In a new series, Guy Rundle provides an amusing take on the latest happenings in the UK.
Steak and a side saddle. Two weeks ago, it was announced to a mouth-agape UK that a popular brand of frozen lasagne contained a not-insignificant amount of horsemeat, and the usual suspects got on their high … their high … got a bit pompous about it. Those campaigning against “obesity” — mostly, against poor people with obesity — said this was an inevitable result of food being “too cheap”; little Englanders said that the adulterated food, quickly traced to a dodgy outfit in eastern Europe called, ermm, Romania, was proof that the EU didn’t work; anti-supermarket campaigners said that it was a condemnation of globalised, processed food.
These arguments pretty much fell at the first jump (puns are impossible to avoid in this story). Having been found initially in cheap brands such as Tesco and Findus, beefburgers and meatballs were quickly withdrawn from sale by Waitrose, the poshest of Britain’s supermarket chains (which are more class-stratified than the Indian caste system). Having traced the first batch of dobbinese to a complicated route through half a dozen European countries, it was then found in a range of British and Irish processing plants. Finally, it was found in butchers’ cuts as well, at which point everyone just shrugged and accepted they had noshed on Golightly Boy (zero places, eight tarts, 445 calories) at some point in the past. The concern was not about horse per se, which of course the French eat — because it moves — but about the chemicals the meat may contain, specifically an anti-inflammatory, attractively named Bute, which can cause fatal anaemia in humans.
The real culprit was, as it always is, an unsupervised market — the Food Standards Authority has lost more than 800 inspectors, and six of 12 laboratories since the Cameron government came to power. Whether this is fodder for political gain remains to be seen; the sheer scale of it appears to be encouraging apathy rather than outrage. Nevertheless, it’s definitely given Ed Miliband the whip hand. News that Tattersalls racehorse brokers had plans for a ready-meals range proved to be mere rumour.
Speaking of a full field … They’re off in Eastleigh, a Hampshire constituency going to a byelection pitting the two parties of the coalition against each other in a serious competition, for the first time since the 2010 election. Vacating the seat is former Cabinet minister Chris Huhne, Lib-Dem grandee, whose fantastically ambitious political career came to disaster after he recently pleaded guilty to perverting the course of justice, having persuaded his wife to take some of his penalty points for speeding, a decade ago. A dead common practice, that, as comedian Jeremy Hardy noted, is probably holding half the marriages in Britain together. But not Huhne’s; after he left his wife for a younger woman, the former Mrs Huhne, Vicky Pryce, a high-powered bureaucrat/economist, went on a campaign of revenge variously regarded as bitter, destructive or magnificent, depending on your politics. She took the story to The Sunday Times, and using taped phone calls to try and trap Huhne into outright admission of guilt.
That rather overshot the mark — when police investigated, they charged Pryce as well as Huhne. Huhne changed his plea to guilty the day of the trial, resigned from everything, and now expects a prison term. Pryce is arguing a defence of “marital coercion” alleging psychological pressure to do the cover-up, which is either a fair recognition of the embedded power structures of patriarchy or an outrageous piece of victim-playing hypocrisy depending on your politics. It seems unlikely to fly, and Mrs Huhne may also be in for the slammer. If the judge has any wit, he’ll sentence them to share a cell.
Meanwhile, Eastleigh has become the opening battle of the 2015 election. The Lib-Dems hope to — are desperate to — retain a formerly safe seat they took from the Tories 20 years ago. The Tories, if they can grab it back, will be making a bid to increase their numbers in 2015, even though hugely unpopular, by cannibalising the utterly loathed Lib-Dems. Labour, being represented by former comedy writer John O’Farrell, hopes to eviscerate the Lib-Dem vote from the left, and hurry the whole party to burial — a task made a little more difficult by some lines from O’Farrell’s very funny and highly-recommended memoir of left activism, Things Can Only Get Better, in which he recalls hoping that Margaret Thatcher had been killed by the IRA, and Britain had lost the Falklands war.
But the Tories are threatened from the Right, even though their candidate, Maria Hutchings, is an anti-EU, anti-abortion, anti-gay marriage local busybody who is giving the Tories conniptions, after saying that her 12-year old son was too good for state schools. On her tail is the UKIP (United Kingdom Independence Party), which wants an immigration freeze, withdrawal from the EU and a range of fluoridation-style obsessions. Their candidate is nothing special, but the main campaigner is party head Nigel Farage, an irrepressible, far from dislikeable, braying midget, best known for briefly campaigning from a biplane in 2010 — briefly, because it crashed after take off, when the UKIP banner it was towing became tangled in the tail. UKIP would love to cost the Tories the seat, and would do so, even if gave it to the Spartacist League. But the over-riding aim of all parties is to finish ahead of the candidate for the Monster Raving Loony Party, now in its 13 year.
End time for dead tree press (cont). Rupert Murdoch, subject today of a very funny parody of his mad twitter feed in Private Eye (“China big country with big population. Great challenges ahead.”) is getting grief from the greatest irritant in his empire The Times, with his recent attempts to merge The Times and The Sunday Times being stymied by The Times’ independent directors — who argued that it was contrary to the 1981 agreement Murdoch signed, on buying the papers, that he would keep the titles separate.
Elsewhere, the day of the separate Sunday title is coming to an end, with an attempt to turn The Observer into The Sunday Guardian defeated a couple of years ago, and The Sunday Independent retaining a masthead, but being rolled into The Independent’s organisation. The Indy itself may have its staff merged with The Evening Standard, as they’re both-owned by Russian tycoon, former KGB agent Alexander Lebedev. Lebedev is the person that Murdoch’s minions claim Rupe is — a genuinely innovative proprietor, who brought The Evening Standard to break-even by taking it free, and introducing i — a 20p small version of The Independent, which now sells 200,000 copies a morning. God knows what depredations he has performed in the Lubianka basement, but for preserving an evening newspaper — the great lost pleasure of big cities — he gets a free pass from me, if only because of the chance to follow the juicy Huhne story while eating a kebab and picking silk from your teeth.