Westminster View - December 2007
November, if I may take you back a few million political light years, began with an apology from Peter Hain. The month ended in similar fashion. Having lost a few hundred thousand illegal immigrants at the start of the month it transpires that Mr. Hain has also "lost" a £5000 donation to his abortive deputy Labour Leadership campaign. Why he bothered to mention it is beyond me. In the great scheme of ignorance about donations to the Labour Party and the staggering capacity that the Big Organ Grinder and his team have demonstrated for "administrative errors" Mr. Hain`s oversight is not even in the Fourth Division.
We are in troubled waters. President Musharraf stands down as the Commander in Chief of Pakistan and is confirmed in his position as that Country`s cilvilian President while the British hand over control of Basra City to Iraqi forces. The Commons Defence Committee says that the city is dominated by militias , the Lord Warden of the Cinq Ports, Admiral Lord Boyce, renews his call on the Prime Minister to address the "huge imbalance" between funding and Military deployment and at Prime Minister`s Question Time Mr. Brown says that he was impressed during his visit to Basra. Impressed by what is not entirely clear but he omits to mention that the closest he got to the city streets was its out-of-town airport and the safety of the military base. My sedentary efforts to remind him of this fact do not amuse.
At the turn of the month the Big Story in tabloid terms is the arrest and trial, in Sudan, of British teacher Gillian Reynolds. The naiive Ms. Reynolds committed the cardinal sin of allowing her class of infants to name (no, not "christen", please!) a teddy bear Muhammad. This indiscretion leads to charges of "inciting racial hatred", rioting mobs demanding the lady`s death, a welcome diversion from the small matter of genocide in Darfur, confusion in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office and a first real challenge to the authority of The Little Organ Grinder, our illustrious "Foreign Secretary".
The Milipede summonses the Sudanese ambassador "as a matter of urgency" which must have sent shockwaves through the streets of Khartoum. In a little bit of enterprising freelance diplomacy the UK muslim Peers, Lord Ahmed and Baroness Warsi, despatch themselves on a mission, meet with Sudanese officials and, having allowed her to spend a few unpleasant days in a local gaol, President Omar al-Bashir exercises his prerogative as Head of State and the hapless schoolteacher is on her way home. Lords 2, F&CO 1, Darfur Nil.
In the context of this great international crisis the election of Vladimir Putin`s party in Russia by a two-thirds majority in an election that was, of course, absolutely "free and fair" passes almost unnoticed by a press that now becomes obsessed with the saga of "the missing canoeist." John Darwin went awol, presumed dead, in 2002. His wife claimed the insurance money and turned up in Panama protesting her innocence after her "late" husband surrendered his amnesic self to the constabulary in the UK. Slight problem. There`s a photo of the two together taken some months ago. Not a disappearance story on the John Stonehouse scale but it sells a few more newspapers.
Assuming that Mr and Mrs Darwin are convicted of fraud, which does seem rather likely at the time of writing, there will be the problem of what to do with them. Following a major review the Lord Carter is set to recommend that sentencing in England and Wales should be more closely linked to the number of gaol places actually available and that custodial sentences should, therefore, be given only if there are empty cells. This supply-and-demand form of criminal justice conjures up the wonderful spectacle of prisons displaying illuminated "cells full" or "spaces available" signs outside the prison gates in the style of the car parks at Heathrow while police forces desperately trying to meet the inevitable targets are told to ask burglars to come back next month! I have hinted before in this column that the lunatics have taken over the asylum.
It is said that Oppositions do not win elections but rather that Governments lose them. With up to two tortuous years before the next General Election and with my own party`s capacity for self-immolation we should not even begin to predict who Her Maj. will find herself asking to form the next administration but it is safe to say that December 2007 is the month when The Big Organ Grinder demonstrates his capacity for losing just about everything else. Confidential records are now scattered about like confetti, Northern Rock has been submerged, with Chancellor Darling clinging to it, for so long that it must by now have gathered barnacles, and the British Prime Minister contrives to acquire the worst of all possible worlds from the signing of the European Constitutional Treaty.
So desperate was he to avoid being in the European Team Photo that Brown sent The Little Organ Grinder to do the dishonours while he stayed at home to talk to the Commons Liaison Committee at a pre-arranged hearing that could have been readily re-scheduled. . Of such stuff is history made! Arriving late in Lisbon having missed both the mandatory Euro-lunch and the mass inscription of this squalid document the First Lord of The Treasury was still photographed, but in miserable isolation, signing up to a European Foreign Secretary, long-term President and the rest.
"Tory Party Still Green". Official. Leaving the New Labour Macaffia to rip itself to shreds Young David returns with renewed energy. Party policy caucuses are secret but I think that I break no confidences in saying that we - or at least those who bothered to turn up to voice an opinion - are four-square behind a next generation of nuclear power stations and lets get on with it as soon as possible please. Set alongside this, though, plans for home energy generation. We shall, when next in power, encourage householders to generate and sell, as well as buy, power sourced from "renewable power equipment". Those who remember fondly the forest of television aerials that blossomed on roofs throughout the 1950s may look forward to mini-turbines now stretching to new horizons. And backing government plans for more than two offshore wind turbines per mile of UK coastline Tories’ Powerman, Alan Duncan, says that "We’re an island nation; there’s a lot of wind around". Most perceptive, if I may say so, on both counts!
Police pay, like parliamentary salaries, represents a running sore. Denied the right to strike, Mr. Plod expects to be treated honourably and with due regard to the fact that like the armed forces he (and she) daily places himself in harms way on our behalf. Following "binding arbitration" to which constabulary and government have both signed up the panel awards a rise of 2.5% which is less than the current rate of inflation. At this point the Home Secretary, with a sleight of hand that would have made the Artful Dodger blush, moves the paypoint from September to December thus, at a stroke, reducing the award to less than 2%. We’re talking not huge sums of money but vast amounts of goodwill and self-esteem. If I were Ms. Jacqui Smith I think I would be driving at 29 miles per hour for the next few months. Alternatively, but this is too much to hope for, she could accept that she is just not up to the job and quit.
Every now and again the spirit of goodwill breaks out at Westminster. Following the realisation that a vote on a Liberal Opposition motion is likely to disrupt the Parliamentary carol service in St. Margarets the Whips collude, affairs of State are manipulated and the division bell is stayed to allow the Herald Angels and those Members who are not, like myself, tone deaf to sing. And as the House rose for the Christmas recess Mr. Clegg was announced the elected Leader of the Liberal Democrats and is thus ensured his place, in due course, in the House of Lords. If there is one.
The Gentlemen ( I use the word casually) of the Press would have us believe that Members of Parliament head, en masse, for the sun during Yuletide and return as late as possible on the day that the House sits again at the start of the second week in January, and Santa’s sleigh is drawn by flying pigs!
Suzy and I pursue, with Lulu, the award-winning P.A.T. Dog, a round of visits to residential homes, hospitals, police stations and post office sorting depots at early hours. These are goodwill calls, certainly, but they also provide a window on a lot of life. The police are deeply angered by the manner in which they have been so shoddily treated and Old Windy`s Almanack predicts unrest from Dock Green to Sun Hill during the year ahead. Piles of late parcels and packets at the sorting offices, generated by on-line last-minute shopping and private courier companies that cream off the easy work and leave the Royal Mail to handle the "universal" deliveries suggest a lot of Christmas disappointment. Time that the well-paid Mr Crozier and Mr Leighton who run what used to be called the GPO to wake up to the fact that there is a physical limit to a postman’s capacity to deliver. Two more candidates for replacement in 2008, perhaps.
What is it about the period between Christmas and New Year that attracts disaster? On Boxing Day I stand on Margate seafront and, in the company of a small group of Sri Lankan men, women and children, preside over the consignment of a wreath to the sea. It seems hard, looking at this millpond in the winter sunlight, to reconcile the scene with the devastation of the Tsunami but orphans do not grow new parents and tens of thousands still need help.
Hard on the heels of the reminder of this natural disaster comes the assassination of Benazir Bhutto. It was, perhaps, inevitable but the consequences will be far-reaching and potentially devastating. It is hard to know what to say in the aftermath of such an event and both David Cameron and Gordon Brown are clearly struggling for words. At difficult times it is the task of the Prime Minister to rise to the occasion and, to be fair, so he yet may. I have, though one other sense of unease. The vision of the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom waiting to speak on the telephone to the President of the United States smacks of the political "lines to take" that are issued by government and opposition whips` offices for the benefit of those who prefer not to have to take decisions or do their thinking for themselves. How long before it is a European Foreign Secretary determining the "line to take"?
In the words of the song: "Bleak December snows and then - bloody January again." Blood has been shed at the end of December. Pray, very hard, that the coming year does not bring much more of the same.