Westminster View - January 2010
January. More snow, more chaos. The New Year challenge to the Labour leadership, Sir John Chilcot lightly interrogates some once-important people, UK limited fractions its way out of recession (but for how long?) and in Haiti tens of thousands of people die in an earthquake that literally rips the country apart while the might of the developed world struggles to deliver aid.
December's "View" ended with Old Windy’s Almanac predicting that the Clunking Fist would survive any putative attempt, initiated by the "Fearless Five", to remove him before the general election and so it proved to be. New Year's Eve brought Charles Clarke's traditional call for a coup. Plots, if you believe the script, were hatched in curry houses, undertakings of Fearless support given and, as the House fought its way back to Westminster through a flake of snow, "Mad Dog" Hoon, former Defence Secretary, and the Nation's erstwhile Nanny, Patricia Hewitt, write to their Labour colleagues calling for a "Vote of Confidence" (meaning, of course, precisely the opposite) in Gordon Brown's premiership.
The news of this putative coup d’etat was broken to the tearoom, at lunchtime, (12.25), by the Conservative victor of the Norwich North by-election, Chloe Smith whose political antennae are proving to be very sharp.. Did the Fearless Five come out in support of Hoon and Hewitt? Well, no they did not. Instead the Cabinet began to trickle out, grudgingly, in support of the man in Number Ten
For anoraks, the backing order was (13.10) Andy Burnham (Health), (15.00) Ex-Tory Woodward (N. Ireland), (15.05) "No one should over-react" Lord Foy of That Persuasion, (15.45) "Firmly Behind" Mr. Yvette Cooper (Children, Education and Gordon's Fan club), (16.00) The Chief Whip (Anonymous), (17.10) Chancellor Darling, (17.15) "Not-the-challenger" Johnson (Home Office) (17.35) Jack "The Knife" Straw (Injustice) (18.24) "Mad Hattie" Harman, (Leaderene of the House) ( 18.48) "Flak Jacket" Ainsworth (Defence) and, late on parade, (18.35) the serial bottler and definitely not leadership material, David "The Milipede" Miliband (Foreign Secretary).
So that was it! They failed to capture the radio and television stations, the Praetorian Guard stuck by Il Duce and by evening it was all over bar the recriminations. Question for the electorate: would you vote for a party that cannot even organise a political assassination? (the words "booze-up" and "brewery" spring to mind). We shall know the answer in what the hacks like to call "a few short weeks".
The snowflake. Or "The Longest Freeze" if you prefer it in headline form. Cars stranded, towed away by clampers on the orders of the police and owners charged for the privilege of trying to save their own lives. Schools closed on the grounds of ‘Elf n Safety. Can't risk being sued if a diminutive stakeholder slips and breaks her arm. Public transport, at least if you have the misfortune to live in the region served (I use the word loosely) by South Eastern Railways, slow and unreliable, airports shut. More Official advice. Don't clear snow. If you do, and then someone is injured through slipping on your bit of pavement, you could be liable for damages. How come in Canada there is a law that says you must clear your bit of footpath? Supplies of true grit running low and we're down to only eight days stock of gas. Situation normal, really.
Westminster, also, is frozen. Well, paralysed to be more exact. In the grip of pre-election sclerosis. Not ‘fever’, more a rather tiresome cold. Everything that is said or done, on both sides of the House, is now geared to electoral advantage. The Big Organ Grinder tries to persuade us that he is "not a team of one", which is perplexing as there are few who thought that he was a team at all. Young David launches his "cut the deficit, not the NHS" poster and finds a good position immediately sidelined as attention focuses on an over re-touched photograph of The Leader. Why they thought this artwork was necessary, God only knows, but hopefully there's an ad-man's head on a spike somewhere over Conservative Campaign Headquarters and we'll revert to the real product.
As the government's pre-election legislative programme progresses with the alacrity and grace of a giant tortoise the row over marriage tax concessions bubbles nicely. Will we Tories stand by our promise to recognise the value of the family in taxation policy? Or will we trim because it is too expensive? Oh no we won't! Oh yes we will! Will. Won't. Will. Won't. Is it a promise or an aspiration? Finally, Cameron nails this one with a definitive ‘cast iron’ pledge to introduce the promised tax break within the lifetime of his first parliament. This leaves Mr. Yvette Cooper foaming on the edge of the pitch and accusing the Conservatives of "social engineering". Now that, coming from a man and a government that has, since nineteen ninety seven, spent many of its waking hours in dedication to social manipulation is what might be called, even in Islington terms, "rich".
We are told by the British Chambers of Commerce that thirteen pieces of planned or carried New Labour legislation will, when implemented, add twenty-five billions pounds worth of red tape to the cost of doing business, with Mad Hattie’s Equality Bill as the flagship of this anti-enterprise. And while on the subject of that Bill, their Lordships have, at least for the moment, shafted Mad Hattie's proposal to compel the churches to open up recruitment in some particular posts to applications from homosexuals and transsexuals. As one of My Lord Bishops put it "trying to make the churches choose between law and belief is the road to ruin". I could not have put it better myself, Your Grace. I doubt that Hattie will want to let her obsession rest but the Almighty,. in the form of electoral vengeance, may yet intervene on the side of the righteous.
Chilcot. A poor man's political Oscars. They ought to have a red carpet leading from the limos to the door of the Queen Elizabeth Conference Centre as so many of yesterday's stars have trooped in to be beaten with feathers in the weeks since New Years Day. Just maybe, though, the velvet gloves will be seen to have contained some iron. Former Cabinet Secretary Lord Turnbull has revealed a Blair wedded to regime change and Swaggering Campbell, following a show of bravado, finds it necessary to "clarify" his evidence after the event. "Jack the Knife" Straw indicates that he warned the Prime Minister of potential illegalities and tells us that he believes that the use of the Dodgy Dossier was an error. The most senior Foreign Office lawyer at the time,
Sir Michael Wood, points to a "crime of aggression" if we go to war with Iraq without the appropriate United Nations resolution. Lord Goldsmith will forever now be known as the Law Officer who changed his mind at the eleventh hour to deliver the message that the Prime Minister wanted to hear and has revealed himself as the administration's legal baggage handler. Geoff Hoon does not wish to be remembered as the Defence Secretary who sent our boys and girls ill-equipped into battle, blames Gordon Brown as Blair's Chancellor for denying the funds to provide life-preserving helicopters. That poses, of course, difficult questions for a Prime Minister who has now agreed to give evidence to Chilcot before the General Election - and, as an aside, how many of the more than 250 brave lives that have now been sacrificed in Afghanistan might have been saved if Brown had funded the helicopters for Iraq in the first place?
Then came The Legacy. We are told that, following his appearance before Chilcot, 80% of the British public believe that Blair lied in his evidence. I am one of them.
Jonathan Powell, one of Blair's most senior foreign affairs advisers, has tried to draw a distinction between an "assumption" that Saddam Hussein had Weapons of Mass Destruction and "Beyond Doubt" that those weapons, and the consequent threat to our domestic security, existed. I am afraid that there is no such convenient confusion.
Shortly before the Commons vote on the war about a dozen war-sceptical Tory MPs, of whom I was one, met in a room behind the Speaker's Chair to listen to the then Leader of the Opposition, Iain Duncan Smith, and the then Shadow Foreign Secretary, Michael Ancram, explain that they had been given rock-solid confirmation, on Privy Council terms, that the weapons existed, that the threat was real and that we should support the Government. On the basis of that information, which was entirely honourably given, most of us - albeit with heavy hearts - went into the "aye" lobby. The words that the Prime Minister had used were "beyond doubt"..
It is my view, now, that Blair had indicated to Bush that the British would back him in a war of regime and that the real truth was revealed in his television interview with Fern Britton when he said, in terms, that if the WMD argument could not be made to stick then he would have tried to use other arguments to win the vote. In the event, he won on a lie.
Why can the combined efforts and wealth of the developed World not deliver, efficiently and in timely fashion, life-saving aid to a tiny Caribbean island that has been ripped apart by an earthquake? I mean no criticism whatsoever of the many courageous rescue workers who got into Haiti and, right up at the sharp end, worked with whatever was available to raise the still living from the rubble and, even when all hope seemed to have gone did not give up and still brought about miraculous events. I also understand that the United Nations presence on the island was traumatised and decapitated by the quake and that its efficiency was, therefore, largely destroyed. But why has so much food and water and equipment and so much money been available for so long without reaching, even now, all of those people who are so very literally desperately in need? The logistics may be horrific, the task daunting beyond belief, but if the UN in New York is about anything worthwhile then it should, surely, be about mounting this kind of increasingly needed operation to bring succour to those who are suffering. There have been many pious and sombre words uttered but when the dust has settled the House of Commons needs to ask some very serious questions. Starting, perhaps, with why our West Indies Guardship, which historically been on station to offer help around the year, is now only available during the hurricane season. I am not seeking to pretend that one destroyer would have solved the problem but the kit and the men and the expertise that they carry, and their communications systems could have saved lives that have otherwise been lost.
The United Kingdom, the last "well placed" country to do so, has wriggled out of recession by just 0.1% giving rise to fears of a "double dip". ITV Chairman Archie Norman, the man who as Chairman of the Conservative Party "re-organised" Central Office, has appointed Adam Crozier, the man who as CEO of Royal Mail, presided over the closure of thousands of post offices, as Chief Executive of ITV. That combination could preside over the ultimate demise of the British Independent terrestrial television industry. The Cadbury chocolate empire, founded by John Cadbury with his first Coffee, Tea and Cocoa shop in 1824 has been flogged off to what his great granddaughter, Felicity Loudon, has described as "an American plastic cheese company" prompting fears for jobs at the company's iconic Bourneville factory estate. And Gross Domestic Product has by 4.8% in the worst fall since 1921. Still, it could be worse. We could be in the Eurozone. In Greece!
And the election? Well, Bob Ainsworth said on television that it would be on May 6th. Unkind tearoom gossip suggested that if you wanted to mislead the Opposition then you would pick one of the less intellectual members of the Cabinet and tell him that the election would be on a given day and that under no circumstances must he tell anyone, in the certain knowledge that he would then blurt it out! Which is why many still think that election day could be March 25th. What I do know is that the element of surprise no longer exists. It has to be held within the next six months and we are all ready for it. (Have you secured your postal vote if needed?) The only remaining uncertainty is the result.
New Year’s Day and Easter eggs appear on the shelves in Tescos.
Ed wants to introduce parenting lessons for fourteen year olds, presumably to compliment his planned ‘diversity’ lessons for seven year olds. He is reported as being unhappy about banning smacking in Muslim schools, oblivious to the discrepancy that discriminates - to invoke a New Labour obsession - against teaching staff in other educational establishments.
Education times three is clearly making giant strides. A survey generated by the Home Grown Cereals Authority and the NFU indicates that 25% of children believe that bacon comes from sheep. But if Ed has his way those children will, in time, be able to express their errors in Mandarin. Which begs the question, might it not be a good idea if they were taught to read and write English properly first? That quaint suggestion could of course, upon reflection, conflict with Ed’s Charter of Children’s Rights (for pupils). Fact: Up at the secondary end of the education spectrum one in five children are still failing to achieve a C grade at GCSE and some 300 thousand are missing the government’s targets.
The Government has, however, created greater opportunities for those wishing to pursue a career in crime. Four Thousand Three Hundred such opportunities, to be exact. For that is the number of new crimes created by New Labour, at the rate of about 33 per month, since 1997. They include such clearly necessary legislation as the Causing A Nuclear Explosion (Prohibition and Inspections) Act which will presumably enable us to prosecute any future President of a Middle Eastern State who chooses to nuke us at 45 minutes warning. Also on the list is the ban on the heinous transgression of Selling of Game Birds on a Sunday on the grounds that as it's illegal to shoot them on the Lord's Day it ought to be illegal to sell them - even though you can sell just about anything else. The Justice Secretary, Jack Straw, tells us that "in their different ways they are important pieces of legislation". Very different ways.
A Commons Report produced by the rarely convened Speakers Conference concludes that it is time to introduce quotas to create more women MPs. That might chime well with Mr. Speaker Bercow’s desire to spend hundreds of thousands of taxpayer-pounds to convert the much-loved and well-used Bellamy’s Bar and Club Room into a crèche but it produces cries of derision from currently sitting Ladies who won their seats on the basis of talent, not quotas.
Back in the padded bunker under the Department for Children, Families and Education birth has been given to another wheeze. It is said that it is now to be wrong for museums, galleries and other such, to offer discounted family admission tickets. This is on the basis that to do so discriminates against single mothers. And "does not reflect the complexity of 21st century families". Which is about on a par the with employer who was told by Jobcentre Plus that she could not advertise for an applicant who was "reliable" on the grounds that this might discriminate against potential applicants who were unreliable. Worse, even, than daring to suggest, in England, that a candidate "must speak English"!
Under the front page headline "Named: 70 MPs fighting repayment of Expenses" the Sunday Telegraph (31st January) claims that "the official Commons list has been obtained by The Sunday Telegraph ahead of Thursday’s publication of the report". I am one of the "70 MPs" listed.
Yesterday, I spent 20 minutes talking to a Sunday Telegraph reporter who had called me, explaining very clearly that I had never refused to repay any monies properly due from me, that Sir Thomas Legg had based his claims against me upon information that was quite simply factually incorrect, that he had persisted in those claims once in possession of the facts and that the appeal adjudicator, Sir Paul Kennedy, reviewing the same information and doing so with rather more care, had determined that I was correct and that "I would therefore allow your appeal in full". The Sunday Telegraph did not include this information in its report. I cannot think why.