Gale's View from Westminster - December 2012
December. “Plebgate” recycled. UKIP replaces the LibDems as “the refuge for disgruntled votes”. The Pollard Report leaves the BBC reeling but no heads rolling. Forests are felled to create newsprint as The Palace announces that The Duchess of Cambridge is pregnant. An ill-judged Australian radio jape ends in a suicide. The American Colonies are on the very edge of the Fiscal Cliff. Egypt votes, sort of. “Equal marriage” is now the euphemism for the Gay Wedding proposals that are tearing the Tory party apart. More Britons now want out of the EU than want in. “The rain, the terrible rain” ruins Christmas for the West Country while the rest of Britain celebrates an on-line retail nativity. And it`s “arise Sir Bradley and Sir Ben” as the Olympics are remembered through the New Year`s Honours list.
For Brits who love talking about the weather this has been a vintage month. It started with a premature and unseasonably early dusting of the wrong kind of snow. This fell just a few days after South-eastern trains (who will of course be yet again raising their rail fares on January 1st 2013) had briefed Kent`s MPs on the measures that had been put in place to ensure that there was no repeat of the chaos that prevailed in the run-up to Christmas 2011. Cancellations, grinding halts and delays were swiftly with us again. Back then, during the three-day winter, we were being told that “The Big Freeze Is Here To Stay” and that the ice-age would be “with us for the foreseeable future” and “could last until the New Year”. If only. December has been the wettest since records were first taken in 1910. Our Newfoundlands were born with webbed feet and even in Kent we could have done with them ourselves as we sloshed through the mud lying on saturated land. Thoughts, though, have to be with those, mainly in the West Country, whose homes and Christmases were ruined and hundreds of houses were flooded in spite of massive investment in what have turned out to be woefully inadequate prevention schemes. At a time like this politicians have to recognise that faced with the forces of nature we are largely impotent. With railway lines literally swept away by the sheer force of water we can say that, just for once, “the wrong kind of rain” has seemed a reasonable excuse for “festive season” travel plans thrown into chaos. “The Legacy” would probably have recalled Parliament but mercifully we have been spared that futile gesture. We shall no doubt be told that “it must not be allowed to happen again, but, notwithstanding the climate change denyers, it will, of course.
My colleague Andrew Mitchell has, I think, forgotten Dennis Healey`s First Law of Holesmanship. (“If you are in one, stop digging”). I fully understand Mr. Mitchell’s desire to rehabilitate his political reputation and probity following the “Plebgate” Affair and having seen evidence that suggests that he was not a little stitched-up by Mr. Plod of the Diplomatic Protection Squad I can understand his sense of frustration and sense of injustice at the premature termination of a rise in power that might, just, have survived a last minute payment of Overseas Aid to a repulsive African dictatorship. Nevertheless, there can be few on the Government benches who have welcomed a domination of the pre-Christmas front pages with a recycling of the Bike/Pleb Gate incident. The net result has been to remind a public that had largely forgotten what was to a considerable extent a Westminster Village story that Mr. Mitchell had found it necessary to apologise to the police for swearing at them and then, finding his position untenable had had to ask his Prime Minister to accept his resignation as the Government Chief Whip. Life is indeed unjust but as one of our Great and Glorious Party Vice-Chairmen, Mr. Fabricant, found himself obliged to point out helpfully that “nobody comes out of this smelling of roses” and that “Mr. Mitchell , not known for being invariably polite and courteous, is still tainted by `plebgate`”. Side effects have included the back-peddling by the oafish Paul McKeever, outgoing Police Federation chief, and a smart handbrake turn by the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Mr. Bernard Hogan-Howe who, having rallied to his constables` cause when the tale first broke is now promising “a ruthless search for the truth” as it looks as though at least some of his officers` reports owe rather more to fiction than to fact. Mr Hogan-Howe, or Sir Bernard as he must now properly be addressed, will, of course, have received and accepted his offer of a knighthood in mid-November before the “Plebgate” saga re-emerged. It is highly likely t hat had the `K` not been already in the post the award might, given subsequent events, have been placed in jeopardy so “a ruthless quest for the truth” seems entirely in order. Don`t hold your breath waiting for the outcome though.
The other sad side-effect of the regurgitation of “Plebgate” has been the scant attention paid by the media to some modest economic good news. The BBC`s doleful Evan Davis and his lugubrious colleagues may well have welcomed the diversion from positive figures but the Office of National Statistics has recorded a highest number of jobs in the private sector at twenty-four million with an increase of six hundred and twenty seven thousand and a related fall in the number of those out of work. The shift from public to private sector employment is a direct result of Government policy and should be welcomed – but good news is not, of course, news.
The Autumn Statement delivered by Chancellor George also produced the odd rabbit out of the hat and the cancellation, rather than postponement, of erstwhile Chancellor Darling`s 3p rise in fuel duty has allowed my colleague Robert Halfon to take a well-earned place in the ranks of successful back-bench parliamentary campaigners. Five billion pounds worth of new expenditure on key infrastructure projects is welcome, as is an increase in the personal tax allowance that will benefit those at the bottom end of the income scale. And although we are told that austerity will now continue until 2018, there are promised cuts in the Whitehall Army. Quite how the Cabinet Office drive to reduce the number of quangoes squares with the creation of an office of The Groceries Adjudicator, a socialist measure if ever there was one, is beyond me but someone somewhere in the aforesaid Whitehall Army must think that the populist idea will prove popular with the plebiscite! We also have to hope that an additional two and a half thousand Revenue and Customs Inspectors will, instead of making life misery for small businesses, finally crack down on Argos and Google and Starbucks and the like. The latter, you will have noted, now proposes to “contribute” £20 million in tax over the next two years. Starbucks, who has paid virtually nothing for fourteen out of fifteen years trading, seems to think that taxation is some kind of voluntary exercise that you can participate in if you want to. £338 million in sales generating a £33 million “loss” is unlikely to cut much ice with those many who have discovered that there are other and more generous taxpaying purveyors of good coffee to patronise!
There is, notwithstanding George`s upbeat message, a £27 billion black hole in the nation`s finances. The Eurozone is on the rocks and the whole European Project is unravelling. Mortgages are still hard to come by and largely unaffordable for first-time buyers and many households, faced with negative equity, are trapped and unable to embark upon necessary moves. There are one or two local difficulties in the Middle East in general and in Syria, Egypt, Gaza, Israel, and Iran in particular. This is therefore the ideal moment for a parliament, led by Man David and St. Nicholas of Clogg, with warm support from the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Secretary of State for Education The Secretary of State for Transport and former Prime Minister Sir John Major, to tear parliament and the Conservative Party apart over the burning issue of same-sex marriage! This policy, which former police Minister and Gay Conservative Nick Herbert tells us “will enrich society” was contained in not one political party`s election manifesto, is not part of the coalition agreement and has no mandate from the electorate. The justification for spending hours of parliamentary time, facing fierce opposition from the Upper House and very possibly having to invoke a Parliament Act that was intended for use in constitutional matters, in order to ram through the Prime Minister`s doctrine, strikes me as a complete aberration.
The “consultation” exercise has rightly been described as a sham. It was, you may recall, “not a consultation about whether we are going to introduce a same sex marriage bill but about the form that it should take” and “a narrow majority” of two hundred and twenty eight thousand responses were, we are told, in favour of the Government blundering onward. The views of about half a million people who signed a petition to say that did not want the legislation at all were conveniently ignored. Maria Miller, the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport who doubles up on equality issues (why?) tells the House that the forthcoming bill will exempt the Church of England and the Church in Wales from the provisions of same-sex marriage legislation and that changes in equality law will be made to accommodate the “concession”. This, of course, has upset just about everyone. Proponents of Gay Marriage in Church believe that Cameron has sold the pass. The Church of England and the Church in Wales believe, almost certainly correctly, that Her Maj`s signature will still be wet on the promised Act of Parliament when the issue is referred to, and lost before, the European Court of Human Rights. Baroness Sayeeda Warsi, former Conservative Party Chairman, is, as the Government`s Faith Minister, opposed to same-sex marriage and believes that schools will be compelled to teach the joys of same-sex unions. Has the Government taken legal advice on this? Apparently not. The Muslim Council of Great Britain indicates that Muslims, also, want to be included in the exemption. Archbishop of Westminster, Vincent Nicholls, describes the Government`s plans as `Orwellian` and His Honour Judge Sir Paul Coleridge, supporter of The Marriage Foundation, has the temerity to suggest that the administration should forget about same-sex marriage and concentrate, instead, upon tackling family breakdown. (As the United Kingdom is now less likely than any other developed Western nation (two points behind even the USA and 27th out of 30) to have children of fourteen or older living with both parents he has good reason for concern.) Unsurprisingly, perhaps, Nick Herbert is `troubled` by these interventions. Alright, it seems, for the Government to trample all over people`s faiths and beliefs but out of order for the trampled upon to dare to criticise the self-same government. What it has to do with the Ministerial responsibilities of the Department for International Development I am not certain, but Liberal Democrat Minister Lynn Featherlight thinks that it is “shameful to argue against equal marriage”. “Equal Marriage”, you will note, is now the approved euphemism for same-sex `weddings`. My favourite cartoonist, Matt, portrays a Church of England vicar announcing that “I won`t be conducting any gay weddings but I`ve agreed to a slightly camp jumble sale” and offers, in seasonal mode, the childhood nativity thought that “I`m a shepherd and I marry one of the shepherds”. There will, we are told, be same-sex marriages conducted in some churches by 2014.
All of this, and other wholly avoidable elephant traps have proved to be a great recruiting sergeant for UKIP. Name a UKIP politician. Okay, now name another one. I posed this question last month and I have yet to hear an answer. Mr. Far-rage and his motley crew have, though, turned themselves into a sort of Shelter for the politically homeless fulfilling rather the role once played by the Liberals. In the Rotherham by-election they ran Labour second, in Middlesbrough they did likewise, knocking the Conservative candidate into fourth place, and in Croydon they came third. At the turn of the year The Independent opinion poll shows Labour up three points on 41%, the Conservative Party down seven points at 32% , the Liberal Democrats down one point on 11% and UKIP up five points on 8% . We are, I know, mid-term in a very difficult government but unless somebody starts listening to disillusioned Conservative former members then we Tories are likely to find ourselves with nobody to deliver leaflets and UKIP not taking a single seat but securing enough of our votes to rob David Cameron of any chance of an overall majority. And the next Leader of the Conservative Party will then be – who?
So, talking of St. Michael of Gove, who we sort of were, and overlooking his support for same-sex marriage, the patron saint of education marches onward with a vow to axe statutory citizenship classes in favour of real history. This means that schoolchildren might be exposed to the achievements of Sir, Francis Drake, Sir Walter Raleigh, Admiral Lord Nelson and the Duke of Wellington and even Winston Churchill in place of some of the more politically acceptable darlings of the Left. Mr. Gove likes to believe, apparently, that he has done more for schools than the Church of England has achieved in 500 years. Setting aside the fact that his own children are reported to (wisely) take advantage of Church of England primary school facilities my own fuddled brain reminds me that it was the monastic schools that metamorphosed into some of our earliest Grammar Schools. It was, of course, the opportunities for social mobility generated by those grammar schools that public school educated Cabinet Members still seek to deny to those unable to afford private education. The Cabinet might choose to ponder the fact that, at 14.8%, property prices have risen faster in Southend on Sea than anywhere else in the United Kingdom and that that is at least partly due to the proximity of grammar school education. St. Michael wishes to introduce English grammar tests for some six hundred thousand eleven year olds, commencing in the Spring. As one who was fortunate enough to enjoy the benefits of Thomas Hardye`s excellent boarding grammar school in Dorchester might I gently suggest that we should embrace this testing zeal, add in numeracy skills, call it the 11-plus and allow a thousand grammar school blossoms to bloom? Personally – and this may surprise you – I hope that for the sake of the nation Cameron prospers and survives but should a vacancy occur at the top then the man that brought back grammar schools might be seen as a serious contender.
The remaining dog-whistle knicker-twister (apart from immigration) for the Conservative party is, of course, our future within or outwith the European Union. The EU has been, perversely, awarded the Nobel Prize for Peace. The ceremony in Oslo was attended by Martin Schulz, Herman Van Rompuy, Jose Manual Barroso and some twenty leaders of European countries as well as the Europhile Mr. Clogg from Great Britain. Studiously and wisely the event, celebrating “six decades of promoting peace”, was avoided by a Prime Minister of the United Kingdom who clearly had other rather more pressing engagements to occupy his time. Our MEP, Daniel Hannan suggests, with wicked cynicism, that next year it will be the Nobel Prize for Economics.
Ever the populist, the man who does not want to be leader of the Tory Party, Boris Johnson, suggests that David Cameron must hold an “In/Out” referendum and that it should be held before the next general election. Would a Johnson premiership be banging a similar drum? That I rather doubt but with polls suggesting that today more than 50% of the electorate would vote for the exit door it`s easy to see where the Mayor of London is coming from. That Herman Van Rompuy believes that the “EU would fall apart if countries were allowed to pick and choose” which policies they would like to endorse indicates a triumph of bureaucracy over democracy. The people? Choose? Perish the thought. “The single Market”, says Rumpy Pumpy “would unravel”. Now there are those of us who were naive enough to believe that it was a single market and not a Federal United States of Europe, that we were joining all those years ago. And yet curiously, it is the arch-federalist Jacques “Up Yours” Delors, three-times President of the European Commission, who comes out of the woodwork to suggest that the UK could enjoy a “partnership” in a European Free-Trade Area without necessarily remaining a member of the EU. People have had their EU civil service pension rights terminated for less a heresy than that.
I am berated by a reader who tells me that I should stop criticising that “jewel in the national crown, the BBC”. This is in part because I subscribe to the view so aptly expressed by that award-winning journalist Michael Buerk to the effect that the Salford Broadcasting Company`s coverage of the Jubilee Regatta, presented by, amongst others, “ a pneumatic bird-brain more interested in talking to transvestites in Battersea Park than describing the Little Ships” was a national disgrace. If you add the that the Savile business, the resignation on an inflated golden handshake of the Director General, the fiasco that has been the extravagantly unnecessary move of part of the Corporation to Manchester, the gross payoffs handed out to an army of departing senior managers and the like and I fear that I hold to the view that the “jewel in the crown” that is the outfit for which I once worked has more than a little zircon about it. Anyone who believes that the BBC does not now occupy a separate moral universe should take a long hard look at Nick Pollard`s damning report into the manner in which `Auntie` handled the whole sorry Savile affair and the Newsnight non-report of that matter. They might then ask themselves why not a single head has rolled, why the Chairman of the BBC Trust believes that everyone but himself seems to be to blame for this sorry sequence of events, why Lord Patten thinks that he received “shoddy” treatment at the hands of the public Accounts Committee and how, now, the BBC might set about restoring some vestige of the confidence that has been squandered by what was once seen as the global benchmark for public service broadcasting.
And so to the end of the Diamond Jubilee year. Buck House decided, rightly, that with the Duchess of Cambridge entering hospital for treatment for extreme morning sickness it was only going to be a matter of time before the news of Kate`s pregnancy would leak. Better, then, to make the announcement prematurely but responsibly than to risk the speculative alternative. So far, so good. The inevitable media over-reaction followed with, in the context of a change to the rules of accession, “will it be twins?” and “who will rule ?” and every Royal “expert” known to man wheeled out to offer what was very often ill-informed speculation. Hard enough to express genuine pleasure at the thought of a great-grandchild for Her Maj and a young couple who, all being well please God, will in 2013 give birth to their first child. Then came the crass intervention of a couple of juvenile broadcasters from Down Under and the tragic consequences that followed. It was an unfortunate conjunction of events that introduced into the life of a nurse who was clearly already under stress and whose first language was not English, a prankster posing as The Queen. I do not share my Australian friends` view that the ruse was in order at all and I was personally sickened by the hand-wringing and nauseating interview following the death by suicide of the nurse, a Mother of two children. They do not need to be crucified, however, for they will have to live with the consequences of their banality for the rest of their broadcasting careers and beyond. The real culprits are the editors and managers who cleared this drivel for transmission. Young broadcasters make mistakes. That is why experienced editors are paid to steer them away from stupidity and bad taste. They failed.
Arise Sir Bradley and Sir Ben. Congratulations to all of those who made “The Olympic Honours List” and commiserations to those who did not but who will do so, if there is any justice, in the future. Some of our own colleagues, Sir Richard Shepherd, MP and Dame Margaret Beckett, MP, also received long overdue recognition of their long and dedicated public service. If some others were overlooked and if there were included what may appear to be rewards for significant failure then take comfort from the fact that if you know that then they also know.
The man who gave his name to this column, Ed Balls, took just thirty-five seconds from the time that he took to his feet to respond to the Autumn statement, to unravel. Unprepared for the Chancellor`s good news it was a political car-crash of a kind that I have not, in thirty years in the House, ever witnessed before. As the House erupted in disorder it was hard not to feel some sympathy as a front-bench career hit the buffers. Oh dear.
Within three years we are likely to be using plastic banknotes. The Only Way is Essex where they will, we are told, be printed. Sadly, Thanet has missed out which is a pity because when I first became an MP we produced, locally, some very impressive £50 notes. I am not sure that they were authorised by the Bank of England though!
A panel of nine “experts” decreed that BBC Children`s television needs more lesbian, gay and bi-sexual personalities because “children should be introduced to diversity”. Given recent events their timing is immaculate, is it not?
My old friend David Waddington, former Home Secretary, Chief Whip and Governor of Bermuda before entering God`s Waiting Room, is revealed through recently-released Cabinet papers to have suggested the re-introduction of prison ships that might cruise off the coast calling occasionally at ports to pick up supplies and to change crews. Spool forward and imagine the consequences of that today as the Court of Human Rights impose Cruise Liner style comfort and amenities for the seagoing convicts.
A youthful shopper in Southampton was asked to produce ID before being allowed to purchase a Tesco Chocolate pudding. This on the grounds that it “would get hot and might burn him”. The company later confirmed that chocolate puddings were not age-restricted.
The Boy Scout movement, founded by Robert Baden-Powell in 1908, is dropping the reference to God in the Scout Law. “Honourable behaviour” is considered less potentially offensive to atheists. The thought occurs that BP might have considered it more “honourable” for those likely to be offended to take their custom elsewhere.
The Football Association has decided that results for under-9 games are not be collected or collated and that no trophies are to be awarded as this might be “detrimental to the development of young players”. Is this the same FA who presided over the failure of the British team at the Olympics? If so, a competitive spirit developed at an early age might improve our chances in the next Olympics but three.
The Bentley car company has dispensed with the services of its chaplain after ten years of weekly attendance at the production plant. In a spirit of seasonal goodwill he was sacked ten days before Christmas because the company (VW) has “a multi-faith outlook” and he might upset non-Christian workers.
The EU now requires “a hazard for under 3s” to be stamped on 25” footballs – because you can choke on them!
It is reported that Boris Johnson sports a James Bond-style Union Jack “Onesie.” Given Boris` penchant for pedantry and accuracy one has to assume that he says what he means. In which case where does the Jackstaff go?
Have you heard the one about the vicar and the pole dancer? Constables, it seems, are enjoying second jobs in both professions as well as investing in property and working as drivers/chauffeurs, personal trainers, lifestyle coaches, photographers, computer experts and medics. This is the shock/Horror story taken from the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid. Frankly, so long as they are painstaking, thorough, hard-working and efficient when they are on duty does it matter to what use Mr.Plod puts his professional skills in his spare time? I am intrigued by the pole-dancing though.
Sir Patrick Moore, at the age of 89 and described by The Guardian as “an astrologer”! Sir Patrick presented The Sky at Night for an enthralling 55 years and introduced generations to the proper meaning of “star-gazing”.
Kenneth Kendall. The first newsreader to appear, in 1955, on television. Previously TV newsreaders were “voice over stills” because of the BBC`s fears that a newscaster`s facial expressions might convey bias.
William Rees-Mogg. Editor of The Times who knew every Prime Minister from Eden through to Cameron and described by his son, Jacob Rees-Mogg MP, as a man of “inspirational faith”. Jacob also referred to him, with complete justification, as “a great man”.
Sir John Chilcott`s report into the Iraq war has been delayed. Again. After three years Sir John is still embroiled in a row with the Civil Service over the secrecy of papers relating to phone calls between “Legacy” Blair and President Bush. Did Blair agree to back Bush in an Iraq war before the vote in the House of Commons? My own opinion is that the decision was taken at the Camp David meeting weeks before the debate and that the subsequent lies all flowed from that. We may never know. Or we may know if the report is finally published – in the Autumn.
With very best wishes, from Suzy and me, for a splendid 2013.