Gale`s Westminster View - October, 2011
October. Now is the summer of our discontent made glorious Autumn. Britain basks in unseasonal sunshine. In Kent`s Gravesend the temperature reaches eighty-five degrees. In Whitehall the Coalition feels the heat as the Eurozone faces meltdown. The Fox hunting season arrives a month early. Gaddafi is dead and the Jasmine election passes off reasonably peacefully in Tunisia.
We were in Manchester, you will recall, for a Conservative conference that seeks to avoid the euro-elephant in the room. Theresa May wants to axe the Human Rights Act. Unfortunately St. Nicholas of Clogg does not and in the Alice in Blunderland world of present-day Westminster it is a racing certainty that the tail will wag the dog. The European Commission is unelectable and unaccountable. Iain Duncan Smith says so and it must be true. The curse of Gale`s law of U-turns strikes again. Party Headquarters, trailing Man David`s conference speech, tells the press that the Prime Minister will exhort people to pay off spiralling personal debt. No sooner has Old Windy leapt to the airwaves to promote this cause (the misery of credit card borrowing is palpable in our advice surgeries”) than the solids hit the media fan and the sound of back-peddling can be heard across the land. A pity. Dave`s own instincts were absolutely right and his spinmeisters got this call wrong. No matter. There are bad times just around the corner” plays well with the audience, is of course true and with Cameron invoking the bulldog spirit the Tory conference ends on a hi-lo note as the poor bloody infantry troops back to the Palace of Varieties.
Portsmouth. A thousand Royal Navy jobs are to go. We are still an island nation. Ninety percent of the stuff on our supermarket shelves arrives on our shores by sea. If someone wanted to blockade us could we fight our way out of that tight corner? It may, mercifully, be an unlikely hypothetical question but the honest answer is probably no”. I see no ships” takes on a whole new meaning. HMS Victory is still a commissioned warship but if we let this go much further then pretty soon the largest vessel in Pompey will be the Isle of Wight ferry.
Not a good month for the Defence Secretary. Dr. Liam Fox is a good and able man faced with the impossible task of trying to make a wildly extravagant and overspent department fit both budget constraints and the needs of the nation. His nemesis comes, though, not through the reaction of the armed forces to his policies of reduction but through what now looks like unwise loyalty to a friend. It emerges, fairly early on, that the Fox has been accompanied upon defence trips overseas by a regular caller to his office, his former best man, one Mr. Adam Werritty. Mr. Werritty has been describing himself as an adviser” and has House of Commons business cards to prove it. He has, though, no formal status or security clearance whatsoever. In the first stages of the saga most friends and colleagues would have placed at least a modest bet upon Liam`s survival. With the support of Downing Street and essential chums on the backbenches and a reputation for very considerable ability he surely would not quit. A week is, indeed, a long time in politics and by the end of that week the hounds of Fleet Street are in full cry and the fox is on the run. It is very sad to see a good man brought low but the vermin have scented blood and they get their quarry. This nation is not over-blessed with political talent and I personally hope that he will in time return. If Lord Foy of That Persuasion can make a comeback, for heaven`s sake, then surely so may Dr. Fox!
In the ensuing reshuffle Transport Secretary Philip Hammond who, had we won the election, might have expected to be Chief Secretary to the Treasury, finds himself sitting in the Defence Secretary`s swivel chair while Putney`s Justine Greening goes to Transport and Chloe Smith, victor of the Norwich by-election in the last parliament and at that time the baby of the House, moves from the Whips` office to the Treasury in Justine`s place. And there, for the moment, the music stops. Those who had been anticipating or hoping for a full-blown shake-up of Ministerial posts will have to wait their impatient turn a little longer. Chloe Smith`s elevation sends shockwaves through the corridors of party ambition. Far too young”. An upstart”. A token woman”. I do not think so. I watched her perform during her by-election campaign and since in the Whips` office. If she can survive, as I trust she will, those mean-spirited and envious souls wishing her to fail then she may go very far indeed..
As Milipede the Younger prepares to juggle his own Shadow Ministerial team, using his new-won powers of patronage so to do, those stalwart ex-Ministers John Healey and John Denham choose to leave the Labour front bench. This takes the shine off what was always going to be a less than jewel-encrusted team and within minutes Mad Hattie is reported to be assembling a Shadow all-women equipe to take forward her feminist agenda. A kitchen cabinet” this is not but those of us on the far other side of all of this peculiar charade find it hard to comprehend how a woman married to a man who by-passed an all-women shortlist to secure a safe Midlands parliamentary seat can still raise the chutzpah to preach her strange gospel. The winner, if there is to be one, may one day still prove to be Mrs. Ed Balls.
The BBC publishes its Delivering Quality First” review reflecting what those in charge regard as the options following the imposition of a 6-year license fee freeze. We are told that Radio 4 will be spared the cuts”. So that`s alright then!
Time was when Nation Spoke Unto Nation via the Home Service, the Light programme and the Third Programme from Broadcasting House, that concrete battleship in London`s Portland Place. The advent of TV brought with it Television Centre out at White City, Radios One, Two, Three and Four and, starting in Leicester, a network of excellent Local Radio Stations. With Regional Centres in the North East, Manchester, Birmingham and Bristol and national” centres in Glasgow and Belfast and Cardiff Auntie was well –placed to inform, entertain and educate the whole of the United Kingdom. Then came the Empire Builders. The White City dog racing track was acquired and developed as was much of the rest of adjacent Wood Lane.
Not good enough. Regional Diversity” apparently demanded the spending – some might say squandering – of a billion pounds to develop Media City” at Salford Quay in Manchester and the removal of Radio 5 Live, Children`s Television, a large number of staff and much else besides out of the media heart of Britain to the North West. Why anyone should believe that the Blue Peter Garden is better located on a Lancashire rooftop than at White City is beyond me but it is this extravagance, coupled with a further expansion into multi-platform” outlets and ridiculously high senior staff and star” salaries that has brought the BBC to its knees financially. The BBC`s Chief Operating Officer is now paid three hundred and eighty five thousand pounds a year to preside over a team that includes a Diversity Manager”, a Decision Support Manager” a Thematic Governance Adviser”, a Change development Lead”, a Head of audiences, Vision Multi-Platform” and a Business development Manager, Media Solutions” none of whom, so far as I am aware, actually make television or radio programmes. And although The Chief Operating Officer is paid more than double the income of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom her meagre salary is still only about half the sum trousered by the Director General!
Management`s response to the need to follow every family in the land and to tighten the belt has led to a proposed salami-slicing” exercise. This, while sparing the Radio 4 home of the commentariat, bears down disproportionately upon already impoverished but highly-valued services such as local radio instead of cutting vanity projects for which the BBC has no public mandate at all. Note: In response to the need to economise British Aerospace has reduced its workforce
by 7.5%. The BBCs complement is to be cut by 1.9%. It is, of course, all a question of priorities, is it not?
The pachyderm in the room is Europe. October has seen Ł34 billion wiped off the FTSE and shares are at a 15-month low. While bankers have managed to find themselves some Ł7 billion in bonuses and those running the Top 100 companies have given themselves a 49% pay rise most people have seen their biggest income fall, in real terms, since the 1970`s. With the jobless total hitting 2.56 million and Equifax reporting that 150 firms a day are going bust it is perhaps not surprising that the Occupy London Stock Exchange” movement camps out on the steps of St. Paul`s Cathedral. Thermal imaging reveals that in fact only about 10% of the tents are actually occupied at night but there is no escaping the fact that a double-dip recession is, at least partly courtesy of the knock-on effect of a floundering eurozone, on the cards. This is just about the worst possible moment for a hugely unloved European Parliament to try to demand a Ł5.7 billion ( 5.23%) - or indeed any – increase in its budget.
The Eurozone scrambles desperately to try to put together a rescue package for Greece that will also serve to prop up, if necessary, Italy and Spain and Portugal and Ireland. Five days to prevent meltdown” is the quote attributed to our own Prime Minister, prompting a short response from M. Sarkozy and a slightly unfortunate indication from the Milipede that Sarko speaks for Britain! Chancellor Merkel warns darkly that If the Eurozone fails then Europe fails” and that Europe`s peace will be at risk”. The rescue package might have stood at least a slim chance of success if the Greek Prime Minister had not then decided to put the whole package to a referendum that will very probably lead to rejection, the collapse of the government and the default of Greece as a Eurozone nation.
Back home the very word referendum” of course conjures up nightmares for the Coalition. It was said at the time that Downing Street`s decision to allow e-petitioners to trigger parliamentary debates would lead to a flood of demands that would include an EU Referendum, immigration and capital punishment and, as we know, the first of these has already come to pass. Notwithstanding the fact that fifty-per cent of UK trade is dependent upon the European Union or that our economy is uncomfortably intertwined, through the IMF and banking investments, with the Eurozone there is absolutely no doubt that most of those that we represent and probably most Members of Parliament would welcome a referendum related to our continued Membership of the European Union and/or its powers. Even Europhile Liberal Democrats are wont to point out that two-thirds of the electorate have never had a say” on Europe. Which presumably means that without a whip they would have gone into the division lobbies with the 81 Conservative rebels” that supported the motion in favour of a referendum.
At this point, rightly or otherwise, I myself parted company with the debate at home. That debate was correctly brought forward by three days to accommodate the attendance of a Foreign Secretary due, later, at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Conference but the consequence was that I found myself not in Westminster but in the seat of the Jasmine Revolution, Sidi Bouzid in Tunisia as an International Election Observer. I will not fault the process. Ragged around the edges certainly, and a bit frisky and excitable at times but after 60 years without a genuinely democratic poll that is to be expected. The outcome is another matter and vitally important to the peace of the whole Arab world and, I would suggest, therefore has potentially huge implications for our own future security. With the gruesome death of Libya`s Gaddafi it remains to be seen whether the election of even an interim moderate Islamist” led administration in Tunisia sends out helpful or dangerous signals to, for example, an Egypt that goes to the polls at the end of November and to those who have already announced elements of Sharia law and will now have to try to rebuild Tunisia`s next-door neighbouring Libya. I would not wish to predict to where all of this might take us in even six months time.
A modest victory for commonsense as DEFRA announces that, for the moment at least, Britain will retain the use of Imperial measures and that beer will therefore be served in pints and eggs sold in dozens.
Over at the department for Education the terms Before Christ and Anno Domini remain in use in place of the ludicrous Before Common Era” preferred by the PCs”. Thomas the Tank Engine, however, sports a decorated” rather than a Christmas” tree in the annually televised Winterval” story.
And talking of a different kind of PC the constabulary have rejected annual fitness tests on the grounds that too many of the boys and girls might fail. Thank God for the Fat Blue Line!
Up in Blackpool the owner of the Salt and Light café found himself on the wrong side of the Public Order Act for screening, on his emporium`s TV, a New Testament DVD which, Ms.Plod decided, constituted offensive material” that might incite hatred against homosexuals”. Fortunately the POA accommodates a reasonable expression of religious belief” and mine host has received an apology while guidance to staff” is being offered down at the nick.
Law of unintended consequences: The last Labour government`s Toy Safety Directive has led to the partial demise of the party blowers” beloved of children of all ages on the grounds of possible spread of disease and infection”. One for the attention of The Ed Miller Band”, as one autocutie managed to describe the Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition.
Here`s one I patched up earlier”. Passengers aboard a Ryanair plane were alarmed to see chaps with a ladder mending the cockpit window with sticky backed plastic”. The aircraft, bound for Latvia, returned to base shortly after takeoff. Comfortingly the Irish Aviation Authority is said to have decreed that passenger safety was not threatened”.
Moya Greene`s Royal Mail has been rumbled treating both first and second class mail posted over the weekend in the identical fashion. Pay for a first or second class stamp and your letter may still be delivered on Monday. The regulator, Ofcom, helpfully determines that this is an operational matter”. No rip-off, then.
One of the more endearing images to emerge from the Labour Party Conference was the picture of the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee making contact with the public” through cavorting with a shapely belly dancer. The Queen of the Shaabi (for it was she) turns out to be a Liverpudlian hired through an agency but I doubt that the cause of diversity has suffered as a result of that revelation.
That estimable young Kentish Maid, Tracey Crouch, MP (Chatham and Aylesford) has fallen foul of the sweet FA. Super-fit Tracey is a football coach and referee and a highly valued member of the House of Commons squad. Picked to play against the gentlemen (I use the word loosely) of the Press she was warned off on the grounds that girlies are not allowed to perform alongside men. The dinosaurs of the Football Association withdrew their recognition and their officials. The match went ahead. Sadly, and through no fault of Ms. Crouch, the Press were triumphant by five goals to one.
Fathers and Mothers are due to disappear from passport applications made on behalf of children. In recognition of the world in which we now live they will be replaced with Parent 1” and Parent 2”.
With small firms facing the chill of recession Members of the European Parliament have decided that it would be a good idea to increase the already backbreaking burden of regulation. The Euro-lunchers apparently believe that it would be helpful to allow nursing full-time employees two hour breastfeeding breaks”. This stroke of genius will be in addition to the 20 weeks of maternity leave on full pay and the compulsory six weeks off work and will have no end-date. Watch out for a sharp increase in breast-fed three year olds.
And at the other end of the procreation chain Portsmouth Council have cancelled advice services promoting safe sex for the over-60`s. Lack of interest, it seems.
Small monarch, big impact. Her Maj has clearly enjoyed herself Down Under and if the TV pictures are anything to go by then the Australians enjoyed welcoming her to Perth. It takes a very die-hard republican to decry a great eighty-five year old lady who, with her ninety-year old husband gets straight down to work after a 22-hour flight. The Queen and Prince Philip took a tram ride. A pleasant enough mode of transport but it`s more than high time that we undid the wrong done by the short-sighted and parsimonious administration that, recognising the cost of everything and the value of nothing, paid off Britannia. How about a new Britain-promoting export-winning Royal Yacht in recognition of the Diamond Jubilee?