Gale's View from Westminster - August 2013
August. The “silly season”, and just when you thought that it could not get much sillier, it did. A fracking awful month for shale gas exploration and a summer of discontent for Milipede the Younger. Gibraltar rocks and the UK sends a very large gunboat. Bongo drums beat for Nigel Farridge. Charity begins at home – at least for the Chief Executives of some of them. Attempts are made to derail HS2, it`s game, sett and match for poor old Brock and as Paul Revere once famously did not say “The British are not coming”.
There we were, minding our own deckchairs and enjoying the last of the summer wine. We were all geared up for the House to sit again at the start of September in that useless and pointless exercise, carried out at a cost of thousands of your taxpayers` pounds and designed to convince an unbelieving press that we are not taking “three months holiday” when, once again, we faced a Blairite recall of parliament.
Time was when, in mid-July, Members of Parliament would beetle off with their buckets and spades for a couple of weeks annual leave in order to reintroduce themselves to their wives and families, toil around all of the local businesses and charities and dozens of other visits that time has not afforded during the sitting sessions, slide away to the bars of Blackpool, Bournemouth or Brighton for the Party Conference season and return, refreshed, to slog away throughout the winter in the House of Commons. Not any more. Now, in order to prove that we are not, in fact, soaking up the rays in Barbados for three months at your expense, we are dragged back to conduct business that could, and in the good old days was, conducted during the normal course of events just by not going home quite as early on sitting days and by spending a little more time in the House during sessions. “Family friendly” sitting hours, designed to make sure that MPs are in the House too early to be able to take children to school and to arrive home in the evening just too late to put the little darlings to bed, coupled with half-term holidays and breaks to celebrate festivals that many did not even know existed and the need for those with far-flung constituencies to get back to base and deal with the work that ought to be done by good local councillors, have meant that the time actually available to properly scrutinise legislation and “hold the government to account” has been curtailed. Add to that the move of the party conferences from autumnal but still cheery seaside resorts to Midlands-on-Sea, or in the case of the Liberal Democrats to a telephone box in Harrogate, and the wreckage of what once was a fairly efficient programme of parliamentary, constituency and political activity lies all around you.
Then came “the Legacy” and the demand for a recall after recall of parliament to debate matters so urgent that they could not be dealt with by Government alone and so pressing that Members had to scurry back from the four corners of the Earth, at your expense again, to sit for a day in urgent discussion.
Do not misunderstand me. War is a serious matter and if we as a nation are to send our young and finest into harm`s way and to ask them to put their lives on the line for us then it is right that they should depart in the knowledge that they have the full backing of at least an overwhelming majority of those elected to represent the people that they serve. A recall, though, has become almost a standard demand from some backbencher seeking to snatch an August headline and, under The Legacy, an endeavour to prove that “democracy is working” which, of course, under Mr. Blair, it was not.
When the House rises for the summer the place is ripped apart. Carpets are rolled up, protective cladding is placed around valuable statuary and the oak-panelled lifts are turned into padded cells in order to ensure that the sons of toil do not damage them with toolboxes, ladders and the stuff of their trades. All bar the terrace cafeteria of the watering holes and troughs are shut down and the building goes into deep maintenance. A recall means that not only may Members returning from truncated vacations be allowed to claim the cost of travel home (and back to the sun if that is their desire) but that for just a couple of days everything has to be put back into working order, at huge cost and disruption to the maintenance programme, so that great men and women (us) may feel that we can go about our fleeting business as usual. Under The Legacy the recall became almost an art form and it looks as though the tradition is to be continued by his Coalition successor.
All other midsummer news has paled beside the enormity of President Assad`s deployment (assuming that it was indeed he who was responsible) of chemical weapons against his own people and harrowing television and on-line pictures of children, women and men dying in agony. No right thinking person could reasonably expect what remains of the civilised world to sit idly by and allow just about every United Nations convention relating to warfare to be breached by the Syrian regime and do nothing. Borat O`Bama, no less, had said a year ago that the use of chemical weapons would be a “red line” that would provoke a military response. Borat is the leader of the mightiest power in the free world and clearly, encouraged by Man David and M. Holland, he had, faced with irrefutable evidence of the use of red-line-crossing weapons, to do something. Man David, the “Heir to Blair” , had, we have to assume, promised President O`Bama that he could and would deliver UK support in tangible military support. Fresh faced from the beaches of Cornwall the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom thundered back to parliament dragging Ministers and back-benchers on his coat tails in anticipation of support for his pledge of aid in Borat`s hour of need. Sadly, for Young Lochinvar, the ground that he chose to tread was ill-prepared. Parliamentary colleagues, mindful of Blair`s deception of parliament at the US behest prior to war in Iraq, were in no mood for a repeat performance and neither was the great British public. Under back-bench pressure and some opportunist posturing from Milipede the Younger the Prime Minister finally saw at least some of the writing on the wall . Faced with demands that while to do something was necessary it had to be the right thing and that without a clear objective and a good indication of effective intervention, of which there was no sign, he relented and agreed to a motion allowing time for UN weapons inspectors to report and for a further vote in parliament before committing the UK to military involvement in a Syrian adventure. That ought to have been enough to secure a majority but he had reckoned without the duplicity of a Milipede that, racked with indecision and facing internal Labour Party dissent, ratted on the deal that the Prime Minister thought that he had done. The Leader of Her Majesty`s at times less-than-loyal Opposition presumably believed that he could get away with dividing the House against the Government on an Opposition amendment in the certainty that the Government would win the day on its own motion and that he would therefore deliver the right diplomatic result while preserving his own martial virginity. Another bad mis-judgement.
Superficially the result of the vote was a slap in the face and a kick in the ego for Cameron. If, though, as some headlines said, the Prime Minister has been left “wounded and weakened” then the younger Milipede has fared no better. He lost the vote on his own motion and has seen the authority of the Country that he aspires to lead diminished. One Mr. Kerry, an American with characteristic lack of understanding of either geography or history, has said that “the World (meaning the United States) must act” and now describes France under M. Holland as “our oldest ally”. We wait with bated breath to see just what successful, meaningful and effective military action the new Franco-US axis will take. We have to hope that it will not precipitate a holocaust in the Middle East.
Long before tyranny came home to roost in the Middle East, and the Arab Spring turned into Arab Winter , it was not a good summer for Milipede the Younger. It got off the a bad start with the revelation that the Unite trades union had managed to swamp the Labour Party`s European Election candidates list with its chosen appointees, fostering the popular view that the Leader of the Opposition is the Union`s Man. He faced a barrage of eggs hurled by a refugee wedding photographer from Margate and faced humiliation as the least popular party Leader in an all-time low opinion poll of 21% on the approval scale. Described as `dire to disappointing by Labour`s Brian Wilson there were then back-bench calls for a “dumping of the Old Guard” in the Shadow Cabinet while the highly respected Frank Field was referring to a “Labour policy vacuum”. Asked on a radio programme how he would like to be remembered a former Labour Leader, Neil Kinnock who lost the 1992 election, said self-deprecatingly “as a tall, slim, man who gave up the premiership after 20 years”. Milipede will take no comfort from being described in a Survation opinion poll as “The new Neil Kinnock”. Last word on this subject from former Chancellor Darling speaking on the “Hard Talk” programme. “It`s time to tell voters what Labour stands for”. Not a lot, I think is the appropriate response.
Cracks have been appearing in the coalition`s support for the policy of “fracking” for shale gas. As the Cuadrilla energy company prepared to shatter the peace and the earth`s crust in the village of Balcombe and as a motley alliance of respectable middle-class villagers, “professional” protesters and the Green Party`s sole Member of Parliament, Caroline Lucas, gathered to call for a “Frack-free Sussex” , Lord Howell, the father of Frances Osborne, wife of the Chancellor of the Exchequer, speaking in the House of Lords, suggested that fracking might be better done in the North East of England rather than in the leafy Home Counties and Southern seaside shires. The effect of Lord Howell`s intervention was probably not ameliorated by a Prime Minister saying “Frack the South” while Number Ten was curiously reticent about the possibility of the prospecting for shale gas in Witney. The burning ecclesiastical question of the day, however, is will the Church of England capitalise upon a nice little earner buried deep beneath Church Lands?
Talking of the church, the Primate of All England, The Most reverend Justin Welby, has declined the vice-patronage of the RSPCA held by some of his predecessors. The charity was founded by a London vicar in 1834 and the church has maintained strong ties with the charity. Whether or not the Archbishop of Canterbury has been deterred either by accusations of the politicisation of the RSPCA or by the accusations of “fat cast salaries” paid to some major charity Chief Executives we shall probably never know . The television celebrity Clarissa Dickson-Wright has, though, seen fit to suggest that people “stop giving to the RSPCA” and the NCVO has felt moved to issue guidance to the nine charities indicated as paying more that £300 thousand a year to their CEOs. This ought to be a matter for the Charity Commission to investigate. While doing so they could also look at their own reported bill of thirty-eight thousand pounds for stays in five-star hotels.
The Charity Commission would have to work hard to outstrip the continued profligacy of a Salford Broadcasting Corporation that, we learn, was also warned about “fat cat pay” by Price Waterhouse Cooper as long ago as 2009. In “Bias at the Beeb” the Centre for policy studies has established that Auntie devotes twice as much time to coverage of left wing `Guardian` policies as it does to centre-right `Telegraph` issues. With the death of the widow of the late Roy Plomley, who founded Desert Island Discs in 1941, the SBC has scarcely surprisingly decided to drop The Bible from the package of books, along with the complete works of Shakespeare, that castaways are permitted to carry ashore with them from their wrecked ship. This, you understand, is after “years of complaints” from listener members of The Secular Society. Never mind. Government and opposition front benches may take comfort from the fact that BBC parliament is exploring the possibility of “better camera angles” to make Ministers look less cadaverous. Those of us of a certain age, who have great faces for radio, know that it will take rather more than a change of shot to make some Honourable Members telegenic.
The SBC story of the month, though, has been the selection of the new actor to play Dr. Who. Will the Doctor be female? Or Transsexual? Or Black?
Well, no, actually. He will be Peter Capaldi, who made his name as the potty-mouthed Alastair Campbell soundalike Downing Street spin-doctor Malcolm Tucker in “In the thick of it”. Now children, are you sitting effing comfortably?
Then I`ll begin. Once upon a time there was a boy called Nigel, He drank and he smoked a lot talked a lot and it made him feel very important. He was, in fact, what is called “a big fish in a very small pond “ that he shared with a few minnows. He was very popular with the Broadcasting Opposition because he always said things that he thought that people wanted to hear. But he didn`t like `sledging` and he particularly didn`t like it when one of his minnows grabbed the headlines like Mr. Dean Perks, the UKIP candidate who thought that criminals ought to have their hands chopped off, or Godfrey Bloom, the UKIP Member of the European Parliament for Yorkshire and North Lincolnshire who believes that aid to “Bongo Bongo land” is treason. This makes Mr. Farridge very cross, though whether it is because he does not like what they are saying or whether it is because they are taking his limelight we shall probably never know.
Which brings us, in a very peripheral way, to a European Union that, we are led to understand, wants to introduce a `Big Brother` chip into children`s passports and put the European flag on British birth certificates and which is one reason why some people also get so cross that they listen to The Big Fish. Another fun idea emanating from the commission is the MOT testing of caravans. Caravans can, in the wrong hands (mine, for example) be very dangerous weapons of mass destruction but the prospect of two hundred thousand euro-tests per year must give even the eurocracy pause for reconsideration. Mayor Boris, a sort of non-smoking Farridge with blond hair, says that we should “renew the Commonwealth” and – I paraphrase a little – “stuff Europe”. Never one to resist a passing bandwagon Mayor Boris calls for the UK to show the `Falklands Spirit` over Gibraltar and as Spain contemplates a liaison with Argentina (forgetting, for the moment, the Spanish enclave in Morocco), one of our proudest remaining capital ships, HMS Bulwark, arrives `on exercise ` in Gib. Signs of nationalism are breaking out. While M. Holland says “non” to any renegotiation of European agreements and directives there is resistance to his “buy French” campaign on the grounds that French shoes, for example, are often more expensive than imported goods and “leave less money for eating out”. The EU/CAP wine-producing lobby understandably objects to proposals to lower the strength of wine from 8.5% to 4.5% to curb middle class drinking and Frau Merkel, in the course of another radio interview, concedes that there is a case for Brussels to return powers to national governments. What a sound woman.
Her Maj. will be pleased to have Prince Philip up and about and back in circulation. Prince Charles is, as heir apparent, stepping up his round of meetings with Ministers with an eye on “preparing for government” . There is talk of Fergie and Prince Andrew marrying again. On Baby Cambridge`s birth certificate Katherine Cambridge`s job description is listed as “Princess of the United Kingdom”. William and Kate are planning to take Prince George “Down Under” on a re-run of an earlier visit by his Father. The couple have said a fond farewell to Anglesey to await future postings and Pippa Middleton has written a cricket guide for use in the American colonies. Toodle Pippa.
A Sharia Court in Aleppo has banned croissants. The fatwa stems from the theory that the crescent is a symbol of colonial oppression and celebrates European victory over Muslims.
A rare victory for common sense. After months of contraband cupcake selling the Food Standards Agency has decided that the purveying of
Pastries and the like at scout, guide, WI and church fetes and bring-and-buy sales is, after all, permissible.
A Bristol paramedic refused to remove a body from a home because of an “unexploded bomb” on the mantelpiece. The “bomb” in question, a World War One shell, was returned by the disposal squad to its rightful owner.
At a Unison sponsored Doncaster race meeting nags were entered into the catchily-named “Speaking Up For Public Services” Maiden stakes and the “Everyone deserves a living wage” handicap. Don`t ask about the handicap..
Manchester aquatics centre has banned, as `unhygienic`, breast-feeding in their swimming pools.
Victim Support have criticised a Councillor from Brentwood for suggesting that “victims can lay themselves open to crime because of what they wear”. Or, to be more precise, what they do not wear. The Only Way is Essex.
Mondalez International, the manufacturers of a confection known as Kraft cheese and owners of Cadbury UK (the Chief Executive is the woman who refused to appear before a Commons select committee to answer questions about broken undertakings) has decided to terminate the charming practice of giving gift-boxes to its company`s pensioners. The days of Bourneville and The Davids are, sadly, long gone.
Do you remember the Lorraine Chase TV advertisement. “Did you come here from paradise? No. Luton” ? It has just been voted, by Which?, the world`s worst airport – which suggests that the author of the report has not travelled very widely.
Explaining the requirement for `adult content` on BBC Radio at mid-day the Head of Editorial Standards (I wonder how much he earns), Peter Mahoney, says of The Archers, Women`s Hour Drama and Samuel Pepys which contain `sexual noises` “taste does evolve”. Yes, and not for the better it seems.
Brent Council have installed a hologrammatic “virtual receptionist”. Like the real thing she is “only programmed to answer a limited number of questions” and is “touch-screen sensitive”
Cambridge University has changed its dress code for graduation ceremonies. Ladies may now wear trouser-suits. And men may wear skirts.
It is the beginning of September. There are 120 day to Christmas and Tenterden, in Kent, has just installed its Christmas lights – in the pouring rain.
Commander Sandy Woodward, RN, who led the Royal Naval Falklands Task Force and was ADC to Her Majesty the Queen. He joined the Royal Naval College, Dartmouth, as a midshipman at the age of thirteen.
Mick Deane, Sky News cameraman shot dead by a sniper while reporting from the recent riots in Cairo
Mark Sutton, the 2012 Olympic skydiving `James Bond` who crashed while free-falling in the Mont Blanc Alps.
“They were playing at Plymouth a rubber of bowls when the great Armada came
But he said “they must wait their turn, good souls” and he stopped and he finished the game”.
The old boy will be spinning in his hammock in Nombre de Dios Bay. Plymouth Council have increased the parking charges on the Hoe to levels that, after 500 years, are likely to close the club. Capten, art tha` sleepin` there below?