Gale's View from Westminster - February 2014
February. With no EU referendum Bill, for the moment, some tough negotiations lie ahead. Holland eats humble pub pie and Frau Merkel gets the red carpet treatment. Voles and birds before homes as the winter storms rage and floodwaters continue to rise. Also rising is the temperature of the Scottish referendum campaign. Bob crows and Boris blinks. Ukraine burns while Britain watches from the sidelines. Is it Brookes in the dock, or Blair? Mad Hattie and the Salford Broadcasting Corporation both decline to comment as Civil Liberties come under pressure. And another three bite the dust as Conservative grass-roots activists flex their re-selection muscle.
During a meeting with Man David at Brize Norton airfield, followed by a pub snack at the nearby Swan hostelry, Mr. Holland, the crash-hatted President of La Belle France, opines that “the EU cannot be expected to follow the example of just one country”. That`s as maybe but with his poll ratings having plumbed a record low at 19% (Sarko was recording 37% at the same stage in his presidency) and with his country`s eurozone finances under not a little stress, M. Legauver might consider looking at at least one Country`s example of how stringent conservative fiscal prudence can begin to pull a nation`s balance-sheet out of the inherited Socialist manure. The sad Presidente will, though be able to take some comfort from the fact that the delectable Mlle. Gayet, to whom he has turned for comfort during these troubled times, has received an Oscar nomination for the film Quai d`Orsay. As best supporting actress.
Later in the month Frau Merkel will be embraced and grimaced by Man David but her Foreign Minister states unequivocally that British eurosceptics could `put peace at risk`. UK judges rule, in defiance of the Commission, that `whole life` sentences will mean life while in Brussels the Eurocrats determine that our proposals to demand that immigrants must have earned a minimum of £149 per week for at least three months before being allowed to claim benefits is `illegal` under European law. It should surprise nobody that St. Nicholas of Clogg , with impeccable timing, chooses this moment to threaten to veto a Cameron Commissioner to fill the boots vacated by the Baroness Ashton who, mercifully, is coming to the end of her reign as Europe`s High Panjandrum. Man David is reported to be considering `Badger` Paterson, Dr. Fox or Peter Lilley as a replacement but The Clogg wants someone who will `actively engage and work hard`. Like a corporate businessman who will almost certainly go native within five minutes of inserting his or her snout into the Berlaymont trough. Talking of that trough reminds us of President-aspirant, Commissioner Viviane Reding, who would like us to know that Britons are “too ignorant” to participate in an in/out EU referendum, boasting that “70% of UK laws are made in Brussels”. Of course, without British funding the trough would be nothing like as full.
It is reported that the Prime Minister is embarking upon a charm offensive with a view to wooing the Dutch and the Ireland`s Enda Kenny to the cause of EU reform as well, of course, as laying out the welcome mat for an Angela Merkel still suffering from après-ski injuries. In the event it`s Cold Comfort Farm for any hopes of an easy re-negotiation of the terms of our membership of the European Union. Addressing both Houses of Parliament in a Royal Gallery dominated on one side by a vast painting of the aftermath of the Battle of Waterloo and on the other by a matching if historically inaccurate portrayal of the Death of Nelson the German Leader effectively dismisses much hope of a deal save, possibly for some restriction on immigration. Speaking on crutches she tells the assembled company that the European Union has put an end to wars (well, big ones anyway) within Europe and that the concept of “ever closure union” which is the Brussels euphemism for a Federal United States of Europe, is “not negotiable”. None of which bodes well for our continued EU membership following the referendum that Young Lochinvar has promised following General Electoral success in 2015.
North of the Border the referendum process is gathering pace with even the “Tory Toffs from Down South” venturing across what remains of Hadrian`s Wall. Whether it was wise for the Cabinet to hold an “awayday” meeting in Aberdeen, just a few feet away from where Jock Salmond`s government was also meeting, only time will tell. For one St. Michael of Gove, of course, it was Old Homes time as he was reared in the granite city of Aberdeen that played host to our wandering Executive. In a pitch for the maintenance of the Union the Prime Minister deploys that golden Scot Sir Chris Hoy, he of the Olympic cycling medals, during a return to the Velodrome to promote the cause. Brit Award-winning David Bowie supporting the United Kingdom cause from New York by satellite, the Pedalling Knight, what next? Well, some hard-nosed business intervention and an interjection from the EU, that`s what. First, a large question mark from the Treasury over an independent Scotland`s right to keep the pound sterling as Mr. Salmond`s currency, next the thought that the whole future of North Sea Oil might be put at risk, then a major Scottish-based insurance company indicates that it will pack its bags and close down its offices and jobs if there is a “yes” vote and finally the President of the European Union, Jose Manuel Barrosso no less, suggests that it would be difficult if not impossible for an independent Scotland to join the EU. Faced with all of that I should think it could well be a racing certainty that the tartan army will vote to go it alone! On the plus side, if you view it that way, Scotland might also lose the BBC.
The Salford Broadcasting Corporation (that`s called a segue in the cue-writing trade) continues to make rather more news than is good for its tattered reputation. Fresh from his comfortable newspaper offices on the far side of the Atlantic the former Director General of the BBC, Mark Thompson, apologises to the Public Accounts Committee for the Corporation`s £100 million “Digital Media Initiative” fiasco while Caroline Thomson, erstwhile Chief Operating Officer at Broadcasting House, concedes that her employers “could have made a misjudgement” over the unwise investment of licence-fee payers` money. Those same licence-fee payers, in fact, to whom Auntie felt compelled to fork out another £100 thousand in `goodwill` payments to some 2500 people `bullied` by fee-collectors. I don`t know what the collective noun for former Directors General and Chairmen is (A “Luvvie”?) but Greg Dyke, Gavyn Davis and Michael Grade have waded into the licence-fee renewal fray to suggest that the SBC`s services should be slimmed down and some of the dosh handed over to the alternative public service broadcaster, Channel Four. It may be hard, soon, to know who is the Official Broadcasting Opposition and who is the pretender.
The BBC has not smothered itself in glory either, over its coverage, or lack of it, of the “Paedophile Scandal”, a trail blazed by the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid or, as The Mail likes to trumpet, “Britain`s second-largest selling newspaper”. The Mail`s relentless headlines screaming for Harriet Harman, her husband Jack Dromey and Patricia Hewitt to apologise for presiding over what was then called the National Council for Civil Liberties while the infamous Paedophile Information Exchange was an associate member almost reached persecution level. Instead of fessing up and acknowledging that her judgement, in the 1970s, might have slipped a little Mad Hattie first said nothing and then went on the offensive to attack the messenger. Other media outlets had by this time taking up the hue if not the cry and it was left to the former Nation`s Nanny, La Hewitt, returning from abroad, to acknowledge that the NCCKL team had been naive and wrong in believing that the PIE was a harmless facility designed to help those with `tendencies`. Throughout most of this time a British Broadcasting Corporation with news outlets streaming out of every available medium declined to cover the story until it was embarrassed by its silence into so doing. Would the same line have been taken had those involved been Tory, rather than Labour, Members of Parliament? Work that one out for yourselves. As a footnote, the `impartial` Chairman of the Trustees, Lord (Chris) Patten, used an appearance on Vatican Radio during a visit to come out in support of the newly-enthroned Archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Nichols, in his criticism of the Coalition`s efforts to curtail the benefits bill. That latter appears to be one Government policy that has really struck a chord with “hard-working people” who not infrequently are paid less after tax for a working week than others receive in state handouts for doing sweet nothing.
We cannot avoid mentioning the weather again, I fear. I know that it is a British obsession but February has been the wettest recorded since Fred Flintstone was in short trousers and torrential rain has been accompanied by high tides and 80mph winds and sodden ground has led to inundation in (whisper it softly) Berkshire and Surrey as well as most of the West Country as a months` rain fell in just two days. Indeed, I have just seen a satellite photograph that shows the Bristol Channel and the Severn Estuary encroaching over miles of Herefordshire and Somerset. The kennel that passes for the home in which the Gale household is allowed to reside is knee deep in mud and mud-turned-to-dust while the main occupants, who as Newfoundlands were mercifully born with webbed feet, have left what was one known as “the lawn” looking as if a herd of cattle has over-wintered in it. Eight socking great paws and four slightly smaller Labrador ones can do a lot of ploughing. That nonsense aside the blame-game has been in, if you will pardon the expression, full flood. The hapless Lord Smith of Finsbury, he of the eleven paid and unpaid jobs who is otherwise known variously as “Chris” or “the Chairman of the Environment Agency”, has born much of the heat. Ian Liddell-Grainger, one of Queen Victoria`s great-grandchildren, the MP for the Somerset levels and a man whose capacity for understatement is legendary, said of Lord Smith that “He is a little git who never even called me!”
The simplistic answer to our drainage problems is “dredge it” but I am advised by those who know what they are talking about that that can in fact do more harm than good and can either exacerbate local flooding or cause more flooding in villages and towns further downstream. There are indeed solutions but they are complex and there are no quick fixes. None of which, of course, has dissuaded the growing phalanx of Princes of the Realm, Ministers In Boots and Opposition Front Bench Spokesmen from paddling around Somerset and the Home Counties, looking utterly ridiculous and uttering platitudes. The “Wellies and wallies” show. The Prime Minister`s pledge of a £100 million pound fund to help alleviate the worst of the aftermath will have been welcomed. I just hope that it was cleared with the Chancellor of the Exchequer before he announced it. The Met Office may be ruing the day when they proclaimed, back in November of last year, that “Winter will be drier than usual” and Ken Clarke probably best summed up the whole situation when he said, with great perception, “It is wet. It has rained”.
As is so often the case it has been a month of two halves separated by a brief school-holiday recess. I spent much of the latter in Mauritania (look it up on a map of Africa) where the charity whose Trustees I chair, the Society for the Protection of Animals Abroad (SPANA) is helping to provide veterinary care for the 100 thousand donkeys that haul water, daily, around the capital city of Nouakchott. I did not know, until I visited, that the Sahara desert starts a couple of miles inland from the Atlantic Ocean and stretches to the banks of the River Nile several thousands of miles away. As my travelling companion so elegantly put it “there`s miles and miles of not a lot with donkeys eating it”. At least, that is the expurgated version of what he said. Either way, there are places in the world where just a little of the UKs surplus rainfall would not go amiss. I left peace behind and flew back to find Kiev in flames.
The Ukraine has been on a knife-edge for some time, probably since the last election when I travelled as an observer to, of all places, Sevastopol in Crimea. President Yanukovych squeaked into office by a narrow margin over the imprisoned Yulia Tymochenko and his political antics and emperor-style squandering of wealth on palaces and exotic “larders on four feet” have clearly not endeared him to even the most Soviet of his electorate. Poland, France and Germany visited The Ukraine to offer the good offices of the European Union in these troubled times while William Hague visited Brussels and Borat O`Bama met the Dalai Lama. For the third time. The `Bear in the Woods`, Russia, growls that Putin`s neighbour is facing “armed mutiny” as Viktor Yanukovych leaves the helm, flees his country and turns up in Moscow. By the end of the month there are 150 thousand Russian troops “on manoeuvres” and ships and aircraft massing on the border of the enclaved Crimean peninsula, the former home of the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet that was gifted to The Ukraine by a President Khrushchev who of course never dreamed of the break-up of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Forget the conspiracy theory that the snipers murdering protestors from the rooftops surrounding Independence Square were agents provocateur placed there by the very Maidan upon whom they were firing. My eyewitness from the President`s palace tells me that he watched the teams of three, one spotter, one cover with a Kalashnikov and one sniper with rifle and telescopic sights, being kitted out before leaving to pick of their virtually defenceless targets. What kind of Head of State is it that orders the slaughter of his own people? Some would say one who is a Kremlin puppet. All of that said it was, perhaps, not a little unwise of Mrs. Commissioner (Baroness) Ashton to be photographed embracing Yulia Tymochenko after the latter`s release from prison following a vote of the Ukrainian parliament. Ms. Tymochenko is a potential presidential candidate in the forthcoming election to secure a replacement for Mr. Yanukovych and it surely ill-behoves Europe`s “High Representative” to be seen to tacitly offer support to any one contestant?
There is other news. Before all hell broke loose our Winter Olympics team in Russia`s Sochi showcase equalled the previous best medal-tally with Jenny Jones picking up a first bronze medal on snow in the slopestyle contest, the male and female curling teams picking up silver and bronze respectively and Kent`s Lizzy Yarnold from Sevenoaks belting down the fearsome skeleton course at 80mph to snatch a gold medal.
No prizes for three sitting Members of Parliament who have failed to be re-adopted by their respective constituency Conservative Associations as candidates for the 2015 General election. Unless there`s a change of heart Tim Yeo (South Suffolk) and Aidan Burley (Cannock Chase) will be vacating the green benches of the House of Commons as will Anne McIntosh (Thirsk and Malton) who becomes the fifth of Dave`s Babes destined to leave the House in May next year.
Rebekah Brooks has been starring in Number One Court at the Old Bailey where jurors in the Phone Hacking trials have been hearing the details of what she herself has described as a car-crash private life. Perhaps one of the most damning revelations to date, however has been the emergence of the fact that Mr. T. Blair, ex-Prime Minister of this glorious United Kingdom, was giving “advice” to Mrs. Brooks only weeks before her arrest and charge. “Let`s keep this between us” The Legacy is recorded as having said. No such luck. The dirty linen is being washed in public and Blair may have a little explaining to do to Mrs. Legacy.
From a sunny island somewhere in the Caribbean Bob Crow, rail union boss and bon viveur, masterminds misery for commuters as London`s Underground system is brought to a grinding halt by strikes. The reason for this action is the `threat` that workers in ticket offices rendered largely redundant through the introduction and widespread use of Oyster cards might be re-deployed to some more useful function. Will Bob meet Boris? In Rio de Janeiro for the game? Apparently not. The robust Mayor of London blinks first, the tube stand-off is over and Transport for London will conduct a “review” of the situation.
The Plebgate row continues to cause embarrassment for the Met police. The Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe, apologises to former Government Chief Whip Andrew Mitchell and PC Keith Wallace is sent to prison for his creative reporting of Thrasher`s behaviour. Two other officers involved in the case are sacked. The curse of the Home Office then falls upon the Immigration Minister, Mark Harper, who identifies himself as having inadvertently employed the services of an illegal Columbian immigrant as a house cleaner. “Young Mark” has been looked upon as a possible future Prime Minister. In resigning quickly and honourably (a rare thing these days) once his error has come to light he attracts far more sympathy than opprobrium. He has been an excellent, courteous and effective Minister of State and “come back soon” seems to be the general sentiment, at least on the Conservative benches.
Not a great month for The Milipede. Writing in the Catholic newspaper The Tablet former Labour Home Secretary Charles Clarke declares himself “pessimistic” about the current Leader`s chances of success at the next election. Talking tough, Red Ed claims himself to be ` a conviction politician like Margaret Thatcher` and vows to give parents the power to sack headteachers when he is Prime Minister. That will go down a storm with the NUT but at least he manages to avoid being photographed with Mr. Holland.
This month`s Court Circular records that Prince Charles has taken time out from paddling around in the wetlands to team up with Prince Wills in an assault on the illegal poaching and slaughter of wild animals, using a summit at Lancaster House to berate Tanzania`s nauseating President Kikwete about the murder of some 11,000 elephants a year in Kikwete`s country. The Princess Royal comes out with a planning policy. Instead of building new towns in Kent and Buckinghamshire, says P. Anne, why do we not allow lots of villages to expand and breathe a little life back into them? Far too common sense an idea, your Royal Highness. No chance.
The London Array wind farm enterprise have withdrawn their proposal to build an additional 65 turbines to serve their establishment off the North Kent Coast. We are, of course, desperate to see the creation of alternative and sustainable sources of energy but the Red-throated Diver has won the day.
The radio “personality Mr. Chris Moyles has fallen foul of the tax authorities. Utilising, presumably on the advice of his accountant, the “Working Wheels” tax avoidance scheme he has presented himself, for taxation purposes, as “a second-hand car dealer”. Surprisingly, this low-profile broadcaster`s submission was rejected. A bloke like that could give second-hand car dealers a bad reputation.
Equally surprising and unjust, clearly, is the refusal of a tax tribunal to accept, for VAT purposes, the game of Bridge as a sport. The supplicants averred that the card game was a “sport of the mind”. Croquet, Darts and billiards are indeed classified as “sports” already because there is an “athletic element” to the competitions. If your mind is as easily distracted as mine you will be able to think of a number of other pastimes that might, on that basis, also classify as “sports”.
The Coalition for Marriage has warned, as I did myself many months ago, that references to husbands, wives and widows would be airbrushed out of the dictionary following the passage of the Same-sex “marriage” legislation. The necessary procedures will be slipped through the Commons by secondary legislation in the immediate future. Watch out for “The Merry same-sex partners of Windsor” and the remake of the movie as “7 partners for 7 partners”.
The House of Lords has passed an amendment, subsequently also carried through the Commons, to ban smoking in cars containing children. No sane person would want to kipper their kids with nicotine but this is a piece of politically-correct tokenism of the worst possible kind. Parliament should not be passing laws that are unenforceable. I approached the debate with an open mind and with every passing minute it became apparent that this was drivel that had to be opposed. The nanny-statists in all three parties carried the day, of course, but it will be interesting to see how and when the first prosecution of two seventeen year olds smoking in a car will take place. Think about it.
The EU has banned cheese and yoghurt from school meals. Dacian Ciolos, the “EU Agriculture Minister” opines that “this is an important measure for bringing about change in children’s` eating habits”. Mr Ciolos is going to shell out one hundred and ninety million pounds to provide fruit and veg. Out of your pocket, of course, not his own. And in Eurospeak “bankruptcy” no longer exists. The terminology now used by Brussels is “debt adjusted”. The people whose accounts have not been audited thoroughly within living memory are clearly in a position to know.
The prison and probation ombudsman has awarded compensation to a prisoner. £5 for lost socks because “it causes frustration and leads to complaints”. I don`t know the answer but hazard a guess at how much in bureaucrats time that little puzzle cost to adjudicate.
David Cameron is reported to have said that when Mr Holland was facing questions from the British press he was asked to comment on his private life and the French economy. He declined to answer the second question.
Mr “Green Belt” Farridge, whose party`s candidate in one seat is financially supported by the porn movie star “Lord Lust” has seemingly built a double Garridge without planning consent. This will no doubt feature prominently when he signs his party`s new “skeletons in the cupboard” declaration. The Populist Party Leader has described his last election manifesto as “drivel”. This burst of honesty may come back to haunt him as he has engaged the services of much of the last manifesto to write the next one.
Shirley Temple, at the age of 85 in Woodside California. There is a generation for whom, like Peter Pan, she has never grown old.
And finally..... (with apologies to the Feast of St. Valentine)
Roses are red,
They sell them in shops,
My love is like the rain,
It never bloody stops!