Gale`s Westminster View - May 2007
So there we were. Last Saturday of the local government election campaign. Shovelling out the final leaflets and trying to garner the winning few extra votes. And did the earth move for you, darling?! "Small earthquake - not many people injured". Measurable on the Richter scale though. It brought down chimneys in Folkestone and was felt in my own constituency. An omen, of course. The Gods are angry and an epoch is ending.
Mayday. Mayday. .Ten years just feels like a hundred. A decade of incompetence and decline. Count Kosovo as a success, if you will, Sierra Leone possibly and the pursuit of John Major’s initiative in Northern Ireland certainly and that’s the credit balance. On the debit side Education, education, education failing. Violent crime (remember "tough on the causes……?") rising. Binge drinking 24-hours a day, drugs on the street corner, super-casinos on the horizon, a health service in the red, reality TV for the masses, CCTV and form-filling for the police, stealth taxes behind every budget. And Iraq. Wanna buy a peerage…..? Ten years is enough, Mr. Blair. Time to go.
The voters think so too. In the local elections Young David takes, in the words of the tabloids, "a great leap forward" On forty per cent with Labour on 27 percent and the Liberals hot on their heels with 26 percent if there were to be a General Election tomorrow. It would not be like that, of course and anyone who has been in politics for more than five minutes knows that it’s a long haul to the real thing. A pleasing result, though and we won some seats in my two authorities, Canterbury and Thanet. Oh yes and the Scot Nats kicked Labour out of control in Scotland. The Earth really did move for Alex Salmond!
Blair describes these Local Election results as " a springboard for the next election" and, on breakfast television, finally anoints Gordon Brown as his successor. If that’s a springboard, Gordon, God knows what a hurdle looks like!
The results, though, are buried in news of the abduction, in Portugal, of three year old Madeleine Mc Cann and the frantic search for the little girl. Big prayers, small results.
We heard, also, that Jack Wetherill had died. He was elected to the chair when I first entered parliament and was the first Speaker to have to control a newly-televised House of Commons. Wise, kind and courteous. He will be hugely missed by "his" new boys and girls and I consider myself fortunate to have been one of them.
In France Nicolas Sarkozy is "The New Maggie", promising longer working hours, home loan tax relief and a reduction in inheritance tax. Sounds like a Conservative. Whisper it softly but perhaps Young David could learn something from the French!
Back home Cherie Blair dances with Anton de Beuke of Strictly Come Dancing fame and announces that she has two left feet. Now there’s a surprise! Remember Michael Heseltine’s marching speech. "Left, left, …left left left….."!
Home Secretary John Reid has carved his not-fit-for-purpose department in two, handed the judicial bit over to a "Justice Ministry" presided over by Lord Falconer. Charlie Falconer wants burglars to do community service instead of going to gaol. Reid also announces that he is leaving government with Blair to give the Clunking One a free Fist.
It was once said that a metre was "a sort of yard used by foreigners"! Happily, it may remain so. The European Commission has abandoned its plans to force us to scrap our imperial measures. Pints and Pounds and ounces (and, presumably rods and poles and perches ) will remain. Not, sadly, in time for "Metric Martyr" Steven Thorburn, the Sunderland greengrocer prosecuted for daring to sell bananas by the pound and who died at the tender age of 36.
The real reason for the EU climbdown, of course, had nothing to do with what we, in what is left of the United Kingdom, might have wanted. Europe woke up to the fact that the United States still uses imperial measures and that’s a rather big market!
May 10th. At last. Blair really is going, albeit slowly. From Downing Street, with a pause (of course) for a photo opportunity and by air to his Sedgefield constituency to make the announcement to his local party and a few dozen drafted in friends.As a Country we are, says Mr. Blair, "blessed". "This is the greatest nation on earth."
It is, Mr. Blair. In spite of you it still is!
Nominations for the Labour leadership open. The Clunking Fist faces a challenge from the Left in the form of either John Mcdonnell or Michael Meacher. They spend a weekend trying to decide which of them will raise enough votes to mount a candidacy.. Gordon Brown secures sufficient pledges to wipe the board and the putative challenge collapses. What now? Two Prime Ministers until Blair finally steps down on 27th June? The process descends into headline grabbing farce as Blair departs on his farewell tour to annoy still further our long-suffering troops in Iraq. As if they hadn’t got enough to contend with!
A pity that the month did not end there, really. We were doing rather well and then along came Shadow Education Secretary David Willetts to announce to a CBI conference and a stunned Tory Party that we have been wrong all along and that Grammar Schools do not help kids from less advantaged homes towards upward social mobility. Not entirely surprisingly your poor bloody ex-grammar school correspondent, representing a seat in one of the remaining Grammar School Counties, takes umbrage along with what is probably a majority of grass roots party members over forty.
Now I know that in this brave new Blue Labour world to have reached forty is to have failed in life but the fact is that in Kent we have a wonderful educational mix of grammar and High schools, technology and sports colleges,Church of England and Catholic foundation faith schools, private and state special needs provision and some of the Country’s best remaining prep and public schools as well. Oh yes, and we also have a "City Academy".
Young Dave and Two Brains Dave want to nail our blue-green colours to Blair’s City Academy mast. These schools have certainly cost zillions to create, are located in shiny new tekkie-age buildings paid for by rich industrialists and are, I am sure,presided over by excellent and dedicated teaching staff. But will they work? The jury is still very much out, there are not yet enough yardsticks to measure them by. To put our eggs, now, into this potentially hollow-bottomed basket seems to me to be just a little previous!
Never mind. Young David sees this as his "Clause Four" moment, apparently. It will define the New Tory Party as "either fit to form a government or a right-wing debating society" and those of us who still believe in selective education (the kind you sit exams for not the kind that, if wealthy enough, you buy) are "paddling around in the shallow end of the debate".
A word of caution, Dave. If the responses that I have been receiving following your comments are anything to go by you have just moved, yourself, from the shallow end to deep and shark infested waters! Those who lead great political parties do not own them. They are Trustees.
Elsewhere poor Prince Harry is finally told that it is too dangerous to send him on active service to Iraq. It was probably blindingly obvious from the beginning that the moment the tabloids blared to the world that the Prince was destined for the war zone he, and the squaddies around him, would become the Number One insurgent target for potential kidnapping and public execution.As the head of the army, General Sir Richard Dannatt, put it, the deployment would involve "unacceptable risks". So the lad is a warrior without a war to be allowed to fight and through no fault of his own his military career is on ice. Who’d be a Royal Prince?
Writers of columns are bedevilled by two things - deadlines and technology. The first part of this scribbling was delivered, helpfully, to its prime recipient (The editor of the Mallorca Daily Bulletin) in timely fashion. The intent was, with the Whit recess approaching, to update it and add developments, for usual publication at the beginning of June. Sadly, from our holiday hovel, the IT crashed - so here's the missing bit!
With the recess fast approaching Ruth Kelly, Secretary of State for Environmental stuff, arrived at the despatch box for the Big Climb down on Home Information Packs. ‘HIPS’, as they have inevitably become known, seemed to someone like a good idea at the time. To provide a prospective home buyer with information concerning the energy efficiency and general condition of the home must, surely, be a welcome thing? Somewhere between conception and birth, however, this superficially modest measure metamorphosed into a nightmare of ludicrously costly bureaucracy requiring the training of and army of approved inspectors and a rainforest of paperwork. With the inspectors as yet untrained and most of the ‘realtor’ business up in arms and the deadline for introduction fast approaching Babe Ruth came to the House. She did it herself and she deserves credit for that. HIPS were dreamed up before her time and she is not the Housing Minister.
The Housing Minister is Yvette Cooper, who sat beside her. Ms. Cooper is also known as Mrs. Balls, the partner of the Economic Secretary to the Treasury, Ed Balls. Mr. Balls is the close ally, aide and confident of The Clunking Fist and as such is "destined for great things". That gives Ms. Cooper a pretty good political heatshield!
Ruth Kelly is brisk, efficient and, I believe, principled. She ate most of the humble pie without choking and with a straight face (if both are simultaneously possible). She postponed the HIPS and announced that they would only apply to houses with four or more bedrooms. (What please is the difference between a "bedroom" a "computer room" a "television room" a "games room" and a "study"?) Setting aside the obvious flaws and defects in her position Babe Ruth did a competent job and the only people for the moment left high and dry, and for whom we should feel genuine sympathy, are those few who invested their own savings in training for what they anticipated as employment as Energy Inspectors only to find that there are, for now, no such jobs.
In the same last week the Nation's Nanny, Ms. Hewitt, the Secretary of State for sickness, survived a vote of no confidence in her performance. The survival was predictable. The sheep went baaing through the dip and Ms. Hewitt came out smelling of whatever it is that you dip sheep in. Will she survive a new Prime ministerial re-shuffle? I doubt it somehow
So there we are, having survived the long sea voyage from Dover to Calais and the hazardous dodgem track known as the peripherique. I am sitting, glass in hand, watching young swallows engaged in flying lessons and the wretched phone rings. It is, of course, the BBC.
The grammar school row rumbles on. My friend and colleague Graham Brady, a Shadow Minister with responsibility for Europe, a constituency full of excellent grammar schools and a Conservative (it is, sometimes these days, necessary to state what ought to be obvious) is first carpeted by the Opposition Chief Whip and then resigns his post to free him to speak out on matters of education about which he knows a very great deal.
Hard on the heels of this comes the publication in a local newspaper of a column penned by the Shadow Attorney General, the very highly regarded Dominic Grieve, in which he calls for Grammar Counties to be allowed to build more grammar schools to meet shifting demographic demands. The tabloids and the wireless tell me that this leads to a flurry of communications between Conservative HQ and Young David, holidaying with his family in somewhere less Thatcherite than mid-France, and a subsequent announcement from David Willetts. Two-Brains Dave says that we can, of course, build new grammar schools to meet demographic needs in counties that adhere to selective education. This, presumably, accepts the principle that the selective system does after all, where it still exists, enhance social mobility. So that's alright then!
As the sun sets on the Merry Month of May and the rain pours down I learn, like a member of the maquis via a wireless set racked with static, that the Shadow Chancellor, George Osborne, has reiterated the view that the New Tory Party are the true heirs to Blair. This is a concept that was first mooted at Blackpool in 2005 and, when its potential implications for the Leadership contest were recognised, was hurriedly suppressed.
We know precisely what Boy George means. He means that the Conservative Party of the 21st Century is, as was the Conservative party of the 20th Century, a broad and understanding church open to all and representing the aspirations of the many and not the few. Of course it is. That's why I, for one, joined.
The problem is that we have spent the last ten years fighting Blair and all his works. We have watched the Health Service run deep into the red and staff morale decline, we have seen the creation of an anti-social culture on our streets fuelled by soaps and Big Brother House and all-day booze, we have watched as our Coppers are chained to computers and bogged down with form-filling, we have observed the dumbing-down of education, the reduction in the facilities and equipment available to our Army, our Navy and our Air force and we have mourned the loss of our constituents fighting Blair's war in Iraq.
So while Blair himself is off on safari hunting the elusive Legacybeest it hardly seems the moment to tell us that we are his heirs!
Please God we will, at the next election, form a Conservative administration and govern wisely, fairly and honestly in the interests of the United Kingdom. But if, in the meantime, my own name appears in Blair's will please disinherit me