Westminster - October 2007
Let me be mightily profound. If a week is a long time in politics then two weeks is a very long fortnight! John Prescott (remember him?) must have allowed himself a wry chuckle at the manner in which the tectonic plates have moved for Gordon Brown during the first fortnight of October.
The Clunking Fist has morphed into the Clucking Chicken, Young David, if he has not actually "slewn" Goliath, has most certainly brought him to his knees and Boy George has scored a fiscal hit that has taken him to the top of the Westminster charts. And all in the twinkling of Alastair Campbell`s eye!
"I'm driving off to the seaside. A lot may depend upon what happens in Blackpool in the next few days". That's how I ended the September column. Eleven points behind in the opinion polls, The Big Organ Grinder riding high and sweeping all before him. The political air is rife with talk of the coming autumn snap election and Her Maj’s Loyal Opposition is in miserable disarray.
Only we are not. Something transcendental happened on the journey to the North. The Tory Party closed ranks, The Shadow Front Bench team, led for the first part of the Conference by George Osborne's stunning inheritance tax agenda, played a blinder and Young David garnered his fundamental Conservative principles and sent them into battle in a closing speech that, at well over an hour, was probably too long but without notes a tour de force et courage that was quite astonishing in its effect. And that, as they say on the golden mile, is Bingo!
Back in the constituencies we are in a flurry. The Chancellor's Autumn Statement has been brought forward, Buckingham Palace has been put on stand-by and the House of Commons is ready to postpone the November 6th State Opening. All the straws are in the wind. Brown's Photo-Opportunity visit to Iraq backfires badly as a stunt but he has marched his troops so far up the hill that only an arrant political coward could march them down again. My own election literature was written before we went off on holiday in August, just in case, and proofed at the end of that month. But there is still a huge amount to be done if we are to be quick out of the starting blocks.
In a week following the conference we blanket North Thanet with leaflets calling for a referendum on the "not- the- European- Constitution" and are overwhelmed by a response that literally far-outweighs anything that I have seen before in nearly twenty-five years in the House of Commons. (Three and a half thousand people bothered to put stamps, many of them first class, onto cards to return them. Unprecedented). Volunteer troops, footsore from the pre-election delivery, gear themselves up to get the "Introductory leaflet" out in the first seventy-two hours of the campaign for an anticipated November 1st or 8th polling day and with all our teams on a war footing in North and South Thanet (where I expect to see Duncan Sandys’ daughter, Laura, win back Jonathan Aitken’s old seat for the Conservatives) we are on full alert.
So there I am, minding my own business in the sitting room on a Saturday afternoon (the sixth of October to be precise) and there's a knock on the door from the dog-food delivery man. (Alright, you have milk delivered. We have dog food). "You heard it first here" he says. "The election's off. Turn on your telly and watch the news". And so we did.
Not surprising, really, that the BBC’s Political Wizard Nick Robinson is spitting blood. We are told that he had to ring the BBC to confirm that the Prime Minister had invited a tame hack, Andrew Marr, into Downing Street to record, for transmission on Sunday morning, an interview in which the Big Organ Grinder announces that he is not, after all, going to call an election! While Sky TV's Adam Boulton fumes down the road Robinson, outside Number Ten, states sourly that we can not expect the Prime Minister to come out of hiding and make a statement. How very true. Having got his recording Marr scurries out through the front door, grabs an earpiece from another BBC political reporter and, yes, it is the spokesman for the Brown-nosed Broadcasting Corporation that makes the announcement to the world with the Prime Minister metaphorically peering around the curtains from his bedroom above! Facing grim poll-ratings following a powerful Tory conference, the Iraq visit fiasco, a postal strike that will cripple both the Royal Mail and business and the near-certainty of electoral failure, the current First Lord of the Treasury has lost his bottle.
It is, to be sure, a disgraceful performance. A Prime Minister with anything other than Ed’s Balls would have himself made a dignified statement on all channels. But that, of course, would have given the Opposition the right of reply. So The "Son Of The Manse Kind of Guy" runs away from the fray with only a white feather to cover his political nakedness.
The BBC, meanwhile, still reeling from phone-in vote-rigging and with its once-proud reputation in tatters now, having sold its credibility for a Downing Street "scoop" ,announces that it will flog off its multi-million pound HQ at White City (built, of course, with license-payers money), cut 2,500 jobs in front-line mainstream programming and screen more repeats. This, the Chairman of the Trustees informs us, is in the interests of maintaining quality broadcasting! Time for Auntie to be given a Christian burial?
Back to the plot and we're still barely more than a week into the month.
On Monday 8th October, the House returns to hear the excuse for the visit to Iraq. With the Little Organ Grinder, the dreadful Milipede, perched almost upon his knee the Big Organ Grinder struggles to maintain the support of even his own side, much less of the House. The next day, Tuesday, gets worse as Chancellor Darling (through the thin walls between Number Ten and Number Eleven, "Is that you, Chancellor, Darling?") mumbles lamely along an Autumn Statement that is prompted throughout by the predecessor sitting to his left and that unravels within minutes leaving pensioners, families and small businesses all feeling poorer. In a speech that was clearly written to be given the day before an election announcement and then, presumably, hurriedly re-cobbled, the Chancellor launches what will become known as the "Magpie Raid" on George Osborne's policies. To derisive laughter he announces "green" taxes on airline flights and, guess what, a raising of the inheritance tax threshold! Ice, it does not cut. By the end of what the hacks describe as "a disastrous week for Labour", Young David's personal poll ratings have risen and the Tories have a 3% lead over the government in a recovery to match that of Lazarus.
A week of treachery, backstabbing and sell-out. As the fallout from the "not-the-election" farce continues the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, seeing the writing on the wall and feeling the knives in his back, falls, if it is possible to do all three simultaneously, upon his sword. "To lose one Leader may be regarded as a misfortune but to lose two…………." The crocodile tears flow outside the LibDems Cowley Street headquarters and St. Simon of Bermondsey reads the eulogy. The forces of Clegg and Huhne and Darkness gather to prepare to grab the poisoned chalice while Sir Ming Campbell, bruised, retires with dignity to seek the solace of Lady Elspeth in Edinburgh.
A general election might have saved him, but with poll ratings in meltdown and a likely two years to the next hustings the outcome for the venerable Olympian was inevitable.
So much for the treachery and the backstabbing. Now for the sell-out.
The Big Organ Grinder and Milipede (a lot of feet to put, at any one single time, in your mouth!) head off to promote our Four Red Herrings in the Surrender of Lisbon.
A couple of hundred years ago the British Fleet was at this time of year sailing towards Cape Trafalgar to defend and die for our national interests. On October 19th 2007 the Rt. Hon. Gordon Brown, Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, in the company of the Secretary of State for Foreign and Commonwealth Affairs, David Miliband, paved the way to run up the white flag in the interests of European Union Federal interests. Small surprise, then, that back in the Commons Brown fights like a tiger with cubs not to protect his honour but to steer the country away from the referendum that he knows will end in his very personal defeat. Trust the British Public? I don't think so!
Lewis Hamilton lost the Brazilian Grand Prix and thus the Formula One World Championship with huge dignity. A pity that others wanted to strip Kimi Raikkenen of the title that he so fairly won but Hamilton has rightly earned huge affection and respect for his courtesy and magnanimity and his day will come.
And, sadly, it really wasn't a try! The England Rugby Squad returned from the near-grave to reach the World Cup final in Paris and played the game out with massive courage, a couple of disastrous mistakes and some bad luck but in the end the silverware went, rightly, to the team that had won every game right through to a brilliant and deserved victory. On that day one of my young friends stayed in England to watch his sister get married. Having been offered, two days earlier, a ticket to the match and a seat in a car to the Stade du France it must have been a bitter-sweet choice.
Archie can, though, console himself with the fact that, unlike Nicolas Sarkozy, he had not just lost both the world cup third place and his wife. The Premier of France, it is said, gave the ticket intended originally for his former spouse to somebody called Gordon Brown. "Courting failure" springs to mind!
AS FOOTNOTES to October.
Ian Yates, Scotland Yard’s scourge of Cash for Honours, appears before a Commons select Committee with a determination and dignity that is less than matched by his inquisitorial Members of Parliament. His book, when eventually published, will possibly make rather more interesting breading than the one for which Blair is reputed to be going to be paid millions.
For the foreseeable future we have rung down the curtain on our northern seaside conference venue. Blackpool has been kind to us politically. Overpriced, hard beds and past it's sell-by date yes. But great moments have been recorded, some of them very recently, at the Winter Gardens and much wining and dining and loving enjoyed by young and not-so-young activists from many political parties. I trust that the old girl will have a face-lift and that this will be not good-bye but merely au revoir.
And as the nights lengthen, and Greenwich Time gets meaner, our Newfoundland, Lulu, former Westminster Dog of the Year, is this year presented with a personal Outstanding Achievement Award for her services to charity which, in these political canine Oscars, is about as good as you can get. What a month