MAY TO OCTOBER

Let’s face it – this hasn’t been the best of weeks for Tory leaders past or present. A day after the incumbent coughed and spluttered her way through what was supposed to be the moment at this year’s Conservative Party Conference when she reasserted her authority, a predecessor not even alive to combat his critics has seen his name dragged through the mud once again by a provincial police force desperately seeking straws to clutch that it hopes will justify the vast expense squandered on its futile investigation into him. Heath cannot change history; that duty is in the hands of the revisionists. But Theresa May has had ample opportunities to change the present and she seems utterly incapable of doing so; like Gordon Brown before her, poor old Mrs May stumbles into one farcical cock-up after another with the disaster-prone finesse of a classic sitcom character – the sitcom in question being, of course, ‘The Thick of It’.

‘Building a country that works or everyone’ isn’t the most coherent message for the Government to employ as reassurance that the country is in safe hands, but that was the slogan behind the PM when she staged her painful performance in front of the faithful. Party Conference slogans are usually meaningless combinations of words probably concocted by highly-paid strategists during ‘brainstorming’ sessions, but the loss of an F on the one used yesterday actually worked if one interprets it as a fitting symbol for the clueless shower running the show at the moment. Even if one overlooks the dubious attractions of a week-long event with a speech by Theresa May as its intended highlight, the Conservative Party Conference 2017 has been bad by any party standards.

What with Boris Johnson not even bothering to conceal his credentials as a successor and a ‘comedy terrorist’ interrupting the PM by handing her a P45, the whole shambles has been a fitting funeral ceremony for the May administration. Whilst there might have been a degree of sympathy in the hall for the Prime Minister as someone way out of their depth struggled yet again to convince anyone beyond the most sycophantic toadies that she’s the right woman for the job, Tories are not renowned for sentiment when it comes to their leaders. At times, the PM’s speech was reminiscent of an especially bad ‘Dragon’s Den’ pitch, and backstage rumblings of a coup are gathering pace once more as the house of Conservative cards is perilously close to collapsing.

In some respects, many Tories must be relieved the ghost of one of Mrs May’s predecessors has resurfaced, mired in murky hearsay that makes her misdemeanours appear all the more comical. It probably helps too that Edward Heath remains the Conservative Prime Minister whose unpopularity in the party remains as mysteriously potent as it was when he lost two successive General Elections in 1974; the passage of time has not diminished the antipathy he inspired. Indeed, what is a remarkably awful keynote speech when sharing column inches with a headline such as the one I came across on Yahoo News today: Former PM ‘raped 11 year-old boy’? The inverted commas were in place, but that was simple libel-preventing common sense where an unproven accusation is concerned; not that many seeing such a headline will pay much attention to inverted commas.

Operation Conifer, the retarded country cousin of Operation Midland which has spent the last couple of years Hoovering up most of the dead wood from that discredited witch-hunt via the congenital liar ‘Nick’, has come to the conclusion that Ted Heath would have been interviewed during the £1.5 million inquiry had he still been alive; and that kind of curious, nonsensical logic could be applied to practically any situation that didn’t actually happen.

Had Hitler not committed suicide in his bunker, he would have stood trial for war crimes at Nuremburg; had Gordon Smith not fluffed it in front of goal during the dying seconds of the 1983 FA Cup Final, Brighton and Hove Albion would have beaten Manchester United and won the trophy; had I been born twenty-five years earlier in Liverpool, I could have been the fifth Beatle. But, lest we forget, the Wiltshire Constabulary carried out their fishing party not to address the issue of Heath’s guilt or innocence, but to see whether there was a substantial amount of evidence to have interviewed the former Prime Minister, even though he inconveniently died a decade before they began it. Why didn’t they just reunite the ‘Time Team’ crowd and let them dig-up Heath’s back garden?

Are the tax-payers of Wiltshire so financially secure that they can afford the luxury of an existential police force? The county’s boys in blue have devoted the past couple of years to pondering on what they view as a perplexing conundrum – would Ted Heath have been interviewed under caution over allegations he raped an 11-year-old boy in 1961 if he were still alive? Hmmm, that’s a tricky one; let’s spend over a million quid coming up with the answer. Two years down the line, they’ve decided seven of the accusations would have warranted an interview under caution. Well done, lads. A pity the Woodentop who stood in front of Heath’s home and encouraged ‘victims to come forward’ isn’t around to crack open the bubbly, what with him being signed-off on long-term sick leave, but you can’t have everything.

The 100-page ‘summary closure report’ into Operation Conifer claims ‘no inference of guilt’ should arise from the fact Heath would have been interviewed under caution where seven of the 42 accusations are concerned; moreover, Dr Rachel Hoskins examined the so-called evidence last November and came to the conclusion that it ‘exposed a catalogue of fabrication’; she also dismissed the widely-publicised ‘Satanic’ angle so beloved of Icke disciples, advising the police to abandon the investigation. The police ignored her advice, and Operation Conifer has neither proven nor dispelled any of the rumours surrounding Heath whilst costing a small fortune in the process. All we know from its findings is that Ted kept his hands to himself throughout his tenure at No.10, as none of the allegations date from that period, funnily enough. He wasn’t daft, was he?

So, whatever Theresa May puts her foot in next, she can at least be content with the fact that it can’t top Satanic ritual abuse of minors. However, let’s see where we stand forty years hence. They’re a funny lot, those Tories, so you never know…

© The Editor

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CARROTS FOR ALL

Theresa May doesn’t want to be surrounded by Yes Men, and it seems she’s got what she wants. Not that she appears to listen to members of her Cabinet, anyway, whether or not they tell her what she wants to hear. Holding court in a Cabinet Office that must have had its walls removed and replaced with a giant sieve, the PM is presiding over a team that is behaving as though the collective responsibility her predecessor dispensed with during the EU Referendum still applies. Boris has been laying out his own personal manifesto via newspaper columns in recent weeks, yet Mrs May is keeping her Foreign Secretary on a very slack leash indeed. It’s a curious approach to take into the Party Conference Season, though policy promises have been raining down on the electorate during the Tory outing to Manchester, as though we’re on the eve of a General Election rather than living in the aftermath of one.

It goes without saying that what we’re getting is the usual series of suggestions designed to either attract or pacify a particular demographic that has so far been impervious to the charms of the PM’s shower. The youth vote, so crucial to the rise of Jezza, is one the Government are desperate to entice, yet even if many of Corbyn’s pledges might prove harder to implement when in office than in opposition, Mrs May is trying her best to lure The Kids into the blue corner. Don’t get me wrong – I wince whenever I hear the ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’ chant and curse the fact that the melody stolen from The White Stripes’ ‘Seven Nation Army’ is ruining what I think of as one of the best rock songs of the last 20 years; but the Tories trying to come on all hip ‘n’ groovy is still akin to a ‘Grime Night’ being held at a Home Counties golf-club.

Mental health is another issue the Government are keen to be seen doing something about; but, as was so memorably stated in ‘This is Spinal Tap’, money talks and bullshit walks. Throwing vast amounts of cash at public services being badly-run, whether the NHS or the social care system, isn’t good enough when the majority of the money is simply used to enhance the pension schemes and pay the mortgages of the careerist freeloaders clogging up the impenetrable layers of management that require a bloody great scythe taking to them instead of being reinforced like the rotten foundations of a stately home. But, of course, we’re in the quick fix territory of short-term solutions to long-term problems; the Government is showing the same amount of imagination as someone who gives you money for your birthday because they can’t think of a fitting present.

Another side to the PM’s character that is being highlighted during the current chaotic condition of her administration is her stubbornness on an unwelcome legacy from her predecessor’s regime – Universal Credit. The catch-all cock-up conceived by Iain Duncan Smith is supposed to group together six existing benefits – including Jobseeker’s Allowance, Housing Benefit, Income Support, and Employment & Support Allowance – under one all-encompassing umbrella benefit, but the scheme has had its critics from day one and the suspicion is that Mrs May and her DWP Tsar David Gauke are reluctant to put the project on ice and are pressing ahead whilst ignoring warnings because they’re fearful of being accused of yet another U-turn.

Many of those entitled to Universal Credit residing in parts of the country where the benefit has already been ‘rolled out’ have had to wait upwards of six weeks to receive any payments and have been pushed into rent arrears as a consequence. Dame Louise Casey, a social policy adviser to governments of both colours for 18 years, has urged the PM to take a closer look at what impact Universal Credit stands to have on individuals and families who are already perched on the precipice of poverty before the damage is done. Government estimates predict seven million households will be in receipt of Universal Credit within the next five years, but despite the Citizens Advice Bureau and several Tory backbenchers sharing the same concerns as Dame Louise, it would appear the plans are going ahead regardless of her belief that some families ‘will end up in dire circumstances, more dire than I think we have seen in this country for years’.

If, as history tells us, it was once perfectly legitimate for landlords to place the notorious ‘No Irish, No Dogs, No Blacks’ sign in the windows of their properties, it was also once okay for them to say ‘No DHSS’, and far more recently at that; I came across it myself several times when looking for somewhere to live around fifteen years ago. I learnt to keep quiet and worked out that paying my rent in person without the DHSS paying it direct to the landlord was one way to get around the discrimination; and while I’m not sure where the law stands in terms of who landlords can and cannot refuse tenancies to today, it would appear they routinely turn away anyone whose income falls under the ‘Universal Credit’ banner. For some, it’s a vicious circle; they can’t get work without a fixed abode and they can’t get a fixed abode because they’re claiming Universal Credit…on account of not being able to get work.

One of the Conservative MPs calling for a rethink on Universal Credit, Stephen McPartland, says ‘with every pound (claimants) earn, the Government’s taking 63p back off them; to me, that is an effective tax rate of 63%…so the lowest paid are effectively having to pay some of the highest taxes’. The CAB concluded Universal Credit claimants on average have less than £4 a month to pay creditors after covering the cost of living; the organisation’s chief executive Gillian Guy said ‘if the Government continues to take this stubborn approach to the expansion of Universal Credit, it risks pushing thousands of families into a spiral of debt, and placing an even greater strain on public services’.

But Mrs May is too busy pruning the remaining leaves from the magic money tree in the Downing Street garden to listen; if she can toss its off-cuts in the direction of those she assumes will translate them into a solution to their problems, she’s done her job. To be fair, there doesn’t seem much point in her looking at the long-term, anyway.

© The Editor

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THE WALKING DEAD

The most unwelcome endorsement a football manager can ever receive when his team’s results are going against him is that of his club chairman; a public statement that a boss has the full support of the board is traditionally a prelude to the chop. The fact that Boris Johnson has given his backing to Theresa May when the Prime Minister has proven yet again precisely how blind she is to her own shortcomings as PM isn’t necessarily something she should take as an indication she’ll still be around come the next General Election. After all, Boris’s own Downing Street ambitions remain unfulfilled and received a renewed boost following the far-from convincing performance of the Government on June 8. The next Election is pencilled-in for 2022 – just as the last one was pencilled-in for 2020. However, Mrs May’s fellow Tories aren’t exactly queuing-up to echo the Foreign Secretary’s dubious confidence in the PM.

Former Conservative Party co-chairman Grant Shapps remarked that Mrs May’s comments about going on and on were ‘too early’, whilst those who lost their job when May took up hers – such as ex-Education Secretary Nicky Morgan and Evening Standard editor George Osborne – were a little blunter when it came to the PM’s future. Tory grandee (and prominent Remainer) Michael Heseltine said ‘The long term is a difficult one for Theresa May because I don’t think she’s got one.’ Theresa May, on the other hand, has declared ‘Yes, I’m here for the long term…not just delivering on Brexit, but delivering a brighter future for the UK.’ To paraphrase Mandy Rice-Davies, well – she would say that, wouldn’t she?

Many reckon Theresa May has managed to cling on due to the Brexit factor; others see the fact she’s still at No.10 is testament to the dearth of a talented contender in her Cabinet. Not that there aren’t a few in there who fancy her job. Boris Johnson may have been thwarted at the eleventh hour courtesy of Michael Gove last year, but May’s unconvincing leadership has given him fresh hope. When your most ringing endorsement emanates from a man who stands to gain the most from your continuing presence as a weak leader, it doesn’t bode well for ‘going on and on’.

The situation for the Tories in terms of a leadership challenge isn’t that dissimilar to the situation Labour found itself in when Gordon Brown lost the 2010 General Election. Granted, in the Conservative case, an ineffective leader unpopular with the general public did actually manage to scramble across the finishing line, but the victory came at a catastrophic cost, most of which has been spent paying the DUP; and the candidates to succeed her are hardly outstanding. Even if one takes a mercurial clown such as Boris out of the equation, we’re faced with a dullard like Philip Hammond or a dimwit like David Davis.

If the Tories regarded Jeremy Corbyn as their greatest electoral asset in the arrogant run-up to the last campaign, Jezza’s strong showing on polling day forced them to examine their own lack of assets; and the only Tories to have failed to come to the conclusion that their frontbench was a pretty woeful collection of nonentities were those too distracted by their self-interested egos to realise they were as mediocre as the next man. All will hope Mrs May stays where she is for the time being, as will the Labour Party; any Prime Minister who can lose a safe Parliamentary majority and can instil such apathy in the electorate as the PM has achieved over the past four months is a far more encouraging opponent than a strong leader with a landslide to her name.

In between bigging-up her ability to survive and prosper, the Prime Minister was waffling on about a ‘Global Britain’ as a means of proving to the doubters that we can trade beyond the borders of Europe without any economic upset; she also came out with the kind of meaningless statement re dealing with ‘those injustices domestically that we need to do to ensure that strong, more global, but also fairer Britain for the future’ that she delivered from the Downing Street lectern the day she moved into No.10. Well, she was able to shoehorn ‘strong’ into her spiel, though ‘stable’ was notable by its absence. At best, the furthest date from the here and now she can feasibly make it to whilst staying in the top job is probably the day we officially withdraw from the EU in March 2019; the thought that she could still be around three years later is inconceivable to anyone other than Theresa May – and…er…Boris Johnson.

The PM cited the example of her predecessor as to how announcing one’s intentions can prematurely curtail one’s premiership; but even though David Cameron revealed he was planning to step down after serving two full terms, there’s no doubt he would still be in the job today had the British public voted Remain rather than Leave last year – and he’d have almost three years left to go. Unlike Dave, Theresa May is head of a minority administration, and having to depend upon obstinate Ulstermen to prop her up is not exactly the most strong or stable foundation for planning to go on and on.

Theresa May is in the most vulnerable position of any British Prime Minister since Jim Callaghan, and were the country not engaged in an unprecedented diplomatic disentanglement that doesn’t need the additional headache of yet another Tory leadership battle, she wouldn’t simply be a dead woman walking; politically, she’d just be dead.

© The Editor

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THEY’RE ALL GOING ON A SUMMER HOLIDAY

It may not be a long hot summer ahead of us – give or take the odd ‘phew, what a scorcher’ day – but it promises to be one in which our nation’s elected representatives plan and plot their enticing battle strategies for the autumn. As Westminster covers its furniture for a couple of months, MPs return to their constituencies and prepare not so much for government as for the next stage of the war. Being an observer and writer on events of this nature, I find these are invigorating times to be doing so. In the last three years, we’ve had two referendums (one regional, one national) and two General Elections; and none appear to have resolved any of the issues that prompted them in the first place. We seem to be in a permanent, if fascinating, state of flux.

I was talking to a friend the other day on how cinema and television mirror the political uncertainties of the day in their output; current offerings from ‘A Handmaid’s Tale’ to ‘The Walking Dead’ and even the revived ‘Planet of the Apes’ series seem to me to reflect the mistrust and diminishing faith in the institutions that govern western society, a factor that has gathered pace post-9/11 and in the wake of the 2008 financial crash. Interestingly, the last time this trend was so prominent was back in the 70s – with everything from ‘Survivors’ and ‘The Changes’ on the small screen to ‘Network’, ‘The Omega Man’, ‘Logan’s Run’ and ‘A Clockwork Orange’ on the big screen, dystopian portrayals of the near-future that characterised the contemporary concerns of the era that produced them.

Go back to the 50s – supposedly a far more stable era – yet we have the likes of ‘Invasion of the Body-Snatchers’ acting as a metaphor for McCarthyism, ‘Quatermass’ satirising the pre-war establishment’s flirtations with fascism as the British ruling class is infiltrated by aliens, and the post-Hiroshima fear of what the Atom Bomb left in its wake manifested as mutant creatures in ‘Tarantula’ or the Godzilla movies. After a rare bout of international optimism in the 90s – following celebrated events such as the collapse of the Eastern Bloc, the release of Nelson Mandela and the end of apartheid that followed it – the shift in mood that for those on the left has been exacerbated by Brexit or the election of Trump has resulted in a return to the apocalyptic narrative in fiction.

How this relates to the current state of play in Blighty is easier to describe in escapist terms via the fresh upsurge in fantasy trash such as ‘Love Island’ or the ongoing and increasingly desperate talent show franchise acting as television ostriches with heads firmly buried in the sand. When the TV news is so relentless in its assault on the lingering shreds of naive belief that things can only get better, however, it’s no wonder the populace turns to the modern-day equivalent of the dance marathons of the Great Depression for superficial consolation or even the comforting embrace of Regency England in the likes of ‘Poldark’.

In a way, it’s no great surprise that this has happened when the public look to their leaders for guidance and see people at the top who appear to have such a slender grip on power that it could slip away at any given moment. When one considers we have a minority Government led by a Prime Minister so in denial of her own shortcomings and eager to enter into deals with anyone that can provide her administration with the illusion of strength and stability, whether Trump, the DUP or Saudi Arabia, it doesn’t inspire much in the way of confidence. Theresa May now takes time out from what must have been a personally devastating couple of months for her to calculate how she can survive until the end of the Brexit negotiations two years hence. She’ll dust herself down for the party conference season in September, but she knows the knives are out within her own Cabinet and she’s very much living on borrowed time. Who would envy her?

A year ago, it was Jeremy Corbyn who was facing assaults from his own side, yet Jezza has emerged from the wreckage of the General Election with his position undoubtedly strengthened and his Labour opponents weakened. His remarkable winning over of the general public from such a lowly starting point has both shown the irrelevance of Fleet Street in dictating opinion and how people respond positively to the relative novelty of a politician who seems to have genuine beliefs that aren’t necessarily dependent on the shifting sands of the consensus. His response to recent terrorist events and Grenfell have captured the public mood far more effectively than May’s awkward and stilted reaction, something that won’t do him any harm come the next visit to the polling station, whenever that may be.

The euphoric mood of the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party right now couldn’t contrast greater with the shambolic infighting of the Tories, and it certainly feels that electioneering for them didn’t end on June 8. Few would argue that should the realistic possibility of another General Election at any time over the next few months come to pass, Labour appear more likely to win it than the Conservatives; and the Conservatives are all-too aware of this, which is why they’re putting the inevitable leadership contest on hold for the time being. It doesn’t say much for their prospects that the attitude they’ve adopted seems to be ‘any Prime Minister is better than no Prime Minister’.

The reduced ambition of the Lib Dems, despite moderately increasing their Parliamentary head-count after the wipe-out of 2015, has been reflected in the unopposed election of Vince Cable as leader; this backwards step is reminiscent of when the Tories had Michael Howard in the hot-seat after William Hague’s retirement in 2001, almost an admission of irrelevance. Pursuing an anti-Brexit policy that includes a desire for another EU Referendum might win them a few fans amongst diehard Remainers, but the wider electorate have already accepted Brexit and just want it to be over and done with as quickly as possible.

So, the recess is with us and the respective parties are taking a break from daily duties in the Commons; but as Mrs May heads off for a hike in the Welsh mountains and Mr Corbyn retreats to his allotment, I doubt either will view the summer as a holiday. Both have challenges ahead of them that negate putting their feet up, and the business of either running the country or preparing to run it won’t pause just because there are sandcastles waiting to be built.

© The Editor

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LAST TRAIN TO MAIDENHEAD

The temporary suspension of collective responsibility within a Cabinet by a serving Prime Minister is not a decision taken lightly by the man/woman in charge; more often than not, the ramifications of releasing the shackles of the party line can give the individual Ministers an appetite for expressing personal opinions that they remain reluctant to relinquish thereafter. At the time of the 1975 EEC Referendum, Harold Wilson may have got the eventual result he wanted; but it’s arguable the left/right divide within Labour that was given such a public platform during the campaign sowed the seeds for the split that did so much damage to the party in the 80s.

Similarly, David Cameron giving free rein to the Brexiteers within his own Cabinet last year continues to threaten unity at the highest level; not only did the result of the EU Referendum cost Dave his job, but it seems to have started a trend amongst Ministers to publicly disagree with one another on a regular basis, something the shaky outcome of the General Election seems to have exacerbated. Theresa May’s weak authority and inability to keep a lid on Cabinet conferences has played its part in the publicised bickering between prominent members of that Cabinet; Brexit remains the most divisive issue, but at the moment one feels as though if one person sat around the table at No.10 didn’t care much for the digestive biscuits provided, the nation would know about it within hours.

Chancellor Philip Hammond is the current target surrounding many of the leaks, accused by one unnamed colleague of trying to ‘f*** up Brexit’ and by another of claiming ‘even a woman can drive a train’ when public sector pay was under discussion. Of course, many of those feeding these stories from Downing Street to the press are rather eager to make the PM’s residence their address for the next four or five years, and the headlines reflect the struggle to topple Mrs May that is undeniably underway. She might hope threatening them with ‘it’s me or Corbyn’ will dampen the jostling for succession over the summer recess; but the hard slog of running a minority administration with a Cabinet of power-hungry backstabbers has the potential to break even a deluded martinet like Theresa May come the autumn.

Another divisive issue that has been around longer than Brexit and may well outlast it is that of HS2. The latest news of the proposed route for the white elephant express has added a layer of irony to a housing crisis in which not enough new or affordable homes are being built. It emerged yesterday that the planned eastern route of the line – from Leeds to Birmingham – will run east of Sheffield and not be served by any new stations in South Yorkshire; using Sheffield’s main city centre station means the route will plough through a newly-built housing estate in nearby Mexborough. The official Government statement claims only 16 of the 216 homes will make way for the line, but sceptical residents don’t accept this; they also question the compensation payments they’ll be entitled to that the Government initially said would enable them to purchase another home of equivalent value in the area.

Transport Secretary Chris Grayling bigged-up the scheme yet again in the Commons yesterday and attempted to dismiss its numerous critics by reading from the usual ‘economic benefits’ script that accompanies any project in which people stand to lose both homes and businesses; but when one recalls Grayling’s abysmal performances in his previous Ministerial posts, any reassurances from him are hardly likely to fill those in HS2’s firing line with confidence. The South Yorkshire section of the route was unveiled a year ago, but confirmation of it yesterday prompted Rotherham’s Labour MP Sarah Champion to tweet ‘South Yorkshire will now get all of the disruption of HS2 without the benefit.’

As one resident of the new Mexborough estate that will be partially demolished to make way for the line said, ‘Bear in mind this is the construction of a viaduct that’s going to be 20ft in the sky coming within 10ft of your property, and they say, “it’s okay, your property isn’t one that has to be knocked down”.’ The construction of London’s Westway flyover in the late 60s caused similar damage as it cut a brutal swathe through North Kensington, whereas an entire centuries-old village was obliterated by the building of the Scammonden Dam and Reservoir that comprised the construction of the M62 motorway during the same period. Any project of this nature tends to dramatically alter the landscape and affect those that inhabit it, but such disruption in recent decades has largely been down to accommodating the motorcar; the railways were last the source of such opposition and upset in the nineteenth century.

HS2 was a contentious subject in Government circles long before Theresa May seized power and will remain so for her successor, whoever that may be. The route will pass through upwards of 70 Parliamentary constituencies and MPs have been inundated with demands from constituents to vote against the scheme, many of them Tories. The official Government line on HS2 is currently holding steady, but the PM’s failure to prevent leaks and to gag her most outspoken Ministers at the moment suggests if any issue that divides the public is just as likely to divide the Cabinet, chances are we’ll find out about it pretty quickly. When her position is somewhat perilous to say the least, Theresa May can ill-afford to allow the current state of play to continue; but it would appear she’s already lost the battle.

© The Editor

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B-DAY

It’s been quite another eventful week for the B word – the one that has no doubt already earned its inclusion in the Oxford English Dictionary because of its ubiquitous presence on so many tongues; I wasn’t even going to write about it again today, but how can one ignore it when that retired Messiah Mr Blair has intervened yet again? His long exile from the political arena apparently over now, Blair’s intervention in the ongoing debate has kept it at the forefront of popular discourse. Discredited by adventures in Iraq he may be, but Tony knows when he speaks, people pay attention; whether or not what he has to say is what people want to hear is debatable.

Blair’s own concept of a ‘Soft Brexit’ was aired today as he put forth the notion of the UK remaining in the single market with an EU compromise on the contentious issue of free movement. His idea of an ‘outer circle’, a one foot in/one foot out proposal he believes would suit the Remain crowd whilst simultaneously satisfying moderate Brexiteers is not one that most would regard as remotely feasible.

Tony’s latest light-bulb looks on the surface like an unrealistic and unrealisable fantasy that is essentially rejecting the will of the British people (or at least the majority that voted Leave) and hinges its hopes on Emmanuel Macron’s promises of far-reaching EU reforms that many on this side of the Channel would take with a pinch of Great British salt. It has no more credibility than the EU assurances given to David Cameron during his desperate attempts to secure a new deal for the UK in Brussels before the Referendum.

This new crumb of comfort for Remoaners comes at the end of a week in which the so-called Repeal Bill has been unveiled in a cauldron of controversy. Opposition from the devolved administrations in Scotland and Wales has been complemented by Labour demands for no opting out of the European Convention of Human Rights – something the Government denies is part of the process, anyway. For Labour, of course, the autumn debate on the issue presents it with an opportunity to trigger another General Election should its promise to vote against the proposed bill as it stands receive enough support to defeat it in the Commons. That would effectively be a vote of no confidence in the Government, and the outcome could be catastrophic for the Tories.

So much emphasis has been placed on the much-publicised (and criticised) mock-coalition with the DUP, some might think the bribery involved can carry any legislation through Parliament; but the ‘repatriation’ of certain EU laws to the British statue book being the first crucial stage of the post-Article 50 Brexit process means a good deal of future aspects of the process hinge on its success – and that success is in no way guaranteed at the moment, DUP support or no. A week that began with a minor aristocrat being reprimanded in the courts for essentially offering to finance a hit-and-run of Gina Miller, whether or not it was a tasteless tongue-in-cheek quip on social media, demonstrates that this issue continues to enflame passions on both sides.

Labour’s own take on Brexit has never really been as clearly defined as the Conservative one; Jeremy Corbyn’s invisibility during the Referendum campaign last year was much commented on at the time and arguably played its part in the doomed challenge to his leadership from Owen Smith that followed. Perhaps reflecting Jezza’s new strength as Labour leader, he met with the EU’s chief negotiator Michael Barnier in Brussels a couple of days ago; the meeting would suggest Corbyn reckons he’ll soon be in a position to orchestrate the direction of the UK’s Brexit strategy. Theresa May’s own position is so precarious, even after the cry for help to Ulster, that it would be a surprise if Corbyn hadn’t made approaches to Brussels to set his own party’s stall out on Brexit.

Yes, there are undoubtedly more Remainers within the Labour Party than on the Tory backbenches, but their eternal opposition to Jezza’s leadership had little bearing on the party’s performance in June’s General Election; if another Election is called before the year is out, their voices will be largely irrelevant in the overall picture when it comes to Labour’s Brexit stance, relegated to the same unloved echo chamber as the Lib Dems. Unless the most vocal Remainers of all parties unite their grievances under a new party banner soon, their constant interference in the democratic process will serve to further alienate the electorate from Parliament and further erode trust in the ability of Westminster to do its duty.

Boris Johnson, displaying his usual bullish theatricality in the Commons, declared the EU could ‘go whistle’ if it expected an ‘extortionate’ payment from the UK as part of the divorce bill; yet David Davis appeared to contradict the Foreign Secretary’s comedy Churchillian turn yesterday by admitting the cost of the divorce would probably be rather extortionate after all. Conflicting statements such as these emanating from the same Cabinet don’t really help clarify matters, though perhaps they reflect the absence of certainties that continue to bedevil the whole issue.

© The Editor

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THE MAGIC MONEY TREE

Yes, desperate times call for desperate measures and Theresa May is desperate. Once upon a time, the Conservative Party could always rely on the tacit support of Ulster Unionists to ease the passage of unpopular legislation through the Commons, though the Northern Ireland peace process has negated favouritism in recent years and the blue bridge across the Irish Sea has been closed to traffic for quite some time now. There was also the self-conscious rebranding of the Tories by David Cameron, seeking to lose the ‘nasty party’ tag by promoting a series of socially liberal reforms that culminated in same-sex marriages; not only did this infuriate old-school commentators in a more traditional Tory vein such as Peter Hitchens; it also alienated the Conservatives from their ancient allies in the Loyalist camp.

However, Theresa May has a new best friend in the bullish shape of DUP leader Arlene Foster, so the Conservative and Unionist Party is back in business. It’s a strange kind of friendship, though – a bit like Chris Evans surrounding himself with sycophantic ‘friends’ on his Radio One breakfast show in the 90s, all of whom were on his payroll. Like him, Theresa May has bought her friendship, bribing the Democratic Unionist Party to prop up her fragile administration. Of course, a minority government entering into a deal with another party isn’t unprecedented, but it’s rarely done in such a crass manner.

In 1977, with the tiny majority he inherited from Harold Wilson gone after a by-election defeat, Labour PM Jim Callaghan approached Liberal leader David Steel to set up a working arrangement between the two parties; faced with the prospect of a motion of no confidence in the government, something that would probably have led to a General Election, Callaghan agreed Labour would accept a small number of Liberal policy proposals and Steel agreed to support Labour in what became known as the Lib-Lab Pact.

The Lib-Lab Pact, though far from being a coalition (no Liberal MPs were added to the Cabinet), enabled Callaghan to survive in office in 1977/78 – even if the presence of several Liberals in Labour territory wasn’t exactly harmonious; Chancellor Denis Healey, for example, seriously clashed with the Liberal MP seconded to his turf. The agreement officially ended that autumn, when most were anticipating the PM would call a General Election. As we all know, he didn’t, and his minority ministry lost a vote of no confidence in March 1979 before going on to lose the following Election.

As far as 2017 is concerned, the power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland has been in disarray for months – the Assembly hasn’t sat at Stormont since Martin McGuinness’ resignation as Deputy First Minister in January, triggering March’s election; yet suddenly, after dragging its heels in efforts to restore the Northern Ireland Executive, the Government has now decided the province is worth investing in. ‘It’s not a bung for the DUP!’ declares Theresa May’s dullest, greyest sidekick Michael Fallon when questioned about the £1b extra public spending promised to ensure DUP support, though to so blatantly contradict the Barnett Formula – which is supposed to guarantee funds will be distributed evenly between the devolved UK nations – by offering Ulster a great wad and not doing likewise to Scotland or Wales is playing a dangerous game.

The ‘Magic Money Tree’ the PM coldly denied the existence of in response to a nurse asking her when she could expect her first pay-rise in eight years has proven itself to be of magic proportions indeed; there’s obviously something in the soil in the No.10 garden, for the tree has abruptly sprouted an abundance of notes right at the very moment when Mrs May needed them to prolong her perilous premiership. At the moment, the PM is acting like an ailing parent bequeathing her estate to her three children and making it clear to the other two who her favourite child is. When the future of the Union is so shaky, this deal hardly bodes well for our troubled family of nations.

Last week’s pruned Queen’s Speech – mysteriously stripped of the most contentious proposals in the disastrous Tory Election manifesto – was a bizarre affair all round, with Her Majesty deprived of both her husband and her usual monarchical regalia; the presence of stand-in Prince Charles was deemed by one wag as akin to a ‘bring your kids to work’ day. Brenda’s blue hat, with its strange resemblance to the EU flag, was perceived by some as an oblique comment on Brexit, though it seemed Mrs Windsor’s mind was more on getting back to Ascot as fast as her golden carriage could carry her than the oddly unceremonious ceremony and its consequences. MPs vote on it this week, and with the DUP nicely paid off, it should be carried.

It was interesting to note that Theresa May’s signature was absent from the document making the DUP deal official yesterday; it may have not been a necessity, but it could be also be viewed as further proof that her days are numbered. The fear that her imminent removal would then require a fresh document being drawn up and the whole unedifying business having to be negotiated again would at least have been eased by its absence; but it’s not as if there are endless impressive contenders queuing-up to step into the PM’s kitten heels. For the moment, Theresa May is clinging on and will countenance any compromise to stay put.

© The Editor

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A TALE OF TWO CITIES

‘They thought they could snub the conventions of decent society when they seized the sixty-room mansion and transformed it into hippie house!’ No, not a Daily Mail leader, but the booming tones of the British Pathé News reporter covering the end of the celebrated squat at 144 Piccadilly in 1969. The film clip covering the Met’s raid on the property after it had been taken over by the London Street Commune, a loose collective of ‘hippies’ formed to highlight homelessness in the capital, is unsurprisingly one-sided in its perspective as what the narrator describes as ‘the spongers who call themselves hippies’ are evicted from the residence they’d occupied for a week. The commentary goes onto say ‘by their shameless actions, (they) disparage the plight of decent people who cannot find homes’. Decent as in those who regularly visit a barber, one wonders?

There’s no doubt what began as an admittedly ‘radical’ (in the jargon of the time) attempt to bring homelessness to the public’s attention worked as a PR campaign, and whilst there would have been deserving cases taking advantage of the operation, there would also have been a fair few rich kids slumming it and bumming around from one squat to another as they indulged in a bit of counter-cultural backpacking; the additional infiltration of Hell’s Angels and drug-dealers then made its dramatic ending inevitable. But the roots of many homeless charities we take for granted today were in such stunts and in that respect they served a purpose, even if the media coverage was more or less entirely from the viewpoint of the short-back-and-sides generation.

It’s interesting when watching the Pathé report to notice that virtually all of those being herded out of 144 Piccadilly look to be under 30. A good half-decade of Swinging London propaganda had attracted young people to the capital from across the globe, like monochrome moths drawn to a psychedelic flame, even though many of those arriving soon found themselves in a similar situation to the one that befell the lead character in Ken Loach’s landmark BBC TV play ‘Cathy Come Home’ in 1966. Today, London retains its attractiveness to the overseas eye, though there’s a glaring divide between those imported as a cheap labour force (with employers recycling the hackneyed excuse that ‘British workers won’t do these jobs’) and those with the big bucks to buy up huge chunks of the capital.

The tragedy that occurred at Grenfell Tower in North Kensington in the early hours of Wednesday morning has already been politicised, though not necessarily by politicians themselves. Whilst the cause of the appalling event would appear to have been an accident, the shoddy corner-cutting workmanship and lacklustre fire safety precautions that enabled the inferno to take hold of the tower block with such frightening speed seems to be symbolic of a vast chasm between rich and poor, not just in the capital as a whole, but in one specific corner of it, where the haves and have-nots sit cheek-by-jowl. London Mayor Sadiq Khan received a rough ride from residents when he attempted to give a media statement at the site, whereas Theresa May’s decision to avoid residents and speak to fire-fighters away from cameras and microphones was the latest PR own-goal of a PM giving Gordon Brown a run for his money in the ‘most unsuitable candidate for the job ever’ stakes.

Far be it from me to imply there’s any political mileage to be got out of this terrible disaster, but Jeremy Corbyn seems to have captured the mood of the moment in a completely natural manner that contrasts sharply with his awkward opposite number in Westminster. His ease with the general public has been demonstrated yet again in the wake of Wednesday’s events; of course it won’t do him any harm with the electorate, though it really would be churlish to suggest his visit to North Kensington and to the church where many of the survivors have congregated was some sort of points-scoring exercise. If it was, then he once again trounced Mrs May, who doesn’t seem capable of doing anything right at the moment.

During an emergency session of Parliament, briefly recalled to respond to the tragedy, Corbyn made a salient point about the housing crisis in London. ‘It can’t be acceptable that in London we have luxury buildings and luxury flats left empty as land banking for the future while the homeless and the poor look for somewhere to live,’ he said, and then added: ‘Kensington is a tale of two cities. The south part of Kensington is incredibly wealthy; it’s the wealthiest part of the whole country. The ward where this fire took place is, I think, the poorest ward in the whole country and properties must be found – requisitioned if necessary – to make sure those residents do get re-housed locally.’

The new MP for Kensington, Emma Dent Coad, is (lest we forget) Labour, though it has emerged she was actually on the board of the discredited quango running the flats on behalf of Kensington and Chelsea Council, the one that gave the green light to the fatal refurbishment of the block last year. That naturally doesn’t look good, though this fact has been overshadowed by the predictably hysterical headlines from the likes of the Mail claiming Jezza has called for private property to be ‘seized’ for the benefit of those made homeless by what happened at Grenfell Tower. This isn’t another example of his so-called ‘Robin Hood’ policies, but seems to me a genuine attempt to once more underline the social inequalities of life in the capital.

It goes without saying that these social inequalities have been part of London life for centuries; after all, what better chronicler of the capital than Dickens, who documented the disparity between rich and poor in fictional form over 150 years ago? Yet, the nightmarish scenario in North Kensington now looks like something that was a long time coming, just as the collapse of the Savar sweatshop in Bangladesh was in 2013. Jeremy Corbyn has managed to articulate the anger arising from Grenfell Tower better than any other politician, but people are angry. And they’ve every bloody right to be. That’s why they stormed Kensington Town Hall today. This could prove to be a crucial turning point in the way this country is run as much as Hillsborough was for the way our national sport is run. Time will tell.

© The Editor

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CLUTCHING AT CONSTITUTIONAL STRAWS

An especially inspired sequence in the landmark 90s satire series ‘The Day Today’ featured Steve Coogan as a historian urging viewers to throw out the history books when video surfaced of PM John Major having a fight with the Queen; it was an unprecedented constitutional crisis that the news programme presented by Chris Morris responded to by cutting to a pre-prepared film assuring the Great British public everything was going to be alright. A montage of the kind of clichéd images of Albion once reserved for party political broadcasts by the Tories followed, with the addition of a uniformed PC sharing a spliff with a black reveller at the Notting Hill Carnival.

At times of actual constitutional crises, the history books aren’t so much thrown out as dug up. The uncertain state of affairs Theresa May is currently doing her best to turn a blind eye to as she carries on regardless isn’t necessarily unprecedented, though it’s been a while since we experienced this kind of mess. Yes, we had similar situations in 1974 and 2010, though both scenarios were resolved with the incumbent Prime Minister standing down; this is different, in that May has decided to stay put and labours under the misapprehension she will govern the country for the next five years. It’s possible she could stagger on with a minority Government as the Labour Party did from 1974-79, too fearful of calling another Election in the next few months; but the postponement of the Queen’s Speech suggests her desperation to hang on by using the crutch of the Brexit negotiations to justify her position is something new.

Theresa May went through the motions by dropping in for a chat with Her Majesty on Friday, but the haste with which she did so – in contrast to Ted Heath and Gordon Brown in 1974 and 2010 respectively, who both spent days contemplating coalitions – was another indication of her refusal to accept the reality of the situation; she simply acted as if she’d achieved a majority and it was business as usual. Her behaviour certainly contrasts with one of her Tory PM predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.

The result of the 1923 General Election saw the incumbent Conservative administration of Baldwin finish with the highest number of seats (268), but a long way from achieving a majority. Ramsay MacDonald’s Labour was in second place to the Tories with 191 seats while Herbert Henry Asquith’s Liberals ran a close third with 158. The age of three party politics was writ large back then; 1923 was the last occasion in which a third party won over 100 seats. Stanley Baldwin had succeeded Andrew Bonar Law as PM seven months previously, but sought his own mandate when he could easily have waited another four years. Sound familiar?

Baldwin’s gamble backfired and when Asquith offered tacit support to MacDonald (assuming Labour wouldn’t last long as the governing party, thus allowing the Liberals back in), Baldwin had the decency to fall on his sword after Parliament reconvened in January 1924 (the Election had been held in December), following the rejection of the King’s Speech. George V then invited MacDonald to form a minority administration. This first Labour Government only lasted ten months, defeated in the Commons on a motion of no confidence, the same action that brought down Baldwin; but when Ramsay MacDonald had taken charge, he didn’t have to form a coalition to make up the numbers or prove he had a functional majority. Interesting.

Five years later, Ramsay MacDonald was back in Downing Street; this time round, Labour had won a plurality of seats (287 to the Tories’ 260), despite having a lower share of the vote than Baldwin’s party and being some distance from having a majority. Again, the Liberals – this time with Lloyd George at the helm and boasting 59 seats – held the balance of power and once more supported Labour. Baldwin, already under immense pressure to quit by the powerful press barons of the day, Lords Beaverbrook and Rothermere, decided enough was enough and resigned as PM, though he hung on as Tory leader and even returned to No.10 six years later, eventually handing over the reins of power to Neville Chamberlain in 1937. Parliamentarians certainly knew the meaning of staying power then.

Yes, these examples are now so far back in time that one would have to be well over 100 to remember them, but they show how nothing is cut and dried when even the largest party in the Commons fails to reach a majority. In his book, ‘English Public Law’, Professor David Feldman is quoted as saying ‘If there is a Hung Parliament…the monarch invites first the incumbent Prime Minister to continue in office; if (they) are unable to do so, then the leader of the largest opposition party is appointed Prime Minister’. Those are the rules of the game and ones that all party leaders should be aware of before they embark upon an Election campaign.

If this is the system Parliament is determined to retain, then Theresa May can’t complain when finishing with the greatest number of seats still means she can’t command a majority and faces potential defeat should Labour and its ideological allies reject her delayed Queen’s Speech. If May fails to get her Queen’s Speech through Parliament, we could still end up with Jeremy Corbyn as PM, regardless of the numbers, and Labour wouldn’t have to enter into formal coalition with any other party for that to happen. It ain’t over yet, then.

© The Editor

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THE AGE OF ANXIETY

In many respects, last week’s inconclusive General Election result was the perfect outcome for our indecisive times. Nobody seems to know what’s going on and what little we do know hardly fills the heart with joy. TV politicos and leader writers are frothing at the mouth because it’s undoubtedly dramatic, and chaos always makes for a far more gripping story than stability – strong or otherwise. But for many beyond the bubble, it’s the latest in a seemingly never-ending sequence of unsettling events imbued with uncertainty. A sweeping generalisation, perhaps, but mankind’s instinctive solace in dependable routine – as deep-rooted in its instinct as that of the animal kingdom – is in a permanent state of flux due to circumstances we appear to have no control over.

The surprising result of last year’s EU Referendum provoked just as much champagne cork popping as it did despondent despair; the election of Donald Trump as US President had a similar impact. At the same time, the ongoing efforts of Remainers to delay the implementation of Brexit or to even overturn the outcome altogether has led to renewed paranoia and panic on the other side that the euphoria of the Leave success will be cancelled out by the vested interests of higher powers; equally, the persistent attempts to impeach Trump by his many enemies more or less from the moment he was sworn-in on the steps of the Capitol Building has served to strengthen the vicious divisions his entrance into the presidential race sparked off in the first place.

The 24/7 howl of protest emanating from social media, itself a medium apt for the here and now in its deceptive illusion of community and friends that rarely (if ever) meet in person, is the cry of those powerless to do anything else to make their grievances heard. I suppose Twitter or Facebook could have been just as fitting a forum for the silent majority during past crises that remain in living memory for some – in 1940 or 1962, for example – but its presence today in societies that have seen their traditional structures and certainties whittled away by economic and global forces seems as predetermined as Brexit and the Donald. Even from a distance that can still only be measured by months, it already appears evident that 2016’s two seismic political earthquakes – the EU Referendum and the US Presidential Election – could only end one way.

The central premise of the contemporary narrative is Project Fear. Whether in the hands of Kim Jong Un, Vladimir Putin, ISIS or home-grown Jihadists, Project Fear has enough visible entrails leading back to its origins to fill a ten-hour Adam Curtis series, yet few care about the cause; the effect is what worries most. Footage of North Korea’s nuclear arsenal or the carnage suicide bombers and machete-wielding white van men leave in their wake sits alongside Trump’s undoing of hard-fought legislation designed to extend the lifespan of the planet or Theresa May’s desperate desire to cling onto power by doing deals with bigoted Ulstermen, presenting a resounding ‘f**k you’ to those who can do little to prevent further destabilising of their world other than scrawl graffiti on a wall or wave a placard or simply wait for the light relief of a commercial break.

Yes, the false idyll of advertising has always sold the same unattainable dreams; after all, in 1965, Bob Dylan sang ‘Advertising signs that con/you into thinking that you’re the one/that can do what’s never been done/you can win what’s never been won’. More than half-a-century on, however, in an era of rising prices, static wages, food banks and empty houses too expensive to live in, they somehow seem more insulting and more frustrating than they ever did before because those dreams feel more unattainable than they ever did before. Every blinding white smile or smug motorist to grace our billboards and TV or Smartphone screens is spewing a sack-full of salt into our open wounds and then employing a scrubbing-brush to rub it in.

But, like ‘Britain’s Got Talent’ or ‘The Voice’, this is supposed to be our aspirational alternative to doom ‘n’ gloom; and watching some hapless wannabe being told that their future is the pound shop check-out till rather than Glastonbury after all gives us the opportunity to laugh in unison at the deluded fool who reached for the stars and landed in the gutter. We can ridicule the little man because the big man is too detached from our reality to strike a blow on target.

A report that appeared on FB last week claimed couples were considering not having children because ‘the world is so f**ked-up’; I thought of when my own parents were born, in the middle of the Second World War, and came to the conclusion that seemed a poor excuse for neglecting to sire offspring when there are so many blatantly sounder reasons for not doing so. Yes, the babies born during WWII largely arrived thanks to randy servicemen making the most of a 48-hour pass or restless wives enjoying a one-night stand with a GI, but I’m pretty sure the belief that the world was f**ked-up carried more weight back then than it does now. Then again, maybe they had something we don’t.

Perhaps the crucial element during the war was the recognition of a greater good that required the setting aside of minor gripes and divisions in order that it could be fought for. In the years following 1945, many who were there spoke of those times with a nostalgic glow that often seemed baffling to those born long after it was all over; but it’s possible the genuine sense of community arising from everyone working together for the same admirable objective – rather than the superficial virtual community of social media, which is an online asylum for the angry, lonely and confused – opened a brief portal into a different and more desirable model for society that sealed up thereafter.

At the moment, the world has the same sudden disorientation of a child whose parents have just separated; the past is a comfort blanket while the present is scary and the future is too frightening to contemplate. It won’t last; these periods never do. But living through it can be a bloody hard slog.

© The Editor

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