This week with Brian 4 to 11 January 2024

Further Afield the week according to Brian Quinn

This Week with Brian

Your Local Area

Including a new low, conventions, spooked in ’22, only room for one Liz, completing the course, Mr Bates v The Post Office, the fourteenth amendment, no evidence, a co-pilot, rural prosperity, Doubleback Alley, a welcome arrival, several candidates, four revolting sons, four fictional siblings, two things in Newbury and you’re fired.

Click on the appropriate buttons to the right to see the local news from your area (updated every Thursday evening).

If there’s anything you’d like to see covered for your area or anything that you’d like to add to something that we’ve covered already, drop me a line at brian@pennypost.org.uk

Further afield

I thought that Michelle Mone’s embarrassing interview (see the column from just before Christmas) marked a new low in British public life that was unlikely to be over- (or under-) taken. How wrong I was. Liz Truss’ resignation honours list managed to scrape an even lower part of the barrel. There are probably further depths that remain to be dredged in 2024.

[more below]

• Truss

The idea of a PM being able to nominate friends and cronies for honours at all is faintly repulsive at the best of times, the more so as, at its highest level, this confers a permanent place in the House of Lords (Michelle Mone ended up that way thanks to David Cameron). There are arguments – though not very strong ones – to be made in favour of having an upper house whose composition is wholly free of electoral involvement. Liz Truss’ example is, however, not one that will do this point of view any favours.

The trouble is that, as we have no constitution, the whole machinery of government is driven by a hotch-potch of statute law, judicial precedent and convention. It’s the last that’s at work here. A Downing Street spokesperson referred to the “long-standing and ongoing convention” of every ex-leader being able to nominate honours; and to another convention which is that “the incumbent prime minister does not block the political peerage proposals of others.” This was to defend Sunak from the charge that he should have stepped in and said that Truss’ list was , at the very least, in bad taste. He will one day be out of office – perhaps as early as this year – and will have his own list of hangers-on, donors and time-servers he wishes to propitiate.

Opinions differ as to whether conventions, rather than a written document, are the best way of defining a constitution. Some work quite well, like the convention that the monarch will not refuse to give the royal assent to a bill. However, they could do this if the government tried something completely bonkers like abolishing elections. The convention about resignation honours is, however, little short of a national embarrassment.

And just look at the people she honoured. Apart from novelist Shirley Conran (for services to maths education), all the others were political appointments – supporters, friends, hangers-on and aides from her disastrous time in office. Truss describes them as “champions for the conservative causes of freedom, limited government and a proud and sovereign Britain.”

Worst of all was the enablement of Jon Moynihan, the Chair of her leadership campaign. The disastrous Truss-Kwarteng “mini-budget” in September 2022 was produced without any commentary from the Office for Budgetary Responsibility (OBR), which was rather like submitting a doctoral thesis for examination without any references or footnotes. His view was that “this whole idea that you have to get the tick of approval from the OBR, which has been consistently wrong in its financial forecasts is, in my view, anti-democratic.”

Truss-Kwarteng agreed with this approach and forged ahead. The markets were spooked beyond words and the rest is history.

In fact, it isn’t history: for many, the resulting spike in interest rates is a continuing nightmare. To paraphrase another, rather more long-lasting Tory PM, never in all the field of political and economic conflict was so much money owed by so many to so few. And now she has ten well-advanced loyalists, three of whom are ermine-clad in the Lords, to keep her flame alive.

• Liz and Hen

There’s another aspect of her premiership which is often overlooked. Within two days of having asked her to form a government, Queen Elizabeth II was dead. There was only room for one Liz at the top so, ever the loyal and dignified sovereign, she did the decent thing and retired from the scene.

It was only in 1867 that an Act of Parliament was passed which made the life of parliament independent of the reign of the sovereign: previously, on a royal death or abdication, parliament was dissolved. What a shame this didn’t still apply in 2022. We would then have had a general election – long overdue as a result of the BoJo debacle – and Truss would have had only the record of a 48-hour premiership to defend. 

As we know Liz Truss’ premiership lasted 49 days. Were Truss’ monarch mortality rate to have been continued over an average full-term premiership of five years, that would have accounted for thirty-seven kings and queens, taking us back to Henry II who acceded in 1154. He was a man who had a robust attitude to the European mainland, doing all that he could to thwart the ambitions of the Kings of France. He also faced constant rebellions from his four awful sons which finally wore him down. This led to the wonderful observation in 1066 and All That that “Henry II died when he realised that all his sons were revolting.” We have all come to the same conclusion about Liz Truss’ resignation honours list.

• Antibiotics

For much of my life, antibiotics were casually handed out to me by doctors to treat pretty much everything. “Complete the course” was always mentioned but I thought this was just solicitude. If, five days into a 14-day course, I felt better, I often stopped taking the pills or liquid and dumped the rest down the toilet.

It was only about fifteen years ago that I was made to understand – I forget how or by whom – that this was the worst possible combination of reactions. I had become a lab reproducing bacteria that now had an immunity to the ABs; while flushing the rest down the loo did the same thing for the germs that so happily lived there. Friedrich Nietzsche wasn’t right about everything by a long chalk but his observation “that which does not kill me makes me stronger” was right on the money as regards bacteria.

In all the Covid concern about viruses, it’s easy to forget that antibiotics have, since 1945, saved perhaps 500 million premature deaths. Against this, it seems that perhaps five million deaths a year are due to antimicrobial resistance. This is only likely to get worse unless we can find something to replace traditional cures like penicillin.

Good news, therefore, that The Guardian reports that scientists “have discovered an entirely new class of antibiotic that appears to kill one of three bacteria considered to pose the greatest threat to human health because of their extensive drug-resistance.” Fingers crossed on this one.

• And finally…

• I’m building up my courage to watch Mr Bates v The Post Office about the awful and still unresolved national scandal of the persecution of hundreds of sub-postmasters by the Post Office which started in 1999 and, given the lack of any proper resolution, continues to this day. I find such reality-based dramas quite a tough watch: which I suppose is the point. If ever there was a case for some serious prison sentences to be handed out as a short, sharp shock and pour encourager les autres, this is surely it.

Here’s a taster from the series in which former Chancellor Nadhim Zahawi plays himself in a scene that describes a House of Commons committee inquiry into the matter.

• The US election is getting more and more confusing to anyone who isn’t American or, perhaps, to anyone who isn’t a lawyer. Trump has been removed from eligibility to stand in Maine and Colorado as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment which bans anyone who has “engaged in insurrection or rebellion” from holding federal office. Seems fair enough to me as his actions in January 2021 appear to fall foul of this. His lawyers have other ideas, however, and have issued an appeal. How many lawyers must the man have on his payroll?

• Many thanks to Chris from Tommy Langfrey’s Plumbers who helped me out when the back of my car was ripped off by a branch submerged in a puddle as a result of Storm Henk. “What I need now,” I said to myself as I hopelessly surveyed the damage, “is someone whom I know to turn up with the tools and expertise to get this bumper off, and with a van to put it in so I can get it to ND Services a couple of miles away.” Two minutes later, that is exactly what happened.

This good fortune has befallen me before. When I lived in London I had a BMW which twice broke down at busy junctions. On both occasions, the person in the car behind me was a BMW mechanic who fixed the problem. With luck like that, who needs the AA? (It turns out, as this story proves, that I most certainly do.)

• I don’t use Windows computers, being very firmly on Team Mac, but I note from the BBC that its new keyboards will feature a button which will access Copilot, MS’s AI tool. A Microsoft spokesperson, employing the kind of hyperbole that AI perhaps helped compose, described it as “transformative” and that it would “simplify” and “amplify” user experience. I’m not sure that a change that is transformative can also simplify anything, at least not at first: while what the “amplify” means is anyone’s guess. I also wonder if the “Co” in “Copilot” is strictly accurate given that, according to the BBC, the software can summarise meetings, write emails and create presentations. Perhaps “Autopilot” might be closer to the mark…

Across the area

• No evidence

Our local MP Laura Farris has been mounting or associating herself with a number of campaigns recently on matters ranging from buying British to building a bridge at Thatcham railway station. One of her concerns was that, in October, the Sainsbury’s in Newbury was charging about 7% more for petrol than was its counterpart at Calcot. Letters were sent and a reply received from Sainsbury’s. By late December the prices in Newbury had fallen and, on the 28th, were slightly lower than than in Calcot. Job done, you might think.

There is, however, no evidence I can see that Laura Farris’ intervention was the cause of the price drop. The letter from Sainsbury’s on 15 November was polite but rather dismissive and offered no assurances that the company would change its prices as a result of her intervention. Rather, it makes the point that “competition in the fuel industry is inherently and fundamentally local… (and) dependent on the unique features of each site as assessed on a case-by-case basis, which may be impacted by factors such as the presence of competitors, their distance from the centroid site, location, congestion, entry/exit points and amenities.”

On 21 December Farris said that she was “very pleased” that Sainsbury’s had lowered fuel prices “across the board”. This last phrase suggests that they fell across the country, implicitly as a result of her intervention. I’m not aware this happened and it was in any case not the aim of her campaign, which concerned prices in West Berkshire. In fairness, she stops short of directly claiming the credit for this. As it happens, someone else was doing it for her: “MP’s campaign to cut fuel costs reaping results” a headline in last week’s Newbury Weekly News told us. She wrote some letters; a month or so later the prices fell. As correlation is not proof of causation, there’s nothing to prove that any result reaping has actually taken place. If anyone can provide any evidence I’ll be happy to publish it.

• Candidates 

And speaking of the upcoming election – which is what all these campaigns and surveys are all about – several others have announced that they’ll be participating in our local constituency contests.

Newbury town councillor and former WBC councillor Steve Masters will be standing in Newbury constituency and West Berkshire councillor Carolyne Culver will be standing in Reading West and Mid Berkshire constituency, both for the Greens. Both are, a statement issued on 1 January says, “long-standing campaigners for environmental responsibility, social justice, and economic fairness.”  

Steve Masters will thus be coming up against opponents who include the incumbent, Laura Farris, and Lee Dillion, the Leader of West Berkshire Council. Labour will be selecting its candidate soon.

Meanwhile, WBC Councillor Adrian Abbs – who was in October controversially not selected to contest Mid Berkshire for the Lib Dems despite having won the hustings –  has announced that he will be standing as an independent. In a statement on 3 January, he describes himself as “a centralist who believes in a fair opportunity for all.” He adds that he feels that “tackling energy cost and energy security” should be our top priority. As well as Carolyne Culver,

Adrian Abbs’ opponents will include Helen Belcher whom the Lib Dems eventually selected last year. Labour and the Conservatives have yet to select their candidates for this seat but expect to have done so by mid January and the end of February respectively.

As to when the election will be, only Rishi Sunak knows that (or perhaps he doesn’t yet). It must have happened by 28 January 2025, but hanging on this long seems very unlikely as it will involve a Christmas campaign, which would be awful for everyone. Once the PM – or, technically, the King – dissolves parliament then the election must be held 25 working days after that. The fact that they happen on a Thursday is a well-established tradition dating back to 1935 (local elections must by law be held on that day). If Sunak goes to the Palace today, we could be having the poll in February.

Of the 22 elections since 1935, half have taken place in May or June. Sunak may want to avoid the European Championships (14 June to 14 July) during which time many people will be concentrating on more interesting matters. Then we’re into the summer (none of these last 22 elections were held in August or September) and, after that, into a final autumn which could be seen as his desperately hanging on. Local elections (not in all districts) will take place on 2 May but Sunak recently appeared to have ruled that date out – or has he? As Michelle Mone pointed out in her car-crash interview last month, lying to the press is not a crime…

• Rural prosperity

West Berkshire Council has announced that it has been awarded nearly £600,000 under the government’s Levelling Up scheme with about half of this (£297,994) being distributed across rural areas. This provides “an opportunity for local small rural businesses to apply for funding to support capital initiatives.”

The funding will be allocated over two financial years, “with £99,498 being provided in 2023-24, and a further £198,495 in 2024-25. The business grants will range between £10,000 to £40,000 and will be awarded to businesses on a rolling basis over the lifetime of the scheme.”

For more information, including on how businesses can apply for grants, click here.

• Residents’ news

The latest Residents’ Bulletin from West Berkshire Council includes an online budget consultation, Storm Henk, Newbury and Aldermaston Wharfs, road repairs, public meetings, school streets, family hubs and Shaw House.

• News from your local councils

Most of the councils in the area we cover are single-tier with one municipal authority. The arrangements in Oxfordshire are different, with a County Council which is sub-divided into six district councils, of which the Vale of White Horse is one. In these two-tier authorities, the county and district have different responsibilities. In all cases, parish and town councils provide the first and most immediately accessible tier of local government.

West Berkshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to sign up to all or any of the wide range of  newsletters produced by West Berkshire Council.

Click here to see the latest West Berkshire Council Residents’ Bulletin (generally produced every week).

Click here for the latest news from West Berkshire Council.

Vale of White Horse Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by the Vale Council.

Click here for latest news from the Vale Council.

Click here for the South and Vale Business Support Newsletter archive (newsletters are generally produced each week).

Click here to sign up to any of the newsletters produced by the Vale’s parent authority, Oxfordshire County Council.

Wiltshire Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Wiltshire Council.

Click here for the latest news from Wiltshire Council.

Swindon Council

Click here for details of all current consultations being run by Swindon Council.

Click here for the latest news from Swindon Council.

Parish and town councils

• Please see the News from your local council section in the respective weekly news columns (these also contain a wide range of other news stories and information on activities, events and local appeals and campaigns): Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area

• Other news

• West Berkshire Council has announced a “comprehensive support package for residents facing winter challenges.”

• The Council looks back at some of its highlights from 2023.

• More information on the town-centre strategies in Newbury, Thatcham and Hungerford can be found here.

• More information on community warm spaces in West Berkshire can be found here.

• The government has announced that the Single Fare Cap Scheme has now been extended to 31 December 2024. The scheme provides affordable bus travel for everyone across England, allowing passengers to travel at any time of the day for £2 (£4 return). The list of participating operators in West Berkshire can be found here.

Click here for information about help available with the cost of living crisis in West Berkshire, the Vale and Wiltshire.

Please click here for information about what local councils are doing to help support refugees from Ukraine and how you can help.

• The animals of the week are the ravens in the Tower of London. According to legend, the kingdom will fall (whether by total destruction or by becoming a republic isn’t clear) should the birds leave the 11th-century fortress. I didn’t know that the Ravenmaster ensures that this doesn’t happen by clipping their wings. Sounds like cheating to me…

• A number of good causes have received valuable support recently: see the various news area sections (links above) for further details.

The quiz, the sketch and the song

• Here we are at the Song of the Week. There’s no point in taking anything too seriously, not even The Beatles. Neil Innes of The Rutles certainly didn’t, as evinced by his sly and affectionate parody of Penny Lane, Doubleback Alley.

• So next must be the Comedy Moment of the Week. Last time round we had Nick Ball’s wonderful Dinner with the In-laws which – and I did warn you – is so cringingly funny that I for one can only comfortably watch it in short bursts. Here’s another that’s much the same, possible even more so: You’re Fired.

• Which brings us to the Quiz Question of the Week. This week’s question is: What happened in successive years in Wash Common and in Speen, both in (or very close to) Newbury? Last week’s question was: How many siblings did Kevin have in the 1990 Christmas comedy film Home Alone? He had two brothers and two sisters which makes…er…four siblings. Four. Yes, I think that’s right…

For weekly news sections for Hungerford areaLambourn Valley; Marlborough area; Newbury area; Thatcham area; Compton and Downlands; Burghfield area; Wantage area  please click on the appropriate links.

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Covering: Newbury, Thatcham, Hungerford, Marlborough, Wantage, Lambourn, Compton, Swindon & Theale