Gale's View from Westminster
February. A Prime Minister under siege, more goings and comings in Downing Street, a tasteless `dead cat` smear on the Leader of the Opposition and a hurried scrapping of the remaining Covid restrictions in a bid to placate the fractious Tory right. Lord Ashcroft, with the help of the gutter press, dishes the dirt on Carrie Symonds Johnson. Russian forces are marshalling on the borders of Ukraine but Putin will not use them, will he? A `whiff of Munich` Is in the air and Defence Secretary Ben Wallace overtakes The Trussette at the top of the political pops. Fuel prices at the pumps soar, as do the oil companies` profits, and it now requires a second mortgage to fill a small family car. The Bank of England announces that the UK is facing `the worst squeeze in thirty years`. The Daily Mail (aka `The Bourgeoise Women`s Tabloid`) and Sadiq `Kubla` Khan (aka `The Mayor of London`) conspire against the Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Cressida Dick. Chancellor Sunak offers his `full support` for Mayor Boris but rather less for the Health Secretary, Sajid ` The Saj` Javid and leaves BoJo and The Saj with egg on face at a pointless NHS hospital photo-shoot. Labour look for a candidate to stand against `Red Jerry ` Corbyn (if you remember him) in Islington. Power sharing in Northern Ireland collapses under the weight of the protocol so brilliantly negotiated by Lord Frost the the Prime Minister. Will the break-up of the Union follow elections in the province? Prince Andrew settles out of court with his tormentor Virginia Guiffre, nee Roberts, for a reported figure that is any journalist`s ill-informed guess. Storms Dudley and Eunice wreak havoc across the Midlands and the North of England and even the balmy South East takes a battering as well. Team USSR faces another doping scandal at the Winter Olympics in Beijing. Her Majesty the Queen Commemorates the anniversary of her accession to the throne on 5th February 1952 with a tea party at Sandringham followed by Covid 19 and isolation at Windsor.
And there is war in mainland Europe for the first time since 1944. Slava Ukraini.
I do not believe that in fifty years in active politics I have ever felt so impotent as I did on the morning that the neo-Soviet Union invaded Ukraine. We have been here before, of course. In Hungary in 1956. In Czechoslovakia in 1968. In Georgia in 2004. In Crimea in 2014. We had all thought, had we not, that in a modern, civilised and democratic Europe largely protected by the NATO umbrella, a Third World War was unthinkable. It is now very seriously on the cards.
We were half-prepared, perhaps, for Russian troops to overtly support the separatists in the Donbas in Eastern Ukraine. They have, after all, been covertly supporting separation for about eight years. I fear though that most of us were not prepared for the fact that Putin would not only seek to occupy the whole of Ukraine but also to indiscriminately raze whole cities to the ground and to commit war crimes on an industrial scale. With glorious hindsight we should have been forewarned: it was done in Chechnya and it was done in Syria
In scenes reminiscent of those on the Hungarian/Austrian border at Andau in 1956 a tide of dsplaced humanity is now sweeping across Ukraine to the Poilish, Moldovan and Romanian borders in search of a safe haven. My immediate reaction to the invasion was to seek to drive to the Polish border, pick up women and children and bring them `home`. Suzy insisted that I did not try to do this alone so I first enlisted the support of my youngest son and we planned to leave mid-week. Pretty soon there was the offer of other cars and then coaches and by the end of the last weekend of the month we had, effectively, a convoy ready, willing and able to mount a small operation. I do not doubt that many others were planning alonf similar lines and already shipments of aid products are on their way to Poland.
Then came the harsh reality of the bureaucracy of immigration system. From the facile “use seasonal workers scheme` visas and ludicrous requirements placed upon people with no money, no laotops, no access to the internet and already traumatised the Home Secretary has come a long way. I fear, though, that the UK is still bound up in regulatory red tape and lagging woefully behind our mainland European counterparts. Even accepting the problems posed by the ending of free movement with the termination of the UK`s membership of the EU, Covid restrictions and security needs, it has got to be possible to permit not only `immediate family` but very many others who wish to secure short or even longer term asylum in the UK to do so. Surely to God if we can admit those arriving in droves from across the Channel in rubber dinghies then it ought not to be beyond our compassion and capability to allow in many more of those fleeing the war zone that is now Ukraine? If humanly possible then many of those refugees will, of course want to return to what is left of their homes and combatant menfolk as soon as they can but none of us knows how long this occupation is going to last and the greater the degree of security that we can offer the better.
The calls, from Ukraine`s incredibly brave President Volodymyr Zelensky for NATO air cover are, unless we seriously want to trigger a World War Three that may yet become inevitable, unrealistic. While it is heartbreaking to have to say “no” NATO is a defensive alliance of Member States. To shoot down just one Russian jet over Ukraine would in all probability precipitate a conflict that would add many more millions of pan-global deaths to the tens of thousands of both Ukrainian and Russian lives already lost. The fear, of course, is that Putin, if allowed to become emboldened by a `success` in Ukraine, will then seek to re-colonise under the neo-Soviet flag Georgia, Moldova, possibly one or more of the Balkan states and then a Baltic NATO country and at that point the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation will be at war with Russia. There is an argument that says that a pre-emptive strike should be launched now but it is clear that there is no NATO consensus for such a risky strategy.
Until the day dawns when Putin and his henchmen stand, as they surely must, in the dock in The Hague we can only do our best to continue to supply the military materiel required to allow the Ukrainians to defend themselves and to offer such support as we can to those fleeing from the bombardments of their homes.
Immediately, the border towns require food, medicines and basic supplies to meet the needs of those who have left Ukraine with little or nothing. While truckloads of aid are generous the real demand is for hard cash. An ex-pat in the small town of Zamosc (pop.15,000), 100 kilometres from the Polish border with Ukraine ,who is working around the clock on behalf of unexpected `guests` , told me that each arriving train can bring in up to eight hundred travellers all needing food, drink and overnight rest in the village and school halls before moving on and westward to Warsaw or other locations in which to seek more permanent refuge. Local people are being extraordinarily generous with their hospitality but the coaches needed for onward transfer cost money and the Mayors of this and other small towns facing a similar influx are receiving no funding from central government to meet the costs. Some of these communities, particularly in Romania and Moldova, are themselves already on the breadline.
I am in the process of trying to set up a town-pairing (not “twinning”) network to try to help but the Disasters Emergency Committee website offers the easiest way to donate centrally.
Looking to the future, as we must, the sanctions imposed by the international community will take time to bite and the effect will be felt not only by ordinary Russian people, whose war this is not, but by every other country on the planet as well. Putin`s evil regime will only be brought down by the Russians. Time was when the Kleptocrats that have supported the former KGB colonel might have had sone influence but it is a moot point whether the sequestering of funds and the seizing of superyachts and vastly expensive London homes will, while indubitably making life relatively harder for a few of the world`s wealthiest men, have any impact upon the deranged thinking of the man at the top of this pile of ordure. I suspect that only when the military realises that it has been subjected to a monumental lie as the body-bags return home, and as people find that the modest freedoms and supplies of food that they have hitherto enjoyed have ceased to exist , will regime change perhaps become a reality.
We must, though, keep up the pressure. `Londongrad` has to rid itself of its ill-gotten reputation as a laundromat for money stolen from the Russian people . The legislation currently in the pipeline, which may well have to be strengthened by both Houses of Parliament, will help and above all the international consensus that has been constructed to send a clear message to Putin that his country is now a pariah state has to be maintained - indefinitely if necessary.
At the beginning of February we were heading for a vote of no confidence in the Prime Minister and a likely Leadership election within the Conservative Party. The self inflicted damage done to himself by Mayor Boris arising frm the Cummings fiasco, the Owen Paterson vote, consequent by-election losses and the so-called `Partygate ` scandal and consequent investigations by the Metropolitan police had made his position all but untenable. That a Prime Minister should , while facing the very gravest of international crises, have to cancel a call to Putin in order to effectively plead for his political future before a meeting of his Parliamentary Party is quite extraordinary and it is aguable that a more honourable man would have gracefully resigned.
We shall quite properly never know how many of the fifty-four latters required to trigger a vote of no confidence were actually submitted to the Chairman of the 1922 committee, Sir Graham Brady, before the half-term recess. But with the writing in large block capitals on the wall the Prime Minister, clearly prepared to fight to the last drop of anyone else`s blood, sacrificed his Chief of Staff, Dan Rosenfield, his Press Secretary, Jack Doyle and his Private Secretary, Martin ` Bring your own bottle` Reynolds. His chief Political Adviser, the trusted and long-serving Munira Mirza, decided that she had had enough and left Downing Street with a trail of scathing criticism in her wake.
In what is in the trade revoltingly known as a `dead cat strategy` the Prime Minister incurred the wrath of Mr. Speaker Hoyle and many of his own colleagues as well as that of the Labour Party by accusing the Leader of the Oppostion, Sir Keir Starmer, of failing to take action in respect of the now late sex-abuser Jimmy Savile while Starmer ws the Director of the Crown Prosecution Service. Demands for an apology were brazened and blustered out in true Johnson style but certainly achieved his desired effect of distracting attention from the fact that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom was having his collar felt by Chief Inspector Plod.
The appointment of Steve Barclay, a well liked Minister widely regarded as `a safe pair of hands` , as his Chief of Staff in the newly announced “Office of the Prime Minister” together with the recall of the very able broadcaster and journalist Guto Hari as Johnson`s Press Chief together with a mini re-shuffle that saw The Mogg moved from his position as Leader of the House to head up the realisation of Brexit (which of course you thought had already been done!), the transfer of Mark Spencer from the Chief Whip`s Office to become Leader of the House and the appointment of the amiable Chris Heaton-Harris as the new Chief Whip, bought enough time for Mayor Boris to stagger through to the parliamentary half-term break without facing the feared leadership challenge
It is generally accepted even by Johnson`s harshest critics – of which number I am regarded as one – that the middle of the gravest international situation facing us since the end of the Second World War is not the best time to destabilise the British government by removing the Prime Minister. To be fair also, as one must , Johnson has made a herculean ,if not always entirely successful, effort to nail together the international coalition against Putin and to instigate a regime of punitive sanctions following the outbreak of the war. Churchill or Thatcher he may not be but we must give credit where credit is due.
Whether the Prime Minister will survive only time will tell. The results of the Metropolitan Police inquiry into `Partygate` is still awaited as is the publication of the full `Fifty Shades of Sue Gray` report. The May local government elections are another potential elephant trap and the increases in the cost of living which will begin to bite still further from the beginning of April mean that, whatever happens on the Eastern Front, on the domestic seas there is choppy water ahead.
The Commissioner of the Metropolitan Police, Dame Cressida Dick, has not enjoyed such political good fortune.
On 9th February Mayor Khan of London extraordinarily used the platform he was offered on the Radio 4 “Today” programme to put Dame Cressida, whose contract had relatively recently been extended for two years, on notice. Dame Cressida, a formidable police officer and the first female Commissioner in the 193-year history of the Met, with forty years of dedicated service to her name , announced that she would be carrying on. The following day, realising that Khan had made her position untenable, she resigned. She will however, remain in post until her replacement is selected and will continue to preside over the `Partygate` inquiry into the antics or Mr and Mrs Johnson and others. Having been blindsided by Khan over what was, effectively, Dame Cressida`s disgracefully public dismissal by Khan it is clear that the Home Secretary, Ms. Patel, is not going to have a Mayor`s place person appointed as the next Chief. One name in the frame, apparently, is the Commissioner of the Queensland, Australia, force Katerina Carroll. Now that would be an interesting choice!
As a footnote the men and women of the Met, who rightly still hold Dame Cressida in high regard, have indicated that they in turn have no confidence in Khan, a man who they regard as having used the dismissal of the Commissioner to deflect attention from his own political failings.
Fraud fraud! The Prime Minister and the Home Secretary have been reported to the Statistics Watchdog for `massaging` the crime figures,. The claim is that we have “cut crime by 14% since taking office”. Unfortunately, the Office for National Statistics reveals` the fraud figures – a 47% growth industry – were omitted from the total. When these are added back in the actual figure reveals an overall increase of 14%. Oops!
More oops! We are set to promote Global Britain – in a French jet plane. The four BaE146 passenger aircraft of No 32 (The Royal) Squadron are to be replaced with two French built Dassault Falcon 900LX planes. But the good news is that the deal was negotiated by a UK company “so there is British influence in there”. Surely one of the `advantages` of Brexit was that we could legally `Buy British`?
Will the relaxation of Covid regulations lead to more masks and social distancing as employees return from home to the place of work? Under `Elf `N Safety law companies have a legal duty to protect their employees.
It is reported that one fifth of callers to Her Majesty`s Revenue and Customs cannot get through at all and the average waiting time for an answer is twelve minutes. The aim is to respond to 80% of postal queries within fifteen days. Only 41% of responses, down from 47.9%, fall within this target figure. The Head of HMRC, Jim Harra, apparently describes this as a `decent service`.
On February 8th the British Army was required to stop “all non-essential activity” to “consider and reflect on current culture and the approach to inclusion, generate teamwork, remove barriers and maximise diversity”. A well-respected Colonel has described this as a “navel-gazing and virtue-signalling exercise”.
Mr Johnson, currently under investigation by the Metropolitan police for his alleged involvement in `Partygate` might regret his public comment on the “Plebgate” saga involving the then Tory Government Chief Whip, Andrew Mitchell. As Mayor of London Johnson said “There was a proposal to arrest Mitchell for what he said. That seems entirely reasonable . It shows the gravity of the offence”. Ho Hum!
A `Which`? Short-haul airline passenger survey reveals Ryanair as the worst and `consistently terrible` carrier. Second worst is the “Budget Style airline at a premium price” British Airways. While BA are `working hard behind the scenes to improve our service` the top of the pops is Jet 2. If you have heard of them.
The Birmingham Commonwealth Games will for the first time include `E-Sports` and Video Games. No medals, though, until 2026. Happily cricket is back in the games for the first time since 1998. Not `virtually` but for real.
Receiving her Brit Award as the `Artist of the Year` at a gender-neutral ceremony in which male and female categories had been scrapped Adele announced that “I love being a woman and a female artiste`. Cue the predictable outrage about this `trans exclusive radical feminist`.
It took four fire crews from, respectively Trowbridge, Warminster, Chippenham and Devizes in Wiltshire to rescue a woman trapped eighteen feet up a tree while herself trying to rescue her parrot. Who`s the prettiest boy then?
One Hundred and Ninety Thousand new Electric Vehicles were registered last year requiring, clearly the creation of an EV Chargeing regulator. Would you believe “OfCharge”?
Lord (Ronnie) Fearn (90) was the Liberal Democrat MP for Southport first elected in 1987 defeating the sitting Conservative member Ian Percival in the only gain in England for the liberal/SDP Alliance. With the formation of the Liberal Democrats in 1988 under the leadership of Paddy Ashdown he became the new party`s spokesman on health and tourism. Fearn lost his seat to the Conservative Matthew Banks in 1992 but regained Southport in 1997 standing down from the Commons in 2001.As a life Peer he returned to his work as a Cabinet member with Sefton Council from 2003 – 2010 abd completed fifty tears as a Councillor in 2013. He finally retired from the Lords and the Council in 2018
Wim Jensen (75) was the midfield soccer player who won the European Cup with Feyenoord in 1970 and the UEFA Cup against Tottenham in 1974. . Having played in two Dutch World Cup teams he joined Celtic as Manager in 1997, winning the Scottish Premier League against Rangers.
Bob Baker ( 82) was the scriptwriter who, with Dave Martin created the robot dog K9 for the four-part Dr Who serial `The Invisible Enemy` starring Tom Baker. K9 became one of the favourite characters in the early Dr Who series and Baker returned to his canine genius with the Director Nick Park for whom he worked on the Wallace and Gromit animation series. “The Wrong Trousers”, “A Close Shave” and “The Curse of the Were-Rabbit” all won Oscars,
Lata Mangeshkar (92) was the singer known as “The Nightingale of India. As the voice behind over a thousand `Bollywood` movies she is said to have recoeded more that 20,000 songs in fifteen languages.
In 1974 she performed at The Royal Albert Hall. In the same year was included as “The Most Recorded Artist in History” in the Guinness Book of Records having `not less than` 25,000 songs to her credit.
Henry Woolf (91) was the actor and director who while still studying at Bristol University, persuaded Harold Pinter to write, in 1957, his first play. He went on to enjoy a career that embraced Berthold Brecht and Doctor Who. He appeared at the Royal Court Theatre in Sloane Square and at the Aldwych Theatre in Peter Brook`s “Marat/Sade”. Moving to Canada he became the Head of Drama at the University of Saskatchewan and was artstic director of the Saskatchewan Shakespeare festival from 1999-2001.
Beryl Vertue (90) was the agent and manager for Spike Milligan, Tony Hancock and Eric Sykes who became the independent televisin prioducer behind the successful 1979 Hartswood Flims company. Creator of the TV sitcom “Men Behaving Badly” based on the 1989 novel by Simon Nye. She received her OBE in 2000, a BAFTA award in 2004 and her CBE in 2006 as well as a lifetime achievement award from the Royal Television Society.
PJ O`Rourke (74) was the American satirist and “Republican Party Reptile” who first made his name in 1979 with an essay in the “National Lampoon “ magazine. He went on to write “Give War A Chance” (1992) “All the Trouble in the World” (1994) “Age and Guile beat youth, innocence and a bad haircut” (1995) and “Peace Kills” (2004) and became the most-quoted writer in The Penguin Dictionary of Modern Humorous quotations. In spite of his support for the embryonic Tea Party he reluctantly endorsed Hillary Clinton in the 2016 Presidential elections because of his antipathy to Donald Trump. . “They’ve got this button in the briefcase” he said “And a President Trump is going to find it”. In “How the Hell did this happen”(2017) he described the election result as “The most severe case of American mass psychosis since the Salem Witch trials”.
Jennifer Toye (88) will be remembered by fans of the D`Oyly Carte Opera Company as Yum Yum in the Savoy Opera “The Mikado”. She joined the chorus with D`Oyly Carte in 1953 and became the company`s principal soprano in 1960.
Jack Smethurst ((89) was the actor who played the white racist union shop steward in the controversial and politically incorrect Thames Television sitcom “Love thy Neighbour” which ran between 1972-1976 . Designed to “take the heat out of race relations” the show, which lasted for eight series, is now regarded like many of its contemporary hit programmes, as an embarrassment by the `woke`establishment.
Smethurst appeared in the film of “Saturday Night and Sunday Morning “ with Albert Finney (1960) and in “A Kind of Loving” with Alan Bates (1962). He also appeared regularly in the Granada TV production “Coronation Street”. He received the Variety Club of Great Britain TV Personailty of the Year award in 1972 and a Lifetime Achievement award from The Heritage Foundation in 2015.
John Beams (96)was one of the last survivors of the Royal Navy wartime X-Craft midget submariners.The fifty-foot vessels of the 14th submarine flotilla with their four man crews were deployed in the Far East in 1945 to cut Japanese submarine communications cables..
John Landy (91)was the second man in history (after Dr. Roger Bannister) to break the 4-minute mile barrier knocking two seconds afer Bannister`s record just forty-eight days after it had been set. At the Commonwealth Games in Vancouver in 1954 he again came second to Bannister in the first race in which both men completed the mile in under four minutes. He was awarded an MBE in 1955 and was made a Companion of the Order of Australia in 2001. During the Queen`s visit to Australia in 2006 he was awarded with a CVO.
Sally Kellerman (84) was the actress best known as Major ”Hot Lips” Houlihan in Robert Altman`s satirical fim M*A*S*H (1970) .She received an Oscar nomination as best supporting actress for her role. She also appeared in “The Boston Strangler”, “Welcome to LA” and “A little Romance” with Laurence Olivier.
Sister Catherine Wybourne (67) was the Benedictine nun who ran a series of websites and blogs from her monastery in Hertfordshire. Her digital platform reached out to more than 100 countries and she had nearly 30,000 followers on her twitter account.
Jessica Owen and Charlotte Harris, neither of whom had rowed before, beat thirty-five other worldwide teams to win the Talisker transatlantic race in a record time of 45 days, 7 hours and 35 minutes.
Britain`s Curling teams saved British face in the Beijing Winter Olympics to bring home the only Gold and Silver medals of the games.
Bristol Zoo, home to the BBC series `Animal Magic` presented by the wonderful Johnny Morris for twenty-one years fro 1962, is to close on its Clifton site.
And the Koala bear has been declared an endangered species in Eastern Australia.