Gale's View from Westminster - January 2013
January. O`Bama teeters on the edge of the fiscal cliff. The union Flag flies over the Falklands but not over City Hall. Rain, Snow, Floods but so far no locusts. On line sales prosper; retail outlets go to the wall. The `long-awaited` EU speech is put on hold as British hostages are taken, and die, in the Algerian desert. Talking of deserts, the coalition partner rats. UKIP on the up. And down. Winners and losers in the benefits and pension lottery. Stalking horsemeat on the menu. Straight talking; no tax breaks for marriages. Same-sex unions threaten unity. High Speed rail divides North, South East and West. And a rare sighting of the Clunking Fist in the Commons chamber.
At the turn of the year and while Britain is still suffering from a customary post-revels hangover, Members of the House of Representatives, The Senate and the President of the United States, Borat O`Bama, find their vacations rudely interrupted by the unwelcome first-footing of our old friend Fiscal Cliff. Those who enjoy the spectacle of the most powerful nation (apart from China, of course) on Earth in economic turmoil need to remember the adage that when the American Colonies sneeze Europe catches a cold. Given that Europe has yet to recover from a severe bout of economic pneumonia brought about by financial incontinence, corruption and incompetence any further exposure to infection might just not be a good idea. The unseemly wrangle over tax rises and spending cuts results in a cobbled-together last minute short-term fix. Difficult to say who blinked first but the bills are, apparently, still being paid and the bailiffs have yet to re-possess the White House.
You would have thought that Borat had enough on his domestic plate to deter him from meddling in the matter of Britain`s status within the European Union but all “Statesmen”, from The Legacy down, have to hold and express opinions. Speaking for the administration, the US Secretary for European Affairs advises David Cameron to not hold a poll on our membership of the EU. That helpful advice will, no doubt, have been foremost in the Prime Minister`s mind when he delivers his “long awaited” speech later in the month, of which more anon. In his inaugural speech President O`Bama tells an agog world that “We are made for this moment and we will seize it”. It would, I suppose, be churlish to ask “In that case what the hell have you been doing for the last four years?” Borat certainly seizes the opportunity to heap praise upon a departing Hilary Clinton as she “leaves the world stage” as “one of the finest Secretary of States” in America`s brief history. Will he miss her? You bet your sweet bippy he will – but is this farewell or merely au revoir?
Anyone who has spent any time at all in Northern Ireland knows how paradoxically beautifully ugly the province can be. It is a huge sadness that a corner of the globe that has so much to offer should continue to be torn apart by anti-social behaviour and criminality sheltering under the cloak of “sectarian violence”. There have always been, and no doubt will continue to be, those whose only power base rests upon dissent, whose only comprehension is of discord and who prefer the grievance to the solution. In this context the flying or not flying of the Union flag over City Hall in Belfast takes on a sense of significance out of all proportion to anything that even the most patriotic would recognise as justified. Of course, while the hooligans have their “fun”, peace and progress and prosperity are destabilised and inward investment suffers. My friend Mike Penning, the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, must be beside himself with frustration as he watches a tiny minority tear up a generation`s prospects for the future.
Emblems can be important though. The Union flag fluttering over the Governor`s house in Port Stanley is a constant reminder that the Falkland Islanders are British and that, in the forthcoming referendum, are likely to vote overwhelmingly and possibly unanimously to remain so. In response to Argentine President Cristina Kirchner`s sabre rattling David Cameron has said, quite simply, that “we will protect the Falklands”, if necessary with military force. Senora Kirchner needs to be in no doubt: Cameron means it and the parliament of the United Kingdom, having invested blood and treasure in the liberation of the Islands following the last Argentine invasion, is in no mood to compromise or “negotiate”. The Kirchner may believe that this has more to do with Antarctic oil reserves than sovereignty but that would be a gross error of judgement. We are still in a position, and have the power, to defend our citizens in the South Atlantic and no British Prime Minister could fail to do so.
The gestation period for Man David`s keynote speech on the future of the United Kingdom in Europe has been elephantine. The orchestration of this was painstaking, offering a blend of courtesy and flattery to the Liberal Prime Minister of the Netherlands through its planned delivery in Amsterdam. The content was heavily trailed and indeed advance copies of the speech were issued on a confidential basis to Borat O`Bama and other luminaries of the international constellation. Then came the seizure, by terrorists, of an oil establishment in Algeria and the whole operation was put on hold.
Swiftly , and rightly, the focus was shifted entirely from the Prime Minister`s speech to the safety, or otherwise, of Britons held hostage in the desert. Whether or not this adventure was in response to British supported French intervention in Mali is as yet unclear but the situation unravelled very unpleasantly and very fast. In cases like this the public are as well, and sometimes better, informed than most Members of Parliament reliant upon crumbs that fall from the Cabinet table, in the form of Ministerial statements, for information. The Cabinet`s COBRA committee and The MoD, together with MI6 are up to speed with the back story at all times but even they, it seems, were caught on the hop when the Algerian Heavy Squad went in with all guns blazing. There was some huffing and puffing and general disgruntlement along the “why weren’t we consulted” lines from Downing Street but you have to do what you have to do and emergencies don`t allow much time for crisis management by committee. Small comfort to the families and friends of those who lost their lives in the crossfire but my guess is that radical action probably, at some cost, prevented a complete massacre.
So, with the sand in the desert sodden red, the Prime Minister finds himself with a Tory Fresh Start Group demand for the clawback of one hundred and thirty pieces of EU regulation , The Chairman of the German Foreign Affairs Committee telling him not to “blackmail us with a threats of a referendum” and himself threatening the UK with “isolation” (the young man is clearly unaware that we have stood alone in the past!), O`Bama saying that he wants “a strong Britain in Europe” and a crumpled, pre-released speech in his pocket and nowhere to make it.
The post-event saying in political families is “I think that went rather well really, don`t you”? and on this occasion the Prime Minister is entitled, I think, to make that claim. The promise of an in/out referendum following re-negotiation at the start of the next parliament has shot at least one of UKIP`s foxes and a 16% UKIP poll rating prior to the speech, which would have perversely delivered a significant Labour victory in 2015, has dwindled. There are some Tories for whom only the complete extrication of the UK from Europe, the removal of the “E” word from the Oxford Dictionary and the erection of a barbed wire fence up the length of the English Channel and across the North Sea will be sufficient but the overwhelming view from the Conservative benches in the Lords and Commons has been that “The boy done well”. Cameron`s success was thrown into interesting relief by the illustrious Leader of Her Majesty`s loyal Opposition. Following the Prime Minister`s Commons statement Milipede the Younger was left floundering with senior Shadow Cabinet Ministers using phrases such as “never say never” and “this is our position today (but of course it may change tomorrow)”. In the end The Milipede had to resort to a veto upon dissent amongst his own shadow ministerial ranks and the position today is, I think, that Labour will not, were they ever to be elected, trust the British people with a referendum.
Up there in the Brussels stratosphere Jacques Delors, in a blast from the past, suggests that Britain might adopt a “Norway style” associate membership of the EU, an idea smartly knocked on the head by Cameron. The President of the European Commission, Jose Manuel Barosso, wishfully suggests that “the Euro is out of danger”. M. Van Rompuy Pompuy tells us that “the euro is on the road to recovery” and Frau Merkel adds, helpfully, that “the crisis is far from over”. Holland`s Prime Minister , though, describes Cameron`s Future of Europe speech as “strong, with good ideas”. Let`s go Dutch.
The Council of Europe, to which I am a UK parliamentary delegate, is emphatically not the European Union but within the ranks of the representatives of EU Member states that are also signed up to the CoE the Cameron speech generates a mixed reaction. The UK is still under the cosh for failing to implement a European Court of Human Rights ruling that we must find a way to give at least some convicted criminals voting rights. Europe seems unable the grasp the concept of a parliamentary democracy under which the government cannot compel democratically elected Members of Parliament to enact a particular piece of legislation. The Secretary General of the Council, a decent Norwegian, tells me that if we do not want to implement the ECHR ruling then we can vote to leave the Council of Europe. Be careful what you wish for. It might just happen! This is akin to the French Foreign Minister, Laurent Fabius, saying that you “cannot join a football club and then play rugby”.. Pedantically one might suggest that rugby is football, but that aside it is sometimes necessary to recognise that the game has changed. When Churchill signed us up to a Council of Europe the ECHR was designed to deal with serious abuses of the holocaust kind. The ECHR now has a backlog of a hundred and fifty thousand cases dealing with all manner of meddlesome minutiae and matters that ought properly to be dealt with by national governments. The EU and the Council of Europe will either change to recognise sovereign powers or both edifices will collapse.
One has to pay some attention to Mr. Grant Shapps who, as Chairman of the Conservative Party and presumably speaking for the government, is quoted as saying “we may leave the European Union if we do not get powers back”. Lord Foy of That Persuasion, a former European Commissioner himself, warns that “major corporations will abandon the UK if we re-negotiate.” It was, of course, his same Lordship who in 2003 told us that “staying out of the Euro will mean fewer businesses investing in Britain”. He offers, though, small comfort for `the two Eds`, Milipede and Balls. Labour, he tells them, offers no credible alternative and “is still not trusted with the economy”. Would you hand the keys back to the team that crashed the car?
Far too much attention has been diverted from the Prime Minister`s “Bruges” speech by domestic issues dominated wholly unnecessarily by the Same-Sex Marriage bill. This crusade, introduced with no electoral mandate whatsoever, has now managed to unite much of the `gay` community, who see it as a patronising gimmick, and the grass-roots of the Tory party in opposition to what is by the latter regarded as an assault on values and faith held dear. We have other, rather more pressing, matters such as the introduction of new benefits and pensions regimes, the possibility of a triple-dip recession, education reforms , the failure of the government to introduce promised tax breaks for married couples, and Chris Grayling`s prison reforms, to concern ourselves with. A “not the re-launch” of the coalition offers a vision of a “Ronseal deal” that “does what it says on the tin” (Cameron) and “The unvarnished truth” (Clogg) but the reality is that this marriage is less than gay and under stress. Lord (Tom) Strathclyde has been hugely successful and popular as Leader of the House of Lords but he quits for greener pastures. Has “the coalition broken down in the Lords”? “I might well have said that” says Tom, following the loss of the vote on the Parliamentary Boundaries Bill as the Liberal Democrats side with the Opposition.
A party that purports to believe in “fair Votes” and that was only recently proclaiming support for the measure to reduce the number of Commons seats by fifty and to re-distribute the electorate on more proportional terms then votes against the measure in the Commons. The rules say that if Government Ministers wish to vote against the government then they must resign. This does not, apparently, apply to St. Nicholas of Clogg and his colleagues who are allowed to defeat the government bill with impunity.
“Britain” says Junior Rail Minister Norman Baker, “has a premium rail service” and “we`re not doing too bad”. We are certainly paying a premium price! My commuting constituents, however, having seen yet another large hike in rail fares while simultaneously standing on platforms in the freezing cold waiting for trains that are delayed or do not arrive at all no longer see the funny side of this idiotic Ministerial proclamation. Someone, I suppose, has to pay for Network Rail`s Management bonus scheme but paying more for less is becoming intolerable to the point of civil disobedience. Why is it that a flake of snow brings chaos to our trains and shuts Heathrow but not Gatwick or Moscow airports? While British drivers are marooned in cars stuck on motorways overnight I drive from Calais to Strasbourg through a blizzard behind two of what the French describe, in delightful pidgin English, as “snew plogs”, with little difficulty other than curtailed speed. Perhaps we can look to the new Secretary of State for Transport for salvation. The proposed High Speed Two rail line will be, if built, the first major investment in railway infrastructure north of London for more than a century. Predictably, Patrick McLaughlin took flack following his statement of intent. Too many Tory seats in too many Tory shires subjected to long-term planning blight while the details are thrashed out. If nobody plans any new lines, however, then our grandchildren will pay the price for antiquated and inadequate infrastructure resulting from a lack of political vision and courage. Mc Loughlin lacks neither. The real question that might have been posed by Victorian railway engineers is “why does it take getting on for twenty years to build a new line”? The Shadow Rail Minister, meanwhile, seeks to claim credit for building the High Speed One line that at present runs only between Ashford in Kent and St. Pancras. Here`s hoping that the coalition government will complete the task and push the first “High Speed” line through to Manson Airport and East Kent.
In Davos Mayor Boris tells Chancellor George to ditch austerity . This would be the same Mayor Boris who, referring to cuts in child benefit for middle class couples as `having the courage to do the blindingly obvious `, noted that over a lifetime the reduction in payments would only amount to the cost of “ten half-decent ski holidays”. Is the “austerity” line a comment on twenty pounds` worth of pizza and fondue with rocket and parmesan cheese that Boris and Dave and George were seen dining out on. The sleuth who reported this excess is one Ben Stewart of Greenpeace. Twenty pounds a head? In Davos? Is Mr Stewart sure that he has not left a couple of noughts off the bill? Also in Davos Man David warns corporate tax avoiders to “wake up and smell the coffee”. Starbucks, taking this personally as well they might, threaten to curb UK investment in riposte. They will be sorely missed . Two Costas, please.
Vice president of the European Commission Neelie Kroes has her eye on your newspapers. If she gets her way press regulation will become an EU competence with national regulatory bodies working to an EU format under her directorate.
Dame Liz Forgan is leaving the Arts Council in the wake of cuts. Her £12,500 leaving party at the British Museum, attended by Culture Minister Ed Vaizey, was described as “a thought leadership piece”.
During recent storms National Lottery winner Robert Johnson drove his car into a ford and had to abandon it in mid stream. “I don`t understand what the fuss is about” he is reported to have said. “It`s just a flooded Bentley”.
It is 2013 and Utah High School has censored the lyrics of Elvis Presley`s 1957 hit “All Shook Up” as “too racy”. The offending words are “Her lips are like a volcano that`s hot”. Neat PR stunt.
Beware Cameroons. In the former French colony two men have been gaoled for “looking gay and drinking Baileys”. Another neat PR stunt?
A Midlands Council has demanded the provision of two bouncers for an Old Age pensioners singalong “if alcohol is served”. They are, says a Council spokesman, “examining their profit and loss margins”.
And a Sheffield teacher has been sacked for pruning a buddleia with a saw without carrying out a risk assessment.
More promisingly a rural council in Galway, Southern Ireland is considering extending drink-drive limits to three pints of, presumably, stout because isolated residents are “becoming depressed”.
Not only is Brigitte Bardot contemplating a move to Russia to escape from Mr Holland`s 75% tax but France`s richest man, Bernard Arnault, is moving to the haven of Belgium`s 3% inheritance tax and it is rumoured that Nicolas Sarkozy and Carla Bruni are contemplating a move to London.
Labour MPs invited to meet Her Maj at a Buck House soiree with their partners have been told that those partners must live at the same address. In other words, no mistresses.
The Salford Broadcasting Corporation has been prevented from filming an anti-smoking scene in Casualty. The programme is made in Wales and Welsh law bans lighting up on the set.
In a blow for real equality the Manager of an East Sussex Care Home has booked `Solitaire`, a stripper, to entertain her elderly and disabled clients. The qualified nurse says that she “has no right to stop people paying for sex”. East Sussex Council says “we plan to examine this under the multi-agency safeguarding procedure to ensure the safety and wellbeing of vulnerable people”. Seems as though that is already being taken care of!
The waiting list for membership of the Women`s Institutes is reported to have grown by 25% in just three years. In addition to Jam and Jerusalem the Institute now offers belly dancing classes.
The big names behind the LIBOR rate-fixing scandal sought law-court secrecy but His Honour decided that Barclays bosses Bob Diamond, Jerry Del Missier, Rich Ricci and John Varley should be named.
A sex attacker cannot be deported to the Sudan because “his tribe is persecuted”. The Attorney General is said to be looking at the case.
Daphne Oxenford has died at the age of 93. Young listeners with Mother will remember the dulcet tones of “are you sitting comfortably? Then I`ll begin”.
Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Hayward has criticised the Civil Service as “too slow and lacking in business skills” and The Legacy has surfaced to indicate that Whitehall is “not fit for purpose”. Now, let us remind ourselves, which Prime Minister was it that stuffed government departments full of his placemen? And who was the doyen of “sofa government”? Not Sir Jeremy, surely? Not surprisingly, while cabinet office Minister Francis Maude is calling for a “flatter, faster” organisation the First Division Association (The “Kindly Call Me God” Union) warns against the dangers of a politically appointed civil service.