Gale's View from Westminster - September 2013
September. The fallout from the Commons vote on Action in Syria continues. Fallout, also, between past and current luminaries of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation. Red Ed turns yellow over Union vote-rigging. HS2, A “heart bypass for the Transport system” or a multi-billion pound side-line? The row goes on. Cossacks from the Soviet Republic of Russia to the rescue of President Assad? Blood on the malls of Nairobi. Badger wars in rural England but red squirrels fight back. The start of the season of twists and mellow conferences, “Dog Whistle politics”, “Magic Wand Politics”, power stations in mothballs, socialism is back and promises, promises, promises.
The month begins, as August ended, with Syria and the aftermath of that vote in the House of Commons. “The US snubs Britain”. Well, not exactly. Whether the relationship is now quite as “special” as it was before Man David made the mistake of recalling parliament only time will tell. Much hand-wringing of an “Oh God, what have we done?” kind on the Labour benches, not aided by `helpful` advice from Alastair “It would be dangerous and irresponsible not to act” Campbell and by The Legacy taking time out from a fund-raising (that`s a euphemism for fat-fee lecture, by the way) visit to Thailand to promote `peace and reconciliation, to tell us that “We are at a cross roads: we either engage in commentary or action”. It was, of course, precisely the action of a dodgy-dossier backed Blairite expedition in Iraq that more than any other factor tipped the balance against military intervention in Syria. “Sabre rattling without sabres”, to usurp a phrase used by a former defence secretary in another context, is never a good idea. But while Milipede Senior will not have endeared himself to his little brother by asserting that “engagement is necessary” both the Prime Minister and the Leader of the Opposition may have taken some comfort that the public remains against intervention in Syria.
An interesting dilemma for a Borat O`Bama whose heart, one feels, was never really in line with another military exercise. Old enough to remember the slogan “There`s a new Korea for you in Vietnam” the thought of becoming involved in a post-Afghanistan fracas must not have been hugely appealing. So, while carefully not-quite-blaming his “oldest ally” for leaving him liberally covered with egg, Borat moves seamlessly from wanting to `topple Assad` and the `broader strategy` to putting military strikes against Syria on hold while engaging in a Cameron-style endeavour to secure Congressional votes in support of intervention. With `dire reprisals` threatened by the Syria-Iranian axis, President Assad himself appearing on America`s CBS television, considerable acrimony at the New Leningrad G20 Summit and the President of the Soviet Republic of Russia indicating support for Syria if the US chooses to unilaterally attack it is not surprising that there is little public appetite in the United States, either, for the “we must do something” tendency.
We shall never know whether O`Bama`s political charm offensive on The Hill would have done the trick or whether he would, like Young Lochinvar, have been defeated in the voting lobbies, for into this heady melee ambles the American Secretary of State, “Has anyone here seen” Kerry, with a throw-away observation that, of course, if Syria were to dispose of its chemical weapons within an impossible week then all bets would be off and proper negotiations could resume.
Starting from a position of “Britain is just a small island and the United States is lying about Assad using chemical weapons that of course he does not even have”, Vladimir “Ras” Putin outflanks the field by offering in no less than six television interviews, to assist with the destruction of Syria`s chemical arsenal. From Secretary Kerry`s off-the-cuff remark in London to Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov`s proposal for “storage under international control and subsequent destruction” is a big leap but Borat takes it seriously. The American Senate`s vote on Syria is now also on ice as their President responds to the `breakthrough` and elects to test the Russian proposal. Meanwhile, back in the Supreme Soviet – I hope you are keeping up with this – Vlad seamlessly accepts Syrian government `evidence` of `Rebel Gas Attacks`, secures a pledge of compliance with weapons surrender from Assad, announces that he is `not sure that the disarmament of Syria will succeed` and cuts up rough over the wording of a UN resolution designed to give legal force to the disarmament agreement. Sergei Lavrov accuses the US of `blackmail`. This would be, presumably, the same nation whose Presidential advisor, one Sergey Glazyev, is busy threatening the Ukraine with “traffic and trade checks costing billions of dollars and leading to bankruptcy” if The Ukraine enters into a trade agreement with the European Union. Comrade Putin, you see, wants The Ukraine in a customs union with his new Soviet republic. But that`s not – what was the word – “blackmail” is it? In the event a UN /Syria arms resolution is agreed, of a kind that is probably not worth the shed blood in which it is written and that gives to Russia the right of a further Security Council veto before any enforcement action is taken against a defaulting Syria. As an aside, Mr. Putin is reported to be resistant to a chapter in Russian school history books devoted to his work post-Yeltsin between 2000 and 2012. This chapter will be “free from internal ambiguities” you understand or, in plain English, purged, in true Stalinist fashion, of any unfortunate criticism or controversy. As a footnote I found myself, on the last day of the month, arguing with representatives of the Russian Federation in the Council of Europe about a report entitled "National Security and access to information”. The comrades, fresh from their triumphant sheltering of Edward Snowden, have seemingly decided that human rights carte blanche are more important that the war against terrorism. And you thought that the Cold War was over.
Those who report the news have been making the news in a rather unseemly squabble about who knew what, when, about executive payoffs at the Salford Broadcasting Corporation. Auntie's month got off to a rather bad start with a spat about the hiring of a former Labour spin doctor to supplement the work already being carried out by a former Labour Minister, James Purnell. Were these jobs offered on the open market? You bet by our sweet life, they were not even advertising in that staff magazine, The Guardian. The real question, though, is how much did the Chairman of the Trustees, Lord Patten, know in advance about the £687K of license fee payers' boodle handed over to the firm's ex Head of Vision and other departing senior managers? In a pre-emptive strike the current CEO of the New York Times, who in a former incarnation was The Beeb's Director General, accuses Fat Pang of "fundamentally misleading parliament" in earlier evidence to a select committee. The "dossier" (and we know all about those, don't we?) was delivered, like a grenade with a missing pin, just in time for a fresh Public Accounts Committee hearing. Sir Michael Lyons, ex Trust Chairman (who will appear later in the month as the Leader of a Labour Housing Commission seeking to create a soviet-style 5-year housing plan) has referred to the six-figure executive hand-outs as "project silver”. Gold plate, more like.
Before the scrutiny of PAC Chairman Margaret Hodge and her hounds it’s dog eat dog, or bitch. Watching seven former and current BBC executives blaming everyone but themselves for the largesse doled out to erstwhile colleagues was not a pretty sight. HR Director Lucy Adams is said to have generated cheers from those watching the live execution in the newsroom when Ms. Hodge, in exasperation, spluttered " I' m not having any more lies this afternoon". “Delivering quality first" this was not and it comes as no surprise to learn that Culture Secretary Maria Miller is considering asking the Government's auditors to look into the matter further. In a breathtaking follow -up Lord Patten has told a Prix Italia audience that the Corporation over which he presides has "too many managers with gold-plated pensions" and refers to a "broadcasting elite" and the seeds of "profligacy, self- indulgence and waste". Those "seeds” to be fair, were planted under the watch of earlier chairmen of Trustees and Directors General. Patten has the misfortune to be in the chair as the magic roundabout stops.
There are signs of recovery in the economy. Without wishing to present an Indian Summer as a premature Spring the fact is that the occasional and unmentionable green shoot has been spotted. Not that Chancellor George would be daft enough to refer to the largest boom in factory activity for nineteen years as anything so vulgar as a green shoot or that the opinion of the OECD that British recovery is overtaking rivals is of itself cause to pop the champagne corks. It must have been galling for shadow Chancellor Balls to have to welcome the news that the economy is improving and he did it as grudgingly and gave away as little credit as possible but nevertheless welcome there was. We are, said George, "turning the corner" and for that, carefully avoiding any triumphalism, he would like to thank the British people for the sacrifices that we have all made. If there was any danger that pleasure might be taken from some good news St.Vincent of Cable quickly pooped the party and, warning of complacency, threw a pall of gloom over the narrative. Good news for the coalition does not, you see, really suit his purpose.
The Milipede has sought to maintain his "out of touch" line but the Chancellor, who has stuck to his guns under both hostile and friendly fire, ought to be given at least a smidgen of credit for the fact that not only is the OECD forecast up and not only is GDP on the modest increase but retail sales are rising and the IMF has done a handbrake turn on its attitude to UK austerity measures. Now, as the economy picks up speed, the Chancellor, conscious of the effect on household and commercial budgets, is looking to cuts in gas and electricity prices and a reduction in transport costs. The 2015 General Election battleground has been staked out in living standards and at the party conferences and beyond this is going to be at the top of the agenda.
Beside the seaside the Brothers of the Trades Union movement threaten 'inevitable' postal strikes in response to privatisation and determine to remove such quantities of cash from the a Labour Party as to potentially bankrupt that Party. "Red Ed turns yellow " say the tabloids as in panic mode Milipede Minor shifts smartly into reverse over the Unite vote-rigging issue that emerged from the Falkirk candidate selection process and has threatened to rip the relationship between Union and Party apart. If there was a secret dossier about Falkirk then it will remain a secret and even the accusation of 'cover- up' fails to goad Milipede to maintain a vestige of his former robust posturing. The mouse has roared and been swallowed by the cat. The man who pays the fiddler will call the tune. Business as usual. The Politburo will retain its grip over Labour Party policy. The Leader of the Opposition still finds it hard to applaud Union leaders but the 'rank and file' are his new best friends. The happy sound of the Internationale once again rings out over the Conference Centre and Ed's popularity hits its lowest ever at 24 per cent.
For the Liberal Democrats Danny 'The Rodent' Alexander promises, as Chief Secretary to the Treasury, to go taxing on and would like to hit "the rich", by which he appears to mean anyone earning over £50K per year. Cable attacks the Tories 'return to nastiness' and suggests darkly that the coalition might end early. "Dog Whistle Politics", "Tea Party Tories", "callous behaviour towards the Unions, immigrants and benefit claimants". Written by dial-a-cliché it's a clear bid for the Leadership. Of the Labour Party. Education Minister David Laws describes schools as exam factories, Norman Baker, the Transport Minister who looks as though he really wants to go back to wearing saddles, reverts to true Liberalism with an expressed wish to ban cars from already ghost-town centres. It is for " I agree with Nick" Clegg to seek to claim some credit for the success of the coalition for his Party and in a direct put-down of Cable to say that there will be no split in the Governing arrangements prior to the General Election. It is, though, left to the LDs Tim Farron to win the Liberal conference star prize. Dining out in a Chinese restaurant his fortune cookie tells him that “you will rule the world”. Go home and prepare for global domination!
At the start of the Labour shindig former Home Secretary Jacqui Smith describes her Party's policy review as like a panda's pregnancy. “It takes a long time and you're never quite sure if there is anything in there." The publication of Labour spin doctor Damian McBride's memoirs does not help the comrades to get off to an auspicious start. Milipede finds himself embroiled in "smear gate" as revelations emerge about the dirty tricks used to bring down The Legacy's Ministers, Charles Clarke and John Reid and of The Clunking Fist's musings on " sending in the troops" to control possible riots following the banking collapse.
Ed Balls would like to subject his spending proposals to scrutiny by the Office of Budgetary Responsibility. He is on safe ground. It is outside their remit. Okay then, Labour will solve immigration by requiring firms to take on one apprentice for every migrant worker. Problem is, it emerges, that under the EU law that Labour signed up to those apprentices would have to be allowed to also come from anywhere within the European Union. Two for the price of one. There will be tax cuts and business rate reductions for small firms to be paid for out of higher taxes on large firms.
Labour will freeze fuel prices for two years until 2017. (Work that one out. It would actually mean, because of the election diary, one winter's worth of freeze). This announcement wipes millions off energy share prices and threatens plans for long- term investment in new fuel sources but no matter, it rings a bell with hard-pressed families. We will give the vote to sixteen year olds and seize developers' land back to build, with what funding is not clear, homes. Friends have replaced comrades but socialism is the order of the day and it's back to the 70s with SuperEd. His speech goes down well. The ad-libbed note-free delivery is subsequently revealed to have taken ten days to learn parrot-fashion but his poll rating improves and in theatre terms the notices, from a performance point of view, are better than other recent outings.
As a precursor to the Tory Party conference, of which coverage in the October "View", the parliamentary party enjoys a warm-up away day at Heythrop Park in Chipping Norton. The proceedings are, of course, highly confidential and therefore so widely reported in the press that it would be otiose to waste further column inches on them save to say that the interpretation of "smart casual" has clearly taxed the interpretation of those who still harbour ambitions of Ministerial preferment.
In London UKIP is photographed in a Westminster hostelry, thus guaranteeing press coverage from those hacks who will gravitate towards any venue where the drinks are free. The proceedings are rudely interrupted by one of that party's MEPs, Godfrey Bloom, who, suffering from foot-in- mouth disease, jestingly described women as "sluts" and subsequently beat reporter Michael Crick about the head. (Privately, many of us may have wished to do just that but it does not exactly make for favourable coverage). Farridge avers that Bloom has "killed our conference" by which he means that a populist other than himself has stolen the headlines for a day. It is revealed, also, that Farridge himself held "racist and fascist” views while being educated at that well-known Grammar School, Dulwich College. This is hotly denied by the public school as the actions of “a Bolshie teenager who pushed the boundaries of debate”. Make of it what you will but the thought that “the child is father of the man “does spring to mind.
In other news the future of HS2 remains significantly on the agenda with the Public Accounts Committee asserting that "the case for £50 billion of expenditure is not proven", Labour positioning itself neatly on the fence and Mayor Boris, via TfL boss Sir Peter Hendry, seeking to extract a £400 million new Willesden Station and a lot of extra and costly tunnelling as a price for possible support.
There is a school place crisis arising from the influx of migrants and while not exactly forecasting "rivers of blood" The Chingford Polecat, Lord Tebbit, suggests that immigrants are seeking to "recreate their own countries in our country" and generating separate societies. The Fracking row continues. Farridge wants to frack. Ed Davey (Liberal Democrat, energy) announces that the Prime Minister is wrong and opines that Fracking will not cut energy prices. A lady from the UNHCR, one Raquel Rolnick, visits the United Kingdom to helpfully tell us that we ought to abolish what she describes in non- partisan style as “the bedroom tax". Hailing, as she does, from Brazil she is clearly in a position to know a great deal about squalid housing conditions but the 'UN Special Reporter on Housing', whose views are widely covered in the Guardian and its broadcasting subsidiary, the BBC, is, it transpires, acting in " a personal capacity" although " the government was informed" of her visit.
Sir James Mumby, President of the family division of the High Court, believes that family courts should be exposed to ' the glare of publicity’. This might have the unfortunate side -effect of actually exposing the sad circumstances of children being taken into care, fostering or adoption, from even more grandstanding by lawyers who, I am told, are in some cases less than gentle with the diminutive subjects of legal process. Elsewhere, M' Learned Friend on the Bench sheds tears of frustration at the fact that a benefit cheat, before him for sentencing, will continue to receive the benefits out of which his fines will be paid by the poor bloody taxpayer.
A debate starts in the courts, and rolls outwards, over the rights of Muslim women to wear veils in the witness box. Not unreasonably Your Honour believes that the court should have the right to see both that the person before them is in fact the witness or the accused and second that the jury should have the opportunity to see the demeanour of the person giving evidence. We next learn that at least 17 hospitals have banned the wearing of the veil because, as Mr. Secretary Hunt says, patients also must have the right to see who is caring for them. This is an issue that is likely to run and run.
The hubris of the month award goes to Chris Huhne, if you remember him, who, still apparently in denial, accuses the Murdoch machine of plotting his downfall and "grooming" his partner. Vicky Pryce. The Justice Secretary, Chris Grayling, is keen to ban, on health grounds, smoking in Her Maj's prisons. The tobacco industry clearly has something of a vested interest in the social habits of some eighty four thousand inmates but it does seem curious that you can ban smoking in a voluntarily patronised public house but not, as things stand, in penal institutions. Perhaps the fact that tobacco is an alternative currency in gaols might have something to do with opposition to the Lord Chancellor's proposition.
Former Chancellor Darling, charged with the duty of opposing Scottish Independence in the forthcoming referendum, predicts a 'decade of pain’ costing £5.9 billion if the Scots are foolhardy enough to vote to go it alone.
Like many good intentions that go sour the intent to install memorial stones for those who won the VC in the Great War hits problems. Originally, the proposal was confined to only those recipients born in the United Kingdom but research reveals that some twenty holders of the highest military award for gallantry were Britons born overseas. Happily, common sense has prevailed and any VC with ties to the United Kingdom will now have a stone placed in the home location with which they have the greatest connection.
There is concern that while Mr. Plod has dropped investigations into alleged sexual improprieties of one Lord Rennard the Met is also dragging its feet over its investigation into the 'plebgate' scandal that brought down former Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell on the back of what now appears to be some highly dubious, if not creative, 'evidence'.
And in a charming report wittily headlined 'ER indoors' we learn, from a meeting held between Her Maj and the Prime Minister of New Zealand at Balmoral, that the Queen has a hallway stuffed with children's bikes, wellies and fishing rods and a drawing room with a mantel shelf cluttered with china ornaments and photographs, a collection of rocks and stones picked up on the Balmoral estate, an "It's Good To Be Queen" embroidered cushion and twin dog beds for the corgis with washable tartan covers. Just like home, really!
Having removed travellers from an unauthorised site and locked the gates to prevent further intrusion, Brighton and Hove council then unlocked the aforesaid gates and re-admitted twenty caravans on 'elf 'n safety grounds because “the intruders might hurt themselves trying to get back in."
'Intelligent speed adaptation' is the Brussels euphemism for a limiter that the EU would like to impose upon White Van Man. It will be opposed by the U Ks Secretary of State for Transport.
In Warsash, Hampshire, a vicar has declined to christen a child with ' two mothers'. Suffer little children........
The Houses of Parliament are reputed to have been responsible for three thousand visits to Internet porn sites in the last year. At 820 a day that makes for a lot of very tired researchers.
A railway hero who jumped onto the track to rescue an elderly person whose wheelchair had rolled onto the line has been suspended by the train operator, C2C, for “not following correct safety procedures".
My friend and colleague Ian Liddell - Grainger, a great great great grandson of Queen Victoria has been presented, overnight, with the corpse of a badger offered up by anti-cull protesters. Unfortunately, by the time that The Man With A Clipboard arrived to exhume the body to establish cause of death the poor animal was too far gone for forensic science to intervene.
My chum Gareth Johnson, an excellent Kent MP, has had his plan to plant a million poppies in recognition of the centenary of the start of the Great War rejected by the Heritage Lottery Fund. They have, though, managed to scrape together £100K for the Peace Pledge Union.
A promenade concert solo planned for the performance of the Chichester Psalms has led to disappointment for a young chorister. While licenses can be obtained for stage performances those under 13 are not allowed to appear on live television after 7pm. Unless, of course, they are on Britain's Got Talent, in which case the rules appear to be bent.
The Christian couple Hazelmary and Peter Bull, who declined to allow those not married to share double beds in their guesthouse, have been forced to sell following loss of business. VisitEngland refused to list their availability.
And the cost of churchgoing is rising. Parking fines administered on Sundays have risen by 13 per cent to £13 million a month.
Foreign Secretary William Hague has reinstated the in-house language school vandalised by The Legacy following the revelation that only one in forty diplomats are fluent in the language of their country of posting and 90 per cent have no foreign language skills whatsoever.
Chessington World of Adventures has found it necessary to bar customers wearing leopard-print clothes because "it confuses the animals”. Those arriving in unsuitable attire are offered grey boiler suits. No elephant jokes, please.
In the Cambridgeshire village of Trumpington (which students of Chaucer will recall as the setting for The Reeve's Tale) villagers have been invited to 'enjoy' classes in sado-masochism held in the village hall and accompanied by afternoon teas served by ' Maid Sarah’. Guests at these events, inspired apparently by the success of Fifty Shades of Grey, are invited to stack chairs after the sessions. Now that really is strict discipline.
Family legend has it that my great great grandfather was offered dunes in Sandbanks, In Dorset, at a price of seven shillings and sixpence an acre. Now the fourth most expensive chunk of real estate in the world, Lloyds Property Services have set up a branch in Moscow to attract Russian investors to Sandbanski.
A musical of the life of Karol Wojtyla, better known as Pope John Paul II, has inevitably been dubbed 'Papa Mia' before it has even opened.
And the BBC Trust is to study reports of ' bias in the news'. Shall we write the report that exonerates them now and save the license fee payer the expense of the inquiry?
That Was The Life That Was. Goodnight, Goodbye and Rest in Peace. Sir David Frost, enfant terrible of 60s television, the man who sneered at the establishment and subsequently went on to interview every Leader of the Western World and become part of the establishment himself has gone to his final inquisition.
And at 87 the man who began his career with British Forces Broadcasting and became the voice of Housewives Choice and the face of Juke Box Jury and Top of the Pops has spun his last disc. David Jacobs was of the last of a dying breed of gentlemen broadcasters.
Olympic Gold Medallist Sir Ben Ainslie, called up to rescue our colonial cousins from annihilation at the hands of New Zealand in The Americas Cup series started at seven races down and went on to take an incredible eight races in a row and bring home the Auld Jug for the United States.
Now being described in the popular press as “the greatest British nautical strategist since Nelson" we understand that Ben Ainslie Racing is looking to repeat the success on behalf of the United Kingdom. Who was it who said " England expects........"?