Gale's Westminster View - May 2008
The end of May finds the Gales holed up in a tiny hamlet close to Aubeterre which is at the foot of the Charente in France. Our two Newfoundlands, who accompany us, are, as water dogs, born with webbed feet and torrential rain suggests that they are rather better equipped than we are to survive the climate change. We do, though, have the chance to cluster around a wood-burning stove, recharge our Duracell's and reflect upon what has been a literally and metaphorically cyclonic political month.
In November of 1982, following the death of Jocelyn Cadbury MP, the Conservative party lost the Birmingham Northfield by-election by some 279 votes. For a party expected to lose by at least 5000 to push the winners, Labour, to two recounts was regarded as a satisfactory result. For the conservative candidate the result was less pleasing. I know, because I was that candidate. It may be the result of that marginal experience, coupled with a more recent memory of the Southall by-election in which an over-enthusiastic and inexperienced Cameroon acolyte allowed "David Cameron's Conservatives" to appear on the ballot paper only to see the Conservative candidate thrashed that led me to urge our whips, at the start of the most recent by-election campaign, to suggest that Young David might keep himself at arms length from the main battlefield.
At the beginning the Crewe and Nantwich by election, called very prematurely following the death of Gwynneth Dunwoody, looked much closer to call than the end result suggests. It seemed likely that the robust and hugely popular Gwynneth would bequeath to the Labour candidate, her daughter Tamsin, a memorial vote that might allow the Labour party to hold the seat with a reduced majority. A spectacularly awful campaign, during which attempts to represent the Conservative candidate as a "Tory Toff" backfired horribly, and a combination of political gaffes that have reduced the parliamentary labour party to gibbering rubble, delivered a very different conclusion. Young Lochinvar led from in front and deserves considerable praise for his courage. High risk, certainly, but successful.Political fortune favours the brave
By contrast, "leadership" is not a word that seems to appear in the present Prime Ministerial vocabulary. Even "followership" seems to have given way to a state of terminal indecision and the Big Organ Grinder is left on office but not in control. How long the Merry Month must have seemed to be peering out from behind the net curtains in Number Ten.
May Day, that traditional socialist festival, was not kind to Gordon Brown. With four thousand local council seats up for grabs even the Bank of England's announcement that "the worst of the credit crunch is over" did not defect electoral anger at the abolition of the 10p tax rate and accumulated other government-inspired miseries. By the second of May real opinion polls taken at the ballot box had given the Conservatives a 44% share of the vote with the Liberal Democrats in second place on 25% and Labour trailing with 24%. By the end of the first week of the month 55% of labour supporters were polled as saying that Brown should step down as Prime Minister.
All of which ought, in a civilised world, to have been completely overshadowed by the humanitarian disasters unfolding in first Burma and then China. The wake of Cyclone Nargis left a reported "few hundred" rising through an "official" ten thousand through twenty-two thousand to at least seventy-eight thousand people dead in Burma with tens of thousands more missing and hundreds of thousands left destitute, homeless and, because of the ferocious disregard of the military regime in that country, without the help needed to prevent still more death from starvation and disease. It has to be extraordinary that in the 21st century the combined search and rescue power of the Western world can be anchored off the coast of a nation that is in desperate need while it takes three weeks of negotiation by the United Nations to persuade what passes for government in Burma to "allow" assistance to begin to trickle through to the people. The British International Development Secretary had the grace to say that he was "horrified" by the situation. That must have been of grave concern to the military junta.
Following the quake in China the reaction was very considerably different. Thirty thousand troops mobilised to assist as a figure of fifteen thousand dead and twenty-six thousand trapped in rubble was declared to journalists allowed, incredibly, to see what hitherto would certainly have been concealed. In the House of Commons the Dalai Lama, a man of normally irrepressible mirth, sombrely expressed for the benefit of those of us gathered to hear him his sympathy for the Chinese people. Might some good come out of all of this? We can but hope.
Back to what in Westminster passes for reality and with Boris Johnson defeating Ken Livingstone to become Mayor of London, the aftershock of local council annihilation and the 10p tax row rumbling on the Government goes into hyperdrive facing still further humiliation up in Crewe and Nantwich. Chancellor Darling spends billions trying to buy off the "10p rebels" on his own side of the House, fails, and finds that he has squandered the money to little effect with ten of thousands still left worse off as the direct result of a measure introduced by his predecessor, Gordon Brown. True, the government survived the vote on the finance bill at the end of April but that is long forgotten. With fuel prices at the pumps rising off the scales on all but the most expensive dashboards it is not only road hauliers and taxi drivers but every household in the land that is experience what Young David rightly describes as "taxpayer pain".
In the run-up to the by-election The Big Organ Grinder releases the draft Queen's Speech and embarks upon a frenetic round of radio and television interviews while saying, when asked by Cameron at question time if he will be visiting Crewe and Nantwich, quite simply "no". Politicians need luck. The Prime Minister’s has deserted him. His counter-offensive is overshadowed by the Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, announcing that "the Nice Decade is Over". Labour are now the Nasty Party. Official!
The House still has time to debate matters of life and death. Having given a second reading to the Human Fertilisation and Embryology Bill by 340 votes to 262, Members face free votes on matters relating to the creation of human/animal embryos for stemcell research and, on an amendment tabled by Tory backbencher Nadine Dorries, to reduce the time limit for legal abortion from 24 to 22 weeks.
I am non-combatant. As a Member of the Speaker's panel of Chairmen I have taken sessions of the Finance Bill on the floor of the House before but this is the first time that, as one of the co-chairmen of this legislation, I have been presented with a well-attended chamber and a contentious issue. Only those who have presided from the middle over this battlefield can have any idea what it is like. Those from the gutter gallery above would do well to consider the experience before heaping further criticism on Mr. Speaker Martin. I survived, but it is not an easy task.
In the event what the Prime Minister has described as the "moral endeavour" to advance stemcell research is carried and Nadine Dorries` and all other attempts to reduce the abortion limit are defeated, hers by 304 votes to 233.
This on the eve of the Crewe and Nantwich by-election when the Institute for Fiscal Studies announces that 18 million people will be worse off after the budget and oil prices hit an all-time high of 135 dollar a barrel. Conservative Edward Timpson becomes a new Member of Parliament on a 17,5% swing against Labour and with a majority of 7,600. While declaring "the end of New Labour" David Cameron says that there will "not be a hint of triumphalism" in the Opposition response. With up to two years to go before the next General Election that is wise. Our task in the meantime has to be to try to ensure that UK limited suffers as little as possible at the hands of the present administration and that there is more than the wreckage of a nation to govern.
With French ports blockaded and Her Majesty's Foreign Secretary, the Organ-Grinder -in-Waiting, apparently powerless to protect the interests of British travellers, we rely upon the shuttle to get us home in time for the next performance in the Palace of Varieties. In the meantime take some comfort that on the other side of the Atlantic contenders for the title of The Most Powerful Politician In The World are still, at the time of writing, slugging it out. Hilary Clinton "will carry on" while Barack Obama "has the title within his grasp" and serious consideration is given to who will be Vice-President in case a President Mc Cain should die in office. Secret files relating to UFO sightings are released by the MoD describing "strange lights in the skies". No connection to the Presidential Campaign, surely?!
As a footnote to the 1982 Northfield by-election, the Boundary Commission gave the seat an extra 2000 votes and my successor and friend, Roger King, won for the Conservatives in the General Election six months later in 1983. I fought, and took, North Thanet at the same time. The Boundary Commission changed Northfield again, this time to Labour’s advantage and it remains, for the present, in Labour hands. My "minder" at Northfield, Hal Miller, then the sitting Member for Bromsgrove, told me that getting a good result and losing would be to my personal political advantage. I did not thank him at the time but with hindsight he was right. In a couple of weeks Suzy and I will celebrate a first twenty-five years in Parliament. I hope to enjoy the second half of my career as much!