Westminster View - October 2010
October. The depth of the hole is now clear. Dramatic rescues in the pipeline. Your Country Needs You! The first duty of Government is The Defence of the Realm. Or is it? Who benefits most from benefits? The French are revolting, there are skidmarks on the road to Westminster and Mad Hattie hunts Red Rodents in Scotland.
I have, on the wall, the framed ten trillion dollar note that I picked up on its day of issue in Zimbabwe. Zim`s “funny money” is a stark reminder of where national debt can end up if you don`t do something about it. The Big Organ Grinder is wisely giving Westminster a wide birth as the true scale of the legacy of financial incontinence that he has bequeathed to our country becomes clear as, for the first time ever, the nation`s debt breaks through the one trillion pound mark. The interest on that borrowing is one hundred and twenty million pounds a day or, annually, more than our entire defence budget for a year! We know where the hole is, we know who is trapped at the bottom of it and with the results of the spending review imminent Chancellor George and his Treasury team take Departmental spending Ministers to the wire as they struggle to achieve the required cuts in public spending to extricate trapped before we suffocate.
Friction between Downing Street and the Minister of Defence as Liam Fox and the Old and Bold fight to retain our ability to defend our national interests at home and abroad. Our troops in Afghanistan will, says Man David, “have everything that they need”. And in a “Your Country Needs You” moment at the Conservative Party Conference calls on his people to “Pull together, Work together, Care together” in the national interest. A ban on Ministerial quaffing of free champagne and the call to arms cannot, though, gainsay the fact that defence spending has been heading for a £38 billion overspending car crash. How to square that circle with needs that stretch into an uncertain global future and far beyond Afghanistan and a few more Chinooks?
The terrible rain swamps the Ryder Cup tournament held, for the first time in Wales. Half-drowned golf spectators can console themselves in pavilion and hotel bars by immersing themselves in the announcement of Milipede Junior`s Shadow Cabinet. The first rabbit out of the hat is Alan Johnson as Shadow Chancellor. The genial former postman has beaten the favoured husband and wife contestants, Mr and Mrs Yvette Cooper, to the job and swiftly indicates that his first task will be to rush out and buy an economics primer. So, with scrutiny of the coalition`s economic policies in such experienced hands it is off to the Shadow Foreign Office that Mrs. Cooper is despatched while husband Ed get the Home Office brief. The “Home and Abroad” irony of this will not have been lost on the Opposition`s new Chief Dominatrix in the whips` office, Rosie Winterton.
Some old LibDem habits die hard. The atheist Deputy Prime Minister, St Nicholas of Clogg, seeks education for his offspring at the Brompton Oratory. (Didn`t another, ex-Legacy, also find that local education was not up to the standard required for his children?) Hard to criticise a parent for wanting to do the right thing by his family but saying one thing and doing another can be embarrassing..
Like signing a pledge to abolish university tuition fees and then finding yourself endorsing a policy that not only maintains but increases them. Or Mr. Renewable Energy himself, Chris Huhne, the once arch opponent of new reactors now giving full-speed ahead to “vital” nuclear power stations as he cancels thirty billion pounds worth of Severn Barrage project.
To the rescue rides Vince Cable on his Old Grey Mare. “All policies have to be re-examined” he says “and the road the Westminster is covered with the skidmarks of politicians changing direction on these issues”. How very true. And how we all sometimes find ourselves nailing our colours to the mast of a ship of state that is then smartly holed below the waterline. That does not, though, prevent the Conservative wing of the coalition from relishing the discomfort of an entire Liberal Democrat Party now shackled to the concept of massive graduate debt.
Other sacred cattle are being sacrificed. Housing Minister Grant Schnapps (as he is known in the Press Gallery) announces that the government will have to find ways “to prevent another boom in house prices.” As those values are currently falling at the rate of £200 per day and set to wipe up to 20% off the value of bricks and mortar it may be a challenge that the ambitious Minister does not have to face in the immediate future. I am not sure, though, when regulation of the free market became part of traditional Conservative thinking. Must have been while I was languishing in a wheelchair and off games!
Efforts to create a “bonfire of the Quangoes” has also received underwhelming praise from the Gentlemen of the Press. The splendid Quentin Letts, parliamentary sketch-writer to the Bourgeois Womens` Tabloid rather unchivalrously describes Francis Maude`s announcement as “as stodgy as one of Mrs. Letts` fairy cakes” and the general view is that it was more of a family barbecue than a witchfinding funeral pyre. As long as the Labour apparatchiks dubbed “The Quango Queens” remain in their ludicrously extravagant and inefficient ivory Whitehall towers this has to be regarded as `work in progress`.
Which reminds me that Revenue and Customs boss Dame Strathie, who has so far also escaped the tumbrel, is now in a position to tell us that there are at least two more years of tax returns that require scrutiny and that some six million, or is it ten million? , people may have underpaid, or is it overpaid?, income tax. Another visit needed from Madame Guillotine, I think.
Extravagance and taxation often go arm in arm don`t they? The head of Topshop and BHS, Sir Philip Green, says that Whitehall could save £20 billion on property (he could start with the offices of the Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority!) , printing, telephones, office supplies, computers, hire cars, credit cards and travel – all of which makes the Civil Service sound almost as profligate as the BBC. Pleasing to learn that Sir Philip`s wife escapes the need to pay £285 million in UK taxes through her residency in Monaco. Ho hum!
And talking of the BBC, which now faces a welcome- to the license payer – six year fee freeze and the requirement to pay for the World Service out of its own funds instead of Foreign Office grant, Auntie would welcome suggestions about ways to save money. Well, given that the Corporation sent 20 reporters and a total staff of 46 to Camp Hope in the Chilean Atacama desert to cover the happily successful extrication of trapped miners , they might look at just how many multi-skilled radio and television journalists really are needed to report on one story! Then they could stop transporting stars and `sofa guests` and production staff from London to Birmingham, Manchester and Belfast in the name of “regional diversity” when those programmes could just as easily be made at Television Centre in White City. More work for Jeremy Hunt, I fear. (The Beeb, by the way, is the monolith that complained to the aforementioned Culture Secretary about the possibility of Rupert Murdoch taking over the rest of Sky TV “because it would create a monopoly!)
The National Magazine Company`s editrix is unlikely to receive an invitation to Buck House. Their annual survey has put J.K.Rowling and Posh Spice above the Queen in the list of the world`s “most influential women”. I do not imagine that Her Maj will lose much sleep over this challenge however. I suspect that it will be some time before even New Labour Luvvie Ms. Rowling`s wealth, prestige, or esteem warrants a portrayal on celluloid by Baroness Mirren - as the latter will no doubt in time become.
And, for the moment at least, Her Majesty`s head will remain on our postage stamps. The Postal services Bill, the vehicle under which a bit of Royal Mail will be sold, John Lewis-style, to staff and the remainder will be sold to the Dutch firm TNT or to Deutsche Post, contains (Clause 60) a measure to allow our Head of State the right of approval and veto over our philatelic heritage. The monarch`s image has appeared on our postage stamps since a young Queen Victoria first adorned the penny black and the tuppeny blue in 1840, And St. Vince of Cable told me in the Commons that “As far as the Royal Charter is Concerned it is clear that the association with the monarch is probably the most powerful brand it could possibly have” But for how long? As I said to St. Vince, I cannot see how the Royal connection can be maintained if Royal Mail is sold to a Dutch or a German or other non-UK buyer. Royal Dutch Mail, perhaps?
And so to Axe Wednesday. All those leaks and rumours of dire cuts were just designed to soften us up so that when the reality came along it wouldn’t seem too bad. Right? Wrong, as a matter of fact. You cannot take £18.5 billion out of the benefit budget without leaving scars. As predicted the so-called “middle classes” will take the biggest hit from Chancellor George`s removal of child benefit from higher-rate income tax payers, who, overall, will see their incomes reduced by about 2.2% and the lowering of the figure at which higher rate is applied will bring more into the net.
The Secretary of State for Defence has put his career on the line to hold the reduction in his department`s budget to just 7.5%, but not without pain. Twenty five thousand MoD staff will lose their jobs and each service will face personnel cuts of seven thousand apiece. The RAF loses its tornadoes and the fifth of the Arks Royal in that honourable line is heading for the breakers` yard along with her complement of Harriers. Two new Aircraft Carriers, The Queen Elizabeth that the Prince of Wales will, as predicted, be completed and will be supplied with aircraft. Eventually. HMS Illustrious will remain in service for a couple of years before her crew is transferred as a unit to the QE and then Illustrious, also, will be put out to grass. Liam Fox tells the Conservative back bench that by 2020 our armed forces will be up to modern and well-equipped fighting strength designed to meet the unpredictable military needs of our future.
There is, though, a worrying chink in the armour between about 2012 and 2018 so it would be helpful, please, if potential antagonists would hold their fire until we are ready to deal with them. And as an aside, those who wonder why we need to maintain a navy at all would do well to remember that we are an Island nation and that about eighty per cent of the goods on our supermarket shelves still arrive on these shores by sea. Cut the sea lanes and we starve.
Proposals to limit the payment of housing benefit to “only” four hundred pounds a week generate howls of outrage. It cannot be right, can it, to limit the amount of money forked out from the taxes of working people to just £20,000 to enable others to live in smart homes in Central London? Yes, it damned well can! My lower paid constituents resent the thought that their hard-earned money is used to keep others in properties that they themselves could never in a thousand years afford. But we are looking forward to the London Mayoralty elections and in a radio interview Mayor Boris declares that the” Kosovo-style social cleansing” of his city will not take place on his watch. The thesis is that those compelled to quit their luxury homes will be forced to slum it in out-of-London seaside homes along the South Coast but the analogy with ethnic cleansing is unfortunate. Boris, we quickly learn, was “taken out of context” and peace breaks out again between Downing Street and City Hall. For the record we, in East Kent, do not want a return to the “dole on sea” days either but cannot help feeling that most Londoners could probably struggle by on a freebie rent of twenty grand a year!
And so , from blond mopheads to coppertops. I don`t suppose that Chief Secretary Danny Alexander, who represents a seat somewhere north of the tundra, gives two hoots about being called a “ginger rodent”. He has been red squirreling away at the nation`s finances for weeks and if he has put enough nuts aside to get UK Limited through this winter then we shall all owe him a considerable debt. Trouble is that the author of the “rodent” remark, made at the Scottish Labour Party Conference, was that doyenne of political correctness, Mad Hattie. And it wasn`t an off-the-cuff throw away gag, it was pre-scripted and written into her speech. I have a caution for the dizzy duckie: your cover is blown and the next time you slip into dotty diversity mode in the chamber you can expect to get both barrels !
We do not any longer, you will recall, resort to “spin”. Nevertheless, it`s a tad hard to see how the 2..9% increase in the European budget agreed between EU heads of State after some cajoling and a bit of arm-twisting can be presented as much other than a very average result. That zillions of more UK pounds will go towards subsidising the office of Queen Empress and European High Minister and Lord of Embassies stuffed full of Euro Diplomats both Hither and Yon , when what you really wanted was a freeze on EU extravagance, is scarcely a triumph. Add to that the fact that the swine snuffling at the European parliamentary trough wanted a rise of six per cent and may yet decide to stick two fingers up to the Heads of State and vote their excesses through and you can see a spot of bother ahead. One whisker of a change to the Treaty of Lisbon and we are into referendum territory. Roll on Guy Fawkes night!
Talking of Europe, we`re heading for twenty weeks of maternity leave on full pay. That should only cost our small businesses about £2.5 billion pounds so no problem, really.
The Church of England`s Manchester diocese wants to market “real Easter eggs”, bearing the name of Jesus, in aid of Traidcraft. Sharp intake of breath in the boardrooms of Waitrose and the Co-op. Easter? Religion? Might offend an agnostic. Tricky one. They`ll be wanting to put Christ back into Christmas next.
The office joke is dead. Official. Mad Hattie`s Equality Act, limply implemented by the present coalition government and described as “a charter to sue” for “violation of dignity”. No more red squirrel jokes please Hattie.
It`s conker time again. Nottingham council have stripped a tree on a school route of its fruit to avoid falling sticks. The Sherriff would have been proud of them. They must have been reading a few of the seventy four thousand pages of rules and guidelines that have been issued to local government during the past decade under Labour. 28 pages on how to provide for Travelling Show People, 1300 pages in four parts on housing benefit guidance. The prevention of falling sticks and the hazard potential of wet autumn leaves must be in there somewhere.
Local government bureaucracy pales into insignificance, though, when compared with the forms that still plague Mr. Plod as he goes about his constabulary duties. Jan Berry, originally of Kent Police Force and erstwhile head honcho of the Police Federation has unearthed a delightful gem: to look through a window requires the completion of a sixteen page form; to shoot someone dead requires just one page.
Unreserved joy upon the birth of the Gale`s first grand daughter was only mildly tempered upon reading, in “Yours” magazine, that 18 years of the first grandchild`s life is likely to set the grandparents back by fifty thousand pounds. The whips will be pleased to learn that I have no plans to announce my retirement any time soon!