Gale`s Westminster View – October 2013
October. Newspapers on the rack. Daily Mail Shoots Self in Foot. The Guardian places spies at risk”. Red Ed in Press row. Royal Mail has a red letter day. HS2 wobbles but stays on track. Agriculture Secretary Paterson is badgered. Major fuels storm over energy and lights fail as hurricane hits Britain. The US teeters on the brink while in the Old Country factories are booming. Help to Buy or help to housing bubble? Plebgate” Mitchell strikes back, a policeman`s lot is not a happy one. And will the Royal Train finally hit the buffers?
At the turn of the month we left the senior partner in Her Majesty`s coalition government chugging into Manchester for the annual adfest – sorry, conference” – during which lobbyists talk to lobbyists and Ministers fleetingly seize the platform to release well-trailed good news. Time was when the faithful of all three major parties would gather by the seaside to hammer out policies from the podium, in fringe meetings and in smoke-filled rooms often late into the following dawn. Smoke filled rooms are now banned, orchestration is the order of the day and such dissent as surfaces is usually strategically placed to demonstrate democracy at work”. The Blackpool Tower Circus has moved inland to metro-centres geared up for the IT and communications world and, as the song says, the Punch and Judy man has gone forever”. Punch, of course, is no longer politically acceptable.
Never Mind. We may face another seven years of economic pain (boos) but tax cuts are on the distant horizon and UK Limited will be back in the black by 2020 (cheers). Workfare” will offer tough love (cheers) but Labour calls it The Workhouse” (boos). There will be a Fuel Duty Freeze until 2015 (cheers) instead of the planned Labour (boos) year-on-year increases. Home Secretary May tells us that the LibDems (boos) tried to sabotage her effort to cut immigration; Mayor Boris (huge cheers) says that a vote for UKIP will put the Milipede into Number 10 but rules out tax breaks for married couples. Even if they are same-sex.(boos) Foreign Secretary Hague offers tantalising hints of steps to pull back power from Europe (bewildered groans) and the Prime Minister, extolling the world of enterprise and opportunity and hard working people” tells us that Maggie was one of our team”. I think that it might have been the other way round, my young and Right Honourable friend, but SamCam says that her boy can carry on leading the Conservative Party until at least 2020 (cheers from everyone except the Boris fan club) and that, and the National Anthem, brings this year`s conference season to an end.
Some of us found ourselves, before the House sat again in Westminster, in Strasbourg for the last of the season`s plenary sessions of the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe. While I was trying to persuade a Commissioner that it was not in order for Malta, a signatory to the European Convention, to detain one of my constituents for more than four years without charge or trial, some of my chums went off to take a gander at the European Court of Human Rights. This is the outfit that wants to compel the United Kingdom to grant General Election voting rights to prisoners while not backing Harry Shindler in his battle to secure voting rights for ex-pat United Kingdom citizens who have served their country in battle, led blameless lives but have the audacity to live outside the UK for more than fifteen years. Under these mildly sensitive circumstances it may seem a tad foolhardy for our” ECHR Judge, one Paul Mahoney, to announce to the assembled parliamentary company that he would give axe-murderers the vote” and that this affront was no more than a fleabite” on the parliamentary agenda. To mangle a phrase, Some flea. Some bite!” Mr. Mahoney is a £150k-a-year career eurocrat who has thirty years of experience” on the Euro-circuit. With Civil Service tribunals. Form your own judgement.
Still in the fantasy world, in the Diaspora of Fleet Street”, the Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid decides to take a swipe at the Leader of the Opposition. Via his Father. As regular readers of this column will have gathered I hold no brief for Milipede the Younger but for the Mail to seek to pillory Ralph Miliband who, serving in the Royal Navy, took part in the Normandy landing, for also having been a Marxist and The Man Who Hated Britain” is beyond the pale. There are those older than I who remind me that while some of Joe Stalin`s apologists” were fighting for this country there were others, not entirely unconnected with the proprietorship of some of our national newspapers, who had come within a whisker of endorsing Hitler`s National Socialism. Not surprisingly it was some days before the paper`s Editor in chief, Paul Dacre, broke cover and then only to accuse his critics of hysterical reaction”. In a damage-control exercise, having woken up to the fact that press freedom” was on the imminent political agenda, the Daily Torygraph criticised the Mail for a rather untypical failure to do due diligence.” This was in reference to the Mail on Sunday`s crass attempt to infiltrate” a memorial service held for The Milipede`s late uncle. Score line: The People`s Press” nil. The Milipede, several plus points in the opinion polls. Nice one, Dacre.
What this is really all about is what one reporter has described as Miliband`s Press Freedom Agenda” and Secretary of State Maria Miller`s endeavours to introduce, in the form of a Royal Charter, the first press regulation backed by law for three hundred years”. Some of us potter around the world preaching the mantra that a free democracy needs a free press” which is true. A free press, however, also has to act with responsibility and over the years power and arrogance have corrupted newspaper proprietors and journalists to the point where criminal phone-hacking, under Murdoch, was apparently commonplace. That is why the former Editor of The News of the World, Ms. Rebekah Brooks, is now in the dock in the Old Bailey and that is why Lord Justice Leveson recommended, following an exhaustive inquiry, regulation. Over the whole of the thirty years that I have spent in the House of Commons successive Chairmen of successive Press Complaints Commissions, responding to successive abuses, have promised reform and tighter self-scrutiny only to fail and fail again. In what I think Dacre might have described as a hysterical reaction” the Press have sought to suggest that A Royal Charter will damage the Queen”. They had their day in Court and lost. The Privy Council has created the Royal Charter and Her Maj has signed it. Whether that charter will prove effective or not only time will tell and there are signs that even now Ms. Secretary Miller is preparing to look again at the alternative schemed up by the Press. But for many, the Last Chance Saloon is shut and the newspapers have been the authors – literally – of their own misfortune.
Which brings us in a bicycular sort of way back to the gates of Downing Street and to what has inevitably become known as Plebgate”. New overseas readers may not know, but others will recall, that the then newly appointed Government Chief Whip, Andrew, son of Sir David, Mitchell found himself forced to resign for allegedly referring to some unhelpful police officers (who refused to open the Downing Street gates to let his bicycle through) as plebs”. Only there is now strong evidence that while he did say I thought that you guys were here to effing help us” he did not use the word plebs” at all. This, it is suggested, was the figment of a fertile constabulary imagination and designed to do dirt to a government that was in dispute with the at that time loutish Police Federation. Several Independent” Police Complaints Commission enquiries and Home Affairs Select Committees later it now transpires that the CCTV footage, initially curiously suppressed, reveals that the watching and horrified crowds” did not exist, that one of the members of the public” quoted was in fact a police officer and that a statement made to the press by three senior police officers following a meeting with Mr. Mitchell , which was tape-recorded, reveals that what the police told the gentlemen of the press was what might be described as Porky Pies. Not quite what the College of Policing demands of its officers as `sober, honest and fair`. The Chief Constable of West Mercia, David Shaw, has offered a profound and unreserved apology” but Mr. Andrew Parker (Warwickshire) and Mr. Chris Sims (West Midlands) who also investigated” the allegations still appear to believe that there is no case to answer”. Home Secretary May now wants the police involved to be disciplined. An apology for poor judgement” is not good enough. At the time of writing Mr. Plod is due to appear again before the Home Affairs Select Committee and the fate of the officers originally involved in the case lies in the hands of the Crown Prosecution Service. Will Mr. Mitchell get his job back? Unlikely, as there is no vacancy at present. But the prospect of a European Commissionership looms on the horizon and Thrasher” Mitchell might prove a useful ally for a Prime Minister seeking to re-negotiate our terms and conditions of membership of the EU.
Politics is about power and that has probably never been more literally true than during this past month. How to keep the lights on and how to pay the cost of so doing has risen right to the top of the agenda as parties scramble for the high ground and energy companies scramble for higher prices. That The Milipede should have been allowed to steal a march on the debate is incredible but there is no doubt that his We will freeze energy prices for two years after the General Election” pledge has struck a chord even though it is both economically unachievable and would, in any event, cover only one winter`s bills. The Big Six” have responded by sticking two fingers up at the regulators, parliament and the poor and freezing pensioners struggling to pay the bills and in the main jacked up their collective prices. Only” 5% profit may seem like a reasonable return on shareholders` investments but of course it masks the real profits made not through the sale but through the generation of energy. Some of the price rises will be construed, rightly, as a pre-emptive reaction to Millipede’s threat of freeze and on that account alone the Leader of the Opposition has some responsibility to take. Add to that his less that glorious record while in office and the narrative begins to unravel. Nevertheless, those who have justified higher prices on the grounds that companies need to generate profits to reinvest in new nuclear facilities to power the UK into the future” are looking a little sheepish as it transpires that it will be the Chinese and the French that will fund the first, very late, new generation of nuclear power stations. If the investment, including the hedge against decommissioning end-of-life costs is eye watering then so is the agreed `strike price` for energy generated once the new plant comes on stream. In the meantime the political debate is very much about the here-and-now. In the run up to the 2015 General Election the cost and standard of living has already emerged as one of the main battlegrounds. That the economy is coming good and that Chancellor Osborne will be proved to have offered better judgement than Mr. Balls is good news if you happen to be a Conservative but it does not put beans onto the family table, keep a roof over the family head or pay to heat the family home, today. The Prime minister, through his Minister of State Michael Fallon, hints at a reduction of the green energy tax that adds £150 to every household fuel bill while Fallon`s boss, St. Vince of Cable, helpfully and in true coalition supportive style, says that the LibDems will not countenance such a tax cut. His Colleague Ed Davey, posing as Energy Minister, insists that windfarms are good value for money and in the long run offshore wind energy may yet prove to be necessary to make a significant contribution to our renewable energy supply but in the short term populist opinion is that they are over-subsidised. It is facile for Mr. Clogg to say, as he does, that cutting green taxes may raise energy bills over time” .In a harsh political climate that time is likely to be denied to him and to many of his parliamentary colleagues. With NPower increasing charges by 10% and average household energy bills likely to hit £1500 a year the name of the game is to get prices down. In the cab rank” tradition of lawyers taking on cases it may be in order but Milipede`s credibility is dented when it is revealed that his partner, Justine Thornton, has acted as a legal advisor to EDF Energy over the Hinckley Point nuclear deal.
Into this arena then steps Sir John Major. It is fashionable in Westminster, these days, to rubbish the last Conservative Prime Minister to win an overall majority but he speaks seldom in public and when he does speak people outside the Westminster Village tend to listen. Addressing the Press Gallery lunch he put forward the thought that greedy energy companies might be subjected to a windfall tax. His observation that people should not have to make a choice between turning on their heating or putting food on the table was seized upon and turned into heating or eating” headlines. The Milipede grabbed this stick and used it to beat Man David about the head at PMs question time, of course, while Downing Street confined comment to An interesting contribution to the debate”. Which leads to the distinct possibility that Sir John, who is used to batting on sticky wickets, might actually have been flying a kite for those in Number 10 or Number 11. We might find out more in the Autumn Statement.
The Milipede has his own devils on his back north of the border in the form of the trades unions. First, it takes the combined might of the Scottish and Westminster governments to pull the INEOS refinery at Grangemouth back from the edge of closure. As the plant is Grangemouth the effect on the surrounding economy would have been devastating but the union bosses had clearly decided to fight to the last drop of their members` blood. Only the enormity of the reality coupled with massive political pressure appears to have saved the day and for the moment at least the prospects for employees Christmases is rather better than it appeared for a tricky 24 hours. Milipede`s real problem, though, is the Unite union`s alleged ballot-rigging of the Labour candidacy for the Falkirk by-election. What looked as though it had been brushed under the carpet has emerged from the unsettled dust. The issue is not just alive but is kicking and screaming and the Leader of the Labour party now faces former Chancellor Darling and many others calling for a full-blown enquiry. He may yet pay a very high price for Union support during the bid that handed him the job over his brother.
The United States spent a less than cheerful few weeks hovering on the edge of financial default while the Republicans in Congress locked swords with President Borat O`Bama. With the prospect of the first US shutdown for seventeen years leading to global meltdown hubris generated by an at last improving economy in the United Kingdom was not to be enjoyed. As the IMF put it a US default would harm the world”. At the eleventh hour the House and the Oval Office did a deal as, of course, they had to and America`s debt ceiling has been raised. But only until next early next year when the whole quadrille could start again.
Borat is in trouble in Europe also. The ripples sent out by the theft of information from the NSA by former employee Edward Snowdon still turn into waves. The leaks, described by MI5 as a gift for terrorists, and the worst blow ever” to our security forces, continue to generate diplomatic incidents. While former Home Secretary Jack Straw described The Guardian, which of course published some of the hitherto confidential information, as run by adolescent executives” guilty of naivety and arrogance” and while prosecution is considered, St. Vincent of Cable, who is scarcely in a position to judge, believes that the newspaper has done a considerable public service”. Meanwhile Frau Merkel and Mr. Holland and some thirty three other European and World leaders are not best pleased to discover that their phones, also, have been bugged. This is not the kind of thing that you do to friends and allies” from the German Chancellor to the President of the United States might seem a little mild as a protest and while it`s clear that France`s brief Syrian Summer” as America`s best friend is over there has been much embarrassment in the White House. And in Whitehall? It`s a bilateral issue” says Cameron, assured that of course his phone calls have not been subjected to eavesdropping! He did, though, permit himself a brief criticism of The Guardian for what he quaintly described as its La di da” attitude to security.
The High Speed rail legislation has passed its Commons hearing with very limited opposition. The hybrid bill necessary to proceed with the whole project will, no doubt, take months to weave its way through parliament but in the meantime the Secretary of State can get on with the planning, purchase of blighted properties and the like. Royal Mail has been sold off with thousands of small shareholders reaping an almost immediate profit leading to the inevitable accusation that the shares were under-priced and the threat of strike action from the industrial dinosaurs of the Communication Workers` Union.
A former Newsnight Editor describes the Salford Broadcasting Corporation as a patrician elite failing audiences”. House of Cards” author Michael Dobbs says that Auntie” needs less managers and more drama writers. The Culture, Media and Sport committee is to question Lord Patten, Trustees` Chairman, over bias. Again. Has the Corporation ` abandoned impartiality`? Sometime Blue Peter person Yvette Fielding describes the current programme as a shadow of its former self” that has lost two thirds of its audience to digital channels. Even the Director General, Lord (Tony) Hall, believes that the Salford-based media empire is too left-wing and metropolitan”. Milipede`s mouthpiece” is also under fire from the Chairman of the Conservative Party who threatens to review the Charter when it comes up for review in 2015. Currently 100% of the £145-50 license fee goes to the BBC. But should some of it be paid to other public service broadcasters? On the brighter side, the cult children`s classic The Clangers” is making a comeback. All is not yet lost.
The Agriculture Secretary, Owen Paterson is bewitched, bothered and badgered. Cull targets have not been met because of a shortage of Old Brock. Paterson blames Brock. The animals have moved the goalposts and shuffled off before presenting themselves to be shot. Most unsporting.
The much trailed Hurricane St Jude blew in, caused chaos and blew out. Billed as the greatest storm since 1987 Jude led to loss of life, structural damage, travel chaos and fallen power lines leaving thousands across southern England in the dark. That said, the carnage of `87 was not repeated. The meteorologists are damned, as are the rail companies, if they do and damned if they don`t. In the event, days of warning and discretion on the railways rather than valour delivered the least worst result possible for travellers.
Long awaited re-shuffles finally took place as Ministers and Shadow Ministers came and went. In a cull of Blairite shadow Ministers (The Len McCluskey Agenda”) The Milipede dispensed with stalwarts Liam (There`s no money left”) Byrne and the man who vanquished Michael Portillo, Stephen Twigg, while Jim Murphy was downgraded from Defence to the Overseas Development portfolio. Widely tipped for departure, Health Shadow Andy Burnham remained in post as a classic example of how getting your retaliation in first can pay off. On the coalition benches Home Office Liberal Democrat Jeremy Browne was sacked to make way for Norman Baker. The appointment of the author of the David Kelly Conspiracy Theory book will no doubt have brought joy to the hearts of Theresa May and her team. Within the Conservative Ministerial ranks the excellent housing Minister Mark Prisk, the Treasury`s Mark Hoban and the Foreign Office middle east expert and resident Christian, Alastair Burt, were all shown the doors of their ministerial cars to make way for fresh blood. A painful process with a message: if you are in charge of the re-shuffle axe decent people who are loyal and who will not complain. The Deputy Chief Whip, John Randall, has retired as has Cabinet Office Minister Chloe Smith, the former having served a very long turn and the latter to leave time to get married and concentrate on fighting a highly marginal seat. Two out of three ain`t bad.
Bin blight strikes the environment. Under the EU Waste Framework Directive every household in the land is likely to have four separate recycling boxes by 2015. Some unkind souls can think of other ways to save waste and hard cash within the Brussels/Strasbourg empires.
Our friends in Brussels have also voted to ban packets of 10 cigarettes and the advertising of electronic substitutes. So it`s packets of twenty of the real thing all round in the southern European states.
A law firm has blogged the secret of success, or at least how to get on in law firms”. No slim ties, no trainers and definitely no red bras. Don`t say you were not told.
No grapes of wrath. At the risk of promoting panic buying it seems that after lakes we are heading for the great wine shortage. Too many drinkers, not enough raw material.
Max Clifford, self-publicist to the stars, is facing sex-offence allegations. It is, he says, `unfair that accusers can remain anonymous`. Chickens coming home to roost?
Elmete Central School at Roundhay, Leeds, has been allowing 11-year olds to smoke in the playground. Too many were taking time off school to smoke. Practice now banned.
British Gas has raised its prices by 9.2%. Helpful advice from the customers for those facing extortionate bills? Use less gas”. Bills, you see, depend upon how much gas you use”
The Primate of All England, former oil magnate turned social commentator Justin Welby, has been dubbed Polly Toynbee in a cassock”. The Archbishop of Canterbury has established a reputation in the House of Lords as The Minister for Moral Indignation”.
A Plymouth Lollipop man has quit his post after council criticism of his practice of giving `high fives` to children. He should have been holding his lollipop in one hand and using his other hand to signal” says the man with the clipboard. And `Tag` and `British Bulldog` are under threat in the nation`s playgrounds. Instead of `rough games` children at a school in Boston, Lincs. are to be offered `a range of activities organised by a play leader`.
A lady taxi driver has been required to remove the flag of St. George from her vehicle doors by Teignbridge Council. It could discriminate against foreigners” and you get a lot of those in South Devon. Mostly from Somerset and Dorset.
In a seasonal gesture the Dean of Students, University of Colorado, has banned cowboys, Indians, sombreros and sex” from Halloween celebrations. These may represent an inaccurate and hurtful portrayal of other people`s cultures”. Eat your heart out, Tonto. Goodbye Silver.
Tattoo artists have been criticised for poor spelling. Examples: No regerts”. Jeanius”. Live and let live” in Mandarin, which turned out to be Sweet and sour chicken” and Oylmpic Torch bearer”. Think before you ink.
Mrs. Legacy, or Cherie Booth as she is known professionally, denies having voice coaching to make her sound more `purposeful` . You can take the girl out of Liverpool but you can`t take the Scouse out of the girl, she says.
And Marine Le Pen has poured scorn on Farridge. With the FN riding high in the French opinion polls she says that the EU will fall like the USSR” but feels that the UKIP leader is scared” and without maturity”.
Peter Leighton, of Lincolnshire, has been unmasked as the gnome master of Bratterley”. Giving the eulogy at his funeral his son delivered a deathbed confession in which he revealed his father as the prankster who decorated homes and public buildings with the little people in dead of night. The tribute on his doorstep the following morning? A garden gnome.
The final Walk on the Wild Side for rock guitarist Lou Reed of Velvet Underground.
You didn’t really think that I would leave out the christening of Prince George did you? Every newspaper in the land (except The Guardian) carried page upon page of pictures of the grumpy little lad in the hand-me-down lace frock. Any man would look grumpy if required to wear that outfit but you have to be a very hard-hearted republican not to have warmed to the photograph of Her Maj with three generations of monarchs-in-waiting.
Now, about one`s Royal Train.................