Gale's View from Westminster - May 2012
May - says “marriage should be for everyone”. Her Maj opens parliament and waxes regally, Sarko wanes brutally, Public No Service as strikers and off-duty Coppers march, The Muttering Idiot is withdrawn, Clogg essays purple prose and fails, Leveson does not require advice from politicians (official), the long wait for the Olympics is almost over – or just beginning if you have landed at Heathrow airport, fiscal fog in the Channel, Eurozone cut off and valete to the creator of the `5-point bob`.
Parliament has been opened in stately style for the first time in two years. State Openings always used to cheer us up in November but following the passage of the “Mending Things That Are Not Broken Act”, otherwise known as Fixed Term Parliaments. State Openings will have to be held within a cough and a spit of the First Thursday (Henceforth “Election Day”) in May to coincide with a five-yearly General Election.
Why any Prime Minister that did not have to would voluntarily surrender the right to call a General Election at a time to suit his own political convenience is still beyond me but that is how it now is and so Her Maj took a Jubilee trundle along to the Palace of Westminster and read out the widely pre-trailed menu for the next twelve parliamentary months. For the first time ever on such an occasion (and I have now been present at nearly thirty of them) I thought that The Monarch looked a little out of sorts. I trust that it was the understandable frustration of having to regurgitate a litany of tedium that had already been rehearsed in several editions of The Daily Telegraph and nothing more serious that had momentarily rattled her cage.
Pensions, The House of Lords, Enterprise, Banks, Supermarkets, Charities, Children and Families, Defamation, Rights of Succession, Energy, Water, Public Services, Crime and the Courts, Care and Support, EU Bailouts, will all receive your meddlesome legislative attention and “other measures will be laid before you” while we will do our Jubilee duty and haul our regal selves around the Country and the Commonwealth as we have done, tirelessly, for the last sixty years. Aren`t we allowed to feel just a little jaundiced about your programme of bills when we all know that the only thing that really matters is sorting out the economy that My Last Government brought to its knees? (But of course we are not permitted to say that. Now if Prince Philip and I were allowed to write The Speech………..)
Why, when there are one or two burning issues that Government needs to address rather smartly, are we messing around with a reform of the House of Lords that Man David regards as “a fourth term priority” and that very few Members on either side of the House other than the Liberals squatting on the government benches `below the gangway`, wants? The answer, of course, is that it is consolation prize for St. Nicholas of Clogg to compensate for his resounding incompetence in failing to secure a “Yes” majority for an Alternative Voting system. Is that a good reason for wasting months of parliamentary time roaring up and down this Westminster cul-de-sac? I do not think so but clearly some teenage gnome in the Cabinet Office has had a bill in the back pocket of his short trousers since the heady days when The Legacy last tinkered with the Upper House.
A good month for “The Firm”, currently valued, so the bean-counters tell us, at £44 billion to the United Kingdom. Some, and that appears to include a Prime Minister who has candidly referred to her “time tested wisdom”, regard Her Maj as just priceless. No matter that some of our largest and most `loyal` companies have declined to contribute to the River Pageant or that others have shamelessly cashed in on `Jubilee packages` without bringing even a bottle of Cava to the party; does it matter that the estranged Queen Sofia of Spain is told by her own government hat she cannot join other worldwide Royals at Windsor to celebrate a unique Diamond Jubilee because we, as a nation, stand rock-like behind the people of The Rock of Gibraltar? The Prince of Wales and the Duchess of Cornwall may, forecasting the weather for BBC Scotland, have predicted “prolonged reign” but a world record-breaking 91 trumpeters from seven units have, at London`s Wellington Barracks, sounded a right note of well-earned fanfare. There may be “Nothing like a Dame”, and twenty four of ours attended the Jubilee Arts celebration at the Royal Academy, but there is certainly nothing like “The Real Thing” and hundreds of Royal Garden Party visitors abandoned the fourteen sandwiches and cakes that each guest is reputed to devour for a sight of the Duchess of Cambridge at a first “Garden” event dominated, as ever, by the Diamond Queen. No wonder that so many nations that have cast aside or executed their monarchs now try so hard, and with such futility, to reinvent the irreplaceable.
Madame Tussauds has made a number of botched attempts to produce a sufficiently convincing waxwork of Her Maj for visitors from the American Colonies to be photographed alongside but in this Jubilee year their sculptor really has come up trumps. Whether it was the threat of perpetual confinement in the Tower of London`s most grim oubliette or the promise of an honour that did the trick I know not but if you cannot (as most of us cannot) get to see The Queen then Madame T`s facsimile is alarmingly lifelike. On with Her head.
And talking of beheading, which we came close to, events across La Manche took a nasty turn that may have not inconsiderable implications for Her Majesty`s government and those of us who ordinarily support its works. Marine Le Pen, a chip off the Old Blockhead, calls upon her troopers to deny Sarko their support in the French Presidential election run-off. “Le Pudding” Hollande tells Sarko that the Wee Man has “failed France”. Sarko says that the very adverse opinion polls are “lying”. Iain Duncan Smith predicts that French exiles fleeing the financial guillotine will `flood Britain` and There Was a Sound of Revelry by Night as France votes to Spend, Spend, Spend instead of austerity. Whither Merkel? Whither Cameron?
The wrong horse won the French Derby and shirts were lost. Will Martine Aubry, creator, thirteen years ago, of the Sangatte asylum camp and author of the 35-hour week, become Hollande`s Prime Minister? Will Segolene Royal`s former lover make her President of the National Assembly? Will the `warm relationship` between Milipede the Younger and Le Pudding lead to a “New Europe”? Angela Merkel may know the answers to many of these questions. Will the hand of Deutschland`s Leader that guided M. Hollande along his first Presidential red carpet be strong enough to lead him, also, along paths of fiscal righteousness? We wait with baited breath but unless pragmatism and realism have a place in French policy the post-election ripples could contribute significantly to the gathering European Tsunami.
“A Greek exit from the Eurozone would be a disaster for the United Kingdom” says Mr. Deputy Clogg, speaking in Berlin. He might have, ought to have, stopped there but he could not resist the temptation to try to sound Churchillian. “There are Dark Clouds over Europe” he said, adding that “The tree is falling”. Whether, given his subsequent comments about `social mobility` this privately educated politician was referring to The Family Tree is unclear but the hapless Mr Clogg was the least of many to sound the alarm bells over the failure, by Greece, to form a post election government . Deal or no deal? Frau Merkel offers helpful advice to the Greek President. “Back cuts or leave the Euro” she says.. No deal. And so Greece heads towards a second election day as, in the run-up to the G8 summit, our own Prime Minister describes this as a “make or break” moment for a falling Euro. Not a particularly original observation but probably accurate.
The Justice Secretary, ever-eager to lend his substantial weight to support of the European Project, announces that “only extremists want a referendum on Europe”. I am unashamedly Conservative but I have not, hitherto, viewed myself as particularly “extreme” and I can only say to Ken Clarke that if this is the benchmark for those who he regards as rather to the right of Attila then it would appear that I am in good parliamentary and national company.
As I write the Irish are voting in a referendum to decide whether to back the European Fiscal Treaty or not and the outcome is, at present, unknown.** A “no” vote might have interesting consequences and, with Spain declaring a “total emergency” it is not for nothing that the Bank of England has announced that it is “preparing for the collapse of the Euro”.
British Ex-pats seeking an exit from the Continental madhouse can find no buyers for their properties in the sun.
Home Secretary Theresa May is seeking ways to prevent a flood of exiles from the European Union from swamping Britain when the Euro collapses, although how she proposes to achieve this without “limiting the free movement of labour” between European states is unclear. Mr. Clogg adds, helpfully as euro-usual, that “Britain will not pull up the drawbridge”. Perhaps, with the symbol of the House of Commons in mind, we could just lower the portcullis instead?
The portcullis has, it seems, already been lowered at London`s airports. British Airways (that will be the same British Airways that once stranded strike-hit passengers for several days, presumably) criticises the Borders Agency for not expediting the flow of visitors through passport control. Personal experience certainly suggests that the newly-introduced wizard eye-recognition technology takes far longer to operate than a bloke flipping a page in a passport but whether it is “the wrong kind of wind” or the sheer volume of passengers or aircraft arriving late and in clusters it is certain that Miss Joan Collins found herself in an unaccustomed queue at Heathrow and that “a summer of air chaos” is cheerfully predicted, as the Olympic season approaches, by the tabloid press. Brian Moore, the head of the Border Force, comfortingly tells us that he “cannot rule out” four-hour delays at our airports during the Games. Perhaps we should enlist the assistance of the Boy Scouts and the Girl Guides to help. They, at least, are usually prepared.
The Olympic Flame is received by the Princess Royal in Greece, lands at the Royal Naval Air Station at Culdrose in Cornwall in appropriate rain and sets of from Lands End with Golden Olympian yachtsman Ben Ainslie at the helm. Somewhere west of the Tamar The Torch then fleetingly becomes lost in fog . I say “the torch” but it turns out that there is, in fact, one for each of those carrying the flame during the brief periods when it is not sped forward in an armoured car. With so many torches on the market the e-bay price will be seriously depressed, no doubt, but to make up for that other prices, within the Olympic venues, have been adequately inflated. Beer at £7 a pint. £5.90 for a hot dog. And No Picnics allowed inside the venue. “Temporary costs are higher” is Mr. Richard Turpin`s excuse but as Princess Anne remarked when picking up the flame, the Olympics do seem rather expensive.
Nevertheless, preparations are now well in hand, with ground-to-air missile sites mounted on the roofs of London`s flats and the veritable army of Salford Broadcasting Corporation hacks and technicians geared up to commute back to London provide non-stop Olympic coverage from 06.00 every day for the best part of five weeks. It takes a lot of time and a lot of expenses (sic) people to work out how to sound suitably downbeat and depressed should a British athlete or Ben Ainslie win another gold medal but we can , I am sure, rely upon the SBC to do their best.
It would be kinder not to mention the opinion polls. Governments in mid -term usually hit choppy water and those of us who have been around this circuit for a while have certainly seen depressing figures before. Nevertheless, with the exception of the joyful return of Mayor Boris to preside over Olympic London from City Hall it is a fact that the local election results were not great news for the Conservative and Unionist Party and still worse for the Liberal Democrats. These swallows do not constitute a summer for Milipede the Younger but it has to be said that we have suffered a surfeit of self-inflicted damage and while the Coalition is not yet holed below the waterline some serious fire-fighting will have to be undertaken when the House sits again after the Jubilee Recess. Chancellor George has been forced to make too many handbrake turns over the detail of his budget and most of those errors, while minor in the great economic scheme of things, have been both embarrassing and thoroughly avoidable by an administration prepared to listen to sound advice. A little “stress testing” before future pronouncements from the Downing Street terrace of houses would be no bad thing. “The Quad”, as the Cameron, Osborne, Clegg, Alexander cabal is apparently known, may find themselves having to trade policies in the interests of party-political expedience but the national interest must come first.
“Marriage”, says the Home Secretary “is a really important institution”. Many of us would agree with her but it is hard to fathom how she equates that dial-a-quote platitude with her assertion that the same-sex get-together advocated by the Government will “make society stronger” or that suggesting that “marriage should be for everyone” can somehow gainsay the fact that “marriage”, as most of the British public understand the term, signifies a union between one man and one woman. Only one in twenty-five Members of Parliament supports same-sex “marriage” we are told, and the issue, if it is brought before the House, will be the subject of a free vote on the Tory benches. This may disarm an embarrassing rebellion by both backbenchers and some senior Government Ministers but it is highly likely that a bill will receive a politically-correct parliamentary majority in the Commons and that it will be left to the Lords to dry to mitigate the damage. Why, given the state of the nation`s finances, are we even considering spending parliamentary time considering a matter for which there is, patently, no public appetite whatsoever? Another own-goal, I fear.
And then there was Leveson. Mr. Michael Gove, our scholarly Secretary of State for Education, won unsurprising plaudits from journalists for his personal appearance before the inquiry. An ex-Murdoch hack proclaiming his allegiance to the “precious liberty” of the Press, even when that press has abused its power and responsibility and intruded into people`s private lives and grief to a gross extent, is unlikely to be severely criticised . Lord Rothermere of The Daily Mail, for example, asserts that the failed Press Complaints Commission should not be replaced and that “self-regulation”, which has hitherto meant no regulation worth speaking of, should still be the order of the day.
Let us be clear about this. A free democracy does need a free press but that freedom carries with it responsibility. The Press Complaints Commission has been paid for by the Press and has been the creature of the Press. It is a busted flush and while we can discuss intelligently with what it should be replaced it must go. Lord Justice Leveson has stated very clearly and in terms that he does not welcome “helpful advice” from some of the illustrious witnesses that have appeared before him and we have to live in hope that, remaining robustly independent, he will come up with answers that will serve the interests not of politicians or “celebrities” and certainly not of newspapers or the mechanical media but of a public that requires a properly restored balance between a right to know and a right to reasonable privacy.
We look set for a summer and autumn of industrial action. Teachers have indicated a desire to strike and Public service workers and off-duty policemen have already marched. The constabulary are not permitted to withdraw their services, of course, but the Home Secretary will have been left in no doubt that at present the policeman`s lot is not a happy one. I hold to the view that retrospective legislation usually ends in tears and that re-writing freely entered into contracts is unwise if not improper. Nevertheless, the oafish behaviour of the Chairman of the Police Federation, Paul McKeever, and the bunch of superannuated louts that supported him in front of Theresa May at their annual conference, did their members` cause no service whatsoever. Many of the officers who have made contact with me to air genuine grievances have equally been appalled by the conduct of what passes for leadership within their Federation. Mr.McKeever called for the resignation of the Home Secretary. Heady stuff within the febrile and populist atmosphere of the conference hall but in the cold light of dawn he might care to ponder the thought that his “we do not trust you” observation to Mrs. May applies equally, in the eyes of many of those that he has ill-represented, to himself.
General Practitioners, also, are in some danger of squandering the high public esteem in which they have hitherto been held. The BMA`s leader, Dr. Hamish “Victor” Meldrum, claims that we “do not want preferential, but fair ,treatment” but in the eyes of a public with whom he is clearly out of touch it is precisely preferential treatment that appears to be motivating a small but vociferous minority of activists within the one hundred and four thousand of the BMA`s Members. It seems to have escaped the notice of Mr. Meldrum and those who support his cause that in an age of real austerity an average pension of forty-eight thousand pounds a year for life and a tax-free lump sum, upon retirement, of one hundred and forty-three thousand pounds, represents, to most employees of the State or in the private sector, riches beyond the dreams of avarice. A twenty-five year old starting work today would have to invest more than £1000 a month throughout a working lifetime to generate that kind of retirement income. Some Junior Doctors have said that the GPs proposed go-slow “will look like greed”. They are right.
To the Commons chamber where the Prime Minister, fleetingly losing his Old Etonian sang froid, tells the Shadow Chancellor that the latter is a “muttering idiot”. Mr. Speaker Bercow, the repository of all knowledge relating to parliamentary procedure and etiquette says “withdraw idiot”. Whether that was an instruction to the idiot to withdraw from the Chamber or a request to the Prime Minister to withdraw the remark is possibly a matter for dispute but Mr. Cameron chose the latter course. In the Alice in Blunderland world of parliament there is no definition of “unparliamentary language” so it means whatever the occupant of the Chair chooses it to mean and the “precious liberty” of free speech that Mr. Secretary Gove prizes so highly has suffered another blow.
Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs has contrived to issue the wrong tax demands or codes to some one in six people and has issued 1.6 million requests for more money to people who believed that, through PAYE, they had already paid their dues. Mr. Stephen Bunyard, the Acting Director for Personal Tax (HMRC has rather a lot of “directors”) says that this is because when people`s circumstances change “and we are not informed” they can end up owing more. The problem is, if my constituents` experiences are anything to go by, that when HMRC is notified of changes they either lose the information or do not react swiftly. Mr Bunyard says that “we need real-time information”. As distinct from HMRC`s fantasy time, presumably.
Lord`s (the cricket ground not the House) has issued a dress code for members who are expected to turn up in lounge suits or “smart casual” clothes which should include, reasonably, shoes and socks and “a tie or a cravat”. Ladies are expected to turn out in similar fashion and not, as one wearer of the MCC tie ungallantly put it “dressed in a manner fit for a vigorous weeding session”. That`s put the groundsperson in her place.
Ms Sarah Hunter, the head of Google UK`s public policy unit, likes to think of her company as `a big tent`. Legislation to introduce pornography filters to protect children from the less desirable applications of the internet is, she believes, undesirable and that pre-teens should, rather, “have conversations with older children about sex in general”. Man David seems to partly concur, suggesting that the internet offers “an active choice”. In an ideal world where every child had access to a sensible, attentive and loving parent that argument might just hold water. We do not live in an ideal world and children have a right to the innocence of childhood.
Whitehall is to introduce colour-coded departments. This is not new. The old Home Office headquarters had, literally, a notice inviting visitors to “The Grey Area”. What is novel, however, is the concept of “a family of logos” backed up with “digital-friendly Coats of Arms”. The Department of Health will be green (with envy?), the Department of Justice will be black (as in cap) and the Department for Culture will be pink.( No comment.) Martha Lane Fox envisages single website HMG.Gov.Uk address with “a single internet front door”. And, I trust, an internet backdoor for newspaper proprietors!
Reporting, through gritted teeth, Conservative Boris Johnson`s successful re-election as the Mayor of London, the BBC referred to his “tight margin” of 51.5% of the vote. That is in contrast to socialist M. Hollande`s “clear victory” in the French Presidential election with a share of 51.7%. Amazing what a difference 0.2% can make up in Salford.
The Cabinet Office is considering introducing, as an amendment to the Electoral Registration and Administration Bill, a civil power to fine those not bothering to complete electoral registration. Given this eagerness to protect the franchise and the right to vote might one be so bold as to ask when the same Cabinet will get around to granting, to ex-pat citizens of the United Kingdom, the right to register and to vote in perpetuity?
The Military Wives choir will be performing to public acclaim during the Diamond Jubilee, their records sell well and have raised large sums for service charities. As a nation we also generously support organisations such as The Royal British Legion, Help for Heroes and others. Why, then, do we apparently treat our servicemen and women like dirt when they appear in public in uniform on the streets or in shops or restaurants? We need you, we are proud of you, we let you die for us. But, according to research conducted by Lord Ashcroft, we do not want your company within our midst. The Americans do not do everything well but they do treat their service personnel as respected members of society. We should, perhaps, learn from them.