We are always told not to read too much into the results of mid-term elections. But the Conservative by-election victory in the so-called “red wall” town of Hartlepool, its first there for 57 years, plus its success in a number of local councils around the country, are plainly significant. Sitting governments are notoriously vulnerable to protest votes on these occasions. Why, then, has it been so different this time?
It has sometimes looked as though Boris Johnson and his Ministers were making such a hash of handling the pandemic - causing needless deaths by delaying lockdown, providing shockingly inadequate protective clothing, neglecting care homes, spending wasted millions on an ineffective tracing system, offering conflicting advice to the public – that they seemed likely to fall at the first electoral hurdle.
Yet they have not only survived this test, but emerged with flying colours, easily fighting off Labour’s weak challenge.
There are three main reasons, I think. One is the huge success of the vaccine roll-out, which is the envy of Europe and is seen as a personal victory for Johnson – so much so, it appears, that the government’s early mistakes over the pandemic are being forgiven or forgotten. The second is that the public trusts the Tories, whatever their faults, to get the economy moving again. The third is Keir Starmer’s failure to impose himself on the Corbyn-infected Labour Party or come across to the public as a convincing alternative Prime Minister.
The Etonian Boris, who often seems a tousled figure out of his political depth – lazy, impatient with detail and pettily corrupt – is still capable of securing the support of working-class voters in a way that Labour seems to have lost. He has a gift for winning elections, as he showed when he triumphed twice as London Mayor, a priceless asset that forces his Cabinet colleagues to overlook his manifest personal failings. For the time being, anyway.
Gatland’s head on the block
Surprise is a word used by all rugby writers about the squad chosen for the British and Irish Lions tour of South Africa. But there are expected surprises and unexpected surprises. Warren Gatland and his fellow coaches have provided both.
It was no surprise really that Jonny Sexton, the great Irish fly-half, isn’t going this time. He is 35 and frequently injured (unlike the skipper, Alan Wyn Jones, who is also 35 but apparently impervious to injury). Physique is a crucial consideration for any team facing the monstrous Springboks.
Besides, Gatland has other talented fly-halves available to him who are younger and fitter than Sexton (a benefit that is unfortunately not available to him among scrum-halves, who look a pretty ordinary lot – which may be the reason why they evidently flirted with the idea of recalling Danny Care.)
For the same reason it was no surprise that Gatland has left behind centre Jonathan Davies, one of his favourites. Age and injury (often the same thing) have taken a heavy toll on him.
Even so, the centres chosen in his stead are an odd group – all of them inside centres, while one of the outstanding outside centres in the Six Nations, Henry Slade, has been left out. The sadly injured Gorge North has not been replaced – perhaps the view was taken that he is irreplaceable.
Tough nut though he is, Bundee Aki, I suggest, is going largely because he is not English – choosing Slade, another Englishman on top of the 11 already going (more than any other country, even though England were fifth among the Six Nations), would have been looked very odd.
Likewise, I suggest, Kyle Sinckler is not going for the same reason, even though he is a seasoned Lion and a more mobile tight-head prop than the Scot Zander Fagerson.
I am not suggesting that Gatland let national considerations overcome his rugby instincts; he would only have allowed such tight decisions to be settled in that direction unless he thought there was very little in it rugby-wise and that it would have been embarrassing for the perception of the whole tour party if it was thought to be unfairly weighted in favour of an England team that had been beaten by Scotland, Wales and Ireland.
Against my own argument I have to admit that he surprisingly chose the young England lock Johnny Hill rather than James Ryan of Ireland, who was on everyone’s projected list of Lions, including mine.
There are a couple of oddities in the selection of the back row forwards. Why take three open-side flankers in Tom Curry, Hamish Watson and Justin Tuperic and three number eights in Taulupe Faletau, Jack Conan and the “wild card” Sam Simmonds, who hasn’t played for England for three years (unless it was to make a sly point to Eddie Jones, the England coach).
One can only assume that Gatland is expecting some rough treatment among his forwards from the huge South African pack and thought it wise to take along some extra meaty hunks in case of injury or exhaustion. Judging by the Springboks’ ruthless performance against England in the World Cup final, he may be right to take out some insurance. He has admitted that he would have taken a slightly different squad if their opponents were New Zealand or Australia.
Gatland’s unbeaten record as a Lions coach entitles him to respect for his judgement, even if we disagree over some of his choices. After all, it is his neck on the block, not ours.
Shame on MCC dinosaurs
The name of Rachel Heyhoe-Flint is so synonymous with women’s cricket that is no surprise that the MCC should consider erecting a statue at Lord’s in her honour – a merited personal tribute, but also public recognition by the home of cricket of the importance of women’s cricket. I knew her a bit when I wrote a sports column in the Daily Telegraph. She was always on the phone lobbying for sponsorship or some other way to advance the women’s game.
She was rightly elected as one of the first female members of the club. I hung around the pavilion entrance on the first day women members attended the ground for a Test match. A doorman stopped one woman going in, saying: “You are not allowed in because you’re wearing trousers.” The officious official was forced to relent when she pointed at me and said: “So is he.”
It is disgraceful that some old die-hards in their soup-stained red and yellow ties are puffing hard against this excellent plan to honour women’s cricket. They should be ashamed of themselves.