Gale's View from Westminster - April 2012
April Fool. The whole month is a joke. Petrol shortages. Water Shortages. Floods. (Work that one out!) Grandpa Taxes, Pasty Taxes, Charity taxes all rumble on. Airport gridlocks, if you believe the press. Dave “does not want to fall out with Christians over gay marriage” but fails. Easter comes and goes. “Wear your Cross with pride”. Unless you are Lynn Featherstone. VAT on church building works. Red Ken cries. First Class stampede. Carnage at Aintree. Bechers broke. Rebellion over Caravan tax. Tory Backbench united against Lords` Reform plans. Who told Murdoch what? Missiles on London`s rooftops and “the worst is yet to come” for the Euro. A short month, but a merry one!
It has not been the greatest four weeks for Her Majesty`s Government. I think it is fair to say that. “Events, Dear Boy, Events” have conspired to give the Opposition an up to thirteen point lead in the polls, which is not a good place to be.
The Prime Minister`s personal poll rating is still ahead of the Leader of the Opposition but as the latter has demonstrated over and over again this month that he could not kick a ball into a mile-wide open goal that is scarcely surprising. For the poor bloody infantry however, and particularly for those younger, newer government Members will small parliamentary majorities who have not experienced a mid-term run of minor disasters before, it has been a nerve-fraying few weeks. I do not make light of this. While it is the clear duty of the Old and Bold to Steady the Buffs, a succession of self-inflicted ambushes orchestrated by Generals with rather less experience than they might need is a mite depressing.
All of this matters, politically, of course, because on the third of May a lot of the Country`s council seats are up for grabs, along with control of significant major cities including London and Glasgow. Throughout April political parties have been trying to manipulate expectations, with Milipede saying that if Labour win 300 extra of the 2400 council seats being contested they will have done well while at Conservative Campaign Headquarters the view is that unless he wins seven hundred seats he will have done badly. In the present climate, and with a massive poll lead, it is probably fair to say that if Boris Johnson beats The Newt Man in London and if the Scot Nats beat up the Labour Party in Glasgow, then Milipede the Younger will be in trouble. If, on the other hand, Red Ken beats Boris and Labour do well in Glasgow and some other major cities, then Man David will have a certain amount of Humble Pasty to eat.
Looking forward, early May is causing anxiety in other quarters also. In France the Presidential first round results give Marine Le Pen`s hard right an alarming twenty per cent of the votes with Sarko on twenty seven per cent and “Pudding” Hollande on twenty eight point two per cent. On that showing Sarko needs more than high heels to give him a lift. If the left consolidates behind Le Pudding and her acolytes obey her call to return blank ballot papers then, without the Le Pen votes it looks as though the tumbrels will be calling for Sarko and Carla. Which is why, Cabinet Office please note, the leading candidates bothered to come to Paris-upon-Thames to solicit the votes of the seventy thousand registered out of four hundred thousand potential French electors living in London. Ex-pat votes can make a difference. It remains to be seen what effect all of this, coupled with democratic chaos in Greece and the meltdown of the employment market in Spain will have upon the Eurozone but the Downing Street prediction that “things are going to get worse before they get better” seems remarkably optimistic.
I hold to the view that George Osborne`s budget will, in the round, eventually be seen to have been a fair one. I have to be a little careful here because as one of the Chairman on the still-live Finance Bill I am bound by convention from not participating in the argument and I have to deal in fact and generality. Fact: Treasury Civil Servants, in common with most other manipulators of policy, have a basket of items that they want to “harmonise”, “rationalise” “bring into line” or “clarify. Anomalies are anathema. Hence the “Pasty tax” which was superficially an attempt to attempt to roll, for VAT purposes, all hot take-away food into the same wrapping paper as fish and chips. Or the simplification of the tax allowances on Grandpa`s Wallet. (“Granny Tax” is so sexist, do you not think?) That a change to VAT on caravans might put some Park Owners out of business, that Churches are unlikely to build conservatories attracting VAT, that most wealthy people who give very large sums to charity are altruistic, is neither here nor there. It is untidy, don`t you see?
I just hope that a young, bright and effective Chancellor of the Exchequer does not see his career washed away in the floodwater of the Mandarin`s spring cleaning exercises.
And talking of floodwater we now know that this April has now been the wettest since dinosaurs stalked Epping Forest, or St. Swithin took his last bath, or some such. It did not seem like that on April 1st, however. Reservoirs empty, rivers low, groundwater and aquifers dried out, surface soil like rock and hosepipe bans. Under these circumstances it is a little difficult to get your head around the fact that with people dying in flash floods in cars and half the West Country now designated by the RSPB as “wetlands”, and Easter an expensive, stay-at-home washout and spring seeds swept away in the rain, there is still a water shortage. But there is. Fortunately our dogs (Newfoundlands) literally have webbed feet but this is a time of the year when we do not, traditionally, expect to find shaken mud half way up the hall walls! My friend the Minister for Water, Richard Benyon, having been set up by sharp newspaper photographers who, we believe, turned on and then photographed his garden hose, follows in the footsteps of that other rainmaker, Dennis Howell. Time to stop dancing, Richard! (As it happens the Benyon estate`s water comes from a private supply so his household, although properly observing the ban, is not even bound by the regulations.) Stand by your pipes.
The dire predictions of Terminal delay at airports over Easter did not materialise, possibly because with appalling weather forecast for most of Europe and no money people chose to take a break at home rather than risk misery in some corner of a sodden foreign field. By the end of the month, though, the queues were growing embarrassingly at Heathrow, generating predictions of real embarrassment as trillions of Olympic visitors try to enter Britain through the same portal. Whether this is incompetence on the part of BAA, who run Heathrow, over-zealous passenger scrutiny on the part of the Border Agency, an orchestrated campaign on behalf of the Immigration Officer`s Union designed to highlight the need for more employees or a genuine shortage of Immigration Officers to man the desks, nobody seems to be quite sure. Probably a combination of the lot but enough to cause British Airways` boss Willie Walsh, whose own industrial relations performance has not always been without criticism, to throw his toys out of the pram. One thing is certain, though, if my one and only, to date, experience of technology and chip checking is anything to go by. The computer programme is a great deal slower than a quick flit through the pages of a passport and a once-over with a Mark One eyeball.
While “going foreign”, my colleague Stephen Barclay, MP has discovered that our diplomats can no longer speak in tongues. It appears that since The Clunking Fist closed down the Foreign Office Language School, presumably on the basis that being bilingual in English and Scottish was sufficient, only one of our men in India can speak Hindi, one man speaks business level Korean, only forty eight of nineteen hundred officers draw extra pay for language proficiency , one hundred and forty-five have an `operational grasp` of the local language and ninety per cent have no recognised special ability for their postings. And we cannot send a gunboat because we do not have any gunboats left!
As this is all down to funding we could, though, call upon the BBC to assist. The Salford Broadcasting Corporation has spent two million of your license-fee payers` pounds on `foreign travelling` guests and staff between London and Manchester in the last two years. That figure includes a mere 500 flights and twenty-four thousand train journeys. If many of Auntie`s sportspeople are now based in Media City the travel figure could rise dramatically during the Olympics as the BBC are sending almost half as many again technicians as the UK is sending athletes to participate in the games..
Runners and riders were not the only fallers at this year`s Aintree meeting. Rain and mud sent Liverpool`s Top Totty tottering on high heels through the pre-race quagmire to the delight of Press photographers and unchivalrous young men alike. The real tragedy was, though, once again out on the course. This always trickles through to parliament on the basis that we have rather more responsibility for, or power over, the Horseracing Association than is in fact the case. Nevertheless, the deaths, during the Garand National, of According to Pete and the Cheltenham Gold Cup winner Synchronised, with AP McCoy on board, both fallers at Bechers Brook, was grim.. The National is great international institution, much has been done to make the course safer and few people doubt that Owners and Trainers and Jockeys all care about their livestock. Conservative Animal Welfare is pursuing this though, because the facts remain that starting a field of forty horses on a line is like starting a Formula One race without a grid and that asking a horse to take off and then land much lower than expected on the other side of the fence is another recipe for disaster. If the race, and the credibility of national hunt racing, are to survive then more changes are going to have to be made.
The Joint Committee set up to examine reform of the House of Lords chose St, George`s Day to launch its report. This event was rather overshadowed by a meeting during the previous week. There is a saying in Parliament that if you want to keep a secret then you make a speech in the Chamber and that if you want to publicise something then you talk about it in private at a meeting of the Conservative back-bench 1922 Committee. Nobody should be surprised, therefore, that within minutes of a specially convened gathering to discuss Lords Reform, or more probably, given modern technology, tweeted during the discussions, the word was out on the street that the Tory Back Bench was in revolt over the proposed bill. As indeed we are. Out of a very large number of Members present just one supported the Government`s position. A number of Ministerial Aides (Parliamentary Private Secretaries) threatened resignation if the measure was forced through and others, myself included, predicted the fragmentation of the Coalition and a Maastricht-style bloodbath on the floor of the House if the bill, in its present form, proceeds. The dog`s breakfast bequeathed to us by The Legacy is to be replaced by a dog`s dinner in order to compensate the Leader of the Liberal Democrats, Mr. Clogg, for the mess that he made of his AV referendum and this is a price that we are not prepared to pay. The Prime Minister has already indicated his lack of enthusiasm by describing Lords reform as “a fourth term issue” and at the very least there will have to be a referendum before any bill sees the light of day. Mr. Clogg, of course, does not want a referendum on the grounds that “it would be a waste of money because people don`t care”. So, if people don`t care, why are proposing to waste many hours during the next session of parliament, when we could be sorting out the economy, introducing a bill that is unloved and unwanted and downright bad. If the answer is a system that creates still more elected politicians and more bureaucrats at more expense to the taxpayer then we are asking the wrong question.
The end of the month brings no relief or joy. Murdoccio, he of the ever-growing nose, gives more evidence to Leveson and tries to land the Prime Minister and The Culture Secretary in the mire. Did the latter, Jeremy Hunt, release confidential inside information to The Evil Empire during the course of the BSkyB takeover bid? Certainly his SpAd (Special Adviser) seems to have cosied up to a self promoting Murdoccio employee, and the SpAd, Adam Smith, has resigned as a result. The sight, in the House, of Milipede Junior trying to turn a Rubik’s cube into a calculator at the despatch box was not a pretty one. Man David came close to losing his Etonian cool but you can understand why. As he said to the Milipede “If you`re going to make accusations, get your facts right first”. And so we go into the prorogation of this first elongated session of parliament with the Opposition and the media baying for Mr, Hunt`s head on a plate but, as of now, so sign of a sharp enough axe to carry out the execution. I was asked, on a radio programme, if I thought that Mr. Murdoch was a fit person to run a media empire. The question that perhaps that needs to be asked is whether or not many or any of the people who are running our media, and I include the BBC in that, are fit and proper people so to do. It is a question that is unlikely to be answered, even by Lord Leveson.
The BBC`s resident atheist economist, Evan Davis, apparently believes that the three minutes of broadcasting time that is devoted to Thought For The Day out of a total of three hours of programme time is “old fashioned”. If it spares us Mr. Davis for even three minutes then it has to be worthwhile.
The 2012 Chelsea Flower Show promises to be a bit of a dry squib. Tailored to drought, the show will feature plants that flourish under arid conditions. Will they also flourish under a monsoon? While we are faced with a one thousand pound fine if we are caught hosing the starling droppings off the patio it is good to know that someone has a sense of priorities. Not only is it in order to top up the fishpond that we filled in when grandchildren started to arrive but, much more important. The cricket wicket may, on `elf `n safety grounds, be kept sticky. Motorists, though, are told not to wash their cars but to be “proud to be dirty”. I am that kind of proud of my car all the time!
It was Margaret Thatcher that draped a handkerchief over the nauseatingly re-designed British Airways tailfin when ethnic art replaced the “Fly the” Union Flag . Having re-introduced red, white and blue BA are now dumping it again in favour of gold feathers for Olympic doves of peace. That should cause a small war. (this, of course, is the same Willie Walsh`s BA that declined to back Her Maj`s Diamond Jubilee Flotilla because of a ban on branding on the boats). Will you choose to fly doves or virgin?
The Jubilee River Pageant will contain a number of the Little Ships that braved the blood and fire and brimstone of Dunkirk to bring thousands of British Servicemen home from the French beaches. `Elf `n Safety tried to tell the owners of these vessels, that crossed the Channel stuffed to the gunwales, that they could only carry six passengers each “in case they capsized and had to be rescued.” It was then pointed out that there would be one or two ships – well, a thousand, actually - able to offer assistance in the event of `an incident`. Another small battle won by the little Flotilla.
The Royal Mail`s Moya Green is `proud` that she has struck a deal to feature medal-winning athletes on stamps to be published a day after Olympic Victory. Pity that, at the new first-class stamp prices, only the obscenely rich will be able to afford them.
Whitechapel Bell Foundry, which cast Big Ben (1858) and the Liberty Bell in Philadelphia,( 1752) , will be providing the ding-dong for the Olympics. At six feet by nine feet, however, it is too big for the modern foundry.. So while the design work will be carried out in London the ding-a-ling will be provided by the Dutch. Makes you really proud to be British, does it not.
Thirty six police officers have been chosen from six hundred and forty four volunteers to spend seventy days escorting the Olympic Torch around the Country. They will, thank goodness, be provided with psychological training to enable them to survive the time away from home and then further counselling to help them reintegrate with the Metropolitan Police upon their return. How could they possibly survive otherwise?
One hopes, of course, that these are not the same officers who declined to give chase to a gang of thieves escaping on quad bikes because they might have caused an accident and none of the robbers were wearing motor cycle helmets.
Is it really true that two Hawaiian princes introduced surfing to Bridlington in Scarborough in September of 1890? `Elf `n Safety had clearly not warned them of the perils of Victorian sewage engineering and short sea outfalls. Where there`s brass, there`s muck.
A minor blow for courtesy. A Norwich coffee shop proprietor has banned customers from using mobile phones while simultaneously trying to order coffee. Mr Darren Groom believes that his members of staff are entitled to be treated with good manners.
A survey has discovered that rush-hour trains in the South East are overcrowded. I hesitate to ask how much someone was charged for providing that enlightening piece of information.
BBC Breakfast presenter Susannah Reid, who describes herself as “not a very good planer” intends to spend five hours a day travelling to and from London rather than move to Manchester but “the BBC is not paying for her fares”. Oh no? Paid for out of her salary, presumably, which is in turn paid for out of the license fee. The BBC`s Head of Development for Radio 5 Live is offering Salford-based staff escorts to nearby car parks because “Media City is a different kettle of fish to W12”. There is, of course, no crime on the White City estate – but whose damn fool politically-correct diverse idea was it to move to Salford anyway?
Ladies no longer “Love Milk Tray”, if you remember the Gary Myers advertisements. Another triumph for Irene “Queen of Cheese” Rosenfeld of the Chicago-based Kraft Foods company that took over Cadbury`s.
Word reaches us that Vancouver, British Columbia, has banned bagpipers as a social menace. Will they be allowed to play at the Victoria buskers` festival? They did, after all pipe the Canadian Scottish Regiment ashore on D-Day – but then there were one or two other social menaces to contend with on that day.
Cornwall Council wants to place Witchcraft and Druidism on the RE syllabus to offer, according to “Children`s Services” “access to the broad spectrum of religious beliefs” What would the sixth century church-building Saint Normena have said about that. “You are taking the Piskey, aren`t you”?
The European Union, currently demanding a seven per cent increase in its budget has scarcely enhanced its cause by purchasing ten million pounds worth of private jet flying to ferry the profligates Ashton, Barrosso and Rompuy around the globe. How about a seven per cent cut in each of their respective budgets?
Valete , Lord Ashworth of Stoke who has died at the age of 89. Jack, a former BBC producer, was elected to represent Stoke on Trent South in 1966. He became deaf a couple of years after his first election and managed with an ingenious reading machine thereafter to participate fully in all parliamentary business. He was an absolutely delightful gentleman whose commitment to the causes of disabled people completely transcended party politics. He was a dear friend, he will be hugely missed and I do not doubt that when his memorial service is held in St. Margaret`s, Westminster, the little church will be packed with those from all quarters of both Houses of Parliament.