Gale`s Westminster View – January 2011
January 2011. A new year. Fireworks on the Commons Terrace and Mr. Speaker gets a rocket. Sparks flying within New Labour, an explosive mixture in the Magreb and the Middle East, the bonfire of the quangoes” is reduced to a damp squib, fuel prices off the Richter scale, lots of Lords a-waking, one of the wheels comes off the Downing Street spin-machine, Gerry Adams takes a title and it`s Johnson down, Balls up.
It began with a sparkler of a row. With Mayor Boris, the Leader Over the Water, proving from the South Bank that Austerity Londinium can burn money as fast as Sydney and Moscow and New York, on the North Bank Mr. Speaker throws a Palace of Westminster bash at which Members and their families, having forked out £22 per head in aid of charity, quaff champagne and watch the night sky light up. Unsurprisingly, tabloid hacks fresh from their own New Year`s Eve debauchery and still nursing hangovers acquired, presumably, from a surfeit of fizzy water and humble pie, vent their spleen upon MPs enjoying a free grandstand view” while watching precisely the same Catherine wheels as everyone else nuts enough to cram themselves onto the embankment to sing Auld Lang Syne. So far as I can see the only sensible person amidst all of this jollity is one Jules Holland, a musician whose Hootenanny is now as much a part of seeing the New Year in as, for those with long memories, The White Heather Club and Kenneth McKellar used to be. Jools, it is revealed, records his party well in advance of the chimes at midnight and presumably spends his own Hogmanay in bed with a stiff drink.
Oh yes, and just for good measure the Prisons Minister is yanked out of bed to be told that the inmates of Ford Open Prison, refusing at midnight to be breathalysed by the two officers actually detailed to be on duty to look after 500 convicts, have burned the place down and need re-housing. Please. This will no doubt provide the perfect excuse for Ken Clarke to release another tranche of burglars to resume their briefly interrupted careers. It also begs the question as to where several former Members of the Commons and Lords may serve their sentences if gaoled..
2011 has not begun well for Mr. Speaker. With his wife flaunting her socialist tendencies happily on Twitter, a Senior Backbencher (as the Press likes to say) refusing to clear a path for him in the corridors of power while adding You`re not f***ing royalty” as he tries to glide by, with the Government Chief Whip storming out of the Chamber in fury and with senior Ministers hinting darkly that He`s got to go” there is more than graffiti on the wall. To lose one Speaker, Michael Martin, prematurely might seem a misfortune but to lose two would seem like a pretty gross error of collective judgement. Nevertheless, a lot of Westminster bridges have been burned and with goodwill evaporating on the LibDem and Labour benches as well as throughout the Tory Party the man that wheeled and dealed so hard to get the job might yet find himself taking ermine earlier than he has anticipated.
Not a good kick-off for Milipede the Younger either. The man who wants to set the 2011 clock at Year Zero and erase the unhappy fiscal memories of the last thirteen years find that his approval rating has slumped from 19% three months ago to just 1% at the turn of the year, making him the most unpopular Labour Leader since Hyde Park was a pot-plant and heading for negative equity. A beating from the listeners to Radio 2`s Jeremy Vine show exposes further weaknesses and the loss of his personally chosen Shadow Chancellor, Alan Johnson, further undermines the Leader of the Opposition`s standing. Big Al`s departure, for wholly understandable and sad domestic reasons, is absorbed with sympathy by his many friends on both sides of the House but the elevation of Ed Balls to the post that he thought that he was going to get first time around is greeted rather less charitably. We have to hope for his sake that Labour`s Cheeky Chappie will rise again but in the meantime there are tensions within the Shadow Cabinet as the new Money Man is compelled to cut his coat according to his master`s cloth. Will Milipede survive the year? Labour may have comfortably won their seat in the Oldham and Saddleworth by-election caused by the forced resignation of former Minister Phil Woolas (which would seem to confirm that voters prefer parties to pacts) but I suspect that he`ll need a stunning victory in May`s local government elections to quell the unease on his own back benches and cling onto the leadership of his party.
Those that forgot to top up fuel tanks prior to the New Year now find that a visit to the building society and a top-up mortgage may be necessary before calling at the garage. A fuel duty hike and the increase in VAT to 20% on Tuesday 4th January plus a further planned increase in duty in April will add around £500 a year to the average motoring bill and push up all transport costs and, therefore, the price of all goods and food. Not for nothing is it suggested that 2011 will be the toughest year since 1982 for the Middle Classes and unless we send a gunboat to the Middle East or the Argentine`s Madam Kirchner kicks off about the Malvinas again we have no distracting war for the Coalition to hide behind. Pressure is, therefore, growing for the introduction of a fuel duty stabiliser. Chancellor George is enjoying raking in the bonus chips and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, Mad Hattie`s Scottish Rodent”, announces no fuel duty relief. But the Man in Downing Street is conscious of falling ratings. I am not a betting man but by the end of January it looks as though Number 10 will get its way and Number 11 will be addressing fuel prices in the budget if not before.
It`s not only the motorist that is feeling the pain. In some areas of the South East including, as it happens, North Thanet, the dreadful South Eastern railway company, a subsidiary of license-to-print-money Govia, has bumped up fares by an exorbitant 12.8% which is way above the average” RPI + 3% formula. This means that many rail travellers find themselves forking out a non-deductible £5000 for the privilege of getting to work late, finding trains cancelled and being forced to use a High Speed” service that takes them to some outlandish destination that they do not wish to reach. There is, amongst the travelling public, a strong suspicion that performance figures that skate in at just 0.04% above the trigger point at which compensation must be paid have been massaged. Take out the High Speed One figures (a premium service) and performance falls well short of anything that is acceptable. The prospect of a renewal or extension of Southeastern`s franchise is, for most, unthinkable.
There was once a time when a handsome young Prince promised to slay the dragons of the quangoes. There were some 901 of these Medusa-headed gargoyles against a sustainable maximum complement of 608. The Knights of the Cabinet Office burnished their breastplates and sharpened their trusty swords and Lo! The swords proved to be rusty rather than trusty, just 29 of the herd were culled with a further 28 due to be re-constituted”. In short, a bit of a let-down. True, the dreadful Regional Assemblies and Development Boards are for the chop, along with the wholly redundant Regional Health Authorities, the Audit Commission and the Film Council, but far too many of the big beasts remain as the Quango Queens move seamlessly through the revolving-door from one overpaid failure to the next. Faint heart may placate a Dame but fair ladies can look elsewhere for succour.
Start of the month. Scotland Yard will not reopen its inquiry into phone hacking by News of the World Staff. Official. The Prime Minister has full confidence in his Communications guru, former NoW Andy Coulson. End of the month, one staff-sacking and several revelations later and Mr. Coulson, now part of the story and therefore part of the problem rather than the solution, resigns over the hacking affair for the second time. Inevitable, if his boss is not to suffer acute embarrassment as, with a screech of tyres and a handbrake-turn Scotland Yard reopens its inquiry .
Europe. Fetch the cross and garlic, Jeeves. While Ireland wallows in self-inflicted financial and political woes the French Prime Minister (even if you live in France, can you name him?*) helpfully” thanks Man David for helping to prop up the failing Euro. That, of course, further enrages the Euro-sceptics who are already incandescent over a Government European Bill that was supposed to placate the Get Us Out” lobby but has only succeeded in making bad matters worse. Having chaired the bill during part of its committee stage on the floor of the House professional etiquette prevents me from commenting upon the content in great detail. Suffice it to say that following expressions of concern from colleagues, via the voting lobby, Europe Minister David Lidington has found it appropriate re-write the notes clarifying some aspects of the legislation. So, will the new law prove a referendum lock” or will decisions henceforth be taken not by parliament but by the judiciary? Happily, my lips are sealed and my own constituents are more concerned by the fact that with 100 watt bulbs already banned by Europe and 60 watt bulbs due to disappear from the shops in September the price of low-energy replacements has trebled.
Elsewhere in Europe the EU High Representative” or Foreign Minister, the Baroness Ashton, has been strutting her stuff. Indeed, Ms. Ashton, as she might more reasonably be known, has been so busy highly representing the EU around the globe that, as a UK EU Commissioner she has found little time to represent her own country`s interests at commission meetings. Pleading that she cannot be in two places at once”, the fragrant Cathy has apparently managed to attend just 17 out of 42 Commission meetings and has found it necessary to leave early on 11 occasions. Good to know that the interests of UK Limited are in such safe hands when it is those who are actually present at EU meetings that call the shots. Was she there when Herman Van Rompuy suggested that Britain`s budget might need to be subjected to surveillance” and EU approval”. I think we have a right to know.
In Strasbourg the European Court of Justice is considering, at the behest of a nonagenarian ex-pat British citizen, whether or not our restriction on the right to an overseas vote to 15 years is lawful. This is a source of anguish to many who, living in the wider Europe and having paid their taxes and other dues in the UK throughout their working lives, find themselves disenfranchised in later life.
It is a cause that I myself have espoused and I hope the old boy wins: if Europe can try to compel us to give a ballot paper to jailbirds – another bone of contention that will raise its head in the Commons very shortly – then Europe can make sure that those who have led modestly blameless lives may vote in the Country that most still regard as home.
I met the new Tunisian Ambassador to the Court of St, James in the Pugin Room over tea. A veteran of the Washington post he told me, as the Acting Chairman of the All-Party Parliamentary Group for Tunisia, that the civil unrest in his country appeared to be confined to the rural and inland areas and that order seemed likely to prevail. We then moved on to discuss development, the potential for inward investment, high technology and the like. That was just a couple of days before all hell broke loose!
Until Christmas Tunisia was described in Foreign and Commonwealth terms as stable”. While the long and indubitably brutal elective dictatorship of Ben Ali fell a very long way short of anything remotely resembling democracy the francophone country did enjoy almost universal female emancipation, high home ownership, a reasonable economy and, located only a spit and a cough from mainland Europe, a reputation as a largely European and Western nation. What will happen now is in the laps of a number of gods. Hopefully, Tunisia will move towards free and fair elections and deliver a stable and democratic secular government. But on the children keep a hold of nurse for fear of getting something worse” principle there is the real danger of a shift to the East with all that that might entail.
The wildfire kindled in Carthage has, as we now know, ripped through the Magreb and taken hold in Egypt. At the time of writing the President is still in office while his Western supporters – Mubarak O`Bama to the fore – scuttle around trying to work out what might be the least worst outcome for the future of the whole Middle East. There comes, of course, a time when no matter how much backing you have given to your man the towel has to be thrown in and the winner takes all. A cartoon depicting the President of the United States seeking to promote the replacement of Hosni Mubarak with somebody that we own” may not be too far wide of the mark. Watching the whole of the State of the Nation address from the security of a hotel room in Pakistan while leading a delegation to Islamabad, Peshawar and Lahore, I can only say that I was underwhelmed. I`m not entirely sure that foreign policy is Mr.President`s strongest suit.
Back at home Their Lordships House has been engaged in the, for them, unusual experience of sitting through the night. The bill to pave the way for the referendum on the Alternative Vote and which also legislates to allow the Boundary Commission to cut the number of Commons seats by fifty has faced huge criticism from Her Majesty`s Opposition. The Labour party can see the elimination of some of its more rotten boroughs in the process and has been trying to frustrate the passage of the bill to kick it past the date by which it needs to be on the statute book if the AV referendum is to be held, as intended, in tandem with the local government elections in May. Hence the all-night sittings. Personally I do not believe that the bill goes far enough: if you are going to reduce the size of parliament then you might as well go the whole hog and cut the place by a third to about four hundred seats. Compromise, inevitably, has however won the day and it looks as though the bill will receive the Royal Assent in time for us to spend Easter campaigning against Liberal Democrats who want to see the alternative voting system introduced!
The old joke is how can you tell when Tony Blair is lying”. To which the answer is you can see his lips move”. Well, his lips were moving again during his second appearance before the Chilcot Iraq war inquiry. This followed further evidence from Lord Goldsmith who had informed the inquiry that, effectively, Blair had misled MPs over the legality of the war. We shall have to wait for the panel`s considered verdict but The Legacy did, this time, manage to express hand-wringing sorrow at the loss of life. Too little and far, far too late said the Mother, who was present, of my young constituent who was killed while flying with the Fleet Air Arm in The Gulf. She was not impressed.
The BBC, accused of social engineering” re- announces the move north to its multi-million pound complex in Salford Quays, built no expense spared with your money. It will, says one of Auntie`s spokesthings, attract top names” to its new breakfast television sofa. Look carefully and you surely see the queue of A-list celebrities waiting to catch the train to Manchester! Expenses for The Beeb`s top executives are revealed to be up by 10% while veteran broadcaster Peter Sissons tells us that a left wing bias is in the BBC`s DNA”.
Procedural confusion as Gerry Adams, who has never taken his seat in the House of Commons, seeks to resign. How can you leave something that you have never been a part of? Simples. He is deemed to have taken the Stewardship of the Manor of Northstead which is an office of profit under the Crown”. Arise, a bemused Baron Gerry. A very Irish solution.
Mr Harding has lost his seven year old feline, name of Wookie. Christmas will not be the same without Wookie so Mr. Harding sticks up some missing cat” posters. Bedford Borough Council sets its Environmental Enforcement dogs onto Mr Harding and threatens him with a £1000 fine if he does not take his posters down, so Mr Harding spends a cheerless Christmas Eve complying with the Scrooge of Bedford. No sign of poor Wookie. Very sad.
Michael Thompson, Grimsby`s answer to Michael Schumacher, is convicted for flashing his lights to warn other motorists of a speed trap and thus perverting the cause of justice”. It’s good to know that Yorkshire Constabulary have so much time on their hands but thank goodness they weren`t around when AA patrolmen were giving the Association`s members a salute.
The YW is no longer CA in the United Kingdom. Elsewhere around the globe, in 124 other worldwide branches, young ladies are still proud to be Christian but in Britain they have changed their name to Platform 51” because YWCA no longer stands for who we are or what we do”. I see. The Young Woman now arriving at platform 51…………” Catchy, innit?
The Coalition intends to nudge Britain” into healthy eating habits. Anyone who thought that we had a Conservative government can think again. What Tory would espouse a Behavioural Insight Team”? I leave you to guess.
That indomitable Harrier platform that served us so well in the Falklands war, HMS Invincible, is off to the knackers yard. Or was. Rumour has it that the Chinese want to buy what remains of a once-proud warrior and to refurbish her as a floating nightclub. Sic transit…………...
The EU is now practising Aggressive Atheism, at least so far as the Christian church is concerned. Three million EU diaries, of which 350,000 are due for distribution in the UK at a cost of £4.4 million include, of course Europe Day (9th May if you wish to studiously ignore it) but carefully omit Christmas. And the Church Synod is actively considering Baptism Lite” to ensure that the service may be expressed in culturally appropriate and accessible language”. Estuary English, innit again.
And an Australian who has clearly never heard of `sledging` is reported as suing under the race relations act because workmates greet him daily with a cheery G`Day, Sport”. It`s just not cricket, is it? (Don`t mention the ashes.)
I fought the Birmingham Northfield by-election, following the death of the sitting MP, Jocelyn Cadbury, in 1982 and I got to know the family rather well. Their home, The Davids, is long gone now, I understand, but the Bourneville estate remains as a legacy and a tribute to the realisation of a great Quaker dream.
A sadness, then, that the Chief Executive of something called Kraft foods which bought out Cadbury`s, one Irene Rosenfeld, has refused once again to appear before the Commons Business, Innovation and Skills Committee to explain why her company ratted on the deal to maintain production at Somerdale and has instead transferred its business to Poland. Perhaps the woman needs to understand that there are other and better cheeses than Kraft and plenty of alternative chocolate brands to buy. Dairy Milk is still made in Bourneville but I am afraid that, notwithstanding residual loyalty to the family name, I shall not be buying their products again. Ever.