My mental health is a never-ending source both of fascination and concern. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve been gripped by health anxiety. You name an illness and I’m certain to have believed I’ve had it. Not just as a passing thought, but as an all-consuming obsession that made normal day-to-day activities – not to mention sleep – nigh on impossible. But the one thing I did take a little comfort from was the knowledge that nobody else thought I was dying. I didn’t believe them, of course, but there was a small part of me that was able to think that I was both mentally ill and dying. Weird to be grateful to be aware I was mentally unwell, I know, but that’s the way it was. It did help a little. Now, though, I don’t even have that. When the coronavirus first became an issue, I was something of an outlier in my anxiety about it. And I was surprisingly reassured that only one other person – a fellow health worrier – seemed to share my fears. The rest were going about their normal lives and not losing a moment’s sleep. So I was back in my unhappy, happy hypochondria place. Now though, everything has changed. Everyone thinks and talks about little else than coronavirus and it has ramped up my anxiety to stratospheric levels. I may still be mad but now there’s also confirmation that I’m right to be terrified. It’s a dark, dark space to be. Handwashing has become my new favourite occupation. I do it so frequently and so assiduously that I have developed red patches where the skin has dried out and flaked off. By the end of the pandemic, I will just have bleached bones left for fingers.
This morning the Times reported that Boris Johnson and Carrie Symonds had got fed up with Dilyn the Downing Street dog and were trying to get the poor mutt rehomed. The story not only appeared to be well sourced – full of detail about how Dilyn crapped on the carpet – but also sounded entirely credible, as Boris isn’t noted for either his levels of commitment or the longevity of his relationships. So naturally everyone believed it, only for Carrie to issue a strenuous denial on Twitter saying that Dilyn was the most loved dog ever and he was going nowhere. Which makes you wonder how the Times could have got the story so completely wrong. My hunch is that you don’t have to look much further than Downing Street itself. Almost everyone inside No 10 – from Boris, Carrie down to the lowliest postroom worker appears to have their own special adviser to give stories to their favoured sources. All the more so, ever since Dominic Cummings issued the rule that only he was allowed to leak. The place now has more conspiracy theories than the Hilary Mantel trilogy. So my bet is that Dilyn has also acquired himself a press officer and that the story originated from him. Think about it.
Westminster felt even more surreal than ever, as MPs piled into the Commons to pretend it was business as usual for the budget. For the first quarter of an hour, Rishi Sunak sounded impressive as he outlined a package of measures for helping the country cope with the coronavirus, even if the £30bn on offer rather suggested the government expected the epidemic to be a far bigger financial hit than it had previously let on. But the next 45 minutes was positively weird. Having already admitted that the economy was essentially flatlining and that the full costs of the coronavirus were still unquantifiable, Sunak went on a spending spree of £175bn and counting. Anything that anyone wanted, they could have: infrastructure projects, extra money for day-to-day spending, the lot. And it would all be paid for out of government borrowing. Money for free. Tory MPs who had cheered George Osborne and Philip Hammond over the past 10 years for their austerity budgets, which had stretched many public services to their knees, were suddenly forgot all that. Every time Sunak announced another £10bn splurge, order papers were waved with excitement and by the end the chancellor was being widely tipped by many as a future prime minister. Of course if it had been a Labour chancellor delivering much the same budget, it would have been shouted down as fantasy Marxist economics, but now it was a model of financial prudence. The devil of course would be in the detail but, as many MPs can barely read their own bank statements, no one was too bothered and Sunak and the Tories left the Commons on a high. Sure enough, things began to fall apart fairly quickly afterwards as the independent Institute for Fiscal Studies reported that despite the eye-watering sums on offer, most public services would still be starved of cash and that the government would have to raise taxes or borrow significantly to make up the shortfall. And that was even before taking coronavirus into account. Sajid Javid’s decision to resign as chancellor might not have been such a bad call after all.
Like most people, I rather assumed Chris Grayling was heading for the long grass when Boris Johnson removed him from the cabinet last year. The most I anticipated for him was a knighthood, which is the traditional Tory long service medal for a lifetime achievement in mediocrity. Just think of MPs such as Sir Bernard Jenkin, Sir Geoffrey Clifton-Brown and Sir John Hayes. How wrong I was, for it now turns out Boris plans to appoint Failing Grayling to be chair of the important intelligence and security committee. Quite why has been the subject of a couple of conspiracy theories. The first is that Grayling has some highly damaging kompromat on the prime minister and needs to be bought off. The second, and more likely, is that Grayling’s legendary incompetence could prove an invaluable asset. For when he announces he has accidentally deleted the report into Russian interference in UK elections form the committee’s hard drive, there’s a fair chance people might actually believe him. But this is still an extremely high-risk strategy by Boris, as Grayling’s uselessness means he is just as likely to publish the report online by mistake as suppress it. No one ever got caught out by overestimating Grayling’s capacity for calamity. As justice secretary he dismantled the probation service and prevented prisoners from having books; as transport secretary he screwed up the railways and awarded a ferry contract to a company with no ferries. All in all he has cost the country more than £3bn. We could have paid him £1bn to stay at home and still had spare cash to build two hospitals. Still, every cloud and all that. At least I will be able to sketch him again.
England’s chief medical officer, Chris Whitty, and the chief scientific adviser, Patrick Vallance, have become the country’s joint de facto prime ministers in the current crisis and their regular press conferences have been a source of calm and reason. After years of lies and half-truths about Brexit, it’s been so refreshing to have two experts prepared to treat the country as adults. And yet I still find myself unable to follow their advice. Not because I am an expert in epidemiology, but because I am hopelessly neurotic. The government is adamant that other countries have misread the evidence and that large public gatherings should still go ahead as there is little knock-on transmission through the population. Yet even before the Premier League suspended all games regardless, I had already unilaterally decided to give White Hart Lane a swerve for the rest of the season – not just because Spurs are fairly hopeless at the moment, though that eased the pain – but because I could see no pleasure in going. It’s not just the thought of being close to hundreds of people on an unnecessary tube journey or being near thousands of others on the way in and out of the ground and picking up the illness. It’s the thought I may already unknowingly have the illness and infect others. So like the rest of the country, I am now going to find myself with a lot of time on my hands. I would like to read more – I have the new Mantel ready and waiting – but right now my anxiety is so high that I just don’t have the concentration. So the TV is king at the moment, only I am rather short of good box set suggestions. Anything Scandi-noir especially welcome. Just please don’t mention endless repeats of Spurs’ 3-0 loss to Leipzig on BT Sport.
Digested week: Self-desolation