Westminster View - September 2010
September. Brothers at War, Comrades up in arms, “God`s Emissary” cancels a book launch, His Holiness the Pope brings traffic to a standstill, what is left of The BBC leans to the Left (official) and The Isle of Thanet reaps the wind.
“Politicians are obliged from time to time to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even to distort it where the interest of the bigger strategic goal demands it to be done”. Thus sayeth the Gospel according to The Legacy.
The month begins with the publication of “A Journey”, described as “long-awaited” by Blair`s PR team. “The bigger strategic demands” that “God`s emissary” refers to are, presumably, the foreign policies of the United States of America which, it must be construed, justified the creation of the “dodgy dossier” and the commitment to a war in Iraq that, as we shall be reminded later in the month, even Mad Hattie voted for, albeit, as did most of us, under false pretences.
Unsurprisingly the Blair Broadcasting Corporation devoted hours of airtime to the discovery of The Deaf-Blind Scrolls but why the rest of the nation`s media should have afforded so much coverage to the fantasies of an ex-Prime Minister who is still clearly in denial is questionable. Every cloud does have a thirty pieces of silver lining though (not that The Legacy would give a thank-you for such a modest fee) and the release of The Journey generated the cartoon that read “Free travel sickness pills with every copy”.
After demonstrations at a book-launch in Dublin, Waterstones in London pulled a similar, planned, event for fear of further reprisals. Will “A Journey” be remaindered in time for Christmas? Only the wise men know.
Every year, at the end of July, the House of Commons rises for what the Press like to describe as “MPs three-month` summer holiday”. The socialists head for Tuscany and drink, The Tories head for Cornwall and have babies and the Liberals go home and presumably prepare for more government. Anyway, the serious side to this break is that it gives the House authorities the chance to put the Palace of Westminster into deep maintenance. The carpets come up, the protective hardboard goes down, the drapes are whipped off to the cleaners and the painters and decorators and carpenters and electricians move in and the whole building resembles a cross between the aftermath of Waterloo and a warship in dry dock. It does take about twelve weeks to repair the wear and tear generated by six hundred and fifty elected hooligans and their teams of supporting staff in the course of a year and to restore one of the nation`s prime listed buildings to good order.
This summer, however, in order to prove that the coalition is “working hard” (which, to be fair, it is) and to appease the Press and the Taxpayers` Alliance, we are called back for a fortnight of legislation in September. This less than cost-effective exercise means that everything has to be put back together and the ship re-launched and the engines fired up for two weeks before we all push off for the Party Conference season and the boat is pulled back out of the water to finish the anti-fouling! The idea that we might have won the extra two weeks of legislative time by bringing the conference season forward would, of course, be a heresy. As would the idea that we might revert to pre-New Labour “family Friendly” working hours and actually use the time available during a sitting working week instead of hanging around in the evenings without wives or dogs wondering how this lunatic schedule was imposed upon us.
The mini-session does, though, give us the chance to congratulate the Prime Minister on the birth of his latest daughter, to commiserate with him on the loss of his father, to swap summer holiday stories and photographs and, in the case of Her Majesty`s Loyal Opposition, to try to woo support for whichever of five candidates for the Leadership of the Labour Party takes your fancy or promises you the most in personal advancement.
With house prices falling at, we are told, £90 a day and the results of the Spending Review due in mid-October much talk in the Westminster Village is of “cuts”. Times will be hard. That we know. But where, and upon which departments, will the axe fall? Protecting our overseas aid budget is admirable but should this be at the expense of the military covenant, of furnishing our troops at war with the kit and supplies that they need or the future of defence spending upon capital projects designed to protect us and to allow us to project our international influence into the future? The now widely-publicised leaked letter from the Secretary of State for Defence, Liam Fox, to Man David, is indicative of a very real concern in the Tory ranks. The reputation of Boy George and his Treasury Team is on the line. He has been bolstered by IMF confirmation that the Coalition`s decision to reduce public spending early and hard is the right path but if he gets the balance and the finesse wrong he will be in trouble.
At the same time those of us on the back-benches, and particularly our newer Conservative and Liberal comrades, are going to have to understand that special-pleading is not on the agenda. Those clamouring, for example, to meet the Ombudsman`s Equitable Life recommendations in full are (certainly in the case of one former Defence Minister) likely to scream blue murder if the Chancellor then says “Okay: but that means we lose another regiment”. The reality is that the UK is in the financial mire and if we are not to follow Greece and Ireland down the emerald path to Carey Street then the pain is going to have to be universal and taken without favour.
We are promised a “bonfire of the quangoes”. Well, we have been promised that before. Mrs Thatcher was no slouch when it came to robust action but even in the nineteen eighties there was a growth in both Non-Governmental Organisations coupled with, of course, the creation of those dreadful Ministerial heat-shields, the “Government Agencies”. The fact is that over far too many years there has been a revolving door of incompetence and too many New Labour Quango Kings and Queens have moved seamlessly from under-performance in one over-rewarded “executive” post to another. Even with the proposed abolition of Primary Care Trusts, for example, there is the very real danger that General Practitioners will demand still more money to farm out the necessary commissioning and administration tasks to commercial organisations. And you do not need me to tell you who, following a smart lateral arabesque is likely to be found heading up those new bodies!
Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs, administrator of the Tax Credit schemes that have generated so many demands for repayment and so much domestic grief in recent years, now finds that £389 million poundsworth of computer has cocked up some 18 million tax records and that as a result some people have paid too much in tax and others owe the Treasury a modest £3.8 billion that they would like six million people to repay, please! The Mandarin behind this, one “Dave” Hartnett, sees no cause to apologise, describing HMRC`s performance, on the Today programme, as “not extraordinary. He is right: it really is almost always that bad. And the Chief Executive of HMRC, Dame Leslie Strathie, also feels that there has been “no mistake”. There have, in fact, been several – most recently the failure to sack Mr. Hartnett and Dame Leslie. Note to new Ministers: take it as read that government information technology does not work. There are too many vested interests in prolonging contracts and remedial work to encourage contractors to get it right first time – and no enforceable penalties for failure..
The start of the new school term has seen 32 Gove Academies open with, we are assured, another 110 in the pipeline. The Secretary of State for Education has also indicated a welcome shift back to technical education in for example, engineering and mechanics via the vehicle of “University Technical Colleges”. These are welcome moves from a thinking Minister. We may also see the reincarnation of an Assisted Places Scheme designed to facilitate the attendance, at Headmasters` Conference (public) Schools of young people from less well-off backgrounds.(the original scheme was created by Margaret Thatcher in 1980 and, having successfully given a leg-up to a lot of students, was killed off by Legacy Blair in 1997.) Additionally, the prospect of an English Baccalaureate to replace GCSE and embracing subjects such as history and geography has got to appeal to those who believe in a rounded curriculum. Perhaps Mr. Gove could also use his powers to persuade counties such as Kent to stop closing school libraries. And, of course, he could usefully admit that an earlier decision to prevent investment in new grammar schools was wrong and reverse that ill-advised policy.
Interest rates are at 0.5%, overdrafts cost 9% and if you want a mortgage (lowest lending rate for 10 years) or a loan to assist small business (advances down this month) please do not ask a bank as refusal often causes offence. And all this while the Deputy Governor of the Bank of England, one Charles Bean, tells the media that he wants the public to “go out and spend”. Spend what, Mr Bean?
Small wonder that a businessman from Westbourne ,which used to be known as “County Gates”, in Dorset, bricked up the doorway of a Barclays Bank ( “We Never Opened”!) and, with colleagues, plastered the walls with “Gi` us a loan” posters. The name of this enterprising entrepreneur? Cameron Hope!
His Holiness comes, speaks in Scotland, The Houses of Parliament , and Birmingham and, trailing clouds of glory and some controversy, boards the Popemobile aircraft and moves on. The Speaker`s wife, the aspirant Labour candidate Ms. Bercow who appears carelessly wedded to twitter, causes offence to many on both sides of the political divide with her call for Papal support for a “parachute jump for gay rights” at the very moment when her husband, Mr. Speaker Bercow, is welcoming the occupant of the Holy See to Westminster Great Hall. And Benedict XVI himself, while offering apologies for abuses carried out under the shelter of the Catholic Church, creates a frisson by parking his papal tanks on the Church of England lawn as he invites disaffected Anglicans to defect to the Church of Rome.
The BBC has, of course, been characteristically schizophrenic about all of this, distracted by the obligation to give responsible coverage to the papal visit while wanting to concentrate resources on its own editorial priority, the contest for the leadership of the Labour party.
Auntie has, this month not been without her own difficulties. Director Corporal (well, he`s scarcely a General, is he?) Mark Thompson has taken flak following a trip to Number Ten to discuss how to set coverage of the pending cuts into context. This is described as surrendering editorial integrity. At the same time the hapless Mr. Thompson admits that the BBC has had a massive lean to the left. In the past, of course. This – the “in the past” bit – might have been more convincing had it not been for the Broadcasting and Journalists Unions threat to black out the Prime Minister`s Party Conference Speech and the Chancellor`s Spending Review statement almost as Thompson was making his “confession”. As an aside there was also the astonishing claim that a BBC journalist had managed to accumulate, through membership of and affiliation to, a number of Labour-associated organisations, no less than ten separate votes in the leadership contest! (Whether these memberships were longstanding – which should surprise nobody – or whether they were acquired for the process is not entirely clear). On the plus side, it is revealed that Jeremy Paxman may take a 20% cut in pay, reducing his BBC income to only £800K a year – or roughly the same as that of the Director Corporal.
Happily, at the end of the month the cavalry, in the guise of senior BBC journalists and presenters, arrived to express their concern that to black out Cameron`s speech might not look good and on the basis of a slightly revised offer from the management the Unions have agreed to put strike action on hold – for the moment. But having, in the course of the month, lost the services of the £143K per year Chairman of the Trustees, Sir Michael Lyons, and the Controller of BBC 1, Ms. Jay Hunt, the Beeb may not have taken kindly to the comment, from War Correspondent John Simpson, that the BBC has managers like New York has bed bugs.
Back to the Palace of Varieties and just across the road , in Westminster Abbey, the great and the good and the Old and Bold, gather to celebrate the 70th Anniversary of the Battle of Britain. Question: how would those dying young men in their flying machines, who gave so much in the cause of freedom and democracy, feel were they to know that there is a plot afoot to flog off the port of Dover, surrounded by those very white cliffs over which the battle was fought, to the highest and very possibly foreign bidder? Selling the family silver is one thing: selling the family chapel graveyard is something else.
Off to the conferences. At the TUC the big Union brothers warn of another winter of discontent as strike action looms to combat the pending cuts. Brendan Barber compares these actions as likely to be as ferocious as the poll tax riots. British Airways face possible strikes over Christmas and Mad Hattie, Shadow Leader of the Commons, tells the comrades that Trades Unions have the right to protest, making it sound, almost, like a duty. With the sale of Royal Mail (and a £400 per household subsidy to buy out the company`s £10.3 pension fund deficit) on the cards the Communication Workers Union under the stewardship of Billy Hayes, seeks to target some 70 MPs in marginal seats to persuade them to vote against the sale. Sadly, the best that we can hope for is a reasonable John Lewis-style employees stake in the firm and the preservation of Rowland Hill`s universal delivery service. Falling letter volumes and the failure, under Adam Crozier, of RM to invest in new technology has left a once-proud and profitable brand open to purchase by Dutch-owned TNT or Deutche Post.
In the yellow corner the coalition is under stress. St. Vincent of Cable, used to playing to the press gallery in the House, now finds himself momentarily parking his role as Secretary of State for Trade and playing to the popular gallery at the Liberal Democrat show. Designed to stem the haemorrhage of LD support in the polls “Capitalism kills off competition” might play well with his party still faithful but it is scarcely the message that potential investors in UK limited wish to hear from the head of the sponsoring Government department any more than his apparent desire to target wealth accumulated in land and property. Chris Huhne`s call to scrap the Trident nuclear deterrent, promise of £22 billion of `green taxes ‘and attack on a cap on migrants are not exactly coalitioniste either. St. Nicholas of Clogg has a problem: it is all very well to tell your conference that “we shall never lose our soul”, wherever that soul may one day be found to be located, but when a third of your parliamentary party has taken the Queen`s shilling and is riding around in Ministerial cars and when you yourself are addressing the United Nations as the Deputy Prime Minister of the United Kingdom it is a little difficult to maintain your party`s traditional posture astride the fence.
And so, finally, to Labour.
September began with the hats of Diane Abbot, Andy Burnham, Ed Balls, David Miliband and Ed Miliband in the Labour leadership ring. David Miliband had garnered the support of Lord Foy of that Persuasion, of Alastair Campbell and of The Legacy as the heir to the New Labour mantle. Lords Kinnock and Hattersley were endorsing Ed Miliband. Milipede Major was the front-runner, Milipede Minor was closing fast and fratricide was on the cards.
There is little doubt in many observers’ minds that the best, the bravest, the most coherent and the most articulate pitch for the heart and minds of the left-wing of British politics was made by Ed Balls.
Describing Blair and his followers as “lost in a 90`s comfort zone” he took the battle to his party in his own unequivocal terms and arguably he won the argument.
Unfortunately, winning the argument does not always – or even often – equate to winning the contest. By mid-month a YouGov poll was putting the younger Milipede ahead in the polls as his older brother woke up to the fact that this was not going to be a coronation or a shoe-in and that the baggage of the Blairite years and wars was a burden that his sibling had no intention of carrying.
The result is yesterday`s news. As the left-wing votes offered first to Diane Abbot and then to Andy Burnham and then to Ed Balls finally, in the fourth round, collapsed to Ed Miliband and with the support of the die-hard trades unions, Ed Miliband has become the Leader of Her Majesty`s Opposition without the support of the majority of his parliamentary colleagues, without the support of the majority of the members of his Party and with a margin of less than two per cent over a brother who has, at least for the moment, now left mainstream politics. The horrible result of a transferable voting system that some in Westminster wish to foist upon parliamentary elections in the UK has, arguably, delivered for the Labour Party the worst possible of all results – a possibly able Leader with no clear mandate.
Milipede Minor has won the sprint: the big question is can he now win the mile?
Could the Royal Navy share aircraft carriers with the French? Those that recall the latter`s sale of Exocet to the Argentines and the consequent loss of HMS Sheffield might just not support this as a cost-cutting measure.. The Andrew knows who its friends are – a wisdom that goes back at least as far as Cape Trafalgar.
Time for the Duncan Smith reforms when a jobless couple can receive £95K a year in benefits for their ten children. Or about five times the starting salary of a teacher that might instruct their offspring.
Talking of assistance, an Afghan mother of seven and refugee obtains, in Acton, a £1.7 million seven-bedroomed home while Lance Corporal Craig Baker, returned from active service in Afghanistan, is unable to obtain, from Bracknell Forest Council, a home for his wife and two children.
This sort of situation will become more widespread following an EU ruling that will prevent the government from applying a UK residency test to those arriving to claim benefits. A decision taken by Eureaucrats whose pensions will, before very long, be costing UK taxpayers £350 million a year, says that the restriction is “incompatible with EU law”. In 2009 nearly half of some forty-six thousand immigrant benefit claimants failed the habitual residency test. Expect many more to now follow.
So it is comforting to know that the Family and Parenting Institute, headed by feminist Katherine Rake on a salary of £92K a year, believes that what the country needs is more benefits for parents rather than tax-breaks for married couples.
The charges imposed by Ryanair upon travellers are legendary so it is not really any surprise to learn that a father travelling with his twelve year old daughter and her violin was asked for an additional £190 for a third seat – a fiddle that Easyjet subsequently offered for free. BMI Baby is vying for the Ryanair title, however. Charging extra for hand luggage that would not fit into measurement cages that were too small because of rounded corners, BMI described this oversight as “a design flaw”!
And you cannot help feeling sorry for Professor Martin Evans of Darlington who was asked, by East Coast trains, to pay a £155 fine for leaving a train one stop early. Although East Coast relented that wonderful organisation established to justify the unjustifiable, ATOC (The Association of Train Operating Companies) says that in fact East Coast were within their rights and that Professor Evans should have read the fine print of his contract. The Train Operators` “contracts” with a travelling public often faced with cold, dirty, late and over-priced trains contain, of course, no such draconian sanctions.
The World`s Largest Windfarm is now operational off Foreness Point in the Isle of Thanet, part of which I have been proud to represent for twenty-seven years. It will, at full tilt, generate some 300 megawatts through 100 Vestas turbines installed by Vattenfall at a cost of £780 million. There are those that say that this is a waste of money and a drop in the ocean when set alongside our total need for renewable energy. There is no one solution that will meet our needs and we need to harness all of the available resources if we are to keep the lights on and the schools and hospitals powered for our grandchildren. The real sadness is that UK limited has sold the pass and that, as a consequence, so much of the technology is being developed in and purchased from other countries.