This Shambolic Government Isn't Just in Chaos; It's Killing People
Enough is enough.
As ambitions and egos fight for power in a cabinet that increasingly resembles feeding time at the zoo, Theresa May’s government is a running joke of international proportions, finding its latest sideshow in the Priti Patel media circus. Of course, laughing is cathartic. And how could you not? We’ve had Conservative peers hiding from journalists in toilets; ministers appointing themselves to key positions, resigning in disgrace, sparking international crises or secretly contradicting government policy 12 times while on holiday. All in the last ten days.
But when even senior Conservatives are describing our collective future as "completely fucked", the government’s incompetence isn’t funny, but incredibly dangerous.
"How many more people have to die before this government realises they are killing vulnerable people?"
These are the words of Linda Morrall, whose seriously ill daughter – Elaine – died in poverty last week. In line with Conservative policy, Elaine had her social security payments stopped after missing an appointment at the Jobcentre. The reason: she had been admitted to intensive care. Unable to pay her rent or heat her home, struggling with mental health issues and sacrificing her own needs to care for her children, Elaine died alone in her freezing house, wearing a coat and scarf, aged 38.
What makes Elaine’s story heartbreaking isn’t just the callous disregard for the welfare of her or her three children, but that, in Conservative Britain, this is the new normal. Following seven years of austerity designed to revive corporate profits through tax cuts for the rich, millions now face daily suffering, immiseration and humiliation. Staff at Jobcentres across the country – tasked with administrating social security payments – claim they are penalised if enough people like Elaine are not "sanctioned" for breaking arbitrary and unreasonable rules. It’s a sad fact many of us now know someone denied adequate housing, food, heating or basic components of a dignified life. Despite Conservative claims of a new approach to mental health, it will surprise no one that the Samaritans found suicide rates this year are twice the national average in deprived areas.
This epidemic of inhumanity is justified only through a fabricated need for "fiscal responsibility"; an excuse blown apart when we learn even the Queen has millions hidden in offshore tax-havens. A 2015 LSE investigation found Conservative welfare reforms had led to poverty so severe that pensioners ate dog food to survive, while others killed themselves. Things have gone from bad to worse: this month an Institute for Fiscal Studies report – largely buried by stories of May’s Cabinet chaos – discovered skyrocketing child-poverty rates. As a direct result of Conservative policies, 37 percent of UK children will be in poverty by 2022, reversing 20 years of progress to set the highest poverty levels since records began. Considering that HMRC have 3,000 staff chasing benefit fraud but only 300 chasing super-rich tax dodgers, it’s clear where Conservative priorities lie.
This was not the only shameful story submerged this week: a report by Shelter revealed over 300,000 people are now homeless, meaning every one in 200 of us nationally – 1 in 59 within London – cannot access a basic means of survival. Many have fallen prey to Conservative welfare cuts and rent increases, leading families to either squalid accommodation or a brutal existence on the street. Shelter say the numbers are likely an understatement, given that they do not account for the "hidden-homeless".
Elsewhere this week, the Trussell Trust – one of the UK’s largest food bank networks – warned Conservative policies would create unprecedented demand over Christmas. With tens of thousands of vulnerable families being forcibly transferred to Universal Credit – an austerity initiative widely derided as badly designed, chaotically implemented and exacerbating poverty – the trust warns it will struggle to cope, leaving over 23,000 families facing a holiday of destitution.
It gets worse: amid the poverty, homelessness and hunger flattened out by the circus elephants, this week saw the pleas of NHS Executive Simon Stevens. Risking his job to speak out, Stevens highlighted how waiting lists for routine operations risk soaring to 5 million without an urgent cash injection. But Stevens suggests funding is set to "nosedive", decimating patient care at a time when medics warn of being in free-fall. Fortunately for Stevens’s employment, his pleas were published on November the 8th – as Patel’s resignation loomed – and so were largely unreported. The same day, Steven Lamey, the Student Loans director, was sacked, having been charged with an education department in chaos following Conservative policies so catastrophic even key proponents are calling for a rethink.
At least 22,000 of us live-tracked Priti Patel’s flight back from Africa to be duty-free in London, so it’s clear that a good scandal is quite funny. But when BBC helicopters broadcast live footage of a bizarre ministerial car chase – where we know exactly who’s in the car and where they’re going – it’s no longer a joke but a distracting spectacle, allowing more important questions to go unanswered.
To recap: once upon a time Priti Patel went on holiday to Israel, perhaps the most diplomatically sensitive region on earth. At the behest of an influential lobbyist, she met high-level officials 12 times, including current Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who’s accused of war crimes and currently under investigation for corruption. Patel also discussed channelling aid funds to the Israeli army in the Golan Heights, occupied Syrian land unrecognised by the UK. While we can all appreciate a DIY approach to, say, music, perhaps it's best to tell your boss when dealing with a nation-state violating dozens of international laws while describing thousands of Palestinian deaths as "mowing the lawn".
The media circus around Patel’s lack of due process obscures the real question: what exactly was she really doing engaging in secret diplomacy? Patel’s past gives us some idea. Before becoming an MP, Patel was a public relations consultant, working for such socially astute industries as the tobacco lobby, which also funds highly influential think-tanks dictating Conservative policy. In 2002, while Patel’s PR company, Weber Shandwick, merged with an Israeli firm – whose clients included Benjamin Netanyahu.
While Theresa May was demanding an explanation of Patel, the Jewish Chronicle reported that Theresa May did know about the meetings, choosing to suppress them to avoid embarrassing the Foreign Secretary. When any politician tells bare-faced lies to the public, we’d all benefit from feeding them to the lions. But why May felt compelled to protect the Foreign Secretary from embarrassment when the Foreign Secretary is Boris Johnson really calls her competence into question.
Johnson, cuttingly described by the Financial Times as the least distinguished foreign secretary in generations, merely has to open his mouth to further denigrate the UK internationally. Not content with a string of racist gaffes or reducing us all to a bad joke, last week Johnson inadvertently doubled the gaol sentence of a Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe, a Brit currently held in Iran. Despite mounting pressure, it took Johnson six days to semi-clarify his statement was mistaken, though he is yet to apologise.
While Johnson is clearly an idiot, the new Defence Secretary clarifies the state of May’s government. Following Michael Fallon’s departure over allegations of sexual impropriety, May is reportedly reluctant to reshuffle her cabinet as allegations swirl against other leading Conservatives. Sadly, appalling behaviour by men is an issue across all of society, but it speaks volumes about May’s weak leadership that her former chief of staff – with rumoured knowledge of suppressed scandals – apparently promoted himself to Defence Secretary, knowing May is unable to stop him.
As Prime Minister, May’s authoritarian streak at the Home Office now directly threatens what minimal democratic oversight we have left, using concealed clauses within Brexit legislation to usurp dangerously sweeping powers. Unable to control her own cabinet, command her own party and facing simultaneous escalating crises, who is actually running the country is an open question. The result – as Open Democracy highlights – is that powerful lobbyists and special interest groups run riot, constructing government policy not in the interests of those who need protection, but those who can afford to pay. The Paradise Papers revealed lobbyists for tax-havens bragging of "superb penetration" at the highest levels of David Cameron’s administration to protect their wealthy clients. Under May’s collapsing command we have to ask: how many lobbyists now are the highest levels? How many Priti Patels are conducting their own secret meetings? How many grossly incompetent ministers are vulnerable to manipulation?
The media buzz around this week’s cabinet drama has – for the most part – obscured more than it's revealed. The real scandal in Britain today is that people such as Elaine can die such miserable deaths for want of basic resources society is more than capable of providing. It’s a scandal a third of our children face poverty and destitution; that thousands sleep on the streets while homes lie empty; that millions are denied healthcare due to funding cuts, while politicians conspire to hide billions offshore. When the Conservatives' "bonfire of red tape" has led to the Grenfell inferno; when they deny human rights at home for corporate gain and deny them abroad for private profit, when will we say enough?
Top collage photos: Official portrait of Michael Fallon MP, CC BY 3.0; Official portrait of Theresa May MP, CC BY 3.0; Priti Patel MP via DFID Flikr account, CC BT 2.0; Boris Johnson MP by US Embassy photographer, public domain