Westminster View - April 2010
April. The shower is dissolved. The Gods are angry and a dark cloud hangs over Britain. Man David girds his loins, The Big Organ Grinder places a clunking foot in his mouth and Saint Nicholas, as we must now learn to know him, emerges from his chrysalis as a Cabbage White.
We are in the dying days of the parliament. Every courageous electoral date has come and gone, any element of surprise or imagination is lost, the government is backed into a corner and it has to be May 6th. The only remaining question, at the start of the month, is when will the Prime Minister go to the palace and when will the phoney war finally end and real battle commence? Even now, it seems, it is set to drag on past Easter.
In Toytown Mayor Boris reveals plans for the construction of nineteen million pounds worth of twisted metal to grace the Olympic site and the edifice is quickly christened The Eye-full Tower. The designer (Architect?), Turner prize-winner Anish Kappor proves that you can still design new clothes for the Emperor. The special relationship between the Milipede and Hillary may be blossoming in the spring but elsewhere the entente takes a beating as the United States fails to back the United Kingdom over Falklands sovereignty and Ms Clinton offers to "mediate" between Britain and Argentina. Mediate what, precisely?
Man David reveals his plan for the Big Society, The UK Statistics Authority raps the Prime Minister over the knuckles for manipulating the immigration figures, judicial history is made as four armed robbers who have been caught trying to jury-knobble have their cases heard and are convicted and sentenced without the presence of twelve bewildered members of the public present. Progress or a further advance of State control? In this case it sounds just - but thin ends of wedges spring to mind.
Tory plans to scrap the Edinburgh Badger's proposed increase in National Insurance, quickly dubbed the "tax on jobs", gain support from twenty three big businesses, including Marks and Sparks and Sainsbury's and Easy Jet and then the CBI and the British Retail Consortium come out in favour of Cameron's position as well. This prompts the Lord Foy of That Persuasion to describe these captains of industry as the victims of "a cynical deception" which goes down rather badly with one or two people that feel that they know how to run a chip shop. Or an airline.
Easter Saturday and the Lord Chief Justice launches a bid to "save common law from the European Union". Lord Judge (for that is His Honour's name) laments the fact that the European Court of Justice has presumed superiority over our judicial system and that the European Convention on Human Rights is prevailing over common sense. A small cheer for His Chiefjusticeship, perhaps, but he might care to have a quiet word with his colleague Lord Justice Laws who, later in the month, determines that "Christians have no special rights" when finding against one Gary MacFarlane, a Christian who has refused to offer sex therapy to gay couples. "The protection of a position held on purely religious grounds" says Judge Laws "is irrational, divisive, capricious and arbitrary". All of this prompts that excellent former Primate of All England, George Carey, to suggest that anti-Christian judges should be banned from presiding over religious cases. The Lord Chief Justice might care to consider that if the judiciary is no longer prepared to stand by the institutions of our country then the country may just not feel too strongly about protecting the powers of that judiciary itself!
Happy Easter moves forwards with the first BNP party-political broadcast. It is gazetted that Lord Hartlepool of Foy will chair the Labour Party's election news conferences while Ms. Harriet Harman will tour the Country. Meanwhile The Milipede Brothers unveil the government's latest own-goal election poster. Portraying Man David as Gene Hunt from the iconic "Ashes to Ashes" TV series it tells us "not to let them take you back to the 80`s". The unveiling is timed at 10.40 and by 14.45 there are Tory posters on the billboards proclaiming "Fire up the Quattro - it's time for a change" with the credit that "this was taken from an idea kindly donated by the Labour Party". One of the lighter moments in a campaign that has not yet even begun!
Over the Easter weekend the peace of a Buckinghamshire village is shattered as three fire appliances scream towards the home of The Legacy and his wife. Small conflagration, not many people hurt. It appears that Cherry's endeavours to make her own toast have triggered the smoke alarms. No doubt Mrs. Legacy will be paying the call-out charge out of the housekeeping.
Thank God It's Tuesday. The Big Organ Grinder goes off to the Palace as the polls reflect a ten point Tory lead, petrol prices head towards ten pounds a gallon and Chris Moncrieff, that veteran Press Association reporter who has been plying his trade since 1960, bids farewell to "a shameful mob of scoundrels and thieves". Well, not quite. There's all the fun of the wash-up to come as the vultures of the `usual channels` pick over the bones of remaining legislation and decide what shall and what shall not, before the dissolution, be allowed to pass into law. Most of the suspect Digital Economy Bill gets the green light but Mr. Yvette Cooper's plans to impose sex education upon five year olds are consigned to the parliamentary skip. And then the Rotten Parliament is at an end.
Much focus on wife watch. Sarah Brown and "SamCam", as the poor girl is now dubbed by the press, are standing by their men while Mrs. Miriam Gonzalez Clegg remains tied to her day job. There is rumour, also, that despite attempts to limit the damage the permatanned Legacy and Cherry are threatening to hit the campaign trail and, indeed, later in the month, the latter is pictured reducing small children to tears somewhere in the North East. Are there not laws against child-abuse?
The Tories re-affirm tax breaks for married couples. Treasury Minister Stephen Timms and Chancellor Darling both confirm that the increase in National Insurance charges would cost jobs and we learn that under a "British Jobs for British Workers" Prime Minister the 1.67 million new jobs created since 1997 have gone to foreign workers!
And then the UK is shut. An Icelandic volcano spews out clouds of ash that, drifting across Europe, close airports and ground planes throughout the continent. Glasgow, Edinburgh, Newcastle, Liverpool, Stansted. Luton. Heathrow, Gatwick and London City and smaller airfields like Manson all at a standstill. It's like a scene from "On the Beach" as the dust heads south and engulfs France and Germany and Northern Spain. Thousands of Easter holidaymakers and business travellers are left stranded around the globe while governments and carriers seek solutions. That lugubrious Transport Secretary, Lord Adonis, offers small comfort in saying, basically "Not Me Guv" while passing the buck smartly to the safety regulators.
Brits head for still-open Madrid and the port of Santander only to find that without planes the trains and boats are full. Prices sky-rocket. Airlines argue over liabilities for food and accommodation. Ryanair says that it will flout European law and will not pay up and then does a u-turn and, having earned the bad publicity, agrees to shell out. That must have hurt.
HMS Ark Royal and HMS Ocean are despatched to the Channel Ports to no useful purpose whatsoever and HMS Albion rescues British Troops returning from Afghanistan, picking them up, with some waiting civilians, from Spain. The Clunking Fist’s usual ability to capitalise on disaster seems to have deserted him and returning tourists curse the failure of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office to do anything constructive to offer practical assistance to stranded families. Interestingly GCSE exams that "cannot be postponed" because of an epidemic earlier in the year are now postponed to allow children to get back to school.
And the sound of birdsong is heard again in West London.
With airlines losing squillions of pounds a minute, with desperation setting in and with foreign aircraft safely over-flying British airspace but not allowed to land a beleaguered British Airways unilaterally despatches twenty-six aircraft from the USA to London. While the planes are in mid-air the authorities and Lord Adonis decide that it is, after all, safe to put down. Why now? Why not earlier? Questions will be asked for a long while yet before the dust and the bills are finally settled.
Even this drama does not detract attention from the first ever Party Leaders Election debate. Nine Million viewers tune to ITV to watch the first of three Prime Ministerial X- Factor shows. It is hedged around with artificial constraints and a gift for the underdog, in this case the virtually unknown Mr. Clogg of the Liberal Democrats. Wide-eyed innocence, straight down the barrel of the camera lens, "look at me, I'm not like the others, I'm different" and suddenly the game has changed. "I agree with Nick" says the Clunking Fist, creating an instant catchphrase and the rapid-reaction poll results put St. Nicholas on 43% with Man David on 26% and The Fist trailing with just 20%. The spin doctors, move into overdrive of course, each claiming victory for their man. There is no denying that Clogg put in a good performance (for that is exactly what it was), that Cameron did not rise to this particular occasion and that the Prime Minister fell flat. The ensuing more measured opinion polls le leave the Liberal Democrats in the lead for the first time in 104 years on 32% with the Tories on 31% and Labour on 28%.
One stray cuckoo does not, though herald Spring and those that the Press wish to destroy they first put on a pedestal. So hardly is the nameplate dry on the St. Nicholas plinth before the knives come out. Easy, from relative obscurity, to set yourself up as the White Knight but as the details of property profits and refurbished kitchens and dodgy donations to party funds made by non-doms and shady dealers emerge the shine starts to fade. All of which prompts Lord Foy to scream of a "Tory Smear" against Mr. Clogg. And that, coming from the man who, as Peter Mandelson, span for Blair is just a little bit hard to swallow!
The second debate reveals Clegg to be a one-trick pony. He blinks a lot when he is on shaky ground or is being economical with the truth and as the campaign and the TV shows draw to a close he is blinking a very great deal. Volcanic ash, perhaps! After a sluggish start off the grid Cameron moves into top gear and by the end of the third debate is on top of the podium again with Clegg finishing lamely and the current Prime Minister somewhere in the pits.
The debates may have lowered electoral politics to the level of a talent contest (Dancing on Thin Ice?) but there is no denying that they have changed the dynamic of the process or that, because they are now forever part of the election landscape, we have taken another relentless step towards Presidential-style government. The fact that our Prime Minister is merely the first among some six hundred and fifty parliamentary equals has been lost upon those commentators who have been saying that "The Americans have been doing this for years". They haven't. They elect their Head of State and we do not and, please God, we never will.
It is on the old fashioned hustings, though, that the Big Organ Grinder meet s his nemesis and it does not help that it is on the eve of the final TV debate.
Mrs Gillian Duffy, whose name will echo, along with Jennifer's Ear, along election corridors into the far distant future, is a former and lifelong Labour voter. On her way minding her own business and to buy a loaf of bread she collided with the Prime Minister's Road show and raised with him a number of awkward questions including the subject that is unmentionable, immigration. Immigration is the other elephant in the room in this election. The Government has seen it rise out of all real control, the Liberal Democrats intend to grant amnesty to hundreds of thousands of long-term illegal immigrants in a move that will send out all the wrong signals and the Tories are planning quotas that will begin to bring the flow back under control but are also dependent upon greatly enhanced border control for ultimate success. The Electorate is, if my own experience on the doorstep is typical, more exercised by this issue than any other than the economy and Mrs. Duffy let Mr. Brown have both barrels on the issue.
To be fair, and one must, the Prime Minister limited the initial damage fairly well and appeared to part on cordial terms with Mrs. Duffy. Unfortunately, following an over-hasty departure during which he omitted to remove his Sky News radio microphone he then, in what he thought was the safety of his car, let rip at anyone but himself to blame for the Duffy encounter and referred to her as "the sort of bigoted woman who used to be Labour". Broadcast to an incredulous nation and, of course, to a distressed Mrs. Duffy, this put the Prime Minister in what might be described as a difficult position!
As a former broadcaster used to the perils of microphones that may or may not be switched on I feel some sympathy with the Big Organ Grinder. But what was said in the way it was said has holed the ship of state below the waterline. Politicians have been studiously slow to criticise on the "There but for the grace of God" principle but the media and the public have shown less forbearance.
A grandmother of 66 is sentenced and tagged for selling a goldfish to a boy of fourteen.
A fifty-seven year old auctioneer faces a £1k fine for offering for sale a box of rare birds eggs. The eggs are 100 years old!
UK Visas have been contracted out to a US firm, CSC on a 5-year contract. The company will deal, presumably in something approximating English, with what is called "the frontline interface" in order to allow the Home Office to "focus resources on decision making"
In East Yorkshire a newsagent chasing two robbers from his shop seeks the assistance of a passing policeman and is told to dial 999 and another complainant calling at a police station to report a crime is told that it has to be reported by phone.
A Marks and Spencer store official berates a 86-year-old lady who has just spent £20 on lunch in the shop's restaurant because she has opened and is eating a biscuit from a packet bought in the store
A two-year old has his cheese sandwich confiscated by a Wigan Council controlled nursery because it does not contain lettuce and tomato. "The centre" the parents are told "has a list of recommended healthy-eating foods according to national guidelines".
And the RSPCA (Income nationally circa £119 million a year) is no longer taking in stray animals as it wishes to concentrate on cruelty cases. The strays will be left to smaller charities who do not have the RSPCA`s vast income and prestige. I foresee wills being altered in favour of Blue Cross.
On the sunnier side the History of Britain compiled by chief schools inspector Mr. E.H. Carter in 1937 is being reprinted and looks destined to become a best-seller. It carries details of historical events that are no longer considered worthy of the curriculum. Like the Magna Carta.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Mervyn King, is reported to have said that this would be a very good election to lose. The incoming Government is likely to have to take such stringent and unpopular decisions that "it could be out of power for a generation".
Only time and the electorate can determine the outcome but at the time of writing there is everything to play for. A hung parliament will lead only to indecision, weakness and further damage. Britain needs a strong Conservative Government with a majority and a clear mandate to rescue our country from the economic mire. If that leads to electoral difficulties in the future then so be it. We have to, and I believe will, act in the best economic interests of the United Kingdom.