Westminster View- November 2020
November. The election of the 46th President of the United States is the gift to journalists that keeps on giving as Nevada, Arizona, Michigan, Georgia and Pennsylvania pore over their results. The outgoing President commences a `legal blitz` in ten States although Son-in-Law Jared Kushner and tarnished ex- New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani are scarcely “Shock and Awe”. Twelve days after the event The Tramp appears to concede, graciously saying that “Joe Biden won by fraud”. He is clearly still looking for his ` Big Boy Pants`. At home the predicted `Winter of Discontent` commences with Son of Lockdown and the prediction that “It will all end in Tiers” – which it does. Lee Cain (Who he?) departs from Downing Street and the `indispensable` Dominic `Specsavers` Cummings is dispensed with, presumably to take up a new post with the Barnard Castle Tourist Board. An independent investigator finds Home Secretary Priti `Flamingo` Patel to have been guilty of “behaviour that amounts to bullying”. Mayor Boris, fresh from re-reading his Henry Newbolt, calls upon his loyal troops to `form a square around The Prittster”. As I recall it` the sand of the desert was sodden red with the wreck of the square that broke` but “The Prittster” is still in office, at least until the predicted re-shuffle, and the independent investigator, Sir Alex Allan, has resigned. Brexit deadlines come and go, like No 11 buses, with increasing frequency as the witching hour on 31st December approaches. It has been difficult to maintain the spirit of ill-will during the pandemic but Lord Frost and Michel Barnier have been doing their best to maintain hostilities as usual. The Prime Minister has been in Covid-related quarantine again as a result of a too-close liaison with some Northern Tory MP`s in Downing Street and Mr. Farridge has formed another new political party or, to be more exact, has re-branded an old one. Plus ca change…
The Electoral College system used by the United States to select its Presidents is an anachronism. It dates back to the days when chosen representatives had to travel, sometimes many hundreds of miles, from all over the country by stagecoach or on horseback to New England where they would cast their votes as required for the candidate that their State had chosen. The delay between the local result being announced and the national endorsement allows for the four-footed travelling time between home and the congregation of delegates. In most States the Electoral college places were and still are allocated on a winner-takes-all basis which can throw up some strange results. In 2016. For example, Hillary Clinton won a majority of the nationwide popular votes but because Mr. Trump won a majority of the Electoral College seats he won the Presidency. It is what it is and it is up to the Americans to decide if they want to change it or not.
I have in my wardrobe a Grand Old Party tie which I bought during my first visit to the Republican National Party headquarters on `The Hill` in Washington in the early nineteen eighties. I have worn it with pride on US high days and holidays on many occasions since. Until 2016. I have worked as an International election observer in many countries of the World and I have experienced chicanery, danger, corruption and downright hostility in the course of that work. For sheer ill-humour, campaigning dishonesty and unpleasantness however the contest between Mrs. Clinton and The Tramp took first prize. Until this year.
We have had enough experience of the current `Presidency` over the past four years to have been forewarned that the bid for a second term of office was going to be nasty, dirty, vicious and mendacious. The Tramp presidency has been characterised by many things but grace, charm and dignity are not some of them. And yet more Americans voted for him than for any other candidate in history except, fortunately, for the man who is now the President-elect, Joe Biden.
Setting aside the discrepancies of American politics – I have known Southern Democrats who have been further to the right of the political spectrum than some Republicans from Northern States – I would not in normal times be a natural Biden cheerleader. It is, in fact, considered bad form to interfere in the electoral processes of another sovereign state (something that seems to have by-passed the attention of Mr. Farage and that President Obama discovered to his counter-productive cost during the EU referendum campaign) and my pre-US election views are of no consequence whatsoever
The man derided by The Tramp as `Sleepy Joe` is, however, a man of vast political experience and humanity. He is a man tempered by the fire of personal tragedy and misfortune that he has had to overcome. Rather than the `Little America` parochial populism peddled by the present incumbent of the White House President-elect Biden is an internationalist with a serious grasp of foreign affairs and a man who wants to build bridges rather than walls.
Notwithstanding some minor and one significant differences of political opinion between Mr Johnson and the President- elect there is still much more that unites America and Great Britain than divides us. Aside from the longstanding’ special relationship’ our policies towards Iran. China, Turkey, and the neo- Soviet Union for instance, have a great deal in common and the Climate Change conference to be held in Glasgow should offer the opportunity to demonstrate a unity that would have been unthinkable with the present incumbent in the Oval Office.
The failure of the current President to magnanimously concede defeat is saddening and demeaning, not least of his already tarnished reputation, but the legal process will run its course and I believe that we can look forward with optimism to the Biden Presidency.
Trampwatch – Souvenir Pandemic Election Edition
The Virus Threat (January) “We have it totally under control”
(February) “It`s going to disappear – like a miracle – it will disappear)
(March) “This is a pandemic. I`ve always viewed it as very serious”
Masks (April) “You can do it. You don`t have to do it. I`m choosing not to….as I greet Presidents, Prime Ministers, Dictators, Kings, Queens…..
I don`t see it for myself”
(July) “I`m all for masks. This is a patriotic thing to do”
Flu (February) “This is like flu. We`ll essentially have a flu shot for this in a fairly quick manner”.
(March) “ It`s not the flu. It`s vicious. It`s so contagious”
China (January) “China has been working very hard to contain the coronavirus – we greatly appreciate their efforts”
(September) “We must hold accountable the nation that unleashed this plague – China”
The word of the month is “Lockdown”. We have had a case of Covid 19 in my own office which is not only of great concern for the wellbeing of the lady in question and her partner, who was admitted to intensive care (he is out of ITU and recovering, thank you) but also has necessitated Team Gale mothballing the location for a fortnight and working entirely in isolation. In that we are clearly in good company. While much of the North West, Midlands and some of the North East already paralysed by the second wave of Covid it was clearly only a question of time before the whole Country followed suit. As with the first outbreak it is arguable that we left it a fortnight too late and as a result have paid a price for the delay in disease and death. SAGE recommendations for a fortnight` “Circuit break” were rejected by a Downing Street at that time still dominated by Cummings but it was not clever, was it, to let the South of England stay open for business and allow schoolchildren and families to rampage around “enjoying” the Autumn half-term and super-spreading before bringing the shutters down? And trailing the lockdown for a couple of days to allow anyone who wished to go out on a 48-hour bender before closing the pubs and restaurants was not a stroke of genius either. If you are going to do it you emulate the French, announce the decision with immediate effect and send Monsieur Plod out onto the streets to enforce it.
Notwithstanding dire and I believe wholly justified warnings of a potential medical disaster with hospitals overwhelmed it was hard enough trying to persuade parliament to pass the enabling legislation in the first place. The level of mistrust is running high. In the end the Opposition voted with the Government, the promise of an end to the lockdown on 2nd December placated all but a few ERG “Rebels Without a Cause” and a handful of others and the measure went through. Most of the members of the newly formed Conservative Blue Wall inspired “Northern Research Group” toed the Party line but the existence of yet another “Research Group” ought to give Number Ten cause for concern and is an indication of future storms and rebellions brewing.
Furlough was reinstated and the top-up to Universal Credit continues. Liverpool becomes the first city to agree to universal testing, a campaign prompted by the football manager Jurgen Klopp to good effect. Pubs, restaurants and `non-essential shops` are compelled to close. Explain to me, please, why it is okay for a crowded supermarket or a `convenience store` or a petrol station to sell Christmas Cards but it is not alright for a specialist card shop that has invested heavily in safety measures and only allows a couple of people at a time through the door to browse to also open? Consistency is not this administration`s strongest suit.
It is fair to say that the Government has thrown the kitchen sink at support for jobs, businesses and the health service but with the spread of Covid 19 sweeping south following local lockdowns it was inevitable that the Government was going to be compelled to replace the measures that expired on December 2nd with a tiered system of light, partial or near-total closures. In the event vast swathes of Northern England and the Midlands and Kent and Bristol went into the “Very High” Tier Three category that bars the indoor mixing of people from different households and effectively has shut down the whole of the hospitality and entertainment sectors while still allowing non-essential retail (but not pubs and restaurants) and schools and workplaces to open but “work from home if you can”.
Most of the South East emerged from the lockdown into “High” Tier Two allowing people in “support bubbles” to mix indoors and Pubs to open to serve drinks with “substantial meals”, which led to the Great Scotch Egg Fiasco. Does a scotch egg class as a `substantial meal `or not? (Answers on a postcard please to No. 10, Downing Street, London SW1A 2AA).
Finally in “Medium” Tier One we are left with Cornwall, the Isle of Wight and the Scilly Isles where the `rule of six` applies to indoor gatherings and pubs can open for table service but have to close by ten pm and theatres and cinemas can open `with social contact limits`. All of this is designed to give the impression that some parts of the country are open for business while still containing the infection and death rates at a level that does not overwhelm hospitals. The imposition of tiers results, of course., in a clamour for restrictions to be imposed at district rather than at County levels. West Kent for example had, at the time that the limits were set, a much lower incidence of infection than North and East Kent where we had some of the highest levels in the Country. It is absolutely the care that the virus does not recognise District or County boundaries but that did not prevent a wave of political outrage at business closures that were and still are of course extremely financially damaging in the run up to Christmas.
The Three-tier measures had to be voted through the House resulting in the largest Tory back-bench rebellion of this Parliament. However, although some sixty or so Conservatives voted against the Government or abstained they did so safe in the knowledge that they would not defeat the Government because Sir Keir “Captain Courageous” Starmer ordered his troops to abstain! One of the most important decisions facing the Country and Her Majesty`s Loyal Opposition cannot decide if it is for it or against it. Draw your own conclusions.
As a footnote to lockdown , of greater concern to me is Santa Boris`s five day free-for-all Yuletide break. Designed to allow families to celebrate the Winter Gift-Fest ( sorry , “Christian Festival” ) together, this brakes-off measure will allow people to criss-cross the country super-spreading good cheer and Coronavirus. It is arguably the case that if some relaxation was not permitted people would break the rules and travel anyway but my personal view is that this goes far too far. We are in danger of generating yet another spike in the New Year.
It may not feel like it if you are one of a projected 2.6 million people who have lost or are about to lose their jobs or are the hard-working proprietor of a small business that is on the edge of going bust but the International Monetary Fund has praised the United Kingdom`s response to the Covid 19 pandemic as `one of the best examples of coordinated action globally which has helped mitigate the damage, holding down unemployment and insolvencies`.
With that glorious hindsight with which we are all equipped things could certainly have been done differently and sometimes better. We could, on both occasions, have locked down earlier, faster and harder and both lives and some jobs might have been saved had we done so. Better and more transparent procurement of protective essentials might have saved money if at the expense of time and testing and tracing should have been given a greater and more effective priority much earlier in the pandemic. It is also arguable that we relaxed too widely and too quickly during the summer but it is east to be wise after the event and there is also, as we are at present finding out the hard way, a limit to the amount of restriction that a peacetime population can and will tolerate.
At the Despatch Box Rishi Sunak, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, spelled it out like it is in his Financial Statement and it is not a pretty picture.
The pandemic is going to cost Britain £280 billion in the coming year on top of the billions already spent on business grants and the furlough scheme to protect jobs as well as the further billions spent on the Health Service. The UK faces the largest fall in output in 300 years of recorded financial history and at a projected £394 billion of borrowing this year (19% of GDP) the highest level of borrowing in peacetime history. Even by 2025 we shall be borrowing over £100 billion and of course sooner rather than later that money will have to be repaid.
Nevertheless, the Chancellor still intends to spend more on the NHS, Schools, the recruitment of more nurses and police officers, and local authority care services as well as offering support to sport, the arts and charities.
Although our unemployment is, on the most recent figures, lower than that in France, Italy, Spain, Canada and the United States it is still rising seriously in the private sector and I believe will top three million before it starts to fall again as, post-vaccine, businesses start to recover. It is against that whole economic backdrop that Rishi Sunak`s two most controversial decisions have been set.
There is a huge number of people working in the public sector, in addition to NHS and Care staff, who have performed heroically during the pandemic and it would be wonderful if they could all receive financial recognition for their service. Sadly, the present economic climate does not permit that. While, thanks to the austerity imposed in 2010, the nation`s finances had recovered sufficiently to ease us through the current crisis that bonus has been exhausted. The Chancellor is not in a position to grant an across-the-board pay increase to all public sector workers.
A million Doctors, Nurses and others working in the NHS and care sectors will receive a pay rise as will the 2.1 million public sector workers earning below £24,000 a year. That means that the majority of public sector workers will in fact receive a pay increase next year. During the six months to September, however, while pay in the private sector fell by 1% and people were being furloughed, seeing wages and hours cut and losing jobs, public sector wages rose at the same time by 4% and job security has been maintained. At a time when belts are tightening the Chancellor absolutely has to target resources to those who need it most. He is right, therefore, to impose a public sector pay freeze – and yes, that must mean a freeze upon MPs pay as well.
Second, and more complex, is the matter of the 0.7% in overseas aid enshrined in law and pledged in the 2019 election. I wish to see that pledge honoured, particularly as the 0.7% will in real terms be worth a lot less next year than last as a result of the decline in our national income arising from the pandemic. The poorest nations in the World still need the assistance of some of the richest. It is also true that in an uncertain World the “soft power” and influence generated by our aid programme should not be under estimated: if we create a vacuum other more malign nations will be swift to fill it.
I do not share the populist, and apparently majority, view that we should cut our aid budget. At the same time, we have to recognise the fact that over the years much money has been wasted propping up corrupt regimes while offering little of benefit to those who really need the help. It is also the case that aid does not have to be offered in hard cash: for example, the hurricane-relief effort provided by the Royal Navy, of necessity all too frequently, comes at a considerable cost and there are many other quiet ways in which the UK provides assistance to developing countries. At the present time there needs to be a degree of common sense and flexibility about the manner in which we approach our aid budget.
I would not wish the Chancellor`s job, in the current climate, upon an enemy but I believe that he has played a difficult hand very well. Whether he will be able to ride the perfect storm of pandemic debt and Brexit-generated turbulence and survive with his political reputation intact only time will tell.
In other news there were real and well-founded concerns for the observation of Remembrance Sunday but in the event the necessary ceremonies took place, The Last Post was sounded, The Kohima Epitaph was read, wreaths were laid at the Cenotaph and War Memorials across the land and modest crowds managed to socially-distance themselves in good order and with dignity. In Whitehall the Queen observed from the Treasury balcony while below her the younger Royals and Political Leaders did the honours. Earlier in the week Her Maj, wearing a face mask in public for the first time, paid a private visit to Westminster Abbey and laid a replica of the wedding bouquet that she first placed on the tomb of the Unknown Warrior following her marriage to Prince Philip seventy-three years ago.
To my shame I did not know until reading of it this year that the proposal to honour an` unknown British soldier` , fiercely resisted in some quarters when it was first suggested, was the brainchild of The Reverend David Railton, a Chaplain on the Western Front who wrote to the Dean of Westminster about his idea. His Majesty King George the Fifth attended the re-burial on 11th November 1920 and David Railton became the vicar of St. John`s Church, Margate in my constituency – which is why I ought to have known!
Next Month the Brexit endgame, or to be more exact the `beginning of the endgame` , the rollout of the Covid 19 vaccination programme and hopefully the dawn of a healthier and much happier New Year.
I the meantime, from Suzy and myself and our family, our very best wishes for a safe and peaceful Christmas.
For the first time in its eighty-two year history the Beano is publishing a pull-out “grown-up” edition called the “Beanold”. ( Is somebody trying to put this column out of business?) The cartoons feature a policeman issuing somebody called Cummins with a ticket for not wearing glasses while driving, Captain Sir Tom Moore., Marcus Rashford MBE and a feature on the Beano Elf Service.
Baroness (Dido) Harding, the head of the Government`s beleaguered “Test-and -Trace” service, has been ordered to self-isolate following a T-and-T tracing call. Rumour unkindly has it that the call actually came from Downing Street.
I am told that Katya Adler, the fragrant television news reporter covering what passes for `negotiations` about EU fishing rights has taken to referring to the operatives of fishing boats as `fisherpeople`. That should go down well on the quaysides of the West County.
The Gover is not the only Cabinet member to have nimbyish concerns about housing development in the constituency. Hot on the heels of objections on behalf of the elite burghers of Surrey Heath comes news that Priti Flamingo has been bending the ear of the Local Government Secretary, Robert Jenrick, about houses planned for Witham in Essex. Don`t do as I do, do as I say.
Downing Street security have been checking out senior Ministers` mobile phones to try to establish the source of leaked information but the identity of “Chatty Rat”, as the culprit is now known, has yet to be established.
An iceberg the size of Somerset with the catchy name A68 A is heading north from Antarctica towards the shores of the UK Southern Atlantic island of South Georgia. If it beaches before it breaks up then breeding seals and penguins are in for a difficult time as access to their feeding grounds will be blocked.
British teenage girls are, says that authoritative publication The Lancet, the fattest in Europe outweighing the Spanish, the French, the Germans and the Italians. They can, though, take comfort from the fact that they are still slimmer than the less-than-svelte rous ladies of the United States, New Zealand and Australia.
Trade Secretary Liz “The Trussette” Truss extols the merits of the Trade deal that she has struck with Japan. The deal will make it easier to sell Birds eggs, raw hides, fur skins, handbags and strong (90%) spirits. It appears, in fact, that just ten of the 9444 products traded with Japan will benefit from a more advantageous tax regime and none of them have been traded at all during the past three years. That should hep to compensate for the loss of trade with the EU after December 31st.
A company called Guild Living wants to build a retirement village of 222 flats in Elmbridge in Surrey. The residents of Walton on Thames, the `Beverley Hills of Britain` that which include many showbiz glitterati, have been having words with their MP, Foreign Secretary Dominic Raab, about the potential invasion of their turf by sub-millionaire wrinklies.
Sky Television`s US correspondent Mark Austin has been overheard comparing the US Presidential election to a game of cricket because “it goes on for days and days without a winner”.
The star of Absolutely Fabulous”, Joanna Lumley, who appeared in “On Her Majesty`s Secret Service” with George Lazenby as Janes Bond, claims to have kissed every 007 from Sean Connery through to Daniel Craig. She is quoted as saying that “as you get older you do a lot of kissing”!
Mon Dieu! UK produced fizz , the Kentish Westhill has come out top of a `blind` wine tasting with Nyetimber (Sussex ) second and Hambledon Classic (Hampshire) third. The French Lanson trailed in fourth place with Laurent Perrier fifth and Veuve Clicquot seventh. Surprise, surprise. When the `experts` were confronted with labelled bottles The Veuve came first, Westhill still came a creditable second but the third, fourth and fifth places all went to French champagnes. Wine snobbery? Non!
Sir Sean Connery (90) was the face of the Swinging Sixties as Ian Fleming`s Cold War secret agent, James Bond. Producers Harry Saltzman and Cubby Broccoli hired him for just £15,000 to pay the lead in “ Dr No” in 1962. “From Russia with Love” followed in 1963, “Goldfinger” in 1964, , “Thunderball” in 1965 and “You only Live Twice” in 1967. At the end of his run of `Bondage` he was reputed to be earning £1.25 million plus 10% of the profit on the films! Connery won his Academy Award as an Irish cop in “The Untouchables” and also appeared in “Indiana Jones”, “Murder on the Orient Express”, “A Bridge Too Far”, and his last feature film in 2003 “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen”. He won a BAFTA Lifetime Achievement Award in 1990, a Golden Globe in 1996 and was knighted in 2000.
John Sessions (67) was a comic, mimic and actor. He starred in the Channel 4 production of Tom Sharpe`s “Porterhouse Blue” in 1987, in the radio series “Whose Line Is It Anyway?” with Clive Anderson, voiced characters in “Spitting Image”, appeared in Kenneth Branagh`s Henry V, had his own 1-man television show and worked on “Have I Got News For You”.
Lord (Jonathan) Sacks (72) was the Chief Rabbi of Britain and the Commonwealth who took a strict line on behaviour and was a fierce defender of conventional family life.
John Fraser ((89) made twenty films including The Dam Busters in 1955. He appeared as Lord Alfred Douglas (“Bosie”) in “The Trials of Oscar Wilde”, in “Tunes of Glory” with Alec Guinness and John Mills and in “Waltz of the Toreadors” with Peter Sellars in 1962.
John Wardley (98) was an SAS operative during the Second World War working with the Dutch resistance behind enemy lines in April 1945.
And Jacques Bordier (97) was a French SoE agent engaged in the co-ordination and reception of parachute drops
Flight Lieutenant Jerry Rawlings (73) served two terms as the dictator and President of Ghana. He stood down in 1981 and his protégé , John Atta Mills, was defeated by John Kuffuor
Des O`Connor (88) enjoyed a career in Light Entertainment and television spanning sixty years, The highest paid TV performer of his day, he started his career as a Butlin`s Redcoat in the 1950`s. He went on to make over a thousand appearances, including Royal Variety shows, at the London Palladium, recorded sixteen albums and hosted his own television show.
Sir Alan Rankin (Bart.) (87) was an inventor, financier and author who penned “Doomsday Just Ahead” set in 2034 and wrote for the Observer and the News Chronicle. He is credited with the creation of the (successful) car seat belt and the (failed) “Metrobike”.
Jan Morris (94) the travel writer began life as James Morris before undergoing a sex change in 1972. As Janes Morris he broke the news of the successful ascent of Mount Everest on the morning of the Queen`s coronation in 1953. The wartime intelligence officer writing for The Times used a relay of Sherpa runners to carry the encrypted report of Hillary and Tenzing`s success from Camp 4 to Base Camp and then for onward transmission to London.to a radio station in Kathmandu. Jan Morris was awarded the CBE in 1999.
And Graham Cowdrey (56) was the youngest son of Lord (Colin ) Cowdrey, the Kent and England Test cricketer. Between 1984 and 1998 Graham scored 8,858 first class runs and a total of some fourteen thousand runs for Kent. He will be fondly remembered by his family and bt his many friends at the St. Lawrence ground in Canterbury.
Colonel Sir Tom Moore. Performer with Michael Ball of the Number One hit record “You`ll Never Walk Alone” and charity fundraiser extraordinaire has become the oldest person to grace the cover of GQ magazine in their Med of the Year edition.