Gale's View from Westminster - March 2016
March madness. An unholy row over Sunday Trading. Mayor Boris bumbles on over Brexit and train-crashes in select committee. Chancellor George unravels another budget, `Saint Dunky` flips his PiP and the former Secretary of State for Wales climbs another rung up the stairway to Cabinet heaven. Her Maj is not amused by her Justice Secretary. Borat`s view of the Relationship appears less than special, Putin `pulls out of Syria` but how can you really tell? The GOP approaches political Armageddon as Trump tramps on, Radovan Karodic will have some time to `Remember Srebrenica` before he dies in prison and Belgium`s capital is rocked by more terrorist bombs. On a `lighter` note the BBC`s Top Gear goes into tailspin as its new team of `presenters` (the word is used loosely) carve up the Cenotaph and St Paul`s Cathedral but `Lord` Tony Hall and Ms. Airhead remain in post. For the moment at least. And talking of luvvie-culture `Los Rollings` rock Havana.
For those who have taken to the mattresses for the duration of the Referendum campaign the good news is that there are now less than three months to voting day. For the rest of us death-by-hyperbole continues. The down-market press, with the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid to the fore, are reaching for new levels of hysteria with which to try to describe the perils of staying in the EU closet or coming out and anything approximating fact or likely truth was long ago sacrificed on the altar of the editorial line. The French Minister for the Economy, M. Emmanuel Macron, will move refugee camps to Dover if we quit. And beastly things will be done to our Financial Services Industry. `Millions` of people are entering the United Kingdom without passport checks. Tory `Grandees` (aka my old friend Liam Fox) say that `Cameron must go` if we `VoteLeave`. Boris bumbles through his not-the-Leadership bid on the Marr programme. “We will have a trade deal like Canada” does not sound like a well-thought-through argument either on pop telly or before a select committee hearing widely regarded with derision as a parliamentary train-crash. Suggesting that “six out of ten UK laws are born in Brussels” has more than a tad of a desperate search for a red-top headline about it. Never mind. Failing Number 10 there is always the Vicarage of Bray as an attractive residence.
Farms Minister George Eustace says that “Roast joints will not cost more. Your Sunday Lunch is safe with Brexit” “We will have a Free Trade deal with the EU in months ” and “The best potato growers in the world are in the UK”. His boss, Agriculture Secretary and Norfolk MP Liz Truss says that “We will face a 40% tariff if Britain leaves the EU” and that will cost the lamb industry “£90 million a year in lost exports”. Choose your cut.
Europe may be `going in the wrong direction` but if it is then Her Maj certainly did not say so says Buck House. Rumour has it that Justice Secretary Gove dined and wined well with The Dirty Digger before attending the latter` nuptials with Ms. Jerry Hall but the Gover is adamant that he does not know `how The Sun got all of it`s information` about an alleged chance remark made on Privy Council terms at Windsor Castle. That would suggest that the Gover has a pretty good idea of where at least some of the Sun`s story had its roots but then all is apparently fair in Leave and War. We are also told that “50% of all Conservative constituency Chairman” (that august and collegiate body well-known to be vastly representative of the man in the street) “are backing Brexit”. My miserable attempt at mental arithmetic suggests to me that that means that about 50% are not. Or have I got that wrong?
With `immigration` on the front pages, and pages two three four five and six, of the tabloid and Daily Harumphagraf agenda President Vlad, the man responsible for the stimulation of much of the tide of refugees from Syria, helpfully suggests that the EU`s response to the `migrant crisis` in the form of “multiculturalism” has failed. For evidence of his own approach to `multiculturalism` visit Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova. `World Leaders` are having a field day. Having seemingly criticised Prime Minister Cameron, in an article in The Atlantic magazine, for failing to nail down Libya The current Commander in Chief of those great military adventures in Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria has found himself having to mend a few diplomatic fences. Borat O`Bama `deeply values Britain` is the revised line and which is why he no doubt `helpfully` wants to espouse the `Remain ` cause in the forthcoming referendum. All we need now is for The Donald to pay a visit to the UK and it will be game, set and match for Brexit!
Sir John Major, The Tory Prime Minister that history will indubitably treat rather more kindly than his contemporaries (if only as the real author of the Northern Ireland peace process for which The Legacy has sought to claim credit) tells us that the `Brexit` campaign is built on fantasy. Lord Howard, another Tory leader who, unlike Sir John, failed to make it to Downing Street, chooses the aftermath of atrocities in Brussels to say that the EU has `put out a welcome sign for terrorists` and that we `must reclaim our borders`. Why Michael Howard, who as a former Home Secretary ought to know better, should believe that `our borders` outside the Schengen zone, would be any more secure outside the European Union than within is unclear and unexplained. David Petraeus, the US General with not a little experience of security matters, believes that a Brexit would leave the United Kingdom in “a strategic dead end” and re-cycling Churchill`s double entendre added that ”we are better off fighting with allies that without them”. I am not saying that Lord Howard is ill-informed but I am saying that, as a former representative of a Channel port seat (Folkestone and Hythe) he does not have a better grasp of coastal geography, Any inshore or cross-channel sailor knows that aside from Greece the UK probably has more maritime nooks and crannies and more light aircraft landing strips than most other European countries and I cannot help thinking that if terrorists want to slip into, or out of, Britain then they are going to do it without too much difficulty. Indeed, it is reported that one of those believed to have been involved in the Brussels murders, Mohamed Abrini, may well have done exactly that.
Justice Secretary Gover says “The EU sends killers to Britain”. He wasn`t actually talking about terrorists course, rather your common murderer – although the dead and maimed may not appreciate the nicety of the difference. In a footnote that has caused ire amongst those for whom the very word Europe generates apoplexy the Charity Commission has revised its` guidance, which hitherto had said that charities could not campaign on either side of the argument, to permit interested parties to promote their own interests in the course of the debate. Superficially that might seem trivial but as Friends of the Earth have been quick to point out what they regard as one of the successes of the European Union has been a joined-up approach to environmental issues (such as marine pollution and bathing water quality) that do not recognise the fine detail of national boundaries and borders.
A studiously unreported, in Britain, aspect of the referendum campaign has been the denial of the right to vote to many hundreds of thousands of UK citizens resident both within Europe and beyond. The future of the Motherland is likely to have at least as much impact upon their lives and those of their families `back home` as it is upon members of The House of Lords and residents of Gibraltar to whom the Referendum Act has granted the franchise. At the time of writing a last-ditch legal attempt, mounted by the indomitable 94-year old Anzio veteran Harry Shindler and others, to rectify the situation is awaiting consideration by the High Court. The Government is trying to say that “we have been through all of this in the courts before “ but Harry and his legal eagles are pointing out that in fact this case, as a referendum on the future of not only the UK but of its many citizens living overseas, is unique. God help us if Harry wins (although of course I most certainly hope he does) because the whole referendum could be put on hold and I am not sure how much more of this prolonged excitement any of us can stand.
The warning signs were there of course. It was at the start of the month that the Work and Pensions Secretary, Mr. Iain Duncan-Smith, intimated that “Downing Street wants to bully us into staying in”. From that moment on it was probably only a matter of time and timing before IDS (Irritable Disappointment Syndrome), who likes to think of his reinvention as the social conscience of the Conservative Party, found an excuse to quit the Cabinet and devote his time to campaigning, as he has done in the past, to drag the UK out of the European Union. The moment came with the Budget.
Chancellor George`s initial reception was, on the Government benches, good. That is always a bad sign. It seems almost axiomatic that, no matter who is in charge of the famous box, the louder the cheers when a Chancellor sits down the faster the whole thing unravels as the contents of the fine print emerges and so it was this year. It ought to have been alright. Business rates slashed, six hundred thousand middle-range earners (schoolteachers, senior nurses, firemen and policemen) lifted out of the 40p tax bracket and many more out of tax altogether as the threshold is raised, funding for infrastructure, a boost for small businesses, only a modest increase in tax on wine and none on scotch, a sugar tax on soft drinks as a nod towards the literally expanding problem of obesity, and an `ISA for old age` to boost saving for pension or house-buying. A reduction in the PiP bill, certainly, but an increase in the overall benefits payable to disabled people with more going to those in most need and more helping others back into work. What could be wrong with that? As Quentin Letts said from the Press Gallery, it left Comrade Corbyn, as the Leader of the Opposition charged with the duty of offering an instant response to the budget, with nothing to say and “looking like Compo at a funeral”.
You have to hand it to us. As a political party we Conservatives are in a class of our own when it comes to ripping ourselves to bits in the face of no opposition. We win gold medals for hitting the self-destruct button like a bullseye every time. The Prime Minister`s triumphal delivery of a Commission agreement to allow the zero-rating of women`s sanitary products (the “Tampon Tax”) was lost in the backlash against £4.4 billion of “cuts” in Personal Independence Payments. No matter that the arcane calculations used to award PiP favoured some users of assistance installations against other still more disabled people and no matter that the total budget is set to rise, not fall: this was the moment when backbenchers buckled under populist pressure and when Dunky-Smith seized his moment.
“The cuts are indefensible” roared the `Quiet Man`. Now that is pretty odd given that not only was the budget approved unanimously by the entire Cabinet but that three days before the statement the Secretary of State sent a “Dear Colleague” letter to every MP explaining and justifying his policy. And it was his policy. The Welfare and Benefit changes, widely applauded and for which IDS ought to be taking credit were, including PiP, the results of years of work and the man`s personal invention. To try to claim “Not me, Guv” after the solids have hit the fan suggests, to this surveyor of the scene at least, one and possibly two ulterior motives. First, there is a buzz that the computer systems designed to deliver the Universal Credit are not going to work and that entire project, with IDS` fingerprints all over it, might unravel. Government IT projects are notorious for coming in way over budget and then not working. (I wrote about this years ago and was told by the purveyors of IT systems to HMG that this was because “the Government keeps changing the specifications”. Which could well be true knowing the capacity of Whitehall for indecision). A former Education Minister, nicknamed MacCavity, was famous for `moving on` just before the Departmental ceiling fell in and it looks as though the `poor man`s answer to Frank Field` may have learned the same lesson. The second, and more likely, explanation is that IDS wanted to remove himself from the shackles of Government to free himself to campaign for the Brexit and time will tell whether or not, post the Easter recess, he gets stuck into that cause.
Do we feel let down? Well, I certainly do myself although with hindsight we should have expected no less than a stab in the back. I was one of IDS` Party Vice-Chairmen when he was Leader of the Conservative Party. Although a member of the (then) David Davis team I felt that, when IDS leadership faced the inevitable challenge I should, as an officer of the Party, support him as the Party`s democratically chosen leader and I did so. Memories are sometimes too short: I had forgotten that he was one of those who tried to bring down John Major over the EU (ironically it was Margaret Thatcher, now the darling of the Right, who took the UK most deeply from a Common Market band into a European Union – and yes, I voted with her at the time) and who was now trying to shaft Cameron and Osborne. Officers and Gentlemen do not, it seems, change their spots!
So the chap who took away winter fuel payments from ex-pat United Kingdom citizens on the basis of spurious cold-weather figures but who also introduced , to his credit, some much needed welfare reforms is now predicting `civil war` and talking of `a divided society`.
Which leaves the former Secretary of State for Wales, Stephen Crabb, whose back-story is one of personal hardship and deprivation, as the new Secretary of State for Work and Pensions presiding over “cuts” that have been withdrawn and watching while the Chancellor tries to plug a multi-billion pound hole in the nation`s finances. George Osborne himself restored much credibility swiftly by being the first Chancellor of the Exchequer
Since Ken Clarke in the 1990s to take the heat and wind up the Budget debate himself. He may make mistakes sometimes but he is not lacking in political courage.
In terms of the Leadership of the Conservative Party it is a moot point whether or not the Chancellor`s Leadership hopes have been holed below the waterline. Of the `runners and riders` currently in the frame there are many good people for the Cabinet is, whatever your personal orientation, blessed with some quite extraordinary political talent. The curse of “a future Prime Minister” now sits upon young Stephen Crabb`s head. I know not whether he wants the job but if he does not then he certainly will not get it and even if he does, passionately, then there will be others snapping at his heels. Three years is a long time and my gut feeling is that it may prove to be `none of the above` and that a new champion will emerge. Whoever that he or she is they will have a Herculean task to reunite a Party that will, by then, have torn itself apart not only over the EU referendum that may or may not prove decisive but over the Leadership contest that they will just have won as well. Happy Days!
I am certainly not an expert in Belgian politics and I am not certain that there are many, even Belgians, who would make that claim either. Friends tell me that what passes for `government` in the capital city of the Country that also hosts the HQ of the European Union leaves a certain amount to be desired. Post the Paris murders there were rumblings of discontent about co-operation over security issues and some indication that has the right intelligence been deployed by the Belgian authorities at the right time then outcomes might have been different. The more recent atrocities at the Airport and on the Metro, leaving more than thirty dead and many others maimed and injured, has inevitable re-ignited concerns about surveillance and the efficacy of Secret Services in a City that, as well as being “the Capital of the European Union” also appears to accommodate a disproportionately large number of some of the World`s currently deadliest people. We can wring our hands as much as we like, and “lessons” must be learned as is always the cry after such a grim event but we have been told over and over again that, so far as London or another of Britain`s major cities (it was Birmingham that Abrini is alleged to have flown to Paris from.) it is not a question of “if” but “when”. As the Met`s cliché says “We have to be lucky all the time. They only have to be lucky once”. For “Lucky” read “professional. The Met may not be much good at investigating allegations of sex abuse but they are first rate bat counter-terrorism. They are not, though, infallible and sooner or later the “luck” will run out unless we take out the potential perpetrators first. That means, I think, the maximum of co-ordination, pan-European and global co-operation and intelligence sharing. The Republican Party`s Presidential albatross, Mr. Trump, has claimed that I knew more about Brussels than Brussels knew “ and that the war against Daesh is a problem that “I alone can solve” If nothing else puts the fear of God into the future of NATO that alone should. 9/11 could never happen in The Land of The Free - but it did.
In other news the French power conglomerate EDF`s Finance Director, Thomas Paquenal, has resigned over his company`s commitment to build a new nuclear power station at Hinckley Point in Somerset on the grounds that the project is `too risky`. A lot of oeufs in one basket on both sides of La Manche.
The Salford Broadcasting Corporation is in trouble again but Lord (Tony) Hall is hanging onto his job as Director General while the Chairman of the Trustees, Rona `Airhead` remains in office but not in power. It may be that the Secretary of State for Culture, John Whittingdale, puts the hapless duo out of their misery by introducing a unitary Board to run Auntie but in the meantime there is some explaining to do. Why was the Disc Jockey Tony Blackburn, a man with an impeccable record and fifty years of loyalty to the Corporation, sacked by Hall as a scapegoat to deflect attention from the grim criticism of the report into the BBC`s management failures in relation to Mr. Savile. Which Corporate idiot authorised the “improved” presentation team of the “Top Gear” programme to do handbrake turns in Whitehall adjacent to the Cenotaph and who has resigned or been fired over that issue? Who consented to a similar lunacy adjacent to St. Paul`s Cathedral? Who, then, authorised the issue of a statement saying that “our role as a creative lead is something that we are proud of” and that “to suggest that the show (Top Gear) is in difficulty is utterly untrue”? Was it the Editor-in-Chief (Hall) and if not, why not and who is carrying the can? And if Ms. Fairhead believes that the Trustees cannot challenge operational decisions taken by the Director General and his Senior Management team then what, precisely, are she and her fellow Trustees being paid for?
Presumably they will not be overseeing the “toning down” of the re-makes of “landmark sitcoms” such as “`Till death us do Part”, Steptoe and Son”, “Are you being served”, “Up Pompeii” and the like either!
In addition to other self-inflicted woes the Government took another predicted pasting over a cack-handed attempt to further `liberalise` Sunday Trading laws. There was no manifesto commitment to this policy which, so far as anyone can gather, was designed to please a few large retail outlets in Oxford Street and Regent Street in London. Small shopkeepers, who are already exempt from most limitations, do not want to open at all hours. Large supermarket chains have said that the proposal would have turned the ability to re-stock into a logistical nightmare. The shopworkers` unions did not want their members placed under pressure to work longer hours on the one remaining supposedly `family day ` of the week. Members` postbags have not been filled with communications demanding the right of people to spend more money that they do not have on things that they cannot manage without on Sunday evening. In short, this was a policy with no friends outside the City of Westminster. Those of us who have consistently opposed Sunday trading told the Business Secretary, The Prime Minister (some of us have been here before with `Mother`) , The Chancellor of the Exchequer, the Chief Whip and anyone else sad enough to listen that it would not pass. The Government has a majority of twelve. Between twenty and thirty Tories oppose the measure. So do all the other parties. Do the maths. It will fail. It did.
“Two hundred and fifty business Leaders Back Brexit”. You will not have heard of most of them but they include the former CEO of HSBC. Of note, though, is one Luke Johnson who wants to” liberate business from the shackles” of Europe. M. Johnson is the Chairman of a company called “Patisserie Valerie”. “Val`s Buns” doesn`t have quite the same ring about it, does it?
In 1962 Fidel Castro described it as “The music of the enemy” and the band as “the sons of the bourgeoisie”. The latter may be true – Mick Jagger went to the LSE and his Dad was a highly respected school master (Joe and Eva lived in my constituency) – but “Los Rollings” have taken Havana by storm. He`s older than me but Jack Flash is still jumpin`.
Salford Quays, home to the Broadcasting Corporation`s White Elephant in The North, has introduced a “No swear zone” under a `Public Space Protection Order`. Try selling that to MUFC fans en route home from another thrashing at Old Trafford.
A headteacher from Upton in The Wirral has called Social Services to report a pupil who `wants to go to fight ISIS`. Said lad is eight years old but a `representative of the multi-agency safeguarding hub` will `resolve what has happened`. You rest more peacefully in the light of that knowledge.
EasyJet regards “safety as our top priority”. No surprise, then, that Luton police were called to remove Loalu Opebiyi from Nigeria from a plane because of a “What`s App” prayer spotted on the traveller`s iPhone.
Richard Page, a magistrate from Central Kent, has been removed from his post. The Christian JP is accused of being `biased and prejudiced against single-sex adopters`. The matter is before a Tribunal. Don`t place bets on the outcome.
Pembroke College Cambridge, seat of learning, liberal thought and freedom of expression, has banned a “Jules Verne - Round The World” theme party. Those attending might, it was feared, inappropriately don “traditional ethnic clothes”.
Sylvan Mason, the now 72-year old writer of the 1968 hit song “Delilah” is bemused. The self-publicising Welsh MP Chris Bryant wanted the song, an unofficial Welsh rugby anthem, banned from the 6-nations game with England because `it is about the murder of a prostitute`. Ms. Mason describes it succinctly as “a cautionary tale”.
Ocado is selling boxes of two dozen (24 for overseas readers) 20cl. cartons of `Evian Pure Drop` water. At £1.88 per litre that`s more than petrol or beer. Ocado says that it is a “quick, light solution to instantly quench thirst”. So is a bottle of tap water.
Scotland`s most famous peak, Ben Nevis, has grown from 4409 to 4412 feet. Not, as an unkind wag in the Commons tearoom suggested because of the pile of litter left at the summit by visitors from England but “because of better technology”.
BBC Local Radio Leeds presenter Martin Kellner has described his former bosses as “Clueless, charmless, spineless. Gutless, brainless and meddlesome managers”. That`s the problem with BBC local Radio staff – they never say what they think.
And down at BBC Radio Jersey there`s trouble. Seeking a name for £210 million of new arctic research ship a hapless broadcaster set the ball rolling. RRS David Attenborough? No. Shackleton? No. Ranulf Fiennes? No. The runaway favourite by a country mile is his original suggestion The RRS. Boaty McBoatface.
I looked twice at the date on this item but it was not April 1st. Please stop taking your children and grandchildren to feed breads to the Ruddy Ducks. It is not good for them. “Research” carried out by the Canal and River Trust – just don`t ask who paid for it – tells us that ducks prefer, in order of choice, Kale and then Iceberg Lettuce
Mondelez, the current owners of the Cadbury brand, have removed the “Easter” from the packaging of their `seasonal eggs` save for some small print round the back. I suspect that a comment from the Quaker founding family from Bourneville might stretch the boundaries of politeness.
The `fifth Beatle`, Sir George Martin, was 90 when he left for the eternal recording studio. He first heard the band in Liverpool`s Cavern Club in 1962 before taking them to EMI records to lay down the tracks for “Love Me Do”.
Thunderbirds have Gone and Lady Penelope is no more. The voice behind the lady in the 6-wheeled pink Rolls Royce FAB 1 , Sylvia Anderson has been silenced at 88 years young.
It was in 1970 that Opportunity Knocked for a young Paul Daniels who, by the time of his death at 77, had become the `Magician`s magician` and with his wife “the lovely Debbie McGee” had entertained generations through the Paul Daniels Show between 1979 and 1994.
If Daniels was the “magician`s magician” then Cliff Michelmore, who has signed off for the last time at 96, was surely “the broadcaster`s broadcaster”. The anchor man of “Tonight” between 1957 and 1965 he worked alongside Fyfe Robertson, Kenneth Allsop, Alan Whicker, Derek Hart and the topical calypso writer Cy Grant before moving on to cover, amongst other events, The Apollo 13 splashdown (“All we can do is listen and hope”) and the shooting of President Kennedy. Sadly, “The next tonight will not be tomorrow night”.
And “Princess Joan of Sealand”, who survived her husband “Prince Roy” (Bates) by four years has come ashore at 86. The former Essex Carnival Queen lived on board the `pirate` station Radio Essex on Fort Knock John and subsequently on Fort Rough off Felixstowe when Roy declared UDI from the United Kingdom and declared his own `principality`. The Bates `ship`s cat` was aptly named Fruitcake and the family turned eccentricity into an art form.
The National Union of Teachers has rejected a drive to teach “British Values” on the grounds, apparently, that this embodies “cultural supremacy”.
The union presiding over the future thinking of our children and our grandchildren would prefer to instil a comprehension of `international rights` into the young minds of those to whom their education is entrusted.