Westminster View - November 2007
It has been Dial-a-Cliché month in Westminster."Déjà vu all over again". "If you read it in a novel you would not believe it". "A week is a long time in politics". Just when you thought that it couldn't get any worse, it did! With his Moral Compass spinning like a top and the wreckage of "a new style of Government" lying in ruins around his feet the "pretty Son of the Manse kind of guy" must be wishing that he had remained dug deep into the nuclear shelter with the baked beans in the basement of Number Eleven Downing Street and left The Legacy to carry on in Number Ten!
It has not been a good few weeks for the Big Organ Grinder.
November begins as Peter Hain, Secretary of State for Wales doubling as part-time Secretary of State for Work and Pensions finds himself offering an apology to Shadow Minister Chris Grayling for getting his sums wrong. There are, it seems, three hundred thousand more immigrants now in the United Kingdom than Hain, the scourge of apartheid, had at first claimed. Ooops!
As I launch my parliamentary petition calling for a referendum on the EU Draft Constitutional Treaty former French President Valery Giscard D'Estaing says that the "treaty" is in fact a constitution. "The tools are largely the same. Only the order in which they have been placed in the tool box has been changed. And it's an old tool box!" Thanks Valery. The completed petition forms are rolling in. At the start of the month an opinion poll puts the Conservatives eight points clear in the lead over Labour. Long faces in the Bothy end of the tearoom as we go back to school for the new session.
November 6th. State Opening of Parliament. The Queen's Speech was actually made by the Prime Minister when he announced 23 new Bills back in July so there are few surprises from Her Maj. Worth attending, though, for the pure joy of watching the splendidly ridiculous sight of Commoner "Lord Chancellor" Jack Straw in a golden frock fumbling backwards down the steps from the throne. Strange how even the former firebrand socialist chairman of the National Union of Students cannot resist pomposity and ceremony when offered it on a salver!
A good day to bury bad news? The Governor of the Bank of England reveals that it was the Chancellor of the Exchequer, Alistair Darling (and we know who is working his strings!) that locked support for a Lloyds TSB takeover of Northern Rock that might just have saved you and me twenty-four billion pounds. We are also told that there are some two thousand people currently resident in the country and posing a terrorist threat. Some of them, it seems, are helpfully already employed in security posts but as their work is largely being done for them by a government hell-bent on the destruction of the United Kingdom we can safely assume that they will soon be leaving for more fertile territory.
Along the corridor in God's Waiting Room the Old and Bold former Chiefs of Defence Staff get stuck in behind the British Legion's campaign to restore the Military Covenant and to secure, for our armed forces, a deal that provides them and their families with decent accommodation, adequate kit while on duty and some semblance of priority and dignity when they return from Iraq and Afghanistan in bits. "Shameful" is the word that springs to mind when seeking to describe the current situation but shameful is not, it seems, a word that features in the part-time Defence Minister's lexicon.
Incredibly, we are not even a fortnight into the thirty days and the manure piles on. The Independent Police Complaints Commission issues a damning report on the conduct of the Metropolitan Police during the shooting of Menezez in 2005. Sir Ian Blair, head of the Met, does as all Labour Ministers do (yes, I know he's not a Labour Minister) and declines to resign. Having, albeit briefly, carried a warrant and worn the blue uniform I know just a little of the terrors of The Job and my heartfelt sympathies are with those on the ground and misinformed and misdirected during that terrible incident. Up at the top, though, where the institutional failure lies, heads should have rolled. We now have a Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police whose credibility is terminally damaged.
Floods are threatened following a combination of high winds and tides. East Anglia is evacuated and in my own East Coast constituency of North Thanet plans are drawn to build an ark. Wind and water flow mercifully on and the need for the Big Organ Grinder to walk upon the waters passes. Unfair, really. If you make contingency plans (remember the Millennium Bug?) and nothing happens you are told you have wasted your time and if you do nothing and disaster strikes you are pilloried following a public inquiry! For light relief little Milipede, Our Foreign Secretary, makes a speech. He tells anyone prepared to listen that he wants the European Union to be "a model power" for the future of the World. Armageddon suddenly seems attractive.
Chancellor Darling, still caught between a Northern Rock and a Hard Place, fails to bring reassurance to either City or Parliament. The taxpayer wants his twenty-four million quid back and the banking industry is still hovering, or havering, on the brink. Into this shambles swings Sir Richard Branson with trousers only slightly torn. A White Knight? It seems as though the shareholders will probably opt for the dragon. Is it not the virgins that are supposed to be rescued rather than the other way round?
It is at this point in the month that I jump on a plane to Sierra Leone. One of the poorest countries in the world has held Presidential and parliamentary elections and peacefully installed not only a new man at the top but more than eighty (well over half the parliament) new MPs. In the company of a Labour and Liberal colleague from the House and one MSP the Westminster Foundation for Democracy despatches me to preach the gospel of good governance. Blind leading the blind, under present circumstances, springs to mind!
Calling home to report safe arrival I find my wife in paroxysms of incredulity. I learn that the Department for Revenue and Customs, the awful and personal creation of one Gordon Brown while Chancellor, has managed to lose the personal benefit, national insurance and banking details of literally half of the population of the country. Government attempts to blame this shattering incompetence upon "one junior civil servant" (who is taken to a safe house to shelter from the Press) predictably backfire. The man who replaced the dismal David Varney as Chairman of HMRC, Paul Gray, does the right thing. "Given my overall accountability for the way that the Department operates" he says "I have concluded that, as a result of the recent failings, it is right for me to stand down".
Mr. Gray is, unlike some, a decent and an honourable man. Having met with him personally I can vouch for the fact that he was endeavouring to clean up the mess of the Child Tax Credit Scheme bequeathed to him by Brown and Varney. He has, for the time being, taken the rap. The responsible Ministers, Brown and Darling, remain in office as HMRC mails out, guess what? Nine and a half million letters - some to wrong addresses - containing personal details of Child Benefit Reference and National Insurance numbers. The lunatics are in total control of the asylum.
Back home again and three former Chiefs of Defence Staff, the Admiral Lord Boyce (Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports), General Lord Guthrie and General Lord Jackson open another front. Michael Boyce tells the Lords that Gordon Brown has treated the armed forces "with contempt and disinterest" and Charles Guthrie describes the Big Organ Grinder as "unsympathetic to the military".
The National Audit Office piles on the agony in reporting that this government flogged off the defence research firm, Qinetiq, at a below-value price and short-changed the taxpayer by some millions. The then Defence Minister and MP, Lewis, now Lord, Moonie says that he tried to delay the bid but was over ruled by Gordon Brown's Treasury. Bullseye.
An opinion poll puts the Tory party nine points ahead.
The Government is in crisis, Official. News breaks that property developer and ousted former Labour candidate David Abrahams has been trickling, via "business associates", very large donations to the Labour Party that have not been declared in his name. The Prime Minister acknowledges that this constitutes what is almost certainly a criminal offence under electoral law and the Election Commission instigates a formal inquiry. The Party's General Secretary, Peter Watt, resigns in an effort to close down the issue but it then transpires that other senior figures within Labour HQ and parliament were also aware of the "problem". The Prime Minister accuses the Opposition of "trying to make mischief" and says that "we are committed to total transparency".
Leader of the House and deputy Leader of the Labour Party, Harriet Harman, who is also married to the treasurer of the Labour Party, Jack Dromey, received a £5000 donation to her Deputy Leadership campaign fund from David Abrahams. The money was "laundered" through a third party. Ms. Harman only found out about this on Saturday 24th November and will return the cash. In questions from journalists the Prime Minister finds it painful but eventually confirms that he does have confidence in Ms. Harman. She sits next to him at Prime Ministers Question Time but might as well have been a mile away while Young David lays into the Big Organ Grinder. Asked (by me as it happens) when the Leader first learned of the illegal payments to the Labour Party Brown neatly sidesteps and says that she knew of the payment (singular) "on Saturday". That is not of course the question that was asked. Has the Leader of the House been privy to the other illegal payments for longer? All may yet be revealed. In the meantime, as Mr. Speaker might almost say, "Ordure, Ordure"!
An opinion poll puts the Tories thirteen points in the lead.