Westminster View - January 2008
And so it was, "Bloody January Again".
Four years ago I spent Christmas away from home observing the election of Mwai Kibaki as the President of Kenya. On the morning after the election and back in Nairobi from the west I took a stroll through a place called Kibera. The largest slum in the world but hardly anyone had heard of it then. I was given a warm welcome and have been fond of saying since that you will see more smiling faces in the grim and foetid alleyways of that place than you will ever see in Piccadilly in the rush hour.
I have before me a souvenir of my visit. Given to me by a young Kenyan called John Kanyua, before I left for the lawns of Government House to shake hands with President Kibaki, it is a leaflet advertising "Slumming Tours and Travel" as "the unique way to see the biggest slum in Africa, a population of between 800,000 and one million people constituting more than 32 tribes".
Times change. Hope has given way to despair, embryonic administrative probity surrendered to old-style tribal corruption and Raila Odinga and Kibaki, once allies in a new dawn, now at each others throats. The alleyways of Kibera that once ran only with mud and human manure now run with blood. I cannot help wondering if the young and entrepreneurial John Kanyua is still alive.
From slime to the ridiculous. Jules Holland's New Years Eve Hootenanny or whatever it is called is revealed as a fake, recorded weeks before, or on Guy Fawkes Night or August Bank Holiday or who cares? Do you mean to say that Suzy and I stayed up clutching our Bournevita laced with festive brandy to hear the chimes of midnight, kiss each other a Happy New Year and celebrate with Jules when all we were watching was a recording? This was Auld Lang's Syne with a vengeance. In an earlier incarnation I booked a younger Holland for a television show and I have admired him ever since. How dreams are shattered. First Blue Peter and now this! I shall soon be told that Father Christmas also is a phoney.
New Year, New NHS. With more than 56 hospital wards shut across England and Wales due to the spread of the vomiting but Novovirus Young David launches a campaign it fight MRSA and C-Difficile. Carrots and, in this case, stick. Hospitals that are not responding satisfactorily to infection will be fined. My own medics keep telling me that as much infection is walked into hospitals by carrying visitors and Accident and Emergency cases as is spread within the walls so I hope that the bugs know that Dave is gunning for them.
Week two, only, and Ghana's widely respected President, Jon Kufuor, arrives in Kenya to try to broker a deal but leaves empty handed. In the United States Barak Obama walls across the waters of Iowa to deliver a primary caucus victory that threatens to derail the Hillary Clinton election bandwagon and Mike Huckabbee (well, you've heard of him now) defeats the front-running Mormon Mitt Romney for the Republicans.
Back home Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Work and Pensions and Part-time Secretary of State for Wales, reveals that failure to declare £100k of donations to his Deputy Labour Leadership campaign fund are down to "administrative errors". The Big Organ Grinder's "New Year Relaunch" hits the buffers and the Prime Minister's personal poll ratings slump to four points below those enjoyed by the Leader of the Opposition. Time for decisive action. As The Legacy and Middle East Envoy lands a multi-million pound consultancy with the US Investment Bank JP Morgan in "a senior advisory capacity" the BOG helpfully describes his Work and Pensions Secretary as incompetent.
A man with a lesser permatan might have thrown in the towel at this point and with 20/20 hindsight Peter Hain probably wishes that he had done precisely that but even with this less than charitable endorsement from Number 10 ringing in his ears he hangs on until the funding matter is referred to the police before finally handing in his seals of office.
Tories do not, please, at this point gloat. It gets worse.
First, though, Chancellor Darling and The Chancellor Beyond The Party Wall are still wrestling with Northern Wreck, as it is now known. It seems like, and is, months since the run on the bank sent the financial world into tailspin and, with billions of taxpayer's smackaroos on the line and a long-term solution no nearer Brown and Darling announce that they will use legislation to take The Wreck into public ownership. Possibly. If necessary. No we are not dithering. But please do not refer to this as nationalisation. Yet.
And now the waters get really murky. While the police organise a fifteen thousand strong demonstration in Central London to protest that they deserve their pay increase backdated to last September in full - a claim that I wholeheartedly and publicly endorse - the rumour mill tells us that the senior salaries Review Body is about to recommend what the press inevitably describe as "an inflation busting pay increase" of 2.8%. (The RPI figure, by the way, is an embarrassing 3.8% according to the government's own figures.)
Strange, is it not, how highly-paid BBC reporters also funded by the taxpayer and claiming handsome personal expenses are so eager to misrepresent the package of salary and expenses that MPs "get"! Not that we can expect sympathy from any quarter. In the scale of public appreciation we rank, if I remember rightly, just above journalists and just below prostitutes! The fact that The Prime Minister and Young David are both recommending a 1.9% increase which is, by the way, for the 2006/7 financial year, not the coming one, will not win brownie points
In the Commons chamber the EU "not-the-constitutional" treaty is launched in a debate in which Minibean is quite simply awful and unconvincing and William Hague reminds everyone on both sides of the House just how to rise to an occasion. To no avail. The Bill passes its second reading by 362 votes to 224. Small rebellion, not many careers sacrificed. The Government is bailed out by those principled Liberals who say that they really do want a referendum - but only on the In Europe/Out of Europe issue and not on the constitution! So that's all right then.
I rather wish that January had ended there, but it didn't. On Monday, 28th the Commons Standards Committee, chaired by Sir George Young, found that my friend of longstanding, Derek Conway, the MP for Old Bexley and Sidcup (Ted Heath's seat) had wrongfully paid his son as a researcher while Freddie was at Newcastle University. For this the Committee's recommendation was the repayment of £13,000 to include excess bonuses and suspension from the House of Commons for ten days.
I have had the temerity to say, and will repeat here, that all Members staff have contracts of employment spelling out terms, conditions, duties and salaries. What is at issue, therefore, is not whether Derek Conway was allowed to employ his son (paid out of staff allowances) but whether his son actually did the work for which he was being paid. On the Radio Four Today programme I suggested that the principle of justice was that people were innocent until proven guilty and that, in this case, the reverse had been the case. Derek Conway had assured me that his son had indeed worked seventeen hours a week for the money but the Committee view was that Mr. Conway could not prove this and that he was therefore guilty. Public reaction was on the side of the committee. "Prove you are innocent" 10, Gale Nil!
Young David has responded by removing the party whip from Mr. Conway and the latter has announced that he will leave parliament at the next election. Prior to his entry into the House Derek ran one of the most successful animal welfare charities in the Country. I hope that someone will find a use for his energy and talent in the future.
For the record there are many Members of Parliament who employ family as staff. Sir George Young himself is one and I am another. Suzy, my wife, has run my parliamentary office for nearly twenty-five years, works long hours and is highly efficient and, of course, trustworthy. No matter. It is clear that the Witchfinders are in full cry and before long we shall be banned from paying for the services of those who, in many ways, are best placed to support us. Which begs some interesting questions. How, for example, do you prevent a gay MP from employing a gay, male or female, lover without cries of discrimination? We clearly need to kick some sense and transparency into all of this but with care and not as a kneejerk reaction to some grim headlines.
We also need to remember that while this has been good sport for the tabloid press the debate on the EU Constitutional Treaty is rolling on inexorably. Denied the promised referendum we shall shortly find that the bill has worked its way through parliament and that the Big Organ Grinder has the legal powers to ratify the Treaty in our names. Goodbye, Great Britain, Hello, the United States of Europe! Over the top? I think not.
Let’s end on a brighter note. Outside the febrile Westminster village real people are facing matters of life and death. As I write there are some signs that Mwai Kibaki and Raila Odinga are talking and that in Kenya less blood is being shed.