Gale's View from Westminster – December 2015
December. The Commons votes for 'war' and Hilary Benn makes the finest political suicide speech within living memory. A by- election in Oldham exposes the irrelevance of Farridge. Paris and the climatically challenged from around the globe dine and whine to Save the World while back at home our newly- christened storms wash out much of the North of Britain leaving unfestive misery and desolation in their wake. Again in France Les Pens bandwagon is brought to a halt through tactical voting but the hard right will "marchon". Is 'Brexit' really on the cards? Unless mainland Europe sees the writing on the wall the answer is moving inexorably towards 'yes' in spite of the competing efforts of the “out" campaigns to denigrate each other. Whether bombing Syria is ' war' is a moot point but by the months' end there are British boots back on the ground in the Helmand province of Afghanistan. Heathrow's third runway is in a holding pattern and from ground control to Major Tim, a very Happy Christmas. Perhaps the planet looks cheerier from orbit a few miles above the Earth.
The House of Commons does not lightly place the lives of the men and women of our Armed Forces on the line. The debate on the bombing, or not, of Syria was itself a mostly dignified and sombre affair. That the occasion had been preceded by the internal anguish of a parliamentary Labour Party torn apart by a fierce division between those, inside and outside of parliament, who support a pacifist anti- war Leader and those who believe that we have a higher and moral duty to defend our realm and our World, should not be allowed to mask equally honourably and powerfully held divisions within the Conservative Party also. These are not easy decisions. Those that say that by contributing to the stirring of the hornets' nest that is the Middle East simply makes our homeland more vulnerable as a target have a view. Those, like the Prime Minister whose opinion I on this occasion share, who say that we are so far up the hit-list already that support of our allies in Syria will make little difference to our vulnerability are probably correct. There are, surely though, two compelling arguments: the first is that while others are engaged in fighting the threat that is Daesh we cannot as a country, if we are to be taken seriously ever again, sit by and watch while those nations do the dirty work that has to be done. Our contribution to the ' war effort' may be modest but we still punch above our weight and our military expertise is second to none. Second, and as Defence Secretary Fallon has reminded the Commons, we are dealing, with Daesh, with an enemy that does not recognise national boundaries. It has to be a nonsense to say that it is in order to mount air attacks on the terrorists in the northern part of Iraq but then to ask our Tornadoes and our Typhoons to turn back as they reach the Syrian border.
The outstanding contribution to the debate was made, indubitably, by the Shadow Foreign Secretary, Hilary Benn. Released from the doctrine of collective responsibility by Comrade Corbyn's decision to bow to the inevitable and to allow a ' free vote' on the motion, the son of the former Viscount Stansgate staunchly made the case for intervention while his ' boss' sat impassively and with arms folded, alongside him. The House of Commons does not by convention engage in applause but Mr. Benn's speech, arguably the finest piece of parliamentary oratory and theatre that I have heard in thirty- two years in The House, received a standing ovation. It was also, probably, one of the longest suicide notes in political history
Those who were queuing to have Order Papers autographed (yes, they were!) by the ' next Leader of the Labour Party' will have woken in the cold light of dawn, and while British aircraft were already in action over Syrian oilfields, to face the fact that Hilary Benn is not, under Labour's electoral system, deliverable as a replacement for the beleaguered 'Red Jerry'. The votes speak for themselves. The motion to bomb Syria was carried by 397 to 223, a majority of 174 with 66 rebels on the Government side. While fifty per cent of the Shadow Cabinet supported military action a majority on the Labour benches supported Mr. Corbyn in the voting lobby. Add to that the support of ' grass roots' Labour and whether you like it, as a Labour voter, or not your Leader's mandate is, for the moment at least, secure and The Legacy' s New Labour Project is a page in the history books.
The remaining Blairites who looked to the Oldham and Royston by- election caused by the death of the veteran socialist Michael Meacher for support for their cause found little comfort there either. Held just three days after the Commons vote on Syria the election delivered the Labour Leader of the Council, Jim McMahon, with a slightly reduced majority of eleven thousand but an increased share of the vote. This was a seat that Farridge, whose UKIP party came second in the 2015 General Election, had preened himself around in the expectation of winning. Dark talk, after the result, of ' bent voting' emanating from ' an impeccable source’ and the lame excuse of " difficult demographics" sounded only like the sourest of grapes. Farridge is a busted flush and it is not surprising that his only Member of Parliament, Douglas Carswell, should be calling for a change in Leadership. Even the UKIP - backed "Leave.eu" campaign is floundering in the wake of “Vote Leave".
It might, perhaps, have been unwise of Man David to describe, in the run-up to the vote, those anti-action Members of Her Majesty's Opposition as "Jeremy Corbyn and a bunch of terrorist sympathisers"! Not the best way to win friends and influence people but he did have a point. Mr. Corbyn has certainly, in his past, expressed some sympathy with both the IRA and Hamas and his determination to pursue an invitation as the Guest of Honour at the ' gala dinner' of the Stop the War campaign, an organisation whose co-founder blamed the West for the terrorist attacks on Paris, perhaps underscores the Prime Minister's criticism. Red Jerry believes that Stop the War is “a vital force at the heart of our democracy”. Really?
The fallout from the Syria vote still has some way to run into the New Year. In the immediate aftermath some Labour MPs who had supported the Government motion found themselves the target of threats of violence and abuse and the probability of a Shadow Cabinet re- shuffle hangs over Westminster. Hilary Benn himself is facing removal as are Labour's Chief Whip Rosie (now Dame) Winterton, the Eagle sisters Maria (Defence) and Angela (BIS) and some others. Meantime the Corbyn- supporting Momentum group is seeking the de- selection of those Labour members who voted to bomb Syria. This proposed Stalinist purge has in turn generate the " get rid of Corbyn or we quit" group of Labour backbenchers. Unhappy days.
More unhappy still for those living in the North of Britain now facing, in some cases, the flooding of their homes and businesses for the third or even the fourth time. The ' naming' of storms can have been of small comfort or interest to those whose possessions and livelihoods have been destroyed and who face the prospect of months if not years before they are able to return to uninsurable houses or shops.
'Storm Desmond' hit first and the worst effects were felt in Cumbria. Forty eight million pounds' worth of new flood defences were overwhelmed as the army moved in to help to rescue victims of rivers that turned with terrifying rapidity into raging torrents. ' Storm Eva' followed, flooding parts of Lancashire, Greater Manchester, Yorkshire and Scotland, sweeping away vehicles like toys and taking down ancient monuments like the Tadcaster Bridge in her wake. Observers will have been struck by the determination and stoicism on the one hand of those who have lost everything material to nevertheless celebrate Christmas and the New Year and the gleeful blame- game of much of the media on the other. Screaming for heads on a plate in the wake of natural disasters is, of course, part of the stuff of life for the red- top Press. Yes, lessons will have to be learned and much money spent to both repair and seek to prevent a recurrence and yes it was unfortunate that the Chief of the Agency responsible was revealed to have been ' visiting his family in Barbados' as the skies fell in, but I doubt that any power known to man could have prevented the damage caused by force of wind and water arising from, very possibly, the climate change that some still seek to deny. The Bourgoise Women's Tabloid has, of course, the answer; cut foreign aid and spend the money on flood defences. Simples!
Timely that the "Great Green Junket" should have been held in Paris.
Prior to this vast culinary experience the Heir to the Throne of the United Kingdom suggested to ' World Leaders' that we should “think of our grandchildren”. With good reason. Thousands of delegates from dozens of countries gathered in the French capital to hammer out an agreement designed to protect our planet from Global Warming. Billions of dollars and pounds and euros have been pledged to developing countries to help to bridge the gap between fossil fuel technology and whatever solutions tomorrow may bring and there will be a review in five years’ time to see who has delivered on their promises and who has not.
I met, shortly after her return from Paris, with an exhausted Amber Rudd, our Secretary of State for Energy. While Heads of State and Prime Ministers have trumpeted success it has, of course, been left to delegates and then Civil Servants and then Ministers to agree details and legal documents. It is no secret that at the eleventh hour (or more literally at the seventy- fifth hour) the whole process was almost derailed as one significant player demanded that the word “shall" must be replaced with “should". This is not merely semantic, of course. It creates the wriggle- room that, five years downstream, will allow countries to say that they have` done their best ` rather than actually being held to account. The deal was, however, eventually done. There are those who say that it is not worth the paper that it is written on and there are those that say that the Climate Change Treaty will be the Saviour of the World. The truth, probably, lies somewhere in between but my friend Amber, who is a realist, is cautiously optimistic and on that basis I am prepared to believe that Paris might just prove to have been if not a turning point at least the start of a journey along the right road.
If peace and harmony were, in a ramshackle sort of a way, breaking out at the Climate Change Summit the same cannot be said of the meeting of the European Council .Prefaced by Madame Lagarde, her of the IMF, complaining of the "uncertainty" caused by Britain`s forthcoming referendum while Brussels, in the form of the Eurocracy, described talk of a `Brexit` as an "empty threat", Man David clearly had his work cut out, while the great and the good dined for Europe, to make any headway at all with re-negotiation of our position. The President of the Council, the former Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, avers that there will be no curb on the benefits paid to migrants. Given the number of his countrymen based in the UK and benefitting from our welfare system his personal position, and that of Poland`s Prime Minister, Beata Srydlo, is scarcely surprising. Man David`s meeting in Warsaw with La Srydlo was cordial but not, it seems, wildly productive.
Nevertheless, change there will have to be or Britain will vote to leave the European Union.
Until now it has been generally accepted that about twenty- five per cent of the population of the United Kingdom would vote to leave the EU even if hell were to freeze over as a result. Another twenty-five percent are totally committed to the European project and support the concept of ever- closer union leading to a United States of Europe. They shall not be moved. The remaining fifty- per cent, which in this context is a majority in which I have included myself, signed up to a free- trading common market, do not believe that our laws or our defence and foreign policies should have Made in Brussels stamped on them, will protect our right to impose border controls as and when and how we see fit and don't like the idea of paying welfare benefits to anyone from anywhere who has not contributed significantly to our society through hard work and taxes. That was until now. Suddenly, opinion polls are showing a hardening of an increased “Brexit" vote that may be as high as fifty per cent. Donald Tusk, Jean Claude Juncker and their fellow- travellers may not like it but the idea that Britain will not vote to leave the European Union when offered the chance is a very dangerous supposition. Unless there is some serious give, of a kind that will actually benefit and is secretly desired by many outside the Eurocracy, that moves us back towards the Common Market that those of us who voted for it thought that we were signing up for, then the Exit door beckons. The lights may not be going out all over Europe but the border shutters are going up, the uniformed EU Border Force is a reality and even Frau Merkel's Christian Democrats are calling for immigration controls. There is also a growing realisation that the EU cannot expect its member States to continue to subsidise all- comers from all countries within or outwith the EU, which is why Germany`s Work and Social Affairs Minister is seeking ways to ban the distribution of benefits to migrants. The smart money says that France and Germany will promote a fudge that allows the UK to restrict benefits for three if not the first four years of residence, that there will be other cosmetic concessions and that Young Lochinvar will cut and run and hold a Referendum in June 2016 while the Voteleave and the Leave.EU factions are still squabbling. Although former Foreign Secretary William, now Lord, Hague has reduced the BWT, as self-appointed tabloid cheerleader for Little England, to apoplexy by declaring himself in support of the "In" campaign it has to be the case that there will come a time when Mayor Boris, with an eye on the Conservative Leadership contest, together with Theresa May, Chris Grayling, Michael Gove and others will be given the freedom from Cabinet responsibility that allows them to Campaign in the Brexit cause. And meanwhile there is the small matter of the Votes for Prisoners that the UK is not going to grant in spite of an ECHR ruling, and the very real probability that we shall tear up the Human Rights Act and replace it with a British Bill of Rights presided over by our own Supreme Court. The outcome is anyone's guess but Old Windy's Almanac predicts that it will end in the proverbial tears before bedtime.
It was Lord ' Two Jags' Prescott who said that “the tectonic plates are shifting". He may have been a little premature in this political observation but "they are now". It seems to be generally accepted that Borat O'Bama's tenancy of our American colonies has been disappointingly underwhelming and if that is so then the prospect of a President Trump, a man seemingly founded on populist clichés backed by huge personal wealth, is terrifying. Can the United States elect a hairstyle? As Borat might have said, “Yes We Can!" A recent CNN poll gave this ghastly caricature a 52 per cent share in the race for the Republican nomination with his closest rival on a paltry 15 per cent. Trump's lead is ‘yuge and getting yuger'. Given a choice between a Trump White House and a Hillary White House and what do you do? Emigrate?
In La Belle France the rise and rise of Marine Le Pen's face- lifted Front National, supported by her niece Marion Marechal- Le Pen on the Côte d'Azur, hit the buffers during a second round of regional balloting but only because the socialists encourage tactical voting to stop the Front and because the reincarnation of Sarko has turned sharp right. The boots are on the march across France, however, and in the Presidential election it is highly likely that the FN will rise again. You were before your time Two Jags. The political plates are shifting.
In other news, a decision about a third runway at Heathrow, promised by the year's end, has been kicked into the long grass until after London's Mayoral election. The cynics say that this is to stop the Tory mayoral candidate, James Goldsmith's little boy Zac, from quitting his under- the- flight path Richmond constituency and causing an unwelcome by- election. The official line is that it is necessary to undertake further environmental impact studies before a decision is announced in order to stave off the threat of a judicial review. The tabloid line is that the delay is “gutless”. Take your pick but the reality is that UK Limited is losing business to Schiphol, Frankfurt, Charles de Gaulle and Dubai today. By the time there are aircraft wheels on fresh tarmac in the South East there may not be any planes left that want to land in Britain.
Shock! Horror! The Prince of Wales, as the heir to the throne, and the Duke of Cambridge, as his heir, have had access to secret Cabinet papers relating to the governance of the realm over which they will one day 'rule'. Seems to me that is no bad thing that those who will have high office dumped upon them whether they like it or not should be given at least a glimpse of the lunacies that emanate from Whitehall and Westminster to the detriment of their nation. But then who am I to argue with the Bourgeoise Women's Tabloid?
The BBC Sports Personality of the year was broadcast, at vast expense, from Belfast. I have always been a supporter of regional and local broadcasting when it adds a dimension to a story but shipping the great and the good of the track and field and ring off to the Province for no useful purpose other than to demonstrate token regionalism seems to me to be another in the line of extravagances that are likely to bring the Salford Broadcasting Corporation to its knees.
For those who have only just returned from Mars the controversial heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury was knocked into fourth place by Jessica Ennis- Hill, rugby league's Kevin Shinfield and, entirely appropriately, Andy Murray who, on the strength of his Davis Cup victory, took the title for the second time. And for those who care about these things somebody called Jose Mourinho, who was gratuitously offensive to a female sports medic on the football pitch, was sacked as the Manager of the Chelsea Football Club while Jay McGuiness and Aliona Vilani won Strictly Come Dancing. Back in Paris, the American Eagles of Death Metal band, playing at the Bataclan on the night of the November 13th murders, appeared on stage at the Accord Hotels Arena with U2.
Following its censorship of sixty seconds of The Lord`s Prayer The DCM cinema group (Odeon, Vue and Cineworld) has banned a second Christian, nativity, message on the grounds that it rejects all "religious advertising". The Group has no such difficulty when it comes to flogging tickets for "festive season" films oblivious to the fact that without Christmas that festive season upon which they are so keen to capitalise would not exist. Her Majesty`s Christmas message, ever hopeful, quoted from the gospel according to St. John the passage referring to a ` light shining in the darkness`. In many dark corners, certainly, but not, sadly, in DCM`s cinemas. But then we do not have to patronise them, do we?
Following an attempted stabbing at a station in East London by an "Islamist Extremist" screaming "this is for Syria" the video that went viral was of a young man recorded as saying in response "You ain`t no Muslim, Bro. You ain`t no Muslim". Another light shining in the darkness, perhaps.
The man who gave his name to this column is too big a guy to engage in schadenfreude but he must have permitted himself a wry smile when he saw the photograph of his young, female, parliamentary nemesis canoodling carelessly on a northern railway station with another, married, male MP. Ed Balls` own future is happily secure: in the New Year he will be appearing alongside Samantha Cameron in a charity edition of Bake Off or "Britain`s Got Buns", to give the programme its` colloquial name. He is also taking on the Chairmanship of his beloved Norwich City Football Club. (Proprietor Delia Smith - another TV chef).
`Blair Babe` Baroness D`Souza has, as `Lords Speaker` clocked up an impressive amount of `waiting time mileage` in hire cars at your expense. A reported ten hours on stand-by at Windsor Castle (£738) the Opera (£230) and lunch with the Japanese Ambassador (£270) along with a £627 round-trip from Westminster to Canterbury for the enthronement of Archbishop Welby make a total that is almost up to BBC proportions. "Significant efforts are made to ensure travel is booked in the most cost-effective way" says a spokesthing.
The Public Accounts Committee has described her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs ` tax services as "worse than abysmal", recording an average waiting time of 38 minutes for calls to the HMRC "helpline". It should come as no surprise, therefore to learn that Lin Homer, who also presided over a less-than-glorious chapter in the life of the Immigration service, should appear in the New Year`s Honours list published on the last day of the year as a Dame of the British Empire. Another honour went to Jaqueline Gold, the entrepreneur behind the Ann Summers empire. The latter has at least reportedly added to the general jollity of life.
"Song for Ella Grey" by Dan Almond has won the Children`s Fiction Prize for 2015. The Guardian applauds its fifty shades of gay romance, drink and swearing - and that`s just in the opening pages.
Talking of books, Puffins, along with Nightingales and Curlews are on a red list of sixty-seven out of two hundred and forty-four British birds at risk. They have been joined by Starlings and Sparrows. The reason for the shortage of sightings of the latter is probably due to the fact that most of them are to be found in our back garden where Lady Gale feeds them daily on a diet of corn and bread and fat-balls and peanuts. Much more, evolution will take its course and they will abandon the ability or the necessity to fly.
The BBC editorial unit, condemned for referring to terrorists as `militants` , defends its position by asserting that to do otherwise would be to "imply judgement where there is no clear consensus". No, amongst Daesh supporting listeners and the terminally politically correct, possibly not.
Scottish Nationalist and parliamentary rock band member Pete Wishart has re-christened Mr. Speaker Bercow "Golden Bladder". This is in homage to the Speaker`s tour de force during the debate on Syria when, with two days` business effectively rolled into one, he spent some eleven hours in the chair - without relief. Those of us who have performed this task even briefly and can only manage a couple of hours at a stretch in `The High Chair` have to marvel at the man`s capacity for endurance.
It is sixty years since the Airfix model company, now merged with Hornby, introduced its iconic plastic model of the Spitfire. Their Head of Marketing says that "we should be looking at girls" but then ruins his chauvinist image by adding "we must avoid off-putting masculine subjects like modern warfare". This at the very moment when our armed forces are in the process of introducing women to front-line combat.
The Football Association seeks to ban the publication of children's` football results because to do so `upsets the losers`. In order to make the `glorious game` "more child centred and less results orientated" they will encourage publication of the names of the winners but not the scores. Perhaps they should apply that same thesis to the next World Cup series.
The Home Office has blocked a move to add Mothers` names to their offspring's marriage certificates alongside the Fathers` names. The Prime Minister thought that this might better reflect `modern Britain`. No so. The civil servants in the Grey Area (yes, there really is one in the Home Office) believe that the PM`s proposal would make no allowance for same-sex `marriage`
Network Rail has censored, from Rochester station in Kent, a widow portraying St. John the Evangelist. Rochester, one of the oldest ecclesiastical cities in Britain, boasts a cathedral founded in 640 AD when James Langstaff was Bishop. For the record, although it ought to be irrelevant, the proposed artist`s Father is a Muslim but Network Rail stresses the need to "create a balance". They have yet to indicate just what it is they are seeking to "balance". Corporate performance against customer satisfaction perhaps? I think not.
The Right Reverend Bishop of Leeds has seemingly suggested honouring Christmas via EastEnders as we spend the yuletide watching TV soaps with the family. Roll back to 1938 when a five and a half year old Christine said in a letter that has been recovered from the chimney in which it was lodged for seventy-seven years "Dear Santa, please bring me some toys - and a hymn book". No need for a hymn book now, my little darling. It`s all up there on the Happy Clappy screen.
William McIlvanny, the Godfather of Scottish Detective stories or "Tartan Noir" and the creator of `Laidlaw` and `Doherty` has closed his final case file at 79.
Nicholas Smith, an old friend from early thespian days, is no longer available to serve you. A star of all sixty-nine episodes of the television series, Nicholas has tossed in his Equity card in his early eighties.
Greville Janner, a Leicestershire MP for 27 years, has succumbed to dementia at the age of 87. His family and his accusers now face the pain of awaiting a decision as to whether or not a `Trial of the facts` in relation to child-abuse allegations will proceed.
And Fernande Gudet, who as `Madame Claude` coined the phrase `call girls`, has said a last au revoir to her customers, her 400 `swans` and, no doubt , their cygnets, at a sprightly 92.
Ground control to Major Tim. Britain watches, sweats and looks skywards as Major Tim Peake, our home-grown astronaut (or should that be "cosmonaut" as he blasted off from Russia`s Baikonur Cosmodrome?) joins the team on that remarkable cold-war co-operative enterprise The International Space Station. He promises to run a marathon while in space, has communicated regularly with schools and has experienced the frustrations of an answerphone while trying to call his parents who were out shopping. (What are the call charges from space? Astronomical! Boom. Boom!)
Perhaps the last word on this subject, until Major Tim`s safe return, ought to go to four-year-old Oliver Peake who, with a fond farewell, said "I want to go with Daddy". Given the state of things here on planet Earth who can blame him?