Gale’s Westminster View – August, 2009

Summer season. The Palace of Varieties moves to the seaside. "Waiting for Gordo" or "The Fist that did not Clunk!” The bodies keep on flying home from Afghanistan, the Lockerbie bomber flies home to Libya and The Lion of the Democrats (as we must apparently now call him) flies to join his Clan Kennedy siblings in the hereafter.

At the start of a month in which the number of service dead in Afghanistan will rise past the 200 mark the Ministry of Defence goes to court to try to reduce the compensation payable to war-injured servicemen. Ministerial aide Eric Joyce describes this as "bureaucracy over bravery" but government shame allows him to keep his job.  Forces Minister Bill Rammell says that the war in Afghanistan "could last for decades".  If it does then the sixty-two Lynx Wildcat helicopters now on order may be of some use after all.  They will not be delivered until at least 2012.  We learn that the MoD is spending £2.5 billion a year on "the wrong kind of kit". This includes eight potentially life saving Chinook helicopters that remain firmly on the ground in the UK instead of in the air on active service in Afghanistan. Wounded servicemen will have their benefits cut as a cash-strapped government slices the £57 a week special allowance off their pay packet. (Not much "military covenant" there, then.)   In Afghanistan’s hyper-rigged elections just 150 people voted in the area of Helmand that cost the lives of ten British servicemen. Small wonder that by the month’s end two thirds of the population of the UK are saying that we should pull out of that god-forsaken country. Farewell and thank you to brave and outspoken General Sir Richard Dannett as head of the army and General Sir David Richards would you now drink from the poisoned chalice, please?

On the A51 between Nantwich and Chester and enterprising farmer builds a replica of the Houses of Parliament out of straw. How very apt, you may say, after the events of recent months. A baleful sight.  With Members of Parliament off on what the gutter press annually describes as "three months holiday" it now takes a succession of four "prime ministers" in succession to run the country. Five, if you include the Big Organ Grinder but it’s a moot point whether he is now capable of running anything at all and he’s probably better employed crossing Derwent Water on a pleasure cruiser in the rain.

Before Mr. Brown has even packed his bags there’s the first conspiracy theory. Will Peter Mandelson, Lord Foy of that Persuasion and Keeper of The Blairite Flame, use new law to renounce his peerage and replace Gordon Brown?  "I am" he is quoted as saying "happy serving the Prime Minister, the Government and my Party in my current job” So that’s probably a "yes", but not just yet. No mention, you will notice, of service to the Country in that litany.

First through the revolving door of Number Ten is Mad Hattie.

Ms. Harperson gets straight to the point.  If Lehman Brothers had been Lehman sisters, she tells us, all might have been very different.  You bet it might!  Having set the tone for this interregnum it is not surprising that it ends in a hiatus.  Hattie goes off to the seaside at the week’s end while His Foyship is still enjoying a little hedonism in Corfu.  This leaves Olympics Minister Tessa Jowell of the sisterhood as the most senior Government Minister in Whitehall. She, at least, can claim that no bank failed and no war broke out during her weekend watch.

Lord Foy now presides over a Department of eleven Ministers as Treasury Minister Stephen Timms has been added to his previous hand of six Ministers of State and four Parliamentary Secretaries.  No need to move into Number Ten yet, then. That can wait.

After The Lord comes Chancellor Darling. With the young jobless tally knocking the one-million mark the Edinburgh Badger chooses this moment to venture as far as Marylebone in search of a Jobcentre Plus. He is clearly wearing a tidy suit for the visit and for all I know he may be carrying his CV in the despatch box but is this really the message that the man temporarily running the country wants to send out?  Job-seeking comes later, Alistair.

So far as I can see the Man of Straw occupying the Straw Palace disappears without trace. Jack must have been swept up by a combine harvester somewhere within his seven days but at the end of it all the Country can heave a sigh of something if not relief.  Gordo is back and normal chaos will resume.

“The day of big bonuses is over” said The Clunking Fist at Christmas, 2008.  It would appear that those running the banks that you and I own and those still in private hands did not get the message.  Stephen Hester, of the Royal Bank of Scotland, one of the wholly-owned subsidiaries belonging to our grandchildren, believes that it is “in the taxpayer’s interest to award bonuses” as failure to do so will lead to a “damaging exodus of top talent”. (He might ponder that as things stand it is highly questionable how many of his top-talented colleagues would be missed were they to take an over- long walk along Brighton pier.) 

Eric Daniels, of 43% taxpayer-owned Lloyd’s bank awards bonuses for losing a paltry £4 billion in six months. And news leaks out that his bank is to close up to 550 of its smaller rural branches and `agency counters.

With Barclays and HSBC still dishing out gains that they will claim are well-earned and with Northern Rock still borrowing our money the Bank of England eases a little more quantity by printing another £50 billion of “new money” taking the total freshly-printed debt to £175 billion. I think we’re probably into great-grandchildren payback territory now as Mr. Governor acknowledges that the UK recession “appears to have been deeper than previously thought”.  This, you will recall, is the recession that the Prime Minister and his Chancellor assured us that we were better placed to deal with than others in the developed world!

Bank rates up for borrowers. Overdrafts and loans more expensive. Personal loans the highest rate since 2004 on 13.1% and interest rates for savers on 0.15%. Unemployment at a 14-year high on 2.4 million and one in six young people out of work. Student debt is running at an average of £23 thousand a head at the end of a degree course, rising to around £30k for London graduates. A second wave of home repossessions predicted by Shelter and, says the Council of Mortgage Lenders, a 50% rise in repossessions during the first three months of 2009. And the RAC is predicting petrol at 123p a litre by the year end.  Are we really better off than, say, France or Germany? I don’t think so, Prime Minister.

In the Blue Corner we start the month with the Conservatives on 41%, Labour on 27% and the Liberals on 18%.  Only a fool would take those figures for granted and while I may have a number of differences of opinion with him I recognise that Young David is no fool.  The man who wants to be the next Prime Minister knows full well that a Conservative Government will be judged by one term in office and that is a terrifyingly short time in which to plug the black hole in the nation’s finances. Balanced books, says Cameron, will be the test of his government. He, and the Conservative Party, are likely to stand or fall by that.

Cutting cabinet pay by 25% and reducing the Ministerial team by 30 posts is not going to get the family jewels out of the pawnshop. I am not privy to plans to raise VAT to 20%, if indeed there are any, but we are going to have to make cuts.  When South East MEP Dan Hannan caused a stir by describing the NHS as “a sixty year failure” it was inevitable that ordure would be poured upon his head.  I do not, though, recall the Leadership of the Party describing him as “eccentric” when, single-handedly and before the world’s press, he ripped Gordon Brown apart during the latter’s visit to the European Parliament.  The Conservative Party that I joined all those years ago was tolerant of free speech and honourably held alternative views and it must remain so.  We are the custodians, only, of our party and, when in government, of our Country and we hold them in trust for those who follow after us. We need to remember that.  Dan Hannan was right to dare to open this can of worms.  Most of us have good reason to be grateful for the NHS and few will subscribe to every dot and comma his personal view.  That the NHS is safer in Tory than in Labour hands is true but that does not mean that, before pouring still more money into a bottomless pit, we should not eliminate waste.  We can, and given the parlous state of the Country`s finances, we must.

Mandelson, overweening though he may be, knows an opponent when he sees one. It was not only because of the Deripaska/Rothschild affair that, when George Osborne said that “The Conservatives are now the progressive force in British politics” Lord Foy found it necessary to describe him as “a political cross-dresser”. The current real Prime Minister knows that Boy George has grown up and is now ready, willing and able to walk into Number Eleven Downing Street and to do what has to be done.

And so to the Lockerbie Bomber and Senator Edward Kennedy.  The decision taken by Scottish Justice Secretary Kenny MacAskill, on the basis of Scottish law, to release on compassionate grounds Abdelbaset Al Megrahi, the man who in 1988 was responsible for the “Lockerbie Bomb” and the deaths of 270 people, has been reported and debated worldwide.  Whether this was a right or wrong decision there is little quarrel over the sense of revulsion at the “heroes welcome” that Megrahi received on his arrival home.  It is also pretty clear that the curiously silent Mr. Gordon Brown, Lord Mandelson and Mr. Blair have, between them, a lot of questions to answer. Not good enough to dump this one on the First Minister of Scotland, Alex Salmond.  There is a smell of stinking fish emanating from Downing Street.

Why link this with Senator Kennedy?  Well, setting aside the cack-handed intervention of Hillary Clinton in the Lockerbie release process, which can only have exacerbated the difficult balance between justice and compassion, I find the lionisation of Senator Kennedy hard to swallow. Fellow Cabinet Minister Michael Heseltine has said that when John Major embarked upon the final and high-risk effort to solve the problems of Northern Ireland Kennedy played no constructive part at all.  That is hardly surprising as the man was a devoted supporter of the Irish republican cause.

Earlier in the month our Foreign Secretary, in terms that I suspect he will come to regret, said that “terrorism can be justifiable”. He was referring to the ANC at the time but his comments will, almost certainly, have given much comfort to the Taliban.  I doubt, however, that The Milipede would extend his “justification” to an IRA that was responsible for scores of deaths. That movement was funded by Noraid and with the support of people like Senator Kennedy claiming that they were “seeking to fund the relief of hardship” much of the money came from America.  I do not believe that we need to take any lessons in the fight against terrorism from that particular quarter. It is right to recognise the Kennedy family’s loss but that is all.

Ballswatch.

It is calculated that Ed`s Department has to date been responsible for 1.3 million words of advice for schools contained within 250 documents including a `simplification plan`. Those words represent one and a half times the Bible and more than the works of Shakespeare.

Travellers and Gypsies, already in receipt of free laptops, printers and digital cameras, will now benefit from the propagation of “Tess the Traveller”, also featuring Toby and Teabag the dog, which will portray “tolerance of gypsy and traveller issues” at the behest of the Department of Children, Schools and Families.

Fans of Dennis the Menace will not fare so well.  The BBC has `re-imaged` Dennis, Gnasher and the gang in politically-correct terms to avoid offending the sensitivities of…..well, the BBC, I suppose!

While lingering on the White City White Elephant the Corporation has banned the use of license fee payer’s money to send wreaths to the funerals of deceased staff. This has not, however prevented executives from “bunching” stars like Jonathan Ross whose expensive ratings have fallen dramatically.

Wirral Council has introduced a £300 a head scheme to train people how to catch a bus and this is available to anyone over 16 who has never travelled before. Meanwhile the potential cutback in the unpredicted cost of the free bus travel scheme has caused a “grey backlash”.

Dorset County Council has reportedly ordered the closure of a women’s refuge – because it does not take men.  The Chief Inspector of the Crown Prosecution Service says that shoplifters are now being fined less that some householders who over-fill their wheelie bins. Migrants `orientation days` are being organised to offer instruction in the workings of the benefit system and one such migrant smuggled himself into the country under a Border Agency Officers` coach. At the same time the Institute for Public Policy Research is advocating incentives to keep skilled migrants in the UK and is predicting that we shall lose nine hundred thousand such talented employees over the next five years.

And the Trades Union Congress will consider a motion to `ban high heels at work` on the basis that on `elf `n safety grounds they are “inappropriate for the day-to-day working environment”. Depends upon the job, I would suggest!

And Finally……

August saw the death and burial with full honours of Harry Patch, the last survivor of the Great War “fighting Tommies”. Literally the end of an era. May he and his comrades rest in peace. 

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