Westminster View - February 2010
February. Healthcare is under the microscope. The Fist does not clunk (Downing Street: official). The Crying Game is played in Westminster. The polls narrow but the Big Organ Grinder dithers some more. And Cristina Kirchner, the Plastic Evita, launches her 2011 re-election bid for the Argentine Presidency with a fresh foray into Falklands waters. Nothing new there, then.
In the run up to a general election nothing provokes more party-political righteous indignation than the strengths, weaknesses and funding of the National Health Service. "We will spend more, do better, shorten waiting lists, put more doctors and nurses on the front line, it is safe in our hands" is the Labour/Conservative and Other Lot cry. So the fact that there is now only one out of hours General Practitioner for every three hundred thousand patients and that last year's complaints "target" (it's the NHS so it must be a target) hit forty thousand must get MPs excited. Mustn't it? Well, apparently not. Freedom of Information Requests which I submitted have revealed that in the whole of East Kent there is now not one GP practice offering its own out-of-hours service and that the entire contract is performed by a company that, so far as I can see unchecked by the Primary Care Trust, is responsible for ensuring that the foreign doctors that fly in for the weekend are properly qualified. Which does not fill me with confidence. "Don't fall ill out of hours" seems to be the message.
All of which pales into insignificance beside the long awaited final report into the failings of a Staffordshire hospital service that has, quite literally, killed patients. Not surprisingly, nobody is to blame.
There is, apparently, a "moral vacuum at the heart of football" according to our Prime Minister. The month begins with the back pages moving to the front to cover L`affaire Terry in which a footballer sleeps with another footballer's girlfriend and ends with the other footballer refusing to take an offered pre-match handshake when they next meet on the pitch. In the meantime the rampant footballer is sacked as captain of England, the other footballer has refused to play for his Country and a government Minister, Mr. Mike O'Brien, whose brief does not so far as I am aware cover sport, has described the captain sacking as "wrong". I, poor unenlightened sap that I am, was under the impression that footballers were paid shed loads of money to play football and had not taken vows of abstinence. Messing on an erstwhile friend's doorstep is unpleasant, certainly, and sets a bad example to the millions of young footballers who admire their heroes` behaviour. But the person that I really feel sorry for is the poor little chap who was the team mascot at the "no handshake" match who was caught on television and in the press pictures between the two footballers in the "no handshake" photograph and whose big moment will now be regurgitated for years to come every time when there is a post-mortem on our most recent World Cup performance.
Never mind the "moral vacuum". The Big Organ Grinder has, it seems, been chucking his moral compass, along with his other toys and papers, out of the Downing Street pram. At least if you believe Mr. Andrew Rawnsley, a hack with a book to sell, he has! I doubt if the "Brown is a bully" story has made many waves outside the Westminster village but the Valentine's Day massacre of his reputation as a mild-mannered Son of the Manse has made riveting reading in the tearoom. The added frisson caused by Chancellor Darling referring carelessly in a TV interview, to "the forces of hell" being unleashed against him and the grim spectacle of the Prime Minister practically cuddling his Chancellor on the front bench during PMQs have been, even by Westminster standards, extraordinary. As has the fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was moved to say publicly that "I have never hit anyone in my life". What? Not Blair? Not Meddlesome? You disappoint me man.
Not content with skinning the nation alive the Not Clunking Fist now wants to fleece us in death as well. "Secret" talks between Labour's Health Secretary, the Tory Shadow and his Other Lot counterpart reveal that talk of a £20k tax on death is on the cards. Presumably if you do not own the necessary twenty-thousand used one pound notes to are not allowed to die but compelled to live forever in some kind of New Labour hell-on-earth but that aside the Tories` stark "Death Tax" poster upsets the Government front bench and Mr. Burnham, of whom you have probably never heard screams across the despatch box "you bloody shafted me", or words to that effect. All sounds very unhealthy to me.
Throughout February my own Party's lead in the opinion polls heads South. This is to be expected as the date of the real election draws near but it causes some grief amongst those that have not been here before. I have been saying for months, in these columns and elsewhere, that a hung parliament is on the cards. Not because of a lack of desire to see an overall Conservative majority or natural pessimism but simply because of the electoral maths. It takes a lot more votes to win a Tory seat than it does to win a Labour one and to secure a working majority we need to win about a hundred and thirty more seats than we currently hold. That is a huge mountain to climb by any political yardstick. The actual Tory lead, save for one maverick opinion poll that miraculously changed between the first and second editions of the Sunday newspapers and out us on just 2% is probably about 6%. That is still in no overall majority territory but does not take account of the huge effort that has been put into marginal seats. There is everything, most certainly to play for and the last thing that UK limited needs is another bout of either indecision or Balls. If I was a New Zealander I would be rather worried and I think I might be asking my own government to review the immigration laws ahead of a possible flood of UK asylum seekers!
Some things, it seems, do not change. Old Socialists` abilities to call for one set of rules for others and a different set of rules for the politburo have allowed Mad Hattie's husband, the union leader Jack Dromey, to pitch for and win the "safe" Birmingham Erdington parliamentary candidacy without having to run the gauntlet of Hattie's much-extolled all-wimmin shortlist. We face, we are told, a wave of civil service strikes in the run - up to the general election and the staff of British Airways seem hell-bent on grounding the nation's once-proud flag carrying airline and have voted for strike action. And as the Greek economy strives to make even our own appear vigorous and the Euro wobbles like an under-cooked soufflé The Lord Foy of That Persuasion announces, once again, that Britain should join the single currency. Well, Alice in Wonderland has had its movie premier this month.
Back in 1979 the country was on its knees and the dead lay unburied. It took a woman called Margaret Thatcher and a Conservative government to make Britain, if only fleetingly, Great Britain again but it can be done and we have to hope that the great British public will bear that in mind on March 25th or April 15th or May 6th or whenever Gordon Brown is finally compelled to let the electorate have their say.
The Equality and Human Rights Commission tells us that "requiring pupils to wear gender-specific clothes in school is potentially unlawful" which is another way of saying that telling girls that they have to wear skirts as school uniform is off the agenda because it "discriminates against transsexuals".
Valentine's Day. Cards are banned from school to avoid children experiencing "the emotional trauma of being dumped". Such cards, says a primary school in Weston Super Mare, will be confiscated - thus subjecting the children to the trauma of having their pretty cards stolen from them!
In Canada the BBC fields more staff than the UK fields athletes in the Winter Olympics and, continuing the sporting theme, on Shrove Tuesday Pancake Racers in St. Albans are banned from running "because they might fall over". The City's tourism manager, Mr. Charles Baker, might want to have a word with Lord Coe about the London Olympics. Rumour has it that they may have hurdles there.
The European Union has just spent two hundred thousand of our hard-earned pounds printing three hundred thousand comic books in five languages portraying an EU superhero aid worker called Zana who utters immortal lines such as "We must inform the Commissioner" while being asked by a photographer, helpfully called Dave, "What's a European Woman like you doing in a place like this"? It has been written by a man called Erik Bongers. Shpelling mishtake, surely?
The Electronic Local Government Information Network (ELGIN) tells us that there are 1.6 million potholes in our roads - most of them, I think, in East Kent - and that they will cost £70 each to repair. So the Transport Department's summer season archaeological excavation of our motorways and highways and byways is about to commence with the ceremonial Spring coning-off of roads. At a cost of £12 per cone.
A brief glimmer of common sense appears in an Amazon Active Books publication entitled "50 dangerous things you should let your children do" but will no doubt be extinguished and banned from bookshelves by an Education Secretary hell-bent on teaching sex to five year olds. Even having caved in and agreed that faith schools may teach sex education "within the tenets of their religion" in order to get his miserable piece of legislation through the Commons, Mr. Yvette Cooper then sows confusion by announcing, after the Commons vote, that Catholics will have to teach abortion "in a non-judgemental way". I trust that their Good Lordships will consign this piece of judgemental politically-correct rubbish to the garbage can of this dying parliament. In the meantime Mr. Balls might care to ponder the fact that the teaching of restraint reduces teenage pregnancy by infinitely more than the teaching of contraception while propagating the view that "we want to give children the facts".
If Citizen Brown has his way we may yet see the tricolour flying over the White Cliffs of Dover. In spite of hot protestations and denials following the realisation that Dover is a Labour marginal seat its clear that a government strapped for cash would like to flog off what is a present a Trust Port and that the good Burghers of Calais, who last set fire to the town in 1295, would like to by it - presumably so that French fishermen can blockade both sides of La Manche. Well, what`s a strategic asset between friends? That Turncoat Labour Minister, Quentin Davies (soon, no doubt, to receive the traditional Treacher`s Peerage) is said to be selling off Search and Rescue to a French led consortium called Soteria (Thales, the RBS and the Canadian Helicopter Company) - so the busiest sealane in the World may soon be out of our control in the air, in the drink and at both ends!