When presented by a journalist with a phone containing a photo of small boy, lying on a makeshift bed of coats on a hospital floor, there are perhaps various responses a politician might offer. Expressing shock and concern would be only natural, mixed perhaps with a desire to establish the facts and circumstances behind the image. A show of empathy for the sick child and his distressed family, at the very least, would seem in order.
Not in order, however, would be to brazenly pocket the phone, impatiently dismiss the issue and bluster on with parroting an irrelevant and largely meaningless campaign slogan. How Boris Johnson thought that “getting Brexit done” was a remotely appropriate response to news of a 4-year old child with pneumonia being left on a floor in A&E, only he can explain. Stuffing the phone into his pocket, simply served to reinforce the impression that Mr Johnson could not have cared less.
As we enter the final week of this profoundly depressing election campaign this was but the latest illustration of why Mr Johnson is not fit to be Prime Minister. As an Economist editorial put it recently, “he has absorbed the fatal lesson of the Brexit campaign: that there is no penalty for lying or breaking the rules”.
Johnson’s mantra, “get Brexit done”, has the same deliberate emptiness as its forerunner, “Brexit means Brexit”, but comes with the added cynicism you would expect from a creation of the Prime Minister’s adviser, Dominic Cumming. It is designed to downplay both the scale of the challenge that lies ahead should we leave the EU on 31st January and the risk of failing to reach a free trade deal by the end of the year.
Mr Johnson counters, of course, by boasting of the transition deal no-one expected him to negotiate. Yet that much-heralded ‘success’ owed everything to Mr Johnson’s abandonment of his pledge not to draw a border in the Irish Sea, ensuring customs checks within the UK itself. A quite ludicrous position for any Prime Minister to have negotiated, but one that makes a mockery of any claim the Conservatives might have to be the defenders of that United Kingdom.
Needless to say, this delicious irony has been seized upon by nationalists, desperate to exploit Brexit to drive forward their ambitions for independence. Nicola Sturgeon began the campaign claiming a vote for the SNP is a vote to stop Brexit, but has since made clear that every vote for the SNP on Thursday will be claimed on Friday as a mandate to compound the uncertainty and division of Brexit with more of the same in the form of indyref2.
This at the end of a week when yet another Scottish Police Authority chair resigned, lambasting the system created by the SNP’s botched centralisation as “fundamentally flawed”. A week too when figures revealed attainment in maths and science in Scottish schools at an historic low. Meanwhile, the Health Secretary continues to grapple with crises in mental health services, GP recruitment and at hospitals in both Edinburgh and Glasgow. Little wonder, public confidence in the Scottish Government’s handling of these key areas of policy is in decline.
We desperately need to bring an end to the constitutional wrangling. It has proved costly, divisive and diverts attention and resources away from tackling the real challenges we face, whether demographic, economic or environmental. At this stage, we need to stop Brexit, stop independence and focus our attention, and money, on policies that lay the foundations for a fairer, more sustainable and brighter future.
As luck would have it, this is precisely what Liberal Democrats are proposing at this election! Indeed, you may have gathered as much from what I appreciate has been a torrent of leaflets over recent weeks. At a local level, that combination of policies and an excellent track record of serving our islands over the last 18 years will hopefully be enough to see my friend and colleague, Alistair Carmichael re-elected. In the current climate of uncertainty and upheaval, that would certainly seem to be an appropriate response from voters in Orkney and Shetland.