Gale's View from Westminster - April 2013
April. Snow, frost, icy winds and the occasional shower. Spring postponed. Garden birds demanding food and “empty nesters” takes on a whole new meaning. Benefits off the agenda and Milipede defends the indefensible. Bombs interrupt the tea party in Boston but London keeps on running. Paris falls foul of Mr. Plod. A small bouquet for the BBC and a rare award for Her Maj. Ding! Dong! Ask not for whom the bell tolls. The bells are, in fact, silenced as an era ends.
On the underground coming back from St. Pauls, in a morning coat and black waistcoat, I was clutching my Order of Service and a young man asked if he could take a look at it while a young woman enquired “was it a good service”? She, it turned out, had walked from South Africa House to the cathedral. “I just had to be there”, she said.
There has been other news, of course, and much of it has been of considerable political significance, but the passing of The Lady on the eighth of the month has seemed to engulf the entire agenda. In death, as in life, Margaret Thatcher has been towering, controversial and dominant. As with the news of the assassination of JFK I suspect that everyone of a certain age will be saying “I was............when I heard about it”. I myself was shifting rubble, in the freezing rain, in France when Suzy came out to tell me following a text from back home.
It is said that The Speaker was opposed to the hasty (over-hasty?) recall of Parliament for a “Tribute Debate” that was as divisive as ever. Many Labour Members stayed away. Outside others came to “rejoice” that “The Witch is Dead”. Effigies were burned and champagne socialists quaffed bottles of the stuff in a peculiar ritual of celebration and `death parties`. These were orchestrated, we are led to believe, by a 27-year old drama teacher who would have been but a mote in her father`s eye when “Mother” became Prime Minister. Strange how those with no firsthand knowledge of either the Thatcher government or of the context of the “Winter of Discontent”, following which Britain`s first woman Prime Minister took office, should be able to summon up such a storm of synthetic vilification. “The campaign of hate” said William Hague, was not a problem.
It was, in fact, back in 1975 when she told the nation that the Labour party had “run out of other people`s money” and 1982 when, faced with losses during the Falklands war, rounded on a reporter to utter the words “Defeat? I do not know the meaning of the word”.
Would there be a State funeral? Well, no. Mother did not want one. But Her Maj would attend, a tribute only previously afforded to Sir Winston Churchill. Why? Apparently, and quite simply, because she wished to do so. “The Funeral will Cost The Taxpayer Ten Million Pounds”. No it won`t. In fact the bill came in at around four million and part of that was met from the Thatcher estate.
Right that a Dimbleby should have been chosen to provide the BBC`s commentary for the Television coverage. . In a flashback to and earlier “pre-SBC” era and in spite of the Corporation`s Guardian-reading schizophrenia over the event, a touch of gravitas was a very good thing. Holly Willoughby, batting for the ITV opposition, was, perhaps, a less-wise choice.
On the night before the funeral, and in sharp contrast to what was to follow, the old girl was brought into the Chapel of St. Mary Under Croft under the Houses of Parliament to spend her last hours close to the Chamber that was the scene of so many earlier pitched battles. Lying In State this was not, but a peaceful sojourn in one of the most beautiful and little-known locations in the whole Palace of Westminster and an opportunity for those who loved, or admired, or respected her as friend or political foe to pray, and to touch the coffin, and to say “fare well”.
Then, dressed in the finest that The Brothers Moss can provide, we were off to St. Pauls. “Was it a good service” the young lady had asked later. Yes, it was a fitting send-off for one of the greatest politicians that the United Kingdom is ever likely to enjoy or to loathe. Silence from Big Ben at Westminster, muffled bells at the cathedral, Nimrod, “I vow to thee My Country”, the City of London`s Mourning Sword in evidence and the deep, rich voice of the Right Reverend Richard Chartres in eulogy. “This is neither the time nor the place for politics” he said. It was, and of course, so was he discreetly Thatcherite in his oration. The Primate of All England that never was? Fools, for he also had his hour. A daunting occasion, before the world`s gathered Heads of State and media, for the Iron Lady`s Iron Granddaughter, Amanda to read upon. The young lady was, of course, undaunted.
You will have seen much more of this than those inside, of course, and I have yet to bring myself to watch the whole recorded programme. Even under these sombre circumstances, though, there were vignettes. An absent “utterly irrelevant” Sally Speaker was mercifully absent and in her place Mr. Speaker was accompanied by the Clerk of the House, Sir Robert Rogers, who appropriately looks rather more like Edward the Seventh than the real thing. A Peer of the Realm, a Baroness no less, seated very close to me boomed with genuine outrage “Good God. The Lord Speaker is not wearing a hat”! And, indeed, the woman was not. Even from the recesses of the cathedral we heard the three cheers , drowning out the jeers of a handful of demonstrators, as Mother`s coffin left for cremation. Following the departure of Her Maj and the Thatcher family the Prime Minister left by the North door. Those of us adjacent to this exit were a little surprised to see Man David and Samantha hotly pursued by The Legacy and Mrs. Cherie Blair who, after a few moments, scuttled back in again and departed by another route. “Oh yes” said my young tube-travelling companion from Africa House. “when he got outside, they booed”. “ Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair.”
Which leads us moderately seamlessly to the Chilcott report. It seems, and indeed is, an age since the Chilcott inquiry was taking evidence into events surrounding the Iraq war. While Chilcott has been cogitating the Leveson press inquiry has been and gone but the moment must be rapidly arriving when the results Lord Chilcott`s deliberations will have to see the light of day. This is likely to prove of modest interest, at least, to The Legacy and those closely related to dodgy dossiers and the like. Lord Foy of that Persuasion and Mr. Campbell might just find their retired powers of “spin” put, once again, to the test.
We cannot avoid the weather. Weeks, now, of frost and freezing rain and unseasonal snow. Gas bills are soaring, plants have been fooled and birds, feathered and the other variety, have been caught on the hop or on the mud-encrusted high heel. At Aintree the Belles of Merseyside braved the elements to turn out in their riskiest finest and, while a 66/1 outsider took the punters and the bookies for a ride, contributed to the nation`s otherwise chilly jollity by tottering through the quagmire in shoes normally only seen , along with other unmentionable glimpses, sprawled outside nightclubs after an evening on the vodka. “Aren`t you cold” one of the fillies was asked shortly before “the off”. “No Luv. I`m wearing two thongs”. Says it all really. The good news though, for all of those who did not back the winner of the Grand National, is that every horse running came home alive and well.
Back from the world of reality to the fantasy environment that is Westminster. Writing in the New Statesman The Legacy, who turns sixty in May, tells The Milipede that “Labour needs ideas”. I only hope that he was well paid for that perceptive advice for it is certainly true. The `next Leader`, meanwhile, “Britain`s Obama”, Chuka Umunna, the jetrosexual social democrat of the Shadow Treasury team, has, it is alleged, been instrumental in the editing of his Wikipedia entry. Rumour has it that he did not, of course, do it himself but found a chum to enhance his on-line image for him. The urbane Mr. Umunna has `no recollection` of this enterprise. The waggish Commons tearoom observer, Keith Simpson, says that “the trouble with internet facelifts is that you can always see the stretch marks.”
Up in the political stratosphere battle is engaged over the introduction, by Iain Duncan Smith, of plans to cap welfare benefits to a maximum of £25,000 a year. As this represents an earned income before tax of a good third more than that sum and as very many people who go to work outside London take home a very great deal less than twenty-five grand after the Chancellor has taken his cut this strikes a real chord with those who do not get “something for nothing”. “Labour is seeking to defend the indefensible” says Chancellor George as Milipede the Younger finds himself on the horns of a very real dilemma. With opinion polls showing 75% of the population in support of the IDS cap the pressure is on the Milipede to come off the fence and nail his own party`s colours to the mast. To Left or Right? “I will be different from Blair and Brown” is the message coming out of the Shadow Cabinet office. Yes, Ed. But while the Unite Trades Union is trying to orchestrate the first General Strike for 90 years could you just tell us. Are you for the benefit cap or are you against it? Or, as hinted at by The Legacy, do you really have no idea?
Not that the end-of-session wobbles are all on the Opposition side of the House. It is suggested, darkly, that the Government`s Chief Whip, Sir George of the Baronetcy, is threatening exposure of Honourable Conservative Members` IPSA expenses claims for those who do not toe the party`s line on home extensions and other dog-end measures that have to be put to bed before the House can prorogue. People in over-large glass conservatories should not throw stones. The Leader of the “back yard” rebellion, Zac Goldsmith, hitherto rumoured to be keeping his seat warm for Boris, is probably not, as a multi-millionaire, IPSA-sensitive. The Member for Richmond Park could arguably buy the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority at one end of the street and afford to give it away at the other. He is unlikely to cave in to unsubtle pressure from the Whips` office or to the “Zac on the Rack” exasperation emanating from Downing Street. The Growth and Infrastructure Bill, the Environment Department asserts, is going to create jobs in the building industry. Popular opinion is that it is much more likely to lead to jobs for lawyers as neighbours find themselves and their properties overshadowed by a monstrosity built next door. The Defamation Bill is also subjected to the “ping-pong” that takes place between the Lords and the Commons as horse-trading over Lords amendments takes place over legislation not destined for the “carry-over” procedure and awaiting a deal before the Royal Assent.
The brief recess between the ending of one session and the State Opening of the next allows time for speculation about the contents of the Queen`s Speech and for the government to trail, through press briefings, some of the items that might be on the agenda for the new term. So “an end to Health Service tourism that is costing the UK billions” and “an end to holiday camp prisons” and “no legal aid for migrants for at least twelve months after arrival in the UK” may be hard to put into legislative practice but are likely to chime well with many on the back-benches and beyond. In the interim, most political effort away from Westminster is concentrated on the County Council elections, of which more in the May edition of the “View”.
After the Boston Marathon bombing it was inevitable that the Palace of Westminster went onto high security alert but the London Marathon, that passes by the Palace, went ahead unaltered. Man David, having postponed his whirlwind tour of European leaders in the wake of the death of Margaret Thatcher, took off with his family to visit Angela Merkel. Frau Merkel, having earlier in the month indicated a need for firm EU control over eurozone budgets in defiance of national sovereignty, is reported to have indicated a willingness to reconsider the relationship between the bureaucracy of Brussels and the powers of Member states – a position that will not have been lost upon her domestic electorate and those in other Northern European states that are less than enamoured with eurocreep. In Brussels MEPs have criticised Commissioner Ashton`s “European External Action Service”, which the fragrant Baroness likes to view as “Europe`s Foreign Office”, as “top heavy”. La Ashton wants a 4% increase in her Service`s already bloated budget but the message from the European Parliament is that the department is “paid too much, does too little”. It looks as though at last the centime is beginning to drop although the thought of the wretched and meddlesome organisation being encouraged to “do more” sends shivers down the spine. “Less” is what is required.
Back home, as the IDS benefit changes begin to be implemented, it emerges that a quarter of those facing reductions in welfare payments have found work while a million people who have been receiving sickness payments are fit for work. The “bedroom tax”, as the
Labour party has sought to brand the housing benefit room subsidy, would appear, embarrassingly, to have been under consideration by Labour`s own Shadow Minister, Tessa Jowell, as an “empty nester`s tax”. Another new word has also been added to the political lexicon following Martha Kearney`s monstering of Ed Milipede during a car-crash interview for Radio Four`s “World at One”. A “Milishambles” will surely soon feature in day-to-day dialogue!
The wheels have predictably already begun to come off the Police Commissioners` bandwagon. Paris Brown, a seventeen year old from Sheerness, in Kent, was appointed, on a fifteen thousand pounds a year salary, by Kent`s elected Police Commissioner, Ann Barnes, as the “Youth Crime Commissioner”. Following the revelation of a series of unsavoury postings on social media, the teenager was forced to apologise and, subsequently and having been wrung out and hung out to dry by the tabloid press, (“Youth Crime Tsar in Sex and Drugs Tweets”), compelled to resign. Adolescent indiscretion is one thing. Adult stupidity is another but Ms. Barnes is, at present, still in office while a proposed replacement as Youth Commissioner is discovered to have undeclared previous convictions. Ms Barnes, it may be recalled, is the woman who, as Chairman of the Kent Police Authority, spoke out (“new Commissioners are a wilful waste of money”) against the creation of the Commissioner post. “Gone native” is the expression that springs to mind and her next briefing meeting with Kent`s MPs should prove illuminating.
Her Maj has picked up a BAFTA award as an honorary “Bond Girl” for her “performance at the opening of the 2012 Olympics. (I still meet overseas visitors who marvel at the fact that she was parachuted into the arena!) Having been also handed a verbal bouquet at the Olivier Awards by a Dame Helen Mirren (“An Audience with Her Majesty”) who praised her long-running show, The Queen then took a day off to celebrate her 87th Birthday and left it to an attractively interesting Duchess of Cambridge to represent her at the Queen`s Scout Awards ceremony.
Lord (Tony) Hall of Covent Garden has walked into BBC Broadcasting House and, predictably, into his first handful of rows as the new Director General. The Salford Broadcasting Corporation`s coverage of the death of Margaret Thatcher, concentrating heavily, as it did, on the Miner`s Strike and the Poll Tax riots immediately laid the State broadcaster`s journalism open to accusations of bias. The use, by “Panorama” of students from the London School of Economics as human shields to conceal the making of an “inside story” programme about North Korea begs a whole series of questions about the ethics of undercover journalism that will have to be answered. And the use of BBC premises for the illegal and unsavoury activities of Mr. Savile and, we now hear, other “celebrities” is still very much work in progress. Not that Independent Television is faring much better. The visibly ageing Simon Cowell`s “Britain`s Got Sleaze” is turning into a prime-time family audience disaster as the new season features a lap-dancer and an 11-year old singing songs with sexually explicit lyrics about `one-night stands`. Time to reach for the “off” button, Jeeves.
The website Ask Jeeves has discovered that two-thirds of respondents object to the use, by strangers, of what used to be called “Christian names” until political correctness compelled the substitution of “first names”. It may be that the Ask Jeeves clientele is composed of those of a certain age and social attitude but how often have you bridled when a YTS trainee from a government department outsourced to somewhere north of Watford says “Hi Mary..............”
It is said that there are draft proposals to prevent EU citizens from receiving UK welfare benefits for more than six months. If Alex Salmond has his way and the Scotland votes for independence, will that apply to the Scots as well? Interesting, also, that the Scot Nats want to keep the pound sterling as their currency....and to rely on the Bank of England as their lender of last resort!
Judge Peter Barnes, he of the foot-in-mouth tendency of the “courageous burglar” judiciary, has apparently refused to gaol a convicted paedophile because he “might have a hard time” in prison. The Justice Secretary`s proposals to cut prison privileges that are not specifically earned suddenly seems a million times more relevant. Rehabilitation certainly, but are not penal institutions supposed to dish out punishment as well?
That class broadcaster Peter Dimmock of “Grandstand” fame, now luxuriating in his early nineties, was not amused to hear the Oxford boat race cox “effing” his way through the race while coercing his eight to greater efforts. “helmet cameras” and microphones may offer an armpit view of sporting endeavour but a shrewd Outside Broadcast producer might just have erred on the side of caution and pulled the plug after Oskar Zorilla` first expletive.
I have never been a supporter of culling badgers but......... Old Brock and his family have chewed up the wicket at Rickmansworth`s 226-year old cricket club. Never mind gassing. That is a hanging offence.
Sir Francis Drake`s alleged “local”, the Minerva Pub (circa 1540) in Plymouth is in trouble with the authorities. The establishment`s ancient timber beams are, it seems, a fire risk. Hoe! Hoe! What next? Anne Hathaway`s Cottage?
Another triumphant writ from the Equalities and Human Rights Commission. Druids, Vegans, Greens, Humanists, Atheists (and presumably committed agnostics?) must be given “special rights” at the workplace, including “time off for pilgrimages”. No mention of Christians, of course but one assumes no human sacrifices at Stonehenge either. `elf `n safety would never permit the use of a sharp enough knife.
The socialist engineering behind the costly move of the BBC from White City to Salford was designed to create employment opportunities in the North West. The shift from one metrocentre to another has generated 34 new local jobs in its £200 million new headquarters.
The Department for International Development has contrived to spend, unsuccessfully, £250 thousand of your taxed pounds on a windfarm for those fifty-five descendants of Fletcher Christian who still live on the Pitcairn Islands. Now that`s got to be a Bounty for somebody.
Stirling Moss has said that women drivers are “not tough enough” to be Formula One racing drivers. He, of course, speaks from a position of considerable personal experience and I have no knowledge of F1. In a former incarnation, though, I once interviewed the downhill ski-racer and F3 driver Davina Galica while she hurled me around the track at Brands Hatch. One of us was screaming in abject terror and it was not the driver who did strike me as being quite tough. Lord knows what kind of metal male F1 drivers must be made of.
By a whiskerish vote of nine against eight the European Court of Human Rights has decided against the “right” of Animals Defenders International to purchase political TV advertising in the United Kingdom. Had the vote gone the other way it would, of course, have also opened the door for US-style advertising during general elections. A close-run thing.
Mayor Boris, never knowingly missing a passing bandwagon, wants to name a London hub terminus (“Boris Island” presumably) as “Margaret Thatcher Airport” in the style of JFK in New York or Paris Charles de Gaulle. Flattering, if you think about it. “I lost my luggage at The Maggie..........”!