Westminster - July 2007
Do not try to hug a wet tree! That is the political lesson that I learned the hard way this month. I am minding my own business and plodding my way around nether Southall during the by-election campaign when it starts to rain. In shirtsleeves and slacks and with available shelter hundreds of yards away I take cover under a tree. Then comes the monsoon. One minute it is light summer drizzle and the next it is stuff that you could cut with a knife. In desperation I get as close to the trunk as possible in the hope that I might keep at least the front of me dry. No chance. The water runs down the bark and when the downpour abates this once-pristine Member of Parliament is soaked to the skin and covered in green slime. And that just about sums up politics in July!
Some months are literally longer than others but this one seems to have gone on for about six awful weeks. Political mayhem, the grisly Alistair Campbell's Diaries, floods, a very cross Monarch and a test series that, between cloudbursts, we at present appear to be unable to turn our way. Only the plague of locusts seems to be missing and as I am writing just before the turn of July even that may yet arrive.
The Clunking Fist or "The Big Organ Grinder" as we must now come to know him (the "Little Organ Grinder" is David Miliband. Don't ask about the monkey) is putting the finishing touches to his Government. In a desperate attempt to prove that his is an administration of "all the talents", and having been turned down by most of the Liberal front bench, Lord Ashdown and, for all I know, Richard Branson and Posh Spice, he makes the former CBI Boss, Sir Digby Jones, Minister for Trade promotion and a Peer. "Lord" Jones promptly refuses to take the Labour whip. Tory attempts to bring in talented amateurs under Margaret Thatcher were not a great success and Gordon the Big Organ Grinder is likely to find that this less-than-original experiment will end in tears.
On the industrial front The Clash of the Morons between the Chief of Royal Mail and the General Secretary of the Communication Workers Union seems likely to finish off the once-great enterprise epitomised if not founded by Rowland Hill. Recalcitrant postmen and women, who by and large do a sterling job in all weathers, are cajoled into strike action that most of them do not wish to take while arrogant management and Neanderthal trades union leadership engage in futile point scoring. Have we been here before, O Organ Grinder?
The Chief Fire Officers Association calls for clearer powers and better equipment to enable their service to tackle extensive flooding as the Met Office issues severe weather warnings. Yes. The Government and the Environment Agency were told that it would happen and, predictably, did little but that has not stopped the latter from dishing out performance bonuses to senior management.
The ban on smoking in shops, offices, bars and restaurants arrives and millions take to the streets - but only to dive behind the works bike sheds for a quick fag. All of that and its still only the First of July!
The B.O.G announces plans to "restore trust in politics and strengthen the role of parliament". He surrenders his power to wage war without parliamentary approval and gives up his right to appoint bishops and from now until the Summer Recess he embarks upon a round of quick-fire re-released reheated policy statements that are designed to give the impression of Change.
July brings two widely reported political publications. One is less important than the other. Notwithstanding acres of newsprint coverage and fawning near-hysteria on the part of the BBC, the much vaunted diaries of Mr. Alistair Campbell, erstwhile Blair puppeteer, are so heavily expurgated as to be anti-climactic, resulting in a peculiarly insipid whine of self-justification. Let me shamelessly plagiarise Amanda Platell, clearly not a great fan of Campbell, who said, under her Daily Mail by-line "spare me Campbell's sickening self-pity":
"As Campbell rants and raves in his vainglorious work of fantasy and counts up the pieces of silver it is the family of David Kelly who deserve our sympathy and understanding".
You have read the serialised extracts: don't bother to buy the book - even when it is, as it no doubt soon will be, remaindered.
In contrast, Iain Duncan Smith's hefty sequel to "Breakdown Britain", arising from the painstaking work of his social policy group, has demonstrated that the Quiet Man still has a very great deal to offer. In response to the publication, which not merely analyses many of the causes of a broken society but offers tangible, practical and achievable solutions, Young David calls for tax changes to encourage couples to stay together and to marry. "We need a big cultural change in favour of fatherhood, in favour of parenting, in favour of marriage" Young David says. If only July had stopped right there!
The first swallow indicating a possible Autumn General Election arrives with Gordon's Queen's Speech. We have always known of course that the Government writes the script but this is the first time that I can recall a Prime Minister actually making it for her before the House rises for the summer. All part of the B.O.Gs changeblitz.
The BBC has goofed up big-time. Hot on the heels of a fine from Ofcom for rigging Blue Peter competition results (Yes: Blue Peter, Dear God!) comes the revelation that a trailer for a documentary about The Queen has been faked to show Her Maj. "Storming out of" a photo shoot when she was, in fact, storming in! Add to this the revelation that the Beeb has also rigged some of its phone-in programmes and you can see Auntie's Director General, Mark Thompson, being lined up to face John Humphreys in "On the Ropes". A lesser man would have resigned with dignity but the last DG, "Not the Mayor of Cameron's London", Greg Dyke did that and I suppose the BBC is trying to avoid too many repeats.
"MPs have overturned a Lords move to set up a lifeboat fund" say my notes. This, as it happens, has nothing to do with the fact that Gloucestershire, Worcestershire and parts of the Home Counties and Oxford are under feet of floodwater but reflects the fact that the Labour government has thrown out what would have been a lifeline for pensioners who lost out when their final salaries schemes went bust. No doubt those busy praising the "change" will reflect upon the fact that the Big Organ Grinder, now Prime Minister of this United Kingdom, is the self-same man who, as Chancellor, destroyed our country's pension base and, during his ten years in that office, a great deal more besides.
But the floods sweep on and the political deluge reaches its crescendo in the Ealing and Southall and Sedgefield by-elections. The Tory HQ spin says that Labour's winning margin has fallen. Of course it has. The turnout was appreciably lower than at the General Election! Looked at from any angle, however, the results are not good news for the party or for Young David.
Ten days before polling day we were in with a chance in Southall. The High Street was covered in Tory Tony Lit posters and the personable young man who runs the popular local Sunrise Radio station was making headway. Then came the revelation that his company had donated funds to the Labour Party and a picture of a smiling Tony Lit with a smiling Tony Blair (remember him?) and the game was up. Down came the Tory posters, up went Labour and a smattering of Liberal posters and Her Majesty's loyal opposition coasted into third place.
What is worse is that Young David allowed his schoolboy advisers to persuade him to lend his own name to a campaign which was always high-risk. The fact that voters found themselves being asked, on the ballot paper, to vote for "David Cameron's Conservatives" only added to the humiliation and broke the golden rule of Party Leaders and by-elections. (Rule 1: don't become too personally involved). It was Margaret Thatcher who famously once said "Every Prime Minister needs a Willie". Willie Whitelaw may not be available but there is some serious wisdom there for the asking on the Tory benches in the House of Lords and Young David would do well to take one or two of them into the heart of his inner circle and dispense with some callow and error-prone baggage.
Bad advice, also, to jet off to Rwanda when your own country is under water. We had a good team out there to fly the flag and David would have better served himself as Leader of the Opposition if he had done God's Work at home, not in his own constituency as most commentators demanded, but in Worcester and Gloucester. With the Prime Minister flapping around in a helicopter and wellies and trying to look like something other than a man in search of a photo-opportunity there was an open goal waiting for political balls to be kicked into it.
With the Big Organ Grinder and the Little Organ Grinder off on Blairforce One to re-write the Special Relationship with the Commander in Chief at Camp David (scene of other New Labour triumphs, you will recall) Young David sneaked in a remark of which he should be justly proud before he departed London for the summer recess.
"Politics", he said, "is hard. But not as hard as having your home flooded". In the Halfway House, possibly, but most certainly not in the Last Chance Saloon. An autumn election? Unlikely, for the B.O.G. is not a gambler and he has waited ten long years to move into Number Ten but he could ride the opinion polls and try his luck. Interesting times