Westminster View - May 2010
May Day, Mayday. A government in distress. Is anyone available to keep the Red Flag flying? Mayfly. May fly. May not. The national carrier is grounded while the General Secretary twitters. May flower. A strange blossom pushes its head through the ordure of the political pasture. Can this rare species survive or will the new herd trample it to extinction?
May begins with the traditional Liberal Democrat "Two Horse Race". It does depend upon which constituency you are in, of course. In my neighbouring South Thanet, for example, where challenging Tory Laura Sandys will go on to win the seat from the sitting Labour MP, the flip-flops are saying that "The Tories are out of the race: only we can beat Labour"! Nevertheless, the opinion polls are interesting, with the Conservative Party on 33%, Liberal Democrats on 32% and Labour "trailing", as the sports commentators say, on 24%. A "two horse race" possibly, but we know that these polls will turn into very different election results because of the way that votes are distributed. It does, though, put us firmly in the hung-parliament territory that I have been predicting for months.
The less comforting news at the start of May is that those of us who are employed will toil for three more days this year before we stop working for the taxman and start earning money for our families. And that's before we help to raise the £95 billion that Europe will use to prop up the failing Greek economy! Tax Freedom Day, as it is called, has now been pushed back to 30th May from the start of the tax year.
The Commonwealth Parliamentary Association has sent election observers to the UK to make sure that are elections are "free and fair". With good reason. At close of poll on 6th May some voters are still queuing to cast their ballot papers and are "denied their democratic rights". As the polling stations open at seven in the morning and do not close until ten o'clock at night and, for much of the day, are under occupied this does rather beg the question "where have all of these deprived voters been for the past fifteen hours"? But rights is rights and there will be the inevitable enquiry.
On Election Day I begin my customary tour of polling stations and party committee rooms at 07.00, have the round-tour completed by mid-day and then hit the phones to try to galvanise our pledged support into real votes cast. Later, much later, Suzy and I join our colleagues for the count. In the early hours of what the weathermen describe as "the first day of summer" (it is pouring with rain over much of England) I learn that I am still the Member of Parliament for North Thanet and that my majority has almost doubled. A few minutes later Laura Sandys replaces Steve Ladyman as the MP for Thanet South and there is a dignified exchange of courtesies between winners and losers. Winning seats is the object of the exercise and is, of course, what we have set out to achieve. It means, inevitably, that others and those that they employ then lose their jobs. That is the business that we are in.
As dawn breaks the Clunking Fist is still hanging on as the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Tories 36.1% and 306 seats (with one still to come), Labour 29% and 258 seats, Liberal Democrats (down five seats in spite of the St. Nicholas factor) 23% and 57 seats and others 11.9% and 28 seats. It is arguable that those who for some extraordinary reason still vote for UKIP denied a further ten euro-sceptic Tories (including David Heathcoat-Amery in Wells) their seats but even that would have not delivered a working majority. We are into horse trading or, as one tabloid so delicately puts it, "It's Shabby Deals Time".
Shabby deals time. British Airways cabin staff vote to support 20 days of strikes disrupting air travel throughout the Spring and Summer holiday season. There are probably as many differing views of the rights and wrongs of this dispute as the combined readership of The Daily Mirror and The Sun. The chances of a successful negotiated settlement between a Chief Executive of a loss-making airline and union leaders determined to maintain their members` rights to "Spanish practices" is not enhanced by the fact that one of the Union's Secretaries General is found to be "tweeting" a running commentary on what are supposed to be confidential discussions to waiting activists who then cause a mini-riot and disrupt the talks. Bags of trust there, then.
Those that decided that, following the General Election, The State Opening of the new parliament should not take place for a fortnight clearly had a hung parliament and the consequent negotiations, in mind. As phantom government Ministers, some of whom have lost their parliamentary seats but are peculiarly still in office, keep the wheels of government turning while unable to take any decisions, teams of Labour, Liberal Democrat and Conservative negotiators hammer out terms for the formation of something approximating a government. St. Nicholas said, you will recall, that he would lend his support first to the party with the largest number of seats. So that's the Conservatives. A Lib-Lab deal would not deliver enough seats to form a majority without the backing of Plaid Cymru, The Scot. Nats and at least some of the Northern Ireland Members and that has the potential for not one but at least four tails wagging the dog. On the other hand for many Liberals a deal with Tories is unthinkable and their natural allies are in New if not in Old Labour. It was that former Liberal leader, Paddy Ashdown, was it not, who wrote in his diaries that "a hung parliament would not be a dream - it would be a nightmare!"
Well, to mix the images, it may be a pantomime mare but it's the only mare in town. We learn later of the clandestine meetings and skulduggery taking place in private, with, it is said, Lord Foy of That Persuasion once again trying to work the strings. More transparent discussions are taking place in the glare of flashbulbs and TV lights. It is said that St. Nicholas was in secret talks with the Big Organ Grinder up to two hours before a deal is struck with the Conservatives but in the end the Prime Minister throws in the tantrum and heads off to Buck House to tell Her Maj that he will be vacating Downing Street. The Labour leadership challenge is launched and Mr. Cameron is invited by the Queen to form a government. And it`s still only 10th May!
The Cleggeron administration is under way and details of the winners and losers in terms of cabinet posts and policies emerge. St. Nicholas is Deputy Prime Minister, St. Vincent of Cable becomes Business Secretary while to much surprise Liberal negotiator David Laws takes the Cabinet job of Chief Secretary to the Treasury and Budget Hatchet Man. Chris Huhne is Climate Secretary and Danny Alexander is Secretary of State for Scotland with Liberal Democrats also taking some other more junior Ministerial posts. There will be a referendum on the reform of the voting system and "other concessions will be laid before you". In the Rose Garden of Ten Downing Street Man David the Prime Minister and St. Nicholas, his partner, appear coyly united for the benefit of the Press. Lord Ashdown describes himself as "still blinking with surprise". Elsewhere Conservative and Liberal activists and some MPs mutter darkly of treachery and sell-out, appearing oblivious to the fact that it is electoral arithmetic and the inevitable compromises dictated by it, that have led to this shotgun marriage.
Remember this and, when the time comes as it must, vote accordingly: proportional representation will lead to permanent hung parliaments and coalition.
Turning to serious matters of State beside which the economy pales into insignificance our bid to host the World Cup is placed in jeopardy by David Triesman. The former Labour Minister and Football Association Supremo is revealed as having discussed with a much younger and female associate the suggestion that attempts are being made to bribe Russian and Spanish referees during the current Cup season in South Africa. Exit Lord Triesman .
In East Ham Labour's ex-Treasury Minister and Member of Parliament Stephen Timms is savagely attacked by a constituent at an advice surgery. Stephen, a decent and inoffensive man, happily survives but it is a reminder of the very real dangers faced on a daily basis by those in public life. We want to be accessible. If you want to be accessible you are also vulnerable. Small wonder that the boys from MI5 are worried by Man David's determination to walk and cycle about his Prime Ministerial job with minimum protection.
The gloss paint on the new political bicycle is hardly dry before the wheels start to come off. The Daily Telegraph, paragon of virtue and scourge of all wrongdoers (except, of course, their own) reveals that the Chief Secretary to the Treasury, David Laws, has had a long partnership with the male owner of the flat in which he lives and upon which he has, improperly under the rules, paid rent. How long the Torygraph has been sitting on this little grenade before pulling out the pin is unclear but it explodes with devastating effect. No matter that, had he openly declared his gay relationship instead of seeking to conceal his private life, Laws could quite legitimately have claimed a great deal more in allowances; no matter that only a couple of days before Laws had, from the Despatch Box, delivered a performance that received wide acclaim; no matter that this man is an integral part of an administration pledged to sort out the economy. He is, after seventeen days in office, gone. I am sure that the Diaspora of Fleet Street will feel that it has done its job and there are those politicians that take significant pleasure from the fact that Liberals who have, during the election, presented themselves as untainted by expenses scandals are now found to have dirty hands. I am not one of them. This is bad for a new government with a daunting task ahead and, probably, in the long term bad for UK limited as well. A BPIX survey suggests that only 21% of the public believe that the new government will last for its planned five year fixed term. A larger 30% give it two years, 32% give it one year and a minority 16% believe that it will survive for just six months. Place your bets.
On his first visit to his new office David Laws had found a letter penned by his Labour predecessor, Liam Byrne. "Dear Chief Secretary" it said”There is no money left".
In jest, of course, is many a true word spoken. The economic earth is scorched and the Government has to both save money and try to honour manifesto and coalition agreement commitments. To raise the tax threshold to £10,000 and thus take some of those on lowest incomes out of tax altogether is attractive but will cost money. To pay for this by raising Capital Gains Tax to forty or fifty per cent would, if it is not tapered, be sheer folly. It is one thing to tax short-term gains on property or share transactions but quite another to penalise the thrifty who have made long-term investment provision for healthcare or retirement. Much better brains than mine have indicated very publicly that without finesse this proposal will damage those of modest means while raising no more money as those with the real cash and ability to do so will simply shift their affairs overseas. It has happened before and as Sir Michael Caine said "Share out the slices fairly by all means but don't destroy those who are making the bloody cake”. Chancellor George will need to take good heed of this ticking time-bomb and his soon to be delivered Emergency Budget is going to need all the nerve and balance of a class high-wire act without a safety net.
In the dissolution (disillusion?) honours that ageing class-warrior John Prescott receives a peerage, which will please Lady Pauline, who has earned it, and Sir Ian Blair, the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police in whom Boris Johnson had no confidence is also elevated. This in the month when our Olympic Mascots (Much) Wenlock and (Stoke) Mandeville, two one-eyed plastic dummies, are launched upon an unsuspecting British nation. Mayor Boris decrees that "it is hard to imagine a mascot more in tune with the times". Says it all, really.
Sell a gunboat! Labour has flogged the Royal Navy. 137 ships in 1997 down to 97 this year. The beneficiaries include Canada, Greece, The Philippines, Trinidad and Tobago, Guyana, Bangladesh, Romania, Estonia, Chile, Brazil and, apparently, Lithuania.
The notorious Lada automobile is back on sale. (What do you call the owner of a Lada with a speeding ticket? "A fantasist".)
In the Health Service not only Matrons but now Ward Sisters are an endangered species. Cornwall and the Scilly Isles NHS Trust, and others, are installing "Ward Managers" to avoid discriminating against male ward sisters (Charge Nurses) under the terms of their Equality and Diversity Action Plan. It must be the Scilly Season down West. Cornwall's licensing committee, chaired by the helpfully named Mr. Flashman, is reported to be undertaking a tour of lap-dancing clubs "in order to be as well-informed as possible".
The Keeper of the Special Collection at the Bodleian flies first class to New York with a copy of the Magna Carta on a separate seat beside him. Security are not permitted to open the package on departure. Question: will the US immigration officials waiting at JFK, not renowned for their milk of human kindness and understanding, be as helpful when the priceless package arrives?
And talking of the milk of human kindness the new Qatari owners of Harrods have given Leyla and Nigel Holland, proprietors of a coffee lounge on the A12 in Essex, until the end of the month to change their logo which, expensive lawyers feel, too closely resembles the Horrids script.
Security firms are earning £23 million to guard police stations and a Judge frees a man who committed a burglary while on bail on an assault charge so that he can care for Vinnie, his Staffordshire Bull Terrier. Dog lovers? We still are.
Or are we? A blind man of 75 is given a £40 fixed penalty notice for failing to clean up after his guide dog. He is, of course, unable to see that the Golden Labrador, "Copper" by name, had done unmentionable things on civic property.
Ed "too posh for Yorkshire" has held his seat. The man who has loaned his name to this item and contributed so generously to international jollity, is now offering himself as Leader of the Labour Party. If I did not think that it would damage his chances I would offer my services as his campaign manager. Britain Needs Balls.
A nation that is on the rocks can still show that it is capable of remembering those who did the fighting on the beaches. Seventy years after Dunkirk a convoy of fifty of the remaining "Little Ships" sets sail from Ramsgate, in Thanet, bound for the coast of France. Sadly, that wonderful Paddle Steamer, The Medway Queen, still in desperate need of funding for restoration, is not among them but survivors of the "miracle of deliverance" and their families are. We going to need a lot of the Spirit of Dunkirk to get us through some very troubled waters that lie ahead and it's good to be reminded that others have gone the extra mile in the past in order that we can go the extra several miles today.