I’ve found BBC Newscast much more interesting since Adam Fleming took on the main role. I was therefore drawn to his thoughtful account of the rise and fall of the Johnson government, and his attribution of the fall to the Owen Paterson affair, last November, and I couldn’t help thinking that he had missed something.
When I saw on Twitter yesterday morning that ‘general election’ was trending, I was reminded exactly what Adam had missed in his analysis – the public reaction to pollution of our coasts, and the dissatisfaction with the government’s way of dealing with it. Twitter has, for several days now, been filled with items relating to the Enough is Enough movement, but yesterday general election dominated, with lots of pictures of Tory MPs and how they voted on the sewage issue. Who said people have short memories?
This time last year
To even begin to understand this, you need to go back in time to about this time last year. Pollution incidents had been occurring all over the British coastline, with a certain amount of publicity, but nothing that the government weren’t able to palm away with their characteristic arrogance. Even George Monbiot seemed to be having little impact.
However, thanks to a robust style that Mick Lynch would probably admire, the singer Fergal Sharkey come storming into TV studios and ably articulated the public mood. These weren’t just isolated sewage incidents, and it really was telling that this should happen so soon after Brexit implementation came into play. There must have been gasps in TV studios as Sharkey unleashed references to the B word that as a former pop star he had no right to do.
Anyway, just like Lynch this summer, Sharkey had captured and articulated the public mood. Even a petition that had been languishing for months seemed to show signs of revival. Sewage became the subject of conversations in supermarkets and on Mumsnet. But by then parliament was returning, and there was an expectation that other matters like Afghanistan would take a few floating turds right off the agenda.
The inevitable consequence of a corporate-centred policy
However, the matter refused to be pushed away. The new SAS was Surfers against Sewage, and they took over with hard facts where Starkey had set a more general agenda. The pollution was caused by lack of maintenance and lack of investment in infrastructure, and the companies concerned were at the same time providing big dividends for their shareholders. It appeared that the current sewage outages weren’t just an unfortunate oversight in maintenance but the inevitable consequence of a corporate-centred policy. What made it even more potentially devastating for the government was that this was a taste of ‘bonfire of regulations’ quickly put into practice – EU regs to fine the water companies for infringements were no longer in UK law.
All this got a lot of people thinking, and talking, including government select committees who had just returned, and members of the House of Lords. The government had expected its environmental bill to get an easy ride and to go smoothly into legislation by the autumn. But now there was considerable resistance. Indeed, the resistance widened to involve other pressure groups like Wild Swimmers, and the petition got a record 40k signatures in its last three days to easily meet its target and trigger a parliamentary debate. Hooray!
On into October, and the Lords had come up with a few clauses of their own for the environmental bill. To anyone who read them, these seemed to address the concerns about lack of investment, excess profits, needs of consumers (e.g. swimmers and surfers), and offered a way out of a hole for the government. I remember a video of Steve Bray of SODEM in Whitehall, outside Cabinet Office, doing an excellent piece of ‘toilet protest‘ street theatre. The issue wasn’t going away lightly.
Everyone expected there to be a showdown between the House of Lords and the House of Commons over this issue, because the government was not really inclined to change their great Brexit philosophy of ‘cutting red tape’. To cut a long story short, the government only won because they used stealth tactics. The House of Lords (with a bill presented by the present day Duke of Wellington no less) had not backed down, but because Lord Goldsmith (who was a minister) had said the Wellington bill was in line with governments revised proposals, it could be safely set aside, and the government could get on with its agenda. I remember a very angry Surfers against Sewage person being presented with this ‘fait accompli’ on radio 4 Today, and beating a strategic retreat. However, one could almost hear an under the breath rustle that could indicate that they would be back!
I wrote a short account of the stealth tactics at the time for North East Bylines under the title “Standards, Sewage and Sleaze in the House of Commons”. The turnaround happened very quickly with not much reporting in the media, and it almost a case of blink and you’ll miss it. Their Lordships were apparently so put off their axis by these events that they effectively surrendered, and the legislation just pass through without further ado…
Now, I wonder whether it was that great “sleight-of-hand” victory over environmental campaigners, rather than any basis in reality, that provided the backdrop for the government demeanour that Adam Fleming encountered as so “cock-a-hoop” just before the Glasgow COP21 climate change summit. I remember the chancellor also being quite cocky at the conference about introducing a policy to encourage internal UK flights that would clearly be rivals to the trains and increase CO2 in the air. Yes, a lot was going on, and they were just getting into gear with their agenda, it seemed!
Chanticleer the cock
I remember studying Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Nun’s Priest’s Tale, featuring Chanticleer the cock. The term “pride before a fall” may well have come from that story, because Chanticleer did indeed become very proud, and possibly arrogant… and was summarily taken down by the fox. Anyway, back to the reality of October 2021. As Adam Fleming quite rightly recalled, the attempted rule change to “let Owen Paterson off” was introduced directly after the COP had finished. It was led by – and no comparisons please – a certain well-thought of gentleman by the name of Jacob Rees-Mogg, who was very sure of himself indeed! After given environmentalists such an apparent beating, he must have thought he walked on water!
Rees-Mogg got his “fox” quite soon in the form of the standards commissioner, who refused to back down about rewriting the rule book to save Paterson – and to the extent that, in the end, most of Rees-Mogg’s colleagues capitulated and made him look rather silly! Was it a knock-on-effect from the sleight-of-hand with their Lordships that led so spectacularly to Rees-Mogg’s, and therefore the government’s, ignominious defeat in the commons, and the subsequent North Shropshire by-election? I rather suspect that it might have been. Pride before a fall and all that!
If Johnson had survived, the sewage would still have just be waiting for the first available summer rain, however, for the whole matter to come right back at the government. As it happens, Johnson is conveniently away on holiday, and the government appears to be on vacation… so who takes the full flak for the sewage issue? Probably the winner of the Tory election campaign, because they were in the government with Johnson anyway.
So, Adam, are you factoring in anti-sewage campaigners this time? What will they demand this time, anyway? Will they threaten the new leader? Well, it seems they want a general election, so that might raise a few eyebrows. Why? Well, they no longer trust their own MPs, hence today’s angry tweets, and sent while they are on holiday too. How thoughtless!
And will their Lordships save the government again this time? I suppose it depends how many extra will have been ”stuffed in” by then. And will the sullied cock make a comeback? We do live in fascinating times!