Gale's Westminster View - February 2009
Snow, Snouts in the Trough and Sorrow, That just about sums up February.
Those of us of a certain age recall walking through the snow to school, sitting in overcoats in freezing classrooms presided over by teachers who had also found it possible to get to work and at aptly named break time damaging the occasional limb while experiencing the joy of swiftly compressed ice-slides on the playground.
Not any more! The Ice `Elf and Safety now make the rules. At the first flake, on the first of the month, UK Limited (South East Branch), slammed to a grinding halt at a cost, we are told, of three billion pounds. Schools closed immediately, of course. South-eastern Trains, having raised their prices but not their game, cancelled everything. London's Bendy Buses sat silent in their silos for fear of slithering, not a plane landed or flew at an airport and only the national Press cashed in on pages of pictures of stranded vehicles, snowmen and toddlers on sledges.
On Monday, 2nd February, I had the easiest morning drive from Kent to London in years! Scarcely a car in sight, reasonably clear road surfaces and I discovered that even the congestion tax that I had already paid was suspended. (Any chance of a refund, Boris? I'm not a banker and I could use the eight quid!)
The Country, of course, promptly ran out of necessary supplies while a Union Flag flew upside down over Whitehall giving the small but perfectly formed Shadow Leader of the House, Alan Duncan, the opportunity to claim with justification that the Government was in distress, out of salt and out of grit! To this the Secretary of State for Transport, Geoff Hoon, helpfully added the suggestion that motorists should stop whingeing and that "If you live in the Alps you have snow chains". Now I know enough about this to be aware that chains on, mainly, tarmac rip car tyres to shreds and tear up the asphalt on roads already in disrepair but more importantly I have, during my nearly twenty-six years as a resident of my adopted County, clearly missed out on the joys of skiing in the Kentish Alps. Nice one, Geoff. Feet in mouth keeps the toes warm, I suppose!
All of this weather stuff at least distracted attention from the Big Organ Grinder's memorable conference claim of "British Jobs for British Workers" which has come back to haunt him. As Italian workers stayed prudently put in their prison ship (sorry, "floating hotel") off the East Coast the unemployed of Lindsey, in Lincoln, dug out the placards to picket the local Total construction plant. More foot-in-mouth as the freshly-christened "Mandy Antoinette", the illustrious Trade Secretary and Lord of Foy of that Ilk, suggested that unemployed British construction workers should "go and find jobs abroad". Sorry milord. `Elf `n safety won't allow you to "get on your bike" in the snow. Plumbers and Joiners may, though, apply for posts with the British Antarctic Survey and, we are told, many are doing just that. As a footnote we discover that one in three jobs on the "British" Olympic site has been taken by an employee hired from outside the United Kingdom and, no surprise, later in the month the British National Party takes its first Southern council seat in, of all places, Sevenoaks. The warning bells are clanging. Is anybody listening?
Overseas readers dependant upon UK investments for income in retirement will be only too well aware, as are my own grey-haired and prudent constituents, that interest rates have hit the lowest level, at one per cent, since 1694. More Balls as Ed steps outside his Ministerial brief to cheer the nation with the news that we are experiencing "the worst recession for 100 years" and at PMs Question Time Brown lets slip the word "depression". Yes, Gordon, aren't we all experiencing it! Time to take that comfy job as world economic supremo, perhaps? Except that the world is already in enough deep doo-doo.
The Treasury select committee took evidence from erstwhile "leading bankers" from HBOS and the Royal Bank of Scotland and from the leading lights of that failed institution the Financial Services Authority. The word "sorry" was bandied around quite a lot but fault or blame? "Not me Gov".! We take comfort from the fact that while RBS announces all-time record losses its former CEO, "Sir" Fred Goodwin, is languishing on a pension of £650K per year - for life. And Eric Daniels of Lloyds/HBS feels that his £1 million stipend is "relatively modest". That must gladden the hearts of Lloyds employees who contributed to that bank's profits, had no say in the poisoned HBOS deal and are now losing their genuinely modest bonuses. Not much "quantitative easing" for them. The Deputy Governor of the Bank of England describes the footwork of the Bank, the Treasury and the Financial Services Authority as "owing more to John Sergeant than to Fred Astaire"! Perhaps we should be turning to Mr. Mugabe for some sound financial advice.
The game - the real game - moves to Antigua. And even there we get bogged down. The All-Party Cricket Group (not to be confused with the Lords and Commons Cricket team that actually plays during the summer season) takes, as you would expect, a proper and keen interest in these matters. We have to feel particularly and genuinely sorry for Sir Viv Richards who, having watched the wicket and outfield at the shiny stadium that bears his name turned into quicksand and quagmire within minutes of the start of play, was reduced to justified and helpless anger and frustration as the Test Match was abandoned. It could have been worse. I just hope that Sir Viv did not have a coffee bean invested in "Sir" Allen Stanford's business empire.
"PC" used to stand for "police constable". It now stands instead for something unprintable but at Westminster a tiny worm is turning. For some time the present Leaderene of the House of Commons, Harriet Harperson, has had her wimmin`s eye fixed on the Leadership of the Labour Party and in a fashion that would have left even Tory grandees of former years breathless with admiration has been shamelessly flaunting her left wing agenda in the face of the Big Organ Grinder. Step forward Hazel Blears, a full pint sized Minister in a half-pint pot. Hazel has laid into Harperson`s loony-left proposal to "ban buses from Middle Class areas" to release more buses, presumably, for the proles and clear the roads for Ministerial cars, and for full measure, which Hazel gives, has thrown her weight against "PC Britain". With good reason.
This month Caroline Petrie, a Community Nurse and committed Christian was momentarily sacked by North Somerset Primary Care Trust for offering to pray for a sick and elderly patient who, note, had not herself made any complaint. Perhaps North Somerset found themselves reminded of one Florence Nightingale or perhaps they read that Mr. "We don't do God" Blair was found preaching a sermon at the National Prayer Breakfast in Washington. Either way, they relented. While that was going on Carol Thatcher was being fired from the BBC One Show for allegedly referring to a golliwog in a private green-room conversation after a recording, Boris Johnson was firing off four letter words at the Chairman of the Home Affairs Select Committee, Mr. Vaz ( and many have wanted to do that!) and thirteen year old Alfie Potter was alleged to have been firing on all cylinders as the avowed father of a child by a (now) fifteen year old girl. It would, I suppose, be politically incorrect to dare to suggest that Alfie`s local social services might have got on top of this situation a little earlier.
For a twenty-eight day month a lot has churned out during February. DWP Minister Jonathan Shaw, endeavouring to rush out a response to a European Court ruling on benefits for ex-pat claimants of Disability and Carers Allowances has created total confusion (which may well have been his intent). Young David has told us that the next Tory Government will prevent Scottish MPs from voting on wholly English Matters. Shadow Home Secretary Chris Grayling has received massive and positive response to his intention to "ground" anti-social young people under home-curfew. Home Office Minister Vernon Coaker has abandoned Race quotas for police constables, declaring that imbalance resolved. Tory Muslim Peer Baroness Warsi has dared to raise the issue of polygamy in Britain and called for the registration of all religious marriages.
Reality TV celebrity Jade Goody, dying of cancer, has married in a glare of publicity, has been roundly criticised for so doing (MPs have an opinion on absolutely everything) and has probably saved lives by encouraging hundreds of women to take cervical screening tests. Former Labour Minister Chris Mullin, describing himself as the "Minister for Deckchairs" has taken the lid off his relationship with John Prescott in no-kiss-and-tell memoirs. The "Axe the Tax" campaign to lift the burdens on beer and those British Pubs that are just surviving the smoking ban gathers momentum and receives considerable opposition backing. Government is advertising for a "Head Twitter" in the form of a "Director of Digital Engagement" at £160K per year. And with an eye on opinion polls consistently suggesting that the present government is mildly unpopular and that a change at the next general election is at least on the cards the BBC broadcasts its first-ever flattering portrait of Margaret Thatcher!
And then came Ash Wednesday.
In the early hours of 25th February, in St. Mary's hospital, Paddington, Ivan Cameron, six-year old son of David and Samantha, died suddenly. The little boy had suffered from cerebral palsy and rare epilepsy for the whole of his short life but the event of his death clearly devastated his family and had a profound effect upon parliament.
The Commons has a huge ability to sink to an occasion but this time the tone was right. The tribute from the Prime Minister, a man who with his own wife, Sarah, has lost an infant child, was conveyed in the words and with the sincerity of one of the thankfully few who have felt the pain. William Hague for the Conservatives and Vincent Cable standing in for Nick Clegg for the Liberals, captured the mood of the House in conveying a united sense of sympathy and prayer and the Speaker's grand-fatherly kindness was palpable. The decision to suspend the sitting for the duration of Prime Minister's question time was right and as Members drifted away to the comfort of their own families and homes there was a huge and communal sense of loss. In an age when Parliament is held in some low esteem it is reassuring to know that the roots of common decency, humility and sorrow are still with us. The impact of Ivan Cameron upon this nation may yet have been far greater than his few painful years would at first suggest.