Westminster View - November 2019
November. Speaker Bercow finally vacates the chair of the House of Commons and Mr. Speaker Hoyle is elected to preside over the closing days of a parliament that Her Maj opened in Stately fashion only a few days earlier. The dissolution sees the departure from Westminster of political beasts of all sexes, shapes and sizes. Exiting Stage Right are those including Kenneth Clarke, The Father of the House who has served for 49 years and held some of the highest Offices of State. Also departing is another more recent former Chancellor, `Spreadsheet Phil` Hammond, Former Chief Whip, Transport Secretary and sometime Tory coal miner Sir Patrick McLaughlin, Former Trade Minister Margot James, ex -Home Secretary Amber Rudd and many other good friends while, Stage Left, Tom Watson, Deputy Leader of the Parliamentary Labour Party has gone off into the sunset to take up residence in `Dunvotin`. Five weeks and counting to the `Brexit election` that is supposed to determine the future of the UK outside or within the European Union. Mr. Johnson`s bid to secure a Conservative government with a working majority is fraught with potential foot-in-mouth opportunities has been described as like `carrying a Ming vase across a motorway`. His challengers for the keys to the front door of Number Ten are Comrade `Red Jerry` Corbyn and the liberal Democrat Leader and `Your Next Prime Minister` Jo Swinson. Disruptive elements are Mr. Farridge`s Brexit Party that could, by standing candidates in Tory `target seats`, yet snatch defeat from the jaws of victory in the endeavour to remove the UK from the EU, The Greens, the Welsh and Scottish Nationalists and sundry parties representing the electorate of Northern Ireland. We are facing the most unpleasant, dishonest, bad-tempered and divisive General Election campaign within anyone`s living political memory. The Four Horsemen of the Hustings embellish the process with floods across swathes of the North of England. Pestilence and Death are anticipated but the wildfires are saved for the Southern Hemisphere where global warming continues to contribute to the incineration of vast swathes of Southern Australia. On the other side of the world also the streets of Hong Kong are ablaze with burning vehicles, tear gas, rubber bullets and live ammunition as multitudes continue to demonstrate, in the teeth of potential retaliation from Beijing, against their reviled administration.
The most popular show on American Television, a media playing field that normally caters for a three-minute attention span, is said to be the live broadcast of Congressional hearings into the relationship of the Commander in Chief with the government of Ukraine that may yet lead to the impeachment of the President. You cannot, yet, impeach a Royal Prince but The Duke of York has done his best to self-immolate in an excruciating television interview conducted by Emily Maitlis for the BBC. The programme, designed to remove Prince Andrew, as he is better known, from the suspicion of involvement in l`affair Epstein had precisely the opposite effect. Having sown the media wind the Prince is still reaping the grim whirlwind and has been summarily and extraordinarily suspended from Royal duties for the duration of hostilities. Which probably means for ever. England lost to South Africa in the final of the rugby World Cup, the veteran Labour MP from Leicestershire, Keith Vaz, was suspended from the House of Commons for six months for practices allegedly involving young men and cocaine and has subsequently `retired`; North of the Border the former First Minister and Leader of the SNP Alex Salmond, faces charges of alleged sexual assault, and the month ends with terrorist-linked stabbings and murder on London Bridge. Can December really offer anything worse?
To bowdlerise a sentiment expressed by the outgoing EU President Donald Tusk “There ought to be a special place in hell for people who call General Elections in December”.
Let us first debunk the myth that Members of Parliament `enjoy` elections. If you are a sitting Member of any Party you have, personally, absolutely nothing to gain and potentially everything to lose from the kind attention of an always fickle electorate that will give you no thanks for whatever you may have done but is generally only interested in what you and the government that you will help to sustain will do for them in the future. This will require the promise of massive investment in health and social care, education, housing, the armed forces and the police, agriculture, motherhood and apple pie washed down with free beer and skittles and all at not one penny of extra taxation or any increase in the national debt. You are `invited` to attend a myriad of public meetings, usually organised by hostile groups whose main aim is to keep you off the doorsteps and curtail your ability to reach your electorate. These meeting will be arranged without consultation with you and you are expected to respond to the summons irrespective of whatever other diary commitments you may have. When you politely decline your absence is deprecated with the pained observation that “he (or she) could not be bothered to turn up.”
With the dissolution of parliament, the tools with which you have been doing your job – including IT facilities, headed notepaper and franked envelopes – are removed and instructions, usually interpreted with draconian correctness, are issued to the effect that Government Departments, local authorities and other bodies with whom as a sitting Member you ordinarily deal, are not to communicate directly with you as this might give an `unfair advantage` over other candidates. The poor souls who are relying upon you, in extremis, for succour and comfort and with whose cases you may have been dealing for months or even years, do not understand that for the duration of the election you have been unfrocked. They still need help, whether or not you have the letters “MP” after your name and I imagine that most ex-Member candidates do as we do and continue to spend an inordinate amount of time on constituency casework.
Additionally, all of the support offered to constituents during an election comes out of a very modest legally-permitted amount (not funded by the parliamentary authorities) and still has to be declared as an election expense. If you throw into that mix residual `parliamentary` duties (in my case meetings in Ukraine, Strasbourg and Paris and the funeral of a much-loved Archbishop and dear friend in London) and support for neighbouring `marginal` seats that your party needs to win to form a government, you can find that time left for door-to-door canvassing (“He didn`t call here”) or for public meetings attended, mainly, by the representatives of political opponents is at a premium!
That scenario, which is the norm, is usually played out in late Spring or the balmy days of early Summer. Transpose that endeavour to the weeks in the run up to Christmas, and you find yourself delivering sodden papier mache in the freezing rain and dark nights of late November and early December. Never mind shopping or a thousand or so cards to top-and-tail. The Festive Season is on hold and all of the pre-Christmas visits to hospitals, residential homes, Post Office sorting Offices, Police Stations, Lifeboats and so on have to be unscrambled and then, if victorious, re-arranged at short notice around the re-election of the Speaker, taking of the Oath, another State Opening and, possibly, a House that is trying to legislate up to and including Christmas Eve and you can, perhaps, understand why there ought to be a special place in hell for people who call elections in December!
The serious side to all of this, of course, is that a minority Government has been effectively paralysed for months. With the normal stuff of everyday political business, including many vital matters relating directly to everyday life of `ordinary people` parked on the hard shoulder while the Brexit argument goes round in concentric circles, it is clear than a General Election, albeit at the most inconvenient and worst time for all concerned from Her Maj down to every potential elector and candidate, has been the only way out of the impasse. Please God let there be a working majority. To subject the Country to this self-inflicted grief and to then emerge with another impotent hung parliament would be the most appalling irony of them all.
Sell-by dates are past their sell-by date. In a concerted effort to reduce the one fifth of all food purchased that ends up as waste the Food Standards Agency and DEFRA are promoting “smaller pack sizes and best-before dates” to help to minimise the amount of, particularly, fruit and veg that we throw away daily.
A gathering in a North London vegetable garden which is said to have included Labour Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and Diane Abbot has become known as “The Allotment Plot”. Move over, Guido Fawkes. Fertiliser beats gunpowder any day. Ordure! Ordure!
A million “Brexit “fifty-pence coins dated 31st October have been re-cycled by the Royal Mint. Any takers for a January 31st 2020 one-pound coin? Or will we have to wait for “The Turner” £20 note featuring JW the artist and Margate lighthouse and the Contemporary Art Gallery later in the New Year?
The world`s oldest post office, in Dumfrieshire, is to close after 307 years in business. A stamp collector and his wife took over the office, which opened in 1712, in 2015 but at 77 years of age he has decided to retire. That passes the crown on to one in Stockholm which was opened in 1720.
And is it curtains for the West End`s Piccadilly theatre after 91 years in business? Following a ceiling fall that injured 79 people in 2013 at the Apollo theatre `elf `n safety are keeping a watching brief on theatreland`s plasterboards and several famous venues are thought to be in need of unaffordable maintenance.
Gin and Tonic is hitting the sales of wine in the Home Counties. Sales of the drink that is enjoying a resurgence in popularity have risen by 40% at the expense, in part, of fermented grape juice. In vino veritas.
And talking of gin Vera Lynn, the 102-year old Forces Sweetheart, has contesting the branding, by the Liverpool-based company Halewood International, of a Mother`s Ruin bearing her name. “Vera Lynn “may be cockney rhyming slang for the tipple but the old girl only took fine red wine or champagne in her drinking days and now expresses a preference for Sanatogen. So no G&T please.
A long-suffering second-class commuter has been fined for having one foot across the line in a first-class carriage while travelling on a crowded Greater Anglia commuter train between London`s Liverpool Street station and Clacton in Essex. “We pay six thousand pounds a year for a season ticket. There are no seats and nobody could move” says a fellow passenger who recorded the incident. There were, according to the operator of the Greater Anglia cattle truck, more spaces further up the train.
And the Office of National Statistics tells us that divorce is at its lowest level since 1971. Partly, of course, because fewer people are bothering to get married in the first place.
Frank Giles (100) edited the Sunday Times between 1981 and 1983 when he fell out with his proprietor, Rupert Murdoch, over the purchase and publication of the `Forged Hitler Diaries` which were authenticated by the historian Hugh Trevor Roper.
Faith Sisman (Jenk) (96) was a WAAF Radio Officer stationed at RAF Hornchurch in 1940 and transferring to Bletchley Park in 1946. She became, as an Air Hostess, the `face` of BOAC in the days when a transatlantic flight took 17 hours and London to Sydney, Australia took three days. She recorded her 150th Atlantic crossing in 1956, recalling that she was accustomed to serving seven-course dinners for up to sixty people from a 4` by 6` galley.
Yvette Lundy (103) was engaged in the `possum` escape route run by the French resistance that was responsible for the safe return of more than sixty allied airmen to the United Kingdom. She was captured and sent to Ravenbruck/Buchenwald before being liberated by the Red Army in 1945.
Keith Schellenberg (90) was the Laird of Eigg in the Hebrides. The Olympic Bobsleigh competitor and power-boat racer stood twice for parliament as a Liberal candidate. He bought the Isle of Eigg, with its thirty-nine islanders, in the 1970s and in 1995 sold it for £1,5 million to the English Heritage Trust.
Mary Spiller (95) was a woman horticulturalist and doyenne of the School of Horticulture for Women (1932.0 She presented Gardener`s World with Geoff Hamilton, Clay James and Geoffrey Smith for the BBC for three years.
Terry O`Neill (80) was the snapper of the Swinging Sixties who photographed Keith Richards, Winston Churchill, Brigitte Bardot, Raquel Welch, Rex Harrison, Marianne Faithfull Audrey Hepburn and Frank Sinatra. A contemporary of David Bailey and Terence Donovan, he started out as the house photographer on the Daily Sketch in 1959. The man with the catchphrase” I got this idea for a picture” was awarded the Royal Photographic Society Medal in 2011 and a CBE in 2019.
The Venerable Ray Roberts (88) was a Welsh miner`s son who became the Chaplain of the Fleet. He served at Chatham and HMS Urchin from 1963-1965, with 45 Commando in 1965, with the Commando Training Centre from 1975-1979, and with the Royal Naval College, Britannia.
Colin Skipp (80) was the actor who played the organic farmer, Tony, in `The Archers` for forty-six years from the programme`s first national broadcast in January 1951.
Frank `Dobbo` Dobson (79) was the Member of Parliament for Holborn and St. Pancras for thirty-six years from 1979. He was persuaded by Tony Blair to stand in the first London Mayoral election in 2000. The Yorkshire-born West Ham supporter lost to Ken Livingstone.
Jean Fergusson (74) enjoyed a stage and screen career spanning fifty years and was best known for playing Marina in `Last of the Summer Wine` between 1985 and 2010.
Chris Moncrieff was known to Members of Parliament as the old-school gentleman of the parliamentary Press Gallery who reported for the Press Association. The `proper` journalist who took a perfect shorthand note was the epitome of courtesy, accurate and scrupulously fair. Not at home in the squalid age of social media but he will be fondly remembered and sorely missed.
Clive James (80), Poet, Author, Critic and TV presenter was born in Sydney, Australia, but lived for the last fifty years of his life in Britain.
Gary Rhodes (59) was one of the first of the Celebrity Chefs of the 80s and 90s. The man with the trademark `spiky hair` unashamedly took, shook and promoted British cuisine through his kitchens and his Rhodes Around Britain BBC 2 TV show in 1994/1995 and through his appearances on Masterchef, Hell`s Kitchen and Ready Steady Cook. The Chef of the Michelin-starred Greenhouse restaurant in London`s Mayfair opened his own first overseas dinery, the Calabash on Grenada in the West Indies in 2003. This Chef of the Year trained at Thanet Technical College, an alma mater to which he returned regularly giving generously of his time as an inspiration to young trainees. A great and fun guy who had time for everyone.
Sir Jonathan Miller (85), described as a polymath. The neurologist, author, broadcaster and director of television and author made his first mark in the Cambridge Footlights production of Beyond the Fringe which, in 1960, also starred Alan Bennet, Peter Cook and Dudley Moore and ran at Lindon`s Fortune Theatre.
Eighty-two year old cyclist Russ Mantle from Aldershot in Hampshire has completed one million miles in the saddle since he first started pedalling in 1953.
And while others were on the campaign trail Britain`s second woman Prime Minister Theresa May took time out to go down to Plymouth to unveil a statue to Britain`s first woman MP, Nancy Astor. It is said that when the formidable trail-blazing female politician was challenged on the hustings with the heckle “It`s all right for you: your husband is a millionaire” her riposte was “I certainly hope he is: that`s why I married him!”