Gale's Westminster View - April 2008
Here is your starter for Number Ten. Who is responsible for the meltdown of the present government of the United Kingdom? Is it (a) Tony Blair (b) Gordon Brown or (c) both?
The answer of course, although The Legacy would no doubt like to distance himself from it, is "both". The single biggest issue of the past Westminster month, from a Prime Ministerial perspective of panic and dither, has been the 10p tax row. Why anyone thought that lowering the standard rate of tax to 20p while abolishing the 10p rate and thus, at a stroke, making five million of those on lowest incomes pay more was good socialism I am not entirely sure. Nobody can pretend that the backlash was not predicted: constituents on the losing side have been writing to MPs about it for weeks before April 1st and the measure was, of course, announced to backbench Labour cheers, during Brown's last budget as Chancellor of the Exchequer. That budget bore the force of full Cabinet collective responsibility and was presented when somebody called Blair was the First Lord of the Treasury!
So, however much it suits those of us on the Opposition benches to target our fire on the Big Organ Grinder the fact of the matter is that this particular shambles lies as much at the door of the last occupant of Number Ten as it lies with the present hapless tenant.
For many other woes, though, even this cynic cannot deny that Brown has been the author, on both sides of the Atlantic, of his own misfortunes and the effects of those misfortunes and misjudgements are now permeating every household in the land.
By the end of the first week in the month Brown's popularity rating is polled as putting him one-third worse than the dreadful Blair and with house prices falling on a year-on-year basis and mortgages as scarce as hens teeth an FT/Harris poll suggests that 68% of the electorate have no faith in the government's ability to handle the crisis. The same survey suggests that the Big Organ Grinder is less trusted on the economy than any other major Western European Leader.
Who better, then, to seek solace with than George Dubya Bush?! A little international statesmanship can be relied upon to create a favourable impression and steady parliamentary nerves. Usually. On this occasion, though, the wheels come off. While the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is strutting his stuff at the UN in New York, urging Wall Street bankers to help resolve the global credit crunch and having identical Presidential hopeful photographs taken with each of John McCain, Barack Obama and the Wicked Witch of the North he finds that the mice are playing back home.
Former Social Security Minister Frank Field mobilises a back-bench rebel army to take on the cause of the 10p tax losers, Brown breaks off international statesmanship to teleconference Treasury PPS Angela Smith into not resigning her post over the issue and the passing of the formidable Gwyneth Dunwoody, MP for Crewe and Nantwich for more than thirty years steals the political spotlight. Gwyneth deserved the attention and the accolades and the Prime Minister did not. In politics luck and timing are important.
As an aside and while Brown was in the United States I made a twelve hour visit to Manchester. This was a curiously unreported piece of missionary work but I went to see the opening of the World short course swimming championships. Staged in the Manchester Evening News stadium in an eight-lane competition pool installed almost overnight for the purpose I was left wondering why it is that we are so good at securing this kind of extravaganza when half the Country is bereft of the kind of swimming facilities needed to allow our young Olympic athletes to train properly!
A swift foray home and off to Gatwick and to Malaga for another twelve hours, this time with Conservatives Abroad. I enjoyed their company, their hospitality and their considerable courtesy in allowing me to bend their ears for a few post-prandial minutes. I learned, also, that a number of our ex-patriate colleagues feel most aggrieved that after a period of time offshore they are no longer allowed to vote back home. It is, of course, possible to make a respectable intellectual argument that the overseas voting rights should time-expire but there is a catch. Some of those disenfranchised are still paying British Revenue and Customs dues. That smacks of taxation without representation. Note to Young David: action when we form the next government, please.
Back to Westminster after the belated Easter recess and the House is in 10p turmoil. Could the Government be defeated on a Finance Bill measure? It could, but of course it won't be! Chancellor Darling and the Great Ditherer do another handbrake turn and buy off prospective rebels with assurances of "other measures" to be introduced in the autumn and designed to compensate the 10p losers. Would you buy such an assurance from the biggest 10p loser of them all? Probably not but Frank Field withdraws his amendment to the Finance Bill and the day is sort of saved. Never mind the fine print., or socialism, or principle or anything so tiresome, when it comes to the vote on the Tory amendment to reinstate the 10p tax band the Government wins by 304 votes to 262. Small rebellion, not many reputations sacrificed.
Spring is sprung and the Unions are, literally or metaphorically, on the march. Teachers and Civil Servants strike, at Grangemouth the refinery is brought to a standstill over pension rights, Road Hauliers block Park Lane with lorries over fuel tax rises, Shell and BP announce profits in excess of three billion pounds each, Chancellor Darling coins it on the additional VAT paid on higher prices at the pumps and the industry says that it needs the money to invest in new refineries. In India and China! One pound twenty a litre seems a lot to pay for the privilege of building infrastructure to serve our industrial opposition.
And finally to the elephant in the room. This is written on the last day of the month and the eve of May Day which is, of course, not only local government election day but the day upon which London chooses its Mayor for the next four years. The "Boris and Ken" show seems to have been running for almost as long as the Mousetrap but the curtain is now due to come down on all but one of the many candidacies and by the time that you read this a new era will have dawned over the Greatest City In The World.
Boris proved, on the eve of the election, that he could not "slam dunk" a baseball. Whether he can slam dunk Ken is in the balance. After weeks of gaffe and counter-gaffe, media exposure, hysteria and reports and rumours of corruption in high places the race is too close to call and may yet go to second preferences. I would wager a modest guinea, though, on the probability that the shredders are working overtime in City Hall! Whatever the outcome, London is about to change.