Gale's Westminster View - June 2009
The Westminster enclave is in the grip of a sclerosis. What has passed for government was nine-parts paralysed before the Daily Telegraph bought the unexpurgated copies of Members Allowance claims. Since that time the drip-feed of a litany of grim details, the daily roll of the tumbrels and the shrill editorial screams of "off with their heads" has meant, I suppose inevitably, that until the months’ end village gossip has been of little else.
There is still a war in Afghanistan and the bodies of British servicemen are still being repatriated. The global economy is still mired deep in manure and our domestic financial situation is dire. A rigged election in Iran and the ensuing riots in the streets of Teheran have provided the news bulletins with some action pictures and offered a very brave John Simpson the chance to break the curfew, creep with his equally brave camera crew out into the streets and report a version of the truth that the Ayatollahs would have preferred you not to see. But Iran is a long way away and the fact that an explosive situation there could trigger Armageddon does not sell anything like as many newspapers as domestic scandals involving people in "high places". Only the death of a pop star will be seen to be of greater importance.
We left May heading for the County and European elections. After a whole month out on the streets, away from the putrid stench of parliament, breathing the fresh air of Kent, meeting mostly kind and supportive people and with very sore feet, the results were, from a personal of view, satisfactory. True, the United Kingdom Independence Party did what UKIP does and without achieving anything positive took just enough Tory votes to stop us winning the last Labour seat in Thanet but throughout Kent, as nationally, we performed well. The dark cloud over this otherwise sunny upland is the election, to the European Parliament, of Nick Griffin and Andrew Brons representing the BNP. Timed with perfect irony to coincide with the D-Day memorial gatherings, a reminder of the price that was paid to once fight and overthrow the tyranny of fascism, the fact that this duo will now have access to some £5.2 million of taxpayers’ funds to promote their extreme cause over the lifetime of a parliament is unlikely to gladden many old soldiers’ hearts.
Neither, for that matter will the fact that M. Sarkosy managed to present the Normandy landings as a Franco-American triumph and that it was only the intervention of President Obama that led to a belated appearance by Prince Charles to represent his hitherto uninvited Mother. As Her Maj is the last surviving Head of State to have seen wartime service in uniform the centime might just have dropped a little earlier! Not entirely surprising, therefore, that the Chief of General Staff, Sir Richard Dannatt, chose to put some kilometres between himself and the armchair warriors of politics and to join the survivors on Pegasus Bridge, which is where the beginning of the end really started. (Unless, of course, you are a veteran of the Italian campaign in which case you will tell me, with some justification, that you were the first back into mainland Europe!)
Will he stay or will he go? The Big Organ Grinder is facing a firestorm that even a fleeting appearance as a statesman in Northern France cannot deflect. Following the resignations of Home Secretary Jacqui Smith, Cabinet Office Minister Tom Watson, Children's Minister Beverley Hughes and the eve-of-poll walk-out of the atomic chipmunk, Hazel Blears (sporting a "Rocking the Boat" lapel badge), room for reshuffle manoeuvre was limited. John Hutton, a most able Secretary of State, departs Defence and as the polls close the Work and Pensions Secretary, James Purnell, (one of the press-styled "high fliers") walks out expecting that his lifelong buddy, David Miliband, will follow to precipitate the wanted leadership election.
"Follow me, I’m right behind you" Milipede, echoing the footsteps of Michael Portillo, dithers once again and does not budge. No discernible leadership candidate there!
Meanwhile Ms. Caroline Flint, Minister of State, also expected to join in the Purnell exit, instead scents the fragrance of Cabinet rank and comes out in support of Brown. The Fist clunks, Flint is left on the sidelines and only 24 hours after voicing her support, storms out of Downing Street reportedly and in unladylike fashion describing our Dear Leader as an effing bastard and announcing that she and her WAG (Women Against Gordon) colleagues have been used as "female window dressing". Unchivalrous Labour whips suggest that "at least she won't have to worry her pretty little head about European policy any more"!
Ode to what joy? The departure of Ms. Flint opens the door for Mrs. Glenys Kinnock to quit the European parliament, become ennobled in her own right and enhance her salary as the new Minister of State for Europe. From windbags to moneybags in one swift move, as the commentators so elegantly put it!
Elsewhere, the Big Organ Grinder has some local difficulty with his reshuffle. Chancellor Darling digs in and refuses to be budged, denying Mr. Yvette Cooper his much sought after opportunity to move his family into Number Eleven Downing Street. Ever tiresome, the Man of Straw clings to his post and the Milipede, having done the indecent thing, claims his right to remain in charge of the last outposts of British influence around the globe. And Peter Mandelson emerges from Number Ten as the Rt. Hon. Baron Mandelson of Foy in the County of Herefordshire and Hartlepool in the County of Durham, First Secretary of State and Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills, presiding over a super-department of ten ministers, and Lord President of the Council. As Lord President His Lordship gets to wear tights and carry a silver stick. With Alan "Never say Never" Johnson as Home Secretary and Prime-Minister-In-Waiting there are not, in reality, many goodies left to dole out but the bunker mentality is shown to be alive and well as Brown moves his praetorian guard from the whips office into the remaining ministerial jobs. If the wagons are surrounded by Indians then I'm going to fight to the last drop of my comrades’ blood!
And talking of comrades, then came what was billed as the "OK Corral" moment, the meeting of the parliamentary Labour Party. On the morning of the day Charlie Falconer says, helpfully, that the time has come for the Government to find itself a new leader. The usual suspects, led by Charles Clark are, according to the fly on the committee room wall, in good voice but one Neil Kinnock gallops to the rescue of his beleaguered colleague and Brown survives, damaged beyond repair but to limp on for a few more months. It was, of course, inevitable. Faced with electoral annihilation and the loss of about a third of the Cabinet and other ministerial seats, the poor bloody infantry were always going to grab a few more months’ rations and pension contributions before going over the top.
Just when it looks as though it's safe to allow the children out up pops Lord Foy again. There may, he says, be another leadership challenge in the autumn. And to add fuel to this fire the Prime Minister himself gives an interview in which he intimates that he would not mind a career in teaching. Well, given the capacity to learn from mistakes he has a great deal of experience to offer! If I was not too parsimonious to be a betting man I would put a few bob on the prospect of Alan Johnson leading the Labour Party into the next general election and a much tighter finish than some are at present predicting.
Mandelson returns to the European forum and in Berlin - where else - reiterates his enthusiasm for Britain to join the Euro. Criticising Britain’s "rising mood of national insularity" he is at least consistent in promoting closer ties with the European Union. Our own Kenneth Clarke, equally consistent and out-of-step, unilaterally rules out a referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty of Lisbon if a Conservative government takes office after the Treaty has been ratified under Labour. Another very good reason for needing a general election sooner rather than later.
On the floor of the House a motion on The Dissolution of Parliament - the "no Confidence" motion - is inevitably defeated but it does give William Hague, one of the few people left in parliament capable of harnessing the English language and sending it into battle, the chance to state the case:
We are left with a Government held together solely by fear. The Prime Minister is unable to remove ministers in whom he has lost faith, for fear they will quit altogether. Ministers are unwilling to challenge a Prime Minister in who they have lost faith for fear that they will no longer be ministers. Labour back benchers are unwilling to remove a Prime Minister in whom they have certainly lost faith for fear of having to have an election and all of them are living in fear of one minister with a very long title for whom, at the last election, no one in the country ever voted for at all. The Government are locked together in an embrace of mutual terror and diminished legitimacy but their refusal to face the voters can no longer be defended. There comes a point when democratic renewal is necessary and the country knows and understands that that is now".
On 16th June Gordon Brown announces the long-awaited enquiry into the Iraq war. To be chaired by Sir John Chilcot, a veteran of the Butler enquiry into the "Dodgy Dossier" and therefore completely without "previous", it will not report until long after the next general election. It will also be held in secret. Following a public and political outcry the Clunking Fist does another handbrake turn and a week later we discover that what he really meant to say was that most of the inquiry, save for the security bits, will be held in public. As Sir John says so, it must be true. We are led to believe that it was The Legacy who really wanted to protect his backside so will Mr. Blair now be brought to book or not? As I have already indicated, I am not a betting man!
Elsewhere, Henry Allingham, the last surviving veteran of World War 1 becomes, at the age of 113, the world's oldest man. A youngster called Prince Philip reaches a mere 88 years of age and that cold-war icon, the Avro Vulcan, flies again after a £7 million re-fit. (Concorde next?) Swine Flu officially acquires pandemic status and claims its first UK fatality. The Commanding Officer of HMS Bulwark, Captain Wayne Keble, bans Brussels Sprouts from the menu as "the devil's vegetable", Ms. Kitty Ussher resigns from her new ministerial post at the Treasury after just twelve days in office and with support from the Labour benches but less from his Conservative colleagues, Mr. John Bercow replaces Michael Martin as the Speaker of the House of Commons. Mr. Speaker Martin uses his farewell address to the House to remind Members that if they had heed his advice the necessary changes could have been made and the expenses crisis pre-empted, a year ago in July 2008. He is of course absolutely correct. The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, warns that Britain is facing bankruptcy and sensing the austerity Her Maj is now growing vegetables in the gardens of Buck House for the first time since the war. Her eldest son has taken on the architect Richard Rogers (or, as he prefers to be known, Lord Rogers of Riverside) over plans to build 9-storey tower block on the site of the Chelsea Barracks. At the time of writing the Heir to the Throne appears to be winning the argument. Across the Atlantic President Obama clocks up forty-five thousand pounds worth of expenses on the jet aircraft, helicopters and security required to make a visit to Broadway while after the best part of a century of car-making General Motors files for bankruptcy.
The Actress Gretta Scacchi promotes the Eco-film "The End of the Line" by being photographed in the nude clutching a dead cod with its fin tastefully extended across her left breast. Not a fishnet in sight! Politically incorrect maybe, but Young David amuses more people than he upsets, when, speaking out against ID cards he asks "Ver are your papers!?” The Old Knuckleduster and ex Tooting grammar school boy, David Davis, returns to the fray to once again argue for the social desirability and success of selective education and the BBC moves to ban swearing after the 9pm watershed.
The BBC has itself, unfortunately, provided the cause of a significant number of expletives. Having spent a lot of license fee payers money emulating parliament and trying to prevent the publication of the Corporation's salaries and expenses it emerges that not only are its stars in some instances grossly over-valued and overpaid but that many BBC executives, starting with the Director General, Mark Thompson, are paid far more than the Prime Minister. With the jobless total at a 13-year high of 2.26 million and vacancies at a record low there is not much public sympathy for the defence that "salaries are a lot higher in the public sector". Many of the overpaid personnel might be hard pushed to find much above an office job in the private sector and even Mr. Andy Hornby, who presided over the demise of HBOS before taking up a new £800K per annum post as head of Boots might be hard-pressed to defend the cohort of Beeb Bureaucrats and their extravagances. Pots and Kettles possibly, but they are all black!
The Secretary of State for Business, Innovation and Skills has shelved plans to extend paternity leave from two weeks to six months ( It might be bad for business) while MPs may receive maternity rights and childcare vouchers to encourage women candidates to come forward. Cambridge University will be posting exam results by e-mail before displaying them on the traditional "too stressful" notice board. To date the government's £285 million mortgage rescue package has apparently assisted just two families. The Charities Tribunal has ruled against Catholic Adoption Agencies’ ban on gay adoption citing the 2006 Equality Act and the Sexual Orientation Regulations. The Adoption Agencies will now close in the name of progress. Meanwhile a ten year old boy is placed for fostering, against his Mothers wishes, with a gay couple. Brighton and Hove Council will ‘not comment on any issue relating to the welfare of a child in the care of the council’. So that's alright then. Boddingtons Berries, in Cornwall, are ending their Pick Your Own Trade. The old-established family business could not afford to install the walkways and handrails demanded by ‘elf and safety gnomes. "Condom Cards" offering the product free of charge are to be made available to boys as young as twelve if they pass the sex education tests. The condoms may be acquired through, amongst other outlets, scout huts. Gives a whole new meaning to "Be Prepared" and a fierce debate will no doubt rage around the design of the badge. Newly appointed Foreign Office Minister Chris Bryant seems to welcome the introduction of a non-sectarian Red Crystal symbol to replace the internationally recognised Red Cross and the Red Crescent. "Don't shoot, I'm…………..". Oops, sorry. Too late. The Government Department presided over by Mr. Yvette Cooper gives £8 million to the Families and Parenting Institute to ‘revolutionise lives’ and More4News has discovered that we are spending, annually, some £50 million on unread translations of official documents and leaflets. Nine out of ten people now have an NHS dentist or, to put it another way, there are still three million with no dentist and, presumably, bad teeth. Lord (Alex) Carlile, the former Liberal MP, announces that the police are now stopping and searching white people "in order to balance the books". In Stoke on Trent Welcome mats are banned as health hazards and in primary schools (thanks, Ed.) the mantra "I before E except after C" is to be phased out under "Government Support for Spelling" as too confusing. Oh yes, and following on from last month's report of a complaint the Ombudsman has determined, after an expensive review of the matter, that the Cathedral City of Canterbury is, after all, sufficiently gay. But the City still boasts no exclusive bee-keepers bar.
In years to come they will ask "Where were you when Michael Jackson died"? I, as it happens, was participating in a late night Radio Five Live broadcast discussing the obscenity of the BBC management's salaries when the news from California began to break. It goes without saying that the programme was abandoned as nations around the globe joined in the Princess Di style soap opera of remorse. One must feel sadness for the family, but a sense of proportion? Neverland. All it needs now is a message of condolence from Gordon Brown. And meanwhile the body of another soldier is quietly repatriated from Afghanistan. On armed forces day.