On the day that the UK took poll position in the number of deaths per capita in the coronavirus pandemic – I’m not sure that’s what the prime minister had in mind when he described the country as world-beating – one of the biggest political stories was whether Boris Johnson treated himself to power naps during the course of his working day.
Allegra Stratton, the prime minister’s press spokesperson, insisted that the rumours were untrue but stopped short of saying they were “completely” untrue. So maybe Boris just likes to spend a lot of time wide awake with his eyes closed.
But if Johnson had been planning on a quick snooze, he couldn’t have chosen a better moment than the SNP’s Peter Wishart’s urgent question on visa restrictions for musicians wanting to tour the EU post Brexit. Not because there was anything inconsequential about the matter, but because in Caroline Dinenage, a junior minister at the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the Tories have a natural barbiturate. Someone far better suited to reading audiobooks for insomniacs than her chosen career in parliament.
It’s not just the monotone with which she delivers her sentences, it’s the absence of content. Rather she just bores everyone into submission by repeating the same things over and over again – something which in Westminster is regarded as a highly prized asset – so no one comes away any the wiser from an hour spent in her company. Her main thrust was that the UK had offered the EU a great deal for touring musicians but that the EU had turned it down and offered an unacceptable deal instead.
Wishart and many others shook their heads in disbelief. Their understanding – along with the Musicians’ Union – was it had been the EU which had offered the good deal of a 90-day free travel period and that the UK had turned it down.
“Absolutely not,” Dinenage said, while refusing to give any details and insisting that the EU had been telling lies about what it had proposed. Eventually Labour’s Kevin Brennan and others begged her to publish the full correspondence between the UK and the EU so parliament could make up its own mind about who was telling the truth.
Now Dinenage became uncharacteristically coy, saying she would have to ask her superiors at several other departments for permission. Something she made sound as difficult as a breach of the Official Secrets Act. You have to remember, she mumbled, that the country had just voted for parliament to take back control over its laws and borders so now was not the time to do anything that might benefit the EU. Or the UK for that matter.
Next up came the consideration of the Lords’ amendments to the trade bill. Or rather, the outright rejection of all the amendments by the government’s mouthpiece, junior trade secretary, Greg Hands, whose main objection to everything was that the executive hadn’t gone out of its way to take back control only to allow MPs to have their say. It had been bad enough in the old days when MEPs had been allowed to have a voice on EU trade policy. So why throw away all the advantages gained by giving UK democratically elected representatives the chance to mess things up?
What was needed was a bit more trust. The UK had promised not to get involved in any deals that might trade away the NHS or risk online harms to children, so it would be helpful if MPs just took the government at its word rather than seek to cause trouble through greater scrutiny. But the key amendment was the one on genocide, with many Tories concerned that the government might turn a blind eye to the treatment of the Uighurs in its keenness to come to a deal with China.
“We don’t have a free trade deal with China,” Hands declared triumphantly. So there was nothing genocidal to be considered.
And even if there was, we shouldn’t trust the British high courts to decide what regimes had or hadn’t committed human rights abuses, not least because they may taker a harsher view than the compromised international criminal court.
It should be the government that decided the ethics of trade deals, not some unelected UK judges. It wasn’t that far away from declaring the British judiciary to be enemies of the people yet again.
Tory MP Nusrat Ghani interrupted to say that was why she had tabled another amendment giving parliament the right to vote on any deal in the event the courts had found our trading partners guilty of genocide. Hands looked genuinely surprised.
This was the first he had heard of it. Well that’s odd, said Iain Duncan Smith, unusually finding himself on the side of the angels, because he had given the department a copy of the amendment a week ago and it had mysteriously found its way on to the day’s order paper.
It was a staggering admission of ignorance and complacency but Hands did his best to cover his embarrassment by saying that nobody cared more about human rights than he did, but the damage was done. Several other Tories, as well as all opposition MPs, spoke out in favour of the amendment but Hands wasn’t in the mood for listening. His hands were over his ears. Given a choice of conscience or profit, the latter won out every time. That’s what will make the UK world-beating again. That and the death stats.