Neil Parish asks PM for more wedding guests to be allowed

“Timing of the letter not ideal”

[What planet is Neil Parish living on? – Owl]

BBC News Devon today 1153 Claire Gilbody-Dickerson

“A Devon MP has written to the Prime Minister asking for the current cap on 30 wedding guests to be increased.

Neil Parish, who represents Tiverton and Honiton, said while the timing of his letter is not ideal, if venues had track and trace measures larger celebrations could be Covid-secure.”

Covid-19’s second wave is being made in Boris Johnson’s Downing Street

The Guardian view on Boris Johnson’s second wave: made in Downing Street 

The prime minister’s over-promising and under-delivering has to end. If he tries to spin his way out of the looming coronavirus disaster it will cost the country dear


The country is facing a second wave of coronavirus because the government is losing track of the outbreak’s spread. Testing capacity is being outpaced by an exponentially growing epidemic. Without testing the people who need testing, the authorities can’t see where cases are rising. With visibility of the disease’s extent obscured, its transmission is harder to slow. A second wave of Covid-19 could be more serious than the first. The NHS, still reeling from the disruption of the last few months, is dealing with a backlog of patients. Winter is coming and with it the possibility of a joint flu epidemic and Covid pandemic. Britain has been put in a dangerous place by Boris Johnson’s administrative failure.

The government messed up its Covid response in the first wave of coronavirus, making blunder after blunder. Britain had no mass testing capacity and was forced to impose a damaging lockdown that plunged the economy into its deepest recession in 300 years. England recorded the highest excess death rate in Europe. Ministers have had months to put things right. A new testing system was devised. The rationale of coming out of the national lockdown was that a functioning test-and-trace system would help the government to spot and suppress local outbreaks. This was the “whack-a-mole” strategy. But it only works if you know where the moles are.

There was little doubt that there would be a problem in autumn and winter. But we are barely out of summer and Mr Johnson’s system can’t cope. If the government can’t provide enough tests for people at this point in September, when ministers knew schools would be returning and have been actively encouraging people back to work, how will it achieve its “moonshot” ambition to process millions of tests a day? Mr Johnson, and his cabinet, do not look remotely up to the challenge. Instead of being open about the issue they alternate between being furtive, evasive and defensive. Public trust in the government’s Covid response is ebbing away: almost two-thirds of those polled think ministers have handled it badly.

The country has no option but for the government’s scheme to work. If it does not then we will face another damaging national lockdown. There needs to be a reset from the government in the way it acts and speaks. The over-promising and under-delivering by ministers has to end. One cannot spin one’s way out of disaster when there is a breakdown in frontline service delivery that affects millions of people’s lives. People are not at fault for demanding tests when they have been told to ask for them.

It is painfully clear that there has been a serious failure of the private laboratories that ministers created on the hoof to rapidly scale up testing operations. Ministers built the labs to run with itinerant PhD workers, who predictably caused staff shortages when they returned to their universities. The government needs to come clean about the mistakes it has made and demonstrate it has the leadership to put them right. A new political and communications strategy will be required to move the country on. Caution, not overconfidence, should be the order of the day.

Time is running out for Mr Johnson to show he recognises the danger ahead and is willing to prepare voters for difficult times. The government needs a humbler and more realistic way of going about things. Belief in a form of national exceptionalism led to lack of preparedness. Mr Johnson’s excessive self-confidence telegraphs hubris about the country’s ability to withstand a public health crisis. This may have been electorally successful but it has led to overreach and complacency. Britain’s painful Covid-19 experience ought to put a premium on competent and decent government. Yet Mr Johnson stokes Brexit’s politics of resentment to trump the politics of problem-solving. The country will pay a high price unless he changes course.


Exclusive: Hospitals told to clear beds for coronavirus spike in two weeks

Hospitals and councils have been told to find extra beds for coronavirus patients within two weeks as the NHS braces for a second spike in cases.

By Tony Diver

With hospital admissions beginning to increase following a steep rise in virus infections, isolation units in which Covid-19 patients can recover are being set up, freeing space on wards for those needing the most care.

More than 10 million people will soon be living in local lockdown areas after the North East became the latest region to impose curfews, with Liverpool and parts of the West Midlands expected to follow within days.

Chaos at testing centres (see video below) continued on Thursday as Baroness Harding, the head of NHS Test and Trace, admitted that up to one million people a day are applying for 230,000 available tests.

It also emerged that Matt Hancock, the Health Secretary, is planning to adopt a national “traffic light” system for putting regions into lockdown, with local action being triggered when infection rates reach a set level.

A template for the so-called “escalation framework”, seen by The Telegraph, includes provision for “mandatory masks” at the amber level, suggesting face coverings will be legally required in even more settings than they are now.

The Telegraph understands that ministers will on Friday confirm that family visits to care homes will be paused in areas in which infections are highest.

While the proposals were still being finalised on Thursday night, they are expected to be included in the winter care plan aimed at reducing the spread of the virus among elderly residents.

Another 3,395 people tested positive for coronavirus on Thursday, with a further 21 deaths, as infection rates soared in much of northern England.

With cases reaching the highest levels since May (use the graphic below to find out about cases in your area) and the current trajectory pointing towards a second peak in the next two weeks, hospitals are preparing for a possible influx of patients after admissions tripled in a fortnight.

The numbers of people in hospital remain low compared with the first peak of the virus, however. 

Bolton, the coronavirus hotspot of England, has only two Covid-19 patients on hospital wards, according to the most recent NHS data. Across all 18 “intervention” areas listed on Public Health England’s watchlist, 141 people out of a population of more than five million are in hospital with the disease – one hospital case for every 38,000 people. 

MPs in London were told last week of plans to increase the number of “step down” beds in which coronavirus patients in the capital who no longer need hospital treatment can recover in isolation.

One MP briefed on the plans during a conference call with health bosses told The Telegraph: “The rate of infection is going up, and I was told hospitals have reserved beds for people coming out of hospital who need somewhere to recover.

“At the start of lockdown they were having to send people back to care homes or back to other facilities, with dire consequences, so they’ve booked places in respite care or empty care homes. People will go out of hospital, but they won’t return to their normal place of living. They just need care before they go back home so that they empty the hospital wards.”

A former minister added: “The effort is being made to step up capacity so that if there is a second spike the NHS doesn’t fall so far behind with other types of care.

“Different parts of London are looking at different ways to handle that, but everyone has learnt that terrible lesson that you cannot discharge people into care homes if there is any danger whatsoever that they might be Covid positive, so there is a big effort to find extra beds.

“Brent rented an entire care home and they discharged their people into another care home. I think other places will be doing that as part of their efforts to get ready for a second spike.”

Another source who was on the call said councils had been given the job of finding extra beds and that disused care homes were likely to be used.

The isolation wards would be in addition to the NHS Nightingale Hospitals, which provide extra capacity for treating people with coronavirus rather than space for them to recover.

Channel 4 News claimed on Thursday night that care home providers in Greater Manchester are being told they must accept Covid-positive patients from hospitals.

A leaked contract from Trafford Council outlines how eligible care homes will receive Covid-positive patients within just two hours of them being identified by the hospital as ready for discharge. It states that “some of these patients may have Covid-19, whether symptomatic or asymptomatic”.

Sage scientists have “considered the case” for a two-week lockdown during the October half term, meaning pupils would only lose one week of lessons, according to the Financial Times.

Lockdown measures were being imposed on Northumberland, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle upon Tyne, Gateshead, Sunderland and County Durham at midnight on Thursday night, forcing pubs and restaurants to close at 10pm and banning two households from mixing.

Almost two million people will be affected by the latest lockdown – bringing the nationwide total under local measures to around nine million – with a further million likely to join them if, as expected, Liverpool and parts of the West Midlands are added to the list.

It was reported on Thursday night that restrictions will be announced on Friday for Lancashire, with the exception of Blackpool.

Senior Cabinet ministers were called to a meeting of the “XO” coronavirus operational subcommittee on Thursday afternoon to discuss more local lockdowns.

In Liverpool, the rate has jumped sharply from 67.5 cases per 100,000 people to 107.8 in the past week, a higher rate than many parts of the North East which are already in lockdown.

Last week Mr Hancock (seen announcing the latest restrictions in the video below) and Baroness Harding attended a virtual “London Covid-19 summit” at which they discussed an “epidemic response escalation framework” that would give greater transparency to decisions on putting areas into lockdown.

Areas with infection rates at the lowest level would be subject to national restrictions such as the “rule of six”, while areas above a certain rate of infection would be subject to more stringent measures. Those with the highest rates of infection would face the tightest restrictions.

The infection rates for each category would be made public, enabling people to prepare for the possibility of local lockdowns by monitoring published data on their area.

According to a draft document seen by the Telegraph, areas in the middle band would have “mandatory masks” and “restrict religious gatherings”, although the document gives no further detail about what that would involve. Areas with the highest rates would go into local lockdown.


England’s test and trace is a fiasco because the public sector has been utterly sidelined

“Which brings us to the central paradox: the UK ranks among the great hubs of scientific research. It has 44 virology labs across the NHS, and more throughout academia. It also boasts great public health expertise. Yet England’s testing regime is in meltdown. Why?”

Aditya Chakrabortty

A friend texts: his five-year-old daughter is sick. On hearing the symptoms, the NHS helpline adviser says she must be tested for Covid. So he and his wife have been trying for two days straight to book her a test, with almost nothing to show for it. All they are offered is a 120-mile round trip to Gatwick ­– a long drive for a feverish child. Meanwhile the family stays in the flat, its walls throbbing with their worries about sickness and school and work.

Similar stories are unfolding across the country this month. Westminster columnists may huff and puff about the rule of international law, but at the school gates people are furious about self-isolating for days on end and losing pay while waiting for the all-clear.

The most dangerous example of politicians breaking promises while a system fails its people is the utter collapse of what the prime minister calls the “world-beating”, “superlative” test-and-trace regime. Trust in a government seeps away when hundreds queue up in Bury for up to five hours for a test. Faith in the fairness of a scheme dwindles when a nurse in the south-west of England drives his daughter 50 miles for a booking – only to find they haven’t been sent the right QR code; oh, and the next available slot is in Dundee.

That nurse, those people queueing up, have had a gruelling six months. Some have seen sickness and death, or a drying-up of income. From the NHS to furlough, they need the public sector’s support. What they often get instead is a testing system that doesn’t even work. Failing at fundamental tasks, ministers instead threaten families with criminalisation if they so much as stop to chat with others.

What’s causing this chaos is not a shortage of swabs. Testing centres are cutting appointments because the Covid labs are already buckling under the workload. This is the “critical pinch-point”, admit senior officials, who apologise even as the health secretary, Matt Hancock, blames the public.

“When a service is free, it is inevitable that demand will rise,” he said on Tuesday. As if he hadn’t spent last month urging people to get tested. As if anxious parents, teachers and others just trying to do the right thing are freeloaders. As if a 150-mile round trip to sit in a car park with a swab up your nose is a family outing to top Alton Towers.

Much more is at stake here than a malfunctioning minister. Without a fully functioning test-and-trace system, the UK is doomed to ever more lockdowns, whether local or national. It’s essential to kicking the economy out of first gear and saving as many jobs as possible.

The biggest false opposition of 2020 is the one claimed airily by pundits and politicians: that there is a choice to be made between jobs and lives. Like other societies, the UK regularly has health issues and epidemics, both local and national. But when Salisbury suffered an outbreak of Novichok poisoning, no one went on Newsnight to lament the trade-off between the economy and health; the same applies in the case of sexually transmitted infections, which are spreading. Instead we rely on public health experts to control the spread of infection. The acute conflict, therefore, is between a broken test-and-trace regime and the economy: the first stymies the second.

Yet amid the biggest global pandemic in 100 years, England’s test-and-trace regime has crumbled within a week of schools reopening. With seven months to prepare for the start of autumn term and the outbreak of sniffles season (which was always going to prompt worried parents to seek a test), ministers have failed again.

Which brings us to the central paradox: the UK ranks among the great hubs of scientific research. It has 44 virology labs across the NHS, and more throughout academia. It also boasts great public health expertise. Yet England’s testing regime is in meltdown. Why?

It is not through penny-pinching. Ten billion pounds of your money and mine has been poured into test and trace. Rather, it’s because the vast majority of that expertise has been utterly sidelined. The system that is labelled “NHS test and trace” has hardly anything to do with the NHS. Each fragment of this system is contracted out to big private companies that often turn to subcontractors. So Deloitte handles the huge Lighthouse Labs that can’t get through the tests, while Serco oversees the contact-tracing system that regularly misses government targets.

Still, failure pays: Serco’s initial fee for running tracing was £108m. Then there are the consultants buzzing around this cash cow. Accenture pocketed more than £850,000 for 10 weeks’ work on the contact-tracing app ­– the one that still hasn’t been launched. McKinsey scooped £560,000 for six weeks’ work creating the “vision, purpose and narrative” of a new public health authority.

Early this year, Boris Johnson and Hancock faced a stark choice. They could take the expertise and systems of the NHS and public health authorities, however badly starved of cash and bashed about by a decade of hapless Tory ministers, and build around that a response to the pandemic. Instead, they ignored the scientists, brought in the outsourcers and went for size – except the shiny mega-labs were too late to help for most of Covid’s lethal first wave, and the contact-tracing was laughably poor.

The Nobel laureate and head of the Francis Crick Institute, Sir Paul Nurse, wrote three times to Downing Street and Hancock at the start of the pandemic, offering to coordinate university labs to help the NHS in testing for Covid. Had his proposal been taken up, he says, up to 100,000 tests a day might have been done from very early on. That alone could have avoided some of the deaths in our care homes. He didn’t get a reply, so his institute went ahead anyway. Similarly, nearly 70 leading virus experts wrote twice to Downing Street’s top scientists offering to help. As public health officials working at local and regional level, they were brushed off. Control was centralised. Even after all the lethal errors, Hancock and Johnson plough on, offering a vast £5bn contract for private companies to take over Covid testing. To my untrained eye, that appears another attempt at privatising much more NHS work.

Nurses, teachers, benefits offices: the sole pillar that keeps the UK from collapse in 2020 is its public sector. In this year of private businesses shutting down, it has been the government’s borrowing and spending that have kept people in jobs and saved even more firms from collapse. But just when the public sector has never been so important, government is stuffed with ministers and advisers known for their contempt towards it. While at the Department for Education, Dominic Cummings referred to teachers as “the blob”. Now he threatens a “hard rain” on Whitehall, while his boss, Johnson, wanders around like a wind-up double-glazing salesman issuing ever more extravagant promises – and when they fail you just know civil servants will again take the rap. Each flagrant failure of government is handily used to chip away trust in the very idea of governance.

These chancers bring to the state no imagination, nor any idea of how to mobilise its resources. Their main skill is looting it for money to give their mates in the private sector, while blaming it for their own fatal mess.

  • Aditya Chakrabortty is a Guardian columnist


Sasha on Tory activists: “dotty as the church stalwarts in The Vicar of Dibley”.

Sasha Swire review — this frisky account of the Cameron and May years is a hoot

“The voters rarely get a look-in. Tory activists are as dotty as the church stalwarts in The Vicar of Dibley. Parliament is seldom mentioned until the needle days of Brexit. This is government as a social reel among friends who are rivals, the tempo ever quickening, the dance becoming more and more frenzied until eventually the world goes bump, power is spilt and it is someone else’s turn.”

Quentin Letts

Sasha Swire’s diaries are causing mayhem. David Cameron is aghast, Michael Gove’s wife is hopping, hopping mad, and Prince Andrew’s lantern jaw must be on Windsor Castle’s floor at the lèse-majesté of that damn Swire woman.

For those of us on the touchline? Bliss. Swire may have dropped social Hiroshima but with her description of how politics works she has done us a tremendous favour. Her frisky account of the Cameron and May years is both scandalous, a scalding hoot and a treasure chest for tomorrow’s historians.

The plotting, the texting, the endless Tory leadership jockeying and the near-constant conviction, even when in public they seemed so cocksure, that it would all end in electoral defeat to Labour: these, we now learn, were the realities of the inner-Cameroons as they governed our country.

Booze and sex banter abound and have inevitably been seized on by the outrage brigade but the diaries are a great deal more valuable than that. They catch the coyote-like ambition, the bitching, chaos, laughter, hypocrisy, fragility and occasional shaft of principled endeavour you find in high politics. The scandal, perhaps, is that we so rarely get to see it. George Osborne, in May 2010, grabbed the ministerial grace-and-favour house Dorneywood by driving down to Buckinghamshire and placing his toothbrush in the bathroom there before Nick Clegg could beat him to it.

There is method to this apparent childishness: Osborne uses Dorneywood as a base for political entertaining for the next six years. Whitehall and the Commons may be where they discuss policies but social get-togethers are where politicians gel, where they forge the alliances needed to win power.

William Hague makes a speech at Dorneywood for Osborne’s 40th birthday party. He informs the guests of “Osborne’s Law One” of politics: “Work out, ahead of anyone else, who will be the next leader, stick to them like glue and become indispensable.”

Cynical? Yes. But it is true, of all parties and in all countries. For all his cleverness and cartoon villainy, Osborne is not bullet-proof. Lady Swire’s husband, Sir Hugo, a Tory MP and minister, bumps into Osborne in October 2010. Boy George is on his phone. “Just reading my congratulatory texts,” says the new chancellor smugly. “Can’t be your phone, then,” says Swire. That little jest leaves Osborne strangely deflated.

For satirists, Swire’s diaries are chastening. No Spitting Image skit could ever match what was going on behind the Westminster arras between 2010 and 2019. Take the Chinese state visit in 2015. The Chinese ambassador to London is a diplomat of such elasticity that the Swires give him the nickname “Swivel Hips”. To prevent unseemly protests by Tibetans, the Chinese bus in obedient expats to wave flags on the Mall during President Xi’s carriage ride with the Queen. The Chinese want their security people to be allowed to run alongside the royal carriage but the Metropolitan Police say if they try to do anything of the sort they will be treated as terrorists and shot on sight. At the Buckingham Palace dinner for Xi, numerous Chinese communist officials with counterfeit invitations are caught trying to gatecrash the royal event. Given what Swire says about the filthiness of the palace cooking, they possibly had a fortunate escape.

The dinner ends with a screeching performance by the Army School of Bagpipe Music, to which the Australian high commissioner responds with the single word “ouch”. Sir Les Patterson lives.

Here is politics at its most personal, a steeplechase of splashy shindigs alleviated by the occasional, farcical public event. At the Foreign Office Hugo Swire summons the Ecuadorean ambassador to give him a dressing-down for letting Julian Assange take sanctuary in the embassy.

The ambassador tries to change the subject by inviting Swire to Ecuador. “I can arrange it for you, minister.” No thanks, says Swire. But “I will come one day, because I need a new panama hat.”

Cameron begs Hugo to stop making a fuss about Tony Blair staying at British embassies around the world, pointing out that he himself will be an ex-PM one day and will want similar freebies. In 2010, when Cameron speculates about his successor, he idly supposes it will be “someone like Jeremy Hunt”. Sasha groans and tells her friend Dave: “No! Please, far too wet. It’s only because he sucks up to you and tells you what you want to hear.” None of Cameron’s advisers would tell him that but the wife of a fellow Etonian minster has the social confidence to do so. And in 2019 when Michael Gove is caught in the briars of a press hoohah about youthful drug-taking, Hugo is asked how he would respond if asked if he had ever taken drugs. “Five-one-zero-three-nine-four,” barks Hugo. Why? “That’s my army number, the only thing I’m trained to give under hostile interrogation.”

The voters rarely get a look-in. Tory activists are as dotty as the church stalwarts in The Vicar of Dibley. Parliament is seldom mentioned until the needle days of Brexit. This is government as a social reel among friends who are rivals, the tempo ever quickening, the dance becoming more and more frenzied until eventually the world goes bump, power is spilt and it is someone else’s turn.

Repeat cameo appearances are made by camp, extravagant Greg Barker, an environmentally friendly Tory MP who organised the young Cameron’s polar huskies stunt and who became a peer. Barker has dubious business links in Russia. With US sanctions against Russia threatening to wreck his business career, we find Barker in a golf buggy at a five-star Sri Lankan hotel. “Better get used to this when we have to return the Porsche Cayenne,” says the eco-campaigner.

Could floppy-fringed Sir Hugo not have written a diary himself? Possibly not. Too decent an egg. Sasha, a journalist, has the necessary wildness. Her mother is Slovenian and her father is that Thatcherite thistle Sir John Nott. Sasha herself, though besties (although no longer, one imagines) with Samantha Cameron, the former home secretary Amber Rudd and Downing Street’s former gatekeeper Kate Fall, is a closet Brexiteer who sees the cliqueishness of the Cameroon “mateocracy”. She claims to have kept her journal without the intention, at any time, of publishing it. We believe you, dear heart! But out it has popped, as accidental as an Erica Roe, to enthral us with 500 pages of high-grade disclosures.

There are so many morsels: Osborne muttering that he will cut the Queen’s budget after the 2011 royal wedding because he was not offered a drink after the service; he and Cameron laughing about which women in politics were beddable and about which male ministers have the largest marital equipment; a “pompous” General Nick Carter, chief of the general staff, attending a dinner of sullen Remainers in June 2016; Archbishop Sentamu hosing back brandy after a day with Belfast Presbyterians; Dominic Raab going clothes shopping at the start of his 2019 campaign to become Tory leader; Lord Maginnis of Drumglass being so fat there is no flak jacket to fit him for a trip to Afghanistan; Cameron running up a £4,500 restaurant bill in Delhi, much of it on wine (he drinks like a camel, particularly bull shot and negronis); and Michael Heseltine’s habitual supper-party game of telling guests which jobs he intends to give them in his cabinet, the ancient lion never quite having got over his failure to become PM.

Soon after the 2010 election Prince Edward and his wife, the Countess of Wessex, arrive for a Hillsborough Castle garden party and Swire, being a minister’s wife, is pressed into chit-chat. The royal couple are “highly opinionated about political matters”, Edward being “overwhelmed with relief that the Conservatives have got in”. The countess, a sometime PR woman, is not the sparkiest of souls. Sasha goes over to her in the drawing room after dinner and tries to open the small-talk by saying: “So, bet he didn’t tell you he was a royal when he married you”. The countess is puzzled and says: “I knew he was a royal of course I did. What do you mean by that?” Sasha: “It was a joke!” Countess: “Oh.”

Still, the Wessexes come off lighter than the Duke of York, whose attempts to become a trade envoy are a verminous nuisance to the government. At an event with Northern Irish businessmen Andrew is “excruciatingly painful to watch, a mixture of blokeishness and royal arrogance”. At another palace banquet, Andrew wags a finger at the MPs on the table and loudly informs the foreign guests that whereas these politicians come and go, the royal family endures. No thanks to him.

Cameron may be upset that Lady Swire has spilled so many indiscretions but he comes across as a generally benign, hearty presence, one who patted both Swires on the bum and who, on a country walk, claims to have become so aroused by Sasha’s Eau d’Italie scent that he declares he might “push her into the bushes and give her one”. We need not take this literally. It is classic Cameron levity. Lady Swire praises Dave for his strong marriage and describes how he spends his downtime at Chequers watching Poirot murder mysteries. He emerges as a less tortured soul than the Machiavellian Osborne; mind you, I had no idea Cameron became so ardent about a second EU referendum. And there is something rotten about his remark in August 2011 while holidaying in Cornwall with the Swires. “What more do I want?” he says. “A great day on the beach, I’m with my old friends and I’ve just won a war.” He was talking of Libya.

Michael Gove develops into a plotter of Blackadderesque finesse.

Swire’s long friendship with Rudd is broken by the latter’s tricksiness as she tries to block Brexit. The rancour of those Brexit battles, particularly in the autumn of 2019, is evoked so well they set off my stomach acids. You gain a sense of an entire establishment aflame — and maybe it still is. The Swires, while protesting their exhaustion, toddle along to parties thrown by social alpinists such as Christopher Moran, owner of Crosby Hall. Why any sane person would willingly accept such invitations is baffling but Moran gives money to the Tory party. Sir Evelyn de Rothschild, the financier, will not like Lady Swire’s description of having to endure his haughty boasts at Lady Jane Rayne’s summer party in 2014.

I’m afraid there is little left of Sir Evelyn after two artfully destructive pages. She doesn’t even bother to get the old blower’s name right. Princess Michael of Kent mwaw-mwaws Sir Evelyn, fawning over him, flattering him. “Her head butts round him like a cat, her tail held high with a little hook on the end, and she is purring. You must really like men to do that and she clearly does — especially rich ones.”

With her domestic life in the West Country, Sasha Swire is not as self-absorbed as MPs. If the book has a polished hero it is her husband: dutiful, witty, accident prone. That is not an unfair summary of him, though there is a tantalising hint of a less amiable side when we learn that he stitched up Priti Patel’s departure from the cabinet in 2017. Again and again, the personal fuels the political. In 2016 Hugo is strongly inclined to back Brexit but he ends up supporting Remain owing to the tugs of his friendship with Cameron. Is that corrupt or is it honourable?

Looking back on two decades in the London political swirl, Swire writes “we had a great fairground ride”. Of the Cameroons she adds: “We all holiday together, our children play together, we text each other bypassing the civil servants. People just don’t trust outsiders any more and even more so in politics, where the media lurks in the bushes waiting to pounce. The governing class is simply holding up a mirror to a nation where friendships have replaced other mediums.”

According to William Hague, Osborne’s Rule Two of politics is “get inside your opponent’s minds”. Maybe that explains the sharp reaction against Sasha Swire. It may look as if she has dished dirt but in fact she has betrayed the way the Cameroons thought.

Westminster diaries are judged on three levels: the details they leak, the political era they re-create and the central character of the author. Swire scores highly on all three. She is funnier and ballsier than Chris Mullin and if she falls short of Alan Clark it is only because he was so devilish. Swire, holidaying with the Camerons, had better access than Mullin or Clark. But maybe that should be “holidayed”. After these indiscretions, her future vacations may be in Outer Siberia.

Swire on . . . Amber Rudd

“What’s it like, handling Old Ma May? It’s all very difficult, she says, like having a dragon breathing down her neck. Unlike with other cabinet ministers, she knows and understands Amber’s brief intimately, so she watches her with a much more critical eye. She says their meetings, which are few and far between, are agonising because of her long pauses as she digests material. She has learnt to grip the table so not to jump in and interrupt, which she apparently hates.”

On John Bercow

“Trumpets, red carpets, a carriage trip down The Mall with Chinese officials in blue tracksuits conducting obedient Chinese expats waving flags excitedly. The official address before parliament is a circus. The little weasel Bercow walked in with the Chinese premier and then, losing no opportunity to grandstand, pompously declaimed how many Asian leaders he had welcomed to Parliament and what excellent champions of democracy they were, the latest of whom being Aung San Suu Kyi of Burma. Dave looked furious as Bercow lectured him that the world was watching him and China. In fairness to the little creep, he has been a supporter of the Dalai Lama.”

On the Prince of Wales

“The butler arrives with tea and Duchy Originals biscuits, and they all sit down.

HRH: ‘Do you like the biscuits?’

[Hugo Swire:] ‘Oh yes, very nice, Your Royal Highness.’

‘I make them, you know.’

‘You make them?’

‘Yes, we have rows of them in the supermarkets in this country. They are very popular over here, you know, very popular.’

‘Yes, they are very tasty.’

The PoW turns to his private secretary: ‘We must give him a packet to take home with him.’”

On Boris Johnson

“Boris is, in many ways, an island, a spinning, mad island. He gets by having very good people to do the work, and the detail. “Cummings, he’s an excellent chap, we have a really good team in here now.” The atmosphere is certainly different as you walk into No 10. Everyone is smiling, despite the fact they are on death row. And even though he is an island he seems, like Trump, to be much more in touch with the people and the provinces. I don’t know what will happen to him, because events make politicians, but I have changed my view of him. Yes, he is an alley cat, but he has a greatness of soul, a generosity of spirit, a desire to believe the best in people, a lack of pettiness and envy which is pretty uncommon in politics, and best of all a wonderful comic vision of the human condition. He is not like any politician I have ever encountered before, and I have met many.”

On David Cameron’s cabinets

“I am increasingly irritated by how David, George [Osborne] and Kate [Fall, deputy chief of staff] have this monopoly on people’s careers in politics, using a completely erroneous set of criteria (good back story, woman, ethnic, good on TV, too posh, too mad, ghastly). It’s the politics of PR, not the politics of serious government.

From one conversation to the next I hear them move their players around the chess board, thinking they are oh so clever . . .”


Viva Las Vagueness: Door Matt and Dido star in a cabaret of Covid cluelessness

In Las Vegas, they would call it a residency. So shabby has the government’s performance and messaging been over the coronavirus that Matt Hancock has found himself in the House of Commons almost on a daily basis, either to answer an urgent question or to make a ministerial statement on the latest Covid shambles.

John Crace 

And sure enough, the health secretary was back in the chamber on Thursday to outline the latest regional lockdowns that account for about one-seventh of the country – it can’t be long before there’s just a couple of villages in Cornwall open for business that are preventing another national lockdown being declared – and to announce a triage service for A&E departments. Press 1 if you think you are going to die in the next hour. 2 if you think you have a 50/50 chance of making it to the end of the day. 3 if you have broken a leg, and stop moaning. 4 to sod off and take some ibuprofen.

Hancock didn’t think to mention the collapse of coronavirus testing in many parts of the country. Nor did he say that the R number is now thought to be an alarming 1.7 in London and other areas. There again, if he had, he would have used up some of his best material for next week’s shows.

Not that Matt seems to be getting much enjoyment from all the attention, as he has become increasingly ratty. Like most Door Matts, Hancock’s natural instinct is to punch down. So rather than accepting his share of the blame for the things the government has got wrong, he has now taken to attacking opposition MPs – and even some on his own benches – for not being supportive enough. Like Boris, he can no longer accept a word of criticism. His reply to Labour’s Jon Ashworth, the shadow health secretary, who had merely pointed out some blindingly obvious truths, was a model of sneering gracelessness. At times like this, I think Hancock may be closer to losing his grip than even he realises.

Still, at least we will always have Typhoid Dido Harding, the interim chief executive of the National Institute for Health Protection, who was making a rare appearance before the science and technology committee. Right from the start she looked to be on edge. And once she opened her mouth, it immediately became clear why. Typhoid Dido really didn’t have much of a clue about anything.

She began by informing the committee that England only had the capacity for 242,000 tests a day, but she was totally unable to give an exact figure on the levels of demand. You could never be too sure, because about 27% were demanding tests when they had no symptoms. Typhoid Dido appeared to have no symptoms of meaningful neural activity. Trying to be helpful, her best guess was that demand outstripped capacity by three or four times. She thought that was a result.

Typhoid then went on to say that all would be well because testing capacity would double to 500,000 in a matter of six weeks. The committee chair, Greg Clark, raised an eyebrow. Given that the government had missed all its other testing targets, why should we believe this one? And as 500,000 was the average daily figure of people experiencing Covid-like symptoms in a normal year, wasn’t the level of tests hopelessly short of coping with a pandemic? Typhoid seemed astonished to learn that there was a pandemic going on and even more surprised to learn that children went back to school in September.

Things went from bad to worse as it emerged that tests were being rationed because laboratories couldn’t keep up with demand and that far from meeting the prime minister’s target of a 100% results turnaround within 24 hours, the government was only achieving a figure of about 33%. “The system is failing,” said Clark. Typhoid begged to differ. She reckoned 33% was a trailblazing success.

Eventually, Labour’s Graham Stringer intervened and asked the question on everyone’s mind: what on earth made her think she was the right person to head the new National Institute for Health Protection? Typhoid thought for a bit. It could have been that she had been chief executive of TalkTalk when it suffered a massive data breach resulting in her ignorance being described as a lesson to us all. It could have been that she had been on the board of the Jockey Club that gave the go-ahead to the Cheltenham festival. It could have been that she had been in charge of NHS test and trace, a service in which many employees made just two calls a month.

Or it could just have been that she was a Tory peer, married to a Tory MP, who was prepared to step up to the plate when her country called. An expert in logistics and key performance indicators who “could act faster over a broader landscape”. It now became clear she saw that her main asset was to be able to talk bullshit – though not particularly convincingly.

She wasn’t sure whether she would still be in the job if interviews ever started for it to be made permanent, but she wasn’t that bothered. Like Chris Grayling, who has just landed a £100k-a-year sideline in advising ports, despite having awarded a ferry contract to a company with no ferries, Typhoid Dido has the priceless asset of being able to fail upwards.