The Spectator's Notes

Should Gavin Williamson resign as a career move?

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

22 August 2020

9:00 AM

Amid all the puzzlement and recrimination about why the government got into this mess about A-level and GCSE results, one factor has been missed — the effect of Covid-19. I do not mean the obvious fact that none of this would have happened without the disease. I mean the less obvious one that our governmental and political system works very badly without the close human contact which Covid forbids. In normal times, MPs meet their constituents. Ministers meet fellow MPs in the Members’ Lobby and hear from them about constituents’ worries, such as their children losing university places. In Whitehall corridors, civil servants bump into one another and notice upcoming problems. And in cabinet — or, more likely, on its margins — senior ministers can sense trouble brewing. In the absence of such informalities, 10 Downing Street turns in on itself. Communication stops. The quango machine rolls on unchecked, until disaster strikes. The late Duke of Norfolk famously declared that the problem with the ‘rhythm method’ of birth control was that ‘it doesn’t bloody work’. The same can be said, in government, of the algorithm method.

People have called for Gavin Williamson’s resignation over the debacle. This is not an issue where he must, in honour, resign; but should he do so as a career move? Compare two chancellors of the exchequer. The first, Jim Callaghan, took responsibility as soon as the pound was devalued in 1967, and resigned. He was immediately made home secretary. Nine years later, he became prime minister. The second, Norman Lamont, did not resign after the devaluation caused by Britain falling out of the ERM in September 1992. Consequently he was undermined in the post and John Major prised him out of the Treasury in May the following year, never to hold office again. Some friends of Mr Williamson say that if he stays, he will be dragged down. If he goes, saying straightforwardly that he made a mistake, he will be able to bounce back. That is how politics ought to work, but one can understand why Mr Williamson might fear that it doesn’t.

Last Sunday, BBC Radio 4’s The Reunion devoted 40 minutes to ‘Black Wednesday’, as our exit from the ERM was mistakenly called. No one mentioned that the underlying aim behind the ERM was to help create the conditions for a European single currency, and that our falling out ensured that Britain would not join. Only in the 39th minute of the programme, did anyone — Kenneth Clarke — point out that ‘Europe’ was at the heart of the matter. If Black Wednesday had not exposed in one day’s trading the folly of the euro project for Britain, there would almost certainly have been no Brexit. No one came near to discussing this — a feat comparable to remembering Dunkirk without noting that it was followed by the Battle of Britain.

In her virtual speech to the Democratic National Convention, Michelle Obama said: ‘So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can… If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.’ Later she added: ‘We have got to vote like we did in 2008 and 2012… with the same level of passion and hope for Joe Biden.’ Mrs Obama was eloquent, but is it really possible for Americans to vote for Joe Biden as if their lives depended on it, and with the same level of passion and hope as many felt for her husband? Honestly, it just isn’t. How can people burn with passion and hope for a 77-year-old long-time Washington insider with significant memory loss? How can they be expected to let their lives depend on a pleasant old chap whose own active life looks as if it might soon draw peacefully to its close? Surely the good reason for voting for him is not anything so exalted, but a firm sense that he is calmer, more experienced and more moderate than his opponent. By ‘going high’ again, Mrs Obama leaves Mr Biden looking sadly earthbound. Mrs Biden’s appeal that Joe can unite the nation as he united his own family after bereavement seemed nearer the mark.

No sooner do I try to be broad-minded about Chris Packham (see last week’s Notes) than he tweets, on the Twelfth of August: ‘Today, maybe a hundred, maybe more men in tweeds have been out on our burnt and barren moors killing grouse. They did so at a terrible cost, the lives of millions of animals including some of our rarest and most beautiful birds.’ The tweet was accompanied by a film of Mr Packham wearing a T-shirt which imitated a bloodstain and holding up a picture of Tom, a golden eagle whose satellite tag had stopped working, allegedly near a grouse moor. On this slender foundation (‘We don’t know precisely… We can only hazard a guess’), he invited followers to complain to MPs. He is perpetrating an avian blood libel against identifiable moors (I wonder if their owners could sue him). His are not the words of an impartial BBC television presenter accommodating the views of all involved in the natural world.

The week before last, I started tweeting. Actually, that is not true, but @1CharlesHMoore, bearing my photograph and brief CV, got going, advancing opinions in my name. The first tweets seemed harmless enough. ‘Charles Moore’ commented in support of the Lincoln Project (Never Trump Republicans), for example. But one had the feeling that once the reader had been lulled into a false sense of security, they could only get worse. At first, I did not know this was happening, but an alert colleague noticed and contacted Twitter on my behalf. They acted quickly and ‘my’ account now says ‘Account suspended. Twitter suspends accounts which violate the Twitter Rules’, which makes it sound as if I have done something revolting, such as making a joke. I swear I would never do such a thing on social media.

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