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Westminster View

August 2008

If your name is Gordon Brown it has been a miserable summer.

It has been bad enough for most of us, with the cost of living rising and the rain falling but imagine trying to take a buttoned-up sort of holiday trying to look casual while strolling down the highways and byways of Suffolk with half of the nations press snapping at your family's heels and your Foreign Secretary demonstrating what one newspaper went so far as to call his "ruthless streak" back in Westminster.  And all the while your political rival, Young David, is paddling along the shoreline of the West Country with his young family without, in an Edwardian sort of way, a care in the World.  Life can be very unkind.

The popular impression, enhanced annually by the scribblers from the Bourgeois Women's Tabloid, is that Members of Parliament disappear for the three months of the recess to return, refreshed and sun-bronzed in October.  Would it were so!  Someone ought to tell the hacks that the post does not stop, that the phone continues to ring and that in this day and over-communicative age even when on holiday we now tend to be in daily touch with the real world.  I am luddite enough to believe that a blackberry is still something that you have in a pie with apple but even I will admit to taking a laptop, along with two Newfoundlands and my wife, en vacance.

Just before I left for France  I began work on what I fear will prove to be  the first of a new wave of constituents facing home repossession. Those cases will not wait for an MP to return from holiday and frankly the e-mail has, this summer, proved to be a godsend.  It may not be everyone's idea of relaxation but it spares the reality of arriving home to a pile of distressing and distressed correspondence and a quick long-distance daily call back to base can be the one stitch in time that saves the nine.

On the first of the month the Government began flying the "windfall tax" kite.  It was, of course, inevitable that a Prime Minister who, as Chancellor, raided the pension funds should see a populist opportunity in the profits made by oil companies on the back of soaring crude oil prices. Hit the industrial fat cats and plug a hole in the Treasury's leaking fiscal waterline at the same time. What could be better?  No surprise then that by the month's end Labour MPs were queuing up to sign a petition calling upon Government - their own government - to introduce the windfall tax and small wonder, either, that opinion polls show high public support for such a measure.

Faced with gas and electricity prices rising by more than a third, average household energy bills of more than £100 per month and numbers spinning at the petrol pumps like the figures on a fruit machine and it's not remarkable  that the power and oil companies are not flavour of the month.

A small voice might just ask how, if we tax the windfall, we are to maintain the business confidence of companies that I thought we wanted to invest squillions of pounds in tomorrow's renewable energy supplies.  The finesse, surely, must be to ensure that windfall profits do indeed go into such investment and not into the kind of multi-million pound bonuses currently enjoyed by the failing Chief Executives of the big banks that have contributed to at least a significant proportion of our current economic woes.

From my Olympic-free hamlet, sans television, I was reliant upon Radio Four long wave for coverage of Rebecca Adlington’s Gold swimming medal, our first for 48 years, and the flow of gold and silver and bronze that followed that splendid achievement. As I said in a piece written at the time I was also dependant upon a wireless crackling through the thunderstorms to bring me news of what has to be regarded as the Russian invasion of Georgia and the international impotence that has been demonstrated since that invasion.  I have been criticised for daring to remind myself and others that the Russians have "previous" in Hungary in 1956 and in Czechoslovakia in 1968 and I of course recognise that the game has moved on and that there are significant differences in  the circumstances. 

There are, also, significant similarities. President Bush, no less, has "strongly criticised" the Russian adventure.  President Sarkozy, in the absence of any early intervention from Prime Minister-in-Waiting Milipede, brokered what was supposed to be a ceasefire and Russian withdrawal and when that withdrawal was slow in coming warned, mid-month, of "serious consequences".  Shades of King Lear?  "I shall do such things….." etcetera?  The fact of the matter is, of course, that we shall not go to war with Russia, that the Russians control the stuff that flows through the pipelines and that little Milipede can belatedly huff and puff as much as he likes on his visit to the Ukraine but those behind the Kremlin walls are unlikely to be quaking in their fur-lined boots. Which does rather beg the question about the expansion of NATO and the treaty obligations that go in tandem with membership!

It would, I suppose, be improper of me not to mention Hillary and Bill and their endorsement of Senator Obama.  Say what you like about Hillary (and on occasions I have said too much) but she is a class act. Who else could have whipped up enough support to deliver the Democratic Nominee for the Presidency of the United States by acclamation?  Watching The Candidate perform in front of his Hollywood film set (how apt: all front and only stage braces behind!) I could not help wondering if had read the story of one Neil Kinnock.  Premature triumphalism (be warned, also, Dave) can end in tears.

What a difference a day makes. The sticks from the firework rockets that saluted Obama had scarcely fallen to earth before John Mc Cain ups and steals the headlines by appointing Sarah Palin, former beauty queen, game hunter and Governor of Alaska, as his vice-presidential running mate. If there is still a bear in the woods be warned: Mrs Palin shoots bears!

And just when we thought that August could not get any more interesting up pops Chancellor Darling and says, in a newspaper article, what most taxi-drivers have been telling their passengers for months: we are in the financial manure.  What he actually said was that "we are facing what are arguably the worst financial conditions for 60 years".  I do not think that my constituent who arrived home to find that the bailiffs had changed the locks would argue with that observation and nor would the many small businesses now facing the prospect of calling the administrators in.

The death of a Labour MP has led to a by-election in what ought to be a safe Fife seat.  With the polls running as they are most commentators are predicting slaughter in the constituency that lies adjacent to that currently occupied by the Prime Minister.  Autumn meltdown and a General Election in November?  I would have said "no chance". The turkeys will not vote for Christmas and with a significant number of Cabinet members facing the prospect of the dole queue it is scarcely likely that they will want to delver the coup de grace, however bad the by-election result.

And yet.  On the last day of the month Jack Straw appeared on BBC television to say, emphatically, that he would not stand against Gordon Brown and that "there will be - let me repeat - there will be no challenge to the Prime Minister".  So, Young David, there's your clue.  We'd better all be ready for it because it may well come sooner than we dare to hope!

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