Westminster View - October 2019
October. Finishing Post Hallowe`en day. “I got a horse to beat the field”. The filly` Johnson`s Deal`, out of `May`s Withdrawal` and `Barnier`s Last Offer`, takes the first fence with a comfortable lead in spite of a vigorous use of Red Jerry`s whip but then falls at the `Die in the ditch` Unionist water jump over the Irish Sea. The Prime Minister is compelled to send a less than doux billet to the European Commission and follows his unsigned missive requesting a lofty extension with another signed note saying “didn`t really mean it”. “Stinking Rebellion” takes over the streets around Westminster for a couple of weeks and in the interests of drawing attention to climate change generates excessive pollution as taxis sit with engines idling in traffic jams. The Extermination mob makes way for a well-educated People`s Vote demonstration as the good burghers of leafy suburbs and the shires tip into Parliament Square to again jam up the streets and wave placards that owe more to Pliny than populism. Mr Speaker Bercow is put forward as a possible Prime Minister of an interim Government of Unity but clearly prefers to exercise real power from the Chair of the House of Commons .A Royal row simmers in the Cambridge and Sussex households, L`affair Arcuri hangs like Damocles` sword over Mayor Boris`s head, The Tramp`s self-styled `brilliant strategy` precipitates something approximating genocide as the Turks invade the Kurdish enclave occupied by the United States` former allies in Norther Syria.The ironically named operation `Peace Spring` which is neither peaceful nor in spring succeeds in creating the very Russo-Turkish axis that western geopolitical effort has been so desperately trying to prevent. The Tramp also claims credit for the elimination of the Isil terrorist Abu Bakr el Baghdadi. This would be the same Commander in Chief who criticised Borat O`Bama for claiming credit for the elimination of Osama Bin Laden. On his home ground the present tenant tries to spring a `peaceful` meeting at the White House between the dangerously driven US diplomat`s wife, Anne Sacoolas, and the parents of the boy, Harry Dunn, that she is alleged to have killed while travelling down the wrong side of a road in the UK. That plan backfires horribly. In Canada the Prime Minister, Justin Trudeau, survives a `black face` backlash to retain power but with a reduced share of the vote in that Country`s General election. The Chief Executive of Hong Kong is on the back foot as Hong Kongers take to the streets in weeks of demonstrations in spite of violent police resistance and a ban on the wearing of face masks. Our mild domestic protests against climate change and Brexit pale into insignificance when compared with the tear gas, batons and live bullets deployed in Hong Kong. It is Harvest Festival time in the primary schools of rural Britain but all is not `safely gathered in` as because of a shortage of European Union fruit pickers deterred by hostility and the falling value of the pound sterling millions of tons of apples lie rotting in the orchards of England. The result of another `brilliant strategy` to introduce quotas for fruit pickers as a precursor to an `Australian-style points system` to keep unwanted `bloody foreigners` out of the UK . Also in October Her Maj has Opened Parliament in a stately fashion and delivered a Gracious Speech that may or may not ever see the light of legislative day. We learn, also, that thirty-nine illegal Chinese immigrants have perished horribly in the trailer of a refrigerator truck somewhere, probably, between the port of Zeebrugge in Belgium and a lorry park on the outskirts of the Essex town of Grays. The House is still capable, just, of humanity and decency and unites in condemnation of the trafficking, prayers for the departed and their families and a deep respect for and appreciation of the emergency Ambulance and police services who have the grim task of handling the corpses of the victims in a dignified manner and investigating a mass-murder. As Jackie Doyle Price, the Member of Parliament for Thurrock, the constituency in which the bodies were discovered, said following a Commons statement the harrowing scenes that those dealing with this situation have been compelled to face will remain with them for the rest of their lives.
And then a General Election was called.
It is almost universally agreed that Winter is a bad time to call a General Election and that the run-up to Christmas is the worst possible of the options. That is why there has not been such a hustings since Hyde Park was a plant pot. Why, then, are we asking the electorate to trudge out to the polling stations in the freezing rain on 12th December? The answer, I fear, lies in an intransigent Parliament that has willed the ends of a Withdrawal Agreement without willing the means to get the measure through both Houses and to Royal Assent. Mr Johnson promised “Do or Die” to have the UK out of the EU by October 31st just as Mrs. May had hoped, without quite such a dramatic pledge, to extricate us by the end of March. To be fair to the Prime Minister as one must he achieved a re-negotiated withdrawal deal that most, including me, said could not be done and he has eliminated the vote-blocking Irish Backstop from the equation. Whether Mr Johnson`s deal is better or worse than the one that Mrs May put to the House and that I voted for three times and that Mr Johnson himself voted for once is a moot point. It is certainly different. It removes the prospect of the UK being trapped in a Customs Union for eternity but it introduces a line down the Irish Sea that has hitherto been described as unthinkable and that could, ultimately, lead to the unification of the island of Ireland. Nevertheless, it is a deal that commanded, without the support of the Democratic Unionist Party, a majority of some forty votes which, in a hung parliament, is no mean feat. Perversely, having set the House on track to take the first timid step – because the Withdrawal Agreement is the `end of the beginning` and not an end in itself – towards finally leaving the EU with an acceptable deal MPs then rejected the timetable by which the Withdrawal Bill could pass through both Houses and be implemented by the October 31st deadline.
It is arguable that to take getting on for two hundred clauses of a complex bill through all its Commons stages in three days is a big ask, particularly when you are dealing with a `snowflake` parliament that does not tolerate sitting to a late hour or even through the night. The guts of the measure, though, has been debated exhaustively for months and there are probably about only half a dozen clauses and some serious omissions (of which more later) that are genuinely contentious. Would it have been possible to take the bill through both houses without the timetable motion that has generated such synthetic outrage? Well, probably yes. Before Christmas but not before the 31st October and therefore not before Mr Johnson would have had to write the `begging` letter asking the Commission to grant an extension to the time limit demanded of him by the `Benn Act` or `Suicide Bill` as it has become known. The object of this entire charade was not, as Red Jerry has tried to claim, to guarantee that a No Deal Brexit was off the table but quite clearly to embarrass a Prime Minister locked into a deadline that he had so robustly wedded himself to when fighting for the Leadership of the Conservative Party and the keys to Number 10.(His opponent, Jeremy Hunt, said as you will recall that he was relaxed about asking for a few more days or even weeks if to do so meant delivering a good new deal).
The Letter had to be, and was, written. The Prime Minister then took the view that the UK was heading for yet further interminable and economically damaging delay and that a permanently hung parliament could lead to stalemate for many more months. In that, and in his decision to seek the unwanted Winter election to try to secure a working majority, he was almost certainly right. It is a high risk strategy but fortune sometimes does favour the brave and it may pay off. Alternatively, of course, it may lead to another minority Government and still further chaos!
The Fixed Term Parliament Act requires a two thirds majority of the whole House of Commons, not just of those voting, to support a call for a General Election to be held inside the five years `fixed term`. Mrs May secured such a majority to hold the 2017 General Election. Mr. Johnson had several shots at achieving the same result but incredibly the Leader of an Opposition that had purported to be clamouring for the opportunity to get the public to the polling stations rejected the chance to do so when the gauntlet was flung down. It was then left to the Scottish Nationalist Party and the Liberal Democrats to combine to offer to support a one-clause bill to repeal the Fixed Term Act and to call a General Election on a simple majority which, with the Tories, the SNP and the LDs would be achievable. This left Comrade Corbyn out on a limb and looking pretty silly! Ironically, at the very moment when the minor opposition parties were beginning to get cold feet Comrade Corbyn then announced that the Labour Party – or at least that part of it still under his control – would back the measure. And so, notwithstanding the fact that a sizeable number of Members of the House of Commons did not want a General Election and that many voted against it the short bill went through all of its stages in both Houses in twenty four hours. And that, my friends, is how you will come to be going to the polling stations on December 12th. Unless, of course, you are cute enough to organise a postal vote in order to have to avoid going out on a dark and cold wenter`s night or unless you are one of those many UK nationals who have lived abroad for more than fifteen years and have therefore been deprived of the right to vote in Britain at all.
Many with whom I communicate are aggrieved that once again they will be denied a vote in the forthcoming election because the Government has to date failed to honour its pledge to introduce a `Votes for Life` bill for UK citizens living overseas and to bring Great Britain into line with most if not all other developed democracies. I am personally saddened that my ancient friend Harry Shindler, the oldest surviving member of the Labour Party and resident in Italy, will once again not be able to participate in the franchise. The fact, however, is that it has not been possible to take the measure through the House. Glyn Davies` Private Members Bill, of which I was a sponsor and which had the tacit support of the Government, was mauled in Committee and on the floor of the House and finally ran out of time. The measure, as a franchise bill, is eminently amendable and much better brains than mine have tried, and failed, to come up with a `Long title` that prevents it being used as a shopping basket for all manner of electoral reform. Worse, I learned as a result of the Fixed Term repeal measure that in the House of Lords the Long Title restriction does not apply so their Lordships can introduce any amendments that they wish. Ordinarily, in a sane Parliament with a majority, such amendments can be reversed in the Commons but with no majority any bill is wide open to wrecking measures. It is also the case that there is no majority in the Lords for such a bill at all. The stereotype of rich retirees swilling gin and champagne on yachts in the Mediterranean and just queuing up to swell the Conservative vote militates against a change in the law which, unless and until we deliver a Parliament with a decent working majority, is simply not going to happen. That is the harsh reality of parliamentary arithmetic.
The calling of the election and the mothballing of the Withdrawal Bill has to a large extent placed on hold my endeavours to secure cast-iron assurances that ex-pat UK citizens living in the remaining twenty-seven States of the European Union will, when we leave, continue to receive free healthcare for all existing and future conditions, fully uprated pensions, exportable benefits (as previously determined by the European Commission) and freedom of domicile and movement whether or not an agreement is reached. I understand only too well, as the Chairman of the All-Party Group on Frozen Pensions, that those living in Canada and Australia, and many other countries will take no comfort from any deal negotiated for the benefit of those living in retirement in Europe but moving the goalposts and making an already unfair situation still worse is going to benefit nobody. The broader issue of Frozen Pensions remains very firmly on the agenda. In the meantime the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove, has been charged with the duty of delivering on the Prime Minister`s undertaking, given to me in person, that “we will look after our UK citizens resident in Europe”. I believe that there should be in no doubt in anyone`s mind as to what is required and if it is not resolved before the election then I shall return to the issue, under a Government of whatever political persuasion, if my own electorate affords me the opportunity to do so in a new parliament.
At the time of writing we are three days from the dissolution of this utterly frustrated and impotent parliament, dozens of good men and women are leaving the Commons for ever because they are not prepared to tolerate any longer the vile personal threats and abuse to which many, particularly the women, have been subjected and inevitably many others will find themselves on the scrapheap of political history at the whim of the electorate. Mr Speaker Bercow honoured his undertaking to stand down on 31st November and his Chaplain, the splendid Rev. Canon Rose Hudson-Wilkin, source of comfort and wise advice to many MPs and staff in troubled times, moves onward and upward to take up her post as the new Bishop of Dover and Bishop in Canterbury. This means that those of us representing seats in East Kent may see more rather than less of her in the future. The Tramp has wholly inappropriately sought to meddle in our internal political miseries by expounding his unwanted views in the course of an interview with Mr. Farridge on the London Broadcasting Company`s airwaves and Farridge himself has indicated that his Brexit Party, the successor to the failed UKIP organisation that he founded, will risk possibly sacrificing his lifelong ambition to see Britain leave the European Union by standing candidates and thus splitting many votes, in every seat in the Country. It is unkindly suggested that this is nothing to do with democracy but rather about his desire to appear in TV debates between Party Leaders. Recent research suggests that narcissists are happy people and if that is so then Mr. Farridge must be brim-full of joy. The man who has stood and failed to get elected in eight elections in a variety of seats may yet notch up a ninth.
Time, now, to hit the campaign trail.
Liz Truss has kicked proposals for `pick your own sex` legislation into the long grass. The new Equalities Minister has shelved a law change on changing gender . That has not prevented the Girl Guides movement from recruiting boys who `identify as girls` but then the Boy Scouting movement already admitting Girl Scouts. Is that the sound of Baden Powell spinning in his grave that I hear?
The Labour Member of Parliament for Brent Central, Dawn Butler asserts during the Pink News Awards that “male giraffes are naturally gay”. Or is that just another tall story?
Following the introduction of Jodie Whittaker as the first female Dr. Who it is reported that Emily Mortimer, daughter of John, the creator of Rumpole, is now working on a `Lady Rumpole of the Bailey` In Silk, of course.
Eighty two per cent of parents are, we are informed, now hiring tutors to refresh their knowledge of Maths, Chemistry and Physics .Not in the interests of life-long learning, you understand, but simply to help them to keep up with their children`s homework. Eighty-two per cent seems staggeringly high given the cost of tutors: perhaps the statistician who dreamed this up needs a Maths lesson himself.
Lord Singh has terminated his contributions after thirty-three years of presence on the BBC`s `Thought for the day`. The reason cited is Auntie`s Thought Police`s politically correct intrusion into scripts in the interests of `sensitivity`.
The newly appointed Chairmaster of Radio Four`s Any questions, Chris Mason who replaces Jonathan Dimbleby, is middle-class, white, male and a Cambridge Graduate. Good job it`s radio and not television because that hiring would not comply with BAFTA`s `diversity standard`.
The BBC`s eternally running `everyday story of country folk`, The Archers, is to narrowcast a rural `soundscape` sans actors but playing the `soothing sounds of Ambridge` including the wind in the trees and cattle lowing. A subscription to the BBC Sounds App podcast will buy you `ten tranquil minutes`. Or if you live in the right location you could just open the bedroom window and listen to the dawn chorus.
An MoD TV Recruiting campaign for the Army has been faced with a last-minute recruiting campaign of its own. Prior to shooting the commercial the producers realised that in their desperate eagerness to embrace`diversity` they had planned to feature plenty of BAME soldiers but no whites. Budding khaki-clad Caucasian actresses – sorry,` actors ` – should apply immediately.
The Natural History Museum is condemned as `sexist` because it does not display `enough female exhibits`. A survey of two million animals surveyed worldwide has revealed that in the iconic British exhibition halls of London`s South Kensington fifty-two per cent of the mammals on show are male as are sixty per cent of the birds. The museum`s collection, accumulated between 1751 and 2018, will clearly have to look to its tail-feathers.
The stink currently emanating from Number Ten has nothing to do with Brexit. It appears that the arrival of Dilyn, the First Girlfriend`s rescue Jack Russell, upset the Downing Street mouser, Larry, who is now busy marking out his territory and the stench is down to cat pee not anything more toxic.
The newly-published “Little Book of Brexit Bollocks” describes `To Bojo` as to `stutter, ramble, bluster or quote Latin`. To whom can it possibly be referring? And how very unkind to Latin.
The Governor of the Bank of England, Nark Carney, has teamed up to unveil the soon-to-be-issued new £20 note at the Turner Contemporary Art Galley located in the seaside town of Margate that I have the privilege to represent and that this year hosts the finalist entries for the 2019 Turner Prize. The note which features The Fighting Temeraire and a portrait of JMW Turner also incorporates in its security features depictions of the gallery and the harbour lighthouse. I shall take great pleasure in the knowledge that many of my parliamentary colleagues will be carrying a little bit of my constituency around in their wallets or as they hand over a `Turner` to pay their Commons bar bills.
Antonio Vieri, the Italian designer, clearly knows how to part the super-rich from their money. His latest creation, a pair of `Moon Star` shoes on show at the Emirates Fashion Week, incorporates 30 carats of diamonds , a steel heel replicating one of Dubai`s iconic buildings and a piece of `real meteorite`. Yours for a modest £15.7 million.
Manchester University students` ` Liberation and access officer, heads up a `Ghandi Must Fall` campaign. The target is a nine-foot statue of the man, Mahatma Ghandi, whose peaceful protest hastened the end of British rule in India in 1947 and is due to be erected outside Manchester Cathedral. Ghandi is apparently regarded by Manchester`s students as `a violent anti-black racist`. And I am the leading candidate to be the next Pope.
Barking newsflash: 1.4 million dogs a year suffer from `stick-related injuries`. One in ten are caused by splinters resulting from chewing sticks and 690 thousand arise from playing `fetch`.
And prison officers are now having to train as carers. One sixth of those residing at Her Majesty`s pleasure are now over fifty years of age which has led Justice Minister Lucy Frazer to call for `new gaols with older offenders in mind` that incorporate wider wheelchair-friendly corridors and, presumably, `smash-and-grab` rails in the bathrooms. Britain`s oldest jailbird is now 104 which gives a whole new meaning to “what did I come in here for”?
Leah Bracknell (55) played Zoe Tate for sixteen years in the TV soap opera Emmerdale. The actress, who died of lung cancer , will also be remembered for appearances in Judge John Deed and A touch of Frost.
Richard Hope (85) was the Editor of Railway Gazette for twenty-one years from 1970 to 1991 having joined the team in 1964. A campaigner against rail closures he was regarded and the most authoritative of railway journalists.
Nathalie Brooke (91) was one of the last living links with Imperial Russia. Her Grandfather, Count Aleksander Berkendorff was Tsarist Russia`s last Ambassador to the United Lingdom. As an infant she was an asylum seeker from the Communist Peoples` Republic. She was one of the founders of the (Conservative) Centre for Policy Studies.
Alison Prince (88) was the scriptwriter for the 1967 BBC Childrens` Television programme Trumpington narrated by Brian Cant and commissioned by the legendary Head of Children`s Television, Monica Sims, following the generation of a series of stories for Jackanory Nathalie Brooke left the BBC in the 1970`s in reaction to the engagement of child psychologists to police the political correctness of story lines (so it started earlier than you had thought!. The poet, biographer (Kenneth `Wind in the Willows` Grahame and Hans Christian Andersen) and author wrote more than seventy books for adults and children in the course of her long career.
Abu Bakr el Baghdadi (48) committed suicide by detonating an explosive vest that also killed the three children with whom he was seeking to escape from US Navy Seals. The scholar and footballer attained the leadership of Isil, the successor to Al Qaeda and orchestrated sixty attacks resulting in the deaths of one hundred and ten people in just one day. His followers seized the City of Mosul in 2014 and in June of that year he declared a `Worldwide Caliphate ` and `Islamic State`. In 2018 The US President declared that `Isil has been defeated` but the monster has many heads. Another has been decapitated this month .
It is reported that Her Majesty the Queen, offered an opportunity, brokered by the Royal Princes, to participated in a spoof James Bond `rescue` and parachute drop into London`s Olympic Stadium at the opening of the 2012 Games , insisted upon having a `speaking part`. Be honest, how many swallowed, when she turned to Daniel Craig and uttered the immortalised line “Ah, Mr. Bond. I`ve been expecting you” and said to themselves “Oh my God. It`s Her!” I plead guilty as charged in, I suspect, the company of millions around the world. At a time of some national turmoil and when the Queen has been dragged into a State Opening and a Gracious Speech that bordered upon miring her in political dispute, it is good to be reminded that under that crown there is a pair of twinkling blue eyes and a great sense of humour.