

  • whether or not it was fairly run (the electorate was appropriately pruned),
  • whether or not we voters were told truths, half-truths, or diabolical lies,
  • whether or not a 48.1/51.9 split is final and decisive’
  • whether or not it multiple subsequent interpretations anyhow approximate to what was argued beforehand.

And “soft Remainers” are going to be the crucial mass of MPs and their noble Lordships who will be the equivalent of those cadmium rods, and determine the final shape of  the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill.

One practical example

What happened at Stagg Field has had consequences over the intervening three-quarters of a century (Grief! Am I that old?). It led to:

  • Hiroshima, and Nagasaki;
  • deterrence theory, and MAD;
  • some 500 nuclear power plants across thirty countries around the world;
  • Three Mile Island, and Chernobyl;
  • the production of 11 or 12% of global electricity supplies;
  • nuclear and isotopic medicines and advances.

One thing that has been universally agreed is that nuclear power should be controlled and regulated internationally. After various failures (the Baruch Plan, UNAEC, attempts at non-proliferation treaties), for sixty years we have had the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA). Not perfect, not wholly world-wide, but it largely works.

Gone critical

Across Europe and 29 nations we have Euratom. Originally Euratom was somewhat aside from the Coal and Steel Community, but was pursued as a discrete operation and source of energy. For convenience, Euratom was folded into the 1965 Merger Treaty of the EEC. Even after Maastricht in 1993, Euratom remained a separate entity, not under direct EU control. There is, logically, no reason why the UK should not remain as associated as Switzerland — except the bone-headedness of one, Theresa May, as the thrall of the Tory head-bangers. The objection by these types is the European Court of Justice’s

rare and arcane judgments on nuclear matters… Rules on nuclear energy are not politically sensitive and were not an issue in the referendum campaign. The government does not need to take such a rigid position on the ECJ in this domain.

(The Times, second leader, 12th July 2017.)

In recent days, all and sundry have recognised that the UK needs supplies of isotopes (for which we have no production facilities) through Euratom (which also gives access to 71% of world uranium production).

Then there is the Hinkley Point C nuclear power station. It will be owned and un by EDF Energy. That is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Électricité de France. Which, some may think, raises intriguing questions of Euratom oversight.

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Come in, number 10! Your time is up!

Matt Chorley for the Times “Red Box” morning briefing:

It has been 106 days since Theresa May flipped the egg timer and triggered Article 50, beginning the two-year countdown to Brexit.

It is hard to argue that the last four months, or indeed the last year, have been productively spent.

Since 2018 is not a Leap Year, the UK has just 624 days to get it sorted.

Shouldn’t be a problem for this dynamic, cohesive, song and stable Tory team.  Errr …

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