Gale's Westminster View - March 2007

Lord “Cashpoint” Levy is being “tried by the media”. So says Lord Levy.  February ends, and March roars in, with a flurry of legal activity as the Attorney General (Lord Goldsmith) rushes off to court to seek an injunction to prevent the BBC from revealing the contents of an e-mail relevant to the cash-for-honours investigation. Is this the “smoking gun”?  Westminster is even more agog than usual but for the moment the Courts have their day and fact gives way to rumour. 
 
At the petrol pumps cars are filling up with fuel that turns out to be polluted with silicon. Much damage to engines, great grief and claims for considerable compensation from retailers who sold the stuff. Questions in the House. Are our fuel depots secure?  Probably not, but then if the assailant is determined enough, what is?
 
As the march towards biometric passports plods on and P-day for first-time passport applicants looms closer we learn that 11-year olds may have to have their fingerprints taken because they will be old enough to qualify as terrorists by the time their new passports expire.  Will they be subjected to personal interviews as well? From where do they derive their incomes, who are their associates, are they members of Conservative Future? The mind boggles!
 
Back in the Courts Mohammed Fayed wins the right to have the inquest into the deaths of his son, Dodi, and Princess Diana, heard by a jury. Within minutes of the opening of the hearing the Coroner, Baroness Butler Sloss, who appears to be no admirer of conspiracy theories, tells Mr. Fayed to produce his evidence.  “Put up or shut up” appears to be the order of the day.
 
Injunction lifted, following much media speculation. “Levy asked me to lie for him” scream the headlines as the contents of the e-mail between “Top Downing Street Aide” Ruth Turner and Jonathan Powell are revealed. And “Leave my little girl alone” says Ruth Turner’s mum.  Well anyone, and that includes many of us in the House, who has had journalists crawling over their private lives and families cannot help but have some sympathy with the poor woman.
 
What is clear is that Blair has brought esteem for public service to pretty low ebb.  With his contract ending and no replacement Prime Ministerial appointee in sight the outgoing Chairman of the Committee on Standards in Public Life, Sir Alastair Graham, suggests that the standards that he has been charged with the duty of maintaining are a low priority for this present Government.  Now there’s a surprise!
 
Standards have, indeed, made the March headlines. The phone regulator, ICSTIS is investigating the rip-off that is premium rate telephone television phone response numbers. ITV pulls its TV phone-in programmes.  And Shock! Horror!  Over at BBC television centre it transpires that even Blue Peter, the programme that, when Hyde Park was a pot plant I once directed, has been caught fixing the result of a competition.
 
My parliamentary friend and colleague, Colonel Patrick Mercer, has also fallen foul of “standards”. In an on-line newspaper interview he is honest to the point of carelessness and from his past and most personal experience (having commanded troops in northern Ireland and in Bosnia) suggests that some serving men use their ethnicity to  avoid charges of laziness while the use of terms such as “fat bastard/ginger bastard/black bastard” are commonplace amongst squaddies.  Faced with a media onslaught a horrified Mr. Cameron compels Mercer’s resignation from his front-bench post as Shadow Homelands Security Minister, a job that he has hitherto performed with distinction.  The following day a number of Mercer’s former soldiers leap to his defence. The Colonel has, it seems, been exemplary in promoting the cause of the ethnic minorities under his command.  There are, frankly, relatively few parliamentary colleagues with whom one would wish to share a shell-hole but Patrick Mercer is certainly one of them. His many friends can only hope that his long-term political career will not have been sacrificed on the altar of institutionalised political correctness.
 
Young David and Boy George have unleashed another whirlwind.  The next and eagerly anticipated Conservative Government will “hike up air travel taxes, impose a carbon allocation and introduce a green air miles allowance.”  It’s amazing how proposals for discussion and serious consideration turn themselves into hard policies that then, not entirely unexpectedly, reduce the sun seeking holidaying public and those with ex-patriate families and homes abroad  to apoplexy.  I have not bought into every dot and comma of our tree-hugging agenda but if we are to take climate-change as seriously as we must then George Osborne is right to take a long hard look at those sources of carbon emissions that cause most harm and that does mean cars and planes.
 
On the other hand, it’s becoming clear that the Brussels determination that incandescent light bulbs will be phased out within two years might just not have been fully thought through. Newspapers gleefully show pictures of Whitehall blazing with lights at night. And the retired bank manager told that if he returns sand blown into his garden to the beach from which it came then he will be fined for fly-tipping must, like the rest of us, think that bureaucracy has gone mad!
 
My party’s spring conference in Nottingham ends well. Young David has struck the right chord, not only within conservative ranks, with his identification of the breakdown of the family unit as the source of many problems and his closing speech is his best since his job-winning party conference performance.
 
Sixty-two Labour MPs vote against the replacement of the Trident nuclear defence system, a measure that the Government carries with opposition support.  We may not like it, and our  armed forces certainly need more and better conventional kit immediately, but you cannot turn nuclear on and off like a tap.  We may need the deterrent again in twenty years time and if we do it will be no use saying “if only……”
 
The desperate plight of Zimbabwe struggles to find itself voiced in parliament but belatedly Westminster is beginning to wake up to the fact that the situation is serious. The beating of Morgan Tsvangirai and his supporters has at last attracted global attention to the fact that Mugabe`s regime is every bit as pernicious as that of Saddam Hussein.
 
Democracy is under threat rather closer to home as well. The manner, in which the highly controversial Sexual Orientation Regulations, which amongst other things will compel Catholic Adoption Agencies to make their services available to “gay” couples, is rammed through the House of Commons without effective debate.  Instead of being taken on the floor of the House what looks like an unholy deal between opposition and Government front-benches sees this measure slipped through in a Statutory Instrument in an early-morning Standing Committee and then railroaded in haste as exempted business denying most backbenchers the chance to comment.
 
The situation is made worse as it’s then taken through the House of Lords on “a good day to bury bad news” – Budget Day.! Small wonder that public faith in Parliament has diminished.  It’s alright, apparently, to spend time in the Chamber debating a Statutory Instrument related to the location of  Tessa Jowell`s unloved “Super-Casino” but not alright to properly discuss a measure that will affect the future lives of some of the most damaged children in our society!
Budget Day Minus One and The Curse of the Mandarin strikes Gordon Brown. Former treasury Civil servant and Cabinet Secretary Andrew (now Lord) Turnbull tells the Financial Times that The Clunking Fist was cavalier in his treatment of cabinet colleagues (“They will get what I decide”) and helpfully adds that “you cannot help admire the sheer Stalinist ruthlessness of it all”.  For good measure Sir Stephen Wall, thirty-five years a Civil Servant, questions whether The Fist is capable of operating with the trust and transparency necessary for good cabinet government.
 
The spin machine goes into overdrive, Turnbull says that his remarks were off the record but the damage is done. Stalin is alive and well and may soon be living in Downing Street.  A week earlier I went into Hansard describing GB as “The only Prime Minister in history to have failed before he moved into Number 10”. I am not known for accurate political soothsaying but on this occasion I may just have been right. 
 
At the time of writing fifteen British armed forces personnel, including one woman Royal Navy NCO, are languishing in an Iranian prison, most probably under interrogation in Teheran. Given that these servicemen and woman were armed and in a patrol boat and were, apparently, taken without a shot being fired questions are being asked in the tearoom about the rules of engagement. Are our boys and girls supposed to roll over, put their paws in the air and allow the shackles to be applied?
 
Back at home the British government persists in the proscription of the Peoples Mujahedin of Iran in the teeth of a European Court of First Instance ruling that this should not be so. Mr. Blair tells me in a letter, following a question on the floor of the House, that the decision is based on a determination that the PMOI is "a terrorist organisation." So it`s alright for the regime in Teheran to develop nuclear capacity and arrest, with impunity, British servicemen and women but the organisation that speaks most loudly against this regime, and might just do something about it, has its assets frozen!
 
I just hope that by the time that you read this the noble Lord Triesman of the F&CO will have brought our guys back home safe and well.
 
An interesting month. There was also a budget, Norman Tebbit said that “truthfulness is an offence in the new compassionate conservative party” and Crufts was won by a Tibetan terrier called Araki Fabulous Willy.

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