Gale's View from Westminster - June 2014
June. Seventy years after D-Day an old serviceman goes AWOL. The centenary of the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand. A first tory by-election win for twenty-five years. Junckers over Europe and Russian tanks hovering on the borders of Ukraine. Wonga gets into an unholy row. The World Cup is stricken by a bad case of Qatar and from Brazil footballers are coming home. Hunter wellies at Glastonbury, Wimbledon wombles on and a Government Minister recommends a staycation to beat the rush for passports.
The month has been dominated by very old Europe, old Europe, modern Europe and tomorrow`s Europe. The anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the almost accidental event that precipitated the start of the First World War and, with it, a loss of life on hitherto unimaginable scale, took place on Armed Forces Day. The irony of the coincidence of the beginning of the `war to end all wars` with the annual celebration of the courage and dedication of our serving men and women will not have been lost upon those still risking their lives daily in the interests of our national security on front lines in too many far-flung places. The imagination was captured, also, by the seventieth anniversary of the D-Day landings that marked the beginning of the end of the Second World War, another event shrouded literally and metaphorically in death and destruction. The minority who sought to hijack the event for party-political advantage overlooked the fact that WW2 was fought not to liberate Britain but to liberate the Europe that is now causing us, politically, so much grief.
With a monarch who, with her Father, played an integral part in the proceedings of the war it was fitting that she, and her naval husband, took a part close to the centre of the stage of the commemoration of an event that quite literally changed the course of history but it was, rightly, the Old and Bold who were the real stars of the occasion. Those (most of us) in the House of Commons who were not in Normandy were privileged to share in what is likely to be the last formal gathering of the Normandy Veterans` Association and to listen in awe to the matter-of-fact reminiscences of tales of, for most of us, unimaginable courage. Wally Smith, from Ramsgate, for example was not on the beaches. He parachuted into Arnhem instead, set up a Bren gun with his oppo, watched as his buddy was picked off by a sniper and lay sheltered by his comrade`s body until nightfall when he holed up with half a dozen other wounded men on a houseboat for five days before they were finally captured and shipped off to a Stalag until the war`s end. Wally, a youthful 91, sees, so far as I can discern, nothing remarkable at all in his contribution to the war effort .
It is quite difficult to upstage Her Maj, who now has the Parisian QE2 flower market named after her, but if anyone has come close to achieving that it was Bernard Jordan. The 89-year old decided that he was not going to miss the show so he tucked his medals and his passport under his overcoat and bunked off from the Pines nursing home in Hove (the town of which he had once been mayor) to make a beeline for the Normandy beaches once again. Following a few hours of high alert once it was belatedly discovered that the old boy had gone AWOL, he was tracked down to a bordello (sorry: guest house) in Northern France where he was clearly being well cared for. If the press photos of Mr. Jordan surrounded by sundry hugely attractive young women are anything to go by then the greatest danger that young Bernard faced was a monumental rollicking from his wife when he finally returned home “tired but happy”. I know not whether it is true that “this generation could not have done it” but it is very clear that that generation still can!
Vlad. Putin cut a lonely and pariah figure on the sands. Adventures in Ukraine and the annexation of Crimea by the Russian Federation cast a long shadow over the memory of the terrifying number of Russians who also gave their lives, willingly or otherwise, in the fight to rid Europe of the Nazi plague. It would be good to think that we have learned some lessons from the cost, in blood and treasure, of two World Wars but looking around Europe today and regarding the chaos that ill-drawn post-conflict boundaries have caused, one does have to wonder.
Modern Europe is, without doubt, a politically very strange place indeed. You can just about argue, if you overlook Ukraine and Georgia and Moldova and The Balkans and a few other interesting skirmishes, that there has “not been a war in Europe” since the creation of a Common Market that emerged from a coal and steel community and metamorphosed via a European Union into a bureaucratic monstrosity that cultivates the aspirations of “ever closer union” and a United States of Europe. The fact is, though, that while the UK carries the can as the difficult member of the family if you scratch the surface just about every Member State , apart, possibly, from those who have sought refuge from the Soviet bloc, nurses not only a vein of nationalism but ha hankering after getting their own currency back. It should surprise nobody that when push came to shove all but one other of the Member States ran for the nearest shell hole and supported the federalist and hard-drinking ex -Prime Minister of a Country the size of a minor English county in his ambition to become the next President of the European Commission.
Britain has stood virtually alone before and I do not doubt that we may have to do so again but even most of the Prime minister`s critics have had to applaud the stand that he has taken against the appointment of Jean-Claude Juncket to the top spot at the Euro-trough. For the first time in history there has been a vote for the Presidency, with not only the usual suspects but Holland, Italy, Austria, Denmark and Germany queuing up to vote against Cameron. Bad for Britain, probably, but almost certainly bad for Europe as well if that institution is to have any chance of achieving the reforms needed to stave off economic and political meltdown. A former UK Permanent representative to Brussels has said that the EU is “sleepwalking into a constitutional crisis”. Russian tanks are hovering on the eastern border of Ukraine, for heaven`s sake and following President Poroshenko`s signing of the EU trade agreement that brought down his predecessor Viktor Yanukovitch (if you remember him) who refused to sign we find a Putin mouthpiece describing Poroshenko as “a Nazi”. Mr. Glazyev, the Putin aide in question, accuses the EU of organising a military coup and “helping Nazis to come to power” and as aides in Russia echo their Master`s voice we have to assume that this is the current Putin line. At a time like this what Europe needs, surely, is a firm hand on the tiller rather than the trembling fingers of a man who drinks cognac for breakfast, and an understanding that, following the European elections, there is a demand for the recognition of the sovereignty of states on both sides of the former Soviet border. Back home, has the UK moved closer to the EU exit door? Almost certainly “yes”.
Back to D-day and on 6th June the battle of Newark was fought and for the first time in twenty-five years the Tory party held a seat at a by-election. The contest, caused by the resignation of the sitting MP, Patrick Mercer, was held on a pitch that was certainly not of the conservative Party`s choosing. Colonel Mercer packed it in under a cloud, the UKIP was rampant following its European election successes and for a while it looked as though that party might either split the Tory vote and allow Labour to take the seat or, just possibly, that the newly elected MEP Roger Helmer, a Tory turncoat, might find himself, as the first elected UKIP MP, having to surrender his Brussels “allowances” for the privilege of dealing with a constituency mailbag. Mr Helmer was spared this alarming outcome, however, as the Tories sent our secret weapon, Michael Fabricant, into the fray and simultaneously threw every last ounce of parliamentary effort at the project to Save Newark. Never before, in the history of by-electioneering, have so few been repeatedly leafleted and telephoned by so many. We won and Robert Jenrick has taken his seat in the House of Commons as the newly-elected Member.
Were we ever in any doubt? In all honesty, just a little, yes.
We are still trying to get used to the idea that the State Opening of Parliament, as a result of the peculiar decision to give away the power to call the shots and instead to engage in fixed-term five-year parliaments, is now held in June. I suspect that Her Maj. has the same problem. There`s a lot going on in the summer what with horse racing and garden parties and the trooping of one`s colour and the like and a little bit of razzmatazz and pageantry was always something to look forward to in November. Additionally, those Members of both Houses with the resources and the inclination could, following the prorogation of Parliament, bunk off for a bit of early Winter sunshine before the votes on the Queen`s Speech at the end of a four-day debate. Still, at least this year there was the Diamond Jubilee State Coach being given its first outing. A little late for the jubilee, perhaps, but three tons and eighteen feet of something rather special none the less. Constructed by Jim Fracklington, now of New South Wales, and shipped around the world, it is something of a museum in its own right incorporating, as it does, bits of Isaac Newton`s apple tree, some shot from the Battle of Waterloo, a chunk of a Dambuster and a bit of HMS Victory and a lot more besides. Not a bad set of wheels for a late birthday present.
The Gracious Speech, as it is charmingly known, brings us pension reforms, tax cuts for married couples, childcare measures, enterprise and employment stimulation, a modern slavery bill and a little bit of light-touch fracking on the side. “ Other measures (including, one hopes, the long-awaited Wild Animals in Circuses bill) will be laid before you”.
Her Maj will not be abdicating. There has been a trend amongst Royals, recently, to chuck in the towel and let the kids have a go at monarchy. The latest in this line was King Juan Carlos who retired after forty years and a fair amount of controversy in the job. Crown Price, or King as he now is, Felipe will have a bit of bridge-building and fence-mending to do to restore the image but he has the help of his wife, Princess Letizia Ortiz, a former TV journalist who ought to be up to a bit of spin-doctoring. King Felipe V1 will be a “King for all Spaniards”. Viva el Rey as they say in Madrid. Back at home, Queen Elizabeth the Second has made it plain that she will be honouring her Coronation vow to carry right on to the end of the road, which gives young Prince Wills ample time to trundle off to the Sandringham estate and put his militarily acquired skills to good use as an air ambulance pilot in East Anglia while his dad can carry on offering annoying advice about the success and importance of grammar schools to Labour politicians. Sounds good to me.
Footballing royalty has been having a torrid month. Coleen Rooney won rather better uncoverage than he husband out in Brazil and it seems weeks since our young and ever-hopeful soccer players were on a plane home after their first-round defeat in the World Cup. I neither know, nor care, who the eventual winners will be. I take a “walrus and the Carpenter” view of football during the cricket season but matters unravelling in Qatar did catch the interest of the journalist in me that still lurks below the surface. Was the decision to award the next World Cup contest but one to the most unsuitable place on God`s earth to be played at the hottest and most unsuitable time of the year in any way remotely influenced by bribery and corruption? Of course not! That paragon of financial virtue Mr. Sepp Blatter says so, so it must be true. The World Cup`s sponsors, however, in the form of Adidas, Visa and Sony, were clearly not quite as readily persuaded as hacks dependent upon football for their livelihoods but maybe the matter will raise its head again once the circus has moved on from South America. On the off chance of banging a quick one into the back of the net the Prime Minister helpfully suggests that the UK has all the necessary facilities to run a re-located contest in 2022 should the Qataris and the FIFA executive be found to have been trousering ill-gotten wonga. Nice try Dave. It might yet go to a penalty shoot-out.
Talking of Wonga, it is revealed that the company of that name has been sending out dodgy letters impersonating the real Sue, Grabbit and Runne, in an endeavour to frighten late payers into stumping up the usury demanded upon monies that they have loaned. The FCA says that this is `a very serious` matter but as impersonating a solicitor is a crime ought this not to be investigated under the Solicitors Act and the Theft Act? Wonga describes their “concessions” as “a successful outcome for customers. “ A successful outcome for Wonga, more like. Where is the police probe? Surely the City Police should be bringing charges against Wonga`s comfortably provided for Directors? The Church of England will not, we understand at the time of writing, be divesting itself of its interests in Wonga.
Several people, well several tens of thousands of people as it happens, have been having hassle trying to obtain a passport. Now I know that there is a tendency, even in the best ordered of households like my own, to leave administrative matters to the last minute, that “the general public” seems to be surprised that the holiday season comes around at roughly the same time every year and that we have had the entire winter to obtain the travel documents necessary to take a fortnight off to spend frying in the sun in glorious Ibiza but that`s not the point. The point is that the Passport Office has targets and notwithstanding the behaviour of some PCS unionised staff targets have to be hit. We cannot, as Mrs. May the Home Secretary has wisely said, put our security at risk but it really ought not to be easier to get into the Country than it is for a law-abiding British Citizen to leave it. From a position of “Crisis. What Crisis?” Her Majesty`s Government has moved to lifting the £55 per person `ransom charge` for those with an urgent need to travel to be fast-tracked. Spotting an open wound there are some Government Ministers who just cannot help reaching for the jar of salt. Step forward the Tourism Minister, Ms. Helen Grant. Suggesting helpfully that those having trouble obtaining passports ought to consider a `staycation` instead of travelling abroad must certainly fall within her brief to promote the vital and valuable UK domestic tourist industry but with thirty thousand passport applications in the pipeline waiting to be processed Ms. Grant`s proposition may yet qualify for the 2014 Marie Antoinette award.
It has not been a good month for the Darling Bud. Our high flying Leadership contender found herself, also, in an unseemly playground spat with the Swot of State for education, St. Michael of Gove. St. michael had the temerity to suggest that the Home Office had been aware for some time of the `Trojan Horse` infiltration of Midlands Schools by fundamentalist extremists and should, therefore, have taken action. In a moment of unguarded loyalty the Home Secretary`s spinmeister, Fiona Cunningham., let it be known that the Department for Education had been warned of the problem but, wholly uncharacteristically, had done nothing about it until the solids hit the fan. This unseemly squabble nece3ssitated the intervention of the Headmaster who caused Mr. Gove to apologise to Mrs. May while Ms. Cunningham, the tethered goat, was required to fall on her sword if goats can commit hari kiri. The Home Office may have been responsible for “failing to drain the swamp” but which Secretary of State was responsible for the fact that we were, in fact, up to our backsides in alligators? Were it not for his Tory party canonisation St. Michael might, post-reshuffle, find himself preaching British Values in a Dixieland Mississippi delta.
In other news house prices, at a UK average of £185,512 (or about a quarter of what you would pay for a decent beach hut in Sussex) have hit their highest level since October 2007. Proposals to charge supermarket customers 5p. per plastic bag will raise some £8 billion a year or almost enough to buy an attic flat in Kensington. Borat O`Bama has exchanged a captured US serviceman who min all probability was a deserter for some of the most dangerous terrorists in the world. Taliban 5. Borat nil. Earl Spencer, the late Diana`s bro, has warned that there will be “no HS2” rail line on my land” which is a euphemism for “trespassers will hanged, drawn and suspended in chains while their eyes are pecked out by ravens . His Earlship will get on well with Christine Lagarde who has found it appropriate to apologise for the fact that her IMF has intruded into domestic policy to the extent of `building more in the countryside`. Hailing as she does from the land of never-ending power pylons and rural industrial eyesores LaLa Garde is better equipped than even Nick Boles to understand the consequences of untrammelled rustic concrete. Andy Coulson has been convicted of phone-hacking. Man David rushes to issue a full and frank apology for hiring Mr. Coulson before the case is over, covering his own backside possibly but earning a blast from the Judge for meddling in judicial matters. Anyone but a well-connected Prime Minister might well have ended up beside Gentleman Andy in the dock on charges of contempt. No matter, the Chipping Norton set were in a position to hold a tasteless champagne celebration to record the acquittal of Mrs. Rebekah Brooks. Was the fizz also paid for by the Dirty Digger? We will probably never know. Real rock musicians are now shunning the Glastonbury festival as being too middle class. Hunter wellies, doggy-bags from Fortnum and Mason, Harrods and M&S, nail bars and glamping accommodation may have guaranteed a warm southern welcome for Dolly Parton from y`all but it`s no longer the real thing is it? Knebworth. Now there`s a name to conjure with while you wonder how many staff the Salford Broadcasting Corporation has sent at license fee payer`s extent to cover The Farmyard In The Mud.
The BBC is sick. Official. Having spent shedloads of your hard-earned money refurbishing Old Broadcasting House in Portland Place, London, and transforming it into an outpost worthy of Salford it transpires that New BH is making the luvvies unwell. Send for the Home Service Doctor. Fast. Part of the malaise may, of course, be that the new culture Secretary and ex-Treasury Minister Sajid Javid is contemplating a cut in the £145-80 BBC license fee as a by-product of the next Charter review. This poses the awful prospect of some executives having to use public transport instead of taking taxis which would be enough to make anyone not living in the real world ill. Plus ca change. I recall, some twenty years ago, being called by a young Asian woman working as a reporter in Glasgow. She was, she told me, appalled that BBC Scotland was pro-actively advertising for Asian women as reporters and she was concerned that people would think that she had got her hard –earned job other than on merit. Spool forward (that`s a technical term) to June 2014 and we find that the BBC is proposing to spend £2.1 million to fast-track Black and Asian presenters for BBC North. Lord (Tony) Hall, the Head Luvvie, wants the BBC to be the “number one destination for talented people”. If that is so than he should not be devaluing the currency of those very talented black and Asian people who have won their jobs in open competition and on merit. The bigger question, though, is whether or not the powers that be are ready to allow a woman to replace the retiring if not shy Lord (Chris) Patten as the Chairman of the BBC Trust. Given the three-strong selection panel which includes the Cabinet Secretary, Sir Jeremy `Chilcot-denyer` Heywood, an ex BBC executive and an independent Peer there will be high heels on the front staircase of The Garrick before that happens.
We have got this far through June without mentioning Legacy Blair or The Milipede or Farridge but I have saved the worst bits until last. Farridge has denied that he has taken some £200 thousand in undeclared election donations and those who do not wish him ill will of course wish to give him the benefit of that doubt. “Red Ed” Milipede has found it necessary to apologise having posed with a World Cup commemorative edition of The Sun, a comic that is still capable of arousing anger throughout Merseyside and much of North West England. He has not aided his cause, either by acknowledging in the face of personal poll ratings at an all-time low that “the odds are against us”. Lord Foy of That Persuasion helpfully has added that The Milipede has “failed to outline a convincing and vivid narrative”.
Then there is “The Legacy. Blair, in what has to be construed as another half-hearted bid for the Presidency of the European Union at some point in its federal future, now sees his task as to `defend the EU from the far right`. This, presumably, is on the basis of his resounding success as a `Middle East Peace Envoy` during which tenure of office the aforesaid Middle East has descended into every form of conflagration peaking, if not unfortunately culminating, in the rise of the extremist Isis movement in Iraq and Syria. While Legacy Blair is reduced to saying “don`t blame me” for the consequences of his agreement with George Bush Jr. at Camp David or wherever the squalid deal was struck, there are others, like Poor Jack Straw who believe either that he should be stripped of his envoy role or, in the case of the Father of the House of Commons, Sir Peter Tapsell who entered the Commons 1959 that Blair should be impeached under archaic but still active parliamentary procedures.
Following the introduction no an all-white dress code for Wimbledon female tennis players have described the prospect of “knicker checks” as “weird”.
Ahead of the game as always the Environment Agency is launching its “use water wisely” campaign before the predicted summer drought. This, of course, follows hard on the heels of what most of us remember as the wettest winter on record when it seemed at times that much of the land was under water. Has any further thought been given to water storage?
Environment Secretary Eric Pickles has described as “Stalinist” guidance from the National Association of Local Government offered to Parish Councillors. “Don`t speak to journalists without permission”.
A frenzy of excitement over the pending arrival of Le Tour, commencing this year in Yorkshire (why?) has led not only to the translation of pub names into French but to the generation, in the village of Masham, of knitted bunting. Sadly, the bunting has had to be removed on the orders of E&S on the grounds that “it might get wet and bend the lamp posts”.
Lela Burden of a United States High School, dropped out and failed to take her finals because of the 1918 flu epidemic. The faculty in Norfolk, Virginia, have at last relented and awarded the lady her diploma – at the age of one hundred and eleven. The fees are lower in the University of life.
Lucas Thursby had to have sixty shots taken to produce an acceptable passport photograph because of the rule that says that no hands or objects or other people shall be visible in the picture and that ` all applicants must comply with the guidelines`. As Lucas is just six weeks old there`s an outside chance that his appearance may change a little during the five-year lifetime of his passport but nobody seems to be remotely bothered by that.
A Greenpeace executive commutes the 250 miles between his home in Luxembourg and his place of work in Amsterdam by plane. This journey has been made twice a month at a cost of £200 a go in order to avoid the twelve hour round trip by rail. In the interests of the planet has Pascal thought of moving home?
Political correctness knows no bounds. The BBC is now describing the ball boys first introduced in the 1920s and the ball girls who were allowed to join them in an enlightened 1977 as `ball kids`. Feminism, said Ann Widdecombe in a totally different context, was about getting out and achieving, not whining and whingeing like it is now.
And Prisoners who took to the roof of Devon`s Dartmoor prison in protest have been given protection by prison officers. Recognising a `duty of care`, the officers provided incarcerated offenders with sun cream so that they did not burn while languishing on the tiles under the heat of the mid-day sun.
After twenty-eight years in parliament former Education and Home Secretary David Blunkett, Britain`s first blind cabinet minister, is to stand down at the 2015 general election. The egalitarian class warrior will no doubt not be taking a seat in the House of Lords. Or will he?
At the age of fifty-eight comedian and actor Rik Mayall, star of The Comic Strip, The Young Ones, Bottom and Alan B`stard in The New Statesman has succumbed to a premature final curtain call.
Stephen Sutton, the inspirational cancer sufferer who raised millions of pounds for the Teenage Cancer Trust before he died last month was awarded the MBE in the Birthday Honours list. Although the award will be collected posthumously he was aware of and had accepted the honour before he passed away.