Gale's View from Westminster - May 2015
May. Elections at last. Liberals in meltdown, Labour wiped off the map in Scotland, Alex Salmond`s Tartan army marches South, fratricide within UKIP, The Queen Speaks, Young Lochinvar forms the first Conservative Government since Sir John Major, the “black spider” notes are published, Princess Charlotte Elizabeth Diana of Cambridge( who will apparently be worth £1billion before she is ten years old) arrives, the anniversary of VE Day is celebrated, the Little Ships of Dunkirk are remembered 70 years on while another terrifying armada tries to cross the Mediterranean from North Africa to Italy and Greece, JoSepp Blathers but is not arrested – yet – and the World`s most eligible Aston Villa supporter hands the FA cup to Arsenal.
From the vantage point of the beginning of a chilly June, May 7th, which rolled on through the night into a wearying May 8th, seems light years away. Was it really only five weeks ago that the pundits were trailing at least a hung parliament and, very probably, The Milipede in Number 10 installed in power and held to ransom by the First Minister of Scotland? Was it the TV Question time that finally tripped up the Labour Leader? Did people buy into the nightmare that Nicky, Queen of Scots might become the de facto puppet-master? Was it the crass revelation of the “Edstone”, with Labour`s Ten commandments carved in granite and signed by The Milipede prior to installation in the Downing Street Rose Garden that proved to be the `Neil Kinnock` triumph-too-soon moment ? Or was it “the economy, stupid”?
Those who got the predictions so horribly wrong, that tribe of pollsters and the press gallery cocooned in the Westminster Village who really are out of touch with the real world, will be poring over the entrails of this very dead parrot for many years to come. Out on the ground, after weeks of hard pounding of the pavements and the destruction of rainforests in the cause of delivering the millions of leaflets that make up British democracy, it was an extraordinary experience to live through and, with the experience of eight parliamentary General Elections behind me, quite unlike anything that I can recall before.
We all try to maximise our vote, of course, but in truth there is not much that a candidate can usefully do on polling day to alter a result. At the margins and on a very tight wire it may be possible to drag out the winning ballots (in my own constituency we lost a Council seat by just one vote) but the reality is that if the work has not been done in the years and months and weeks before the election then the die is cast. Personally, I visit every polling station in my patch, and all of my committee rooms, to thank the staff for their hard work. I believe that they deserve recognition and I think that they appreciate the courtesy and at the very least it stops me from biting my finger nails and getting under the feet who are trying to do the real job.
Then, after close-of-poll it`s bath and change and eat time in preparation for a very long night and, in the case of the two Thanet seats, an equally long second day ahead.
Given the need to assemble ballot boxes under one roof, to separate out local government from parliamentary election papers that may relate to two or three constituencies as well as City and District authorities, to count and `rationalise` them in order to make sure that the number of ballot papers issued tallies (more or less – it is never completely accurate) with the numbers that have ended up in the sealed boxes, takes hours of man and woman power. There is no point in any candidate rushing to the counting station too early but mostly we all do, if only to encourage our parties` `counting agents` while surreptitiously trying to work out whether or not our pile of papers is bigger than the other guys`. At the Margate Winter Gardens a count that we thought might start in the small hours of the morning did not, in fact, even begin until dawn was well broken over a cold North Sea.
What was clear from the early exit-polls, though, was that something quite remarkable was happening. Far from the hung Labour government that many were anticipating it became clear quite soon that Lynton Crosby, the Tories Campaign Director known as the `Wizard of Oz` and the man who had already delivered Boris Johnson as Mayor of London , was right where most others were wrong. We were on track for Man David`s second term as Prime Minister and a Tory government, albeit with a painfully slender majority. In Scotland Nicola Sturgeon`s troops, under Field Marshall Salmond, ripped the mostly Labour opposition to shreds and scattered the remains of the Liberal party to the four winds taking fifty six out of fifty nine seats and leaving one Labour MP alongside one Liberal and one Tory as the only other elected representatives North of the Border. For the anoraks, Mhairi Black, elected to represent Paisley and Renfrewshire South, became, at 20 years old, the youngest Member of Parliament since a 13-year old Christopher Monck was elected in 1667.
To the South and West the Liberals paid a terrible price for what many clearly saw as the betrayal of their time in coalition while some of Labour`s Big Beasts – my old friend Ed Balls amongst them - bit the dust. After the State Opening of the new Parliament Mr. Speaker welcomed new Members, congratulated older and returning ones and paid tribute to those on both sides of the Chamber no longer with us. He said, rightly, that “the democratic process can sometimes be a bruising experience”.
But back to the Margate Winter Gardens, in the eye of the storm. This was supposed to be the battleground from which UKIP`s Mr. Farridge would carry his standard victoriously into the Palace of Westminster. Only while strange things were happening elsewhere it was also becoming clear in our hall , where Churchill used to address the Conservative Party Conferences, where in boxing and wrestling bouts great men had laid others low and where I, myself, was selected as a parliamentary candidate thirty-two years ago, the script was hastily being re-written. By the time the South Thanet result was on the way to being announced the Tory-turned-UKIP by-election victor Mark Reckless had been defeated by Rochester and Chatham`s Tory Kelly Tolhurst, the other UKIP MP, Carswell of Clacton, had scraped home and elsewhere the Not-the-Racist Party`s expectations of a multiplicity of seats lay in tatters.
Somewhere around the mid- morning of Friday 8th May I learned that the good people of North Thanet were sending me back to the House of Commons with, curiously, more votes but a slightly lower majority than before. I can live with that. A win is a win and I am grateful to my supporters for the honour and the privilege that I have been afforded. It was not, though Old Windy`s result that the World`s Press had gathered to witness. After the warm-up act came the main event and we learned, a couple of minutes before the rest of the universe, that it was the Conservative Craig Mackinlay and not the Head Boy of the UKIP Public School, that “Man Of The People” Mr Farridge, that was going to follow Laura Sandys as the next Member of Parliament for Thanet South.
At this point I would like to be able to say that Mr. Farridge took his loss and his defeat, which is always painful (I experienced it myself at a by-election in Birmingham in 1982), with dignity and courtesy but he did not. Having heard Craig Mackinlay claim his well-earned victory, Farridge uttered his “I`m a man of my word…..a huge weight has been lifted from my shoulders” ” remarks for the benefit of his supporters and then, without waiting to hear the young Labour candidate or any others, stormed off into the remaining morning surrounded by a bevy of minders. To be fair, he was back with his team in the Winter Gardens on the Saturday to watch the count as Thanet became the only UKIP-controlled local Authority in the Country but he might learn from that: Thanet`s voters supported his party locally but they clearly rejected him personally in spite of the fact that his machine bet the house on his project. In the meantime he had resigned as the Leader of his Party, announced that he would take a holiday and might then put himself forward for election to the Leadership of UKIP again in the Autumn, and finally allowed himself to be “persuaded” by his party`s executive not to stand down at all. In fact, as it now transpires, his “resignation” letter was never delivered! “Trust me. I`m Nigel Farage”. No, I don`t think so!
On May 8th Nick Clegg resigned as Leader of the Liberal Party at 11.34. Ed “ I am truly sorry” Miliband resigned as Leader of the Labour Party at 12.14 but Mr. Farage, having told the press at 10.34 that he would be quitting in order to honour his pre-election pledge, is clinging on to what vestige of political power still rests within his grasp. The person described by his Economic Spokesman, Patrick O`Flynn, as a “snarling, thin-skinned, aggressive man” has no intention of fading into a smoke-filled public bar but so far as Westminster is concerned I think that his career is dead in the water.
Her Majesty`s Gracious Speech, which opens the new Parliament, is at the time of writing under debate and begins the process of implementing the Government`s manifesto that the Prime Minister has indicated will be carried through “in full”. With a majority of appreciably less than that `enjoyed` by John Major at the start of the 1992 Parliament that may prove to have been a rash promise: natural attrition and internal bloody-mindedness are likely to take their toll and with just a dozen seats at the Whips` disposal the government benches, including Ministers, are likely to be pinned down in Westminster for many long hours if the business is not to be lost. We have A referendum Bill, we have a Right to Buy (housing association properties) bill, we have a bill to outlaw all `legal highs`, we have trailed a Bill of British Rights, we have an Investigatory powers bill, we have slipped in a bill to curb the Trades Unions` Right to Strike, there will be a stab at “English Votes for English Laws which may yet end in tears and there will be an Employment and Benefits Bill and “other measures will be laid before you”. The lack of a mention of an attempt to repeal the Hunting Act has not stopped either the Countryside Alliance or the Animal Rights Lobbies from going into overdrive. So far as the hunting of wild animals with dogs is concerned – and I am an opponent – I recall that literally hundreds of hours of parliamentary time has already been expended on this issue and I cannot but think that there are greater priorities than re-visiting a measure for which there is unlikely, on the promised free vote, to be a majority. It is already clear that many young, new, Conservative Members do not intend to support a repeal.
The omission of a specific bill to extend the franchise for ex-pat UK citizens from 15 years to perpetuity prompted near-hysteria until it was realised that the intention was there. Indeed, the Leader of the House told me personally that he hopes and expects that the necessary legislation will be introduced “in this session” which I take to mean to be before May 2016. If that is correct then there ought to be time for the Electoral Commission to make the necessary arrangements for ex-pat UK voters to vote in an EU referendum.
Which begs the question “What the hell happened at this last General election?” The EC, backed by organisations like Conservatives Abroad, went to some lengths to ensure that as many of those living overseas as are currently eligible to vote were registered and able to do so. Failure on the part of some Returning Officers to get their act together, though, made a pig`s ear of the process and there were numerous reports of ballot papers not being received in time for votes to be returned and counted. There will be small point in extending the franchise unless a better system, which probably means some form of electronic voting, is introduced.
The plates, as `Two Jags` Lord Prescott might have said, are moving within the European Union. The unexpected delivery of a majority Conservative government and the consequent likelihood of an in/out referendum and a possible UK “Brexit” has concentrated some hitherto intransigent minds. Borat O`Bama “looks forward” to working with Britain`s new administration while the EU`s President Jean-Claude Juncker is now pledging an “acceptable deal for Britain” and at a Chequers euro-dinner with our Prime Minister is said to have indicated that he is willing to “consider major changes”. Whether what M. Juncker considers to be “major” will be sufficient to satisfy a largely Eurosceptic British plebiscite only time will tell. On a whirlwind first skirmish at a summit in Latvia`s Riga Frau Merkel appeared to accept that Britain had a “mandate for reform of the benefits paid to migrants” .At one stage the Prime minister was hinting at reforms by Christmas but with “twenty seven nuts to crack” that seems unlikely and Brussels has sent a clear signal that anything involving treaty change will not be delivered even by an end of 2017 deadline. In Paris Cameron told Mr. Holland that “the status quo is not an option” which was not received with an unbridled ode to joy. Ewa Kopacz rolled out a blue carpet for the still youthful Tory leader in Warsaw but made it plain that a four-year contributory residency in the UK before benefits become payable was not on the agenda for her Polish citizen’s resident in Britain. In Germany the carpet rolled out was red but the tone was blue: the Chancellor has said that “where there`s a will there`s a way” and accepts, we are led to believe, that “a Europe of two speeds is effectively a reality”. On the plus side and back at home Mad Hattie, standing in as Labour Leader while that party sorts out, by September, who will take on the task as Leader of The Opposition , has said that her Party will not oppose the EU referendum bill. In the Commons, at least. (We do need to remember that in the House of Lords the Tories are outnumbered 2-1 by Labour, Liberal and Cross-bench Peers which may make controversial legislation difficult to expedite).
The appointment of the former Chairman of the DCMS select Committee, John Whittingdale, as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport, has caused a frisson of concern within the higher echelons of the Salford Broadcasting Corporation. John, an unlikely-looking heavy-metal rock fan, shares with many an unconcealed disdain for the profligacy of a broadcasting bureaucracy that is looking to have its Charter and license fee renewed. Facing a severe cut in the champagne and canapes, the Directing Luvvie, Lord (tony) Hall, avers that “The BBC cannot be immune to change” in clear denial of an “immunity” that has been protected over many years. In fact, Whitto is a fair and intelligent man and while changes will be demanded and made the idea that he is likely to behave like Attila in a nunnery are probably wide of the mark. It has not escaped notice, though, that following the BBC`s dismal. Ill-informed and crass coverage of Her Maj`s Jubilee celebrations ITV has been chosen to present the Queen`s 90th Birthday Pageant and Equestrian Party in Windsor Great Park. “Suggestions of a snub are completely untrue” says a Beeb spokesman but Auntie`s slip is showing. As an aside, four out of ten people apparently now believe that “there is too much swearing on television”. Having recently and inadvertently switched across a foul-mouthed rant passing off as “comedy” I can only say that it`s time that the regulators either started doing their jobs properly or moved over to let somebody dedicated and competent take on the task. The “it`s a reflection of modern life and culture” argument is tantamount to a Nuremberg defence. Are we seriously saying that the soap diet of perpetual gloom and misery and foul language and the “after the watershed” dependence upon the lowest common denominator in a search for cheap laughs does not have any effect on the national psyche?
The future of “the Ugly Game” has moved on a lot since the end of May but the grisly re-election of “Sepp” Blather as the godfather of soccer`s international ruling body, FIFA, in the teeth of FBI investigations into the financial midden in which that organisation has been immersed for years has generated worldwide and justified scorn. Herr Blather tells us that he will “work vigorously within FIFA to root out any misconduct” which rather begs the question as to what he has been doing for the last fifteen or so years during which corruption and bribery within the organisation over which he has presided is believed to have been rife. With one of his senior executives, a Chuck Blazer who apparently moves seamlessly from trough to watering hole and back to trough by mobility scooter, singing like a canary in a desperate plea bargain, it looks as though the US Attorney General, Loretta Lynch, may be about to nail her man. If so, then the whole issue of the award of future World Cup tournaments to Russia (Mr. Blazer is said to have “bonded” with Vlad Putin back in 2010) and to Qatar, as well as past awards of contracts, will be back on the table. FIFA`s main world-cup sponsors, Visa, Coca Cola, Hyundai, Budweiser and Adidas may now feel that their own reputations are too important to allow them to be seen to be in bed with Blather and his revolting cronies. It is noticeable that when it came to the 2-1 vote in favour of Blather continuing in his tarnished role, and although the European body UEFA was against him, France and Spain, as well as Russia of course, broke ranks and backed the man. Nothing to do with Qatari investments in those countries, I suppose.
At Wembley Arsenal won the FA cup beating Aston Villa by four goals to nil. Grief in many households including our own where my youngest son, an Arsenal supporter, attended the match at Wembley while his wife, who once played for Aston Villa juniors, stayed at home to watch a resulting score line that did not entirely reflect the game. As it happens, the President of the Football Association, Prince William, is also an AV supporter so handing over the hardware to Arsenal must have taken more than a little Royal stoicism. He did, though, seize the moment to describe the FIFA debacle, referring back to a best-forgotten Winter Olympics, as soccer`s “Salt Lake City” moment. Fourteen FIFA officials have so far been arrested and Greg Dyke, the Chairman of the British Football Association has indicated that the US Attorney General has told him that “this is not the end but the beginning” of her inquiries. As indictments and trials follow there will be more plea-bargaining as the net closes around Blather. If I was a FIFA sponsor I would pull out now: notwithstanding the claim made by a former FIFA PR and advertising guru to the effect that “this will all be over in a few weeks” I do not believe that there will be a very long queue of replacement investors waiting to put money into Blather`s many Swiss bank accounts.
To the northern shores of the Mediterranean where a tide of trafficked humanity continues to seek to reach from North and East Africa and the Middle East into Europe to claim asylum using tiny and overloaded craft and risking and losing life in the process. The UK has committed our foremost capital ship, HMS Bulwark, to the task of interdiction and providing short-term humanitarian aid while there is schizophrenia within Britain: at a time when we are struggling to control legal and illegal immigration should we be taking more refugees and thereby send out signals that say that it`s worth the risk? Or do we close to door to women and very young and deeply traumatised children, as well as men fleeing from oppression and leave it to the first-stop recipients, Italy and Greece to deal with a “their” problem which is, in fact, the responsibility of all civilised society? The answer, in the long term, is to create a climate of security, health and prosperity in which such dangerous excursions are not necessary but in the immediate and short term the real people are with us now. Europe, if it means anything at all, surely has to wake up to the fact that the much-vaunted “freedom of movement within the EU” has damaged the cause of genuine refugees and, if we are all to play a role in resolving the immediate demand then that freedom is a luxury that can no longer be afforded. All-comers from everywhere is not an option. It is a question of where our priorities lie.
In other news the release of the Prince Charles “Black Spider” letters to Ministers has revealed, to the chagrin of some Guardianistas, that HRH has been and remains a deeply caring many with a genuine concern for the future of the environment and the armed forces of the Country that he will one day be required to rule. Whatever the niceties and protocols surrounding the extent to which the Royal family should become involved in domestic politics it must surely be better to have an heir to the throne who cares and bothers to express his views rather than a mute cardboard cut-out in an Admiral`s uniform?
The Labour Party is, following the swift and dignified departure of Ed Miliband, is now engaged, under the direction of Harriet Harman, in trying to bring a succession procedure to an orderly conclusion by September. Chuka Umunna, Tristram Hunt, Yvette (Mrs. Balls) Cooper, Rachel Reeves, Andy (Stafford hospitals) Burnham and Liz Kendall all had their hats in the ring at the start but within three days Chuka, a clear front-runner for the job and unsullied with the taint of previous Blair and Brown administrations, while first announcing his candidacy in the company of his attractive partner Alice Sullivan, curiously withdrew on the grounds that he did not wish to subject his family to media intrusion. Given that there are, we are told, no skeletons for the tabloids to unearth lying in his cupboard it does seem odd to wheel out your photogenic girlfriend on day one and then on day four
To seek the shelter of obscurity! This has, for the moment, left Andy Burnham in poll position but facing threats from the Trades Union Barons if he continues to support the necessary austerity in public finances. North of the Border and following his bruising defeat Jim Murphy, Labour`s former Scottish leader, has also quit leaving that Party with not one but two poisoned chalices from which to drink.
May. A life-changing month with some reassuring constants. Three days of recognition of Victory in Europe (VE) day commemorating Remembrance, Celebration and Thanksgiving. A time for the few remaining very old and very bold to gather and bask in the justified glory that belongs to them and to those who fell alongside them in order that Britain might remain free. Without their sacrifices arguments about the future of Europe would have been academic.
And the armada of little ships sailed once again from Ramsgate in Kent to Northern France to remind us all of the heroisms that, seventy years ago, took place on the beaches surrounding Dunkirk and in the waters of the English Channel.
No Balls Watch?
What to say? I am reminded by a reader that the man who unwittingly gave his name to this column, my chum Ed Balls (yes, a friendship is genuinely enjoyed!) was one of the major casualties of the General Election losing his Morley seat to Andrea Jenkyns by just 422 votes. I am sure that Ed would not care either way but I propose, in his parliamentary memory, to maintain this feature (described, probably rightly, by another reader as puerile) as a literary monument to some of the idiocies of political doctrine and bureaucracy.
“I very much hope that you win – it means that I will not see you here again”. The President of the European , Jean-Claude Juncker, to the parliamentary candidate for South Thanet, Mr. Nigel Farage, Member of the European Parliament. Sadly, from M. Juncker`s point of view, Le Farridge is once again confined to Bruxelles.
A more mundane settlement. A resident of St. Anne`s, Blackpool, has been awarded £340 thousand in damages from Fylde Council. For a fall in a public lavatory. What price those damaged in the defence of our realm?
Motor vehicles with built-in sat-nav facilities are now subjected to higher insurance premiums. The nagging navigators are proven to be a distraction that can cause accidents. Back-seat passengers next?
The Head teacher of St. Albans High School for Girls as suggested that her young ladies ought to have a first-year sixth off from exams. To be allowed time to fall in love. Wherefore art thou, Romeo? (Yes, I do know that Juliette would have been a very young first-year sixth former but the idea appeals).
Another Headmistress, of the 800 pupil Bridlington School, has banned her female flock from wearing skirts. Sarah Pashley is directing parents towards `designated suppliers` of school trousers on the basis that `high hemlines make male teachers feel uncomfortable`. Spring has reached Yorkshire at last.
Lady Gale and other `birders` might take note that feeding our feathered friends can harm the eco-system. Bird-feeders, we are told, attract foreign `invaders`. Some of our fledglings are now so fat that they can barely get airborne but I cannot see Lady G allowing them to starve in winter
That ageing rocker Mick Jagger (The Rolling Stones` lead singer is a fortnight older than me) predicted correctly that the Tories would win the general election. It tends to be forgotten that Mick is a university graduate and that his Father, once one of my distinguished constituents, was an extremely wise and erudite schoolteacher. No slouch politically, Mick might consider a next career in punditry – he could do no worse than those currently in the job.
Call centres have been “named and shamed” in a “Which?” survey of seven thousand customers that reveals British Telecom, The Bank of Scotland, Scottish Power (Gas and Electricity) and Direct Line as amongst the least satisfactory performers.
Bessie the cow has been shot dead. It seemingly required the attention of 20 police vehicles, a helicopter and six marksmen to fell the poor bovine, which, having bolted from a country park had to be controlled “for the safety of the public”. Cost to the constabulary estimated at £7.5 thousand pounds. Might not a tranquilliser dart have done the job?
Hard to jest about the devastating nature of earthquakes in the wake of the disaster in Nepal but the 4.2 tremor that found its epicentre in the seaside town of Sandwich just down the road from our own Kentish home could hardly be described as “off the Richter scale”. That did not prevent the local press from publishing photos of toppled garden furniture and dustbins under the predictable caption “we will rebuild”.
His Holiness the Pope has, probably wisely, not watched television since 1990. An Argentine football fan he therefore has to rely upon the Vatican Guard for match updates. He is joined in this abstinence, we are told, by the Scottish author Alexander McCall Smith who also eschews The Gogglebox. Did the latter not even watch the excellent televised dramatization of his best-selling The Number One Ladies Detective Agency? I bet he did!
Cornwall`s Town of Newquay has banned the wearing of `mankinis`. Five years ago the seaside resort won a reputation as “Wild West Country” as the stag party capital of Europe but order and decency have thankfully been restored.
Strictly Come Dancing`s uber-camp judge Craig Revill-Horward predicts that it will not be long before same-sex couples are tripping the light fantastic on the show in search of glitter balls. Another reason for not watching television perhaps.
Baroness Rendell, of Babergh, the Labour Peer better known as the creator of the fictional Inspector Wexford, has penned her last crime novel at the age of 85.
“So You Win Again” songster Hot Chocolate`s Errol Brown has lost his battle for life at 71 and Lynn “Twinkle” Ripley, the society pop star who sang the story of a motorcyclist “Terry” in the 60s has taken a premature last reprise at just 66.
And the last of the Cold War`s flying bombers , the Avro Vulcan XH558, which saw service between 1960 and 1984, will be grounded for the last time at the end of this flying exhibition season. The end of an era in more ways than one.
Mr. Tony “The Legacy” Blair has, after eight no doubt lucrative years, quit his appointment as `Middle East Peace Envoy”. The official report of his achievements while in that role is likely to be a slim volume.
And the Scottish Nationalists` tartan army, making its debut appearance on the green benches of the House of Commons, elected to wear the white rose of their nation in its buttonholes. Fifty Six MPs all sporting English Tea Roses imported from South Africa!