Gale's View from Westminster – October 2015
October. A foggy dawn breaks over a ` Golden Era ` between Great Britain and Greater China. Financial matters are embarrassing for Chancellor George and “embarrassing…embarrassing….” for his opposition Shadow. Not quite so elementary, my dear Watson, as Old Labour`s Smearfinder General finds himself on the rack. Junior Hospital Doctors threaten to strike – over shorter hours for the same pay. EVEL triumphs over Caledonia. For the time being, at least. The late Lord Chilcot gets later still as his inquiry into Iraq is programmed to last longer than the Second World War. Kids are no longer Company. And the cog wheels may be coming off the Palace of Westminster`s supersized ticker.
The President`s XI, which older readers of the Daily Torygraph may have assumed was a cricket team, turns out to be the Chinese Head of State. Mr. Xi Jinping who, with his lady wife, Madame Peng, arrives in the wake of a pathfinding visit to Beijing by Chancellor George and a modest entourage. No such modesty for President Xi. I first time visitor to Britain might have believed that if the streets of London were not paved with gold leaf then they were certainly tastefully covered in red carpet. This State Visit by the Leader of one of the most powerful nations upon the planet posed a number of minor conundrums for those seeking to maintain and enhance what has suddenly emerged as a Very Special Relationship between Britain and China. I say `suddenly emerged` but behind all of the signed trade deals worth a few billion quid, the odd funding of a nuclear power station here and there and, of course, the unavoidable fish-and-chips in Man David`s local , there have been months if not years of diplomacy and preparation. Nevertheless, the Pythonesque “Don`t mention Human Rights” policy was clearly doomed to failure from the start and the thorny possibility that an Oriental grip might have England`s future power supplies by the goolies did cause a ripple of mild concern. The Big Question, however, was, of course, “Will Comrade Jeremy wear the mandatory White tie and Tails to the State Banquet at Buck House”? In the end he did turn up `properly` dressed but he managed to maintain his rag-and-bone brown sports-jacketed image for a fleeting private audience with President Xi. What the sartorially-elegant Head of State must have made of this is not reported but we understand that during the conversation Comrade Jerry did mumble something about human rights. Armed with less than fulsome information we have to assume that this was a generic question rather than a full-blooded cry for an end to The Oppression of the Masses and as in China ”Nationalisation under worker`s` control without compensation` , historically the mantra of the hard-left, was implemented many generations ago there can have been little to discuss. I rather doubt that China`s shift towards pragmatic capitalism featured high on the Corbyn agenda. The carefully stage-managed pro-President crowds of Britain`s Chinese residents skilfully screened out those demonstrators with rather darker thoughts on their minds than unalloyed acclaim and Her Maj, who has had a year or two of practice in dealing courteously with some rather dodgy Leaders of other nations, appeared to be enjoying her State Stagecoach ride enormously. With selfies exchanged and, rumour has it, Prince Phil and the Corgis kept reasonably under control, one can assume that she waved goodbye to the departing cavalcade with a sigh of “I think that went rather well really, don`t you”?
Working Tax Credit was a scheme dreamed up by Gordon Brown and, as with so many policies that seemed like a good idea at the time, it has been revealed to have a fault-line running through it. From a relatively modestly-priced way of topping up the income of those on very low wages the cost of this Government benevolence has spiralled out of control to the point where at one stage even some Members of Parliament were in receipt of WTC. The former Labour Chancellor Darling, no less, has acknowledged that this well-meant `benefit` has metamorphosed into a mechanism that allows employers to pay low wages in the certain knowledge that the balance due will be topped up by the taxpayer to a reasonable figure. That, surely, is the economics of the madhouse.
The last Conservative election manifesto spelled out, in terms, that a Conservative Government would need to take further austerity measures to bring the Country`s finances under proper control and that, as part of that policy, cuts in benefits would be inevitable. The Prime Minister gave an assurance that Child Tax credits would not be abolished but that did not apply, as has been incorrectly implied, to the ludicrous and spendthrift Working Tax Credit scheme. He said, rightly, that it makes no sense to take money in tax with one hand only to give it back in the form of benefits with another. The PM`s view chimes completely with the Chancellor`s aim for a higher-wage lower-tax economy. As part of a package of measures that include the raising the level at which any tax is paid at all, the introduction of very considerable childcare allowances for working parents and other positive measures Chancellor George is proposing to reduce the payment of Working Tax Credits and the bill that goes with it. The plan is that this should be initially fiscally neutral and that, ultimately, the `hard working families` that the Government is rightly so fond of promoting, should keep more of their hard-earned cash and be better off. All of which makes, to a Tory at least, eminent sense.
Except. There is clearly likely to be a gap between the loss of income on the tax-credit side of this equation and the increase in income as the other measures are introduced. That, of course, has caused real concern as it will impact upon, first, some of those on the most modest of incomes (such as many of my own constituents) who are just above the threshold for other forms of assistance. If Alastair Darling`s policy fell victim to the law of unintended consequences then, while probably not the “Osborne`s Poll Tax” disaster that some doom-mongers have predicted, the reduction in Working Tax Credits could, unless modified and phased, prove to be just as flawed in its introduction. I discussed all of this with Chancellor George in a private meeting well before the vote on the matter in the Commons. I came away with the distinct impression that the Chancellor, who is no fool fiscally or politically, had taken on board the concerns that I and others had expressed and had every intention not of doing a U-turn but of fine-tuning the measures to alleviate shortfall, in his Autumn Statement. That is in a few weeks` time and well before any changes would begin to bite.
Most of that was common knowledge, certainly in the House, by the time that the debate took place but it did not stop either the “Write to your MP” push-button campaign nor a degree of grandstanding from the Government benches during the debate. At the end of that day, however, not one Conservative MP abstained or voted against a measure that had already been approved by the House twice before.
The convention in the British parliament is that the unelected House of Lords does not interfere with financial matters proposed by the elected House of Commons. Not since 1909 have their Lordships meddled with matters relating to tax and that led to the 1911 Parliament Act that gave the Commons the ultimate power to over-ride the Upper house. Nevertheless, on the flimsy pretext that this was a `statutory instrument` and not primary legislation the Lords defeated the Commons on the Working Tax Credit issue and Chancellor George was forced to state publicly what he had already agreed privately, which is that he intends to make further announcements in the Autumn Statement. Not a single Tory Peer voted against the measure on the highest turnout in the Lords, on the Government benches, in living memory. (Lord (Andrew) Lloyd-Webber flew in from the USA just to vote before, immediately, returning to the States). Two thirds of the cross-bench peers and a handful of Labour Lords also voted with the Government. The present arithmetic in the Upper House, however, means that the Labour Party and the liberal democrats (who have far more Peers than they have elected Members of the House of Commons) can defeat the Government upon issue. The realisation is dawning that while we are no longer hamstrung by a coalition with the Liberal Democrats in terms of policy we are at the same time being held to ransom by an unelected chamber that has, to date, sought to resist a staggering seventy-five per cent of the policy of the democratically elected Government. “Constitutional crisis” is, under these circumstances, a not unreasonable description of the situation and the Lords may yet find that they have scored a monumental own-goal.
I have long argued for the total abolition of the House of Commons and the House of Lords and for the creation, instead, of four national parliaments (England, Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland) with their own First Ministers and a United Kingdom elected Senate led by a Prime Minister and dealing, solely, with Foreign policy, Defence and macro-taxation. I doubt that the inquiry, set up by the Prime minister and chaired by Lord (Tom) Strathclyde, a former and very distinguished Leader of the Upper House, will go for that radical option but change there most certainly will be – even if Young Lochinvar has to create another one hundred Tory peers to push the measures through.
Meanwhile, in the Commons, the tectonic plates have shifted and the `West Lothian Question` so beloved of that great Scottish Laird and parliamentarian Tam Dalyell, has been at least partially answered. It has long been an anomaly that while English and Welsh parliamentarians have been barred from voting on matters `devolved` to the Scottish parliament, such as the funding of education, Scottish MPs sitting in Westminster have been able, as Members of Parliament of the United Kingdom, to vote on matters only affecting England and Wales, which is of course unjust and a nonsense. Following the referendum that maintained the status of Scotland within the United Kingdom the Prime minister promised both further devolution of powers to Scotland and “English Votes for English Laws” (EVEL). The Scots, it seems, have wanted to grab the goodies without paying the bill but finally the House of Commons, amidst much sound, fury and McSelf-righteous indignation, have passed the necessary change in standing orders. In a burst of wholly synthetic outrage the SNP MP Pete Wishart referred to the “creation of two classes of MPs” wholly missing the irony of the fact that hitherto there have been two classes of MPs – the Scots and the others! Notwithstanding the fact that in the Commons the Government has a majority of just twelve votes overall and yet one the vote by 312 to 270 the BBC still managed to describe this success as “narrow”, as I suppose you would expect. Anyway, from now on the Speaker of the House of Commons, supported by two impartial and very senior MPs of vast experience and wisdom will be charged with the duty of deciding whether a measure is one upon which Scottish MPs may be allowed to speak but not vote or whether it is one that the whole House may determine. The “EVEL” notices have already been posted in the voting lobbies and as one of the two fully paid-up Old Codgers selected to help Mr. Speaker adjudicate the process I look forward to this revolutionary and novel experience with great interest.
The Parliamentary Labour Party has had its own problems. Chancellor George baited a trap in the form of a vote on the balanced budget and reduction of deficit policy and waited for it to spring shut. Labour`s first position was, responsibly, to support the Government in this aim. The Brothers and Sisters of the PLP, however took the Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, down a different path and, in the Chamber of the House Big Mac from Hayes and Harlington found himself saying that this was “embarrassing……embarrassing…..embarrassing…..embarrassing….embarrassing…embarrassing…..”! Which was more embarrassing, the repetition or the apology for handbrake turn is a moot point but eventually the House got the message. It was embarrassing.
The disgraceful saga of “The Westminster Paedophile Ring” rumbles revoltingly on. Even with Lord (Leon) Brittan hounded humiliatingly to his grave in the wake of what Metropolitan Police DCI Paul Settle described to the home Affairs Select Committee as “a baseless witch hunt” it took far too many weeks for Scotland Yard to apologise to Lord Brittan`s widow for their failures and still longer for the now deputy Leader of the Opposition and self-appointed Sleazefinder , the MP Mr. Thomas Watson, to acknowledge the miserable flaws in his self-aggrandizing campaign.
Let us be clear: child-abuse is one of the most terrible of crimes. It scars its victims horribly for life and it needs to be stamped out whenever and as soon as it raises its head. It has been revealed that there have been those in high places in the worlds of entertainment, the church, business and, probably, politics who have been involved in revolting acts and it is right that, however long after those events have taken place, the perpetrators should be brought to justice both for the sake of their victims and as a deterrent to others.
What is not right is that the Metropolitan police should have allowed itself to have been effectively directed by one politician on a “mission” of what has been tantamount to persecution of the living and, of course, of a dead who cannot sue or defend their reputations. What on earth The Met was playing at in caving in to the pressure from a Member of Parliament who, we now know, sought to influence the conduct of not one but four inquiries is beyond me, as is the idea that the present Metropolitan Police Commissioner, Sir Bernard Hogan-Howe-do-I-get-another- three-years-in- my-job, should have his contract extended in the wake of a dismal failure for which he should be carrying the can.
The Police clearly knew weeks before his death that Lord Brittan had no case to answer: Watson`s claims had been debunked within days and they had been informed of that officially four times. He was, nevertheless, allowed to go to his funeral by a craven senior police management without knowing that his name had been cleared. It was only when hauled to give evidence before the Select Committee that Mr. Watson finally said that he was `sincerely sorry` for the distress that he had caused. I doubt that Mr. “McCarthy” Watson is capable of being sincere about anything except his own self-preservation and I hope and expect that the Leader of the House will instigate another inquiry – this time into the conduct of a man who, in my personal view, is not fit to be a Member of Parliament, much less Deputy Leader of the Opposition.
Back in the fantasy world occupied by Comrade Jerry the man himself, having recovered from the white-tie-and-tails experience, adheres stoically to New Old Labour. Migration is “nothing but a plus for Britain” he opines. There is merit, certainly, in attracting the services of the overseas labour that Britain needs (the NHS would collapse without foreign doctors and nurses for example) but “nothing but a plus” might be stretching the welcome mat a tad further than is practicable. The prospect of agreeing to spend £100 billion on new nuclear missiles while simultaneously declaring that you will under no circumstances authorise the pushing of the button that fires them also seems a trifle off-the-wall even in Jerry`s role as the newly-elected President of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament. “Red Ken” Livingstone has probably not endeared himself to former parliamentary colleagues by suggesting on the Sunday Politics programme, that Comrade Jerry should purge the party of anti-Corbyn MPs. Those with very long memories may recall that back in the days of the Greater London Council one Andrew Mackintosh, a moderate and courteous soul, led theLondon Labour party into a GLC election which he won only to find himself booted out the following day by a bloke called Tony (later Lord) Banks and K. Livingstone. The hard left does not take prisoners. All that said, Comrade Jerry is heading remorselessly South in the opinion polls with a rating currently down in the frosty minus-20s. Simon Danczuk, Rochdale`s Labour MP, has already offered himself as a `stalking horse`, which is the political equivalent of a human sacrifice, to pave the way for a serious challenger to Jerry when the time is right. The by-election in Oldham, precipitated by the death of the sitting MP Michael Meacher (see valete, below) , may tell us more. The poor man is still lying in the mortuary and his funeral is not until the thirteenth of November (a Friday, for the superstitious) but the comrades are already in the process of seeking a suitably Corbynite successor to fill his boots.
I had an interesting exchange of e-mails, this last month, with Dr Johann Malawana, the Leader of the Junior Hospital Doctors provisional wing of that sawbones` trade union, the British Medical Association. Dr Malawana is faced with a ballot his Members on strike action that would potentially Seriously Damage Your Health. As one who, for the past thirty two years has worked all day on most Saturdays and frequently at least half of Sundays as well I sought to establish, from Dr Malawana, which bit of a proposed new contract that the Secretary of State for Health has stated in terms will not reduce the amount paid to medical staff but that will reduce their working hours, he did not like. His response suggested to me that he is in fact a decent man who just wants to get back to “the real world of delivering babies” which is, I gather, his estimable professional pastime. I suggested, therefore, that he should take his courage and the telephone in both hands, call Mr. Secretary Hunt, get around the negotiating table and thrash the problems, if there are any, out. This generated the further riposte that the Doctors were not prepared to talk about a done deal. What this means, I suspect, is that the BMA is being driven by other people who prefer the grievance to the solution and who are wedded to the principle of overtime for weekend work rather than accepting, as most present-day employees now do, that there are seven days in a week and most, if lucky, are required to work any five of them. I feel for Dr. Malawana but not talking is not the answer to grievances, either genuine or imagined.
This month campaigns to take Britain out of the EU (the Farridge one and the saner one supported by his only MP, Douglas Carswell) and to Keep Britain in the EU backed by lots of eminent people including my former parliamentary colleague in South Thanet, Laura Sandys, have been launched. Thatcher`s Chancellor Lord (Nigel) Lawson is heading up ` Conservatives for Britain` which might otherwise be called `Conservatives against Brussels` but the suggestion made by Sajid Javid during the Tory conference that Man David could campaign to take the UK out of the Union are shown, by the month`s end, to be more than a little wide of the likely mark. With Jean-Claude Juncker bleating in the wings the Prime Minister has set out at least part of his Common Market stall. Notwithstanding the Brussels vision of `ever-closer union leading to a Federal United States of Europe Cameron demands “ No Superstate”. He wants, also, a statement that Euro is not the official currency of the EU and that a “multi-currency” Union is the way forward. That, given the synthetic and fragile nature of the Eu-thing, may yet prove to be a self-fulfilling requirement. He requires a “red card” system allowing Britain to veto proposals that we do not approve and a new 19-9 structure to replace the current 28-nation edifice and to represent those countries not members of the Eurozone. So far so good but all of that adds up to the sum of not very much and ignores the elephant in to room which is an open-frontier freedom of movement that is now giving even Frau Merkel the occasional nightmare.
Margaret Thatcher once famously said, while promoting trading on the Sabbath, “Of course I would not want shops in Grantham to open on Sundays”. The German Chancellor appears, in similar vein, to be saying “when I said I wanted freedom of movement for everyone in Europe I didn`t mean `every one`. Her proposal to construct `Transit zones` to help process the inexorable tide of migrants that is still sweeping across Europe , with its` unfortunate undertones that cannot help but remind a certain generation of concentration camps, has shown that the chickens born of her willingness to take 800,000 migrants this year are coming home to roost. I have said before and will repeat that the Schengen agreement has driven a coach and horses through mainland Europe`s power to control its own borders and security and Frau Merkel`s boldly advertised but foolish largesse has both acted as a recruiting sergeant for people-traffickers and allowed the Turkish President, at the time of writing Mr. Erdogan, to hold Europe to ransom over concessions that could lead to millions of visas being granted and a fast track to membership of the European Union. Or might, were it not for the small matter of Turkish troops still occupying territory of the Member State of the EU that is Cyprus. And talking of Cyprus it has been revealed that Britain has, for about ten years, been housing and funding a group of stateless refugees in the British Sovereign base at Dhekelia. With migrants now landing on the coast at our other base at Akrotiri and one former very senior law officer opining that they are, technically, now within the United Kingdom, Cyprus could rise up the political agenda fairly fast.
Back to the In/Out debate. The UK may have sold more overseas outside the EU for the past twelve months but Europe is still a major trading partner as Lord (Stuart) Rose, former boss of Marks and Spencer and backing the “In” campaign is unlikely to cease telling us between now and R-Day. The Prime Minister has chosen a visit to Iceland to make his most pro-European statement to date, indicating that a Norwegian-style life outside the EU would not be all milk-and-honey. Not, perhaps, the wisest stand to take if you want to re-negotiate the terms upon which we might remain a Member State. At present the polls show that roughly twenty-five per cent of the UK public is die-hard Eurosceptic and will vote out come what may. Another twenty five per cent are equally committed to the pro-European cause and will vote to stay in at any price. The remaining fifty per cent would just like to get back to what most of us thought that we were joining which is a common trading market without all of the trappings of oppressive federalism. Man David needs to get through to Herr Juncker, Frau Merkel, Mr. Holland and other Europhiles that unless there is a significant move in that direction Great Britain really will “Vote Leave”.
In other news it seems likely that a teenager operating from a bedroom in Northern Ireland has managed to hack into and reveal the personal details of thousands of Talk Talk customers in a criminal cyber-attack that is going to cost that company mega-bucks. The earth-shattering news that somebody called Robert Peston is going to leave the BBC and join commercial television to host his own programme has been confirmed. The Salford Broadcasting Corporation itself has dropped coverage of the Open Golf tournament to the embarrassment (this month`s word) of veteran pro and commentator Peter Alliss. Britain`s hosting of The World Cup rugby tournament, won for the first successive time in the history of the Webb Ellis trophy by New Zealand`s All Blacks has been judged an unqualified success. Unqualified, that is, unless you happen to support one of the Home Nations in which case, with particular reference to England, the outcome was `embarrassing`. Equally `embarrassing` is the revelation that, against the advice of civil servants and Ministers, successive Governments have given shedloads of unaccounted-for money to the Kids Company organisation founded by the `colourful` Ms. Camila Batmanghelidgh. At a Select Committee hearing the BBC`s highly-paid executive and presenter Alan Yentob, described as “looking like a pudding waiter sitting next to a fruit salad”, suggested extravagantly that the closure of the spendthrift operation over which he had helped to preside had “been close to murder”. There are those who believe that Kids Company has, metaphorically, been getting away with murder for far too long and former Children`s Minister Tim Loughton described in scathing terms the manner in which one of Ms. Batmanthingy`s “Dear David” letters, sent over the head of Ministers, had resulted in a multi-million pound handout of taxpayer`s money only days before the gravy train hit the buffers.
The good news is that a date has been announced for the publication of the Chilcot report into the origins and conduct of the Iraq war has been announced. The bad news is that Lord Chilcot`s Magnum Opus will not see the light of day until the middle of next year. This is what Chilcot describes as “a realistic timetable” taking account of the process of “Maxwellisation” which has allowed those criticised in the report to take an interminable amount of time to study and to seek to respond to those criticisms. In the case of “The Legacy” Blair it took some eight months to reply and is even now using American television to try to get his retaliation in first.
Another cause for delay could, of course, be the uncovering of a `smoking gun` in the form of alleged exchanges between General Colin Powell and President Bush during which the former is claimed to have said to his Commander-in-Chief that “Blair will be with us” a year before the British Prime Minister allowed a House of Commons relying upon misleading information to vote upon the matter.
“And Crispin Crispian shall ne`er go by from this day to the ending of the world but we, in it, shall be remembered”. So said Shakespeare`s King Henry the Fifth before the Battle of Agincourt and his “happy few” , which included the company of deadly longbow archers that turned the battle, were indeed remembered in Westminster Abbey on the six hundredth anniversary of the victory. The `band of brothers` might have been surprised to find their Monarch`s helmet and sword displayed on the high altar in the Abbey while the defeat of a French Army that was thirty-six thousand strong by just nine thousand English and Welsh yeoman and a handful – well, a few hundred – of bowmen were recalled but one hopes that they would have been gratified to know that “the wounds that they got upon Saint Crispin`s Day” are not forgotten.
The Reverend Ronald Dutt, who does not own a television set, has received a monthly letter regularly for four and a half years, from TV licensing asking him why he does not have a TV license. He is in good company. The BBC, on whose behalf TV Licensing acts, cannot comprehend the fact that in this day and age there really are people who can live without multi-channelled visual garbage.
Two visitors to Canterbury each received £160 fine notices for `dropping litter`. The `litter` was in fact used cherry stones from produce purchased from one of Canterbury`s market stalls and were buried in soil in flower baskets. The City, which prides itself on the welcome that it extends to tourists, has declared that “The fixed penalties were issued correctly”. However, as you would expect from the City that hosts the See of the Primate of All England (The Archbishop of Canterbury) Christian charity has prevailed. One of the two fines has been cancelled as a “fair and reasonable” concession.
The Health Service in Wales is becoming legendary for its inefficiency. Nevertheless the reported experience of one lady must win prizes for chaotic organisation. The patient needed two knee replacements. The left knee received attention in Cardiff, 68 miles from her home and the right knee was operated on in Llanelli, 113 miles from her home in Aberystwyth.
Ninety two year old Normandy veteran George Evans has been `sacked` from the Remembrance Sunday service in Wellington, Shropshire, for his “Lesson” that declares “Isn`t war stupid”.
“We all did our duty for our countries” says the old soldier, showing respect for those of all nations – friend and foe – who have fallen in wars. Given that there has only been one year since the end of the Second World War in which a British man or woman has not been killed , somewhere in the world on active service, might the old boy just not have a rather clearer view of the sacrifices of his comrades than the `official` Shropshire view?
Meanwhile the town of Biggleswade in Bedfordshire has banned Scouts, Guides and Cubs from participating in their Remembrance Sunday parade. This at a time when more young people than ever before are engaged in acts of remembrance. `Elf `n` safety is cited as the reason.
The 0.1% of the people of Cornwall who speak Cornish will be please to know that in compliance with Part 11 of the charter for Regional and Minority languages Council staff will be required to learn Cornish. That will gladden the hearts of the 557 people who will be able to converse with them.
Marks and Spencers have been selling early Christmas puddings. Their `best before` date is October 20th! And shoppers Lynn and Bert Francis, were required to provide personal details before purchasing a £15 box of crackers from M&S in Peacehaven, Sussex. The crackers, you see, contain `low-grade explosives` and in order to preserve, presumably, the peace of the haven they may not be sold, under the terms of the Pyrotechnic Articles Safety Regulations 2010, to persons under 12. Given that Lynn is 82 and Bert is 83 one might feel that even to an unpractised eye they might have appeared to be rather more than 12 years old. And how many crackers does it take to blow up the Houses of Parliament? Answers on a postcard to G. Fawkes please. (M&S have conceded that this was a `technical error`)
The French may rip the legs off frogs to eat them but there is clearly a softer side to the Gallic attitude to pond life. Vern – sur – Seiche in Brittany is spending £47 thousand pounds to construct “froggyduct” tunnels under the main road barring the route to the amphibians` breeding pools. Hitherto 1,200 grenouilles have been squashed annually. Don`t ask which insomniac
counted them every night.
Denis Healey, Harold Wilson`s Chancellor between 1974 and 1979 has closed the battered red Budget Box at the age of ninety-eight. A veteran of World War Two, painter, photographer, historian and opera buff the man who never actually used the phrase “Silly Billy” so beloved of ha impressionists has been frequently described as “the best Labour Prime Minister that Britain never had.”. The bushy- eyebrowed cartoonist`s dream is also remembered, by those of us present for the occasion, for describing being criticised by his protagonist as Tory Chancellor, Geoffrey Howe, as “like being savaged by a dead sheep”.
And the “dead sheep” himself, Lord (Geoffrey) Howe has also left us in his eighty-ninth year. Geoffrey Howe (1926-2015) served in Margaret Thatcher`s Shadow Cabinet and government for a total of fifteen years, eleven of them as Chancellor of the Exchequer and Foreign Secretary – two of the highest Offices of State in the land. It was on the Thirteenth of November 1990 , a date etched into the minds of all of those of us present in the Chamber of the House of Commons, that Howe, replaced by the then unknown John Major following a disagreement with Thatcher over Europe, rose to make his resignation speech. Likening his position as Foreign Secretary to that of a cricketer who finds himself going in to face the opposition for Britain having discovered that his bats had been broken in the dressing room by the team`s captain, his indictment of Margaret Thatcher`s increasingly dictatorial style of leadership is accepted as being the moment that triggered the leadership challenge, her ultimate downfall and the adoption, by the Conservative Party, of John Major as Leader of the Party and Prime Minister. Speaking at Margaret Thatcher`s 80th Birthday Party he said that the events of 1990 “could not be allowed to erase fifteen years of friendship”.
Police Constable David Phillips, a thirty-four year old officer with a young wife and two children, was on duty when he was the victim of what most people would call `murder` when he was killed by a teenager who drove a car straight at him. This crime, which mirrored the death of PC Jon Odell in Margate, is a reminder that those carrying warrants who leave home in the morning wearing uniform can never guarantee that they will return home, safely, to their families at the end of the day.
Some will remember a balding Gordon Honeycombe as the ITN newsreader who reporting man`s landing on the moon. Others may remember him as an author. I remember him, fondly, as a hugely courteous and professionally generous small-part actor with the Royal Shakespeare Theatre at Stratford on Avon when I worked there as a holiday job as a dresser on leaving school in 1960. His seventy-nine years of life were very well filled.
Sue Lloyd-Roberts is another television journalist who, after a battle with leukaemia, has died in only her sixty-fifth year. She blazed a trail for a generation of courageous women on-screen reporters and fearlessly placed herself in harm`s way – most recently in Syria – in the interests of uncovering and broadcasting the inconvenient truth.
Michael Meacher, the Member of Parliament for Oldham West who has died at the age of seventy-five, engaged the services of one Jeremy Corbyn as his by-election agent in the 1970`s. He went on to serve as a Minister in Harold Wilson and Jim Callaghan`s governments and was a 1980`s ally of Tony Benn on the left of the Labour party .Once described as “Neil Kinnock`s vicar on earth” he was at the Department of the Environment under Blair and is credited with first highlighting the growing threat posed by global warming.
That iconic structure wrongly but generally known as `Big Ben`( Note: Big Ben is the major bell, not the clock) is in need of urgent repair. The timepiece at the top of The Elizabeth Tower at the Commons end of the Palace of Westminster is showing signs of a century and a half of wear and tear. The old pennies that balanced the mechanism are, according to the delightful member of the Worshipful Company of Clockmakers who comes to wind the more modest George V1 clock in my office very early on Thursday mornings, struggling to keep the ticking mechanism on time. Worse, the bearings on the hands on each of the four clock faces are literally wearing thin and have to be replaced. This will entail vast expenditure and months of painstaking scaffolding before the restoration can be carried out. The clock, which has survived wars and turbulence, will then have to be stopped while the work done. While the expense will be colossal if Big Ben is to be allowed to recommence chiming on the hours, there is the thought that parliament might take the opportunity to install a lift to enable disabled access as well. If the rest of the Palace is to be closed for five years, and both Houses decanted, while the entire building is re-furbished then the clock tower, which will need to be addressed during 2017, would provide at least some access for the thousands of visitors from all over the world who visit Westminster annually. In a time of austerity is this something that Britain can afford? Some would say that it is not an extravagance but an essential that we cannot afford not to undertake.