Gale`s Westminster View - June 2007.
The Clunking Fist is now Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and "The Envoy " (as we must now come to know him) has gone. Ish. There is always the nagging prospect that having exhausted the memoire and lecture circuit he will return as the President of the United States of Europe but for the moment the nation has heaved a collective sigh of relief.
There is likely to be a price to pay, of course. That sigh may well be reflected in a "bounce" that puts the government, albeit largely at the expense of the Liberal Democrats, back into a lead in the opinion polls.
Whatever my occasional criticisms of Young David and his inner circle I nevertheless find it strange that it has yet to dawn upon our great and glorious electorate that The Fist was a party and partner to all of the faults of the last ten years of Labour mis-government and deceit. Leopards and spots spring to mind!
More of this later but first back to the beginning of a Westminster month that now seems light years away. We return to the House from the rigours and rust of the Whit recess to find the Conservative front bench in reflective mode that results in a period of dignified and welcome restraint
Such restraint is not, however, forthcoming from Secretary of State Ruth Kelly. Fresh from her triumphant U-turn on Housing Information Packs she now tells us that she wants a national "Britain Day". I am all for patriotism but given St. Andrew`s Day, St. Patrick`s Day and St. David`s Day it would be no bad thing if we woke up the Gentlemen of England now abed and stirred them into a raucous celebration of the Feast of St. George. Ms Kelly, however, wants a new "day" and a new bank holiday linked, for heaven`s sake, to the State Opening of Parliament! She would also, apparently, like to award housepoints to immigrants that do voluntary work (housepoints means citizenship) and take them away from immigrants that break the law. Now there`s a politically correct idea!
I am too young (far too young!) to have lived through the phoney war but I begin to think that I now know what it must have been like. Government, and its ministers, have gone into complete paralysis. Nothing is happening. The holders of red boxes are clearly reluctant to take any decisions about anything at all for fear of offending the Fist and, presumably, of damaging future job prospects. Does the United Kingdom have two Prime Ministers? Or none? Blair is a dead man walking but he still represents Britain at the G8 summit and promises "frank discussions" with Vladimir Putin over the latter`s attempt to take us a step closer to World War Three. At the same time both men know that the power of one of them is, effectively, non-existent.
Back in the Commons the retiring, though not shy, Home Secretary seeks to saddle his successor under Gordon Brown with the details of a Counter-Terrorism Bill to be published in the Autumn, long after his departure from Ministerial office.His desire to return to the issue of detention without charge, upon which Blair suffered a rare defeat, gets short shrift from his shadow, David Davis. The Old Knuckleduster wants the use of intercept evidence to be admissable in terrorist cases and the right to interview suspects after charge but resists an extension of the 28-day detention without charge as, rightly, "a recruiting sergeant for terrorism".
On the lost pensions front it has been left to their Lordships House to vote, by a majority of 55, to increase compensation to those whose company pension schemes have collapsed. The Lords have recognised, as this government has not, the very real hardship and misery caused to those whose expectations of comfortable retirement have been dashed. There is, of course, about as much chance of this government allowing the Lords position to stand in the Commons as there is of securing pension justice for the dwindling band of former Far East prisoners of war but they are cases that have to be argued.
The Labour deputy leadership circus moves ghostlike around the land. The contestants, Hazel Blears, John Cruddas, Hillary Benn,
Peter Hain, Harriet Harman and Alan Johnson whip up a storm of apathy that results, later, in a pitiful turnout. By a less than one percent margin Harriet Harman is found to have beaten the favourite, Alan Johnson, and is quickly marginalised by Gordon Brown as Chairman of the Labour Party. No Deputy Prime Ministership for her!
Somewhere is this morass of trivia that has turned Westminster into a sort of political Big Brother House the 2012 Olympic Logo emerges to hoots of derision. At a cost of £400,000 we have won ourselves a design that looks like a cross between a psychedlelic swastika and a piece of London Underground graffiti. As newspapers compete with each other and their readers to come up with alternatives the representatives of the Olympics Committee visit the capital and declare that our work in progress on the games site is on schedule. That, at least, must have brought some relief to Seb Coe who, in the absence of any meaningful minister, carries the olympic can.
We remember, in churches around the land and on Horseguards Parade the ending of the Falklands war. In Christ Church, Herne Bay, we recall the death of Geoffrey Stockwell, RN, who gave his life in that conflict and we cannot help but simultaneously remember Marc Lawrence, RN, one of the first casualties in Iraq and Flt. Lt. Sarah Jayne Mulvihill, the first serving woman to be killed,also in Iraq. These were real, vital, individual young people whose names and memories can be neither buried in harsh statistics nor in Prime Ministerial platitudes.
In today`s all too real world our troops continue to sacrifice their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan while in Gaza BBC journalist Alan Johnson remains in captivity as the "guest" of the self-styled "Army of Islam" His position looks momentarily hopeful but those hopes are dashed. Hamas takes control of Gaza while the Western-backed Mr Abbas forms a new (Fatah) government in the West Bank. Small chance of agreement between Palestine and Israel while Palestine is itself racked by internecine war.
Angela Merkel has released details of the new European Not-The-Constitution. The big question is whether the fading Blair will attend the EU summit and sell Britain down the river or whether the fast-approaching Gordon Brown will through threat of referendum force him to hold at least some kind of line. Blair comes up with four key "red line" policy areas that eurosceptics quickly perceive to be red herrings. We will not, says Blair, compromise on the Charter of Fundamental Rights, Foreign Policy, Law and tax and benefits. By setting out this pseudo-stall in advance Blair allows himself to emerge from the all-night treaty-session proclaiming his act of what many see as negotiated treachery as a "triumph".
For the record the "Treaty Constitution", for that is what it is, has consigned to the dustbin Britain`s veto over very many areas of authority. We shall have a European President, our opt-out of the Charter of Fundamental Rightrs is legally flawed as are the clauses that might safeguard our foreign policy and there will be an EU Foreign Minister known as the "High Representative", a title of which Gilbert and Sullivan would have been justly proud. And on criminal justice we have surrendered our blocking vote in key areas. So much for red lines, Mr. Blair.
Oh yes. And the Clunking Fist has applauded all of this and will deny the British people a referendum on the matter. (Yes, I know there was no referendum on either the Single European Act or the Maastricht Treaty but can we never learn from our mistakes?) The Irish will have a referendum but what is good enough for Bertie Aherne is not, it seems, good enough for the United Kingdom.
June has seen the loss of Piara Khabra, the Labour Member of Parliament for Ealing Southall since 1992. At the tender age of 82 he was the last serving MP to have seen action during World War Two. He was courteous, he was gentle, he was universally well-liked and he will be missed by his friends on all sides of the House.
By way of harsh contrast Mr. Quentin Davies came into the House of Commons as the Conservative Member of Parliament for Stamford and Spalding in 1987. A pin-striped merchant banker who was apparently once fined for cruelty to sheep on his estate he is described as "a former shadow Northern Ireland minister" by the press and as arrogant, aloof and unloved by that sounding board of all parliamentary opinion, the voice of the tearoom. In what is claimed as a "coup" he has now joined Mr. Brown`s Labour party.
Whether Mr. Davies wrote his own poison-pen letter of departure to Young David or whether the Downing Street propaganda unit had a hand in it`s orchestration it was clearly crafted to do the maximum damage to the personal image of the Leader of the Opposition. The thirty pieces of silver are, no doubt in the post. There are more ways of securing a New Labour honour than by writing out a fat cheque. Watch this space!
And so to the end of the long goodbye. After a seven week farewell tour of friends and foes that has stamped a carbon footprint across the western world Blair arrives at the end of his Commons road. A rainforest of newsprint and a seagoing tanker full of printers` ink have been expended on analysis of his rise and fall from every quarter . Why add to the agony? A last PMs question time, a champagne hurrah at Number Ten, a flit to the Palace to take his leave of the Head of State and a trip to County Durham to announce his resignation, also, as a Member of the House of Commons. Into the shadows, with him , go the Attorney General, Lord Goldsmith, The Home Secretary, John Reid and, of course, The Deputy Prime Minister, John Prescott.
We had already seen Prescott`s swan song at the despatch box. His likening of Young David to "Dame Osthenes" was pure parliamentary joy trumped only by William Hague who, on top form as ever, felt "sure that the Dame would welcome the namecheck in the official report of the House of Commons"!
As the news bulletin says "Gordon Brown has finally achieved his ambition as he enters Number ten Downing Street this afternoon". For most, the sun sets in the west. Mr. Blair is riding off into the east. Hizbollah, Hamas, Fatah, Al Quaeda and Iraq and Syria, Israel and Iran are all waiting for him. Towards the next sunrise? Or into the outer darkness? Only time will tell.