Westminster View - June 2010
First the phoney war, then the budget, then the economic casualties come home to roost. The UK service death toll rises alarmingly in Afghanistan. The sheen comes off Borat O`Bama and the wheels come off England`s World Cup Chariot of Mire.
The month begins, predictably, with the UK laying an oversized egg in the Eurovision Song Contest, a less than lyrical transfrontier political fantasy that is won, perhaps heralding victories to come, by a Rhine-maiden warbling something which translated from music-speak into English approximates to “That sounds good to me”. Not the tune that the Chancellor of the Exchequer is given to whistling at present!
The pre-Budget softening-up process, aided by a compliant media, is so brutal that were the British people prisoners of war Amnesty International would be complaining about their treatment and the Treasury would be hauled up before the Court of Human Rights. In a sense, of course, we are all the prisoners of the previous administration`s scorched-earth campaign which has left the cupboard so bare that even Mother Hubbard would have been taken aback. The unthinkable is on the coalition agenda.
So much so that by budget day we are expecting every tax to rise, every benefit to be cut, every household to be reduced to begging for gruel and every public-sector job to be at risk. Time was when the merest whiff of what was to be announced would have rocked the City, destroyed the Chancellor and very possibly brought down the Government as well. Not any more. So many speculative announcements are leaked that after weeks of what celebrity chefs describe, I think, as the “drizzling” of anguish there is, frankly, nothing short of burning us individually at the stake (sorry, can`t afford stakes) would seem intolerable and there is only dumb acquiescence left in place of terror. Which is, of course, exactly where the Treasury wants us.
Out of Number Eleven pops Chancellor George, holding aloft the historically battered Despatch Box for the last time before it goes off to its final resting place in a glass sarcophagus, and he scowls meaningfully in line with the contents of the receptacle. And in fact, of course, given the ordure in which the dour Organ grinder has left the country immersed, it could, with a dash of sadism, have been a whole heap worse.
Okay, cuts in tax credits will hit the second holidays of Middle England who always end up bearing the brunt of these exercises, the freeze on child benefit, a paltry (as we now think of anything under a trillion) £11 billion off the welfare bill, medicals for those on disability benefit (how will those be imposed upon the ex-pat community?) and the expected rise in fuel and other duties, are not welcome.. But if we only have to flog our Grannies and are spared the children going down mines then it may not be too bad. Capital Gains Tax raised not to a possible forty but to “only” twenty-eight per cent and that payable only by those on higher rate tax is a clever finesse. Re-linking pensions with earnings (yes, I know that we broke the link in the first place but at least we`re putting it right) and relief for small firms though a cut rather than a rise in corporation tax, together with the removal of tax increases on holiday letting properties all sweeten the pill a little.
But there is, of course, the small matter of VAT! Back in April, when we were all trying to win a general election, Man David and Boy George both said that “we have no plans to increase VAT”. And the Yellow Peril, as we were allowed to call them back in those heady, carefree, campaigning days , ran a “Tory Tax Bombshell” poster launched by St. Nicholas of Clogg himself no less, proclaiming that a Tory Government would cost every family £350 a year through an increase in VAT. How times change. Now we are all in the same bed together (some, it seems, more literally than others), we know that “broke” means seriously, excruciatingly, penniless as a nation and if we are going to stop the ship of state from sinking, never mind turning the battered old craft around, then we need a lot of boodle from somewhere – so 20% VAT it is.
Even here, though, Chancellor George pulls a baby bunny out of the hat.. No imposition of VAT on fuel and unprocessed food and children`s clothing, which eases the burden for those on the very lowest incomes, and no increase at all until January 2011. Which means that Father Christmas can still stoke up the credit card debt on luxury goods for one last bender before the axe falls in the New Year.
And fall it will. Guesstimates vary but we are looking at about six hundred thousand public sector job losses and another million or so besides before, if the medicine works, the private sector starts to grow and employ people again. The Prime Minister believes that by the end of the parliament we shall have seen a net increase in jobs and I hope for all of our sakes that he is right. The Prime Minister, before the G8 conference in Toronto, also expresses the intention that we shall have our troops out of Afghanistan by the end of this parliament. That may chime well with the President of the United States, of whom more later, but the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, says while in the USA that we have to see this show through to the bitter end and that it is likely that UK troops will be amongst the last to leave.
I do not doubt the Prime Minister`s good intentions but I am with Dr. Fox on this one. Unless we are to render meaningless the rising sacrifice, through death and appalling injury, of some of our finest young men and women, then walking away leaving the job incomplete will not suffice. Nor will a fudged pretence that Afghanistan is “self-governing” if all hell breaks loose within five minutes of our packing our bags and striking the Union Flag. We have already invested too much in blood and treasure to settle for anything less than lasting peace.
Meanwhile the good people of Wootton Basset stand with bowed heads as more bodies of the brave come home. The toll rises through the 300 mark as June takes its awful toll. Man David`s visit to, and overnight stay in, Camp Bastion was necessary as was his reaffirmation of the military covenant. In that context announcing an immediate and backdated rise in the operational allowance put real money where the words came from.
Armed Forces Day, although a New Labour gimmick, at least allows flags to fly high and proud in honour of our troops and the announcement that the Royal Tournament, albeit scaled down and renamed as the British Military Tournament, is to make a comeback to raise funds for the Army Benevolent Fund, will start to right that wrong that the last government committed by abolishing the tournament in 1999. (Earls Court, December 4/5 if you want to book tickets for this year).
And so to the Gulf of Mexico and the failure of the American technology that led to the oil blowout that has caused so much grief to so many people. Loss of life, whether one or one hundred or one thousand always means that bereaved families are left behind and nobody should make light of that in any way at all. The damage that the oil spill has done and will continue to do to the environment of the Gulf is quite awful and we should not try to play that down either.
But for the President of the most powerful nation on earth to seek to scapegoat a “British “company and to lay the blame at the door solely of those who, yes, have been in business for profit but who are also driven to deep-water drilling to try to satisfy the oil strategy of the USA is just a little bit rich. Setting aside the high percentage of American investment in the company and the US as well as UK and other pension interests in a business that has hitherto been successful , let`s not forget that America is more energy-wasteful and more environmentally-polluting than most other countries in the developed world. It was John Napier, the Chairman of Royal Sun Alliance, who pointed the finger straight at “the polluted securities from the irresponsible and unchecked greed and avarice of the leading USA international banks”. He could have added US energy interests to that catalogue. Pots and kettles spring to mind.
There was a time when it appeared that Obama could walk on water. Now it seems questionable whether or not he can even swim. The spectacle of the President of the United States expending energy upon determining “whose arse to kick”, with one eye if not both not on environmental loss but upon mid-term elections is deeply unattractive and has, I suspect , diminished his stature from demi-god back to mere mortality. Seeking to compare the oil spill with 9/11 was, as one American observer said, plain cheap. Likewise, while BP`s embattled executive Tony Hayward may not win too many prizes for bullet-proof diplomacy , the eight-hour bear-baiting session before a group of oafish congressmen each trying to prove his political virility for the benefit of the TV gallery was unedifying beyond belief. And while they`re berating Tony Hayward for taking time out, after two months, to spend a day with his son on the Round The Island Race they might care to remind their electorates of the amount of time that this Democrat President spends on the golf course during various crises. Then they can start asking questions of Transocean and Haliburton.
Obama`s step-grandmother, Mama Sarah, is quoted as saying “he is simply a perfectionist who believes that people must be made to pay for their mistakes”. Okay, Mr. Perfectionist. In 1984 the American Company Union Carbide was responsible for the deaths of thousands of Asian Indians and the destruction of the long-term health of a million more in Bhopal, India. To date the compensation paid by the USA and the company has been pitiful and the Chief Executive of that company, Warren Anderson, has escaped Indian justice and is currently holed up in New York. So when do propose to settle those debts, Mr. President? Or will it be left to the next President, General Stanley McChrystal perhaps, to do the job for you?
I do not wish to offend my American friends but “British” men and women are putting their lives on the line in what is largely a US-led adventure in Afghanistan and on the other side of the Atlantic it needs to be remembered that a relationship is only “special” just as long as both sides value it.
It began with a giant dung beetle and a cacophony of VuVuzelas and, so far as those of us who still write “English” in the appropriate box on the census forms are concerned, it ended prematurely, ignominiously and in tears of frustration. Why is it that a country that boasts many of the world`s finest Premier League teams and lays claim to being the home of what those that support the round balled version of football like to call “the beautiful game” cannot put together a side of eleven competent men capable of thrashing the likes of the USA, Algeria and Slovenia? As one commentator said while we were remembering the Battle of Britain, if The Few had been as incompetent as the English Soccer team and its manager we would all, by now, be speaking German!
Personally, I subscribe to the view that our national game is cricket and admire those who, like Compo, used to pick up a bat in the summer and kicked a ball around in the winter, where that other game properly belongs. Nevertheless, there is national pride at stake so let me offer a solution . We do not pay those representing us in the soccer World Cup at all. Instead, we invite the best of the English best to compete for the honour of wearing the England shirt and we meet their expenses. If, and only if, they win they receive a modest fee. Otherwise, like their fans, they come home with nothing. Fair?
The end of the month. Her Maj visits Wimbledon for the first time in 33 years and is denied the opportunity to take a peek at Court Eighteen where John Isner and Nicolas Mahout slog it out over a record breaking 138 games played over eleven hours and five minutes. (for those who have just returned from Mars, Isner won). A Liberal Democrat Postal Affairs Minister, Ed Davey, announces that the Royal Mail will be sold, Network Rail bosses, mindful of the need for austerity, award themselves £2.5 million in bonuses, Sports Minister Jeremy Hunt and Schools Minister Michael Gove launch the return of “real school games” to replace “problem solving exercises”, Former Justice Minister and Perpetual President of the National Union of Students, Jack Straw, tells us that that “prison works” while his successor, Ken Clarke, QC , endears himself to the Tory party but indicating that he wants fewer criminals sent to prison. And we haven`t even reached Ballswatch yet!
Fresh from endeavours to impose European Economic Government and the scrutiny of national budgets upon us Brussels votes that eggs and bread rolls shall be sold not by the dozen but by weight.
The BBC tops its modest contingent of only 292 employees at the World Cup in South Africa by sending around 400 essential people to the Glastonbury Festival. Presumably the latter were all issued with Corporation standard Kath Kidson designer wellies.
Choosy chefs can now cook using the contents of three-litre bottles of ”Aquamara” (seawater) from the Outer Hebrides for only £4.95 a pot. On Margate Main sands we still get the stuff for free.
You`ve had the wrong kind of snow and wet leaves on the line. Now a state-of-the art railway train running between Halifax and Kings Cross is brought to an embarrassing halt. By dandelion seeds in the air filters.
The Epsom and St.Helier Hospital Trust wins the Florence Nightingale Award for clamping 1700 patients` cars in a year. Macmillan, the cancer support charity, calculates that at an average 53 visits a year those with the disease are forking out about £325 per annum (or per anum, as my Classics wag used to say) in parking fees.
And talking of Latin, a Department of Education ( as it is now renamed) spokesman says that it cannot be taught as a modern language because “pupils are not able to interact with native Latin speakers”.
Root languages are off the menu then but that will not be enough to satisfy former Europe Minister Chris Bryant who, from the despatch box, describes the French language as “useless” and would prefer that Arabic, Spanish or Mandarin be taught instead. He, fortunately, is unlikely to wish to make small-talk with Bruno Carli.
Tom Herbert, a baker of Gloucester, has created a Shepherd`s Loaf, favoured, it is said, by the likes of Liz Hurley and Damian Hirst and selling at £25 a time. “When you taste it you know the difference”. Yes. About two pounds a sandwich.
Labour leadership candidate Ed Miliband is backing proposals to enforce 50% female membership of the Shadow Cabinet. The author of this proposal would appear to be Mad Hattie whose husband, Jack Dromey, famously avoided an all-woman shortlist to obtain his safe Birmingham parliamentary seat.
Meanwhile my colleague Philip Hollobone, the Honourable Member for Kettering and secretary of the Keble College Conservative Association between 1984 and 1987 unkindly reveals that on the membership list at that time was one Ed Balls. It is understood that people join other parties` memberships in order to be able to hear their guest speakers but was it wise for a Labour leadership contender to allow himself to be photographed in Nazi uniform at a 1986 university party?
Dog walkers in Greater Manchester using long leads could face a fine. Anything over two metres may be deemed to be in breach of that Council`s interpretation of the Clean Neighbourhoods and Environment Act. So now you know. Long leads are dirty.
Rumour has it that The Legacy is vexed because having spent four years polishing the spin on his definitive version of his years in Downing Street he will be pipped to the publishing post by the “gossipy and slapdash” scribbling of Lord Foy of That Persuasion. The Legacy can console himself with the thought that the BBC (and now you know what the initials stand for) wants to broadcast the serialisation of his great work. That, however, is unlikely to add sufficient to the Blair coffers to allow him to bail out the “birthplace of New Labour”, the Trimdon Labour Club, which is suffering from loss of business arising from Blair`s Smoking Ban!
Mr. Speaker Bercow, whose faith may or may not be a matter of record, has rattled the establishment of the Church of England by appointing the Reverend Rose Hudson- Wilkin as the Chaplain to the House of Commons in place of the retiring and truly wonderful Robert Wright. As a result the Reverend Wilkin will not receive either the living of St. Margaret`s Church, Westminster, which normally goes with the chaplaincy, or the grace-and-favour residence that goes with that Rectorship..
Now, perhaps surprisingly, I am a supporter of the Women`s priesthood and I look forward to the day when a female Bishop is appointed. Rose Wilkin seems like a good and jolly, if leftish, lady of the cloth and might well have been in the running for a Bishopric at the appropriate time. I do hope that The Speaker has not inadvertently done her a disservice.