April. Swine `flu over the cuckoo's nest. Chancellor Darling, in his budget speech, gives a fair impression of re-arranging the deckchairs on the Titanic. And The Big Organ Grinder, nearer to God than thee, fiddles while the ship of State slides gracefully beneath the political waves.
All Fools Month begins with the arrival in London of Air force One, Marine One, Cadillac One, The President Of The Most Powerful Nation On Earth, his First Lady, mandatory army of security personnel that would sufficiently defend a minor nation, hangers on and, as an aside, the rest of the World's Most Powerful Leaders, also suitably, or otherwise, accompanied. Clogging up the streets of the Capital for miles in every direction the G20 is in Town to create what The Big Organ Grinder has described, with characteristic under-statement, as "The New World Order".
The Prime Minister of the World's Fourth Richest Banana Republic has bet the House on a successful outcome from this circus. As it happens, the House in question, Number Ten Downing Street, is not actually his to wager but with his tenancy looking not a little insecure I suppose one has to grasp at whatever piece of flotsam might keep one afloat!
One, as it happens, stole the headlines. Her Maj re-wrote protocol as only the World's longest-serving Monarch can, and in unprecedented touchy-feely mode gave Michelle Obama something pretty close to a regal hug. Mrs. O, not surprisingly, reciprocated and probably delivered the best photograph and only tangible result of the gathering. Meanwhile some two thousand of the world's reporters and snappers, including twenty eight BBC correspondents paid for by you and me, are kept incarcerated in the "Yellow Zone" of London's East End while anyone who actually mattered is congregated in the "Red Zone".
While the World Leaders are hammering out a way to pump a one point one trillion dollar rescue plan into two point two trillion dollars of toxic debts - and these are real dollars, by the way, not Mugabe ones - life and death in the real world moves on.
Mercifully, from the vantage point of the headline writers, the funeral of reality television celebrity Jade Goody takes place and the communications regulator, OFCOM, fines the NuLabour Broadcasting Corporation £150K (they don’t do trillions at OFCOM!) for the Radio Two phone call extravaganza starring Mr. Brand and Jonathan Woss. Fining the BBC seems to me a pretty pointless exercise as it is, of course, our license-payers money that they are paying the fine with! The idea that the Director General or even Woss himself should foot the bill does not find favour. Woss, we are told has "already suffered a significant financial penalty". And Thompson of the Beeb soldiers on at our expense. So that's alright then!
As a footnote, Whining Woss is nominated for a BAFTA award and, bucking the politically correct trend, he does not receive one. This causes the Greatest Broadcaster since Richard Dimbleby to complain, apparently, that there are people who were out to get him! And talking of paranoia…………
We had not heard much of The Legacy recently but the highest paid speaker on the Lecture Circuit (at, reportedly, £6k a minute!) has chosen this moment to try to persuade the Pope to take a more PC view of gay and lesbian activities. "Papally Correct" apparently means something else, however, and it seems that the Bishop of Westminster elect, Archbishop Nicholls has, following in the footprints of Cormac Murphy O'Connor, told Mr.Blair that Roman Catholic thinking is rather different from his and is driven not by focus groups but by faith!
While staying at the British Embassy in Washington the legacy lists his address as "Jerusalem". Whether this is merely a second home for expenses purposes or whether it heralds the fact that Those Feet in Modern Time have abandoned this Green and Pleasant Land in preparation, presumably, for a second visitation only time will tell. Down at grass roots Mrs. Blair's stepmother, Steph Booth, is selected for the safe (if there still is such a thing) Labour seat of Calder Valley. If Steph follows Cherie's example her political career may be brief. "Cherry Booth", as she was known locally, stood in the General Election in 1983 as the Labour Party candidate for North Thanet. She came a weak third behind the SDP. I know. I was there.
The Tuesday after Easter and French fishermen are revolting. We make it from Aubeterre to Calais in good time and, arriving early, find ourselves directed to the 3.20 ferry. On board a friendly steward tells me that we are incredibly lucky as "they are about to blockade the port". And so, indeed, they do. Why it is that the French are allowed to punt all-comers from hither and yon across the Channel to claim asylum in Britain while in the next move preventing law-abiding Brits from getting back to home and work I do not understand. Must be a European Directive that I do not know about!
All hell breaks loose around Downing Street. One Damian McBride, a Number Ten apparatchik and erstwhile crony of Derek Draper and the New Labour spin machine, is caught trying to set up a "Red Rag" website to smear, amongst others, Young David, Boy George and Ms. Nadine Dorries, MP. no less. The Big Organ Grinder, desperate to ensure that his fingerprints are not found anywhere near this squalid exercise, sees off Mc Bride in short order but the manure sticks. Cameron is, understandably, furious and Dorries threatens to sue. In one of a number of what are becoming almost daily surreal moments the Prime Minister, refusing to take the easy way out and just say "sorry", announces that "I take full responsibility. That's why the person who was responsible went immediately" Hang on a minute. "I take full…………." .you can work it out for yourselves!
Brown writes a series of what in my family are known as "Molesworth letters" to those offended and finally, days later, does say "I'm sorry about what happened". In this warped environment that is more likely to mean "I'm sorry that we got caught" than anything else.
Back to school to find parliament blockaded by Tamil demonstrators. Mr. Brian Haw, who has camped out in parliament square for months and has made the lives of the poor policemen on the gates a misery with his incessant if rambling use of a loud-hailer finds his thunder completely stolen. We are supposed to be allowed to get into the Palace of Westminster but the constabulary, clearly bruised by allegations of brutality while policing the G20 riot, are curiously reluctant to open up the road."Let me pass". "Do you not know who I am". "No sir, but I am sure that we can find a doctor who will tell you". (The trouble with political jokes is that they tend to get elected!)
April 22nd. Budget Day. Time was when budget leaks would have led to Ministerial resignations. Not any more. Most of the contents of the battered red box have been trailed and spun for days. Even in this desperate economic climate the Edinburgh Badger seems determined to provide a cure for raging insomnia if nothing else. There it all is, though. Higher rate tax on high earners. Drive the wealth creators overseas, another raid on pension funds, and stuff those on middle incomes and the poor. Wine up, fuel up, cigarettes up, beer up. Close some more pubs (39 a week for the last six months) and offer two grand to anyone prepared to scrap an old banger and buy a new car.
It is a well known fact that I am not a graduate of the Camaroon Madrassar but you have to hand it to Young David. He played a blinder. "You take something ten years old, completely clapped out, it pumps out hot air, pollutes its surroundings, ripe for the knackers yard….what a brilliant idea"! Behind the Chancellor and the Prime Minister they laughed on the Labour backbenches. Not with him but at him. Is this terminal?
The last, best, line also went to Cameron. "What is the point of another fourteen months of government by the living dead"?
As a former Tory Chancellor of the Exchequer, next to whom I found myself sitting at a lunch, describes the economy as "a train wreck" and with the fastest quarterly rise in unemployment in two decades and the jobless total standing at 2.1 million the noble Lord Foy of That Persuasion contributes helpfully to the national misery by telling the nation to stop being so pessimistic. Simultaneously the arch-pessimist, the Son of the Manse, discovers You Tube to catastrophic effect.
The esteem in which MPs are held by the public is just about at an all-time low. As a breed we have generally been rated on the approval scale as one above journalists and one below prostitutes. The row over "Members expenses" has reduced us to rock bottom. This is an issue that should have been put to bed years ago and that has rumbled on throughout the whole of my time in the House of Commons. From the days when Harold Wilson, while imposing a pay and prices policy upon the nation, quietly jacked up MPs allowances as a back-door pay rise the situation has been chaotic and open to wild misinterpretation. While most MPs have played a straight bat there is no doubt that some have abused the system to the general exploitation and merriment of Her Majesty's Gentlemen (I use the word very loosely) of the Press.
For the record, MPs do not "get" a quarter of a million pounds a year, or anything like it. But what used to be known as Fleet Street has taken a delight in lumping together salary, office and staff and incidental expense costs and mileage and the second home allowance and presenting this as "income" and it is a sad fact that in Wilsonian interpretation of the rules some colleagues have been, shall we say, creative with their accounting. The boil has now to be lanced. God knows what the cobbled together solution will be but you can bet a borrowed pound or a euro that it will not work.
However, with Sir Christopher Kelly briefed to conduct a thorough inquiry into the whole shambolic mess and to report in the Autumn G. Brown, rattled by exposes of Ministerial mischief, decides to take to You Tube to speak beyond parliament to the nation. Without consulting his Cabinet, the Labour backbench or the Leaders of the Official and Liberal Opposition he announces that we are to receive, instead of allowances, a daily attendance rate like the House of Lords. It was inevitable that this would end in tears and it does. Setting aside the fact that his video performance presents the Prime Minister as a cross between a bad game-show host and a demented rabbit facing an oncoming truck, the basic concept got a raspberry from his own troops and the Black Spot from Messrs. Cameron and Clegg. As one very senior Tory told the 1922 Committee "I didn't come into this place to clock on and bugger off!" Notwithstanding these minor hiccoughs the Fist clunks on and the House is due to vote on his proposals before the end of All Fools month.
Then came the Gurkhas. Following a Court ruling that many of those serving in our armed forces prior to 1997 should have the right to remain in the UK, the Government masterminds a formula. Those familiar with the manner in which HMG has wriggled to avoid paying out Disability Allowance to ex-patriate UK citizens will not be surprised to know that they are equally adept in seeking to circumvent the court ruling on the Gurkhas.
Roger and Joanna Lumley
Yes. You may stay with your families. But only if you have served for twenty years or more and, additionally, hold one of the four great military decorations for gallantry. (VC, DSO, DCM, MC). As only officers are allowed to serve for more than fifteen years and as very many brave men receive no decoration at all the bottom line is that instead of the four thousand or so troops that the hapless Minister, Phil Woolas, claims will be eligible those rather more aware swiftly figure out that perhaps just a hundred or so soldiers and their families might qualify.
Enter, stage right, Miss Joanna Lumley, actress and campaigner for Gurkha justice. As a serving Officer, Joanna's father had his life saved by a Gurkha soldier and it is arguable that without that act of bravery she would not be delighting the nation with her television performances today. She is also a lady with real guts and determination. Within minutes of the Government's shameful announcement the troops, with this Boadicea at their head, are mobilised and the press and public opinion called to arms. If a man is prepared to die for this Country does he not have the right to live in this Country? Are thirty thousand asylum seekers worth more than the Gurkhas. No contest. A wounded Government steered by a foolish whip crashes to defeat by 267 votes to 246 as Labour backbenchers either abstain or more bravely still join both opposition parties in the voting lobby. Ayo Gorkhali!
War followed by pestilence. Swine `flu grabs the headlines as the disease spreads from Mexico to engulf, if you believe the headlines, the World in a pandemic grip. Most disasters are good for Brown. A lifeline through death perhaps? With thirty two million face masks on order and the scramble for privately purchased vaccines looking like the January sales the Big Organ Grinder ought to be in his element.
Not so. As the month ends comes the final humiliation. He cannot get his expenses plans through the House. Having been slaughtered by the Gurkhas he dare not risk defeat in another vote in two days. Retreat. Sir Christopher Kelly will be allowed to do his job and once again Young David has the last words. "U-turn followed by climb-down ending in farce". If this was a boxing match they would stop the fight.
Ballswatch. Primary Schools may teach "Twitter" and Wikipedia. Never mind the Romans and the Vikings, what we need is "social and collaborative forms of communication". With the highest rate of teenage pregnancy in Europe we are set fair for a new GCSE - in young parenthood - and Key Stage Three students (11-14 in old money) are to receive "same sex relationship education" to help deliver "consistency and quality so that all children can benefit" from "Personal, social and health education". In the London Borough of Newham teachers will receive instruction in "the importance of hand washing in school". "Mad Hattie" Harperson`s Equalities Bill will introduce "Gender Pay Audits" as a contribution to the Class and Gender War. Harrow Council wants to ban ice cream vans because they may "cause a nuisance or make children fat". Sherbet Fountains are now deemed, in their historic packaging, to be dangerous and no doubt gobstoppers and aniseed balls, upon which the unwary might choke, will follow. `Elf and Safety do not like firemen, used to three hundred foot turntable experiences, using stepladders to fit smoke alarms. The BBC is required, as part of a Big Skill Initiative, to have a paramedic ambulance on standby while changing the wheel on a car and war reporter John Simpson, prior to a sailing voyage with Robin Knox Johnson, is handed a manual warning of the Dangers of Drowning. As a result of the Government's points-based visa system we could find ourselves short of Australian sheep-shearers this summer, leaving the animals sweltering in woolly jumpers, and that august body the Criminal Injuries Compensation Authority initially denied payment to the family of a murdered man on the grounds that he "significantly contributed to his own death" by trying to defend himself.
An end of the month opinion poll gives the Conservatives a nineteen point lead over Labour . The sound of chickens being counted is heard in the tearoom. Old Windy`s Almanac urges caution. There are County and European elections to be fought for and won and to take an overall Commons majority in a General Election sometime between now and the midsummer of 2010 the Conservative party needs about 140 more seats than currently held. There is a mountain still to climb. Strap on the crampons.