Gale's View from Westminster - March 2012
The “Granny Tax” budget, rigged elections in Russia, more lives lost in Afghanistan, and Syria, Man David goes to Washington, same-sex marriage on the agenda at home, the Archbish says that he is hanging up his mitre, less-than-gorgeous George fools more of the people of Blackburn – oops, Bradford – some of the time.”Horsegate”, “Pastygate”, “Jerrycangate”. Mad March.
There was a rise of four per cent in the number of couples participating in Church of England marriages in 2010. The Government publishes plans for a free vote on same-sex marriages which Scotland`s leading Catholic, Cardinal O`Brien, describes as “grotesque”. In presumably unrelated context the Archbishop of Canterbury starts a bidding war for his See by announcing that he will retire at the end of the year (will the Archbishop of York become Britain`s first black Primate?), in a Social Justice strategy paper Iain Duncan Smith says that “Government must back marriage for the sake of Children”. In Strasbourg The European Court of Human Rights , determining a case brought by two French lesbians, declares that same-sex marriage is not a “human right” but has yet to decide whether Christians have a “right” to wear a crucifix at work. Cabinet Office Minister Francis Maude revives the “Nasty Party” row when he accuses colleagues of wanting to “turn the clocks back to an imagined golden era”, adopting “backward-looking social attitudes” and looking at life “through a rose-tinted rear view mirror”. The latter might just not have been the most felicitous phrase to use in the context of same-sex marriage but, at the margins, thought now, apparently, has to be given to affording “Knight Right” titles to the other halves of honoured same-sex partnerships.
This is walking-on-eggshell territory. The Equalities Minister, Ms Lynn Featherstone, opines that it is wrong to “fan the flames of homophobia with inflammatory language”. This is a sentiment with which I happen to agree but Ms. Featherstone herself seems not to grasp that an attempt to recalibrate the very same language (English) in the interests of spurious equality is itself inflammatory. Saying that a word, in this case “marriage”, “means whatever I choose it to mean” comes dangerously close to demonstrating the Alice-in-Wonderland world that some Coalition Ministers appear to inhabit. When I wrote of the subject in the column that I pen for my local paper (it`s on my website for those who wish to read it in full) I knew that I was likely to receive a little mild abuse. If I have been quoted (partially but, to be fair, accurately) in Pink News before then I am unaware of that fact but the courteous young man who found my thoughts there and then studied the complete article was gracious enough to acknowledge that while he did not share it I was entitled to my faith and to my view. A few strident others have been less charitable but the overwhelming majority of those who have written to me following the publication of the piece, and subsequent radio and television interviews, suggest that on this issue the Coalition might just be out of step with that 78% of the public that does not think that, given the state of the economy, the war in Afghanistan, concerns for the future of the Health Service, pensioners, education and a few other issues, same-sex marriage ought to be a Parliamentary priority.
Later in the month Her Maj, attending Diamond Jubilee Loyal Addresses in Westminster Great Hall, appears less than appreciative when the Speaker of the House of Commons describes her as “The kaleidoscope Queen of a kaleidoscope Country”. Diverse, most certainly. But “kaleidoscope”? One thinks perhaps not. It is reported that “The Royal thumbs twiddled” during this section of the oration.
In this same Lewis Carroll world where everyone has a right to know everything our Liberal Democrat Coalition Partners have, in the form of Children`s Minister Ms. Sarah Teather, blocked a move to make it mandatory to name the father of a child on the birth certificate. The Children`s Commissioner, Dr Maggie Atkinson, has decreed that no child under seven should be excluded from school and that it is inappropriate to send children home for wearing make-up or jewellery, short skirts or prohibited hairstyles. Teaching staff may or may not win public sympathy over proposals to revise their working hours, remuneration and pensions but in classrooms where armed assaults and drug-dealing may take place Head Teachers surely deserve some better backing in their efforts to maintain discipline.
It is still not clear whether it was Man David or Borat O`Bama that was the main beneficiary of our Prime Minister`s visit, with his wife, to the North American Colonies. In an election year it probably does the incumbent President no harm to be seen at a baseball match in Ohio with another Head of Government and no doubt discussions relevant to the extraction of British and American troops from Afghanistan were productive. Whether or not the sensitive issue of the US/UK extradition agreement was raised, only time will tell. Meanwhile, their good ladies and the fashion writers appear to have enjoyed themselves.
As did Vladimir Putin in Russia. Moving seamlessly from “confidence in victory” to an “electoral landslide” even demonstrations questioning the authenticity of the electoral process did not snow on his parade. People tend to get the Governments that they deserve – whether they have voted for them or, as in the case of our own treasured coalition, not.
The Leveson inquiry into Press probity and ethics rumbles on. We learn that the Met police loaned a retired police horse to former News of the World boss Rebekah Brooks who in turn then allowed the man who was to become Prime Minister to ride the beast. This `scandal` echoes around Whitehall to the sound of stable doors being closed long after the nag has made the front, and many inside, pages. Does anyone care? Probably not but it adds to the hilarity of life and boosts flagging printed word circulations. Of more significance is former Met Commissioner Paul Stephenson`s acknowledgement that the force`s previous back-of-an-envelope inquiry into phone hacking was “not a priority”. (To date, we are led to believe, the Met has spent more on phone-hacking related issues than on child abuse cases). Presumably the arrest of the aforementioned Mrs. Brooks , in a dawn raid, on a suspicion of a conspiracy to pervert the course of justice , was just the London constabulary horsing around again.
Before turning to the elephant in the room that is The Economy let`s give a little credit where credit is due. Her Maj has kicked off her Diamond Jubilee Year tours with a visit, by the 10.15 train from London St. Pancras, to Leicestershire. The Queen and Prince Philip also turned up as invited but unexpected guests at a registry office wedding held in the Town Hall that they were visiting – which must have made for some wonderful “Royal Wedding” snaps for the happy couple. In the West Indies Prince Harry whooped it up in his brown suede shoes in Bahamas, raced with, and craftily beat, Usain Bolt in a race in Jamaica and received a smacking great kiss from self-avowed republican Royal abolitionist Premier Portia Simpson Miller before moving swiftly on to practice a little diplomacy in Brazil. With the anniversary of the Falklands War in the offing and the Argentine`s Cristina Kirchner trying to unite Latin America against the UK the young Prince “played a bit of a blinder” in his Country`s interests.
It is no longer acceptable to refer, in polite company, to banking. Members of Parliament continue to receive complaints from small firms denied access to the funds that they need to expand to create the jobs to get the economy moving again. The Small and Medium Enterprises Finance Monitor reveals that 40% of firms are turned down at the first time of asking. That would indicate that Project Merlin, as the scheme to kick-start investment in small firms is called, has proved less than wizard. A long-established building company in my own constituency, for example, was given short shrift and no change from HSBC who told me, when I referred the matter to the Association of British Bankers, that they had allocated all the funding that they were prepared to grant to that (construction) sector. Question: if we cannot invest in our housing infrastructure then what can we invest in? Boris Island? The Royal Bank of Scotland, which you own most of, has raised its mortgage rates and will charge borrowers of £100k about another £300 out of taxed income a year. This while refusing twenty six thousand small firms loans. Savers, though, have in three years lost an estimated £76 billion as a result of depressed interest rates. Overdrafts costing 19.5% and base rate at 0.5% Would somebody like to tell RBS that the Bank of England has indicated that those rates are likely to remain at that 0.5% for the next three years?
There was a time, within living memory, when a budget leak was a resignation offence. Now, it seems, it is the norm for budget “secrets” to be trailed and “spun” for days before the Chancellor stands up at the despatch box to reveal what have already been told by Robert Peston while leaving us all to work out for ourselves the devils in the detail. We are told that it is different this year, Because of the infighting and the horse-trading (if we are still allowed to use that phrase) between the coalition partners and with each side trying to get its retaliation in first, there has been a need to expose the debate, in advance, to public scrutiny. The Liberal Democrats (Spring Conference slogan from St. Nicholas of Clogg: “We`re setting the agenda”) want a `Mansion Tax`, Chancellor George wants to cut what he perceives to be the investment-damaging 50p top rate of tax imposed by The Clunking Fist. Ed Balls wants to re-write the history of the last Government. In fact, the “trailing” of budget details accelerated under The Legacy and his spinmaeister Mr Campbell but it is certainly true that there was little in the most recent offering that had not been all but announced in advance. That, though, and the advantage of forewarning, did not stop Milipede the Younger from making a pig`s ear of his response to the Chancellor`s statement and neither did it stop the “Granny Tax” row from coming up and whacking George right in the fiscal goolies.
The Milipede is in trouble. His troops are demoralised and although at the end of what, for the Coalition, has been a rough fortnight and with a ten point lead in the polls, he ought to be riding high there is the nagging certainty that come a General Election he will snatch defeat from the jaws of victory. Unless his party both wins the London Mayoral election – and Red Ken Livingstone is an increasing liability as a high-risk candidate – and secures massive gains in the local government elections next month (which, from a very low base ought to be a certainty) then his survival as Leader of the Opposition has to be in grave doubt. It cannot be denied, though, that the “Granny Tax” row, spawned of a planned reduction in tax allowances for better-off pensioners in two years` time, caught the normally wily Chancellor George and most of the rest of us on the Government benches, on the wrong foot. Taken as a package the increase in the threshold of personal tax allowance, the largest ever increase in State Retirement pension and the maintenance of other retirement benefits ought to be seen as a good deal. I have already asked those who have written to me on the back of lurid tabloid headlines to indicate to me the manner in which they will be worse off as claimed and to date not one has responded. Those pensioners on the lowest incomes and who do not have sums coming into the household that are taxable will, of course, not be affected at all by the removal of “The age allowance introduced by Churchill” as the hacks have described it. Those on higher incomes will enjoy the same benefit from the increase in personal tax allowance as all others – but that has not prevented the thought that the Chancellor has got his hands on Granny`s purse from taking root. (Interestingly sexist that it is still “Granny`s purse” and not “Grandpa`s wallet” in this egalitarian day and age!)
The dust had no sooner settled on this story – meaning that the tabloids could wring no more immediate mileage out of it – then along comes “Pastygate”. Norman Lamont, when, as Chancellor of the Exchequer, he put VAT on hot takeaway food, clearly recognised that while people will not eat cold fish and chips they will, and do, eat cold pies and pasties. This has led to Chippy Shop proprietors feeling justifiably aggrieved but Number Eleven`s attempt to rectify the injustice backfired horribly and left the Chancellor with crumbs all over his face and Man David and Milipede the Younger clamouring to eat “man of the people” staple-diet pastries for the benefit and hilarity of press photographers while Two Jags “Who Ate All The Pies” Prescott waded into the scoff-fest like Billy Bunter in a doughnut factory. Not a pretty sight.
In the course of this month Number Ten`s eccentric bicycling adviser Steve Hilton has announced his departure for the literally and probably politically sunnier climes of California, The Conservative Party has lost another senior fundraiser in self-made East End millionaire Peter Cruddas who quit as co-Treasurer having told Sunday Times Reporters that he could fix generous donors with dinners and other contact with Man David , and just when we thought that the mad March days were at an end along comes the threat of a Petrol Tanker Driver`s strike , Francis Maude (again), and a run on the petrol pumps.
Remembering that it was the last Petrol Tanker Driver`s industrial action and consequent fuel shortage that caused the Legacy and his New Labour administration serious grief the Coalition determined to give helpful advice to the public. It seems as though the three government Departments involved in this initiative were not entirely action in harmony and that Mr. Maude decided unilaterally to advise motorists to fill up their tanks and to stash a little bit extra in a “jerry can” in the garage. This seemingly sensible suggestion ignored both the likelihood that Grub Street would immediately exploit the “us and them” “out of touch” potential of the “have garages” and the “Not have garages” and also the inevitable literal interpretation of “jerry can” not as the five-litre proprietary container available (at least until they sold out a week ago) from all good motoring stores but rather as the vast steel can that used to be strapped to the back of WW2 camouflaged vehicles. The Fire Brigades Union, of course, went straight into holier-than-thou mode, my chum the Transport Minister Mike Penning was required to reverse smartly back over the Cabinet Office and the fragrant Mr. Maude was left squinting into his rose-tinted rear-view mirror. Was it the Government or the Press that caused petrol stations to run dry? The Press, of course, blame the Government but tabloid headlines poured a lot of fuel on an already lively fire. The Milipede was, of course, unable to properly exploit even this less than edifying debacle. Condemn the Tanker drivers for placing the Easter Holiday in jeopardy through unnecessary and self-interested inflated pay claims? Not a bit of it. When the Unions have bankrolled your leadership bid and delivered the very votes that got you the job you cannot condemn them can you? Old Labour. Unite if not united.
If I were Ms. Moya Greene, the Canadian head of the Royal Mail, I would not have chosen to have myself photographed against the philatelic background of the portrait of Her Maj. that appears on the non-sticky side of her company`s increasingly unaffordable product. It was inevitable that this picture would, in Jubilee Year, be used to illustrate reports of the announcement that, with controls on the price of first-class stamps removed , it will now cost us sixty times Rowland Hill`s Penny Black to send a first class letter without guaranteed next-day delivery. Rather as road fund tax has led to an increase in the “look, I can afford it” purchase of 4x4 gas-guzzlers so we may now expect that the Port Out, Starboard Home brigade will stick first class stamps on everything. Because they can. That, though, will be of small comfort to those on benefits who, having seen a 39% rise in the price of a second class stamp (from thirty six to fifty pence) will have to wait until Christmas to gain the benefit of Her Colonial Highness Ms Greene`s festive Yuletide postal discount.
And then there was Bradford West. Setting aside George Galloway`s denial that it was he himself that tweeted that it was “an honour to represent the people of Blackburn” his ten-thousand vote Respect Party majority in what ought to have been, in the present climate, a safe Labour seat has sent shockwaves through Westminster. True, by-election results are indicative of very little in the context of a future general election and Pussycat George`s claim that this was the “Bradford Spring” were characteristically extravagant but the electorate, and particularly the young people, of part of Bradford were offered the opportunity to stick two fingers up at mainstream political parties and they seized that opportunity with glee. That nobody saw this coming is indicative of some deep-rooted failings in the political machinery. For The Milipede it represents writing on the wall but the Conservative and Unionist Party can take little comfort from the result either and for the Liberal Democrats, normally strong in by-elections, the result suggests potential meltdown in the local government elections.
Let us end March on a cheery note from the Governor of the Bank of England. Never mind the flood of overseas visitors with their “kaleidoscope” pounds to spend. The Diamond Jubilee, says Mervyn King, “will harm the economy” because “output will fall”. The Great Lady in the big house at the end of the Mall may be having a knees up but I think that we can take it that there will be no outdoor party in Threadneedle Street.
Kent County Council has voted to permit the creation of a new satellite Grammar School, thus circumventing the Government`s premature and ill thought through decision that no new selective schools will be permitted.. High marks to Education Secretary Gove but will he now allow Academies, also, to be selective? And how are we to address the depressing finding (national numeracy survey) that seventeen million adults would probably fail a primary school maths test?
Primary age kids, meanwhile, are “crawling like snails, unwillingly to school” bowed down by heavily laden bags that are causing back problems. Unlikely to be books. Must be the weight of all those electronics. Or lunch.
The High Court Judge, Mr Justice Eady, has ruled that Google cannot be held to account for libel as it is a `platform` and not a publisher. Rude scribblings are, therefore “like graffiti on a wall”. Which is, of course for wholly other reasons, a criminal offence.
Our parliamentary colleague Eric Joyce will be remembered for initiating a Wild West punch-up in the Commons Strangers Bar. When another former Liberal Democrat Member began playing a harmonica in the same august surroundings the cry immediately went up “where`s Eric Joyce when you need him?”!
It will surprise few people to know that the European Working Time directive makes provision for workers to take additional time off if they fall sick during holiday periods. But then diplomats engaged in Baroness Ashton`s “European External Action Service” receive seventeen weeks holiday , together with a further fortnight of “training” in Brussels ,leaving many embassies and delegations virtually unmanned for periods of the year. “External Inaction” might be a more appropriate name.
In the interests of “equality” the EU has decreed that women must be charged the same premiums as men for their motor insurance. This stroke of genius could add about £360 a year to the charges levied upon actuarially more careful lady drivers – but, hey, why cloud the doctrine with harsh fact?
To ensure that “people do not lose money when re-locating” to the North the Salford Broadcasting Corporation has forked out £6.5 million of licence fee payers` money to 549 staff compelled to transfer from London and other bases to the New Labour -generated Media City. The Chairman of the Trustees, Lord (Chris) Patten is said to be looking for an outsider to replace Mark Thompson when the latter retires as Director General after the Olympics. Someone with common sense would fit the bill.
Ce n`est pas le cricket , but word on the Square is that they are teaching the Summer Sport in French primary schools. Will this have a profound effect upon the manner in which future French diplomats also play the Brussels game? Or, and more probably, will we find that L`Affaire Bodyline will pale into insignificance beside forthcoming transgressions of the rules?
And talking of sport, not quite a recovery on the Lazarus scale but Milipede the Younger, too ill to attend an NHS rally on a Friday evening, appeared in rude health himself while watching the game as the VIP guest at Hull City stadium the following day.
For a nation so obsessed with security that the Justice Secretary has proposed the recording of every e-mail that we send (I exaggerate only a little) it seems strange that Westminster Council should have found it appropriate to publish on its planning website intimate details of lighting proposals for the Foreign Secretary`s Carlton Gardens bedroom. “The F&CO did not ask for the documents to be treated as confidential” is the official Council explanation.
Manchester Prestwick Town Hall, not to be outdone, has decided that a set of unsightly solar panels must be moved. To a North-facing roof. Away from the sun.
The 7,300 Olympic Torchbearers, including the oldest who is at present 99 but will be a centenarian in time for the run, will be wearing Adidas –supplied `pyjamas`. Made in China. For 80% of the route covered between May 19th and July 27th the torch will be carried in a security van. Whitehall Mandarin fans of Beach Volleyball, hoping to be entertained by nubile and scantily clad Olympic competitors performing on Horseguards Parade may be in for a disappointment. The players, on show between July 28th and August 12th, are likely to be wearing T-shirts and shorts rather than the bikinis that they normally wear when competing in the summer festival on Margate Main Sands. (The game is, I am told, also played in California).
An April Fool`s memo written by an aide in the office of the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, called on the Pope to pray for “divine intervention” as the only way to save the Euro. The memo, leaked prematurely, was of course treated seriously. I leave it to you to guess which British MEP leaped blindly in front of the bandwagon seeking cheap publicity though comment!
A Hampshire Council is reported to have banned the appearance of the donkey during an Easter parade on the `elf `n safety grounds that it would constitute a hazard that would require road closures that cannot be organised at short notice. This item did appear in the press on All Fools` Day but it has the awful ring of truth about it.
As with Northern Ireland, so with Afghanistan. It is too easy to forget that every report of the death of a serving man or woman has behind it a bereaved and grieving family. At the beginning of March six men from the 3rd Battalion, Yorkshires, lost their lives when their Warrior armoured car was blown up and at the end of the month two more soldiers were gunned down by a rogue Afghan officer.
When the Prime Minister pays tribute to our fallen forces in the House of Commons it is more than lip-service. Each loss is as important as the last for the relatives and friends that are left behind. Those of us who vote to send our young men and women into harm’s way must never allow ourselves to forget that stark reality.
I was in Lisbon, at a meeting of the North-South Committee discussing the relationship between Europe and the countries of North Africa, when I received the text message from my son-in-law that said, simply, “Got News”. A swift and immediate phone call revealed that, after a very difficult pregnancy my daughter had given birth, two months prematurely, to our first grandson. At the time of writing the little chap is in an incubator but, it seems, thriving. My daughter says that everyone from the cleaning staff to the Consultant has treated her with magnificent professionalism and I am certain that she is right. The National Health service is a very precious institution and, while ensuring that it remains fit for purpose and properly funded for the future as we are, we must not allow the political doctrine of any party to damage it.