Gale's View from Westminster - August 2012
August. Waiting for Goldot. Then, suddenly, it happens and happens again. And again. The Crown Jewels go on show. Clogg puts foot in mouth. Shock, horror. Lords Reform on the back-burner, boundary changes held to ransom. The economy - do you believe the facts? Or the BBC? Hot over Air Travel. Do we compete or not? Virgin on the ridiculous. And is it “time” for the gong?
I promised myself that I would fly the Union Flag above the Olympic flag from the moment that we struck gold. We waited, and we waited, and then the dam burst. On the “do you remember where you were when…..” scale of things it may not be hugely significant but I was sitting in a car, in Royal Tunbridge Wells, late for a meeting but unable to turn the radio off until Helen Glover and Heather Stanning had delivered our first gold medal in the rowing pair. Forget the “deserted London”, forget accusations of “Marxist propaganda” at the opening, forget problems over ticket sales. Plain sailing, plain riding, plain rowing, plain cycling, shooting, swimming, track and field and gymnastics and boxing and tennis. Pity about the soccer but you cannot have everything, can you?
Bradley “Go Wiggo” Wiggins, Sir Chris Hoy, Victoria Pendleton, Jessica Ennis, Andy Murray, at last, Ben Ainslie who kept us sweating until the end, Laura Trott, Zara Philips whose mum gave her a kiss while handing out the medals, our first show jumping medals for sixty years, Nicola Adams, our first “golden boxer” and Mo Farah and so many more. Everyone who watched it has their own highlights. “The London Olympics shall ne`er go by from this day to the ending of the world but they, in it, shall be remembered”. And no, for the benefit of our French critics, the British cyclists did not “cheat”. The magic in their wheels was raw courage and they won because they were “ simply the best – better than all the rest”.
Moments of pure joy. Mayor Boris flailing Union flags while stranded on a zipwire. Only he could make such a complete prat of himself and still emerge with a vestige of dignity and humour! And the young royals, who as Olympic Ambassadors seemed to be everywhere at once.
Even the BBC managed to redeem itself, thanks largely to the informed skills of commentators like Clare Balding, from the best-forgotten shambles of the Diamond Jubilee. The coverage was technically cunning also. We have to assume that the `A`-team was dedicated entirely to the Olympics while some YTS trainees rigged the outside broadcast that tried, and so dramatically failed, to portray the Jubilee even half-adequately. Roger Mosey, of course, as a former Director of News who learned his craft in the days before Salford when things were done properly, does know what he is doing.
All of this was achieved with what we are told was 90% of Britons watching the Games on television, while the outgoing boss of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation, acting in his capacity as “Editor in Chief,” instructed his current Head of News, under the heading “An Order From the Director General of the BBC” to tone down its reporting of British Olympic success because it was “too focussed on team GB”. Stupid of us, of course, to assume that because its name used to be the British Broadcasting Corporation it might just take pride in a little British glory.
The sooner that Mr. Thompson goes off to run the New York Times the better; I, for one, will not be in the queue of acolytes and luvvies waiting to record peons of praise for someone who, in my view, has presided over the further decline of a once-great institution.
There is, inevitably, a downside, because there always has to be a downside. The combination of the Olympics and continuing problems within the Eurozone, of which more later, are said to have been the cause of a slump in factory business and it was not a little unwise of the Culture Secretary, at present Mr. Hunt, to aver that shops are “quids in” when it was patently obvious that they were largely empty.
Lord (Colin) Moynihan`s desire, as the head of the British Olympic Association, to “shake up sport” and to see more pupils from state schools winning medals might have a greater chance of success if the sport ethos was reintroduced to state schools and at an early age. A sadness, given the legacy, that it emerges that even as we are trying to encourage young people to take up sports there are plans afoot to make it easier to sell off playing fields and that, indeed, that the donnish Secretary of State for Education has quietly already allowed a few more to be flogged off while the eye was on other balls. Mr Gove needs to understand that “outdoor play” is not the same as “sport”.
“The money for sport will keep on flowing” says Man David. If it does, then spare a thought for Sir John Major. For it was that fashionably derided Prime Minister, whose legacy will surely be much greater than many, who had the foresight to create the National Lottery Fund for good causes that has poured so much desperately needed hard cash into élite sport. In spite of the Blair Government`s best efforts to raid the piggy bank for other less Corinthian “good causes” it is that very funding that has done so much, over two cycles of the Olympics, to raise the game and Sir John deserves a modest gold medal of his own.
Unwise, perhaps, of the Hon. Bernard Jenkin as the son of a life peer whose wife, Ann, has also been elevated to the nobility, to raise, as chairman of the Commons Public Administration Committee, the imbalance between seemingly automatic recognition of senior civil servants while others, perhaps more worthy as volunteers, are by-passed. As a beneficiary of the honours system myself I am also probably not best-placed to comment save to say that I have always recognised that while it may be the head of the team that picks up the cup it is the team itself that actually earns it.
Nevertheless, the raft of gold medals has created another problem. To whom do you now give honours and at what level? Sir Chris Hoy already has his “K”. Ben Ainslie ought to be in line for a knighthood and there is a popular clamour, led by the tabloid press, for the winner of the Tour de France and Olympic Gold Medallist to arise as “Sir Wiggo”.
The Prime Minister has stated in terms that all gold medal winners will receive an honour and if that embraces, as we assume that it rightly must, the heroes of the Paralympic Games, then that is a lot of awards to dish out. Has the time come, at least in this and perhaps future Olympic years, to have a separate list for sporting honours so that not only the front men and women but those very many who have worked so hard behind the scenes to train and coach and adjudicate can also receive proper recognition? Exceptional circumstances require exceptional measures and I think that we can probably agree that this has been a truly exceptional year.
If Ben Ainslie made us sweat for the gold medal that has crowned his Olympic sailing career (more to come, but the America`s Cup is another story) then it has not been exactly plain sailing on the political front either. The fact that Westminster has taken its “three month holiday” should not be taken as an indication that there has been a truce or a ceasefire for the duration – and that`s just within the Government.
“War in the Coalition” screams the headline as the fallout from the only possible decision, to put on hold the reform of the House of Lords, continues into the recess. Will “traitor Clegg” now seek to wreck the boundary change bill and with it, some argue, the possibility of an overall Conservative majority after the next General Election? Frankly, that majority seems rather a long way off at present with or without boundary changes , but there`s a long way to go between now and then and with Ed Balls in a fit of “alpha male posturing” ordering Milipede the Younger to make the tea while ripping bits off him there`s everything to play for. Man David has St. Nicholas of Clogg on the rack and will push the boundary changes to the vote. Given Mr. Clogg`s assertion as recently as September 2010 that “it is patently obvious that votes should carry the same weight and that we must reform the rules for re-drawing boundaries” there is not much wriggle room left. That, though, might not be applied to a parliamentary party that is increasingly wary of his leadership and might well not toe the line..
The deal, if there is to be one, could well involve taxpayer funding for General Elections to level that playing field. While anathema to many and clearly likely to be wildly unpopular with an electorate that would like to pay for less politics not more, it has the cross-party advantage of removing from Labour the curse of the Union paymaster, absolves the Tories of being “the party of big business” and helps the Liberal Democrats who would claim the concession as a political win. Now that Asil Nadir is where he properly belongs, behind bars, there is the small matter of his donation to the Tory party that Lord McAlpine, as Conservative Treasurer of the day, believes rightly should be paid back as, indeed, should the outstanding payment made to the Liberal Democrats by another crook. Murky waters, and a deal on political funding might have considerable attractions all round – save, of course, for the poor bloody taxpaying infantry.
With a re-shuffle looming and with so much speculation “out there” it would be daft to add fuel to individual flames save to say that if it was left to me – and there is not a snowball in hell`s chance of this happening – I would abolish the entire socialist creation that is the Justice Department, hand powers back to a real Lord Chancellor in the guise of Michael Howard and leave the rest of the job, with another Minister of State to help him, to the Attorney General. Sadly, Cameron`s hands are very tied. He has a disproportionate number of Liberal Democrat Ministers over whom is powers of appointment are limited, he has some excellent middle-ranking Ministers of State who under ordinary circumstances ought to be promoted, he has some equally good senior backbenchers who, with a Conservative majority would be in Government already but who have been squeezed out to make way for Liberals and he has some highly ambitious younger Members elected in 2010 who feel that the time has come for them to get their hands on some red boxes. Add to that the other devils on his back – Rail Fare rises, Green Belt Planning, Runways at Heathrow, Sunday Trading, Same-sex marriage and the like and the reshuffle is not an enviable task. Watch this space, but it has huge capacity to end in tears.
As does the economy. Chancellor George`s stock is at an all-time low and the Prime Minister knows that he must stand by his Chancellor. Greek debt has risen by twenty billion pounds in the last three months, Spain is in the queue with a begging bowl likely to be outstretched again; Frau Merkel is trying to square the impossible circle of wanting to save the Franco-German Eurozone project while at the same time having to do business with a French President with whom she has little or nothing politically in common and a public back home that is becoming increasingly restive. The Eurozone itself is on the brink of recession and all of that is having a knock-on effect upon UK limited. There is a dangerous slump in exports. House prices outside of London are reported as having fallen by 20% in five years. The Equity Release Council tells us that between January and June £424 million has been drawn down as parents try to help their grandchildren. Boris tells the Prime Minister, no doubt intending to be helpful, to “stop pussy-footing around on the economy” and the Free Enterprise Group of Tory MPs calls for “less regulation and tax cuts” of the kind that would be party policy were it not for the dead hand of our Coalition “partners”.
Setting aside Clogg`s idiotic attempt, pre-party conference, to curry favour by promoting some ill-defined “son of soak the rich” scheme that was dead in the water before it learned to fly, getting any kind of tax-stimulus past the House of Commons is well-nigh impossible. As with the Prime Minister and the re-shuffle, so with the economy. The Chancellor`s hands are tied and threats of “more spending cuts” are not relished by politicians and those that they represent as we already have yet to feel the real pain. The betting, though, is that George Osborne will remain in post until 2015.
If you still listen to the BBC you would never know it but there is also some good news. As unemployment policy begins to bite and as some jobs move seamlessly from the “black” into the “real” economy the number of homes where nobody is in work has fallen by a staggering 25% since 2010. And while Stephanie Flanders ( daughter of Michael “Mud, Mud, slinging the Mud” Flanders), a Corporation “correspondent” may not like it two thousand jobs are being created every day as the jobless total falls. Iain Duncan Smith rounds on La Flanders for “knocking jobs growth” and “liberal bias” and he is right to do so.
On the back of the Olympics “Healthcare UK” will sell its services around the world in a move that, embarrassingly for Labour, was advocated by Andy Burnham who as the Secretary of State for Health responsible at the time now finds himself required to criticise the same policy.
Sir Richard Branson was never a good loser. He did not, as I recall, question the terms of engagement for the award of the West Coast Mainline service believing, presumably, that it was a shoe-in and his by right. The Secretary of State thinks otherwise and wants to award the contract, after fourteen years, to The First Group who will pay a lot more money to the taxpayer. Branson describes this bid as “suicidal” and, delaying the whole process because he has now decided that he does not like the rules, has called for a judicial review. From the tropical island of Necker.
Which brings us, in a roundabout sort of way, to Prince Hal. For it was while attending the wedding of one of the scions of the Branson clan on Necker that the young Prince, letting his hair down after considerable success as an Olympic Ambassador, took off for Las Vegas, the Encore Beach Club, some bright lights and some pretty, if not discreet, girls. Following the episode of “strip billiards” in the course of which an opportunist young lady sold nude pictures of the Prince onto the internet, we have “Charles and Harry in Crisis talks”, “Harry in Army Trouble” and – and this is how serious it gets - “Dorries and Mensch clash over Sun pictures”. I know that he is a Prince of the Realm and an Officer and a Gentleman and in the public eye and all that but the lad is twenty-seven years old and most of us, I suspect, have done some fairly silly things before we reached our thirties. It may not have improved the image of the Royal Family and I don`t doubt either that Her Maj was not amused or that the Buck House damage control machine had to go into overdrive, but I also would hazard guess that, languishing in hospital as he was, it might have brought just the hint of a healing smile to Prince Philip`s face! It certainly cheered up the squaddies of the Kings Royal Hussars who, out in the desert, stripped down to their boots and with only their hands for modesty`s sake bared all in solidarity. Now, a calendar for “Help for Heroes”, with all of that on show, would be a best seller.
Asda and Tesco are selling filtered, bottled tap water as “still water”. Fools and their money are clearly still easily parted but when it comes to profits “every little helps”.
Mrs. Mutt Rimney is a hit as she tells the Republican Convention “ I love you, women and I hear your voices”. I was taught to beware of politicians “hearing voices”.
The BBC is criticised for paying “£6,500”, which turns out to be about £850 per edition, to Diane Abbott to appear on Andrew Neil`s “This Week” programme with ex-MP Michael Portillo. Given the ludicrous sums of money paid to “celebrities” with minds largely untroubled by thought and, like it or not, her own not inconsiderable contribution to the programme, I`d say that was pretty good value for money.
More of the Paralympics next month but how much would Ian Dury have enjoyed the choral singing of “Spasticus Autisticus”, once banned by the BBC, at the opening ceremony?
The UK is to re-furbish prisons in Nigeria and Jamaica before deporting prisoners in order not to breach their human rights to decent prison accommodation. With prisoners held from a total of 156 countries, all of whom might perhaps expect the same largesse, has anyone in the Justice Department heard of the human rights of British taxpayers?
In Birmingham fathers have been banned from the “Kids go Wild” play centre on the grounds that segregation is the order of the day because “we are catering for predominantly Asian communities”. I have huge respect for the faith of others but wasn`t there a law that was something to do with equality and discrimination?
It is reported that the BBCs hotel bill has risen by £750,000 to £2 million in a year. Nothing to do with the cost of accommodating “celebrities” in Salford, I suppose?
Inmates are to staff call-centres in prisons, says Ken Clarke. This is to reintroduce offenders to the world of work. I am all in favour of rehabilitation but call-centres in prisons?
The famous “Jolly Sailor”, arms outstretched, in Skegness has been replaced by a statue with arms by the side to prevent children from climbing on him as they have, hitherto, since 1908. And they`ve taken the poor old beggar`s pipe away, in the interests of political correctness, as well. God knows what they would do to Rodin`s “the Kiss” which has been on display at the Turner Contemporary in Margate!
Mad Hattie has declared, in the register of Members Interests, two tickets (value £2790) , courtesy of the All England Tennis Club. For the Royal Box. Principles. What principles? At the Edinburgh Television Festival she returns to form, though, with a battle cry of “stop ignoring older women”. Sadly, as I can testify now having a great face for radio, it is not only women but men also that sometimes sound rather better than they look.
Hull Council has subjected a citizen to an interview under caution for “fly-tipping” old clothes – at a recycling centre.
Caution. If you do not print out your own boarding passes on line two weeks prior to flying Ryanair is likely to charge you £236 for the privilege, as traveller Suzy McCleod found to her cost. Freedom of choice. Nobody has to fly by Ryanair, of course.
Following the announcement of the retirement of Louise Mensch (nee Bagshaw) from Parliament after just two and a half years – she would prefer to live with her family in New York, it seems – the Labour by-election candidate trails himself as “the son and grandson of Corby steelworkers”. This son of toil is, in fact, the CEO of that well-remunerated quango the Local Government Information Unit.
The EU ban on incandescent light bulbs now extends to everything.. Except bulbs for “rough service” and “industrial use” which are exempt. Given that they shed the same light, rough trade appears to be in order.
It`s farewell to the Dandy and Desperate Dan. The comic that rose to fame out of the austerity of the 1950s and reached its peak around 1970 is no more. Dan may migrate to The Beano but Corky the Cat`s nine lives are over.
“Next time that you look up at the sky and see the moon smiling down on you, think of Dad”. The first man to set “one small step” upon the lunar surface, Neil Armstrong, has gone to the great constellations in the sky. Now that`s a real “Can you remember where you were when…….” moment.