Gale`s View from Westminster – July 2015
July. No traffic in channel, Europe cut off and Kent gridlocked. Greek economy and government on the brink - again. Britain is booming as Chancellor George delivers the first Tory budget for a generation. Labour`s dark horse takes the lead. The BBC and the Lionesses score own goals and in Africa the King of the Pride is murdered by an American trophy hunter. The Government is out-foxed, EVEL rises up the political agenda and Salmond predicts a Sturgeon referendum. Whitehawks (well, it rhymes) plague the seaside. Is it the end-of-the-Peer show? And sailing history is made off Southsea.
"Operation Stuck", as it is less-than-affectionately known in Kent, is the name given to the use of the M20 motorway as a parking lot for lorries stranded by striking French unionists (farmers, seafarers, other travaillistes) and marauding economic migrants who, from time to time, bring the port of Calais and the Channel Tunnel to a grinding halt. This is different from the M25 motorway that rings outer London as a peripherique and is generally regarded by those who have the mis-fortune to have to use it as a permanent car park.
The M20 carries, together with the M2, much of the inbound freight upon which Britain relies for food and industrial use, exports from the United Kingdom to mainland Europe and beyond and, additionally, heavy domestic tourist traffic in both directions. It is, therefore, a vital artery and the closure of the railhead and seaports causes personal and economic grief, particularly at the start of the holiday season. As a result of a seafarers` strike arising from the sacking of crew hitherto employed by the MyFerry cross-channel operation and an influx of economic migrants who have travelled unimpeded across Europe and now inhabit "The Jungle" (as the Calais shanty-town is called) while on a nightly basis invading the Tunnel entrance, "Stack" has been in operation throughout July. At the start of the month there was a reported thirty-three -mile two-deep tailback on the M20 as lorry drivers sweltered in 100 degrees Fahrenheit without lavatory facilities or food or water for three days. On the other side of the Channel we are told that there was a fifty mile queue of trucks heading for Britain. Life in Kent has been brought literally to a standstill as local people and businesses suffer from the inability to move or trade. It is not just the "big boys" that feel this pain. Weddings, with their attendant costs, have been postponed, pubs and restaurants are denied customers, hospital appointments are missed or cancelled and, of course, holidays are ruined. Further north the knock-on is felt and the Toyota factory, for example, had to shut its plant due to a lack of car parts from the continent. The economic and human cost is staggeringly unacceptable.
While clearly unable or unwilling to take action against striking French seamen, what passes for a government on the other side of the Channel has sought to blame Britain for a "black market" and benefits system that attracts the economic migrants. Set aside for the moment the fact that if you drive abroad without a high-viz jacket in your car you will be fined while French strikers are able to block arterial motorways with burning car tyres with apparent impunity and concentrate upon the "swarm", to use Prime Minister Cameron`s less than elegant but entirely accurate description, of migrants heading from all parts to the Nord Pas de Calais. This is not a "British" problem. It is a European and a global problem and instead of criticising the "racist" UK for failing to open the country`s doors to all-comers from all places Mr Peter Sutherland, the UN`s Special Representative with responsibility for refugees might do rather better to consider the poverty in places like Ethiopia and Sudan and Somalia and the conflicts in Syria and Iraq and Afghanistan and the UN`s dismal failure to address the root causes of mass economic migration.
In turn, a supine and invisible European Commission might, while preaching "Freedom of Movement" throughout the EU, ponder the fact that there is at present no "freedom of movement" for those who wish to lawfully travel and transport goods between Britain and mainland Europe. If economic migration is a rich and fertile source of trade for criminal people-traffickers and out of control then that is at least in part because the Schengen agreement has abolished internal frontier controls between most European countries. It is literally possible to travel from the Greek and Italian Islands, or from Martinique, on the other side of the Atlantic but legally part of Metropolitan France and therefore within the EU, without meeting a border control until the UK posts at Calais or Gard du Nord in Paris. Until Schengen is abolished on the one hand and until the UN does a very great deal more to address poverty and conflict in the source counties, the tide of potential migrants and attendant criminality will grow.
The Bourgeois Women`s Tabloid and other elements of the British gutter press have, of course, peddled an unsavoury brand of xenophobia, demanded that we send our only remaining gunboat and called for the Government to pour in troops to, presumably, re-claim Calais for the English. It will also surprise few to know that "Bandwagon" Farridge has sought to metaphorically nail yet another cross of St. George on the White Cliffs of Dover but I cannot see that any of our illustrious elected representatives within the European Parliament have contributed much of value to the debate.
It is, finally on this subject, an absolute fact that Kent County Council and successive Governments have signally failed to address the long-term and "peacetime" need for lorry parking facilities on the M2 (Dover) and the M20 (Tunnel) roads. As a result and in the absence of anything resembling aires de repos, trucks park overnight in the lay-bys and on the verges of our roads and their drivers use the hedgerows as latrines. If nothing else good comes of this shambles then perhaps we might at last deal with the need to provide properly for those who, with luck, may soon again be able to legally use our Channel crossings.
From transport shambles to Eurozone shambles and Greece has been and remains, once again, in the eye of the perfect storm. Prime Minister Alexis Tsipras says to the EU "don`t blackmail us". In a hastily-called referendum the Greek people back their government and say "no" to austerity. This will precipitate the "Grexit" from the Eurozone will it not? As a matter of fact, no. Tourists are stranded with no access to funds through closed banks. Frau Merkel says "nein" to a Greek debt write-off. "Five days to save the Euro" scream the headlines as yet another `deadline` looms. Who will blink first? Greece wants the euro and the Eurozone wants the Greeks. Decision time and a new austerity package, arguably as tough if not tougher than the first, is on the table. The UK is facing a £1bn. bill to help bail out a country in a Eurozone of which we are not a part. Chancellor George negotiates a ring-fenced repayment arrangement. In Athens there is a parliamentary revolt as Syriza government MPs reject the bailout contract but the deal is kept afloat with the help of an Opposition watching their country peering into the abyss.
At the time of writing tourists who thought that they were going to get cheap Greek island holidays are now faced with refugee camps on the one hand and VAT at 23% imposed by a government now desperate to meet its austerity requirements on the other, but Greece is still hovering within the brink of the Eurozone. The President of the European Parliament said that a "no" vote in the Greek referendum would "sink the EU". Will it? Watch this space.
Out of the Eurozone and in improving economic health is UK Ltd. This month George Osborne has delivered the first Tory budget since the last year of Sir John Major`s administration. It was, for an `umble backbencher, one of those "I was there" moments. "Fearless George Slays the Dragons" was the tabloid headline and just for once they were on the button. Stealing Labour`s clothes a £9 per week minimum wage, giving some six million low-paid working people a pay rise took the Oppositions breath away in a manner from which" Mad Hattie" Harman, Leading for the Opposition in reply, did not fully recover. This was, though, a tax-cutting, welfare reducing, deficit-busting, truly Conservative budget. The Personal Tax Allowance rises to £11,000 taking a significant number out of tax altogether, the application of higher-rate (40p) tax rises to £43,000, there will be £12 billion of welfare cuts with the `cap` falling from £25,000 to £23,000 in London and £20,000 elsewhere, £9 billion will be taken out of the bill for tax credits and, post-2017, applicable to the first to children in a family only. The inheritance tax threshold, which has for a long time failed to reflect the increase in property prices, will rise to £1 million. Student grants will be replaced with Student Loans and the controversial issue of "non-dom" tax status will be addressed. Fuel duty remains frozen as predicted and promised and Chancellor George has confirmed Defence spending at 2% minimum of GDP which is what NATO and many Conservatives have been calling for. The bottom line is that Great Britain will be back in the black by 2019/2020.
Budgets received well on the day traditionally fall apart when the fine print is examined. On "the morning after" the media concludes that on balance those on low incomes will, notwithstanding increases in thresholds, be hit more than the "rich" with an average household receiving £260 a year less in tax credits. On balance, though, Chancellor George is seen to have done his Leadership prospects no harm at all, pulled a few rabbits out of his top hat and shot a few Labour foxes. He also caused some grief for the acting Leader of the Opposition. Mad Hattie announced that Labour would not oppose the proposed cap on Child Tax Credits. The Parliamentary Labour Party felt otherwise and gave her the bird. Even though Ms. Harman backed down and tabled what is called a "reasoned amendment" to the Government`s budget motion some fifty Labour MPs, including one Stephen Kinnock, Welsh Windbag Kinnock`s little boy and now the MP for Aberavon, rebelled and voted against the Welfare Reform and Work Bill.
Don`t mention foxes! There is, within the small print of the Conservative Election Manifesto that Man David has promised to implement in full, a pledge to offer the Houses of Parliament (both of them of course) the opportunity to, on a free vote, repeal the Hunting Act that outlaws the chasing and killing of wild animals with dogs. "Let sleeping hounds lie" has been the advice of those of us who are long-standing opponents of fox-hunting and of many pro-hunt supporters who have seen the numbers of those riding out increase as drag-hunts have prospered and the threatened cull of dogs and horses and the loss of rural jobs has not materialised. No matter. An election pledge is an election pledge and, given a parliamentary majority, the Prime Minister has the clear right to blunderbuss on.
In fact what the House of Commons was offered was not a vote on the repeal of the Hunting Act at all but an attempt at a squalid little measure in the form, of a Statutory Instrument that "merely" allowed hill farmers to use more than two dogs to flush out foxes before shooting them while at the same time "bringing England into line with Scotland. This, of course, was seen for precisely what it was - an attempt to bring back foxhunting through the back-door. Setting aside the fact that not since the aborted "Poll Tax" has England shown any great desire to follow Scotland , Sturgeon`s Tartan Army are about to review the Scottish legislation with a view to toughening it up because there are too many loopholes in it!
Time was when the Tory benches could be relied upon, red in tooth and claw, to vote for hunting. Only a few eccentrics and "townies" like R. Gale (I was, in fact, brought up in rural Dorset and one of our family was the Master of the Axe Vale Hounds) were "unsound". There is, though, a new and younger breed of Conservative MP that represents not only urban and traditionally non-hunting seats but some in the hunting heartlands of the West Country as well that is wholeheartedly opposed to a practice that ought to have been consigned to the dustbin of history along with cock-fighting and bear-baiting and public hanging. Having had the sums done for them by non-government "whips" (This is a `free vote`, remember, ) the business managers concluded that with between thirty and fifty Tories, including some Ministers, who are anti-hunt they could not carry the day if the Scottish Nationalists voted against their measure. Although this is an `English` issue upon which the Westminster Nats would not, normally, vote there are cross-border hunts that allow the Scots to claim a thinly-veiled interest and McSturgeon saw the chance to give London a bloody nose. (Ms. Sturgeon is not, by the way, anything to do with the Westminster parliament at all but the tartan hordes in the House of Commons are not led by Angus McNeil and certainly not by Alex Salmond. The "wee lassie in the tin hat" pulls the strings from Edinburgh very effectively indeed!)
Anyway, the long and the short of it is that with no majority the Government had to pull its secondary legislation at the eleventh hour and go away to plot how best to design English Votes for English Laws in a way that would pass through both Houses of Parliament and prevent the Scots from blocking parts of the legislative programme. On the hunting front, though, it is now clear that even without the Scot Nats the Government, on a free vote, does not have a majority to repeal or amend the Hunting Act and if the business managers have any sense they will leave the matter well alone. That, I fear, is unlikely given Man David`s pledge and meantime, while the Leader of the House, Chris Grayling, talks of EVEL in terms of "fairness" Ms Sturgeon is lining up for a second referendum using the English Votes issue as her excuse. Another space to watch.
The Government`s mild tribulations arising from a very small majority pale into insignificance though when compared with the fears and miseries currently being experienced by a Loyal Opposition seeking to choose a new Leader to replace The Milipede, if you remember him, and a current and interim holder of the office , Mad Hattie, who is doing a sterling job. We have, on offer, Gordon Brown`s former Health Secretary, who presided over the "Mid-Staffs Hospital" crisis, Andy Burnham, Yvette Cooper who, unfairly but inevitably, as "Mrs Ed Balls" carries a certain amount of baggage, and the relatively unknown but effective Blairite Liz Kendall, the MP for Leicester West. And then we have Mr. Jeremy Corbyn.
Jeremy Corbyn is generally believed to regard Karl Marx as dangerously right wing. Say what you like about him - and many have - he is as straight as a die, true to his beliefs and principles and a diligent parliamentarian. As the no-hope candidate in the Labour Leadership Election he had to scratch around until the last minute to secure enough nominations to get his name onto the order paper. In the end some relative sane and good people, like Margaret Beckett, agreed to sign his papers because they felt that in the interests of democracy Jeremy ought to be allowed to run. Old Mother Beckett and others in similar vein are now bitterly rueing their magnanimous gesture. At the start of July Mr. Corbyn was running second to the firm favourite, Andy Burnt-out. Something approximating panic broke out as Red Jerry received the backing of the Unite Union and slipped into the lead by a modest fifteen points. With our friendly Marxist ahead in two opinion polls claims of "entryism" exploiting the Labour Party`s Electoral system and of Torygraph readers and Workers¬ Revolutionary Party and old Militant Tendency supporters joining forces and the electoral role to support the campaign began to emerge. This caused desperate Labour backbenchers like John Mann and graham Stringer to demand that the whole process be aborted and re-run. Into the fray, and unhelpfully from the point of moderate Socialists, stepped that blast-from-the-past Mr Tony "The Legacy" Blair, proclaiming that a Corbyn victory would put Labour "in the political wilderness". Blair still does a good job of preaching to his faithful under carefully stage-managed conditions but Corbyn emerged from that intervention leading Burnt-out by 53% to 47%. Blair`s unwelcome criticisms, in addition to giving Corbyn a boost, also had the amusing side-effect of reducing Lord "Two Jags" Prescott to apoplexy. Where will it all end? Well, in tears, either of despair or laughter, probably. As we go to press Red Jerry leads the field on 42% with Mrs Yvette Balls in second place on 22.6%, Mr. Burntout trailing in third place on 20% and Liz Kendall still at Becher`s Brook on the first time around the track. The "Stop Corbyn at any price" movement appears to be consolidating around Mrs. Balls but bearing in mind that this is the Labour party that we are talking about and with a month to go until polling day anything could happen and probably will but with the backing, now, of the Unison Union as well as Unite Comrade Corbyn may prove to be unstoppable.
It has not been a good month for the Salford Broadcasting Corporation. July was only one day old when the Director General, Lord (Tony) Hall announced that the Corporation was likely to have to axe up to 1000 jobs in the face of austerity arising from license-fee and charter negotiations.
"Auntie" attracted little sympathy for her proclaimed view that editorial impartiality should be afforded to coverage of matters relating to the so-called "Islamic State". Would the BBC (as it used to be called when based in Old Broadcasting House before moving to Salford and spending zillions of license-payers` pounds refurbishing "New" Broadcasting House) have given "impartiality" to the Nazis? I think not. Nick Robinson, The Beeb`s Political Editor since 2005, is moving to replace James Naughtie in the Today programme and will be replaced by "a woman", Laura Kuenssberg. Ms. Kuenssberg is a good reporter who has, so her employers tell us, "a flair for asking questions". That is a pretty good attribute for an interviewer. She is also, as her employers never tire of telling us, "The BBC`s first female political editor". That may be so but if I was Ms. Kuenssberg I suspect that I would like to think that I had won my job on merit (as I am sure that she did) without having the dice loaded in my favour because I wore a skirt.
Next came the phoney endorsement letter. Hot on the Heels of General Hall`s claim that the Government was "trying to diminish us" a number of luminary luvvies, including JK Rowling, Stephen Fry , Gary Lineker, Clare Balding and David Attenborough and twenty-four others, went into print with a letter to Man David Sent in support of his position. Unfortunately this heart-rending missive , mailed by people who have more than a small financial interest in BBC contracts, not only closely resembled Lord Hall`s speech but turned out to have been crafted by one Danny Cohen, Salford Broadcasting`s Director of Television. Michael Palin blew the gaffe by revealing that he had been asked by the BBC to sign the "Letter from the Stars” Having at first denied the authorship of the letter the handsomely salaried Director of Telly was then forced to admit, after Saint David Attenborough had strolled across the water to confess that "Cohen asked me to sign" that The Beeb`s grubby fingerprints were all over the document. This is what Mr. Lineker might describe as "a spectacular own goal."
In other news the British Army has appointed its first female brigadier. Sharon Naismith, a Mother of two, joined up in 1992 and now commands the five thousand frontline soldiers of the 1st. Signal Brigade. Following the repatriation of bodies after the Tunisian beach murders and the assurance from the UK that "we will stand by you" the Foreign Office has issued travel advice warning UK citizens not to holiday in Tunisia. This edict, which effectively makes it impossible for a holidaymaker to obtain travel insurance, further undermines that country`s staple tourist economy and makes it still harder for the Government to resist the forces of darkness. If anyone other than our foreign secretary, Philip Hammond, had made the statement to the House I would have said that we were ratting on our Tunisian friends but given his personal probity backed up by briefings from "6" one has to assume that he has good reason for playing safe.
Her Maj, and several thousand of the world`s finest photographers, judging by the sacrifice of rainforests to newsprint used, seems to have enjoyed the christening of Princess Charlotte. And why not? The great Old Lady will also be pleased to have Prince Wills installed in a peacetime role using his militarily-gained skills as an East Anglian Air Ambulance pilot. Not necessarily much safer than flying a military chopper but at least a little closer to home and perhaps mildly less hazardous than Search and Rescue. Her Maj will have been only momentarily embarrassed by the release of some stolen some 1933 pre-conflict family film footage of a youthful pair of princesses fooling around with "nazi" salutes. Not surprisingly the tabloids made much of this but given the war service afforded to his Country by King George VI and his wife and eldest daughter the "story" quickly had the legs cut from under it. Borat O`Bama is it seems, pleased with a "deal" to halt Iran`s nuclear bomb-making adventures and describes Secretary Kerry`s negotiations as "every one of the bottom lines". By the time that a rocking great mushroom cloud hovers over the Middle East as a result of this hubris President Borat will be out of the White House but I would suggest that anyone who buys into this line is in urgent need of, at the very least, a good atlas.
And the prize for the "silly season" story goes to that Hitchcock sequel "The Gulls". "Whitehawks", as they are almost known in the Royal Navy, have long plagued day-trippers to the seaside going about their lawful business of eating fish-and-chips or even ice cream. In the Kent coastal towns retirement bungalows are besieged by nesting gulls who "protect" their abundant offspring by aggressively dive-bombing the owners of the properties below. There is something hugely majestic about a mature and soaring herring gull flying into the teeth of a fierce north-easterly wind but it seems that this year the intrusive presence of "killer gulls" has reached epidemic proportions. Not only are reports of attacks from places as far
apart as Whitehaven in Cumbria ("Public Enemy Number One"), St. Ives in Cornwall ("Attacks on pensioners") and "attacks on women" in Brighton (are they, in that liberal sexual environment, quite sure?) but there are now calls for "controlled gull zones" and even the Prime Minister, speaking on a local radio station, is seeking to promote a "big conversation" about this airborne terrorist threat. You live miles from the sea in Birminghasm? Beware. We are now told that the feeding of garden birds with stale bread can inadvertently attract the urban gull. Life is hard, and then you die.
A small step for mankind. Since 2006 it has been a requirement that the photo driving license carries, also the flag filched from the Couuncil of Europe by the European Union. We are now "permitted" to include the Union Flag on that most essential of all documents. The Scots, however, may not use the saltire and the Welsh may not use the Dragon. We are, after all, still a United Kingdom.
The Chartered Institute of Public Relations has produced a Guide for MP`s. It includes the sound suggestion that Members of Parliament "should not tweet while drunk"!
Nobody would deny that Clare Balding is a professional television presenter. The BBC`s re-inventing of Wimbledon’s post-match tennis coverage, though, was quite awful. Gone was "today at Wimbledon" with John Inverdale`s masterly analysis of the day`s performances and in its place was "Wimbledon2Day" , described as "Top Gear meets Playschool" held at "The Great Gatsby Club" with "Fake grins, fake beer, fake audiences and fake conversations". The only thing worse to emerge from the home of Lawn Tennis was the now seemingly mandatory shrieking women banging a ball about. More tennis, less noise, please.
Anyone who believes that parking meters damage the retail trade need now look no further than Cardigan in West Wales. The meters have been vandalised and are out of action. The town is enjoying a shopping boom.
The Canon Fish bar in Stonehaven proudly displays a banner announcing to the world and to flocks of tourists that in the 1990s the establishment in the Aberdeenshire town gave birth to the deep-fried Mars bar. The local Council has now requested that the banner be removed "for the good of the Country". Genocide by Mars bar? I don`t think so.
South of the border Lord Nash, the Schools Minister, has authorised teachers to inspect lunch-boxes and to "confiscate, keep or destroy" unhealthy food. Deep-fried Mars bars are definitely "off".
The doyen of golf commentators at eighty-four years of age, Peter Allis has fallen foul of the politically-correct brigade. PA had the temerity to suggest, as Zack Johnson faced a final putt worth some £1.5 million, that the golfer`s wife, Kim, might be thinking "If this goes in I get a new kitchen"! This led to a charge of `casual sexism` and the inevitable unsolicited apology, not from Mr. Alliss but from the BBC. Note to the thought-police: It is a statistical fact that when women are asked what luxury they would most like the most common answer is "a new kitchen".
A hotel in Hull, the Holiday Inn Express, refused a room to a potential guest on the grounds that "you might be a prostitute". The Lady was a Romanian. She was also a UK graduate with an honours degree in Criminology and Forensic Science. Don`t go to the Holiday Inn in Hull if you fancy a good time, darling.
Worst taste joke of the month:
Immigration Officer to visitor at Athens Airport:
"Name"? "Angela Merkel"
"Occupation"? "No. Just visiting".
Gillian Clarke, the mediaeval historian, has closed a chapter at a youthful 74. Better known, perhaps, as the wife and soul-mate of Former Chancellor of the Exchequer Kenneth, she was a delight and tower of strength to one of the most formidable politicians of our age.
Sir Peter O`Sullevan has taken his last hurdle at the age of 97. If "summers will never be the same" since the death of "Jonners" then the equestrian seasons will never be the same without the voice of horseracing.
It is right, possibly, in this context to mention Cecil, the pride of Zimbabwe`s lions. Cecil prompted global outrage when he was murdered with a crossbow by a sad human specimen of a dentist from the United States. The worldwide price on the dental surgeon`s head suggests that civilisation is just, perhaps, waking up to the fact that we share this planet with other magnificent and endangered forms of life from the miniscule to the ginormous and that they, not "too" but particularly, have a right to dignity and consideration. The hapless Mr. Walter Parker from Minnesota, who will be forgotten long after Cecil`s name lives on, may inadvertently have done conservation a great favour: the sacrifice of Cecil must not have been in vain.
"I was there".
I was there when the face of Formula One sailing and the Americas` Cup changed forever. Time was when yachts were named "Endeavour" or Morning Cloud" or "White Heron". When " Land Rover BAR", to give the multi-hull lean machine her correct nomenclature, swept across the finishing line at the head of the field Southsea on Saturday 25th July, in the first of the Americas Cup World Series that will run until the sail-off for the cup in 2017, sail-racing history was made. It began where the Americas Cup first started and it will end in warmer climes. "England expects....." that Sir Ben Ainslie, having taken the USA`s Oracle boat from eight-nil down to victory in the last cup races, will now bring the coveted silverware back to the United Kingdom. So no pressure, then!
It will be a long, hard, haul but if anyone can do it then that Olympic gold-medallist, "the greatest naval tactician since Nelson and the greatest sailor since Sir Francis Drake" surely can. Sunday`s racing was blown off course leaving BAR just one point ahead of New Zealand, who took the second race, and with USA Oracle lying third in the first of many heats that will determine the final challenger. Just one thought. I know that the sponsors and Ben Ainslie Racing have to share the branding but when she crosses the finishing line at the end, and hopefully at the lead, of the final series, perhaps somebody will re-christen the yacht carrying the Union Flag that incorporates the cross of St George. "Georgie", perhaps?