Gale's View from Westminster - January 2012
January. The Diamond Jubilee year arrives, Big Ben explodes as Boris lights the blue touch paper on the mayoral election campaign. Fireworks in the Commons. High Speed rail fares on slow-speed trains. Breast implants go bust. The pickets are out for the Iron Lady again. 2012 tickets for Beach volleyball? The Cabinet chooses handball instead. Cruise holidays hit the rocks and in Strasbourg Cameron rocks the Court of Human Wrongs. The Bishops are revolting, the bankers are reeling and is Mrs Ed Balls cooking up a kitchen cabinet coup?
Midnight, New Year`s Eve. The face of Big Ben, or to be more accurate The Clock Tower, bursts into light and fire and colour triggering an incredible eleven minutes of the most spectacular firework display that London has ever seen.
I, as it happens, knew that it was planned. My office in the North Curtain was formerly occupied by Ian Paisley and the Reverend Doctor bequeathed to me, on his departure, the King George V wall clock that has to be wound, along with many others in the Palace of Westminster, weekly. And the delightful chap that turns up, as regular as clockwork as you would expect, with his key and his ladder at 07.15 every Thursday, also looks after the clock that is installed below the Big Ben bell. Every New Year`s Eve, while you and I are trying to work out who is the darkest male present with any hair left and scrabbling around trying to find a piece of coal for them to cross the threshold with at midnight, my friend with the Big Key is up there at the top of the tower making sure that the bongs go off on time and also enjoying a spectacular view of the Thames and the crowds below.
Only this year, he told me, the view would be a bit masked by the fire-curtains put in place to stop what Michael Caine might have called “the whole bloody building” from burning down when the fireworks exploded out of the gallery around the clock.
This vast undertaking was masterminded by my parliamentary colleague and professional pyrotechnician, Mark Lancaster. I suppose that to a bloke who in a previous incarnation passed his time defusing live bombs in some of the more unpleasant parts of the world co-ordinating the ignition of a quarter of a million quid’s worth of sparklers scarcely raised perspiration but I rather gather that the original proposals did raise something of a sweat within the ranks of the House authorities required to grant approval and to the rest of us mere mortals it still seems like sorcery. Anyway, the whole enterprise provided a great kick-off to the Diamond Jubilee and the Olympic year in London and I just hope that the bill does not have to appear on Boris Johnson`s re-election campaign expenses.
The other Big Bang in the New Year was the explosion of rail fare rises. This annual ritual is imposed on the basis of a “Retail Price Index plus 3%” on average formula. The “on average” bit is important because it has allowed South eastern trains, for example, to inflict upon my constituents travelling to London on the Kent Coast line, actual increases in excess of 10% even though the RPI increase has been relatively modest. So long as other fares on other lines are subjected to a lower increase in order to maintain the “average” the company that provides what is risibly described as a “service” to East Kent can legally get away with a practice that would have made Mr. Richard Turpin blush. Which leads me to the first Prime Minister`s Question Time of 2012.
Framing a question for PMQs, in the knowledge that this is probably the only time in the entire week that the Chamber and the Press gallery will be packed is, even for a parliamentary geriatric, a trifle daunting. Knowing that the man that you are about to put under the cosh has only very recently approved your recognition as a Knight of the Realm, not wishing to appear either uncharacteristically sycophantic or discourteous or ungrateful, wanting to raise an unplanted issue of local and national importance and needing a positive response, concentrates the mind. These questions should not be written and read but they are very carefully mentally rehearsed and once you have the theme nailed down it`s courting disaster not to stick to the plan. Only on this occasion Milipede the Younger offered an open goal. In his challenge to the Prime Minister the Leader of the Opposition tried to suggest that it was the present coalition government that was somehow responsible for the rail fare-rise formula when, as my long-suffering commuters know only too well, it was introduced by the last Labour administration. I do not know who is supposed to brief poor Ed on these occasions but whoever it is ought to have his head on a spike outside wherever Labour Party HQ is now located. With hindsight I am not entirely certain that “drivel” is parliamentary language and it`s certainly not very polite but the Speaker allowed me to get away with it and for that I am grateful. The point of the question, though, to the effect that it would be a good idea to complete the High Speed One railway line from London to East Kent before embarking upon a High Speed Two service to strange places north of Watford was rather lost in the diversion. A pity, but Man David was charitable in his response.
The warm post-Christmas glow of New Year`s goodwill generally does not last long in the House of Commons and this year has been no exception. We had barely got back to school and unpacked our trunks before the knives were out for the Milipede. Having nine barrels of manure kicked out of you across the despatch box is not much fun, as a number of bruised and very senior Members will testify, but when your own side turns on you, life can be very unkind. It was Labour`s Lord Glasman, who chose the turn of the year to suggest that the Socialist Top Team was “too Oxbridge and too elitist” (as if it was ever otherwise) and then followed this up with a pen-portrait of Labour`s Leader as having “no strategy, no narrative and very little energy”. With the name of Alastair Darling being touted as a “compromise Leader” and The Shadow Defence Minister helpfully adding that his party needed to “be more credible” and the Parliamentary Labour Party demanding “get a grip”, spinmeister Tom Baldwin suggests that these criticisms were “wide of the mark” and that Milipede is not like the erstwhile Tory Leader, Iain Duncan Smith. Correct. His approval ratings have slipped to one per cent below St. Nicholas of Clogg at just 20% and Iain, who has proved that there is good life after political death, never sank that low. Planning a relaunch, Milipede says “don`t write me off yet”. To which the parliamentary riposte, immortalised during the recent EU referendum debate, has be “if not now, when?” Rumours that Mr and Mrs Ed Balls have been quietly inviting hand-picked back-benchers to lasagne parties in their home comes, under these circumstances, as no surprise. There may not yet be a leadership election in the wind but with William Hill offering odds-on that Milipede will step down, Yvette Cooper`s dainty toe is surely testing the water.
Grief across the Channel as well. In the cold light of a New Year`s dawn it is clear that Santa brought no solutions to the problems of the Eurozone. Standard and Poors strip France of the much-cherished triple-A rating. Italy and Spain and Portugal and Cyprus are taken down a couple of notches and face junk status. St. Clogg may have unwisely bragged that Cameron`s use of the veto was “just a temporary arrangement” but as a French President facing an increasingly hazardous election campaign might even, in his darker moments, agree, we are so much better off outside the Eurozone. The future is in the East, says Chancellor George, heading off to do deals in China and Japan.
Sarko, with the Socialistes closing fast and Marine Le Pen (“I am not trying to seduce, I am trying to convince”) just a couple of polling points behind, is now openly contemplating the end of his political career and must have been gazing longingly at The Legacy as he ponders the opportunities for making serious money once ejected from his current nightmare. Legacy Inc, we are told, paid just three hundred and fifteen thousand pounds in tax on Blair`s Windrush Ventures turnover of twelve million pounds while Mrs Cherie Legacy is reported to be exploring the interesting financial possibilities of investment in private Clinics to help to service the Coalition`s healthcare plans. There`s clearly a lot of money to be made out of not being a “World Statesman”.
January 23rd. The Prime Minister appears at Question Time in the House of Commons. At twelve-thirty-five he leaves the House for Northolt airfield, bound for Strasbourg in Alsace. Add an hour for the time difference between the UK and France and shortly before four-thirty he walks into the hemicycle to address the plenary session of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. A twenty-minute speech. At the top of his agenda, the Court of Human Rights. In its first forty years the Court handled forty thousand cases. In 2010 it was trying to accommodate a further sixty-one thousand three hundred and the international judges currently face a backlog in the region of one hundred and sixty thousand unresolved issues awaiting attention. . We must, says Cameron, restore the balance in favour of decisions taken by national parliaments. Tribunals cannot be allowed to place national security at risk by acting as a substitute for democratic governments. His address is followed by questions from representatives of the forty-seven member countries present. The largely left-of-centre Assembly applauds the questions. The British Tory delegation applauds the answers. At half past five the cavalcade moves off and Man David departs for Davos and the problems of the Eurozone. In his wake an Italian socialist who challenged him on tax on financial services says “I did not agree with what he said – but that was rock and roll!”. PM`s Question Time prepares our Prime Ministers to handle the political rough house in a way that no other European leaders can match. A class act.
Back at home the Prime Minister finds himself in a spot of bother over Bankers` bonuses. It was, of course, the Board of RBS that decided to bung Mr Stephen Hester, their CEO, a few bob short of a million used ones but it was Man David who nailed his colours to the mast and said, earlier, that shareholders should have a significant say in boardroom pay. As the Government (well, you and me, actually) owns most of RBS it takes a bit of fast footwork to suggest that the Government cannot, or should not, therefore, clip the boardroom wings. It ill behoves the Acting Leader of the Opposition, though, and his Rent-a-Thug Shadow Chancellor, to engage in too much righteous indignation about how much the Men in Suits earn. It was, after all, they who, under the watchful guidance of The Legacy and the Big Organ Grinder, allowed the nation to borrow itself, nationally and domestically, into oblivion and we have not forgotten that. It was they, also, who did everything bar actually nationalise RBS, then set the terms of engagement for its executive. “Hypocrisy” is not a parliamentary expression but it is a word that does seem to spring to mind.
Not that you cannot understand the fuss. We have come to a pretty pass when it takes a Premier League footballer more than three weeks to earn what a banker has to work a whole year for before he gets – or in this case turns down – his bonus. Comparisons with nurses and teachers – no, not Doctors who are now quite well paid – are of course both ludicrous and odious. The real point is that people should be rewarded for success and hard toil and long hours and service and most certainly not for failure. Of the present “entitlement” culture The Iron Lady most certainly would not approve.
Talking of the Iron Lady, do see it notwithstanding the reviews and the highly questionable taste in the timing of the making and the release of the film. It is a tour de force and Meryl Streep earns every euro of her statutory minimum wage. Which brings me back to rewarding success. My constituents have an average yearly wage of less than twenty thousand pounds a year. Understandably they find it hard to grasp the riches beyond the dreams of even City avarice that are offered as of right to those who, we are continually told, would take their talents elsewhere if their every whim was not pandered to. I am referring, of course, to the senior management and, in particular, to the Director General, of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation and to that vast army of “stars”, “presenters” and performers and the left-wing commentators whose right-wing agents screw every last penny out of a contract while the Great People criticise the wealth creators for creating wealth. If the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom can struggle by on less than £150K a year then I guess that somehow the rest of just ought to be able to manage.
At the end of the month the Milipede scampers into another minefield. The Bishops who rotate seamlessly into the House of Lords have, with the honourable exception of the former Archbishop of Canterbury, George Carey, “helpfully” amended parts of the Government`s benefits bill. In tandem with some of our Coalition partners, who do not seem to coalesce quite as well in the Upper House, they determine that it is “unchristian” to cap the amount of taxpayers’ money that a household can receive in benefits to “only” twenty six thousand pounds a year. Back in the Commons The Milipede, while whipping his forlorn army to vote against a reversal of these changes, cannot bring himself to say publicly, from the despatch box, that the cap is unjust. With good reason. Those earning – and I have indicated our local average wage – less than £26K for doing a year`s hard work cannot understand why their taxes (and those taxes still paid by pensioners who have already contributed throughout their own working lives) should be used to pay people who are able to work to sit at home and do nothing. Think about it. £26K a year represents a before-tax income of about thirty five thousand pounds a year and in many parts of the Country jobs paying that amount do not exist. Those wearing smart frocks and living in Bishops` Palaces may find Government policy “unchristian” but in the real world most people regard the proposed cap as what used to be called common sense. There will, without doubt, be some hard cases that we shall have to fairly resolve but the changes will be made.
How could I have overlooked the Leveson Inquiry? The litany of special pleading from a Diaspora of Fleet Street desperate to be allowed to continue to “self-regulate” rolls on. Perhaps the best quote of the month emanates from the proprietor of The Daily Express and a number of top-shelf publications, one Richard Desmond, who asks Leveson “What does ethical mean”? Says it all, really.
Christmas Day. Taunton in Somerset and a man is accused of kidnapping his 104-year old Mother. He took her from a residential home to give her a Christmas lunch.
The Information Commissioner, Christopher Graham, tells the Leveson inquiry that there is “no evidence of journalists obtaining confidential information from private eyes”. And the police arrest four Sun journalists and a police officer on suspicion of corruption for “illegal payments to police officers”. No need for private eyes, then.
From the libel Courts we learn that multi-millionaire Nathan Rothschild took the Lord Foy of That Persuasion as his guest to meet the Russian Oligarch, Comrade Deripraska. The purpose of this expedition had nothing whatsoever to do with business and the happy trio enjoyed some sightseeing and a Banya steam bath accompanied by a thrashing with birch twigs. In Siberia. A perfect weekend, really.
The Authorities agonise over the installation of a “docking station” for “Boris Bikes” outside the Houses of Parliament. Unlike the protesters` encampment that has just been partly removed after years of disfiguring parliament square, it seems that the docking station might “harm the area`s character and appearance”.
The children`s current favourite, Peppa Pig, is, inevitably, in trouble with the PC squad. Peppa might encourage toddlers to be “naughty” and could be a “bad influence” because she likes splashing in puddles. On behalf of my sixteen month old grand-daughter Perdy, a Peppa Pig fan, “What, please, are puddles for”?
The GP`s trade union, the BMA, is threatening strike action over proposals to change Doctors` terms and conditions of employment. Their shop steward, Dr Hamish “Victor” Meldrum says that this is because they may be required to retire later and pay more towards their pensions. Just like everyone else, in fact.
Milipede marches forward with foot in mouth. Remarking on the death of TV personality Bob Holness, the Labour Leader tweets that “ a generation will remember him fondly – from Blackbusters”. No. Blockhead, buster!
The BBC, Trustees` Chairman Lord Patten tells the Oxford Media convention, must end the downmarket and the vulgar. So is that curtains for the quiz shows and the depressingly aggressive and foul-mouthed soap operas that pull in the ratings? I am not holding my breath. “The BBC is not going to the dogs” says the former European Commissioner. Auntie must “remain a force for optimism.”
Speaking optimistically, Chris Patten adds that the next Director General will earn “substantially less” than Mark Thompson`s £671 thousand plus benefits package. This is not “a shove in the back” but Thompson announces that he is going after the Olympic Games. Champagne and medals all round for the man who has presided over a 20% increase in the executive expenses bill that has risen so sharply due to “the opening months of Media City” in Salford. How many presenters commute, like Five Live`s Victoria Derbyshire, from London to Manchester to participate in their programmes – and at whose expense?
Who ate all the Pies? Zoos and veterinary hospitals are being recruited to make their scanning equipment available to human patients too obese to slide into the slimline hospital CT scanners. London`s Royal Veterinary College has already helped out on several occasions.
Samantha Hamilton and Colin Freeman had the temerity to remove the weeds and rubbish from the verge adjacent to their home. Surrey County Council, exercising a “duty to assert and protect the rights of the public to use and enjoy the highway”, demanded the restoration of the site to its previous unkempt condition. We should, perhaps, be thankful that they did not install a caravan and a line of washing to complete the rural idyll.
David Cameron, Nick Clegg and David Miliband have, we are told, each agreed to leave 10% of their estates to charity in their wills. How about a legacy, Legacy?
The School Food Trust wants to see curry and lasagne on nursery school menus in place of fish fingers and chicken nuggets. Is there truth in the rumour that they will be turning their attention to the drinks list next? A little Chianti with the pasta perhaps?
Royal Ascot is smartening up the dress code for Diamond Jubilee year. Men will be required to wear shirts and ties, of course, and ladies will be banned from sporting “beachwear”. So which exhibitionist will be the first to hit the pages of The Sun for being ejected deshabille? Place your bets. Meanwhile, Debretts is issuing a Guide to Civilised Separation. Pouring the contents of the vintage wine cellar down the lavatory is definitely orf. A “relentlessly polite” approach is required to defuse family fall-out and permit a step-by-step passage through this emotional minefield. Boom! Boom!
And a nineteen year old aspirant university student has rejected Magdalen College, Oxford. Writing to the Dons following her admission interview she said that “I am afraid that you do not meet the standard of the universities that I am considering. I realise that you may be disappointed by this decision and I wish you every success in the future”.
It is not often that you say to your friends “I have just been to a wonderful funeral”. But I have. My friend and constituent, the comedian, pantomime dame and charity fundraiser Dave Lee, MBE, died recently and prematurely. Had he lived for another week he would have received in person the Freedom of the City of Canterbury that has since been awarded to him posthumously. Dave was a big man in every sense of the word and his brand of humour was, shall we say, less than politically correct. To bid farewell to him many of the nations less polite comics gathered to pay him homage, together with his family and about a thousand other people, in Canterbury cathedral. The ancient building rocked with laughter, the presiding Dean of Canterbury hit the joanna as, in tribute to Dave`s pantomime days, the Kings School choristers sang “Ghostbusters” and then, in panto style, sang it again and at the end the entire audience rose and applauded his coffin for the full length of the aisle. If you`ve got to go, that`s the way to do it. Oh yes it is!