Like most other political journalists I am struggling to come to terms with the new reality. After three and a half years of intense and, at times, increasingly surreal activity, Westminster has returned to a much slower pace where not a lot is going on. Brexit is now a done deal; there are no knife-edge votes as the government can now do pretty much as it pleases; the Labour party is more focused on choosing a new leader than opposing; and no select committees have yet been established – partly because no one is yet sure what departmental reorganisations might be in store after 31 January but mainly because the government rather enjoys the lack of scrutiny. Obviously it may all change later in the year, but for now it still comes as a surprise when the highlight of the day is departmental questions. Even so, you still don’t have to look too hard for signs of grubbiness. Today I watched Nicky Morgan and Zac Goldsmith get togged up in ermine for their introduction to the House of Lords. The Nicky Morgan who said she could never serve in a Boris Johnson government, told her constituents she was standing down to spend more time with her family, told journalists that she definitely had not been offered a job or a peerage during the election campaign and is now a cabinet minister subject to no democratic accountability. The Zac Goldsmith who once petitioned for voters to be allowed to recall MPs they don’t like and is now back in government having been kicked out of parliament by his Richmond Park constituency. They must both have been absolutely desperate for a title. Personally I don’t see the attraction. Then I’m not a politician.
There are some questions that are best left unanswered. Like just who are these people who have bought Gwyneth Paltrow’s £58 vagina scented candles in such quantities that they have now sold out. Like to what lengths a parfumier had to go to ensure the right top notes of geranium had been found to replicate the smell of Gwynnie’s vagina. But the by now infamous candles have opened up an intriguing possibility. For some years now it’s been taken as read that Paltrow is a member of a vacuous Hollywood elite, who has far too much time and money with which to indulge any new age nonsense with a po-faced total seriousness. But now I’m coming round to the idea that she has been trolling us all along. The reality is that she’s got a fantastic sense of humour. All the time we’ve been laughing at the £30 Martini Emotional Bath Soak or the £28 G-Day Ginger and Ashwagandha (me neither) Energy Body Wash, Gwynnie has been laughing right back at us because her Goop empire is now worth an estimated $250m. She actually doesn’t believe in any of this and the candles were only intended as a joke to see what she could get away with. Take it from me, this Christmas’s top seller will be a £10,000 total immersion in Gwynnie’s amniotic fluid where you get to replicate the sense of security of being inside her womb. And I’ve taken no chances and have decided to copy her business model by patenting an aftershave smelling of my rancid gym kit. Eau de Coq Pour Homme. Yours for just £75.
A new study from the National Bureau of Economic Research has found that you are likely to be at your most miserable at the age of 47.2. Having long since passed this age and been fairly miserable for most of my life I can’t write with too much personal experience, but it feels more or less accurate. My late 40s were roughly the time I realised I could no longer claim to have “potential” and that I was almost certain to always remain something of a disappointment to myself. Also, it was around that age that I think I finally accepted I wasn’t immortal. For a long time in my 40s and early 50s, I was a terrible hypochondriac. Any symptom I got, I would instantly self-diagnose as something potentially fatal. By my own delusional reckoning, I must have had cancer dozens of times and would spend hours at the surgery pleading for ever more invasive tests. My doctor must have dreaded seeing my name on his list. At its worst my hypochondria got so bad, I no longer imagined diseases for which there was any easy diagnosis and fixated on ones for which there was no possible cure. That way there was no possible end to the anxiety and sleeplessness. An episode of imagined BSE landed me in a psychiatric ward. But over the last 10 years or so, my hypochondria has eased off. As if part of me has come to terms with the idea that one day I will get a fatal illness but until then a cough is just a cough until proved otherwise. Whether I’ll be so sanguine when I do get really ill remains to be seen. Obviously it goes without saying that I am just as anxious as I always was. Just that I now worry more about things other than dying. Like my embedded sense of impending failure and futility. Which, on a good day, feels like an improvement.
The hysteria surrounding Meghan and Harry’s decision to become part-time royals shows no sign of letting up, with all the tabloids – and some of the broadsheets – devoting pages and pages each day to stories that are usually based on one unnamed source who might or might not have some intel on the subject. Often the stories on one page seem to contradict the one on the page before. It’s almost as if the editors know that 80% of their coverage is complete nonsense, but have no idea which of their stories are in the 20% that might have a kernel of truth. So they print the lot on the basis you can never have too many royal stories and it’s best to cover all the bases in case another paper scoops them. With Megxit being more or less a done deal with merely the details (good luck with that) to be sorted, much of the focus this week has been on comparisons between Meghan and Kate. Whatever Meghan does, she gets it in the neck. A visit to a women’s refuge in Vancouver was reported as a cynical attempt to manipulate the media into getting more positive coverage and a sign of a complete lack of gratitude from a foreigner who was fortunate enough to be allowed to marry into the British royal family. Meanwhile Kate only has to get out of a car without falling over to get a double page spread on how the fact she was prepared to walk 10 metres under an umbrella to a public engagement is a mark of her sense of duty and undying devotion to the Queen. Bizarrely, I reckon Meghan might be the one counting her blessings. As each day passes she must be more convinced than ever she has made the right decision to detach herself. On the other hand, Kate must know she has decades more of this to come. When the media gets fed up – as it surely will – with hounding Meghan, it is bound at some point to turn its poison on Kate again.
It’s a measure of just how little is going on in Westminster that the biggest ongoing political row has been over whether Big Ben should ring at 11pm on 31 January to celebrate the UK’s departure from the EU. The whole episode has been a farce of Boris Johnson’s own making. Prior to this week, only Nigel Farage and a few hardcore Brexiters had given much thought to whether Big Ben should ring or not. And even then only half-heartedly as the Elizabeth Tower has been undergoing major renovation works and the bell has been out of action for years. But in a TV interview, Boris started making up policy on the hoof by saying it might be possible for the public to raise £500k to get the bell ringing for a few minutes. Almost immediately the few sensible people inside No 10 tried to kill off the idea – not only does the government not want to appear too triumphalist and divisive in its celebration, it also appears to be illegal to raise money in this way – but by then some Brexit enthusiasts, led by the Tory MP Mark Francois, had already launched an appeal that has already raised over £100K from the public. It’s a classic Boris own goal and doesn’t say much for the state of the country. First that so many are prepared to shell out for a bell – why not just play a recording if you’re desperate: it’s not as if more than a few thousand people would actually hear Big Ben live anyway – when homeless people are dying in the tube subway just beneath it. Second that Big Ben makes front page news when the government’s attempts to scrap the A&E targets that it consistently misses barely rates a mention.
Digested week: Bung a Bob for Big Ben Bongs