NO SURPRISES

Lib DemIn their former guise as non-Democrats, the Liberals once presided over one of the most celebrated results in by-election history – and it happened exactly 60 years ago, when Eric Lubbock overturned a Tory majority of 14,760 in Orpington and transformed a safe Conservative seat into a 7,855 majority for the Liberal Party. The Tories had been in government for 11 years at that point, yet had already acquired the weary detachment from the electorate that is often a by-product of a decade in office; the familiar whiff of a sex scandal that can accompany such tired longevity was just round the corner, though in 1962 the name John Profumo had yet to become a household one; ditto Christine Keeler. Last night in Tiverton and Honiton, it would appear history was going through one of its routine habits of repeating itself as the Lib Dems inflicted one of the most comprehensive and humiliating defeats on the Conservative Party ever seen at a by-election as former Army Major Richard Foord triumphed over the Tory candidate, wiping out a majority of 24,239 in a seat that had never been free from Conservative hands since its creation. And the by-election only happened because the sitting Tory MP Neil Parish was forced to quit after he’d been outed for watching porn on his phone in the Commons.

On the same night a second Tory seat fell, this time to Labour; Wakefield, one of the ‘Red Wall’ constituencies captured by the Conservatives in 2019, returned to its traditional home. This by-election was also provoked by a resignation connected to a sex scandal; fittingly, the last time a government suffered simultaneous defeat in two by-elections was during the John Major era, which was also the last time such a sleazy collection of reprehensible individuals constituted the ruling Party. Even by past standards of sleaze, however, the case of Imran Ahmad Khan is especially unpleasant; Khan was found guilty of sexually assaulting a 15-year-old boy, though he didn’t resign his seat until convicted. He’ll be spending the next 18 months being detained at Her Majesty’s pleasure. Considering Wakefield voted Leave in 2016 (as did Tiverton and Honiton in its Mid Devon guise), it was no great surprise its voters spurned Remoaner Labour in 2019; yet a Tory reverting to type is perhaps as predictable an outcome as last night’s results, and Wakefield turned red again whilst Tiverton and Honiton turned orange for the first time.

According to some sources, the Tory defeat in Tiverton and Honiton is officially the largest majority ever to be overturned at a British by-election, one that even exceeds the Lib Dems’ huge victory in North Shropshire last year. However, only the most gormlessly deluded Tory wouldn’t have seen this coming; most Conservative MPs returning to the Shires during the extended Jubilee Bank Holiday were confronted by angry constituents who’d had enough of the leadership, yet only 148 acted on their constituents’ behalf by registering their dissatisfaction with Boris in the confidence vote a couple of weeks ago. With a majority of Tories deciding to keep the PM in a job, it was left to the Lib Dem’s victorious candidate to say out loud what the 148 who voted against Boris declined to. He declared the voters of Tiverton and Honiton had spoken for the whole country by sending out a clear message. ‘It’s time for Boris Johnson to go – and go now,’ said Major Foord. ‘Every day Boris Johnson clings to office, he brings further shame, chaos and neglect. Communities like ours are on their knees. I also have a simple message for those Conservative MPs propping up this failing Prime Minister: the Liberal Democrats are coming.’

Okay, so there’s a slight element of ‘go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ about that last statement, though in the thick of Lib Dem euphoria, it was probably understandable. This was one hell of a blow inflicted on a sitting administration, with the even-more predictable defeat in Wakefield the icing on the cake. The Liberal Democrats under the leadership of Ed Davey have been fortunate that the far-from enthusiastic response to Keir Starmer’s lacklustre Labour Party has enabled them to reinvent themselves yet again, emerging from the disastrous shadows of Jo Swinson’s Remain crusade and capitalising on widespread disillusionment with the two main Parties; it’s precisely what the Lib Dems did so well under Charles Kennedy, and when the alternatives are as uninspiring as Boris and Sir Keir – not to mention the motley crews assembled on the respective front benches of the pair – it’s no wonder the tide has turned for the Lib Dems again. Considering the likes of Dominic Raab and Michael Gove have smaller leads over the Lib Dems than that which the Tories had boasted in Tiverton and Honiton until last night, perhaps the new Lib Dem MP’s melodramatic warning should be heeded after all.

Boris had wisely kept a low profile during the by-election campaigns in the two constituencies; as with the increasingly-unpopular Ted Heath during the October 1974 General Election, the Prime Minister was noticeably absent from the promotional literature delivered by the hapless footsloggers trying in vain to court votes on behalf of their doomed candidate and attempting not to mention the Party leader on the doorstep. A not-dissimilar policy was tried by Labour canvassers in 2019, as I found out when I made my feelings on Corbyn and his cronies clear when confronted by one at the time. Anyway, Boris wasn’t at home to make excuses; at the moment, he’s in Rwanda, officially to attend the Commonwealth Heads of Government shindig, but it’s possible he might be checking out the Kigali B&Bs earmarked for those pesky illegal immigrants. In his absence, the Conservative Party co-chairman Oliver Dowden became the latest Tory to walk a plank Boris refuses to countenance even exists.

Dowden’s resignation is the most high-profile response to two heavy defeats irrefutably linked to the ongoing fallout from Partygate. ‘We cannot continue with business as usual,’ wrote Dowden in his letter, though the PM is unlikely to receive that statement as advice. On the eve of an anticipated wipe-out at the two by-elections, Boris simply said ‘Governing parties generally do not win by-elections, particularly not in mid-term.’ Not the most encouraging message to the troops, but at least one rooted in realism; the Tories were seemingly prepared for defeat, if not what turned out to be the scale of defeat in Tiverton and Honiton. The Wakefield loss was no more of a surprise than the other seat, though tactical voting at Tiverton and Honiton saw Labour lose its deposit. There was also pre-by-election unrest at Wakefield’s Labour constituency branch when the entire committee resigned in protest at their preferred candidate, trade unionist Kate Dearden, being excluded in favour of a candidate parachuted in by the NEC; not that Keir Starmer will be bringing that up as he attempts to bask in the glow of his winner, Simon Lightwood.

When one considers the Labour and Lib Dem perspectives on Brexit, they’ll no doubt adopt a ‘don’t mention the war’ attitude now that two Leave constituencies are in their hands; even without the Partygate revelations, it’s possible the promise to ‘get Brexit done’ that enabled the Tories to triumph in the two seats in 2019 was regarded by voters in Wakefield and Tiverton as a done deal in 2022 and it was time to move on to other pressing issues, such as the cost of living; maybe they figured the Tories couldn’t deliver on that, considering the Tories’ policies in the pandemic provoked it. But it’s hard to escape the undeniable influence of what Boris and his cohorts got up to during the most testing period for the public in post-war British history when it comes to this pair of results. Let’s face it, though, Boris Johnson is a very lucky Prime Minister; he doesn’t have to call another General Election until 2024.

© The Editor

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SHIRE PURCHASE

Lib DemsIf ever a county could be labelled a traditional Tory Shire, surely Shropshire has always ticked the requisite blue boxes. Still unique in that it remains a sizeable landmass in the middle of England without a single city, Shropshire is the largely rural border between the West Midlands and Wales, with its sole concession to post-war redevelopment being the Newtown of Telford. A familiar feature of 19th century novels penned both before and after the 1832 Reform Act, the campaign trail of the landowners’ chosen candidate is so entrenched as part of the archaic fabric of English political life that it’s revealing to discover such a system survived the termination of the old Rotten Boroughs. The Parliamentary constituency of North Shropshire was established the same year as the Reform Act, yet continued the practise of electing two members to Parliament, initially divided between the Tories and the Whigs. Within a couple of years, both victors represented the Conservative Party and the dual members remained that way until further reform in 1885, when the constituency was abolished and split into four separate constituencies electing one member each.

In 1983, the constituency of North Shropshire was revived and upheld the traditions of a century before by remaining a Tory seat. John Biffin was the first MP to represent North Shropshire in the modern era, replaced by Owen Paterson fourteen years later; Paterson’s recent…er…difficulties provoked his resignation at the worst possible time for the Government, and a by-election coming so hot on the heels of revelations of last year’s restrictions-busting Christmas parties left the ancient ownership of this constituency up for grabs for the first time in living memory. Whilst it was still unimaginable to envisage North Shropshire falling into the divided hands of the Labour Party, the Liberal Democrats clearly fancied their chances as the resurrected protest vote for the disgruntled Tory voter now that UKIP no longer poses the threat it once did. And, despite the constituency voting Leave in 2016, the one-time cheerleaders for a second referendum were deemed the only option to a deeply unpopular administration masquerading as the lifelong leaseholders of the constituency.

At the final count, it was a chartered accountant by the name of Helen Morgan who took the seat from the Tories with an impressive swing of 34 percent. At the last General Election in December 2019, Owen Paterson had retained the seat he’d held since 1997 with 62.7 percent of the vote and a majority of 22,949. North Shropshire is the second safe Tory seat in a row to fall to the Lib Dems in a by-election, following the overturning of the Chesham and Amersham constituency from a 16,000 Conservative majority earlier this year. Whilst nobody would foolishly claim either victory is comparable to the legendary Orpington by-election of 1962 – which served as a devastating blow to Harold Macmillan’s crumbling authority – there’s no escaping the fact that two by-election blows in a row can be read as a humiliating rejection of the current shower running the show.

Perhaps the difference between now and Eric Lubbock’s shock triumph almost sixty years ago is that the Liberal revival of the early 60s proved to Harold Wilson (when he took charge of Labour a few months later) that there was a widespread groundswell of dissatisfaction with the Tory Government which Labour was in a far better position to capitalise on than the ill-prepared Liberal Party. Labour managed it in 1964, yet even though the party finished runner-up this time round in North Shropshire, it’s still difficult to picture Keir Starmer replicating Wilson’s achievement a couple of years from now. The political landscape is far more fragmented in 2021 than it was in 1962 – and it’d take a supreme optimist to see that altering by 2023 or ’24.

Boasting a majority of 5,925, the newest Member of Parliament was understandably overjoyed at evicting the governing party from one of its oldest backyards. She claimed many Labour voters opted for her as the best bet to oust the Tories, and this is a pattern we can probably expect to see regularly in the run-up to the next General Election, when so few Labour candidates inspire enough confidence to seriously threaten the Government outside of the remaining Labour constituencies that didn’t fall to the Tories last time round. ‘Tonight the people of North Shropshire have spoken on behalf of the British people,’ said Ms Morgan. ‘They have said loudly and clearly: “Boris Johnson, the party is over”.’ She went on to add, ‘In rural Shropshire today – just like Buckinghamshire in June – we have won the support of people who have always voted Conservative and people who have always opposed them…thousands of lifelong Conservative voters, dismayed by Boris Johnson’s lack of decency and fed up with being taken for granted – and thousands of lifelong Labour voters, choosing to lend their votes to the candidate who can defeat the Conservatives.’

If tactical voting of this nature proves to be a recurring trend that is extended into the next General Election, such a situation will still not ensure a Labour victory; a narrower Tory triumph will be the only predictable outcome, despite a significant improvement in Lib Dem fortunes since the dark days of Jo Swinson’s disastrous misjudgement of the national mood on the subject of Brexit. A merger between Labour and the Lib Dems – a far more permanent arrangement than a mere coalition for convenience – is the sole way forward if either party expects to oust an immovable party even as sunk in sleaze, corruption and outright dishonesty as the current Conservative crop. The blatant absence of a genuine opposition to Boris’s rancid administration is emphasised by the endless support provided to his pandemic policies by Starmer’s barmy army; rather than flocking around the red flag, voters in seats such as North Shropshire are registering their complaints in the ballot box by ticking the Lib Dem candidate as opposed to the Labour one. This is not a recipe for overturning a sizeable Tory majority across the country.

Labour’s problems are manifold in winning back the confidence of the electorate. With over a decade having passed since Gordon Brown’s brief tenure at No.10, the legacy of New Labour can’t even be blamed anymore as the source of the public’s mistrust in the traditional alternative to the Tories. Through the uninspired Emperor’s New Clothes of Ed Miliband to the asylum-taking revolution of Jezza’s lunatics, the Labour Party has struggled to connect beyond its hardcore fan-base over the past five or six years and still hasn’t flushed out the toxic remnants of the Corbyn era, with the Identity Politics domination of the frontbench remaining a deterrent to the wider electorate. Following a similar flirtation with minority pursuits, the Lib Dems have experienced their own rejection by voters and appear to have addressed the issue of late by switching focus to the genuine concerns of the many rather than the First World obsessions of the few. Labour could learn lessons from that, but they won’t do so by denying only women have cervixes or propping up Boris every time he goes back on his word and introduces ever more draconian curbs on civil liberties.

Yes, the loss of North Shropshire is a blow to the Tories – and an embarrassing one, at that; but a governing party losing a by-election when it has held power for over a decade isn’t necessarily an indication that the governing party’s days in office are numbered. For that to be the case there has to be a mass conviction that the opposition is a government-in-waiting, as was found in 1964, 1979 and 1997. Right now, despite the car crash that is Boris Johnson’s administration, who really believes Keir Starmer has the best pair of hands to take control of the steering wheel? Well, certainly not the Labour voters of North Shropshire.

© The Editor

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THE TRACKS (AND TRACES) OF MY TIERS

Bisto KidsScent – that was what hit me yesterday. The scent of fruit and the scent of veg; the scent of freshly-baked buns and bread; the scent of girls walking past with their perfume reminding me what women smell like – indoor odours I haven’t inhaled on foreign soil for over a year. My sinuses weren’t even smacked by any unseemly B.O., which has long been a traditional and unfortunate by-product of venturing into a supermarket during a Great British heat-wave. To set foot in an interior outside of my home and not have the ability to smell my surroundings utterly constrained by a bloody mask was intoxicating as I became reacquainted with a sensation I’d been denied for too long; what a relief it was to expose this neglected sense to something other than my own breath. In fact, it’s frightening how quickly and effectively I had forgotten the aroma of freedom of choice; like the sudden restoration of so much we’ve been deprived of since the first lockdown, being reunited with such a simple gift it’s so easy to take for granted is something worthy of celebration – even if the awareness that this particular democratic right will probably be taken back with the same speed it was stolen in the first place remains uppermost amidst the celebration.

For me, being forced to cover my nose and mouth impacted more than any other Covid measure. Social distancing I could deal with, not being especially fond of crowds or being claustrophobically crammed into a confined space with other sardines; the initial queuing outside a shop I could deal with, as Brits have all had to queue somewhere at one time or another and are good at it; not being able to receive visitors or indulge in hugs I could deal with, as most of my friends being scattered across the country already negates playing regular host – and no longer being intimate enough with anybody anymore meant an embrace was but a memory, anyway. Add the difficulties I’ve long had breathing through my nose, and the prospect of having to hinder my breath via a suffocating cloth whenever I stepped into any indoor arena bar my home essentially stopped me going anywhere unless I absolutely had to. Yesterday, for one brief brilliant moment, monochrome Kansas was transformed into Technicolor Oz; that I could even utter such a statement about something so seemingly trivial perhaps shows just how deep the most apparently innocuous privation has cut over the last year.

Whipping off a mask as soon as I step out of a shop has been the usual routine since face coverings were imposed on shoppers, but smell dissipates in the great urban outdoors, where the black hole of traffic fumes swallows up individual odours. It’s different when you set foot in a supermarket, when smell has less escape routes; yes, it’s no great surprise viruses do better indoors when one thinks of all that breath circulating with nowhere to go. But the status of a mask as little more than a psychological comfort blanket is pretty well established now, so there was no way I was going to wear imaginary armour when it was no longer mandatory. I saw perhaps half-a-dozen fellow shoppers prepared to take the plunge, which was a relief. I almost felt a shared sense of kinship there, an unspoken, nodding recognition and admiration of their determination not to submit now they could no longer be fined for resisting. After all, I’d had silly images of walking into Sainsbury’s sans-masque and being chased straight out again by a pitchfork-carrying masked mob calling me a granny-killer.

Granny’s mouth remained covered, which was to be expected; but the vast majority of shoppers I saw were no older than 25 and very few of them were uncovered. Living in a large student area means visiting a supermarket on ‘Freedom Day’ is a good barometer of how the young are actually reacting to the loosening of restrictions. Despite the MSM stereotype of young ‘uns as irresponsible ravers partying like it’s 1989 even when the rest of the country is masked-up and socially distanced, what I witnessed yesterday were fully paid-up consumers of Project Fear not willing to risk it. Considering the latest Covid Passport U-turn by the Government, it’s no surprise. Youth – a demographic least susceptible to the lethal elements of the coronavirus – are now in their sights. After months of denial that such a corruption of a free society will ever be contemplated, Boris announced yesterday that ‘proof of a negative test will no longer be enough’; taking a leaf out of President Macron’s book, the PM said that once all over-18s have had the opportunity to be double jabbed, full vaccination will be required to gain entry into nightclubs and ‘other venues where large crowds gather’. Looks like Freedom Day was so called because it marked the day when freedom was outlawed as a right. Show me your papers indeed.

Compulsory vaccination is something I’m sure many would approve of, and even though the powers-that-be haven’t quite crossed that line, by preventing anyone from approximating a normal social existence without the jab they’re essentially forcing perpetual vaccines on everybody who isn’t a professional hermit. Under this prohibition of life, don’t be surprised if new ‘speakeasies’ begin to appear as what used to be the kind of freedoms the citizens of Eastern Bloc countries viewed with envious eyes go underground in the very nations that used to boast of them as a selling point. If a Covid Passport is produced as a physical object rather than a mere app, will we eventually see them being publicly set alight as happened with draft cards during anti-Vietnam War demonstrations? And will those caught on camera burning them be denounced and demonised as the ‘long-haired’ draft-dodgers were by the American MSM in the mid-60s, before Walter Cronkite’s damning indictment on the conflict in 1968 helped turn the tide of mainstream opinion in the direction of the anti-war movement?

Interestingly, the Liberal Democrats have stuck their necks on the line and come out against Covid Passports. Could this be another small step on the road returning the party to the role of a credible alternative? If the Lib Dems can successfully rein in their Woke elements (in a way the Labour Party seems incapable), perhaps. I personally hope so, because British politics desperately needs an alternative now more than at any other time I can ever remember; and if it has to be a party with a hell of a lot to answer for over the past ten years, so be it; not one of them can cover themselves in glory based on their record in the last decade, anyhow, and we don’t have much in the way of choice at the moment. It’s a shame there are such a small amount of Lib Dem MPs, as it means the likes of the chronically-annoying Layla Moran has a higher profile than she deserves; but name me a mainstream political party that doesn’t have its fair share of embarrassing aunts and uncles. Maybe we just notice the Lib Dems’ madwomen in the attic because there are so few Lib Dems to go round.

There are some who say it’s no big deal to have to wear a mask, just as there are some who feel it’s no big deal to be double jabbed; both things are seen as a transaction in the cost of freedom, a freedom that we have never previously had to pay for; also, the popular opinion lingers that this is a necessary sacrifice to be made at an unprecedented moment in recent history. But wartime restrictions should be scrapped when the war is over. Yes, Covid-19 is still with us, but it always will be; whether through natural immunity or regular vaccination, we shall have to live with it forever. There will never be a time now without coronavirus cases, and placing such heavy emphasis on them when deaths are dwindling is blatant fear-mongering to justify further curtailments of civil liberties. We cannot allow emergency restrictions such as the ones we’ve had to deal with for over a year to become the default government response to any crisis. Whichever side of the divide you reside in, we’re all entitled to be the Bisto Kids if we want to.

© The Editor

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DON’T CALL ME SHIRLEY

WilliamsAs has become evident in recent years re what can no longer be said in polite company, once words drift out of the colloquial lexicon, it’s rare for them to be welcomed back. Like ex-lovers or disgraced celebrities, all evidence of them is wilfully erased to the point whereby they only continue to exist within the context of whatever caused them to be blackballed in the first place. Many words which disappear are never seen again in the present tense; and if they happen to unavoidably feature in a work of drama produced before their social exclusion, contemporary witnesses are warned of their presence as a kind of trigger disclaimer. A few words that don’t fall into the ‘rebranded offensive’ category simply fall out of common parlance because they sound so old-fashioned or are too associated with a past no longer relevant. Random words heard routinely during my own childhood such as courting, demob suit, shop steward and goolies spring to mind. Added to that could be housewife – once a valid job title, yet nowadays usually uttered by actual housewives in a rather embarrassed tone of voice that implies it’s a poor substitute for a real career.

I’m sure ‘housewife’ is regarded in some circles as a demeaning insult, though it used to describe an entire – and considerable – demographic; famously, of course, it even inspired a hugely popular radio request show that ran on the BBC Light Programme for 20 years, ‘Housewives’ Choice’. If ‘Woman’s Hour’ was intended to act as an afternoon instruction manual for those whose workplace was the domestic environment, ‘Housewives’ Choice’ soundtracked the morning following the exodus of hubby and the kids; the presenter spun discs chosen by the listeners and established an intimate relationship with the audience, providing something that was as near to an interactive experience as was possible in the pre-internet age. The best illustration of this comes in the wonderful opening sequence of the 1963 movie, ‘Billy Liar’; it brilliantly evokes a vanished Britain with a montage of all houses great and small across the country, accompanied by a burst of ‘Housewives’ Choice’ as a million women hanging out their washing wait to see if their request will be read out on air.

Despite the radical revival of feminist rhetoric during the 1970s, being a housewife remained the majority option for half the population – indeed, ‘The Housewife’ was a much-coveted figure for advertisers and politicians alike. This is particularly notable in party political broadcasts of the period; whenever one of the small number of well-known female MPs appears they tend to address ‘women’s issues’ as ‘housewives’ issues’. When Shirley Williams was, along with Barbara Castle, the most prominent female member of Harold Wilson’s team, she appeared in a February 1974 Election broadcast brandishing a shopping basket, pointing out how various items of foodstuffs had increased in price under Ted Heath’s Government. It was impossible to imagine Tony Benn or Jim Callaghan doing likewise, but Williams became Secretary of State for Prices and Consumer Protection when Labour returned to power, so I guess her supermarket sweep made a kind of sense.

Prior to the General Election victory of February ’74, Shirley Williams had served two years as Shadow Home Secretary, which was an unprecedented promotion for a female MP at the time. It’s a shame her stint took place during the era before the broadcasting of Parliament, for it would be fascinating to see how Williams squared up against an old-school Tory Alpha Male like Reginald Maudling. In office, however, Shirley Williams’ Cabinet position reflected the ‘home economics’ role most female members of the electorate were still familiar with; she’d been Minister for Education and Science in Wilson’s second administration in the late 60s, a period when few Westminster women could expect to ascend the heights later reached by the likes of Priti Patel, Theresa May, Jacqui Smith, Margaret Beckett or – naturally – Margaret Thatcher. So, in her own way, Shirley Williams – or, as she was eventually known, Dame Shirley, the Baroness Williams of Crosby – was something of a trailblazer. Her death at the age of 90 means this here blog is in danger of reverting to an ongoing obituary again, but as a break from Covid-19 or Woke-21, marking the recently-departed can actually come as rather welcome breather for yours truly. Besides, I find any politician from the era Shirley Williams made her mark in interesting, because they were genuinely interesting times.

Shirley Williams’ status as one of the Labour Party’s original glass ceiling-smashers is somewhat overlooked now. If she’s recalled at all in Labour circles, it’s more likely to be with a regretful sigh following the part she played in abandoning the Party to the Left in 1981, alongside Roy Jenkins, David Owen and Bill Rodgers. As one quarter of ‘the Gang of Four’, Williams didn’t so much cross the floor of the House as move into a new conservatory christened the Social Democratic Party, better known by its acronym of SDP. She’d been elected to Parliament at the 1964 General Election as Member for Hitchin after three previous failed attempts, though – as with many MPs of her generation – she was far from being a career politician, even if her eventual destiny almost seems preordained when one considers her background. She came from classic academic, upper middle-class liberal stock.

The product of a highly intellectual household – her father was the philosopher Sir George Catlin and her mother ‘Testament of Youth’ author Vera Brittain – the woman born Shirley Vivian Teresa Brittain Catlin was schooled in old-school Socialism from a young age, though it’s curious that she was initially drawn towards acting. As an evacuee in the USA during WWII, she even screen-tested for the leading role in ‘National Velvet’, losing out to Liz Taylor; she carried on treading the boards as a student, playing Cordelia in a touring production of ‘King Lear’ by the Oxford University Dramatic Society. After graduating from Oxford as a Bachelor of Arts in philosophy, politics and economics, Williams studied further at New York’s Columbia University before following in the Michael Foot-steps by beginning a career as a journalist upon returning home. Barely had she begun, however, before her eagerness to enter politics was evident as she stood at the 1954 Harwich by-election.

Europhile Williams was a key figure on the right of the Labour Party at a time when simmering tensions between both wings of it were masterfully kept in check by Harold Wilson’s expert man (and woman) management. When Wilson resigned in 1976, Jim Callaghan just about held things together, but defeat at the 1979 General Election – when Williams lost her seat – proved to be the writing on the wall for the post-war political consensus, not merely within British politics itself but within the Labour Party. Williams was the first SDP MP elected to Parliament when she won the 1981 Crosby by-election, though she lost the seat at the 1983 General Election and never returned to the Commons thereafter. The breakaway formation of the SDP may have been a short-lived experiment, but it certainly contributed towards Labour’s 18-year exile from government; that said, the SDP’s brand of democratic socialism also undoubtedly proved to be a major influence on New Labour. By the time of the Labour landslide of 1997, Shirley Williams was already a Lib Dem Peer, though she was officially based in the USA as a Harvard professor.

Whether or not Shirley Williams can be spoken of in the same breath as some of her political contemporaries is something open to debate; she lacked the ruthlessness required to be a contender for the first female PM, though her impact on Blair’s generation was indisputable, and I’ve no doubt her high profile at a time when politics was very much a boy’s club helped pave the way for an increase in women entering Parliament. But she’s one more player from an era of giants gone to that great debating chamber in the sky, and her departure yet again shines an unflattering light on the dwarves struggling to stand on those shoulders today.

© The Editor

BEHIND THE MASK

A woman fiddles with her hair in the mirror; we see the view she sees, so we express the same terror when the reflection suddenly shows a figure appear behind her – a menacing intruder in a gasmask. Despite the well-documented wealth of 1970s TV and film archive I own on DVD or that I’ve simply seen repeated over the decades, I’ve still never found out what this terrifying scene was from, a scene that impacted on my imagination as a small (not to say traumatised) child. We all have such moments when our exposure to cinema and television expands during those formative years, and this was mine. It defined the gasmask as a sinister object in my mind forevermore. I recall a ‘Doctor Who’ adventure a few years later called ‘The Deadly Assassin’, in which Tom Baker’s Doctor spends an entire episode in a nightmarish landscape called The Matrix – and a man in a gasmask appears in that. Oh, and for good behind-the-sofa measure, there’s a scary clown in it too.

Their undoubted practicalities (and reason for invention) aside, this whole gasmask thing has long been recounted by me before numerous friends ad infinitum; it’s why one of them purchased an authentic WWII gasmask for my birthday a couple of years back. That’s me wearing it on the image accompanying the post called ‘Interior Designs’ a few weeks ago. Unfortunately, when I took that photo the delicate object had already been damaged by yours truly, with the brittle rubber strap snapping as I attempted to fasten it to an ear. I guess that rules out my wearing it to pop to the shops in Lockdown Britain, which is a shame. Not only would I be enjoying the ultimate protection from the toxic breath of my fellow shoppers, but I’d also scare the shit out of a few in the process. As Paddy Consindine demonstrated when donning a gasmask in the memorably malevolent Shane Meadows movie, ‘Dead Man’s Shoes’, the object has not lost its power to send a shiver down the spine.

The humble gasmask would, I imagine, do a better job than those flimsy surgical masks that are becoming this season’s key fashion accessory on the high-street. I first saw some Chinese students wearing them a couple of months ago, but thought it merely understandable caution considering where this bloody virus emanated from; like most, I hardly anticipated the article being adapted as regulation sartorial equipment. So far, wearing one in public spaces has been optional – which is just as well if PPE is in as short a supply for those who need it for work purposes as we’re constantly being told by the media. However, the latest edict from that ‘alternative administration’ north of the border recommends the public wear the masks when out and about, if stopping short of enshrining it in law.

Post-Alex Salmond trial, it’s hard not to come to the cynical conclusion that every pronouncement to emerge from Krankie Towers is either intended to deflect attention from all the unsavoury rumours circulating the former First Minister or is simply another example of Ms Sturgeon’s opportunistic habit of trying to upstage Westminster. The UK Government, for all the mistakes it has made en route to where we are now, seems to have imposed the most severe restrictions on civil liberties with a fair share of reluctance – only finally enforcing the lockdown when the situation left it with little option. Making the same recommendation re the wearing of masks that was today made by the Scottish Government is something one can imagine it entering into as reluctantly as it did the lockdown, and for the moment the masks remain optional rather than compulsory – which is how it should be.

On the whole – at least going by my own experience – the public appear to be sticking to social distancing and are prepared to queue outside supermarkets and other stores with the patience of Soviet shoppers back in the USSR. Again, I can only go by what I’ve seen myself, but the mutual dance of distance on pavements and down Sainsbury’s aisles whenever a stranger approaches adheres to every guideline we’ve had drilled into us ever since this thing got serious. People don’t want to give it and, more than anything else, they don’t want to receive it. I don’t really think I’ve been close enough to another mask-free person to feel threatened so far. When it comes to those whose jobs involve constant exchanges with the public, the wearing of masks and/or gloves seems to me a sensible precaution the majority would take in their shoes; for the public themselves, whose visit to a supermarket may well be their sole contact with other people all week, I still believe the choice of head and hand-gear should be theirs.

The SNP’s slightly different take on the guidelines is – as already stated – a predictable development that is entirely in keeping with its habit of occasionally issuing statements it knows will garner headlines beyond Scotland. Especially at times like this, when attention has naturally been on the recovery and return of the man who remains Prime Minister of the whole country, the SNP is a bit like that middle child having to shout louder than its siblings to remind a distracted parent it still exists. But it is at least in a position to do so, unlike the sorry old Lib Dems. Not only has Britain’s forgotten party been hinting at the resurrection of the not-missed-at-all Jo Swinson, but it has also been virtue-signalling to the max on social media this past week in the absence of anything else to do. I have to admit I couldn’t recall the chronically pointless Ed Davey being elected successor to the dumped Swinson, but he and his similarly sad colleagues have been falling over themselves to stress solidarity with the nation’s Muslims by patting them on the head and ‘fasting’ for Ramadan. How bloody patronising. I look forward to the Lib Dems co-opting all of Britain’s myriad faith festivals over the coming twelve months, then.

Oh, well – let the Lib Dems get on with it. I should imagine most Muslims are laughing at them as much as those of us who subscribe to a different religion or none at all. Basically, nobody cares. It’s not like we’ve got other things to think about right now, anyway. The terrible toll the coronavirus has taken on the country’s care homes – now that the elderly residents are actually being regarded as people and added to the stats – is something I suspect we’ve only scratched the surface of so far; but it’s not come as much of a surprise considering how lowly the institution of social care for the old and infirm has figured in the policies of governments of either colour in recent years – and how much this unfashionable bedfellow of the super-sexy NHS has lingered in the shadow of its pampered partner. And if what used to be called Old People’s Homes have barely registered on the radar until the past couple of weeks, I’ve heard next to nothing of those equally at-risk homes housing the mentally and physically impaired, many of whose residents are amongst the most vulnerable in society. We shall see.

As we crawl towards the end of an April unlike any April any of us have ever experienced before, the situation seems to be at something of a crossroads. The lockdown can’t go on indefinitely, so when to tentatively lift some of the restrictions and apply a drop of oil to the static wheels of industry before it’s too late? If the SNP is recommending the wearing of the mask for reasons other than political point-scoring, maybe we’re not there yet.

© The Editor

ALAS SMITH AND STEEL

When the BBC aired ‘A Very English Scandal’, its entertaining Russell T Davies-penned drama about the Jeremy Thorpe/Norman Scott affair a couple of years back, I remember explaining to a friend how the general public of the time were reluctant to believe the allegations against the Liberal leader due to him being a popular politician. I compared him to Charles Kennedy in that he was representative of an increasingly rare breed, i.e. a prominent Parliamentarian the majority of the electorate didn’t actually hate. I cited the 1975 Oxford Union Debate on the EEC Referendum as an example of Thorpe’s considerable oratorical skills; sharing the stage with plodding old Heath, as well as a stuttering Barbara Castle and a flustered Peter Shore, Thorpe shines as an eloquent and witty speaker; it’s a rare opportunity for TV viewers to see him at the height of his powers, for the Commons wasn’t televised in 1975; by the time it was, Thorpe had already left the building – in disgrace.

I recall my mother’s response to the sinister stories encircling the most high profile Liberal leader since Lloyd George in 1976 – ‘Poor Jeremy Thorpe,’ she declared whilst ironing. ‘All these horrible people spreading nasty lies about him.’ I suspect my mum’s response to the tabloid frenzy when the Fleet Street levee broke wasn’t an isolated one. It’s always far easier to believe scurrilous rumours concerning the private lives of those who divide opinion – Jimmy Savile, for example – than to accept those who elicit admiration might have feet of clay. Of course, Thorpe’s desperate attempts to cover his homosexual tracks caught up with him in the end and demonstrated the extremes public figures were then prepared to go to in order to obscure proclivities that are today worn as an identity-defining sandwich board. But it left a political party that just two years before had been within the grasp of a coalition administration paddle-free and heading towards an especially unpleasant creek.

And then David Steel stepped forward. Widely respected for his activities in the Anti-Apartheid Movement as well as his pivotal role in securing the legalisation of abortion in 1967, the MP for Roxburgh, Selkirk and Peebles was elected full-time Liberal leader in July 1976. In less than a year, he had led his party into a working arrangement with the Labour Party, the so-called ‘Lib-Lab Pact’. Faced with a motion of no confidence from Margaret Thatcher’s Tories, PM Jim Callaghan approached the Liberals for support; an agreement was reached whereby the Liberals would vote with the Labour Government as long as Callaghan accepted a handful of Liberal policies. But it was a long way from being a genuine coalition, and this short-lived alliance expired in September 1978, when Callaghan was expected to call a General Election he fatally postponed until spring 1979.

The Liberal Party David Steel inherited in 1976 included amongst its 14 elected representatives perhaps its two most notable members in the popular imagination, Clement Freud and Cyril Smith. The former was a celebrated wit via his broadcasting career and the latter was primarily known for being immensely fat at a time when obesity was a rarity in Britain. The reputations of both were subjected to characteristically twenty-first century revisionism in the wake of their deaths in 2009 and 2010 respectively, though Smith had been dogged by unsavoury rumours for years.

Picking up on circulating stories in 1979, ‘Private Eye’ had been at the forefront of exposing Smith’s inappropriate behaviour in the company of young boys during his time as a Rochdale Labour councillor and governor of an all-male children’s home in the 1960s; but despite these allegations being investigated by Lancashire police a full decade before ‘Private Eye’ printed them and then Smith being interviewed in the early 1980s, no action was taken against him. Smith defected to the Liberal Party relatively late in his public life and wasn’t elected to Westminster until a 1972 by-election, by which time the allegations against him had already received police scrutiny. The fact that he hadn’t been charged or ended up in court implied he was innocent and there was no palpable reason for Smith not to be appointed Liberal Chief Whip; a party with such a small representation in Parliament needed larger-than-life figures to maintain a high profile, and the 29-stone Smith certainly fitted the bill.

In response to ongoing rumours during Cyril Smith’s lifetime, many claimed Smith’s alleged crimes constituted no more than standard (if cruel) practice in the more severe educational and ‘correctional’ establishments of the immediate post-war period – which is, to an extent, true. ‘All he seems to have done is spanked a few bare bottoms’ was the alleged response from David Steel’s Press Office in response to the ‘Private Eye’ exposé. Besides, Steel had more pressing political issues to concern him, such as the electoral alliance of the SDP and Liberal Party from 1983. Steel’s relationship with the SDP leader David Owen was particularly fractured during the General Election of 1987, with the former ‘baby of the House’ memorably portrayed as an elfin-like imp permanently perched on Owen’s shoulder. Despite the alliance’s poor showing in 1987, a proper merger between the two parties was proposed and Steel was determined a single leader was the better option; he won the vote when the Liberal Democrats came into being in 1988.

Despite a coalition with Tony Blair’s Labour Party being discussed in the run-up to the 1997 General Election, the landslide victory Labour enjoyed put paid to the hopes of Steel’s Lib Dem successor Paddy Ashdown of a place for the party in government; but Steel himself stood down as an MP at that very Election and as well as undergoing the traditional promotion to the Lords, he also became an MSP in 1999, inaugurated as the Scottish Parliament’s first Presiding Officer that same year. He remained an active figure in British politics despite his retirement from the Commons and was a respected elder statesman whose career in public life had certainly spanned an eventful era.

The instigation of the Independent Inquiry into Child Sexual Abuse, inspired in part by the hysterical accusations of Tom Watson re the imaginary ‘VIP Paedophile Ring’ at Westminster, revived the old allegations against Cyril Smith; and before the conviction of Carl Beech confirmed everything most of us knew about that serial liar, Beech’s lurid fantasies – given legitimacy by Bunter’s headline-grabbing promotion and by a police force desperate to make amends for presumed past failings – pushed David Steel’s ambivalent attitude towards Cyril Smith under the spotlight again. Yesterday, Steel quit both his party and the House of Lords, citing his weariness with certain colleagues who were keen to see the back of him. The myth of the Westminster Paedo Ring has finally been officially dispelled, but mud sticks.

When any inquiry stretches its remit so far back in time, one has to take the laws of the land at that time into account. Talk of MPs and ‘rent boys’ should come with a reminder that the homosexual age of consent was only brought into line with the heterosexual one as recent as 2000; therefore, any gay exchange in which one party was under 21 (18 from 1994) meant the other half (if over 21) was eligible for prosecution and technically regarded as a paedophile. On paper, the same laws that had convicted Oscar Wilde a century before could still be applied up until the Millennium. Conspiracies and cover-ups are not dismissed by the findings of the IICSA, but just as dead men are beyond prosecution, the living should not have to answer for the alleged offences of the dead. When a lawyer from that most mendacious of ambulance-chasers, Slater & Gordon, welcomes the resignation of David Steel, you know it’s hardly worthy of celebration.

© The Editor

IT TAKES TWO

Talk about false dawns. Those invigorating in-between times – those by-elections and local elections and European elections – always fool us into believing they’re the harbingers of political earthquakes rocking the foundations of the two major parties; and yet, the real threat to the red and blue corners’ century-old monopoly of power, if it comes at all, tends to come from within rather than without. The Labour and Conservative Parties are more than capable of destroying themselves without any assistance from outsiders. Give them the exclusive right to elect their respective leaders and look what happens. Having said that, however, their joint ability to overcome these internal disasters is either a tribute to their admirable capacity for survival or a damning indictment of not only the other parties snapping at their heels, but the first-past-the-post system – and possibly even the electorate itself.

Two and-a-half years ago, pre-General Election talk was of the death of two-party politics; come polling day, the nation chose to give Labour and the Tories the biggest share of the vote they’d had since 1970. This time round, pre-General Election talk was of the death of two-party politics; and now, just days away from polling day, all focus has shifted back to the usual suspects. The first half of this year was dominated by the formation of TIG and the overnight Euro success of the Brexit Party, yet as we approach its end all talk of a major break with the old politics seems as deluded as putting money on an unlikely club winning the Premier League simply because they topped the table after the opening weekend of fixtures. Regardless of unrealisable spending plans, anti-Semitism or born-to-rule arrogance, like the Old Firm poised to do battle in today’s Scottish League Cup Final, it’s the same teams playing for the trophy once more, with everyone else relegated back to making up the numbers.

Naturally, nobody was expecting anyone other than Boris or Jezza as PM from the kick-off; but perhaps the unique, if unenlightening, head-to-heads the pair have taken part in on TV have served to remind voters that when it comes to deciding who runs the country there’s only ever a choice between two – even if the two on offer are the worst two in living memory. The quick-fire format of those debates doesn’t promise much more than the enticing prospect of a heated argument to make for good television, anyway; even if the electorate had faith in either man, it’s doubtful watching such a programme would make up the mind of a floating voter. Viewers come away remembering Jezza’s wonky glasses or the laughter greeting Boris’s theories on trust in politics – whereas ‘the message’ is lost somewhere along the way, buried beneath instantly forgettable catch-phrases and vapid sound-bites.

Lest we forget, one issue continues to dominate discourse, and I suspect without it the Tories would be toast, even up against such an unpopular opposition; the Brexit factor will save their skin, for when Leavers look around and are confronted by wall-to-wall Remainers, there’s only one party that can (in theory) ‘get Brexit done’ – and that won’t be Nigel’s barmy army, something even he acknowledged when announcing his decision to pull out of several seats where his party’s presence could split the vote. On the eve of the campaign, the Leave/Remain votes appeared to be spread evenly, yet the defection of four prominent (ish) Brexit MEPs to the Tory cause last week suggests most Leave voters will probably back Boris; similarly, the Remainers now seem to be favouring Labour more than the early frontrunners for the pro-EU vote, the Lib Dems. And so, the traditional equilibrium is restored just in time for polling day.

Outside of General Elections, it’s as if the electorate are a philandering husband who repeatedly tells his Lib Dem and Brexit Party bits-on-the-side he loves them and will definitely leave his wife for them; then, as soon as a General Election is called and the reality of the gamble hits, he heads back home to the familiar certainty of the marital bed. Characteristically overconfident, premature bravado on the part of Jo Swinson having now been quietly swept under a carpet once belonging to David Steel, the Lib Dems have slipped back to recognising their realistic place in the scheme of things; as with both the SNP and DUP, they can cling to the possibility their presence might count for something in the event of a Hung Parliament; but that’s the best they can hope for.

If the smaller parties serve any purpose beyond their own interests, one could say they exist to give the big two a rejuvenating kick up the arse; any by-election drift away is swiftly addressed as the factors that tempted previously loyal voters to look elsewhere are absorbed into the Labour and Tory machines, luring the faithful back home. It happened way back in the early 60s, most dramatically at the Orpington By-Election of 1962; the appeal of Eric Lubbock and the Liberal Party to the red-brick graduates was noted by Harold Wilson when he took charge of the Labour Party a year later, wooing the Liberal voters by presenting Labour as the only modern, dynamic alternative to the Conservatives – and the only party capable of ousting them from office. And what did the Tories do when the likelihood of haemorrhaging votes to Farage on the biggest stage of all threatened to scupper their chances of victory? They allowed the ERG wing to take control and Boris purged the party of dissenting voices, thus presenting themselves as the ‘real’ Brexit Party come this Thursday.

Corbyn’s cabal have taken a similar path by forcing moderates out of the Labour Party and ensuring all new recruits are loyal to the leader’s vision, though Labour don’t have a Brexit-like issue that will attract the floaters, regardless of how much everyone professes to love the NHS. The big two are now controlled by what used to be their respective lunatic fringes – and if it wasn’t for the good fortune of all the other parties promoting the Remain cause, the Tories would be as buggered as the opposition. But what of those who voted for Tony Blair in 1997, 2001 and 2005 – or even David Cameron in 2010? Where do they go now? Even the traditional welcoming harbour for voters lost at sea – the Lib Dems – have undoubtedly been tarnished by having a crack at their own version of extremism; and they’ve left it too late to repair the damage and offer the usual bed-for-the-night to the politically homeless .

It’s hard to see any ‘good’ outcome to come here; whoever is declared winner on Friday or spends next weekend cobbling together a coalition, it’s nothing to look forward to. Whichever candidate receives my cross next to their name on Thursday, there’s no way I’ll be able to walk out of that polling station without feeling an overwhelming sense of shame and embarrassment having momentarily endorsed a party boasting more I vehemently disagree with than agree with. There’s no pride in 2019.

© The Editor

ENTER THE ELECTORATE

Barely had the bulk of the damaged vessel disappeared beneath the waterline last night before several rodents could be sighted frantically swimming away from the wreck. Amber Rudd is stepping down as an MP; Heidi Allen is stepping down as an MP. In other words, ideological allies once tipped as ones-to-watch are joining the likes of kindred spirit Justine Greening by jumping before being pushed by their constituents. The former Home Secretary scraped through by the skin of her teeth in 2017 and the current Lib Dem has changed sides twice since then; both are smart enough to recognise what comes next, but even now they won’t come clean; already, the volatile climate for honourable members is being blamed, particularly by Allen.

Yes, I’ve no doubt MPs are today exposed to a greater volume of abuse than their predecessors, but I think that’s due to two factors in 2019 – a) There are now more platforms for hurling abuse than there used to be; and b) The targets of the abuse were elected two years ago on the basis they would implement a democratic mandate the electorate gave them, and have subsequently shown nothing but absolute contempt for that mandate by attempting to thwart it. MPs can’t behave this way and expect no comeback; they are as responsible as anyone for the toxic atmosphere surrounding politics in this country, and it’s no wonder frustration has understandably overcome some more inarticulate members of the electorate as they’ve been locked out of the process. There’s no longer an excuse for abuse now, however, because the opportunity to participate has been belatedly restored and the electorate can make its point at the ballot-box – which is why the likes of Amber Rudd and Heidi Allen have bottled it and buggered off. And any MP with anything about them should have an inkling of wind direction at the moment.

The electorate has been handed a broom and confronted by a dilapidated barn plastered in farmyard faeces. It’s one hell of a clean-up operation, but those entrusted with the task can’t complain after months of hanging around waiting for permission to get on with it. The war that some in media circles excitedly anticipate once the campaign kicks-off may well fail to materialise; the majority of the anger that has permeated politics since the last General Election now has its only legitimate outlet available again, so bar the odd egg-throwing incident on the hustings, chances are it might not be as heated as many predict. The absence of an outlet has been part of the problem. With any luck, the shouting man whose vocal interjections have become the tone-deaf soundtrack to news broadcasts from outside Parliament might even take a breather; moreover, maybe MPs will show some respect for the deceased at last and stop evoking the ghost of Jo Cox whenever they provoke a nasty tweet.

Of course, many voters are being denied the opportunity to dish out some deserved democratic punishment due to the fact that numerous high-profile MPs are voluntarily heading for the same exit door as Amber Rudd, Heidi Allen and Justine Greening. Leaving the stage perhaps prematurely are the likes of Rory Stewart, Jo Johnson, and Owen Smith; we also wave farewell to a handful of notable veterans such as Kate Hoey, Vince Cable, Michael Fallon, Oliver Letwin, Nicholas Soames and Father of the House Ken Clarke; and, lest we forget, His Royal Lowness John Bercow is also leaving the stage. At least a few of those who’ve chosen to stick it out and take their chances with the electorate should provide us with some ‘Portillo Moments’ on Election Night, though interestingly, the man who handed the former Defence Secretary a batch of train tickets to keep him busy for the next 20 years – Labour’s Stephen Twigg – is also bailing out this time round.

Nobody but an absolute bloody idiot would attempt to forecast the result of this General Election, though I suppose it’s possible to speculate on some potential outcomes without the need for frying a few eggs in the event of cocking it up. 2017 was characterised by tales of the unexpected, after all. Few predicted the Tories would reverse their dwindling fortunes North of the Border, though it’s hard to see those remarkable gains being upheld now the Scottish branch of the Conservative Party can no longer rely on the inspirational leadership of Ruth Davidson; Theresa May certainly owed Davidson quite a debt last time round, and had the then-PM proven herself to be half as capable of galvanising support as her Celtic counterpart perhaps she’d still be in Downing Street today.

In 2017, the Lib Dems made a tentative recovery from the annihilation of 2015, and dispensing with Old Mother Cable in favour of a far younger model has seen some clever realigning on the part of the party. Its key role in Operation Austerity has become akin to the Lib Dem’s equivalent of post-war German evasion of the Swastika-clad elephant in the room; but by targeting the young Jezza groupies disillusioned with Labour’s incoherent Brexit stance, the Lib Dems are hoping 2010 is too distant a memory to get in the way of 2019. Despite Jo Swinson’s characteristic overconfidence, however, one wonders how many of the defectors from other parties that have served to swell Lib Dem ranks these past few months will still be in the Commons come 13 December. I can’t be alone in hoping Mr Umunna gets his chance to play Portillo.

I suspect many a decent and diligent constituency MP will bite the bullet simply because their constituents either oppose the Brexit position of the party the sitting member represents or – just as likely – cannot abide the party leader; and let’s face it, it’s hard to think of two more polarising party leaders than Boris Johnson and Jeremy Corbyn. Both are confronted with a tricky course to steer through traditional party loyalties and Leave/Remain divisions that threaten to throw those traditional party loyalties out the window – though Labour’s task is arguably the hardest; the Brexit Party will probably present the Tories with the only real challenge in Leave constituencies, whereas Labour’s apparent indifference to their own Leavers could postpone the New Socialist Revolution yet again.

If the number of times the nation goes to the polls in a decade can be used as a pointer to the veritable stability of the nation, it’s worth noting this is the first decade since the 1970s that we’ve had as many as four General Elections in ten years. There were just two each in the 60s, 80s, 90s and 2000s. In the 70s, three were condensed into just under four and-a-half years, followed by a further gap of four and-a-half years before the last one; this decade saw five years between the first and second, yet now we’re poised to experience our third General Election in not much more than four years. Draw your own conclusions from that, though the stability of the nation hardly needs spelling out. There is, however, a nice irony to the fact that the last day this incomparably useless Parliament will sit happens to be 5 November. It’s a quote I’ve used before, but it’s always worth remembering that Guy Fawkes was once referred to as ‘The last man to enter Parliament with honest intentions’…

© The Editor

THE BOOK OF LIFE

Yes, it’s the book they’re all talking about! It’s the book they’ve all been waiting for! It’s the book that definitely won’t be going for 99p in the Great British charity shop within a matter of months, no sir! The book in question is, of course, ‘Winegums from The Telegram’, the first volume of collected posts from this here blog in paperback form. Had you fooled for a minute there, didn’t I. Apparently, some posh-boy pig-f**ker who used to run the country or something has got a memoir out that he’s desperately plugging across the media, but nobody really gives a shit about that.

Anyway, as the Telegram is coming up for four years-old, I thought it long overdue that I gather together its finest moments in one volume, just like the columnists of old used to do. Then I began trying. I realised four years means a lot of posts – a hell of a lot. At one time, I’d be posting something on an almost-daily basis, and years inconveniently having over 300 days has meant I’ve had to be scrupulous in deciding what to put in and what to leave out. Gradually, I realised if I wanted to do the blog justice as a document of what has been pretty much a ‘Golden Age’ in terms of having big events to write about, I had to make the book version a series. Therefore, I’ve put together three so far, and there’s still enough material to easily make four.

Each essay is reproduced exactly as it appeared – and still exists online – for it would have seemed dishonest to edit any simply because my opinion might have changed from the one expressed within the individual article. As I began to read through them, it dawned on me that these little time capsules were virtual diary entries, accurately reflecting how I felt at the precise moment I pressed the ‘publish’ button (which is what happens when you’ve finished writing and you’re ready for the readership to sample it). These aren’t after-the-event retrospectives, but subjective reportage ‘as it happened’, so it felt important to reproduce them properly on the printed page, warts and all.

Although each post is in chronological order of publication, collected posts on the same subjects are divided into separate chapters to try and establish some sort of narrative. In volume one, for example, the first chapter features all the posts covering UK politics this year, right from the very first post in January (‘Divide and Misrule’) and up to the one that appeared on 10 September (‘Prorogue State’); a shame 2019 couldn’t have been more eventful in Westminster, but you can’t have everything. Chapter two is devoted to pop cultural posts, whereas the third features my more personal chronicle of 2018, which was a unique year for all the wrong reasons. Naturally, the scope widens for volumes two and three so that the USA, Europe and the rest of the world get a look in. Indeed, it was only when I started working my way through the Winegum back catalogue that I realised just how many different topics I’ve covered since December 2015 – even if a few have tended to dominate. It is true however, that some subjects have proven to be more inexhaustible than others.

Thankfully – well, depending how you look at it – this blog got off the ground just in time to catch the beginning of Brexit; the date of the game-changing Referendum was announced barely two months into the Winegum’s existence. I’ve therefore been able to chronicle the whole messy business from day one, and I’ve no doubt Dave imagined that by the time his own masterly contribution to the libraries of the nation appeared on the shelves the chaos he unleashed would have settled, thus saving him from any unpleasant revivals of the blame game. Instead, it rather fortuitously happens to fall smack bang in the middle of the latest attempt by the arrogant and entitled (led, of course, by Ms Miller) to not so much ‘take back’ control as hold onto it for dear life.

The English judiciary is now in the proroguing spotlight, hot on the heels of its Scottish equivalent giving the thumbs-down last week; a nation governed by rampant pro-EU Nationalists was hardly going to judge the PM’s decision favourably, though. Following a slickly-staged stunt intended to humiliate beleaguered Boris in Luxembourg, the ‘other side’ are turning up the heat on the Prime Minister in the hope Parliament will be recalled. What exactly they hope to actually do in Parliament if the Supreme Court bows to the Remainer mafia remains to be seen, however, for all they’ve done for the last three-and-a-half years is to try and thwart a democratic mandate at the expense of implementing any important legislation. So, I guess we’re talking more of the same.

Good old dependable Jo Swinson has at least dropped any pretences of a phony ‘People’s Vote’ this week, so that’s been a refreshing confirmation of everything we already knew about the Lib Dem approach to the issue. Most amusingly of all, Swinson’s brazen honesty has irked ideological allies such as Caroline Lucas, who still prefers to mask her true intentions in the Second Referendum smokescreen. But Swinson is oozing self (or over) confidence at the moment.

Buoyed by the addition of another lacklustre Tory reject to the ranks, the Lib Dem leader roused the faithful at the Party Conference with an echo of David Steel’s infamous ‘Go back to your constituencies and prepare for government’ call. Liberals do have a habit of getting carried away with what passes for popularity between General Elections. But perhaps Swinson’s belief that her party can win a majority is merely another reflection of Remainer righteousness – or perhaps the righteousness of the political class as a whole. Swinson herself is, like Dave before her, another product of the smooth conveyor belt that took her from university to Westminster at a tender age with a brief pause en route for a short sample of what ‘real life’ feels like. Therefore, she’s expertly qualified to lecture 17 million members of the unwashed electorate on where they went wrong.

One benefit of going through old posts with a fine tooth comb has been to remind myself just how Cameron and his rotten administration (both with and without their Lib Dem whipping-boys) really were the embodiment of the Nasty Party ideal. No posthumous whitewash in attempting to reclassify himself as a ‘compassionate Conservative’ simply by standing next to his successors holds water when one re-reads instant gut reactions to his appalling policies at the point they were unveiled. In a way, the serendipitous timing of my decision to reacquaint myself with what I thought in 2016 has rekindled my contempt for a man who hoped sufficient distance would soften opinion towards him. No chance – especially not when the consequences of his irresponsible actions continue to dictate our increasingly fractious political discourse.

Anyway, the first volume of my book will be in direct competition with Dave’s in a matter of days. One will apparently retail at £25, and one will definitely be on sale at £4.99. Spend your hard-earned pennies wisely, boys and girls.

https://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1689841532

© The Editor

IT’S THAT MAN AGAIN

‘Unprecedented’ is the ultimate hard-on word that overexcited political reporters are fond of using whenever they want to up the dramatic ante; but in this particular case it really is unavoidable. Yes, these are elections to the European Parliament and, let’s be honest: many don’t normally even bother to register their vote, and MEPs (bar Nigel Farage and Daniel Hannan) are usually the most anonymous politicians in the country. But it’s worth remembering this has been the first occasion since the 2017 General Election that the British electorate have had clear Leave and Remain choices on the ballot paper, and the electorate have responded accordingly. The Brexit Party won in all the English regions bar London and also won Wales, even finishing runners-up to the SNP north of the border. When one takes into account the fact that the Brexit Party is only six weeks old, the comprehensive victory it has achieved is genuinely…well…unprecedented. 38% of the vote, 29 MEPs – remarkable.

The rapid rise of the Brexit Party and the resurgence of the Lib Dems – the only political parties (in England, at least) whose intentions are blatantly honest – can be seen as both a rejection of doublethink spin and as further evidence of electoral dissatisfaction with Labour and the Tories. The 2016 ballot paper provided the visitor to the polling booth with a straightforward in/out choice, and the public mood is still one that sees the most divisive issue of our times in simple black & white terms; despite ongoing attempts by the two main parties to wrap it in endless complexities as an example of how they’re clever and we’re not, voters in the European Elections have kept it simple, and who they chose to vote for reflects this. They either want to leave or they want to remain – just like they did three years ago. The fact the majority opted for the former in 2016 and yet we still haven’t left means a degree in rocket science isn’t necessary when wondering why a party that didn’t even exist a couple of months ago has swept the Brussels board.

Political divisions in Britain for a hundred years or more have been between left and right or Labour and Conservative – ideological and party allegiances that have shaped the landscape. Yet we now appear to have returned to the factions and groupings of the 18th century, whereas instead of being a Whig or a Tory, you’re now a Brexiteer or a Remainer – and whether you happen to lean to the left or dress to the right has no bearing on that. Granted, old habits find dying harder come a General Election, but the outcome of this Euro vote we shouldn’t even have taken part in has demonstrated – far more than the recent local results – just how much tradition has gone for a Burton. Yes, protest votes have always been a way of venting a grievance with one’s preferred party in a local or by-election; but to have so many prominent mouthpieces for both Labour and the Conservatives openly declaring they would vote against their own parties has been a notable departure from the script, especially considering how both are in such dire need of a cuddle from old friends.

It has to be said, the Lib Dems deserve credit for the way in which they have capitalised on the mixed messages coming from the big two and have essentially reinvented and rebranded themselves as the Remain Party. ‘Stop Brexit’ (if you live in a home-owning neighbourhood) and ‘Bollocks to Brexit’ (if you emanate from a council estate) have been their short, snappy slogans in a campaign they have managed with unexpectedly canny genius. They picked up on the fact that the public wanted straight-talking and, seeing how Leavers suddenly had a focus with the swift formation of Farage’s colourful coalition, they gave Remainers a party of their own too.

Even the anticipated splitting of the Remain vote via the conceited deserters formerly known as TIG failed to materialise; the spectacular failure of the vanity project that is Change UK (and is it mere coincidence that their name when abbreviated reads as ‘CHUK’?) has been the sole crumb of comfort for the Conservatives as this pitiful party, along with the obliterated UKIP, has at least given Tories someone to look down on from the depths of the relegation zone they now languish in. Were any of the Change UK MPs to give their constituents the chance to comment on their defection from the parties they stood for in 2017, I wonder how many would be returned to Parliament? The likelihood of any by-elections in those constituencies seems more remote than ever today.

Not that anyone was expecting unbiased reporting, but the BBC coverage of the election results not only saw amusing straw-clutching when desperately combining all non-Brexit Party votes as evidence that the country now favours Remain; there was also the persistent and irritating inference that all Brexit Party votes were gained via a simple transfusion from UKIP – as though the party was Milton Keynes Dons inheriting the history and club records of Wimbledon FC and it was all down to mere rebranding. Well, to use the language of the Lib Dems, bollocks. The Brexit Party isn’t simply UKIP under another name. It may well have sucked-up the share of the vote that went to Farage’s former vehicle five years ago, but by presenting itself as the only unambiguous option available to Leavers, the party has attracted thousands of disillusioned Labour and Tory voters who have simmered and seethed when watching the MPs they voted into office two years ago either dither or deliberately obstruct the implementation of something they swore they would honour.

With 11 of the UK’s 12 regions declared at the time of writing, the only areas in which the Brexit Party failed to win the most votes were Scotland and London – yet, even in the Labour-centric capital, it was the Lib Dems rather than Corbyn’s crew that topped the table, amusingly hitting No.1 in the Islington charts as well. It was a disastrous night for Labour – pushed into third place in Wales and falling behind the Greens in the East of England as well as the South East and the South West. The piss-poor showing by Labour will heap further pressure on beleaguered Jezza by the Watson/Starmer/Thornberry Remainer triumvirate to go all-out for a second referendum strategy, which should play out well in the party’s old northern strongholds. But maybe it’s already too late; Labour have spent so long sitting on that fence that the Lib Dems have steamed ahead as the party of Remain and look set to…erm…remain.

As for the Tories, well, was anyone really surprised? The Conservatives didn’t win a single area and cannot finish any higher than fifth place when all the nationwide votes are tallied; the party can now boast a paltry four MEPs following a record low of 9.1% share of the vote; it’s the worst result in the party’s history – ever; and the Tories have a longer history than any other political party. Whoever succeeds Theresa May not only has to contend with the ever-present albeit largely imaginary threat of Corbyn; he/she also has to contend with the far more realistic threat of Nigel Farage…again – and look what that threat did to the Tories three years ago.

© The Editor