Westminster View - March 2019
March. “The war against the `Islamic State` is over. Apart, that is, from several thousand radicalised terrorists roaming the wider globe and working out where to launch their next act of warped guerrilla vengeance. The march of the hard right pounds on across Europe and the tentacles of `white supremacy` stretch across the globe to claim the lives of fifty innocent Muslim worshippers attending Friday prayers in two mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand. Cyclone Idai wreaks havoc , claims hundreds of lives and leaves thousands homeless as winds and floods tear through Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi in Southern Africa. Following two fatal crashes the Boing 737 Max Airliner is finally grounded worldwide while investigators pursue the grisly task of sifting through debris to examine the cause of these accidents. In Iran Nazareen Zahari-Ratcliffe, victim of Mayor Boris attempts at `diplomacy` while Foreign Secretary, still languishes in prison enjoying freshly-granted diplomatic status herself but no sign of freedom. The Tramp is `cleared` by Robert Mueller of collusion with the Russians to secure election as President of the United States ; those who always thought the man who can walk on water was always innocent feel exonerated and those who have always believed America`s First Charlatan to be guilty do not accept the verdict. For most, as other inquiries continue, the jury is still out. Closer to home the parliamentary group of independent Labour and Conservative `Tiggers` is still leaderless but Chuka Ummuna emerges as their `spokesman. London`s Mayor `Kubla` Khan blames the appalling rise in knife crime and deaths upon austerity, the Government, anyone but the authority for which he is personally responsible. The Capital`s taxi-drivers cause gridlock with tedious regularity in Parliament Square in protest at Khan`s determination to ban them from using bus lanes and sundry other grievances. There`s a `double Lammy` for the BBC`s Comic Relief fundraiser when the Member of Parliament for Tottenham accuses the organisers of `colonial stereotyping` for sending white stars to visit poor children in black Africa. Takings down by £8 million . Nice one David. Beleaguered Transport Secretary Chris Grayling is haunted by his Ministerial past as Justice Secretary when his probation reforms while in that office, and the privatisation of the service, are branded as` irremediably flawed`.
In Northern Ireland the post Bloody Sunday witch hunt against British troops continues and `Soldier F` is facing charges for historic crimes. The Blair-pardoned murderers of the IRA of course face no such `justice`. The Prime Minister loses a second attempt to get her Withdrawal Agreement through the Commons by 149 votes and returns to Brussels to seek an extension to the Brexit deadline. The Government`s emergency committee, Cobra, takes over responsibility for No deal planning, The Darling Bud offends backbenchers by speaking from Downing Street to accurately but perhaps unwisely telling them a few home truths, At the end of the month, and in spite of our attempts to persuade her not to do so, she puts her job on the line in a dignified and brave speech to the Conservative 1922 Committee, but fails to win over sufficient opponents to get her Withdrawal Agreement over the line. In the Westminster jungle the lioness has been brought low by political pygmies. Parliament, in the cerebral form of the `Lord Protector`, Sir Oliver `Cromwell` Letwin (broker of Man David`s 2010 coalition Government) mounts a takeover bid following back-door discussions with the Opposition . No less than eight alternative proposals for Brexit are all defeated in `indicative votes` which suggests that there is no consensus for a resolution to the European issue either in the House or in the Country and that only the PM`s EU-endorsed agreement can stand a chance of delivering a least-worst solution to the problem. If the result of the referendum is overturned responsibility will lay at the feet of the hard-line members of the `Tory` (I use the term loosely) `European Reform Group led by Messrs Baker, Mogg and Johnson and if the cause of Unionism shatters it will the doing of a Democratic Unionist Party leadership that is still living in the 1970s. Politics has moved on in Ireland but some of its politicians are still marching to an anachronistic drumbeat.. Aside from all of that joy, employment in the United Kingdom is at its highest since records commenced in 1975 , Spring is on the way, the days are getting longer, birds are nesting, households are stockpiling and if the Commission has its way and abolishes clock-changes we shall soon be a glorious two hours behind the rest of the European Union.
We were, by now, supposed to have divorced ourselves from the European Union and busied ourselves striking trade deals in the Brave New World of post-Brexit global trade. Indeed, I have attended very many early morning briefings with Dr Liam Fox, Secretary of State for International Trade, and his team of top-flight civil servants and trade advisors, to learn of exciting planned initiatives. The programme and investment intended for the Dubai 2020 International Trade Fair is an enterprise in its own right. All that, however, is placed in jeopardy or on hold while Parliament and Government, collectively and severally, fail to implement the Withdrawal Agreement (WA) and move on to discuss our trade and relationship arrangements post-Brexit with the remaining countries of the European Union. We were scheduled to leave last Friday, 29th March. That is what was written into the Withdrawal Act. Most of the House believes, however, that to leave on a No Deal basis would be disastrous for the economy and security of the UK and I personally hold to the view that the Prime Minister`s deal, while by no means perfect, ticks most of the boxes that rational people who are not obsessive want ticked. That is not, though, the opinion of the DUP and a now relatively small rump on the right wing of the Conservative party that maintains an almost religious belief in what constitutes Pure Brexit.
The `Irish Backstop` remains the main stumbling block to agreement. Despite the best efforts of Attorney General Geoffrey Cox and Brexit Secretary Stephen Barclay to secure time-limit on the duration of any safety net that would bind us into Europe, called by Provisional Brexiteer hard man Steve Baker a `satirical attempt` at negotiation, no concessions were forthcoming from Europe save for some `clarification` of the legal text. This was never going to be enough to secure the support of those who, some believe, are using the backstop issue as an excuse to oppose any deal of any kind . The `Star Chamber` of lawyers advising the DUP and the ERG gave the thumbs down to `revised` wording and the Attorney General felt unable to indicate for the benefit of the DUP that there had been any material or significant change to the position. Labour, clearly in the hope and expectation of a reversal of the referendum decision, offered support for the WA provided that it was coupled with an unacceptable `People`s Vote` or second referendum which was a non-starter fir the POM and most Tories. Having failed , in January, by one of the largest margins in parliamentary history to secure approval for the agreement that she had signed off with the EU the Darling Bud brought it back to the House in what became known as `Meaningful Vote Two`.. She was hammered again, albeit by a smaller 149 vote margin and, having sought parliamentary approval then wrote to Brussels to ask for a three-month extension to the time limit . This, described by M. Barnier as a `technical extension`, was to allow her to have a third shot at the deal and to then pass the enabling legislation. Once again she went off to Europe to fight her corner.
There is with good reason small sympathy for a Brussels bureaucracy that is widely regarded as meddlesome, spendthrift and corrupt but that said it is hard not to grudgingly acknowledge that there is some justification for the sense of frustration and exasperation felt by those representing the remaining twenty-seven countries of the European Union on the other side of the negotiating table. The reception that Mrs. May received from other European leaders was courteous but less than welcoming. Macron, for France, with an eye on his own diminishing power and popularity as President, felt a burning need to give at least some semblance of strength as the champion of a hard British Brexit. Others, like Mutti Merkel, were more forthcoming. At the end of the day or, to be more exact at the end of the night, The Prime Minister emerged not with the three-month extension to June that she had requested but with a two part offer; until 22nd May if she could get the Withdrawal Agreement through the House or until 12th April with a hard No Deal Brexit. Take it or leave it.
It`s worth remembering at this point that the hard “WTO Brexit” for which the head bangers of the anti-Europe have been clamouring would not only re-introduce a hard border between the Irish Republic and the Province but makes, apart from some very basic arrangements for pan-European air travel , fundamental border controls, some minimal financial services and one or two other matters, no provision for long-term trade and relationships with Europe. Brussels has made it very clear that a high price will be extracted for any post-Brexit deals struck with the EU and the “walk Away” brigade are now perilously close to delivering not `freedom` but a very large bill that will have to be paid to Brussels by the British taxpayer in return for very little. Not clever – but then they are driven by doctrine and not by the interests of the United Kingdom..
Back in the Westminster Village the Lord Protector is preparing to take over the Town Hall. Sir Oliver Letwin, who following the hung result of the 2010 election, stage-managed the coalition deal for David Cameron and stole the government of Britain from under the nose of Gordon Brown, is more of a Bilbo Baggins than an Oliver Cromwell. Generally regarded as a super-cerebral latter-day Keith Joseph kind of figure Olly, the always softly spoken and courteous Member of Parliament for the delightful West Dorset seat, has been quietly wheeling and dealing behind the scenes with Her Majesty`s Opposition to wrest power from the executive and to transfer it to `parliament`. The admirable objective of this mission has been to offer, through a series of `indicative votes` an alternative to the Withdrawal Agreement that would command the majority that the WA has failed to secure. To do this our hero first had to secure the necessary approval of the House and by a modest but adequate majority this, in the teeth of opposition from the government, he did.
And so it came to pass that for one day a different team of lunatics took over the asylum and no less than eight alternative proposals, ranging from No deal through to the softest of departures from the EU and a `People`s Vote` designed to overturn the result of the referendum, were debated and voted upon. As one who has consistently sought to implement the result of the 2016 vote through support for the Withdrawal Agreement as the least worst of the available options I personally voted against all of the proposals on offer. The WA itself was not included in the list. The result of the first round of this exercise (there will be more to come) was excruciatingly inevitable. While a couple of proposals got close to a respectable measure of support not one achieved the majority necessary to demonstrate a significant shift in the will of the House. There is provision in the motion carried for a second round of voting, however, and it is likely that by eliminating most or all of the weaker alternatives Olly`s merry band might carry a proposition to then use to amend the Withdrawal legislation (if we ever get to consider it) and to frustrate the Brexit process, Which is, of course, the object of the exercise.
On Wednesday 27th March the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, Theresa May, addressed the Conservative 1922 committee. Although this is the`back bench` weekly gathering many Ministers and Members of the House of Lords were present in a packed Committee Room 14. The PM was calm and, I would say wouldn`t I, characteristically courageous as she delivered the decision that some of us, only a couple of hours earlier, had begged her not to utter. She would, if the Withdrawal Agreement was carried, leave office as soon as was practicably and decently possible allowing for the inevitable leadership contest.
Some of us can remember Margaret Thatcher, in the same room in 1990, saying pretty much the same thing albeit under rather different circumstances. That resignation led to a rift in the modern Conservative Party from which we have never entirely recovered and I fear that the factions into which we are now divided will take a further and very long time to heal. But this is not, and should not be, about party politics but, as the Theresa May has said, and means, about the future prosperity and security of the United Kingdom. The very last thing that the Country needs in the present situation is a leadership spat leading to a new Prime Minister – for that is what we will be choosing – any more than we need the division and acrimony of a General Election campaign at the very time when we are supposed to be working to solve the greatest political crisis since the Second World War. I do not believe that the great British public will thank us for any of this or that history will judge us kindly for it.
The Prime Minister`s self-sacrifice, made with the very best of intentions and in what I am certain that she believes was in the best interests of the Country that she has always served with devotion, has been in vain. Worse, the Opposition is now pretending that they cannot support any assurances that she offers and therefore cannot support her proposals for a way forward because “in a few weeks’ time we might be led by the Member for Uxbridge (Boris Johnson) who we cannot trust”. For the record, many on the Conservative benches do not trust him either but that is for another day and in the meantime we are left with the worst of all worlds.
On March 29th which was originally billed as D-parture Day, the House debated, for a third time, the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated by the Prime Minister in Brussels. Orchestrating this was in itself a complicated manoeuvre with Mr. Speaker Bercow, Hero of the Berlaymont, having determined that it was not orderly for the Government to reintroduce substantially the same motion for decision in the same session of Parliament. Some have found Speaker Bercow`s interpretation of Erskine May, the Parliamentary Procedural Bible , to err in favour of those who wish to remain within the European Union, hence his apparent popularity in Brussels, but on this count he was clearly if over-emphatic, correct. This meant that the Government has to hive off the Political Relationship non-binding and amendable text from the Withdrawal Agreement in order to present a `substantially different` motion for the House to vote upon. And that in turn allowed the Labour and other minority Opposition parties to claim that without the Political Relationship (which touches upon Workers` Right, the Environment and other sensitive issues) they could not support a motion with which, otherwise, they had no quarrel. Notwithstanding the Prime Minister`s exhortation, when winding up the debate staunchly and in person, that we really were in the Last Chance Saloon and in danger of losing the Brexit to which both major parties were pledged in their manifestos, Red Jerry and his comrades embarked upon an act of cynical political opportunism which, when coupled with the die-hard Brexiteers on the right-hand rump of the Tory Party, has cost us the chance to take the time necessary, until May 22nd. To get the Withdrawal Agreement legislation through both Houses of Parliament. The Prime Ministers’ motion was lost by 58 votes with thirty four Tories in the `No Lobby` m, and all but five of the Labour Party, voting down the very Brexit that they claimed to want to deliver
At the time of writing we are left with the prospect of crashing out of the European Union with no orderly deal at all or almost certainly having to participate in European Elections in May and possibly staying within the European Union or a very long extension to the Brexit process with still more uncertainty that will further damage business and the economy. Another referendum is really not an option, would take months and as likely as not would produce the same, or a mirror image of the result. We face, next week, the prospect of more `indicative votes`, the possible fine-tuning of the Withdrawal Agreement to accommodate some back-bench opinion and, perhaps, yet another attempt to get the WA through the House. With the Democratic Unionist Party seemingly determined to precipitate the end of the Union – although they, of course, do not see it that way - with a hard core of thirty or so Tory Brexiteers apparently prepared to risk Brexit and the Government that they no longer support on the altar of political purity (no to be confused with principle) and with a Leader of the Opposition running seven miles a day to get fit for the General Election that he says he wants it is hard to see how another vote can pass. The numbers have not changed, Everyone believes that they are right, or wrong, depending upon the point of view and we are in deadlock. – In the meantime the real lives and the real futures of the people and the businesses that we are supposed to represent are at stake.
As a footnote the Overseas Voters Bill (yes, there are other things besides Brexit happening in Parliament) introduced by Glyn Davies and which many of us have been working for, was effectively killed off a couple of weeks ago. The Government offered support and the Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith got behind the measure but with the Opposition convinced that extending lifetime voting rights to British ex-pats around the world would lead to thousands of gin-swilling Tory geriatrics coming back onto the electoral register and with some Tories believing that this `Franchise Bill` would lead to an attempt by Labour and Liberal Peers to give votes to UK sixteen year olds the odds were stacked against Glyn. This is a manifesto commitment and as such it should be brought in as Government legislation. The Government rightly picked up the `Upskirting Bill` and the `Female Genital Mutilation Bill` and gave them time when they were endangered. In the next Queen`s Speech, if there is to be another one in this parliament, those of us who support this want to see a firm commitment to give back to citizens of the United Kingdom, are British and have paid their dues throughout their lives, the right to vote that has been stolen from them and that is enjoyed by citizens of just about every other developed democracy in the civilised World.
Former Home Secretary and arguably the best Leader that in recent years the Labour Party never had (Denis Healey was another) has described his party as now being led by “The Islington Correspondent of the Morning Star”. He might have added that the Shadow Chancellor is in line for the job of Hillingdon correspondent of Pravda.
The parliamentary “watchdog”, The Independent Parliamentary Standards Authority (IPSA) has been compelled to shell out in the region of £3million of your money in compensation for inadvertently publishing online confidential details of staff names and salaries. Penny wise and pound foolish?
It has also been revealed in IPSA-published documents that one Jeremy Corbyn has spent a further £180 of taxpayer`s money on artwork for a `Jeremy Corbyn MP` calendar. Just possibly not a best-seller even in Islington.
Further uproar over sex and `relationship` lessons to be taught in primary schools. The Parliamentary Christian Fellowship, following discussions with the –Archbishop of Canterbury, The Catholic church, the Board of British (Jewish) Deputies and others has, broadly, accepted the imposition with effect from 2020. That still leaves some six hundred thousand young people who are the children of devout Muslim parents and who do not believe that `LBGT` unions should be proselytised in schools.
Fray Bentos, purveyors of fine corned beef from Uruguay since 1881 are now introducing meat pies constructed out of `vegetarian beef`. John Wyndham`s day is coming: the vegetables are on the march.
Labour`s John `Two Jags` Prescott has accused Conservative Transport Secretary Chris Grayling of ` contempt of parliament and the taxpayer`. This from the man who used his Ministerial car to travel the 250 yards to the conference centre in Bournemouth where his comrades were enjoying their annual Party jamboree!
Dame Kelly Holmes, 2004 Olympic 800 metre and 1500 metre gold medallist has joined Olympic Swimmer Sharon Davis, tennis player Martina Navratilova, long-distance runner Paula Radcliffe and other athletes in criticising the unfair `male sex advantage` gained by transgender athletes competing as women. Boys will be girls but her remarks have, inevitably, been condemned as `transphobic`.
The Duchess of Sussex, or Meghan Markle as she is still better known, has said that her as yet unborn offspring, boy or girl, `will be a feminist`.
From eight hundred and eighty six entrants a curried sweet potato and butternut squash pie has been chosen as the winner in the British Pie Awards. The first time a vegan dish has won the contest since the awards were created in 1979.
In two thousand and eighteen four new coffee shops opened in Britain every day. It is estimated that the country will now need an additional forty thousand `baristas` to add to the one hundred and sixty thousand already hired to peddle caffeine. “being a barista” we are encouraged to believe “requires a great deal of knowledge and skill”. Don`t tell me. Science degree courses are now planned – or should it be classified as an art?
Bovine blues. A mother from Dagenham in Essex has complained to the Health and Safety Executive of `being threatened` by a herd of Highland cattle established over many years on Barlow Edge in Derbyshire. A petition to save the now equally threatened magnificent long-horned beasts has attracted getting on for ten thousand signatures to date.
A 23-foot sculpture called `The Messenger` and erected outside Plymouth`s civic theatre in Devon as the West Country`s riposte to `The Angel of the North` Devon locals have unkindly dubbed Joseph Hillier`s hundreds of thousands of pounds worth of bronze `The Attack of the Fifty Foot Woman` with whose pose there is a striking similarity.
France`s Europe Minister , Nathalie Loiseau, was alleged to have called her cat Brexit ` because it wakes me up mewing to be let out and when I open the door it stays put`. The story was slightly spoiled, though, when an unkind mouse revealed that La Belle Loiseau does not own a cat.
Brussels has adjudicated that tonic can be called tonic. Although the traditional gin mixer has `no beneficial health effects` the `generic descriptor` may continue to be used, It would, apparently, take 300 gin and modern tonics to help to cure malaria. Worth a try though.
And the issue of new, blue, British passports has been postponed until 2020. Or for ever.
Magenta Devine (61) is claimed to have been the driving force behind 1980`s `Yoof` TV. ( James Maw and Gary Crowley, who created the first `Yoof presenter` models for Thames Television`s `White Light` in the 1970`s, might disagree). Devine was behind the ` Young, Gifted and Broke` Rough Guide which ran between 1999-2001.
Victor Hoch Hauser (96) maintained Britain`s cultural links with the Soviet Union throughout the Cold War although the defection of a visiting star led him being `unpersoned` for fifteen years during which he brought the Peking Opera and Chinese acrobats to the United Kingdom instead of Russian starts. In the course of his career as an impresario Hoch Hauser brought Rostropovich, Richter , Nureyev and David Oistrakh to appear in England as well as the Bolshoi Opera and Ballet companies. His endeavours survived spy scandals, the revolutions in Czechoslovakia (Alexander Dubcek) and Hungary (Imre Nagy) and a ban imposed by Prime Minister Edward Heath, himself an accomplished musician, upon the Red Army Ensemble. The younger Hoch Hauser descendant of a family of Czech Rabbis, guaranteed Yehudi Menuhin a £1000 fee to appear at the Royal Albert Hall which Hoch Hauser then sold out. He received his CBE in 1993.
Scott Walker (76) started life as Neil Scott Engel in Hamilton, Ohio. In 1859 he teamed up in California with two other musicians to create the `Walker Brothers` of the1960s. `Love Her`, released on the RCA label in 1965 became a hit single record as did “Make it Easy on Yourself”, “The Sun Ain`t Gonna Shine Anymore” and “My Ship is Coming In” which reached Number One in the charts. The `Brothers` disbanded in 1967 but a reformed band produced an unexpected further hit, “No Regrets” in 1975.
Eric Harrison (81) was the mentor behind Manchester United Football team`s legendary “Class of `92”. Under Manager Alex Ferguson Harrison`s Youth Team generated David Beckham, Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Guy and Paul Neville, Nicky Butt and Wes Brown. Together they delivered the unbeaten 1999 treble of the Champions League, the Premier League and the FA Cup. He published his autobiography ` The view from the dugout`` in 2001 and received the MBE last year.
Larry Cohen (82) was known as Hollywood`s `King of Schlock` a unique genre of drive-in B films but his 1974 horror movie `It`s Alive` crossed over into the box office A-list and he had a further hit with `Phone Booth` in 2002.
A broadcasting era is coming to a close. The dynasty founded nine decades ago by Richard Dimbleby who covered El Alamein and the Normandy landings as a sound broadcaster and then the coronation for television and radio ceases with the departure of David Dimbleby from Question Time after twenty-five years David`s brother, Jonathan, has left `Any Questions` having also covered every General Election since 1964. Off Air.