Gale's View from Westminster
The hideous repercussions of the retreat from Afghanistan rumble on . Immigration policy lies in tatters as we prepare to receive Afghan refugees, a predicted sixty-five thousand British Overseas Nationals from Hong Kong and more of the cross-channel `boat people`. It is inevitable, also, that we shall have to grant entry to fruit-pickers and truck drivers from the EU to meet our own domestic needs. Will there be `vaccine passports for nightclubs, football matches and the like or will there not? As schools return the fear of another wave of Covid grows but the roll-out of `booster jabs ` for the vulnerable also commences. Concerns also for those on the lowest incomes as the widely-trailed ending of the temporary £20 a week uplift in Universal Credit clashes with an escalation in fuel prices , gas companies go bust and the Chancellor`s increase in National insurance charges - a thinly-disguised tax hike dressed up as a `Health and Social Care levy`- looms over the horizon in the New Year. A loss of up to £1000 in annual income will be the last straw for some already hard pressed households. The Elections Bill that will at last give to ex-pat UK Citizens the right to vote in perpetuity has is second reading in the House of Commons and `Harry`s Clause` is on its way to the statute book. A newly appointed `Lord High Everything Else`, Michael Gove, has put the highly-contentious and much-unloved Planning Bill on ice and dog theft is to become a criminal offence. M.Macron goes ballistic as the Australia/UK/US security deal (Aukus) is unveiled without prior leaking or notice. The summary cancellation of a billion dollar deal for new submarines struck between Australia an France causes shockwaves in the Elysee Palace and is a blow to the dignity of the French President in his re-election year but Australia is going nuclear. The cold war between the West and China has just ramped up a notch.
Mayor Boris struts the World stage at the UN in New York and Washington. The COP 26 Climate Summit to be held in Glasgow in November is high on the agenda . Jo Biden is hot on Global Warming, following flash-floods in New York, and says that `historic investment` is needed to solve the problem. Back in Washington though he is much cooler on a US/UK Trade deal which is a setback for Ms. Truss, newly promoted from International Trade to Foreign Secretary in the long awaited re-shuffle that sees a number of prominent heads roll. President Trudeau squeaks home in the premature Canadian Elections, Mutti Merkel`s CDU party does not fare so well in Germany , the UK Liberal Party conference passes without notice and Comrade Starmer has a less than glorious first outing as Leader at Labour`s annual bloodletting in Brighton.
The predictable and predicted pre-Christmas shortages arrive with the panic-buying of diesel fuel and petrol as the pumps run dry. Watch these spaces on the shelves as other commodities succumb to bulk buying in he run-up o he festive season. Perish the thought but pretty soon you may not be able to buy an avocado pear for love nor money .Never mind. Before the winter of discontent there was a glorious sporting late summer. The UK`s Paralympic athletes took Tokyo by storm, Sarah Storey won a record number of gold medals and the UK came second in the final tally of gongs. Over in the United States a just-finished being a schoolgirl , 18-year old Emma Raducanu, came from seemingly nowhere to shine a radiant smile and a winning streak and to not only become the youngest British player in 60 years to reach the US open final but to seize the Ladies Grand Slam title in New York as well . And Mr Piers Morgan, former presenter of Good Morning Britain, has been cleared by the regulator OFCOM over his assertion that “Princess Pinocchio` (aka Meghan Markle) was economical with the truth. Makes you proud to be British .
For many people the surrender of Afghanistan to the Taliban is little more than today`s chip-wrappings. The 24-hour news agenda with its voracious appetite moves on at a terrifying pace. At the start of the month the Prime Minister expressed `full confidence` in his Foreign Secretary, Dominic Raab, a sure sign that his days were numbered, while the Foreign Affairs Select Committee has embarked upon its inquiry into the monumental failure of intelligence that appears to have left the Allied powers to be caught completely off guard. There are, though, still UK passport holders stranded in Kabul and unable to return home to the UK. There are may Afghans who have served alongside British and American forces who are also unable to leave the country with their extended families and who are now living in hiding and in fear for their lives. There are also others who have managed to get across the borders to Pakistan, Iran or other neighbouring states and are now in limbo with seemingly no authorities ready, willing or able to take responsibility for them. With rescue flights now ceased the commercial airport in Kabul has re-opened and the very rich or the very fortunate can sometimes buy or cajole their way into the air towards a safe haven. There are, though, dark stories of atrocities and in a land where the press is now very far from free facts are hard to come by and the truth has yet to get its boots on. What I do know is that in my own constituency I have split families, some members here and others in Afghanistan and desperate to be reunited. We were promised that the rescue mission would be ongoing and that `hubs` would be established in neighbouring States but I see little sign of any progress in this direction. I would like to think that Ms. Truss, having taken over the reins of Foreign Office from Dominic Raab will, together with Ma Patel, who has clung onto her job at the Home Office, taken all of this in hand but I remain to be reassured. In the meantime how many more refugees will die or `disappear`?
It is said, with good reason, that Prime Ministers do not like re-shuffles of their Ministerial teams. Those gaining preferment are pleased, of course, while those on the way down or out become enemies and in time may generate the critical mass that can cause a re-shuffle at the very top of the pile of ordure. My own view is that Mr. Johnson is unlikely to achieve his expressed ambition of serving longer in Ten Downing Street than Mrs Thatcher and indeed he may not even make it to lead the Conservative Party into the next General Election. He is, however, at present blessed with an Opposition that makes him look positively organised and decisive and his pre-Conference Recess re-shuffle was dramatic if not always wise.
One of the most quietly effective, decent and courteous men in Government, Robert Buckland , the Lord Chancellor and Justice Secretary, was bounced out of government to create a space for the downgraded Dominic Raab, the outgoing Foreign Secretary who now also becomes `Deputy Prime Minister`. Dom Raab is a first-rate lawyer and has wide international legal experience but Robert Buckland has clearly paid the price for simply being in a job where Johnson needed a vacancy.
Ms Truss, the new Foreign Secretary, is for reasons that I do not comprehend, said to be the current darling of the Conservative Party membership. The former International Trade Secretary re-cycled some EU Trade agreements, certainly, and made much of the agreement that she struck with Australia. Time will tell who in the end comes out on the sunny side of that deal and the National Farmers` Union have expressed misgivings. There is also the small matter of a deal with the United States which, President Biden has made clear, is on the back-burner. If she can secure the release of Nazarin Zahari-Ratcliffe, still held hostage in Iran as a result of her Boss`s careless attention to detail, then she will cover herself in glory. In the meantime there is the thorny issue of the fallout from the debacle in Afghanistan that she has to resolve. It is not beyond the bounds of probability that a Prime Minister looking over his shoulder may have sought to hand his current most likely challenger a poisoned chalice.
Robert Jenrick has taken the fall for the unloved proposed Planning White Paper and Bill of which `Boris the Builder` was himself largely the architect. In his place is Michael Gove, former Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and now in charge of what was the MHCLG (Housing and Local Government) , presiding over Everything Else including insuring that there are no empty shelves at Christmas. I genuinely wish him luck with that for the Prime Minister has dithered over HGV Driver shortages as he previously has procrastinated over our response to the pandemic. My `Civis Romanus` grasp of Latin does not stretch to “Always too little and always too late” so English will have to do.
Nadhim Zahawi has been rightly rewarded with a Cabinet Post for his bacon-saving handling of the vaccine rollout programme and Nadine Dorries (an author of popular novels and sometime “I`m a Celebrity” contestant) has sent shockwaves through the Islington and Notting Hill elite of the BBC and the `serious` Arts alumni as a result of her appointment as Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
Penny Mordaunt, one of the most effective women in the Government, continues in office in the Trade Department although not at the level that some would have wished and Ms Priti `Flamingo` Patel remains at the Home Office against expectations. Some hard-working and long-serving Ministers, Nick Gibb (Education), John Whittingdale (DCMS), Jesse Norman (Treasury) and Caroline Dineage, Luke Hall and Justin Tomlinson have all been sacrificed to make way for `fresh blood`. Next month`s column will, if the Good Lord spares us, be in a position to comment upon the triumph and success that will be the first Conservative Party Conference since –well, the pandemic. In the meantime all of these new holders of red boxes have rather a lot of work to do.
Like addressing the fact that Britain is short of tens of thousands of HGV, Inflammable cargo and ordinary delivery drivers and thousands of agricultural workers needed to harvest the crops immediately and before they are left rotting in the fields and on the trees.
Frankly, granting visas for five thousand pheasant pluckers may send some turkeys off to the execution chamber in time for Yule but trying to hire five thousand drivers from Europe for a few months is, as the British Chamber of Commerce has said, like tossing a thimble of water on a forest fire.
We have been warning not for weeks but for months that whatever the Home Secretary`s dog-whisle doctrine the shortage of carers, agricultural workers and truck divers would not be met from `local labour` even if, as the Prime Minister asserts , “Employers should py more”. (The care sector is on its knees financially but that is another).Whether the Government likes it or not the British – notwithstanding high unemployment in East Kent – do not want to do the jobs that are on offer. We live in a free democracy not a Communist gulag and it is not possible to compel people to take jobs that they do not want. Additionally, of course, `pressed men` are never going to make willing employees. Even as recently as three weeks ago, when I asked Johnson at PMQs if he would grant what I and the NFU have dubbed `Covid Recovery Visas` for crop-pickers and drivers all I got was a load of waffle about `the (failed) Seasonal Workers Scheme and scowls from the Home Secretary sitting beside him on the front bench. . Now we are facing a national crisis at the petrol pumps and are still waiting for the army to be allowed to drive delivery tankers.
Let us be clear. This situation is home-grown. There is no national shortage of fuel at the refineries or at the depots . A combination of careless talk by fuel companies and hysterical headlines from a national press that ought to know better precipitated a wave of panic buying. As a result of people selfishly and wholly unnecessarily filling up cars that are then left standing unused on driveways we now face a situation where key workers like doctors and nurses cannot get to work , undertakers are cancelling funerals because they have no fuel for their hearses and there are no vans to deliver essential goods like pharmaceuticals. In my own patch Thanet Earth, the largest greenhouse complex in Europe, has had to scrap £350,000 worth of tomatoes because there is nobody to pick and pack them and there are no vehicles to deliver the crops to the supermarkets. And this saga began months ago when Supermarkets started paying drivers so much that local authorities could not compete to hire staff to drive refuse carts. For those with their eyes open the warning lights have been flashing for a very long time.
There is of course a Covid/Brexit aspect to this as well. Last Christmas a lot of EU lorry drivers were stranded at Manston and on the Motorways in Kent for days unable to get home. Not surprisingly they have not returned. There is a shortage of HGV drivers in Europe as well as in the UK and if you have the prospect of being treated and paid well as a `King of the Road` in Europe or being treated shoddily in the UK it`s a no-brainer. There is also the small matter of passports. With effect from October 1st European nationals will require a full passport rather than the ID card that is commonly used throughout much of Europe in order to enter Britain. I am told that many EU HGV drivers do not carry a passport and so will not, without the expense of acquiring one, be able to come to the UK to work. Generally the transport facilities that we provide for our truckers are third-world and as the Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has said our HGV drivers are under-valued. Until conditions improve there will not be a queue of young British trainee lorry drivers waiting to meet the demand that has now become so blindingly obvious.
The food and Drink Federation has said that shortages are here to stay and that “Just in Time” deliveries have been killed off. Retailers add that the Prime Minister has `ten days to save Christmas`. Downing says “It is not broken”. There is already a lack of some toys for the pre-Christmas market with Lego, Batman Scalectrix and Hoppie Rabbit topping the list of `hard to buy` items. Mince pies are however for sale “for now” and checks on foodstuffs imported from the EU have been postponed to try to avoid empty shelves in the run up to 25th December. “The problem” says Number Ten “will all be over by the festive season”. Fuel supplies `will stabilise within days` and there will be a `normal Christmas`. Crisis? What crisis?
To add to Britain`s supply-chain woes the nation`s garden centres are having difficulty in maintaining supplies of aspidistra, yucca and cactus plants. Brexit red tape and the need to “maintain bio-security” now that we are cut adrift from Europe, where of course, there is an abundance of aspidistras, have “made it difficult to import stock”.
Is the United States ready for this? It seems that one D. Cummings, late of Number Ten Downing Street, is seeking Silicon Valley cash to secure a candidate to take on Joe Biden for the Presidency next time around. It will apparently cost between £1.5 and £2 million to beat Trump in the Republican primaries. “It is” says the self-styled political maestro “possible for a small team to take over a large party”. As, of course, the United Kingdom knows to its cost.
Civil servants working from home, including the Treasury team who are now permanently domicile-based, will continue to receive the London weighting in their pay packets if they live within the prescribed 25-mile radius of Whitehall. Those being “levelled up” to the Midlands or The North will presumably no longer be entitled to this largesse.
The World Cup soccer qualifier between Brazil and Argentina was suspended when El Plod invaded the pitch at the start of the fixture to bundle off four Argentine players from clubs in the UK who had allegedly breached quarantine rules. Did nobody think to check these minor details before the starting whistle blew?
Good news on climate change – if you happen to be a dragonfly. Global warming has led to an abundance of the insects rarely seen in Britain and in Ireland.
Big Ben will soon be chiming again after the clock and the Elizabeth Tower have undergone an £80 million refurbishment. The St. George`s crosses have been restored on the clock surround as have the thistle, leek and shamrock emblems representing the other countries of the United Kingdom and the trim has been restored to Prussian Blue in place of the over-painted black. The scaffolding is coming down in good time for the Houses of Parliament to be decanted prior to a five- for which read ten - year refit.
The former Hampstead, London , home of Jim Hanson, creator of Sesame Street and The Muppetts, has been adorned with a blue “JH lived here” plaque. Surely a frog-green plaque would have been more appropriate?
Has there been a truce in the Anglo-European Union `sausage war` and will chilled meats avoid the bureaucracy of the Northern Ireland protocol? Well, possibly, but with French inshore fishing boats being denied licences to access UK waters be prepared to see it replaced with an Anglo-French `cod war ` that could bring cross-channel traffic to a grinding halt!
While Marks and Spencer are pulling `le sandwich` out of France (defeated by the post-Brexit red tape) the St. Michael brand, first introduced by M&S in the 1920s by the firm founded in 1884, is being re-introduced after being abandoned during a number of less-than-successful `modernisation` initiatives. Plus ca change.
Thomas the Tank engine, created by the Rev. William Awdry and acquired by the Mattel toy company for £500 million in 2011, is at the centre of a `makeover` row because of the thuggish “Dennis the Menace” appearance of a prime character. I leave you to decide whose side you are on but I am firmly with the Rev. Bill`s original.
It is a moot point whether or not it would be sensible to revert to the imperial weights and measures abandoned in the interests of decimalisation and the Common Market. The original shift cost shedloads of money for the replacement of equipment and printing but what is done is done. Populist, of course, to acknowledge the `metric martyrs ` but does it make practical sense? No reason though why the Imperial Crown marking and numbering of beer tankards, first introduced in Britain in 1699, should not be re-introduced as glasses are replaced. Ale has always been sold in pints and hopefully always will be.
The post-Brexit labelling of foods sold in Britain is another matter. Now that we are free to do so we should surely, in response to the Government`s `Call For Evidence`, proudly brand our goods as “Made in Britain” with the Union Flag. Questionable though whether customers will then patriotically `Buy British` first or will simply head for the cheapest imported option on the supermarket shelves.
It is now possible to buy, for a modest £12,300. A designer dog bed. My four-legged canine expert tells me, however, that a dog does not care what it sleeps on so long as it is comfortable and has sides to make it feel secure.
Meanwhile in Mudeford, a hamlet adjacent to Christchurch in what used to be called Hampshire but is probably now part of Dorset , it is possible to buy a 16`x 13` beach hut for a mere £575,000. The only snag is that you have to walk to the beach because cars are not allowed. I`m sticking with my arctic-facing shed on the seafront at Minnis Bay on the North Coast of Kent.
The `Head of Diversity` at NHS England is clearly well-placed to pay for expensive dog beds and beach huts as the post carries with it a salary that is more than that taken home by the CEO and half as much again as the pittance that we pay to our Prime Minister. The `Chief People Officer` trousers only £233,000 per anum (sic) having taken a cut from the salary paid during former employment with the United Nations.
Speaking during a recent interview the Prime Minister, sometimes a little cavalier with figures, has indicated that he has in the region of six children but was much clearer when it came to his intended term of office. At least another ten years, to take him ahead of Margaret Thatcher`s record. Don`t say that you were not warned.
The project described as “The world`s most stupid tunnel” planned as a link between Scotland and Northern Ireland has been quietly ditched to join the equally derided “London Maplin Airport” on the scrapheap of Boris`s Bonkers Brainwaves.
And my parliamentary colleague Marcus Fysh, ever one for a politically helpful turn of phrase has declared , following the Chancellor`s twelve billion pound “Health and Social Care tax grab (sorry:”levy”) that “We are in danger of becoming a Health Service with a country attached to it!”.
Mikis Theodorakis (96) was the Greek composer universally known for his film scores for the 1964 film “Zorba the Greek “ starring Anthony Quinn and the Dirk Bogarde war movie “Ill met by moonlight”.He was the creator of over a thousand songs that more than 90 million records, hundreds of poems and a sheaf of memoirs. He was heavily involved in the Greek civil war and became a voice for Communist opposition to the Axis Colonels` oppressive regime. As a political prisoner he was incarcerated on the island of Makronisos . He was elected as a Member of Parliament in 1964 but with the advent of “The Colonels” he was arrested and imprisoned and his music was banned. With the downfall of the Junta he was re-elected and from 1981 to 1990 he sat as a Communist Party MP. He ended his career as music director of the Greek State Broadcaster`s orchestra and choir. Meeting him, Theodorakis was a larger-than-life 6`4” of delightfully scruffy man-mountain.
Jim Tilley (83) was a former naval officer who, having settled in Australia, became one of the leaders of the battle to improve the pension rights of ex-pat UK citizens with “frozen” pensions. As the current Chairman of the All-Party parliamentary Group that pursues that cause I knew him as a doughty and indomitable campaigner. Jim founded British Pensioners in Australia in 2003 and in the Spring of this year was made a member of the Order of Australia. The Australian Government declined our request to use the UK-Australia post-Brexit Trade Agreement as a lever to secure a settlement and Jim Tilley died without achieving his goal. We owe it to his memory to keep up the pressure until the UK Government honours its obligations to its ex-pat elderly UK citizens.
Sarah Harding (39) auditioned before the impresario Simon Cowell on his “Pop Stars: The Rivals” talent show in 2002 bidding to become a member of a girl band.
The band which achieved fame as Girls Aloud had a Number One hit with their first record (Sound of the Underground) and went on to release five albums and earn five Brit Award nominations. In addition to her pop career Sarah Harding won a lingerie-modelling contract, played in two “St. Trinians” films and in Eastenders. She won Celebrity Big Brother in 2017. In 2020 she was diagnosed with breast cancer which had advanced during the Coronavirus pandemic
Jean-Paul Belmondo (88) was the French `tough guy` actor cast by Jen-Luc Godard as a car thief in A Bout de Souffle in 1960. He appeared with Jeanne Moreau in Peter Brook`s Moderato Cantabile, Claudia Cardinale in La Viaccia and Catherine Deneuve in La Sirene du Mississippi. Belmondo established a daredevil image for performing his own stunts in action scenes.
Donald Zec (102) was the Daily Mirror`s Showbusiness correspondence in Fleet Street during the 1050s and 1960s. In the course of his illustrious career he interviewed Marlon Brando, James Dean, Kirk Douglas and Humphrey Bogart and in 1963 chronicled the existence of a Merseyside band called The Beatles. He also developed a special relationship with Marilyn Monroe. He joined the London Evening Standard as a messenger boy before moving to The Mirror in 1938 as a junior reporter under the Editorship of Hugh Cudlipp. Having served in the Second World War he returned to The Mirror as a crime reporter in 1945 before becoming the paper`s Royal Correspondent and then film writer. He was awarded an OBE for services to journalism in 1970.
Charlotte Johnson Wahl (79) was an artist and the mother of the present Prime Minister. Her paintings, exhibited at the Mall gallery in London, reflected the Parkinson`s disease and the mental illness that she suffered from in later life. She was a nuclear disarmer and an Aldermaston marcher.
Sir Clive Sinclair (81) was the driving force behind the popularisation of home computers and the creator of the much-derided but futuristic C5 electric vehicle. In 1972c he launched the Sinclair Executive pocket calculator which sold for, at today`s prices, about nine hundred pounds. He then, in 1980, launched the ZX80 home computer which retailed at about £1200, again at today`s prices. In 1982 the ZX Spectrum became a world leading brand. Sir Clive was nominated for his knighthood in 1983 by Margaret Thatcher personally. His C5 car was described as “a Reliant Robin without the roof”. It was under-powered and had a top speed of only fifteen miles an hour with a range of less than twenty miles. While 14,000 of the cars were manufactured only 5000 were sold and Sinclair Vehicles went bust. Although Sir Clive suffered reputational damage as a result of the C5 experiment the three-wheelers are now collectors` items and electric vehicles are regarded as the future of domestic transport.
Ed Barnes (92) was, after Monica Sims, the Head of BBC TV`s children`s programmes and one of the pioneers of the “Blue Peter“series edited by Biddy Baxter He was also instrumental in the creation of “John Craven`s Newsround” I 1972 and “Multi-Coloured Swapshop” hosted by Noel Edmonds and Keith Chegwin and on which I worked myself for two years. Having started his career as an actor Ed Barnes joined the staff of the BBC in 1953 became a floor manager and then assistant producer. As Producer of Blue Peter under Biddy Baxter he won his first SFTA (subsequently BAFTA) award in 1969 and received a special BAFTA award in 2012 for the creation of “Newsround”. Upon his retirement in 1986 he was awarded the Royal Television Society`s Silver Medal for Outstanding Creative Achievement.
Jane Powell (92) was the singing star of MGM`s “Seven Brides for Seven Brothers” with Howard Keel, made in 1954. and she played opposite Fred Astaire in “Wedding Bells” in 1951.Leaving MGM she carved out a career on television, in cabaret and on stage where she toured in “South Pacific” and “My Fair Lady” and succeeded Debbie Reynolds in “Irene” on Broadway.
Jimmy Greaves (81) played football for Tottenham and England scored a record 357 goals in 516 games in what was then called the First Division and in `retirement` went on to become the `Greavesie` half of the `Saint and Greavesie` broadcasting duo. In the 1966 World Cup series he played in the first three games but was denied the final in Alf Ramey Alf Ramsey`s Cup-winning squad because of a leg injury that required fourteen stitches. He was part of Tottenham`s FA cup winning side in 1962 and the European Cup Winners Cup squad in 1963. His second FA cup win came against Chelsea in 1967.
Abdelaziz Bouteflika (84) became his country`s President in 1999 and was the first leader to be elected in a democratic vote in 2004 with 83% of the popular vote in spite of the military`s support for his opponent, former Prime Minister Ben Aflis. Bouteflika was a veteran of the war of independence against France and served as Foreign Minister for sixteen years until 1979. Notwithstanding the history Bouteflika welcomed President Chirac of France to Algeria on a State visit in 2003. He was re-elected for his fourth term of Presidential office in 2014.He stepped down in 2019.
Robert Fyfe (90) will be best remembered as the actor who played Howard Shibshaw in “The Last of the Summer Wine which ran on BBC television from 1973. Fyfe joined the cast in 1985 by which time the show was drawing audiences of 15 million..
Lord “Grey” Gowrie (81), the Second Earl of Gowrie, was Minister for the Arts and a Northern Ireland Minister under Margaret Thatcher, Chairman of Sotheby`s, Chairman of the Arts Council, Chairman of the Really Useful Theatre Group, and Chairman of the Serpentine Gallery. He was also, in 1993, the Chairman of the Booker Prize judges panel. He was a Member of the Privy Council, a Fellow of the Royal College of Art and the holder of the UNESCO Order of Picasso.
“No Time To Die”, Daniel Craig`s final outing as Ian Fleming`s James Bond , has at last premiered at the Royal Albert Hall in the presence of Prince Charles and Camilla and the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge.
And the popular musical ensemble ABBA have reunited to record their first studio album for forty years, “Money, Money, Money…..