On the art of sniffing milk and prime ministers…

JUST give that milk a sniff. So said Morrisons the other day when announcing that it was dispensing with use-by dates.

With accidentally pertinent timing, this came just as everyone was finally starting to sniff something else that seems to have turned.

I just checked again and it’s off for sure. There’s a terrible cheesy and winey smell, a stink of stale entitlement mixed with a sour wash of shifty lies kept too long at the back of the fridge. Never mind that cartoonish splodge on the carton, Boris Johnson has gone right off.

Some of us spotted the mould had set in long ago. Doesn’t this smell funny to you, we said, passing the crumpled Eton yoghurt pot around. Oh, that’s just Boris smelling like Boris, his defenders said.

Now even his MPs are sniffing that pot and wondering what they bought, as their great communicator is reduced to bumbling his words, smirking when dodging serious questions, and hiding.

Even the normally supportive Sun newspaper is damning on its front page today – “It’s my party and I’ll lie low if I want to.” That’s fine as far as it goes, but you need to remove the ‘low’ for a more accurate headline.

As you will not need reminding, Johnson is in trouble over whether he attended a lockdown party in the garden on No 10. Along with other assorted parties he might or might not have popped along to.

The bring-your-own-bottle party is the one that’s causing him problems now.

A party that occurred after a press conference during which we’d all been told to stay indoors. A party that occurred just before the story broke about Dominic Cummings bending the rules to drive to Barnard Castle “to test his eyesight”.

And, more sombrely, a party that occurred when relatives were being told they couldn’t visit loved ones in care homes and some, incredibly, are even said to have been reduced to watching their loved ones die on Zoom.

And if Johnson cannot see what’s wrong with that, he’s an even worse man than we thought.

Many of his blatant character faults have been well aired here and elsewhere. It’s all too easy to assemble Boris’s Bad Bits, a sort of greatest hits album in reverse. Let’s widen this out instead.

Something else that smells off is featured on the front page of The New York Times today, under the headline: “How Boris is revealing his true self.”

This opinion piece by Moya Lothian-McLean is less concerned with his present troubles than with what his government has been doing with its power.

Having arrived at No 10 by hitching a ride on the back of Brexit, Johnson talked about restoring “freedom” and “taking back control”. What he and his lieutenants have done instead, Lothian-McLean writes, is to seize control for themselves and strip away the freedoms of others.

“A raft of bills likely to pass this year will set Britain, self-professed beacon of democracy, on the road to autocracy,” she writes. “Once in place, the legislation will be very hard to shift. For Mr Johnson, it amounts to a concerted power-grab.”

After wondering just who this political chameleon called Boris might be, Lothian-McLean delivers her killer punch ­– “Now he has revealed who he really is: a brattish authoritarian who puts his personal whims above anything else.”

That really is a case of how others see us. The BYOB party could be the undoing of Johnson, but another even darker story lies behind all those headlines. But you need to be in New York to notice what’s going on.

Now that Sir Keir Starmer is out of isolation (again!), perhaps he could start pointing out some of these things.

Meanwhile, one of our own newspapers prints parallel-planet propaganda like this…

But not all our newspapers are falling down on the job, as shown by this front ‘page’ from the online only Independent, suggesting that No 10 staff were told to ‘clear up their phones’ before the investigation into those parties…

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A few shambling notions for New Year’s Eve…

It’s always an odd day, a hinge between what’s gone and what’s to come. Often there is a party with friends, but that idea shrivelled in uncertainty this year. There is a walk instead, Covid tests permitting, as WhatsApp messages ping-pong back and forth with tales of possible scares. Sharing lifts has been ruled out, fresh air ruled in. As for tonight, that’ll just be a musical threesome with Jools Holland.

Here are those shambling notions…

You always hope things will change, then sit back and watch the box set as they don’t. One thing that hasn’t changed is that Boris Johnson is still prime minister: still on holiday while pretending not to be. Still trying to play the loveable clown (editor’s note: are you sure about that?) with silly mussed-up hair and patter as stale as the jokes from last year’s Christmas crackers, mock-Latin edition.

And yet with every event-shunted day he looks more tragic than comical, as if haunted by a gnawing awareness of his own failings while trying to keep up the act.

Ladies and gentlemen, welcome to The Great British Fake-Off in which our hero (editor’s note: see last note) attempts to cook a post-Brexit mid-pandemic porkies pie while hearing over his shoulder the sound of knives being sharpened.

That’s almost enough of him. And, yes, it is an unhealthy obsession, but there you go. Here is something else. Did you know that Johnson now employs three vanity photographers, paid for by you and me to make him look good or to distract us with snaps of his dog?

A couple of days before Christmas, The Times explained that its policy was “to use such images as sparingly as possible” and to signal their dodgy provenance with the caption “supplied by No 10 official photographer”. It said that the “proliferation of staged images from Downing Street is disquieting”, and so it is.

Let’s give a shout-out to real photographers taking real photographs.

Turning away from what might bring us down, here is something genuinely uplifting. And, no, it’s not creepy Dominic Raab taking chocolates to NHS staff. And, no again, it’s not any number of Tory MPs ‘celebrating’ their local food bank with picture opportunities, gruesomely highlighting the very poverty they have helped to bring about.

Teacher and charity founder Bex Wilson

Teacher and charity founder Bex Wilson (Picture: BBC)

This instead is the story of the Leeds primary teacher Bex Wilson, who was shocked to discover  the reason why a six-year-old boy in her class was always tired.

You may have seen Bex on BBC Look North. She has also just been featured on BBC Breakfast, where she said of that boy: “He was unusually irritated and had been short with one of his friends, I just kept him behind at the end and said, ‘What’s going on? I feel like you’re tired this morning’ and he said, ‘I’m always tired Miss, I don’t have a bed’.”

Instead of sitting back and thinking that’s awful, Bex got that boy a mattress. And from that one act of practical kindness has grown her charity Zarach, which provides beds and furniture to poverty-stricken children in Leeds and elsewhere.

On BBC Look North she has also been seen delivering food parcels to families.

Some people are remarkable, aren’t they? And some people sit typing at the back of the room because that’s all they know. Sometimes it’s possible to worry you should be the one and not the other.

Still, no resolutions from me as I don’t believe in them. And no giving up alcohol for January either, as that was last’s year punishment. I’ll be sticking to steady as she goes, a drink or two here and there, then no drinks for a short spell.

Talking of drinking, here’s a cautionary headline…

Happy New Year and all that.


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Thoughts on life, working from home and precision potatoes…

HERE are a few random thoughts on life and other distractions, starting with: Life is what happens when you sit there thinking what life should be like.

This isn’t a complaint, just how it goes.

Many years ago, a young man, with hair on his head and airy notions inside, sat in a newspaper office at the start of what would clearly be a brilliant career.

A long time later, an older man, with no hair on his head and airy notions inside, sits in his study as he writes these words on his day off.

Plenty has happened in between, not least just about surviving in journalism, although that young man did not foresee inching out his wordy life at home alone in the study, with an old cat for company.

Human colleagues used to talk about this and that, passing the time; the cat colleague scratches at the door, yowls on the windowsill, and walks over the keyboard once admitted. Then nods off, as did some former workmates, although not usually on the floor.

Some days there is an escape from this study, people are interviewed, words are gathered into a newspaper feature; those are the best days.

All of this depends on the internet. The other day Nadine Dorries, the culture secretary, was bloviating about a £5bn gigabit broadband boost or something, while giving an obligatory mention to levelling up.

Honestly, I have no idea what she was talking about, although someone should tell her how often the internet levels down and dies.

A man from Virgin Media recommended sticking a pin in a hole at the back of the box, a high-tech technical solution that resurrected the wi-fi for the shortest while. Then the work link ground to a halt, while the BBC iPlayer span the dreaded dotted circle.

Here, to end, is a slogan seen on a lorry while out running: “Precision prepared potatoes.” Who knew that a potato could be precisely done? Not this chopper of random sized pieces for the roasting tray; not this careless arranger of baking spuds on the oven racks.






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Blimey, that Freddie Flintoff has let himself go…

IT’S easy to forget what letters clustered together in an acronym stand for. After all, it seems to have slipped Boris Johnson’s mind what the letters BBC represent.

An intemperate story in the Mail On Sunday (editor’s note: is there any other type?) yesterday reported that the prime minister had told ‘friends’ (editor’s note: please check he has any) that he was angry at the ‘frivolous, vengeful, partisan’ BBC for its reporting of the Downing Street party row.

He fumed to these apparent pals that the Corporation had ‘neglected its primary duty to focus on the booster rollout’.

Those pesky acronyms really are a nuisance: doesn’t everyone know that it’s the Broadcasting Boris Corporation?

Step a few feet along this stony path and you will stub your toe on a lump of irony about the size of Johnson’s head.

Mere hours after this story appeared, the prime minister commandeered the airwaves for another of his Covid announcements; not a press conference but a recorded address, slotted in before Top Gear. Unsuspecting viewers switching on for the popular BBC motoring show may have thought, Blimey, that Freddie Flintoff has let himself go…

There seemed to be no real reason for this interruption to Sunday night viewing, other than for Johnson to deflect attention from the party row and to have another try at looking prime ministerial (nope, still not getting those vibes).

The BBC is a public service broadcaster and asking questions of government is part of its job, and one it doesn’t always do properly. And anyway: endless dull bulletins are dedicated to reports about the booster rollout and other fresh-spun stories the government hopes might make it look in control (nope, still not seeing that).

Blaming the BBC is what governments do, especially this one. Yet the party story was unearthed by the Daily Mirror and the mock-press conference from last year that reignited the whole shabby charade was an ITV story.

Nothing about this is particular to the BBC. ITV covered this story, Sky covered it; LBC, Channel 4, Channel 5 ­– they all covered this story, as did the Mail and other newspapers, but Johnson’s ‘friends’ say he just wants to blame the BBC.

Johnson clearly thinks the BBC should only report stories that make him look good (editor’s note: is that even humanly possible?).

You know, if only there was a White House-style press room that Johnson could have used instead. You know, like the one he had built that cost us £2.6m. But that is always full of impertinent journalists asking questions. And what a nerve that he should be expected to put up with that.

If there is an upside to all this, it is the thought that Johnson faces endless rows of unseen people at home chuntering “oh do piss off” every time he blathers out another word; and worse, if a splendid “f***-off” meme doing the rounds after last night’s address is any guide.

Anyway, here are some suggested programmes for the Broadcasting Boris Corporation:

The Great British Boris Off

Would I Lie To You?

Only Fools And Voters

All My Sons (And Daughters)

I’m A Celebrity PM…You’re Not Getting Me Out Of Here…

Changing Rooms (wallpaper special)

Wish You Were Here (Bet You Wish You Had Rich Friends Like Me)

What We Do In The Shadows (When You Aren’t Paying Attention)

Kirstie And Phil’s Love It Or Punch It On The Nose.

Yes, we should worry about the Omicron variant; and we should also worry about the Omni-con prime minister, a man so woefully ill-suited to his job that it would be laughable if it was at all funny.

Switching off now…

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Boris Johnson dressing up in police clothes and the party that never was…

BORIS Johnson likes dressing up as other people and cannot glimpse a hi-vis jacket without pulling it on over his ill-fitting shirt and skew-whiff tie.

When football was fleetingly his thing, he wrestled himself into an England shirt, yanked on over the indecorous shirt and that askew tie.

A couple of days ago, he took his dressing-up habit a stage further by pretending to be a copper (Johnson of the Lard, perhaps). It was hardly fetching, matching an over-sized jacket with body protection and a woolly hat branded with the world ‘Police’.

For continuity’s sake, that tie poked out of the jacket. His eyes peeped above a face mask, looking out for hardened criminals or possibly a passing headline.

The reason for this ludicrous charade was that Johnson had joined police in Liverpool on a morning drugs raid. According to later police comments, no arrests were made.

Why was the prime minister doing another fancy-dress turn? The official reason was to launch the government’s new drugs policy. Well, I say new, but it was hard to spot the difference from previous drug policies. More money was promised (keep an eye on that, officer) and Johnson was going to be tough on drugs and the causes of drugs. The BBC news obediently led with what seemed to be a bit of government spin.

The unofficial reason was surely to deflect all those hostile headlines about the party that might or might not have been taken place at Downing Street last Christmas.

You know the one, the party that wasn’t held but if it was it broke no rules, but anyway it categorically wasn’t held, unless it was.

Johnson burbled out his slippery explanation as usual, and then last night ITV News obtained a video of a mock briefing showing Downing Street staff joking while talking about a gathering where cheese and wine were served.

The prime minister’s former press secretary, Allegra Stratton, is shown laughing on many of the front pages, with the Times among other accusing Boris Johnson of “lying” – which is a bit like saying a leopard suffers from spotty pigmentation.

This story has traction because the alleged Tory knees-up happened at a time when everyone else had been ordered to stay indoors to comply with Covid rules, and when other rule-breaking partygoers were getting themselves arrested. And, much more seriously, it happened when people were prevented from visiting ill or dying relatives thanks to the lockdown.

This is how a small story becomes a much bigger story; how a little spot becomes a festering boil, and so on.

Plenty of us saw Johnson as a conniving scoundrel from the start, an unserious show-off who pretends to be an amiable clown. Lovable toff or hateful, chaotic incompetent – oh sometimes it’s hard to spot the difference.

After trying to bend the parliamentary rules to save his pal, Owen Paterson, and after the great northern railway let-down, Johnson needed some good news. Instead, he is haunted by the ghost of last Christmas, and a growing sense that rules only apply to the little people and not to himself or those within his queasy orbit.

Anyway, fun was had on Twitter with that police picture. The best response was from Jed Mercurio, the writer of Line Of Duty…


“Totally bent” – yup, that raised a weary smile.

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Writers, the reason you can’t get published is all down to Remainers…

TRYING to get a book published is a wearying business, but it seems that those of us who struggle to find a deal have got it all wrong. We need to blame Remainers, which in my case involves blaming myself.

Thanks to the bumptious Tory MP Mark Francois for this useful insight into how publishing is a plot against brave Brexiteers such as himself.

In case you need educating, if that’s the word here, Francois is the small and belligerent, Brexit-loving MP for somewhere or other. I could look it up, but those wasted seconds don’t grow on trees.

He is known for his shortness and the tottering height of his right-wing opinions. Enter his name into Google, and one of the first options is a question about his height.

Hilariously, a celebrity height site (honestly, I am not making this up) says the following, which has been copied verbatim: “At 55 years old, Mark Francois height not available right now. We will update Mark Francois’s height soon as possible.”

Perhaps he is updating his own height as we speak by trying on different shoes or something. Happy to recommend the High Dudgeon Shoe Lifts I have just invented, designed to give a boost to small, shouty men everywhere. As a smallish, non-shouty man, I am happy to donate this invention to those whose ego needs a wedge.

Anyway, here is what Mark Francois has to say about publishing, as told to the Daily Telegraph, whose ear is always open to right-wing, Brexit-addled politicians with a very small axe to grind, or possibly a pair of nail scissors.

He has written a book about the ‘battle for Brexit’ and is having to self-publish as no publisher would touch it, apparently, as they’re all Remainers. These Remainers get everywhere, plotting against a hard-working small man whose height has yet to be made publicly available. And to those of you putting up your hands to say, “Ahem, perhaps it was a just another shit boring book”, well, yes.

The likes of Francois always want someone to blame; there’s a plot going on; someone’s got it in for them.

Francois told a Telegraph politics podcast: “In a nutshell, the problem was that the orthodoxy within the publishing industry is very, very much Remain. I got some nice compliments about the book and the writing, but it became fairly evident after a while that no publisher wanted to publish.”

And if the book was written as Francois speaks, those Remainer publishers may just have done us a favour.

Apparently, Francois’s agent touted the book “to a staggering 24 publishers who all refused”, according to the Daily Express website. I have always hated that usage of ‘staggering’, which is dropped into newspaper copy like a soggy firework that never goes off. But I’ll make an exception here: perhaps they were staggering after reading a few pages of Spartan Victory: The Inside Story of the Battle for Brexit. Or perhaps they were staggered after reading the title alone.

Being rejected is what happens to writers – good writers, poor writers and puffed-up politicians jumping up as they try to see over the wall.

My main deal was with an American publisher about ten years ago, for two York-based crime novels featuring the Rounder Brothers. They did all right; and then they faded away, which is what happens.

I have two novels on the go now, almost ready to be sent out. I am off to look for one of those Remainer publishers.

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Richard Thompson Beeswing Tour

Richard Thompson Beeswing Tour, York Barbican, October 25

Richard Thompson, Beeswing, Fairport, Folk Rock and Finding My Voice 1967-75. Written with Scott Timberg, published by Faber.

RICHARD Thompson is touring to promote the book about what he does when he stands on stage.

In some ways, this was like any other concert. Thompson alone with a loudly amplified acoustic guitar for company, an instrument that seemingly contained another band in its sound chamber. How can one guitar make that much music?

His rolling baritone voice barrelled away as usual, steeped in life and undiminished by 72 years and many more songs.

First up was a storming version of Stony Ground, a tale of aged lust, which Thompson grabbed by its mucky collar and shook, producing runs of chords and notes that were gloriously improbable.

Between songs he spoke wryly, as he always does. Yet this time the chat was more to the point. Thompson read passages from his autobiography, explaining how songs came about before he played them.

Walking The Long Miles Home recalled a ten-mile tramp home after seeing The Who. Turning Of The Tide dates from when Fairport played in Hamburg, where along Reeperbahn legal sex workers “in garter belts and bustiers” advertised for business. Young Thompson “decided to try the goods” and “felt a bit hollow afterwards”, fictionalising the experience in song years later.

Beeswing the book is fascinating and written in the man’s own voice, often dry and amusing, yet sombre when life turns that way; the section on the fatal van crash of 1969 shocks with its sober clarity. He also skirts the glory days and the difficult days of his duo with Linda.

At the end, Thompson wonders if Fairport have been an important band with their innovations in folk-rock. “We really did invent a genre of music, and not many can say that. We rattled a few windows without actually blowing the house down.”

As for Beeswing the song, he played that at the Barbican, of course he did, it’s always a favourite with fans, although no story, shameful or otherwise, was told.

Also played were favourites including Persuasion and 1952 Vincent Black Lightning. Thompson was joined by his partner Zara Phillips for a rousing version of I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight, and they sang newer songs too, including the stomping When The Saints Rise Out Of Their Graves.

And, in a wry nod to what we’ve all been through, they rattled the rafters with ­Keep Your Distance. Thompson joked that he’d hoped that song might have become the pandemic anthem.

The book is a fascinating account of how a life in music took its baby steps; on that stage, Thompson was shown to be still striding vigorously down that long path.


Julian Cole


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What happened yesterday should make us think again. Sadly, it almost certainly won’t…

The front pages of our national newspapers offer one way of looking at how something has been reported or recorded, and some days the words used are telling.

After the drownings yesterday of 27 people who were trying to reach Britain, the newspapers offer varied responses. Typical of the old-school way of thinking is the Daily Telegraph, which has the headline: “27 migrants die in Channel disaster.”

That might seem straightforward enough, until you swap the second word for ‘people’. In some contexts, it is acceptable to call people migrants, if you must, but this Telegraph headline has is a subconscious message: these weren’t people, they were migrants.

Beneath that main headline are three sub-headings, including: “Johnson demands France ‘step up’ and help stop gangs ‘getting away with murder’.”

This is a common theme for newspapers on the right and plays into the government stance that none of this is anything to do with Britain. It’s all the fault of those foreigners who won’t stop other foreigners trying to come to our country.

This then brings up what you might call the immoral geography excuse, which maintains that because people trying to reach this country cross other countries, none of this has anything to do with us.

Under this way of thinking, you can blame the French, or the EU or the people smugglers, without taking any responsibility. Yet one reason more people are trying to cross the Channel in such a dangerous way is because the legal routes have been made much harder.

The Daily Mail, having lost its more sceptical editor, Geordie Greig, dutifully follows the Johnson line with: “You’re letting gangs get away with murder.”

The Sun has the word ‘SHAMEFUL’ beneath the strap: “Now will leaders finally act.” The shame, in case you’re wondering, being that the French seemingly let this happen.

The i newspaper has: “Horror in the Channel: 31 die in search of a better life” – which acknowledges why those tragically lost people, including children, were trying to reach this country.

The Daily Mirror allows the full impact of what has happened with its headline­ – “A human tragedy”, although a strap heading blames “watching French cops”.

The Guardian goes for the factual-emotional approach: “Tragedy at sea claims 31 lives in deadliest day of migrant crisis.”

The number of lives lost varies between 27 and 31, although the lower figure is the one being reported now by the BBC.

Whatever the appalling tally, there is little chance the government will take any notice.

Boris Johnson’s attitude to migration is determined by the intolerant right-wing of his party, by those newspaper front pages – and by the stalking figure of Nigel Farage, who can’t see a wound without rushing out to buy a bag of salt.

That man is too appalling for words, but sometimes words are all we have, so let’s just say that he is a moral scumbag and ceaseless agitator who profits from easy anger and offers no solutions. Worth remembering as he is threatening to enter politics again.

The home secretary, Priti Patel, is always saying that she is going to “overhaul our broken asylum system” ­– somehow overlooking that her party has had 11 years to mend that system. She also told a parliamentary committee that 70% of those crossing in small boats were economic migrants, whereas a recent Refugee Council report indicated that most were in fact people fleeing war zones.

We are a wealthy country, and those of us who live here do so by happy accident of birth. Other people’s unhappy accidents of birth should not be held against them.

Asylum applications to this country are down on a year ago, while the more visible Channel crossings are up. What happened yesterday is a human tragedy that should make us think again. But sadly it almost certainly won’t.

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A friend asks why Andrew Marr is off, sparking these thoughts about the BBC…

Our Dutch friend in York asks a question about Andrew Marr leaving the BBC to get his own voice back. “Is this as concerning as I think or part of British culture/tradition?”

I shall attempt to answer that by referring first to that other Andrew, the growly old Neil variety. Neil took the BBC shilling – very many BBC shillings ­– for 25 years and then slunk off grandly to set up the right-wing GB News network while grumbling about the wokeness of the BBC. That didn’t end well, and he left GB News soon afterwards in what amounted to a right-wing paintball fight.

Then there is John Humphrys. He was a mainstay on the BBC Radio Four Today programme for years. Once he’d finished, the puffed-up ingrate started mouthing off about the BBC in the Daily Mail.

Andrew Marr hasn’t mouthed off about anything yet, just said that in joining the media company Global he will be freer to say what he thinks. The company owns LBC and Classic FM, and Marr will present shows on both.

Here is part of what Marr said on Twitter: “I think British politics and public life are going to go through an even more turbulent decade and, as I’ve said, I am keen to get my own voice back. I have been doing the Andrew Marr show every Sunday morning for 16 years now and that is probably more than enough time for anybody.”

Perhaps Marr has been glancing enviously at LBC where James O’Brien has a high-profile gig sharing his unfiltered opinions about life and politics. Taking much-shared pops at the government has not done O’Brien any harm.

Will Marr follow the same path? At the online Aye Write Glasgow book festival last May, he was already musing about politics changing. The interviewer, Ruth Wishart, asked if he felt “a desperate urge to come out of the closet” about his political views to which Marr replied, “Yes, absolutely.”

Will those unfettered opinions fall to the left or the right? Left-wing types on Twitter think he’s a dreadful right-winger; right-wing types on Twitter think he’s a dreadful left-winger. We’ll have to wait and see on that.

The implication, of course, is that he feels he cannot say what he thinks, whatever that may be, while working for the BBC. The “British culture/tradition” bit, to quote our Dutch friend again, is that the BBC is always stuck in the middle whatever it does, risking pleasing no one as it wraps itself in media bureaucracy and rules on impartiality.

And that’s just got worse.

It’s a surprise to remember that the BBC used to stand up to Margaret Thatcher, whereas now it seems craven before the shamble-bum Boris Johnson. Part of the problem is that, to borrow from that M&S slogan, this isn’t just a rabid Conservative government… it’s a Boris Johnson rabid Conservative government.

And a government moulded to the unreliable shape of Boris Johnson is hard for the BBC to handle. Especially as Johnson & Co (purveyors of shifty right-wing politics to the fooled masses) seem keen on limiting the powers of the BBC, along with anyone else who might criticise what it does.

Back in October, the BBC produced what its own website described as a ‘significant’ ten-point impartiality plan. Bizarrely, this seemed to have been motivated by the recent media furore about how Martin Bashir conducted an interview with Princess Diana in 1995 – 26 years ago!

This 10-point plan from director general Tim Davie, a Tory-friendly appointment, looks designed to prevent the BBC from saying anything about the government, or anyone else, without first jumping through assorted impartiality hoops.

All that will do is make the BBC even more timid and neuter its journalism even more. That may please Boris Johnson, but everyone else should be worried.

Maybe that’s why Marr is off.

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Northern Powerhouse Rail and why we’re up to our necks in kallifudging…

Do you remember the Northern Powerhouse? George Osborne and David Cameron dreamt that one up long before the nice-but-dim concept of levelling up.

Nice because it’s a genuinely good idea that should be pursued by governments of all persuasions; dim because it’s just another high-wattage slogan that ends ups delivering little by way of light.

The Northern Powerhouse sort of sounds good too and even has its own website. But there’s a difference between creating a shiny website and making something work for the people who live in that bit of England that isn’t London.

Then there is its offshoot, Northern Powerhouse Rail. Tomorrow a government announcement about high-speed rail links in the north is expected.

According to many stories, not least from Arj Singh, deputy political editor of the i newspaper, Boris Johnson is going to water down a promise to fund such links in the north and will instead upgrade existing routes.

A key part of the proposed Northern Powerhouse Rail has always been a new section between Leeds and Manchester. Now it seems that Johnson lost an argument with Chancellor Rishi Sunak over funding.

Instead, we will have upgrades to the existing transpennine track. You know the one: painfully slow and out of date, with York to Manchester taking about as long as York to London.

Anyone who travels on trains in the north knows there are problems on many routes, especially on the east-west axis. They needed sorting out long before calamitous amounts of money were blown on HS2 so that people could get from London to Birmingham a little quicker.

Tomorrow’s announcement is also expected to confirm that the final phase of HS2 high-speed rail between Birmingham and Leeds will be scrapped.

In many senses, HS2 always seemed like a bad idea, hugely expensive and environmentally damaging. But if we must swallow all that, a high-speed link that stops in Birmingham is a botched job that doesn’t help the north at all.

Why didn’t the government prioritise the north first? Easy answer: because it’s the north. Boris Johnson might have a temporary interest in the north thanks to those red wall seats – “Buckets of Beaujolais, some of these northerners seem to like me!” ­– but the underlying message is the same. Don’t get your hopes up if you live in the north (but do live in the north, as it’s the best).

You may recall that northern newspapers came together to launch what was called the Power Up The North campaign, aimed at telling ministers that the country needed rebalancing.


This morning the Manchester Evening News and other Reach newspapers share the same front page, while the Yorkshire Post got in early with a plea last Friday, followed up by another this morning. Further north, the Northern Echo makes its own case today.

Regional newspapers now are undeniably weaker than they were, and we are all the worse for that. But they still have power when they come together like this.

If would be nice to think that the government would listen to this massed newspaper choir, but don’t bet your season ticket on it.

Of course, it’s possible that everyone has got this wrong, and that tomorrow’s announcement won’t be so gloomy; possible but the sharp side of unlikely.

What’s the likelihood that they will try to befuddle us with meaningless statistics and dodgy accounting?

As the indefatigable Jennifer Williams of the Manchester Evening News says in her Postcards from the North bulletin…”

“This quote from a senior civil servant about the overall plan is worth repeating in full: ‘This is a half-arsed attempt at building a high-speed rail network in the North. What sounds like a big pot of money is really a lot of smaller scaled back projects piled together into one big announcement to hide that they are in reality delivering fewer things over a longer period of time. It’ll be downgrading the North compared to the levelling up that other areas are getting from the benefits of HS2 and Crossrail over the decades to come.”

Believe what you wish about levelling up, but let’s leave with this from Pat Oliver, who ten years ago contributed a wonderful word to a Yorkshire Post feature about dialect: “Kallifudging, meaning chicanery or underhandedness”.

Oh, Pat, we’re up to our necks in kallifudging today.

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