Gale's Westminster View - May 2009
May the First.
Traditionally the day of the year when the Morris and the blossom are out in gay abandon, swains and damsels give a mediaeval twist to pole dancing and tanks roll and soldiers goosestep across the parade squares of totalitarian states. Instead the call of Mayday! Mayday! echoes distress through New Palace Yard as the headless chickens cluck through the manure of the Westminster farmyard.
A visitor from Planet Zog might be forgiven for thinking that only the news of a growing wedding catalogue of goodies purchased by Members of Parliament through the vehicle of the Additional Costs Allowance was worth reporting throughout the entire month but even in what now must be regarded as the dreamy innocence of the first few days of summer The Big Organ Grinder is on the rack.
Following his disastrous foray into You Tube territory ("You Tube if you want to - it's no substitute for knocking on doors" says Blairite Cabinet relic Hazel Blears) our Dear Leader climbs smartly down having recognised that his proposal to pay MPs a daily allowance for clocking on in the Chamber is a non-starter. Charles Clarke, ever waiting to be helpful, describes the First Lord of the Treasury as "a leader without any followers" and calls on Brown to sack Ed Balls. The Prime Minister Not in Waiting, Alan Johnson, confronted with questions about his own ambitions indicates that he is "not saying that there are no circumstances" in which he will challenge for the Leadership of the Labour Party (so that's a "yes" then) and Gordon Brown publishes an essay to remind his subjects that "It's great to be British".
While out on the hustings in support of our candidates in the County Council election campaign we learn that Brussels has allocated 1.4 million of our battered pounds in support of research to explain religion and define God. Not a prayer. Small wonder that it's impossible to kindle any enthusiasm for European elections. Any real interest in who represents us in Strasbourg disappeared with the abolition of constituency MEPs and the introduction of proportional representation and lists. In our own neck of the woods our allocated representatives have struggled manfully to serve their electorate throughout the lifetime of a Euro-parliament but recognition is down at ground zero. Apart from the Anoraks nobody cares. Sad, when Europe spends so much of our sponduliks and intervenes in every nook and cranny of our lives. Even the "Give Us A Referendum" sticker in the back of my car is looking part-worn.
The Battle of the Ghurkhas rages on throughout parliament and Whitehall. Following the Government's 21 vote defeat on a motion on the floor of the House the Big Organ Grinder and his embattled Home Secretary check the escape routes and find them blocked. Joanna Lumley sweeps all before her, takes the Home Affairs Select Committee by storm, hi-jacks junior Minister Phil Woolas (a decent man but no match for Boadicea) and frog-marches him in front of waiting television cameras to re-write the government's position. A quick shimmy into Downing Street and the war is won. Ghurkhas triumphant, Brown in retreat. Again. Ever-gracious, Dame Joanna, as she must surely now become, thanks the Prime Minister for taking personal charge of the issue and doing the right thing. Small matter that only days ago she was ripping him to shreds, the fact is that those, at least if they are Ghurkhas, who are prepared to die for our country can now live in our country.
Although why, at present, they should want to is another matter. Personal bankruptcies have risen by nineteen thousand, an increase of 23.4%, and there are now ten jobseekers for every vacancy. The Office of National statistics tells us that in the nine months from June 2008 the jobless total has risen by five hundred and thirty thousand and at a faster rate than in 1980. And speed cameras are raking in eighty-eight million pounds a year from one and a half million motorists. It's Great to be British, Gordon!
The perfect storm breaks. The Daily Telegraph has acquired, through a source later revealed to be one John Wick, the unexpurgated disc of parliamentary expenses claims. That Mr. Wick is himself subsequently exposed as having left a string of collapsed businesses and debts behind him and that the Telegraph is reputed to have paid large sums of money for the stolen material is neither here nor there. The fact is that significant numbers of Members of Parliament from the highest in the land to the most obscure have been using the "second home allowance" creatively. Not surprisingly the taxpayer, having mortgaged the Colonies to bail out the banks, seen businesses struggle and close, homes re-possessed and jobs lost, is not best pleased. Even those of us who are long in the parliamentary tooth and have weathered three-day weeks and miners` strikes and Wapping and the Poll Tax and other political upheavals up to and including the fall of Margaret Thatcher have never witnessed public outrage of this kind. It is off the Richter scale.
Government is now paralysed. With senior Ministers and former Ministers and Shadow Ministers caught up in the web of intrigue and the tumbrels rolling and the tricateuses of Fleet Street screaming "Off with Their Seats" it seems that the entire business of Whitehall is now centred upon who has spent what on what, how it can be explained and what do we do to sort out this mess once and for all. The fact that we are still fighting a war and our troops are still dying in Afghanistan, that something approximating genocide has been taking place in Sri Lanka and that the world and our own economies are still in meltdown is, it seems, of small consequence. A race to demonstrate that "my shirt is hairier than yours" begins, with party leaders trying to outgun each other in the awfulness of the sanctions that they will bring to bear upon miscreants.
Now, I hate to say "I told you so" but I told you so.. Not quite with the extravagance of the Daily Telegraph, I grant you. And the creativity of some of the accounting that appears to have taken place and the exotic nature of some expenditure has genuinely caught the more naive of us by surprise. (Manure, for God's sake? I spend too much of my time trying to clear it up!) Nevertheless, the tens of people who have visited my website will find there the article that I wrote and published in my local press about this in July 2008. We had, at that time, votes in parliament on proposals to muck out the augean stables and to set the parliamentary remuneration package back on the straight, and transparent, and comprehensible and narrow. We had the chance and we ducked it. My own view is that with Sir Christopher Kelly now carrying out an inquiry into the matter we should widen his brief to include salaries, await his recommendations and adopt them, however controversial or unpalatable , in full. We have tried this in the past and always failed because we have cherry-picked the recommendations and a piecemeal approach just does not work.
In the meantime, the Civil Servants of the Department of Finance and administration are in danger of being made scapegoats, Speaker Martin has announced his premature resignation, a significant number of Members of Parliament have announced that they will not be standing again, more will no doubt follow and Young David has announced that the Conservative Party's candidates list for the next general election has been re-opened.
We shall know, at the weekend, what the effect of all of this has been upon voting intentions. From the feedback it seems certain that the turnout will be low as the electorate say "you're all the same and we're not voting for any of you". And the minor parties who have not borne the brunt of appalling headlines will benefit. That means that the BNP, for example, might win seats that they would otherwise not have entertained. The law of unintended consequences knows no constituency boundaries.
For the future we now have people who are supporters of a registered political party posing as "independents" in the hope of scoring an opportunist hit, while those who might reasonably have been expected to take a more serious interest in the political future of Great Britain and Northern Ireland are having second thoughts. There is a very real danger that parliament will become the playground of the very rich supported by a tranche of elected career politicians who see the House as job rather than a vocation. That would not be bad news, it would be a disaster.
Sir Jim Rose announces primary school reforms to include "managing emotions". The hugely popular "Top Gear" television programme is criticised for "encouraging teenagers to speed". The Foreign and Commonwealth Office is "consulting with private offices, stakeholder managers, and the diversity strategy unit to draw up guidelines that strike the right balance" when deciding whether or not to send out Christmas Cards! The Ministry of Defence has commissioned "HM Armed Forces" Action Men to celebrate the military and attract the young. The bad news for diversity is that the dolls are all white and male. The good news is that the dolls are rather better equipped than the real thing! Lord Adonis (who else?), the Transport Minister, has completed his railway tour of Britain and will be introducing "Loo Champs" to help spruce up railway lavatories, The names of Chris Green (Virgin) and Sir Peter Hall (Town and Country planning association) are in the frame. Mad Hattie wants `positive action` to place women on the boards of banks and apparently believes in "scary methods in order to achieve worthwhile results". Jonathan Woss has managed to lose three hundred and sixty thousand Radio Two listeners but the BBC describes this as a "seasonal fluctuation" and the Director General, Mark Thompson, continues to be paid five times more than the Prime Minister. The Cutting Edge pub in Barnsley has set itself up as a "smoking research centre" to get round anti-smoking laws but `elf and safety are closing in for the kill. A Town Hall has banned the flying of the Union Flag on Armed Forces Day because, apparently, it is too dangerous to scale an eight-foot ladder to unfurl the flag. And the City of Canterbury has come in for criticism for not being "gay" enough because there is no gay bar. There isn't a bee-keepers bar, either, so no doubt they will be complaining soon. If whingeing was an Olympic sport the Brits would be right up there on the podium!
One of the enduring privileges of being a Member of Parliament is that you get to meet special people. Her Maj, for instance, Nelson Mandela, Daley Thompson, Captains of Cricket and Rugby and Soccer teams, Ranulph Fiennes, who at the same age as me has just shinned up Everest for fun and a spot of exercise, and Felicity Aston.
You won't have heard of Felicity Aston until now. She spent three years with the British Antarctic Scientific Survey and to celebrate the 60th anniversary of the Commonwealth is due to lead a multi-national team of ladies, most of whom have no experience of snow and ice, to the South Pole. For once, the Big Organ Grinder was right. Nobody else would dream up such a scheme. It is Great to be British. (And if you'd like to be the expedition's main sponsor for half a million quid or to have your name emblazoned on the side of Felicity's sledge for a bit less then e-mail me and I'll put you in touch. She is one of my constituents.)