Gale's View from Westminster - June 2016
June. If a week is a long time in politics then this month has been a lifetime. The centenaries of Jutland and The Somme. Her Maj`s official 90th birthday parties and a service a St, Paul`s Cathedral. Honours for Rod Stewart and Vera Lynn and Major Tim who is back on Terra Firma. Slaughter in Ataturk airport as PKK extremists strike, floods in France and wildfire violence rages through the European Cup while Russia and England fight over the exit door. The murder of one of our young colleagues in the House. A Coroner`s verdict on the Deepcut Barracks deaths as the Chief of General Staff, Sir Nick Carter, says that “we failed Cheryl James”. Sir Cliff Richard is innocent – official. The Greatest hits the canvas. And then there was the referendum, the pending departure of the Prime Minister and meltdown within the Labour Party. That`s all.
Lies, damned lies and vote Leave. It began badly and ended in tears. What was supposed to have been a debate about the future of our security and our economy was hijacked and turned into a protest about the level of immigration and an opportunity to give “the political elite in London and Brussels” a good kicking. Unlike a General Election, however, in which if you get it wrong you can have another bite at the cherry, this is a one-off. It is correct that we are still a Parliamentary democracy, that referendums are only advisory and that ultimately Members of Parliament will have to vote on whether or not to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty, which is the device that is legally necessary for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union. It is also highly likely though that, were the House to vote to decline to proceed down the Brexit route there would be civil unrest leading to the rise of the modern-day blackshirts who are waiting in the wings while at present sheltering under the UKIP umbrella. The call for a “Second Referendum” via a petition that has now attracted more than three million signatures will be debated in parliament but is going nowhere. We shall have to re-assess the whole situation in the light of circumstances at the time of the Article 20 vote and we have been elected to ultimately exercise our individual judgement in the best interests of Britain. The enormity of that responsibility and its consequences for the Country that we serve is not lost on those of us in the House.
It has become clear since the result of the referendum that there is no £350m per week that will be released to be spent on the health service, that there will be no dramatic reduction in net immigration and that we are likely to end up having to permit freedom of movement and to pay into the EU to maintain our trading rights while, like Norway, having no voice at the table and no vote. It has also become clear that, notwithstanding the amount of time and effort that has gone into persuading the British public to leave the European Union those who have been leading this campaign have absolutely no plan and no idea how to implement the results of the vote. They had, we have to assume, expected to be able to leave it to Prime Minister Cameron to sort out the mess, to blame him if he failed to get a good deal and to claim the credit were he to succeed. Denied that course of action by Man David`s unexpected decision to stand down headless chicken syndrome has now taken hold of the “Out” campaign.
In the `blame game` we are now told that we should never have embarked upon a referendum in the first place, that it should not have been a 2015 manifesto commitment and that Team Cameron should have had a plan for Brexit in place. We need to remember that a referendum has been a Tory pledge since the Lisbon Treaty and that had we been in power one would have been held before that Treaty was signed. That option denied to us, the Prime Minister recognised that it was nevertheless time to allow Britain to have its say. The manifesto was, of course, in the drafting from 2013 onwards and finalised by mid-2014 – before Putin began bombing Syria and generating a tide of refugees that has swept across Europe and before the real rise of Daesh. We are also told that the Prime Minister should have remained in post. Honourably, I cannot see how the man could have remained for long in Downing Street while having to work with a Cabinet of people whose views he did not share trying to implement policies in which he does not believe. Neither can he reasonably have been expected to devote his time and energy generating a game plan that any reasonable person might have assumed had been already produced by those campaigning for a completely different course of action.
Without wishing to re-run old movies it is probably the case that Putin and Daesh are cheering like mad at what may yet be a dagger-blow at the heart of Europe and for that Europe, with its over-weening bureaucracy, lack of financial accountability, meddlesome interference in sovereign affairs and appallingly arrogant and out-of-touch Commission, is significantly to blame. If the EU is to survive, with or without the UK, then reform is vital and a first step, already mooted by the Prime Ministers of the Czech Republic and Poland, will be the removal of the President of the Commission, Jean-Claude Juncker. Juncker, a former leader of the Luxembourg County Council, made statements during the UK referendum campaign that must have had Vote Leave dancing for joy and if nothing else good comes of this one has to hope that his days are numbered. If we are to negotiate an exit then at least let it be with someone who is up to the task on the European side.
I was in Strasbourg for the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the Friday morning when the news came through and I had the happy task, as leader of the UK delegation, to try to explain to that body that although we had voted to leave the European Union we were still wedded to the principles of the CoE and had been since the 800-or-so years since Magna Carta. Would we remain within the Assembly that is made up of forty-seven states that stretch from Azerbaijan to the Atlantic Ocean and from the Mediterranean to the Arctic Circle? Yes, I said, although for how long only time will tell. Before I left the town that the French like to describe as “The Capital of Europe” I watched David Cameron, with Samantha beside him, announce that he was standing down, and I spent the next five hours on the drive back to Calais with Suzy pondering whether to take The Stewardship of the Chiltern Hundreds, which as `an office of profit under the Crown` is the only way an MP can resign, and leave parliament. The answer is no. There is work to do locally and nationally and we have to get on and do it.
By the Monday, when the Prime minister made his statement to the House, the power-play to succeed him was already under way. The statement itself was reminiscent of Margaret Thatcher`s “I`m rather enjoying this “ speech and we have to hope both that history will judge David Cameron rather more kindly that the contemporary press and that he and his young family will now have the freedom to enjoy each other`s company rather more than hitherto he has had the time to spend with them.
Will Theresa May, or the ex-mayor of London Mr. Johnson, or the Work and Pensions Secretary Stephen Crabb or former Defence Secretary Liam Fox or Education Secretary Nicky Morgan or Chancellor George Osborne who would seize the crown to lead the Conservative Party and become Prime Minister? By the time that I attended the launch of the campaign for Mrs. May, who I am supporting, Chancellor George and Ms. Morgan had decided not to stand and it looked like a run-off between Theresa and Mr. Johnson. Then came the news that the Brexit campaign leader. Justice Secretary Gove, had, “in the national interest” decided that the man alongside whom he had been working for months and who was responsible for persuading Britain to vote to leave the EU, was not fit to become Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. He therefore, the man who had said over and over again that he would not stand and was not up to the task, St. michael of Gove, found it necessary to propel himself forward and to enter the fray. This news was apparently conveyed to Sir Lynton Crosby, who had successfully orchestrated the Tories 2015 election win and was now working for Camp Johnson, in a phone call at 09.00 on the morning that, shortly after Theresa May, Johnson was due to launch his bid to become Prime Minister. Et tu, Gover? Even by the standards of Game of Thrones, House of Cards and The Thick of It all rolled into one this was back-stabbing on an epic scale. The timing which was “forced upon” Gove was clearly designed to do as much damage to Johnson as possible and within a couple of hours the Boris Blunder Bus was off the road leaving his supporters fuming while gravitating towards other candidates. These included Andrea Leadsom, a junior Minister and Leave Campaign activist who not so long ago had, as a former senior banker, been opining publicly on the damage that a Brexit would do to the British economy. The “Cuckoo`s Nest Plot” as it is now known, clearly had the support of Mrs Gove who, as Sarah Vine, writes for the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid and there is a nice irony in the fact that that newspaper is not supporting her husband. Yet. At the time of writing Mrs. May leads the field by a country mile with Stephen Crabb in a respectable second place, Andrea Leadsom coming up on the rails, Gove faltering under mistrust and accusations of treachery and Liam Fox bringing up the rear. All of that may, with only half of the parliamentary party`s votes committed, change and it is not yet clear whether there will be a coronation or whether a shortlist of two names will be submitted to the Conservative Party for a vote.
In the midst of the Referendum campaign came the cruel murder, in broad daylight, of the Member of Parliament for Batley and Spen, Jo Cox. Ms Cox, who entered parliament only last year, was about to attend her constituency advice `surgery` when she was knifed and shot and left lying in a pool of blood on the pavement outside a library in Birstall in Yorkshire. The campaign was, rightly, suspended while the Westminster Village came to terms with the death of a young mother who, everyone said, had a wonderful political career ahead of her. Politicians are a strange breed but we are a family and when one suffers it hurts all of us. We have to be available and exposed and we expect to take the rough and the very rough with the smooth but we do not expect to be murdered by lunatics while going about our lawful business. Tributes were paid in the House, of course, and the press described her as “fearless and passionate” while reminding the population that “Our MPs are brave and decent and we should say it more”. This would be the same newspaper that, only a few days later, was saying that “the little people of England have spoken and sent a message to an out-of-touch political elite”!
Talking of the “out of touch political elite” and without wishing to intrude upon private grief there is the small matter of the meltdown of Her Majesty`s Loyal Opposition. The much-heralded coup against what passes for the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn has been simmering for months. It was precipitated, finally, by the result of a referendum in which Red Jerry played a less than enthusiastic party and which resulted in swathes of the Labour heartlands in the North voting to leave the European Union. That most canvassed Labour voters appeared to be blissfully unaware of the Party`s (Remain) position has been laid at the door of a lacklustre and half-hearted steer from the top. In fact, “half-hearted” may be over generous: comrade Jerry, no doubt to the delight of Vlad Putin, seems to have been more on the Leave side of the fence than his poor bloody infantry. The midnight sacking of Hilary Benn from his post as Shadow Foreign Secretary precipitated a trickle that turned into a flood of resignations from the Opposition Shadow Cabinet and front benches. I have lost count of the actual number of Shadow Ministerial Posts that have been vacated but there are literally dozens that remain unfilled and this makes it virtually impossible for the Official Opposition to staff debates and Legislative Standing committees with spokesmen. Corbyn is hanging on to the thread that “the people” elected him democratically and that therefore in spite of the fact that three quarters of his parliamentary party have no confidence in him and his diminutive band of supporters he has every right to stay put. It was a Labour Prime Minister who, when asked “What`s going on” famously replied “I`m going on” and Corbyn clearly intends to “go on” at least until the publication of the Chilcot report into the Iraq War, in a few days` time, affords him the chance to make some headlines with an anticipated excoriating attack on Tony “The Legacy” Blair.
The problem with all of this at a time like this is that Government needs a strong opposition to hold it to account. It does no service to the cause of democracy for even the best of policies to go unchallenged but that is what we are currently faced with. Where is an Alan Johnson (former Labour Cabinet Minister) when you need him? Watch this space for announcements of further fratricide or sororicide.
North of the Border the natives are getting restless. Running a country that voted convincingly in favour of remaining within the European Union the `wee lassie in the tin hat` is now contemplating, as many of us predicted that she would, the prospect of a second referendum designed to remove Scotland from the United Kingdom. While there is also a move in the republican quarter of a Northern Ireland that also voted to Remain to hive off and unite with an Irish republic that is of course continuing as an EU member state it is the Scots who are likely to make the running. Nicola Sturgeon has examined ways to block the action necessary to achieve Brexit and, having failed, has beetled off to Brussels to talk to the awful Juncker about a possible deal. Scotland out of the British Union and back into the European Union with the Euro as a currency and shedloads of EU money to replace that lost by a fracture with England. Even as a founder member of the Rebuild Hadrian`s Wall campaign I find the prospect of a land border between England and Scotland desperate and nobody (including an out-voting Secretary of State for Northern Ireland) appears yet to have addressed the fact that there will need to be border controls re-established between the Province and the Irish republic. Just another little problem that Mrs. May`s team of Brexit Department experts will have to address before we trigger Article 20.
Into this fray has stepped Her Maj. Having skirmished briefly with the need for unity during the first Scottish referendum she opined, while formally opening the Scottish Parliament at the end of the month, that we needed to calm down and “embrace hope and optimism”. One suspects that the Great Lady will not be best pleased if, as a by-product of an ill-thought-through Brexit vote, bits start being hacked off her realm.
She has, of course, this month celebrated her official 90th birthday. Brits are used to the peculiar arrangements under which Her Maj does not formally celebrate her real birthday but has the boat pushed out for the Trooping of the Colour and other official birthday events at the start of June when the weather is supposed to be better. That it (the weather) wasn`t better was a shame for the thousands that packed the Mail under ponchos and plastic umbrellas for the Royal Picnic, but hey, this is England, and we don`t let a little rain or even a cloudburst put a damper on our celebrations. None of us are ever going to see a longest-serving Monarch celebrating a 90th Birthday again so we made the most of it. Prior to the Trooping and the Street Party and the fly-past there was, on the Friday, a service in St. Pauls` Cathedral. Incredibly and for probably the first time in her regal life, the Queen and Prince Philip were late. Assembled were fifty-three members of the Royal Family including all eight of her grandchildren. Ready to do justice to the occasion were the Archbishop of Canterbury, Justin Welby, the Bishop of London, massed clerics from faiths from around the world. Other nonagenarians, Sir David Attenborough who read a passage created by Michael Bond and Hilda Pine, born on the same day as Her Maj and reads a prayer, participated and the great and the good and Old Windy were there and ready and waiting. And waiting. For probably the first time in her regal life Her Maj, delayed by a traffic accident, was eleven minutes late which caused brief but huge anxiety simply because the Queen is always spot on time. There was palpable relief when the trumpets heralded the arrival and it was a truly splendid occasion. Sir Rod Stewart, the musician, received his `K` in the Birthday Honours list for services to music and charity and promised to `wear it well` while Dame Vera Lynn has been made a Companion of Honour at a sprightly 99 years of age.
Also featuring in the Birthday Honours was Major Tim, who is the first and probably the only ever citizen of the United Kingdom to receive an honour while in space. Before Tim Peake, now a Companion of the Order of St. Michael and St. George, returned to earth later in the month he had completed three thousand orbits of the Earth and travelled 77.6 million miles during 186 days in space. Re-entering the atmosphere at 1800 miles per hour he landed safely on the Katakh Steppe to say “That is the best ride I have ever had. Now I want a cold beer”.
From the Epsom and St. Helier Hospital a Staff Memo tells us that “Dying well can be fun” and refers to “death by chocolate” in palliative care. The item was part of “Dying matters awareness week” focussed upon living well and dignified death. The only grim thing about this is that in a politically correct age the hospital then inevitably found in necessary to apologise “for any offence caused”.
Talking of death, which we were, John Wright of New Milton in Hampshire decided to bury his late one hundred and one year old Mother, Lady Margaret Johnson, in his garden. Doing so, quite legally, he avoided paying a quoted £5300 in funeral costs.
A rare copy of Karl Marx` Das Capital signed by the author has sold at auction for £28.000. Now that`s das capitalism for you!
The day the Musak died. After exhaustive external research Marks and Spencer`s have decided to can piped music in three hundred of their branches that will now adopt a music-free policy. “Customers found the noise annoying and disorientating”. I wonder how much M&S spent to find that out.
And how much did the University of Cambridge spend on research to prove that `big wine glasses fool people into drinking more`?
Medical advice: “Try to see your Doctor in the morning. Later in the day they may suffer from decision fatigue”.
Stephen Sim was clearing out the basement of his Crystal Palace (London) home when he found an unexploded World War Two bomb. He decided to `sleep on it` before taking action, figuring that if it had been there for fifty years it would probably last for another couple of hours.
Faced with demands from Christina Estrada for a London home, a butler, five cars, a fur coat allowance and an `art budget` as part of a £250 million divorce settlement the judge hearing the case declared that “we are firmly in gasp territory”.
We are told that molly-coddling and over-protective `helicopter parenting` “leaves young adults without life skills”. Like how to use salad dressing. What genius spent time and money working that one out?
The Head of the Girls Schools Association, Caroline Jordan of Headington in Oxfordshire, announces that girls cannot be called girls but, in deference to gender-neutrality, should be referred to as pupils or students. The organisation will presumably now be changing its name to “The Pupils Schools Association”.
The UK Chamber of Shipping which represents our still considerable merchant fleet finds that there is a shortage of young sailors. Matelots will no longer put to sea without access to Facebook, it seems.
The Chamber of Commerce is in hot Bourton-on-the-water. An 1800s bye-law prevents the use of the Windrush River and the Village Green on Sundays leading Gloucester police to threaten to arrest those participating in a Sabbath duck race to raise money for “blood bikes” used to relay materials for transfusions.
And with an eye on Brexit Grattons butchers in Barnstaple in Devon has reverted to selling meat in pounds and ounces. For younger carnivores metric measures are still available. Principle is one thing but profit is another.
The Liverpudlian creator of Liver Birds, Butterflies and Bread and animal rights campaigner, Carla Lane, has penned her last sitcom at the age of 87.
Alan Devereux, who as Sid Perks was the landlord of The Bull in The Archers radio series from 1972 until he was killed off in 2010 has pulled his last pint at 75.
Mohammed Ali started life as Cassius Clay in 1942.”The Greatest” won Olympic boxing gold in Rome in 1960, fought the World Heavyweight Champion Sonny Liston for the title in the “Thriller in Manila” in 1964. Sir Henry Cooper, who went on to lose the fight, was the only person to floor him at Wembley stadium in 1963.
Eddie O`Hara, for 20 years the Member of Parliament for Harold Wilson`s former Huyton seat, renamed Knowsley South, was also a member of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe and the Speaker`s Panel of Chairmen. The man behind the campaign to return the Elgin Marbles to Greece has left us at 78.
And Sir Patrick “Paddy” Mayhew, Lord Mayhew of Twysden, barrister, Member of Parliament for Tunbridge Wells from 1974 to 1997 , Attorney General in 1987 and Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was the Minister who, in John Major`s Government, crafted the Downing Street Declaration . He was the first Secretary of State to sit down and negotiate with Gerry Adams and the first Secretary of State to address an Orange Lodge. He was a great friend and mentor to his younger Kent parliamentary colleagues.
June has marked the centenaries of the Battle of Jutland that involved two hundred and fifty warships and left 8,500 dead and of the Battle of the Somme, fought at a cost of hundreds of thousands of lives.
We will remember them.