Westminster View - March 2010
March. Mad or just gently insane? The Prime Minister talks with economical veracity to Chilcot and faces unfriendly fire from Class Warriors. Ex Cabinet Ministers switch on the "For Hire" lights. A grave-robbing government puts death taxes on the agenda. Almost. The Legacy rises from the political dead to preach politics in the relative safety of a Labour club. The Boadicea of the Ghurkhas forces Ministers to grovel. Again." Don't Fly With Me" as British Airways fails to Unite. And "The Three Tenners" face a tiny bit of the nation.
Spring. Forum time. In Brighton Young Dave spells out his credo. A noteless tour de force. Marriage,. Pensioners, The Economy. Schools and, of course, dearest to his heart, the NHS. It's all there for those - which does not include most of the media - who choose to listen
For Labour, the Clunking Fist wants "Bobbies back on the beat for "80% of their time" while the Man of Straw, does not accept that our constables are really overwhelmed with his Justice Departmental bureaucracy. Has he ever tried to fill in a "stop form" in a dark street on a wet November night? My own experience suggests that the assertion that only 50% of a policeperson's time is spent on paperwork and computerised form-filling is remarkably generous.
And for the Liberal Proportionalists, Leader Clogg expresses his admiration for Margaret Thatcher and announces that "her victory over a vested interest (the TUC) was immensely significant". It was, and we now need another Conservative government to tackle New Unionism. "Prepare for Government”? I do not think so. Talk of being "Kings not Kingmakers" may momentarily rouse the party faithful from their slumbers but the best that the Liberal bridesmaids can realistically hope for is to have to decide who to climb into bed with if the opportunity arises.
The Prime Minister faces Chilcot. He blames military commanders for the wrong choice of armoured vehicles and insists that he knows of "no occasion upon which their request for equipment was turned down". He then leaves the country for a flying visit to Afghanistan where he announces (or rather re-announces) the procurement of 200 Light Protected Patrol Vehicles to replace the Snatch Landrovers at present in use. Unfortunately that High Class Warrior and Former Army Chief Lord Guthrie, backed by others of the Old and Bold fraternity, lets The Big Organ Grinder have both barrels and a simultaneous fistful of grenades, accusing him of being economical with the truth in his dealings with the Chilcot Inquiry. It is then revealed that a year ago Brown's government was promising not two but four hundred LPPVs for use in Afghanistan . The inquest into the death of the first woman soldier to lose her life in Afghanistan , Corporal Sarah Bryant, returns a verdict of unlawful killing because she had "inadequate training and the wrong equipment". Corporal Bryant was killed in a Snatch Landrover.
A Freedom of Information request indicates that the present administration underestimated its budget for the war by a modest nine billion pounds and that during the years 2003/2004 and 2004/2005 the military, far from receiving the Prime Minister's asserted year-on-year increase in funding, suffered a cut of £536 million. Does the serially offending misleading Prime Minister rush back to Chilcot to apologise and correct his story for the record. No. Unsurprisingly he does not!
You should not need to be a military strategist to know that it is unwise to tangle with Ms. Joanna Lumley. The Boadicea of the Ghurkhas already has significant Ministerial scalps on her battle honours. Armed Forces Minister Kevan Jones, however, giving evidence to a Commons Select Committee, suggests that Ms, Lumley has been guilty of a "deathly silence" over the problems now facing ex-Ghurkha soldiers who have won the right to settle in the United Kingdom. Ms. Lumley removes the scabbards from the knives adorning her chariot wheels, let's rip with her battle cry and, surrounded by her Ghurkha troops graciously accepts unconditional surrender, a grovelling apology from the Minister for any offence caused and, via a swift telephone call, a personal apology from the Prime Minister as well. A row with the warrior queen in the run-up to a general election is bad headlines!
Too many other fronts are opening up on Labour`s electoral battlefield. The Clunking fist faces a looming Spring of Discontent. First off the chocks is the British Airways/Unite Union dispute over staffing, pay and conditions. The threat of strikes immediately damages the airline with travel agents reporting a huge decline in those prepared to book to Fly the Flag. Uncertainty over the national carrier's ability to deliver is frightening the punters. Although early in the month the national press reports "BA deal in sight" , the talks break down. The airline announces that it has six thousand volunteers ready to help management beat the strike and contingency plans to use other companies` fully crewed aircraft to meet its obligations to travellers. But would you risk booking with a carrier that is facing industrial action knowing that you would receive no compensation if you do not fly? No? Neither would I.
How to appear tough on strikes and tough on the causes on strikes? With thirteen Ministers, including ten Cabinet Ministers in receipt of union funds and accusations that the Government has been "bought" it is just a trifle sensitive. Add the that the fact that your former friend and Downing Street confidant, one Charlie Whelan, returning to give service in the election engine room, just happens also to be the Political Director of the union behind the strike and whatever you say is likely to sound hollow. It does. Even the unelected Cabinet Member and Transport Secretary Lord Adonis, saying that the strikes are "unjustified" does not help. The truth is we just don't believe you.
The first strike runs from 20th to 22nd inclusive. Many people, and crew, fly. Many do not. Indications that Air France and the Portuguese may stage sympathy strikes do not gladden hearts and if the US Teamsters Union joins in what is now becoming known as a "global picket line" then the air travelling public are going to face serious disruption. Further strikes at the end of the month do not lead to a resolution or movement on either side and unless a deal really has been struck between Whelan and Brown to delay further walk-outs until after a May 6th election then mid -April and mid -campaign will see more old-Labour industrial action.
On the railways, union leader Bob Crow's staff and signalmen have voted to strike in protest at Network Rail's proposals for staff reductions and changes in working practices which, they say, will put passenger safety at risk. In a High Court move reminiscent of BA`s injunction against Unite before Christmas Network Rail secure a stay of action because, it seems, the union "balloted" a number of members working in signal boxes that do not exist! The court decision is, of course, dubbed "political" by Crow and a militant hornet's nest has been stirred up that will buzz right through a general election campaign.
There are times when even this hard-hearted, true-blue, born-again, Thatcherite dinosaur feels sorry (which is about as politically damaging as you can get) for our opponents. I have felt a deep sadness for Gordon Brown's domestic tragedies and I have, at times, thought that the Snake Oil Salesman that became Prime Minister after the 1997 election is fundamentally a less decent, much shallower and infinitely and inherently more dishonest person than the present Prime Minister. Call that a weakness if you will. I do not, though, believe that even the loser of the Granita Dinner contest deserves the hand that he has been dealt as Blairite ex-Cabinet Ministers Geoff Hoon, Patricia "the Nation's Nanny" Hewitt and former Transport Secretary Stephen "Who?" Byers are exposed in a TV documentary sting.
For those who, mercifully, missed this Channel 4 expose the TV programme created a bogus PR Company that set about interviewing likely political suspects for potential ` consultancy` jobs using their former political expertise and contacts, There followed excruciatingly self-promotional interviews during which these MPs offered their services and indicated just how their political persuasion (as MPs or in the House of Lords) would advance clients` interests.
We should not deny the right of any ex-Minister or MP (and there, but for the grace of the electorate go we all) to make provision for the future of themselves and their families, but to offer to sell, like taxis for hire, their contacts places parliamentarians who are already derided for "fiddling" allowances on about the same level as those who ply their almost more honest trade by the kerbside.
For all of this, the Conservatives` poll lead still hovers around a 7% that, if reflected in the ballot box, would leave Young David about thirty seats short of an overall majority and the country in the hung-parliament territory that I first indicated was on the cards back in last year when it was rather less fashionable than the suggestion is today.
This possibility has excited the constitutional experts like mad. Gordon Brown would, with no overall majority, remain Prime Minister, go to the palace and try to form a government. If he failed then the Leader of the largest opposition party would be given the chance to try to form a minority government. That might lead, God help us, to the possibility of a second general election later in 2010 unless Her Maj refuses to give permission and tells parliament to just get on with it and sort itself out! There are extremely good reasons why the great British electorate needs to make its collective mind up very decisively indeed.
As those abroad and whose sterling pensions depend upon the exchange rate are only too well aware all of this talk of deadlock in Westminster is having a damaging effect upon the value of sterling. While several hedge funds are reported to have done very nicely, thank you, out of betting against a low pound, a price of under £1.50 against the dollar makes living and travelling overseas very expensive
So "it’s the economy, stupid".
Four out of ten retiring British citizens are considering, because of the economic and geophysical climate, moving to France , Spain or Cyprus . Inflation, in January 2010, was the highest in the developed western world at 3.5%. Chancellor Darling has described (The Spectator) the UK economy as being "on thin ice". While the Eurozone is agreeing a bailout package to save the Greek economy, the EU ( Germany and France leading) is looking forward to a "European Economic Government" with the EU having the power to "sign off" the budgets of sovereign states. The UK government claims that this would only apply to Eurozone countries but with the UK national debt running at £1,400,000,000,000 it’s hard to see how a Britain in thrall to other governments and with an EU budget deficit of (currently) 13% would escape entrapment under this government. Ominously the Commission indicates that Labour`s plans to cut our deficit "lack ambition" while Standard and Poor`s indicate that the UK`s "Triple A" financial rating is at risk.
The "Clunking Fist" former Chancellor and his glove-puppet temporarily resident in No. 11 Downing Street are currently having to contemplate raising VAT, imposing, to pay for an ever-ageing population, a "death tax" on property in addition to estate duty and, as well as further raids on pensions, the freezing of the amounts payable on SERPS. This "prudent" regime now presides over, at 50%, the highest taxed financial centre in the developed world. Complaints about our banking system, from clients, have risen by a third over the past six months.
The Edinburgh Badger`s "Election Budget" stirs nobody. Indeed, so tedious is the drone emanating from the Despatch Box that Mr. William Cash, seated to my immediate right on the back bench, and Ms. Julie Kikbride, to my left, were to be observed sleeping soundly throughout much of the presentation. The excitement was too little to bear. The small print tells us that in addition to the hit on cider, beer, wine and spirits and "concessionary" fuel price increases applied in three phases instead of one, it is "the middle classes" who will bear the brunt of the pain. This politics of spite offers, though, no hard decisions to address our national debt.
We will skate over the return of the un-dead Legacy to his erstwhile spiritual home of convenience, the Trimdon Colliery Labour Club. Wheeled in to "help" the Labour electoral cause and fresh from his dissembling triumph before the Chilcot enquiry the sin-tanned (sic) ex-Prime Minister preached, with a mid-Atlantic accent, a sermon that appeared to leave his audience clamouring for less. Eschewing the opportunity to take questions from journalists he got the hell out of it as fast as he had arrived. As Young David said, it was good, though, to see Mr. Blair making a speech for which he had not been paid.
Tax Bombshell. As Boy George he pulled the Tory Party through a difficult Autumn with his announcement that the party would, in government, relieve many from the burden of inheritance tax. The boy has come of age. Man George announces that, as Chancellor of the Exchequer he will reverse Labour`s planned increases in National Insurance, the "tax on jobs".. He is backed, in the press and very publicly, by the country`s major big businesses. Caught on the back foot, Lord Foy of that Persuasion accuses the business leaders of being taken in. Not clever. Big business support is followed by the endorsement the major large and small business organisations. Clear blue water and solid Conservative policy that will impact upon the lives of every working person in the land.
And so to the piece de resistance. You have seen it on the billboards. You have heard it trailed on the news and current affairs programmes. Do not adjust your sets. Do not go out to bingo or slip off for a quick Chinese. This is the moment that the nation has been waiting for: the televisual clash, on Channel Four, of "The Three Tenners".
Step forward, fresh from Election Budget tedium, Chancellor Darling on my left. In the Blue Corner, on my right, The Shadow Chancellor, Man George. And sitting on the fence and beautifully poised to play, with the assistance of a compliant moderator, both ends against the middle is St. Vince of Cable, the mystical economic guru from somewhere west of Central London.
This fore-runner to the planned sequence of Party-leader debates scheduled to take place during the actual election can at best be described as an occasion from which television producers will need learn a very great deal. The Chancellor was predictably dull. George was earnest, determined not to offer hostages to fortune and, as a result, less than his usual and natural convivial self. St. Vincent, the man who can always be right in the certain knowledge that he will never be called upon to be wrong, was allowed to sit in the middle, criticise George, criticise the Chancellor and then, when it suited him, gang up with the man on his left against the man on his right while cracking a couple of pre-prepared "ad-lib" jokes.. If you are thinking of placing any bets then use this as an indicator of any possible line-up in a hung parliament.
Sometime within the next few days I shall cease to be a Member of Parliament and become a candidate again. The next edition will therefore be an "Election View" and, depending upon the roll of the electoral dice the one after that will reflect whatever joys those voting and the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority and the Speaker have inflicted upon us. Or, alternatively, I shall have a lot more time to write about a lot less!
The Secretary of State for Education spells, electronically, "tries" as "trys" and confesses that he will have to "re-tweet". Should that not, perhaps, read "retreat"?
Under Mad Hattie`s Equality Regime public authorities and schools will have to treat vegans, teetotallers and atheists as `minority groups` . (May we include "men" in that list as well?) By two hundred and six votes to ninety the House of Commons votes to outlaw the use of the grammatically correct "chairman" in favour of the furniturist "chair". This, readers will instantly appreciate, is, at a time of national crisis, both a priority and a great leap forward for the cause of modernisation.
The Department of Health and the Department for Children, Schools and Families are putting up a shed load of cash to enable the Youth Sports Trust to promote health in schools. This ambitious programme will include lifestyle classes for four year olds and exercises in yoga and cheerleading. Perhaps nobody explained that to the Head of Ticking Boxes. The boss of OFSTED has discovered that up to 60% of schools are failing in equality and diversity and some of the country`s recognised top schools are falling short on teaching how to play appropriately. A `failure to provide a good` education, education, education.
Back in the surreal world the BBC is planning to send five times as many staff to cover the World Cup as are contained within Sr. Capello`s entire squad. Meanwhile The Management has announced that it is to axe, in the interests of cost-saving presumably, the Department of Silly Job Titles and revert to "clarity". Farewell, then, Vision Controller of Multi-Platform and Portfolio.
There is a glimmer of common sense that has emerged from the evil empire in Multi-Coloured City. Complaints have been made about the playing of the National Anthem at the end of the Radio 4 day on the grounds that not only is it too loud but also, one assumes that those listening have to rouse themselves from their beds and stand to attention for the duration. To this, Radio Four`s Network Manager, Dennis Nolan, has robustly responded that "The National Anthem is a big cultural symbol" and that it "needs to be stirring to give it it`s true quality". Mr. Nolan is by now almost certainly languishing in the padded cell in the basement of Broadcasting House awaiting treatment for his deviation from the politically correct. We may have to start a Downing Street petition to campaign for his release.
And speaking of insanity one Miles Kwok, a multi-millionaire businessman, is reported to have purchased five thousand copies of Mrs. Legacy` biographical work entitled "Speaking for Myself" in order to better the minds of his employees. Try that in a school and you would almost certainly be arrested for child abuse. Whether it constitutes `harassment` I suppose only a lawyer could opine.
Another piece of parliamentary history. Mr. Chris Bryant has entered into a civil partnership. The ceremony was witnessed by the Milipede and Mad Hattie and conducted in the Members Dining Room in the House of Commons under a license granted by Westminster City Council. These licenses, once granted, normally are unrestrictive - so presumably any members of the public may also now apply for the use of this facility. That should please the ever-vigilant security staff in the Palace of Westminster!
The Northampton Lesbian, Gay and Bisexual Alliance has expressed opposition to plans to locate a floating restaurant adjacent to a meadow that is used for "post-dusk social networking". The local constabulary are unphased although they concede that there might be "interaction between the two user groups". Post Prandial Post Dusk Social Networking, perhaps?
`Elf n Safety has struck in the Cotswolds. The Whitsun Cheese Roll has been abandoned amidst fears that the seven pound Double Gloucester Wheel may cause injury to life and limb. The Coopers Hill Cheese Rolling Committee is said to be orchestrating a comeback event for next year. With cream cheese?
Mr. Sal Miah, who had-a-go when involved in an altercation with two teenage thugs, was arrested for his demonstration of public spirit. Mr. Sussex Plod has expressed the view that he should have "observed the crime from a safe distance and then dialled 999".
And in the interests of cost-cutting the Naval tradition of `Cockers P` (cocktail parties) serving pink gin and horse`s necks has been scuttled by the armchair matelots of Whitehall. This will save, in its entirity, between 50 and 70 thousand pounds a year - or one millifraction of the value in goodwill and trade to the United Kingdom that these worldwide social functions generate.
Under the present government the cost of "re-branding" in Whitehall has passed the one billion pound mark. That`s a lot of new headed notepaper, logos and nameplates. Aren`t you just proud to have paid for it all through your taxes?
Best wishes for what remains of Easter and may the bunny bring you chocolates, flowers or, if you prefer it, a suitable large drink. With what lies ahead during the coming month you will need it.