Gale's Westminster View - December 2008
Two Queen's speeches this month. The first, reportedly written largely by Mr. Mandelson (aka Lord Foy), for the State opening of parliament and the second, a rather more dignified presentation, for delivery to the nation and Commonwealth on Christmas day.
The State Opening of Parliament has no business to be taking place, save for the general election that we are denied, in December. In an orderly world it would be held appropriately in early November but then The Big Organ Grinder's world is no longer orderly and while there may be a price for everything there would seem to be a time and a place for nothing!
No matter. In this Mad Hatter's environment the sun might as well shine oddly in the middle of the night because anything goes and Her Majesty's Gracious Speech bore (forgive me, Ma`m) about as much relevance to what has been happening inside and outside Westminster as a lobster quadrille.
We left November, you will recall, with my colleague Damian Green metaphorically in leg irons and shackles and Dixon of Dock Green's grandson trampling through private parliamentary offices without so much as a search warrant or even, so far as anyone has yet been able to demonstrate, any good reason for so doing. Under these circumstances it was inevitable that the start of this parliamentary session was going to be overshadowed by claim and blame game as an embattled Home Secretary, the Sergeant at Arms and Mr. Speaker faced some, shall we say mildly embarrassing, questions. In an extraordinary attack Ms. Home Secretary Smith, a Cabinet Member not renowned for her competence, suggests that Young David is "not fit to become Prime Minister". This assertion would appear to be based upon Cameron's concern that having the Met. police trampling all over an MP`s private files is an affront to the last remaining vestiges of democracy and Ms.Smith`s outburst merely adds further credibility to the thesis that the lunatics have finally taken over the running of the Westminster asylum.
All of this is good sport for the media but it rather takes the eye off two infinitely more serious issues, one of which has been literally a matter of life and death.
The case of Baby P, as it is known, has rightly horrified anyone with an ounce of compassion and sensitivity. That a seventeen month old child can, even in the London Borough of Haringey, die from abuse despite being on a child protection register and having been seen by social work professionals some sixty times beggars belief. That Haringey was fairly recently awarded a clean bill of health for its Social Services by Ofsted, the "watchdog" responsible, is inexcusable. And that the head of Ofsted is still in her post as Minister Balls charges this dismally failed quango with the task of carrying out yet another review suggests that while our present Prime Minister may delude himself that he is saving the world the stark fact is that his administration is incapable of taking the necessary action to save vulnerable children.
With the economy heading ever further south and the pound sterling moving inexorably towards parity with the Euro it is inevitable, given the presence of Lord Foy within government ranks, that talk of Britain joining the euro-zone should once again ripple through the watering holes of the Palace of Westminster. Much is made of low interest rates, little of the fact that there are seven times more savers than borrowers in Britain. Many of these people, together with ex-patriate UK citizens, are dependant upon the interest on their savings for their livelihoods and when that income is dramatically reduced and possibly culled still further through conversion into euros, the case for thrift goes out of the window. This is an issue that is not going to go away as we head into the New Year.
The run in to Christmas finds Members of Parliament visiting sorting offices. Postmen and women are, this year, understandably not happy people. The government's announced decision to part-privatise the Royal Mail represents yet another assault on what many have regarded as a time-honoured and very special universal service. Comparisons with what happens in other European countries are facile and odious: our own postal service has been trying to modernise and to be commercially efficient with one if not both hands tied behind its back. Of course commercial companies can undercut the Royal Mail if they can cream off the easy tasks and leave the difficult bit - the "final mile" or, in some cases in outlying rural areas the final twenty-five miles - to a service that is fettered by the regulator and prevented from charging commercial companies a realistic price for the delivery service. What is even worse is the proposed raid on the postman's pension scheme. Unless we stop and think this through it will end in tears. Another case of "you don't know what you've got till it's gone".
And so to Buckingham Palace as Members of Parliament attend a pre-Christmas reception. In the ordinary course of events only wild horses or cats or dogs will drag Suzy Gale to London but an invitation from Her Majesty has rather more than a hint of a command about it and Suzy came to Town.
It is always fun to watch, as a fully paid-up Royalist, as die-hard socialists vie with each other to try to get into pole position to meet the Queen! The palace is also a charming place to visit. The staff are wonderfully courteous and so very determined to ensure that their guests enjoy themselves and the building done up for Christmas looks magical. We went through the receiving line, enjoyed a drink and took the opportunity to look at the pictures under the expert tutelage of a lady-in-waiting. (Where else can you see a smattering of Reubens, Canalettos, Van Dykes and a Vermeer within touching distance?)
HM was in rude health and cracking form and my long-held view that we are very lucky to have her was reinforced on Christmas Day in the real Queen's Speech. When our Head of State expresses concern about the economy of her country I feel that she cares in a way that Gordon Brown could not begin to understand. Out here, on the streets, with homes being repossessed and people losing jobs there is real pain. I want to be optimistic about 2009 but Suzy and I have just spent the best part of a pre-Christmas week visiting hospitals and residential homes and small businesses that are still getting precious little help from banks and chain stores where the staff are being laid off and work prospects look thin. We are, I think, going to be spending a great deal of time in this bleak midwinter trying to fend for those who can suddenly no longer fend for themselves.
None of which prevents me from hoping that those who read this column have had a happy family Christmas and will enjoy a peaceful and healthy New Year.