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Back to the cauldron

Britain is now a boiling pot, but there are still a few small mercies

After nearly seven weeks in the Caucasus and Central Asia, I have returned home to little in the way of good news beyond England's astounding efforts at the football World Cup and good news from Thailand where the young footballers have been rescued from the cave. The England manager, Gareth Southgate, who was derided initially, has proved that he knows more about team building than most of our politicians. We have to be thankful for small mercies that do something for national morale when the sterling is in the doldrums and there is a sense that the United Kingdom really is coming apart at the seams. A glimmer of light in the darkness with the news of the resignation of the Brexit secretary, David Davis, had lifted the pound slightly, but the backlash against the prime minister's 'persuasion' of her cabinet into a currently rather vague and woolly, softer Brexit plan is far from over.

The clock is ticking in Europe, the Brexiteers are snarling in their corner, and god knows really what the country as a whole thinks of any of it anymore except it was probably all much easier staying where we were two years ago and grumbling about it. After all, our island populace has a time-honoured tradition of complaints about Europe, Europeans and anyone foreign in general since Julius Caesar came, saw, conquered and did wonders for our plumbing system or the Vikings arrived for a bit of rape and pillage a few centuries later. Hopefully people are beginning to realize that moaning as usual about our nearest neighbours and best friends - let's not kid ourselves, we are ever likely to find - was a far safer state of affairs than tearing ourselves apart as we try to distance ourselves from them. What a mess.

It looks as if the manoeuvring has already started for prime position to replace Theresa May if she falters or falls with Michael Gove, essentially perjuring himself with statements of loyalty, and others standing on their Brexit principles in order, presumably, to appeal to the Conservative right. Looking at the cabinet as a whole, it is quite hard to imagine wanting to support any of them beyond perhaps the chancellor of the exchequer, Philip Hammond, who still seems like the safest and steadiest pair of hands. Boris Johnson's image has not been improved in recent weeks, certainly not with his thoroughly unstatesmanlike and intemperate language recently. I am sure that intemperate language has always been used in cabinet meetings. But one vaguely imagines it being rather more elegantly insulting in the past. In those days, the walls did not have ears the way they do now when nobody is capable of keeping his or her mouth or Twitter account silent. Oh, and as I write, Boris has resigned and we are into a will he, won't he, make a bid to snatch the leadership of the Conservative Party from May. On the basis of the above regarding his public image, he would have a battle on his hands and doesn't look like a winner. What will happen next?

Into the boiling pot of this currently climatically and politically overheated country we also have no less than a visit from the climate-change-denying American president. He will barely see the melting pavements of our capital city in case his sensibilities are offended by the inevitable protests against almost everything he has ever done. Hopefully, the protesters will manage to penetrate even Oxfordshire where he is to be entertained at Blenheim Palace, the home of the Duke of Marlborough and the birthplace of Winston Churchill. It is a bit tragic that we always have to hark back to Churchill as if he was the only statesman we ever had and whatever his now extremely politically incorrect views and policies on almost everything except winning a war, but that is another matter.

The idea is that Trump will be well shielded from public opinion at Blenheim and at London where the Baby Trump blimp is due to fly overhead during his visit. He will stay there for just one cushioned night in the American ambassador's residence in Kensington safely behind the high iron fence surrounding its enormous grounds. Then it's a quick trip for a meeting with the beleaguered prime minister at her official residence, Chequers, in the Buckinghamshire countryside and another to meet the Queen at Windsor where protesters may certainly make themselves heard outside the castle walls. After that, with a sigh of relief I imagine, he is off to Scotland for a game of golf on his own course. Somehow, it is all a bit hole and corner and lacking in any dignity for the office of the president of the United States of America but then this is a president who appears to lack most of the qualities one might in the past have expected of his role. You could - sadly - say the same of most of our own ministers of state at the moment: oh sorry, I was forgetting that Boris had resigned and perhaps a few more will go but I can't say I am spotting gold when it comes to replacements.

Perhaps we should be thankful for small mercies. The presidential dictators and their families where I have been through much of Central Asia, several of whom appear to have claimed asylum in London - this should add to our national embarrassment - have run off with most of the proceeds of their entire national economies at one time or another since they shed the Soviet yoke. Turkmenistan, ruled by only its second despot since independence, is seen to be relatively stable but it rather depends what you are after. Its poor population, officially around six million, is probably far smaller in reality and gas riches should have brought it tremendous uplift but, instead, the presidents have used the national wealth to create a sort of dystopian film set of a capital city. Vast gold-and-white buildings, hectares of municipal garden adorned with giant statuary and almost no one to be seen in and out of this glittery scene. Who on earth, we wondered, is looking after the gardens, and is there anything inside any of those huge and hideous buildings? The general view seems to be probably not. Things could be worse than our current chaos. At least we can still float a joke blimp of someone we don't like over our capital and choose who we want to be governed by or have a say in finding the least bad option.

This piece was written before Donald Trump's visit to the United Kingdom

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